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  1. Taran stood in front of the whiteboard that took up most of his living room, eyes roaming over the attached reports and messy hand-scrawled notes. He had scoured them so many times they were practically memorized, but he still looked for something new. There had to be something in this mess that would help him. "You know, I'm starting to think your dad only wears that cowl to keep all the bugs off his face when he flies." Ronnie wandered out of the bedroom wearing a pair of sweats, his damp towel still draped around his bare shoulders. "That was fun, but I just scrubbed off a layer of gross! Oh… back to it already?" Taran muttered an affirmative sound and stepped away from the board. Something just wasn't clicking, and they were running out of time. It was almost halfway to the new moon. If answers weren't uncovered soon, the Syndicate would be dealing with another missing hero. He heard Ronnie clatter around the kitchen as he pulled out dishes to start dinner. The humming background noise was soothing and helped Taran focus. Ronnie was proving to be an invaluable comfort during stressful times, always popping in with a meal or acting as a sounding board for one of Taran's theories. Most importantly, Ronnie seemed to know exactly when to step in to keep Taran from spiraling, and he wasn't sure if he would ever be able to repay the kindness. "Okay, give me the timeline again," Ronnie said while hacking at a loaf of bread. "Start from the beginning." Taran gestured to the left side of the board. "The first new moon disappearance was in northern England. An apartment building catches fire in Newcastle, and a non-powered freelancer responds who was likely monitoring police scanners. She manages to get everyone out of the fire, but no one on the scene sees her leave the building. Her helmet was recovered after the fire was put out. " "Got it. What's next?" "The second event is an earthquake in Japan, which causes a rockslide to fall directly towards an elementary school. Windjammer redirects the slide but never reports back to base. He's always been sporadic with Control, so the Tokyo HQ didn't seem alarmed. A month later, there's a gas leak at a factory in Scotland, where Mountain Man was taken." Taran continued. "After that was a volcano in Hawaii. This one's interesting because both Sun and Moon disappeared." "Which makes a sick sort of sense because they only fight together, right?" Ronnie added. His extensive fanboy knowledge of superheroes still surprised Taran on occasion. Taran tapped a printout from Control on the board. "Then the sinking naval vessel that Mariner responded to, and finally, Zephyr rescues the crew of an oil rig before somehow being abducted off the Nighthawk." Ronnie nodded along with the explanation and crossed the room to stand next to Taran. His brow furrowed, and Taran could practically see the gears turning in his head. "Why were none of these major news stories?" He muttered to himself. "Surely we would have —," Ronnie's face brightened. "Babe, what was the death toll for all these events?" Taran shuffled through a stack of papers as he looked for an answer. He paused over his notes. "That's odd… I don't have a record of a single casualty from any of these incidents." "Nothing? You're telling me that between a rockslide, volcano, and multiple explosions, we managed to save every single person?!" "I mean, it sounds weird when you put it like that," Taran frowned at the board. Was that really so bizarre? It was literally their job to handle major disasters and get people to safety. But the truth was that these were sudden events in remote locations. Even with a rapid response, casualties were an unfortunate reality. Taran tapped the communicator in his ear. "Silver Cyclone to Night Sister," Maya answered on the first ring. "Hey, can you come down here? I think we found something." Maya arrived shortly after, and Taran ran through his notes. "That's too big of a deal to be a coincidence…" she finally answered, nervously chewing her lip. "But all of these heroes: Zephyr, Mariner, they're among our best. If anyone could have pulled this off, it's them." "They were being tested!" Taran gasped. "Their success is why they were taken." He saw Maya blanch at his words. "What's wrong?" "Lunar cycles, tests of prowess… we might be dealing with ancient magic here." The jewel thief's words echoed in Taran's mind. I represent something the world hasn't seen in years and cannot possibly comprehend. "I think we've been asking the wrong question about our artifact thief," Taran said, walking to the board to study a photo. It was clipped from an old Children of Promise news story. The man's face was obscured by his dark hair, but there was still a hint of malice in his grey eyes. "What is he?" "It's safe to say we aren't going to find the answer in the Syndicate archives, but we aren't out of options," Maya gave Taran a knowing look before pulling out her phone with a sigh. She tapped out a message. "There. But I'm not sure when we'll hear —," The phone immediately chirped with a response, and Taran did his best to choke down a snicker. "Phillip's eager to text back these days." "Ugh, whatever," Maya snapped. "He's still on my shit list, but maybe we've been chatting a bit. Let's just do this so we can get home, okay?" She stood from her chair with a groan. Ronnie perked up at the sudden movement. "Hold on, who's Phillip? Where are we going?" "Phillip is Maya's ex," Taran replied, doing his best to talk over Maya's disagreement that they were never officially dating. "And we're taking a trip to the Magic Lodge."
  2. Taran collapsed onto the locker room bench with an exhausted sigh. A week since giving the team their mission, the days had turned into a grueling routine, and they were starting to take their toll. Every morning was spent in the training arena, where Lydia directed the five heroes through combat drills again and again until they became second nature. The first few sessions had been admittedly rough; Taran was a new addition to the group. All of the previously learned formations had to be tweaked to account for him. He also wasn't accustomed to giving orders in the field and was still learning how to keep them all working coherently. By the fourth day, something clicked. Taran was reacting without thought, spinning into position and always finding a teammate at his side. He trusted each of them to follow the plan, and it allowed him to keep his focus on the bigger picture. Thankfully, the team had stepped up beautifully. Even Ronnie, who had the most to learn, became stronger and more precise with every passing day. Of course, Lydia made sure they never got too comfortable. Up in the control booth, she piloted wave after wave of mechanical drones to attack the squad, all while monitoring everyone's power output and attack effectiveness. That morning, she surprised them all by changing the routine halfway through the session. After a couple of hard knocks, Taran managed to redirect the group to a hard-won victory. If only everything could be going so smoothly. The research behind the disappearances had gotten nowhere, despite spending every afternoon pouring over the data. Taran's new powers were another issue. He was still having difficulty producing anything beyond the random spray of sparks, and those were useless in a fight. Hours were spent in the meditation room, visualizing his abilities just as he had taught the new trainees to do. It just wasn't working, and the room always left him feeling cramped and suffocating. There had been a pain in his temple for days now, which made it especially hard to focus. What would his mother do? Taran had been desperate to keep her from his mind as he struggled through all of the changes, but it was impossible. She was the one person who would have known precisely how to help him. He thought of the last time they spoke. Out on the balcony, Avani was always most at ease with nothing but the sky around her. An idea sparking, Taran jumped to his feet. He caught Ronnie on his way into the locker room, munching on a protein bar. "Hey, are you up for a little more work? I need some help," he asked. Ronnie nodded and stuffed the rest of the bar in his mouth. "Lead the way!" Taran took Ronnie to the roof of the Syndicate headquarters, near the Nighthawk landing pad. Their boots clunked on the concrete as they reached the middle of the wide-open space. Taran took a breath and lifted his face to the open sky. A knot of tension behind his eyes immediately began to release. "I should have known," he said, bringing his arms to his side. Taran had always been able to feel air currents as they moved around him, pulling in sounds from far away. Now, with a little more focus, he could see them arcing through the air in nearly invisible shimmering ribbons. With a deep breath, he reached out with his mind towards the nearest current. The river of air responded to the nudge, altering its course to bend close to him. Taran reached toward the faint glimmer and felt a surge of energy. The wind spiraled securely around his arm. With a cautious tug, Taran pulled at the current. A cloud high above the rooftop began to churn, casting a shadow below as it expanded outward. Taran let go of the air current with a gasp and mentally pushed away from the ribbon of air. The dark cloud immediately stopped rolling, its edges already dissipating in the breeze. "Everything okay?" Ronnie asked, flattening his hair as the breeze rushed past him. "It looked like you just solved part of the puzzle." "Kind of…" Taran replied, falling into his thoughts once more. He focused his mind on the air currents around them, which once again redirected themselves closer to the building. The ribbons of air shimmered in a soft, unfocused way that reminded him of tv static. He reached his hand out again and concentrated on the static. "We know I'm able to generate some small charges on my own, which seem to go off when I'm near a conductor." Tiny sparks began to weave themselves around his fingers. It was a weird tickly feeling that threatened Taran's focus. He pinched his fingers together, and the sparks melded into a bright arc between his thumb and forefinger. "Sure, that explains the kitchen counter and garden light," Ronnie nodded. "Also, all of the static when we went to bed last night..." Taran felt heat rise to his ears. "How many times are you going to make me apologize for that?!" Another arc of electricity jumped from his arm. "Hey, you're not the one who got zapped in a rather susceptible area! But go on." He smiled innocently. "Right," Taran replied, flustered, which just made Ronnie cackle with glee. "So, small charges when I come into contact with things. However, now that I'm outside in the open…." Taking another deep breath, Taran reached for the closest strand of air. As he pulled it close, a wisp of a cloud above them expanded into a stormy mass. The soft buzz within the ribbon of air intensified, growing from a gentle background noise into a sharp ringing in his ears. Taran focused his gaze on the Syndicate crest painted across the landing pad, ignoring the pressure behind his eyes. Throwing his arm out towards it, he released the pressure. A white-hot bolt of lightning fell from the sky, crashing into the insignia and shaking the roof. Taran coughed as the smoke cleared, revealing a burnt-out pock in the middle of the landing pad. "See?" "That is so awesome!" The air smelled like ozone, and Taran could feel the hairs on his arms start to raise up from all the extra static in the air. A raindrop hit the roof with a plop, quickly followed by a shower of rain. "Can you control the rain too?" Ronnie crossed his arms to shield against the chilly wind that picked up around them. Taran wasn't sure. "I think it's more a byproduct of needing a storm to call up the lightning. But I suppose I could blow it around if I needed to." "Could be good for limiting an enemy's visibility, at least." Taran grinned. Ronnie was genuinely getting good at this. "Look who's thinking like a squad leader now?" Ronnie shrugged the compliment away with a sheepish smile. "Ready to get serious?" Taran nodded and took a few steps back to prepare. Ronnie raised both hands up as they began to softly glow. He flicked his wrist and sent a bolt of energy spinning ahead. Taran held his palm outwards, and a crackling web of static fanned out between his fingers. The sparks arced outwards to make contact with the spinning disk, flinging it away. Ronnie threw two more in quick succession. Taran reached out again, successfully blocking a construct, only to be clocked by the second. It crashed against his shoulder pad like a cannonball and set him spinning. "Gah!" Taran hit the ground with a hard thud. "Oh shit!" Taran heard Ronnie gasp and rush towards him. He snapped his gaze up. "Gotcha!" A gust of wind hit Ronnie at the back of the knees and scooped his legs out from under him. The air around them adjusted with every movement Taran made; every use of his powers was more responsive than ever before. He was performing on a whole different level. Taran shouted with alarm as Ronnie was thrown ten feet into the air, limbs flailing. It was a much harder hit than he had anticipated. Ronnie managed to wrap a bubble around himself as he fell back towards the roof. The force field broke upon impact but successfully cushioned his landing. Pushing himself up with one arm, he reached out for Taran. A sparkling green dome sprang up around him, trapping him in place. Taran held out a finger to tap the dome and was rewarded with searing pain. Sparks scattered across the surface with a harsh buzz. He pulled his hand back with a wince. Ronnie was on one knee now and reaching out with both hands. "Say, 'Uncle'!" He cried with a laugh, his voice muffled from Taran's side of the dome. "Never!" Through the dome, Taran saw Ronnie cock his head to the side and slowly bring his hands together. The force field around Taran began to constrict, its circumference on the ground shrinking towards him. He gasped and tried to push back against the walls but was stung again. The rain beat down upon the roof and sizzled into steam as it hit the surface of the forcefield. Taran mentally reached for the nearest air current and sent the wind whipping towards Ronnie, sending it along with harsh blasts of water. Ronnie shifted his hands, casting another shield to protect himself from the rain. The dome stopped shrinking. Knowing he only had a moment before Ronnie regained his focus, Taran called down a bolt of lighting. It landed near Ronnie with a blinding flash, and as he jumped away from the impact, the construct trapping Taran wavered. With a deep breath, Taran focused on the energy buzzing around him before throwing his shoulder against the forcefield's wall. Static crackled as he burst through on a gust of wind. He hurtled towards a still-dazed Ronnie and scooped him up under his arms before rocketing high into the air. The wind and rain beat against them as Taran flew higher. He felt the energy of the air surrounding him from all sides and pulled it closer. It sparked on contact and gave him another burst of speed. Thunder crashed in ear-splitting booms. Ronnie clung tightly to Taran's shoulders. "Ahhhhh!" He screamed before choking on a mouthful of water. "I give up! You win!" "What was that?" Taran yelled against the storm. "I said, you win!" Taran slowed their ascent and tried to hide his ragged breaths. He was exhausted. The storm continued to rage around them, and he felt the tug of dozens of air currents, each pulling him in a different direction. With a shaky breath, he focused on the tendrils and released them one by one. The storm had tapered away by the time the last strand was cut. He gave Ronnie a squeeze. "You okay?" "NO! That was terrifying and way too fast!" The misty air around them shimmered with emerald light as Ronnie pushed away on his light platform. He peered over the edge with a gasp and fought to keep balanced. The last remnants of fog parted to reveal the city far below. "Taran, how high up are we?!" Taran studied the streets and shrugged. "I'd say at least five thousand feet." Ronnie responded with a choking noise and reached out for Taran's arm. "Hey, relax. You're doing great." "That's good, considering the alternative is falling for a mile..." A gust of wind came up behind them and buffeted roughly against Ronnie's light construct. Taran reached for his other hand before the force could knock them apart. "Ugh, the surfboard isn't working as well as I'd hoped…." Ronnie chewed on his lip nervously. "Alright, I'll bring us down --" "Wait!" Ronnie exclaimed and gripped Taran's hands even tighter. "Don't let go, okay?" His face scrunched with worry as the long construct split in two, each side shrinking beneath his feet. Taran watched as the green light sank into Ronnie's heavy boots and faded away. Ronnie pushed away from Taran and gave a few cautious kicks at the open air. With a sharp inhale, he unlinked his hands and hovered in place. His skin was pulsing with a pale green light that emanated outward in gentle waves. Taran was shocked. "How are you doing that?" "Energy is easier to control with direct contact, and I'm holding it just beneath the surface," Ronnie replied, spinning around in the air with a smile. "Please tell me you tried this before!" Ronnie held his hand out to a passing cloud, trails of green light illuminated in the mist. "Erm, probably best if I don't answer that. Luckily, my hunch was correct! This is way easier than holding a construct." To prove his point, he did a flip in the air. "See?" "Alright, glow bug, enough showing off," Taran laughed. "Come fly with me." He spun in the air and took off towards the west.
  3. Ronnie wiped the sweat from his brow and tried to focus on his breathing. Training robots whirred around him on shiny chrome wheels, their arms lashing out whenever someone got too close. He whirled away from a blow, only to run directly into Ari, his sharp elbow jamming through the padding of his training uniform and into his gut. Ronnie clutched his side and attempted to push a robot away with a shield, but his aim was entirely off, and he threw his friend to the ground instead. An alarm chimed, and the churning sounds of the robots surrounding them began to slow until each one froze in place, their forms slumped and inactive. "TIME LIMIT: EXCEEDED. EXERCISE: FAILED." The computer's emotionless voice declared from high above. "Damn it!" Ronnie kicked at a robot in frustration before reaching out a hand to pull Ari from the floor. "That was my fault. I just don't know what's wrong with me today!" "You're distracted," Carmen's voice responded. A broad prismatic spectrum shimmered as she bent light to make herself visible once more. She threw a broken robot arm to the side. "I can't blame you, but we have to do better than this. Are you ready to go again?" Ronnie took a deep breath, pushing his anger aside. He nodded to the team. "Computer: Simulation Reset, Formation Nine." The robots that scattered the room exited through hatches embedded into the walls as the computer voice announced 30 seconds to start. The three trainees took positions and waited for the signal. With the sound of a bell, the door to Ronnie's right slid open, and a squad of new robots streamed toward them. "4 o'clock!" He yelled. Ari raced from the back of the room, lunging forward on his hands and feet. Ronnie threw out a long, angled construct that Ari hit like a ramp, launching high into the air. He hit the closest robot feet first, claws sinking deep into its chest plate. With a grunt, he drove it into the ground before vaulting away to another target. Ronnie pulled at the construct with his mind, standing it upright to protect against a barrage of projectiles from another set of robots. Every shot that impacted the shield felt like a bee sting, but Ronnie brushed them off. Pushing forward with both hands, he sent the wall rushing towards the group and knocked them off balance. Before they had a chance to right themselves, Carmen arrived with a flying kick, the air around her rippling. Her blow cut through two robots, reducing them to broken, steaming shards of metal. Carmen spun around to face the final robot and clapped her hands together. The air between her and the target flashed. Sparks exploded from the robot's ocular sensors, and it spun blindly. Carmen easily dodged its flailing limbs before knocking off its head with a red-hot punch. While Carmen and Ari fought yet another group on the ground, drones dropped from the ceiling high above them. Their rotors cut through the air as they fired blasts on the heroes. "Rampart, keep those off us!" Ari yelled, dodging attacks from all directions. The space around Ronnie burned green as he stepped onto a construct and rocketed skyward towards the drones. He threw out a volley of smaller forcefields, bright emerald disks that spun with wild energy. One sliced through a drone's propeller, sending it careening into another before both crashed to the floor. The remaining two drones turned their attention to Ronnie, dodging and weaving as he threw out more attacks. A growl from below as Ari pounced on another attacker and crunched it into the ground. He clawed at the exposed wires until the robot's front console went dim, the last of its power drained. The drones buzzed towards Ronnie. He frantically threw energy blasts, banking a shot that sliced one target down the middle. The final drone was faster than its companions, evading each attack and shooting its own bolts of energy in return. Ronnie managed to block the shots at the last second, wincing as they were absorbed into the barrier. He had been playing too fast and loose with his energy manipulation, and it was starting to take its toll. Whirling away from another volley of shots, the construct below his feet faltered. Ronnie needed to get back on the ground and fast. Ronnie hit the floor running as the drone swooped low over his head, firing shots that exploded at his feet. He gasped for breath and unsuccessfully threw another blast into the air. The drone lazily tumbled away and fired a bolt that grazed Ronnie's shoulder. He yelped and felt the muscles in his arm instantly go numb. This was starting to piss him off. Ronnie focused his attention ahead of the drone's flight path, and a curved wall of light appeared in the air. It collided with the side of the force field with a loud bang that rattled Ronnie's teeth on impact. He reached out to close the sphere, trapping the flying robot. With another steady breath, Ronnie called the construct back to him. The drone slammed against the sides of the bubble and attempted to shoot its way through. Ronnie's mind burned as the force field came to rest a few yards away. Finished with their targets, Ari and Carmen turned to watch. Ronnie forced his hands together with a scream, shrinking the forcefield shrunk in on itself. The drone held firm against the construct walls, rotors screaming like a dentist's drill as it pushed back. Ronnie dropped to one knee as a wave of power rushed from his chest, instilling the energy field with a scorching green light. The drone's arms bent inward, metal squealing as its entire mass was compacted to about half of its original size. Ronnie's focus finally slipped, dissolving the construct and dropping the crushed robot to the floor in a smoking heap. "Alright!" Ari called out, tossing a robot head over his shoulder. Carmen approached Ronnie and held out her hand had to assist. He gratefully took it and stood up, careful not to lose his balance as the room seemed to tilt sharply to the side. "I really hope we remembered to record that," he said, shaking the fuzzy feeling from his head and surveying the damage. Pieces of destroyed training bots littered the room, some still sparking. "That was awesome!." Applause echoed through the training room. The three turned to see Taran standing in the doorway. He approached them slowly, stepping over debris as he went. "Nicely done. The three of you stuck together and executed the technique well! Ari, nice battlefield awareness and assessing the biggest threat. Carmen, you're focusing your blasts well; just remember to look past your target. No one wants to be lasered in the back." He reached Ronnie's side. "That finisher was new, wasn't it?" Ronnie pushed the hair out of his eyes and blushed. "I was getting angry and couldn't aim my shots, so I thought I'd try something else." "That was good thinking," he turned to address the group. "Great work this morning. You're dismissed!" Ronnie stayed behind, absently kicking at a bit of ruined robot. "How is the research going?" Taran signed. "I'll be honest, I felt totally useless in there. Maya and Lydia are way better at that kind of stuff than I am. If anyone can figure this out, it's them." "Still doing okay with everything?" Taran rubbed the back of his neck. "I dunno. This still seems so surreal. I hate that Mom and the others have to wait a month before we're able to act. We don't know where they are or what they're going through," he swallowed hard. "We don't even know if they're still alive." "Hey, you can't think like that. Focus on the things we can control." "You're right," Taran nodded. "On that note: your shield before you crushed the drone… it flared really brightly. The same thing happened yesterday with my father. What's up with that?" Ronnie was startled at the realization. The power surge had happened before in the garden, again making his powers flare with extra strength. "I'm not sure," he replied. "But I was pretty mad. Emotion seems to be fueling the outburst. Whatever it is, it's exhausting. I can't keep it up for long." "Well, just be careful. But you never know when we might have to use that." Ronnie nodded. "Hey, what about you?" he asked Taran. "Have you had a chance to work on your new powers?" Taran shook his head. "Everything's happened so fast, I haven't had the chance. Soon, though." Ronnie clutched his stomach as it rumbled loudly. "Lunch together?" "It's a date!" They made their way towards the locker rooms, stepping around debris and keeping out of the paths of the sweeper machines that had already begun to clean the arena for the next session. Taran chatted idly while Ronnie pulled off his reinforced practice gear with a sigh. He dropped the stiff jacket onto the bench and stretched his arms toward the ceiling. It was a relief to have full range of motion again. Ronnie watched Taran from the corner of his eye and caught him peeking as he pulled the sweaty tank top over his head. "Yikes! That looks like it hurts," Taran exclaimed, stepping closer to examine the large red welt across Ronnie's shoulder. His fingertips left a cool trail as he gently traced around the wound. "You're going to have a nasty bruise tomorrow." "That last drone managed to get a lucky shot in at the end, but I came out on top." "You, um, have a habit of that," Taran's hand moved from Ronnie's shoulder and paused at the center of his chest. He took a sharp breath and stepped closer. They stood frozen for only a moment before Ronnie crashed back against the row of lockers, the cold metal making him gasp before his mouth was covered in a barrage of desperate kisses. They were quick and never lingered in the same place for long, always finding a new home along Ronnie's jaw and then his neck. Ronnie's mind reeled as he fought to match each kiss with one of his own. His physical exhaustion melted away with every touch, replaced with a growing heat. Taran's boldness was a surprise, considering how careful he was to never show too much affection in public. Ronnie knew that someone could walk into the locker room at any moment, but he didn't care. Taran was the only person who mattered right now. Ronnie wrapped an arm around Taran's waist and pulled him close. Their kissing slowed, becoming deliberate instead of frantic. Ronnie brushed his tongue against Taran's lips, and he opened them with a sigh. Ronnie's heart hammered in his ears as every kiss deepened, every grasp tightened. Static began to crackle between them wherever their bodies connected. Ronnie felt the hairs on his arms stand up under Taran's touch, and tiny charges erupted when Ronnie pulled his fingers through Taran's dark curls. Taran pushed hard against him, and a feeling rose in Ronnie's chest, growing warm beneath his sternum. Bursts of green flashed behind his eyelids as he fumbled with the clasp of his belt. They finally broke apart when an arc of electricity caught the wall of lockers with a loud snap. Ronnie laughed in surprise, his vision returning to normal as he caught his breath. "So, I'm going to take a quick shower," he grinned, reaching up to try and flatten Taran's flyaway hair that stuck straight out in all directions. "I'd ask you to join me, but I don't think we'd survive the experience in your current state." "Yeah, I had better, I dunno, discharge," Taran replied. He gasped, clearly regretting his choice of words. "Ack, you know what I meant!" Ronnie stifled a laugh. "Don't go anywhere. I'll be back soon."
  4. Taran woke up well before his alarm, as usual. Today, a sharp beam of early sunlight peeked through a crack in the curtains, cutting across the room to land on his face. Shielding his eyes with the comforter, he rolled over with a grumble. He found Ronnie sprawled across the other half of the bed, sound asleep on his back with one arm tucked behind his head. Sandy brown hair had fallen over his eyes, and his face was set in a peaceful smile. It was hard not to be jealous of how Ronnie effortlessly slept, even in such weird positions. Taran shifted his weight closer and gently placed a hand on Ronnie's chest, careful not to disturb him. Skin warmed under Taran's fingertips, and the steady rise and fall of Ronnie's breathing eased him back against the pillows. Given the previous night's events, Taran was shocked he had been able to sleep at all. He replayed them in his mind for the umpteenth time: his father knew about everything, now, and just the thought made Taran's heart want to burst. True, it hadn't been the ideal way to come out, but it was over and done with… and it ended up not being as earth-shattering as the years of worry had led Taran to believe. The burden that Taran had carried for so long was lifted, and he felt weightless in a way that was almost annoyingly cliche. His father already seemed to be coming to terms with the situation, or at the very least, any lingering tension could be healed with more time and understanding. Open and honest feelings didn't come easy to the Webber family, but Taran was sure they'd make it through. Taran's mood was quickly overshadowed by his mother's absence and the horrific thought that she may never get to share in his happiness. The regret of not being strong enough to tell her before clawed at his gut. He would do everything in his power to bring his family together again. Taran did his best to push the darkness away to focus on things within his control. He couldn't help but look at his life and future in a fundamentally different way. Now that Warren knew his secret, what reason did Taran have to hide at all? He was in love with a man who stood up to an angry Crimson Cosmonaut! Who fought for Taran when he had been too unwilling to fight himself. Ronnie had the heart of a true hero, and it was enough to make Taran shout his feelings from the rooftop. Bring on the reporters and all those horrible interviews he had done as a teen; he was ready for the truth. Ronnie suddenly stirred, interrupting Taran's daydream. "Good morning," he murmured, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He turned to face Taran. "Wait, were you watching me sleep?" "Uh, of course not," Taran blushed. "That would be creepy and weird!" Ronnie snorted. He reached up towards Taran's jaw. "I love how your cheeks get dark when you're flustered. It's very cute." "What can I say? I'm adorable," Taran leaned in for a kiss when his phone's alarm rang out from the nightstand. He collapsed into Ronnie's shoulder and groaned. "We need to get moving." They took turns showering, and Ronnie had coffee waiting in the kitchen by the time Taran was dressed. "Damn, he really is perfect," Taran thought, taking a sip to calm his nerves. He leaned against the counter and mentally ran through the speech he prepared for the team. It was a struggle to balance inspiring the group while not downplaying the genuinely terrifying odds against them. Taran's fingers trailed along a deep gash in the countertop, the sole evidence remaining from his power outburst. He supposed that was another thing he'd have to share with them. "Hey all, if saving the Syndicate from a secret threat isn't enough, I'm apparently going through a second puberty!" Taran and Ronnie arrived at Training Room A to find Ari already waiting, stretched across a section of bleachers and tapping absently on his phone. His ears perked up at their arrival. "Morning, guys!" he moved to make room on the bench and held his fist out for Ronnie to bump. "Everything, okay?" His almond-shaped pupils dilated, and he gave them both an inquisitive stare. "You both are stressed out!" "We'll get to it in a bit once the others arrive." Taran swallowed hard. It was going to be a lot more challenging to appear confident if his damn body was betraying him. The rest of the team filed in. Carmen arrived in full training gear, her blonde curls tied into a tight bun. The duffle bag she carried across her body clanked with the sound of training weapons and equipment. "Ah-ha, I'm not late!" She cried in triumph. "I wasn't sure what surprise you had in store for us so early, so I brought a bit of everything just in case!" She snagged a seat on the row of benches and gave Taran a determined smile. Maya and Lydia showed up together, and Taran was shocked at their appearances. Maya looked utterly exhausted, with dark circles under her eyes. Lydia was wearing a Support jumpsuit streaked with grease and carried what looked like a heavy toolbox. "Uh, busy nights?" Taran said. Maya yawned but tried to wave it off. "Agent Quinn finally kicked us out of Control around midnight, but I didn't get much sleep. The spirits in the necklace were restless again. They're worried about you." Taran eyed the loops of beads that Maya wore. "Tell them, 'Thank you,' I guess?" "And I was up early to help repair some equipment on the roof," Lydia added. "The thunderstorm last night knocked out a couple sensors. It's bizarre because we typically prepare for bad weather, but this came out of nowhere. Pretty localized, too." She put a hand on her hip and narrowed her eyes at Taran. "That… may have been me," he replied sheepishly. "You know this is still new!" Lydia chuckled. "Just let Control know so we can get the Faraday cages powered up next time. Or else, you'll be on the roof with me!" She took her seat with the rest of the team. Taran was suddenly all too aware of the eyes on him. His words caught in his throat as the team looked on expectantly. "Good Morning, everyone," He coughed, trying to bring his voice back. "Thank you for meeting me here so early. Some things have happened, and I need you all to keep quiet as I get you up to speed." He told them everything he had learned over the last 48 hours: Zephyr's disappearance and its relation to the six other missing heroes. How the only thing linking them seemed to be the lunar calendar. That the team, a thus-far untested group of trainees, was selected for the secret rescue mission over anyone else. "This is coming straight from Crimson Cosmonaut, and nothing is to be discussed outside the group." Taran paused. "I know this is a lot to take in… which is why I'm giving you all a chance to walk away." A bout of silence hung in the air as the team exchanged glances with each other. Finally, Maya spoke up. "Are you fucking kidding me, Taran?" She stuck out her chin in determination. "Do you honestly think we'd let you do this alone?" The others nodded in agreement, sitting up straighter in their seats. Taran exhaled. In his heart, he knew they would have never refused the mission. It had been one final, desperate attempt to keep them safe from the unknown. They were truly an incredible group, and his only wish was to be the leader they needed. He felt Ronnie's eyes on him but couldn't bring himself to meet the gaze. Taran would have done anything to keep him far away from this. "We have about four weeks to prepare," He steeled himself and continued. "That's when the new moon will return, and we can expect another abduction. Until then, we'll be training hard and doing everything possible to figure out who's behind all of this. Fortunately, we have a couple of new tricks," Taran reached out with his arm as a wave of crackling sparks gathered in his fist, earning excited gasps from the team. "I'll be training alongside you to figure this out," Taran shook the electricity out of his arm. "We have a real chance to do something great for the Syndicate and for the world. I'm counting on each of you. Cosmonaut believes in you, and so do I." Taran blinked away the burning in his eyes and did his best to stamp his emotions down. "Let's bring them home." "What's next?" Maya asked. She may have been tired, but her face was pure determination. Taran was thankful for the excuse to shift into order-barking mode. "We're splitting up for now. Rampart, Phosphra, and Battle Cat: I want you in the training room running through field routines until you know them by heart. Sister Shadow, you'll be with Lydia and me in the archives. We need to do more research to figure out exactly who or what we're dealing with. Let's regroup at lunchtime." The team immediately sprang into action. Carmen rummaged through her bag and started pulling out equipment. "We're starting warm-ups in ten!" she called to Ronnie and Ari, who ran to the locker room to change. Lydia was already furiously tapping notes into her tablet and handed it over to Maya to analyze. Taran followed them out of the room and finally gave himself a moment to take a breath. They might just pull this off after all.
  5. You’ve become unstoppable!
  6. Ronnie waited under the tall maple tree at the center of the Garden of Remembrance. A quiet, shady spot that quickly became one of his favorites and where he liked to spend his afternoons. The evening's weather was still hot and sticky, which seemed to be keeping everyone else indoors, but Ronnie was thankful for the privacy. He closed his eyes and focused on the soft splashing of the fountain. Typically, it was a soothing way to end a stressful day of training. Tonight, however, it only made him anxious. Taran appeared after a while, looking as if the weight of the world was about to crush him. Ronnie waved him over and tried to find the right words to say. He didn't know where to start; so much had happened in the last twenty-four hours. Taran dropped down in the grass beside Ronnie, eyes to the ground. He took a gulp of air and relayed everything that had happened in the mission room. When he got to the end of the story, silence hung in the air, and Ronnie's mind reeled as he tried to process everything. They were going on a secret mission on behalf of the Syndicate to solve a worldwide phenomenon of heroes gone missing! Oh, and they only had a month to prepare. "That's… a lot to take in." Ronnie finally said. "Tell me about it." "Your dad must really trust you." Taran snorted. "Yeah, what a great time for him to finally notice I have value." He dropped his head into his hands with a groan. "What if I fail this? The four of you are depending on me!" "Hey, we're a team. And we've got this." Ronnie reached for Taran's hand. "You've been teaching us everything we need to know. We're gonna be ready." Taran squeezed Ronnie's hand and silently stood up, heading towards the fountain at the heart of the garden. Ronnie lingered for a moment and decided to follow. He stayed a few feet behind as Taran circled to the far end of the raised pool, crouching down to examine something. Looking over his shoulder, Ronnie watched as Taran traced his fingers over one of the inscriptions carved into the smooth marble: "Collin Weber - Sonic Blast." "My brother was leading his team on a mission deep in the Amazon. A mining company had accidentally unearthed a bunch of alien artifacts. Something that crash-landed years ago, but the technology was still usable. A spot had opened up on his team, and I begged him to take me. I had never seen the rainforest or a spaceship before, and this was a perfect opportunity. It would be a standard excavation; we were only there to make sure everything stayed safe. A little boring, maybe, but I was dying to go on a mission without my mother. It took a bit of convincing, but Collin finally relented. I was always good at getting my way with him, eventually." Ronnie stayed silent. He had heard of Sonic Blast when he was younger but would have never guessed Taran was related. Even as a random civilian, Ronnie had been able to tell that the hero had an attitude. Taran continued. "Things started to go wrong almost immediately. After we landed, we discovered that a group of mercenaries led by the Terror Twins had reached the site before us, likely hoping to recover the technology and sell it to the highest bidder. On the ground, Collin and I had a huge argument. The regulations were clear; we needed to stand by for new orders. Collin told me I was being a baby and that his team could handle it, but I had to stay with the jet. I was too new and didn't know any of the team's fight maneuvers, anyway." Taran's voice started to waver. "The thing you should know about Collin is that he never took his training seriously. He didn't have to. There was never a problem he couldn't punch his way out of. Rules were for people weaker than him, like me. I… I watched from atop a cliff as an explosion took out Collin and his team, the Terror Twins, and everything else within a three-mile radius. That area of the rainforest is still giving off weird radiation, all these years later. And I'm still having nightmares about it." "My parents were devastated. I don't think my mom left her room for weeks. But something in my father died with Collin. He had been so caught up with my brother's rise to glory that he willfully overlooked all of his shortcomings. Dad wasn't able to accept that Collin's death had been avoidable because that would have meant admitting a weakness in the family. He put all of the unreasonable expectations onto me after that. I was the one that had to be better, to carry on the family name." Ronnie knelt down near the fountain and put his hand over Taran's. "You aren't your brother, Taran. You're a great leader and won't make the same mistakes he did. We're ready to go, wherever you send us." "There's just so much on my shoulders right now," Taran said, staring into the fountain's water. "If we fail this mission, I may never see my mother again. My father could lose the only family he has left." "Then we won't fail. I'll follow you to the ends of the earth." Ronnie pulled Taran up from the ground and held him around the waist. Taran's eyes were so dark and heavy, and Ronnie wanted desperately to take the burden away. "Just tell me what you need." "You'll have to push yourself harder than ever these next few weeks. You've come a long way, but there's still a lot to learn before you're ready." "Of course. And I'll stay at headquarters until the mission is over." "I also need you here for me. I can't do this alone." "You already know I'm here for you." He pulled Taran close and kissed him. Taran tensed up for a moment, worried about the garden's openness, but he quickly melted into the kiss and wrapped his arms around Ronnie's neck. There was a pulse of energy as their lips met again and again, the air around them fizzling with electricity. Ronnie pulled away in surprise as one of the nearby park lights popped, a shower of sparks raining from where the lamp had burst. "Well, I guess we confirmed that theory," He reached out to gingerly touch one of the sparks still weaving through Taran's hair. It sparked against his finger with a zap, bouncing away. "I think you're right…" Taran broke away from Ronnie and motioned for him to stay back. With his face hard in determination, he thrust his arm up to the sky. A bolt of lightning fell down from the dark clouds that now hovered above them. Taran caught the hot white energy in his fist and gave a shout of surprise. Thunder boomed overhead, and a few fat drops of rain fell to the ground. "Alright!" Taran cried before releasing the arc of lighting. It arced back into the clouds with another clap of thunder. The rain clouds finally broke, releasing a shower over the garden. The water was cold against Ronnie's arms, drawing goosebumps. "Ack, you jerk!" He laughed. "You're making everything all wet!" "Oh gosh, let me fix that," Taran swung an arm towards Ronnie, and a narrow blast of wind and rain followed, drenching him. "Now you've done it!" Ronnie chased after Taran, throwing his arms around him. Taran yelled with delight and tried to keep them both from falling. "I should probably try to turn this off," Taran said, eyes darting upward. "I've got this," Ronnie closed his eyes to focus, and a broad, glittering construct formed above their heads. The rain fell against it and glimmered with emerald light as it streamed over the brim. Ronnie caught Taran's gaze in the light and sighed. He was so happy and about to lean in for another kiss when something caught his eye. A huge man was standing at the plaza's far side, frozen on the sidewalk and staring at them. "Oh, shit," he said in a harsh whisper, pulling away from the embrace. The forcefield above them dissolved as Ronnie's focus was broken. Taran whirled around in confusion. The color immediately drained from his cheeks. "Dad…" The man turned around, stomping away with his head down. "Dad, just stop. Come back, and I can explain!" Taran continued to call out, to no avail. Something in Ronnie snapped. The entire summer, he had been piecing together Taran's struggles with his parents. How he had been continuously compared to his brother, and how the family baggage and pressure left him living a lie. Collin's own stubbornness had gotten him killed, and that his death only made things worse for Taran was completely unfair. Ronnie had heard enough, and there was no damn way he was going to let anyone treat his boyfriend like garbage. "Hey!" He screamed and ran after Crimson Cosmonaut, who was still headed back to the door. Ronnie could feel the energy building in his fists. "He said STOP!" He reached with his arm and threw out a curved that blocked the pathway. Taran's father paused and turned to face them. "Drop the shield, Mr. Nolan. We both know you can't actually stop me." His voice was calm. Crimson Cosmonaut had no need for threats. "No!" Ronnie yelled and thrust out his other hand. The curved wall swooped over the top of Warren's head and connected with the ground all around him. He was stuck, if only for the moment, under one of Ronnie's dome shields. "Just what do you think you're doing?" "I'm keeping you here until you decide to stop being the world's mightiest douchebag and talk to your son!" The walls of the dome flared as Ronnie's anger was stoked. Warren raised his eyebrows and pressed a hand against the side of the construct, testing it. A searing pain bloomed across Ronnie's forehead as Warren quickly pulled his hand away, flexing his fingers. Taran appeared at Ronnie's side and called out over the storm, which crackled and boomed erratically overhead. "Dad, let's just talk about this." "What's there to talk about, Taran?" Warren demanded. "How you've been lying to me this entire time? Lying to your mother?" "Dad… I didn't mean to lie about anything, I've wanted to tell--." "This isn't you. Think about your future, about how hard you're making things for yourself!" "I didn't have a future before Ronnie." He held his arms up and gestured to the storm, pulling it back under his control. "You always resented how weak I was. Look what I can do now! I never would have reached my full potential alone." Thunder boomed for added effect. Warren turned his gaze to Ronnie. "Are you truly responsible for this?" Ronnie was sure that Cosmonaut was going to break from the shield at any moment and throttle him. He raised his arms higher and sent more energy into the barrier, yelling over the wind and rain that was now ripping through the park. "I care about Taran, not his powers. He's always been strong, despite what you think. Having to keep this secret from you only made things worse." Warren softened slightly, his shoulders drooping. Another thunderclap rolled across the sky high above them. "All I wanted was for the family legacy to continue… your mother and I started the Syndicate. You and your brother were supposed to carry the torch before passing it on to your own families." "Dad, if our family legacy is to be the world's greatest heroes, does who I fall in love with change any of that?" Taran's father slowly shook his head and turned away from them. No one spoke for a moment, and Ronnie slowly lowered his hands. The top of the dome split open and fell away as he did so. Taran looked up to the sky and closed his eyes, forcing the churning clouds to dissipate into the breeze. The garden was once again still and silent. Taran took a small step forward and broke into a run toward his father. He stopped just behind him. "Dad. I've wanted to tell you for so long. I just didn't want you to be more disappointed in me than you already were." Warren sighed. "I'm not disappointed. It's just... It's been so hard since your brother died, and I've never been very good at dealing with things like this." "It's ok, Dad. But can we promise to be better?" "Of course. You're growing up to be so much like your mother. She was always the smart one." his voice cracked, and he cleared his throat. "We have to get her back." "We will. I promise." Warren winced and opened his hand. His fingers were cracked and red where they had touched Ronnie's force field. Taran saw it and gasped. "Holy crap, Dad, are you ok?" "It's already healing, but unexpected for sure. You pack a Hell of a wallop, Mr. Nolan." He called out. Ronnie found himself awkwardly studying the ground by his feet. Did he manage to injure Crimson Cosmonaut?! "I, um, sorry about that, sir." He replied, doing his best to keep the internal screams from reaching his face. "It's, ah… nice to finally meet you?" "I suppose the feeling's mutual." He approached Ronnie, who was now all too aware of how impossibly huge Warren Weber was. "I'm guessing you haven't heard many good things about me, and for that, I'm sorry. Thank you for taking care of my son when I was too short-sighted to see that he needed someone." He held out an uninjured hand. Ronnie hesitated for just a moment before taking it, relieved that the handshake didn't end with the bones in his hand being obliterated. Warren turned to Taran, who was doing everything he could to hold it together. He put a hand on his shoulder. "Try to get some rest, son. I should be going." "Bye, Dad," he responded softly. As Taran watched as his father walk away, Ronnie stepped closer and reached for his hand. Taran broke down into loud, wracking sobs at the touch. He leaned into Ronnie's and muffled his cries. "Shh, shh, it's ok!" Ronnie whispered, rubbing Taran's back. "Everything's going to be fine." "That was so fucking scary," Taran mumbled into Ronnie's shoulder. "You did it, though. That was really brave, and I'm so proud of you." Taran pulled away and tried to wipe the tears from his face. "No, you were brave, the way you stood up to him. You didn't have to do that!" Ronnie shrugged and held Taran's face close. There was a strength in his dark eyes that hadn't been there a few days ago, but it made Ronnie's heart sing. "That's what you do for the people you love."
  7. The next chapter is posted, so can find out!
  8. Taran and Maya arrived at Control amid a mad flurry of activity. Support staff scrambled around the room, pulling up data on consoles, refreshing satellite feeds, and looking for any information that might help explain Zephyr's disappearance. Despite the chaos, Taran was relieved to see that his mom's incident wasn't going to get swept under the rug like Mariner's had been. He passed Lydia, diligently pouring over the images that flashed across her console screen. She glanced up from the computer, catching Taran's eye and giving him a sympathetic smile. "Oh, Taran!" She jumped up from her station and pulled him into a tight hug. "First the infirmary, and now this! Are you okay?" "I'm recovered, I think," he replied, trying not to wince in her embrace. "How are things going here?" "We're pretty much locked down at the moment; Code Orange until further notice. Maya and I were only given clearance to stay because we reported the anomaly." "Speaking of which, I've got to get back to work and see if there's anything I can do to help," Maya said softly. "If there's any news, you'll be the first to know." She peeled off to join Lydia at a console. Taran found his father at the front of the room, receiving a briefing from a senior Control official. He quietly approached and watched Warren scour through data on a tablet, nodding along to the analyst's words. His father was exuding a kind of manic, uneasy energy and not the signature confidence he was known for. Crimson Cosmonaut was truly rattled, and Taran forbade himself from thinking about what that meant for his mother's chances of survival. "Dad…" Taran managed to choke out. Warren's eyes snapped up to Taran, wide with surprise. "Taran, I had no idea you were out of the infirmary!" He handed the tablet back to the analyst and pulled his son aside. "What's going on with you? Doctor Peters mentioned something about a manifest?" "I can explain later, but that's obviously not important right now!" Taran gestured around the room. "What's happened to Mom?" "So you've heard," The corners of Warren's mouth curled downward. "From Huang? Or was it Stanton?" Taran paused. Shit. He wasn't about to get the girls in trouble, so he stood his ground. "Mom was supposed to be home already, and then you practically exploded on reentry above headquarters. I put the clues together." "You don't have the clearance for this, son." "Well then, consider this my formal request." Warren's jaw flexed, the dark red cowl tightening against his cheekbones. Taran knew he was pushing his luck, but he was too tired and angry to care. He was not going to be left in the dark, not about this. "Agent Quinn," Warren called the analyst. "Promote Silver Cyclone to Security Level A, effective immediately." He turned back to Taran, "Come with me." Taran's father strode across the command center towards a sturdy bronze double door at the room's front corner. The doors slid open as he approached, and he motioned to Taran to follow. With a gulp, Taran stepped inside, the doors closing behind him with a heavy thud. The room was dark; the only light source was a white globe hung above the large, circular table. A series of tall high-backed chairs were set around it, each one reaching up toward the high ceiling. In any other situation, Taran would have been losing his mind. This was Central Command, where strategies for the world's greatest threats were formulated and voted on by the inner circle. Taran had never been inside before, but it was exactly how he imagined it. "Have a seat, son." Taran fell into the closest chair and tried not to feel small. To his surprise, a couple of the other chairs were already occupied. The hero to his right was a broad, incredibly strong-looking Asian man. He wore a dark leather uniform with no sleeves, revealing the stony grey scales covering his arms. Taran met the man's eyes, which glinted red in the dim room. "Iron Dragon," he said. The man nodded silently in response. The man to Taran's left could not have been a greater contrast. Small and frail, he wore a dusty green robe that glittered with ancient silver symbols. Taran's heart swelled at the sight of him. Centuries ago, The Green Man had been blessed by the spirit of an earth elemental, giving him command over the essence of nature, as well as immortality. He was one of the world's first heroes and literally the subject of legends. Most importantly, he had been a mentor to Avani when she was young and a surrogate grandfather to her children. Taran was thrilled to see him but also deeply troubled. If the leaders of the Japan and UK headquarters were in Liberty City, this threat was more significant than he had been told. Crimson Cosmonaut took a seat at the opposite end of the table. "Your mother isn't the second hero to go missing," he said, pulling the red cowl away from his face. Dark circles ringed his eyes, and Taran was shocked at how worn down he looked. "She's the seventh." "Seventh?!" Taran exclaimed, and his father gestured to the other two in the room. "We've had disappearances in Europe and Asia as well. Whatever is happening, it's not centralized to just North America." "What do we know?" Iron Dragon spoke. "While we haven't determined a pattern amongst the locations of each incident, timing-wise, they appear to coincide with the phases of the moon. Every new moon, to be exact. What's more, the hero who vanishes always does so after resolving what should have been a major disaster. A sinking ship, an earthquake—" "An exploding oil rig...," Taran gasped. The older heroes nodded. He continued asking questions. "Are these events related? Have we been able to determine a common cause?" "That's part of the mystery. None of these events are similar enough to determine a common link. We also don't have evidence to rule out either scientific or mystical origins." "Maya may be able to help... She channeled something a few weeks back. There was a warning, too, but we haven't been able to figure it out." "When was this?" The Green Man asked. "Just before Mariner disappeared. Whatever got Maya that night had dark energy off the charts. She hasn't had an episode since, though." Warren frowned, and Taran recognized his hesitation. Magical forces were one of Crimson Cosmonaut's few weaknesses. If it turned out the cause of all this was otherworldly, he would be at a significant disadvantage. Taran shifted nervously in his seat. Something still wasn't adding up, and he was afraid he'd never get another chance to ask. "I just don't understand how this could have happened. How did things get this out of control?" "Truthfully," Green Man sighed, "We were caught unawares. The first to disappear wasn't a Syndicate hero but a non-powered vigilante. The next few were so geographically separated there was no reason to suggest a connection. It wasn't until Mariner that we discovered the pattern." "Is there anything I can do to help?" Taran asked. "I believe there may be," Iron Dragon replied, turning to Crimson Cosmonaut. "Takeshi, be reasonable!" Warren exclaimed. "Warren, this is an opportunity." "I agree," Green Man added. "And we must move quickly." Warren looked to each of the heroes, and whatever fight he had left seemed to dissipate. He then turned to his son, eyes brimming with an emotion that Taran barely recognized. Was it sadness? Worry? "Taran, I need you to assemble a team," Crimson Cosmonaut spoke softly and with none of his usual bravado. "We need to keep the situation under wraps for a little while longer. Whoever is behind this can't know that we're on to them because if they go underground, we'll never find our missing heroes. And if the public got word that a team of heavy hitters was on a mission, or worse, that some have gone missing… well, they'd lose all faith in us." "I understand," Taran replied nervously, sure that his father could hear his heart hammering. "Any suggestions on who I should approach?" "I agree that Maya would be an asset. She has the experience and is one of the few heroes in Liberty City with a strong enough connection to supernatural entities. As for the others, what about the strike team you've been working with?" "Dad, they're trainees! They're not ready for something like this." "I disagree," Iron Dragon chimed in. "I've read your training reports. Their progress has been steady, and the team is well balanced. They are ready for a challenge." "And at any rate," Warren added, "You have a month to get them ready." Taran sat at the edge of his chair. A barrage of thoughts raced in his mind, and he fought to push the scariest ones away. Were they really about to send a team of untested trainees out to battle an unknown threat? How could a squad of teenagers succeed where Mariners and Zephyr had failed? Taran steeled himself against the self-doubt and thought about his mother: lost and desperately needing rescue. If his father of all people was entrusting him with the mission, Taran wasn't going to give him any reason to regret it. "Okay. I'll get the team ready," Taran fought to keep the tremor in his chest out of his voice. "But they're going to need everything. Uniforms, and a bypass to provisional status." "Always the regulations with you, isn't it?" Warren's shoulders relaxed, and Taran thought he noticed a stifled smile. "We will take care of the red tape; you just make sure they're prepared. Report back in three and a half weeks. By then, the inner circle will have finished formulating our plan." Crimson Cosmonaut stood away from the table. "You have your orders, son. Dismissed." Taran left the senior heroes to their planning, the doors of Central Command hissing shut behind him. Numbness in the pit of his stomach grew as he made his way toward the elevator down the hall. Reality had set in. Taran took a few deep breaths to calm his nerves and switched on his earpiece. "Silver Cyclone to Control." "This is Control." "I need a Level 4 bulletin to Sister Shadow, Battle Cat, and Phosphra. Include Lydia Stanton in Mission Ops on the communication as well." "Very well, Silver Cyclone," the voice on the line was almost infuriatingly neutral. "What's the message for the bulletin?" "Mandatory Meeting in Training Room A, 0700 hours." "Message transmitted." "Thank you. Cyclone out." Taran tapped the comm to disconnect, waited a moment, and pressed it again. "Silver Cyclone to Rampart, private channel." There was a pause as the automated system connected him. "Ack, this is Rampart!" Ronnie's voice rang out. "Hello?" "Ronnie, it's me." "Oh hey," Ronnie's voice immediately relaxed. "Sorry, I'm still not used to having this thing in my head. How are things going with your dad?" "Meet me in the Garden. We need to talk."
  9. Ronnie stood in stunned silence as Maya finished giving her report. The idea that one of the world's most experienced superheroes could just vanish was utterly terrifying. Could something even more dangerous happen next, and how did the Syndicate plan to respond? He felt Taran's fingers tremble at the crook of his arm. Ronnie turned to try and offer any comfort he could but stopped in alarm. Something about Taran's reaction to everything felt off. There was no surprise, no bewilderment. Instead, Taran had gone gray, his dark eyes betraying a feeling of grim resignation. Almost as if the news wasn't entirely unexpected. "Hey, do you know something about this?" Ronnie asked, leading Taran to the couch. "You look like you've seen a ghost." Taran sat down with a wince. He was looking pale and sweaty again, and Ronnie wondered if he should be prepared for another fainting spell. He quickly took a seat next to Taran. "Okay, what I'm about to tell you has to stay in this room." Maya and Ronnie exchanged a look and nodded. "Mom was at the San Francisco office before the earthquake and had been there a while conducting a secret investigation. Mariner is also missing and under the same circumstances. This has happened before." "What?! Control has no record of anything like that!" Maya exclaimed. "I specifically looked for related events!" "There's a good reason for that; leadership is keeping it top secret, saying they didn't want to create a panic. I only know because I overheard my parents talking at home." "That's bullshit! How can any of us do our jobs if we don't know all the facts?" Ronnie sympathized with Maya's anger but also thought Taran had a point. There was no telling what would happen if the general public knew that superheroes were going missing. Between mass hysteria and crime sprees, anything was possible. Zephyr and Crimson Cosmonaut had no reason to believe the mystery wouldn't be solved quickly and quietly. "Mariner is pretty high profile, but now a charter member of the Syndicate is missing," Ronnie said. "They aren't going to be able to cover this up for long." Taran shrugged his shoulders. "I'm not sure they'll even try to anymore. But we still don't know who or what is behind this." Maya sat down on the couch. It was her turn to look pale. "Taran, the premonition I had earlier this summer… this has to be related." Ronnie watched as Taran mulled it over. "I agree, but it doesn't get us anywhere. You haven't had another outburst, and we never figured out what the message meant." The mood darkened, the three falling into their own thoughts. It seemed like all the powers and technology in the world couldn't help them. Ronnie spoke up. "If no one in the Syndicate knows what's happened to these heroes, then no one is safe. It's going to keep happening." The others agreed. "But how does anyone get to the bottom of this if it's supposed to be a secret?" "The only other people who know about this for sure are my father and the acting head of the West Coast headquarters," Taran said. "Then we need to do what we can to help them," Maya replied. "Until this is solved, every hero in the Syndicate could be a target." A sonic boom rumbled outside, interrupting the discussion. Ronnie felt it rattle in his chest as the sound seemed to settle over the headquarters high above them. Taran sighed. "That'd be Dad. I better go find him." He stood up from the chair, slow enough to keep his balance. "Here, let me walk you up," Maya jumped to Taran's side and slid an arm around his back. It became apparent to Ronnie that he wasn't to have a role in whatever happened next. "I'll, um, be here, I guess," he said as the apartment door slid closed with a thud.
  10. I had a feeling it's because Taran is being a stubborn kid. Hopefully he gets it figured out! 😉
  11. @PhilippeI've never gotten an angry react before!! 🤐
  12. Taran awoke to a steady rhythm of mechanical beeping sounds, and a wave of room-spinning nausea washed over him as he tried to open his eyes. With a grimace, he turned his head slowly to take in his surroundings. A single overhead threw grey light over equally grey walls. Why was he in the infirmary? Taran’s movements tugged at the many sensor wires adhered to his temples and chest, all of which fed to the medbot hovering near the bed. Everything hurt like he had just run a marathon while simultaneously nursing the world’s worst hangover. Taran tried to sit up, but his trembling arms were made of jelly. He collapsed back against the pillows with a sigh. A sound from the right caught Taran’s attention, and he was shocked to discover Ronnie and Maya dozing on a sofa in the corner. “Hey, guys,” he said, his voice a hoarse whisper. Ronnie nudged Maya and quickly scooted to the chair next to the bed. He reached for Taran’s hand. “Hey! You’re awake!” “Glad to have you back among the living. How are you feeling?” Maya asked. “Like I got hit by a bus. What the hell happened?” Ronnie spoke up. “You passed out in your kitchen, and I had to call for help. You were awake for a little bit as they hooked you up to the equipment but had been asleep until now.” Taran struggled to recall the night before. He remembered being in the kitchen with Ronnie making dinner. They had talked about Ronnie’s father and how Taran was ready to let him know about their relationship. Then a LOT of kissing before Taran felt a massive power drain, like every bit of energy rushed out of his body at once. He furrowed his brow, trying to piece together the hazy memory. “I… did something.” “Damn right you did!” Ronnie chuckled. “That kitchen countertop will definitely need to be replaced.” “Right. There was electricity?” Ronnie traced a path on Taran’s fingers. “I think lightning would be more accurate. You know, like your mom?” None of this made sense to Taran, and what Ronnie described was impossible. “Has the doctor said anything?” He asked. “Doctor Peters said she was waiting for you to wake up. She did call your parents, though.” Maya offered. Taran blanched. “Oh, shit.” “Yeah, I thought you might say that.” “Have they showed up yet?” Maya shook her head and looked at her watch. “Ugh. I’ve got to head to a Control shift now, but I’ll be sure to let them know you’re awake. Call me if there’s anything you need, okay?” She waved goodbye and left the room. Taran squeezed Ronnie’s hand. “Will you stay with me until they get here?” “Of course.” Taran and Ronnie waited in the infirmary room, playing cards at the small bedside table. The medbot connected to Taran would beep from time to time, bringing in one of the nurses to check on him. Finally, Doctor Peters appeared in the doorway carrying her tablet. “Good Morning, Taran. It’s nice to see you’re awake.” “Hiya, Doctor.” “I wanted to go over some things with you and ask a few questions. As you can imagine, I also notified your parents about what happened. They’re both in the field right now but said they’d check-in as soon as they could.” Taran looked over at Ronnie and rolled his eyes. He knew his mom was likely preoccupied in California with the earthquake recovery efforts, and she couldn’t just drop everything to be there. His father, on the other hand, could get anywhere in the world in about 20 minutes. How typical that he couldn’t be bothered to stop by and see how his hospitalized son was doing. “Ronnie’s still here, I see. He’s been with you since you came in last night. Mr. Nolan, would you mind giving us a few minutes to talk?” “I’d like him to stay,” Taran blurted out and motioned for Ronnie to remain seated. Doctor Peters glanced at the two of them for a moment and then nodded. She pulled up a chair and sat down at the foot of the bed. “Taran, we went and took all of the requisite readings when you came in. Your power levels are somehow about thirty percent higher than before.” “What!?” “That was pretty much my reaction, too. I thought there was something wrong with the medbot’s calibrations, but everything checked out.” “I’m sorry,” Ronnie chimed in from the corner. “Is that, um, normal?” Doctor Peters shook her head. “I’ve been doing this for a long time. When we measure a power level, we track certain physiological attributes within a person: cell count, nervous system development, things like that. While you can train and become stronger over time, that change is slow and predictable. At a certain point, a hero reaches their peak abilities, and we don’t see any new skills appear. Taran’s been with the Syndicate since he was thirteen, and I was positive we had his profile all mapped out. I anticipated him honing his current skills, but lightning?” She shrugged. “This wasn’t on our radar at all.” Doctor Peters tapped her tablet and brought up a file. “I’d like to try to get to the bottom of this, so I have a couple of questions for you: Have you been in contact with any radioactive material that might have caused a fluctuation in your abilities?” Taran shook his head. “Did you stumble upon any cursed artifacts or occult rituals on any recent missions?” “Those patrols with the Magic Division have been a complete bust. Other than that, I’ve just been conducting training. Nothing high risk in a long time.” Doctor Peters jotted down a couple more notes. She flicked the file away and eased back into her chair. “You know how power manifests work. They’re a combination of focus and emotional control. While situations like extreme grief or anger can trigger outbursts in heroes, these are temporary, and things tend to level off once the moment has passed… your tests suggest otherwise. Frankly, it’s almost like you had a psychological block that was removed.” Doctor Peters paused, and Taran watched as she carefully formulated her next question. She glanced at Ronnie in the corner for just a moment before continuing again. “Taran, has anything happened recently that would have triggered an emotional change?” Taran dropped his gaze, no longer able to look the doctor in the eye. The familiar ache of shame seeped into his bones. Hadn’t he been getting better at this? Doctor Peters was one of Taran’s oldest mentors and had helped him through so many difficult times. Why was the notion of telling her the truth so terrifying? As he sat in silence, Taran became acutely aware of Ronnie on the couch in the corner, sitting with his knees to his chest, making himself small and drawn away from the conversation. The realization that his cowardice was now hurting someone else made Taran want to heave. “I’m not sure I want to talk about this right now,” he said quietly. “I’m still pretty tired.” “I understand that this must be scary for you,” Doctor Peters began. “Just know that as your doctor, everything you say is confidential. If something was going on that you didn’t want others to know about… I wouldn’t be able to say anything.” Taran nodded his head but said nothing. The doctor stood up to leave when Ronnie suddenly spoke up. “Doctor Peters, should we be expecting more of these outbursts? Is Taran going to be okay?” “Well, we don’t exactly know what’s causing them, but I don’t have any evidence that suggests Taran is in danger.” She turned back to look at them. “You’ll want to take it easy for a bit, and don’t do anything to stress yourself out. You were brought here because that power spike totally exhausted you. Doing that too often could put a strain on your organs, but otherwise, I don’t have a reason to keep you here. You’re free to go back to your quarters once you’re feeling strong enough.” She stood at the foot of Taran’s bed for a moment before speaking again. “And Taran, when you feel ready to talk, you know where to find me.” Taran watched the doctor leave, embarrassment rising again in his chest as he turned to Ronnie. The other boy chewed his bottom lip in concern, eyes uncharacteristically shadowed. “I’m sorry,” Taran managed to choke out. “I know you must be disappointed.” “I’m not — it’s not like that. I just wish you would’ve said something so the doctor could help.” “We don’t know that this has anything to do with us.” “Taran, I was literally on top of you when you caused an electrical fire in the kitchen. Forgive me if I think the two things are related. Not to mention you said you lo—” “—I know what I said!” Taran cut him off. He couldn’t bear to add more fuel to his shame spiral. “I’m sorry. I know you want to work this out on your own, but not at the expense of your health.” They sat in silence for a long while, neither knowing the right thing to say, but Ronnie’s presence had its way of bringing things into focus. They were going to be okay, which allowed Taran to focus on the more pressing issue. These new powers were utterly perplexing, and they scared him. Taran had forgotten the fear of not having control. It was like being twelve years old all over again. Crushing self-doubt aside, Taran decided he was physically well enough to leave the infirmary. He called for a nurse, who disconnected him from the medbot and helped him change clothes. Ronnie guided him back to the apartment, a gentle hand at his back in case Taran felt dizzy again. The bright hallways hurt his eyes, but Taran was happy to find he felt stronger with every step home. He was punching in the code to his door when Maya came dashing down the corridor toward them. “The infirmary nurse said you had checked out, and I was hoping I would find you here. We need to talk. Now.” Maya was flushed, and Taran wondered if she just ran all the way from Control. “Sure thing,” He motioned the other two inside while Maya took a quick glance up and down the hallway. She immediately started pacing the living room like an agitated cat, putting Taran’s nerves on edge. It wasn’t like Maya to get this worked up; something terrible had happened. “Maya, tell us what’s going on.” She took a breath. “I was working in Control when we got an alert about a distress call off the west coast. An oil rig had caught fire, and about two dozen workers were trapped with the whole thing set to explode. A team was mobilized from the San Francisco chapter, and I provided additional visual support for the Control staff there.” Taran followed along but couldn’t understand why Maya was so upset. Sure this sounded serious, but it was practically routine. “One of the closest heroes was Zephyr, piloting a Nighthawk and on her way back east. She rerouted the jet to the rig and managed to get everyone off the platform before putting out the fire. The workers were then dropped off at a nearby naval base.” “That seems like a pretty typical day for Mom.” “It was,” Maya continued, “Until she started making her way back to the San Francisco headquarters. She followed the coast for a few miles and was about to kick the Nighthawk into Mach 3 when I got a weird reading at my console. Everything just froze for a second, and I couldn’t get any updates on your mom’s position. Then, just as quickly, the equipment was back to normal. We picked up the Nighthawk on the radar, just as before… except for one thing.” Taran reached for Ronnie’s arm to steady himself as the room started to spin. He was still recovering from his incident, but the blood drained from his cheeks for another reason. He knew what Maya was about to say. “Your mom wasn’t on board. She’s missing.”
  13. I hope to not make you wait so long for the next one!
  14. "Ouch, motherfucker!" Ronnie yelped and stuck a stinging fingertip into his mouth. It flooded with the taste of blood and garlic, a terrible combination. Taran was at his side in an instant, the air bursting around him and scattering ingredients across the counter. "Are you all right? What's wrong?" "Okay, first off, I only nicked my finger," Ronnie held his hand out to Taran, showing him the shallow cut. "Second, did you just fly from across the room?" Taran's cheeks darkened with embarrassment. "I might have overreacted. But you sounded hurt!" "Find me a Band-Aid, and I promise I'll live to see another day," Taran bounded to the bathroom, looking back once before disappearing around the corner. Ronnie shook his head. His boyfriend had been slightly overbearing all evening as if he knew something was up. It was sweet, if not annoyingly perceptive. Ronnie was having a bad day. He supposed it started the night before, restlessly staring at the ceiling and wishing he could solve all his family's problems. Sleep hadn't come easy, and he gave up trying when dawn finally broke. On the other hand, Greg managed to get a decent night's rest, so Ronnie left his father a goodbye note and slipped out the front door. As much as he would have loved to have a breakfast chat like the old days, Ronnie knew this was best. If nothing else, it saved him from having to make up more lies. A dark cloud seemed to have followed Ronnie back to headquarters, ruining his concentration and making lessons less than successful. Forcefields materialized in the wrong spot or dissolved before he wanted them to, and the mounting frustration only made things worse. Ronnie's powers had behaved as erratically as his first few weeks of training. He was so off his game that Coldsnap practically threw him out of the target range after several bolts veered wildly off target. "Get out of here, Nolan," she snarled, "Before I freeze you to the floor!" Unsure of what else to do, Ronnie retreated to Taran's empty apartment. The living room was dark, and he relaxed on the couch in comfortable silence. Ronnie closed his eyes and performed a few breathing exercises. He sent his mind searching for his power's focus, the ball of warm energy nestled deep in his chest. Instead, Ronnie found a dark, wiry bramble of thorns. Green light flickered in the spaces between the tangle, casting out shards of unstable light. His focus was at risk of being snuffed out. Giving one of the black threads a mental poke caused Ronnie's stomach to lurch. Terrible feelings: guilt, doubt, and anger flared from the thorny darkness. The sensation poured outward from the center, threatening to sink deeper into his body. With another deep breath, Ronnie focused on the emerald light. It pulsed brighter as he guided his thoughts around the black roots and into the center of the mass. A wave of warmth settled into his mind as he connected with the focus. With a final push, he forced the light in his chest to grow. It met resistance against the tangle of thorns for only a moment before burning them away. The light then pulsed down the glimmering, branching threads that spread across his body. Ronnie gasped at the sudden jolt of energy and opened his eyes to find the room awash in a shimmering green light that seemed to emanate from under his skin. Reaching out a hand, Ronnie pulled the light down his arm into a single pool at the center of his palm. His powers seemed to be back under his control once more. "Well, that's a relief," he yawned, settling into the couch, thankful that he didn't accidentally destroy Taran's living room. When he woke a while later, Ronnie found a blanket gently tucked around him. He sat up to find Taran puttering about in the kitchen. "Hiya, sleepyhead," Taran called out, pulling a pot from the cabinet. "How long was I out?" "Just a bit. Thoughts on curry for dinner? Always helps when I've had a bad day." Ronnie smiled. How did he guess? "I want to help," He joined Taran in the kitchen and got started on dicing potatoes. Working so close together was peaceful. Taran broke the silence after a few minutes. "Mom's not coming back until tomorrow, I guess. Still helping with recovery efforts." "Right, the earthquake," Ronnie remembered. Everyone at headquarters had been talking about it that morning, and the Syndicate dispatched a dozen heroes from Liberty City to help with search and rescue. It looked like things were going to be mostly okay, all things considered. "Well, you must be happy to have her home soon?" Taran murmured something that Ronnie didn't quite catch, but he didn't pursue the subject. They settled back into silence, Taran stepping around the kitchen whenever he needed to grab another ingredient, a gentle hand at Ronnie's back whenever they were close. "He's nervous," Ronnie thought to himself. "He knows something is up, but he doesn't know what to say." "How about some music?" Taran slid around the counter and was in the living room, flipping through playlists near the speaker system when Ronnie sliced his finger on the knife. Returning from the bathroom, Taran held up a first aid kit with a triumphant grin. "Let me see," he said, reaching for Ronnie's hand. His fingers felt warm against Ronnie's palm, and he gently wiped the wound and applied ointment. "Lucky for you, I scored top marks in field medicine," Taran joked. "I think we'll be able to save the limb!" He kissed the tip of Ronnie's bandaged finger and declared him healed. "My hero!" Ronnie blushed despite himself. How was he so damn adorable? "Now, do you want to tell me what's been bothering you?" Ronnie turned back towards the cutting board and resumed slicing, the moment over. The sadness and frustrations of the day threatened to creep back into his chest as he delicately chose his words. "Things were difficult at home yesterday… I — I need to be able to tell my dad what's going on. I can't keep lying to him." Taran snapped the first aid kit closed and sighed. "Ronnie, you know what I'm going to say. " "I know, and I'm not in the mood for a fight, trust me. But this is the hardest thing I've ever had to do. We don't keep secrets from each other!" "There are rules that just have to be followed. You simply can't tell anyone what you really do here." "My dad was a cop; he knows about all the 'duty' and 'secrecy.' Who's he going to tell, anyway?" "That's not the point. Listen, you might not be in the field now, but when you are, anyone who knows your secret could be used against you. Do you really want to put your dad in that kind of situation?" Ronnie slapped down the knife with a scowl. "Of course, I don't. But you weren't there; you didn't see how bad he was. If I can't be at home, I need him to know that it's for a good reason. He's the only family I have left." "And that's all the more reason to keep him safe." Ronnie took a deep breath as he blinked away tears. The last thing he wanted to be was a sniffling idiot in front of his boyfriend. He felt Taran draw in close, hands resting gently on his shoulders. "I wish I could give you what you wanted," Taran whispered softly. The sadness in his voice only made Ronnie's eyes well up more. "Syndicate rules exist for a reason. Too often, they're written in blood." Ronnie felt a soft kiss on the back of his neck. "There has to be something I can do," he replied, voice trembling. "I'm sorry. But you know this is the only option." The worst part was that Ronnie knew he was right. Telling his father the truth would only make him a target, and he would never forgive himself if something terrible happened. But he couldn't ignore how quickly the secrets had built up around them. How many more before Ronnie lost his dad forever? He pulled Taran's hand off his shoulder and kissed the top of it. "I love so many things about my life right now, Taran," he sniffed, "But this part is the absolute worst." "I understand… but," Taran's voice perked up. "I may have a bit of a compromise," "How so?" Taran turned Ronnie around and looked him in the eyes. "Your dad loves everything about you and only wants you to be happy. That's something you need to celebrate together. So... whenever you think it's a good time, you should tell him about us." Ronne gasped, "Are you serious?!" He was floored. This was a huge step forward for Taran, for both of them. "It's truly unfair that you have to hide all of this from him, but I can help you keep the secret. You don't have to do it alone." Ronnie wrapped his arms around Taran's neck and held him close. "Of course, I want him to know. You're the best thing to come from all of this." He drew Taran in for a kiss, falling into a familiar warm comfort that beat against the dark emotions weighing him down. Then it was his turn to be pulled in tight and to revel at the kisses that rained down his neck with frantic urgency. Ronnie pushed back against Taran until their lips found each other again. He relished in the moment before finally breaking away to catch his breath. Their eyes met, and Ronnie felt a pressure building. Fuzzy static lingered where their skin still touched. "I love you, Ronnie." Every nerve seemed to ring at the words, an echoing pulse that coursed through Ronnie's arms and settled deep in his heart. No matter how difficult or scary things might have been, Taran was always there with patience and understanding. And sometimes with infuriating stubbornness, if only to keep those closest to him on the right path. A hero in every sense. Ronnie knew there was no one else he wanted to face the world with. He fumbled for the buttons on Taran's shirt, which crackled with prickly energy as it brushed over his body. Taran trembled at the touch, and he hungrily pulled Ronnie close, planting his other hand on the counter to steady himself. A screaming flash of white-hot light erupted behind Taran. The force from the blast knocked Ronnie away and into the wall, leaving him coughing as a cloud of smoke and ozone wafted around them. Ronnie waved the haze away and noticed a thin, spidery burn mark etched across the kitchen counter. It spanned from where Taran's hand had rested — the outline of his fingers burned into the surface — to the electrical outlet near the sink. "What the Hell was that?!" Ronnie gasped. Taran rubbed at his temples and muttered. "I have no idea… everything just went blurry for a moment." "Taran, your hand." Ronnie pointed. Taran pulled his hand away to study it, and Ronnie watched as thin bolts of electricity danced across his fingers in jagged white threads. Taran yelped and frantically shook his wrist, extinguishing the tiny lights. He met Ronnie's eyes and gave a weak smile before collapsing to the floor.
  15. "It's like he's a ghost!" Taran barked in exasperation, his voice a sharp echo down the hallway. "Wait, could that be possible?" "He's not a ghost, Taran." Maya sighed. "That's actually something I could work with. He's just nowhere to be found." They made their way to the dormitory wing, tired and frustrated from yet another night of dead-ends. A sleepy trainee in Syndicate sweats sheepishly waved to them, then hugged the wall to stay out of the way. "McCallister gave a speech today," Maya continued. "Our mystery man wasn't there, either. Maybe he skipped town?" "Or maybe he's up to something," Taran grumbled. The man with the hellfire had confidence that felt well earned. He wasn't the type to run away from a fight. "Kind of puts a hole in our bodyguard theory, doesn't it? What's this guy doing with the Children of Promise, anyway?! A little hypocritical of them to be working with someone with superpowers, no?" "I've been thinking about that. I think maybe they're trying to tip the scale back their way with a little hellfire? After all, it seems to be heroes they have the real problem with, not so much our powers." "I think I liked them better when they were just a silly cult," Taran muttered. He noticed Maya trying to hide a smile as she looked at something on her phone. "What's all that about? Are you flirting with Phillip again?" Maya looked up in surprise. "What?! Ew, no. He totally cooled off after the last Spellslinger Tournament. Probably intimidated after I beat him," She laughed and slipped her phone back into her pocket. "This was just something silly in the group chat." "Oh, I didn't see anything…" Taran reached for his phone and confirmed there were no notifications. Maya grimaced like she just let a secret slip. "Are you telling me there's a group chat I'm not a part of?!" "Hey now, let me explain —," "I'm deeply wounded, Huang!" "The five of us needed a place to vent without our boss...," "But I thought I was a cool boss!" "You're a nerd; that's what you are," Maya split off to head to her room. "Let's regroup tomorrow and come up with another plan." Back at his apartment, Taran paced around the room, doing his best to push the night from his mind. It was just like this guy to vanish the moment they discovered a lead. Taran had been nervous at the idea of a rematch, but now he just had frustrated energy to burn. It didn't help that the apartment was eerily quiet. Ronnie was spending the night at home, leaving Taran alone with his thoughts and with no one to vent to. It was surprisingly lonely and made Taran realize just how much he relied on Ronnie being around. He was feeling rather out of sorts, and it overwhelmed him. Things seemed to be going well on that front, at least. Their friends knew about the relationship and had been nothing but supportive. Taran was happy in a way that he didn't think could ever be possible. But if he didn't learn to get a grip and deal with his family issues, he was at risk of losing all of it. The mere idea of sitting his father down to have the conversation seemed impossible. "Oh, hi, Dad. Here's the thing," Taran thought dryly, "I know you've had grand plans for the family tree since I was in diapers, but I regret to inform you that the branch ends with me, the disappointing son." He crashed to the couch, feeling a familiar sense of hopelessness. Yes, it was true that talking to Warren would be a struggle, but it might not be so difficult if he had some backup. In a fit of impulse, Taran initiated a video call to his mother's suite at the San Francisco headquarters. The wall monitor lit up as the call attempted to connect. He realized what he had done and immediately regretted it. Was he really doing this?! Part of him prayed that his mother wouldn't pick up and he could save face. "It's not too late on the west coast yet... She's probably still with Control doing something important. Fuck, this was stupid!" The screen blinked to life, showing Avani at the center of the suite's living room. Taran jumped from the couch in surprise. "Ack, Mom!" "Hello darling, I wasn't expecting you!" The greeting was warm as Avani stepped closer to her console. She was out of uniform and wearing a simple linen outfit. Taran was alarmed to see that she looked visibly exhausted. He spied a cluttered desk behind her loaded with reports and other print outs. It was clear that Avani wasn't getting much rest while she was away. "Hi, Mom. I just wanted to see how things were going." "That's very thoughtful. I was hoping to catch you, as well." She studied him closely on the screen. "How are you doing? I heard that tonight's mission wasn't very eventful," The tone in her voice made it clear; she was asking as his parent now, and not as a senior hero. Taran sighed. "I'm fine, I guess? Frustrated that this guy seems to have gotten away and that we still don't know what he's planning. What about you? Any luck with the search party?" "No, I'm afraid not," Avani's voice was sad and far away, worried about her friend and weighed down by his disappearance. "There's been little to no new information brought to light, and I fear people here are starting to lose hope." She sighed. "But I have to believe that something will turn up." The candor was frankly unexpected. Even when they worked together, Taran's mother had always tried to put on a brave face. It was part of what made his parents seem so invincible growing up. Seeing her worried like this was a rarity, and it troubled him. "I know you'll find something soon, Mom. We'll get Mariner back." "I certainly hope so. But, that's not why you called, is it, sweetheart?" Taran tensed slightly. "That obvious, huh?" "A mother knows these things, I suppose." She laughed softly. "Something's been bothering you for a while, hasn't it? Since that day on the balcony." A lump formed in Taran's throat, and he found it hard to form words. God, was he really so transparent? "I ran into Mari the other day, and since then, I've just been reminiscing a bit. I felt like a totally different person from when I last saw her, you know?" "I suppose you did have to grow up rather fast after everything, though you were always quite an old soul." "I guess…" Taran took a shaky breath. "Seeing her again just made me think about a lot. Like what I want for my future. And that's always scared me a bit." "Taran, you know that your father and I will support you, no matter where your future leads." "If that's the case, then why do I feel like such a failure all the time?!" The outburst had come out of nowhere and surprised both of them. "Sorry, Mom. That wasn't fair." "Taran, we've never thought of you as a failure, and there's nothing you could tell me that could possibly change how —"Avani held up a finger and looked off the screen for a moment. A bright red light flashed from somewhere outside of the frame, casting her in a harsh glow. "Darling, I-I am so sorry. There's a situation here, Level Five." "Level Five?!" The designation was usually reserved for major natural disasters. "An earthquake?" "I'm not sure, something off the coast…" Her eyes were fixated on another monitor, mind undoubtedly formulating an emergency response. "I need to see to this." Taran tried his best not to look deflated. "That's ok, go save the world." "Darling, I'm coming home tomorrow. There's little more I can do here. We will finish this conversation then, ok?" "Sure, Mom. See you tomorrow…" The monitor blinked out as Avani disconnected the call. Taran stood in the center of his apartment, alone and in the dark, as a dozen conflicting emotions bubbled to the surface: Relief, disappointment, fear, anger. Each one wrangled into his chest, wrapping his heart in an iron grip. It was suffocating.
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