Twenty minutes later, the van rolled into the parking lot of an old community center on the west side of town. A group of kids played in the small yard beside the building, watched over by a pair of older teens. The squeals of laughter as the kids chased each other around a tree made Taran smile and only boosted his good mood.
"This way!" Maya directed them into the building, past signs pointing towards a gymnasium. A small table was set up at the gym's double doors with a sign that read "Liberty City Neighborhood Heroes," while a woman in front reviewed the notes on her clipboard and ushered another small group of volunteers further down the hall.
"Mari!" Ronnie called out. The woman looked up from the clipboard and waved to the group with a smile.
Taran stopped dead. Mari Garcia was the absolute last person he had expected to run into. In fact, he probably would have come up with any excuse not to attend had he known. Acid churned in Taran's stomach and brought an urge to turn and flee. Before he could make an excuse to go back to the van, his name was being called.
"Is that Taran Webber?!" He practically flinched. Her voice still had the same brassy ring that rose above even the loudest battles.
Taran swallowed back the acid and forced a feeble smile. "Uh, hey Mari, it's been a while,"
"Pretty bold of you to show your face here, especially after you stole one of my best servers!" She gave Ronnie a quick hug. "I'm thrilled you all could make it out. We're always looking for more volunteers on food drive days."
"Happy to help!" Maya said brightly. "It's been ages, Mari. When Ronnie mentioned you were organizing this event, I knew we had to bring the team to help." Taran tried not to look taken aback. Maya knew Mari would be here, and she didn't say anything? Didn't warn him?
Mari shook her head with a chuckle. "The little sidekicks, all grown up. It's crazy to think about." She pointed to Taran and Maya, "These two were just getting started back when I was doing patrols. Now," she gestured to the four of them, bringing them closer. "You're free to be yourselves, including you, my fuzzy friend," Ari pushed his sunglasses down the bridge of his nose and gave a wink. "But let's keep your Syndicate affiliations on the down low, ok?"
The group nodded, and Mari quickly split them into pairs. Maya with Ari, Carmen with Ronnie. "And that means you'll be with me, Taran,"
"Exactly what I was afraid of," he thought to himself.
The gymnasium floor was covered in rows of long tables, each one with stacks of empty boxes on one end. Pallets of food: bags of rice, sacks of onions, crates of canned goods, stood between each table. Other volunteers were already paired off at the far end of the room, filling each cardboard box with the proper amount of food before sliding it down to be sealed and hauled off. Each of the newly formed pairs took their place at a table and got to work.
"I'm a little surprised to see you here, Tare-Bear," Mari quipped, tossing him an empty box. "But I'm glad you could make it."
"Oh my god, please don't let anyone hear that nickname!" Taran's nose crinkled in disgust. He hadn't been called that in years, not since his Weather Boy days. It had been used by the old strike team he palled around with when he wasn't on missions with his mother. A humiliating pet-name only a brother could have come up with. "Honestly, I didn't know what we were doing today or that you would be here."
Mari nodded, placing items into her box. "I'll try not to take it too personally, then." As they loaded their boxes, Taran took the time to look around the room. Carmen and Ronnie were furiously chatting away, no doubt gossiping about the news shared earlier that morning. Though he often found Carmen hard to relate to and more than a little over-the-top, he was happy to see that she and Ronnie had become such fast friends.
A burst of giggles grabbed his attention, and Taran turned to see a group of kids surrounding Maya and Ari's table. Surprisingly, Ari had taken off his hood and sunglasses and would every so often jump towards the kids, ears wiggling. They shrieked with delight before eventually being shooed away by a volunteer coordinator.
Taran and Mari filled their stack of boxes in silence until it was time to bring them outside. "Here, load me up," Mari instructed, already holding two large boxes in her arms. Taran laughed and placed the others they had filled on top. When twelve were stacked high, Mari gestured towards the back door where a truck was waiting. Taran followed behind, carrying the two remaining boxes and trying not to feel so useless.
"Woah! Mari, you're so strong!" One of the kids that had been in the yard called out as she skipped by in the grass. "I wanna be as strong as you!"
Taran smiled at the girl. Mari had always had a good rapport with the youngest trainees, and he was glad to see that she was still working with kids. The little girl turned back towards them and made a face, skipping backward now. A picnic table was right behind her, and Taran knew she wasn't going to be able to stop before she got hurt.
"Hey, look out!" He cried. But the girl just made another face at him before phasing through the table and appearing on the other side completely unharmed.
"Anna! What have we talked about?" Mari chastised the girl, but it was clear her heart wasn't in it.
"No powers in front of strangers, yeah yeah." The girl echoed an approximation of Mari's voice. "But he came with that cat boy, Mari. I thought maybe he was special, too."
"Why don't you run inside and find the other kids?" Mari asked. You shouldn't be out here while the trucks are coming in and out."
"Fiiiiiine," Anna whined. She ran straight towards the community center and slid through the nearest wall.
"That's not what I meant!" Mari barked, but it was unlikely Anna heard. She just sighed. "These kids, I tell ya."
"How many of them have powers?" Taran asked, watching the wall where Anna had disappeared.
"Only a few. Each found their way to the community center after their parents didn't know what else to do. Word got around the neighborhood that I might be able to help out."
"I don't recall seeing her at Headquarters…"
"That's because you haven't. And if I have my way, you never will." Mari's voice had a hard edge now, which seemed to surprise even her. She sighed. "Look, you know what happens when the Syndicate gets wind of a kid like Anna."
"They'd teach her how to control-"
"It starts with breathing exercises and meditation, but it ends with combat training and battle simulations. Anna is a sweet girl; she deserves the opportunity to be something other than a glorified child soldier."
Taran furrowed his brow. This was the Mari he remembered. "That's not true. There's always a choice,"
"Maybe you're right," Mari replied. "And Anna will have a choice too when the time comes. But until then, she gets to learn about her gifts around her family and people who care about her, not just her power rating." Mari hopped up in the back of the truck with a grunt, boxes still perfectly balanced. "It's important she understands that she's more than just her abilities and that being a superhero doesn't have to be her only path."
The rest of the afternoon was spent filling more and more boxes until two box trucks had been loaded down and sent off to make their deliveries. A lot of families in need would be getting some extra help tonight. Once the trucks were away, Taran and the others helped break down the gym tables, stacking them neatly against the far wall.
"Thanks again for your help today!" Mari told them all. "I think that was a record time for getting the trucks filled," She glanced at her watch. "Yikes, I gotta get going — Tell you what, if you come around the corner to the diner, dinner's on the house."
Getting ready to leave the gym, Taran noticed Anna sprawled out on the floor with a coloring book and dozens of colored pencils spread all around her. She hummed to herself as she filled in a picture.
"Goodbye, Anna, it was nice to meet you!" He called out.
She looked up from her paper and smiled a big toothy grin. "Goodbye! Sorry I scared you earlier,"
"That's ok. I'm just glad you didn't hurt yourself."
Anna shrugged. "Stuff doesn't hurt me if I don't want it to," her voice lowered to a whisper, making sure no one else could hear. "It just goes right through."
Taran's mind raced at the possibilities. A power like that deserved to be studied! Were there limits to how far she could go at one time? What about underwater? He stopped himself. Anna was just a little girl, one who didn't have any problems bigger than what color to choose for her picture. Mari was right. She deserved to stay innocent as long as she could.
Anna smiled up at him once more before settling back to work on her coloring book. As Taran walked away to join the others, he waved his arm out to the side. A wind billowed outward, scattering Anna's colored pencils in all directions. She gasped and jumped up to chase after them, only getting a few steps before the pencils swerved away. Finally, they lined up neatly in front of her coloring book as the breeze fell to the floor.
"I knew it!" She shouted after him, breaking into peals of giggles. "You are special!"
Taran sat between Maya and Ronnie in the large corner booth, sleepy and full. Empty plates and sweating milkshake glasses were the only evidence of the meal the team had just finished. Ari stretched contentedly from across the table, barely stifling a huge yawn that betrayed his sharp canines.
"That was so good," he sighed. "I could eat that tuna melt every day!"
"Totally agree; this place is a hidden gem," Carmen replied, taking a selfie with her milkshake. "And the vibe is so retro!"
"Oh no, don't you dare blast this place on social media," Ronnie teased. "If Rita's gets overrun with hipsters because you 'influenced' them, it'll ruin the whole neighborhood!"
"Whatever, Ronnie. You know my followers tip better than the senior citizens you got stuck waiting on!" She stuck out her tongue but put the phone away.
Taran had to admit this was all really nice. Hanging out with friends outside of headquarters, talking about anything except work. Sitting next to his boyfriend and not worrying about what anyone thought. He had told his friends about Ronnie, and nothing but good things had happened since. This was how it was supposed to be.
Taran reached for Ronnie's hand on the table. Their fingers linked together, and Ronnie leaned against Taran's shoulder and closed his eyes. A happy buzzing danced in Taran's chest. The feeling faltered when he looked up to see Mari watching from across the diner. Their eyes met for only a moment before she broke away and went back to wiping down the counter.
"I'll be right back, gotta wash up," he told the table and made his way towards the restrooms, which were down a small hallway on the other side of the dessert case. As he rounded the corner, he felt someone follow. He turned to see Mari only a few steps away.
"Mari, I —,"
"I always knew you had a secret, Tare-Bear," Mari said softly. "You were always so intense, throwing yourself into everything, never taking breaks. Like you felt you had to make up for something. I was worried it would consume you if you didn't get control of it."
"This is still pretty new. My parents, they don't know yet." Taran's voice rose in a defensive pitch that immediately embarrassed him. Where was all the confidence he had just minutes ago at the table?
"Relax, I'm not really in touch with Warren and Avani these days."
"You… you could be, you know. They both miss you terribly."
"That's sweet. And I've thought about it a lot. But your dad never truly forgave me for resigning, and then after the funeral, it just felt like I was imposing."
Sadness clawed at Taran's chest as he tried to find the right words. "You were going to be part of the family, Mari; you could never impose."
"It was just never the right time. Like I would only remind them of him, you know?" She shrugged and dabbed her eyes. "Well, I'm happy to see that you're living life for yourself, after all this time. Just promise me that you'll look after Ronnie."
"You don't have anything to worry about that. Ronnie could very well be the best of us one day."
Mari shook her head. "Not like that. That boy's had enough heartbreak to last a lifetime. So you better not hurt him, or you'll have to deal with me."
Taran smiled. "I promise."
Mari nodded and took a breath to compose herself before heading back towards the kitchen. There were so many things that Taran felt he should say, but he just couldn't find the words. They both had had enough empty platitudes to last a lifetime. Mari paused at the end of the hall. "Collin worried about you too, you know. Maybe more than anyone. He'd be so proud to see how you've grown up."
Taran returned to the booth to find the rest of the group preparing to leave. As he waited for them to gather their belongings, the TV hanging above the kitchen window caught his eye. The nightly news had just begun, and the footage switched to what looked like a crowded rally of some sort.
We go now to City Hall, where the Children of Promise continue to speak out against the Syndicate of Heroes. In his weekly address, group leader Martin McCallister once again warned the public against what he called 'cosmic imbalances' resulting from the Syndicate's heroic acts.
The camera zoomed in on a man at the top of the stairs. Martin McCallister pounded his fist on the podium, punctuating his words. The crowd in front of him appeared to be larger than the meager protests staged at Syndicate headquarters earlier that summer. The prospect worried Taran. Were people actually getting swept up in what was being said?
"These false prophets have deceived you! While they seek to take away your freedoms as sovereign citizens, they also endanger us all with divine punishment! We won't be safe until these mutated freaks are no longer allowed to play god. We must live life knowing that some events, tragic as they may be, are all part of a grand cosmic plan."
Maya appeared at Taran's side and looked disgusted. "Ugh, that guy's a psycho. Shame on the news station for even giving him a platform. Let's go, Taran,"
Taran was about to turn to follow Maya out the door when the footage panned out to frame the small group clustered around McCallister at the podium. A few middle-aged men and women nodded approvingly at his words but seemed to be keeping their distance from another who stood directly over McCallister's shoulder. A younger man in a long, dark coat, whose piercing gaze managed to reach through the television and bury into Taran's mind. A chill threaded its way up Taran's spine as he recalled those grey eyes, the danger they had possessed, and the warning he had been given that night at the warehouse.
If the Children of Promise were in league with the jewel thief, they were a far greater threat than anyone could have predicted.