Authors: Mia Marshall
This one's for my mother, who was not the inspiration for any of the parents in this book.
You didn't just give me life. Through your love and unflagging support, you gave me wings.
There are benefits to living without friends. Not many, but a few. For instance, during the decade I lived alone, I never wanted to strangle someone I loved.
“I hate you all.” The words came out in a grunt. I was incapable of anything louder, needing all my air just to remain in my current contorted position.
“Breathe, Aidan.” Vivian took my hips in her hands and twisted them slightly to the side, increasing the stretch. My thighs threatened to crumple beneath me. “You’re seeking balance, remember?”
I turned my head to glare at her, and that small movement was enough to destroy the little equilibrium I possessed. I toppled over, landing soundly on my yoga-pants clad butt. A small black cat strolled past me, pausing just long enough to drop into a perfect downward-facing dog and prove the inaccuracy of that position’s name. “Nobody likes a show off, Simon.” I stretched out a hand to yank his tail, but it vanished a moment before I could grab it. The cat transformed easily into an attractive, black-haired, and buck naked man in his early twenties. He strolled to one of the deck chairs and sat next to Sera, seemingly unconcerned about the possibility of splinters.
“You do not seem to be embracing the spirit of this exercise,” he observed.
I wiped my face, finding an actual drop of sweat had beaded on my forehead. That was unacceptable. Though winter had finally surrendered its grip on the mountains, allowing spring its slow, triumphal return, the day wasn’t nearly warm enough to produce sweat. It appeared I was, despite all my efforts to avoid such torture, exercising. I glanced toward the back deck, where my so-called friends were finding great amusement in my pain.
“I’m thinking insanity might be an acceptable alternative. If I promise not to kill any of you when I go mad, can I drop back into child’s pose?”
Sera flicked a small fireball toward me, her version of cracking the whip. “Get back into warrior. Now.” I grimaced and rolled away from the flame, letting it land harmlessly in the dirt.
Once, Sera wouldn’t have been so cavalier. We might both be elementals, but I was water, and waters could burn as easily as any human. Of course, that was before we learned Sera and I had the same father, thus making me an absolute freak. I was the offspring of two full-blooded elementals, the only way any living creature could control two elements.
On the plus side, it meant I never had to worry about third degree burns. The only downside, really, was an unfortunate tendency to develop a fractured personality and go batshit crazy, as I’d seen happen with two other dual magic elementals. It turned out incredibly powerful and insane elementals were considered poor ambassadors for our race, so there was the constant threat of my death if the others ever learned what I was.
We’d spent the last month coming to terms with my possible future and looking for ways to avoid that fate. I’d opted for the comforting embrace of denial. The others were a bit more proactive in their efforts to keep me from going mad. Unfortunately, the only solution we knew at the moment was for me to never use fire, which meant I needed to avoid getting angry. Hence the yoga, intended to help me find my zen center. It might be more effective if I wasn’t so annoyed they’d decided exercise was the best solution.
I eased myself into a lunge, cursing the entire time. I swung my arms skyward, and for a single moment I felt my body perfectly aligned. Hell, I almost felt healthy. The sensation lasted only so long as it took for my thigh muscles to cramp, announcing their displeasure with Vivian’s plan for my mental health. “Corpse pose,” I announced, throwing myself flat on the ground, eyes closed tight.
I heard Vivian sigh heavily and move away from me. I cracked my eyes just enough to watch her run through a series of stretches requiring an improbable amount of strength and flexibility. It was impressive, in the same way I felt impressed when watching Olympic sprinters from the comfort of my couch, preferably while eating a large piece of cake.
Sera’s phone buzzed, and she checked the incoming message. “You’re spared, Ade. Carmichael has finally seen fit to grant us an audience. He and Johnson want us in their office this afternoon.”
I was glad my eyes were closed, giving me at least half a chance of hiding my annoyance at this news. Unlike Sera, I quite liked Carmichael. He and his partner Johnson were both good agents, and the fact that neither of them had attempted to arrest us and lock us in a government lab upon learning what we were was a definite point in their favor.
However, the FBI office was well over an hour away. This meeting would take the better part of the day, and I’d hoped to catch Mac when he returned in a couple hours.
A month had passed since I’d made the decision to return to Lake Tahoe and live in the cabin we rented from Mac, and in that time I’d yet to find a single moment alone with the man, despite a concerted effort on my part. Every time I tried, he seemed to slip away. I’d gotten used to seeing the tail pipe of his Bronco as it sped away or the locked door of his Airstream trailer.
I knew he was avoiding me, and I had no idea why. Now, it looked like another day was going to pass without providing any answers.
“Do they want Vivian, too?”
Sera started to answer, but Vivian was already shaking her head, her long black dreads swaying with the force of the movement. “I have plans,” she said. Considering that Vivian had sufficient hacking skills to break into the CIA database, I suspected she had good reason to avoid our friends at the FBI. Sera didn’t argue, but she looked unhappy.
“Vivian,” she began.
“Leave it.” Vivian tended to be calm and grounded, and I’d never seen her angry. The look she gave Sera suggested there was a first time for everything. “It’s not your call.”
I spoke quickly, trying to break the tension. “So long as this means I’ve done my yoga for the week, I don’t care who goes.” Sera and Vivian ignored me.
Simon had a more effective method of redirecting their attention. “When you return, could someone please drive me to the train station? I packed this morning.”
Vivian and I turned immediately toward him. “No!” Our protests were simultaneous and heartfelt.
He looked surprised by our reaction. “But the case is resolved. That was the reason Sera asked me to join you. I am no longer needed, and festival auditions begin this month.”
Outwardly, Sera appeared calm. She nodded, her face expressionless. But her right hand tapped rapidly against her thigh, and I knew she was already formulating a plan to change his mind. “I don’t think today will work. Maybe tomorrow? I’ll let you know.” Her vague tone was deliberate, because Sera was never vague. She turned toward the house, tabling any further discussion of Simon’s return to Oregon, and I wasn’t eager to bring it up again.
You know,” said Sera, looking around the room, “For someone who tries to avoid law enforcement, I’m spending way too much time in this office.”
“It’s because you have a crush on Carmichael,” I suggested. “I heard you call him the pretty one, you know.”
She cast me a withering glance. “Yes, but that was before I spoke to him.”
I grinned at her, not even attempting to hide my amusement. Before Carmichael, I’d been the only person who dared to argue with Sera, and even that usually fell into the bickering category. Long before we knew we were sisters, we were acting the part.
Apparently, Carmichael never got the memo informing him that Sera was usually right. When he’d learned about elementals, he struggled to come to terms with the knowledge, and part of that struggle involved a heated dispute with Sera about whether Brian or Vivian might have homicidal tendencies. She still hadn’t forgiven him, particularly when she learned he’d been right. While I knew Carmichael was a hard-working agent who just really believed in catching the bad guys, Sera thought he might be her personal nemesis.
The two men entered the room together. In theory, they should have been a study in contrasts. Carmichael was the golden boy, the sort of man who modeled men’s clothing in upscale catalogs, whereas Johnson was rougher around the edges. One was blond, the other dark. Carmichael offered a tight smile, while Johnson gave us a fifty-watt grin. And yet, despite all the contrasts, they felt like two sides of the whole. They wore nearly identical dark suits, and the sunglasses tucked into their jacket pockets looked to be the same brand. Both walked with confidence and absolute certainty in their mission, and when they sat down, both gazed at us with the same expectant look.
Several seconds passed. “So... we’re here,” I finally said. I could practically hear Sera roll her eyes. She could sit in silence for hours, waiting for the other person to talk first. When confronted with a stoic face, I was more likely to become verbally incontinent.
The corner of Carmichael’s mouth twitched, suggesting he was well aware of this quirk. He ought to be. The two men had spent many hours interrogating me when they thought I was connected to Brian’s murders. To be fair, I had been connected—just not in a way anyone had anticipated.
“It’s good to see you, Ms. Brook.” He turned his attention to Sera. “Ms. Blais.” Johnson continued to smile happily at us both. While Carmichael was still trying to fit our existence into his version of reality, Johnson was thrilled to discover an entirely new world, and I thought he might like to move there full time. It didn’t hurt that he had the barest strain of earth blood running through his veins. It gave him no power beyond some impressive gardening skills, but it still caused him to feel connected to us in a way Carmichael clearly did not.
Once, Johnson believed we were psychotic killers. Now, he smiled broadly every time he saw us. “We’ve been transferred,” he announced.
“You’re leaving?” I asked, confused.
He shook his head. “Not at all. It turns out my partner here wasn’t quite as circumspect as he could have been when writing the report.”
Sera stared at Carmichael, her black eyes hard and unforgiving. I suspected she was wondering how much of his body she could set on fire and still get away with it.
I spoke hesitantly. “You know our people expect secrecy from us. A report like that, it’ll cause trouble for us, Johnson.”
“That’s the best part! The FBI already cleaned it up for us. No one will ever see it.”
Sera couldn’t remain silent any longer. “Not seeing how FBI involvement is good news, Johnson.”
He was downright giddy. I began to feel a level of dread directly proportionate to his excitement. “It turns out some at the Bureau already knew about you. And other things. They keep it quiet, of course, for obvious reasons, but the secret’s already out. And now that we know, we’ve been transferred. Did you know there are shifters in the mountains? Shifters!” He was practically bouncing in his chair from excitement.
I looked between the two of them, filling in the blanks slowly. “If there’s some secret branch of the FBI that knows about us, where the hell were they when Brian was shoveling earth into people’s lungs?”
Carmichael stared back at me, his face calm but impassive. “As you well know, secrecy is only possible when few people know the secret. This is a tiny, off the books section of the Bureau, with limited manpower. They had task forces in the Appalachians and in Phoenix, but no permanent one on the west coast. Until now.”
I considered his words. “You’re telling us you’re the freaking X-Files, aren’t you?”
Sera appeared to enjoy that far too much. I had a feeling Carmichael would be known as “Scully” from that moment on.
“Something like that. It has a different title, of course. When you have a higher level of security clearance, you’ll learn it.” Carmichael slid two thick piles of papers across the desk. “Read and sign, please.”
I sat deliberately back in my chair, arms crossed. “Sign what, exactly?”
“A non-disclosure agreement and an employment contract, Ms. Brook. We’d like you to work for us, starting today.”
An hour later, we sat in Sera’s ancient Mustang, parked on the side of the road. Ahead of us, about a hundred feet down the road, sat a large wooden home that backed up to the edge of the Tahoe National Forest. We’d been staring at the house for several minutes, considering our options.
“We’re not actually doing this, are we?” I asked. The fact that we were already parked in front of our first assignment didn’t dim my hope that Carmichael and Johnson were playing an elaborate prank.
“I think we are.” The words were contemplative, as if she wasn’t sure what we were doing there, either. “Besides, imagine the novelty of being gainfully employed. Considering that you’re in your 60s and I’m not much younger, perhaps it’s time we stopped mooching off our parents.”
We let that hang in the air. We weren’t speaking to our parents at the moment. Neither of us had spoken to our father since the day we learned we were related, and I was steadfastly refusing to call my mother. On a good day, I only had to ignore three phone calls and half a dozen texts from the two of them. Other days, I needed to turn off my phone to have a moment’s peace. As determined as I was to ignore them, they were equally determined to have their say.
I just wasn’t ready to listen to their excuses, their reasons for denying me the truth of what I was my entire life. For now, avoiding my lying, overprotective parents seemed a logical step in the “keep Aidan calm and sane” plan we were subscribing to these days. I was happy to pretend I was an orphan for the foreseeable future, or possibly that I’d been hatched.
“So we’d be, what, adults?” I asked, pulling myself back to the conversation.
“Let’s not get carried away.”
“Does this mean we’re supposed to wear black suits and matching sunglasses?” I looked down at my worn blue jeans and long-sleeved white tee. Sera already tended to wear lots of black, but she spiked hers with bursts of color, bright reds or deep royal blues. Neither of us looked particularly official.
Sera shook her head sadly. “We don’t even get a badge or the chance to rough people up. I think we’ll be lucky to have business cards. What would our title be? Liaison to the supernatural community? We can’t exactly drop that into the ‘win a free lunch’ basket at the local deli.”