Kelly kicked the door. “Why does everything have to be plastic?” A heavy sigh came out of her as she gestured Brand over. “Help me get this thing open.”
The boy jogged up. Alarm lights reflected off the water spinning about his blade. “How?” He grunted through a shoulder-slam. “These things are pretty tough.”
“I don’t think that’s going to work.” She narrowed her eyes. “Here, jam your sword in the seam.”
“That’s oddly suggestive.”
She reached up to bop him on the head. “Focus.”
Brand grinned before doing as asked. The weapon stuck between the doors and wiggled. “This is—” He strained with grit teeth to plunge the sword all the way in. “—tougher than I thought.” He let out a breath. “Now what?”
Kelly stepped around him and took up a stance facing the corridor. “You can make ice, right? Freeze the water around your sword and pry that elevator open.”
He hummed, nearly chuckling. “I could never get ice exactly right. My sister could, but—”
“Forget the story, just try it!” Kelly relaxed her grip and swayed to both sides, moving her katana in a loose serpentine. The hallway stretched two sword-lengths from wall to wall. The fluorescent lamps tracing the ceiling were black—only the emergency lights, blinking in orange, provided sight. Between each pulse, klaxons grated through the building. Worst case scenario, Petrichor Gold shows up. Kelly cracked her neck. I can take them.
Brand jostled his blade, scraping and twisting. Its movements tugged at Kelly’s aura. She wouldn’t be able to move it if she tried, but every chip and jounce prodded her senses. “This is hard, Cap,” he said. “I don’t know how to work with a solid.” A crack slipped into his voice.
“Keep trying.” She stared down the intersection, just a dash away. Two hallways converged to meet the elevator. “You need to be firm to work with solid matter.”
“That’s pretty vague!” The twinges in his tone picked up. “Ice just doesn’t make sense to me.”
The absence of attackers did nothing to comfort Kelly. Maybe they don’t even know we’re here. “Think of a feeling to hold on to. Think of something that can’t be broken. Something tough, something solid. Something that lasts.”
He sighed. “I can’t think of anything like that.”
Kelly shook her head. This isn’t exactly the right environment to learn a new skill. “A person. Think of a person. Someone important, and—how you feel about them.”
“You’re asking a lot here, Cap.” His volume faded.
“Come on, Brand.” She pivoted and grabbed his free hand. “Here,” she said, meeting his eyes. “Us. We’re friends. Focus on my hand.”
He squeezed her palm. “We’re friends.”
Kelly nodded. “Right. We stick by each other, and we’ve got each other’s backs, right? Feel my hand.” The boy’s features hardened up. “Feel how strong that is. Our grip on each other. Cheesy metaphor or not. Make your energy reflect that. Make sense?”
His gaze adjusted, but never broke completely from hers. “Okay. I—I think I get it.”
“Slow breath,” Kelly said.
Brand closed his eyes and followed her instruction. Seconds passed with only the sound of alarms and swishing water. You can do this, Kelly thought. Just like Uncle’s lesson. He’ll get it faster than I did. The boy’s grip tightened. His skin chilled. A crackle broke the quiet. Brand sucked in cold air, dropping the temperature. Three more snaps joined the first.
The water on his sword spread down the blade and into the doors. At the center, a net of ice grew, spread, and shed flakes. A space opened between the two doors—only a finger wide, but still a gap. Water expanded and froze, creaking the doors open.
“Good!” Kelly spun around him and put both hands on one of the doors, slipping her fingers through the opening. She let her katana float behind her. “Grab the other side.”
They each hauled on their side of the door. The mechanism fought back, but with their strength combined they forced it open. Kelly surged through and spun to face the hall. The metal of machinery flowed over her from above and below. Finally. “Ready?” she said, raising an eyebrow at Brand. “Might be a bit startling when I lift this thing.”
He grimaced. “You’re sure we’ll be locked out of the controls, right?”
The doors slammed shut. “Building’s in alert. I’m sure.” Kelly sheathed her blade and crouched, splaying her fingers across the floor. Her power fed out from her palms and looped around the beams, gears, and cables below. The elevator car resonated with her, imaging itself in her mind. “This thing feels—“ Her hands snapped shut in claws. The car rattled. “—heavy!” Muscles ground against each other in her arms. Metal screeches echoed along the shaft.
Brand let out a hesitant laugh. “Cap, I don’t think that’s a good sound.”
Kelly shut her eyes and snarled. “That means it’s working!” Her arms begged her not to, but she lifted. She launched up, channeling power through her legs to drag the car with her. Her aura shimmered, dusting her vision with static. The elevator resisted. “Come—on!” Kelly let the strain out in her voice, shredding her throat with a growl.
The car lurched and bounced up. Brand, despite the warning, toppled over with a yip. Kelly brought her arms into the lift, pushing them up against an invisible barbell. Closing her eyes did nothing to banish the sparkles and headache. With equal parts roar and sigh, Kelly extended to full height and threw the elevator car up. She condensed her aura and shoved it at the roof.
The metal protested its handling, but obeyed. The empty wall of the elevator shaft flew past. A door, orange alarm-light filtering through the seams, passed by. One more floor. No weakness, now. The Hamanashi way. Kelly bent, compressing her limbs and her energy, then sprang up to launch it all in a burst of force. Again, Brand fell onto his back. The car bobbed up to the next door. Upon seeing a hint of orange glow, Kelly slammed a foot down in a wide stance and spread her arms wide. Her energy dropped and expanded in a ring, catching the elevator car and holding it.
“Go, go!” she shouted, gesturing to the door.
Brand blinked. “Huh?” He shook his head. “Oh, right.” Crawling back to his feet, he jammed his blade between the doors and repeated his icing process. Faster, this time, but barely.
Kelly shivered and winced. The weight pulled across her abdomen, threatening to mulch her muscles against her ribs. Her fingers shook, and tears salted her eyes. “Please don’t tell me you need another lesson!”
The boy dug both hands between the doors and pulled. “Just give me a minute, okay?” He groaned and leaned forward, yanking the doors open inch by inch. “Think I got it.” A thick breath poured out of him as he shoved the doors apart and held them at arm’s length. “Now what?”
“Climb up and hold them from the other side!”
He turned and stared at her, mouth agape. “Are you serious?” Without waiting for an answer, he lifted his leg and got his footing on the ledge, about two feet from the floor of the car. “There better be something good in this for me after,” he said, voice wavering.
Once Brand secured himself on the other side, Kelly locked her gaze with his. Leap of faith? She bent her legs. One—two—
On the jump, she released the car. Her muscles went limp and her energy rebounded, suddenly without weight. She took that aimless magic and laced it into her armoured bands, urging them forward.
She catapulted herself into Brand’s chest, sending him onto his back for the third time. The doors crunched like jaws behind her. The elevator growled and whined through the walls before smashing into the ground floor.
Kelly stayed on Brand, letting her heart and lungs pound. “There,” she said, barely forming the syllable through her staggered panting. “When this is over?” She leaned over to nip a kiss at his neck. “I’m gonna need a lot of that when we’re done.” Her body demanded she stay put, but she forced herself up. “Let’s keep going.”
The alarms continued on the third floor, which extended nearly identically as the first. “Where’s November’s office?” Brand asked. Footsteps rumbled down the hall.
“Three-thirteen.” Kelly drew her sword again and put herself in front. “Watch the right flank.” She toed ahead. “Stairwell guards are coming.” Her aura, wheezing from the stunt with the elevator, hesitated to concentrate before her. Guns and buckles blinked in her senses. “Two of them. I’ll disarm them, you stun them.”
Moments later, two camo-clad soldiers wheeled around the corner. The metal of their weapons poked into Kelly’s aura, and she tore them away. The guns flew up, but bounced at the end of straps tied to the soldiers’ vests. Kelly ran ahead, maintaining her focus on keeping those guns out of reach. She ducked in her sprint, letting Brand blast the guards with water from his sword. A jet flew between them, then split apart to slam each soldier in the side of the head.
Kelly dashed for the wall. On her way, she elbowed the already-stunned guard to her left, doubling him over. She jumped, spurring herself more with magic than muscle, planted against the wall, and kicked off. Her shoulder barreled the standing guard over, knocking him prone next to his partner.
“That wasn’t so bad.” She clenched a fist and wrapped her energy around both guns. Her hand struggled to close, and blazed with pain as she crunched the guns in on themselves.
Brand raised an eyebrow at her. “Nice moves.” His hair matted down his face, stretching out longer than it was. “Didn’t realize you were such an acrobat.”
Kelly scanned the left hall, offering a side smirk at Brand. “I figured you of all people would know something about my moves.” She gestured him over. “Fall in.”
As they jogged down, passing offices numbered in the high three-hundreds, the klaxons and lights paused, leaving the building dim and quiet. Shit. Is our diversion over? Kelly tightened her grip and tilted into a run. “We might not have much time left. Come on!” At door three-thirteen, Kelly spun to face the opposite wall before launching a mule-kick. The plastic buckled and snapped, but not enough. “Brand, your sword is stronger than mine. Give me a crowbar.”
He gaped at her. “Are you serious?”
She nudged his arm. “It’ll be fine.”
Brand shook his head before lifting his shoulders and piercing the side of the door. The temperature dropped and ice collected in the seam. He’s learning fast. “If this ruins my sword, I—“
A new alarm cut him off, harsher and more dire than the first. Red lights flashed along with it. “Oh, that’s not good,” Kelly said, looking around. “Either Amber and Hana’s situation just got really serious, or they know we’re here. Either way—hurry up.”
The door popped open. Kelly rushed in and found Yancy’s desk in the blinks of light. A filing cabinet sat a few paces away. She drew out the tray and browsed through a series of alphabetized folders. The packet labeled ‘Cases’ sported its own array of files. Kelly found McTavish’s name on a tab and took it.
There were threat profiles on McTavish—his abilities, his tactics, his tendencies. Personal information was scarce; the few photos taken of him were blurry and largely obscured by his clothing. The files listed theories about his name being a pseudonym, but had no clues to what his birth name would be.
One file stood out, at the end of the pile. An arrest report.
Kelly’s eye twitched. Don’t tell me. She found the date at the top of the page: March 19, 2016. “No.” She ambled back and sat on Yancy’s desk. “Brand.”
The boy remained at the door. “What’s up?”
‘They already got him.”
He turned. “You’re kidding.”
She waved the paper. “Two days ago.”
Brand closed what remained of the door and approached her. “That’s a good thing, in a way, isn’t it?”
Kelly’s heart slithered down into her gut. “I mean—sort of.” She dropped the page and watched it swing through the air, illuminated in snapshots by the alarm lights. “Sure, he’s off the street. Whatever.” Her hand quivered and glistened with sweat. “But that’s not why I did this.”
“Maybe it’s for the best, Cap.” He sat beside her and raised a hand to her back. She shrugged him away.
“I need to see him.” Kelly bent and covered her eyes. “I need to see the man who killed my friends. I need to see his face.” She slid off the desk. “I want to hurt him.”
Brand followed her down and tried to grab her shoulder again. She allowed it. “Look,” he said, caressing her, “we can find a way to move on. You can learn to live with it, right?” He winced. “If he’s just in prison?”
She shoved herself away and drove a fist into the wall. “It’s not fair!” The books on Yancy’s shelf rattled at her second punch. “They kill people like him!” A flap of her hand eased the numbness. “So why aren’t they?”
“Will they give him a trial?”
“They’re already changing the law because it’s convenient.” Kelly raked fingers into her hair. “I don’t know. Killer divergents are lethal-on-sight. What makes him so special?”
“Cap—” Brand lifted a hand and sighed. “Look, Kelly. I understand this.”
“Don’t give me that.”
He stepped forward and rubbed her shoulder. “I know what it’s like to want revenge.”
She turned. Her chest swelled. “What have you ever lost in your life?”
Brand drew his eyes tight. “If you want to hurt him, I understand. All I’m saying is—just—think about your options,” he said. “I’ll back you up, no matter what. But if you can accept him being in prison, maybe that’s better.”
Kelly leaned against the wall. Her voice trickled out. “Could I live with myself, though?” Red flashes stung her eyes. “Brand, I can’t kill him.” She coughed through a lump in her throat. “I know that.”
He trailed his hand down and grabbed her fingers. “It seems like that’s all you’ve wanted to do for a long time.”
“Part of me really does.” Her hair licked the wall with sweat as she fell forward and rested her chin on Brand’s shoulder. “I’ve been tired. And angry.”
“Anger is pretty exhausting.”
“I want to look at him.” She shook her head. “No. I want him to look at me.”
The boy’s breath tickled her. “You’re stronger than him. You need him to know that.” His chest rumbled with his voice.
She nodded, messing her hair against his armour. “Yeah.”
“It’s not going to be easy.”
No shit. She laughed before she could help it—an ugly noise, half choking. “I expected that.” With a groan, she detached herself from her friend. “Are you okay?”
Brand smiled. “What? Me? Yeah,” he said, chuckling. “I’m fine.”
“Okay.” Kelly found the hilt of her sheathed sword. “If UNGC hasn’t shipped him off yet, he’ll be in the building.” She cleared the hair from her face. “Level B4, underground. Then again, they’re already breaking all their own rules. But that’s the only place I could think of him being.”
“We’re not going to have to go through that shit with the elevator again, are we?”
“No.” She drew her weapon and pushed the door open. “If he’s here, I don’t want to waste time.”
Brand unsheathed his own blade. “What’re we going to do after we find him?” he said. “We can’t exactly turn back now.”
“I don’t know.” The words dragged themselves out. “I think I gave up on life when he killed them.” She tapped a foot and stared at the patterned lines of the wall. “We’ll find something.”
“Whatever happens, I think I’m okay with leaving the city.” He grinned. “I only have one friend out here that isn’t you guys. If I can bring him along, I’ll be just fine.”
I’m sorry, Brand. “If your future ends up totally ruined, you can blame me for that.” The red lights caught her eyes. “I’ll take the fall on that one.”
The boy hugged her with his free arm, trapping her with his muscles and his fluffy hair. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “For now, let’s just focus on the whole arch-nemesis thing.”
Kelly squeezed him and started down the corridor, sprinting past phalanxes of doors on either side. The few windows between offices glimpsed the sparkles of Falconer Boulevard, and Wing Street beyond, with the maglev rail sitting between. Guess I’ll never have this view again, she thought, slowing to stare.
“Everything okay?” Brand asked, pausing beside her.
Kelly nodded, more to herself than to him. “Yeah. Just taking a last look at the city.” She cleared her throat. “Right. Let’s keep going.”
The next corner took them to the southern hall, where the corridor split to access the elevator and the stairs. Both guards still lay stunned on the ground. Just doing your jobs, I know. She hopped over them and continued past the elevator shaft. Red lights continued to flash through the window of the stairwell door.
In the stairs, Kelly froze. The wide south-facing panes offered a view of Port Noble, the harbour, and the Snarl. Walls of fire lit the waters of the bay. White searchlights from helicopters sliced through the dark and the flames. “Whoa.”
Brand laughed. “Holy shit.” He put a hand to the window. “They—they thought this through, right?”
She forced herself to nod, even though a shrug felt like the better answer. “Amber said they could do it without actually hurting anybody.”
“No wonder we’re on red alert.”
Kelly twisted to raise an eyebrow at him. “If this gets out of hand, it could get really bad.” She continued down the stairs. “Something like that might be bad enough for Eclipse to show up.”
“I doubt it,” Brand said, clattering down the steps with her. “She’s always out stopping wars and stuff, isn’t she?”
“Something like that. But that looks like a pretty big problem.” She stole another glance through the window on the next landing. Down there, the rest of the city blocked most of the view—but the inferno stormed up into the sky, tangling with the four helicopters sweeping around. Flashes of colourless light blazed up every few seconds.
The stairs ended at the ground floor, only opening up to a set of double doors. Kelly pressed herself against the window, just out of view of the lobby. “Okay,” she whispered, gesturing for Brand to follow her lead. “When we came in, it was empty down here. On orange alert, everybody clears out to safe rooms.” She poked her head around the corner. “Red alert, though? They might be briefing a team in there. Or a couple teams. I have no idea. I’ve never been in a red alert before.”
“Now’s not a good time for guessing,” Brand said.
Through the glass doors, several squads of UNGC soldiers stood at ease, facing something out of sight. At the front of the pack, though, seven people in black uniforms stood out. Rangers. Who, though? Kelly retreated around the corner. “Don’t know who, but they have rangers in there. And a small army of grey camo.”
“Don’t they have anywhere better to brief?”
She narrowed her eyes. “No, actually. This is pretty much the biggest room in the tower.” Kelly tightened herself up and reinforced her muscles. Fatigue dragged her down, but adrenaline lifted her back up. “That’s not a fight we can take.”
“Come on.” Brand cracked his boyish smile. “We’re some of the best in the world, aren’t we?”
“A year ago, maybe.” Kelly shook her head with more of a grin than she expected. “Last year? Yeah. I could’ve taken them.” She sighed. “I’m out of shape now, though. And out of practice.”
The spinning water accelerated around Brand’s sword. “My sister could’ve, too. That would be so easy for her.”
“Maybe you should call her and get her to bail us out.”
He hung his head and stared at the wall through his snowy hair. “Nah,” he said, voice weak. “She wouldn’t want to help me out.”
“I—” Kelly blinked. “Sorry.” The way he talks about her, I thought they would be close. She nudged his shoulder. “Hey.” His eyes popped out from between his bangs. “Forget about that. Let’s think of a plan.”
“You’re right, though.” He wiped the hair away from its resting place on his nose. “Thinking like Brenna will help me, at least. Maybe I can think of how she would do this.”
Kelly scrunched her face. “My first instinct would be finding another way down. Sneaking somewhere, coming out behind them, make a surprise alpha strike.” She peeked again. “If I get the drop on them, I can disarm the soldiers.”
Brand waved a hand. “No, we’d still be playing on their field.” He turned to check the corner. “Never play on a board your opponent has set. That’s another Gidley lesson for you.”
“We had very different mentors.” Kelly let herself sit on the stairs. “My uncle taught me to always take initiative, force the fight on my enemy. Show strength, overwhelm them, prove you’re better.”
The boy tilted his head. “Well, sure. That’s one way you can do it,” he said. “But initiative doesn’t always have to be a blind charge. You can force your opponent’s hand. Make them think they’re attacking first.”
Kelly narrowed her eyes. “But then you’re just reacting.” She shook her head. “Never react. Never be on the defensive.”
“It’s a trick.” He smiled. “Remember—I beat you.”
Don’t remind me. A warm itch set in at the bottom of her ribs. “Yeah, yeah, whatever. What’s your idea?”
“Smash the windows with our swords. Draw them into the stairs. Here, we have a choke point and the higher ground.”
She played it out in her head. Her magic would carry the swords over, break the windows, then retreat. From there, she saw two options: either a squad of soldiers would come in to clear the stairs, or a squad of rangers would do the same. Soldiers, she could deal with. Rangers would be a problem—especially not knowing what squad was down there. It’s better than anything I have. “I don’t know.”
“Worst case scenario, we run back up the stairs and find another way.”
Kelly let the thought sit for a moment before shrugging. “All right. Let’s give it a shot.”
She twisted her fingers to envelop her aura around both weapons. Brand’s bobbed awkwardly in her energy—Kelly didn’t know its weight or its balance as intimately as she did hers. I don’t need this to be pretty, at least.
A shatter echoed up the stairs. Glass shards exploded against the ground seconds after. Kelly snapped her hands back and the swords whipped around. “You better be ready,” she whispered.
Brand nodded and grabbed his sword. He wrapped it again in the water he held around his hands, revving up the spinning waves. Kelly mirrored his stance beside him.
Shouts burst up from the lobby. “He’s here!” “Positions!” “We just got lethal!” Hard voices layered over the smashing of boots and rattling of guns.
Kelly willed her heartbeat into submission. Focus. Focus. The soldiers’ calls piqued her, though. Who was ‘he’? They must have spotted Brand, but not her. I need to protect him. The boy panted and jittered. Nobody gets hurt this time. Her senses opened up, getting ready to block bullets or grenades. This is the Hamanashi way. Brand is my family, now. I do this for him. And for all of them. She shut her eyes. It didn’t help her breathing or her pounding heart.
“Squad!” A distinct voice spoke, male and Spanish-accented. “Bridge, Shay, Mar—cyclone, now!”
Prickles ran over Kelly as the air pressure changed. Rushing wind roared up from the lobby. Dust and scraps of glass kicked up from the floor, sucked through the hall into a whirlwind. “Brand!” Kelly leaned over and hissed at him beneath her breath. “This isn’t working. They’re just getting defensive.”
“My bad.” He sighed. “It was worth a shot.”
“Now what?” Kelly said. “There’s no way we’re getting through there.”
She couldn’t finish her thought. Something crashed loud enough to overwhelm the wind. Then, voices: “Engage! Take him down!” Gunfire pierced through everything else—thundering bangs rolled in like a storm, broken up by the whizzes of ricochets. Light radiated from the lobby, steadier and hotter than the red alarms.
Kelly grabbed Brand’s arm and yelled into his ear. “I have a really bad feeling about this!” Tongues of fire lashed into the stairwell, forcing the two back up the steps. “Who the hell are they fighting?”
The firefight below overwhelmed Kelly’s magical senses. Nothing stayed put—bullets raced in every direction, diverting around other magical fields that deflected Kelly’s if they touched. Extending her aura so far made things fuzzy; with her eyes open, her actual surroundings blurred. There are two people using magic on those bullets. She took a meditative breath through her nose. Narrow it down. Where are those auras? Her energy latched onto a burst of fire from an assault rifle and followed the projectiles.
The first diversion came from near the shooter. The bullets warped around to avoid somebody, then continued forward. A ranger. Okay. But then, the bullets froze in the air. That’s—Kelly’s energy broke away, shrugged off by someone else’s power. No. Please, no.
“Brand!” She grabbed him by both shoulders and pushed him against a wall. “Brand!” Her gaze refused to focus. “He’s here!”
“Him?” He blinked. “McTavish?”
“It has to be!” More fire swamped the lower landing. “Whoever they’re fighting—they’re metal-chosen.” Her nose wrinkled up. “Who else metal-chosen would be in this building right now, trying to escape?” She set her teeth against each other. “He’s here.”
Brand shoved her away. “He’s ours, then!” He flipped his sword up into a ready forward stance. “Let’s get in the fight. Just make sure I don’t get shot.
“Wait!” Kelly clawed at his sleeve. “I’m not letting you get hurt. Not for me!” She dug her nails into her palm. McTavish’s face floated in her subconscious, struggling to superimpose itself onto Brand’s. No. Get out of my head. “That’s never happening again!” Sensations rolled around her in a wrecking ball. Hot anger pushed up from her stomach, while hesitation and second thoughts pulled down at her heart. “Nobody is ever getting hurt for me again!”
She surged her katana at the outside-facing window. It blasted apart like the first, raining icicles of glass into the night beyond. “Go,” she said, grabbing Brand’s shoulder and pulling him close. “Go find Amber and Hana. You make sure they’re safe. And don’t get hurt.”
Don’t give me those eyes. Please. I can’t take that right now. “No.” She shoved him halfway out the window, holding him by the shoulders. “If I get hurt, that’s my fault.” Her lips nuzzled against his. What am I doing? This—feels right. “Go. This is my fight.”