Jake was the most beautiful baby Jia had ever seen.
She held her son close, breathing in the sight and scent of him. It hit something inside of her, something deeply physical and somehow more profound than mere feeling. This amazing wonder was hers. He came from her. She’d carried him for nine months, been a part of every moment of his creation. Despite a month of absence, their connection thrummed between them. Of course, the fact that Jake needed nursing just made it that much more elemental.
A knock of the door heralded Julie, for only her telepathic best friend would come in without waiting for an answer. The other girl slowed when she saw the baby suckling. A mix of discomfort and wonder crossed Julie’s face.
“I can come back,” she offered. “If you need a break from Family Weekend.”
“No, it’s fine. Come in. Are my parents still throwing a fit?”
“It’s pretty obvious they didn’t expect you to have roommates,” Julie said, smirking at the memory of something. “Though they’re glad I’m the one you’re sharing a room with. Your father is really uncomfortable with Alley.”
“Alley?” Jia was baffled. “He’s okay with two boys here but Alley’s the one he objects to?”
“Jia, she’s gay. If you don’t believe a telepath, just ask her.”
“I don’t want to.”
Jia shifted in bed, scooting up a bit higher as carrying the baby put more weight on her lower back. She was still dressed but wishing more than ever she’d switched to pajamas already. Sadly, that wasn’t an option tonight.
The evening was young and the Lambert Acres crew had opted to do an open house for their respective families. Finn’s hadn’t made the trip and no one had seen Nate’s parents in years so that left the Suns and the Amhersts. Still mingling downstairs, if the volume penetrating the door was anything to judge by.
Another knock. Jia lifted a blanket to make herself a bit more decent, then invited the knocker in. Instead, she received two visitors at once.
Amara English shared Julie’s surprise at finding the young mother nursing. Ruth Sun on the other hand showed no expression at all. Jia’s Mom wore a suit and skirt, as if ready to hold a press conference at any moment. Given she was a Senator of the United States as well as the wife of a noted televangelist, that could very well be the case.
“How’s it going out there?” Jia asked, wincing slightly as Jake gummed a nipple a bit harder than she was used to.
“Fine. Mr. Sun and Mr. Amherst seem to get along,” Amara said. Her attention was fixated on Jia’s chest. “Don’t they…you know, dry up at some point?”
“It depends,” said Mom. “Milk usually stops in a few days or a few weeks. It took months for me with Jia, though. Feeding him will make it take longer.”
“He’s my son,” Jia said fiercely. “He’s here and I’m going to feed him.”
Mom didn’t frown. Mom never frowned. But the frostiness of her disapproval blew across Jia’s skin like a winter wind. Only the presence of her friends kept her from wilting under the stern look. Once, Jia had found it almost easy to chart her own way no matter what her parents thought. Her indiscretion and the baby that came from it robbed her of all room to rebel, though. After all, she’d seen how badly she’d misused her freedom.
Looking away from Mom’s icy glare, only then did Jia notice the fascinated looks of Julie and Amara. She smirked. “You both look like you’ve never seen someone breastfeed before.”
“Only in movies,” said Amara.
“I’ve been around new mothers before,” Julie said. “But never someone I knew. It doesn’t hurt?”
“No,” Jia said with a smile. “Well, not usually. Feeding’s okay. When I was feeding Jake a lot, my nips got a little sore sometimes. Truthfully, the biggest change is when Jake’s gone. They fill up and then they ache unless I pump.”
“How does that work, with your ability?” Amara asked the next question but it seemed Julie and even Mom were interested in the answer.
“What I can do isn’t, like, a steady and constant thing. I’m not like Nicole. I don’t have this on-all-the-time ability. It’s more like…well, it’s like walking vs. running or picking up a book vs. picking up a chair. I just scale up way higher. You know, it’s like the difference between accidentally running into a door, where it hurts? But it doesn’t hurt if you ready yourself and knock it open with your shoulder. In my case, I can knock a wall over if I’m ready for it but it still hurts if I get whacked by surprise.”
“What’s the heaviest thing you’ve ever lifted?” Julie asked.
“You know those ultra-dense weight sets they use for the people with super strength?” Jia shrugged but couldn’t help hiding the pride in her voice. “I broke the biggest stack West had.”
Jake chose that moment to drift off to sleep in the midst of suckling. She gently disengaged him and rewrapped him in the thin blanket he wore. Florida was still warm enough, even at night, that it didn’t take much to overheat the precious boy. Mom took Jake, giving Jia a chance to get out of bed.
Amara and Julie both headed downstairs. When Mom moved to the door, though, she shut it firmly and turned to face her daughter. There was a resemblance, though not nearly as striking as the one between Alley and her mother Sarah. A lack of smiling widened the gap. Ruth Sun was a reserved, controlled woman. She never smiled any more than she frowned.
“We need to talk.”
“Please don’t tell me it’s about Alley.”
Ruth’s expression didn’t change but she had a certain lightness as she said, “I’m not your father. I love God but the particulars of His rules have never held the same fascination for me that they do for either you or Dave. If you were interested in Alley, I’d be concerned but that’s because I don’t think she’s a good influence on you.”
“How so?” Jia asked.
“I’ve seen a lot of young women in my time,” Senator Ruth Sun said, with all the grave dignity of her office. “There’s something more than rebelliousness when I look at Alexandra Amherst. I see a fall in her future, Jia, a long and terrible fall. I wouldn’t want my daughter or anyone I cared about near her when she does.”
“I can be indestructible, remember?” Jia tugged her shirt down, unconsciously straightening it. “And who knows, she’s my friend, maybe I can save her.”
“Some people can’t be saved, Jia. Some people won’t let you save them.”
“I thought you didn’t want to talk about Alley.”
Mom leaned back against the bedroom door and sighed slightly. Her head bowed, still full, thick and black despite a sprinkle of silver spreading out through her roots. There was a kind of strength to her in moments like this, a strength that remained hidden much of the time. Senator Sun was a well-spoken, genteel peacemaker who rarely lifted her voice and never lost her composure. Mrs. Dave Sun, the loyal and faithful wife of a prominent pastor who always stood on her husband’s arm in the congregation. Beneath the wife and mother lay a core of steel.
Jia saw that steel when Mom looked up again, Jake cradled in her arms.
“I’d like to talk about the Ringmaster.”
“M-Mom?” There was no better way of expressing her profound surprise than by that simple stuttered title.
“Jia, has Alley ever mentioned the Shadow Dance Directive to you?”
“Mmmmm.” Mom hummed her satisfaction, looked pleased and nodded. “Good. It’s a United States Department of Defense directive. Among other things, I’m part of an oversight committee responsible for the Office of Inspector General which provides accountability and auditing of all DoD operations…including Shadow Dance. Alley is under the umbrella of that Directive. So is Major Isaiah Diaz.”
“You know Major Diaz?” Jia desperately wanted her teammates in here to consult with. With Mom blocking the door, they were out of reach. What else could she do?
“I’ve met the Major several times. I understand his ability. I also know why he gathered the four of you. While I don’t enjoy seeing my daughter put in harm’s way, I do trust the Major’s insight and respect his decision to include you. The Ringmaster remains one of the most dangerous villains in the world at large. If it’s even possible that you could bring him down, the lives of thousands, even millions may depend on all of you.”
Jia put a hand to her forehead, checking for fever. Nope. This conversation really was happening.
“I’ll do my best, Mom,” she said at last.
“I have reason to believe the Ringmaster has long term plans here, in West Private’s HCP. I’m not sure what or how. But I suspect the staff could be compromised. I’ve read the Major’s report on your interrogation of Professor Stevens. I think it’s time your team took its next step. I’d like the four of you to break into the HCP’s mainframe to look for evidence.”
“O-okay, what evidence?”
“Whatever you find.” Mom adjusted the bundle of baby in her arms before passing Jake back to his mother. “The Ringmaster has a history of covering his tracks well but his ability is fundamentally rooted in controlling people. He can edit memories and compel behavior. But his power doesn’t directly affect computers or their media. He’s used people to do that but people make mistakes. At this point, the Major and I agree that the HCP mainframe has the best chance for containing new, relevant data.”
Jia stared in disbelief. She’d been given orders before but never beyond the family role. “Does Dad know about this?”
“Your father is a wonderful man. But he’s not cleared for government work. You are, under Major Diaz’s auspices. Don’t discuss this with your father.” Mom narrowed her eyes slightly. “Do you understand me?”
Jia just nodded, feeling slightly sick. Keeping her Mom’s secrets from her Dad was not something she was used to. Then Mom hugged her. It helped, with Jake in her arms and her mother there to provide that hidden strength to them both. The Senator wasn’t the right woman to go to for casual affection, smiles or easy approval. But there was nothing Mom wouldn’t do for her daughter.