The only noise in room came from the muted tones of the life support equipment and the steady hiss of the respirator.
Amara English sat in a metal chair with a barely comfortable cushion beside the bed of Finn Barnaby. Yesterday, she had tears enough when Finn’s parents had flown in. Albus and Bridget’s grief must have been greater than hers but they had room enough in their hearts to embrace her, to include her in everything. Finn had never spoken to his parents while she was around but it turned out he’d told them about her. Nice things.
Horror flickered beneath her closed eyes as she sat there, hand clutching Finn’s lax hand. Flashes of the battle still echoed inside her head. Amara remembered it, all of it, and while she couldn’t explain why she’d attacked them, she could vividly see Finn refuse to strike her down. And then she saw, in her mind’s eye, him turn at Alley’s shout just as she turned herself into a laser and killed him.
She had killed him. Steve Dukes was the one who’d shredded his mind but only because Finn was helpless from the damage she’d done.
“Why’d you do it, Alley?” Amara screamed at the stone-faced blonde, minutes after she’d recovered in the Infirmary. “You distracted him! How could you not see what I did coming?”
“Jia was about to throw Kim at you,” Alley had said, not a hint of emotion in her voice. “She’s indestructible. If you’d gone to light against Finn, you’d have hit her and scattered. It would have killed you. I knew Finn could live for a few minutes. You couldn’t. Triage, Amara. It’s what he would have wanted too.”
More unwanted memory. If she just ignored it, it’d go away. Right now, all she wanted was to be with Finn.
The thump-hiss of the respirator filled her ears. Amara opened her eyes, looked at the tile flooring so she’d stop thinking. Then she stood and wobbled slightly from having sat so long. Finally, she climbed up into the bed and curled up against the tall, handsome body of her beautiful Finn. Cupping his cheek with her hand, she planted wet kisses on his cheeks, grateful that the Long Term Care section of the HCP Infirmary was unattended for the moment.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered to him. “Tomorrow, I guess, your parents are going to have you shipped back to England. Britain. Birmingham, whatever. I guess they’re going to see if they can raise the money to afford some super healer who might be able to fix you. But…But I don’t know if I’m going to ever see you again. As you. As my Finn.”
With more tears trickling down her cheeks, Amara leaned over his face and spoke directly to him. “I love you. God knows I love you. You have no idea what my life’s been like, Finn. No idea what my past was. No idea what I’ve done to get here. You don’t need to know. Just…know that you healed me. You’re the one good thing in my whole fucking miserable life and you healed me. I’d do anything to heal you, Finn. Anything. Anything!”
She peeled back his eyelids and looked into those gorgeous chocolate depths once more.
Then Finn’s eyes focused.
“…Yes, thank you for telling me. I’ll be down in a moment.”
Dean Diane Goddard put her phone down in her office and sighed. Then she looked back across her desk at Ruth Sun and the Senator’s private hatchet man, Mr. Grey.
“Finn?” Ruth asked gently.
“It seems his body just shut down. They weren’t able to revive him. It’s…” Diane’s breath caught at the unexpected intensity of feeling that welled up within her from losing a student. “It’s like all the life went out of him. There was nothing left behind to keep him going. If you’ll excuse me, Senator?”
“That’s understandable, Dean Goddard,” Ruth said, rising in the same motion as Diane. Mr. Grey followed her example a split second behind. “I’ll schedule some more time with you tomorrow before I fly back to DC tomorrow night. A serious investigation is required here.”
“And West Private’s HCP is more than happy to cooperate fully, Senator” Diane replied smoothly. “After all, we want the ones responsible for this tragedy found as soon as possible. Besides, we strive to instill the exemplary ethics required of a Hero in all students in our program. Cooperating with the government and any private sector resources it employs is also part of the life of a Hero.”
“I’m so pleased. I’ll see you tomorrow, Dean.”
The two women were close in age, dissimilar in race but nearly identical in poise, dress and presentation. Their tight smiles were mutual acknowledgements of a truth neither would outright admit to; this investigation would result in a power struggle and both intended to win.
Diane made haste slowly as she showed the Senator and the DVA Agent out of her office. Then she took her private lift and set a direct delivery to the Infirmary. She stepped out into the warmly painted yet spartan hallway leading to various private recovery rooms, medical equipment and more esoteric functions not relevant to the moment. A swift stride took her down that hallway into the Long Term Care wing.
A few nurses took one note of their Dean and her pace before immediately vacating, brushed by in her wake. Diane arrived within a mere three minutes of the phone call, only to see Finn’s room already crowded with the several nurses and Dr. Amherst on hand to hold visitors back. Albus and Bridget Barnaby sobbed inconsolably on each other. Nate Insely, Jia Sun and Alley Amherst shared looks of mutual stoicism, tears evident in their eyes but not let free by some kind of unspoken pact of public solidarity.
“I’ve been waiting, Godot.”
That nickname. Dean Goddard looked to the right and found Amara English curled up in the corner. The short-haired brunette sported a pair of red-rimmed tear-streaked brown eyes, red cheeks and a runny nose from everything that’d happened. And at the moment, she also managed a weak, weary smile. “Can we talk, Dean?”
Diane simply nodded and took the student by the hand, escorting her, half-helping her in fact. Amara seemed a bit weak in the knees but the Dean got her to the lift right across from Finn’s deathbed. A Dean’s override codes got her priority speed and clearance, ending up outside her office in half a minute.
Amara immediately sprawled on a couch. Dean Goddard shut her door and spoke a passphrase to secure the room. Walking to her desk, she tapped a concealed switch that completely isolated her office from the HCP’s main security system and alerted the Electric Ghost, Kelsey Huston, who would immediately cover up the security exception even from the Senator and her DVA watchdog. Then she sat heavily on the leather-bound overstuffed chair opposite the couch and put her head in her hands.
“Well, I bollocked this up, didn’t I,” Amara said, her accent shifting to the familiar. “Sorry, Dee.”
“I’m just relieved you’re alive, Ellis.” Diane lifted her head and looked into the unfamiliar eyes of her oldest, deepest friend. She sighed and shook her head. “I wish you’d told me you were Finn Barnaby this time. How long?”
“Mmmmm, two years?” Ellis shook Amara’s head and ran a hand through her hair. “I’m missing the haircut already.” Her voice trembled then and those red-rimmed eyes closed to shut in more tears.
Conscious of the need to be delicate, Diane spoke as gently as she could. “I didn’t realize Ms. English meant so much to you.”
“Oh, you’ve no idea. None at all.” Ellis sat up on the couch, swung her legs to the floor and rose in a single fluid motion. She paced, a habit Diane remembered well. “I loved her, Dee. Loved her, me! Can you imagine? I’ve gone sodding native in a matter of months. Must be getting old. Or it’s teenage hormones, who can say.” The next sound that came out of the young woman’s face was half a laugh, half a groan.
“She opened your eyes?”
“Must have.” Ellis shook Amara’s head. “I don’t remember. I woke up as her, just a few minutes ago. Last thing I remember was that bloody Steve Dukes and how I couldn’t let him get Nate. Jia was on her way but even she’s not faster than the speed of thought. It was Nate or me, Dee. What would you have done?”
“The same as you,” the Ringmaster said, reaching across the space between them and taking one of Amara’s hands, squeezing it tightly, stopping the pacing. “Protect our son, no matter what.”
The Hypnotist inside Finn’s girlfriend smiled then, and it was his smile on her face. “Well I did. If I’d known the bloody student would actually kill me, I’d have made the jump right that instant. I could have helped Jia put down the rest of the Dominated students and saved Amara’s life, even if it’d blown my cover. Instead, I’ve shredded her as surely as Steve shredded Finn.”
“Ellis, it’s not as if you had a choice.” Diana took Amara’s other hand and spoke urgently to the man she’d once loved. “You were unconscious, your body on the cusp of death. It’s a reflex, out of your control. At least you pull your ability with you or you’d have been stranded the first time when you took over-”
“Dee, don’t manage me!”
Ellis broke away, circled the couch and leaned against the wall, head bowed as she folded her arms across her chest. And then made an annoyed sound when her bosom complicated the motion. For her part, Diana simply watched her ex-husband as Ellis struggled to process the enormous change he…no, she had just been through.
This was the fourth time the Hypnotist had taken a permanent body. At least, that she knew of at least. The first had been 2005 right after everything had gone to hell. The Circus had mostly gone their separate ways after that disaster, for safety more than anything else. For her part, Diane Goddard had managed to secure a position as Dean of West Private’s HCP.
But one by one, they returned. Paul Matthias was the first, his choice of penance after causing the destruction he hadn’t actually been responsible for. He was also the only one not in the know. An Advanced Mind that Diane had co-opted confirmed the Monster was done with the Circus. Out of respect for his feelings, she’d left him alone for the past decade.
Then her brother Sam had come, looking for shelter from those hunting them and wanting more than anything to forget it all. So she’d arranged that too, employing the same Super that’d altered her features to alter his. A bit of Domination effectively rewrote his past and the Conjurer vanished, replaced by Sam Goddard. Then he met and fell in love with Ava Stevens, only to have her break the engagement when he made some questionable moral decisions that eventually led to him meeting and marrying Elaine. Enough time, enough real history had passed to provide a stronger, more insulating layer of protection between who they’d all been and who they were now.
Meanwhile, Sarah Amherst had come home at last and now concealed her past behind the guise of a healer at West Private’s HCP. And Ellis…well, she knew he’d been in the area. He’d hijacked a student’s body to join the meeting she’d called a few months earlier with a speed that meant he had to be near.
Only the Mystic was not directly involved in this program. At least he wasn’t in this geographic area.
At least one of them had some sense, thank God.
“What am I going to do,” Ellis whispered at last.
“Perhaps you could start with explaining why Major Diaz chose you of all people to investigate the Ringmaster conspiracy. And why you didn’t tell me you were Finn? You claimed not to know him, as I recall.”
“No, no, never mind all that.” Ellis waved a dismissive hand, looking frustrated. Better. Frustration was a much more productive emotion than grief, especially given the circumstances. “It was better you didn’t know I was Finn, better no one knew I was so close to our son. As for the Major’s decision to tap me, who knows? Who knows why he does anything? I wasn’t just tapped, you know, I was his very first pick. I hadn’t planned on swanning off to Florida before all this. But however the Major’s bloody power works, it made him pick me. Though I still don’t know why.”
“Or why now,” Diane added.
“Well, we can probably guess on why now. Given Nate’s age.”
“What about the rest of his choices? Sarah and Dave’s daughters?”
Ellis grinned and Diane’s heart ached for a moment at the sight of the man she once loved hidden beneath this young woman’s face. “There’s your answer already. I just wish I knew which side the Major was playing. I wish he knew, for that matter. I suppose it depends on whether the future wants us to be Heroes or Villains, eh?”
The Dean of West Private shook her head slightly and stood, somewhat disconcerted to realize she was now an inch taller than her ex-husband. “We know what the future had in store for us, Ellis. This is all new territory.”
“So we wait?” Ellis sounded annoyed but that grin lingered. “Waiting for Godot.”
“You never had the patience for the long game,” she answered, grumbling back. “None of you.”
“That’s why we had you.”
Amara’s trim, feminine form slipped into Diana’s arms and embraced her, trembling slightly. For her part, the Dean just sighed and comforted her in a way that had nothing to do with Heroes and everything to do with the married couple they’d once been. She planted a gentle kiss on Amara’s forehead and brushed away another upwelling of tears on the young woman’s face.
“You still do,” the Ringmaster said to her Hypnotist. For if they were no longer husband and wife, they still had that much.
“So it’s back to school then, is it. On with the masquerade.” Ellis squeezed Diane once more and separated, physically and emotionally. “I suppose I’m lucky. If I’m to stay part of the conspiracy to uncover our conspiracy, the only choice better than this one is Julie. Though now that I’m no longer an Advanced Mind-”
“You’ve known how to manage telepaths since our junior year in the HCP,” Diane said firmly. “Don’t be lazy.”
“Perish the thought. Right. Best be at it then. I’ll be in touch, Dee, if I need to be. Keep your head down, won’t you? You know this little attack on the Lambert Acres Crew was really aimed at you, yes?”
“I graduated from Subtlety too,” the Dean said, a bit stiffly. “I won’t rise to the bait. But we’ll all have to be much more careful from now on. Here, hold on a moment, you’ll need this.”
Walking around the front of her desk, the Dean took a seat and opened up her terminal. She pulled up Amara English’s complete file and instructed the Electric Ghost to ensure it was deposited securely and without trace in Amara’s account. Then she printed off a short sheet of paper and passed it to the young woman waiting for her.
“That’s Amara’s usernames and passwords for everything I have a record for. I’ll arrange for personal email details, bank accounts and the rest delivered to you later. In the meantime, read up on her file. You’ll need to know all this if you’re going to convincingly be her around others who already knew her.”
“Bollocks,” Ellis said, grimacing at the sheet of paper.
“Starting with the accent.”
“Yes, yes, I’ll be American like white on rice. See? Elevator. Schedule. Presto chango. I have done this before.”
“It’s not your fault, Ellis.”
The easy banter gave way to a haunted look from Amara English’s face. Then the young woman flashed a smile and shrugged before turning on one heel and walking out the door. There was nothing more to say, after all.
This was war. Finn Barnaby and Amara English were the latest casualties. But they wouldn’t be the last.