Flames lick the rooftop, destroying everything in their wake. Smoke rolls out the smashed windows, billowing toward the moon. The wail of the fire truck echoes through the narrow streets. Two minutes away, Astrid estimates. That’s two minutes too long, and the shouts from upstairs prove it. The old apartment building is on the Harbor Line, the slash that separates downtown from the Swamp. The building isn’t one of the new and upscale properties driving regentrification. It’s an eyesore. And now, a death trap; the third to go up in flames in the last month. “Help!” A voice cries three stories up. It’s not a cry but a scream. Hysterical and full of sheer panic. “I have a baby! Someone help!” There’s no hesitation; each day, they work better as a team. Quinn leaps off the ground for the first rung on the iron-work balcony, pulling himself up, level by level. Owen follows.
Slower, but improving every day. A shadow moves down the alley. Astrid looks but it fades away. Maybe the flames are playing tricks on her—or the smoke is. She touches the button on her mask and the screen comes to life. The optics allow her to view through the smoke and ash, and she can see that Quinn has reached the woman and the baby. He takes the kid—a toddler—by one arm and dangles it over the edge above Owen, a full story below. The woman screams. “Stop! No! Don’t drop her!” “Now!” Astrid shouts, into her com. He drops her.
The child falls, dropping straight down. The weight of her chubby legs anchors her as Owen leans back and masterfully catches her in both hands. He doesn’t wait before shouting, “Echo!” and glancing down at her before the bundled baby drops again. The screen records her fall, the millimeters ticking off, she’s crying, the wails clashing with the roaring fire. The mom screams while Quinn drags her roughly out the window above. A moment of panic rolls over her just before the baby lands in her hands. The drop is hard, but she cradles the child in her arms. Her face is covered in tears and soot. She wails again, terrified, and Astrid can’t take it. It’s like the screams are ricocheting in her brain.
She looks around and screams, “Someone come take this baby!” Hands grab the child, taking it away from danger just as the balcony groans. Owen jumps two stories, landing bent-kneed on two feet. He tugs her out of the way. “But Charger,” she says, watching the whole thing through the screen. The metal screws melt from the heat and the balcony pulls away from the brick. Red alert signals fill the screen in front of her eyes. “He’s got this,” Owen says, dragging me. “Don’t get in the way.” It’s something we’ve been working on. Trust.
Faith. Being sure of ourselves. Quinn grits his teeth. One minute, the woman is clinging to him, the next, she’s limp. The panic eases off her face. “Something’s wrong,” Astrid says. The warning zeroes in on the woman. RESPIRATORY DISTRESS “Charger!” He jumps wide at the same time the balcony wrenches from the building. The iron falls on the ground with an ear-shattering clatter. Quinn falls to his knees, barely holding the woman up.
Astrid is already there, removing the woman from his arms, dragging her lifeless body out of the way of the building. “I’ve got him!” Owen shouts. The woman isn’t light, but Quinn is huge. There’s no way Astrid could carry him to safety. He runs to get their teammate out of the way of the crumbling building. RESPIRATORY DISTRESS, the warning flashes over and over. Astrid lays the woman flat on the ground and tugs her gloves off her hands. Her fingers search for her pulse, her echo is faint, fading, nothing more than a shadow of the fear from before. She’s dying, and the dead don’t have an echo. Astrid rips the woman’s blouse at the neck, revealing her chest.
She begins CPR, pressing hard into her sternum. She hears the bones crack, she breathes deep into her mouth. Over and over again until the strangest sense of peace washes over her. Light. Love. Happiness. She doesn’t stop the compressions, but she fights back a sob—not of sadness but of great emotional peace. Then the woman coughs. Her body seizes, and she coughs again. The feeling drains from Astrid, vanishing like sand between her fingers.
The woman’s eyes fly open, meeting hers, and she grasps her hands before Astrid can move. Fear. Terror. Sadness. Rage. “Where’s Elena,” she asks in a raspy voice. “Where’s my baby?” “Lie down,” Astrid says, the words hard to get out over the emotions. It’s been ages since she’s touched someone like this. Felt them. And right now, there’s no way to avoid the full hit.
“My baby,” the woman cries. Astrid feels every ounce of pain. Every surge of fear. “She’s okay. She’s fine. I promise.” The little girl is in the back of the ambulance. Astrid looks up and makes eye contact with Owen. He pats Quinn on the back, who nods and runs over. “Take over,” she says, pushing the woman’s hands into his.
She stands and waves over the EMT, feeling wobbly on her feet. Not because of the fire or saving the woman’s life. But because of the curse that she carries inside of her. Astrid wanders away from the others and leans against the wall, forcing herself to breathe. Now is not the time to be overtaken by the lingering emotions. Being an empath sucks. * “Ah, shit, that hurts.” The heat of the fire was so intense, the gloves nearly melted onto Quinn’s hands. Bits of the vinyl stuck to the metal railing, ripping off the protective coating. Astrid takes his hands in hers and touches the tender skin on his palms.
“Sorry,” she says, trying to be gentle. He’s sitting on the bench in the locker room. The smell of smoke is almost unbearable to her heightened senses. Owen took their suits immediately outside. He’s sweet like that. Not always the smart-ass he portrays. It comes out in little things like taking the woman’s hands today when she was about to lose it. Removing the rank, smoky clothing so Astrid will stop gagging. Both she and Quinn are stripped down, wearing nothing but their underclothes. His melted gloves are on the floor.
“I think you’ll be okay. Just a little tender for a few days. Honestly, the gloves did a good job.” “Yeah, I’m going to need another pair.” Super suits, accessories, weapons, and tech. It’s all on the list of things they need to constantly repair and upgrade. Atticus, her mentor, created it all. But now he’s dead. Casper helped with the tech and some of the development of the protective wear, but he’s still pretty MIA too, only checking in occasionally from some bunker he’s using as a hideout. His hand slips behind her thigh and pulls her between his knees.
“You did good tonight,” he tells her. “Dude, you saved a baby. And a woman and like, six other people.” She doesn’t meet his eyes. Her emotions are still raw from the woman’s echo. She feels exposed and wraps her arms around her waist in reaction. “I didn’t do that alone.” His hands feel good against her skin; protective like a salve. She can feel the heat in them from the blisters, the pulsing of his heartbeat. She lifts her hand to run it through his hair, but the Lair door closes with a slam and she pulls away.
“These reek and are giving me a headache,” she says, bending over for the gloves. She takes them over to the work table and tosses them down, ignoring the clench of Quinn’s jaw as she wanders off. Yeah, it was a rejection. Of sorts. She glances over at Owen, who crashes onto one of the chairs with rolling feet, and props his boots on the desk. His eyes skim over her body. Exposed. Again. No wonder her skin is itching. “I’m heading upstairs to take a shower,” she declares, needing air from the churning emotions of the room.
She may not be able to read their echo, one of the side effects of being in Project 12 together, but she still has a heightened sense that she can’t shut off. And right now, things are boiling in this room like a pot about to overflow. “Need any help?” Owen offers. His smile is a lopsided quirk. Quinn slams a door in the other room. He shrugs. “Just kidding.” “You’re not helping,” she says, but in a way, it does help. He doesn’t tiptoe around the tension. She likes that about him.
Whereas Quinn…he seems to get more tense daily. Although she’s definitely found a few ways to work that out. She’s not the most experienced, but she’s spent her life around men, including a few dozen flirtatious guys in the gym. None ignite her curiosity like Quinn, and now Owen. There’s something about them that gives her a spark. “Well, the offer stands,” he says, booting up the computer. “You holler if you need another hand.” She shakes her head and leaves the Lair, wondering how long it’s going to be before she takes him up on his offer. Chapter Two Owen It’s been a month since he moved in with Astrid and Quinn, which he did because the police were looking for him in conjunction to the Pixie Dust business. According to Astrid’s contact, Jensen, taking out James gives the police and FBI the false comfort the drug trade is over—they didn’t believe a word he said about WIND-E in the chemistry lab that day, that he was nothing but a pawn in a greater scheme.
One where one of the kids from Project 12 grew up to be an evil super villain. Now that he’s here, and part of this little vigilante team, he’s trying to figure out his place. He has his own powers enhanced by the project doctors: the ability to manipulate time and space. He’s strong—not a beast like Quinn—but whatever they did to the kids brought out high levels of strength, dexterity, pain resistance, and more. He’s been working with Astrid in the gym—she trains him personally—in her spare time between training the recruits for the Elite FBI program and fighting crime in Crescent City. Currently that involves tracking down a serial arsonist. Owen glances over to the changing closet. Quinn is still in there, cleaning up from the fire. He was in rough shape but he, too, heals quickly. He’s found a spot working with Astrid in the gym, filling a role as a trainer—sometimes a manager—and then back here leading their missions.
With Casper gone, he also now handles a good deal of the tech work. That leaves Owen figuring out what to do with his time, although he has found one thing to focus on. Demetria. The Gala wasn’t his first run-in with the woman and her twisted mind. He hadn’t told Astrid or Quinn about it yet. He wasn’t sure how to, especially after they told him about their past together. It made everything even more confusing. It means Demetria knew who he was all along, but never told him. “You held your own tonight,” Quinn says, coming into the room. Owen closes out the screen filled with research on Demetria.
He spins in his seat, taking in the other man. He’s clean, free of soot, and smells like soap. If he’s annoyed by Owen’s flirting with Astrid earlier, he doesn’t look it. “Thanks. I won’t lie, it was pretty scary.” “Scary as shit,” the man agrees. “It’s one thing to face a robber or carjacker. It’s another having to help victims. I felt out of my comfort zone for sure. Anything on the trending?” Owen pulls up the early news reports.
Third Fire Engulfs the Harbor Line, Arson Suspected The search engine spits out a list of similar headlines that agree that there seems to be a trend. The police and fire have no leads, and despite all their personal efforts to track down who’s behind the fires, they’ve also got no leads. “I’d feel better out there with Casper back in the driver’s seat,” Quinn says, buckling his belt. He brushes his damp hair out his eyes and leans against the worktable. Owen spins on his chair, propping his feet up again. “Seems like he’s intent on hiding out. Is that such a big deal?” “I don’t have a problem with him being off the grid, but we’re being hunted by someone and he’s one of us. We need to take care of each other.” He holds up the melted gloves. “We also really need someone to help with repairs.
” “Yeah, I hear that.” The gloves are a mess. They each have one spare but after that… “I don’t know if you noticed, but Astrid was pretty shaken tonight. Reading that woman’s echo —it got to her.” “I noticed.” Owen just isn’t sure what he’s supposed to do to make her feel better. Cracking jokes and flirting are pretty much the only assets in his wheelhouse. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.” “I’m going to go check on her,” Quinn says, heading to the door. Their eyes meet and there’s an unspoken agreement, male and testosterone-fueled.
He needs some time alone with Astrid. “Yeah, okay, I’ll be down here keeping up with the news if you need me.” He fights a snort. Quinn definitely won’t need Owen’s help any more than Astrid did. He’s not exactly sure about the parameters of their relationship, and neither has shut down his flirtatious comments. He suspects, like everything else with their situation, they’re relying on one another and figuring it out. Owen hears his footsteps on the stairs and opens up the research page he’d been looking at earlier. If they’re going to fight Demetria, it’s going to take all the information they can get.