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[personal profile] shinealightonme
Title: The Year of the Rapture
Fandom: Leverage
Characters/Pairings: Eliot and Parker centric, gen
Rating: PG-13 for violence, language
Word Count: ~48,000
Summary: When half the world's population suddenly develops superpowers, civilization as we know it collapses. Eliot just wants to keep Parker alive, but the apocalypse is one damn thing after another.
Author's Note: written for apocalypsebang; inspired by a prompt from apocalyptothon 2011. Characterization and a few minor plot points set this as being circa the second season of the show, but canon compliance is largely rendered moot by the part where the world ends and people have superpowers.
Artwork by the amazing [livejournal.com profile] firefly1344 can be found here.


April


"Let's go steal ourselves a Loch Ness monster," Nate had said.

There was a real chance those would be the last words Nate ever said to him, and Eliot couldn't get over how stupid they were.

May


It took them a couple weeks to get back to Boston after the job went south, and the whole damn world went with it. At first Eliot stole a car, but the roads were shit and he kept promising himself that once Parker could handle it, they'd walk.

He wouldn't have minded walking so much except that made it harder to avoid other people. And Eliot quickly decided that avoiding other people was top priority during the apocalypse.

Half the people they met were afraid of them. The violent ones, Eliot could handle. It was the other ones that bothered him. The families and the crying kids and the desperate, lonely people begging Eliot not to hurt them; they kept him up at nights.

The other half the people were the ones everyone was scared of.

The first week – when Parker was still unconscious a lot, and all he knew was that buildings were exploding and streets were melting and there were tornadoes where tornadoes had no business being – that was an education.

The first changed person Eliot met was halfway through looting a grocery store, and didn't like having competition, or so Eliot gathered from the fact that he threw a lightning bolt in Eliot's face.

After Eliot had thoroughly pummeled the guy, he checked him all over for tasers, wiring, even a goddamn static-electricity balloon, anything that would explain how he'd managed to call up lightning on a cloudless day. Inside a building. There was no explanation, except that the guy kept giggling and saying he had a gift.

Eliot met the second changed person the next day, when a giant tree growing in the middle of the road forced him to pull over. He was mildly curious about how the thing had gotten where it was – it was growing up through the asphalt, pushing it aside like it was tissue paper, and he'd seen sidewalks bumpy with tree roots, but this was ridiculous. He was more curious about how he'd get around it without wrecking the car.

"Stupid, isn't it," someone said from behind him. Eliot whirled around to find a girl, twelve or thirteen at the most, looking at the tree. She was tiny, alone, and barefoot, which seemed like a horrible combination under the circumstances.

"What is?" he asked, not sure if the answer was going to be him.

"The trees," she said, in the condescending tone natural to all teenagers. "You get rid of one, like three more pop up. It's all Kevin's fault, he thinks they're so cool, never mind that there's a reason people don't have trees in the middle of buildings."

"He dug up the road?" Maybe this kid could be tracked down and made to undo it.

"The tree did. He just put it there, it did the rest. I think he just does it 'cause he got a crappy power and he's trying to make it seem cool."

The conversation had suddenly veered off into unfamiliar terrain. Eliot stumbled a bit trying to piece together a map. "He has a – power, to make trees grow."

"Yup," the girl replied. "Mine's way cooler." And without any hesitation about walking across a ruined road barefoot, she walked up to the tree, touched it, and –

– and before Eliot could blink, he was dodging shrapnel.

Eliot poked his head back over the hood of the car. The tree was gone, just a crater left where it had stood. And the girl, who was smiling like the kind of person that smiles when they explode things, what are they called again, oh right, psychopaths.

A lot of things started making more sense, though a stubborn part of Eliot's mind tried to resist. The lightning bolt to the face. The massive property damage that had put a halt to their last job and cut them off from the rest of the team. The evacuated cities. The utter lack of official response teams.

The government had contingency plans for terrorist attacks and contagious diseases and natural disasters. They didn't have any plans for an outbreak of superpowers.

He got back in the car and drove away without another word to the little girl. If he thought of her again, it was to feel a little sorry for any crook who thought she'd be an easy target.

-

At first Parker slept a lot, which seemed like an understandable reaction to the near death experience she'd had. Eliot wasn't exactly sure, then, what had happened to her, but it had hurt, and her body was helping her recover, or so he figured.

But the first days of her return to the living, waking world, she was so far removed from the Parker that he knew that Eliot started to wonder, really wonder, if something more had happened to her than her body was able to fix.

Eliot knew about medicine, enough to stitch up a guy's wound so he wouldn't bleed to death before he could get real help, enough to stitch up his own wounds, even, but he didn't know a damn thing about brains except how to check for concussions, which Parker didn't have.

Which would have been reassuring if Parker had said a single damn thing to him since the world ended.

Eliot wasn't a chatty guy, but even he found it a little off-putting how silent Parker was.

"You feeling all right?" Eliot asked Parker.

Parker looked out the window, same as she'd done the last ten miles, and the ten miles before that. It would've been less eerie if there'd been some music or something. But the radio stations were all haywire, and the ones that worked were broadcasting outdated bullshit warnings, never mind that that horse was several county lines away from that barn door by now.

"Hungry?" he tried asking an hour later.

Parker didn't say anything, but she took the jerky he passed her and ate it in quick, efficient bites. That was same as usual for Parker, anyway. Not letting the food get a chance to get away, even if it meant not appreciating the flavor.

Of course, there wasn't much flavor to appreciate in gas station beef jerky, and it was the same thing they'd had three days running.

Another hour, and Eliot thought he'd have another try at starting a conversation – might as well mention the weather, which was not quite as boring a topic these days as it once was – but he looked over at Parker and found she'd shut her eyes. He almost thought she was asleep for a moment, but her breathing was all wrong and there was a bit too much tension in her shoulders.

She was faking being asleep.

Fine, he could take a hint, and he'd never been one to pester a woman who wasn't interested in paying him any mind.

Eliot didn't think about what he'd do if Parker kept ignoring him.

-

They found a rundown motel right around sunset, so Eliot pulled over. After a second's consideration, he revved the engine and took the car up over the curb, gritting his teeth as the bottom of the car scraped along the cement.

Parker jumped a bit and looked at him. She wasn't too happy about it, but hell, at least she was looking.

"Was that really necessary?" she asked.

"Sure was," Eliot said, guiding the car between two of the motel's buildings. "Gotta park the car somewhere out of sight."

"No one's going to steal it," Parker said.

"Aren't you the one who squirrels all your shiny treasures off in hidey-holes?" Eliot asked. "Thought you were more paranoid than that."

Parker frowned. "There isn't anyone around to steal it."

Because everyone was dead. Great, she'd found some way of being even more paranoid than her usual self, and it was rubbing off on him. Eliot threw the car into park. "Come on, we gotta search the place," Eliot said. "Sooner we know it's clear the sooner we can lie down."

"It is clear," Parker said.

Eliot could have argued that they'd managed to make it here, after all, so it couldn't have been impossible for anyone else, especially not if the anyone else's in question had a boost that could help them out.

He didn't, and just let Parker lead the way into the motel.

They rummaged around behind the counter until they found keys to a couple rooms. Too bad the damn things were magnetic strips on cards, instead of actual freaking keys you could put into an actual freaking lock. Hardison could have straightened the whole thing out, but of course, they didn't have Hardison.

Parker inhaled quickly and jumped straight up like she'd heard something, or been shocked.

"Something wrong?" Eliot asked.

"You know there is," Parker glared at him.

So this was all Parker's being mad at him? He tried not to blame her, because it's not like she was so good about emotions before the whole world blew up in their faces, but he hadn't done anything except take care of her. It's not like the damn planet was his fault.

Parker smacked the room keys down on the counter and walked past him. "I can get myself into a room," she said.

Eliot let her go. He could secure the motel himself. In the good old days, they could have split up and checked the place out in half the time. Today there was no reason to think she'd do anything now but slow him down.

Eliot ran a hand through his hair, mad at himself. Basic rule of combat: you had to fight the opponents in front of you, not the ones you wanted to fight. Not the ones who were supposed to be there.

-

The next morning was a lot of the same. Parker had cooled down a little bit, maybe forgiving him for whatever it was he'd done to piss her off, but she still wasn't too friendly.

He could handle unfriendly. He'd handled a lot worse.

The car was untouched, either because Eliot'd hidden it away or because Parker's prediction was true. It didn't make a difference.

Eliot unlocked the car, and whatever else was wrong with her, Parker climbed into the passenger seat without a moment's hesitation.

They'd been driving about five miles before they saw the hitchhiker.

A ragged man on the side of the road waved them down, calm at first but more and more frantically as they showed no signs of slowing down.

Parker shot Eliot a look.

They were getting pretty close to him, now. He didn't have any luggage, but that didn't mean anything; he could have a dozen weapons hidden on him that they couldn't see from so far away, going so fast. And half the people in the world these days didn't need weapons to make trouble.

Hardison would have stopped. Sophie would have stopped.

Nate would have stopped.

Eliot stepped down on the gas pedal.

The hitchhiker waved, bigger and bigger gestures, his mouth moving with unheard yells. He stepped into what was left of the road, trying to force them to stop.

Eliot sped up.

At the last moment, the hitchhiker jumped out of the way. He kept after them, though, chasing the car as it got further and further away, until he finally fell to the side of the road.

"That wasn't very nice," Parker said.

Eliot looked at her out of the side of his eyes. She didn't look like she had a problem with any of it.

"When've I ever been nice?" he replied.

Parker hmmmed and looked out the window again.

Eliot didn't second-guess himself. But he thought, for a moment, about how nice it would've been to have some company, real company. More often than not, he felt like he was travelling alone. That wasn't what he'd signed on for this time.

Parker put her hands up to her eyes and rubbed them, like they hurt, like she was trying to scrub something out of them.

"Eliot, could you just stop talking? You're making my head hurt."

Eliot glanced at her. Everything else he'd taken in stride, but if Parker lost it on top of the rest of it...

"Parker, I ain't said ten words to you all day."

"Yes, you have," Parker said. "You won't stop talking, you said you're lonely and you said I'm a freak and you keep talking about Hardison and Sophie and Nate and I want you to stop doing that."

Eliot slowed the car, with a glance in the rearview mirror to check the hitchhiker wasn't still following them. "Parker. I didn't say any of that."

"Stop lying to me," Parker said, and there were little tears filling up in the corners of her eyes from exhaustion or frustration or both. "Stop it, stop it, stop talking," and she threw her hands over her ears.

Eliot breathed deep against the impulse to shout something. His mind whirled away, thinking about how Parker had lost consciousness that same day that half the world developed superpowers; thinking about how Parker had been ignoring him; thinking about how Parker got mad at him when he thought about the others, or thought how she was freaking him out.

Eliot thought a lot of things, and then he thought, well, shit.

And then he stopped thinking.

He'd learned, through a lot of training, how to turn his brain off. It was easier in the middle of a fight, when everything was act-react-anticipate and his body was doing most of the work, but he'd tried his hand at meditation and Zen and being one with the universe and all that, and turned his brain off.

Parker very slowly lowered her hands, relaxing into her seat in a way that she hadn't in days, and exhaled shakily.

Eliot very carefully let one thought cross his mind. Parker.

Parker looked at him.

Eliot very carefully did not think fuck.

Parker, look at my lips.

Parker lowered her gaze slightly.

You notice anything?

"How are you doing that?" Parker asked.

"Parker," Eliot spoke out loud, because some shit was just too freaky to be tolerated for too long. "Parker, I haven't been talking. I've been thinking. That's what you've been hearing."

Parker stared at him, face completely blank, for one long moment, so that Eliot thought she was going to argue with him or disagree or just refuse to accept it.

Instead, she threw open the door, rolled out onto the road, and ran off at top speed.

Eliot swore, in his mind and out loud, before throwing the car in park. He was fast, but Parker was faster and she had the lead. He ran after, not thinking for both their sakes, just feet pounding the ground as hard and fast as possible.

Parker left the main road and headed into the trees around them. Eliot was losing momentum dodging, not to mention getting smacked in the face and body with branches. He kept losing sight of her, just seeing little glimpses through the foliage.

"Parker!" he tried to yell, best as he could between breaths. It came out like a wheeze. Where the hell did she think she was going to go, anyway? And what would happen if they didn't all get back to Boston?

Eliot slowed for a split second, struck by a sudden thought. It wasn't a very nice thought, but it'd probably work. And when had he ever been nice?

Inside his own mind he hollered NATE. SOPHIE.

One of the glimpses of Parker slowed.

HARDISON. OUR CREW. BACK TOGETHER. NATE SOPHIE HARDISON –

Parker cried out and fell, best as Eliot could tell, through a bunch of underbrush.

She'd extracted herself by the time that he caught up with her, was back on her feet and off to run again, but Eliot tackled her down to the ground.

"Ow!" Parker shouted. "Get off me!"

"Not yet," Eliot said. She was punching at his arms and chest, but it wasn't anything he couldn't handle, and he let it be. She could hurt him much worse if she really wanted to. "Promise you won't run off."

"No! Go away!"

"You really want that?" Eliot asked. "You really want to be out here on your own?"

"I've done it before," Parker said.

"Not like this, Parker. No one's done anything like this before."

Parker still looked mulish, but she'd stopped hitting him.

"You going to play nice if I let you up?"

It was a long moment before Parker nodded.

Eliot got up and offered her a hand, but she pushed herself up and took several steps away from him.

"You going to be okay now?" Eliot asked.

Parker crossed her arms. "I'll be okay when it stops."

Eliot'd been afraid of something like that. "I don't know when it's going to stop. I don't know if it'll stop at all."

"Don't say that," Parker said. "It has to stop. I want it to go away."

"Parker," Eliot sighed.

"They're your thoughts," Parker continued. "Can't you control them at all?"

"I don't think this is me," Eliot said. "People all over have been starting to do all kinds of crazy shit. Blowing things up, lightning bolts...it all started that day you passed out. This is all on your end."

"So it's my fault?" she asked, voice cracking. "Parker's even crazier than before, who knew she had it in her?"

So this was Parker with insight. Great.

"Knock it off," Eliot growled. "That isn't what I meant. I'm just saying there's a lot of weird shit going on and it's not a matter of you or me being able to stop anything. You just gotta live with it."

Parker kept her gaze on the ground.

"Can't you just...stop thinking so much?" she asked.

"I can't turn my brain off all the time," Eliot said. "This is one fucked up world we're in now, I need to use everything I got."

Parker looked at him for the briefest of seconds before looking away, like he hurt her eyes.

"Come with me," Eliot said. "We'll keep going, we'll get to Boston, we'll figure things out from there."

"I can't," Parker said slowly. "Not if you're going to be thinking about them all the time."

"Okay," Eliot replied. "No thinking, no talking about any of it. We just get to Boston and wait. Good enough?"

"Yeah," Parker nodded, clutching her arms. "Yeah, that's good enough."

Eliot nodded, very solemnly, and said goodbye, really goodbye, to life before the apocalypse. "All right, then."

June


They hit the Eastern Seaboard around about the time Eliot completely gave up on the hijacked car.

It'd had its uses, especially when Parker wasn't feeling so great – he'd be damned if he'd carry a damsel in distress across several state lines, never mind that Parker was hardly a damsel – but by that point, a solid month after the world started to end, the damn thing was worse than useless. Eliot was having to baby it across so many busted roads and washed out paths that it was easier to just grab the most essential items in their packs – a lot of knives, mostly, and some food – and set off on foot.

Parker complained about this, greatly, which ticked off Eliot to no end because it wasn't like she wasn't a fan of physical exertion. He couldn't figure if this was some desire on her part to get to Boston as soon as possible, or if she felt like they were compromising their safety, or if it were some greater doubt about his ability to lead them.

"Ugh, I'm not going to overthrow you," Parker rolled her eyes. Eliot was still getting used to the way that she would respond to things he hadn't said. "Then I would be in charge, and that would be gross."

"You'd only be in charge of yourself," Eliot pointed out. "There's only two of us, and if you mutiny, I'm not sticking around."

"Well, exactly," Parker said. "Then I would have to cook. Yuck. Aren't there laws against cooking squirrels?"

"That wasn't a squirrel, Parker," Eliot growled. "It was a rabbit. Can't you even tell the difference?"

Parker waved away the question. "Fur, rodent, creepy little twitchy noses. More importantly, if we don't have the car, we have to walk the rest of the way."

So there it was. End of the world, and Parker was being lazy.

Despite being on foot and occasionally wanting to murder each other, Eliot and Parker reached Richmond by early June.

Eliot had been there before a couple of times for different jobs, and while you don't see the best of a town when you're there to beat the living shit out of someone, it was still pretty clear that these were hard times. They didn't pass a single building that had all its parts where they ought to be. And after two solid hours they hadn't passed a single human being. While they walked through suburbs Eliot tried to envision on a map, heading toward what he was pretty sure was downtown Richmond.

Eliot wasn't one for getting spooked. But the fact of the matter was that it was just damn creepy.

Parker caught his eye, and he knew that she was on just as high an alert as he was. Some things didn't need superpowers to be communicated.

-

That night was an uneventful one.

They holed up in someone's house, long abandoned from the look of it. Eliot had never been too shy about other people's personal space before, and Parker had stripped half-naked in front of him the first time they'd ever met, so he knew she didn't care too much about it.

In fact, Parker was weirdly into exploring the personal details that had been left behind. There were empty spaces on the bookshelf, empty hooks hanging on the walls, that indicated that the people who'd lived here had taken their photos and most portable memories with them, but there were other things.

Things like:

"Oh, look," Parker said, mouth full of day-old, cold squirrel meat, which Eliot had done his best with, but which Parker had still slathered with barbeque sauce she'd found in the mostly-empty pantry. "They had a baby."

Eliot left off with his examination of the master bedroom (nothing useful; lots of clothes, toiletries, crap like that) to follow her voice into the next bedroom.

Sure enough, it had a crib in it, and a mobile hanging over the crib.

Eliot wondered if the baby had developed powers. What exactly did you do with a super powered baby, especially if you didn't have superpowers to help you deal with it?

You leave the baby behind, part of him whispered.

Parker raised an eyebrow at him. "Even a super-baby can't fend for itself," she pointed out.

Eliot stopped himself thinking 'get out of my head.' Parker couldn't help herself. "I'm sure they didn't abandon the baby," Eliot growled. "We'd've found it."

Parker laughed, spitting squirrel-sandwich over the floor. Eliot wrinkled a nose at her.

"God, Parker, you ever heard of table manners?" he asked.

"Yeah," she said, talking with her mouth full. "Didn't see the point. But wouldn't that be funny?"

"Abandoned babies?"

"No, no," Parker waved a hand between the two of them, and started laughing again.

Eliot waited for her to explain herself.

"Wouldn't what be funny?" he demanded. He wanted to get back to locking down the house. He was tired.

"Oh," Parker said. "Didn't I say?"

Eliot rubbed his forehead. "No, Parker, you didn't."

Parker stopped laughing. "I thought I said."

"So?" Eliot asked.

Parker stared at him.

Eliot was suddenly more than tired, was in fact exhausted. "Parker, use your damn words!"

"I'm trying," she told him, before dropping her sandwich and hurrying out of the nursery, pushing gracelessly past him.

Eliot sighed.

Then he walked to the window and checked that the latch seemed sturdy. There was no use in running after Parker now. It could wait. They were living their whole lives now waiting for something, there was no need to hurry this.

-

Parker did that ghost thing that creeped Eliot out all the time, no matter how many times he'd seen it, where she vanished from sight and reappeared hours later without any comment.

This time, she didn't reappear until early morning, when he woke up to find her hovering over him.

"Parker," he said, opening one eye a crack. "I only let people climb over me in bed in very specific circumstances, and I don't think that's what either of us has in mind, so get off."

"The baby," Parker told him, not moving from her perch on his hips.

"What?" Eliot asked. He was pretty quick to regain his consciousness, but Parker straddling him in the pre-dawn light and talking about babies was doing strange things to his thinking process.

"That's what was so funny," Parker told him. "If they'd left the baby behind and we'd have found it. It would have been funny if we had a baby."

Okay, he could see where that was worth a chuckle, if it wasn't totally terrifying at the same time. A kid could maybe survive him for a father or Parker for a mother – maybe – but not both. "And what wasn't funny?" he asked, since that seemed the more important unsettled issue from last night.

Parker rolled off him.

"So now you get off," Eliot said. The damage was done, he was awake. "Fine, we'll get an early start. Ain't much good hanging around here, anyway."

He headed into the bathroom – the running water in this house had been the main incentive to spend the night here – and was starting to take care of business when Parker poked her head in.

At this point he couldn't even yell at Parker about giving him privacy because it felt like they hadn't had any privacy between them since, at the very latest, the week before, when she'd woken him to tell him that the dream he'd been having about Amy and the stables was too loud. At the earliest – hell, they'd never had any privacy between them.

"I thought I told you about the baby," she said.

"You just did," Eliot said.

"No, last night. I thought I told you about the baby, but I didn't. I just thought it."

Eliot wanted to run a hand through his hair but his hands were kind of occupied at the moment. "Just because you hear what I think doesn't mean I hear what you think," he told her.

"I know that," Parker huffed, then stormed off.

"You could at least shut the door!" Eliot told her.

"I've already seen your penis," she called back. "And it's not very impressive!"

Eliot finished his business with the toilet and washed his hands.

"She's just saying that 'cause she's grumpy," he told himself, before realizing that his own boundaries of what was spoken and what was thought and what was never, ever even thought were starting to get a little blurred.

-

Their progress after leaving the house was a lot slower than Eliot was really happy with, and he was even less happy about the reason why.

The roads had melted.

Not just the roads – the sidewalks, dirt paths, even stepping-stones in people's front yards. Solid surfaces all around them had been crushed down to gravel as fine as sand. Everywhere Eliot stepped was like walking on a beach.

The exception was the grass on people's lawns, but it was summer in the South and sprinklers weren't working, so grass was hard to find. This left him and Parker slogging their way through the city, working up a sweat just trying to walk without their feet being sucked into the sand.

"Who'd even do something like this?" Eliot growled at Parker.

"Someone trying to set up a trap?" Parker asked.

Eliot glared at her. That comment wasn't doing any wonders for his mood.

"Or someone who doesn't know what they're doing," Parker said. "It isn't like you haven't thought about how out of control all of these powers are."

"Yeah, well," Eliot stopped to pull his hair back, to keep it from sticking to the sweat on his face. "Figure the out of control powers can't be as bad as the powers that are under control."

They were halfway out of town when it happened. Parker knew about it before Eliot did. She stopped, tilted her head, and looked alarmed.

"What is – " Eliot asked.

"Shh!" Parker waved a hand at him.

Eliot fell silent, wondering what Parker was doing.

"I said SHH," Parker glared at him.

Eliot swore once before trying to clear his mind.

Parker's eyes moved from Eliot to a point over his shoulder. "Someone's in trouble," Parker said.

"So?" Eliot asked, trying to keep his words and his thoughts short.

"Do we help people in trouble?" Parker asked him. "Or don't we?"

There wasn't much of a chance for Eliot to consider the question. Parker had a sense of urgency in his voice that said this was a time-sensitive matter, and he was still trying not to think too much. His answer came mostly from instinct.

"Where are they?"

Parker pointed and led the way, running as best she could in the sand-like streets.

Eliot followed.

It was a few minutes' hard slog before Eliot could hear the trouble. It disturbed him, a little, to think that Parker had heard this with her mind from so far away.

And then he didn't have time to worry about Parker, because he was in the thick of things, soreness in his muscles and tightness in his lungs forgotten at the sound of a child screaming.

With a last burst of speed, he was able to push his way through the morass sucking at his feet, jump over a fence, and round a building.

He took a second to slow down, but didn't come to a complete stop; he didn't want to lose his momentum, just wanted a chance to understand the situation he was running into.

The situation didn't look good, but it took him a second longer than he'd've liked to realize why. There were a couple kids crying, which was always a bad sign, and there were some distressed men and women who could have been the parents of the crying kids, but it took a few seconds more to realize why anyone why crying, why anyone was distressed.

It's not like he traveled in the best of crowds before all this, but at least in his line of work, when someone was hurting someone else, you could tell.

The whole thing came to a point with a child – three or four, androgynous in long hair and green overalls – who was standing perfectly still in the middle of the road.

Lacking anything else to pinpoint as a problem, Eliot focused on the kid. Kids didn't stand still, at all, but especially not when everyone around them was freaking out and crying. This kid should have been crying, too.

He pumped his legs faster, came back up to speed, not knowing what he was supposed to do except knowing something was wrong and he had to get to this kid.

"ELIOT!" Parker bellowed. "STOP!"

And there was one other thing he knew.

Whatever was wrong with Parker – whatever crap she said about his penis, whatever personal boundaries she didn't have, whatever insanity she was going through with her mind-reading – if she told him to stop, he would stop.

The soft surface underfoot was actually a blessing here, letting him drop his speed much faster than he'd have been able to on cement. Eliot screeched to a halt a few feet away from the kid in front of him, startling kids and grown-ups alike who had no idea where he'd come from.

Surprise bought him a few seconds of grace from the strangers around him, a buffer while they decided if he was a danger they had to do something about. Those seconds were enough to notice what was wrong with the kid in front of him.

It was pale. Not just pale; translucent. Eliot could see the lines on the street behind it – only very faintly, but he shouldn't have been able to see them at all.

Parker caught up with him, breathing hard, and grabbed onto his elbow. "Don't touch it," she warned him. "That would be a bad thing."

"What the hell happened?" Eliot asked.

His grace period had worn off. One of the men standing around the child, who was holding a baby with a pink bow on its head, held out his free hand toward Parker and Eliot. The hand shook. "Step back," he croaked. "Or else."

"Else what?" Eliot asked.

"He could hurt you," Parker said, then frowned. "But he probably couldn't."

"Yeah, most people couldn't hurt me," Eliot told her.

"No, I mean, he's one of," Parker waved her hands vaguely, and while Eliot got what she meant, he had no idea what context she was putting it in. He was one of the powerful? He was one of the fucked up? He was one of them? He was one of us? "But he can't control it very well."

"I don't care if he can shoot lasers out his ass," Eliot told Parker, than locked eyes with the man, who had a very familiar look in his eyes. It was the look of a man pushed beyond his limits. This guy could be very, very dangerous, but only unintentionally. "I'm not here to hurt the kid," Eliot told him. "We heard something going on."

The guy licked his lips. "Jamie just – froze," he said. "Why did he – you did something."

"No, I really didn't," Eliot said. "We're just passing by."

The guy looked over at the other adults he was traveling with, who'd mostly huddled together to form a wall to protect the rest of the children. Whether that wall was supposed to protect the kids from Eliot, or frozen Jamie, or the man with the baby, Eliot had no idea.

"No one passes by here," the guy said. "Not since they took it over."

"They who?" Eliot asked.

Parker grabbed his arm and pointed.

At first he thought she'd forgotten she needed to actually say words, again, but then he realized that she really, really didn't need to.

A woman appeared in front of Jamie – just appeared, out of the air, between one moment and the next. Or that wasn't quite right – that was what Eliot's eyes were trying to tell him, because they didn't like what they'd seen. But Eliot was used to beating his body to his will, and he knew, after a moment's honest introspection, that there had been a split second of transition as the woman went from fully translucent to fully opaque, like a chameleon. Like a ghost.

"Eliot," Parker whispered. "This is not a nice woman."

Because he'd needed someone to tell him that. Because it wasn't like he could see for himself how she was looking at the frozen child, like it was a piece of meat.

"Back off," the woman said.

"Why don't you step off, first?" Eliot asked her. "You see, I'm not a big fan of people telling me what to do."

The woman look at him in a way that sent shivers up Eliot's spine.

On the plus side, if she was looking at him, she wasn't looking at Jamie or the baby or any of the rest of them.

"Don't let her touch you," Parker told him.

"I can fight her," Eliot shot back.

"No," Parker said. "Don't even let her touch you."

Eliot shrugged quickly, like the urgency in Parker's voice wasn't alarming. "Shouldn't be too hard."

That was when the woman turned translucent again.

Well, shit.

Eliot's had his share of scrapes in the dark, underground, and one very memorable time in a sensory deprivation tank. But this was twice as hard. It was a bright summer's day in Richmond and his eyes wanted to look around him.

It was hard to focus on your hearing when your sight was doing such a great job.

There was a padding sound, coming up quickly from the left, but not so quickly that he couldn't hear it coming and dodge it.

There. The woman was leaving footprints. For the first time in an hour, Eliot was grateful for whatever misguided person had turned the ground around them into sand.

Except pretty much the second he figured that out, and dodged, the footsteps stopped appearing.

Jamie was standing in the middle of someone's front lawn, grown over with crab grass that gave nothing away.

"Shit," Eliot said, trying to listen, but the kids behind him were sniffling, the adults were trying to use the distraction to get away, but Jamie's dad with the baby was having none of it – why couldn't they stop arguing so loudly – why did it have to be so bright –

Something attacked him from behind.

Eliot almost committed murder before he realized what had happened. Parker had jumped him from behind, legs around his waist like he was giving piggyback rides at a damn sleepover party, and had her arms tangling their way around his neck.

He gave a second thought, then a third, to the whole "committing murder" idea before asking, "What the hell are you doing?"

"Helping you," Parker said. Her tiny, quick hands covered his eyes. "There, now you can't see."

"Thanks a lot," Eliot grumbled. "I could've just closed them, you know. And then I wouldn't be off-balance."

Parker jerked his head to the right, like he was a horse being broken to the rein. "That way!"

Because Eliot wasn't stupid, he listened to the warning and dodged right before continuing his argument. "Can you hear her?" he asked. "You know, in your way?"

He was still having a hell of a time talking about 'telepathy' out loud.

"Not specific words," Parker said. "She's gone kind of feral. But I can sense her. Can't you?"

"No, Parker, I can't," Eliot snapped.

Parker elbowed him forward, and Eliot reluctantly obliged.

"Funny," Parker said. "She hates you so much I thought even you'd be able to feel it."

"Not helpful, Parker," Eliot told her.

"I'm just – "

"Quiet," Eliot growled, because if she was going to be blinding him, he ought to at least be listening.

He heard the faintest of rustles from behind him, in time to duck low, below the arms that were reaching for him.

The invisible woman tripped over him, banging her legs not only on him, but on Parker, as well, or so he judged from the "oof" that escaped Parker.

"We okay?" he asked the woman on his back.

"Not dead yet," Parker reported back.

He thought about asking aloud, but didn't want to give anything away to the woman trying to catch them. So, much as he hated it, he gritted his teeth and thought, loudly What's our endgame here, Parker?

Of course, the problem with this form of communication was that it was strictly one way.

Parker squeezed his torso more tightly between her legs, just for a second, in a way that he figured was supposed to be comforting.

Hell, it was all he had. He'd take it.

Eliot heard the woman coming for them from the left, and his instincts told him to dodge right, but just as he tensed his legs to move, Parker pulled his face left, toward their attacker.

His hesitation lasted only a fraction of a second.

What the hell. She was on his back, covering his eyes, fingers practically up his nose at this point. He might as well do what she said.

Eliot moved left.

He could feel the air in front of him move as the woman passed right in front of him.

That's when Parker's foot lashed out from his side and made rough, glancing contact with the invisible woman.

"Kicking? Really?" Eliot demands.

Parker slaps a hand over his mouth.

If the plan was just to kick her, Eliot grumbled, not even sure if he was meaning for Parker to overhear him. Of course, she did hear, if the way she hissed in his ear was any indication.

Then there wasn't much time for them to bicker, out loud or not. The woman was hanging back, but nearby. Thinking.

She already had too many advantages here. Eliot couldn't give her any time to figure out a strategy, too.

Listening carefully, sensing as best he could from the light breeze around him, he figured out roughly where she was standing and charged for her.

Parker had warned him off touching the woman, but they'd both grazed her and as far as Eliot could tell that hadn't ended in disaster yet.

Eliot believed Parker's warning, but there must have been a reason, and whatever that might be, it seemed like he could chance it.

"Skin," Parker hissed in his ear.

Eliot was a little preoccupied with trying to wrestle with someone he couldn't see while a crazy woman hung off him and shoved her hands all over his face.

From the sound of it, the woman had dodged left. Eliot dodged with her.

"Why couldn't you wear gloves?" Parker demanded.

"It's 100 degrees out," Eliot snapped, before he got what she was saying. Not don't let the woman touch him – don't let the woman touch his bare skin.

"Obviously," Parker whispered. Well, excuse Eliot for being distracted because he was fighting for his life, and also for not having psychic powers, since that was a thing he had control over.

Parker wasn't finished with her diatribe. "You want to end up like that kid?"

And then Eliot had an idea.

"Ooh, that could work," Parker told him, slapping the side of his face gently. "Make that happen."

Of course, now that he had a plan – which was essential – and had Parker on board for it – which really wasn't – the woman had slipped out of his senses again.

"You see her?" Eliot asked Parker, for lack of a better word.

Parker chewed her lip. Eliot didn't have to see to know it; her lip was about three centimeters from his ear and he could hear it, which he really could have happily lived the rest of his life without. "No," Parker said.

"You heard them all from several blocks away," Eliot pointed out. "What's different now?"

"They were upset," Parker said. "They were loud. And they still are, which doesn't make it any easier."

Eliot reached up and pushed Parker's hands from his eyes. "Maybe she's gone," he said. "Any case, I don't need you climbing on my back like a monkey. I need my balance."

"Please, your balance is fine," Parker said, not budging from his back. "I know where I'm – "

There was a horrible, primal sound from behind them. A terrific wail, one that knew no words and no mercy.

The baby.

Parker let out a wail of her own, nearly as terrible, and threw her hands over her ears, chanting "stop it, stop it, stop it."

Eliot couldn't spare her any sympathy. He whirled around – Parker nearly fell off, so with a grimace he grabbed her legs tight – and ran for the man holding the baby.

The man who had been holding the baby; the crying, helpless baby was now floating in the air while its father gaped at it, frozen and useless.

When Eliot looked at the baby, he had a terrible moment's thought that it was starting to become pale.

Eliot lowered his head and charged, like a defensive linesman, like a battering ram, for where the invisible woman must be.

He made contact.

His ears rang with the pain of impact, but not so much that he couldn't hear the woman's gasp, not so much that he couldn't feel her fall back onto the ground.

She dropped the baby as she fell.

Parker caught it, and immediately dropped it again.

Well, lucky the ground was soft.

Eliot picked the child up and shoved it into its father's arms, where it continued to cry, no more quietly than before but less terribly.

"Parker," Eliot growled. He turned his face to look at her. He didn't have much of a view from this angle, but he could see tears leaking out the sides of her face like she didn't even know they were there. "I need your shirt."

Parker looked confused. There really must be too much noise for her if she couldn't tell what he needed it for. But she stripped it off and handed it to him without a moment's hesitation.

Eliot ripped it in half and wrapped each half around his hands. Not perfect, but it would have to do.

With his makeshift gloves, Eliot grabbed for the invisible woman as she tried to crawl away and dragged her toward the frozen child. She left the most satisfying trail behind her in the sand.

Hoping this would work and having absolutely no reason to believe it would, Eliot reached blindly down the woman's arm until he found her hand, then reached out with it to touch the frozen child.

Eliot didn't have a lot of expectations about what would happen when he did this, which was good, because they would have been frustrated.

Nothing happened.

At least not at first.

He waited a few seconds, then a few seconds more, and nearly dropped the woman and gave up except for the fact that she was completely, utterly still in his grasp. She had completely stopped moving, and that had to mean something.

Well, that and Parker slapped his shoulder a half-dozen times saying, "Wait, wait, wait! It's working."

He didn't know exactly what was working until he started to see the outline of the woman in his hands. She was becoming visible again, slowly, like dropping milk into a cup of coffee and watching the whole thing bleed outwards.

"Jamie!" the kid's father cried, running forward to grab the child.

"Stop," Eliot said, holding up one hand to stop the man. He didn't want to risk interfering with whatever was happening here; it was a mystery enough without interrupting the thing halfway through.

But with his prompting, Eliot changed his attention from the invisible woman to the frozen child. The change there was harder to notice. The kid's father must have had even sharper eyes than Eliot, or else he was just highly motivated. Sure enough, the kid was slowly losing his ghostly translucence and rejoining the living world.

That's what Eliot thought, anyway. And sure, the woman and the kid both became fully visible again.

But then they both collapsed.

"Jamie?"

This time Eliot let the man barrel over him to scoop up his fallen child. The connection had been broken anyway, and the woman didn't look like she was going to be a threat to anyone for a while, at least.

"What now?" Parker asked.

"Same as before," Eliot said. "We hit the road."

"I meant for her," Parker asked, nudging the formerly invisible woman with her foot. She didn't move.

"She's out for now," Eliot said. "She won't stop us."

"We can't just leave her to wake up and make more trouble," Parker argued.

"I don't know if you've noticed this, but law and order isn't working the way it used to," Eliot said. "There is no prison to send her to. We can't short her stocks or steal her artwork or do anything to punish her except kill her."

"So are we going to kill her?" Parker asked. Casually, like they were talking about dinner plans. Like there weren't a bunch of impressionable little children around them who were already traumatized.

"No," Eliot said.

"So she gets away with it," Parker said.

"We don't have a lot of options here, Parker."

"We have to have at least one more."

Eliot looked around them. The area they were in didn't look too highly trafficked and they hadn't seen anyone in Richmond all of the day before, but there was no telling for sure. This group had come from somewhere, and so had the asshole that turned the ground into soup.

But it would have to do.

"We leave her here," Eliot said. "Tie her up. Leave her to the elements. It'll slow her down, anyway. She won't come after us again."

Parker didn't smile. And Parker smiled at train wrecks and parking tickets and drunken clowns, she'd smile at any damn thing.

"She'll come after someone."

"Yeah, well, let's just be sure they've got the advantage on her when that happens?"

Parker was reading his mind. Of course she was. And she didn't smile at the ideas Eliot had for how to do that. But she did nod.

"Thank you, thank you so much," one of the women who had been guarding the children ran up to Eliot and threw her arms around his neck. "Whoever you are, thank you, you saved Jamie – "

"It's all right," Eliot said, patting the woman on the back as she did that funny breathing thing some women did before they cried. Sure, he didn't know her and she'd interrupted his planning how best to incapacitate an unconscious woman he'd captured, but that didn't mean he had to brush her off.

Parker's eyes flew open, comically wide, and she backpedaled away from the mess of emotion that was the woman hugging Eliot – as well as the rest of the group, children, men, and women, who were converging on them with thanks and questions and more than a few tears. All of them except Jamie, who was still unconscious, and Jamie's father.

"We're just passing by," Eliot explained to the question that he'd heard several people asking. "We heard the trouble and came to see what we could do."

"We didn't think people still had that sort of Good Samaritan spirit anymore," someone said. Eliot turned to see a squirrelly-looking guy squinting at him like he couldn't see properly – which he probably couldn't. Eliot didn't think there were a lot of optometrists making glasses these days.

"Yeah, well." Crying women he could handle. Half a dozen awed children looking up at him like he was some kind of superhero, not so much. "That's just how my mama raised me."

"What's your name?" one of the kids asked. There were still tear tracks on her face, cutting through smudges of dirt that Eliot guessed had been there for days, but she didn't look upset. Kids bounced back from things so fast it gave him whiplash just watching.

"Eliot."

"Eliot," he heard Parker hiss at him.

Had she really wanted him to lie? What was the point? He turned to express his emotions with a facial gesture and maybe a few hand gestures if the kiddies weren't looking too closely – not that that was necessary for him to express himself to her, but habits were soothing – and realized what she was really getting at.

One of the kids had sidestepped him, walked up to Parker, and glommed onto her leg. Parker tried to shake the kid off her leg, then to leave him behind by walking backwards, but it was no use. The kid just giggled and clung harder.

Parker had a look that Eliot usually saw on her face when gold depreciated in value.

"Whoa, hey now, buddy," Eliot said. "That's my friend Parker, she's kind of shy. Can you do me a big favor and give her a little elbow room there?"

The kid looked thoughtfully at him, but apparently whatever fun was had in doing a favor for a hero was less exciting than clinging to the unwilling blonde, because he turned away again.

"Leslie," one of the older kids came up and, though some kind of black magic only older siblings know, managed to separate the barnacle from Parker's leg. Parker nearly shot up the nearest tree, either out of relief or to keep the kid from changing its mind. "Come here. You gotta be nice to people, especially kickass people."

"Hazel!" someone's mother gasped.

Eliot figured if they were worrying about the kid's language, the crisis must have really passed. They were settling back in, remembering that they were people with lives and children and moral values, and not just herd animals. There was just the woman to deal with – which Eliot would do out of sight of the kids – and the still unconscious Jamie, which he couldn't do anything about.

His work was done.

Hazel's mom came and pulled her and Leslie away, but almost casually, like they were bothering the guests and needed to be tucked into bed, not like they were snatching them up to protect them from harm. She dropped Leslie off with one of the teenagers in the group and had whispered words with some of the other adults. It didn't escape Eliot attention that the teenagers were included in the conversation. Looked like childhood just got shorter. It also didn't escape his attention that they were talking about him and Parker. He thought about asking Parker what they were saying, but decided against it. He'd know soon enough, and they didn't look like a threat. He kept his focus on his captive.

Hazel's mom and two of the other adults came over Parker and Eliot's way.

"Thank you for what you did," Hazel's mom started.

"Don't mention it," Eliot said.

"You aren't staying in Richmond, are you?" she asked.

"Just passing through."

"Good." She wetted her lips nervously. "It hasn't been – stable here, lately."

"You folks got somewhere to go?" Eliot asked.

Hazel's mom looked surprised at the questions. "Zachary's got a place in Vermont. We think..." She didn't need to finish. "You?"

"Trying to make it to Boston," Eliot said.

"We'd love it if you came with us," she said all at once. "We owe you so much, after what you did for us, and we're not sure if we can repay it, but we've got some food, and some supplies." She gestured to the woman on her left, who opened a small knapsack. "It'd be company for the road, if nothing else."

The offer seemed legitimate, and in emphasis, the woman with the knapsack pulled out a flannel shirt and stepped forward to offer it to Parker.

Some company couldn't hurt, though all those helpless children and families would probably just be targets that Eliot had to protect.

Of course, if he didn't protect him, likely no one would.

Eliot looked at Parker to get a read of how she felt.

Parker was giving the woman with the flannel shirt the same skittish horse look that she usually reserved for – well, horses.

"Here," the woman said. "I know it's hot now, but you'll probably need it sooner or later."

She went to drape the shirt over Parker's shoulders.

Parker flinched.

Oh, Eliot didn't like that flinch. That flinch just spelled all kinds of problems for his life. Eliot didn't want his life to have any more problems in it.

The woman with the flannel shirt paused, shirt half-draped over Parker's skin, hands lingering against her shoulders. "Are you okay?"

"Just drop it," Eliot growled at her, then belatedly added, "Miss." There was no need to take his frustrations out on her.

The woman scrambled away from Eliot like he breathed fire.

"What wrong with you now?" Eliot asked Parker, stepping close and speaking under his breath. There was no need to alert the strangers of any weaknesses – not anymore so than they already had. Parker was staring at them all, eyes wild, darting from one person to another without ever coming to a stop. It wasn't a look of someone who felt safe. It wasn't the look of someone stable.

"There's so many of them," she whispered back at him.

"Yeah, well, we dealt with kids before," he told her.

"They touched me," she whined.

"You stabbed a guy with a fork once," Eliot reminded her. "I'd think you could handle a little hugging."

Parker shook her head. "It's so much louder when they touch me."

Looked like a 'feel better' hug was off the table, then.

"What about when they keep their hands to themselves?"

"There's still so many of them."

"You didn't seem to mind. Before."

"She distracted me," Parker looked down at the unconscious woman with something that was almost like fondness.

"So do you need something to distract you?" Eliot asked her. "Or you need to get out of here?"

Parker looked Eliot in the eyes. He had no idea what she was looking for, but she didn't find it. Her eyes kept sliding off his and lingering toward the families behind them, who were starting to mumble amongst themselves. Starting to worry.

"Let's get out of here," Eliot said, walking around Parker.

July


Eliot'd had the idea that things would change when they reached Boston.

Well they'd reached Boston a week ago and the only that that'd changed was the humidity had ratcheted up a few degrees.

They hit up the office, the bar, all the old haunts, and found them all deserted. Eventually they holed up in the offices, which didn't have power or water but had the advantage of being a nice location and easily defensible.

The former was useful for scavenging, though if Eliot'd had his choice he wouldn't have come into a city. There was more in the way of food and water to be had out in the countryside, and fewer chances you'd have to fight someone over it.

The latter was useful when a couple of thugs broke into the place at the crack of dawn.

Eliot was already awake before the door'd finished swinging open, which meant he really got to appreciate the screams of terror and pain that followed shortly after.

It was three against one – Parker was around somewhere, surely – but the three weren't nearly a third as good as Eliot. They were mostly running off aggression and desperation, not any sort of training or conditioning.

Maybe that meant they should be pitied, but fuck, Eliot'd been having a dream about French cuisine and candlelight and a sultry brunette, and he was all out of pity for guys who picked a fight with him.

He'd gotten one of them down to the floor for good and was about to take out the second when Parker dropped out of nowhere, landed on the guy's back, and grabbed him in a chokehold.

Eliot gaped at her. "Where the hell did you come from?"

"Up!" Parker answered. She was a little preoccupied.

"Up – on the ceiling? Were you on the ceiling?" Eliot batted away a few punches from the third thug and looked up to double check, but sure enough, there weren't any kinds of handholds up there. Just smooth plaster. "Is that some new trick of yours?"

"Old trick!" Parker said. "Very old!"

So just usual Parker being weirdness, then, and not anything he had to worry about, or not anything he had to worry about too much.

Eliot turned his attention back to the third man, with every intention of taking him out, but found that the guy had stopped moving. Stopped breathing.

Eliot was out the front door before he could consciously process what was happening. Which had the side effect of surprising Parker for the first time in months.

It had the greater effect of putting him face to face with another five guys. And these ones gave every sign – posture, build, demeanor – of being a lot tougher than the first three.

"Eliot, stop!" Parker yelled, chasing after him.

"Why?" he asked. "Are they toxic, too?"

"No, they're just, they're not, I think they're just here to talk."

"They invaded our home, Parker," Eliot said, and realized for the first time how mad he was. He was furious. "What am I supposed to do?"

"You could try saying thank you," one of the newcomers said. "We just finished those guys off for you."

"Not something we had a problem with," Eliot spat.

"Yes, I suppose you can protect your own little cave," the guy continued. He had an earring and a soul patch and Eliot decided to hate him. "But we had nothing to do with them, so you can dial your aggression back just a tad."

"My aggression? That guy in there's not breathing."

"Isn't he? Chad," the guy gestured at one of the men standing behind him. "You can let him go now, he's probably learned his lesson."

Chad nodded, and a second later, the third thug could be heard, gasping and wheezing from inside the apartment, before he stumbled out the door. When he spotted the assembly in front of him, he ran back inside and – if Eliot was hearing correctly – jumped out a window.

"Cute," Eliot said. "You're big show of strength doesn't impress me."

"It's supposed to terrify you."

Eliot crossed his arms and looked his most threatening. "I don't scare easy."

He could have stood, toe to toe, with that jackass for the rest of the day if one of the posse hadn't pointed straight to Parker and said. "Forget the goon – she's the one we want."

No. Eliot wasn't letting anyone 'want' Parker.

Except Parker had a little say in that too, didn't she? "Wait."

"I don't like this," Eliot told her.

"I know," Parker said. "But these guys know something. Or they know someone who knows a lot of things. And I think – I think they really do just want to talk."

"So talk," Eliot said.

"In this rat hole?" his new least favorite person asked. "No. We're just the welcoming committee. You need to see Court."

"Who's Court?"

Parker shrugged. "He's the leader. Obviously."

Right, because she was so astute before she had magical powers.

"And what's this Court want to talk about?"

"Isn't it obvious?" the welcoming committee asked. "New world order."

-

The goons led Eliot and Parker through the half-familiar streets of Boston without paying much attention to Eliot.

They did keep trying to strike up conversations with Parker, but that was a dicey proposition at the best of times. She'd chat with them for ten minutes about jewelry appraisal – what passed as small talk, for her – then shut down cold on them when they asked anything normal, like where she was from. And once or twice she'd say something that didn't have anything to do with anything. Eliot didn't know if she was responding to things they were thinking but hadn't said or if that was just her doing small talk.

Eliot was weirdly jealous that Parker was listening to other people's thoughts, and then decided that he really needed to change something about their living situations if that was an actual feeling he'd just had.

He did think, loudly as he could, don't let them know you can read their minds, but didn't have a clue whether she'd heard. Anyway, she wasn't an idiot, so that'd probably occurred to her already. It was just that she couldn't reliably tell what someone had said and what they'd just thought...

"Boston doesn't look too bad," Parker mused. "Half the places we passed getting here looked like crap."

"This ain't exactly Paradise," Eliot said, eyeing a four-story apartment complex they were walking past. Vines ten inches in diameter had climbed up the sides of it, punched holes through the walls, and were well on the way to reducing the building to a pile of rubble.

"Better than Tampa," Parker said.

They hadn't come through Tampa.

"Of course it's better than Tampa," one of the guys snorted. "We've got Court looking after things."

"What've you been seeing?" another guy asked Parker.

"Mostly just ruins," she said. "We were holed up at the start of all this, I didn't see a lot of it go down."

"You'll get your chance," the guy told Parker.

So yeah. They were those kind of douche bags.

They wound up taking Parker and Eliot to City Hall. If there'd been pedestrians on cell phones, honking cars stuck in traffic, and some food carts parked outside, Eliot almost could have mistaken it for a year ago. Parker did have a point – Boston was in much better shape than most of the places they'd been.

Eliot was pretty sure he knew where this was going, so he wasn't surprised at all when the two goons led them into the mayor's office. Typical power-hungry despot, trying to make himself look legitimate. As the swivel chair behind the desk turned around and Eliot got his first look at Court, it took all his discipline not to punch the guy in the face.

Court had the smug, longhaired, clean-shaven face of a twenty-something who thinks he knows better than everyone else in the world despite having seen absolutely nothing of the world. He was also dressed in a suit. An expensive one, that was somehow still in perfect condition, but was clearly meant for someone a couple sizes bigger than him.

"Well, well," Court said, placing his hands in front of him on the desk and standing up slowly. "It looks like I have visitors in my town."

"Boston isn't your town," Eliot said.

Court's goons glared at him, but the man himself just laughed. He had charisma, which might have worried Eliot if Parker were the kind to fall for that, or even notice its existence. "A figure of speech," he said.

"You're living in City Hall," Eliot pointed out.

"I need to live somewhere. Wouldn't you agree?" There was a shift – subtle, but definite – as Court focused his attentions away from Eliot and onto Parker. Of course, Eliot didn't have to feel too neglected since he had two flunkies breathing down his neck, all but begging him to do something they could beat him up for.

"I'd pick somewhere with a bed," Parker said. If she noticed anything weird going on, she didn't show it. "And maybe a shower."

"Perhaps you're right," Court said. "Though we've made some improvements on the original layout here. If you'd like to stay with us, I can promise you'll be made comfortable."

Parker wrinkled her forehead. "Why would we want to stay with you?"

Eliot thought he saw a crack in Court's good temper, at that, but it was gone in a second. "I like to take care of my friends."

Parker honest-to-God looked behind her to see if there was someone else in the room he was talking too, like she was a character in a fucking Bugs Bunny cartoon. Even for Parker, that was too much, which was Eliot's first definite clue that she was playing along. "Us? You don't know us. And your flunkies weren't too polite in bringing us here."

"I apologize for that." Said flunkies shifted to hear their boss say this, and Eliot got the idea that they were going to be in trouble later. It was the first thing that'd made him really happy all day. "But their reasons were solid. I did make it clear to them how important it was to find you."

"Why?" Eliot asked.

Court spared him only the shortest glance. "I like to keep tabs on people like you," he told Parker. "There's so many of us these days, but so few who really know what's happening to them. Running around in the wild, everyone on their own, doesn't give us the chance to really learn what we can do, who we are."

"What if they don't want to learn from you?" Eliot asked again.

"You're welcome to leave, if you like." That, at least, Eliot believed whole-heartedly, assuming that Court was directing it only at him and not at Parker. How he knew Parker had her weird little talent, there was no telling, but he knew. "But I'd ask you to at least give us a try. After all, who benefits from continued ignorance?"

Parker blinked. "The government?"

Court laughed again, which just went to show that he knew less about Parker than he thought. "And we don't have one of those to worry about anymore."

"All right," Parker said, bounding over to Eliot and throwing her arms around him. "We'll stay!" The arms around his sides squeezed all the air from his lungs before he could protest. "Won't we, Eliot."

"It'd be a pleasure," Eliot grunted, somehow.

Court didn't look like he bought Eliot's response for a second, but he seemed won over by Parker's enthusiasm, and that was probably what was going to matter in the long run.

Eliot just hoped that the long run didn't end up being any too long.

-

"You mind telling me what we're doing here?" Eliot asked, quietly as he could manage, the moment he and Parker were left alone in their new digs – some poor schmuck's office, retrofitted to a guest suite.

"I was hoping on finding a shower somewhere," Parker said. "You're kind of stinky by now." She laughed, and grabbed his hands, forcing him to dance around the room with her. "Stinky Eliot!"

From which he guessed she didn't want to talk, or it wasn't safe to talk, or both.

He did go find a shower, anyway. His pride could only take so much.

-

He never did learn the names of any of Court's ever-changing band of groupies, but that was fine; none of them expressed the slightest interest in Eliot, beyond occasionally looking like they'd enjoy wringing his neck, not that that worried him.

All of them were interested in Parker, which worried him constantly.

None were so interested in Parker as the man himself, who, over the course of the next few days, would constantly stop by their rooms, or just happen to run into them on the streets around City Hall, or drop off invitations for Parker and Eliot to dine with him.

Mostly Court and Parker made innocuous small talk, or the closest thing that Parker could manage. Eliot wasn't terribly surprised the second night at dinner when Parker started ranking national banks by their security measures in exhaustive detail. He was just bored, since he'd heard that lecture several times before.

Most of the rest of the conversation came down to Court trying to figure out what Parker could do, exactly. And, props to the crazy girl, she managed to never give him a straight answer, exactly.

"Melt people," she told Court one time, holding out her fingers toward him, wiggling them, and making an 'ooooh' noise. "Just turn their skin and bones to liquid, with the guts running out – "

Court's lackeys took several alarmed steps forward from where they were lingering, trying to pretend they weren't bodyguards.

"She's joking," Eliot scowled at them.

"Well, maybe I could melt someone," Parker pouted. "I've never tried before. Who wants to be my guinea pig?"

The world was just weird enough these days that no one volunteered.

Another time, she managed to put Court off with a lot of vague talk about "aren't we all special, really?" that somehow ended up with her crying on Eliot's shoulder about some bullshit incident involving being passed up in high school for the gymnastics team, which Eliot knew was bullshit because Parker didn't care about teams and hadn't gone to high school.

On the other hand, they never managed to figure out what, exactly, Court could do. And if it was something that could make the endless stream of lackeys – one of whom could stop a man from breathing – obey him, Eliot figured they'd be better off finding out sooner rather than later.

One of the upshots of Court being so enchanted with Parker was that Eliot had a fair amount of time to wander and do his own thing. It only took him a few hours to get the feel for Court's business model. The lackeys went out looking for anyone who had anything good and took it from them, with a side business in kidnapping people, if he and Parker were anything to go by.

No one had been dragged back to City Hall since the two of them, but that made sense. It'd been a few months since Court's highly touted 'new world order.' Whoever they hadn't managed to dig up in that time was probably doing a pretty good job staying underground.

There was one more aspect of Court's set up that took Eliot a little too long to figure out.

"Hey," a might hand clamped down on Eliot's shoulder from above, wrenching him out of the doorway he'd been heading toward. "You're not allowed in there."

"Just looking around, man," Eliot said. "Since I'm a guest here."

The man who'd stopped him – who didn't look like he'd need any kind of enhancements to be able to make Eliot's life more difficult – crossed a pair of very impressive arms over his chest. "You're not allowed in there."

"See they keep you around for your brain, big guy," Eliot bared his teeth.

The guy didn't take the chance to pummel him. Apparently there was some commitment, however mild, to keeping up the pretense that Eliot was a welcome guest in Court's City Hall.

Eliot didn't push the issue any further. If there was anything of value to be found in City Hall, he wasn't going to find it with a couple watchful eyes and biceps hovering over him.

He took to investigating Boston by himself, leaving Parker to discover whatever there was to find at City Hall. The weather was still humid and gross, but being out from under those watchful eyes felt refreshing, and he had a mission.

There had to be people in Boston besides Court and his thugs – there were the guys who'd tried to rob them, plus whoever Court's buddies were stealing from. There had to be others. Eliot was going to find those others and get them to share everything they knew about what'd happened in Boston since April.

That was the plan, anyway.

After two days of walking – stopping by the old offices twice, but there wasn't any sign of anyone having been there in their absence – Eliot hadn't seen another living soul.

Once, he could have sworn he heard footsteps behind him, but there was no one there.

-

Eliot returned to City Hall in a bad mood. He'd been wanting to punch someone for days now, and seeing Boston turned into a ghost town wasn't doing any wonders for his mood.

"Where've you been?" one of Court's goons asked as he returned. Eliot was good about remembering faces, but he'd have remembered this guy anyway; the man was 6' 4" and had a skull tattooed on his forehead, which had to be one of the worst decisions Eliot had ever seen.

"Went for a walk," Eliot growled. "Ya'll can stop worrying and going back to kissing Court's ass."

By this point, it didn't even feel like picking a fight. Eliot was so used to everything he said in this building being treated with condescension and dismissal.

It wasn't much of an excuse for being caught off guard. But it was the best he could offer for why the thug was able to land a solid, skin-splitting punch to Eliot's left cheek, with another landing on his torso.

Eliot reeled, the smack of the wall against his back waking him up and giving him a surface to push off against as he swung back with his own offense.

And watched, dumbfounded, as his fist passed through the man's chest without making contact, without any resistance whatsoever.

"We don't like your kind here," the guy said, grabbing Eliot's right arm and squeezing. Eliot knew exactly how much more pressure the thug would have to use to snap the bone. And he could tell the thug knew, too. "Your time's running out. Don't forget that. This isn't your world, loser."

He squeezed just that last bit harder.

Eliot cried out.

"Don't forget," the thug said, throwing Eliot to the ground and walking off.

-

Eliot remembered. Not likely he'd ever forget that. Forget –

– Parker helping him into a harness, laughing at him because he wasn't thrilled about jumping off a 42 story building, you know, like a normal person –

– Parker going to attach her harness to the rope –

– Parker clutching her head, crying out in pain, stumbling to the side –

– nothing to the side, just air, all 42 stories of it –

– and Eliot, not even sure he'd got all the twisty ties and straps right, not even sure he'd be able to catch her in time, diving after.

Parker wasn't the only one. People all over the world had that same flash of pain. Most of them weren't standing on top of skyscrapers, but plenty of them were driving, or operating machinery, or operating on a patient. The initial loss of life was tremendous.

Not as tremendous as the second wave of destruction.

Not as bad as what happened once people knew what they were doing.

-

Parker came prancing into their room when Eliot had almost finished splinting his arm.

Given that she was honest to god prancing like a dressage horse, kicking up her heels and doing a little spin, Eliot didn't really have a lot of fondness toward her.

"Where the hell have you been?" he demanded.

"Talking to Court," Parker said, "duh."

Because yes, that was where she always was, the last few days, so he could have assumed that. But why was it okay for that to be normal?

Eliot hadn't intended to share any of these thoughts, but everything else in his life was out of control, so why not his own mind. He knew that Parker heard, because she made a squinty angry face at him – not the exaggerated angry face she used on cons, to fluster people into making mistakes. The real one was so close to her neutral expression that it was almost invisible.

Then she stepped further into the room and saw Eliot's arm, and whatever argument they'd been about to have evaporated.

"What happened?" she asked.

"One of your boyfriend's thugs." Okay, Eliot was still allowed one petty swipe, under the circumstances. It was his arm that was fucking broken, while Parker was dancing around like the queen of the freaks.

"You used to be so good at fighting people and not breaking your arms," Parker said, squatting beside him.

"Yeah, well, times change, don't they?"

"Why'd you fight?"

Eliot sighed. Splinting his arm and talking was about half a thing too many to do at once. "Don't know if you noticed this, but they all hate me here."

Parker snorted. "I know that better than you do."

"Really. Because, arm."

"I meant, I can feel it. I can hear it." She reached out, slowly and cautiously, for the splint. "It isn't very nice."

Eliot held his breath. When was the last time Parker had touched him? When he'd tackled her? No, when they'd fought that invisible woman. Parker didn't like physical contact much these days.

The touch of his fingers on his arms was like a fly landing on his skin.

"They're all – changed ones," Eliot said. "They don't like that I'm..."

"You can say 'normal'," Parker told him, tying off the splint with steady hands. "I'm weird, Court's weird, you're normal. I'm used to that."

"If everyone here's one way except me, doesn't that make me the weird one?"

Parker shrugged. "I know you don't think that for real."

"I think they're really gonna kill me if we stay here too long," Eliot said. "And I don't even want to guess what they're going to do to you. I'd rather someone like Court hate me than be obsessed with me."

"I don't know what they can do to us." Parker finished tying the last knot and pulled her hands back, like his skin had suddenly caught fire. "I've been trying to figure it out, but he's – he doesn't think in a straight line. I'm pretty sure we're safe in this room. At least, they can't hear us."

"You haven't got anything out of his brain?" Eliot asked.

"Little bits, and pieces," Parker said. "Like breadcrumbs in that horrible little story about the children that murder the old woman."

Eliot was not going to think about what other fairy tales Parker had totally missed the point of. No, no, no.

"So can't you just follow the breadcrumbs?"

Parker looked him in the eye again, her angry face having slipped back into place at some point. "No."

She somehow managed to storm out of the room without actually leaving it.

Eliot left it at that. He needed a fucking nap.

-

Waking up felt like coming back from the dead and stopping halfway, so Eliot wasn't in the mood to have the first thing he saw be Court's smug face.

"Haven't you done enough?" he asked.

Court and Parker had grim expressions on their faces. Maybe he should have eavesdropped on whatever conversation they'd been having instead of interrupting. But damn it, Eliot was tired of being shut out of conversations. Court was going to listen to him this time.

"Yes, I understand you've been having a bad time here," Court said. "Perhaps you'd prefer to leave. Now."

"Don't have to ask me twice," Eliot said, pushing himself up with his good arm. "Let's go, Parker."

"It's not going to work like that," Parker said, one arm wrapped around herself. "Court here has just been explaining to me how I'm going to stay here."

"Really." Eliot took a few steps toward the creep. "Because I don't need two hands to beat the shit out of you."

"You are just incapable of understanding, aren't you?" Court smirked. "You don't belong here. She does. Come on, girl," he said, holding out a hand to Parker. Showed what he knew. Parker didn't hold hands. "You're one of us."

"No, I'm not," Parker said, stepping away from Court.

"Fine, then." Court gestured toward the door. "If you want to leave, leave."

There was a trick, it was only a question of what. Eliot was cautious as he crossed the room, opened the door, and slowly poked his head through.

There was no one there. Not that he could see. Not that he could hear, or smell, or sense in anyway.

It was possible that the trick was in here, with Court, so Eliot gestured for Parker to go through the door first, facing forward, and departed the room, eyes still locked on Court's.

And somehow – in the space of three steps in a straight line, without looking away from Court – Eliot found himself walking back through the same doorway he'd just left.

"Parker, what just – "

"Sht." She held up a hand to silence him. Her eyes darted back and forth to every corner of the room.

Court stood up, slowly, and Eliot had to give it to him. For the first time since he'd met him, Court actually looked menacing.

"Don't you see?" he asked softly. "This is my town. If I say she stays, she stays."

Screw that, Eliot can be menacing, too. "You won't be saying anything if I punch all your teeth in."

"No, it's not him," Parker said.

"What?" Eliot asked.

"It's not him doing the room thing," she said. "There's someone outside. Court isn't the one keeping us here, he's just telling that guy what to do."

"Isn't that interesting," Eliot said. "Even when you're here alone, you're hiding behind one of your thugs. Can you even do anything for yourself?"

"I can make your life hell," Court said.

"You don't even know the meaning of the word." Eliot curled his hand into a fist. "But you will soon."

"Oh my God now I get it," Parker shouted. "I finally get it – you and your sneaky little mind have been driving me crazy but I finally know now. I get it!"

She laughed and jumped on the balls of her feet like a teenage girl at a rock concert, which sort of put a damper on the fight Eliot was trying to pick with Court.

"You wanna share with the rest of us, Parker?" Eliot said.

"Court has someone who can find people," Parker explained. "She can tell who's been changed and who hasn't. Then Court goes out and recruits them to do his dirty work and feeds them a lot of nonsense about the world order and superiority and all that."

"Yeah, he's got a little cult of freaks. What's so exciting?"

Eliot didn't know what was coming, but Court did. The tin-pot despot lunged at Parker, and ugly look on his face.

Eliot grabbed him and shoved him against the wall. "You don't get to hurt Parker." He squeezed Court's windpipe, enjoying the hell out of the moment. "Got that?"

Court tried to say something, but couldn't get his words out.

"You want to continue, Parker?"

Parker giggled, which after all this time still had the power to give Eliot nightmares. "Oh, this is the good part. This is so, so great."

"Get on with it, Parker."

"You know what Court's power is?"

Eliot sighed. He was going to play along whether he liked it or not. "Greasy hair?" he guessed.

Parker barely let him finish talking before the words flew out of her mouth. "He doesn't have one!" She started laughing so hard she snorted. "He's got all these people running around doing what he says, and they all think he's some big scary tough guy, and he can't do anything!" She whooped so hard she had to sit down.

"Really," Eliot said, turning back to Court and letting the grip on his throat loosen. "That is fascinating. I wonder what all your little supremacist friends would have to say about that?"

"They wouldn't believe you," Court said hoarsely. "You're just a scumbag – "

"Ah, ah, ah," Eliot interrupted. "That's not very nice. Come on, brother, we're in this together now. Team humanity, right? Us vs. them, isn't that what your buddies would say?"

"You wouldn't tell them."

"I would love nothing better. And sure, they might not believe us right away – though they all seem dead sure Parker's opinion is worth something, at least – but they must all be wanting to see proof that you can do something by this point. And what exactly would you have to show them?"

Court glared for a second, but the fight was ebbing out of him, and he wasn't an idiot, just human. "What do you want?"

"I want you to call your dogs off," Eliot said. "Me and Parker walk out of here and you never bother us again."

"I can't let you run around my town," Court said. "That kind of thing damages my credibility."

"Not as much as what five little words from her mouth would do."

"Court doesn't have any powers," Parker piped up in a singsong tone. "Court is a liar."

Eliot counted. "Okay, nine words."

Court grit his teeth. Eliot wasn't the mind reader here, but he could tell that Court was thinking about making some dramatic gesture – spitting in his face, maybe, or head butting him. Eliot kind of wished he'd try it.

Instead, Court broke eye contact. "Fine. Just get out of my sight."

"Gladly," Eliot said, dropping Court. "Tell your goons to let us go."

Court knocked some kind of code on the wall before wrenching the door open again. "Go."

Eliot was all too happy to oblige him, but Parker stopped to whisper something in his ear.

They strode out of City Hall, side by side, and Eliot wasn't going to ask, but he wondered to himself, and that was as good as asking.

"I just let him know what I thought of his hospitality," Parker said.

-

Court proved to be surprisingly good at living up to his word, because that was the last they heard from him, with one exception.

There was a knock on the door, about a week after they'd moved back into the office and Eliot had started to remember how deserted this part of town was.

He pulled the door open, on high alert, to find a tiny wisp of a woman waiting on the other side of the doorway.

"Can I help you?" he asked.

"I'm Lindsey," she said. "Court's sister."

"Ooh, this is the one!" Parker said, scurrying up to the door and pointing at Lindsey like maybe Eliot would think she was talking about someone else. "She's the one who found me."

Lindsey looked annoyed at having her thunder stolen and stuck her hands on her hips like she was trying to look threatening. "Yes, I did," she said, in a tiny, whispery voice. "And I could do it again, any time."

"Congratulations, you have magic person GPS," Eliot said. "What the hell are you doing bothering us with it?"

"I wanted to settle things," she said.

"We did settle things," Parker pointed out. "With your brother. Eliot didn't hurt him too badly, did he?"

"My brother went too easy on you," Lindsey said. "I'm here to fix that mistake."

"Shoulda brought some of the goon squad with you," Eliot said, hoping the splint on his arm came off in more of an 'I've survived worse' kind of way than a 'I'm in a weakened state' kind of way.

"We both know why I can't risk that," she answered. "But I don't need them to hurt you."

"No, but they'd've helped. Especially since you just gave us a heads up that you're gunning for us."

"There doesn't need to be any more trouble here. You just need to leave."

"And your brother needs to keep his promises, or he's going to have a whole lot more trouble on his hands."

Lindsey exhaled violently. "My brother is not a planner. He is not the bright one. But he is an unfortunate necessity. People listen to him. People don't exactly follow me into battle."

"Funny," Eliot said. "Why'd you think there's a battle that needs fighting, anyway? All that nonsense about new world orders, that didn't come from Court either, did it."

Lindsey's eyes were cold in a way even Eliot didn't see very often, not outside active battle zones and torture chambers. She might be 90 pounds soaking wet, but she sure as hell wasn't harmless. "I don't like you in my town," she said precisely.

"Too bad," Eliot answered. "We got business here."

"I suggest you finish it. Soon."

Parker stepped back, her face looking troubled.

Lindsey, whatever else their differences, apparently shared Court's love of dramatic flair, because she left before either of them could get the last word in.

"I don't like her brain," Parker said.

"Breadcrumbs?" Eliot asked.

Parker shook her head. "It's like plunging straight into the oven."

Eliot wasn't terribly worried about Lindsey, oven or no oven. She looked like she'd put up a hell of a fight if it came down to it, but if Eliot wanted to stay in a place, there wasn't much that was going to push him out.

But that was the question. If.

Eliot shut the door. "It's been four months, Parker," he said. "How much longer we gonna wait here for a sign?"

Parker didn't answer.



-continued in Part 2-

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