Standing on the front porch clad in jeans and a hoodie against the brisk October breeze, Natalie called in through the open door, “Melody, hurry up! C’mon, I’m dying here!” Her tone is full of amusement. “If we don’t get there early, we won’t have time to finish the whole maze. And I’m bound and determined we’re gonna beat the guys this year!” The corn maze race was becoming tradition, with a haunted hayride and mulled cider by the bonfire afterward. She’d dragged everyone on the team who was willing to be dragged to the thing the first year she’d lived in St. Louis, and it was her very favorite activity for the weekend before Halloween.
“Hold your horses Nat.”. Mel pulled on her coat and came outside with a wide grin. “We’re gonna get em this time. But I’m not going to freeze to death out there.”
With her eyes rolling theatrically in her head, Natalie practically bounced in her tennis shoes. “We have to. If I have to hear Ryan crow one more time about the fact that they beat us by like three minutes last year, I’ll lose my mind,” she grinned. “Score’s tied, and Grace has a whole bottle of hot buttered Scotch for us at the bonfire if we win.”
“So who’s driving?” Melody grinned with a wink. “Or shall we fly there? We can take our van if you want to just be normal.” She winked. “Save our strength.” She pursed her lips. “Of course super hero flying drunk isn’t a crime unless you crash into something. But driving drunk is. That butter scotch is never just enough at one.”
Glancing back into the house, Natalie grins. “The rules are only no powers in the maze. Not no powers to GET there. Fly!” She slips her arm through Mel’s and teases, “Mush!”
Natalie’s glance at the four men waiting on the porch — Joe Gresham, the Guardians’ resident dispatcher and butler/nanny/overwatch; Erik Strauss, AKA Firebird; Deuce Jones, AKA Nightmare; and Jared Norris, Natalie’s partner from FEMA — and wiggled her fingers in a taunting kind of wave. “You’re gonna lose,” she sing-songed.
“Honey, we’re leaving without you.” Melody glanced at the group of men milling around on their porch waiting. “The boys are waiting for you. Love you!”
“I’m not far behind babe,” came her husband’s voice from the hall. “Tell Nat she’s getting hosed again.” Ryan then poked his head out the door and nabbed a quick kiss.
“My fat ass you are winning again!” Melody retorted. Ryan grinned and popped her on the said anatomy.
She gave the appropriate squeal and then with a toss of her head, Mel took Nat skyward.
The sight of the corn maze — all 15 acres of it — was pretty impressive from the sky. And Natalie pointed out, “Oooh! We’re going to have to watch out in that corner. There are a lot of little cul-de-sacs.” They weren’t really cheating — the owners of the maze gave out postcards with the aerial image, after all. Not really meant as a map, but certainly could be occasionally helpful. Once they were on the ground again, Nat grinned. “What are you going to bring Toby from the country store this time?”
“Candy apple and that homemade fudge he loves.” She took them down to the entrance so that they could pay. “He’s outgrown the maze, but he’s all about the dessert. I swear the kidling’s on the edge of a growth spurt. We’re going to go broke feeding Tobs.” She pulled out her cash from her jean pocket and got into line. “I swear he’s looking like Ryan more and more each day.”
Natalie laughed. “He really does — you can see his big-kid face starting to peep out of those cute round cheeks.”
Once they had gotten their tickets, she turned to her friend, her fists akimbo. “So what’s the plan? Ryan is still faster than we are. . . . bastard was brilliant at every sport he tried, even before he turned on,” she fussed, her eyes twinkling with love. “We don’t have Toby to slow him down this year. So boss, what’s the plan?” Mel raised her eyebrows and quirked her head as the rest of their group and the other men landed to cheers and their own happy laughter.
Looking toward the beginning of the maze, Natalie grinned a wicked little smile. “Maddy went through and mapped it. I told her she can’t tell us where the punch stations are, BUT…. she can nudge people in the right directions and be cheerleader!” She raised her voice toward the rest of their crew. “The guys have to enter from the exit and work the maze backward! And we get a five minute head-start because Ryan is too fast — we don’t have a speedster.”
The men had arrived by then and overheard Natalie’s comment. When Jared ribbed back, “You don’t need a speedster, woman, you need to learn to read a MAP!,” the other guys guffawed and teased good-naturedly about women and directions. Natalie simply stuck out her tongue at him.
Inside the maze, with Maddy in their ears, the team of four women were able to strategically attack the maze. Or… well, as strategic as such fun passtimes really get. At one point when the groups met in the middle of the maze, Natalie rounded a curve to find Mel and Ryan smooching in the path. Rolling her eyes, she accused, “Fraternizing with the enemy!” and dragged her teammate the other direction.
“Slowing him down!” Melody protested, red-faced but allowed herself to be pulled away. Grinning, she added, “We may have a chance this time!”
Natalie snickers. “I know we do. We’ve got six of the eight punches. I just saw Erik’s card and they’ve only found four. So if you keep your tongue out of Ryan’s throat, we have less of the maze to finish than they do.” She winks. “And I’m dying for some of that fudge!”
It was actually a close race — but the advantage of Maddy having scouted the area helped out the women’s team, and they emerged quite literally 90 seconds ahead of the guys with all punches accounted for. Candies and treats from the country store obtained, they all regrouped at the sand pit used for their bonfire. Natalie and Heather Dean, one of their LEO contacts who joined them, pranced in the firelight and did the Happy Snoopy Dance (to much teasing and laughter) for winning, claiming bragging rights over Ryan for the next year.
When the group was settled around their bonfire with hot drinks, glowing jack-o-lanterns, and Erik playing his guitar softly in the firelight, Natalie studied her friends. “I love this time of year,” she murmured to Melody.
“Me too, Nat, me too.”. She smiled and waved colors through the flames, playing with the gasses. After a moment, she sighed. “You know, we have these Powers and like I’ve told Ryan, you know what I use mine most for?”. She paused and shook her head. "Vacuuming. So I don’t have to move the furniture. You’d think I’d find a way to change the world or something, huh. ".
Ryan kissed his wife’s head. “That’s my girl, sucking up evil dust the laziest way possible. And making the fires pretty.”
“Jerk.”. She grinned, wiggling deeper against her husband’s torso, and winking at her friend. “Sometimes it’s nice to just be normal.”. She waved at the group around the fire. “Good friends, good drink, good times. Just being people.”
Natalie chuckled at Ryan’s comment. Leaning back in her beach chair, Natalie admired the colors in the fire. She caught Jared’s eye across the blaze and lifted her mug in a silent toast, which he returned with a faint grin before resuming his perusal of the group as a whole. “Normal is pretty amazing,” she agreed with Melody. She savored a long sip of her drink. “You know Joyce Ling? She told me she’s retiring from the Guardians. She’s tired of all the fighting. Said she’s going to go be a bartender in the Bahamas.” A grin chases across her features. “I wonder if she’ll do it. That would so rock.”
Mel grinned, “Ryan would be a professional beach bum.”. Her nose wrinkled. “Too much sand for me.”
Ryan stretched, cuddling his wife. “Nah, with great power comes blah de blah,” he quoted badly. “Can’t save people and the world from themselves from a beach blanket.”
Melody frowned, gazing into the flames. “I don’t love it,” she admitted softly. “All the fighting. But we can’t give up. It’s what we do. We’re heroes.”
Natalie considered those words, her eyes on the fire as she swallowed a mouthful of the mulled cider spiked with buttered Scotch. “How’s that movie line go? ‘Heroes are just frightened men who make bad decisions at good moments’ or something like that?” She smiled faintly. “I’m of the firm belief that those of us who do what we do… it’s like any other service-oriented profession. We have a calling. Whether it’s one of overwhelming responsibility or one of altruism doesn’t, in the end, matter… we’re still called. But sometimes… just once in a while… it’s nice to leave it all behind.” She shrugged. “That’s why I like nights like tonight and like barbecues at your house,” she told her friend with a laugh. “Staycation!”
Sitting around the bonfire with a cup of hot buttered Scotch, Jared grinned at the good spirits of the group. Ryan was taking the loss of their team in the Corn Maze Race with generally good grace, Melody assuaging the prick to the man’s pride with – whoa, those two might need to get a room! Too much Scotch! And he couldn’t help but laugh at the glee with which Heather and Natalie did their ridiculous dances around the fire. Those two were hysterical. And just plain fun to be around. Which was beginning to complicate his life just a little.
He’d opted for a seat next to Erik – Firebird was both a good friend and an excellent distraction with his Nordic good looks and his mellow baritone accompanied by the guitar. It let Jared watch everyone unobserved because their attention was on the music, the guitar player himself, or their own conversations. And he did like to watch.
He liked to watch when she tore someone a new ass for being a dick in the field.
He liked to watch when she healed people, the expression on her face so intense and focused.
He liked to watch when she sat at her desk working on reports.
He liked to watch when she laughed, when she hiked, when she worked a crisis scene.
He liked to watch her tease Toby, encourage Heather to come out of her shell, and whine at Joe about which route he sent them on a chase.
His objectivity was beginning to suffer for how much he enjoyed watching Natalie Tessier. He hadn’t quite decided what he wanted to do about it. It was bad policy to get involved with a protectee to start with. And then lay on top of it the fact that she had no idea that he was technically assigned to the Guardians and that SHE was part of his mission… he had a notion she would be pissed if she found out that she was considered that valuable. Not because he hadn’t told her he was watching her – she was a big one for privacy and wouldn’t hold it against him that he’d kept his own Powered status and his job quiet – but knowing her, she’d worry that “babysitting” wasn’t a good use of his talents.
Hell, that’s what he’d thought at first too.
But honestly, he really enjoyed working on the crisis response teams that backed up the Guardians. And getting to interrogate the bad guys after the fact to make sure they were just crazies working alone and not terrorists? It was an added bonus. Uncle Sam didn’t want those loons coordinating some kind of mass strike or biological attack on anyone.
Erik chose that moment to kick Jared’s ankle and start playing a melody line on the guitar. “Stairway to Heaven” was a song that everyone knew without even trying, so Jared rolled his eyes and began. “There’s a lady who’s sure… all that glitters is gold…”
Voices joined in from around the fire as people picked up the tune. He could pick out who had some practice at this kind of thing and who couldn’t carry a tune. But he noticed that several people – among them, Deuce – slipped a little farther from the fire as the singing began. He’d have to talk to the Guardians’ head-shrinker and to Ryan. Deuce’s ability to bring other people’s nightmares to life was a hard one to live with, and he suspected the man was self-medicating. For tonight, he simply made a note to keep an eye on him and turned his attention back to the fire.
(Somewhere late in the spring, maybe? Just before D-Day)
“You know,” Ryan offered mildly as they rounded the curve in the park’s path that marked the first mile of a three-mile course, “I’m more than happy just to keep pace with you if you want, but it’ll probably be easier all the way around if you just spit out what’s on your mind, Jay.”
Jared smirked faintly. Leave it to Ryan to just throw down the gauntlet. He kept moving, even now unsure he wanted to broach the topic at all. Finally he pretty much did the same thing. “I think I’m getting too involved with Nat, and I don’t know what the hell to do about it. I haven’t been completely honest with any of you, and I don’t have the option of walking away.”
To his credit, Ryan didn’t break stride. He nodded, letting the air between them absorb his friend’s admission. That everyone had already noticed exactly that the man was crazy for Nat. . .well, he didn’t think that Jared would appreciate his mentioning that little fact. “So Jay,” he finally asked. “How serious is it? Like or love man?”
Shooting his running partner a dirty look. “How the hell would I even know that?” Jared demanded in a disgruntled tone. “What’re you, a girl? Look… I admire the hell out of the lady. She’s fast on her feet; she’s got a drive to help people that just won’t quit, even when it should; she’s calm under fire. And she’s willing to go toe-to-toe with me!” Relatively few are willing to do that when he turns on the Iceman face. His jaw moved back and forth as he ground his teeth while they continued their pace. He didn’t have permission to read anyone into his actual orders, but Ryan was more than a team leader. He was a friend. Finally, he said cautiously, “Ry, how much do the people who organize and run the Guardians keep you in the loop about the stuff they do?”
“Far too much and far too little.” Ryan slowed down, his gaze distant. “I think most of the time I’m on a need to know basis but I’m sure they’re never quite certain what they can hide from us supers.” He ran for a few more strides and then added, “I know that between us, we usually can piece together quite a lot. The youngsters like to spy. Test their limits. Why?”
“My job title is Assistant Liaison between FEMA and the Guardians, right? But my job description is both more and less than what’s on paper. I was sent here to help Nat… but more than that, I was sent here to protect her.” Jared paused. “And more… to protect her ability and keep it from falling into the wrong hands.” He kept his eyes on the trail. “I don’t work for FEMA.”
At that, Ryan had to stop to laugh. “No shit Jay,” he finally managed. “Unless FEMA has secretly been planning SWAT actions against tornadoes and floods.” He shook his head. “So what agency and who do you think has designs on our Nat?”
Ryan’s easy acceptance isn’t a surprise. Jared grins slightly as they stop. “Anybody who knows what she can do would have designs on her,” he grunted. “Her original assignment wasn’t going to be to you guys — she was supposed to go on a more front-lines team. Overseas with a military unit.” He glances at his friend. “You know as well as I do, the woman just plain doesn’t stop — they’d have run her into the ground in weeks, if she managed to hold on that long. I’d been her bodyguard about a year by then, and my boss agreed with me that she was too valuable an asset to burn out that way. He got her assigned here. And got me assigned to stay with her. Generally speaking, all I really have to do is keep her from killing herself.” He rolled his eyes. “It’s tougher than you might think.”
Ryan rolled his shoulders, swinging his arms for a moment before settling back into an easy jog. “Yeah, ding bat totally forgets that she’s taking on the wounds she heals. You’re good for her.” He was silent for a moment and then added, “We have stubborn women. I think Mel holds back. I think she’s capable of a hell of lot more than her tricks. But there’s no forcing either one of them.”
Resuming their forward motion, Jared snorted. "At least you’re not pulling punches with some shit like calling ‘em “strong-willed.” Those two, especially together, could out-camel a camel." They ran for another half a mile without chatting. Finally, he sighed and slowed to a walk. "Look… I’ve been told to look into two of the new members on the Guardians by my bosses. And I need you to have my back while I do it. Homeland suspects someone’s leaking intel about the Guardians to an overseas buyer, and the two most likely candidates are Frost and Thumper. I need you to call them in and let me question them with you in the room so that it doesn’t look like anything more than a quick touch-base."
The scowl that darkened Ryan’s face would have frightened a lesser man. “I hope you’re wrong,” he stated solemnly. “We have to be able to trust one another on our team.” They walked down a curve on the path and he watched two squirrels playing. “Do you want to have Dr Mesmer listening? He’s best face to face when he can do his thing, but he has a good sense of the thoughts behind the words, even is he’s just hearing someone speak”
Annnnd now comes the part he’s been debating for weeks. “No,” Jared said quietly. “I need to question them myself and I need to know you’ll keep everything you see confidential. Because they’ll tell me everything I need to know… and if one of them is guilty, they’ll never even remember that they did it.” His tone is matter-of-fact, but he’s watching Ryan carefully.
A muscle twitched in Ryan’s smooth cheek before his gaze glued itself to his friends eyes. “How much do I and Mel not remember Jared?” he asked softly. “Or the rest of the team?”
“Nothing,” he replied evenly. “Not that there aren’t occasions when I want to do something about the great hairy ape,” he admits with a faint quirk of a grin creasing one cheek. “I have never used my abilities on you or any other member of this team. And I can’t use it on Nat, much as I’d like to when she turns into a mule. She’s immune.” He meets Ryan’s eyes squarely. “I give you my word.”
Ryan kept the gaze and then shook his head. “Hell, I trust you. Maybe I shouldn’t but I do. Mel’s always said I was an oversized pushover, but I want to believe in the best of everyone and sure as hell the best of my best friend. I’ll be there for your questioning. Make it legit.” He pushed his hands through his hair and sighed. “Still haven’t answered me about when you’re going to tell Nat you’re in love with her.”
“I don’t even know if I am,” Jared objected, his ears turning red along with his face.
Ryan merely grunted “Uh-huh.”
“Besides, I can’t tell her that shit before I tell her that I’m a Power and her frigging bodyguard and have been lying to her all these years.” He eyed Ryan. “You can’t tell Mel, man. My status is classified.”
The big man smiled sadly. “I won’t. I’ll hate it but I won’t.” He put his hand over his heart dramatically. “You know, the Falcon. . .justice, fairness, truth. . .hero. Except when it’s a matter of national security. Mel will kill me if she finds out I held out on her. I think the last thing I kept from her was what I got her for her birthday.” He gently slugged his companion. “Hey, if you blush anymore, they’re gonna have to name you the Scarlet Pimp.”
“Asshole,” groused Jared, taking the mild hit to the shoulder in good grace. “I don’t know how you do it,” he commented as he shoved his friend back into a jog. “Not going nuts when Mel pulls her shit. Cuz when Nat pulls one of hers, I really wanna hit something. I gotta keep my head on straight or they’ll reassign me. And that I’m not having.”
Ryan gave him his million dollar smile. "Whenever I just want to scream, I hug her and tell her I’m going for a patrol. It gets me up and out of the way to give me enough time to remember how damn much I love her. That and remember that she can totally transform my big screen tv into so much goo with a thought.
Jared laughed outright. “Wow. Talk about incentive — messing with a man’s TV is just plain wrong,” he quipped as they ran.
Standing with his feet spread and his arms crossed, Jared glared through the one-way glass at Thumper, real name David Greene, and pulled in a breath. He glanced at Falcon. “You’re not going to like what you hear,” he told his friend. When Ryan’s only reply was a grim nod, Jared uncrossed his arms and headed into the room on the other side of that glass.
Entering the room with a friendly smile, Jared said, “Hey, Thumper.”
“Oh, hey man,” the blond, 5’10" sound manipulator replied easily. “Falcon ask you to meet him here too?”
“Yeah, something like that,” Jared replied easily. Plopping down in the chair on the same side of the table as his quarry, he sprawled comfortably. Although his tone was casual, his ability was fully activated on the target in front of him as he spoke. “You know how it is — the higher-ups always checking up on all of us to make sure there’s no breaches of security and stuff. Guess we’re the random picks this week. You know, though, as long as you tell the truth, there’s no problem. Everything’s always better with the real truth on the table. So if you know anything, you should definitely talk about it and not waste your time lying to me.” The powerful Suggestion now in place on his target, he asked casually, “They’re looking for someone selling real identities of some of the Powers. Know anything about that?”
There was an interesting moment where Thumper looked like a deer caught in the headlights, but the very casual tone of his interrogator soothed any panic that might have caused him to react strongly. “Sure. I know about it.” Then Thumper’s brain caught up with his mouth and alarm blazed across his expression.
Jared nodded slightly, still seeming very casual. “I didn’t,” he informed Thumper easily, one ankle propped on his other knee. “I’m glad you’re so willing to tell the truth.” Managing interrogations was a piece of cake once he’d learned that his own expectations would guide his powers. As long as he wanted the actual truth and not just what he THOUGHT the truth was or what he might want the truth to BE, the information he’d obtained in the past several years was all solid. “Do you by any chance know who’s doing it?”
Thumper struggled. “N.. N… No…” He couldn’t force the words out of his mouth and instead attempted a deflection. “Why would you think I’d know?”
Jared smiled faintly, taking an almost mean kind of pleasure out of the attempt to lie. “Don’t hurt yourself, now,” he admonished Thumper with an easygoing smile. “The harder you try to tell a lie to me, the bigger the headache you’ll give yourself.” The power of suggestion was a wonderful thing. “You sure you don’t know anything?”
Thumper’s face was turning white as he realized what kind of deep hole he was suddenly in. “C’mon, man… you know me. You know I’m a good guy.”
“Oh definitely,” Jared agreed immediately. “A great guy. One who sells the real identities of some of our nation’s most valuable assets.” He nodded sagely. “Treason makes a person a terrific guy.” He was in some ways quite sadistically amused as he watched Thumper flounder.
Thumper started shaking, fighting to deny the charges but unable to make the words come out of his mouth. Finally, it burst out, “I accidentally told a reporter who Raven was in her real life, and two weeks ago these Chinese guys paid me a ton of money to get them the identities of three more people. One of them I already knew, but the others I didn’t, so I had to look around the computers.”
Which, of course, is what triggered this little investigation, Jared thought. Leaning forward, no longer the nice guy, he rose to his feet and rested his hands on the table. “Who’d you give them, Thumper?”
The audiokinetic bit his lip and tried not to answer.
Jared slammed his fist on the table and demanded, “WHO. DID. YOU. GIVE. THEM?”
Thumper nearly wet his pants, unable to fight the compulsion to tell the truth. “The only one I knew was Firebolt! They wanted to know Nightingale, though, and Angel. They were more interested in the healers!”
Jared glanced toward the window, knowing what he did next might change forever the way Ryan dealt with him. But it had to be done. He backed off Thumper, far more calm now, and nodded. “Thanks, Thumper. You did a great job.”
The audiokinetic gaped at him blankly.
Jared nodded. “You did,” he assured. “That’s what we needed to know. Now…” He jacked his ability still a little higher and made himself lean down. This was honestly the one aspect of his ability that he hated. His voice got very low. Jared could be intimidating enough all on his own, but now he instilled true fear along with his words, “You are never going to talk about this conversation with anyone. The consequences of mentioning me, this meeting, or that you’ve confessed could well be fatal. An agent will meet you in the hallway, and he’s going to set you up on a sting. And once that’s over, you’ll deal with them about your punishment.”