May’s heart twisted and tore as she watched Em crumble in her arms.
She refused to believe the violent spectre Em had become was anything more than remnants of Audrey breaking through. May knew Em’s love – its strength and its light. Anyone who loved as strongly as Em couldn’t be so cold hearted, May was as sure of it as she was sure she was still breathing.
But none of that could erase what Em had done.
I need you to be stronger than that, May wanted to tell her. I need you to stay who you are.
She released her grip on Em’s shoulders and wrapped her arms around her instead. Just thinking those words made May feel selfish. It was so easy for her to forget how much Em was already suffering just by being here.
“Just… tell me something like this won’t ever happen again,” May pleaded quietly.
Em took a shaky breath in. She opened her mouth to answer, but a different voice spoke instead.
“I take it this is a bad time?”
May gasped and Em sat up with a start. The stranger’s voice was like a flood light snapping on, chasing the moment from the room as though it were darkness.
Standing in the doorway was a man in his early fifties, built like a stone with shoulder-length greying hair and a beard that made him look even older than he likely was. Inscrutable hazel eyes watched them from beneath thick eyebrows.
“Shit, Grant.” Em wiped at her eyes. “I didn’t hear you coming.”
“I figured,” the man called Grant gunted in reply. He gave a pointed look to May. “How’re you feeling? You’ve been out for a while.”
“I’ve been better,” May admitted.
The man nodded and turned, motioning for the girls to follow.
“Do you think you can walk?” Em asked quietly, not quite meeting May’s eyes.
She helped May to her feet and held her hand tightly through those first tentative steps. The ache in May’s legs gave way to tingling that faded by the time they made it out of the office. Blinking, May’s eyes swept over a surprisingly bright warehouse below the grated walkway on which they stood. Warm afternoon sunlight pressed in through greasy windows that lined the top half of the walls, reflecting a lazy cloud of dust motes. The ground floor was busy; two neat rows of vehicles lined either wall and pairs of legs protruded from beneath their hoods and chassis.
“A garage?” May asked. The sounds and smells made sense now, but she was still surprised. “What kind of safehouse is this?”
“The safest kind,” answered Grant.
He led them into a room at the end of the metal walkway. The room, perhaps originally intended to be a breakroom, half-served its original purpose while doubling as a command center of sorts. A long card table filled the middle of the room, surrounded by mismatched chairs and littered with sheafs of paper, empty beer bottles, and stained coffee mugs. Blinking computer servers and monitors lined the far wall in a set-up not unlike Marina’s workshop.
“What is this place?” May marvelled quietly. The equipment seemed far more advanced than a garage required.
May spun to find Jun in an opposite corner, hunched over his own workstation. He jumped to his feet and stood so his body shielded his monitor from view. “What are you doing in here?”
“Relax, Jun,” Grant grumbled from the other side of the room. He busied himself by pouring a deep amber colored brew from a mason jar into a mug.
“I’m workin’ on something here.” Jun sounded scandalized. “What if they see?”
The man turned to Jun, a single eyebrow raised. Frowning, Jun sank back into his chair without another word.
“I already told you – these two are friends of the kid.” Grant screwed the cap back on the jar and slid it onto a shelf. He carried the mug back to May and held it out to her. “Drink this. Throw it back. If you try to sip it you’ll never finish it. It’ll make you feel better.”
May had her doubts but took the mug anyway. With a curious look at Em, who only offered a shrug, May did as she was told and tossed the drink back in one searing swallow. It lit a fire in her belly that burned in a flash and then sizzled out, filling the rest of her body with a comfortable fuzziness. She shook her head and coughed.
“There’s no medicine on earth that cures quite like a strong shot of hooch,” Grant said, taking back May’s mug as she hacked out another couple of ragged coughs. “Better?”
Coughing aside, when May stopped to consider herself she was surprised to find she did feel better. Grant took the surprised look on her face for confirmation and nodded, satisfied.
“May, is it?” he asked. Clearly Em had already filled him in on a few details.
“Yeah,” May replied, shaking his hand. “Thanks for taking us in.”
“Yo, Parker!” a voice shouted from the floor below. “Whaddaya think of this?”
Grant turned to Jun. “Go tell them I’m gonna need a minute.”
Jun didn’t argue, shuffling from the room and closing the door behind him.
“Who’s Parker?” May turned the name over in her mind, wondering why it sounded familiar.
“Me.” Grant gestured at himself. “Last name.”
A memory clicked into place sending a wave of realization washing over May.
“Grant Parker?” she asked. “Are you related to Jeremy?” Her eyes lingered on his greying hair, searching for a hint of Jeremy’s signature fiery red.
His strong arms were crossed, but May caught the slightest hint of a smile tug at the corner of Grant’s mouth.
“No, but he and I go way back.”
As he turned and walked away, May shot Em a quizzical look.
“It’s a long story,” Em whispered.
“Ladies, come over here a minute,” Grant called over from the command-center wall. “There’s something I need to show you.”
Everything about his words sounded like bad news. May followed Em to join him, both wary and weary at the thought of how things could possibly get worse than they already were.
He stood in front of a monitor featuring the image of a man’s serious face, frozen mid-sentence. The name Wyndam Aviar hovered at the bottom of the screen and below that, the word aldermember. Em bristled when she saw him, but said nothing. Grant tapped a few keys and the image – a paused video – jumped back and played from the beginning. Shaky cellphone footage showed dark vans parked along a hedged street and a swarm of people in uniforms lining the end of a private driveway. Between their shoulders, May could make out the unmistakable rosy shade of her own hair. She felt the blood drain from her face as the person shooting the video made a foolhardy dash across the street and continued recording from behind one of the vans.
Explosions of light and energy filled the screen and distorted the feeds. May relived the horror of Em being blasted back by the Loyals’ arm cannon and her miraculous recovery. The cameraperson swore as Loyal agents were knocked back by another one of Em’s assaults and then the picture zoomed in. The screen was filled with Em’s dark and dangerous face. The view pulled back, shaking as the person directing it tried to capture exactly what they were seeing: a young man, jerked high into the air.
Screaming and pleading.
Em, unflinching as she snapped her arm downward.
The video cut off just before the young Loyal agent hit the ground.
Beside her, May felt Em tremble.
The video moved on to the talking head of Wyndam Aviar as he addressed the viewing audience.
“It doesn’t matter if it is by magical or mythological might: any supernatural being who uses their abilities to harm the defenseless is a criminal. Whomever this woman is, she is dangerous and must be apprehended. Please use extreme caution when-”
Grant paused the video, frozen on the aldermember’s face like when they first found it.
Em clasped a hand over her mouth, breathing fast and hard.
May’s mind raced through all the things this video meant for them.
Grant turned and surveyed them both, his expression unreadable.
“Well, ladies.” His gruff voice broke the heavy silence.
“Looks to me like you’re in a whole lot of trouble.”