"Those were strong hallucinations," was the mantra playing in my head over and over since I'd arrived back at Epsilon, mysteriously. It was a convincing lie, mostly for the fact that there was still no way I could confirm that it wasn't. Epsilon personnel, doctors or psychics, sure as shit wouldn't hear this from me; the first encounter was bad enough, but the next day...I'd probably take my chances and break parole to flee if they found out what I did to rainbow death. "What she made me do," I corrected my thoughts constantly since waking in a puddle of my own ecstasy.
I fortunately woke up in a panic an hour later, wired enough to stealth through the compound, carrying sheets soaked in sweat and other fluids to the laundry, thankful for the low-hum of the washing machines and dryers, praying I didn't arouse anyone's suspicions, while I hit the showers to clean myself up, lightly banging my head against the wall to quell my own arousal. Flashes of the hallucinations wouldn't go away as the warm jets cleaned my body, they actually got worse the more I tried forcing them out. Maelstrom's nude body, toned, sexy full curves, covered in fine sweat, wrestled reason into submission. She smiled down at me like she enjoyed the internal struggle, reclining as I knelt in-front of it, covering her legs with kisses.
Just as I tried pulling away from the thought completely, blazing eyes caught my attention, and I was suddenly roped right back where she wanted me; it helped that the hallucinations gave the impressions of real rope against my hot skin. Feeling restrained and unwilling to move, I finally gave in, stroking myself to get it over with, hoping that would be enough to stop thinking about it. After cumming hard, checking around me to make sure I was alone, I let out a satisfying sigh, and letting any arousing evidence drain away. Putting the sheets in the dryer after drying off and redressing, I started walking towards the pantry for water, parched for reasons unknown. I stopped around the crossroads of the corridor that led to Kasdien's medical labs. For what felt like a long minute, I stood there with the urge to turn towards the labs, feeling like I'd forgotten something pertaining there. It didn't make sense as I usually would sprint past that passage of the crossroads, but this time a thought was nagging at me about something important.
Quick reflexes kicked in to turn and take a defensive stance against whoever scared the hell out of me; it was Copula, looking like she'd just emerged from sleep, almost as scared as me when I whipped around with fists up to meet her.
"Jeez, sorry Rita, or Copula, or-"
"Either is fine, and no need to be sorry," she laughed a little after catching her breath. "You alright?"
"Yeah, I think so. Just kind of...up right now."
"I know the feeling," she sounded oddly sympathetic, as her bed-head and tired expression after being scared told me she didn't mean at that moment.
"Yeah, reminds me of me after a hard mission, or really around the time I started going out on missions. Sometimes it's just part of the transition."
"True. I think I've taken for granted the toll it takes, and how tough you all are to keep doing it time and time again."
"You're just as tough, you know. Nobody else I know took on a Maelstrom on their first outing and..."
"Survived?" I finished, almost sullenly.
"Didn't want to sound so dark about it. We all survived, but no telling any of us would've survived what you did."
"I still count that as luck."
I meant to elaborate, but kind of shrugged a "yeah" out, hiding my critical thinking. I'd nearly forgotten I was talking to Epsilon's best soft-sell interrogator. Feeling vulnerable and ready to open up in a conversation seemed the norm with Copula, whether it'd be her Hierarch powers or her tactful communicating. Having seen her use one or both to pry info out of the tight-lipped before, I couldn't tell if she was genuinely concerned, or fishing for Maelstrom info I was hiding, or both. Radio described the main form of her power as slipping into an outside mind like a muscle flex, two minds meeting at a joint place where she could take control upon subtle flexing of her abilities, hence a name like Copula; I kept my senses sharp for evidence of her looking to make a connection, but couldn't feel any.
Soft beeping in the distance reminded me of my sheets, filling the silence between us.
"Midnight laundry?" she asked.
"Yeah." Of everything that could've implied, I stuck to a hopefully believable half-truth. "Nightmares suck."
"That they do, but you'll be alright. And if not, I'm around if you need to talk to someone," she gave a small smile before yawning. "Though not tonight, heh. Night, Half."
"Night, Copula." I continued to the pantry to get a water bottle, downing it in almost one gulp to cool off my heated brain. Mentally probing myself to make sure I wasn't being mentally probed took effort, and I couldn't even guarantee that I detected her if she tried. One head-penetrating presence was enough, and I didn't need another to start advertising it. It would've been nice to be able to trust her with what could be, but trust still felt hard to come by living and working there, no matter whose fault that was. Either way, with me and my sheets finally clean, I snuck back into my room and thankfully went back to a dreamless, thoughtless sleep.
Later that morning, the heat quelled mostly, but I still managed to cautiously stroll the Epsilon hallways like 17-year-old me that successfully snuck out and lost his virginity; it was worth the risk at the time, but couldn't believe I didn't get caught. I tried regarding everyone non-chalantly, hoping no pair of eyes would linger on me any longer than usual. Having breakfast with my team, I was happy to focus how dull the oatmeal was, B&B's daily Half joke, anything to maintain the look of the shitty normal. While I sensed Copula glancing my way once or twice, I didn't look back to confirm, hopefully looking to her like I'd gotten totally past my "nightmares."
It certainly felt like back to normal when the team included me in their joint training again. Working on the punching bag alone was frustrating, but fun compared to being included in their training. Expender insisted I join them, and I tried turning them down. If a flare up in the middle of a combination punch to the bag didn't knock it off the chain ten feet away with the "weak" punch before the strong one could get any, I might've been more convincing. Feeling the Hier-half in my muscles, I sulked over where she wanted me. Despite being able-bodied at that moment, nervousness didn't go away as it was still an unknown countdown to when it would leave. Surrounding me like a bull in the ring, everyone was ready to attack me from all sides, with gentle-to-medium use of their powers.
From the word "go," I first dove in the B&B's direction, sliding and sweeping the twins' legs, downing both in one go before getting any taste of burning or freezing. I punched the ground near their heads to simulate knocking them unconscious. Next I aimed myself to meet Expender head-on, but felt Copula trying to make a strong, quick connection in my brain. Panic set in enough to thrust myself feet-first to Expender and push off of her stomach to launch myself at Copula, and it might've been excessive panic enough that halfway to getting to her, Hier-half bailed on me and I slid sloppily on the floor to land at Copula's feet. We looked at each other with shock, surprised one didn't do anything to the other.
"I surrender," signaling with hands held up.
"You won't get that luxury out in the field," Expender sighed, picking herself up from the floor.
"Do I get it in training?"
"You really shouldn't; nasty guys with guns or powers won't care if you lose your powers in the middle of a fight."
"Very aware of that, but what do you want me to do to Copula with just human strength?"
"What could you do with any strength if you've got the sudden urge to freeze?" Copula joked above me, taking credit for the fear that kept me immobile.
"Weird flex, considering the fear on your face," Jerry joked about Copula, prompting the psychic to make Gerry slap Jerry upside his head before he even realized she was in the twin's mind.
Everyone laughed at the twins arguing until we got an intercom notice for a staff meeting in 20 minutes. Everyone else walked away to get cleaned up, and I just lingered on the floor, sighing in frustration.
"Impressive..." A ghostly whisper to my ear got me to sit up in panic. Searching the training room to see no one else in sight, I stopped myself from panicking, trying to ignore the warm tingle of pleasure shooting up and down my spine. Moving to shower and change clothes, the presence stayed with me, the aura doing nothing but smiling; how I could tell it was smiling scared me more than that I could tell. I was the last to enter to conference room, mustering up every ounce of self control I could to pretend the presence wasn't with me, taking a seat behind everyone.
Nearly everyone was there, including Director Petersen, Dr. Kasdien, and one of his subordinates near a projector, ready to give a presentation.
"Thank you all for coming in to this impromptu meeting," Petersen addressed the room. "Usually everyone would be busy with their normal routines, but Dr. McGraw here, whom I assume you've all met, has gathered us for what sounds like an important issue." McGraw I knew as part of the researching arm of Epsilon, a scrawny, excitable scientist I likened to a squirrel in a lab coat; annoying, but his passion for the study of Heirarchs was almost admirable, if that didn't fuel the annoyance. "So without delay, please show us what you have, Doctor."
"Um, thank you, D-director Petersen," he shuffled through files on his laptop and adjusted his glasses awkwardly before speaking to the room, obviously not that versed in public speaking. "As said, I know you've got stuff to do, but the last few days have led me to think we're, or really someone else, is on the verge of a game-changer. Two days ago, we discussed the new Hierarch called Maelstrom, and hours later, Epsilon is fighting her."
"Barely," one of the twins replied sourly.
"Y-yeah, some of that would be on researchers like me, and I apologize. We thought we knew enough about her, when we might be simply scratching the surface."
I had to control my breathing and expressions as what felt like hot string or rope suddenly wrapped around me. It slipped around my thighs, calves, and ankles first, keeping me tight and tied to the chair. Then my torso was softly pulled back and bound to the back of the chair, and my hands were tied behind my back. Invisible bindings had me perspiring and in-shock, for where of all places they had to turn me into some kidnapped damsel in distress no one could see, and how I could feel them pressed against my skin, like my clothes weren't there; they matched the hot nails raking across my chest playfully. An arm attached to the nails draped over me almost affectionately, the whole form outlined by warm flames. The hot presence felt more present than ever, making my body flush and reactively want to curl up in the embrace. But I held steady, eying the room to make sure no one else noticed. The panic that could've been felt muted, suppressed, and soothed the more I sensed the effects of the heat, which only made the rope and arms around me wrap a little tighter. The logical protest in me was silenced at a husky mental "Shhhh...", leaving me to shiver beneath my clothes. After that, most of my energy was spend trying to look lucid, to not let my eyes roll back in pleasure, and not to slip back completely into the trance she sank me in before.
"Is this like one of those Hierarch urban legends? Like the theory that Hierarchy powers get determined by emotions or something crazy?" Jerry queried.
Before McGraw could speak up for the "urban legend" he believed in, Petersen shot him a look, reminding him to stay focused.
"Worse," he said pointedly. "Maelstrom could be the result Hierarchs being created." That shut the room up, minus a few audible gasps. One of those was mine, contending with the fiery, teasing embrace that didn't let up.
"Admittedly, it is a theory right now, and we're not trying to scare anyone having to deal with other Hierarchs directly, but we also don't want you out there with less information than more."
It got harder to pay attention to all the technical stuff he talked about, partly cause of the science lingo flying over my head, and partly cause it was competing with soft whispers at my ear. A lot of it was too soft to hear clearly, and had to keep telling myself it wasn't worth just because the crooning felt so good. McGraw was explaining something about genetic make-up, possible traits taken from other organisms. He showed a pic of an Angler Fish, one of the ugliest things I'd seen in my life, but with the curious fin it had on its forehead, lit like a light bulb, urging its prey closer with the light. Some snide remarks went around the table about how loose that connection was, while memories of being face-to-face with Maelstrom had my thoughts elsewhere.
"Sound familiar?" something internal reasoned.
"No," I thought back with lowered awareness. "I see why he'd think that, but no. With her, it's more like a....moth-mode or something."
"Moth to a flame. Drawn in and cant' escape."
"Oooh, that's even better," the breath grew hotter against my ear, reminding me of whose presence was messing with me. "But the fish thing still sounds fun..." I grabbed my shoulder softly as I felt bite marks burning lightly into my skin.
Petersen's more rumbling baritone shook me out of my reverie, telling me the presentation had finished. "Ok, thank you Dr. McGraw. With all that information in-mind, we're going to have a stricter standing with an future ops for the time being. And more intel will be focused on Dr. McGraw's theory; if there's more to come in the vein of Maelstrom, we need to know now how we can deal with them, or stop the making of Hierarchs if necessary. Half, you and McGraw will be taking point on that starting tomorrow."
I made sure to clear my throat to keep my voice from sounding like moaning. "Fine by me."
The second the meeting broke, all the binding flames around me extinguished, and I played it as cool as possible leaving, wanting another shower, but feeling the need to somehow get Maelstrom out of my head ASAP. A chuckle tickled my ear, taunting me, as I walked around, faintly but still aware of the hot embrace, a lot further away from trance than before. Growing anger set me to return to my room, to try to meditate her out. Shutting everything off, and everything else out, I practiced the breathing exercises Radio taught me, and started to let go. Reaching a peaceful place got easier with practice, but it was hard getting anywhere beyond that. Searching inside myself for wherever my Hier-half was hiding, trying to willfully bringing it to the surface, always felt like deep sea diving while blindfolded, swimming for something I half-believed could be found. Regardless of finding it or not, I always enjoyed the peace it gave, so feeling the water start to carry my floaty body around didn't phase me at all. Just as the current carrying me got stronger, there was a guiding, protective force controlling the water and me, letting me know it was ok. The direction got clearer, as I felt myself going around in circles, over and over, dizzying; the more violently the waters twisted, the more a voice assured me I was helpless and safe, and the more I believed it.
Wherever I was going, the path was getting brighter and brighter, until I opened my eyes and realized why. Surrounding me was a haze vague enough to resemble the space around my seat at the diner across from the motel, while the space of my table and booth seats were as clear as if I was really there. I looked around to see the dark shapes of people in that haze. I reached out to touch beyond the clarity, and it felt like caressing clouds. I looked back to the seat facing me and found Maelstrom sitting like she was in our second or third meeting, back in jeans and a black t-shirt, smiling that knowing smile at me.
"Welcome back," she told me simply in mind speech.
"Is this for real?" I ask back in the same way.
"As real as can be, under the circumstances."
"Why am I back here?"
"I figured it would help your senses to bring you back to a familiar place, where you felt safe."
"You mean a place where it was easy to manipulate me."
That made Maelstrom shake her head as if extremely amused.
"If you haven't noticed, I can manipulate you pretty much anywhere. You don't make it that hard for me any, wanting it so badly; but then you do make it 'hard' for me, I guess," she got a good laugh at her lewd joke.
"Is this why you brought me here? Bad jokes?"
"The overall answer is still curiosity. And that notion in you wishing me feline is very amusing, Byron."
"What the hell is there left to be curious about? I think you've tested this power pretty thoroughly enough with me, don't you think?"
"Not nearly, Byron. Every time we're together, I seem to learn something new, in more ways than one. As deep as I've gone with you, I've learned that different minds under the flame all seem to have their own signatures to them. It's like...it's kind of like ice cream flavors. Everyone's a little different, but in ways that count."
"What's my flavor?" I dared ask, fearing which one she'd pick. Out of the haze and as if on cue, a waitress' hand delivered a hot fudge-covered banana split, with whipped cream, sprinkles, and a cherry on top.
"My favorite," she began digging in with her spoon, slowly savoring every last taste with her spoon. At that point, I'd hoped she didn't order one for me, as I preferred milkshakes. On cue, a chocolate banana milkshake was placed in-front of me with the same toppings. I stared at it and her for the longest time while she enjoyed her sundae, wondering what the risks were in trying it. Curiosity got the better of me too, and I began sipping on mine, savoring the best thing I'd had all day.
"Is this really real? Will we still have this taste on our mouths and ice cream in our stomachs away from this space?"
"We'll see, whenever we leave."
"Am I allowed to go right now?"
"Is my little moth in such a rush to leave?" The tip of her front tress glowed orange in anticipation. I denied the part or me hoping for it by slamming my hand on the table, not bothering to look up and see if that drew attention from the haze.
"Would you stop playing for once Maelstrom? Do you not realize we're both consorting with the enemy? If this isn't some kind of manipulative trap you're just setting up for me, and this is all genuinely about curiosity, how long do you think this can last? Today, we could be friends or lovers or whatever you want out of me. But tomorrow, the next day, or eventually, someone from Epsilon could kill you, or Heirguild could kill me. Or, one of us will be given orders to kill the other. And what then? What is this worth once it comes down to that?"
Setting her spoon down in the bowl, staring at me plainly, her face took the most serious look I'd ever seen her give. It took her a while, with some considerate breaths, before she answered.
"What was the first word I ever really spoke to you?"
"And our truce still stands. If Epsilon gives you the orders to, will you try to kill me?"
Imagining her on some battleground, wounded, standing over her with a gun or whatever would deliver a fatal blow, I held the answer silently to myself for a while.
A small smile reappeared on her face.
"And if Hierguild orders me to kill you, they're not going to like my answer."
Her words almost made me smile.
"And if one of us has to kill someone else from Epsilon or Hierguild, does the truce still apply?"
We both knew that was me subtly begging her not to kill anyone from my team, as easily as she could. "It applies."
I heaved a bigger sigh than I meant to, from our treaty essentially saving both teams for the immediate future.
"Now can you stop worrying so much?"
"No," my quick, honest answer nearly made her laugh musically.
"You like people fearing you, don't you?"
"It keeps most assholes away, and most moths in a fun conundrum, fearing the irresistible flame that could burn them away."
"You sound like a pyromaniac, Maelstrom."
"Would that make you a pyro-slut, Byron?"
"Hey, I'm not a..." Blazing eyes halted my speech.
"I"m sorry, what are you? Something in her eyes pushed play again, but made what came out breathless.
"P-pyro...ssslut." As soon as she got what she wanted, her eyes playfully fluttered back to normal. I slurped the remainder of my shake to cool off.
"...if this is going to keep up, can you at least stop messing with me while I'm at Epsilon?"
"Hell no. And 'if'? That's as cute as you are."
I blamed her fire on why I was so close to blushing.
"The number of reasons keep growing, but try refuting this one: we both stand somewhat apart from our groups, and that leads to living inside one's head; that gets lonely. I can't lie in saying that I like having you in my head in some way." I felt her pant leg rubbing against mine, and from that contact trails of blissful flames traveled over my body, just as they did when her hand reached out to cover mine on the table. "And you obviously love having me in yours..."
Tipping my head back from the onslaught of pleasure burning me, the sound of Maelstrom's voice went with me as I floated away from the booth and back to the dark waters of normal meditation, until I woke back up in my own room on the floor. My legs ached, letting me know how long I'd co-meditated with Maelstrom. The automatic doubt in my head still went off about me being played, but knowing I was helpless against it, and taking my "nemesis" at her word, let myself laugh about where I stood, getting on with my day, in a surer mood than how it started.
Later that night, wondering about where I stood and how things came to be that way, my dreams took me back to the warehouse, and the water I'd sunk in for some reason. I was sinking down, unable to swim back up or reach any kind of help. It all seemed hopeless, until a glowing orange light in the distance came closer, and more into focus. The light had such a powerful draw to it that forces beyond my control moved me closer to it, following the light source. Closing in, light highlighted the shape of a woman; she looked like a siren, the way she glided so majestically in water. When I was close enough, I reached out to touch her arm, she turned quickly to face me.
She wore Maelstrom's face, but bore the sharp teeth of the ugly angler fish, smiling a vicious smile. I screamed loudly, expending all my air, panicking as she pulled me to her face. My senses alit, expecting my mouth to be ripped apart, but all I felt was familiar, assertive lips kissing mine, as if trying to absorb all the fear she induced. Feeding me oxygen and passion, I kissed her back hard, relishing my savior. Eventually we pulled back, and her mouth still looked ugly, but the fire in her eyes told me it was beautiful, and I grinned dumbly at how quickly she'd changed my definition of beauty.
That thought shook me awake, looking around as if expecting to find my tormentor nearby. "Son of a..." Hot chuckling and biting into my shoulder again told me she wasn't that far away, relatively. I went back to sleep, trying not to smile at the cruel joke.