Dreams of the amazing night before, of the amazing woman living in my head, felt too slippery to keep hold of. They were slowly pulled out of my desperate grasp, the heat from them replaced with a hollow cold, frigid in ways I couldn't describe. Eventually I woke, a cold sweat evidence of my losing struggles. I woke feeling shitty in multiple ways; anxious, cold, weak, the only one solvable at the time I woke was hunger. Trying to shake my head clear, putting on sweats and a shirt, I walked out of my room disheveled and a little disorientated. I barely acknowledged the looks and sounds of concern I got from people I'd passed by. The team at breakfast in the kitchen area, they looked as if a zombie walked in the room, looking to eat them.
Wordlessly shifting around them for sustenance, I reached for crackers and water, things I knew that could be downed immediately; before I could take a sip or rip open a package to eat, numbness shot through me, from my spine, filtering throughout my body. Everyone else's look of panic coming to my aid looked so strange compared to the uncaring listlessness. Half-lidded eyes and to be the ones telling the rest of my senses that I was being carried, shuttled in a hurry. Overhead lights passing by easily resembled a flashlight checking my eyes for responsiveness. I wanted to tell them that nothing was wrong, but lazy lips kept that a secret. Once my eyes shut, all I knew was a numb darkness. Comfortably blank compared to previous, feverish dreams, I didn't even try to fight what easily washed over me, absently wondering about abstract concepts like why, and about Meredith...
When it seemed through with me, that darkness let me go, letting my eyes flutter open. Resurrecting a sense of self came in small increments, first feeling the fluttering eyelids, then the face and body attached to them, then the attached leads and inserted tubes connected to beeping monitors next to a bed that wasn't mine. How bright and sterile everything looked told me I was in Epsilon's infirmary, surrounded by a sea of machines surrounding my bed. I looked around to see evidence of empty chairs facing my bed, and a desk nearby with papers strewn about. Some of them had my name on them, and I wondered why.
Fear filled me as I'd wondered if my earlier collapsing had lead to something worse, as if I should've expected some debilitating condition. To my surprise, I felt perfectly fine, like I'd finally caught up with rest needed after pulling a few all-nighters. Trying to get out of bed haphazardly felt weird, pulling everything off and out of my body, worse when McGraw rushed in to try put the leads back on and keep me in bed. I brushed past him with ease, trying not to rush to make my medical gown reveal anything, heading straight to the nearest bathroom. Getting back to the room I woke up in, McGraw looked like my walking back in normally was a miracle.
"...how are you feeling?"
"Honestly, confused. I feel rested and healthy, but you look like I should be looking or feeling terminal," I joked, then sobered up to the possibility of there being truth to humor.
"For a while there, it could've been for all we knew. Did you take any medication or something recently?"
"Not that I know of."
"Whatever you came down with was weird; we considered medivac to the hospital Radio is at, if your symptoms didn't seem like an inexplicable mismatch that would perplex the average doctor."
"Medivac after only being out a few hours? Really?"
"Half, you've been out for going on three days."
I looked at him like he was trying to make a joke of his own, hoping a laugh that never came would prove his words a ruse.
"You went from exhaustion, to the flu, to severe pain, to comatose last night; we were preparing for the worst last night, but now all your vitals read like nothing happened at all."
"...what kind of pain was I in?"
"Some kind of back pain; you kept reaching for your back, we had to restrain you for a while."
"Maybe my Hierarchy cured me?"
"Good guess, though can't be sure. Whatever you were cured of, it scared the hell out of everybody. Whole place was quarantined for two days, but thankfully whatever you had doesn't seem at all contagious. Ironically the only person who wouldn't have minded being here wasn't, Dr. Kasdien."
"He's still not back?"
"Returning tomorrow, but we spent a lot of time on the phone gauging your condition. I can't imagine how long and thorough your next examination will be."
I kept it to myself about not letting it be long and thorough, having a pretty good theory on why this all happened, and I wasn't interested in sharing or being poked and prodded to hell and back. Keeping silent seemed the best option, until McGraw blocked my exit. I didn't need the Hier-half to physically move him, letting words do it instead.
"Look, you're going to say 'tests still need to be done' or 'there are quarantine protocols to consider' or something like that. We're both smart enough to know that you've tested up the wazoo by now, and you would've mentioned anyone else catching whatever I had by now. Your tests found nothing concrete, and found nothing in anyone else you tested. So really, right now, you've got no reason to keep me from a hot shower and meal I'm willing to call 'decent' after not having had food in a few days."
Maybe one of the side-effects of my affliction was sassy reasoning fueled by apathy toward protocols I knew for a fact were useless. Whatever the reason, my response confounded McGraw enough to give him little reason to keep me from heading deeper into the compound, and back to my room. I shocked passerbys down the hallway again, this time for seeming normal, giving them no attention as I got a long, hot shower, followed by a fairly-decent bowl of chicken noodle soup. A visit from Director Petersen and Expender thankfully came at the tail-end of my meal.
"You gave this place quite a scare, Half," the director spoke plainly.
"Sorry about that. Everyone alright?"
"Thankfully, yes." Danielle responded, an unsubtle hint of feeling vexed in her voice. "Any idea how that happened?"
"If I had to guess, maybe getting a solid handle on my powers that last time came with some blowback. Really hoping it's a one-time thing."
"You're going to need 24 more hours of quarantine, just as a precaution."
Unlike McGraw, or Expender, no matter how angry she got, I didn't bother arguing with Petersen, and made a simple compromise.
"In my room, not the infirmary."
"Done," Petersen agreed, a little to my interim team leader's surprise. I knew she and probably everyone else at the compound would've preferred infirmary restriction, being set aside from pretty much everything else, but being confined to a small space again demanded at least privacy for the sake of sanity. And at least from my room, Kasdien's office was a lot less of a pain to access. Waiting out daylight with patience and a few naps, just a little after sundown was the security shift-change; I took advantage like last time and made it into Kasdien's office. Fortunately I knew he hadn't come back early; his first stop would've been to drag me to his office for testing. And unlike last time, I had some key information to go on, searching his computer for the name "Meredith."
It got narrowed search results almost instantly, several confirming that Meredith was Maelstrom. Unfortunately, save for some notes or proposed theories and experiments, everything was heavily redacted to a great degree. Even trying to reference where the info led to with physical documents in his drawers were mostly redacted to. It was worrisome why an employee of secret Hierarch strike-force guarded his own secrets to this degree, but I concentrated on the small bits of exposed information, committed to memory to write down later. Slipping out of the office was fortunately as easy as in, returning to my room none the wiser.
By the time I got back to my room, noticeably circulating heat within proved beyond the thrill of light espionage, heat synonymous with Maelstrom had returned in-full. Thinking about Meredith's name with deep consideration might've inadvertently called out to her. I could feel her, lightly probing my head, a ghostly touch like hands covering my head. Seated on my bed, it was easy to just let her do as she wished, just happy to feel the sensations again. I had questions, but something silently communicated to me that then wasn't the time to ask, to just enjoy. When she was done, all I could feel through subdued senses was a kiss pressed to my forehead, and something whispered in my ear, leaving a wave of drowsiness to drown in, and a mental image of an orange-glowing gaze, ordering me to tuck myself in and sleep. I moaned at how good it felt to do so, to do what she told me, whispering her name into a deep, pleasant slumber.
The next morning felt exceptionally better than the last few, like all was right with the world. Even waking to Kasdien ushering me toward a battery of tests didn't spoil my mood, not my internal one anyway. Outwardly, it was fun feigning ignorance, displeasing the doctor with frustrating question marks and almost no answers. What I remember couldn't clarify anything, and any symptoms I physically suffered seemed wiped clean as my Hier-half somehow sanitized whatever made me sick. Deprived of a sign of any kind of breakthrough with a Hierarch power that obviously impressed him, he sent me off in silent anger, and me suppressing a smile until I was far enough away from his office.
It was almost noon by the time tests were done; heading towards food, I came across my team who'd just returned from a mission, looking as sunny as how I'd left Dr. Kasdien. The details weren't known, but the result was obvious from deflated expressions and body language. Expender, Copula, and B&B all looked like they had their asses handed to them. Expender especially gave me a dirty look, but didn't explain why I got it, trying to keep her anger to herself as she stormed towards her room; I took that as a cue to grab a sandwich and eat it in my room.
"Want to know why she's so upset?"
The playful tone graced my ears unexpectedly; I didn't jolt from the surprise, but I got to my room at an un-leisurely pace.
"I give up. Why?"
"They should've given up too, without you to save them. They obviously weren't expecting me, as it seemed even easier to take care of them than before."
How amused she sounded painted an even clearer picture of how bad Epsilon got embarrassed yet again; I didn't want to laugh, yet couldn't help but smile at how their "weakest" member stood a better chance than the rest of them combined so far.
"That sandwich any good?"
"Don't know about good. It's edible, so that's something."
"Maybe if you close your eyes, and imagine a better sandwich, it'll taste better."
My eyelids closed before she finished her sentence, and my body started floating away before I could even lift my arm to take a bite of the barely adequate sandwich. Opening my eyes brought me back, to the hazy booth table of our favorite diner, sitting across from the goth beauty wearing a Cheshire grin.
"...or maybe I'll just have better options to choose from all of a sudden."
"You're welcome," she smiled at me, ushering to a waitress walking away from a table with a hand. She looked confused as if someone was really there, until a few orange flashes cleared up her confusion, and apparently ordered food for us.
"Before you tell me about how bad you've made my team look again, can you explain what's been happening the last few days?"
"That's a bit...complicated."
"If you went through something, I pretty sure I shared some of whatever you were feeling too, which is weird since right before you sent me away from the motel room, you didn't have a lot of energy left in you. I didn't even know you're powers could be finite or have limits."
She shook her head, solemnly acknowledging what I was saying.
"Apparently I overestimated what I could do in a short time frame. Maybe it was too much experimentation, or too much fun, all at once. I was lucky in having enough power to get us back. I passed out as soon as I was back at Hierguild, and the next morning I felt even worse. The doctors had to do some kind of procedure on me, as if I overextended and ruptured something."
"They couldn't tell. All I know is that it was a weird mix of pain and numb, and then things got easier and back-to-normal all of a sudden."
"Same here. And honestly, if we're sharing this much, the back-to-normal might've come from me. My doctors think my Hierarchy worked as a cure-all for what we went through."
"If you're responsible for that, thank you." I could feel how much she was downplaying the discomfort she'd felt, but didn't want to press too much on it.
"And for that matter, why is our diner situation hazy while the motel was for real?" I touched the cloudiness around us, the sensation against my fingertips felt like air vapor.
"This is something I'm able to absently manifest. Bringing us to an area already filled with people would cause too much fuss. We're here enough that only certain people would know, like a waitress normally serving customer, and blissfully serving her favorites," the mentioned waitress walked by, glancing at our table longer than she meant, beset by a flash of fire in my dining companion's eyes.
"That's still hard to understand," I answered honestly.
"Like I said, it's absently done at will. If I had to guess, part of it is emotionally-powered, like a part of me deep inside really wants it that way, here with you, under these conditions. Maybe one day I'll understand it myself."
As honest as her response seemed, acceptance was all I could convey with a nod before speaking again. "Well, despite how you feel about time and emotional abilities, let's pace ourselves with pushing boundaries in the future, at least to ensure that we have a future to look forward to, okay?"
Despite catching some hesitation to my suggestion, I gave it little thought as our meals arrived, with a tasty-looking sub sandwich was placed in-front of me. Definitely more than edible compared to what was back at Epsilon, I enjoyed the hell out of the sandwich, letting it satisfy my initial hunger before she fed my curiosity about her last battle.
"How would it feel knowing that someone else in Epsilon got hypnotized?
It felt like I was glad no food or water was in my throat to react to that.
"They know about that power now?"
"No, only one knew, and they aren't allowed to remember it happened."
"It's more fun not to tell, and even more fun to have you guess who. It was fun getting to all of them with a little divide and conquer. Just like horror movies, they split up to cover more ground, unaware that any danger was close-by. One of them should've known, except for the fact that a...colored perception..." The end of her hanging tress shined silvery, as her black t-shirt and jeans turned to an Epsilon jumpsuit. "One may have mistaken me for a teammate, and the other for...how did the twins put it...'cray-crayola'?"
It was easy to see what she was describing, ingeniously, visually switching her own image to make the other attack the fake Maelstrom.
"With one down, and the next one panicked, I think it was safest for everyone involved if that person was peacefully disarmed of their powers. A little green in their diet never hurt anyone..." The tress flashed green, as her finger tips hovered inches above my arms, threatening to take away a power I was pretty sure was dormant then, imagining more who could've panicked the most once their powers weren't there to help.
"Of course, that one would run and call for help for the nearest teammate. They'd reach them, not knowing they'd put their friend in quite the bind..." As she spoke, our empty plates were taken away, and a shake with two straws was placed in-front of us. I would've reached for it, except the red-shining tress revealed why I felt wrapped up in binding ropes, not letting me move my legs, or lift my arms to reach for what was surely another banana-split shake. Watching those black lips sip the pale, sweet liquid had me trying to move against the bindings, failing miserably to the joy of mischievous eyes.
"And that last teammate, knowing all of their friends were defeated, knowing they were the last one standing, and wouldn't be standing for much longer. Desperate to find their friends, but rightly scared of me finding them, alone. How scared they might be. How scared you were when we met, when I was on top. How little that fear mattered against the inevitable, against an earnest, deep look in my eyes..."
Knowing it was coming, more patient than expected for it, seeing that tress turn orange made me focus on amber, drawing me closer as the ropes miraculously disappeared, bound instead by something stronger.
"Just a little moth mode gave them peace of mind, enough not to worry about anything. To put their fears aside and relax, kneeling and giving in, suddenly the already-determined outcome felt so right, they could hardly complain. Maybe they wanted my attack to end quickly, until they felt it, and then all they wanted was for it to not end."
She paused, taking a long sip of her drink, staring at me as if drinking my essence along with her dessert.
"But who was under me then? Who was the lucky recipient of cray-crayola's special powers of persuasion? How heavy were their bodies? How light-headed were their minds? How laxed were their muscles? How soft were their thoughts? How deep was their breathing? How controlled was their mind? How does it feel, feeling my power, absorbed by it, knowing others are equally susceptible? Knowing you're so enamored and enraptured that just the suggestion of my power taking others gets you interested enough to fall all by yourself? A moth to your own flame within, fanned and sparked by me."
Something in her words made me realize her eyes remained amber, a beautiful color that made the descent into her control slower, something easier to savor, equally appealing to her instantaneously-hypnotic flame.
"Do you know how hot that thought is? Do you know what that tastes like?" It was like she was talking more to herself, as she knew I couldn't easily respond, and I knew she was somehow more aroused than I was. Setting the shake aside, she pulled me close to a kiss across the table. She was right about how hot, and how good it tasted. I couldn't get enough, tongue wrestling for the remaining flavor in her mouth, then left with kissing Meredith, which I never wanted to end. How irresistible she was, to her opponents, to her lover, I groaned as I tried to move closer, almost crossing over the table. She pushed me back to my seat firmly, and a flash of orange commandingly kept me there.
"But like you said, 'let's pace ourselves with pushing boundaries.'"
Amber brightened to fire as she knowingly teased me but kept me in place. She winked at me with her hypnotic gaze, before reality shifted back to my dorm room.
All I could do then was lie in bed, frustrated but smiling. The compulsion to cap that experience off with a little self-relief was curtailed by a stronger one; no matter how badly I wanted it, my hand knew it wasn't allowed to reach the throbbing excitement in my pants.
"Fuckin' Meredith," I groaned.
"You wish," she spoke with maddening sincerity, bearing soft giggling in my ear, knowing she'd "defeated" five Epsilon members that day.