"Okay. Stage one, go," Alex whispered. From somewhere to the left of where he was crouched, he heard Nico moving through the bushes. On his right, he saw the unmistakable glint of Karolina's glow between the slightly swaying leaves. He couldn't see or hear Old Lace or Gert, but they weren't supposed to move until stage three. Chase was (hopefully) still waiting on the other side of the building. Everything was in place.
He smirked to himself as Nico and Karolina slipped out and easily dispatched the automated guards protecting one of their parents' hidden caches of weapons. It was even better than he'd planned it. They didn't make a single sound.
Stage two was a no-brainer; they could have done it in their sleep. Even Chase.
"Gert, stage three," he said, even if she couldn't hear him from where she was hiding. She knew the drill. They were all getting better at listening, and especially getting better at working together. He was almost proud. In moments like these, he almost wished they could stay like this.
When they walked away without so much as a scrape, he wasn't surprised. It wasn't like he'd expected much resistance; he'd made this particular plan knowing that none of their parents would be there, knowing that losing this cache wasn't going to be much of a blow to the Pride's ultimate goal. That was the whole point. Still, it felt good when his plans unfolded without a single hitch. Even he was grinning as they started back for their latest hideout.
"Did you see?" Chase was saying animatedly to Gert, his hands moving wildly. Nico was eyeing his gloves warily and keeping her distance.
"I saw. Can you point those things somewhere else?" Gert replied, giving him a look. He did lower his hands, but only until he launched into another play-by-play. Gert ducked away, while Molly listened with rapt attention.
Flying a few feet above their heads, Karolina whooped and rolled in the air while Old Lace let out what sounded like a happy snort on the ground. Gert reached up and absently scratched under her neck. As they walked back together, celebrating their easy victory, it seemed like it was going to be a wholly uneventful night. No secrets were going to be divulged tonight. No surprises were lurking around the next corner. Alex started to let his guard down.
Which was probably why, when they were about halfway back, the other contingent of their parents' robotic creations finally caught up with them. There was nowhere to run and no time to react. Before Alex could blink or shout even the beginning of a direction, they were up against a wall and surrounded by metal nightmares.
Even if he'd had a plan - and he didn't - there was no chance to tell anyone about it. One minute they were walking home, and the next everything was complete and utter chaos. Alex caught a glimpse of Old Lace rushing toward Gert, Chase, and Molly before he was overwhelmed. He felt metallic limbs coming up around his waist, seizing him, pulling him away from the others. To his left, he saw them doing the same to Nico and Karolina. Karolina managed to break free in a burst of radiant colors, but Nico didn't fare as well.
"Keep them back-" he tried to yell, but it was too late. He was being dragged away with Nico, who couldn't seem to get the Staff of One out with her arms strapped to her sides. They were being separated from the others, pulled away, pulled down-
Towards a dark, yawning chasm that suddenly seemed to have opened up in the ground, he realized, but no amount of struggling was going to free him before he was pulled into it. He forced himself to be still and breathe, because right now his wits were the only thing he had.
"Nico-" came Karolina's voice, but it was too late.
They were pulled underground, and then a roughly-hewn stone door above them slammed shut. Whoever their captors were, they disappeared as fast as everything else. Only moments after they'd been laughing and walking home with the others, Alex and Nico were alone in the dark.
For a few seconds they were both quiet and seemingly paralyzed. It took effort for Alex to shake himself into action. He began to feel around until he found the left wall on one side of them, then the right on the other - bumping Nico in the process, but she didn't say anything.
"It's some kind of hallway," he said. "I don't think we're very far down, but there's no way we're going back up the way we came in. I guess we'll just have to follow it until we find another way."
"I could use the Staff-"
"Don't waste it unless we have to. You never know when something will be useful again, and how many light spells can there be? It's just a bit dark. Come on." He tugged gently on her arm, and she followed him.
They set off and walked for a long time, down some kind of corridor carved into the rock beneath the city. Occasionally Alex held out his arm until Nico bumped into it, and they stopped to listen. Each time, when they didn't hear anything, they kept walking.
Some indeterminable amount of time later, when they'd been walking for long enough that it didn't seem like they were about to be ambushed, Alex felt Nico sliding her hand into his. He gripped tight - for her sake, he told himself, not his. They kept walking, hand-in-hand. Even knowing what he knew about their parents, even having made his decision and never looking back, he was still glad she was with him, there in the dark and the silence. They might as well have been the only two people left in the entire world.
Finally, after what seemed like hours, they emerged into a massive, lowly-lit cavern somewhere deep beneath Los Angeles. At first Alex thought the light was coming from the floor, but then he saw that it was emanating from around the edges of the walls, a long, slithering ribbon of phosphorescence. The far end of the room was so distant that he couldn't quite make it out, but he thought he saw a dark spot that could be an opening. He pointed it out and they began to cross the floor, moving a little more cautiously than before. Something felt wrong here. It felt like he was missing something important.
And then, somewhere in the middle of the room, dark shapes began to rise.
At first he thought they were robots, exactly like the ones that had dragged them down here in the first place. But there was something different about them - an odd, shimmering quality, like there was electricity coursing through them. Approaching them without more information didn't seem to be the wisest action they could take, so he held up his hand to stop Nico from moving forward. Side-by-side, they held their ground.
"Who are you?" he said, as bravely as he could manage. There was nothing in the Abstract that had mentioned something like this. For the first time since all of this began, he was lost. For the first time, he was empty-handed and without a plan. Helpless. He really didn't like the feeling.
"We will not harm you," they intoned, all as one, each voice the same. Alex felt rather than saw Nico shiver.
"Who are you?" he repeated.
"We will not harm you. Stay where you are. Help is coming." Still that same eerie chorus, still perfectly in unison.
"Who put you here?" Alex tried next. "What is your purpose?"
"We will not harm you."
"You're lying," Nico snapped. She brandished the Staff of One defensively in front of her, but as a physical weapon, it wasn't good for much. "You're working for our parents - for the Pride!"
"We will not harm you," they repeated once more. It was some kind of programming, but Alex had no idea how sophisticated it was.
"Fine!" Nico shouted. "If you won't tell us the truth, then-"
It was a second too late when Alex realized what Nico was planning. He'd been so focused on coming up with a plan to deal with this new enemy that he'd been caught off-guard by his own teammate. He hadn't been thinking ahead, hadn't been listening closely enough. "Nico, no-" Out of pure desperation, he lunged for her, his hands wrapping around the Staff of One. It burned his fingers as it spit and hissed with bright yellow light. He held on tight anyway.
But it was too late.
"Truth," Nico said, and the light from the Staff expanded until the whole world was lit up in gold. The figures standing in front of them flickered and vanished, nothing more than an illusion left by their parents, a trap to lure and catch whomever was stupid enough to venture into one of their lairs.
Gert's parents' work, probably, Alex had a chance to think, before it didn't matter anymore.
He was standing in his bedroom. His mother was there. His father was standing beside her. Their hands were on his shoulders, and they were talking. Telling him how proud they were. Telling him he was doing the right thing. Telling him about the world they were going to create for him.
He was holding the Abstract in his hands. It was glowing, pulsating softly. He was staring down at it, his eyes lit up with wonder.
Don't betray us, Alex, said his parents. We're your parents, Alex. We love you, Alex. We always know what's best for you, Alex. Don't ever betray us.
Never, never, never, he said. Never. Over and over and over he said it, a litany, a promise. I would die first.
Truth, Nico said, and Alex's whole world came apart at the seams.
When it was over and the light had faded away, they were still standing in exactly the same place - only Nico had backed away from Alex. She was holding the Staff up between them like a shield.
"How-" She was stunned almost to the point of incomprehension. He'd never seen her eyes so wide. He'd never seen anyone wearing an expression like hers, in fact; he'd never seen what betrayal looked like before. He'd imagined it on his parents' faces, but it had never looked like that. It had never been so cold. "How could you-"
One word. One word was all it took. One spell, and everything he'd been planning fell apart. One misstep. One second of broken concentration and nothing would ever be the same.
There were a lot of explanations he could give. His first instinct was to go with the logical one, to tell her that he'd thought this through, mapped out every approach, and this one was the best one. But the others weren't swayed by logic like he was. They'd proven that over and over since they ran away. They all let themselves be ruled by emotion.
His second instinct was to lie.
What he ended up with was somehow both of those things at once, and also the pure and simple truth: "Because they're my parents."
It all came down to that in the end, really. They were doing the right thing. He knew they were, because they were good people. Because they always did the right thing. It might seem wrong from where the others were standing, but that was only because they hadn't seen the whole picture yet.
And if there was a nagging voice in the back of his head insisting that he needed to think, it was only because everything was still happening too fast to formulate a plan.
"I trusted you." Nico's hand had come up over her mouth, and she was staring at him with so much horror that he almost recoiled physically from her. He swallowed and forced himself not to react. "You're the traitor. You've been- this whole time- all this time... Alex, I trusted you. We all trusted you."
"Nico, they're our parents. How can you just turn your back on them? After everything they've done for us? After they raised us, taught us everything we know, took care of us for our entire lives?"
"I don't care about any of that," Nico snapped. It was like a switch flicked, and suddenly she went from betrayal to anger without anything in between. Her expression had gone from horrified to resolute.
For just a moment, Alex was dumbfounded. "... What?"
"I mean, you're right! They're our parents. I should be loyal to them, shouldn't I? It's not like I stopped loving them just because they're evil. You're right. I don't know what they're doing, not really. But you know what I do know? They killed someone. They tried to hurt my friends. That's what matters to me. It has to, because if it doesn't, then-" She drew in a sharp breath. "It wasn't real for you, was it? None of it. You were just- manipulating me. Manipulating all of us into doing what our parents want."
He was supposed to be the smart one. The logical one. The one who always knew what to say, where to apply the right pressure. But right now he felt like he didn't know anything at all. "I can't," he said helplessly. "I'm sorry. I do care about you, Nico. I promise that I do. I just can't betray my parents."
"Then walk away."
"Walk away. I won't stop you. But Alex? If you walk away now, you lose something you can't get back."
"Your dignity. And me." Nico met his eyes. There was a cold, determined look in hers. "You lose me. Forever. Because Alex? I won't ever stop, not even if they kill me."
It hurt as much as if she'd slapped him across the face. Truth be told, it stung worse than anything anyone had ever said to him. It wasn't like it was easy, lying to his friends. Choosing his parents over people who trusted him. It wasn't like he'd ever had a choice, but that didn't make it easy. He'd learned to steel himself against the sting and lock it away somewhere it couldn't touch him, and so he was doing that right now. Turning around, preparing to go. Reformulating his strategy in his head.
But then he did the one thing he'd thought he never would.
As if seizing on the opportunity, Nico took a step forward. "Do you really want to be a member of the Pride, Alex? Really? You really believe in what our parents are doing? Not just because they're your parents, not just because they always seemed like good people, but because it makes sense? Because it's what you want to do? Just tell me that. Tell me you genuinely believe in it."
"... No," he admitted, in a rush of breath that left him reeling. He reached out for something to hold onto, but there was nothing, so he balled his hand into a fist instead.
"So how can you stand there and look me in the eyes and say that you're going along with their plan?"
"I don't buy it!" she snapped. "You play all those superhero games. You idolize Captain America. You have to know what our parents are doing, what they're really doing. You have to see that it's- it's evil! You're just lying to yourself because it's easier than facing the truth."
One simple little word and everything he'd ever done, every thought he'd ever had, made no sense anymore. Just one word and he was forced into a choice he'd never planned on making. He could still walk away from her and his parents would welcome him back. He could help them build their utopia.
But it would be a very empty world without any friends to share it with.
"If you're not going anywhere, then I'm going to go now," she said calmly, after she exhaled slowly and unclenched her fists, releasing her iron grip on the Staff. "Follow me if you're ready to do the right thing. Otherwise-" She swallowed, visibly even in the low light of the underground cavern. "Otherwise I never want to see you again."
And just like that, she did exactly as she'd promised: she walked away towards the opening on the opposite side of the cavern and left him standing in the dark, alone with his thoughts. Every excuse he'd ever made turned to ash in his mouth when he tried to yell at her to stop. He sank down to his knees, and his hands came up to clutch at the sides of his head. He'd never made a choice like this before. For a moment, with the shadows pressing in on all sides, he thought he might never move from this spot again.
Stay or go. His parents or his friends. Pointless idealism or a utopian future, childhood idols or power beyond reckoning. His head or his heart.
He stood up. He cast his eyes first back the way he'd came, then in the direction Nico had walked when she left him.
He followed her.
Three days later, they were standing in the park near the observatory, looking out at the lights of the city. Nico wasn't quite back to resting her head on his shoulder or kissing his cheek, but she wasn't looking at him like he was a monster, either. She was standing close enough that he could have reached out and touched her.
It was a start.
"I don't know, Nico," he said quietly. "They're way more powerful than us. We have the Abstract, but they've always been a few steps ahead of y- of us," he amended. "They have more pieces of the puzzle than we do. Even if... I don't know if there's a way to defeat them."
"We have each other." She said it like it was so simple, so blindingly obvious. He wished he could think that way. Everything would be a lot simpler.
For a moment, he was quiet. He leaned against the wall, and tried to think of the right way to ask the question that had been hovering at his lips since he emerged from the cavern and found her waiting for him. "Aren't you going to tell the others?"
"No. Not unless you want me to." She glanced at him. He didn't see anything in her face that suggested she was lying.
"How can you just-?"
"Forgive you?" she said wryly. "How could I not?"
"I can't hate you for doing what we were all thinking, Alex. All I can do is give you another chance. Just-" She looked away. "Don't waste it."
It struck him then that he believed her. Believed in her. She'd been looking to him since this started. Maybe it was time he started looking to her.
"Okay," he said grimly, as he prepared to - metaphorically - roll up his sleeves and get to work. "So... where do we start?"