The skylines of the Megalopolis cities were something that Gabe really thought he would never get over. He hadn't been too old when the world began to change, but he could still remember how much the old cities paled in comparison. High rises dotted with old and crumbling architecture held nothing to the new towers and their neon glow. The bottoms of them were impossible to see from his apartment-- pent house-- do to the smog and other pollutants that were still pumped into the air. Regardless, those bowels held no interest to Gabe. What kept him looking out the windohad been a large fire burning some distance off. In the background he could hear the television, a female reporter speaking excitedly about what had been taking place a few miles behind her. The camera, a special design that could reduce anything between it and it's target to a strange set of skeletal x-ray lines, captured the inferno that she could not get to.
"…Which happened nearly two hours ago. Fire and police have yet to be able to enter any part of the structure due to the warehouse's contents.
"As what has recently become public knowledge, EnviroMark has begun mass production of the newest, and, reportedly, cleanest biofuel to be created. A spokesman, in a press conference last week, said that the fuel burns hotter and longer than any currently marketed ignition source. The warehouse was one of three storage facilities that were housing the fuel in preparation for their consumer launch later this month. Any casualties are unknown at this time, but the company has informed emergency responders that as much as 50 people could have been working in the warehouse at the time of the explosion." Gabe rose his glass to his lips mechanically, hardly even registering it as the common gesture went through its paces. The fire was only a small part of what his attention had been fixated on. What he really cared about had been the skies above it, the ground around it, everything he couldn't actually see from his vantage point, but one he almost felt like he was in.
The months prior were spent planning. It was no secret in the high-class society he held court with that EnviroMark had made the new fuel. The members of their cabinet boasted endlessly, small hints that, when put together, only meant that they had come up with something amazing. They weren't a rival company, not at all, but an amazing fuse to the powder keg. All it had taken after that was to find a suitable lighter and watch the fireworks. The fireworks weren't his focus as stated, though. He was there to watch the spectators. He was the watcher of the actors and the actors were doing everything right thus far.
Gabe had learned early that what he was capable of doing should not be flaunted. His father knew, his mother didn't. His sister didn't either, but he hadn't touched her mind in a long time. That was his kind way of saying breaking and entering on a psychic level-- he touched people. However, over the years he realized that that wasn't entirely true. He wasn't a muse, but a siren-- a herald of death to many. The tests, given at the age of ten for most, thirteen for him, were designed to determine if a child was gifted. There were rigorous tests, a wide range, but Gabe was smart. That was what the force gave him. No, not smart. He was brilliant. Brilliant and cunning and that made him strike out on every test. It wasn't like it had been impossible to beat when many powers hadn't been documented up to that point.
Brilliant, cunning, and sinister summed up Gabe's personality. He was ruthless and though it didn't show while he smiled and joked, acted pleasantly toward his peers and subordinates, he still really enjoyed a massacre. However, a massacre for the sake of a massacre had lost its flavor years ago. The power he held both socially and sub rosa made a massacre easy. What Gabe wanted, for once in his life, was a challenge.
The fire in the distance, fireworks to many, was actually a beacon. He wondered who would be drawn to it.
The plan was simple: several small incendiary bombs placed in precise locations to maximize the destruction. Gabe waited, made sure the tanks of the new fuel were full, and then sent in his agents. Agents was a lose term, since they were certainly not agents of their actions. They were merely mental extensions of him, acting out his will and nothing else. They made the bombs, unbeknownst even to themselves. They planted them and they killed all the in the warehouse. Only then, when they were safely away and the deed done, were the repressed memories allowed to come to the surface. They knew every gross detail of what they had done, and they would usually end up in a hospital somewhere for the rest of their lives, suffering through their misery. Many, Gabe knew, were good to some point. They just weren't strong enough to counter him. No one was it seemed.
Gabe made sure that they had no memories of him. Usually he met an agent by accident, a chance meeting in another facet of his life. He would take them then and keep the slightest hold on them, spiking when it was convenient. They would remember making the bombs, planting them, but the only thing Gabe purposely implanted in them was the knowledge that out there, somewhere, was a Mastermind that wasn't registered. That was the only breadcrumb that he would leave. It wasn't for the cops, it was for the Heroes; it was for those that decided to use their powers for good. Despite his fortune, his success, his wondrous life, Gabe was missing the most important thing. He was missing a nemesis.
Forty-five minutes before the explosion, Gabe had sat in his limo not far from the scene. He watched through the eyes of his agents as they moved, like mice in a maze, executing his plan. Steve Downie, his henchman, employed only to work with him during his plans, leaned back from the driver's seat and asked for the fifteenth time what had been happening. Downie was all brawn, no brains; prone to violent shifts in attitude and a mouth that would get lesser men's teeth punched in. His uses were limited. Though he was tough, he was easily controlled, even without Gabe's powers. He had all the right makings for an assistant, though Gabe often doubted that he was evil at heart. He was simply right for the job, and trustworthy to a fault. For the fifteenth time Gabe had told him to shut up, and they returned to silence once again. He directed the two men inside the building, gave all the proper access codes, and had them set the charges. He then walked them from the building, calm and cool, until they were several blocks away. That was when he dropped his domineering hold. He didn't free them entirely, though.
Gabe sat back with a huff and a soft grin, pleased with himself and with the months that had gone into the plan. There was no way that he could be thwarted, and he wasn't. He watched the explosion with muted pride, the small flame of joy over the destruction and death still there. He stepped out of the limo and Steve joined him, both watching the fire burn wild, hot, and unforgiving. He could imagine the screams and took satisfaction in them.
"Hey, we've got company," Downie said, interrupting Gabe's thoughts as he gestured up toward the sky. A man was there, flying over the scene. Gabe could see him from the eyes of one of his mental hostages, and recognized him from the many commercials he appeared in. He was an ambulance chaser, a Hero in name alone, unwarranted credit snatched from the deserving Heroes. There was no way that he could enter the inferno since his powers of flight alone were well documented. He had no ability to survive the heat. Gabe groaned and relaxed. It was easy to overtake him, the Hero that was certainly in the wrong place at the wrong time. His mind fell like a body to great swells as Gabe took control and dive-bombed the pathetic Hero into the fire. Downie watched and let out a long whistle, hands sliding into his pockets as a grin formed lopsidedly on his face.
"Alright, you could had a little more fun with that, but you get a ten for dramatic."
"Just hope thousands mourn the death of Flyboy. And may that terrible pseudonym die with him. Just as painfully." Gabe wasn't looking for any old pathetic Hero to stand against him. What he wanted was someone worthy of the title, someone that would tirelessly fight the tirade of a hidden enemy. He didn't need a poser pretending he could stand up to a horror they knew nothing about.
That had been the only Hero he had seen that night and he was sure, in the morning, when they could enter the building, they would find nothing. The only hint they would have that Flyboy was dead would be his absence from the public stage. Gabe slowly released the hold he had on the men completely. They would turn themselves in and the fiasco would start again. Gabe was no closer to what he wanted. There would just be more of a body count and no Hero opposing him.
"Y'know it's funny. If I didn't have to drive here I might have been able to save some people," Taylor Hall lamented as he kicked at a soot pile. The whole thing was reduced to basically nothing. I few high tempered beams remained, but they were bent and weak. Walls, containers, and victims were all just piles of burnt debris. Whoever had sabotaged the storage facility had known what they were doing and left not a trace. They had a man in custody, another being questioned, but the group of three Heroes knew that they weren't their men.
"There wasn't anything to do, man. Just like the others. Way out of our area." The voice of Taylor’s best friend came from some distance behind him. Jordan Eberle had been doing much of the same type of searching as Hall, sifting through piles that all held an equal chance of being what was left of the workers as they did being any number of other things. They both had long ago mastered not thinking about that, even with tragedies that left very human shapes.
Hall had been a long time member of the Heroes Guild. He had been affected by the Manostromatic Force quickly and ranked high in the tests. After that he had dedicated his time to his powers and came out strong in both will and force. They took him with little debate. Eberle's story differed slightly. His powers took a bit longer to manifest, and even then had been weaker. He had been destined to a life of working the normal task force. Still, he wanted to protect people, even if his powers were less than that needed to be a Hero. He joined the police force and was a beat cop in an outlying sector when he was dispatched to a building fire. Several of his squad mates were trapped inside and Eberle's powers had excelled ten fold under that stress. He saved every one of them and the Heroes Guild took him into their ranks shortly after.
"Still fucking suck, Ebs," Taylor said as he kicked another soot pile hard enough that he almost toppled over. Eberle straightened up and looked over, frowning but not commenting further. It wasn't the first time they had been late to somewhere, and definitely not the last, but it seemed that with the bombings of the magnitude that they had been walking through at that moment, they were always on the losing end. They never made it on time. It was almost like the people behind them knew the areas where Heroes would be and tried to draw them out of it.
A car door closed nearby and both men looked over automatically. Steven Stamkos, the third member of their little flock, had just arrived. For a man gifted with super human speed he always seemed to be the last to arrive anywhere. As he approached, the marker on his hand answered any question the other two had had as to why he was so late. The pretty boy of their group had once again stopped to sign things, too nice to tell fans no. The others were at least smart enough to not have let their home addresses become public knowledge. Steven was either too naive or too into the stardom to have thought that through.
"Well, late as always," Hall chirped, hands sliding into his pockets as he walked through the dirt to approach Stamkos. The other man moved just as slowly. They both extended their hands and shook tightly before Steven pushed passed him and looked around. Eberle had stayed several paces off and just nodded toward Steven. Jordan and Taylor were friends, and Steven was as well, though through circumstance and not nearly as close. They were set up by the Guild and though Jordan and Taylor hit it off great, Stamkos was always just the odd man out. It always seemed like he was never there with them.
"Funny how you're never around when shit goes down," Taylor started. "Fast mother fucker couldn't get here to save some people so we could have some idea about what's going on?" Steven took it in stride, smiling lightly and shrugging. Really, Taylor had no place to blame Stamkos. None of them had been there and none of them could have really done anything to help. It had been planned out to the T and there was no beating it. New fuel meant a new enemy to Heroes. There was no way that past the initial blast there would have been any survivors. It was just frustration that drove them.
"Well, how about this. Next time I'll swing by your place and carry you on my back here. So then I can have dead civilians and a dead Hero on my hands. Sound good?" Tension was a little high but Hall let out a light chuckle, shrugging as he shifted his foot through the debris again. He knew it was futile, but their leads were none. He moved over to Steven and punched him in the shoulder. It made the other man reach up to rub at the spot.
"I know man. Sorry. This is just bull shit and getting to me."
"Getting to us all," Steven replied, gesturing for them to leave the burnt remains. As all three walked, he continued speaking. "Local PD has a few scientists from the Biotech Firm in custody. One turned himself in immediately, and the other they picked up this morning. They came clean right away. Both said they were forced to do it." Hall groaned and rubbed his hand over his face, effectively smearing dirt over his visage. It had been the story of their lives. Most crimes that came their way were pretty easy. They saw certain similarities and were able to figure it out from a list of known people with powers.
"Let me guess. Same shit, right? Unregistered Mastermind?" Mastermind was the unofficial term used for psychics that could control others. Their official name was Mentally Gifted Super Humans with Coercion Abilities. Since Hall, and many others, thought that was a terrible name, they transformed that to Mastermind. They usually lived up to that name.
"Yep. Said they hadn't been able to remember making those bombs until right after it happened. No clue who the Mastermind is, but they said that they made them do it. Same MO, same bad leads. We've capped everyone on the list, so I'm guess they're right. The scientist they brought in this morning apparently almost committed suicide after he remembered. His wife's a healer, though, so imagine how well that went. She's pissed." The got a light chuckle out of the other two men, but it really wasn't funny. They had made every single Mastermind on the registry list wear a psychic disabling helmet until another incident happened. They all were cleared and that just made things harder. Only about 1% of the world's population had gotten mental powers. Only about one eighteenth of those were classified as Mastermind class. All of those were elites. Many cooperated, some were forced, but none were their perp.
"Look, I'm all out of ideas, but I guess we can go question them," Stamkos continued several beats later. "Can't have any less to go on than we have now. But besides capping every single elite in turn until, eventually, there are no more explosions, I think we're once again at a standstill on this."
"Fuck their high status! I say we do it!" Hall said, hands thrown in the air. "It's not profiling if we've got this info, right?" He turned to look at Eberle who shrugged sadly.
"Actually, it is. Just because every registered Mastermind is in the upper class doesn't mean that all of them are, and you know they'll make that argument right away. And I doubt any of us will live long enough to cap every single person in this city." Stamkos nodded sadly and Hall groaned out in frustration. They were almost literally against a wall with how often they were questioned by the Guild about their progress. None, null, moot.
"Alright," Hall said, exasperated. "Let's go see what these people have to say."
Like other businesses, police departments everywhere were interested in employing those with abilities. The sector the Heroes had to go to in order to interview their unlikely mad bombers was no different. Though having powers on a task force was a good thing, the general mood between those just going to a job day to day, and those that held levels of stardom, was sour at best. Still, the Heroes of the Guild and those with just powers often had to work together. Relations never seemed to improve.
They were greeted by the expected sidelong glances; the annoyance that the Guild needed to get involved in anything. The officers all expected to be able to do everything on their own, and help, even genuine, was met with a sense of loathing. The only one cordial to them was the section sergeant, a telekinetic of some skill that had worked along with the Guild for many years. He shook their hands heartily and took them to the interrogation room where an older, bigger, and balding man sat. He had been the one that turned himself in, they were briefed. Jenkins, Bob, they were informed. Employed at Biotech's R&D for 25 years, substantial promotions to Chief of Extraction Development after the Manostromatic Force gave him access to more parts of his brain. He wasn't gifted, really, just what they would list as Brilliant.
Bob looked up as the door clicked open. Eberle was always the first to go in since he had the most experience with interrogations. That time was no different as the other two and the sergeant stood behind the one-way mirror, watching with mild interest. None of them expected much, at least not from him. The other man that had not turned himself in was the one they wanted, but they could get an idea of what had gone down from the cooperative man first.
"Robert Jenkins?" Jordan asked, gesturing to the seat across from the man as if asking to sit. The man nodded at the unasked question and verbally responded to the other one.
"I doubt anyone else but Robert Jenkins would be getting so many visitors in one day. Too bad I wasn't this popular before…" The man left off the rest, but Eberle had no problem knowing before what he had meant. He was already done for, but there was no doubt in anyone's mind that he hadn’t done the deeds by his own volition. Jordan sat and set the man's folder on the table. He slid it to the side, not opening it and not really interested in its contents. Bob seemed the type not to lie to him.
"Well the fact that you weren't so popular before might actually be of some help. I'll be honest with you, Bob. Just because you admitted to planting the bombs doesn’t really make me think you were the one that did this. Do you understand?" Cards on the table were usually the best way to deal with guys like Robert. Scared men came in two forms, and Jordan could tell in addition to scared, Bob was resigned. Things couldn't be easier, except for the lack of anything they had on the person who made him do it. The other man nodded slowly and took a deep breath, head bowing. He had laced his fingers together and the man almost looked like he was in prayer. Jordan wouldn't put it past him.
"I told the cops. I didn't know what I was doing. I had no idea until after. I was standing there, the middle of the warehouse district. It was like I was just sleep walking and woke up there…" Bob trailed off, looking up just slightly to stare at his linked hands. No one Jordan knew had ever been taken over by a Mastermind, but studies had been done. It wasn't a pleasant experience depending on just how the Mastermind took a person over. With the devastation he was doing, Jordan was sure it wasn't a kind overthrow.
"The Heroes Guild is definitely looking into this, Mr. Jenkins. I promise. Is there anything you remembered after? I really want to you to tell me. I know you already spoke to the police about it, but I'd like to hear it again from you, if you would." The request obviously took a toll on the man, and Jordan waited patiently. It was a delicate matter, and he knew that the man could very easily just shut down and refuse to tell him more. Hell, for all he knew the Mastermind could have still had a hold on him. Jordan doubted that in his instincts. The man was too broken to still be held.
"When I came out of it and I realized that I didn't know how I got there, there were a few minutes where I was just confused. Then, like a switch was flipped, it all dawned on me. I ran back, thinking I could maybe disarm the bombs, but I was too far away. I didn't get too far before… before the explosion. And I knew how the bombs were made. I… I didn't make them, I swear, but I knew! I knew there was nothing I could do but call the police and wait." Bob deflated again, and Jordan waited patiently.
"You told the police about the other man," Eberle said softly after a minute's pause. "They brought him in, y'know. He tried to commit suicide when he remembered what part he had played, so in my book you're a Hero. If you had been weaker, we wouldn't have any of this information to hopefully make this guy stop. You get what I'm saying?" Bob nodded slowly, back in his praying position. Jordan was sure that he didn't feel like a Hero for coming forward, but like a murderer for what he had done. He couldn't blame the older man for that.
"Doubt any of it will help," Bob commented weakly. Jordan gave him another moment to rest before he pressed on, asking what the man had experienced when he had been let go. It wasn't much, but a college had been working on profiles for certain powers. Jordan wondered if they would be able to help single out a Mastermind’s personality.
"A few months back I started losing some time. You know, what people used to talk about with alien abductions. I thought I was just working too hard, which was true. Deadlines, meetings with management, trying to tweak and perfect the prototypes that were being made in my section. Then I'd go home and sleep, but never feel rested."
"No one noticed you going places in the middle of the night? Being unreachable when you normally weren't?" Bob shook his head sadly.
"With my promotion came my divorce. Elana… my ex-wife… she really couldn't stand my hours, how much I had to dedicate my time to the company. Sure, I might be classified as Brilliant, but I've never been good at separating myself from work. She just got sick of it. Maybe, though, if she had been there…" Jordan silenced him that time, holding up his hand.
"The other man was still married, Bob, and he was caught up in this just like you. No need to beat yourself up. Just, continue, alright?" The older man nodded slowly and took a deep breath before he pressed on.
"It was like a wave, when I remembered. I was just standing there, wondering where I was, and it hit me. I remembered all that lost time in gross detail, but I could also remember not being in control-- having my mind invaded. I could remember working on things, planting the bombs, looking up information on my computer, but not because I wanted to. I was just made to." It was classic mental domination, but not anything that hadn't been documented on the other cases. The person was leaving the same information every time, and it all had been useless nonsense, too much to sift through.
"But out of it all, the biggest thing that came to mind was the phrase 'There is an unregistered Mastermind.' Like that was being said to me right at that moment and branded in my memory. I've… I've never met a Mastermind before, and I hope I never do again if this is what they can do. If they could make something so vibrant that I will never forget it even if I tried." The man was obviously shaken even telling Jordan about it. Jordan nodded slowly and sympathetically. He had heard it before. It was all worded different, every person taking it differently, but it had always been a big, bold stamp on their conscious thoughts. They had been taken over by an unregistered Mastermind.
"You're not the first, Mr. Jenkins. I swear that. There have been others before you that had the same thing happen, and we're doing everything we can. Now, I need a little more. We know that there is some unregistered Mastermind out there, but you can understand why that hasn't been much help so far." Bob nodded slowly, sighed, and sat back.
"Anything you need."
Nothing that Bob answered was very helpful. He was a busy man, and any given day his schedule was packed with meetings, projects, and deadlines. They were working on some prototypes, nothing at all related to bombs. He had met with people from other companies, gave some technical seminars, but they were going to need to go to the individual companies, and Biotech, for the lists of those in attendance. There was no saying how long ago the Mastermind had met Bob and just stored his mental wavelengths for later use. They would need at least the past year's worth of information. All other information seemed just as useless. He was in no sports leagues, was never home long enough to get any door-to-door salesmen, nor those asking him to convert to one of hundreds of religions. No repairmen that were ever there when he was (that was left up to the manager of his particular apartment complex). Really, without some time to do a more thorough background check to try in some way to place a name in similarity to Bob and the dozen or so people before him with the same story, Jordan was out of ideas. He knew their best lead rested with the man that had tried to kill himself.
Jordan was very formal with the other man in his goodbyes, promising to put in a good word for him. He knew that he would end up in a mental facility to serve his time, not a jail, but he didn't need to tell Bob that. Instead he left the distraught man to the system. That was really all he could do.
Gabe's mornings were very regular. He woke up, went for a 4-mile run on his treadmill, showered, dressed, had some breakfast, and then went to work. There he suffered through the day to day of being a CEO. It was after, when he was back in the comfort of his pent house apartment, did he metaphorically let his hair down. He planned, schemed, and sometimes took enjoyment in his most recent attack coming to fruition. That morning he couldn't, though. He ran, but it didn't burn off any frustration. The press still hadn't been fed the information Gabe had left in the minds of dozens of people. The only Hero that had ever come around his scene of distraction during the fire had been one he loathed, and not on any Villain-Hero level. He hated him as a human being and he was dead. Necessary collateral, he had told himself at the time, but really Gabe had just wanted to kill him. The rest of his day was just as awful. The usual monotony that let his brain plan was full of darker thoughts, frustration and anger being just the tip of them. He was getting to the point where something that seemed a lot like despair was moving in.
"Well, boss. Bad news first?" Steve Downie had asked as he shut the door to the office. Gabe glanced up from the papers he had been blindly shuffling through. The real wood door hit the latch harder than he would have liked it too, but that was Downie. Even fully paying attention to his strength resulted in things being done too roughly. Slowly Gabe sat back and watched as Downie flopped into a chair across from him, feet automatically finding their way onto his desk. Gabe glared at the soles of the other man's shoes for several beats before he decided he definitely didn't have the energy to tell him to remove his feet once again.
"What other option do I have?" Gabe said in a sigh, knowing that his routine and bad mood were in for more speed bumps. Steve absently picked off a fingernail and tossed it to the carpet before he responded.
"I guess there's also silver lining news, but they sorta go hand in hand." Gabe pressed a few fingers to his temple before he gestured for Steve to go on. Steve didn't immediately start so Gabe had to send him a long look that the other man promptly ignored. Mentally controlling him seemed to be too much of a hassle and would probably leave them both in worse moods.
"Alright, silver lining news first: Did some recon over by the warehouse this morning. Got three Heroes over there checking out the remains. Bad news is I knew one of the guys and, really, it looks like they've got shit. They all look frustrated. Guessing by now the cops have the bombers and, y'know, maybe you gotta give them something else. Not talking about a lot, just something, y'know? Just sayin', it might help out." Three idiots, Gabe thought. He had done some snooping of his own over the years and found the three that were on the case: A Conflagrator, an Aquaformer, and a Tachographer. Absolutely nothing that could even begin to work out what he was doing, let alone who he was. He knew the Guild had Masterminds, but none of them were dispatched to try and deal with him. Gabe's faith in the Guild had dropped substantially since he had begun working toward getting a nemesis.
"No, I won’t give them anything else," Gabe said, drumming his fingers on the top of his desk. He was in thought, the first spark of genius for the day coming through his vile misery. He wouldn't give them anything else, but he would take a different approach. If the Heroes the Guild had were indisposed of or just stupid, then Gabe would find his own Hero to battle him. "We'll talk about this later when I'm not at work. If you can find out any more in the mean time, go ahead. If not, then that's fine as well. Just be back here when I'm done. We'll work out a new angle of attack tonight." Steve's feet hit the floor as he stood, throwing in a sarcastic bow before he left, the door slamming again. It wasn't his fault; Gabe tried to tell himself that as he rubbed the stress from his temple once more.
Gabe hadn't always been slotted toward evil. When he was young it had been quite the opposite. He had done many noble things when he was a child. Even though the Heroes Guild hadn't been created back then, Gabe had still wanted to do good for the sake of good. He really had no single person or incident that had made him change, but if he had to pick one major one he would say it was his father.
When Gabe's powers manifested soon after the Manostromatic Force explosion, his father had insisted that Gabe kept his abilities a secret. He purposely flunked all the tests and was classified as normal, zero abilities. At that time his father had more than likely been looking out for his well being. There was no telling how those with powers would have been treated, but as the years went by and the percentage of people with powers increased, it proved to be too much to make them lesser citizens. Instead they flourished. The Guild had been made after years of singular Heroes that had stepped up to the call. They battled anything from petty crimes to world terror plots. Gabe, when young, dreamed of that. It became obvious soon after, though, that his father's leading wasn't just for Gabe's safety. He wanted more out of his only son than a glorified cop.
In his youth, Gabe took to living on the edge. He had been just coming to grips with his abilities and often found himself wandering the more dangerous parts of the old city looking for people he could make do better. He had met Downie that way. As he wandered the streets, tapping into anyone and everyone's minds, Downie had been robbing a store. His super strength, unburdened by self-control, had been an ideal weapon. He had been making away with a good amount of money when he had run into Gabe. Instinctually Gabe had tried to stop him. With his fight or flight instinct high; Downie turned his abilities against Gabe. Gabe returned the greeting, giving the older Downie a black eye with his own fist.
They both became friends of sorts after that. Downie's story was a sad one that Gabe felt for. His father had died in the Manostromatic Force, too close to the epicenter, too much radiation, and his mother had been having a hard time supplying for him and his brother. The same Force that killed his father had given him a means to help his family. Sadly he was too young to work, and had to settle for petty crime-- or grand larceny, as the cops would eventually see it—to help bring in a living wage. From then on, Downie had been on Gabe's payroll and had been the only one let in enough to see him for how he really was. He had seen the slow change from a golden boy, son of a millionaire, to Gabe's destructive ways. It was a secret that Gabe figured he would eventually have to kill Steve in order to protect, but that day hadn't come, and Gabe hoped it wouldn't for many more years.
Plans rarely did not go Gabe's way. He convinced his father to give him money to build his company. He kept morale and productivity up in much the same coercive way that he got the start up money. He approved the best products, stole plans from rival companies, and made back his father’s money ten-fold quickly.
Unfortunately he hadn't had such luck when it came to seeing through his plan of getting a Hero to pit solely against him. He felt he had done most anything possible outside of going on the air and declaring that he was the one behind all the bombings-- all the deaths. He had planted information in the minds of those that he forced into the deeds, enough for them to have a starting point, but not enough to get him caught. He would have thought by then that someone would have taken up the challenge of finding out who was behind such "tragedies" as the reporters spoke of them.
It wasn't like villains got together in meetings. Actually, Gabe couldn't think of a single one he had met on the common ground of crime. Sure, while snooping through the brain waves of others, it wasn't rare to come upon those that at least thought that their abilities were, or could be, used for evil. He had even stumbled upon a few that were actively using them in that way (in which he then implanted knowledge about himself that, with a bit of brain work, one might put together and figure out what he had done), but they all had nemesises. They were classless and clueless, and easily detectable. Sadly, none had yet relayed details of his evilness, nor his existence, to their Heroes. The Heroes that actually had meetings. They had fans for fuck's sake! Meet and greets! Signings! They sold products! Gabe's hand clenched tighter on his phone.
They had time to sell toothpaste but not the intelligence to realize that the man that slaughtered his whole family and said that there was an undocumented psychic walking around, and the scientists that claimed the same thing after blowing a dirty bomb in the middle of an active warehouse district, had any connection. His options and plans were running short, so he concocted a different attack. If no existing Hero had the balls or brains to pit against him, he would find a new one. That was what had him driving down the street in a sub-sector neighborhood that was notorious for crime.
He set up a grid plan, sectoring off different times and places depending when they were the most populated with people commuting, moving from job to home, or vice versa. He would surely find one person that would step up to help, regardless of all other factors. There had to be one Hero in the miserable and decrepit place, even though they might not have known it.
The first several stops were unexceptional. The plan was as simple as he could get. He'd get dropped off, pretend he was making a business stop, come back out when his henchman, Downie, would swoop in and rob him. Knifepoint was the plan, but a few times the other man decided to improvise. It was poorly done, but they at least had the attention of those in the area. Most purposefully looked away, escaped indoors or down alleys, but not a single one stopped to help, or even offer to be a witness to the police. Every stop had been just as fruitless as his crimes.
"Stop up here," Gabe said and Downie looked in the rear view mirror.
"Really?" He asked humorlessly. "Mean, really? This ain't working. Think it's time to call it quits, boss." Gabe looked back at him, narrow and hard. The wheel jerked and the car slowed, making an almost effortless stop against the curb. Downie's hands were tight on the wheel and his back straight until he suddenly let out a long breath and slumped, hands falling limply onto his lap.
"Shit, you know I fucking hate when you do that," He groaned, meaning the mental control Gabe had put him under.
"And you know I hate it when you question me. Said pull over, you hesitated, so I made you pull over." Gabe leaned forward, reaching through where the divider in the limo would roll up, to ruffle Downie's hair as if he were a dog. The other man batted his hand away and turned to regard him less than lovingly. "Now, be a good boy and go park this thing and mug me. No more questioning." The door opened automatically and Gabe stepped out, leaving Downie growling and unhappy.
As with the previous stops, Gabe stepped out onto the curb, shifted his coat to show off his expensive gold cufflinks, and walked authoritatively into the building. There were far too many people out to reach to all of them and try to find one that held any sort of power. In the time it took him to walk up the stairs of the building he could maybe touch a couple dozen of the hundred or so people that were around the shops and nearby bus stop, not to even count the people inside the buildings. Instead, he let the crime do the work for him.
He waited inside for about fifteen minutes. It was enough time for Downie to park the limo and double back to mug him. He returned to the street, phone out, pretending to be preoccupied as he moved to the curb. Downie came out of an alleyway, an elephant in a china shop. Gabe was happy about the gullibility of the people around them because the whole act looked very staged. He grabbed Gabe by the collar of his coat; grip tight as a knife came up toward Gabe's neck. He wore a ski mask, something he insisted on in case anyone happened to see him driving, even through the tint.
"Wallet and phone. Don't scream." He said, gruff and deep. He was home in crime, Gabe thought not for the first time that day as he motioned to his pocket and toward where he had put his wallet. Downie's grip lessened just slightly as he reached down, and in the next moment it was gone completely. Gabe stumbled a little from the force of Downie being pulled away from him, bracing himself with one hand on the dirty cement sidewalk. He looked up just in time to see a man disarming Steve of the knife, straddling him to subdue him. Gabe had no worries that Downie would be able to escape, and he did with some well placed shoves and movements, getting to his feet several seconds later before he ran for it, though grabbing the switchblade as he went. Gabe approved of his forethought.
The man had been unceremoniously dumped on his ass by the super strong Downie, but was on his feet a moment later (something Gabe really commended him for), taking a few running paces to go after him, but stopped a moment later. He bent over, hands on his knees to get a breath, before he stood up and looked over at Gabe.
"You okay?" He asked, simple in tone. He sounded normal, not the haughty way many addressed someone of an obviously higher class. Gabe nodded and looked the other man over. He was young, not as young as Gabe, but definitely under 30. Athletic but slightly gaunt, like a good night's sleep was a distant memory. The 15-hour-old 5-o'clock shadow didn't help his appearance. Gabe didn't give a shit what he looked like, what with morals like he had. Gabe grinned and took a few steps toward him.
"I'm fine, thanks to you," Gabe responded probably a bit too cheerfully. The other man studied him for about a second before he straightened up. He definitely didn't look as joyful as Gabe, even concerned. He didn't think that Gabe knew the gravity of the situation he had been in, and if it had been a real mugging Gabe reckoned he hadn't reacted properly. However, it hadn't been a real mugging, and what had happened when the man stepped in had been the first good news Gabe had gotten in a long time. Still he knew he had to play it smart. Tipping him off on the fact that it hadn't been real would be a bad thing.
"You could have not been," The man said sternly. "They're ruthless down here. You have to be more careful. Just because he got stopped this time doesn't mean another time he could do more than just try to steal your wallet." The other man was pretty serious about the consequences that Gabe could have faced. He assumed that he had probably witnessed muggings gone wrong in the past. That, or been involved some way. Noble and motivated, Gabe thought. He was a perfect candidate so far. Now he just needed abilities.
"I guess I didn't realize I would be such a target." It was a lie, but one to keep it going. "Here, let me pay you for saving me." He needed to weed out the chance that he was just a Hero for hire. He easily checked that off the list when the man raised his hand and told him no. Gabe slowly closed his wallet and slipped it back in his packet.
"Look, there aren't a whole lot of people dressed like you walking through these parts, so you're gunna be a huge target for muggers. I mean if you look like you've got nothing, then they'll leave you alone." The man gestured to his own attire: jeans and a t-shirt under a thin hoodie. It was true that he looked simple and, more importantly, like he didn't hold many possessions to be stolen from him. Arguably, however, if Gabe were a target from the general populous of muggers, he wouldn't have been for long. His powers would do away with any would-be attacks, but the point was not to exercise his own abilities, but to draw out others with powers.
"If someone were going to mug me, they'd get 20 dollars, a phone worth maybe 50 on a fast pawn, and a bus pass. Not exactly worth the work, if you know what I mean." His hands slid into his pockets and he shifted a little. It wasn't so much nervous as unsure. Gabe would guess that the man didn't spend much time speaking casually to people like Gabe. He hadn’t even needed to extend his powers to figure that out.
"You, though, look like they could make a good haul on in cash alone. Most people in tailored suits drive around in cars if they have to come down here to the sub-sectors. Or they just don't come down here at all if they can help it. And they can usually help it."
"So, what does it say about me that I came down here all on my own, got robbed, and had a good Samaritan save me when he really had no reason to help someone that so obviously comes from the upper class?" Gabe smirked, but it wasn't malicious. It was simply interested and amused. At first the other man looked shocked at the question. He could hardly be faulted because he had probably been the first time he had had someone from a higher social class speak so frankly about the divide, and the obvious scorn placed on that difference. It was a common thought and topic discussed between the lower classes, but since the privileged were the employers, very few ever voiced their opinion to them. Gabe knew of it well, however, with all the minds he had been in. Most of the rich were content to just pretend that the loathing wasn't there.
"Well, to be perfectly frank, I think that it makes you naive. That, and lucky. I guess you can't be faulted for either, though, if you've never been down here before." Gabe's face betrayed him at what the other man had said to. It had been evident enough, apparently, as the other man quickly pulled his hands from his pockets and held them in front of himself defensively. It was obvious that he hadn't meant any harm in what he said, but had done so inadvertently.
"Oh, Jesus, I'm sorry! I have no idea why I said that! I don't know you; have no right to..." Gabe's disbelieving grin grew in intensity and he cut the other man off hurriedly. He hadn't taken offense to what had been said, just shocked by how simply the man had said it.
"No, no, it's okay, really. I've just... wow. I've never been called naive before."
"Look, that's not what I meant!"
"No, it's quite alright." Gabe laughed again, not forced and definitely not evil. He honestly laughed with the pure pleasure of how flustered the other man got. "I'm certainly not arguing with you, I'm just a bit shocked at how blunt you are. I am naive, and you are just making sure I realize that. Naive and lucky... very interesting way to put it. I was lucky, indeed, that you were here to save me from my innocence. I thank you again for that." It was obvious that the other man was severely out of his element. The shifting grew in intensity and his hands found their way back into his pockets. He also focused his gaze anywhere but at Gabe. It wasn't submissive, but put in his place. It was endearing.
"I'm Gabe, by the way," Gabe said, extending his hand. The other man obviously hadn't expected an introduction nor a hand shake because he floundered to rip his hand from his pocket again, and even then his handshake lacked a certain finesse that Gabe had grown used to when meeting business partners.
"Mark," The other man supplied a bit too hurriedly, "and I don't know if you're lucky I was here. I'm sure someone else would have stepped in to help you out." The wry smile returned to Gabe's face and he looked skeptically at Mark.
"For some reason I highly doubt that, but it's nice that you think that highly of those around you." Mark actually frowned at that, heavy and deep, showing his displeasure, but he made no move to counter the claim, mostly because they both knew how true it was. Those that lived in the sub-sectors of the Megalopolis cities held a high disregard for those that lived in the upper portions, and usually rightfully so. It was highly uncommon that one would raise a finger to help the other, especially at the risk of their safety and without the guarantee of reward. Mark not only didn't expect a reward, but also had turned down the flamboyant hundred Gabe had reached into his rescued wallet to give him. He had acted seemingly altruistically; a pleasant surprise but virtually unheard of.
"Doesn't do any good to think less of those around me. I mean there's really enough negativity in the world already. Just do more harm if I add to it. Everyone has priorities, and mine at that moment was sort of to thwart a petty crime... But, crimes are never petty when they happen to you." They both stared at each other for several long seconds. Gabe was pretty sure his heart stopped as he watched Mark stare back at him. Really? Could his most simple of plans have actually worked? With morals like that it seemed so. Normal people didn't have those kinds of opinions. Only Heroes.
Mark broke the eye contact first, attention falling to the cracked and ill-repaired sidewalk. He smiled lightly and laughed, shifting again. Gabe could work with that. He could build up the potential Hero, shape him to be the nemesis he desired. He felt the surge through his body. He could kill him right there, right on the street. He could almost hear the shrieks of the innocent as the nice, young man was reduced to a spray of blood from stepping in front of the bus that was approaching. It was almost an instinctually blood thirst that made Gabe extend his powers, direct his mental capabilities to overtake Mark's mind. He could feel himself brushing the other man's consciousness as he had thousands of other peoples', but at that moment Mark's laugh broke through the white noise that came before the connection.
"Shit, think that just shows how much time I spend at my job. Sorry to bore you with my philosophical ramblings." The bus that had been Mark's death sentence buzzed by to come to a stop about fifty feet up. Mark looked back toward it before he swung back to face Gabe.
"That's my ride. It was nice meeting you, Mr. Gabe. I really suggest you get your driver or someone to pick you up and go home." He awkwardly extended his hand, almost unsurely. Gabe managed to pull himself out of his shock of having been shaken from the mental hold he had been putting Mark under. His hand shot out and caught the other man's, even as Mark had begun to step back and turn away. Gabe held on and shook his hand, using his charm to lock eyes with Mark again. Once more he tried to mentally dominate the other man, but to the same out come. Mark, the man with impeccable morals, was impervious to his hold. Gabe could barely contain the dark and joyous smirk, the pure pleasure he got from the prospect of someone not just being forced to his will had came out on his features. He couldn't even vaguely hope that it looked acceptable.
"Pleasure was all mine, Mark. Please, no 'mister' needed. Far too formal for someone who just saved me a lot of headache." Double meanings came out in Gabe's words, something he had always assumed were a trademark of a villain. He never questioned it. Mark smiled slightly and tried to tap out of the handshake as politely as he could. Gabe was too caught up in his joyous thoughts of all the nasty things he would do to the other man to realize that the hold had gone on too long.
"Gabe, then," Mark said as politely as he could as he pulled his hand from Gabe's grip. "It was nice, and please be safe. I've really got to go." The engineering boom transformed many things. One such thing was the bus system, which had been automated and, therefore, was always on time. It waited for no one, and that thought was what made Mark chance being rude. He finished turning and took two long strides that would build up to a run. The next bus to take him home wouldn't be around for forty-five minutes, and it was crucial that he got home. He would never live it down if he were late.
The distance never felt so far, and though he had managed to get to a jog, the doors closed and Mark knew any more was futile. He stutter-stepped to a stop, disbelief written on his face as he stared after the back of the bus. That was his luck. Slowly he turned to look over his shoulder to check if the other man was still there. Of course he was, standing in the same spot, watching Mark's plight. He wondered if Gabe even remotely understood what missing the bus meant for him. Mark forced a half smile onto his face and let out a tight laugh. He turned away again and shoved his hands into his pockets, trudging away in the direction the bus had gone. It would be a long walk, but it would be better than standing there to wait or the following bus and then still suffer through the same ride.
"Mark!" The other man called, and he had turned to look back. He stopped and turned fully when Mark saw a cab parked at the curb next to Gabe. He gestured for Mark to return, and with only a moment’s hesitation, he began to move back. As he approached, Gabe opened the back door, gesturing for him to get inside. Mark walked to him but did not get in. Instead he put a hand to Gabe's chest and moved him back a half a pace. He leaned in and spoke lightly near his ear.
"Look, I appreciate this, but... I really don't have the money for this." Taxi fares were notoriously expensive. A few blocks, with gratuity, reached double digits. He knew his measly savings wouldn't be able to get him home without taking a pretty heavy hit. Gabe just smiled and reached to take Mark's hand, removing it from its perch on his chest.
"Well, since you refused a reward, how about a good turn? After all, I made you miss your ride." Gabe stepped back, arm moving in a swinging motion as if to usher Mark into the cab. He looked at Gabe in surprise, but was drawn to sit almost by a magnetic force. He was stunned that someone would be willing to spend that much just to return a good deed. More than that, he was surprised that someone from an upper class would even care that he had missed his bus. All of his previous interactions with them had been brief, curt, and distant, never any 'thank you's and certainly never taking the blame. It was always the worker's fault, always Mark's, even though, more than not, the problem was an accident or unavoidable.
The car door clicked shut behind him and he heard Gabe's knuckle wrap on the front passenger window. Gabe leaned in and reached to hand the driver a few bills that he purposefully hid from Mark's view. He really didn't want any more objections from the other man, and since he couldn't put him under mentally, he did the next best thing, which was to keep him out of the loop.
"Get him to his destination. If you do it fast enough, you can keep the rest as a tip." Gabe smiled at Mark who grabbed the headrest of the front passenger seat and pulled himself forward. He looked at Gabe, still shocked, over the armrest.
"Hey, um... Thanks. A lot." Gabe smiled at him, oozing charm.
"You're welcome, Hero. Now, get home safely and I promise to as well." Mark laughed lightly but made no comment to argue against the nickname he seemed to have inherited. Instead he flopped back into his seat. Gabe tapped the outside of the car and stepped back. The window rolled up and Mark was pulled from watching the other man by the driver's voice. Mark supplied his address into the microphone of the GPS system and, after confirming, they took off. The last image of Gabe that Mark saw was him standing at the curb, one hand up in a silent farewell. His cell phone was pressed to the other ear. At least, Mark thought, soon he'd be safe as well.
Mark's actions on the street may have been altruistic, but Gabe's had been anything but. He had continued to smile as the phone rang, waiting to connect. Finally the person on the other end picked up, and Gabe's previously overjoyed emotions pitted out.
"What, are you still licking your wounds?" A huff came from Downie, obviously caught in the act of doing just that. He had an ego that revolved around being strong and tough. Even in a mock scenario and caught unaware, he expected himself to win. It was inexcusable in his eyes for that to not happen.
"You better be calling to tell me that he has super strength and that your damn hand is broken, else I don't want to talk to you." Gabe smirked, his mood feeling a little lighter. Downie thought that the man had strength, which meant that he had been affected the same way. Mark had the ability to block other’s powers, and he probably had no idea.
"Well, it hurts a little, but I think you got the brunt of it. So, now that your curiosity is sated, get the car and get me. We'll be doing some digging tonight." He didn't wait for a response as he hung up. He hadn't been able to tap into the cab driver, not even to make a starting link, so he would need to do some extensive research to find out who Mark was. He wanted him, needed him, and he would stop at nothing until he had him.
The time Mark Olver usually got home was pretty set in stone. There could be a few minutes difference depending on the pace he set his walk, but it never differed more than that. That day it was a whole half an hour early, and his weary bones were pretty happy about that. Melanie could leave early for her job and Mark could finally, maybe, get a nap. Half an hour held endless possibilities, including just getting interrogated by his ex-fiancé. She would know something was up, and he was positive that having a good deed done on him was not the first thing she would think.
His key slid easily in the lock and he pushed the door open with his shoulder. His key ring hit the door-side table with a solid slap, and he toed off his shoes as the door clicked shut with weight. He didn't even notice something was off until he turned to face the rest of the apartment and looked into the living room. He had meant to call out to Melanie, let her know it was him and that he was back, but his voice caught in his throat as he saw a man sitting on the couch. He was helping himself to some chips, and stared absently at Mark as if it was just commonplace to sit in another man's apartment.
"Can I help you?" The man asked with a mouth of chips. Mark didn't move as he continued to wearily watch him, unsure if he should be catering or outraged. Either the man was the laziest burglar in the world, or Melanie was having bed guests over again that were far too comfortable in his house.
"No, I live here. I'm pretty sure I should be asking you if I can help you." He decided on a seething annoyance as a nice middle road to his emotions. Unfortunately, that backfired as soon as it started. He was flummoxed with what else to say, so he settled on a poorly executed tactic of finding out who the man was, and exactly what he wanted. "So… uh… Can I help you?" The man shrugged and put another chip in his mouth as he turned back to the TV.
"Nah, just waiting." Waiting? Mark's shoulders slumped and his brows creased, mind seemingly unable to keep up with the mess he had walked into. The bus was, from then on, a do or die mode of transportation. He couldn't handle any more surprises in his life.
"Waiting for…?" Mark trailed off, but his attention was drawn toward the sound of the bedroom door as it opened from the far wall. He could hear Melanie's laughter that grew louder as the door opened. She was in her oversized men’s bathrobe that she had insisted on getting after they broke off their engagement. She said it would make it look better when she saw other men. What used to hurt was by then just an annoyance. Melanie was just an annoyance. Her laugh stopped in her throat, but she still hung off the arm of the man that had been in the bedroom with her. She locked eyes with Mark who was pretty much numb to her antics by that point. He wasn't sure who she tried to hurt more with her actions: him, herself, or men in general, but he didn’t feel it any more.
"What're you doing home?" She asked accusingly as Mark finally let himself look away from the train wreck and move to the small kitchen to get himself some water. He poured it from a filter and tried to drink, but could only manage to spill some in his mouth. He had had a hard time swallowing as well.
"Got a taxi ride," he commented lamely. "And what're you doing seeing two guys at once and letting one just go through our stuff while you're 'entertaining' the other? No offense." He raised his glass and gestured at the man that had been still seated on the couch. The man rolled his head back to look at Mark and told him that no offense had been taken.
"A taxi… And whose money did you use for that?" She demanded audaciously, letting go of the man to storm toward Mark. She was pissed, but really, in the grand scheme, he figured he had more of a right to be than her. He looked down at her as she got into his personal space, but didn't make a move to gain any room. She didn’t threaten him, the same way she wasn't threatened by him. They had always been on an even playing field.
"Not ours," He responded simply. She didn't need to know more than that, especially when he was trying to remember how to be the one hurt by her actions. They didn't seem like bad guys, not really. Nothing obvious had been spirited out of their shared abode, so he was pretty sure they had just been there for the easy sex Melanie offered. Two guys at once, though, definitely wasn't normal. He hoped, for their sake, she was at least a cheap date.
"You said you were single," The man that had been in the bedroom with her commented, grabbing his shirt off of the arm of the couch. At least they all had the decency to shower.
"I am," Mel responded angrily, like when a man came into the apartment claiming that it was his home was not grounds for someone to wonder.
"I'm her ex-fiancé. Please, don't worry about me. Hope she gave you a group rate for her services. She's not really worth that much anyway." Mark's numbness seemed to turn into sarcasm at some point, but Mel wasn't having any of it. She turned back at him and shoved him so he took a few steps back. She wasn't a prostitute, to her credit. She might have made more money doing that than her lame bar tending gig, but that was her choice, not Mark's. He had done the supportive ex thing for a while, but it was hitting its end. Her tentative Moving Out date was coming around for the third or fourth time, and it seemed like it would pass yet again.
"Fuck you Mark! Please, guys don't pay him any attention. He's just an asshole that's still pissed that I dumped him. I'm only letting him stay here until he gets his feet under him." Mark nearly choked on his water as he walked toward the bedroom. It was a blatant lie to make her look better, and under normal circumstances Mark would just take it, but that day he was feeling bold. He was feeling uncharacteristically alive.
"Actually, mutual break up, and since I'm the one working my ass off to make ends meet here, I'm pretty sure this is my place. Oh, and my bed you fucked… um… Sorry, who the hell are you two?" The two men had taken up perches on the couch to watch the domestic spat, obviously more interested than disgusted by it. It was a sitcom to them, something to be enjoyed. In turn they introduced themselves as Jordan and Taylor, a practiced ease behind it that was lost to Mark as he supplemented their names in his assault on Melanie who just wasn't going to let his presence go without a fight.
"My bed that you fucked Jordan and Taylor in. At least I hope you plan on changing the sheets and use some of your savings to get them washed, because my water and electricity bills are strapped already."
"No, you want the bed, you can sleep in the wet spots we left. That's right, wet spots. That’s something that never happened when I slept with you! They could make me come, and unlike your inept dick they come in two types. Jordan's can get cold and Taylor's can get warm. So much better than you, you loser that couldn't even manage to get any old lame ability." Melanie was not very original in her tactics. If just sleeping with other guys wasn't enough, she went for calling Mark inadequate. They hadn't broken up about the sex. Sure it wasn't as intense as she would have wanted it, but that was just one of their whole host of problems. They just hadn't come to light until the idea of being together for the rest of their lives was looming. It was a good decision, they both agreed. Unfortunately the spats only got worse after that.
"Well, good job gentlemen. Keep that up, what with your lucky altered genetic code and all. I'm sure Melanie can see you out. Take care." He couldn't blame, them, wouldn't blame them. It was Melanie doing the bait and catch to all the men. It was either directed at him for asking her to move out, or self-destructive, but he was done with it. He needed a shower and sleep, not another fight. She huffed after him, put off that he wouldn’t get mad. Still, she didn't stop him from going to the bedroom and closing the door. Slowly she deflated from her fight mode and smiled softly at the men who realized that the show was over. She apologized for the fight and kissed them both before they left. She hoped to see them both again.
Sex was something both Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall enjoyed. They figured it would be weird if they didn't and used that as their deciding factor when they went out to bars to pick up. Taylor was always the front man, the guy lighting the bar on fire and drawing the crowds. Jordan made himself the wingman, and he was amazing at it. He'd talk up the women; tell them stories of their heroics. It wasn't hard for them to get women, but more than not they would get the same one. Taylor didn't mind sloppy seconds, and it worked for them. Actually, there were a few times that they had even slept with a woman at the same time. Originally that had been weird, but after the first time, and a few shots to bury the memory, it became something that continued to happen. Sure, there were plenty more times that they would take turns, but if she was up for it, so were they. Jordan considered it a dirty secret, but Taylor shared it like it would do good to be public knowledge.
"…Especially when they don't know which name to scream out. Cold and hot at once, Stammer! Can you imagine?" Steven watched Taylor with subdued horror as he recounted the most recent tales of valor. Steven was very often in the public eye and he thrived on it. His sex life, however, was not public knowledge and he planned to keep it like that. Telling a gossip queen like Taylor was not even in the realm of possibilities.
"You know, I wouldn't go around telling these stories…"
"Why not? Not like we're fucking each other, right Ebs? Just helping a brother out. Totally cool as long as there's a chick in the mix!" Eberle hid his own horror behind a cup of coffee that he had kept poised at his lips the entire time but was rarely drank from. The news flimsy from that day was also propped up and though he mechanically moved his eyes back and forth, he hadn't read a single line of it. Yeah, they had both fucked the same girl at the same time, and they had done more than that. Strike out nights were rare, but on those occasions they had done a little quid pro quo for each other. At least, Jordan thought as he gave his fifth "uh huh" of the conversation, Taylor had the common sense to not talk about that illegal activity. Strangely enough marriages (or unions, as the battle was finally settled on) between same sex couples had been legalized and widely honored, but sex between people of the same sex was still illegal. However, no cops came around knocking on doors to make sure they weren't fucking. In exchange, no one talked about it. Lawmakers were working on it, and in the mean time Jordan and Taylor sometimes, in dire circumstances, gave each other hand jobs. The occasional blow job too. Jordan hissed as he burned his mouth on a splash of coffee, breaking the two men from the one sided conversation.
"So!" Steve said quickly, taking the silence as his own and altering the course of their conversation. "We're supposed to be getting someone to help out with our failure case. Did either of you hear who?" Once on a safe conversation topic, Jordan let his paper reading guise fall, actually looking at Steven as he nursed he scolded lip with tentative fingers.
"No, did you?" He asked, and Steven woefully shook his head and leaned back in his seat. He closed his eyes as he responded, almost distantly as if it were a prayer.
"Hopefully a Mastermind. We really are up a creek here, and could definitely use someone like that." There was a consensus of nods from the other two men. They needed something big, something major to help them figure out just what they had been missing. It was obvious that dozens of incidents were connected, but they had no suspects outside of a general knowledge of who were usually Masterminds. Rich men were normally, a few women as well, but they all held positions of power. Psychologists were in agreement on that part. If one had the ability to make others mindless slaves, they would use those powers to do just that. They would rise easily in ranks, and everyone probably liked them. Everyone, that was, until their hold slipped. Still, those people were cunning and knew just how to manipulate people, get them on their side and keep them there. That was the major problem with pinning down the guy that was their culprit. They needed a lead in a bad way. They needed someone that knew what he was deep down.
The door opened with a soft rush of air and all three men looked over in unison.
"This is where the team is that's looking for the unregistered Mastermind, right?" The boy in the doorway asked. He didn't look skittish as mush as out of place. He had a baby face, body that was still slightly disproportioned, and a voice that commanded nothing.
"Yeah, and who are you?" Jordan asked, his flimsy flopping onto the table that they all sat around. The boy moved in and the door closed behind him. They assumed that he was going to tell the group that their newest member was off on a major drug ring crack down or something, but his words left them all in stunned silence.
"I'm Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. I'm the newest member of your team."
Ryan, it turned out, was more than just a pretty face. Taylor had joyfully declared that as he threw his arm around the new man's shoulders and pulled him close. Ryan was a Misapprehentionalist: he had the ability to bend reality to disguise himself and others as something else. All he needed was a clear picture of what he wanted to alter and into what. Despite that, which on its own wasn't as useful as it would sound, he had worked five years in the Guild with one of their top Masterminds known simply as Shanahan. Ryan knew how they worked and promised to be a good addition to their team. On the surface, a ragtag group of an ex-cop that could turn things to ice, a child-like adult that could withstand high temperatures and alter his body to flames, a superstar speedster, and an illusionist didn't look like much, but the Guild seemed sure they would be able to break the case. Still, failure was a taste they had gotten used to, and it wouldn't prove to be much more of a transition if the team couldn't hack it.
They took the majority of the day to get Ryan up to speed on their investigation. They pulled out flimsy after flimsy of information on those that had committed the crimes. His or her statements and previous run-ins with the law were all included, along with other various pieces of information on each person. They explained to Ryan how they had all checked out; all seemed clean except for their various involvements with crimes surrounding their claim of an unregistered Mastermind. They hadn't released that information to the public since they didn't want any other crimes coming onto their desk with false allegations surrounding the illusive Mastermind. Similarly, all the press coverage surrounding that part of the trials was buried. It was exhausting work for an investigation that had been going nowhere fast.
"I have a suggestion, if I can," Ryan spoke up after dinner while they all sat around the table. Of course he was there for exactly that. He was fresh eyes and, hopefully, a different perspective. "You three have done some real serious research into who this guy could be. I mean, upper class, position of power, more than likely a guy, charismatic, probably even with some Brilliance, but what about the victims? I don't mean the collateral victims, but the people he took over. Why didn't you profile them? I really think that if we can key in a type that he likes to take over, then we can maybe start having a fighting chance here." The remainder of the group sat in stunned silence. A kid had just pointed out an error that they had been staring at the whole time. A missing piece, as Ryan called it with a smile that gave his nymph-like features a glow. They settled in for a long night.
Mark, it turned out, was a very common name. In the Megalopolis alone there were 252,371 men named Mark. In the sub-sectors, there were 157,448. In sections DS5, 8, and 12, where the bus that Mark was going to ride ran, there were 18,786 Marks. That was a lot of doors to knock on, even if Gabe sent Downie out and told him no rest until it was done. He would need a legion of Downies in order to make any headway with that plan. Luckily Gabe didn't usually stick with the first idea he had. The second idea, and the better one, came the following morning while Gabe had a mug of coffee in one hand and a pending patent idea in the other. He read the lines again and again, but his mind was busy solving his dilemma.
He knew the cab company that had taken Mark home. Sure, the GPS records were locked down pretty tight, as they had been for many years, what after all of the terrorist activity done towards individuals when their locations became so easy to find. Luckily he had in his arsenal of mental hostages a rather tech savvy woman of Brilliance that did certain repairs and diagnostics on systems similar to the one cab companies implemented. He had her write a virus and installed it into that cab company’s system, then set her up as a tech to go in and repair it. She would repair it, of course-- Gabe was a villain, not a vandal-- but he also planned to get the information he wanted. What he wanted was the addresses of those that were transported that day and around the time Mark had been. After that he could do the work himself. There was no need to let such a useful operative draw suspicion.
It was several long and nerve wracking days later that Gabe finally sat comfortably in his office chair and looked over the list. It had been easy to narrow down since the amount of people in the sub-sectors getting taxi rides was minimal at best. Most were middle class; business people marketing to the lower class, some that refused to move from the slums but worked in the upper sectors, or the modern artist types that wanted to experience how the lower people lived first hand, through the safety of tinted windows. Basically, when it came down to it, there were only 5 possibilities of where Mark could live. Cross referencing that with the list of addresses of men named Mark, and there ended up being only one possibility. Gabe turned to his computer and typed in the address. He got around safety protocols on a daily basis because of his position, and that let him look up the information on the residence of the address. Listed were a Melanie Antarigo, and a Mark Olver. One look at the picture told Gabe that he had beaten the odds and found him.
The information was pretty basic in nature. There were identification features along with employment information. It was nothing that some internet digging wouldn't have come up with, as long as Gabe had had a name. He hadn't, and felt lucky that it came as a bundle.
Mark was listed pretty small, only 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds. He carried himself as a man much larger than that, what with how he had pulled Downie to the ground in their scrap. At only 25 he seemed like nothing remarkable. He held several jobs when younger before landing a job with Pasalaba, a tech firm that worked with the security, and selling, of personal information. They opposed such practices on paper, but all companies were out for money, and that included even the ones that seemed noble to the populous. Mark, apparently, was an ethical advisor to the upper management. Gabe could imagine it was a pretty thankless as far as jobs went. He was sure he could use that as leverage to get to know Mark better.
The most important part of the information, though, listed in bolded printed, was Mark's power status. "Class 0" read under his name, which meant that he had been deemed powerless. Gabe mused at the irony of what that meant. He, an unregistered, had happened to find another unregistered to form into his nemesis. It made Gabe pause for a moment to sit back and smile. He had work to do to make him realize his potentials, but the first course of action was to get Mark in his grasps. He stood and straightened his shirt out, before he grabbed his suit coat and put it on with a flurry. He'd take his lunch out that day.
On his way over to Pasalaba he devised his story. The Executive Director of Personal Information Storage had been a great friend of his father's, and with one phone call he had him booked for a quick lunch. Luckily it had been a quiet month in the security sector and James Irvin hadn't been already booked with a meeting to save the ass of one of his associates. Of course Gabe claimed it was an informal thing; that he just wanted to speak with an old family friend and get the lay of the land. Similar fabrications got him invited to many meetings that had nothing to do with his technology firm. Those he made appearances at to get someone to take over. This meeting was purely about Mark and he hoped it worked to his advantage.
Gabe strode through the lobby of Pasalaba like he owned it. That was how it had to be done. There was no room for nervousness or hesitation when they owned so much. Those aspects appeared weak, and weak companies went under. Weak men went under. An escort, a thin and small woman that looked Asian but introduced herself as Susan, had been waiting for him and took him, with only a small preamble, to the elevators and expressed Gabe to the upper offices. There he met James who warmly received him. They shook hands and bullshitted for a few minutes about lunch reservations, but they both knew they were going to the upscale Italian place that they always went to.
"You know, Jim, I don't think I've ever been shown around here. Do you have a few minutes? Give me a tour?" James seemed a little surprised about Gabe's apparent interest in what he ran, but he hid it behind a warm smile as he stood and gestured out of the office. There would be plenty of small talk along the way, Gabe knew, but he would eventually get around to finding Mark.
"It's been a long time. God, I remember when you still were speaking Swedish, and here you are now, perfect English and running a company that you built. Time sure does pass you by when you're not paying attention, doesn't it?" Gabe smirked and laughed lightly, looking around the third information center James had shown him.
"Yeah, it's one of those things I remember to write in my Christmas card every year. Thanks dad for making me go to school every day. And thanks for the genes I suppose, too. Without it I never would have been able to manage to get all those wonderful people that are working for me to work for me. Charisma is still a moving factor, luckily." James laughed back in turn and began telling Gabe that they could swing by their PR area if he was interested in stealing any more trade secrets from under his nose. He got an honest laugh in return. Trade secrets were not exactly what Gabe was planning on stealing, but it wasn't too far from the truth.
"Actually, it would be great if I could see your ethics group. I hear they're pretty impressive. Maybe even got this company out of some hot water. This company, definitely not you, Jim." James' brow had creased slightly at the backhanded accusation, but it lightened when Gabe corrected the misunderstanding. Of course it was true, but James had always been straight-laced. He wasn't perfect, but he hid his errors well, and before they got to the public. With just a little reluctance, James directed Gabe toward where that department held their offices.
Offices were a rough term because Gabe would have considered them closets at best. They were small and packed in against each other. None of them were lucky enough to have any windows. All of the doors were open, and though some of the rooms were unoccupied, most of them weren’t. James told him that not all of them were on the ethics team, but a bunch of subsections put together, including assistants to the financial advisors and low-level design team members. He also seemed to be referencing to the plaques on the doors before he told Gabe what the rooms were for. Gabe had also picked up on the labels and paid attention to them, often glancing several down to get his hopes up every time they neared one labeled "Ethics Team". He had been let down several times before but, finally, he caught sight of Mark who sat sideways at the small desk. His chair was turned toward the wall and a flimsy was raised between him and the neutral blue paint.
"Oh," Gabe said, cutting James off in a sentence he hadn't been listening to. The sound caused Mark's concentration to slip, and then he glanced toward sound. He looked equally surprised to see Gabe.
"Yes, this is… is…" James got out in a slow and cautious tone, hoping that someone would say something and cover that he actually had no clue who Mark was.
"It's Mark, the Hero," Gabe said with a quirk of his lips. Mark's leg that had been crossed over the other hit the floor and he was on his feet moments later with his hand extended. It had been half a week since he had rescued Gabe on the street, but he was sure that he would never forget his face. He hadn't. Sadly Gabe had yet to forget that nickname as well.
"Um, Gabe! Hi! Er.. hello, I mean. I just… didn't expect to see…" Gabe grinned and took his hand, shaking it, as James stepped in.
"It's Mister Landeskog, Mark. Please show some respect to him if you would. This isn't an old frat house meeting." Gabe waved off James and continued to smile at Mark, not letting go of his hand until he realized that it probably had gone on for too long.
"No, it's alright Jim. I don't need formalities from a man that saved my life." Lies came too easy to Gabe it seemed. He could live in them as long as they included the luxuries that he had grown used to. That seemed to surprise Jim into silence for a moment before he began to prod into just what Gabe had meant by that. Mark quickly told Jim that he hadn't saved his life, just his wallet, but Gabe wouldn't let that be. If they were going to lie, it was going to be grand. That seemed easy enough to do as he played back the story and added some extras. Mark continually tried to interject, but was covered the whole time. He had been too used to being seen and not heard that after a moment he knew he would get nowhere in correcting the tale.
"We're going to lunch, Mark. You should join us. I still don't think I repaid the man who saved me. He wouldn't take a monetary reward, Jim. You have a real honest man here." Of course Jim puffed up with pride at that, and suddenly spoke of Mark as if he knew anything about him. He praised his work and his team abilities, even said that he was sure that Mark had been on the group that helped them get on track from a company with questionable tactics to the empire it had become. Gabe knew the trap was sprung when Jim told Mark to come with them, and even asked if he had something more presentable than his slightly crumpled shirt and mildly unfitted slacks to wear. He obviously didn't.
"No worries," Gabe said, moving to shuck his suit coat off. He flapped it out once, hard, before he held it up to help Mark put it on. There was a single tense moment where Gabe thought that Mark could, possibly, tell them no, but he chose to not test the powers as he slid one arm in and let Gabe help him put the rest on. Gabe allowed himself a moment to touch, brushing out any imaginary particles that could be on the jacket before he stepped back and admired. It didn't fit perfect, a little big in all parts, but it hid the shirt that Mark had looked like he had slept in, and that did a lot for his image. He still looked scruffy, facial hair obvious and bags under his eyes, but he looked okay enough. It was the best Gabe could manage without a magic wand.
"There, see? That's all it took. Thanks for showing me around, Jim, but I do think it's time we get there for our reservation." The older man agreed and Mark was spirited out of the cubicle farm with long looks from the others that were still trapped. He was sure he would be asked non-stop questions upon his return.
All three men rode in the back of Gabe's car, Downie having put up the divider window upon seeing Mark in tow. The talk was small, but Gabe continued to make sure that Mark was involved. Lunch ran just about the same way, with Jim telling stories to the obviously out of depth Mark about how Gabe was when he was young and how the Manostromatic Force had made him a billionaire. Mark remained dutifully wide-eyed and stunned through the meal, struggling to keep up with both high society eating habits and conversation. It was eased just slightly by Gabe's guiding hand as he suggested the sirloin and ordered the table a bottle of wine. He even slyly pointed out which forks to use when Mark spent more than thirty seconds hesitantly reaching for one and abruptly stopping.
It was an hour later when Jim declared that he had to return to the office. Gabe had already taken care of the bill but there was still wine to drink. He assured Jim that he would take Mark back when the older man hesitantly rose to stand. They were shrouded in a few minutes of silence after Jim left that Mark eventually broke.
"Thanks. I mean, for lunch and… I guess for helping me out. Never had a high profile lunch before." Gabe laughed and took a sip of his drink, wiping his lips with the napkin he had folded neatly on the table.
"It's absolutely no problem. I kind of guessed that you'd be lost. Nice to see years of being locked in the Ivory Tower haven't made me numb to those intuitions." Mark laughed slowly as he looked at the table, awkwardly addressing the spoons that hadn't been collected yet when he spoke.
"Tour d'ivoire… Funny choice." Slowly Gabe grinned more and leaned back, getting a better look at Mark.
"French. I never would have guessed you would know that." Mark's grin grew as well and he looked up and over at Gabe. He seemed far less hesitant with Jim's departure, and that worked perfectly for Gabe. He had given Mark the time to acclimate, revealed himself a little to him. He wanted to draw Mark in, and it had worked so far.
"Swedish, I never would have guessed." His back comment made Gabe laugh, shrugging a little as he took another slow drink.
"Well, these good looks definitely never could have come from this side of the rift. My parents had the mind to come over here and grace the old Americans and Canadians with our superior genes." Mark laughed as well and pretended to take a drink. He hadn't had more than a few sips the whole meal, knowing that though the executives could go back and relax, that he still had a ton of work to get done. Just because a CEO of another company called for his presence didn't mean he got out of his share of the workload. The settled into silence again, but it wasn't as stressed as it had been. Mark took a moment to breathe.
"Can I ask you a question?" Gabe said and it took Mark off guard. He responded that he could and Gabe didn't waste another moment before he asked. "Do you sleep in your clothes?" Mark stared at him for several seconds, mouth slightly agape in puzzlement before Gabe's grin cut off any half formed answers from falling out.
"I don't think I've ever seen a man's shirt get that creased on its own. If you were a woman I might figure that you had a side profession, but since I think highly of you, and I doubt that you're doing that looking like you do right now, I'm going to assume that you just sleep at the office in your clothes." Mark laughed several seconds later, one hand coming up to hopefully cover the surprise in his eyes. He laughed for about half a minute before he had the mind to actually answer the offbeat question.
"No, I don't do that, and I don't sleep in it either. I just… Well, I don't have many options when it comes to my clothes. I kind of have to deal with the same shirt a few days in a row. I try to be careful with them, and leave them hanging in my office just so they don't get more wrinkled, but I always seem to beat them up. Is it really that bad?" Gabe put on a slow and apologetic look for his response, but he was anything but. He wanted Mark to open up and he knew that if he kept pressing he would get the information he wanted.
"So, what? You don't have an iron and dry-clean them in bulk? Involved in shady laundry dealings?"
"No, no, nothing like that, and I do have an iron, thank you. I just… I guess I have a bad roommate and usually what I prep for work goes missing or gets ruined. Just safer to hide it at work." The tone shifted from jovial to sad quickly and Gabe responded appropriately. He lowered his glass from his lips and shifted to lean closer.
"Sounds like a shitty roommate. He must be a real asshole." Mark smiled sadly and slowly, laughing just once in a huff as he absently poked at a spoon. He didn't know how to talk to someone like Gabe, but the man seemed to be trying to talk on his level. That probably meant that he should be honest and just tell the story.
"She's kind of a train wreck. I don't know. I guess she figures that if I can't work properly then I'll be knocked off of some pedestal I've put myself on or something." Gabe nodded slowly, but pushed to pry more. He had read Melanie's information as well. They didn't have the same last name so Gabe ruled out wife or family member. Still, there seemed to be something there. He spoke about her more than just someone that he shared a living area with.
"I don't think you're on a pedestal, and I don't think that she's just a roommate either, is she?" Mark shrugged a little and actually drank some wine at that question. He didn't know Gabe, didn't exactly trust him, but felt some sort of understanding there. He doubted that anyone else would have gone to such lengths to know him just because he had tackled a robber.
"She's my ex-fiancé. No, it's not really a story I want to tell, just that we realized it wasn't right. And, y'know, I never told anyone this, but thank god. She was a nice girl, a great girl, but we were just all wrong for each other, and it's better, but for all the good I try to do for her still, I get it back in crap…" Mark trailed off for a moment before he set his glass down and leaned forward, running one hand through his hair as he tried to collect himself and put on a fake smile again. It fell flat. "Sorry, I know it's not a fun story. I don't have many of them like you and Mr. Irvin." Gabe smiled softly and reached out toward him, taking hold of his biceps, making Mark look up at him.
"Just one more question and then I promise no more on the subject. Is she the reason you look like shit?" Mark just looked at him for several seconds before he grinned and laughed lightly, shaking his head as he sat up straight again. He couldn't believe this Gabe.
"It's years of things that made me look like this. Sorry."
As per his word, Gabe asked nothing more. They talked lightly for a little longer before Gabe returned Mark to his office jail. He told him to keep the jacket that Mark protested heavily about, but Gabe told him that he would keep it and he'd get it tailored on his own dime. He also instructed him to tell his ex to stop messing with his clothes or Gabe would buy him enough to remain presentable for the rest of his life. They left on good terms, with Gabe threatening to keep tabs on him through James, and Gabe returned to his own duties with warring emotions. He wanted Mark, a strange combination of longing and spite. He wanted him, and he wanted to destroy him.
"I honestly don't think I've ever been this nervous about meeting another member of the Guild since I got initiated," Stamkos admitted as the team stood in an elevator, slowly ascending the high-rise that, on the outside, was labeled as the Tyrell Corporation, but inside was actually a base of operations for covert missions. It was the location chosen for them by the Guild when they presented their plan, and in there for weeks they had been doing interviews and test runs to implement their plan.
The outline had been simple: Ryan would use his powers to disguise himself as a scientist. His old partner, Shanahan, would connect a link between Ryan's mind and the scientist's, and Ryan would be submerged into the life of that scientist. During that time, with the help of a Conflagrator that ran as front man of the fake company, Ryan in disguise would be introduced and baited out as a agent to all of the high profile people on their list of suspects. They had cross-referenced the lists that all of the scientists that had been taken before supplied, and came up with a solid, albeit long, list of possibilities. The trick from then on was to move at a pace that both cleared most of the list but was cautious enough not to bottleneck them when Ryan was targeted. If he was targeted, Jordan soundly reminded them again and again. They had worked hard on the profile, but it hadn't meant that they would be right. They could still very easily fail, but there was a light at the end of the tunnel.
When the doors opened, they were greeted with a bustling floor of white-clad scientists. It looked so cliché that it should have been hilarious, but the building was used for many of the Guild's affairs, and though it looked like a bad movie rendition of a medical firm, all of those in the room were actually doing something of merit toward whatever case they were assigned. The group took several paces into the far too sterile looking room before a woman stopped them. Her hair was a pretty shade of auburn and her face rivaled it in beauty. Her down side, as Taylor hissed quietly to Jordan, was that she had on a very unflattering military uniform in a blue-gray hue.
"Bettya she would look great naked and spread out on one of our beds," Taylor whispered, for which he was reward with an elbow to his ribs from Jordan, and a hard look from the woman. She introduced herself as Kathline, a General in the Supplementary French Reconstructive and Advancement Forces and an Auditory-Excellerant-slash-Perceptional-Excellerant. Taylor wiggled his eyebrows at her, and her disgust in his obviously inappropriate behavior wasn't hidden behind her training. She probably figured there was no reason to bother hiding it. Taylor got ribbed again for good measure, but he never did get the hint.
Kathline escorted the three men through the bustling floor and toward the center of it where several rooms stood, lined together. There were no windows, and the doors that lead in were heavy, reinforced titanium. The General swiped a pass card and it unbolted. Their door lead into a dark room where a single man stood, who glanced over his shoulder briefly before he peered back through the glass that he stood in front of.
"This is Major General Kompleef, the man overseeing your attempt at police work. He will explain to you what is happening and where the mission will proceed from here."
"Not staying?" Taylor asked her as he moved next to Kathline and ran a hand over her shoulder. Slyly she brushed him off, returning to the door where she paused again.
"No, regrettably I have other duties that need my attention, and I'm allergic to bull shit. I have to relay my deepest sympathies to the rest of your team, though, for having to deal with you day in and day out." Stamkos chuckled, Jordan looked please as well, but Taylor didn't miss a beat.
"Well, I'll leave my cell number with your receptionist, and if you decide to take some meds and loosen that uniform of yours, you can give me a call." Kathline wasted no more words on the group as she left, and Taylor didn't hesitate to watch her exit the room. He whistled long and low, quirking a smile back toward his group who were busy introducing themselves to the Major General and attempting to completely ignore him.
"She wants me," Taylor said, rejoining the others.
"She wants you dead," Steven informed him simply, turning his attention to the glass that the Major General had been looking through. "I'm guessing everything has been going good then, sir?" The man spared one more glance at the team before his eyes returned to the scene on the other side of the glass. His response wasn't immediate, almost a measured silence around it before he spoke.
"Much better than your friend's pathetic attempts at wooing my subordinate, yes. I was honestly surprised when this mission was brought to my attention, given your teams track record."
"Well that's hardly fair… sir," Jordan replied, eyeing the Major General. "We weren't exactly a team built to handle what this has turned into, you know." The man nodded slowly, knowing that that was true. Their team was built to handle more physical and already determined threats like heists, burning buildings, cats stuck in trees. They weren't made to handle threats that came from a source they didn't know, and a Mastermind on top of that.
"I think that became very obvious when it took the addition of a Misapprehentionalist to really bring forth any plan. We were beginning to wonder, as the attacks got more and more intense, if we were going to have to assign it to a new team all together." Being told that they were inadequate for a mission was pretty humbling for the group, and even Taylor lost all joking for the moment at the off-handed scolding they were receiving.
In the other room, separated by a wall and a pane of glass, was their plan turning into a reality. Ryan lay on a hospital gurney, several pieces of equipment hooked up to him to monitor his vital signs. Not too far away laid a man that they had interviewed. Ultimately, up to that point, the man that the Guild had chosen to be their bait had been a secret to them. Besides the plan, really, and interviewing possible candidates, they had been kept in the dark about a lot of things. They weren't trusted to keep the other details a secret, but that was rather usual with the high profile cases the Guild worked on. Field agents, the Heroes, always ran the chance of being taken over, captured, and were notoriously bad at keeping things a secret when put under pressure. The long and short was that, despite being raised on a pedestal by the public, they were very frequently under credited by the actual Guild.
"They started already?" Steven asked, pointing through the glass toward the third occupant of the room. He was an older man, head bowed and slightly shadowed by the angle of the harsh overhead lights, but he was still unmistakable. Shanahan was amazing, what every Hero wanted to be. He was a Mastermind firstly, which, rare as it was, wasn't his only gift. While some people attuned one way from the radioactive debris that came from the Manostromatic Force, Shanahan had attuned three ways. He had also gained some super strength, and speed. He was a trifecta, and he used it well, rising quickly through the civilian ranks. He was the stuff of legends on every continent, and he was just behind a pane of glass. It almost made the team giddy.
"About a half an hour ago, yes. In order to remove Mr. Nugent-Hopkins’ personality entirely and cover it with Mr. Alego's, Mr. Shanahan has to put down a buffer layer of no thoughts what so ever. Hopefully it will be enough to hide Mr. Nugent-Hopkins’ real identity from the Mastermind you're looking for. After that, there will be the slow implanting of all of Mr. Alego's memories, whims, dreams, and knowledge. Of course that wont be enough to make him believable. The connection between Mr. Shanahan, Mr. Alego, and Mr. Nugent-Hopkins will have to be kept open most of the time to insure that he continues to act accordingly and that none of Mr. Nugent-Hopkins’ authentic traits start coming through." The man paused, re-situating his stance to clasp his hands behind his back. "For their sakes I hope that this does not go on too long. We're permitting two months as of right now, but the constant watch needed to insure that Mr. Alego is kept in seclusion, that Mr. Shanahan doesn't die, and that Mr. Nugent-Hopkins stays under will be a big burden on our budget. After today, besides routine and scheduled briefings, you three will be reassigned to other tasks." It was understandable. They weren't going to be indisposed with a waiting game when they could do almost nothing to help in the matter. They couldn't even be guards for Ryan since they were publicly known and labeled as Heroes.
"So, I'm assuming Mr. Shanahan's been briefed on the whole plan? Even the parts you haven't shared with us?" Jordan's voice was a little curt when he asked. He knew and understood why they were left out loop but it never did make him happy. "Even the threats we're more than likely not taking into account?" The Major General quirked an eyebrow at the question as he turned his full attention onto the group.
"And what are you implying we haven't taken into account, Mr. Eberle?" Jordan steeled himself, but it was obvious that his two teammates didn't have his back. Jordan had voiced his concern, but they gave him the same dismissal that he assumed the Major General would. Still he foresaw it as a problem and wanted it on the record, just incase.
"What if Ryan comes in contact with a Nullifier? What if his position is compromised because he can't keep his powers up, or if running into one breaks the connection. How much about Mr. Alego does he know so, maybe, he can keep up some of the front long enough to get away from a Nullifier and not put him in jeopardy?" The Major General set him with a hard gaze, momentarily unsure whether to just dismiss the question or assure the man that all angles of the plan have been run over and properly addressed. He decided on the first one, setting his stance ridged and forceful.
"Mr. Eberle, I assure you that that is an impossibility. All citizens of all countries are rigorously screened for powers, and I guarantee that a 'Nullifier', as you call them, would have been found by now. They are a modern day unicorn, a myth, and nothing that we need to worry about. Now, if you would stop taking your investigation cues from fiction novels, you might be able to actually solve one of the new cases we have for you." The cold silence that settled over the room was almost palpable as the Major General waited for Jordan to slink back. He did predictable with a small nod of his head.
"If you'll all excuse me now, I have other matters to attend to. When you are done, someone will be waiting to take you three to a conference room. There you will be briefed on your new assignments and explained the more technical aspects of how this mission will proceed." Jordan and Steven only watched the Major General leave, Taylor giving a facetious salute to his back. The silence stuck with the small room until Jordan's sigh broke it.
"He was a fucking dick, man. Don't let it get to you." The familiar weight of Taylor's arm fell over Jordan's shoulder. Steven wasn't so sympathetic as he looked over at Jordan from the corner of his eyes.
"I told you not to bring it up."
"Man, how couldn't I? They're ignoring a possibility, something that can really, seriously bite us in the ass!" Jordan let Taylor pull him into a sideways hug, too put off fighting the man that had left the room to fight against Taylor too.
"They’re ghost stories, bro, and more so that's mother fucking Shanahan in there, ring leading this whole thing! I bet if he came across any Nullifier, or ghost for that, he'd just bitch slap it into a bloody little pulp, am I right?" Jordan smiled slowly, a laugh burbling to his lips as he slowly shook his head. Taylor tightened his arm, jostling Jordan's body a little as he shook him. "Am I right?"
"Yeah, yeah, you're right," Jordan responded cautiously, the laugh still in his voice. Taylor could make him laugh, even if he really was a douchebag. They remained like that, Jordan tucked to Taylor's side and Steven against the wall, hands pressed deep in his pockets. All of their attentions, though, were on the mind transfer happening in the adjoining room. Ryan would take on Mr. Alego's life: He would sleep next to his wife, kiss his children in the morning, and work as a fake member of a fake tech firm. Bait was a nice way of putting it. He could be in real danger if he drew the attention of the Mastermind they were looking for. Some studies had been done on the effects of two opposing Masterminds supplying conflicting information, but not nearly enough studies. They had shown that the stronger of the two Mentally Gifted Super Humans with Coercion Abilities would win out and control the third party. Mental damage was predicted to be minimal since the mind, as a scientific paper coined it, is a resilient little ball of electricity. Real world data was not available, and the reasons for that, many people believed, came in two varieties. One was that Masterminds were very strictly regulated. If any hint of coercion to those around them is given, then they are put under heavy surveillance. The other reason was the mental hospitals, where people who were once very normal were suddenly lunatics. Not enough cohere thoughts were ever gotten out of them to definitively say that dueling Masterminds in their heads were the cause their sudden insanity, but the theory was there.
They all knew that it was a very strong possibility, and though they raised that worry before, they were still nervous. They could only hope that Shanahan knew of the theory as well, and was ready to defend Ryan. Sadly, all the years they spent making no progress on the case had left them with nothing else but worry about all that could go wrong in the mission. Steven, for one, wasn't used to being cynical. Jordan wasn't used to being anything but honest, and Taylor wasn't used to worrying. It didn't stop them all from acting against their nature as they looked at Ryan's serenely sleeping face. They all hoped that he had weighed the pros and cons before he had made his radical decision to be the one to be the bait. Taylor was the first to decide the pessimistic air needed to be dispersed.
"I'd so fuck him." The silence stretched as both Steven and Jordan slowly looked over at Taylor, Jordan inching away from his side at the uncalled for statement. Taylor looked at them both like they were the insane ones. "What? Like either of you would dare say no to that fucking beauty sucking your cocks! Christ, get some class."
"How would you like to work for me?" Gabe asked when he was still several dozen feet away from Mark. In any normal circumstance, Mark would just ignore the sudden outburst, assume that he wasn't the one being addressed. However, Gabe's voice was like the demon on his shoulder in the way it never really left him. He turned slowly with wide eyes, seeing what a brief montage of "Oh God, please no" did not make untrue. Gabe was still approaching him and when he finally closed the gap he slid his arm around Mark's shoulder.
"You shouldn't be here," Mark said quietly, knowing with just a brief glance that they were the center of attention for everyone in the small cafe. Mark had only left Pasalaba during his lunch break to get a cup of something edible, not the burnt down stuff they tried to pass as coffee in the cafeteria. It cost more, sure, but it also meant he wouldn't be asleep at his desk nor spend the night face deep in the toilet with a stomach full of antacids. He hadn't figured that his venture from the fort of solitude would lead to seeing Gabe.
"Oh, and why shouldn't I be?" Gabe asked with a smooth tone, playfully inquiring into something that Mark wouldn't usually say to someone of a higher class. He stepped back, making a tsking noise as he looked over Mark's attire. It was still pretty creased, but he was wearing the suit coat Gabe had given him, and it had been tailored to some degree. Mark seemed to know the scolding because he tucked his hands into the pockets and shifted the coat around himself to try and hide the fact that Melanie still lived with him. He got out of Gabe's grip with a well-timed step up to the counter, relaying his order to the young woman that stood there.
"I'll have the same thing, only put in two shots of espresso in please, pretty." She flushed, and Mark wanted to curl up into a ball and die. Gabe was too unusual for it to be anything other than a mental disorder. He had probably been raised on porcelain teacups and actual silverware, not the plastic forks and Styrofoam containers the rest of the people in the little cafe had been.
"I don't think you need two shots of espresso," Mark said in a quiet monotone, pulling out bills from his wallet to pay for both drinks. Gabe's hand closed around his wrist and they looked at each other for several tense seconds before Gabe finally smiled and pulled a card from his pocket, handing it to the woman with a gentle smile.
"Well, since you're not my mother, I'm not actually going to listen to your advice about what I need or don't need. Additionally, I'm pretty glad that you're not my mother because I couldn't offer you this job if you were. You see she's an amazing cook, but a pretty awful ethics consultant, so let's just stick with you not being her, okay?" It didn't seem that Mark's shoulders could slump any more, but they did, obviously not pleased with himself for taking the liberties he had in the conversation. Just because Gabe seemed to like him for some reason did not mean he could talk to him how he would friends or coworkers. It was a different beast entirely, speaking with the elite, and he neglected it, and got scolded accordingly.
"Don't look like that, little Hero. C'mon." Gabe knew his temper had gotten the better of him, but he also knew that surrounded by what many people would consider peons he wasn't supposed to apologize. Besides, he liked the slightly wounded look on Mark's face. He liked the older man knowing that he was practically under Gabe's thumb.
It was obvious that the baristas hurried Mark and Gabe's orders out because they were on the counter for them a minute later. It only took a moment after that for Gabe to put his hand against Mark's back and escort him outside. The sun was bright on the upper sectors, above the smog and depravity that clogged the sky. Mark never got used to it since his normal routine involved tramming into his building, working all day in his windowless cubicle, and tramming home. Gabe didn't seem to have the same problem as he pulled sunglasses from the inner pocket of his blazer and slid them on.
"You didn't tell your ex-fiancé to leave your stuff alone yet, did you?" Mark didn't answer, just took a slow drink of his too hot coffee. It tasted like sin, unusual from its normal taste of a brief reprieve. Gabe, luckily, didn't ask again, but stopped Mark with a hand on his arm and pulled the still ill fitting suit coat open. Mark had to pull his arm away and take the full brunt of Gabe's disapproving in order to protect his clothing from the coffee that had already soured in his stomach. Gabe didn't seem to even notice the other people out on their lunch breaks watching him look over Mark's still crumpled clothing, and after a half of a minute of practically being on display, Mark pushed his arms over himself, feeling the need to justify his attire.
"I can't exactly tell her what to do or not to do. I've asked her not to do it, and it results in worse things. I don't know how just naming a CEO of another company would make that any different, Mr. Gabe." Mark's tone, to his credit, was trying to be respectful, but he had spit a few words out. Gabe watched him disapprovingly, but didn't scold him twice. Mark's embarrassed blush was enough to tell him he knew he messed up.
"Well, how about if it was the name of your boss that you used? I wasn't just being pleasant in there, Mark. It was an honest proposal. How much are Jim and the company paying you?" Mark didn't answer, so Gabe pushed on. "I'll double it. I would really like for you to be on my pay roll and I guarantee you that you'll get an actual office with an actual window, and be put on things that I actually care about your opinion on." Mark drank more coffee to hide the fact that he really didn't know what to say. He felt like the center of an elaborate practical joke. He would have preferred them to just Vaseline the toilet seat that he was going to sit on to take a crap.
"What use would you have for an ethics consultant? It seems like your company is running fine. No scandals, only in the press for the good you're doing. I mean you give to charities!" Gabe smiled and sat down on a bench that faced away from a well-manicured patch of grass, trees, and synthetic flowers. Mark stood awkwardly several paced away, alternating his attention between the simulated park and his coffee. He refused to look at Gabe's smile through anything but his peripheral.
"Artificial Intelligence, my dear little Hero. I'm sure that you've heard my company is the one leading the industry when it comes to that, and I'd like you to be on board with it. And since it's obvious that you've done research at least on my company, I'll admit I've done some research on you, and I know you'll be perfect for the job."
"There's a lot of controversy over it. Just because I have a history of damage control doesn't mean I'll be any good at changing people's minds about AI's taking away jobs and the worry that they'll become too powerful like those old SciFi movies…" Gabe let Mark talk himself into silence, sitting there with a smile that only grew wider. After Mark cut himself off, Gabe started to laugh. He laughed loud and hard for a minute in which Mark's shoulders sagged again and he built himself up once more so he could look at Gabe defiantly and demandingly. He asked him in a fairly unamused tone what had been so funny about him admitting his own limitations.
"You think I want to hire you at twice your salary to do damage control for my, as you basically put it, picture perfect company? No, no, my little Hero. I've got enough people already employed in that regard and for cheaper. I want you for something very, very different." Mark looked at Gabe with a bit of surprise. Yes, he had honestly thought Gabe was just bribing him with more money to enact some underlying vengeance against Pasalaba, not that he really had some use for Mark. He remained stunned for several seconds before he realized that the 'something else' was something that he really needed to inquire about.
"W-what would you hire me for?" Mark asked after he cleared his throat and chased it with a drink of coffee. There was some hint of mischievousness in Gabe's face, something he wasn't sure that he liked, but knew he was already caught in. Something that paid him double money and wasn't just pushing through problems that were edited to look like positive truths. It was something that he almost couldn't pass up.
"Why don't you sit, Mark? I'm not especially fond of people standing over me. I guess that's something I did get from my status." There was a joke in Gabe's tone but Mark got the distinct impression that he was just doing that to lighten the mood. Mark obliged slowly, sitting with as much room between himself and Gabe as possible. Gabe drank his coffee as Mark moved and even gave it a few more seconds before he picked up where he had left off.
"Logic machines," he said simply, as if that were a complete sentence. Mark hadn't been drinking his coffee, and he was glad he hadn't because he was sure he would have choked on it if he had. Logic machines? Gabe wasn't just going big with Artificial Intelligence; he was talking about making something that had only been a theory, back in the 70's at that!
"You're kidding me. Y-you, I mean, AI is a jump, but a possible jump after the Manostromatic Force, but to think from that you'll go to logic machines?" Gabe just grinned as Mark turned his full attention to him. Mark seemed a disbeliever, and Gabe didn't really care. He was sure, eventually, there would be logic machines, but it was so far down the road that it didn't bother him much. What his goal was was to sweet talk Mark into his company.
"Once we've got a fully functional AI, one that withstands the real world applications we'd put it through, then a logic machine really isn't that far off, is it?"
"A pipe dream!" Mark said animatedly, coffee seemingly forgotten. Gabe continued to smile, taking the shooting down of his lure. Still, he knew that he had Mark hooked, and with some well thought through words he'd reel him in.
"I pipe dream had by Alan Turring, and we know very well how much he accomplished in what everyone told him were pipe dreams too." Mark sputtered at that come back, fumbling awkwardly for a further argument. His learning set him up for such arguments, but he just couldn't grasp his mind around there being a person out there, especially one with as much at his disposal as Gabe, that would be willing to tackle the impossible.
"Alan Turring," Mark responded cautiously, "Also killed himself when being faced with imprisonment or chemical castration for being gay." Gabe continued to grin at the come back, drinking his coffee slowly, waiting for a better response. None came, so he picked up where it left off.
"A shame, really, because he was the most brilliant man of his time and, minus his tragic end, I'm giving you the chance to become the modern day Turring. I have the engineers and the programmers. They can build the code and the hardware. I just need someone like you to make the logic lattice, make it right and complete, and we'll have something that everyone has thought to be a pipe dream." The line was taught and Gabe knew that Mark was his. There was no chance that he would be able to turn down that amount of personal achievement, that level of remembrance. The idea that he would be the logician behind making a thinking and adapting machine, one capable of mastering any logical task set before it through reasoning was too much to say no to. It would perfectly mimic the human mind, in theory, and Mark would get carried off thinking he was contributing to it.
"How would I go from working with Pasalaba to with you?" Mark asked meekly after a few minutes of mutual silence. Gabe couldn't stop the grin from coming on his face, leaning himself back to rest fully against the bench. He stretched his arm out behind Mark and pretended to think for a moment.
"I'll help with that. All you have to worry about if finishing up any projects you're currently working on, and then showing up for work with me. The rest I'll handle." Mark slowly smiled and flopped back against the bench to sit like Gabe, looking first at his coffee and then forward to watch people going about their lives. He wondered if they knew how much those simple tasks would change if they did succeed in making a logic machine. Gabe wondered if Mark had any idea of the trap he walked into.
Months passed and all Shanahan had to report were nibbles. There had been activity, no doubt, but no one had tried to take Ryan over fully. He was positive that it wasn't because they sensed him controlling Ryan, and the people running the show were happy to accept that and extended the time frame of the mission. The rest of the team was not so sure. It looked great on paper, but they continued to have their doubts, even though their off time was spent on much more manageable tasks. They spent their evenings with beers, discussing how the mission was floundering. When something new came up, they talked about that, but usually they spoke about the same thing over and over, and prepared for the worst.
The truth was that the reason that there were only small touches against Ryan's mind was that any Mastermind worth their salt could feel Shanahan's control all over him. Of course more than a few of those nibbles were Gabe's, and he sat on that information long enough to form a plan of action. His daily life had gotten slightly more involved with the addition of Mark to his company: checking in on him, getting reports that he really had no interest in, but had to keep up the illusion to keep his newest puppet happy. Oddly, Gabe found himself wanting to keep Mark happy, and after the first few weeks the lie about that almost felt real.
Still, Gabe spent later nights at the office in an attempt to plan his latest scheme, differing greatly from his more normal devastation and destruction plans. The fact that there was bait put out that seemed basically gift wrapped for him made Gabe believe that the Heroes had finally devised a plan to catch him in the act. Unfortunately for them, he was well and beyond the point of just being worth his salt. He was powerful, and it wasn't just his ego that told him that.
It was late one night, well passed two in the morning when Gabe acted. He sat back comfortably in his chair and let his mind reach into the Mr. Alego that had been paraded in front of himself, and many others, time after time. They all knew just enough about the man to know that he was a development researcher on something big. They were all allowed only enough to draw their attention, not enough to dig deeper and call bull shit on what Gabe could only assume was a front. All the meetings were pretty, showing credentials, but not saying much about what the product was, or taking other products that were plagiarized and could be attributed to the Mr. Alego at some level that was hardly documented. It had been a good show and would have continued to have been so if Gabe hadn't seen the other Mastermind written under the man's skin like a poorly concealed tattoo.
At night, when a person's mind was at rest, it was so simple to get in that it was almost laughable. Their consciousnesses put up no fight, sliding easily under Gabe's control. He had no doubt that the man was still connected with the other Mastermind and that he would be alerted by Gabe's infiltration, but what he would do about it was what Gabe wondered. He had a few options, one being to try to expel Gabe, showing his strength. Another would be to stay hidden and low, keeping up whatever lies he had put into the man's mind. Finally he could back out entirely and give Gabe free reign of Mr. Alego. Gabe was pleased that the other Mastermind didn't put up a fight nor cower out like a child, just continued to hold, calm and composed, to Mr. Alego's mind. He was smart, Gabe thought with a grin, overpowering the easy parts of the man's mind, taking what was given up in order to then concentrate on blitz attacking the rest.
It didn't take Gabe long to map out the basic parts of Mr. Alego. He was a fully functioning man in his mid forties. Wife, two kids (boys, age 12 and 15, the man's mind easily supplied). He had a few marital disputes with his wife about the long hours he put in, but despite those he tried to be the best dad he could. That would make his sudden turn from caring and loving father to a homicidal maniac all the sweeter. Gabe dove in deeper, looking for whatever it was that the other Mastermind hid from him. He was sure it was something that the very core of the Guild didn't want him knowing. Gabe knew that they promised him that his family would be well protected if he agreed to help them with whatever scheme it was he was in on. Gabe was sure he'd make them pay dearly for that promise.
He slid into control of Mr. Alego's body like a well-tailored suit, practiced ease to everything he did. His kinesthetic adjusted, leaving only the shadow of his actual body in the far reaches of his mind. He multitasked easily, one part of his mind controlling Mr. Alego's slow stand, careful not to wake his wife. The other part pressed against the section of the man's mind that was blacked out to him. He wanted to know what they didn't want him to know. He also wanted them to know that he was in.
Steven. Jordan, and Taylor had sat around a small bar table, going through their usual routine of lamenting over what little progress had been made when all of their cell phones had begun to go off. They were relayed very similar messages, each from a different dispatcher. Their plan had worked well, possibly too well, and that they were needed to respond to Mr. Alego's home address with due haste. Beers and tabs were forgotten as they rushed outside. Steven didn't even bother with his car, using his speed power instead to hurry to the scene. Jordan and Taylor both had to drive, and disregarded every road rule they could along the way.
The scene outside of Mr. Alego's house was a zoo. Cop cars lined the road on both sides, making it impossible for Jordan and Taylor to get through. Both had to show at least three forms of identification, Taylor bursting into flames in frustration and screaming more than a few obscenities at the cops that were merely there for damage control. Once finally in, the scene wasn't much of an improvement. SWAT teams, both the local PD and the Guild's specially trained hostage unit were there on stand by. Luminosimancers lit up every window they could in hopes that Mr. Alego would show up in one and be disarmed. Steven had long since arrived and met up with Jordan and Taylor to give them the run down.
"Ryan's in there. He was taken over by another Mastermind and is holding Alego's family hostage." He seemed slightly frantic, and was rightfully so. "Shanahan's still got Ryan under, still hiding who he is, but he had to bail out on the total control."
"Why the hell would he do that?" Taylor demanded, looking over the house as if assessing what they could possibly do to save their newest teammate and the innocent family members of the man still under. His first thought was to storm the place with everyone they had, but he knew the Mastermind was just waiting for that and would easily kill whomever he reached first. His second thought would be to have Steven go in and grab the hostages, but his speed only made him invulnerable to the effects. Running while carrying someone would cause them permanent physical damage at best and kill them by turning them into a puddle of liquid at worst. Taylor's fire powers were right out, and Jordan's freezing effects took too long to ramp up. They were entirely useless.
"You know exactly why he bailed on Ryan," Jordan commented back, one of his worst fears becoming reality. "If Shanahan fought off the Mastermind then Ryan would be like those scientists. He'd be in a fucking hospital. If he bailed completely then Ryan would be exposed and god knows what this Mastermind would do if he found out Ryan's a Guild member. He'd probably kill him, and still could. Do we know how strong this Mastermind is? Can he make Ryan do stuff against his nature like kill Alego's family?" Jordan and Taylor both looked back at Steven who wore a grave look. He didn't answer until Jordan asked again, sterner, more desperate. Steven's look said it all but they needed to hear it.
"He's strong. He had no problem backing Shanahan into the corner. He was inside in a minute flat, had Shanahan digging his heels in to keep up the defenses on Ryan. It's… it's not good, guys." It hadn't been accounted for, Jordan sneered, looking at the house again, wishing some epiphany would come over him and he'd know exactly what to do to fix the problem. None came so they could only wait it out.
Inside Ryan's head it was a war zone. Subconsciously he had beliefs, noble and moral ideas about how things should be. He was a Hero after all. He wanted no harm to be done on anyone, and he knew that he was threatening harm on a woman and innocent children, but there was nothing he could do. Even keeping up his own powers and keeping himself cloaked as Alego was out of his control, being run remotely by Shanahan who was doing everything in his power to keep Gabe from reaching Ryan's subconscious. Deep in his mind Ryan was aware of it, could see what he was being forced to do as if watching an old film reel being projected on a wall in his mind. The wall Shanahan was fighting to protect with his life. It could, and possibly would, fall with the beating it was taking, Gabe storming it like an old castle siege. He felt powerless and scared unlike he had ever before. Not just for himself, but for the crying woman and boys, begging for their dad to stop, to let them go.
A phone rang somewhere in the background and Ryan grabbed up one of the boys, knife edging dangerously close to breaking the skin on his neck as he pulled the boy the few feet to where the man's cell phone lay. He snatched it and threw the boy back to his mother, smiling deviously before he answered the phone. Mr. Alego's voice came out of Ryan's throat, but it was not he who was speaking. It was the Mastermind that had been also beating on the other side of the wall.
"Now, tell me. What little Hero am I speaking to?" Alego's voice came out silky smooth, almost sickeningly.
"The Mastermind," Ryan noted, relaying to Shanahan as well as he could, "Is well educated." No news there since almost everyone on the list was someone with power. Those people were basically prone to being both well educated and egotistical.
"Jonathan Alego?" The voice on the other end asked, pausing for just an instant. "This is Major General Kompleef of the Heroes Guild high command. We request that you disarm yourself and let your wife and children go. Whatever has happened, we will help you through it." Facade, Gabe thought, and it rumbled through Ryan's mind like thunder. He subconsciously frowned, unhappy that the Mastermind apparently knew that he had been baited.
It's not good that he's aware. Make's it more dangerous for you. Came Shanahan's voice like a whisper in his ear. Ryan knew that. What he wanted to know was what they were going to do about it.
"How should we proceed?" He asked simply, watching the wall shutter again, the images flickering slightly closer to reality as the Mastermind pushed again to access where Ryan was hid.
Carefully, replied Shanahan.
"Not quite Jonathan Alego," Gabe told the Major General with a laugh, knife twirling in dexterous fingers. "But I'm also not in the mood to talk to a military money hound. How about you put on one of those Heroes that came up with this plan, hmm? I'm far more interested in talking to one of them and finding out just what they had hoped to accomplish with this scheme." The Major General seemed hesitant to obey the request, so Gabe continued, catching the knife and holding it menacingly.
"Time's ticking, Major General Kompleef. I'm getting an itchy trigger finger knowing that right outside there are a lot of public protectors. So be a good boy and put on a Hero or Mrs. Alego's lips will be deposited on the front stoop." Ryan flinched at that idea and was glad to hear that the Major General would comply.
"Tell them," Ryan said in hurried tones. "Tell them that he's an egoist. That if they pry-- raise him up a little-- he might give up more. He wants us to know who he is. Not exactly his name and address, but he's going to tell us things that the other crimes didn't." The chain of information was cumbersome. Ryan's thoughts went to Shanahan who, mind occupied with keeping Gabe out, would deliriously relate them to a scribe. It would then go to a dispatcher that would relay the message to the field. The Major General got it just after Jordan took the phone call, holding up the text version of what Ryan had said. He nodded slowly. Never in his time as a cop did he have to do any hostage negotiations. There were far better people actually trained for it, but the Mastermind demanded one of them, and he was far more suited for it than Steven or Taylor.
"Which one are you?" Gabe asked with a smile when Jordan had introduced himself simply as Third Grade Guild Member Eberle. He didn't answer directly, but stayed with Ryan's plan.
"I have a feeling you already know who I am," Jordan responded carefully. "You seem to know a lot more about our workings than we do yours." Gabe laughed, the low rumble that was the mixture of Alego and himself.
"I'm guessing so since I've been watching you fools fumble around my crime scenes for years. You seem too dim witted to be the Tachographer, too even tempered to be that idiot Conflagrator, so I'm going to guess the Aquaformer. Am I right?" Jordan took a moment to school himself, realizing that he really did know about them. That made things a little trickier. The best tactics to clearing hostages is to know more about the hostage taker than he knew about the negotiator. Of course it never would have been that easy, Jordan scoffed to himself.
"Yeah, you're right. Impressive. Maybe you can help us out a bit. We've been clutching at straws here the whole time, trying to figure out who you are. We assumed a man, good standing and high power. Someone who had everything he needed. What we never figured out was why you would do what you've been doing. I get that taking lives would make someone feel strong, but you've already got that strength, don't you? So, why kill people?" Gabe grinned and Ryan cringed, hanging his head low in the cavern he hid in. The siege halted for a moment, all of Gabe's attention focused on Jordan and his prying. Ryan only wanted Jordan to keep the Mastermind talking, not make them all look incompetent.
"Challenge," Alego's voice came out in that sickly smooth tone again, and something deeper, more primitive rumbled through Ryan's fortress. The ability to overcome challenge, it said, and Ryan knew what it meant. Killing civilians was easy for someone with those powers. Killing a Hero was different. "Did you like the presents? You know, those scientists. Those husbands, wives, mothers, fathers that cried and crumbled under the weight of what I made them do? They were pretty interesting, weren't they? How easily the human mind can succumb to just the slightest coercion and do unspeakable acts of terror. Then how easily they break apart into tiny fragments. I wonder if that'll happen to this man since you've got your Mastermind still tinkering around in his head."
"Would that make you happy?" Jordan asked. "Breaking an innocent man who just signed up to help be bait to lure you out?" Alego laughed and the banging on the wall began again, harder, more desire behind it.
"It wouldn't make me unhappy, especially when the blood will be on the hands of your Mastermind who didn't know to leave well enough alone. But no, it wouldn't make me nearly as happy as one of you little Heroes coming in here so this innocent man can cut you apart. Then I'll have the whole Guild looking for me, and I'll have all the challenges I'll ever need."
"Ask why he needs a challenge," Ryan told Shanahan and the phone chain began again. It took a minute for Jordan to get the message, and it was obvious because he had continued on.
"He and his family have nothing to do with us, you know. Besides being pawns to us, they're just numbers to add to casualties you've made. How about you talk to us and we can meet on your terms. You can fight us directly and leave the civilians that don't give you the challenge alone. I guarantee you that me and the boys would love a shot at taking you out on an even playing field, face to face." Gabe laughed, Alego laughed, and it rumbled through Ryan's world. It made the banging seem louder, more forceful.
"That would be great, except I'm not big on meet and greets. I'm a bit of the quiet type, you see." Ryan perked up.
"Someone that didn't directly talk to Alego?" He asked.
Distraction. He's not socially inept at all. He’s most definitely a person that was not only introduced to Alego, but had spoken in length to his company. He knows I'm here, he knows I'm following, and he wants to throw us all off his trail long enough to find you. Shanahan was right. Gabe wanted them to start taking people in, the wrong people in, so he could get through the defenses.
"That's too bad. You seem like a real nice guy once we get to talking," Jordan said with a sneer that obviously made Gabe happy. He smiled and shifted the phone to his shoulder, dragging the knife over Alego's wife's cheek as she held her boys close to her side and cried. He wanted to show that he wasn't the nice guy and that snide comments weren't going to make him happy.
"I'm going to assume that the Mastermind that is sharing space in this mind is relaying you information. I wont spoil the surprise of what I just did, but next time she'll be losing an ear. Now, I expect a bit more respect from you since I have been schooling you every step of the way so far." Jordan waved off the information he knew was going to come through. He didn't need to know what the man had done since the threat was enough.
"You're right, I'm sorry. We've been rats in a maze. So, why don't we get back to what you want? Why do you need a challenge?" Small rumblings of thoughts came through the wall, but they were too piece meal for Ryan to construct until Gabe spoke them into the phone.
"Things are easy when you're as powerful as me. Anyone and everyone can be taken over, made to do my work. What I want is to take those morals you Heroes all have, those high and haughty ideals, and watch as I tear them down. I will start with this Mastermind that you think is going to keep me out forever, and then I will move onto you all. I want you people that think you can fight all of the evil in this world to cower before me, and I don't want it to be easy." Jordan's teeth gritted and he looked toward where Taylor, Steven, and the Major General were listening in to the call. The guy wasn't just powerful, but also a psychopath.
"So, what you're telling me is that you want recognition for being the guy that brings down the Guild?" Jordan asked carefully, eyes narrowing up at the house. Gabe didn't answer right away. He reached to grab one of the boys again, and hauled him out of his mother's grip. She clung to him, screaming and desperate, but Gabe slashed at her arm that she retracted with a desperate cry and scream, having to cradle it to herself to try and quell the bleeding. The boy sobbed, reached for her desperately, but Gabe's hold was strong, and he dragged the boy to the window that looked over the scene in front of the house. The phone was cradled on his shoulder; one hand grabbed a hold of the scruff of the boy's neck, the other gripped the knife. He held the boy like a shield, knife stretched across his throat in a silent promise of death.
"What I want, little Hero, is for the street to run red with the blood of Heroes, and for this world to recognize that evil will always win out. And it will be ushered in with the blood of innocence on the hands of Heroes. So, you have two choices, I see. Shoot this innocent man and save a boy, or watch in horror as this innocent man kills his son. I wonder what type of men you are, Heroes of the Guild. What blood is worth more to you?" Gabe let the phone fall from his shoulder and tensed his arm in a smooth movement. It was obvious that they would chose to kill the man instead of letting the child die, but as his arm went to move, and the tendrils of his mind broke the wall, Gabe stumbled onto just the fleeting image of what hid behind it. Then his connection went dead.
It took less than a millisecond for Shanahan's consciousness to take control. He stopped the blade's movement, and pulled his arms away from the boy. The knife fell to the floor and his arms shot up in the air, a sign of unarmed surrender.
"Go! All three of you go outside," He commanded. The Alego family ran from the house, crying and coddled by the mother, each being accepted warmly but quickly by waiting Guild members. They would be debriefed and then reunited with their actual father. Their forgiveness would be begged, but their involvement was purely collateral. They would be moved from the Megalopolis, given new lives safe from the Mastermind.
The wall protecting Ryan rebuilt slowly, but he knew that what he had seen beyond it would scar him forever. It was the black mist of evil, something no amount of therapy would remove from him. It was the intangible thing he had joined the Guild to destroy made solid.
It was inevitable that he would try, but I really thought I would be stronger than him, Shanahan told him with an apology in his words. Ryan took them as much, letting go of any control he had been trying to build up in case the other Mastermind had been able to get through the barrier fully. He would have fought nail and tooth for his mental freedom if the mad man had managed to discover who he was.
"What do you think happened? Why did he stop?" Ryan asked, genuinely curious. They would evaluate his mental stability later, check for any damage that the warring Masterminds had left. At that moment he really just wanted everyone out of his head and to be safely back at the Guild, hidden from the world.
"I'm sorry, I didn't know you were still here," Mark said as Gabe stared at the ceiling as if it was the first time he had actually seen it. "Did I wake you up?" Slowly Gabe sat forward, fingers moved to his temples to rub out the stress there. He had them, so close to cowering fools, and the knife had stabbed him instead of the boy. The knife he had kept close to avoid just such an action. He hoped to God the Heroes had no idea what weapon was so near.
"No, I wasn't asleep," Gabe mumbled, feeling the stress in his body. Mark smirked slowly as he set down a few folders on the edge of Gabe's desk.
"You sure? You looked pretty asleep." Gabe slowly exhaled, feeling sluggish, like he had been pulled from a dream. Sure he had been pulled from something, but it was very much so not a dream.
"What're you still doing here?" Gabe asked, adjusting himself to sit more appropriately at his desk, looking up at Mark who still stood near by. He didn't bother to look at the folders for an answer even though Mark's hand still laid on them.
"Wanted to finish a few things and I guess I lost track of time. How about you?" His inquiry would throw most people scrambling for lies to cover up their real reason for being there. Gabe was no such person and easily fell back on his lies. He stretched and let out a yawn for posterity's sake, talking as his yawn died out.
"Wasn't quite feeling like going home. Something unsavory is waiting for me." The thing with lies is that the more abstract they are, the easier they are to believe. It was the same idea fortunes and mystics had been using to con people for years, and Gabe took a page from their books. He watched as Mark's brows crinkled, obviously not expecting an answer like that.
"So you were going to sleep in here all night? You'd… you'd look like me then," Mark mused awkwardly and that actually made Gabe smile. He settled back in his chair and regarded Mark fondly, not like the danger he was.
"Well, there are a few characteristics you hold that I wouldn't mind having. Your sleep deprived appearance isn't one of them. Now, I think you should go home and work on getting rid of those bags under your eyes. Absolutely nothing you're doing couldn't have waited until morning and needed to be done at," Gabe glance briefly at the clock, "at three-thirty in the morning." Mark smiled softly, but it began to fall when Gabe didn't get up. He shifted awkwardly for a moment before he spoke again, voice unsure and unsteady.
"You're not really going to sleep here, are you?" He asked Gabe who half shrugged, shifting in his chair to stretch out his back. It wasn't outside the realm of possibilities, he thought absently.
"I've got a couch. I'll be fine," He told Mark, moving to stand slowly. Mark watched him, disbelief written on his face. It was almost as if it was beyond his world to imagine his boss sleeping on a couch in his office instead of going home or renting a luxurious hotel room for the night. Gabe could imagine that it never would have happened in Mark's neat and tidy world before they had met.
"You… no, look, I get that you don't want to go home. I get that too well, but you can't sleep on that couch. I mean, you can get a hotel room or… look, I've got a bed. Even that would make me happier than you sleeping here." It was pretty presumptuous that Mark would think that what would make him happy would also make Gabe happy, but, strangely enough, that was exactly what Gabe felt. He had an urge to make Mark happy, and that left him staring at the other man for several long seconds.
"That's kind of you," Gabe said slowly once he relocated her voice, clearing it once softly, "But I'm pretty sure your ex wouldn't be happy that you brought your boss home at some awful time of the night." Gabe wanted Mark to tell him that he didn't care what his ex had to say. He wanted him to be strong, tough, and resilient. He hoped that the job, the promise of something more than just remedial tasks for the rest of his life, had given him that boost.
"She moved out," Mark said cautiously, and Gabe got the distinct impression that he didn't want to give any more details. Gabe slowly raised his hands in mock surrender, smiling softly at Mark who moved awkwardly on the other side of the desk from him. He was probably regretting even offering, and looked calmed when Gabe spoke again.
"Alright. I think you're right that I need a bed. Lead the way, my little Hero."
There was always something awkward about sleeping in a different bed. No matter how many hotels Gabe stayed at, no matter how many different beds he slept in, nothing compared even remotely to his own. He pondered that as he stared at the cracked ceiling of Mark's bedroom.
It had been a hard fight he had to put up, arguing that Mark should sleep in his own bed and that he would take the couch. Mark actually refused and wouldn't budge from his stance. Amazingly, the older man could be stubborn if he wanted to be, and Gabe was so thrilled to see the passion in him that he hadn't managed to argue further and ended up taking the bed in the end.
Hours had passed since the lights had gone out, but Gabe was far too keyed up to even think of sleep. He had the Heroes to think about, the excitement and adrenaline still pumping through his system. He closed his eyes, expecting the secluded silence that came when Mark was near and cut off his powers. Gabe sometimes liked to reach out and touch his agents, using their own sleep in order to fall asleep himself, but he expected nothing but his own racing mind that night. Surprisingly the silence didn't greet him, but a very solid presence that Gabe had no doubt was Mark. His eyes shot open and he stared at the ceiling again. His mind had no problem leveling to a singularity that was directed perfectly on Mark.
He could be overtaken.
It wasn't rare that abilities required a conscience effort. Most did, as a matter of fact. Like inappropriate boners, as a person with abilities got older, their powers became more subdued and less likely to manifest without a direct command for them to. Mark's powers seemed slightly different. He doubted that Mark was calling on his abilities like Gabe did, but that he just turned on and off depending on his consciousness. Gabe shut his eyes again and honed in.
Everyone felt different when Gabe tapped in. He used those feelings to keep track of who was who. He knew who felt like what, and Mark didn't just feel different, he felt new. He wasn't pure, not at all. Not noble either unlike virtually any other hero. He felt sad and lonely, but strong. He felt honorable and fragmented. Gabe had conceptions about what Mark was like, but to feel them was so much more.
He reached into Mark's mind and watched the slow and disjointed memories he held there. It was more like a picture book than a movie or even a flipbook. He rifled through images of people, events, things that were probably reasons that Mark felt the way that he did. None of them showed Mark, nor gave any details about how old he had been when they were created, since they were all recorded into his mind through his eyes. He was the camera never seen in a production.
Since he was in, since Mark's sleep gave him passage, Gabe wanted to experiment. He wanted to test and tinker. He slipped words in, cravings for a cup of tea, and then just as easily erased them. He went bolder, placing thoughts about people and places. He worked in some conception about wanting to move to Neo-United-China and join a rebel cult hell bent on eradicating ponies. He then wiped it out with no more trouble than he would have with others, proving that Mark could be influenced to even extreme concepts. Gabe slowly backed out, feeling the absent touches of Mark's thoughts slip from him. He stared at the ceiling again, mind feeling both sluggish and too alert for the late hour. He moved labouredly as he pushed off the covers and stood. He needed a drink, and he needed to feel some more. He needed to look at the other man while he took over his mind and felt what ran through his system.
Gabe moved as carefully as he could, hyper-aware of Mark now that he knew who the other mind belonged to that had been brushing up against his own consciousness for hours. He shakily poured himself a glass of water and just as uncoordinatedly drank. His mouth still felt dry and he knew why. Mark felt like something he wanted, wanted to keep, and that mortified him, He never wanted to keep something, let alone someone, for himself. All connections were fleeting, over once their usefulness or novelty wore off. Even Downie, he knew, would eventually become one of those people. Mark he didn't wish that for. Gabe knew he was already caught, but not by those that wanted him caught.
Gabe couldn't help but connect again. It was easy, a seamless transition from his single mental strand to a duel one that he could access accordingly. He didn't want to differentiate, though. He wondered what it would be like to let both minds think the same thing at once. He couldn't experience that, though. He knew that with Mark he would be constantly in the unfamiliar silence-- his own thoughts his only companion. At some point, when Mark shifted from sleep to wakefulness, he could lose the connection. It would fall flat and dead and no matter how he tried, Mark's ability would cancel his own. He would grasp, but the sands of the connection would run through his fingers.
Gabe moved a few paces from the kitchen to the living room so he could see Mark sleeping on the couch. He was too tall for it, looked uncomfortable in the way one arm was bent against his body while the other draped absently above his head. He seemed relaxed even with the thoughts Gabe had been implanting and erasing whimsically. He seemed almost peaceful. Gabe was sure that his intrusion didn't always go so well. His glass clinked lightly as it gently set onto the coffee table that Gabe lowered himself onto as well. He took several second to just look at Mark, admire his sleeping face that wasn't burdened with dark circles born from the desperate desire to make everyone happy. He was kind, Gabe knew. He had known that for some time, but had wanted to remove that from the older man. He was no longer sure of that.
Gabe kept his fingers feather light as he brushed down Mark's nose and then over his cheek. Mark flinched slightly and absently waved the hand off. Gabe smiled but wasn't deterred by the reflex. He felt his mental hold slip a little as Mark woke just the slightest bit. He was certainly powerful for someone unregistered. Still Gabe didn't stop as he let his thumb rub at the bags under Mark's eye and his other fingers mapped the stubble that grew like wildfire across his cheeks. It was more than enough to make Mark's eyes heavily open.
At first Mark could only gaze at Gabe from under his eyelashes. He eyes moved slowly, labouredly, almost like he was still in a dream. He was conscious enough, Gabe knew, since he had been easily expelled from Mark's mind, the crushing silence coming back. It was frightening, something that Gabe didn't know how to handle, and that usually put him on edge. Instead, with Mark's throat so close, his life so easy to end, Gabe felt peace.
"What're you doing?" Mark asked, still groggy as he shifted his face out of Gabe's light hold. The correct answer would have been to tell a lie. He knew he should have told him something along the lines of how Mark had been having a bad dream, had woken Gabe up, and that he was just checking on him. What he should not have said was what eventually came out of his mouth.
"Imagining killing you," Gabe said softly, hand moving back to take Mark's cheek again. That answer obviously caught Mark off guard because he didn't immediately move to get away from Gabe's hand again. Instead he had woken up and stared at Gabe with wide eyes. He snapped out of his surprise after several seconds, moving quickly to get Gabe's hand away from his face, get Gabe away from him. It only worked so far because Gabe had sensed the movement and reacted. He caught both of Mark's wrists and slammed them back against the couch. He manhandled them into one hand and wrapped his free hand around Mark's throat. He didn't choke him, though his muscles twitched with an urge to push down and let Mark struggle for his life. Instead he only held on tight enough to keep him down, bending to brush his lips against Mark's ear.
"I wont, Mark. I wont kill you," He told the older man with a light laugh, as if the whole thing had been a joke. He could hear Mark's breath come slightly labouredly from the pressure he had on his neck, it evening out his raging emotions. He could kill him, personally, close, passionately, but he wouldn't. Gabe killed remotely, kept his own hands clean, but with Mark he would have to kill him directly. He would need to do it himself.
"Y'know, you have a terrible sense of humor," Mark informed him in a slightly breathless tone as he drew in long inhales through his constricted airway. He hadn't seemed sold, though, since Gabe had kept considerable pressure on his throat. He pulled against Gabe's hold with his wrists; wanting to put his fingers under Gabe's grasp, make him let go. Gabe knew he wouldn't give him that satisfaction, but he did force himself to ease up a bit. He wouldn't kill Mark, he promised himself as he let his fingers play against the older man's pulse point. Not yet, anyway.
"I've actually never been told that," Gabe responded with an air of awe, bending carefully and slowly (don't move too fast, or you'll scare him. Easy now, no need to break him yet.) He purposefully didn't kiss Mark on the lips, not that he didn't want to. Instead he let his lips brush over Mark's cheekbone and the stubble that resided there. He closed his eyes and listened to the way Mark's breath hitched when Gabe gently ran his lips across his cheek and to his ear. Mark's protests came absently but desperately, more like a soft prayer given during times of extreme adversity.
"No, please. Please don't," He begged just above a whisper and Gabe backed off just enough to glance once across Mark's face. His eyes were closed, as Gabe's had been, but his brows were furrowed in muted desperation. He was wishing that it wasn't true, it seemed, but Gabe planned on removing that. He would have to do it with his actions, but Gabe knew that he was up to the challenge. He didn't need Mark to pit against him anymore. What he needed was for him to be his weapon.
Gabe shushed Mark softly, lips whispering next to his ear. All it took was a steady hand and mind to get someone to submit, and Gabe knew that. He wouldn't have to work hard to point out Mark's flaws to him and make him believe that he would be able to patch it all back together for the older man.
"You don't have to fight, Mark," Gabe purred softly, lips teasing the sensitive hairs that covered Mark's ear. "You can just enjoy it for what it is." That didn't seem to cut the little bit of fight out of Mark, but Gabe didn't stop despite it. No one told Gabe no, at least not for long.
"Please, stop. It's… it's not legal…" Gabe smirked, lips moving down Mark's neck where he had been holding the other man down. That hand traveled as well, pressing firmly against Mark's pec and rubbed the heel of it hard over his nipple. He spared a glance up, watching the older man as he grit his teeth, biting back sounds that threatened to come out in all forms. Gabe could imagine it had been a long time since anyone had touched the other man, and maybe it had never been done with Mark getting all the attention. Gabe knew he would make it worth it, make it something Mark would crave.
"There're a lot of things that someone who is paid to has decided not to make legal. You and I both know there is a difference between illegal and immoral, though, so just relax." Gabe gave several seconds to Mark where he just worked lightly at his pulse point. His lips moved deftly until they clamped down on some skin and Gabe sucked just as gently. Mark tasted like salt and half-formed protests. He was no god raised on some pedestal, despite how Gabe had seen him before. He was human and fallible, and something that could be taken over with a little work.
"If you tell me no again, I'll stop. I'll back off and go to bed. If you do want it, you don't have to say anything. You can just lay there and let me make you feel good for a little." Gabe didn't bother asking if Mark understood because he thought too highly of the man. Mark did understand and Gabe knew that. Instead he just dragged his teeth down to the crook of Mark's neck, tasting every piece of skin he could. He wondered how much it would take to make Mark taste like sin.
Mark never did respond as he arched up against Gabe's hand that had moved down to kneed and press against his abs. Gabe had no need to look into Mark's mind to know it had been awhile since he had gotten any sort of sexual stimulus. Though he was sure Mark's mind was still throwing protest, his body obviously craved it like a heroin addict that had gone too long since their last fix. Gabe would make sure that that itch was scratched for him. Gabe took his time mapping Mark's stomach, tracing over the hills and valleys of his muscles with rough and hard touches. He wanted to make Mark feel where Gabe's hands had been.
Gabe let himself indulge for a little, the silence in his mind allowing thoughts to surface that usually didn't. Normally he could feel what the other person was feeling like a phantom limb. He dove deep enough in their minds that he didn't need to control them, just let the sensations mirror back to him. They were always laced, though, with the opinions of the other person. They would come with affirmatives or negatives concerning what he was doing. With Mark, Gabe was effectively flying blind. However, the agreement was that Gabe wouldn't ask him what he thought about what they were doing. Mark's silence, light noises, clipped gasps, were enough to tell Gabe that he was at least partially on the right track.
When Gabe had had his fill of mapping Mark's muscles, he let his hand retreat. He moved back enough to look up at Mark, watching as his eyes opened just a slit. Gabe was sure that Mark hoped that he hadn't seen his eyes open at all, but the small movements of his face weren't lost to him in the least. Gabe continued to regard him until Mark knew that his hope of pleading ignorance to being caught was up. He opened his eyes and tried to regard Gabe hard. It fell flat.
Gabe let his free hand move back up to Mark's cheek, taking a soft hold as he let his thumb trace the stubble again. Mark at first shied away, eyes closing and brows knitting, but then seemed to realize resistance was futile. Gabe knew that it felt good, and Mark was caught up in it. Like a fly to a web, Gabe thought with a smirk as he slowly lowered himself to kiss Mark for the first time. It wasn't reciprocated like a lover would give a kiss back. It was tentative, chaste, and gentle, almost afraid. Usually such awkward passiveness would be a turn off, but at that moment, it was endearing. Gabe slipped his hand to Mark's pec again, feeling for his nipple, which he pinched softly.
"I'm going to let go," Gabe told Mark quietly in the shared air between their faces. "Please at least warn me before you take a swing at me, okay?" Mark huffed a laugh, breath still lightly tinted with the smell of toothpaste, but slightly worked over by the smell of sleep breath. It took several seconds before he nodded once, almost as if forced, but then a few more times as if suddenly overcome with the need to.
"Okay… okay. Really don't think it's acceptable to hit my boss anyway," He mused in a whisper, which had Gabe smile and let out a light laugh as well. Mark, ever the logical man. Gabe slowly let go of Mark's wrists as if testing what he had said. Gabe knew he didn't need to since Mark wouldn't hit him, but for posterity's sake he played along. He drifted his fingers over the soft flesh of the older man's wrists, watching as Mark's hands flexed in response to the tickle-like stimulus. He didn't make any movement other than that, keeping his wrists laid loosely over the arm of the couch as if afraid that any other action would be construed as approval of what Gabe had been doing to him.
Gabe had been aware that Mark's complacency was dubious at best. Their status, the difference with position and Gabe's place as Mark's boss made it almost impossible for Mark to turn down any advances Gabe had been making. Sure, Gabe had given him an out, but Mark considered it a weighted out. Gabe didn't care. He got what he wanted regardless.
Freeing his hand meant that Gabe could work Mark over better, more thoroughly. He would worry about erasing the consent issues after. Gabe shifted, sitting more on the edge of the table as he worked lips and teeth down Mark's neck again, hands moving to the hem of Mark's shirt that bunched, slightly too big, at his waist line. Mark had managed to make himself slink down on the couch pretty far, but the shirt easily slid over his abs and the small of his back. Gabe's hands forced it the rest of the way up to his clavicles by pulling Mark up slightly. When it was mostly out of the way, Gabe's hands explored the same muscles he had before, but no long inhibited by the thin cotton.
Mark had some body hair, enough that it didn't stop at his navel but traveled up the line between his muscles. A small patch grew at his sternum and another between his pectorals, Gabe's nose brushing over them as his lips moved from one nipple to the other. It wasn't that Gabe preferred men as bed mates, not really sold on either gender, but more so that he preferred people to be comfortable with their gender. He wanted women to look like women, slight curves, soft, hair let free over his pillows. He also wanted men to be masculine, built hard, not beautified or changed through all the reconstructive surgeries that had become fads in the new world order. He liked that Mark didn't wax or shave, that he smelled slightly musky. He found it quite a turn on.
The swirls of Gabe's tongue, the ways his lips flexed, had Mark gritting his teeth, almost as if he was in pain. Entirely the opposite, Mark enjoyed the ministrations, but silently wished he hadn't been. He wanted to just be a passive item in whatever it had been that Gabe had been working toward. His mind flirted only briefly with the idea that it wasn't a power play, that Gabe felt something for him, even just sexually. However, the rest of his brain beat that idea back roughly. He would just be the catalyst to whatever Gabe needed, it instructed him, but even that resound logic began to fall flat with the expert way Gabe worked on him. It was no secret that Gabe had done what he had been doing before. Mark hoped it had been the first time he had done it coercively, though.
"You don't have to be quiet," Gabe told Mark, lips moving against the older man's body hair as he followed the line down to his stomach. Mark's fists clenched in response to his boss' voice, body tensing just slightly. It was easier when he wasn't speaking.
"I don't think my neighbors would appreciate noise," Mark responded flatly, keeping his tone level for his own sake. Gabe glanced up Mark's body with a smirk before he nipped playfully at the skin surrounding his navel. The older man exhaled a hiss, but made no other noise, body tensing more. He was uncomfortable, but Gabe knew he could make him come. He had no worries about that.
"What? Are you that loud when you let go of that control you force yourself under?" Mark let out a small noise, more frustrated than excited or even mad. His hands moved, palms pressing hard to his eyes as his body arched up a little. Gabe had moved down slightly lower, licking at the hair that lead into Mark's sweats. He wanted it, whatever Gabe's "it" pertained to that also involved Mark's penis, but he still held onto his threads of control that Gabe chastised him for. He wanted sexual pleasure, but he didn't want what else was attached to it when it came to Gabe.
"This… this isn't professional," Mark muttered, voice slightly pleading as he watched the stars behind his eyelids from the pressure he applied to them. Gabe's lips quirked against Mark's skin before he leaned back. He didn't give Mark space for long, just enough time for Gabe to rearrange himself again. He moved farther up toward Mark's head, bending to catch his lips roughly, passionately. It wasn't immediately reciprocated, but Gabe was persistent, and with a few well-timed licks to Mark's lips, the other man slowly opened up to it. Gabe worked him until he became pliant and then began to kiss back, albeit less expertly executed than Gabe. Mark's arms felt weak, almost outside of his kinesthetic as he raised them and tentatively took hold of Gabe. His one hand moved to the back of Gabe's neck, weaving some short hairs between his index and middle fingers. His other hand grasped at Gabe's shirt, collecting a few of the top buttons of his dress shirt in his fist. Gabe carefully broke the kiss after a minute, forehead resting against Mark's as he spoke into the shared space. One of his hands slipped behind Mark's neck, kneading gently, while his other teased fingertips below the waistband of Mark's pants.
"Trust me, anything I'm feeling now isn't even in the realm of professional courtesy." Gabe created a life around half-truths and down right lies. It felt a little strange to actually say what he had known to be true, especially to someone whose death had been an ever-increasing daydream of his. Mark was dangerous, someone that could shut him down, making everything he built up crumble in a moment just from his presence, but Gabe was honest with him. He wanted to make him feel good, even though he knew Mark was the knife that would eventually kill him.
"That's… good…" Mark mumbled, eyes closed again as Gabe slid his hand fully into Mark's pants and took a hold of his half hard dick. Mark still bit his tongue, even though he hissed in muted pleasure. Sure, Gabe wasn't doing anything but holding Mark's dick in his dry and rough hands, but it was the promise of where that would go, and the horror of it, that made it seem like more. There was no turning back after what they were going to do. Mark would lie there and let Gabe take whatever he wanted and he would hate himself for it after. It was everything: the difference in their social status; Gabe's position as a man of authority over him; and the way Gabe, as a person, commanded him. He wanted to be stronger, to tell him no, to not take the inevitable pleasure that he really did, deep down, crave. It had been too long and that clouded his judgment.
"How about this? Is this good?" Gabe purred slightly, lips having moved to Mark’s ear. He had also rearranged the hold he had on Mark's dick so he could begin to stroke him. It was never the easiest thing to give a hand job in someone's pants, so Gabe's strokes were short and stunted. Still he tried, alternating his grip from tight to lose, giving Mark as many sensations as he could with the limitations.
Mark seemed more responsive as Gabe worked, whether from an actual interest in what Gabe was doing, or a forced lack in his controlling nature. He let out small noises, even though it was obvious that he had hated himself for it. One of his legs had rolled off the couch, constricting Gabe's strokes further, but he continued to work through it, watching as Mark's abs contracted and he forced himself to sit up slightly. Gabe repositioned his hand from the scruff of Mark's neck to his back, cradling him a little.
"Help me get your pants down," Gabe said as a half question. Mark nodded slightly as he repositioned himself as well, one arm weaving around Gabe's back, grabbing a hard hold onto the back of Gabe's shirt. His other hand moved to edge his pants down. Gabe relinquished his hold on Mark's cock to help, slipping his hand against Mark's hip to pull the other side down. It didn't take a lot of coordination; small movements that were almost like a practiced ease. Gabe just needed Mark's cock out, not him entirely disrobed, so once the waistband got to Mark’s thighs Gabe stopped him. They were loose enough that as long as Mark's ass was out, he would still have enough room to move.
"That's good. Here, like this." Gabe took a hold of Mark's leg that had opened to his ministrations. He lifted it and laid it over his own thigh. It wasn't the best position, but Gabe wasn't looking for perfection. What he was looking for was just enough to leave Mark wanting more-- just enough to set the hook and make Mark not want to leave him. The knife was dangerous, but it was better to keep Mark at his side so no one else could gain control over him. It was best if Gabe alone knew of Mark's power and imperative that he kept it from even the man himself, for the time being.
Mark's fingers dug into his back, grabbing onto Gabe as if he was the last shred of his own self-control. Gabe didn't mind letting his shirt get creased if it meant knowing that his plan was working-- that his ministrations were working. He had spit indelicately into his hand, grabbed a hold of Mark's dick again, and had gone to town with the strokes. He had made sure Mark’s dick was fully out of his pants and that the waistband pressed up from under Mark's balls. Gabe was no sex virtuoso; he just knew what felt good for him, and what practice had taught him. Apparently he had had more practice than Mark because the man had curled up into himself as Gabe continued to stroke him with a tight fist, moving to play with the head. They were all elementary moves at best, but Mark had been enjoying them.
"This is so classy," Mark mumbled after several minutes of shared silence. Gabe had continued to hold him to his chest, and Mark had continued to hold on for dear life, and neither thought that changing anything up at that moment was necessary. Gabe chuckled, low in his throat that it almost rumbled in his chest. Mark let out his own shaky laugh and opened his eyes just enough to watch Gabe play with him. Gabe could only imagine that it was surreal for Mark, roused from sleep to get a hand job from his boss. He could imagine, but he would read it for real when he was in Mark's mind again.
"If you want classy, I can make a run for some wine, but you might have to save me from getting mugged again, my Hero." Mark actually laughed; lips quirked up and Gabe had the overwhelming urge to kiss him. He did with no hesitation. It had a lot more finesse than the one-sided and hesitant kisses before. Mark dove right in; kissed back with vigor that Gabe stutter-stepped to match. When he did, however, it turned into a battle for dominance. Mark had seemed complacent, easy to go along with whatever Gabe was to make him do, but when he was onboard, when he realized that Gabe was only going to make him feel good, his real light seemed to shine. He was rough, albeit a little desperate as he fought Gabe's tongue. Of course Gabe was competitive and returned the challenge with his own expertise, burying Mark in ministrations as he rolled his palm over the head of his dick and slid his tongue in the older man's mouth. Mark moaned into his mouth and Gabe couldn't help but smile.
Everything was clockwork after that. Gabe repositioned his hold on Mark to knead at his abs, relubing his hand with spit a few times to build a tight and fast pace. Mark never did give over all of his control, and slowly Gabe began to believe that that was for the best. He didn't need Mark fully yet. He just needed him before the actual Heroes came looking for him.
Gabe felt when Mark was getting close, his abs beginning to twitch and his breath coming slightly more raspy. The silence they held let Gabe pick up on the cues, let him know what Mark was feeling without having to dig it from his mind. Gabe pressed his palm down on the lower part of Mark's abs, right above his dick, and spoke for the first time in several minutes.
"You can come if you want, Mark," Gabe whispered, thinking that his voice sounded too guttural for not having gotten any sexual pleasure himself. Mark grabbed harder at his back, his other hand reaching to grab at Gabe's hand that had continued to stroke him harder and faster. It made him stop, but Gabe wasn't so easily deterred. He used his thumb to rub at the head of his dick, smearing precome out of and around it. Mark clenched his teeth and bit in a moan, body going tense again.
"N-not sure if I want to," Mark hissed, and Gabe smiled gently. He buried his face in Mark's neck, kissing softly at the skin there as he continued to work, never deterred. He wasn't going to lose all his progress over Mark's overabundance of self-control.
"Any time you tell me to stop, little Hero, I'll stop. Even after this, I promise. You can tell me no at any time, and that will be it. Now, though, I think you do want to come, so how about you just let me do that for you?" Mark drew in a ragged breath and nodded against Gabe's face, awkward and slow, but determined. It had been a slow build up, and upon seeing the edge he had gotten nervous. It wasn't the fall that scared him, but what waited beyond it. He was scared of what it would make him-- what Gabe would make him. He was a determined man, wanted to reach highs on his own merits, despite his lack of powers, despite his social class. He wanted to pass it all by not by being a socialite's play thing, but he felt like Gabe was telling the truth. It would stop whenever Mark said it did.
It didn't take much longer than that, under Gabe's expert hands and mouth, for Mark to come. It came out in small flecks that that sprayed off of his dick as Gabe continued to stroke him. The other man exhaled slowly against Mark's neck, almost as if he had come himself, pleased and soft noises breaking through the ringing in Mark's ear as he tried to steady his own breath. Gabe's hand slowed and tightened, wringing out whatever was left in Mark. After a few more strokes, Mark pulled Gabe's hand away and stared slightly mortified at how he held onto his come. It dripped over Gabe's palm, but he didn't seem to mind, shifting to kiss Mark slowly instead, languidly, no hint that he, himself, had gotten hard over the almost half an hour of servicing Mark.
"I'm going to go wash my hand," Gabe said softly against Mark's lips, and kissed him again. Mark nodded slowly and used his hands to move himself back onto the couch. He lay back with a heavy flop, taking deep and long breaths to steady himself, pressing his hands to his eyes once more. His mind raced and it didn't seem like long at all before he heard Gabe return to the living room. Slowly he sat up as Gabe retook his position on the coffee table. He wanted to ask why Gabe would do that, what he saw in Mark to make him want to jerk him off. Why Gabe seemed to prefer him to any of his other employees, including, and especially, those with powers. He opened his mouth to ask, but his words caught in his throat as Gabe cupped his cheek with his recently washed hand. Mark could smell the soap still on it as Gabe traced his beard line, fingers drifting over his cheekbone.
"Don't ask me anything. It's just going to make more that I have to erase." Mark looked at him with knitted brows, confusion written all over his face, before he winced. Gabe pushed and held the pump button on the end of the needle that he had driven into Mark's neck, flooding his blood stream with an anesthesia dose. Seconds later Mark went limp and Gabe easily grabbed a hold of his shoulder, and laid him down. He would take a few hours to go through Mark's mind, erase what he wanted to remove of that night, and leave any underlying sense of want that Mark felt. Bold moves tended to leave bold emotions, and Gabe wanted those there. If Mark craved him, then he would be easier to control. He didn't need all the other stuff layered on top, though. When Mark woke, it would feel like a dream, and that was exactly how Gabe wanted it.
Steven hadn't been able to sleep one wink after the disaster. They had narrowed down their list, but there were still about a hundred people that could have been the Mastermind. Even given the information Ryan and Shanahan had managed to relay to the Guild before passing out from exhaustion hadn't made the list any smaller than that. They had all been instructed to go home and sleep, but it didn't come easy. Steven wanted to catch the asshole, not wait around for something worse to happen. He had gotten a glimpse of Ryan's subconscious, and that meant that he could, possibly, still take him over. Other Masterminds from the guild were doing routine checks on him, but as of yet his mind had been frighteningly dormant.
"If that bastard broke him," Steven swore quietly to himself, hands shoved deep in his pockets and a heavy frown on his lips.
"Then what will you do?" A voice came from behind him. Steven whirled around, not placing the sound as someone he knew. It had been someone he knew, someone he knew well, but not for a long time. Not since childhood. Steve Downie stood several paces behind him, a matching frown on his face as he regarded Steven. His posture was strong but defensive, arms folded over his chest. It was very unlike the Steve he had used to know who always stood and acted aggressively.
Steven weighed his words, taking the different Steve into account. If Steven were to guess, he'd say that Steve knew something, something that they needed to know as well. Still, if that were the case, then he would need to get the information from him carefully. He needed a better idea of the circumstance to do that.
"It's been a long time, Steve," Steven said with a smile, pulling his hands from his pockets to let them hang at his side. With friends he would approach them, shake their hand, maybe give a platonic hug. Downie's posture said none of those things were welcomed, so Steven kept his distance, only showed emotion through his face and kept his body language open.
"Yeah, since we were kids. Never would have recognized you if not for…" Steve trailed off for a second, picking up another train of conversation. "You look like you're doing good for yourself." Stamkos assumed that he had known that he become a Hero. Downie might have had the potential to be one as well, but he suffered too many tragedies that tainted him. After jail, he practically disappeared. Of course Steven hadn't actually gone looking for him. He felt bad for not even thinking about him all the years later. They had almost been inseparable after childhood drama forced them together.
"You do too," Steven commented back. Downie was in a tailored suit, looked like he had money, or at least worked for someone with money. Steve shrugged a little, so Steven continued. "Good job?"
"Sometimes," Downie replied, looking past Stamkos for several beats before he caught his eyes and held them. "It keeps me out of trouble." Steven took the leap in conversation. He felt that the two utterances weren't separate thoughts, but one that dragged on a little longer than normal. He swallowed and took a few steps forward, yet still kept his arms to his side, almost mechanical in nature.
"And sometimes it doesn't?" Steven asked slowly, as evenly as he could. Steve continued to regard him hardly, and Stamkos was sure that behind that gaze he was worrying through something. He knew it had been if he was going to tell or not about what he knew. "Steve, we can get you out of whatever that trouble is. You know I'll help you out, and I'll keep you out of that trouble." Steve laughed, at first lightly, but then more darkly. He looked away, past Steven again to look at the house where the attack had gone down the night before. Where whatever that last straw was for Steve fell.
"He said the same thing."
"He dug you out of one hole and put you in another. Let me keep you out of those holes."
"It was a deep fucking hole he got me out of the first time," Downie snapped, eyes flashing back to Steven's. Stamkos had to remind himself that treading lightly was what he needed to do. Old friendships aside, he needed to form a new one with Downie. He needed to not rely on what the past had worn away. "A deep hole that you damned me for, Stamkos."
"We were both kids," Steven replied, a bit defensively. "I came from the same neighborhood, Downs. I had nothing, no way to help. Whatever he did, whatever strings he pulled and money he threw around, I couldn't. Now, Steve, I can. I promise you I'll keep you above ground this time, so help me so I can help you." There was a very solid silence between the two of them, both waiting for the other shoe to drop. Finally Steve spoke, arms falling to his sides, back into a normal stance.
"I can tell you who he is and, better, I can help you catch him."
Downie's information was concise. Gabriel Landeskog was their unregistered Mastermind. He confirmed that with inside information about all of the attacks that he had been around for. That was most of them, and it credited his claim fully. Additionally he told them about Gabe's latest pet project, the Mark Olver who he seemed obsessed with. Steve told them that originally Mark had been the person Gabe wanted to build up, make a Hero in order to have the challenge he wanted. Since the Heroes had actually started the plan with the scientist as bait, he had seemed to change his use for Mark.
"He's got strength like me but I dunno. He's gunna use him for something else. Maybe make both of us do something. He never told me what exactly was going on, but lately, the last few months, he's become obsessed with that guy. That's how you're going to lure him out. Snatch Olver and I know he'll come running." Steven's word and Downie's credibility gave the team a solid plan of action, but there had been a hitch to it.
"We can't just go walking into this guy's house, y'know. We are still mandated inside the law, even when the bad guys aren't obeying them." A heavy air settled over the team as they individually tried to find away around that problem. A warrant would get them in, but there was no way they could know if Mark would comply. They, nor Steve, knew how deep he was in. There was a chance he could alert Gabe and they would be shit out of luck.
"Well, where does he live?" Ryan asked after he swallowed some orange juice. He was hydrating and recovering fairly well after the war that had happened in his mind. Everyone was happy to see that, especially Shanahan who sat in a well-cushioned chair in the corner.
"DS8. Main thoroughfare… Hold on, I've got the address." Steve reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone, recounting the exact address to the group. Ryan's reason for asking was to possibly get someone in the area to help them lure Mark out without him knowing that they had a plan. Local businesses could be bribed to do that, but a different opportunity seemed to arise when Jordan and Taylor glanced at each other before they both pulled out their phones as well.
"That seems familiar," Taylor said in a long tone as he searched through his history of stops. The list was made up mainly of girls he had screwed around with, and the address did match one of them. "Shit, Ebs. That was that dude that was at Melanie's house! Remember her? The chick we hooked up with last week? Real perky tits? Guys, really, you gotta see these things. Like little brown mountains." The question was written on Downie's face, half way to actually asking why they shacked up with the same woman, but Steven told him sternly that it wasn't a question he wanted the answer to.
"Can she help?" Stamkos continued on as he looked at Taylor who seemed way too proud of his accomplishment, and Jordan who rubbed tiredly at his temple. "Can you call her and have her lure him out?"
"Well… the thing is," Taylor started, looking at Jordan who tiredly filled in the blank.
"She lives somewhere different now. That Mark guy's her ex-boyfriend or something. Not the best circumstance, y'know? Not sure how much help she'll actually be."
"Man, you kidding? That dude was a push over! All she's gotta do is flash him… those pearly whites and he'll do anything for her." Taylor had actually paused for the innuendo, enough for many members in the room to roll their eyes. They knew Taylor dealt with almost anything through humor, but something as serious as actually catching the unregistered Mastermind shouldn't have been done with anything but cold calculations.
"It's the best shot," Shanahan said from his quiet perch, eyes staring hard at the air in front of them. "You four go get her. Get her to get him. Meet Ryan and I out at the Warehouse district. It'll be fitting that this will end where it begins." Steven stood with the rest of the group and looked at Downie as he did so, concern written on his face.
"I don't think you should come," He said sincerely, wanting to keep his old friend as far away from the fight as he could. He knew that it would be difficult to subdue the other Mastermind, but he hoped that it would be impossible for him to override them all at once. If something went wrong he did want Downie to be clear of it, and clear of the chance he could get caught up with Landeskog again. Downie opened his mouth to rebuttal the request, but Shanahan took care of it for him.
"He can combat the other strong man. He's going with you. You can keep him safe out there, Stamkos. He's not fragile." Steven had no way to combat that direct command from someone as highly decorated as Shanahan, so he only nodded slowly and hoped the look on his face told Downie all he needed to know about Steven's worry.
Melanie opened the door to her small apartment slowly and peered out at the four men that stood in the hallway. She had perked up when Taylor had called up on the intercom system. She had fixed her hair, bounced her breasts, and slid into a more revealing tank top while they rode the elevator up, but when she saw more than just him and Jordan in the hall, she had become confused.
"Look, I think you two are cute, so I have no problem doing you both, but foursomes are right out…" There was a tense moment as all four men just looked at her before Taylor began to talk.
"Well, Mel, I think with a couple bottles of wine, and a little time to get to know us better, you might…"
"We're not here for that," Steven scolded quickly, cutting Taylor off and shoving him to the side so he could better talk to the woman. "Ms. Antarigo, can we please come in. We have a favor to ask of you." She hesitated for several seconds, looking at both Jordan and Taylor who gave her soothing smiles and nods of encouragements. Slowly she gave in and pushed the door open, turning to head back in, assuming the four men would follow her. They did and entered the sparsely decorated living room. She had done some more unpacking since Jordan and Taylor had been there last, but not much.
"Ms. Antarigo, we'd like to ask you about your ex-boyfriend," Stamkos continued once they were inside and the door was shut. She had moved to a couch, picking up a throw pillow as she sat. She huddled it to her chest and looked up at Stamkos with a calm regard.
"Ex-fiancé," she informed, and smirked when Steven's brows knitted. "I'm guessing you're asking me about Mark because he's the last guy I've been formally with in a long time. He wasn't a boyfriend. He was a fiancé." She paused to readjust the way she was sitting. "I knew that job was too good to be true."
"Job?" Jordan asked, sitting down across from her on a love seat. He folded his hands together, resting his forearms on his knees as he leaned toward her. Downie went to supply the information, but Steven grabbed his arm, looking at him to signal him to stop. He wanted to hear what she knew before he knew what Steve knew.
"Yeah," She continued cautiously, the scene and hesitation not lost to her. Still she felt like she was supposed to carry on. "Some big deal job that has to do with logical crap. He's getting paid a ton of money to just write how he thinks. Used it to get me this place and get me out of our old place. I knew he wanted me gone, but when he brought me here with my shit I realized it was the real deal. What… what is this about?" Despite their fights, despite how she thought Mark was trying to hold her back, she still loved him, even though it was a shell of what she had previously felt for him. She wasn't one to just freely give over information that could hurt him.
"We think that your ex-fiancé might be involved with a terrible spree of crimes that have been happening for some time now." The shock was evident on her face, so Jordan tried to quell it. "We're not saying that he's doing so with his knowledge, but we really need his help to catch the man responsible for the crimes." She still looked stunned, and jumped easily to Mark's defense.
"Look, Mark's a bull-headed fucker, but he's a good man. He's got these high, almost godly, opinions of how people should be and treat each other. It's annoying, but I know they're genuine. He would never be in on anything that would hurt someone, even just a little."
"We know," Taylor said softly, leaning over the back of the couch to look at her, smiling softly as if to reassure her. "We know he's a good guy, but there are bad guys in this world that can manipulate the hell out of good guys. We're pretty sure he is being manipulated, thinking he's doing good when he's really being used to do bad. So, why don't you help us out, hun?" She regarded him steadily, mind working away. Taylor had bragged to her more than a few times that he was a Hero from the Guild, but it was cemented when they came into her apartment playing the good cop routine. Slowly she nodded, wetting her lips with her tongue.
"What do you need me to do?" She asked, and was rewarded with smiles from both Jordan and Taylor.
What they wanted Melanie to do was to get Mark out of the house and into a car with them. None of them new the man well enough to know how to do that, but Melanie told them that she had an idea. Mark never had anything done for him, so she decided that a good way to get him out of the house was to offer him food. Food, she told them, was the way into any man's heart. Although there was some disagreement, they decided to play it her way before trying any other tactics.
Melanie lead the way to the door, Jordan and Taylor flanking her and the Steven's bringing up the rear. She felt around the molding of the door for a card key, smiling victoriously when she had located it. It was convenient that Mark hadn't thought to re-hide their spare key in case she had decided to come back. It wasn't what she was doing, exactly, but it was close enough.
"Mark?" She called when she walked in, holding the door open for the men. They all followed, but mostly stayed in the entry way. She walked around the place like she owned it, calling a few more times until Mark appeared from the bedroom, toothbrush stuck in his mouth and half dressed. His shirt hadn't been tucked in, nor his tie done yet, but he looked ready to sprint out the door. He cautiously took the toothbrush out of his mouth after eyeing the sudden fullness of his living room.
"What's going on, Mel?" He asked simply, obviously aware of who Jordan and Taylor were at least because he eyed them the longest out of the four men. Melanie approached Mark with a wide smile on her face; acting skills ramped up for the challenge of luring Mark out. She was still sure he had nothing to do with whatever the Heroes were investigating, but she also knew that a nice paycheck would come from them when she did as she was asked.
"I, Mark dearest, have got a job!" She said enthusiastically, throwing her arms around Mark and smiling at him. "With the Heroes Guild. It's just secretary stuff, but it's a job that you always wished I had, and I have you to thank for it!" Mark looked at her with confusion on his face before he glanced at the men, and then back at her.
"And how, Melanie, did I help you get the job?" She was ready for the question and smiled widely as she elaborated.
"By kicking me out, Mark. I realized that I really was selling myself short in life. I realized mooching off of you made me that kinda girl, and I said 'no more!'" She let go of him and looked back at Jordan and Taylor, smiling fondly. Lies, it seemed, were her forte as well. "So, I was talking to Jordan and Taylor and they put in a good word for me. Had a few interviews last week, background check went through, and then I got called! So, in celebration, I'm treating everyone to lunch!" She smiled back at Mark again who looked at her wearily. He shoved the toothbrush back in his mouth and turned to walked back into the bedroom, brushing as he spoke.
"I'm proud of you Mel, I am, but I have to go to work," He stated. Melanie wasn't one to give up though, and followed him in protest. She told him several things, how he really didn't care for her even though he always said he did. About how he wanted her miserable and couldn't share in her happiness even once. It was all marital spat things, the stuff Jordan and Taylor had seen the only other time they had met Mark. It seemed like the plan would go nowhere and that they would have to resort to force when Steven called out. He had picked up a piece of paper from the counter, and read it once.
"Is Gabriel Landeskog your boss?" He asked. Mark spoke with mouth full of toothpaste.
"Yeah, why?" Steve smiled wryly and showed the paper to Jordan and Taylor. Taylor ribbed Jordan and wiggled his eyebrows, making a lewd gesture of pretending to suck a dick. Jordan punched him in the arm viscously mimed for him to shape up and stop fucking around.
"Well, there's a note here for you telling you to not come into work today. Think it would be a good thing if you listened to your boss, wouldn't it?" Mark came out of the bedroom again, sans toothbrush, Melanie dogging him until she could get around him and snatch the paper out of Steven's hand. She held it up at Mark, an accusing look in her eyes.
"I worked late last night and he doesn't want me taxing the payroll so he told me not to come in. But I have things to do, Melanie. Important things that need to be done. I'm not just blowing you off, so stop looking at me like I am." The accusing look didn't stop and Mark stared off with her. Taylor was the one to break it up, slinging his arm around Mark's shoulder.
"Hey man, I know when we met it was kinda weird, but she really wants you to come. We came all the way over here to pick you up, and since your boss left you a love note telling you not to go to work, I think the stars are telling you to come with us. So, c'mon, make a pretty girl happy and let at least one of us get some tail today, okay man?" It was supposed to be in hushed tones, but Taylor did almost nothing quietly, so the room had heard him and Melanie had put on a very convincing begging face. Mark looked at her for several moments before he sighed and nodded. He shrugged out of Taylor's hold and responded.
"I'm only agreeing for Mel, not so you can 'get some tail'." Melanie cheered, hugging Taylor first before she hugged Mark, telling him in babbled tones how happy she was and how he would not regret it. It was almost as if she believed her lie, talking about real steaks and beer. Mark couldn't help but smile at her excitement, really loving that she had finally found something in life that had made her happy.
Mark got into Steven's car, Melanie into the car with Taylor and Jordan. They drove in a pack, obeying lights and stop signs, not wanting to clue Mark into the fact that they were really not going out for steaks and beer. Mark, however, was keenly aware that he was not being told the whole truth. Still, he trusted Melanie, trusted that even though they hadn't been in love for a while, that she wouldn't set him up for anything bad.
"So, should I even ask if you two are screwing my ex-fiancé too?" Mark asked, watching Stamkos' eyes in the rear view mirror. He glanced back, but just for a second before he looked back at the road.
"No," Downie responded, shifting in the seat to glance for a moment at Stamkos and then fully back at Mark. "Honestly, I've never met her until today. I'm just along for the ride." Stamkos didn't respond, but he felt Downie's eyes on him after he answered. He spared one glance but didn't say anything. No, he hadn't slept with Melanie, hadn't met her either until the time Downie did, but he didn't feel it was the moment to tell his old crush about his less than stunning sex life. Childhood adoration aside, Steven hadn't even thought of Downie in years, let alone pine for him. Still, old emotions were hard to shake.
"I wouldn't be mad if you had. But I have the impression you're not lying to me, and thanks for that." Mark felt his voice surprisingly monotone. He didn't know where that came from, the absent numbness he felt that day. Vague dreams had shown him plenty of emotion from the night, but he couldn't put a finger on any of the dreams he had had. Still, it left him feeling empty and strangely compliant. It left him strangely on edge as well.
In the other car, Melanie moaned that Mark had nothing to do with anything. She begged Jordan and Taylor to not drag him into anything, feeling less okay with the plan since they had picked up Mark. They had told her again and again that they just needed his help, and that they were smart for not thinking that he would tell them anything about his boss given the fact that they had found a note from him in Mark's house. She didn't think that was reasonable enough evidence, but it fell on deft ears as Jordan called Shanahan and told him they were on the way.
Gabe's personal line rang and he stared at the phone for several seconds. The called ID said that it was a blocked number, which was impossible. The number had only been given out to a select few people, all of which were programmed in and protected heavily. Gabe’s mind raced with who could possibly have been on the other end, before he picked it up.
"Gabriel Landeskog?" The voice on the other end asked. Gabe watched his door wearily; ready to defend himself if someone came barging through. He had asked Mark to stay home that day just incase such a thing were to happen. He wanted to be fully on his game if he needed to take on an army of Heroes. It would do him no good to have a Nullifier anywhere near him.
"You called my line, so I assume asking my identity is only a formality. I'm curious, though, who you are and how you got this number." Gabe could almost feel the chuckle unuttered in the silence as neither of them spoke. Still, one would eventually have to speak, and the man on the other end of the line did first.
"I'm the Mastermind that you really shouldn't have fucked with," He said. Gabe perked up, sat up straighter in his chair. They knew who he was and that meant that his fear of them storming his building wasn't too far off. He reached out to all the minds he could, watched through their eyes like security cameras. Nothing looked off, but Gabe still stayed attentive and ready. He'd throw his employees in front of the Heroes first; make them have to kill innocents to get to him.
"Well, pleasure to finally talk to you, other Mastermind. I sure hope your show pony is doing all right after the hell you put him through. Too bad I just got a glimpse of him hiding behind all those barriers you put up. He would have been fun to tear apart." The Mastermind didn't bite, but Gabe knew he was pissed. It had only been a day and they had already found him. That had to have meant that either he had let the Mastermind glimpse into himself, which was damn near impossible, or someone had betrayed him. Someone close.
"He's doing better than your pony," Shanahan commented back, making Gabe perk up. His brows creased at that cryptic message, unsure of where to go with that information. Sadly he hadn't been able to get to the Mastermind to be able to look into his mind. There was no way he could have gotten that deep into the daisy chain in what little time he had had in Alego's mind.
"Which pony would that be?" Gabe asked cautiously, but kept up his air of egoism to hide his moment of worry. They could have Steve, he reasoned, and forced him to give up information on Gabe. Unfortunately, with the sneer that seemed to ride in the other Mastermind's tone, Gabe assumed that Steve hadn't been captured. He knew some how that he had been betrayed and that Mark was the bait. The knife, he mused, could hurt either him or his enemies. He wondered which, at the end of the day, would fall.
"Mark Olver," The Mastermind told him simply, proving Gabe's thoughts right. "Funny, how you, an unregistered Mastermind, would flock toward an unregistered Strongman. Funny how you two could avoid detection for so long." Worry flooded out of Gabe like a gust of wind, and he had to beat his smile back. They thought, as Downie did, that Mark was a Strongman. They thought that Gabe, for some reason, needed two people with super-human strength. They thought terribly wrong. One betrayal meant that Gabe still had a fighting chance.
"You know I'm going to come for him," Gabe played along, trying to keep any emotion other than spite out of his voice. He saw their plan clearly, and knew he could turn it to his advantage.
"That's what we're hoping for," Shanahan replied coldly.
Mark began to panic when they left DS18. There were no restaurants out that far; nothing that would get them to any of the upper sectors either. There were just warehouses and explosives labs out that far, not any high-class restaurants. He tried to move as stealthily as he could, pulling his cell phone from his pocket as he tried to dial with shaking hands. He bent low, attempted to whisper into his phone as the connection picked up.
Gabe had been shrugging on his coat when his personal line rang again. The caller ID told him that it was Mark that time, his cell phone to be exact. Gabe schooled himself and sat slowly in his chair before he gingerly answered the call.
"Mark," he said softly, trying to put reassurance into his tone. Mark's reply was quick and quiet, desperation in his voice when he heard Gabe's.
"Gabe, help! I think… I think I've been… Hey!" Steve had taken notice of Mark's attempt at stealth. He twisted in his seat and lunged back to grab the phone from Mark, but had been stopped by Stamkos' hand on his shoulder. Downie looked at him hard, a question in there that he didn't ask. Steven just shook his head, silently telling him that the phone call was okay. It would lend credibility to their bait. Steve sat back, obviously displeased with that decision, but knew that he would have no say in it.
"I think I've been abducted," Mark continued to Gabe. Gabe sighed slightly, a play at relief. Really he knew Mark would be fine. There would be no point in them killing what they were using to lure him out, unless they figured out what Mark really was. The other Mastermind called him a Strongman, however, and that showed Gabe that they had no idea.
"They just called me with their demands, Mark."
"I think they're Heroes, Gabe," Mark continued in whispers, eyeing the backs of both men. He knew that they heard him, but he couldn't seem to make his voice go any louder. He felt desperate and afraid.
"Radical Heroes, Mark. They're pissed at me for the AI project, not you. They got some misinformation that you're leading my team on that, so they're holding you hostage. What they really want is me, and I'm so sorry I got you involved. Just… just stay calm. Where are they taking you?" Gabe put sympathy, concern, and a bit of fear into his voice, though he felt none of the three. He felt confident, possibly even cocky. He knew how to beat the Heroes, and he was sure he would. He could give them a reason to chase him for the rest of his life.
"I… I don't know," Mark came back slightly broken. "We're in DS47, the warehouse area… God, I dunno what they're gunna do to me. I think… I think they have Melanie too. Please help, you're the only one I could call…" Gabe came back as soothing as he could, trying to quell Mark's fear. Though he was sure he would be safe, there was still an instinctual need to protect Mark, to make him happy, that ached under his skin. He never would have wanted Mark used as the bait to catch him, but he had, and all that remained to do was to get him out safely, and kill the Heroes that knew he was Gabe's trigger.
"That's what they told me Mark. Look, what I want you to do is stay calm and listen to them. Just make sure you're safe, and I'll be there as soon as I can." Gabe stayed on the line just for Mark's shaky agreement before he hung up. He looked himself over in the mirror for a moment before he called for a car. He would be there, Gabe promised to himself, and they would regret trying to sabotage him.
Mark tried desperately to reason with Stamkos and Downie, told them that he had nothing to do with the AI project. Downie more than once began asking him what the hell he was even talking about, but Stamkos cut him off every time. He was sure Gabe had fed him some bullshit, which meant that Mark really hadn't been in on any schemes that Gabe had been doing. Still, there was the chance that he could have been in the future if they weren't going to put an end to Gabe and his crimes that day.
All of the Heroes felt the heavy suppression of their powers when Mark arrived. It had been something that dogged Jordan and Taylor since they had first met Mark, but what they had chocked up to exhaustion. Steven and Downie felt it the whole ride, but neither of them spoke of it. Even Shanahan and Ryan, who had only met Mark for the first time, never mentioned it. Fear was what made them keep their mouths shut. Shanahan, who had tried to reach into Mark's mind, wouldn't utter a word concerning it, since the damages from the Alego incident could bench him for the rest of his life. None knew how it felt to be under the power of a Nullifier because they had always been a myth, and none wanted any reason to be sent from the final show down.
Gabe walked into the warehouse alone, having instructed his driver to wait several blocks away. He approached with his hands raised, a scowl deep on his face. Mark's begging to be let go had ceased with his appearance, and he took a few steps toward his boss in hopes that he could escape the group of 6 men flanking him. Downie put him in a throat and arm lock, holding him like a shield against anything Gabe could do. It had been entrusted to Downie, the Strongman to counter the other Strongman, to keep Mark subdued until they apprehended Gabe. It worked for the best, because the last thing he wanted to do was fight Gabe directly. At least, he thought, the others would stop Gabe if he tried to put Steve under. He was powerful, but no one man could control 5 Heroes.
"They think you did something, Gabe," Mark said desperately as he pulled against Steve's hold. Even with his powers subdued, Steve was strong, and held Mark fast. "Tell them… tell them they got the wrong guy! That you never hurt anyone!" Steven had tried explaining to Mark that they weren't actual radical Heroes looking to undermine Gabe's supposed research into a functioning AI system. That they were, in fact, trying to capture him for the crimes he had committed. Mark refused to believe that, told them again and again that Gabe had no powers, that he wouldn't commit those types of terrible crimes. Steven almost felt sorry for Mark, for the blind way he followed Gabe and stuck up for him. Downie had even taken a crack at it, told Mark about the plan, the mugging, and the whole thing that brought Mark to Gabe's attention to begin with. Still, his belief in the younger man stood strong, just how Gabe had hoped it would. He implanted those beliefs, the blind faith, and though Mark's powers nullified others, they didn't undo the damage Gabe had done inside Mark's mind. In there he was still susceptible to Gabe.
"I am the man they're looking for," Gabe said simply, a wry smile on his face. He knew that they were all being shut down like him, that they stood in front of him not as Heroes, but as men. They were men like all the others that he had put down, and he knew what they didn't. Gabe kept his hands raised and moved toward the group, slow yet even and methodical steps. There had been no reason to hurry. He needed to wait for the right moment to strike, after all.
"The warehouse, the murdered family, the destroyed labs, city busses, all the innocents dead were because of me. They know that, Mark. They want me to pay for those crimes." Mark had stopped fighting Downie's hold and stared in disbelief at the man he had nearly called a friend. Gabe had always been honest with him, Mark thought. At least, he had assumed he had always been honest. He had felt affection toward him, something that he hadn't felt in years and certainly feared, but it had itched under his skin like a rash from the previous night. He was then told that he had been deceived so fully, so completely, that he didn't understand the line between real and imaginary anymore. Mark tried a final protest as Gabe approached.
"You… you don't have powers, though," He said weakly, getting back a smooth grin from Gabe.
"I'm a Mastermind, Mark; a strong one too. Just ask them. They had a taste of it, and now they have me. My last stunt, it seems, was a bit too much for them to ignore. Or, should I say, for Downie to ignore. This is a smooth betrayal, by the way. I guess I gave you too little credit." Downie sneered and threw a solid 'fuck you,' toward Gabe. Jordan and Taylor had stepped away from the group and toward the Mastermind, checking his pockets and doing a fast pat down to insure he was unarmed. They came up with nothing and gave him a decent shove toward the group. They figured his mind was his biggest weapon, and Shanahan had brought a special head casing to block out his powers. As Jordan went to put on the handcuffs, Gabe smiled softly and sadly at Mark.
"For the record, not that you're going to remember, I didn't want you mixed up in this. I would have kept you safe if they hadn't brought you in." Mark stared at Gabe with sad and tired eyes, desperate for any excuse to not have to believe what he had been witnessing.
Gabe's movements were fast and timed. He turned, slammed his fist into Jordan's nose before he swung around and stabbed a needle into Mark's neck. He went down almost immediately, and Gabe's power's surged. His target had been Shanahan, conquering his mind in a wave of power. He never would have been able to take over 5 Heroes alone, no, but with another Mastermind's powers amplifying his own, it was almost too simple. He froze everyone in place, solid, ridged statues that glared at him. Inside their minds all rang with questions, loud and desperate, music to Gabe's ears. He slid the partially closed handcuff off of his wrist, letting the metal fall to the floor noisily. He took a step toward Steve and gently hoisted the unconscious Mark out of his arms, dragging him a few steps away where he laid him on the ground.
"What the fuck?" Taylor demanded, the first to realize that though Gabe commanded their bodies, he still left them able to speak. He wanted to know their pain in what he would make them do. He wanted to know what broken Heroes felt like.
"Ignorance is what the fuck, Mr. Hall," Gabe said simply, taking off his suit coat. He folded it to fit as a pillow under Mark's head before he tossed the used syringe to the side. "You seriously thought I would let my subordinate in on the gem I found while searching through the muck? No, my Heroes, I wouldn't." When he had Mark propped up, Gabe stood again, and turned his attention to group. In the corner of his eyes he saw Melanie trying desperately to slink away, to not be involved in what she knew would be bad. Gabe took control of Jordan, making him lash his powers out at her, freezing her in place. She screamed, and the group chorused to leave her alone, that she was a civilian and had nothing to do with them. Gabe smirked and walked toward her.
"No, what she is is a siren. I've searched your mind, little princess. I know what you've done, especially to my Hero." The ice climbed up her legs and her arms as she tried to break it away from her. The cold was a deep pain, sucking her breath out in sobs and pleads. Gabe remained relentless as he stood over her, watched as the ice took her over inch by painful inch, coming from Jordan and flowing over her. "You broke him, princess. Your siren call brought other men to you and you didn't care how deeply it scared him because you thought he deserved it. You thought he deserved the pain for not making you the queen you wanted to be. He tried, princess, but he was only so strong. Eventually the stable boy would have to give up, right? And you punished him for it dearly." Gabe cupped her cheek, streaked with painful tears that only fed the ice as it climbed up her body.
"Don't worry if it will hurt or not, princess. Because for the next three minutes you will feel the most excruciating pain of your life until you suffocate and freeze to death. There. I took away some mystery for you." Jordan tried as hard as he could to stop himself, to break out of Gabe's hold, but there was no way his mind could combat both Landeskog and Shanahan at the same time. He was powerless as he froze the innocent woman.
Gabe drew in a deep breath and admired as Melanie was completely incased, dying slowly, staring at the image of him enjoying her death. There was silence behind him for several beats, everyone taking in the horror before Steve broke it, voice booming and angry. He shook, almost breaking the connection Gabe had, but Gabe ramped up his power, stilling him.
"You're a sadistic fuck!" Steve yelled, and Gabe's eyes turned on him, a smile on his lips. Downie bore his teeth, snarled even.
"And you, my puppet, threw a lot of good away in your betrayal."
"The only good you gave me was a grave," Downie replied sharply, and Gabe's eyes shifted from him to Stamkos who stood equally as ridged. His lips quirked more and he let out a brief laugh, short and cruel, a minuscule amount of disbelief in there as well.
"Threw it away for the boy who put you in jail. Funny, isn't it?" Downie's eyes swung toward Stamkos who was doing nothing but glaring hard at Gabe. "An amusing turn of events, isn't it? A childhood friend, a crush on a future Hero, is what led you to me in the first place. Amazing how small this world really is." Gabe would destroy them-- Downie for his betrayal, Stamkos for his facilitating it-- but before that, he wanted to address the question that had been prevalent in all their minds. They wanted to know how, and Gabe wanted to tell them.
"It always amazed me how ignorance could break a country. How it could defeat men of such high standards they almost seemed like Gods. Today I witnessed it first hand. You all knew that your powers were useless, that you were mere men in the presence of Mark, but not a single one of you told each other. You all wanted to be the man that brought the unregistered Mastermind to justice that you said nothing of your failing abilities."
"He's a fucking Nullifier, isn't he?" Jordan spat, and Gabe smiled widely at him. Jordan felt the surge in his mind, the digging and probing as Gabe read who he was. He could do nothing but stand there and take it. He hoped Shanahan would fight back, break the hold. They would kill Gabe if that happened.
"How amusing, all these deep rooted emotions." Gabe's eyes flashed to Taylor for just a moment before they came back onto Jordan. "I wonder what it would feel like to kill your best friend." His amusement was evident and Jordan tried hard to resist as his powers built up.
"Find out yourself!" Jordan yelled, but had no way to stop as he shot ice out at Taylor who flew several dozen feet away and landed hard with a pained cry. His body erupted into fire soon after, and the flashes of heat collided with Jordan, but he stayed on his feet, steaming as his body's temperature dropped. Gabe stood by and watched as they began to trade blows, dodging and weaving as if they were sparing. Gabe was interested in watching one die, but not without a good fight first. He let their instincts play out on autopilot, and a real fight begin.
"If I had a best friend," Gabe mused, "I would kill them. They make you weak, they make you breakable."
"And yet you're protecting him!" Stamkos called out, drawing Gabe's attention from the battle. He quirked an eyebrow at him before Downie's arm wrapped around Stamkos' neck. He held tight, blocking off Steven's airway, swearing the whole time. Gabe knew what Downie feared, what he had lost once and never wanted to lose again. He had hated Steven for abandoning him, hated how he had left him to his demons, but he had never quite managed to forsake Stamkos. He had loved him, even from the distance he had had to uphold. Even knowing that Steven had, in some way, landed him in jail for the mistakes he had made. Even that didn't manage to destroy the feeling he had toward the other man. Gabe knew that Steve feared all of that as he squeezed the life out of Stamkos, and he would make Downie pay for his betrayal with the other man’s blood.
"I'm protecting him because of what he can do for me," Gabe stated evenly, hands in his pockets as he watched Downie rage with the want to not kill what he wanted to protect. Gabe knew that Stamkos had promised Downie a way out, an escape from what he had become. He would punish both for the treachery. "A Nullifier is a very versatile weapon, you see. He got you all here, after all, easily dominated, scared and vulnerable. I want that-- a button that will stop all abilities when I decide it to. One I can turn off at will, and I can do just that." He shifted his attention, watching the exchange of blows between the Conflagrator and the Aquaformer. They were really beating the shit out of each other, Gabe mused to himself, before his eyes fall back on Downie and Stamkos.
"You never held such worth to me, that's for sure." He watched with pleasure as Stamkos slowly suffocated, gasping desperately but unable to fight off Downie. Even negating Steve’s strength that would have made combat impossible, Gabe left Stamkos with no option but to stand there and die. Black haze crept into his vision, and, despite his begging, he went limp in Downie's arms after several minutes.
"You'll fucking pay for this," Steve growled menacingly, eyes narrowed but unable to do anything other than drop Steven unceremoniously to the floor. He didn't stir, didn't draw in a desperate breath. Gabe smiled darkly and sadistically at Downie's threat, full well knowing that at the moment there was absolutely nothing that Downie could do to make him pay for the slow killing of the Heroes. Controlling the other Mastermind, even though he had been putting up a bit of a fight, proved to be Gabe's winning move. He could ebb and flow his control much more accurately-- command everyone at the same time. It sure helped that two of the conscious entities were gone.
"Now, if Steve is quite done attempting to threaten me, I'd like to talk about something that is very interesting. Something I'm sure no one here wanted me to know." Gabe took a few steps toward Ryan and then circled him. The young man stood ridged and afraid, eyes darting to follow Gabe, but unable to do anything other wise. The dark mist in his mind was back, and he knew what it had looked like from the day before. He figured that some day he would face it again, but he hadn't known how soon. It frightened him, made him shake even if his body didn't.
"Mr. Alego, you've lost some weight and got considerably younger. Either the Guild has been hiding a fountain of youth, or you had pulled the wool over my eyes. Impressive, given that I'm not usually fooled."
"Don't you touch him," Shanahan threatened with a surged attempt at pushing Gabe out that was smothered like a flame. Gabe held him fast, taking total control of his body until he was sure he still had control on Shanahan. Slowly he let go, exhaling steadily as he did so and closing his eyes. He relished in his control for a moment before he set a hard gaze on Ryan again, smirking at the mixed thoughts that ran through his mind. It would have been noise to some, the litany of mental voices with their own thoughts, but Gabe had practiced sorting them out, had learned to hear them all at once.
"None of them want you hurt," Gabe told Ryan slowly, touching Ryan's shoulder. He sighed, almost as if he was beat. Almost. "I wanted to kill you like the others. I really did, but I know I shouldn't. I shouldn't because you were the one that came up with the plan to get me, and that earns some respect in my book. I could let all the rest of these fools live and kill you, and all together they wouldn't put up half the fight you would." Gabe took another moment to look around at the group, each in their own moment. He could kill them all and leave Ryan and get the fight he wanted. Ryan's heart was righteous. He wouldn't rest until Gabe was caught.
"What I wanted to do was use this Mastermind to rip your mind apart. Make you useless to everyone; just a living corpse. Unfortunately, now that I know exactly who you are, you're more useful to me than just another conquest." Gabe petted Ryan's hair before he grabbed him around the throat. He was no Strongman, would take a long time to suffocate Ryan, but that wasn't his plan. He just wanted the other man to feel useless.
"Stop," Gabe said sternly, glancing over his shoulder to where the battle between Jordan and Taylor halted. They were both badly beaten, burned and frost bitten, bleeding out of injuries that looked gruesome and painful. "You, get over here." Taylor moved mechanically. Really there was no reason to verbally command them at all, but Gabe felt it added to the tension. Knowing that they were under his control was one thing, but forcing them to obey commands he spoke was another level entirely. He made Ryan hold both his arms in front of him as Taylor approached them, igniting Taylor's index finger. He dragged it slowly and methodically over Ryan's forearms, one and then the other, forming large X's of burned skin. Ryan screamed and all of the minds Gabe held on to yelled with pleas for him to stop. He loved watching their wills crumble, even when they surged with hatred toward him.
"Every time you look at your arms, I want you to remember me and the things I did to your friends." Gabe's voice was smooth, but stern. He wanted a legacy of blood and fear, and he planned on cementing it with his actions that day. He forced Downie to move, his gate natural looking minus the way his face contorted as he tried to still his body. Gabe could only imagine that it was horrifying to have one's body not under control. He hoped so.
Downie grabbed Ryan by the neck, telling him over and over that he was sorry. He really was, Gabe knew. He hadn't known the boy before that morning, his brain supplied, but he was terribly sorry for the beating he would take. Downie's fist struck Ryan in the face repeatedly. Gabe didn't follow the pain, but let it flood Ryan, and Ryan alone. He could hear the bones in his face break; a litany terrible crunching noises that rang through Gabe's mind. When darkness finally took Ryan over, Gabe stopped Downie's punches and let the young man crumple to the ground, misshapen and bloody. Downie strained against Gabe's will again, wanting nothing other than to return that treatment onto Gabe. He wouldn't let him.
Behind Gabe he felt the conflict between Jordan and Taylor come to an end. He turned and looked at the scene as Taylor lay limp and motionless on the ground, his body having surrendered to pain and fatigue. Jordan stood over him, panting and equally as torn up. They had fought hard, and Gabe wished the Force had given them some more brains to go with their will and strength.
"Good, you're done. I was wondering when one of you would die."
"Fuck you!" Jordan said weakly between panted breaths. Gabe knew his body was also close to giving in to the wounds, but yet he made the man stand, stay conscious. He walked him over, a prominent limp from a severe burn on his leg. Gabe had no more use for Downie, so he forced Jordan to grab his throat. The ice started quickly, paling his skin but growing from the floor up. He would have loved to see his old associate struggle, but he would have easily thrown Jordan off and broken from the weak bonds the ice had, so Gabe had to keep him rigidly secure while his blood thickened and the ice encased him.
"I'm sorry," Jordan told him quietly, and Downie looked at him for several beats as the ice grew over his torso. Gabe could tell it hurt, his body being frozen, but much like with Ryan, he left the pain all for Steve to feel. It was his payment for his insubordination.
"It's okay," He told Jordan almost serenely, before he looked hard again at Gabe. He eyes never wavered after that, just solidly held Gabe's gaze as he froze. Jordan choked out a ragged sob, eyes on Gabe once more, hard, mad. Jordan would kill him in that very moment, Gabe knew. Jordan would destroy Gabe for what he had done, but he also knew that freezing someone solid wasn't a death sentence. They would thaw, maybe suffer some frostbite, but they would be alive. He hoped that Gabe wouldn't have known that, but he did, and the pleased smile on the evil man’s face showed that that had been his intention.
"You're planning on letting us live," Jordan said suddenly, anger subsiding to surprise. He figured the previous threats to Ryan had been what his plan had been. He'd keep Ryan alive and kill the rest of them. Apparently it had only been a red herring.
"Would do no good to kill all the little Heroes that, for a minute, gave me the challenge I needed, now would it?" Gabe replied as he walked methodically toward Shanahan. He flipped the man's suit coat back and deholstered a pistol he had had concealed on his belt. Gabe easily ejected the clip, checked it, and clicked it back into place. He loaded the chamber with an slick pull. He witnessed through Shanahan's eyes as he pulled the trigger and shot a bullet straight through the older man's kneecap. Shanahan screamed and crumpled, leg unable to support his weight without the joint. Jordan flinched and shut his eyes. More shots came, Gabe taking out Shanahan's other knee and both shoulders. He left him like that, screaming in pain and writhing on the ground, before he turned the gun on Jordan.
"The only problem is, though, that I'm on a bit of a time crunch. I figured I couldn't sneak in more than that one dose of anesthesia for Mark, and it does wear off eventually." The gun pressed to Jordan's temple, but Gabe didn't pull the trigger. He just held it there in a silent threat. "So I'm going to have to hurry this up. That means I'm not going to be able to give you a long and drawn out monolog, or an artistic introduction to pain. Sorry about that." He put a bullet through Jordan's thigh and stepped back. Gabe completely retracted his hold from him, letting Jordan fall to the floor, grab his leg, and hold the bleeding wound. Jordan needed contact to freeze something, and he knew that if he tried to freeze the ground toward Gabe, that he would actually kill him. Another shot rang out, and a second bullet went through Jordan’s left shoulder. Eberle collapsed fully onto the ground, screaming and panting as the pain took over his mind. Jordan thought about how he would die of blood loss in a vacant warehouse, and how that was the shittiest way to die.
He let his powers take over, freezing himself to the ground. His blood froze, his whole body froze, and Jordan knew that was his only option. He hoped someone would come and get them, because he also knew that if he let himself out of his ice, that he would die before anyone got there. He glared at Gabe as the ice and darkness enclosed around him.
"We're going to fucking get you," He swore, and Gabe’s answer came in the form of one more shot ringing out. He shot Shanahan in the stomach, stilling the older man completely. Gabe felt alone, mind empty of all the Heroes. He had defeated them all, but he wanted nothing else other than a repeat round. He wanted them to come back at him harder, with more fire than they had. He wanted them stronger.
"I plan on it," Gabe told Jordan with a smirk, watching as Jordan encased himself fully and proceeded to reach his powers out to save the oldest member of their team as well. Gabe stood alone amongst the fallen Heroes, and inhaled deeply. He would revel in his victory later, when he had gotten Mark sedated again and mind cleared of what he didn't want him to know. However, he wanted to take just that one moment to look over his conquest and enjoy it. He wanted to own the moment for as long as he could.
Gabe tossed the gun across the floor, far away from the other occupants in the room. The last thing he needed was for an unseen hitch to get him shot. He moved slowly back to Mark who had remained motionless on top of his jacket, and hoisted the older man into a sitting position before he slid the shoulders of the jacket over Mark. As he moved him, Gabe took Mark's cellphone and put it into his own pocket. He then maneuvered Mark onto his shoulder and lifted him in a firemen's hold, adjusting the hold as he took several steps toward the way he had entered. When he got near to the door, Gabe tossed Mark's cellphone onto the ground. Eventually one of the Heroes would wake up and call for help. He just didn't want to make it easy for them, and being traced on his escape would not have facilitated his safe escape.
Mark felt heavy and very unlike himself when he came around. He stared blankly at the ceiling for close to a half an hour, phasing in and out of consciousness. There were several things that he knew for certain in those moments. One was that he had no idea where he was. Another was that he had no idea how he had gotten there. Thirdly he was sure that he had never before seen the ceiling of wherever he was. He had tried to sit up, to look around, but all he had managed to do was fall back asleep every time he went to begin those actions. Finally he had managed to get a good idea of where he was. Unfortunately that only went so far as "hospital" and didn't supply much more than that.
Mark awoke a final time when he heard a bag set down near his head. Slowly he opened his eyes and looked over. Gabe didn't seem to have noticed him awake right away, so Mark managed to croak out a shaky, "hey" in order to get his attention.
"Hey," Gabe said back after he looked down at him and recovered from what Mark could only assume was mild surprise. Mark smiled weakly and went to sit up, but Gabe put his hand on Mark's sternum and kept him down. "No, don't get up. You might hurt yourself." Mark chuckled pathetically. He already felt like a car hit by a train, so he couldn't really wrap his head around feeling worse.
"What happened?" He dryly asked as Gabe fiddled with the controls on the side of the bed, making it automatically hoist Mark up into a slightly reclined sitting position. Mark mapped out the room with a slow turn of his head as Gabe settled into a chair.
"I guess I should ask first what you remember," Gabe said, looking at Mark with a sympathetic gaze. Mark wasn't especially fond of that look given that what he remembered seemed piece meal at best. He took his time replying, but it was from necessity instead of dramatic flair like Gabe's pauses seemed to be.
"Being kidnapped," He said about thirty seconds later, eyes coming back onto Gabe. "I called you, and you said that they were pissed off about you getting close to putting out a functional AI, right?" Gabe nodded, supplying for Mark that those had been real memories. Mark tried to remember more, but things weren't so cohesive after that.
"You showed up, because they were using me as a bargaining chip or something… I really don't remember too much more than that. I remember getting beaten up, getting… drugged?" Gabe nodded again and affectionately petted his hand over Mark's severely bed-headed hair. He had erased a lot of the extraneous details along with the part where Gabe had admitted his crimes in front of Mark. They would have done him no good to let Mark know those.
"Yeah, Mark. They apparently figured out some how that you've got a very special power. Something that no one thought actually existed. They told me that you're a Nullifier, which blocks out other people's powers. Two of them, who I guess you had met before, realized it back when your ex was living with you, and they planned to kill you because of the fact that you could block out their powers." Mark looked at Gabe with wide and disbelieving eyes, but Gabe held the gaze. He knew what he had put into the older man's mind, and he would stick with it. "They overdosed you on an anesthetic. I usually don't carry a gun, but I thought that, for some reason, I wouldn't be able to talk them out of hurting you or me, and I'm glad I did."
"You didn't kill any…?" Mark asked alarmed, and Gabe shook his head slowly, smiling gently.
"Just disabled them. Don't worry my little Hero." Mark slowly looked down at his hands. He had woken up the morning of the kidnapping with the strange urge toward Gabe. He had almost felt like he had fallen in love with him, which had sat heavy and spoiled in his stomach, making him nervous. He hadn't known why he had felt that way, but he had. And then Gabe had played the knight in shining armor. It all seemed complicated and off, almost scripted.
"I don't know why they thought that you would have backed down from an AI project just because they kidnapped me," Mark said weakly. "Even if I do have this special power, there would be no reason for you to throw away all that work." Gabe took Mark's chin, fingers running over the beard that had a few days of extra growth in it. The hospital had kept him under with an infusion of the anesthesia to let the high dose pass from his system. He thumbed gently over Mark's cheek before he bent and kissed him softly. Mark's surprise easily gave way and he melted into the kiss, though it stayed chaste.
"Because I did," Gabe purred a moment later, lips still against Mark's. "Maybe I kidnapped you too, I don't know. However, I knew there was no way I would let you be used by them, even if it meant giving up everything I had worked for." Mark looked at Gabe, over his face that still hovered close. Slowly he smiled, laughed, and then looked down sheepishly.
"Maybe it's whatever drugs I'm on, but for right now, I couldn't think of anyone else I'd rather kidnap me." Gabe laughed as well at the joke and sat back in his chair to give Mark some room to breathe. He had taken away all of the older man's unsavory memories, but a strange part of him, one that he had thought never existed, wanted to give Mark new memories to replace the ones he stole. He wanted to give him real memories that were good, and not bad.
"We can rebuild him! We can make him stronger! We can…"
"Shut the fuck up, Taylor!" Jordan called over the other man who sat smirking at the large, round conference table. Steven was there as well, but he had stood in order to pull out a chair for Jordan. Most of them had had to spend time in hyperbolic healing chambers after their rescue from near death in the warehouse. The only person in there longer than Jordan was Shanahan who had still been under when Jordan was finally discharged.
Stamkos had woken first to the scene of destruction. He had gotten out his phone and called in the paramedics. He had also gone through some of the most rigorous debriefing out of any of them. After Stamkos' description of what had happened, the rest were only really brought in to collaborate and fill in the blanks.
"How is everyone?" Jordan asked with a sigh as he flopped down into the chair and gave a weak thank you to Steven who patted him on the shoulder. The bullet he had taken to his leg took longer to heal than the burns that had covered most of his body. Taylor had told him in laughing tones that they were both practically naked when they were found.
"Doing alright," Steven said as he retook his seat. Taylor had returned to shoving bite after bite of food into his mouth, but paused to swallow heavily and add some more in.
"Stammer's new puppy really wanted to come in and see how you're doing since they let you out of the tube finally, but Mr. Rules over there wouldn't let him sneak in. Something about 'pending charges' for his involvement with Landeskog, I guess." Steven rewarded Taylor's story with a deep frown, hastily informing Jordan that Downie was most definitely not following him around like a puppy and that the charges were sure to be dropped given the fact that he had been coerced into helping Landeskog out. Jordan just smiled and, after Stamkos blew off his steam, responded.
"Tell him that I'm doing good and we'll make a plan to do drinks when they clear him. I think I owe him a very stiff apology for freezing him." Taylor snorted at the word stiff, and was just about to comment further about the other stiff things Jordan could use to apologize to him with when the door opened. Ryan trudged in slowly, door clicking loudly shut behind him. He barely acknowledged the group as he pulled out a chair and sat with a heavy sigh.
"You look like hell," Jordan informed him as he pet his hand over Ryan's hair. Ryan made a noncommittal noise as he laid his head down on his bandaged arms. He mumbled something that sounded strangely like coffee, but no one moved to retrieve any. Jordan thought that was pretty low of them, but he was in no state to trudge back with a hot liquid with one shoulder and leg out of business.
"He's been in Shanahan's hospital room almost every day," Steven told Jordan, getting a low grunt out of Ryan in something that was probably supposed to be telling Steven to mind his own damn business.
"He'd do it for me," Ryan replied the moment after, and Taylor took over.
"He's also a stubborn asshole. And I'm pretty sure he'd rather you be here helping us catch this fucker, than staring at how his bones are mending. If you really like that, then do that on your free time and in my bed." It had seemed, for a minute, that Taylor would have actually been making an argument for Ryan's involvement with them carrying on with their mission. Instead, as per Taylor's usual, it turned into a dick joke. No one was really amused.
"Why didn't you get your arms healed?" Jordan asked Ryan quietly as he began to comb his fingers through Ryan's hair. Ryan glared several more seconds at Taylor before he replied, voice highly unamused.
"Because I don't want to ever forget. He knew that I wanted a reason to hunt him forever, and he gave me the thing that would always remind me." Steven and Taylor had heard the story before, but they knew that it was Ryan's to tell. "So I refused to get them skin-graphed until we catch him." Jordan nodded slowly and smiled, patting Ryan on the back before he turned back to the other two.
"Alright, what do we know? Because I don't think any of us are going to stop until we get him."