Frank was three when he was first Tested. Young for it – too young, really, but there'd been a lot of talk at the time about the Ways Testing their younger son early, alongside the elder, so nothing would do but for House Iero to follow suit. Frank, of course, was far too small to understand; he only knew that his mother was angry but his father and grandpa pleased, and that Grandma kept a firm hold of his hand to keep him from running off and spoiling the white gown he'd been wrestled into. Of the Testing itself, he would later recall nothing but an impression of rapidly flashing lights, and the satisfaction loud at the forefront of his grandpa's mind as they rode the shuttlecar home.
When Frank was Tested again at seven, because the Doctor at the Center insisted on it, the flashing lights hurt his head with an insistent prodding that grew and grew until he had to chase it down and squash it flat. When it stopped – Frank felt a definite sense of satisfaction at how abruptly – the technician's mind was a panicked whirl as she stabbed at the big red error messages popping up on her terminal.
The problem, Doctor Morrison explained when Frank was sitting next to his mom in her office afterward, was that three really had been too little. She spoke straight to Frank, like he was a grown-up, which he liked, and her mind was smooth and blank so that he couldn't hear her thoughts at all, which was interesting, so he listened, kicking his legs a bit where they dangled off the too-tall chair.
"You see," she said, turning one of the little models on her desk around so Frank could see that it was a diagram of someone's head, with the brain showing through the clear skull, not all gross like a horror graphic but just a model. "Just like you've been growing, Frank, your brain has too. The brain doesn't finish growing until seven years old, which is why we don't usually test for psi factor until then. Now, it's not entirely unusual for a Family like yours to want to test children younger, mind you, since they like to start your education early."
"But –" Frank bit his lip, looking at his mom. She was unhappy, he could feel it, but he didn't know what to do about it, and he wasn't really sure he was supposed to be talking. She'd sat him down this morning before they'd left and scolded him to mind his manners because Doctor Morrison was very important and married to the Heir of Clan Morrison, who Frank had seen on the news holos. The Doctor just looked at him, though, tilting her head to the side like she was waiting to listen, so he carried on. "I've just been going to normal grade school." That made his mom's mind spike with unhappiness again, though Frank couldn't hear her thoughts.
Doctor Morrison nodded like she understood. "That's because you were very little when they Tested you the first time, weren't you? Usually, when we examine young children for psi potential, we do it a little bit differently, less – invasive, I suppose is the best word. We try to just look at the surface," she ran a finger in a gentle arc over the top of the model brain, "because we don't want to accidentally change or hurt anything. In your case, though, Frank, it seems like they weren't as careful as they could be."
Frank jumped a little when Mom made an angry noise, shifting in her chair. Her thoughts were still hidden – she could keep him from actually reading her mind, if not her feelings – but Frank could feel they were agitated and he bit his lip again, kicking his feet together. "Did they hurt me?"
"I don't think so." Doctor Morrison smiled reassuringly, tapping at the model's head. "Your brain is working just fine, Frank, you don't need to worry about that. What seems to have happened is that the intervention when you were small changed some things a bit. Instead of your psi abilities developing as your brain did, they grew up all at once. You've been able to hear thoughts for a long time, haven't you? Even with the medicine you've been taking."
Frank squirmed, uncomfortable, carefully not looking at his mom even though he could feel the shock radiating off her. "I don't like the medicine," he muttered instead of answering properly. Grandma hadn't given him his dose this morning, and he'd known it was because he was coming here. It felt better, less fuzzy in the back of his head, but he was sure it wouldn't last.
"I don't blame you," Doctor Morrison said, though, her eyes twinkling like she was telling a secret. "Don't worry, Frank, we can do something about that. We need to stop the suppressant so we can find out what you can really do, and teach you how to use your gifts properly. The tests we did this morning showed us that you have a very high factor in telepathy; it was registering a Factor Nine before you shut down the machine."
Frank blinked. He had the vague idea that nine was a high score – his mom's favorite holo-drama that he wasn't supposed to watch had a girl who was a seven, which they all acted like was a big huge deal – but more importantly... "I didn't mean to," he blurted hastily, squirming as he tried to push back the wave of shock and discomfort his mom was practically blasting at him. Doctor Morrison shook her head, smiling.
"Don't worry, it isn't a problem." She stood up from her chair, coming around the desk to reach out a hand to Frank. "Here, let me help with that."
"Huh?" Frank looked up at her kind face, then down at her extended hand, then gingerly put his own in it, not sure at all what to expect. Instantly, the buffeting blast of his mom's unhappy emotions was cut off completely, gentle quiet wrapping around him. Frank felt his eyes getting wide in the sudden silence. "Oh."
"That's better, isn't it?" Doctor Morrison said, and Frank nodded slowly. It was kind of weird, to be alone in his own head for the first time he could remember, but mostly he was relieved that his mom's feelings weren't pushing at him. Maybe her walls weren't as good today because she was all upset, but it felt a lot stronger than he was used to. "That's because of the medicine," Doctor Morrison said like she was reading his mind, and Frank jumped a little when he realized that she was. She smiled, though, reassuring, and it didn't feel uncomfortable, like Frank thought it might if she was spying or being nosy.
"Wh-what about the other skills?" Frank's mom said in a wobbly sort of voice that Frank didn't really understand. Doctor Morrison's face turned toward her, but the bubble of quiet around Frank didn't move at all.
"Well, at the moment it looks like Frank has a strong baseline in all the documented ability factors. Telekinesis registered a high four, for example, and Technician Grey said that the readouts were indicating at least a level three in everything else we test for." Frank blinked; the numbers didn't mean all that much, but they seemed to startle his mom; her eyes went wide and she gasped, sinking back in her chair and staring at him. It was weird to see her reaction and not feel it at all; he squirmed, not liking the way she was looking at him.
"So..." she started, and Doctor Morrison nodded, clearly speaking the same grown-up language.
"We're going to need to taper off the suppressant, but I think it would be best to start schooling as soon as possible." She looked down at Frank, smiling like she could feel the way his insides sunk down into a heap in his belly at the thought of school. "The school here is a little different than you're used to, don't worry."
"The school here?" His mom sounded so squeaky that Frank knew there must be something weird about that.
"I think it would be best," was all Doctor Morrison said. "First, though, Frank, I'm afraid you're going to need to come and stay here for a week or two. We need to keep an eye on you while we stop your medicine, and teach you some shielding and things. Will that be okay?" She sounded like she was really asking him, like he could choose, so Frank bit his lip and thought about living in the Center. The way she'd been talking about the medicine made him decide it would probably be like the hospital, which meant it would be boring since they always kept him in there for ages and ages even when he felt completely better from the bronchitis or pneumonia or tonsillitis. If he was going to learn stuff, though, maybe it would be more like the boarding school place that Starblaze and Hyperboy lived at in his graphics?
"Okay," he decided bravely, straightening his shoulders to try and show his mom that he wasn't going to be a baby. "Will I get to go home after?"
"Of course," Doctor Morrison promised, nodding seriously as Frank looked up at her. "You can go home now, actually – we'll have a room ready for you for tomorrow, how does that sound?"
"Okay," Frank said again, nodding his own head. He felt sort of nervous, because he wasn't sure what it was going to be like here, and he hadn't really been away from his family before – even when he'd gone along on the trip to the New Light colonies when he'd still been six, the only time he'd been off planet, Dad and Grandpa had both been there the whole time. He wanted to see what it was like, though, and he had to represent the Ieros well as the heir, so he decided he was going to be brave, no matter what.
The medicine had made Frank feel fuzzy and twitchy a lot of the time, but stopping it was worse. The doctors – not Doctor Morrison, but a man with a grumpy face and a lady who looked like someone's grandma – had to keep on giving him the medi-sprays, and Frank could tell from their thoughts, louder every day, that they were putting less of the medicine into him each time. He felt as gross as any of the times he'd been sick for real; it was horrible, and so was the way everyone's thoughts were getting more and more insistent, the way his mind seemed to creep out past the edges of the bed, pushing against the walls and making everything rattle and fall over by accident. His mom could only visit on the weekends because of all the work she had to do for the House, and Dad called him a couple of times, telling him about the new ship that was due to arrive, but Frank felt too sick to listen properly. It sucked, and Frank felt more than once that he'd been suckered into agreeing to the whole thing.
"This is the school." Doctor Morrison pressed her hand over the door panel to unlock it, and pushed the door open. The minute Frank stepped through he could feel that the walls were shielded just like a ship's, the outside world fading out of his awareness. He kept up his shield, though, carefully imagining the smooth barrier all the way around him just like the Doctor had shown him. "We're a little early, so the other students won't be arriving for a few minutes. There aren't many, and most of them are from Family Houses, just like you."
Frank nodded, because that was familiar from his old school. This place looked a lot smaller, though, just one corridor with doors opening off each side and an archway at the end into a room where he could see couches and stuff.
"That's the rec area," Doctor Morrison said, clearly following his thought; Frank flinched and checked his shields again, but she shook her head. "You're doing fine, don't worry. It'll get easier with practice. This is the main classroom, here." She pushed open a door, showing Frank into a big room that didn't look much like the classrooms he was used to. There was a scatter of desks and chairs, all in different sizes and pulled into odd little groups instead of rows, and they all had their own terminal screens. There wasn't a teacher desk or a learning screen or anything, and the row of cabinets along the back wall were all painted with different colors and pictures, kids' doodles and fancy grown-up paintings. The walls were covered in pictures too, with wipe-boards in between; someone had drawn an awesome scene of a dragon and a unicorn fighting in the corner of one, underneath some complicated-looking math squiggles. Frank couldn't help but stare, impressed and kind of nervous. This must be a school for geniuses; he probably wouldn't know anything. His stomach twisted uncomfortably.
"Why don't you take a seat?" Doctor Morrison waved a hand at the chairs set against the wall, beside a big window that looked out on a courtyard with a jungle gym and swingset as well as flowerbeds and benches and things. It was raining outside, so Frank couldn't even wish he was out there; the rain was sliding steadily down the window. "I'll go find Ms Kihara."
Frank was busy watching the rain out of one eye, drawing patterns against the arm of the chair with his finger and rubbing at all the places the material felt weird, when he felt someone coming through the main doors into the school hall outside. That probably meant his shields were coming undone again; it was hard to remember to keep them together. Doctor Morrison had said it would be like breathing, one day, but Frank wasn't sure he believed that. He screwed his eyes shut, concentrating hard on building up his walls, and when he opened them again he jumped because there was someone standing in the doorway, staring at him.
"Hi." It was an older boy, pale skinned and dark haired and messy-looking and weirdly familiar, like Frank had seen him before sometime. He looked too old for grade school, but too young to be a teacher, probably. Maybe this place had different divisions, like the big public schools the city kids went to? Frank blinked as another boy peered around the kid's shoulder, examining him through the lenses slipping down his nose. He looked a bit like the older kid, but fairer and thinner and younger, maybe Frank's age even though he was probably taller. Everybody was taller than Frank; it wasn't fair at all.
"You're new," the older kid commented, and Frank jumped again as he felt a brush against his shields; he had to grasp hastily to keep them up, which left his mind feeling uncomfortably stretched until he could smooth it all down, his eyes crossing with the effort. The littler kid was totally snickering, even if he was nearly silent; Frank crossed his arms over his chest, feeling kind of indignant.
"So what if I am?" he grumbled, and the older boy blinked like he was surprised, then shook his head, smiling crookedly.
Stop it, you're being mean, he said, and it took Frank a second to realize first that he'd said it with his mind, and second that he was talking to the younger boy, because aloud he said, "Hi. I'm Gerard, this is my brother Mikey." He took a couple of steps into the room, pulling the other boy – his brother, okay – behind him by the sleeve. "What's your name?"
"Frank." Neither of them had said a Family name, so Frank didn't either, even though Grandpa was always telling him to introduce himself proudly as an Iero of the House. The rules were probably different here. "Um, are you... Do you both go to school here too?"
"Uh-huh." Gerard shuffled over to the cabinets at the back of the room, opening one that had a tree painted on the front and starting to put his bag and his jacket inside. When he reached out a hand behind him, not even looking over his shoulder, Mikey's bag sailed right into his hands too. Frank blinked, looking between them, but Mikey was just watching him curiously, like he thought Frank might do something interesting if he stared long enough. It made Frank feel weird, so he watched Gerard getting things out of the cabinet instead, tablets and pens and a big book of drawing paper. Was he the one who'd drawn the cool dragon fight? Frank wondered, and he must have forgotten his shields again because Gerard turned around, smiling.
"You like it?" Telepath, huh? his mind-voice said, and Frank nodded to both. Gerard's smile was really nice, sort of crooked but warm and not like he was just pretending to be nice to a littler kid at all.
"Uh-huh." Carefully, he tried to put his thoughts into order to say, I'm still getting used to it, and he was pleased when Mikey looked up, too.
"Strong," was all Mikey said, but Frank didn't hear any meanness in it so he just shrugged one shoulder, carefully smoothing at his shields. "Gee is too," Mikey contributed after a moment, and Gerard sort of rolled his eyes but Frank could tell he was pleased.
"It doesn't exactly matter," he started to say, but broke off as another kid trudged through the door, curly hair held down by a big pair of headphones that were leaking music, and his eyes mostly on the floor as he made a beeline for one of the taller desks.
"Hi Ray," Mikey said in a quiet flat voice that Frank was sure the boy – he was older, too, like Gerard, so maybe everyone was all put together in this school? – couldn't hear past his music. He looked up, though, nodding to Mikey and Gerard as he started to set his things down and slide off the headphones.
"Hey." His voice was cheerful and squeaky, and he sounded so friendly when he said, "are you new? Hi! I'm Ray," that Frank couldn't quite find his voice.
"This is Frank," Gerard said for him, shooting a quick sideways look at Frank that made him feel warm, like they had a shared secret. He nodded and tried to smile at Ray, but right then there was a noise from the hallway that made him look up. A grown-up lady came into the classroom, shooing a pair of kids in front of her, and another bigger girl followed behind with her head tipped up as she chattered at Doctor Morrison.
"New kid! Hi!" One of the kids – a girl with dark skin and her hair in ruler-straight braids – bounded up with a grin, showing off a missing front tooth. Frank ducked his head in a sort-of nod, feeling suddenly nervous again, and Gerard cocked his head and opened his mouth to say something, but the lady – teacher? – clapped her hands right then, and everyone went quiet so suddenly that Frank stared.
"Good morning!" She had a nice voice, and nice eyes, Frank thought, and she was wearing the same sort of clothes that his mom did when she went to meet outside people. "I see some of you have already met our newest student. Now, why don't you stop crowding him for a moment and go get yourselves set up for the day. You should all have some reading left from your assigned books."
Some of the kids grumbled a bit, but everyone left Frank alone, then, sitting down randomly at desks around the room. Frank looked around, not sure what he was supposed to be doing, but he felt a little thread of reassurance in his mind, like a pat on the shoulder, and when he turned his head, Gerard was smiling at him and Mikey nodded seriously in a way that made Frank feel like he was cheering him on.
"Hi, Frank." The teacher lady came over and sat down in one of the seats near Frank's, balancing a tablet on her lap. "My name is Etta Kihara, and I'm one of the teachers here. Shall we get you set up with a locker and a desk so you can start your orientation?"
Orientation turned out to be code for a lot of boring stuff. Frank did some math, and some tests with lots of stupid shapes he had to find the difference between, and made a list of all the books he'd read in language class and on his own. A bell chimed halfway through the morning, right when he was starting to fidget in place, bored of sitting still, and all the other kids pushed back their chairs and got up. Frank looked around, but some of them were going to the lockers and some were going out the door, and he wasn't really sure which he was supposed to do.
"It's morning break." Frank jumped, and almost fell out of his chair; Mikey had snuck up on him, and was standing by his desk looking bored. Now that Frank knew he was there, he could feel him, a fuzz of thoughts and feelings that moved a whole lot faster than his face seemed to want to. Gerard, standing a little way behind his brother, made a cough that was really a laugh, and Frank sighed, propping up his walls some more as Mikey rolled his eyes.
"I'm supposed to show you around," he said to Frank, and even though he sounded like he thought it was a chore, Frank could kind of tell that he didn't really mind. "Come on." He turned around and started out the door without waiting, so Frank scrambled out of his chair, hurrying to catch up.
"That's the bathroom." Mikey pointed to the door without looking to one side or the other. "That's the staff room, we're supposed to knock." Frank had to dodge between the other kids in the corridor, but they just seemed to slide around Mikey even though some of them were a lot bigger. "That's the science lab, that one's the kitchen." He was saying the names so fast that Frank was sure he wouldn't remember, but he could see that there were signs next to the doors with labels, even if some of them were just letters. "That's the place they use for telepath training," Mikey said then, actually stopping by one door and turning to blink through his glasses when Frank almost tripped into him. "You'll probably be in there a lot, like Gee."
"Huh?" Frank tried to puzzle that out; Mikey wasn't really the best explainer, he was starting to see. He jumped when Gerard, who'd been following behind, made another laugh-cough.
You've got a high telepathy factor, right? he said right in Frank's head. It was weird and awesome, to hear someone's mental voice so clear and distinct. You'll get lessons, same as I do, is all. If you have any minors – those are, like, other factors that aren't as powerful as your main gift, and they'll teach you stuff for them too. "Like," Gerard said out loud, "my main thing is telepathy, but I have to get lessons in kinesis too, even though I'm barely a Factor Two really."
"Oh." Frank gnawed on that, trying to slot it into the things he'd already learned about psi factors. "Okay." Maybe that would mean he had to have lots and lots of lessons, since he was supposed to have lots of different skills? Frank really hoped he didn't have to stay in school much extra, though.
"Talk with one or the other," Mikey said flatly, the edges of the words dull like he said them a lot, and it took Frank a moment to realize he was talking to Gerard, not Frank himself. At least, he was pretty sure he wasn't mind-talking on purpose, anyway.
You're doing fine, Gerard said in his head, but out loud he said, "Sorry, Mikey," and pulled a face, shrugging his shoulders. "Come on, let's finish showing Frank around, he's hungry and I want a cookie before we have to go back to class."
"Cookies?" Mikey stood up straight at that, which made him a whole head taller than Frank. Frank kind of wondered how old he was – everyone in his grade at his old school had been taller than him, too, so it wasn't easy to tell.
He's eight, Gerard told him silently, while Mikey pointed out the other doors they passed, naming the labs and classrooms so fast it was hard to keep up. Frank had to take three steps for every two of his, too; it made him really hope that his Grandma was right and he'd grow bigger when he was older.
"And that's the quiet room," Mikey said finally, pointing at the last door on the hallway. "It's for if you guys need to sit still for a while, I guess. Telepaths. If you get tired of shielding and stuff."
Once Frank managed to put those bits of sentences together enough to understand what Mikey meant, he frowned. "Aren't you a telepath, though?"
"K8, C6, P1," was all Mikey said, and Frank could tell from his shrug and the calm disinterest that radiated off his mind that it was just a normal part of his life. "I can hear Gee, but not anyone else."
"You can hear Grandma," Gerard corrected, but Mikey just shrugged, wandering a couple of steps ahead toward the open place at the end of the hall, where most of the other kids were clustered around in little groups. Frank hung back, unsure; there didn't seem to be all that many kids, not even as many as in his old class, but most of them were older than him, and all of them were bigger.
No one will be mean, Gerard said in his head, and Frank turned his head to look up at him because that sounded like it was a promise. It's not like there are a lot of us, you know? We have to stick together. He grinned, sudden and wide and off-center, and Frank felt some of the uncertainty in his middle loosening. C'mon, stick with me.
Okay, Frank tried to say silently; he wasn't sure how well it worked, since he was trying to concentrate on his shields too. Doctor Morrison had said it was especially manners to keep shields up with other telepaths and stuff, so you weren't throwing your thoughts all over them by accident, and Frank thought that definitely sounded kind of gross so he was going to try his best to remember. He followed close behind Gerard across the rec room, around the big couch where two boys were playing a sports game on the holo (boring), to a big window with a window seat and beanbag chairs in a sort of circle. There was a girl sitting there already, reading something on a tablet, but she looked up and smiled at Gerard, and then Frank. She was older, too, but she had a friendly face and the sort of smile that made Frank want to smile too.
"Hey. I'm Lindsey," she said, putting her tablet down in her lap so Frank could see there was a picture on it, bright colors and curly lines.
"I'm Frank," he mumbled, trying to work out what it was supposed to be without staring too much. Gerard didn't seem worried about that; he tilted his head on one side to look at it before plopping down on the other end of the window seat, tucking his knees up. Frank tried to perch on the edge of one of the beanbag chairs, but it was so squishy he sank right in and had to flail his arms and legs and wiggle himself back upright.
"You okay there?" Lindsay asked, her mouth curling up at the corner, but she didn't seem mean. Frank's face felt kind of hot anyway; he nodded, staring down at his knees, and tried not to fidget. "So are you Gee's new sidekick?" she asked, which made Gerard look up too, even though he'd taken the tablet and was in the middle of poking at it.
Sidekick? Frank blinked. Like Hyperboy? He must have thought that quite loudly, because Gerard stopped with his mouth open, before he'd even said anything. Frank didn't quite get it, but he thought he wouldn't mind being Hyperboy; he had cool powers and wasn't as much of a boring goody-two-shoes as Starblaze.
You like Starblaze? Gerard's mind-voice was definitely excited, and he didn't seem to notice when Lindsey took her tablet back. Frank opened his mouth to say that of course he did, who didn't, but Mikey turned up again right then, collapsing down on a beanbag. A paper-packaged cookie lifted out of his hands and floated across the air toward Gerard.
"What about Starblaze? Here," he added, thrusting another cookie and a bottle of juice toward Frank and just holding them there in mid-air until Frank took them from him.
"Frank reads Starblaze too," Gerard reported excitedly, like this was important news. Frank still didn't quite get it, but he nodded hesitantly when Mikey turned to look at him, raising one eyebrow over his glasses.
"Cool. Did you see last week's?"
Frank nodded, struggling a little further upright; he'd read it while he was still staying at the Center. His mom had got him the new issues for all his favorite graphics, and all the ones he'd missed, even though he usually had to save up his own allowance for them. He'd felt the guilt so strongly in her mind that he'd given himself a headache from how hard he'd been trying to shield.
"Ray bet me five credits that Doctor Magnifico is working for the Unholy Union," Gerard said, waving one hand so wildly in the air that he jumped really obviously when it smacked against the window. "I think it's just a big fakeout, though, you know? It's too obvious, and Beyond The Veil did a teacher betrayal arc last year –"
Frank nodded, because he remembered that, and nibbled on his cookie, watching Gerard's hands move as he talked. The cookie was really good, and even though it was obvious that Gerard and Mikey had both had this conversation before, they both kept looking at Frank like they cared what he thought. Lindsey joined in, too, and after a while the boy with the curly hair from before, Ray, came over too, and by the time the bell chimed again, Frank had forgotten all about feeling nervous or out of place.
"So, Frankie," Grandma said once Mom and Auntie Rosa had passed around the plates. "How was school this week? Are you being a good boy for your teachers?"
"Of course he is," Grandpa said loudly, tousling Frank's hair. Frank tried not to lean away; he'd been given the chair next to Grandpa tonight, even though it was usually Dad's, because Dad was staying late at the port, waiting for an overdue ship. Frank could feel that Mom was upset about it, but his shielding was definitely getting better now; he could block it out without too much effort.
"It was good," Frank said, watching while Grandpa served out the round beans with the little flourish he always did to show off his telekinesis. He was so hungry, his stomach felt like it was going to shrivel up into a raisin. Lunch had been so long ago, and Mikey had accidentally eaten Frank's candy bar as well as his own (it really had been an accident; Frank could tell. Mikey had tried to sneak Ray's for Frank when he wasn't looking, and they'd had a weird game of kinetic keep-away that had ended up with chocolate chips going everywhere. Frank had laughed so hard he'd almost thrown up). Now that he was big enough to eat with the grown-ups, though, he had to be polite and wait.
"What did you learn?" Grandma served out some meat, putting two slices on his plate, and Frank tried his hardest not to make a face. It was roast runningbird, like usual, with a red gloopy sauce that didn't make it taste any less gross and chewy. She gave him lots of mashed potatoes, though, and they were the cheesy ones that Frank liked, so that was better.
"Um." Frank curled his hands in his lap so he wouldn't grab for his fork before everyone was served. "Lots of math and stuff, and me and Mikey and this girl Luce had to pretend to be First Founders for a history lesson, and I practiced shielding a whole bunch and Mr Taylor explained some stuff about how telepathy works." Frank still wasn't totally sure he got that; it had mostly been a lot of long words about electric magnetics and things, and he didn't really see how it mattered why he could do stuff. "I'm supposed to practice more for homework, Gerard said he'd help."
"Gerard?" Grandpa said, all his attention so suddenly on Frank that the spoon fell back into the vegetable dish with a clatter as he let it go. Frank blinked, looking around the table uncertainly, but the way everyone was looking at him was so overwhelming that he looked down at his plate again, fiddling with the handle of his fork.
"Mikey's brother." He didn't understand the wave of interest that washed over him at that, making him accidentally bang the fork into the side of his plate. "He's a telepath too, like me, high factor. He's nice?"
"Probably trying to get info out of you, kid," Uncle Tony said, leaning over the table and almost dipping his shirt in the mashed potatoes. Aunt Rosa made a little noise and poked at him. "No morals, the lot of them."
"Huh?" Frank felt his mouth drop open at that, but no one seemed to pay him much attention; they were all looking at Grandpa, Uncle Tony making a hand signal and Grandma pursing her lips. Frank's Mom's eyes were totally narrowed, though, like she was waiting for something. Frank tried to loosen his shields a little bit, because it must be something bad, to make Uncle Tony say that about Gerard and Mikey.
"No, no." Grandpa waved them all away, sitting back in his chair and folding his hands over his belly. His mind was so turned-in that Frank couldn't pick up much more than the face of a lady he didn't recognize and so much vicious satisfaction that he shied away. "Let him make friends with the Way boys, by all means."
"Way?" Frank's mouth dropped open, and his fork clattered against the plate again. "But..." The House of Way had been the Ieros' main rivals in the trade Lanes for as long as he'd been alive; surely Gerard and Mikey couldn't be...
"Here," Mom said quietly, slipping a tablet out of her jacket pocket and bringing up a screen that she tipped toward Frank. It was the TradeBase page on the Way Family, and there underneath the pictures of the Head and the Heir was Gerard, stiff and uncomfortable-looking in formal clothes as he looked out of the screen.
"Oh," Frank breathed, staring. Now he knew why Gerard and Mikey had looked familiar; they were the Enemy. But... they'd been so nice to him, and shared their graphics and snacks, and Gerard hadn't once acted like Frank was a bother even though he was younger. Surely Frank would have noticed if they were doing it to be mean, or to learn Iero secrets, wouldn't he? He didn't even know any secrets; sure he ran about the loading yards all the time with the other Family kids, but he wasn't allowed into meetings or anything because Dad said it was too boring for Frank to be able to sit still. "Should I n-not talk to them?" he asked, looking up at Grandpa. Mom put her hand on his back, and he could feel her trying hard to send reassurance and good feelings at him, even though she was barely a telepath at all.
"No, no." Grandpa smiled down at him, patting his head and ruffling his hair. "There's no harm in making friends. And you'll be sure to remember who your Family are, won't you, son?" As clear as a bell, though, Frank could hear his thought, We can use this. He nodded hastily, ducking his head and taking a spoonful of potatoes that didn't taste of anything. He wasn't hungry any more at all.
Gerard and Mikey were already sitting at their desks when Frank got to school on Monday; he was nearly late, because Dad was going to a meeting at the spaceport so Frank had to wait around in the shuttlecar until he was ready, and then get dropped off at the Center on the way. He barely had time to stuff his bag into his locker and sit down before Ms Kihara came in and started assigning projects for the morning, so Frank couldn't do more than wave hello anyway. It was sort of a relief; he'd been thinking about it all weekend, even while he was playing with the new game Shaun's dad had brought him. After dinner on Friday Mom had taken him up to his room and sat on the side of his bed, explaining carefully that just because Grandpa had a quarrel with the Ways didn't mean Frank had to.
"He's stubborn, and he holds grudges far too long," she said, turning one of Frank's Starblaze action figures over and over in her hands. "You've inherited some of that, huh Frankie? It's not a bad thing," she added when he opened his mouth to protest, scrambling up to his knees. "So long as you're the boss of your feelings, and not the other way around, you'll be just fine. Your Grandpa had a silly quarrel with Gerard and Michael's grandmother, a long time ago. So long that he's the only one who even remembers, really. He should let go of it, because it would be good for the Family to be friends with the Ways. In business, it's always better to be friends than enemies – but you don't need to worry about that right now."
"Okay," Frank had said, more confused than ever, and his mom had sighed, running her fingers through his hair.
"You be friends with the Way boys if you want to, Frankie. That's more important than your Grandpa's silly grudge, okay?"
Frank couldn't really help worrying about it, though; what if Gerard and Mikey wouldn't want to be friends, if they knew who Frank was? What if they wanted to try and find out his secrets? He didn't think he had any secrets, except for the place out behind the compound where he liked to sit and watch the ships taking off at the spaceport, and the space underneath the drawer of his nightstand where he hid all his cool stuff so grown-ups couldn't throw it away.
The chime for morning break nearly startled Frank out of his seat; his elbow slipped off the desk and he hit his chin before he could catch himself, so his eyes were watering when he looked up to see a damp Gerard blur standing in front of him, with a Mikey blur behind his shoulder.
"Frank?" Gerard's voice was kind of flat, and his mind was all closed up and shielded, like he already knew about the whole thing and was only pretending. Frank's stomach swooped right down toward his feet, and he swallowed, trying his hardest to pull his own shields in close.
"Hi." His voice came out all miserable and small; he looked down at his shoes, sure that they were about to tell him they didn't want to be friends any more.
Huh? Gerard made a sort of puzzled noise, and when Frank dared a look up, he was frowning. "Frankie, what? Did – wait, come on." He looked at Mikey quickly, and even though Frank was sure they were talking telepathically – Gerard was the only one Mikey could talk to that way, which was totally unfair, because Mikey was cool and funny – he couldn't hear them at all. Mikey nodded, though, and grabbed Frank's hand, tugging him out toward the hall. He moved so fast that Frank had to struggle to keep from being pulled off his feet; he could feel Mikey pushing at the air and the floor, making the walls and the other students fly by in a big blur. They whooshed through a door, and before Frank knew it he was bouncing onto a couch in a room he hadn't seen before, his eyes wide and still wet as he tried to catch up with his breath.
"Whoa," he managed to stutter as Mikey plopped down onto the other end of the couch, skinny knees knocking together. His eyes were big behind his glasses, fixed on Frank. "Wh-where is this?" Frank looked around, because Mikey's stare made him want to squirm. The room they were in was small and sort of boring, white walls and brown carpet and nothing inside but the couch they were sitting on and two squooshy-looking armchairs. Gerard came through the door just then, closing it carefully behind him, and prodded at Mikey until he shuffled up the couch and made room.
"Quiet room," was all Mikey said; Gerard nodded.
"No one's gonna mind, it's not class time anyway." He put one hand up to his head, pulling and twisting at the hair behind his ear. "Frankie, what – I'm not trying to be nosy, you know, but you're – did something happen?" Did I do anything? Frank heard, very clearly, but he couldn't really tell whether Gerard had meant to say it or not. He squirmed, uncomfortable, and kicked his feet together where they were hanging over the edge of the couch.
"Did the city kids mess with you," Mikey said in a quiet flat tone that both was and wasn't a question. Frank kicked his feet against the bottom of the chair so hard he bounced in place, and bit his tongue until he couldn't stand it any longer, but it was like a spring, or Ray's hair; the harder he tried to squash it all up, the more it wanted to burst out. Eventually, Frank couldn't hold onto the words any more.
"I'm an Iero," he blurted, wincing kind of pre-emptively, but all he felt from either of them was puzzlement. When Frank dared to sneak a look at them, they were blinking at each other like they didn't understand him at all.
"I know," Gerard was the one to say. "You're the heir, right? Second line, like me."
"Y-yeah." Frank screwed up his fists; Gerard's thoughts said even plainer than his face that he didn't get what the problem was. "You're the Way heir. We're supposed to be rivals."
"Oh." Gerard's forehead wrinkled; Mikey just squinted at Frank like he was talking Ultharian. "Why?" Gerard asked, and Frank could tell that he wasn't just picking but really asking. He blinked, opening his mouth, and ended up gaping like a gulper fish when he couldn't find the words.
"I don't get it," Mikey announced; Gerard was just looking at Frank like he was trying to puzzle out all his secrets with his eyes, which made Frank uncomfortable so he wriggled back into the couch, crossing his arms.
"My Grandpa doesn't like your Family. Mom said he just had a fight with your grandma or something, but he doesn't like any of you, I don't think." It felt weird to say, like he was giving up Family secrets. "He always wants to have better ships and stuff, and make more – returns?" The more complicated parts of the Family's work and money were sort of fuzzy, mostly because they were boring. "He got mad when I said I was friends with you," Frank confessed miserably, looking down at his feet. He didn't want to say the other stuff – but maybe he didn't need to, because Gerard made a noise that sounded like he understood.
"I never even met your Grandpa." Mikey crossed his own arms, frowning furiously. "He can't stop us being friends."
That'll do it, Gerard said, which didn't make sense to Frank at all, but out loud he said, "I don't wanna get you in trouble, Frankie. You gotta make up your own mind, I guess. It's your Family, you know?"
"Uh-huh." Frank sucked his bottom lip into his mouth, chewing on it. "My mom said it didn't matter, but –" I don't want my Grandpa to think like I'm spying on you guys, he told Gerard silently. I don't want to, it's gross.
You don't have to, Gerard said back, and it felt so like a promise that it made Frank feel better, warmer and lighter in his stomach where he'd been cold and heavy. "You know," he said in a voice like a story, "our Family is kind of weird anyway, right Mikes?"
"I guess." Mikey sounded kind of bored, and Frank thought (carefully and quietly) that he seemed like he'd heard that a lot.
"Totally weird." Gerard settled back against the arm of the couch, waving his hand around like he was drawing invisible pictures. "Our Grandma is the Head, you know, but she's not even a Way; it was part of the law stuff Mom and Dad had to do when they got married. The Families got joined together, and the only way they could all agree on it was to keep the Ways' name but have Grandma be in charge. Like – well, I guess you probably haven't read Frankenstein, huh?"
"I saw the holo-series," Frank objected – he wasn't a little kid! – but Gerard flapped his hand dismissively.
"The book is way better, it's like totally ancient, pre-technology, Ms Kihara let me read it for Lit. Anyway, our Family is sort of like the monster, you know, all..." he made a weird motion with his hands like he was pushing things together, or maybe crashing cymbals. "Smooshed together, from separate parts. That's why your Grandpa's mad, probably." Gerard sounded so certain that Frank couldn't help but believe him, even if he wasn't really sure he understood.
"So we don't have to be rivals?" he hazarded, and Gerard nodded enthusiastically, beaming so brightly that Frank blinked.
"Right. Wait – no, I mean, you can be friends with who you like, you know? It's not anything to do with your Family."
"You're not your Grandpa," Mikey contributed, nodding much more seriously. Frank looked between him and Gerard, pulling at the cuffs of his sleeves.
"I like you guys," he said. It felt like a decision, and Frank felt much better all of a sudden, the last remnants of the heavy weight dissolving out of his stomach. Almost immediately, it gurgled insistently, and he squirmed as he realized he was really really hungry, and morning break was already nearly over.
"We like you too, Frankie," Gerard said earnestly, nudging at Mikey until he nodded agreement. Us telepaths gotta stick together, right? "Come on, Lindsey and Ray are saving us snacks."
"Dad?" Frank poked his head through the gap where the door wasn't quite shut, peering around the office hopefully. He breathed a little sigh of relief when his dad looked up from the terminal and smiled at him.
"Hey, kiddo." He pressed the capsule that put the screen into neutral, sitting back and beckoning Frank in. "What's up?"
"Um." Frank pushed at the slider until the sticky door slid all the way back so he could come inside. It was maybe his fault that it was sticky; it hadn't been the same since he'd accidentally smacked his ball into the control plate last year when he'd put too much push into it. "Are you – I don't get my homework," he admitted, curling his fingers around the edge of the tablet and kicking at the fancy Old Earthian rug. "Can you help me?"
"Well, let's see." Frank's Dad smiled again, and Frank could feel the fondness and amusement in his mind, weird grown-up emotions that were warm and comfortable even though he didn't understand them. "Is it math?"
"Nuh-uh." Frank shook his head. "Telepathy. There's long words." The textbook Ms Kihara had downloaded to his tablet hadn't made any more sense than the worksheets.
"Oh." Dad frowned at that, tapping his fingers on the edge of the table. Frank pushed at his shields to make them stronger, carefully smoothing over the surface, but he still caught enough discomfort that it made him squirm a little. "Did you ask the encyclopedia?"
"Uh-huh. I still didn't get it," Frank admitted, and his dad sighed, reaching out to ruffle his hair.
"Frankie, I'm no telepath. You got all that from your Mom's side, you know; maybe you should ask her." The contact made it too hard not to hear Dad thinking, Couldn't it have been clairvoyance? which hurt a bit, because Frank was a C4 just like Dad, he had the test thingy from the Doctor to prove it and everything, he just hadn't had any special lessons for it yet. He hadn't had any special lessons at all except shielding and focusing his thoughts and this stupid homework about how telepathy worked that he didn't understand at all.
"She's out," he grumbled, wrapping his arms around his tablet and scowling at the floor. Dad sighed again, turning back to his screen.
"Right, the planning committee. Well, it's only Saturday, kiddo; you can get her to help you tomorrow, okay?"
"Okay." Frank agreed, even though it wasn't really; Mom had said before she went to get into the shuttlecar that he had to do all his homework before he could go play with Jimmy and Shaun or turn on the holo or anything. Maybe if he couldn't do the homework, that didn't count, he thought hopefully as he trudged back out of Dad's office. His mom's face popped up in his mind, though, stern and scolding, and Frank decided it probably wasn't worth the trouble he'd get into to find out.
Heaving a sigh that left his shoulders slumped, Frank stomped down the hallway to the big swinging door that led from the office wing into the living part of the House. As soon as he reached the stairwell he could feel the commotion his cousins Little Tony and Louisa were making in the nursery on the other side; Frank made a face and groped out around him with his mind to make sure no one was coming. He still checked both ways, though, before he scrambled up onto the wide, smooth bannister, clutching his tablet tight to his chest and steadying himself with a push to both sides as he slid down to the ground floor and hopped off, only stumbling ever so slightly on the landing. Total win; Frank grinned victoriously and trotted across the entranceway to duck into the downstairs back sitting room, which was small and weird-shaped and faded but had a comfy window seat he liked to sit in and watch the distant bustle of the workers at the shipyard across the valley.
House Iero was right on the edge of the city, near the port, which Grandpa always said was for convenience even if Frank knew it was really because the Family had used to be so small and poor that they had to build someplace cheap. Out back, past the compound wall, the ground dropped away so steeply down to the creek that it was still all overgrown with wild spicebush and tough, squat football trees. Frank had been forbidden all his life from playing there, and the only time he'd broken the rule, he'd broken his arm, too. It meant there was a clear view, though; some days, when the air was clear and thin, and the big ships were taking off with their cargo holds stuffed full of spiceleaf bales and fleeces from the Uphills and cases of tablet screens, the rumble of the engines echoed all across the valley to thrum through Frank's bones. Mostly the bigger ships had the Morrison or Sato crests splashed brightly across their sides, but Frank had seen the Ways' red and black too, and once in a while the Ieros' own star and anchor.
His tablet beeped at him when Frank shook the screen back on, reminding him that the worksheet still wasn't finished. Frank made a face at it and balanced it on his knees, squinting down at the words. They still didn't make any sense, and neither did the rest of the sentence that was supposed to be explaining why he could talk with his brain. It had taken Frank until he was five just to understand that not everybody could. Doctor Morrison had said other people grew into it slower, though; maybe Frank could ask Mikey and Gerard what that had been like, since it sounded kind of weird.
Maybe he could ask Gerard about the homework. Frank sat up as the idea came to him, almost knocking the tablet onto the floor. Why hadn't he thought of that? Gerard had been at the school for ages, so he had to understand the stupid confusing worksheet. It was the best idea ever, except for how Frank didn't know Gerard's network ID, so he couldn't call him even if he could bother one of the grown-ups to let him use a terminal. He wasn't allowed to get an ID of his own until he was ten, which was totally stupid even if it was the law.
Frank slumped back against the window frame, frowning. There had to be a way; Gerard was a telepath, after all, so maybe if Frank really concentrated he could reach all the way out across the city to talk to him? He knew what Gerard's mind felt like, so he was sure he could recognize him, but it was a long way. A really long way; Frank knew where the Way House was, because they'd used to go past it in the shuttlecar on the way to his old school. There was an awful lot of city in between, lots of people and buildings and distractions. Frank chewed on the inside of his lip, considering, but now that he'd had the idea, he couldn't just stop.
Wriggling back into the cushions until he was comfortable, Frank closed his eyes and concentrated hard, pushing out from his body until he could see through the walls and past the edges of the house, groping out and out until his mind felt stretched out like a balloon. The movement of people and drones and shuttlecars was a constant tiny tickle, like ants or winterbugs; Frank had to grit his teeth to try and keep hold of his mind which wanted to spin off and follow every trail and corner. Gerard, he thought hopefully, pushing in the direction he thought led to the Way compound. He tried to make his thoughts loud and focused, concentrating so hard on the feel of Gerard's mind that it felt like his own brain was going to leak out of his ears. Gerard?
Whoa, what – Frankie? Gerard's mind-voice was full of surprise and astonishment, weirdly distant, but – Hang on, let me... there. It was like he reached out to meet Frank halfway; it felt as if he was holding out his hands, and Frank grabbed on, feeling instantly more comfortable and less stretched-out. Like this, see? Gerard said, showing Frank without words how to lock their mental grips together and narrow down the focus of his attention so he was only talking to Gerard. I think you woke up every telepath this side of the city, there.
Oh. Frank squirmed a little, a guilty feeling settling into his belly. I didn't mean to –
It's cool, don't worry about it. Gerard grinned; Frank could feel it through the link, a flash of bright off-center amusement. I totally did worse. One time Mikey knocked Grant right on his ass, too. While the name was only vaguely familiar, the picture that came attached to it was of the Morrison Heir flying off his feet with a comically startled expression on his face. Frank giggled despite himself, and felt Gerard's answering smile filter down the invisible thread between them. What's up, anyway, Frankie? he asked. This is the first time you tried to tight-link to someone, right?
Uh-huh. Frank squirmed, pressing his heels into the seat cushions. It's stupid, he admitted when Gerard prodded expectantly. I'm supposed to write about how telepathy and stuff works, but it's just all big words and I don't get it.
Huh. Gerard sounded like he was frowning. Well, I dunno if I get it either, you know, there's like complicated stuff with receptive spectra and broadcast tunneling that I don't even think anyone understands, really. Like, they're still discovering new stuff, right? But, I guess you don't need to know all the long words and shit – uh, stuff – damn. His voice was so frustrated and apologetic that Frank couldn't help but giggle a little – mostly to himself, but he could feel the way Gerard rolled his eyes around. He felt like with a little more effort, he could push even closer, all the way into Gerard's head to peer through his eyes, see what he was seeing, but Frank couldn't quite see where to start, and he wasn't sure he could do it without hurting Gerard anyway.
I know bad words, he tried to reassure Gerard, instead. Grandpa cursed all the time; Grandma said 'like a sailor' which was another reference Frank didn't really get. I'm just not supposed to say them.
Great, Gerard said, and Frank caught a flash of thought about 'corrupting a minor,' whatever that meant, before Gerard pushed it aside. Hey, why don't you tell me what you don't understand, okay? Is it that stuff about brain waves?
Um. Frank cracked open an eye, trying to peer down at the tablet while still concentrating on the link. Yes? It says ossy – oskylation?
Oscillation, Gerard corrected, it just means waves. Um, did you start electricity yet in science? Or – oh, that one experiment on the holo where the guy made frog legs move by wiring them up? Totally gross, but it's like a real old science thing, from way back.
No? Frank ventured, screwing up his face at the image Gerard sent him. That was definitely gross.
Well, whatever. Gerard paused, and Frank thought he might be frowning. It's like, okay. Brains work by electricity, right? All the little neurons, brain cells, whatever, they connect to each other like a circuit net, just like in a terminal, and they send electrical signals to each other and to all the muscles and stuff, to make them move. Not like grid power, not even sparks, just tiny little signals. You with me so far, Frankie?
I think so? Frank chewed on the inside of his lip, trying to picture his brain sending zaps of electricity around to make his body work. Maybe, he thought, that was why he sometimes felt a jolt like something had shocked him?
So, electricity is like waves, right? Frank got a strong mental picture right then of Gerard digging his hands into his hair, moving his lips silently while Mikey squinted at him worriedly. It made him kind of want to giggle. Like light, and transmission signals, and reheaters and stuff. Electromagnetic waves, yeah? So, everyone's brains make sort of waves like that, just from working, but some people have a genetic factor that means they can send waves like signals, or pick up other people's. Like a communicator! Or, or they can pick up on other electromagnetic stuff around them, or affect it. Yeah?
Oh. Frank frowned, thinking about that. So, I can just listen to the waves? And that's why I hear thoughts?
Yup. It's kind of the simple explanation – like, there's a lot of stuff about different parts of the brain doing different stuff, and translation and magnetics and whatever, but it's kind of boring and you don't need to know it yet. Or ever, really, if you don't wanna.
Okay, Frank said doubtfully; Gerard must have felt it, because Frank could feel him grinning again. I, I think I get it now, sort of. Genetic means it's like hair and eyes and stuff, right?
Maybe more like eyesight? Gerard sounded thoughtful. Everyone has eyes, right, but some people can see better than others. Like Mikey, he can't really see past the end of his arm, but he can't get them fixed till he's older so he's gotta wear lenses.
Really? Frank had to open his eyes and stretch his hand out, trying to imagine how that would be. Was it like there was nothing at all there, or all smeary like when he woke up with his eyes all gummy? Poor Mikey.
Gerard was laughing again, but it didn't feel mean; it felt like a secret, something just for them. At least they know they can fix it, he said, and, Oh, he's glaring at me. Hey, you think you're okay now, Frankie? I should probably go; you're gonna have a headache as it is.
Headache? Frank blinked. Um, I think I can do it now, he said, and, remembering his manners, thank you.
It's cool. Gerard's mental voice got a little more distant, the thread between them thinning out as he slid away. Maybe next time just call me, though – I'll give you my ID at school... He was gone before Frank could point out that he wasn't old enough to have one, and Frank sighed, settling back into his own mind with more effort than he'd really expected. It felt sort of like he'd stretched himself so far that he didn't quite fit back the same as he had, and he was starting to understand what Gerard had meant about headaches. There was a tight achy pain starting up like someone was tightening a band around his head, and when he opened his eyes again a deep, sharp throb behind them made him gasp.
Carefully, Frank hauled himself off the window seat, clutching so tight to his tablet that the ache in his fingers shouted louder than his head, and put one foot in front of the other until he could shut out the world beyond his door and stagger over to curl up in his bed. If this was what happened when he talked to Gerard telepathically, he was definitely going to try the com next time, even if he had to beg his mom to let him use it.
Frank didn't get in too much trouble for accidentally shouting across half the city, but Ms Kihara and Mr Taylor sat him down on Monday and explained at him about manners for so long that Frank was squirming with guilt by the end of it. It was okay, though, because Mr Taylor ruffled his hair and told him if he practiced hard enough at tight-linking and talking only to the person he meant to talk to, Frank could graduate out of basic lessons into the advanced class with Gerard. In the meantime, though, he had a whole bunch more exercises to do, and a new class in the afternoon, right after lunch.
Telekinesis was harder than telepathy, and it made Frank's head hurt in a whole different way. The first week, all he did was move a red ball around inside a field tank, trying to make it follow the little sparkling lines of laser guides the program spat out. It was more complicated than it looked; Frank had to start out just pushing it around the floor of the tank, and even then it kept rolling away from him. Some of the other kids in the class – Gerard's friend Lindsey had waved and smiled when he peered around the door the first day – had balls in all different colors that they were floating around in patterns, and when Frank asked, while they were sitting out in the playground at lunch, Mikey said he'd taken that class too. He demonstrated by picking up a handful of dry red and purple leaves and making them dance through the air in circles.
"Whoa." Frank kicked at the ground to stop his swing from swinging, reaching out to try and grab one of the leaves. It whisked out of his reach, hovering for a moment before Mikey waved a hand and it dropped to the ground along with all the others.
"That's easy stuff." Mikey huddled down into his hoodie, the chains creaking as he swung back and forth without moving his feet at all. Frank wondered if he could do the same thing, was contemplating the ground for the best place to push when Gerard's voice seeped into his head.
I wouldn't. And a picture – a memory, Frank realized with a little shock – of Mikey flying straight up in the air, swinging so hard he went right around the bar and landed on his face in the dirt. Broke his arm, Gerard commented, like it wasn't any big thing even though Frank could feel how scared he'd been in the memory. And his glasses. You're not as high factor as he is, I don't think, but you could probably still hurt yourself real bad, Frankie.
"It's cool, though," Frank protested out loud, which made Mikey huff and poke at him. Gerard rolled his eyes so hard the whites showed like marbles, and scrambled down off the jungle gym where he'd been sitting scribbling in his sketchpad.
"Whatever, I like not breaking myself. Can we go inside yet? It's freezing." He hunched down into his jacket, which he'd put on over his hoodie and scarf, until he looked sort of like a turtlefish, if turtlefish had really messy black hair with paint caught in the ends. Gerard must have caught the thought, too, because he sent Frank a picture of himself sticking his tongue out.
"I'm not cold." Frank wasn't; he was just wearing his jacket so his mom wouldn't get mad at him. He hadn't been sick in ages, not since before he'd stopped the medicine, but she kept fussing at him to wear hats and gloves and eat sourfruit until his tongue shriveled up anyway. He could feel that Gerard was shivering, though, so he kicked his feet in the air one last time and jumped off the swing. "Okay."
"Finally," Mikey grumbled, clanking his swing to a halt and starting to shuffle toward the doors. "I want hot chocolate, Gee. Can we have hot chocolate?"
"Probably not," Gerard said, sort of glumly, and Frank had half turned to ask why not, and what was hot chocolate? It sounded good – when his eye was caught by a movement near the base of the jungle gym. Every part of his body went cold and wobbly all at once, his legs turning to jelly so that he had to stay very very still to keep from falling down or screaming like a baby.
"Frankie?" Gerard blinked at him, and Frank felt him startle away from touching his mind, but he couldn't move to look at him. Mikey was the one to follow his gaze, tilting his head to peer under the bottom step of the jungle gym.
"Wood spider," he announced, and Frank flinched, still staring. If he didn't blink, it couldn't get him.
"Huh?" Gerard twisted to look at it – it was the size of Frank's head, he was sure, thick-bodied and hairy with legs arching out in every direction. "Is that all – whoa! Frank!" He staggered sideways, arms caught between windmilling and clutching as Frank, who'd shrieked (like a total baby, but he didn't even care) and leaped for safety when the spider moved, tried his best to climb Gerard like a tree.
"Make it go away!" Frank squeezed his eyes shut, clinging ferociously with his arms and legs as Gerard flailed around and tried to dislodge him.
"It's just a spider," Mikey said in a weird sort of tone; he probably liked spiders or something, and he and Gerard were going to think Frank was just a stupid little kid, and Frank was never going to be able to be friends with them again, but... He couldn't make himself open his eyes. He just clutched tightly to Gerard's shoulders and struggled to keep his feet as high off the ground as he could, and after a few confused seconds Gerard caught hold of Frank's arms to steady him and patted clumsily at his hand.
Mikey, shoo it off. "It's okay, Frankie. C'mon, we're gonna go inside. See?" He took a couple of steps. "Look, you can open your eyes now, it's gone."
Nuh-uh. Frank shook his head blindly; it was still lurking, waiting to crawl all over him the moment he touched the ground. The sudden brush of someone new against his clenched-tight senses made him flinch so hard that Gerard staggered.
"Hey, why are you guys standing around out here?" The high-pitched, interested voice meant Ray. "What's up with Frank?"
"Spider," Mikey reported, and Frank could feel Ray doing... something. It tickled in his mind, like hearing a conversation you couldn't understand, if you were hearing it with your skin or your eyes instead.
"Whoa, that's a monster one," Ray said excitedly, and Frank accidentally let a little whimper out and tried to scramble even higher on Gerard's back. He felt Gerard groan, even if he didn't do it out loud.
"Okay, for real, come on Frankie." Gerard staggered and heaved until he had Frank in a sort of piggyback. "We're gonna go inside, where there aren't any spiders at all. Deal?"
"Uh-huh." Frank nodded frantically, still squeezing his eyes shut so hard that spots burst and danced behind his eyes. He still didn't dare open them, much less let go, until Gerard shook him off onto the couch in the rec room.
Hey, Frankie? Frank kind of blinked at the mental poke; he was sitting in the window seat of the nursery, zoning out in the sunshine while Little Tony and Louisa watched a boring kids' holo about being nice to your friends or something. There was a sheep with a smiley face that kept making totally stupid jokes.
Huh? Wriggling upright, Frank yawned loudly. Neither of his cousins looked away from the holo. Gee? What's up? Automatically, he reached out to catch the thread of contact Gerard was extending, twisting their thought-streams together and locking down the ends.
We're out front; can you come out? Gerard's mind-voice was swift and tight with excitement; Frank hopped off the seat, staggering a bit as his legs took longer to wake up than the rest of him. The stupid cartoon sheep was doing a stupid dance; Little Tony and Louisa didn't even notice him leaving.
Hold on, he sent back, checking around him out of habit before hopping up onto the bannister. What is it? Did something happen? Mom was in a remote meeting, even though school was out for Colony Day, and Dad and Grandpa were off-planet setting up... something Frank hadn't been listening to. The nearest adult, when he looked, was Aunt Rosa in the den, so Frank trotted in that direction, trying to poke at Gerard with his mind.
Just come out, Mikey's here with me, Gerard said, which meant he didn't want to leave Mikey out by having a telepathic conversation. He was cool like that, except when he forgot, which was lots.
Hold on! Frank sent an image of himself blowing a raspberry, and poked his head around the corner to peer through the door to the den. It didn't seem like she was on a call, so...
"Auntie?" She didn't have any psi factors at all, not even enough to shield, so it was easy to stay on her good side. The nickname made her smile as she looked up from her screen. "Can I go play outside?" Frank asked, like he wasn't nearly eight (well, soon). "My friend from school's here, and his big brother."
"Well, I don't see why not." Aunt Rosa checked the time on her terminal. "How old is this big brother, and where do you want to go?"
"He's twelve." Frank made his eyes big. He was still linked with Gerard, who was snickering in the back of his head. "We just wanna go look at the laser show."
"Oh, over by the plaza?" Aunt Rosa nodded, and Frank could feel her silently approving of him as a good boy. Gross. "That's fine, but you'll come back by eighteen, in time for dinner, okay? And don't get too messy!" she raised her voice as Frank nodded frantically and backed up, darting for the door before anyone could tell him otherwise.
The doorcom pinged out a recognition as he smacked at the slider button – he still had to reach up on his tiptoes, and Gerard was still giggling in his head. Smooth, Frankie.
Shut up, Frank sent back, jumping down the front steps and scooting past the shuttlecar bays to the front gateway. It wasn't locked, and when he slid out onto the street-front, there were Mikey and Gerard sitting on the little wall at the edge of the roadway. "Hey."
"When you gotta be back?" Gerard asked out loud, and Frank shrugged.
"Eighteen. What is it, what happened?"
"Come on," Mikey said, hopping to his feet and setting right off in the direction of the spaceport. Frank looked at Gerard, but all he did was nod, all wide-eyed and excited even if he was totally trying to hide it, and mentally shoo Frank after Mikey. Frank sighed, and rolled his eyes, and went. He had to run to catch up; Mikey had stupidly long legs, and he was feeling totally resentful about that by the time they stopped, right where the roadway turned by the spaceport fence. Gerard sort of looked around, but Mikey just tilted his head and tugged Frank after him by his sleeve, down the fence a little way and through a bunch of ornamental bushes on a path that wasn't even really a path, just a tiny little gap. Awesomely, though, Frank's pants and shirt and arms didn't catch on the branches at all, and he was so busy gaping back over his shoulder at Gerard struggling after him that he walked right into Mikey's back.
"What – oh. Cool." The garden plants opened up into a sort of clearing with a flat permacrete platform in the middle that looked like it might have had a building on, once. There were bits of bolts and wires sticking out around the edges, and a torn-down corner of wall at the other end.
"We used to come here a bunch," was all Mikey said when Frank asked; he plopped down on the edge of the platform, poking his toes into the dirt. "Gee, tell him."
"Tell me what?" Frank spun around, swallowing a giggle at the grumpy face Gerard was making as he picked bits of leaf and twig off the sleeves of the hoodie he was wearing even though it'd been summer for cycles already.
"...You gotta promise not to tell." Gerard gave Frank a look that was even more serious than when he'd let him read his paper-edition graphics that time. Frank nodded, wide-eyed, trying to look serious and grown-up. "We're not supposed to know, like, it's not official or anything. There was a Class Three freighter scheduled to come into orbit this morning, but it's gone. I mean, totally vanished; no Lane traffic records, no distress signal, nothing." He leaned closer to Frank, like there was someone around who could hear; his eyes were shining. "It was pirates, Frankie. Grandma had breakfast with the portmaster this morning, and there was a big," Gerard waved a hand frantically, "thing. It was a Sato ship, so they're going totally nuts about it, but they gotta keep it secret 'cause they don't want everyone to think they can't look after their cargo, you know?"
Frank thought about that. Gerard's excitement was kind of infectious, and not just because it was spilling right out of his mind. But... "If it just disappeared," he objected, "how do they know it didn't break, or, or get lost or something?"
"In the Lanes?" Mikey made a snorty noise that showed what he thought of that, and Gerard nodded energetically.
"Right, Minister Sato was in there this afternoon," he jerked his thumb toward the buildings over the fence, clustered around the spaceport terminal. "All her staff and junior Family were freaking out because she said it had to be an inside job, because of the distress signal. Like, there's at least twelve crew on a Class Three just to fly it; how could you capture it without someone hitting the emergency signal? Or without having a big fight that everyone else in the Lanes would see?"
"...Whoa." Frank sort of looked at Gerard's wide-open excited face, and Mikey's wide eyes behind his glasses that were staring earnestly at him like he was willing Frank to believe it. "I thought there weren't any pirates, any more." They'd learned it in school, how the Inter-Planetary and Inter-Stellar Transport and Freight Lanes had made traveling safe after the Foundation Wars and the post-Expansion chaos. Ships had used to be taken by pirates all the time, back then, and Shaun had told Frank stories of the ghost wrecks that were still floating out there somewhere, their dead crews rattling their bones against the empty hulls.
"No one will say it's pirates," Gerard leaned closer, "but they're all thinking it, Frank. I didn't pry," he added hastily, when Frank bugged his eyes at him. "I didn't, they're just loud, you know. You know, right?"
"Uh-huh." Frank nodded; people who didn't know how to shield shouted their thoughts a whole lot, especially when they were upset. He guessed a lot of people must be upset now, about the ship vanishing and Minister Sato being mad. If he let his own shields down just a little bit, and ignored the frantic buffet of Gerard's excitement and Mikey's silent vibration, he could feel it too, like a cloud of worry-fear-urgency that had settled over the spaceport and was spitting out thunder and lightning, making Frank's eyes cross. "Oh, whoa, that's..."
"You've got pretty good at shielding, huh?" Gerard said, for no reason that Frank could tell, but he shook himself like a dog when Frank blinked at him. "But, you know what this means, right? There are pirates out there, still, there have to be, but no one wants anyone to know about it. The Council and the Families are lying to us, or... I don't know, just keeping it secret. What if this wasn't even the first time, but we just never knew? What if there's pirates out there all over the place, flying outside the Lanes and just... picking off ships." Gerard made a weird swoopy movement with his hands, sort of like a hawklizard pouncing on a crawler, Frank thought.
"Killing people," Mikey said in the tone he had where Frank was never quite sure if it was a question or a reminder, or... he didn't know, but it seemed to make Gerard come back down to earth a little bit.
"Oh." He frowned down at his hands, and Frank could feel his mind working in a whirl. "But," Gerard said, slowly, and then didn't carry on for so long that Frank had opened his mouth to speak himself by the time he said, "if I was a pirate, I wouldn't kill people. I mean, I wouldn't wanna, you know, obviously, but it'd be too messy. Like, what would you do with them after?"
"Ew," Frank protested, but Gerard just flapped a hand.
"No, but, if you could get them to be on your side, you know? I totally would. Or, like, I'd only attack evil people's ships, if they were exploiting their workers or trafficking illegal subs and stuff."
"Like... in graphics?" Frank asked, at the same time as Mikey said, "Hero pirates," and Gerard's eyes lit up so bright that it felt like the excitement was spilling out of him in a wave. Frank could feel his mind spinning out stories and pictures and colors even before he opened his mouth, and he scooted a little closer, listening avidly as Gerard took a deep breath and started to speak.
(He was very late for dinner. Mom was still out, though, so Frank didn't get scolded too badly.)
Frank was sitting on the Way compound verandah with Mikey, watching Gerard concentrating furiously over the chord patterns Ray was showing him on the real wood guitar he'd brought over, when Mikey and Gerard's mom came out of the House and cleared her throat.
"Frankie, sweetheart, your Mama asked me to let you know she wants you to go on home now."
"...Huh?" Frank blinked up at Ms Way – she always said he could call her Donna, but it felt too weird – and only belatedly realized that there had been an instruction there. "Oh." If his mom was calling the Way House to fetch Frank home, either he was in trouble or something was up. "Okay." He shoved Mikey's com set (that he was already stupidly attached to since he'd gotten it for his tenth birthday last month. Frank was totally jealous) back into his lap and scrambled up, stomping his feet into his shoes. "I'll just – bye, I guess," he waved to the guys – Gerard had looked up curiously from the guitar, though he still had his tongue poking out of his mouth and a furious crease between his eyebrows – and mumbled something polite to Ms Way before getting the hell out of there.
What's up? Gerard asked in his head as Frank was skipping down the steps around the side of the house.
I dunno. Frank gave a mental shrug. Mom said come home, so it's gotta be serious if she's calling your place, right? Not that his mom really cared about the stupid feud thing, but she did care about not upsetting Frank's Grandpa, since he was the Head of the Family.
I don't know, I kind of get the impression they've been talking, maybe. There was something... Gerard's tone was weird, and Frank automatically pushed to try and see why, dodging around a cleaner drone that was trundling along sweeping the street. Gerard's mind gave seamlessly, absorbing Frank's questioning, but he broadened the link in what felt like apology, deepening the contact between them so that Frank could tell he was only pretending to concentrate on the chord Ray was showing him, and that the metal strings were hurting Gerard's fingers. The closeness was easy, their minds fitting together comfortably after all the cycles they'd shared classes, the only factor nine telepaths in the school and the only students to have special lessons with Doctor Morrison. It wasn't nearly as grown-up and fancy as it sounded; most Wednesdays Frank went home exhausted and with a headache stabbing at the back of his eyes.
He punched the button at the transit stop on the corner, telling the terminal where he wanted to go to when it asked him. I want to go see the puppies at Matt's house tomorrow, he told Gerard while he waited; Matt had shown them a vid he'd taken, three squirmy brown watchdog pups with fat squishy little bellies, and promised Frank he could pet them. So far, Frank's efforts to persuade his Family that they should totally have a dog mascot hadn't been working out. You should come too.
Maybe. Gerard sounded kind of doubtful, but Frank could feel his mind smiling. He was gonna show me some of his music, though. His brother's gonna quit his apprenticeship and start a band, he says. You think that'd be cool?
Frank shrugged one shoulder, hopping into the transit pod when it zipped to a stop in front of him and opened its side. You'd hafta get better at guitar, he pointed out. Ray'd taught him some, too, and it didn't seem as hard as Gerard thought it was, but then Gerard could draw awesome pictures of stuff that Frank couldn't even doodle, so.
Would you be in my band? Gerard asked, and there was a sort of – Frank thought it felt like happiness, maybe, that Gerard was trying to hide for some reason.
Sure, he shrugged, hanging onto the handle while the pod zoomed along the roadway and attached itself to the back of a train that was going toward the spaceport quarter. Something made him add, I'm your sidekick, right? He let Gerard see the memories at the front of his mind, the hero graphics they'd made up with Mikey, and all the stories Gerard had invented last summer about them being pirates and space rescuers and freedom fighters.
You totally are, Gerard said, the link between them tinting pleased-red-embarrassed, but Frank could feel him pulling back again, part of his mind going distant and hidden. Hold on, Gerard said suddenly, Mom wants to – I'll talk to you later, okay? The assignment... and with that he was gone, their link dropped so suddenly that Frank wobbled for a horrible off-balance moment before he could pull himself and his shields back together.
The pod detached itself from the train just before the bridge leading over to the spaceport, whooshing to a halt at the edge of the street and settling down to the ground. Frank felt his feet trying to drag as he walked down the roadway toward the compound; he had a nasty feeling that he was going to be in trouble when he got home, even though he couldn't think of anything he'd done. Well, not anything that his mom would know about, or at least he was pretty sure.
"Oh, there you are." Grandma stuck her head out of the parlor when the door clicked closed behind Frank. She gave the dirt on his shirt (from wrestling Mikey for the last cookie at morning break. Mikey had lost so bad, but Gerard had eaten the cookie anyway because he wasn't paying attention) and the tear in the knee of his pants (from falling down when Frank had tried to see how far he could jump off the swing. There'd hardly even been any blood) a disapproving look, but shook her head, beckoning him over. "Come in here, young man."
That definitely sounded like trouble. Frank gulped, and wiped his hands against his pants, and went.
He was expecting his mom; what he wasn't quite expecting was Dad and Grandpa, too. Frank hung back uncertainly by the door until Grandma shooed him forward, because the atmosphere in the room was prickly and hard to untangle. Mom had her shields right up, but Frank could still tell she was pleased about something, but Dad was thinking sharp, cold business thoughts full of math and advantages, and Grandpa's head was full of crankiness and the same old, polished-down anger he always broadcast whenever anyone talked about the Ways. Frank swallowed and went to sit at the table, craning his neck to try and peer at the screen Dad had projected from his com set. Dad noticed, like always, and flipped it off, but he reached over and ruffled Frank's hair anyway, and that made Grandpa smile and eased up some of the cranky feeling that was floating around. Frank wiped his hands on his pants again, mentally smoothing down and reinforcing his shields.
"Frankie, we have some news," Grandma said, sitting down next to Grandpa and prodding him until he relaxed a little more, rolling his eyes.
"Okay." Frank blinked around the table, caught between waiting for it and opening up his mind to let his family's surface thoughts give him some warning.
"Your mother," Grandpa started, and then cleared his throat loudly when Grandma poked him again. "Very well, Linda has brokered and finalized a contract for the Family to become the major supplier for the new Stations out in the Kyraki system, at the Lane interchange for the mining colonies there." He paused for so long that Frank started to panic; what if that meant they were moving? "It's a large contract, too large for the Ieros to handle alone." That hurt Grandpa to admit, Frank could tell. "So we'll be working in partnership. With the Ways."
"Oh!" Frank bounced upright in his chair, but his mom shook her head fractionally.
"Donna and I are going to be looking after this," she said, quietly. "It means I'll be spending more time off-planet, but more importantly – Frankie, I need you to understand something, okay? I know you're friends with the Way boys, and that's part of the reason why we set this up, because there are a lot of opportunities that – well, when you're the Head, this will be really good for the Family. That's a long time in the future, though. Right now, I just want you to remember that even though we're working together on this one project, we're still the Ieros, and they're still the Ways. Do you understand what I mean?"
"...Yeah." Frank tried not to kick his legs, even though he wanted to. The thought was so clear it was as though it was floating in the air over the table: the Way House might not be the enemy, but they weren't friends, not for the Family. Frank could hear his Dad thinking far too loudly about what Frank would or wouldn't keep secret from Gerard and Mikey; it made him duck his head, clenching his fists on top of his thighs. "I get it."
Still, he couldn't quite keep himself from reaching out to Gerard again, once he'd been sent off upstairs to the nursery (even though he was nearly nine, but Mom liked to say that whining about it defeated Frank's point). Gerard was full of excitement about the project, and spent a long time telling Frank all about the rare metals that came from the Kyraki system, and the things that were made out of them, and the state-of-the-art Stations that had only just been built to control the new Lane interchanges. Eventually, Frank just had to interrupt.
Are we still gonna be friends, when we have jobs? Or when we're the Heads?
Huh? Gerard did that thing – Frank could feel it – where he sort of shook his head, like he was trying to recalibrate his brain onto a new course. Where'd that come from?
I just... Grown-ups always want to talk about business and do better than other people, and stuff. Frank frowned, poking his tablet to advance the page of his graphic, even though he was barely looking at it. It seems kind of boring. I don't wanna not be able to talk to you about fun stuff, Gee.
Well, who says you have to? Gerard sounded like he was settling in, his mental voice getting faster and more animated as his emotions bled through. Like, I don't even know if I wanna be the Head, you know? Maybe I'll leave it to Mikey and make art and graphics and stuff instead, or something. The whole Family system is so fucking restrictive. ...Oops, he added, like it was the first time he'd cursed around Frank or something. (It wasn't even the tenth.) Frank could picture the little wavy gesture he made with his hand, even.
But – what else is there? Frank couldn't picture Mikey being the Head of the Way Family, anyway; he'd be right behind Gerard, whatever Gerard was doing. It was, like, a fact of life or something. He couldn't imagine Gerard running away, though, either. What would Frank do then?
All sorts of stuff, Gerard said, sort of grimly, but no matter how Frank poked and prodded at him, he wouldn't let Frank see what he meant, just changed the subject to the new Starblaze holo that had been announced last cycle.
Gerard was being weird. Frank had come to this conclusion after – well, not all that much thought, actually, but it had taken him a while to really notice that Gee kept inexplicably being too busy to talk to him. Even when he was around, during school and stuff, he was all distant and distracted, and a couple of times he just up and wandered off while everyone was talking, like he wasn't even paying attention when usually he was the one who wouldn't shut up. After the second time, Frank decided to ask Ray about it, since obviously he couldn't ask Mikey, and Ray was the same age as Gerard so maybe if it was some gross growing up thing then he'd know about it. Ray just squinted at him, though, tipping his head to the side so all his curls boinged and shivered.
"Dude, how would you even tell?" When Frank just stared, waiting for the explanation, he shrugged one shoulder. "Gerard's kinda... you know?" Another shrug. "I don't know, you know, I think maybe he just, like, has stuff on his mind? He was talking to Lindsey after class yesterday..."
There was a tone in Ray's voice there that Frank didn't quite get, but it wasn't hard to pick up from his surface thoughts. He was thinking that maybe Gerard liked Lindsey, which Frank didn't understand because of course he did, but – oh. He meant liked liked. "Huh." That... Frank wasn't sure how he felt about that, or if he believed it; surely he would have noticed if Gerard thought about Lindsey, or anyone, in gross ways? He had good shields, but stuff always seeped around the edges and through the cracks, and it wasn't like adults didn't think about that kind of stuff all the freaking time. Totally gross.
"I don't think he's, you know, not okay," Ray said earnestly, clutching at the neck of his guitar case with both hands. "You'd know, right? And, I mean, Mikey would, totally."
"Yeah." That didn't really make Frank feel any better, though. It wasn't like he was jealous of Mikey, except in the way where he kind of half wished he had a brother too, but Gerard was his friend, wasn't he? Of course he was, Frank decided, staring out the classroom window later while he was supposed to be reading about the French revolution (even though he wasn't quite clear on where France had been, apart from somewhere on Old Earth, or why it was important). Gerard was just busy, with all the school things and art things and Family things that he had to think about, and Frank was still just a kid, even if he was finally old enough to have a com set and a net address.
Still, when he stomped down the Center steps at the end of the day, the sight of Gerard and Lindsey standing way over by the wall, talking with their heads close together while Mikey leaned on the transit stop typing on his com... Frank could feel the grumpy, prickly place inside him puffing itself up even more, and he kicked at the bottom step until the transit pods arrived, gritting his teeth against the spreading ache in his foot and refusing to look anywhere but dead ahead.
Frank was on the way back to the House from the park a couple of streets down, herding Little Tony and his cousin Jack who was visiting and had an actual real skateboard that his mom had made him, when a shuttlecar whooshed past down the street. Not that that was anything unusual, but something, like a brush of familiarity against his mind, made him look up just in time to catch sight of Gerard through the tinted viewport. All he really saw was a glimpse of his face, pointy nose and mess of hair in his eyes, but Frank knew instantly that it was him, and he was reaching out before he could even think about it, mentally chasing the shuttlecar even as it disappeared down toward the city.
Gerard? Frank grabbed hold of Little Tony's sleeve before he could topple off the skateboard, ignoring his complaints. He could feel Gerard's surprise, as well as his hesitation before he finally reached back to Frank, completing the link and opening up to him.
You just went past me, Frank pointed out, because he was used to Gee being unobservant. Are you going back home? That didn't feel right, though; this street was kind of out of the way, especially for the Way compound.
Meeting, was all Gerard said; Frank could feel that he was nervous, though, and uncomfortable.
Oh. Frank grabbed at Little Tony again to stop him zooming away (and probably falling under a transit pod). Grandma made me take my cousins to the park, he told Gerard, opening up the link a little bit so Gee could see how this was both a total chore and kind of fun despite that. I got to ride on Jacky's skateboard, and I want one.
I thought you wanted a hover, Gerard said back, but Frank could tell he was distracted, like he was paying most of his attention to someone in the car with him and just humoring Frank. It made him so mad, so suddenly, that he stopped still in the street, almost yanking Little Tony over.
Fine, I won't talk to you when you're busy, he sent, and shut off the link, snapping himself back into his mind so sharply that a warning ache throbbed behind his eyes.
What? Gerard followed him, of course, because he was Gerard, brushing against Frank's mind with what felt like honest confusion coloring his tone. Frankie? What's – shit. His touch thinned out for a second, pulling away. I gotta go – I'll talk to you later, okay? Frankie?
Whatever, Frank said, sort of unwillingly, but he could feel Gerard dithering, working himself up into a mess, and even if Frank felt sort of like he deserved it, he didn't actually want to screw up whatever Gerard was doing. Well, not much.
He was still pretty mad, though, and even though he kind of calmed down some while he was playing his newest holo game that evening, a little flicker of guilt starting up at the back of his mind, Frank definitely wasn't above ignoring Gerard's attempts to contact him. The first time was while he was watching Blue Field Crisis in the den with Aunt Lila and Jacky, so it was easy to tuck his shields in tight and just pretend he wasn't even there, and Gerard pulled back easily enough when he didn't answer. The second time, Gerard caught him right as he was climbing into bed, book already loaded up on his com screen (less convenient than reading on his tablet, but the novelty definitely hadn't worn off yet), and Frank couldn't shield quickly enough.
Frank? Gerard's mind-voice was tinted with hope and nervousness, and Frank hesitated for just a moment before the angry feeling rolled back in and he shut his mind tightly, yanking the sheets up over his lap so hard they stung his fingers. No, he thought, very privately, and obstinately ignored the prompting brush of Gerard's thoughts against the edge of his mind. Gerard didn't get to act all weird and ignore Frank whenever he wanted, then just pretend like everything was okay when it wasn't, it wasn't at all.
Frankie? Gerard tried again, but Frank gritted his teeth and refused to respond, staring down at his book, and eventually Gerard gave a sort of mental sigh and withdrew. Good, Frank thought, but it didn't feel satisfying, it just felt – empty. Lonely, even though he was definitely still mad. He wriggled down into his bed, tipping over onto his side so the com screen had to blink and reformat itself, and tried to concentrate on reading. It was a totally good book, an Old Earthian classic about secret wizards and witches that Ms Kihara had put on Frank's reading list, but no matter how many times he went back to the top of the page, reading over every word, by the time he got to the bottom again he couldn't remember any of it.
Frank was just about to give up, reaching for the projector button to flip off the screen, when the com chimed, a message notification popping up in the corner. The sight of Gerard's name made Frank's heart thump all sudden and startled, but the stupid sad face he'd put in the title – just :( like Frank was the one being a jerk – almost made Frank turn the com off anyway. It took him a minute of chewing on his lip to even make himself flick the message open, but all it said was, are you okay? Did I do something? Before Frank could even react to that, let alone reply, another message pinged through, from Mikey this time: what did u do 2 G dude?
Nothing. Frank typed back to him, still staring at Gerard's message. Mikey's reply popped up almost immediately, dude he's freakin out, talk 2 him or somthin.
"Fine," Frank grumbled, even though Mikey definitely couldn't hear him, flopping over onto his back and holding the com up so he could see the ceiling through the screen. Stop acting weird, he typed back to Gerard, poking at the glowing letters so hard that he had to keep erasing where they repeated themselves.
Gerard took so long to reply that Frank almost gave up and went back to his book. When his message did come through, all it said was, What? Frank rolled his eyes and hit Reply.
You're being all weird and ignoring me and everyone. Except Lindsey, he didn't say. If you don't want to talk to me any more because I'm a kid, just say it. Don't pretend like I don't exist.
Not even two seconds after he'd pressed send, Gerard's thoughts crashed against his shields, startling Frank so badly he dropped the com set entirely. The image pressed into his mind was of Gerard, wide-eyed and shaking his head frantically, no no no, and Frank couldn't help but open up to meet him.
Frankie, no – I swear I didn't mean to – I'm not ignoring you, Gerard said, all at once so that the sentences got tangled together. It was the feeling behind them that made Frank gasp, though, apology and regret and the need, as clear as if the emotion was his own, to make Frank understand he wasn't being shut out on purpose. Frank swallowed at that, and pushed back into the link a little, letting Gerard see all the times he'd looked past Frank, had walked away, the miserable angry feeling of not understanding why it had changed.
Oh. Gerard drew back at that, but before Frank could even flinch, he deepened the link, wrapping his thoughts around Frank's in a sort of mental hug. Frank gasped, and clung back, feeling himself relax into it, like he was melting into Gee for a few long moments before Gerard made a mental sigh and pulled carefully, gently back into their usual easy link. Frank couldn't help but think that he'd missed this, even though he knew Gerard would catch the thought.
I'm sorry, Gerard said, with a sort of mental hand-squeeze. I didn't mean to – I've just been thinking a lot, you know, and – there's some stuff I guess I can't tell you, Frankie.
Because I'm a kid, Frank said, testing, and unable to resist a push to try and find out. Gerard just deflected him, though, shields flowing and shifting easily around whatever it was he didn't want Frank to know.
Because it's not all mine to tell you, Gerard corrected him, and Frank did get a flash of something that time, a quick burst of worry-anticipation-helplessness that Gerard cut off so fast Frank almost thought it might have been his own feeling. When he pulled back, though, letting the link drift a little so he was less swamped by Gerard's conscious thoughts, Frank could feel just how preoccupied Gee really was, whatever he was shielding like a constant background buzz of stomach-twisting nerves. It was so strong, despite the barriers...
Are you in trouble? Frank blurted, and he felt Gerard startle back before laughing. It felt, Frank thought (carefully, privately), like he was forcing it.
Of course not, Frankie.
I'd help, you know, Frank pressed, trying to show Gerard he meant it. Even if it was, like, the Peace Keepers, or supervillains. Or your Family. He wasn't really sure what he could do about any of those, but he'd do something. Something awesome.
You're the best, Frankie, Gerard said back, and even though Frank could feel the real smile in the thought, it still felt too much like a pat on the head. He didn't miss the way Gerard changed the subject, either, to the boring homework he had to do for his language tests next month, or the undercurrent of worry at the back of every thought, the way he spoke fast, like time was running out.
Three nights later, Frank came awake so hard that he fell right out of bed in the dark, crashing down onto the rug with a thump that jarred all the breath out of him. For a moment he thought it was the dream that had woken him; he'd been trying to climb up something, or get to someone, he thought, but it was all sliding away from him as he struggled to breathe again, staring up at the pattern of purple moonlight that slid over the top of the shade.
Frank? Gerard's voice pressing against his mind didn't even surprise him; Frank struggled upright, shaking out the arm he'd landed on. Are you awake? Gerard went on, his mind-voice sharp with something – excitement? Or panic? Frank shook his head, trying to settle his thoughts back into place.
I am now. What is it, what's wrong? He couldn't help the worry that crept into his own tone; he'd spent the last two days at school trying not to think about what kind of trouble Gerard could be in that he wouldn't let Frank help with. In the dark, with the House and the city asleep around him and Gerard's mind bleeding urgency through their link, it rose up like a wave of dread, threatening to swallow him.
No, I'm sorry, just – It was like Gerard cut himself off for a moment, dropping out of the link almost entirely before coming back. Did you mean it, that you'd help me? I was gonna – we had it set up, it was gonna be fine, but something happened, I don't even know... We gotta do it now, and Mikey won't stay the fuck home – can you get out, you think? I don't think I can manage myself, not for all of us.
What? Frank couldn't make much sense of that, Gerard's thoughts were jumping about all over the place, but if he needed his help... Where are you? he sent, tilting his head to listen to the house. Apart from Uncle Tony drowsing in front of some holo in the back sitting room, everyone was asleep. Frank fumbled his way over to the closet, grabbing for clothes so he could change out of his pajamas.
End of your street, Gerard replied, and, Are you sure, Frankie? We could get in trouble, like, real trouble. Frank could feel the excitement that filtered through the link, though, and it sent a little thrill shivering through him too as he scrambled into pants and a hoodie. He reached for his sneakers with his mind, floating them behind him as he cracked open the door and tiptoed down the hall. If he tried to go out the front in the middle of the night, the security monitor would freak, but there was a spot in back by the compound wall...
He had to stop on the back porch to stamp his feet into his shoes, but climbing the tree was easy; he'd done it a hundred times. Getting over the wall was trickier; Frank's hand slipped off the branch too soon, and there was a sickening lurch of falling for a moment before he could gather his wits together and shove toward the ground to cushion himself. He still scraped the heels of his hands on the rough gravel of the path, and the Fernandes' watchdog next door started barking from the noise, but Frank took off running and it had shut up by the time he reached the street.
Gee? Both the moons were up; it was totally bright, and Frank examined his stinging palms, picking out crumbs of dug-in stone. He wasn't even bleeding; score.
This way. It was like a tug on his mind, and Frank turned automatically, trotting up the street. It must be really late; there weren't any shuttlecars out, the air silent and cool. He couldn't see Gerard, but he could feel him, the hum of his mind behind his shields, so Frank only jumped a tiny bit when a hand darted out of the bushes and tugged him off the street.
Gee? Frank didn't need to ask, really, but he was still blinking his eyes to try and get them to see properly; they were crouched in the shadow of the traffic board at the intersection.
Shh, Gerard hissed mentally, then seemed to realize what he'd done. An amused huff – nearly silent – was definitely Mikey, but he was just a smaller, skinnier shadow lurking behind Gerard. There was another shadow, though, and Frank had reached out automatically to see before he realized that of course it was Lindsey.
Hey, Frank. He could feel how she had to concentrate to project the thought; it was her weakest psi factor, he was pretty sure, after kinesis and electro-manipulation and the cool stuff she could do with lights. Sorry to wake you up, she said, even though Frank didn't mind that at all – he'd have been sorrier to miss this, whatever this was. Some kind of adventure, he was sure.
What's up? Gerard was acting so twitchy that he didn't quite dare talk out loud, and maybe it was infectious because Frank found he couldn't stand still either. Are you in trouble? It was hard to imagine what sort of trouble Gerard would need his help with; Frank bit his lip to keep from bursting out with all his questions, and stuffed his hands into his hoodie pockets, trying to be cool.
No – maybe – ugh, Frankie – "This was a bad idea," Gerard muttered out loud, and Frank bristled a bit, puffing himself up as much as he could manage. He wasn't a little kid any more, even if he wasn't nearly a grown-up like some people.
That's not what I meant – fuck, right, time, Gerard interrupted himself when Lindsey made a quiet sound. We gotta go, okay, but I'll explain on the way. Come on. "This way," he said, barely out loud, peering really obviously around the signs to check for traffic. Frank could have told him there still wasn't any; the roadway was swept and empty in both directions.
Where are we going? Frank asked, following carefully in Mikey's footsteps as he followed Gerard. Mikey still hadn't said a word to any of them, but in the light of the moons that criss-crossed the street, Frank could see that his face was set in a ferocious frown of concentration.
Spaceport, Gerard said – just to him, Frank thought; it made him feel weirdly better, even though he was tagging along at the back end of the group behind both Mikey and Lindsey. Out of the shadows, he could see that Lindsey had a bulging, heavy-looking duffel bag hanging off her shoulder. We gotta – fuck, Gerard stumbled over a rock at the edge of the path, arms flailing wildly until he caught his balance. We're gonna have to sneak in; you gotta help me distract the guards, Frankie.
What? Frank blinked, and almost tripped over his own feet. That's – isn't that, like, against the law? That was big, big trouble; even when he was only tagging along with Dad to watch the ships, Frank had to get his ID chip scanned at all the security points.
We had it set up, but they had to come in early. Gerard's mind-voice was almost vibrating, like he'd be curled up in the corner of his room having a total freakout if he didn't have to be here doing this. Frank could feel it through the link, that he had to do it, that Gerard was almost as scared of what would happen if he didn't as what would happen if they got caught. I didn't want you involved, or Mikey, but I can't –
"Shuttlecar," Mikey interrupted, not even whispering; Frank immediately tried to peer down the street, pushing out his senses, because he couldn't see or hear anything, but Lindsey grabbed his sleeve before Gerard was even done cursing. She pulled Frank off the path into the shadow of the bridge pillar, and Gerard shoved Mikey in too, crowding up behind them with his face turned away from the light.
Frank's own breath sounded so loud that he couldn't hear anything else; he felt carefully outwards, trying to ignore the uncomfortable way he was squished in between Lindsey and Mikey, who were both taller than him. It still took him a horribly long second to find the shuttlecar, coming toward them from the other side of the bridge, and Frank felt his heart starting to beat faster, because it was coming from the spaceport, and what if they knew?
It's just the second security shift going home, Gerard said firmly in his mind. Shields, Frank – there's gotta be telepaths there somewhere, we have to be like ghosts. Fucking, ninja, yeah?
Ninja ghosts, Frank said back, concentrating furiously on pulling his shields in tight and solid as the shuttlecar hummed closer and closer and – passed them, heading down toward the city. Frank breathed a sigh of relief, and felt the others do the same. Well, except Mikey; he just seemed kind of vacant, more like he was waiting to see what would happen than anything. Frank prodded at him when he didn't move quickly enough to unsquish them from their hiding place.
He's being an early-warning system, Gerard told him; he had one hand snagged in Mikey's sleeve, steering him around the corner onto the bridge. "Come on, guys, quick," he whispered, breaking into a shuffling run as they headed across the brightly-lit span.
Another shuttlecar whooshed out of the spaceport gates right as they came round the bend in the hill, and Frank watched, confused and uncertain, as Lindsey and Gerard whispered to each other in the ditch they were hiding in, their heads tucked close together. When he looked away, Mikey was looking right at him over the tops of his glasses, even though Frank knew he couldn't actually see very far at all, let alone right into his head. That didn't stop the squirmy, uncomfortable feeling from twisting its way up his throat, though.
"Coast's clear, Gee," Mikey said, clambering to his feet even though the gates were right there at the end of the roadway, the tall wire links of the fence and the red shimmer of the security field stretching away along the edge of the hill on one side and the shuttlepark on the other. "Do it now."
"Do what?" Frank scrambled up, too, wiping mud off his hands onto his pants. His knee was stinging a bit where he'd scraped it on a rock; when he poked at it, his fingertip came away smudged with a smear of blood, so he wiped that off too, making a face.
"Shh," Gerard hissed, even though Frank was being totally quiet. Frank made a face at him, and he was kind of pleased to see Lindsey rolling her eyes, too. Gerard was definitely working himself up into a great big freakout, but Frank's usual remedy of distracting him with awesome questions about graphics (and, when all else failed, sitting on him until he stopped) wasn't going to work right now. He gave Gerard a mental poke, though, reaching to link with him and try to smooth away some of the freaking-out-ness.
"Okay," Gerard said, taking a big breath, then, "Okay," again, like he'd forgotten he'd said it. "Fuck. Frank, you gotta help me, okay? The guard shift's just changed, we gotta distract them so we can sneak by. You think you can shield Mikes and Lyn-Z as well as you? I'm gonna do the distracting part, but there might be other telepaths, you know?"
"Uh-huh." Frank frowned, thinking it over. "Like, totally shield us? Nulled out?" Keeping his own mind blanked out and invisible was hard enough; two other not-very-telepathic brains on top of that...? "I think so?"
"It's really important." Gerard was giving him a look, and Frank could feel his seriousness through the link, the tight focused hum of his mind totally different to anything Frank had felt from him before. "I know you can do it, Frankie."
"Okay." It wasn't like Frank could say no, anyway; he was gonna give it his best shot, if that was what Gee wanted. "Aren't there, um, cameras and stuff, though?"
"Let me worry about them," Lindsay said, wiggling her fingers with a little spark and pop of static electricity that leapt into the ground. She giggled, once, a little hiccup of laughter that seemed to get away from her, and Frank could see that her hand was totally shaking before she tucked it back under the strap of her bag. It had to be really heavy; it was cutting into her shoulder, but she held onto it like she wasn't ever going to let go.
"Okay," Gerard said again, pointlessly, nudging at Frank through their link. Frank nodded, closing his eyes for a second to concentrate on his shields. Once he was sure he had his own mind wrapped up tight and invisible – it was like wrapping himself in a blanket, fuzzing up the edges until they blended seamlessly into everything else – he stretched out, groping for the edges of first Mikey's shields, familiar and easy, and then Lindsey's. He could feel her trying to help, tucking her mind in as tight and quiet as she could, so Frank could cover all three of them in a blanket of mental white-noise. It was a little bit of a stretch, but not uncomfortable or anything; he set his jaw, concentrating.
Gerard must have felt when Frank was done, because he breathed out a long, ragged breath, clenching his hands into fists, and nodded. Come on, he whispered, turning determinedly toward the distant spaceport gates. Frank grabbed hold of Mikey and Lindsey's sleeves, to keep them close, and hurried behind.
Mikey pulled them to a stop just out of range, he muttered, of the recorders up top of the gates. Gerard turned to look at Lindsey, who tugged her sleeve carefully out of Frank's grip, taking a step forward. Frank held his breath, waiting for a spark to flash or an explosion, but nothing happened apart from Lindsey swaying a little on her feet, her eyes going blank and distant as she twitched her fingers slowly in mid-air.
"There," she said eventually, sagging into herself a bit. Gerard reached out like he wanted to prop her up, but she waved him away. "It's okay – I looped the circuits, so we've probably got 30 minutes max before they auto-reboot."
"Right." Gerard pulled himself up straight, squaring his shoulders. "Mikes?"
"One guard," Mikey reported, slouching a little closer to Frank. "The security drones are powered down, but they have the barrier field up."
"Fuck. Linds?" Gerard turned to her, but she waved him away, nodding.
"We've got to, Gee, it's nearly time."
"Fuck. Right." Gerard broke into a loping, jarring run, waving them to follow. Frank grabbed Mikey's hand in his, tangled the other in Lindsey's sleeve, and took off after him, concentrating so hard on his broadcast shield that by the time the security field across the gateway was looming in front of him, his eyeballs felt like they were about to burst. Gerard started to stop, but Lindsey didn't even slow down, dragging Frank and Mikey with her as she waved a hand and the red glow of the security field fizzled and went out. Frank's own breathing and the soft thud of his footsteps sounded as loud as lift-off; he was sure the guard must have noticed them, but all he heard from the security booth was a crash of something breaking and the sound of swearing. Lindsey was already dropping to the ground, shoving her duffel in front of her and crawling underneath the barrier. Frank threw himself down to squirm under himself, and by the time they'd dragged Mikey and Gerard after them and squeezed themselves into the shadows in back of the guard booth, barely breathing, the field was already flickering back into life with an electric hum.
Fuck, Gerard said in his head, along the tiny thread of their link, I think we made it. Nice one, Mikes; she's still trying to mop that up. He meant the guard; Frank could still hear her muffled voice cursing above and behind them. Mikey shifted a little against his shoulder, a fraction of a shrug, and Frank was still wondering what he'd done when Lindsey took a breath and pushed herself carefully up to a crouch. Right, Frank thought, they had a mission here. He wasn't really sure what it was, now that they were done with the sneaking-in part, but he guessed it had to be important.
Which way now? He asked Gerard silently, and almost forgot to keep hold of the shields when Gerard broadened the link, showing him an image of the smaller, older landing pads out behind the shiny new terminal facilities.
Stick to the shadows, Gerard told him – them? – with a twirly wave of one finger that Frank thought was supposed to show them going around the edges. We gotta keep out of the way of the monitors; they're gonna notice if we fuck with all of them.
Right. Frank nodded, even though he was starting to get a horrible sinking feeling about what they were actually doing here. The trouble they'd get in if they stopped now, though, would be awful, so he took a deep breath and crawled out of their hiding place, letting Lindsey lead him by the arm across the roadway to the pool of shadow cast by the outer terminal wall and just concentrating as hard as he could on projecting the shield.
It seemed to take forever, long minutes of creeping from patch to patch of shadow, all of them holding their breaths every time Mikey whispered that there were guards up ahead or security drones flying above on their patrols. They almost got caught for real, just past the main terminal, when a hangar door creaked open right as Gerard stepped out in front of it, but Mikey pulled him back so hard he hit the permacrete wall with an oof, and they all pressed themselves hard into the wall as bright yellow light spilled out into the darkness. After a second it was followed by a freight float that trundled away toward the gate, the driver hanging out of the window and calling good night behind him.
Even after the big doors clattered closed again, it took Frank a long time to be able to hear anything but the frantic thud of his heartbeat, let alone manage to move his legs. There was an awful giggle stuck in his throat, halfway between excitement and terror, and he had to swallow it back and swallow it back as they snuck past the rest of the loading bays and out onto the blackened permacrete of the landing pads.
Almost there, Frankie, Gerard said in his head, as though he could feel the headache that was starting up behind his eyes, the effort of holding their shields starting to pull at his mental muscles now. Frank gritted his teeth and nodded, trying to breathe through his mouth to avoid the stink of char and ozone that rose up with every shuffling step they took. It stuck in his throat so bad that he thought he was going to choke; the nervous giggle turned into a tickling cough that wouldn't stay down, and he doubled over himself, trying to muffle it with his hands.
"Shit," Gerard whispered, hands patting helplessly at Frank's shoulders, but Lindsey pushed him aside, crouching down next to Frank and pulling something out of her bag that she held over his mouth.
Here, come on. The cloth helped; Frank fought with his lungs to stop them seizing up, and after a few breaths the light-headed feeling faded and he could straighten up. Lindsey pushed on his head to turn it, tying the ends of the cloth like a bandanna at the back of Frank's neck. "There," she breathed, and when he turned back he could see her grinning, wide and wobbly as she offered a hand to pull him to his feet. "They'll be here soon," she said, looking out across the flat wasteland of the landing zones, the gantries and walkways outlined like giant skeletons in the stark moonlight.
Who? Frank asked Gerard, turning to look up at him. His face was tipped back, hair falling back as he scanned the sky, and the light of the blue and smaller purple moon turned him into a colorless ghost, sharp-edged with shadows like something he might draw. Frank's stomach clenched with a fear more immediate than getting caught, every time Gerard had talked about wanting to do something else and every time he'd changed the subject away from his Family crashing back into Frank's memory all of a sudden. "Are you running away?" he blurted, too loud even through the bandanna across his mouth, dreading the answer.
What? Gerard flinched away so hard that he almost overbalanced, flailing around to stare down at Frank, eyes wide and stunned in a way that made Frank feel guilty even as some of the fear balled in his stomach started to unwind. It was Lindsey, though, who shook her head, slowly, drawing Frank's attention reluctantly away from Gerard, and said, quietly, "I am."
Oh. Frank blinked at her, absorbing that and trying to ignore the way the guilt grew and grew, squashing the nasty twist of relief. Of course Gerard wouldn't have just left, not without telling him; this must have been what he'd meant about it not being his secret, the thing he'd been eating himself up worrying over. "Oh," Frank said out loud, eventually when the silence got too uncomfortable, and he'd opened his mouth to say something else, he didn't even know what, when Mikey interrupted.
"They're coming," was all he said, but Lindsey's eyes went wide, and Frank could feel Gerard's thoughts spiking with panic even though he couldn't see his face.
Get down! Gerard said in his head, grabbing Frank's sleeve and pulling him stumbling into the hollow behind a blast shield. Frank opened his mouth again, because he couldn't feel anything – who were the they Gerard and Lindsey were waiting for? A ship? – but Gerard shook his head frantically, crowding Frank and Mikey together against the cold, dusty metal.
The crack that rang out across the landing bays made Frank's ears ring, and he smacked his shoulder right into the blast shield when he jumped. With a crackling, fizzling noise, every light in the terminal building went out at once. When Frank struggled up onto his toes, craning his neck to see over Gerard's shoulder, he could see a distant glow, sparks spitting up against the sky like fireworks, as shouting and noise started to fill the sudden silence.
Transformer blew, Gerard told him, turning his own head to look. Seven minutes before they get the security systems back online.
Whoa. Frank bounced on his toes a bit, still trying to see. That was totally super cool, and he wondered if it was a weapon, or something Lindsey had done, but before he could get his questions in order Gerard grabbed his arm, excitement bleeding across the link as a humming sound approached, engine noise vibrating through their bones. Frank gasped, twisting to try and see, but the blast shield was so tall that the only clue he had that something was there was a shadow that swept across the sliver of moon that peeked over the edge. It was so quiet he could barely believe it was a ship, the usual roar of engines muffled into a sound barely louder than a shuttlecar passing, and it set down with only a soft thud of the landing gear engaging.
Frank could feel Gerard holding his breath, but when he felt out toward the terminal and the low blocks of the freight hangars, the panic and anger and busyness he could feel, like a boiling bughive, was contained within the walls of the buildings as all the grown-ups desperately tried to fix the power and restart their terminals. No one was paying any attention at all to what was happening out here in the dark; it was awesome.
"Come on." Lindsey poked her head out around the edge of the blast shield, then turned to look back at Gerard before stepping out. Frank, ragged with excitement and exhaustion, could feel the tension in her, the nervousness she was trying to hide, the jagged stab of misery that just seemed to make her more grimly determined. He shook himself out of Gerard's grip, bracing himself on the edge of the shield as he stared up at the sleek dark bulk of the ship. It was tiny, barely bigger than an atmo shuttle, and Frank couldn't fit its smooth, jagged lines into the pattern of any of the freight or transport models he knew. The bow section, past the curve of the engines and thrusters, looked so thin and narrow that he couldn't see how it would fit more than a few people.
An airlock cracked with a soft hiss of air, the cover sliding open over the inner iris as it cycled. There was a dim halo of light outlining someone – a grown-up, Frank thought, craning his neck to see, but their face was hidden by shadows.
"That you, light show?" the person called – it was a man, Frank realized when he stumbled out of the airlock, catching the handle and turning to hiss something at the person behind him.
"It's me." Lindsey checked really obviously over her shoulder before stepping onto the landing pad, a dancing blue light playing over her upraised fingers. They were shaking, Frank saw, but she snuffed out the light so fast that he didn't think anyone else had noticed. He hung back by the edge of the blast shield with Mikey while Lindsey walked forward, Gerard trailing behind her.
"Nice job, kiddo," the man said, and Frank snickered a little, silently, at the way Gerard's mind got briefly indignant. "You changed your mind about getting off this mudball, or what?"
"Or what." Gerard made a weird sort of half-wave half-handflap gesture, like he wanted the guy to shut up but wasn't quite brave enough to say so to his face. That made Frank want to giggle too; he squeezed Mikey's hand, and Mikey squeezed back, snorting under his breath. "You guys should get out of here," Gerard said, looking back over his shoulder at Mikey and Frank, then the distant activity around the terminal buildings.
"Man, why you gotta kill the party," the guy said with a sigh, but the other person stuck her head around the airlock door right then, shoving at his shoulder.
"Three minutes. Get a goddamn move on, asshole." She looked young, not even very much older than Gee, Frank thought, and her round face was worried.
"Fine, shit." The guy rubbed at his shoulder, making a face like it hurt. He had a sort of over-excitedly gleeful expression on his face, like he was enjoying himself a whole lot, even though Frank didn't really understand why. He stuck a hand out to Lindsey, beckoning. "You ready to do this thing, then? No turning back, right?"
"Right." Frank saw Lindsey swallow, her knuckles white where she was clutching the strap of her bag, but she didn't hesitate at all in turning to Gerard, wrapping her free arm around his shoulders and hugging him. If they said anything, Frank didn't catch it, but Gerard hugged her back tight, and his face was scrunched up when he pulled away, shuffling back a few steps. Lindsey swiped at her eyes once, squaring her shoulders, and marched up to the airlock, taking the strange girl's hand to clamber up.
Thank you, Frank heard, carefully projected his way, as she disappeared inside the ship. The guy with the gun flipped a showy salute at Gerard and jumped up after her, slapping at the controls before he was even all the way inside the airlock.
"Gotta run; see you around!" he called as it slid closed, and then Gerard was dragging Mikey and Frank back around behind the blast shield again, shoving them into the hollow between the baffles and pressing in behind them. Frank understood why when the ship's engines flared to life with a rumble that shuddered up through his bones, a wash of heat and exhaust streaming around the edges of the protective barrier. He closed his eyes, feeling out with his senses to follow the ship as it lifted off the pad, reorienting with a blast of jets before zooming off steeply upward. It vanished into the night sky so quickly that Frank actually wondered for a minute whether it wasn't all some weird and awesome dream.
He was pretty sure he was never this cold and tired in dreams, though, and there was a poky metal corner digging into his back. Frank wiggled a bit, then some more, until he could squirm free of Gerard's grip and sit up.
"Did she really run away for real?" His brain felt sort of stretched out and achy, so Frank used his mouth. "Why? Who were those people?"
"Shh," Gerard hissed, but Frank could feel he was sort of slumped down a little bit, like some of the worry and freaking-out had drained out of him, finally. "Yeah, she's gone for good. Pretty sure." He sounded sad. "Just... I guess, there was stuff she wanted to do, and stuff her Family wanted her to do, and they were just too fucking different, you know?"
"Maybe," Frank said sort of doubtfully, but then he thought about his Grandpa's stupid grudge against the Ways, and how he'd have felt if he wasn't allowed to be friends with Gerard and Mikey... He squirmed, not wanting to think about it.
"Gee, were they really pirates?" Mikey asked, out of the blue, right as sirens started blaring out from all the spaceport buildings at once, making all three of them jump. Frank grabbed for Gerard's arm, because there were lights all over the buildings again, and he could see the grown-ups hurrying around, now, distant and tiny like bugs, but Gerard just twisted to pat the back of Frank's hand.
"It's okay, all their terminals just came back on and stuff."
Like that even mattered. "Pirates?" Frank squeaked, staring between the big-eyed shadows that were Gerard and Mikey. "You mean – really? Really for real?"
"Not like you're thinking," Gerard started, but he cut himself off, sitting up to peer toward the terminal as the sirens abruptly cut off. "Fuck, okay, we gotta run for it now, before they get all the security back up. Come on, let's get out of here." He staggered to his feet, hauling on Frank's and Mikey's hoodies until he was practically dragging them both back the way they'd come.
We'll get caught! Frank protested, pushing his stupid too-slow brain to try and wrap them up in a shield, but even though there were less of them now, it was much harder when he had to concentrate on keeping his feet moving. Gerard just shook his head breathlessly, broadening the link so that Frank could see the fragment of a thought about the spaceport workers who were all too busy freaking out about their own stuff to think about anything else. Gerard was more worried about the network getting the security drones started up before they could get past the gates, Frank saw, and he could feel where Gerard was linked in tight to Mikey too, thoughts darting back and forth between them.
They almost, almost made it. The gate was right there and the field was still down, the guard outside but with her back to them, kicking at the generator like that would make it turn on faster, and Frank saw Gerard and Mikey exchange a look, both of them leaning on the wall of the shipping crate they were hiding behind as they panted for breath. He was ready, when they took off running again, circling around the edge of the wide open area toward the gate. He was ready to trip the guard, even, mental muscles flexed and ready in case they needed to create a distraction.
What he wasn't ready for was the other guard who jogged out from behind the corner of the building right as they were barreling toward the gate, freedom in sight. Mikey, in the lead, shouted so loud in surprise that Frank automatically tried to reach out to pull him back, but right as he was about to crash head-first into the guard he just - vanished, blinking right out of existence with a pop like something from a holo. Frank stumbled over his own feet, astonished, and everything seemed to slow down as he saw the guard turning toward them, eyes wide and white as he opened his mouth to yell...
Gerard's panic slammed into Frank like a wave, and he shoved forward before he could think about it, yanking the guard's feet out from under him so he went down with a smack, helmet bouncing off the permacrete. Without stopping to think about what he was doing, Frank reached blindly for the edge of sleep he could feel at the back of the man's mind, and pulled, stretching his senses to do the same to the gate guard. She wobbled on her feet, then slumped over the box of the generator, and it was already starting to flicker and spark as it reset itself. Frank grabbed for Gerard's sleeve, trying to breathe around the freaked-out knot in his throat.
MikeyMikeyMikey, Gerard's mind was going, locked in a loop of horror so strong that Frank actually shied away even as he dragged Gee bodily toward the gate.
"Come on," he begged, almost sobbing with frustration; they couldn't get caught now, not when they were so close, not after everything. Gerard wasn't listening to him at all, though; his mind was focused far away, searching desperately. Frank shoved and pushed at him until he stumbled down onto his knees, and squirmed them both underneath the gate, the noise they were making almost as loud as his breath in his ears. It wasn't until he'd staggered and dragged them both far enough down the roadway to topple into the ditch, out of sight, that Gerard shook himself out of it, sitting bolt upright.
"Shh!" Frank yanked on his arm, dragging him down again; he could hear shouting from the gates, now, but he didn't dare look, just wriggled down into the bottom of the ditch, clinging tight to Gerard's shoulders.
"He's okay," Gerard said, still too loud, but it made Frank's stomach turn upside down with relief anyway. "He's home – fuck, shit, how the hell did he even do that? I gotta – we gotta get out of here, Frankie –"
"The guards," Frank protested weakly, but Gerard just shook his head, pushing Frank aside until he could crawl up to the edge of the ditch, peering around.
"We can cut around, the road turns by the bridge. Motherfucking teleporting, I'm gonna fucking kill him for scaring me like that."
"...Is that what that was?" Frank blinked tiredly. Teleportation was impossible, or at least everyone said so. He was too tired to think about it, though, so he just stumbled after Gerard as they crouched and crawled their way away from the road.
"Uh-huh. Un-fucking-believable," Gerard muttered, but he reached out to let Frank grab hold of his hand as they started down the hill, so Frank just held on tight and let himself be led back home.
Frank was sick for a week after their spaceport adventure, an evil overextension headache that turned into a fever and cough and left him bored and miserable. Once he was past the first few days and could breathe without wheezing too badly, he spent most of the time talking to Gerard through their link and a stop-and-start message conversation about the graphic Gerard had promised to let Frank help him write. It was going to be awesome, with Gerard the hero pirate for justice, and Frank his ninja ghost sidekick, and The Amazing Teleporting Mikey (who Gerard said had just shrugged when he'd been asked how he'd done it), and Frank was totally grumpy when his mom came and sat on his bed, clearing her throat all meaningfully while he was trying to tell Gee about the ghost powers he should have.
"I gotta go," he told Gerard reluctantly, tilting his com set a little away so his mom couldn't see the screen so well, which made her frown. "I'll tell you later, okay, but you gotta make sure you draw the lightning and stuff."
"I'll show you tomorrow," Gerard promised, grinning into the camera – he was at the Center while he waited for something that hadn't sounded interesting, so it was easier to just call than to try and shout their thoughts past the shielding. Frank smiled back and waved until the screen went blank and switched itself off, then dropped the com into his tangle of blankets, looking up at his mom.
"I can go back to school tomorrow, right?"
"I should think so." Mom leaned closer, laying a hand over his forehead and tilting her head to one side. "No fever still; that's good."
"I'm fine," Frank protested, shaking her hand off. She always worried too much, and made him stay in bed way after he was totally all better. He hadn't even had to go to the hospital at all this time, just stay home doing nothing at all for days and days until he wanted to cry from boredom.
"Hmm." Mom ruffled his hair, tucking the longer pieces at the front behind Frank's ears. It was still kind of uneven from where he'd tried to chop it into a mohawk cycles and cycles ago, only just growing out enough to tickle his neck past the bottom of his ears. "Was that Gerard you were talking to just now?"
"Uh-huh." Frank twisted away from her hand in his hair, almost accidentally kicking the com set onto the floor. "We're writing a graphic, it's gonna be awesome. Mikey too," he remembered to add, because Mikey got kind of grumpy sometimes about being left out of the telepathic stuff, even though Frank was certain Gerard wouldn't ever actually forget about him.
"Is that so?" That was a Mom Voice, and it meant she was pretending to be interested while she thought about something else. Frank couldn't tell what, exactly, but she had the same little frown wrinkling her eyebrows that he'd seen before when she asked what he'd been doing at school, or with his friends. It made him nervous, but he couldn't quite put together why. "You talk to him a lot, don't you? Gerard."
"He's my friend!" Frank protested, crossing his arms over his chest. "We have class together a bunch, he's a nine too. Lower telepathic factors are more suss – suss-subtle?" That didn't sound right.
"Susceptible," Mom corrected, sounding out the syllables carefully. "That sounds like a Doctor Morrison word; did you hear it from her?"
"Uh-huh." Frank squirmed as she patted his knee through the blankets, smiling.
"Do you know what it means?"
"Um, they don't have strong enough shields?" He didn't really get why it mattered, because looking in people's heads without permission was bad bad bad, nearly the baddest thing you could do. But then, Frank had put those guards to sleep, at the spaceport; he didn't know how to feel about that, because he hadn't really done it on purpose, it had just... happened. Maybe he should ask Gee about it?
"Something like that." Mom patted the back of his hand, frowning a little bit. "What I meant, though, was that you and Gerard talk a lot in your heads, don't you."
"...I guess?" Frank pulled his hand away, wrapping his arms around his knees. How much was a lot? It wasn't like he didn't mind-talk to other people, Kasha and Patrick and Alex at school, and Doctor Morrison, and even Gerard and Mikey's grandma once, when he'd been bored at a meeting thing Dad had let him tag along to. "I talk to lots of people," he couldn't help pointing out, because Mom had her pretending-not-to-be-worried face on, and Frank didn't like it.
"Of course you do, honey," Mom said, but he could feel that she was still thinking whatever it was, her mind turning over and over behind her shields, and eventually he couldn't stand it any longer and had to burst out, "Can I go watch Blue Field Crisis now?" He'd missed the last episode from being sick, and sooner or later Gerard would forget and start talking about everything that had happened, he was sure.
"Hmm? Oh, go on then. Put your dressing gown on, though, Frankie," she called after him as Frank all but flung himself out of the bed to race out to the holo in the nursery.
Something was Up. Frank had become more and more convinced of it over the course of the last few cycles. Mom kept shutting herself into her office, which wasn't all that unusual, but this time Dad was in there too, and sometimes Grandpa and Grandma, and one time Frank was sure he caught a glimpse of Ms Way's back as she followed the house-drone across the front hall. That was definitely weird, and all the grown-ups in the House kept having conversations that were too quiet for Frank to hear, that stopped whenever he came into a room.
I think they know, he told Gerard on a Friday night, after Dad and Grandpa had both excused themselves from the dinner table for a remote meeting. Frank stabbed at the broccoli buds on his plate, pushing them into the green sauce and wondering what prison was like. He'd seen an item on the news holo a cycle ago about a new prison for kids, that had some fancy name that was supposed to make it sound like it wasn't really a prison but more like a hospital or something. There'd been a doctor in a white coat talking about treatments and medicine and stuff.
You're not gonna go to prison, Frankie, Gerard said, in that special mental tone he had that meant he was rolling his eyes at the other end of the link. Frank didn't see where he got off acting all high and mighty like he was actually grown up and knew everything; breaking into the spaceport was totally illegal, and so were pirates, and Gee and Mikey had told him that Lindsey's family had been on the news while Frank was stuck in bed sick, because they thought she'd been kidnapped or something. She wasn't on the holos any more, though; it was like everyone had forgotten all about her.
She sent a message, Gerard told him, and Frank perked up a bit, because that probably meant the pirates or whatever they were hadn't been caught.
How do you know? he asked, accidentally taking a bite out of the broccoli and making a face at the gross mushy taste. He felt Gerard give the mental equivalent of a shrug.
Dad was at an auction with the Sato reps, he said, and Frank was about to ask what that had to do with anything when his mom cleared her throat meaningfully, distracting him. He swallowed, resisting the urge to gag, and pulled his mind back to the dinner table with a silent goodbye to Gerard. Mom and Grandma were both looking expectantly at him, like they were waiting for an answer to a question Frank hadn't heard.
"Huh?" He looked between them, uncertain, and Mom's lips thinned where she was pressing them together. Now that Frank wasn't distracted with trying to talk and eat and find an excuse to not eat his vegetables all at the same time, he could feel the heavy atmosphere settled across the room like a choking blanket.
"I said," Mom raised an eyebrow, but it wasn't the usual scolding; her feelings were all tangled up behind her shields, regret and determination and dread and that horrible worry that Frank hated. "You need to clean your room this evening, Frankie. The removal drones will be coming tomorrow, and you'll need to pack a bag for the journey too."
Journey? Frank blinked, and put his fork down slowly. It clinked against the plate; his hands had started shaking. No one had said anything about a trip, and... "Moving drones?" This was It, he could feel it like a weight hanging over them, waiting to crash down. "Where are we going?"
"The Kyraki system." The words fell out of his mom's mouth like stones, and Frank felt his eyes getting wide, saw her exchange a look with his grandma.
"The project is doing very well," Grandma said, smiling like she couldn't feel the gnaw of the hole that was starting to eat Frank's insides. "We've all agreed that it'll be best for Linda and Frank to spend some time out there and keep an eye on things, and of course it wouldn't be fair for them to leave you here, would it?"
"...But I don't want to go." Frank blinked; his eyes were prickling and hot, but he wasn't going to cry, he wasn't. "Can't I stay here until you come back?"
"Oh, Frankie." Mom sighed like he was the one being unfair to her. "This is at least a three-year contract, so we're making it an official move, honey. Grandma and Grandpa have their own work to do, running the House; they can't look after you. There's a very good psi school in the main city," she added, like Frank was supposed to care about that. "I'm sure you'll make new friends quickly, don't worry."
"I..." Frank's voice wobbled, but he wasn't going to cry, he wasn't. He swallowed, and pushed his plate away. "C-can I be excused?" he remembered to ask, and Mom opened her mouth like she was about to say no, but Grandma touched her arm to stop her.
"Go on up to your room if you want, Frankie," she said. Frank could hear her thinking that it was better to let him adjust, whatever that meant, and a wisp of a thought in the background that this was for his own good. Frank flinched away from the mental images that came attached to that, and shoved his chair back so hard that his mom's eye twitched at the screech. Frank mumbled something, he didn't even know what, and ran for his room, already reaching blindly for Gerard.
No matter how he stretched, though, the other end of the connection was just dead and blank, like Frank was shouting into the emptiness of space. Gee? he tried again, stumbling through his door and letting it slam, but he already knew it wouldn't be any use. Gerard had to be in a shielded room somewhere, if Frank couldn't hear him at all, but it was kind of late to be at the Center, wasn't it? The only other places he knew that usually had shielding were ships, and just thinking about them made the hot sting in Frank's eyes turn into welling tears, burning their way to the surface too strong for him to stop. His hands were shaking when he fumbled his com set out and started typing a message, and he kept having to stop to blink his eyes clear.
Frank waited all night, refusing to sleep despite the stinging behind his eyes and the overextension headache brewing from all the times he'd tried to reach out, but Gerard never replied. Eventually Frank must have fallen asleep, because he woke up stiff and aching, curled into a ball on top of his covers, when his mom came to look for him. She fussed, which just made it worse, because Frank could feel her guilt pressing into him like jagged edges where his barriers were all stretched and worn thin.
He tried to refuse to pack up his things, but his voice went all wobbly in the middle, the traitor, and when Mom sighed and shifted over to hug him, rubbing his back, Frank buried his face in her shoulder and swallowed more humiliating tears. He felt limp and wrung-out, like a burst balloon, by the time the house-drones slid through the door to start folding his clothes into cases, and even though part of him wanted to shove and kick at them until they stopped, wanted to scream and fight and beg until it all stopped, Frank was miserably sure it wouldn't make any difference. He was just a kid; he didn't get a say.
Still, he couldn't help but drag his heels through the spaceport terminal, his com clutched close to his chest, his mind so wide-open that every stray thought from every person they passed was as loud as his dad's voice calling for Frank to hurry up. Every time the crowds of passengers shifted, he kept expecting Gerard to appear, kept craning his neck to try to see past the grown-ups and guards and white Peace Keeper uniforms because he was sure... Every time his heart sped up as he caught a glimpse of messy dark hair, though, it sank again because it was just another stranger. Frank hovered at the security gate in the terminal for so long that Dad had to come back through and put a firm hand on his shoulder, his mind clear and sharp with irritation.
Gerard never showed up, even though Frank called and called for so long, with his mind and on the com as they sat in the waiting lounge, that he was starting to grow a stupid, excited hope that Mikey had worked out how to do the teleporting thing again and they'd appear at the last minute to rescue him the way they had Lindsey. Like Starblaze, saving Hyperboy from the renegade Council in the holos last year; Frank tensed, ready to run if he had to, but all that happened was that the announcer opened up their gate and everyone started shuffling forward to board.
It wasn't until the airlock iris hissed closed, the ship's protective shielding cutting Frank off from the world they were leaving, that the last stubborn thread of hope was finally snuffed out.