Fractured Worlds by Amanda Booloodian
No phone, no gun, not even a hint of a coffee shop. What’s a girl to do?
My breath rushed in and out of my lungs at a frantic pace. One foot in front of the other, moving forward, not looking back.
Not being allowed to do my job unnerved me. My partners didn't need me at the time, but they would. The thing was, when they needed me, they weren’t going to be able to call me up and say, 'Hey, come help us out.' It didn't work like that. Being an agent at the Agency for Interdimensional Regulation means that when you need help, it's generally right now or not at all.
A heavy, pounding cadence punched into the ground with each footfall.
When I went back to work, I wanted to be at my best. Mentally, physically, and with my powers reined in.
I wasn't sure all that was possible, but I was damned well going to try. The sun glittered through the canopy of leaves, hinting at a happy day. The truth was I was lonely.
Well, as alone as you can get at the Sanctuary. Travis was around the entrance somewhere. He had waved me through with little in the way of small talk. The fairies lived on the other side of the park. I knew someone was living in the lake, but I had no idea who it might be. My first guess would be mermaids, but they tended to prefer warmer waters. It was nice and warm, but if you give it a few months, the lake will drop along with the rest of the temperatures in the Midwest.
What was missing out here were my friends, mainly Rider. He and I used to go hiking, but he hadn't had much to do with me in a while.
As for my other partners, I don't think Logan runs unless it's toward something. Elves rarely work out as a sport or even as a way to keep in shape. It's not a rule, but in general, if they are rushing around, there's a reason for it. I'm fairly certain Vincent runs, but I doubt he would let me join him now. He'd been keeping his distance, trying to avoid upsetting Ethan.
Not that it mattered much, because they were all at work.
Picking up the pace, I felt the sweat trickle down the small of my back. Ethan would run with me. Being ex-military and as the current Lieutenant Detective of the local police force, it's possible that my boyfriend did exercise to keep in shape. Although, he'd also been avoiding me lately for all the same reasons that concerned Vincent.
Not telling him Vincent had a part of my soul might have been a mistake, but how did one normally broach that kind of thing with a man you were seeing. 'By the way, my partner stole my soul, and even though I got it back, he ended up keeping a piece.' It's not something that rolls off the tongue, and it's certainly not a topic for date night.
It's possible that I was making another mistake by not telling him I had a small part of Vincent's soul as well, but I had an excuse ready there. It's never been proven.
No one's seen it, and if they could, they'd have seen the host of other soul fragments running through my system and they wouldn't know if it belonged to Vincent or not.
I know it's there.
It's an excuse, not a good one, but I could use it if needed. Not that it's something that would slip out. He'd need regular contact with me in order for something like that to come up.
It didn't help that he was at work as well.
With no one with me, it was tempting to stay at home. I had plans with Ethan tonight though, which meant no Krav class. That was the only thing that forced me out the door.
My breath turned ragged, so I slowed my pace, first to a jog, then to a walk. I had abused my body enough for the afternoon. The parking lot came into view as I rounded the bend.
Between all the self-defense and running, physically, I was ready to return to work. My body was in better shape than it had ever been in my life.
Mentally, I was fine. The agency had their rules, though. Rider and Vincent had been cleared to return, and Logan had never been stood down. As the last straggler, it was my turn to get approval. Hopefully, tomorrow I'd be cleared. Rider had almost died, which seemed way more traumatizing than being kidnapped, right?
Blowing out a huff of air, I took a few moments to stretch. The crunch of tires on gravel announced someone driving down the winding entrance road to the Sanctuary. It must be agents or someone with high clearance.
Or the Lost. Most mythological creatures had permission to use the Sanctuary.
Unfortunately, I was sweating profusely and wearing clothes for running, not for work.
Seeing the large SWAT-style vehicle made my stomach twist. Speak of the devils and they shall arrive.
Vincent parked the truck. When he got out, I saw his face, which to most would look expressionless. It showed me hints of anxiety, but a smile hid in there somewhere.
Waving, I forced a cheerful attitude. Rider hung back, which was sad, but it was not completely unexpected, while Vincent closed the gap between us.
"Hey," I said, trying to hide any apprehension that might slip out.
"It's good to see you." A hint of sincerity in Vincent's voice helped me relax.
It also managed to draw out a real smile. "It's good to see you, too. Both of you." I raised my voice slightly for the second statement, but with werewolf hearing, Rider would have been able to hear anyway. "Coming out to check on Essy?"
"Yes, but I wasn't expecting to see you out here," Vincent said.
I shrugged. "It was a nice day to spend in the woods."
"How is everything?" Vincent asked.
"It hasn't been that long since we've seen each other." It had been over a week. It was hard to believe it had been that long. "I’m the same. How about you all, and work? I noticed Logan wasn't with you." I tried not to ask too much at once, but the truth was I wanted to know everything that had been going on.
"Logan had a meeting at the office. Kyrian called him in."
"Sounds like fun." My stomach squeezed tightly wondering if they were discussing my return. Logan would stand up for me, right? "Anything else going on?"
"Nothing," Vincent said. "You could join us, though, to visit Essy."
Glancing over, I saw Rider pointedly look away. "Yeah, I don't think I should." How was it that Rider, who was supposed to be my best friend, could make me feel so unwelcomed?
Vincent noticed the look. "It would give us a chance to talk."
My heart beat faster at that thought, but Rider wanting nothing to do with me, dampened the effect. "Maybe next time. I'm not exactly dressed for work or anything."
Vincent grinned. "I don't think Essy will mind."
Once again, I was struck with Vincent's brighter attitude. From the day I met him, he always seemed closed off. He had kept himself at arm’s length. For the past few weeks, he had been more open. Lighter somehow.
"Rain check," I said, "I've got a few things to take care of."
"If you're sure." Vincent looked back at his partner. "You know, at some point, you two are going to have to get over whatever this is."
"I'd have to know what it is before I can get over it." I really didn't want to be bitter about the situation, but there was no use hiding it. "I should go."
Vincent looked torn, but I didn't give him a chance to say anything else.
"I'll see you... sometime, I guess." I started backing away. "Good to see you, too, Rider," I added loudly, but with no real conviction.
"Yeah, sometime." Vincent spoke so softly I almost missed the words.
Keeping a normal pace back to my car wasn't easy. All in all, the encounter was mixed. Rider still wanted nothing to do with me, but bumping into Vincent was nice.
Seeing him was enough to make my heart beat faster, which naturally led to guilt. When I drove off, I didn't look back. Nothing I could see would make me happy.
My phone started to ring. It was tempting to pull over and dig the phone out of my bag. It could be the office. Instead, I dismissed the idea, knowing I could check it soon. The drive home wasn't long, but when I arrived, I felt grungy enough to want to jump into the shower right away.
"Gran, I'm home," I said, entering the house.
"In the kitchen, darlin'," Gran called out.
The warm air of the kitchen washed over me causing me to sweat again, despite the AC running.
"You've been busy, I see." The counters were filled with cupcakes, mini cakes, and cookies. "Is all this for Logan and the kids? I'm pretty sure this much would even give elves some sort of insulin shock."
"These are goin' all over." Gran slid over a small plate. "Help yourself to a cupcake."
"I should snag another for Ethan. He's supposed to stop by tonight."
Gran looked at me uncomfortably.
"He's not coming over, is he?" I felt deflated.
Gran shook her head. "Not tonight, sorry."
“Did he leave a message, or..." I let the question drop.
"He hasn't called the house."
"You're sure?" I shook my head. "Sorry, that was a silly question." Gran was a psychic, and when she saw the future, that future happened.
"I haven't seen your partners in ages. Maybe you could invite them over for the evenin'," Gran suggested.
"It feels awkward since I'm not working with them. I ran into Vincent and Rider earlier, though. And Logan's here almost every morning." I threw the last part in to deflect any questions about Rider and Vincent.
"Things will get better for you," Gran promised.
"Got a timeline on that?"
"If I get one, you'll be the first to hear. On that note, however, you are going to want to be at work no later than 7 am tomorrow morning."
"Sure, I can do that. Maybe it's a good thing Ethan had to cancel. I can get to sleep early."
Gran went back to packaging up her baked goods. "Make sure you give Frank some attention. I worry about him being cooped up in a cage all the time."
"I opened the cage once and he wasn't really interested in jumping out. I'll make sure he gets around more, though, once I know for sure he won't turn everyone into a zombie or give them some awful disease."
"Poor little thing."
"I could bring him down here where he'll have company more often." I had made the suggestion earlier this week as well.
"We'll see what Dr. Taylor says." Gran didn't meet my eye.
I nodded and picked out a cupcake, purposely choosing one with lots of icing. "I've got to check my messages and take a shower."
"I'll be gone when you get out and I'll miss you in the mornin'," Gran said. "Chin up tomorrow, and make sure you're early."
On the way upstairs, I listened to my voicemail. Both were from Ethan saying he would be working late tonight. Again. Somehow shoving the cupcake into my mouth didn't make the evening any better. It had been worth a try, though.
Have you ever walked into a room and felt everyone's eyes turn to you? The moment I stepped into the control room, I could feel the other agents looking up. Luckily, at seven am the office wasn’t exactly bustling. The nightshift was leaving or had already left and the dayshift was barely pulling themselves out of bed.
There were enough eyes to make a girl uncomfortable, though. For a moment, I thought it might be useful to hide out in my office. Logan and I shared an office in the building, but he always preferred sitting in the control room. There were always empty desks and other people to chat with.
Logan wasn't here, but since we hadn't used the office in ages—not since Vincent had stolen my soul—I stuck it out in the large central room.
Hank, our handler, wasn't in yet, which seemed odd to me. He always got to the office before everyone, except maybe Kyrian.
Instead of settling into a desk and trying to look busy, I went down the hall to find Kyrian, the Director of the Midwest offices. The light was on in her office, so I steeled myself and knocked.
"Come in," Kyrian said.
I took a deep breath, told myself to be confident and pleasant, and opened the door.
"Good morning." It came out much too quickly. It sucked feeling this nervous at work.
Kyrian had glanced up and then back down to the tablet on her desk. "Ms. Heidrich, you're in early today."
"Yeah, I guess so." My tone showed a lack of confidence, but I didn't retrace my steps. "Someone needs to sign off on my return."
"I'm assuming that would be you?" I hadn’t meant to turn that into a question, but it was there.
"Yes and no," Kyrian said.
Not very helpful. "Who should I see first?"
"You've been cleared, but there's paperwork before you get reinstated. Hank will—"
Someone knocked on Kyrian's door and her sigh was audible.
"A moment, please," Kyrian said to me. "Come in," she added louder.
"Good morning, Director." A man had opened the door and stepped in, but he was someone I didn't recognize.
"Good morning." Kyrian's whole attitude changed. She practically glowed. "Agent Heidrich, this is Agent Boone. Agent Boone, this is Agent Heidrich, whom we've discussed."
Ugh, that didn't sound good. "It's nice to meet you." I stuck out my hand, which he shook.
The man bore no hint of a smile, though he didn't appear unpleasant. In fact, I wouldn't mind looking a lot longer, but he did appear serious.
"It's going to be a pleasure working with you," he said. When he stepped back, I noticed he stood with his hands clasped behind his back.
Parade rest. Maybe ex-military. That might explain the muscles.
Wait, working with me? I gave Kyrian a questioning look, but her eyes were mostly on Boone.
"Agent Boone met with Logan yesterday." The chipper voice Kyrian used felt out of place. "He's here on special assignment and will be shadowing your team. Starting today, correct?"
"I'll be meeting with Agent Seale in an hour in town," Boone said.
"Excellent. Agent Heidrich, could you excuse us? I'm sure you'll want to meet with Hank," Kyrian said.
"Sure." The feeling of uncertainty I hadn't expected. "Thank you for your time. Agent Boone, it was nice to meet you."
What the heck was that about? I walked out, trying to shake the bewilderment. Why had no one said anything to me about this?
Back in the control room, I didn't catch sight of Hank, so I went to the break room and made coffee. That, at least, was something I was good at and something I could do while waiting around. Looking busy was almost impossible since I didn't have access to the computer system. Mine had been taken away sometime after my forced extended vacation had started.
Once I had fixed my coffee, stalling long enough to add copious amounts of sugar, I looked for Hank. Once again, I felt eyes move to me, then back to their appointed tasks again. Worse, Hank still wasn't in yet.
Nodding to a few people when I caught their eyes, I made my way out of the room. I'm not sure why Gran thought I should be in early today. Not with everyone staring at me and with nothing to do. My office would be my safe haven until Hank arrived.
Remembering I hadn't left him a note on his desk, I pawed through my purse and found my phone. At first, I thought I'd send him a text, but texts are easy to put off replying to, but calls aren't as easy to dodge, so I dialed Hank.
"Cassie, I'm running a few minutes late this morning, but I've made it through the gates," Hank said.
"Thank goodness. What can I expect for today? Kyrian mentioned we were working with someone. Agent Boone?"
"Yes. We found out about Agent Boone yesterday," Hank said.
Flipping on the lights, I saw swirls of dust rise from the air I had disturbed, but it was nice to be away from prying eyes.
"Boone will be following Logan, Vincent, and Rider today. Tomorrow, some specialists are coming in. Boone will work with them for a while, then he'll be riding along with you and Logan or some variation of the four of you."
I thumbed through the papers on my desk. "Does this have anything to do with me returning to work?" I asked, but I wasn't sure I wanted to hear the answer.
"Actually, he's interested in seeing how your team works. At the moment, you are the only team in the company made up solely of Lost and humans with special abilities. Most of the time the teams lean more heavily to the human side."
Muscles I didn't realize I had clenched started to relax, but my curiosity became piqued. "We're the only ones?"
"It's not unheard of to have teams like yours, but at the moment, you all are the only ones."
A crash sounded down the hall and I jumped. Thankfully, no one was there to see me. Someone dropping something wasn't cause enough for anxiety.
I tried to tell myself that it had been startling, not a case of nerves. Nothing would derail me from starting work again.
"I guess our team kind of fell together more so than it was formed. Are teams like ours usually formed intentionally?"
"From what I understand, that's why Boone's there," Hank said.
Something else clattered in the hallway, so I went to check it out.
"He's human, but he'll be leading a group that's not strictly human," Hank said. "I don't know much more than that."
"Will I be joining the team later today?" I poked my head into the hall and didn't see anything, but I walked in the direction the noise had come from.
"Today, there is paperwork," Hank said. "Electronically speaking."
A few offices had doors open in the hallway, but I noticed none of them were occupied as I walked by.
"I'm at the building," Hank said.
"I'm in my office."
Hank hesitated. "Everything okay?"
I shrugged, but then remembered he couldn't see me over the phone. "People seem uncomfortable."
Hank didn't say anything right away. Seeing no one around, I moved to go back to my office.
"Things will settle down quickly," Hank said. "No one's sure what to say."
‘Hi,’ or ‘welcome back’ would have been a start. "So they pass the awkwardness around?"
Two doors down from my office, I stopped. The door was shut, but something dark oozed out from under it. I knocked on the door.
"Something like that," Hank said. "Lucky for you, the looks stop after a day or so."
"Um, do we have any new Lost around?" Thick, dark liquid spread out into the hallway. With no answer, my heart began to beat faster, and I knocked again.
"No one new. I'm here; I'll meet you at your office."
"Wait, do we have anyone or anything around that oozes?"
"That's a heck of a question," Hank chuckled. "Nothing on record that oozes is in the area. Not for almost a year now."
"Crap. You might want to hurry." I tried to open the door, but it was locked. Pounding on the door only made my hands hurt. "Everything okay in there?" I called.
"What's going on?" Hank's voice turned serious faster than a gnome runs.
"Not sure, but something’s coming out from under the door, and it doesn't look like water."