“No, no, no,” Dan Vindico panicked again as he and Fionna walked back in from the sidewalk outside their Arlington, VA home. They’d just waved good-bye to their precious baby girl as she climbed onto the school bus for the very first time. “No more tears. I can’t leave you like this.” He wrapped his arms around his wife as best as he was able. Her bulging belly, which contained their next addition, prevented him from embracing her fully.
“Someone is going to be mean to her. Because kids are mean and….” Her beautiful sienna eyes filled with another round of tears. “…And you’re going to be with hot academy girls all day long, and I’m just here and… fat.”
“Fi,” Dan willed patience. “Listen to me, please, baby. You are beautiful, the most beautiful woman in the world, and this,” he rubbed his hands tenderly over her swell, “this is my precious baby girl. This is not fat. And if someone is mean to Aida I will personally make certain that Iodex haunts their parents with parking and speeding tickets constantly.” That earned him a small grin.
“Hot girls are still going to be hitting on you all day long.” Her tone bordered on pouting. Given the fact that she was seven and a half months pregnant and that their life had changed rather dramatically in the last year, Dan didn’t really mind.
“No one is going to hit on me. First of all, the entire Realm knows I married Fionna Styler the hottest, sweetest, most perfect woman in the universe, so why even try, and secondly you are my whole entire world. No one will ever, ever turn my head because you’re it, sweetheart. You are all I’ll ever want and all I’ll ever need. Without you, I am nothing.” That did it. She swooned and seemed to draw resolve from the air around her. “Now, I do have to go to work.” He braced, not certain how she would respond.
“Okay,” she smirked, “but when you get home and we put Aida to bed, we get to play Mentor and teacher’s pet, right?” Her rapidly changing moods often made him a little woozy, but her sweet giggle let Dan know that she was definitely coming around.
“Hell yeah.” He let the fantasy flash through his mind. “All day, I’ll be thinking of ways you could earn extra credit.” He waggled his eyebrows, delighting his wife.
“And you’ll text me between your classes, and you’ll fail any girl that flirts with you.”
Dan noted that it was more of an order. “Yes and yes.” He would certainly text and call her as often as he could, but he couldn’t fathom being flirted with by students at Venton Academy.
First of all, he was extremely happily married to a phenomenally beautiful woman, a fact that the entire Gifted Realm was well aware of as he had married famed Angels Receiver Fionna Styler, and he was the former chief of Elite Iodex, most highly trained, dangerous, vicious, peace-keeping police force in the Realm. Their engagement, marriage, adoption, and pregnancy had been analyzed, scrutinized, and discussed ad nauseum in every Gifted paper. Secondly, he was thirty-three, so by academy student standards, he was ancient.
Grabbing his laptop case and the lunch Fionna had packed for him, Dan pulled her close. “I love you, Maylea.” He kissed her heatedly. Though Fionna was her given name, Maylea was the name her mother had called her from the time of her second birthday. It reflected her Hawaiian heritage, and Maylea described Fionna perfectly.
His wildflower, with her light that illuminated the darkest of places, her warmth, her gentility, her class and femininity, her wit and understanding, her grace and dignity, and there in her depths, that part of her that was just a little bit wild. The part that Dan would eat his way through fire to consume, the part that coursed so copiously through her veins, the part she granted no one else access to save him. He wished their baby girl hadn’t robbed her of just a little of her confidence because looking at her swollen full and ripe with his baby drove him mad with need. Nothing else would ever compare. She was it. He was sold, no going back.
“You’re sure you don’t want to come for lunch today?”
“I’m still trying to get everything unpacked from Kauai, and I’ve got to get started on Halia’s bedding. In another week or two I’m not going to be able to get close enough to my sewing machine to sew. I’ll come tomorrow.”
“Whenever you want, baby doll. You know where I’ll be.”
Fionna laid her head on his chest. “I’ll miss you.”
“Me too.” He tried not to see the clock over the ovens as he planted a kiss on the top of her head.
“I’ll be okay. I’m just… you know… pregnant… and sensitive because I’m a Receiver, and I’m crazy, and everyone’s leaving me.”
“You are not crazy and I am not leaving you. I’m just going to work. I’ll be back before Aida gets home, and we’ll spend the whole evening together, okay?” Halia moved against his own stomach, making Dan smile. “She knows you’re upset.”
Fionna drew a deep breath and ran her hands over her belly again. “I’m all right, or I’ll be all right. I just need to get it together. Pregnancy is making me insane.”
“I’ll be back as soon as my last class leaves.” He kissed her again and rushed out the door.
Racking his brain trying to think of any way to make this easier for his extremely hormonal wife, Dan knew why she was feeling abandoned. They’d spent every moment of the summer together. Working her family’s farm in Kauai in the mornings, napping together on the swinging bed on the screened in porch of their cottage on lazy afternoons, and spending hours on end with Aida inhaling the contentment of family as if their lives depended on it. Dan was fairly certain they did.
They’d prepared delicious food and visited the stunning shorelines of the island with their precious little girl. It had been a heavenly paradise, one they’d desperately needed to heal after everything the last year had held for their family. The idyllic serenity their sanctuary had offered them had steadied his growing family, and there was nothing more he could’ve asked for.
The customary smile spread across his chiseled face as the metallic roar of the engine of his Ferrari fed his soul. He let images of Fionna sound asleep, naked in his arms on the suspended outdoor bed under their quilts calm his mind. Her curves swollen against his skin. His saving grace in his arms. But now it was time to get back to reality. Jobs, kids, school, family; he sighed just thinking about it, but life was here to be lived and he’d spent enough of his merely existing.
He’d missed his Ferrari almost as much as he’d missed his Agusta F4 motorcycle. The day after they’d returned, he’d gone for a long drive on his bike.
At one time, he’d used the Agusta as a message to the world that he wanted to be left the hell alone. Now, he drove the Agusta simply to feel the raw power and enjoy the wind coursing through him as the world flew past.
He lamented the forty-five-minute drive to Venton Gifted Academy almost as much as he regretted taking this damned job in the first place. When he’d purchased his home, he’d done so because it was a ten-minute drive to the Senate, located in the top floor of the Pentagon building.
When he was Chief of Iodex, he’d wanted to be able to get to the office in record time. Each marked second was the difference between catching the bad guy and him getting away. Life and death hung in the balance. Before he’d met and fallen in love with Fionna, he’d rarely left his office.
He’d taken the job at Venton, his alma mater, because he’d felt he owed the Gifted Realm something. It was a job he was beyond certain he was going to hate. He was a cop. He was born to be a cop. He would always be a cop. A slight shudder worked through his ample musculature. What if he lost his skills? What if he rotted away locked up in a godforsaken school?
He should be in prison, he reminded himself. This self-imposed sentence had to be better than jail, right?
While reviewing his schedule in his mind and recalling all of the things he needed to tell the five classes he’d be teaching, his cell rang. Smiling broadly, he brought it to his ear. “Hey, sweetness, you okay?”
Fionna had never been overly clingy before. He was concerned that she was calling so soon after he left.
“Yeah, I’m okay.” Just the sound of her voice had his heart beating disjointedly for a moment. “I broke down and made more of my coffee. I hope Halia doesn’t mind, but Mommy needed more vanilla macadamia nut coffee this morning.”
Dan grinned. “I don’t think our baby girl will mind.”
“Your mother called right after you left.”
With a defeated sigh, he rolled his eyes. “And what did Marion want?”
“She wanted to remind me that this Sunday is Grandparent’s Day.” Fionna was trying not to giggle.
“There’s a Grandparent’s Day?”
“Apparently, there is. Anyway, she wanted to make certain that we would be celebrating her on her special day.”
“Oh, I’m sure she did.”
“She wanted everyone to go over to their house for dinner.” Fionna went on, enjoying whatever was coming next.
Delighted that she sounded so much more like herself, Dan found himself longing for her to keep talking, no matter what she was going to say. “Great,” he sighed. His mother was the worst cook in the Gifted Realm.
“Listen to me, because I saved your butt, Mentor Vindico.”
“I told her since it is in fact Grandparent’s Day I really thought she and the Governor should come over here, and I’ll cook, you know, because I don’t want her to put herself out on a day designated just for her.”
“You are such a hot sexy devious little vixen.” He let the lust and love he felt for his wife spill heavily into his tone.
“Aww,” she cooed, “you say the sweetest things.”
“I love you so much, Fi.”
“I love you, too. Good luck today. I have a weird feeling.”
“Weird how?” A low-level sense of panic churned in his gut. His wife’s feelings weren’t flippant notions of what might be coming. She was the most powerful Receiver in the Realm. She could feel the emotional energy of everything and everyone around her. Despite what anyone else might believe, Dan knew emotion drove the future. Rebellions were built on hope. Lust and power propagated wars. Fear was the root of all prejudice. Greed sanctioned theft. And love healed the damned. Emotion drove everything, the gravity that cemented the web of nature and humanity. If she felt odd, something was up.
“I’m not sure exactly. I’m not on campus so I’m struggling to get a clear read. Maybe when I’m there tomorrow I can pinpoint what’s wrong. You’re not in danger, obviously, or I wouldn’t have let you go. But something is wrong and there are people in danger, Dan. There’s deception over the whole campus. Be careful.”
“I will. I promise. I’ll call you after my first class. Take it easy for me today.”
“Halia and I are fine. We have lots to do.”
“Love you, baby doll.”
“Love you, too.”
Turning down Venton Drive, Dan let the memories wash over him. How many times had he driven this very road? Every weekday for six years. Venton Academy had been the backdrop of his youth. It had also helped chisel the chip on his shoulder he’d worn for years. The one that had been summarily knocked off when Amelia had been kidnapped and he hadn’t been able to rescue her.
The apple trees that lined the street reached out their branches as if to snare him inside the academy grounds. Caught somewhere between the lush green of summer and the golden hues of fall they seemed just as confused about their current state as Dan felt.
Consciously remembering to drive past the administration buildings and upperclassman dormitories, on the expansive campus, to access the faculty parking lot instead of turning into the student lot, Dan willed this day to go by quickly. This day, the next, the one after that, and the whole damned year. June first he would see all his girls back in Kauai for another summer of restoration.
“Mentor Vindico,” chirped from somewhere nearby as soon as Dan exited his car. He raised his eyebrows and tried to get used to answering to that title. He’d been Officer Vindico for many, many years.
“I’m Aaron Fitzpatrick.” An eager looking young man rushed towards him.
“Hi, Aaron.” He offered a slight smile to the young man who was grinning at him rather stupidly.
“I’m in your third period Defense of the Realm class on Mondays and Wednesdays. I’m in Ioses order.”
“Great.” Dan summoned his brilliant green energy shield with his hand. The orb of energy grew in size as he drew from the air around him.
Aaron’s mouth hung open as he stared at the fiercely pulsing orb. “What … are you doing?”
Chuckling, Dan gestured his head to the Ferrari. “Making certain that no one touches my car.”
“Oh… right.” Aaron looked relieved. “I’ll walk in with you.” he informed as Dan released the shield cast onto his car. The black car gave a brilliant green glow as it absorbed the energy.
Wishing that the kid would back off, Dan reminded himself that he was supposed to help guide the students into adulthood and set an example, especially for the members of Ioses Order.
“Sure… I guess. I’m heading to my office.”
With a nod to his own defeat, Dan led the way.
“My dad says you’re this amazing hero that took down Wretchkinsides and the Interfeci and everything, and that you were gonna be a great mentor. But my mom said she didn’t really think they should have made you a mentor because she says you summoned black to kill Wretchkinsides. She’s a Receiver, so, you know, she’s sensitive about everything all the time.”
A round of self-hatred roiled through Dan’s musculature. His fatal mistake. One of the many things he could never take back. The reminder that he would forever carry a fragment of energy from the man who’d killed Amelia, his childhood girlfriend, no matter how hard he fought the blackness. It had marred his soul. And he was damned to carry it until he drew his final breath.
Aaron continued, “But then my aunt said that it didn’t matter how you’d ended Wretchkinsides, that you shouldn’t be a mentor because you knocked up Fionna Styler before you were married and that you weren’t a good example.”
Dan felt his jaw clench tightly. That was the most revolting part about having every fucking detail of your life laid out for the entire Realm to see via every available Gifted tabloid.
He and Fionna’s pain was marginalized into eye-catching, click-baited headlines, full of half-truths and outright lies. This one in particular was the truth, no matter how much emotion had been vacuumed from the black print on white paper. She had been pregnant with their first child and she’d lost the baby because of him. Yet another thing Wretchkinsides had taken from him. Yet another thing he would never forgive.
“But my friends and I are all stoked that we’re in your classes. Are you gonna tell us how you ended him?”
Dan valiantly fought the images resurfacing in his head of staring into the black soulless abyss of Dominic Wretchkinsides’ eyes as he’d pulled the life force from his body. “We won’t be going over that.”
“Oh.” Disappointment broadcast from Aaron’s face. “Well, my sister is in your History of Defense class. She’s just a freshman, though. I’m a Junior. Anyway, she’s all, ‘I hate Mentor Vindico because he forced Fionna Styler out of Summation and made her have him another baby.’”
Rage rocketed up Dan’s spine. “I did not force my wife out of Summation.”
“Right, I know. My sister’s an idiot. I figure they’re all wrong anyway. I’m pretty sure I know why they hired you. I mean, why else would they hire the former Chief of Elite Iodex to be a teacher? Seems weird, right?”
Never one to resist calling a spade a spade and more than done with this conversation, Dan’s jaw unhinged. “They hired me because I’m the best damn cop there ever was or ever will be. Past, present, and future. Training under me will create better-educated, highly skilled officers, which is precisely what this Realm needs.”
Aaron’s smirk only served to rub salt in the fresh wounds of being fired and having to take this job in the first place. “Yeah, I figured you were the shit, or at least you think you are. Here’s the thing, though, I don’t think that’s why they hired you. I figure they hired you to clean up all of the stuff that’s been going on here at the Academy. No offense or anything, but with your past, what else could they possibly want you to do here? You’re the man, right? If anyone can clean up Venton, it’s gotta be you.”
“I’ll see you in class, Aaron.” Dan had never been so thankful to see his office door at the other end of the corridor. He had no idea what Aaron had been prattling on about. Why in God’s name would the school governing board want to hire him if not to train better officers? Mentor Sullivan, the teacher who’d trained Dan, had insisted that the school needed him to take this job, but he knew he’d only been trying to help Dan get back on his feet after all the hell he and Fionna had been through.
“Yeah, I can’t wait, and if you need anything or you need help at the order meetings, I’m your man.”
“Great. I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Hey, did you hear about the …?”
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Aaron.”
With a half-hearted wave, Dan edged towards his office door. When his left shoulder gave its customary twitch that said something was off, Fionna’s warning coupled with Aaron’s prediction on his hiring. ‘If anyone can clean up Venton, it’s gotta be you, right?’