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Angel

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            Captain Ryland Miller signaled to the rest of his crew, indicating that it was safe to proceed. Sam, Nico, Gator, he called, using their telepathic link. Something’s up, this doesn’t feel right. Their lead had come from an anonymous source, informing them of a fellow Ghostwalker held captive in the remote forests of northern Minnesota, near the border of Canada.

            The Ghostwalkers are a group of genetically enhanced soldiers, coming from all areas and backgrounds, engineered by an insane but intelligent scientist, Peter Whitney. He gathered men from every branch of the military, had them tested for psychic abilities, and experimenting on those who passed, strengthening their mental and physical traits in order to make them into super soldiers. They could communicate telepathically with each other, and each soldier had his own unique abilities. On the downside, most of these men could not function on their own around other people, the overload on their brains threatening their lives. With the help of Whitney’s daughter, Lily, who is also a Ghostwalker, Ryland and the rest of his team escaped Dr. Whitney’s control and banded together, watching each other’s backs and continuing to serve their country while learning to control the powers granted to them.

            This mission, though, had Ryland on edge. The report contained no information about the target, not who they were, nor their abilities. To Ryland, it smelled like a trap through and through, but his wife, now Lily Whitney-Miller, whom he loved and trusted with all his heart, had begged him to check things out. If there was the smallest chance that they could save even one person, then that was good enough. Now he had brought his team into the northern Minnesota wilderness with no idea of what they were going to face. His suspicions only rose when they had arrived at the coordinates to find an old military base, recently abandoned. No guards at the gate, no watchmen in the towers, no sign of life anywhere. It wasn’t until they made their way into the compound that they found the bodies.

            “Well,” commented Nicolas Trevane, Ryland’s second in command, “we found the guards. And it looks like a professional hit. Whoever did this came in and finished them off quick. Didn’t bother to clean up, though.” The bodies were strewn all around, left in the dirt where they fell.

            Ryland continued to scan the area for a moment. “They were looking for something and they knew where to find it. The guards were just in the way, they weren’t important.” He signaled for them to move on, towards the rear of the grounds, where the amount of corpses increased significantly. They checked every building, moving swiftly and quietly even though there was no one there to hear them. The back of the compound opened into the forest, and they continued on the dirt road leading out of it, until they could no longer see the buildings behind them.

            “Face it, Ry,” Sam Johnson said, stopping, his expression exasperated, “whatever was so important isn’t here anymore. The buildings and warehouses were all empty and everyone is dead. Let’s get out of here.” The sun was starting to lower, signifying early evening. They had a set time limit, and were running out of time before they would miss their scheduled pick up. “We knew this mission was a bust when we first got it.”

             Ryland stayed quiet, assessing the situation. He turned to Raul “Gator” Fontenot, who was born and bred in the bayous of New Orleans. Ryland trusted Gator’s instincts absolutely. “So what do you think, Gator? Turn back or keep moving forward?”

            After a thoughtful pause, Gator looked his captain. “I think there’s more to this, sir. I say keep moving.”

            “Then, that settles it. We keep going, no more rebuttals from any of you. We came here looking for a Ghostwalker, and we’re not leaving until we find out what happened to him.” Silence was his answer and the men nodded, unwilling to challenge a direct order from their leader. Again, they set off, with Gator in the lead, and the others trailing behind. It went on like this until the sun was just above the trees, and Gator held up his hand for them to halt. He waved Ryland to the front. “What do you think, boss?”

            Slightly hidden by the forestry was a cabin, surprisingly normal looking, completely different from the military complex just a mile or two up the road. The door was broken off the hinges, the windows were dark, and there was no sound coming from within. At once, the unit switched to defense mode, spreading out to check their surroundings for the enemy. Tell me what you guys find, Ryland said to his team, using the link between their minds. He didn’t want to risk anyone overhearing.

            I got nothing, said Nico.

            Same, from Gator.

            We’re all good here, Sam said. Who’s heading inside first?

            I’ll go in first, Ryland replied. Nico, back me up. Gator, go through the back and find a way in. Sam, you keep watch out here. If someone is still alive in there and manages to get past us, stop them.

            Gotcha, cap, came Sam’s reply. Everyone had their orders and it was time to wrap this up. Ryland cautiously stepped up to the porch, noting the pieces of broken door lying on the floor just beyond the threshold and the chaotic mess in the front room. Another ability Ghostwalkers had was being able to “scan” an area using their minds without having to physically see it. They used it to sense opponents and others like them. Ryland felt nothing. There was no feedback whatsoever. He knew that Nico noticed as well.

            He walked into the cabin, gun drawn, eyes adjusting to the dark as the sun continued to set. He slowly took in the front room, his gaze immediately drawn to the trail of blood leading from the middle of the room a hallway leading elsewhere. The blood was smeared as if something was dragged through it. Silently, he crept up to the hallway, knowing Nico was at his back, and stepped through the doorway. The trail of blood ended at the bottom of the stairs at the end of the hall. The body was facedown, multiple bullet wounds staining the white lab coat red. As Ryland got closer, he saw that there were also stab wounds and burns on the body.

            Looks like this guy was tortured. They tortured him in the front room and then dragged him over here. Why? Ryland contemplated.

            He must have been in charge, or at least knew something that the assassins wanted, said Gator.

            Maybe, but it looks like they ransacked the house, Nico replied, looking around at the mess, perhaps there’s a chance they didn’t find what they were looking for.

            That means there’s a chance that it’s still here.

            A noise in the hallway brought Ryland and Nico to attention. They trained their guns in the direction of the sound, which was the wall on the side of the staircase. They heard the noise again, a thump. They moved slowly towards wall, Nico silently summoning their companions from outside and Ryland leaning in for a closer look. His face was nearly against the wall before he noticed a door. It blended in to the rest of the wall, hiding in plain sight. Before he could relay his newfound discovery to his team, the door flew open and a dark figure slammed into Ryland, knocking him back into Nico. Both of them lost their footing and fell to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs, and the figure climbed over them and darted up the stairs. Sam and Gator ran into the hallway and paused only long enough to take in the situation before silently heading up the steps. The steps led to the second floor, which was only a large room, like an attic. Gator and Sam both scanned the room, being able to see clearly in the dark. They moved tentatively, looking this way and that for their captain’s assailant.

            Gator sighed. There’s nothing here. Are you sure you weren’t imagining things, Cap?

            I didn’t imagine someone plowing into me like a truck, Gator. I’m not that old.

            Gator laughed, and started to turn away, when he saw Sam’s gaze flicker upward, his mouth open to shout a warning. He braced himself and felt something heavy land on his back, biting his shoulder and forcing him to the floor. He pushed up on his hands and turned, shaking whatever had attacked him off his back. It landed on the floor with a cry and quickly scurried away to hide inside a small cubby near the corner of the large room. 

            Ryland and Nico rushed up the stairs to join Sam, all of their guns pointing at the corner of the room. Gator remained crouched on the floor, a knife in his hand. He crept closer to the cubby.

            Watch yourself, Gator, Ryland called warily. Lily will have my head if you get eaten or something.

            Gator smiled at the reference to his captain’s stern wife, but quickly snapped his attention back to the matter at hand as he took another step, his knife raised above his head. He heard whimpering and he stopped, peering closely at the figure before him. Guys, come take a look at this.

            The others came forward, stopping as Gator had once they got close enough. All they saw was a long tangled mop of curly black hair.

            What in the world….what is it? Sam asked.

            Not it, Gator corrected, a grin breaking out on his face. Her.

            Her head popped up, and she sniffed around, then proceeded to back against the wall, crying softly. It was a young girl, mid-teens, with brown skin. Gator dropped to one knee and pocketed his knife. “Hey there,” he cooed, “we’re not going to hurt you, little missy. We didn’t know you were up here.” The girl continued to cry and back away, not giving any indication that she understood him. He shot a look at Ryland.

            Ryland knelt down beside him and focused on the girl’s face. Something about it was odd, but he couldn’t tell what. She was facing their direction, but not really looking at them. He went into one of his pockets and pulled out a flashlight, turning it on the girl. The light shined on her face, but she didn’t react at all. Again, Ryland studied her, and revelation dawned. Her eyes were gray and foggy. This girl is blind, he informed his team, making sure to keep telepathic contact as to not frighten the girl more.

            What the hell is a blind girl doing in this place? Nico asked.

            I think I might know, Ryland said. He tried to reach out for the girl’s mind with his, but every time was stopped abruptly. There are powerful shields in her mind.    

            Do you think that she’s—?

            Maybe. It’s the only thing that makes sense right now.

            While, they held their silent conversation, Gator noticed that the girl had grown quiet. She was facing them, her eyes unseeing, her head slightly cocked to one side. He knew she was listening to them, their breathing and their heartbeats. He had read that when one loses one sense, the others become more profound. Suddenly, she lunged straight out in front of her, faster than they could see, and again landing on Gator, and pushing onto his back, clawing at the front of his jacket. Ryland jumped to his feet and reached to pull her off, when she leapt to the side and hurried to the other side of the room. There, she curled into a ball, and paid no more attention to them, instead focused on something in her hands.      

            Ryland helped Gator to his feet, and was surprised when he heard him chuckling. “What’s so funny, soldier?” he demanded. Nico and Sam still had their guns trained on the girl, unsure of what to do. “She could have ripped your face off, and then what would I have told my wife? You got offed by a blind teenager?”

            “Aw, Ry, she’s not dangerous. She’s just hungry. I thought she was trying to claw at my chest, but she wanted the protein bar I keep in my front pocket.” That made him laugh harder. The others relaxed their stances a bit, but kept an eye on her.

            “I guess that makes sense,” Ryland agreed reluctantly. “Who knows how long she’s been here. Those bodies have been there a few days at least.” He stared at her as she noisily munched on the bar.

            “So what do we do, chief?” Sam asked. “Do we take her with us?”

            “I don’t know. I want to check out the basement. She was locked in there this whole time before we got to her.” He turned his head as he sensed movement. She turned around and sniffed the air again, then stood up and took some unsteady steps, hands reaching out blindly in front of her.

            Gator caught her arms. “Hello again, beautiful. I knew you’d be back. They always come back.” She ignored him, pulling her arm from his grip and patting the front of his jacket, intent on finding more food. They heard a low growl coming from her stomach.

            “Alright, alright.” Gator reached into another pocket and handed her the bar he came up with. She took it and sat down at his feet and began to devour it. “You know, little missy, most ladies would be feelin’ me up for something other than a protein bar. My pride is bruised, I hope you understand.” There was no reply. Think she’s deaf as well?

            Doubt it. Nico said. She had to have heard us coming up here. That’s how she got you off guard by hiding in the rafters. She waited until she heard you pass under her. Smart little bugger.

            “Nico, come with me. We’ll scout the basement to see if we can get any information about this place, and then we’ll go. Sam and Gator, you stay with her.”  The two of them went back down the stairs to the basement door where the girl had emerged. It was pitch black, with no light from the moon to aid them. Luckily, all Ghostwalkers shared the enhanced eyesight, and it was no problem for them. They made their way carefully down the wooden steps, taking a moment to adjust their eyes. The basement looked like a dirty, old, jail cell. On the floor near the wall was a dingy mattress, stained and ripped in places. There were chains and leather restraints on the floor at one end of the bed, and there were scratch marks and over the stone wall next to the bed. There were also dried blood stains on the mattress, the wall, and the floor. Filthy rags littered the ground, and the stench of human waste was strong. Ryland noticed used and broken needles in the corner of the room.

            “I think we’re good, Nico.”

            “So she was kept down here? This is disgusting.”

            “Yeah. Something’s telling me she’s the one we were looking for, as well as whoever killed everyone in this compound. They must have come here and interrogated that man before they killed him, but somehow they missed the basement.”

            “So you think she’s a Ghostwalker.” Nico made it a statement.

            “Ghostwalker or not, we can’t leave her here. Now let’s go.” They started back upstairs to the second floor. When they got there, they saw Gator and Sam sitting next to the girl. “Can you tell us your name?” Sam was asking. “Can you say anything?” The girl only whimpered and began to retreat.

Sam sighed and stood up. “It’s like she doesn’t understand English.”

            “She might not,” Ryland conceded. “We found her room in the basement. It looks like she’s been captive here for a while. Who knows how long? Maybe all of her life. I’ve never heard Lily or the other women mention one like her. She may have come along after them, no one knows.”

            Their radios crackled, and through the static they heard the voice of another teammate, Ian McGillicuddy, his Irish brogue unmistakable. “Hey…..where are you guys? You alright? We’re waiting at the checkpoint, over.”

            “Yeah, we’re fine,” Ryland replied. “I need you to bring the van to us. We came across a small problem.”

            “Do I even want to know?”

            “I’ll explain when you get here.”

            “Roger that, Captain,” then the radio shut off.

            Ryland sighed. “Okay, now we’ve got to get her to come back with us in the truck. I’m sure Lily will be able to find out more about her once she’s back home.”

            “That sounds like a no-can-do, Ry,” Gator said, shaking his head. “She won’t let any of us near her.”

            “There won’t be a problem if she’s asleep. Give her the sedative. Ian will be here soon.”

            Now it was Gator’s turn to sigh. He didn’t like the idea of using drugs to subdue her, but he saw no other option of moving her without her suspicions of them making her resistant. He put down his pack and searched until he found what he needed, a small syringe and a bottle of sedatives. They had larger needles for larger, rowdier opponents, but he didn’t think it would take much. He didn’t put anymore drugs than necessary into the syringe, and then proceeded to put the rest away.

            The girl crawled over to him, having heard him rummaging through his bag, perhaps in search of more food. As she came up next to him, Gator moved quickly, sticking the syringe into her neck and removing it just as fast. She moaned, swaying from side to side, before falling over. Gator caught her before she hit the ground, and picked her up.

            “See?” Ryland asked. “Much simpler. Let’s go wait outside.”

            They filed out behind Ryland, Gator with the girl holding up the rear. A few minutes later, a military truck came down the road, picking up dust behind it. It was dirty and beat up, having seen its share of battles and shoot outs, but it still did its job. It pulled up in front of the cabin, and a bronze haired man leaned across the passenger seat and grinned out the window. “Well, what do we have here? You guys rescued a damsel in distress?”

            Ryland climbed up into the front seat and motioned the others to get in the back.

            “Seriously, Ryland, who is that?”

            “We’re not sure, but we’re taking her back to Lily. Maybe she can find out.”

            “Is she the Ghostwalker? She’s a little young.”

            “Possibly, but we don’t know for sure.”

            “But—“

            “Just drive, Ian”

            Ian pinned his captain with a hard look, but didn’t say another word as he started the engine and turned to truck around. They drove back up the road and through the campgrounds without a sound. In the back, Gator and the others jostled around with the movements of the truck. Gator sat with the girl curled up in his arms like a child. Nico was focused on her face, trying to work his way into her mind. He moved carefully, scanning along the surface, looking for the smallest cracks in the walls that he could slip through. After some time, she stirred, making an agitated sound and fidgeting against Gator.

            Back off, Nico, Sam warned. She knows you’re there.

            Nico pulled back, and waited for her to settle down and let the sedative take her back under. I was close that time. Now I know where to look. Carefully, he went back in, picking up where he left off. He blocked out every sound, only concentrating on finding that path that would lead him into her mind. Then, he felt it. The faintest brush of awareness. He didn’t have any time to warn his friends when the girl let out a piercing scream. She struggled in Gator’s arms, still screaming, limbs flailing. Her fist connected with his jaw with a solid crack.

            “Sorry, girlie,” Gator said through gritted teeth, “I’ve taken worse punches. It’ll take a lot more than that to knock me out.”

            The truck braked hard, sliding to a stop. What the hell are you guys doing back there?! Ryland demanded.

            Nico did it, Sam didn’t hesitate to offer in reply.

            The sedative didn’t keep her under, Nico retorted. Not my fault.

            No, it’s just your fault that you were snooping in her head and alerted her to your presence.

            If she was a Ghostwalker, her metabolism would’ve burned off that small amount of drugs Gator gave her in no time.

            I don’t care! Ryland interrupted. Give her a higher dose this time. Just stop that screaming! I don’t want anyone in the area alerted to our presence.

            “In my bag,” Gator said. He managed to wrestle to girl down and pin her to the floor of the truck. She continued to scream, much like a captive animal, fighting Gator’s hold on her in a vain attempt to free herself. Sam rummaged through Gator’s bag until he found what he needed. He took out the larger syringe and filled it with the serum. He waited until the others had restrained her to reached over and pull up the back of her shirt. “Sorry, kid,” he muttered, and stuck the needle into her back. She cried out, an utter sound of defeat that echoed through the forest. As silence fell, Rylan motioned to Ian to resume driving.

Chapter Text

            “So, what now, Lily?” Ryland asked his wife.

            “I don’t know, Ryland,” she replied, exhausted. “She seems okay when I’m in the room with her, but there are still limits to what I can do. If I try to touch her she screams and lashes out, and God forbid we try to send anyone else in there again. I can’t get any tests done, and I don’t want you doping her up for a second time. She already doesn’t trust you.”

            Ryland and his team had returned two weeks prior, and since then, had made little progress from what Lily had told them. The girl was being kept in the lower levels of Ryland and Lily’s home, a secluded estate left to Lily by her father on the outskirts of San Francisco. Every day, she spent hours sitting in the girl’s room, in silence, while the girl meandered around her or ate the food prepared for her. It was surprisingly calming for Lily, who usually was bustling around with research or helping Ryland and his team obtain intel for their missions. It was a very fast-paced life for the wife of a top secret military super team. Not that she was complaining. She was used to a fast pace—even enjoyed it—but this strange girl brought with her an atmosphere of simplicity, like a child, yet at the same time, seemed very attentive to her surroundings. She never did anything when Ryland or any of the others were around, as if she knew when someone was in the other room observing her through the soundproof window. Other times, when they were truly alone, she would play with one of the toys in the room as Lily looked on. Once, she almost brushed by Lily, but snatched her arm away at the last second. Touch seemed to be one of the things the girl actively avoided.

            Lily now stood at the observation window and watched the girl fumble and feel her way around the room for what felt like the thousandth time. She noted how the girl ran her hands experimentally over almost everything in the room, but always avoided the lamp on a stand by the bed, almost instinctively. Before she could process that thought any further, someone spoke up.

            “Do we have to keep her caged up like an animal?” Gator grumbled. “We’re basically doing the same thing those other guys did to her. It ain’t right.” Gator worried about the girl, and still felt a bit guilty for tranquilizing her. He had been against the idea of putting her in the lab room from the beginning.

            Lily put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s for her protection. She’s blind, Gator, let me remind you, and she’s in a strange environment. There’s not much she can hurt herself with in that room. And it’s temporary. You know that. I just need to know more about her before we let her out. Plus, she has physic ability, you all felt it. It’s a bad combination and I’m trying to make the best out of a weird situation. Trust me, please.”

            Gator groaned. Whenever their captain’s wife used that tone and had that sad puppy look in her eyes, they all bent to her will. It almost made them forget that she is her father’s daughter; a cunning genius. “Fine, Lily, but what else can we do?” The rest of the team had gathered in the room.

            “Yeah,” Nico piped up from the corner of the room. “We’ve tried everything. Even Dahlia couldn’t get her to calm down.” Dahlia was his wife, and one of Lily’s “sisters” from when Dr. Whitney had imprisoned them as children and performed physic experiments on them and other girls.

            “Well, based on what you told me you saw in the room you found her in, it could be that drugs were given to her and that’s why she’s acting out. I can’t be sure since I can’t get a blood sample, but maybe she’s just detoxing. Who knows what she went through in that house?  I’m making progress with her, I know it.”

            “I think Gator’s right,” Sam said. “I think she’s just scared because some strangers took her from one prison and put her in another, however more pampered the prison may be.”

            “What do you want me to do then?” She snapped, tired of their continuous back and forth exchange. “Just open the door and let her roam through the house unattended? What if she hurts herself?”

            Ryland recognized that hitch in Lily’s voice. “You’re getting attached to her already, Lil. She’s only been here a couple weeks.”

            Lily whirled around to glare at him. “So what? This fragile trust that she’s given me probably means a lot to her, and I don’t want to mess this up and send her into some traumatic relapse. Just give me some more time.” She forcefully punched a combination into the keypad by the window and a door slid opened. She entered the room and the door shut behind her with quiet hissing sound. Ryland motioned for the others to head upstairs.

            The girl jumped up from her position by the window and launched herself across the room, cowering on the floor, trying to make herself look smaller. Her face looked crazed, and she was on the verge of tears. This was the first time Lily had seen her react to her presence that way.

            Lily rushed to her side. “Hey, hey…” she said softly. The girl cried out and threw her hands above her head.

            “It’s okay, it’s me,” Lily said. The girl calmed down almost immediately. She leaned forward and sniffed questionable at Lily, who laughed in return. “Yes, it’s really me, silly. What happened? You’ve never done that before. What’s wrong?” Confused, she looked towards the tinted observation window, where she knew Ryland was most likely watching her. I don’t understand, Ryland. She’s never done this.

            Just a hunch, but…maybe she can sense people. She probably felt your aggression when you went in, which is something you haven’t done, and—

            —it reminded her of the other place, Lily finished. She thought I was going to hurt her.

            Ryland could hear the pain in her voice, but said nothing. He saw a tear roll down his wife’s face.

            The girl lifted her head when she heard Lily crying quietly. She made a distressing sound and reached hers hands up to Lily’s face. She started moving her fingers against her wet cheeks. “S...s…”

            Lily gasped, then held her breath, waiting.

            “S….so….ry…sorry….”

            Lily grabbed the girl’s hands and held them to her own face, laughing. The girl hesitated at the forced contact for a moment, then relaxed, traced Lily’s smile tentatively. Lily laughed again. “You spoke!” she cried. She spoke!

            Yes she did, baby. We all heard.

            “Sorry?” the girl said again.

            “No, there’s nothing to be sorry for, sweetie. It’s not your fault I was crying. It was my own.” She was so happy, Lily planted a kiss on the top of her head. “Can you tell me your name? My name is Lily. Lily,” she said a little slower. “Say it. Lily”

            “Li…li…Lily.” Her face scrunched up a bit as she got used to the name on her tongue.

            “That’s good! Lily, that’s right. Now what’s your name?” she pressed on, “I’m Lily, and you are…?”

            Stop for now, Lily. We know she can speak and understand what we’re saying. Don’t push it.

            No! I know she can— Lily lost the thought when she heard something. She looked down at the girl in her arms. “What was that, sweetie?”

            “E…Evangeline.”

            “Evangeline? Is that your name?  It’s so beautiful. Evangeline.”

            He girl’s face then became very angry. She shook her head and wrestled out of Lily’s arms. She backed herself up against the wall, her clouded eyes displaying her hostility. She growled at Lily from beneath her matted hair, an ugly sound that gave her goosebumps.

            You’ve got five seconds to handle this or I’m coming in there. Ryland warned her. Enough of these games. She knew him well enough to know that he would follow through with his threat and just make everything worse.   

            Lily quickly assessed the situation. Saying her name must have reminded her of them, she said to Ryland. I’ll calm her down. “It’s okay,” she said aloud. “We don’t have to use that name if you don’t like it. Can I call you…Angel? Do you like that name?”

            The growling stopped, and she grew quiet, then nodded. Lily let out the breath she was holding and reached for her. Angel scooted even further away. Lily’s arms dropped. “So, we’re back to this then? Well it was fun while it lasted, wasn’t it?” She didn’t get an answer and looked at Angel. Her face was turned in Lily’s direction, and even though her eyes were gray and clouded, she seemed to be looking right at her face, actually taking in her features.

            Do you see this, Ryland? She’s looking at me, like she’s really seeing me.

            Maybe it’s what I mentioned before. Maybe she just senses you and knows you’re in that direction.

            I don’t know. I think…I don’t know…I think she might be able to see, but not like we do. I noticed when she was moving around, she avoided the lamp by the bed. Why?

            You’re asking the wrong person, babe.

            Stay with me. I think she can see—and this is a stretch—electrical impulses. That’s why she avoided the lamp, she could already see the electricity running through it and being expended through the light bulb. It makes sense. T here are so many impulses going through the human body, she shouldn’t have any trouble seeing us. 

            Angel made an impatient noise. She glared at Lily.

            Apparently, she can hear us talking about her, too. Ryland chuckled.

            I wouldn’t expect much less. We still don’t know what kind of psychic potential she has, and now that we have speech out of the way, other things will be coming to light soon. It’s not like she never knew, it’s just that all her knowledge and memories were suppressed by whatever trauma she endured in that place. I’m so excited! She couldn’t help but smile. Angel crawled over to her and reached out to touch Lily’s face. I do think you were spot on, though, when you said she could sense emotions. Like when she knew I was angry, and even now, I didn’t make any noise, but she felt that change in my body. She wants to know what it looks like to be happy. Angel touched her own face after examining Lily’s, puzzled. Lily smiled even broader while looking at her. I’m sorry, Ryland.

           For what, baby?

           This girl, I think I love her. She’s only been here two weeks and she’s wrapped herself around my heart. It’s going to take a lot of work to get her where she needs to be, but she needs me. She trusts me. I just want to protect her. 

            Ryland laughed. We all do, Lily. We take care our own, and she will be no different. We’re a family. She’s part of the family now.

            Angel sneezed, and that brought Lily back to the present. “Hey, what’s say we give you a bath, missy?” She hadn’t been able to persuade her to take one since she’d arrived, but now Lily felt lucky. She grabbed Angel’s hands, despite the girl’s weak protests, and pulled her up to her feet, steered her into the bathroom attached to the room, and began to run the bath water. Dahlia, she called to her friend, can you come down here? She wanted Angel to become accustomed to the other members of the team, but she knew it wouldn’t happen easily or quickly. She’d just have to do it one by one.

            Angel leaned over the edge of the tub and held her hand over the water, feeling the steam. She broke out into a smile and cried out in joy.

            “Do you like that?” Lily asked, laughing along with her. “Why don’t you put your hand in?”

            Angel paused, then submerged her hand in the warm water and started laughing again.

            “Well, now that we’ve got your approval, you’ve got to get in. Let’s get these gross clothes off of you.” She reached for the filthy, torn, oversized shirt that Angel had refused to change during her time in the house. She pulled the shirt over Angel’s head, bringing a flurry of flakes of dead skin and dirt from her hair. She wore nothing underneath, and Lily could see and smell the collective filth on her. “Alright, get in now.” She helped Angel step over the side of the tub and slowly settle into the water.

            Angel sat in silence, moving in the water with eyes wide open. She scooted forward and back in the tub, making waves, and laughed yet again.

            When’s the last time you took a bath before Ryland found you, Angel? Lily thought to herself.

            Angel’s head whipped around to stare at the door, and she let out a cry. Dahlia stood outside the bathroom door, never having made a sound, yet still caught the girl’s attention.

            Lily grabbed Angel’s face and turned it towards her. “You stop this right now, Angel. Right now.” She used what could only be called a “mother’s voice”. It worked, and Angel’s cries became whimpers. “Dahlia is not going to hurt you. She is my good friend, and you are hurting her feelings.” She motioned for Dahlia to come to her, and Angel retreated to the wall of the tub, away from the new arrival.

            “Hello…Angel,” Dahlia said sweetly. “That is your name isn’t it? It’s a very nice name. I’m Dahlia. Lily and I have known each other since we were little. We were apart for a long time, but now we are friends again. Can I be your friend, too, Angel?” She held out her hand.

            Angel looked in Dahlia’s direction, and once more her eyes seemed to actually see her.  Evaluating her. Both Dahlia and Lily noticed it this time. They waited, with Dahlia’s hand still outstretched, waiting for Angel’s answer. That’s when they felt it. A light push on both of their minds. They exchanged a glance, and Dahlia sent a push back. Angel gasped, and splashed water at Dahlia.

            “Hey!” the doused Ghostwalker exclaimed. “You started it!” She couldn’t help herself. She reached into the tub and splashed water back at Angel. The two splashed relentlessly at each other, with Lily getting caught in the crossfire. Soon, all three of them were soaked, and they laughed as the rush wore off. “Yeah, I think we’ll be great friends,” Dahlia said. Angel smiled in response.

            Lily breathed a sigh of relief. She hadn’t thought that Angel would warm up to someone else so quickly. She felt a pang of jealousy, but she pushed it out of her mind, reminding herself that what was important was Angel’s comfort—not her own feelings. Angel tensed up as they proceeded to wash her. They were very gentle with their administrations as to not frighten her. Trying to wash her hair was even more of a hassle. She resisted when Lily tried to lean her back to wet her hair in the water.

            “I’m not going to hurt you, Angel,” Lily tried to assure her. “We just need to get your hair wet so we can clean it. Just calm down.”

            Angel tried to pull away from her. “No…”

            Telling someone to calm down is the worst way to calm them down, Lily, Dahlia said. She’s psychic, right? Why don’t you project an image of what you’re trying to do? Maybe she’ll respond better to that.

            Lily mentally scolded herself for not thinking of that. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and expanded her mind into the area around her. She focused on finding the mental path leading to Angel’s mind. It wasn’t hard, distress was flowing from the girl in waves. Lily took hold of that wave and followed it back to the source. She caught a glimpse of a chaotic mind, fear and the thought of escape dominating her thoughts. As quickly as she caught it, there was nothing. Angel had reflexively slammed down a mental barrier against the intruder.

            Let me in, Angel, Lily called. I just want to help. She felt slight hesitation, then the wall slowly came down, and she was in Angel’s head. She couldn’t see or hear anything, but she felt Angel’s uncertainty of her. Lily pictured herself sitting in a tub, and leaning back to wash her hair. She was calm, and poured feelings of contentment and safety into the memory, presenting it as something enjoyable, not a danger. She felt Angel’s curiosity of the thought, and waited until her mind accepted it before coming back to her own body.

            “See?” Lily asked her. She reached for her again, leaning her back into the water just up to her ears. Angel remained tense, but was no longer fighting her. Lily sent Dahlia to retrieve a towel and clothes for her, and she worked on Angel’s hair. She attempted to make it a calming experience for the girl, making unhurried movements and slowly massaging her scalp while detangling her thick black hair. After some time, Lily saw her breathing slow and continued with the cycle of washing and rinsing until she was satisfied with what she saw.

            Dahlia returned as Lily was sitting Angel up in the tub and wringing out her hair behind her. “Okay, stand now,” he told Angel, grabbing her arm gently and helping her up. Dahlia wrapped one towel around Angel and one around her hair as Lily helped her step out onto the rug and walk back into the small bedroom. There were simple clothes laid out on the bed for her; some undergarments, a plain tee shirt, and black sweat pants.

            “We kind of had to guess her size, so the clothes might not fit perfectly. We figured it’d be better to overshoot than for them to be too small,” Dahlia explained to Lily. “And don’t even get me started on trying to find a bra for this girl! I’m horrible at guessing size, and the boys are not as accurate as they think they are.” Both of them laughed.

“Is that okay?” she asked Angel.

            Angel just looked at her and shrugged her shoulders.

            She’s much more responsive now, Dahlia noted as they dried her body off and dressed her, then dried themselves. That was a pretty quick transition.

            I know, Lily responded, thinking of a way to clarify what was happening. She made sure everyone in the house who was telepathic could hear her. The best way to explain it is that her mind is like a canal system. The information for communication and memory and a bunch of other things is already there, but they’re all sectioned off, and the floodgates are closed. They will open one at a time as we keep working with her, and when we get to the other side, who knows what we’ll find? For now we’ve opened the gate for language. She understands what we’re saying, and with the speech block now out of the way, she’s getting more comfortable around us. Her speed of adaption is surprising, though. It’s happening like nothing.

            Dahlia nodded her head. You really know what you’re talking about.

            I am a genius after all. Lily gave the haughtiest look she could manage. Angel snorted.

            Dahlia laughed. It seems like she knows you’re full of it, too.

            Lily narrowed her eyes at her friend, then addressed Angel. “It’s rude to eavesdrop on others’ conversations, honey.” She thought she saw the girl rolling her eyes. They were silent for some time as Lily and Dahlia worked on drying and brushing her damp hair. It went past her shoulder blades, and curled a bit as it dried. 

            Quietly, Lily asked her, “Can you tell us anything else about yourself? We know your name is Angel, but can you tell us how old you are, or where you came from? Do you know where your parents are?”

            Angel’s face was blank. She shook her head.

            “Can you try and remember?” Dahlia asked.

            She was silent, her face scrunching a bit in concentration, then she shook her head angrily. She sniffled, and her eyes started to fill with tears.

            “It’s okay,” Lily said, shooting a reprimanding glance at Dahlia. “You don’t have to force anything to come right now. We have nothing but time. You’ll remember eventually.” She took a step back to look at. “I can actually see you now,” she commented. Angel smiled, running her hands through the curls in her hair. Her eyes were wide open as she touched her fingers to her own face and then patted down the rest the rest of her body in inspection. She smiled, indicating her approval.  

            “I’m glad you’re satisfied,” Lily said. “Do you want to go upstairs? Everyone would love to meet you. Plus, I think it’s time we moved you to a room near the rest of ours.”

            Angel hesitated. In Lily’s mind, she heard male voices, unrecognizable and unfriendly, and then she felt fear and pain. These were Angel’s memories of Ryland and the others finding her, and she was frightened at the possibility of it happening again.

            “It’s going to be fine,” Lily reassured her. “Ryland and his men weren’t trying to hurt you, they were protecting you from hurting yourself or others. And they will continue to protect you while you’re here. You are safe in this house, Angel. I promise. I’ll be right there whenever you need me. Do you trust me to do that?” She held out her hand. For a moment, Angel seemed to stare at her warily, deliberating on the choice she had to make. Reluctantly, she took Lily’s hand with both of hers and held on tight.

            Lily smiled. “Good. Here we go.” She motioned for Dahlia to go first, and she led the way out of the room, moving slowly to give Angel time to change her mind. They made it to the stairs when Angel froze, shaking her head.

            “I know it’s a bit scary meeting a bunch of strange people,” Lily said, “but I promised that no one is going to hurt you, didn’t I? Trust me.” She waited, and Angel nodded her head, pressing her to move again. When they reached the top, the stairwell led to a private office that used to belong to Lily’s father that she’d since set up shop in. She moved unhurriedly through the room, to the hallway where the rest of the team was waiting for them. Angel paused as soon as she sensed others around them and moved partially behind Lily, attempting to hide herself.

            “It’s nice to meet you again, Angel,” Ryland said. He kept his distance as the girl and Lily moved into the hallway with them. She had a worried look on her face, and he didn’t want to upset her. “We’re very happy to have you here.”

            “Yeah,” chimed in Ian. “Welcome aboard, missy.”

            They all welcomed her, and Lily and Ryland introduced her to the whole team: Nico, Gator, Dahlia, and Sam, whom Angel had already met; Ian, Kaden Montague, Kyle Forbes, Jonas Harper, Tom Delaney, and Tucker Addison, whom she hadn’t. She didn’t respond to anything, only pausing to look in the direction of each person as they were presented, then giving a simple nod.

            It’s like she’s—I don’t know—tagging us, Sam said telepathically. The others nodded in agreement.

            Maybe she can actually see us, Dahlia responded.

            Angel gripped Lily’s hand harder when they were finished, and Lily thought she smelled food, almost tasting it. She felt a presence in her mind, but it quickly dissipated. She looked at Angel incredulously. “You pick things up fast, don’t you?” she asked, smiling. “Yes, I knew it was you.”

            “What?” Ryland asked her. The others looked on in silence.

            “Angel just did something I showed her when we were getting her ready. I gave her a mental image, or sensation, really, of washing my hair so I could get her to let me wash hers. She did the same now, only she gave me the sensation of smelling good food.” Lily continued beaming at the girl. “The fact that she entered my mind and I didn’t even notice is incredible on its own, but it also tells me that she knows how to use her mental abilities, and use them well.”

            “And it says that she trusts you a bit more.”

            Lily placed a kiss on the back of the girl’s hand. “Yes, that too. Well, come on. Let’s go downstairs. I asked Rosa to cook us something special.” She squeezed Angel’s hand and led her over to the stairs that brought them to the ground floor of the mansion. The whole team followed them to the dining room where Rosa, Lily’s longtime cook and caretaker, awaited them with a table full of steaming food.

            “Wow, Rosa, everything looks amazing,” Lily said, kissing Rosa on the cheek. “As always.”

            “I know,” Rosa replied, beaming. “And is this our newest addition?” She gestured to Angel. The girl didn’t answer.

            “Yes, this is Angel. I think it’s time she met everyone in the house, but she’s still very shy, so don’t expect any kind of reply other than this for a while.” Lily walked her over to one of the chairs and sat her down in it, then took the one next to her. It had taken almost the full two weeks to condition Angel to using things like silverware, or the bathroom—that one was a nightmare—but never had she done anything with the group.

            It was clear Angel felt uncomfortable. She could sense everyone looking at her, anticipating something, and she didn’t like all the eyes on her. Lily coughed, and the tension broke, everyone breaking off into different conversations or serving their plates. Lily filled a plate for Angel, based on the foods she’d watched her eat in the past. Angel sniffed lightly at the plate, then reached for her silverware, trying to be inconspicuous as she slid her fingers along the tablecloth, searching until she came in contact with the utensils. She ate slowly, listening to those speaking around her.

They sat like that for a while, and Lily watched her the whole time, noting how content she looked.

            She hasn’t been this calm since she’s been here,” she said.

            It’s the wonder of Rosa’s food, her husband replied.

            If she thinks this is good, Gator interjected, I can’t wait ‘til I get her to try my jambalaya. She’ll be in heaven, or your money back!

            Everyone laughed, and Angel jumped, so concentrated on the conversations that she didn’t notice they were communicating telepathically at the same time. She turned in Lily’s direction, and gave her a confused look.

            “We’re laughing at a joke that Gator made,” Lily said.

            Angel tried to remember which one was Gator, and then she remembered the scene from the van after they had found her. She frowned as she shared the memory with Lily, hoping to accurately express her dislike of him.

            Lily sighed. “Yes, that was unfortunate situation, but I swear he’s a somewhat decent person in a more casual environment.”

            “Somewhat?” Gator asked incredulously. “I like to think I’m a great person.” He was interrupted by snickers. “Plus, I only did that ‘cause Ry told me to.”

            “Way to pass the buck, asshole,” Ryland replied. “No one told you shmucks to mess with her head while she was out. You brought that on yourselves.”

            “Even then, it was still Nico that did it, so I don’t understand the animosity.”

            “Well, you were the one to tranq her. Twice.”

            Even though their voices were argumentative, Angel didn’t feel any negative energy coming from the direction of either man’s voice. She only felt a lightness in the air. It was strange to her. She remembered being surrounded by people who exuded harmful mental energy whenever they were around her, like black tar choking her and fogging her mind. The constant bombardment of poisonous thoughts caused her physical pain, and made it harder for her to defend herself when they hurt her. Why was she thinking about this now? She wanted to forget. She didn’t want to remember this. Pain. There’s laughter—a twisted, perverted sound. Pain. Garbled words. Hands everywhere, all over her.

            “Angel?”

            Angel snapped out of her thoughts, and there was a horrible crashing sound as the dishes and small objects hovering throughout the room dropped, smashing against the table or floor. People shrieked as the assortment of foods splattered them. Then there was silence, until Angel hid her face in her hands and began to sob.

            Lily and Ryland shared a look, unsure how to comfort the girl, or even process what had happened. The others just sat where they were, sharing the same looks with each other, then finally looked at their captain, wondering how to proceed. Rosa was standing in the corner, muttering to herself in Spanish and crossing herself. Telekinesis was one ability that they all had in different ranges, but none of them could manifest it to that extent.

            “Well, I guess dinner’s over. I’m going to go change and then we’re going to help Rosa clean this mess up,” Ryland said, and started towards his and Lily’s bedroom, leaving her to tend to Angel. The others followed suit, and shortly it was only the two of them in the trashed dining room. At first, Lily said nothing, waiting for the crying to mellow. She leaned in to bring her face close to Angel’s. “Hey, it was an accident,” she said softly. “It happens even to the best of us.”

            Angel didn’t respond nor did she remove her hands from her face. She was projecting her emotions so strongly that Lily could read them without having to enter the girl’s mind. “You don’t have to be afraid. You’re not going to be punished or anything like that. You just…surprised us, that’s all. Do you want to tell me what happened?” she prompted after yet another silence.

            Angel shook her head. Lily watched her for a moment. “You’re afraid, that much I know. We weren’t the cause, were we? Were you thinking about something scary?” She noticed the girl tense up a bit, and took that as her answer. “Perhaps the place Ryland found you? I know it wasn’t a nice place, and I know that you must have been very scared and hurt while you were living there, but that’s over now. We want to help you here. We can teach you many things, like how to control your power, and integrate it into your daily life, but we can’t do that if you don’t trust us.” As she spoke, she pulled Angel’s hands away from her face, and wiped away the mix of food stains and tears with a miraculously clean napkin she’d found. She kept her voice at a soft level, wanting only Angel’s ears to hear her words. “You’re very important to me, Angel. That might sound strange, as I’m basically a complete stranger to you, but it’s true. You’re a part of this family now, and we want to do everything we can to make you feel that way, so don’t hide it your feelings from us. When you’re scared, tell us. We’ll protect you from your fears until you’re strong enough to do it for yourself. Whenever you’re frustrated or happy or sad, we’ll also be here for that. The good and the bad. That’s what family does, and this one is no different. Okay?” She leaned back in her own chair and took a long look around the room, wondering where to start cleaning the mess. As she was absorbed in her own thoughts, she felt a hand grab hers and squeeze tight.

            “Okay...” Angel looked uncertain, but determined to adjust to her new life.

            Lily smiled and squeezed back. “Good, now let’s go get cleaned up.”