Fri. May 10th, 2024









As Rebel waves and watches Dante head back across the yard, I have about fifteen seconds to decide if I’m going to sneak back to bed to pretend to be asleep or if I’m going to confront her about the fact that she’s dating a villain—one who, now that I think about it, knew an awful lot about me.


As did Draven.


You’re Kenna Swift? I thought Draven had been shocked because he’d heard of my mother.


But maybe that wasn’t it at all. Maybe Rebel had mentioned me to Dante. Maybe that’s why they knew my name—


Rebel turns back toward her room. I have to make a decision. I glance at my side of the bed. It’s so inviting. So easy.


After the night I’ve had, it’s the clear win. I need time to process all that’s happened before confronting Rebel. I mean, what would I even say at this point?


I slip back into my side of the bed. I’m just easing the comforter over my head when the door whooshes open and the chilly night air forces me deeper under the covers. A moment later, Rebel slides back into the bed.


My heart pounds like a jackhammer. My mind races back through everything that happened tonight. The break-in. The explosion. The interrogation by Mr. Malone. The guys in gray suits.


It all plays out in rapid-fire succession.


In a flash, it hits me.


I bolt upright.


“It was you!”


Rebel stretches and does a really spot-on impression of someone waking up from a deep sleep.


Her voice even has that groggy, haven’t-used-it-in-a-while tone. “What was me?”


“Oh. My. God.” I throw off the blankets and jump out of bed. My mind reels as I pace around the room, half talking to myself. “I should have known. I should have seen it! When the gray suits said the villains had a security pass, it meant they were working with someone on the inside, someone who had access. Then you brought up Nitro when I hadn’t mentioned his name. But I trusted you. I. Trusted. You. Because no way would my best friend send villains into the lab I work in when she knew I would be there. No way would my best friend put me in that kind of danger, right? Except you did. It was you. It was you.”


My head really does feel like it’s exploding.


Rebel is at my side in an instant. She grabs my shoulders to stop my pacing. “What on earth are you talking about?”


She’s a good liar, better even than I’ve given her credit for. But I’m not falling for it.


I level an unamused glare at her. “Don’t pretend it’s not true. Don’t lie to me any more than you already have.” I point at the door she used just minutes ago to go meet her secret boyfriend. “You’re dating a villain.”


“What? No, I’m—”


“Don’t. Lie. You’re dating the crazy villain with a fauxhawk who wanted to kidnap me. Torture me! And you were going to let him! What’s wrong with you?”


She opens her mouth, probably to tell me I’m crazy, to spout another lie. But then she just sighs. After a heavy silence, she shakes her head. “Dante would never have hurt you. I swear. He doesn’t have it in him.”


I want to throw up. “You don’t know that.”


“I do. I know him. I love him, Kenna. I really love him. He’d never hurt anyone, certainly not you. He knows you’re my best friend.”


Best friend? That’s a joke.


“You sent them there tonight. You knew I would be there, and you sent them anyway—without even giving me a heads-up. Why? Because you knew I couldn’t fight back!”


“I didn’t!” she insists. “You said you were so tired last night that I thought you were going to go home early. That’s the only reason I told them it was okay.”


I don’t know if I believe her, but I can’t dwell on that right now.


Not when there are more important things to talk about. Like what motivated her to help supervillains break into the superhero lab, and the fact that her father would have her arrested—would have her tried for treason—if he knew what she’d done.


Not to mention how my best friend, the person I trust most in the entire world, the one person who has always treated me as something more than ordinary, could betray me like this.


Rebel’s the only person I’ve ever been able to be completely honest with, and I thought it was the same with her. It hurts to find out I was wrong. Not only has Rebel been keeping at least one major secret from me, she all but served me up on a platter to Dante and his friends.


Maybe she believes they wouldn’t hurt me, but she wasn’t there when Dante suggested kidnapping me like it was a perfectly reasonable idea.


She wasn’t there when Nitro was throwing fireballs at me. Yes, I have immunity, but only from superpowers.


All three of those boys are bigger than I am, and if they’d decided to kidnap me— to hurt me—no fire extinguisher in the world would have been able to stop them.



I rub a hand across my tired eyes and take a deep breath as I try to sort out my thoughts. “How long have you been with him?” I ask.


“Six months.”


I sputter. “Six months? How could you hide this for six months?”


“It’s not like that.”


“Not like what?” I spit. “Not like you’re dating a villain? Not like you’re snuggling up with our sworn enemies? Not like you’ve been lying to me for half a year?”


“That’s the whole thing,” she says. “It’s not like that. They’re not our enemies.”


“Are you joking? They nearly killed me tonight.” An exaggeration, but she doesn’t know that.


“But they didn’t,” she points out, as if that makes it all okay. “They wouldn’t. They aren’t bad guys.”


Who is this girl standing before me? She looks like my best friend. But my best friend would never knowingly consort with a villain. The daughter of the most powerful superhero would never date the enemy—even to get back at her father.


At least, the girl I thought was my best friend would never do that.


A night alone in my empty house is looking better and better. “I’m out of here.”


“Kenna, wait.” She grabs my arm before I can walk away. “You have no idea what’s going on. There is next-level shit happening at the lab.”


“Yeah, I know,” I snap, yanking my arm out of her grasp. “My best friend is giving a team of villains complete access.”


“Dante’s brother is missing.”



I shrug. “So? What’s that have to do with the lab?” But even as I say it, I remember them talking about finding some guy named Deacon.


“He was kidnapped,” she insists. “Taken by the superhero goon squad that my dad and his douche-nozzle cronies work so hard to keep secret. They’re best friends, closer than close. Dante’s been a mess since Deacon went missing.”


“And he’s being held in the lab? Just where do you think they’re keeping him?” I hope that injecting some logic into the conversation will make her see how crazy she sounds. “It’s not like they’re hiding prisoners in the janitor’s closet.”


“No, they’re sneakier than that.” She scrubs a hand over her hair. “They probably took him to the secret level.”


Ugh. Again with the secret level? I work in that lab, have for years, and my mom is their top researcher, yet never before tonight have I heard about a super-secret level.


The whole thing is absurd. Too many really smart people work in the lab for her dad to keep something that big a secret.


It’s like she’s been brainwashed.


“Seriously, Rebel? Listen to yourself. Secret goon squads? Secret lab levels?” She sounds more like my conspiracy-loving ex. And she knows better than anyone that his never-ending paranoia killed our relationship. “Have you been hanging out with Jeremy again?”

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“Believe me or don’t. But all those things are happening.”


Before she can say another word, I grab my purse off the floor and start to storm out of her room.


But she’s been my friend for too long to just leave it like this, no matter how tired or angry I am.


I turn back when I hit the doorway, my eyes meeting her watery ones. Obviously, I’m not the only one affected by this fight—she looks as miserable as I feel.



“I wanted to tell you,” she whispers. “So badly.”


“Look, I’ve got to get some sleep,” I tell her after a few long seconds. “Let me clear my head and I’ll call you tomorrow. We can talk then.”


She nods. “Yeah, okay.”


“I love you, Kenna,” she calls after me.


“Yeah, me too, Rebel,” I murmur.


I’m halfway home when the tears start pouring down my face in a silent stream.


Stupid allergies, I tell myself as I swipe my cheek with the back of my hand.


If I was a better liar, I might even believe it.


• • •


My head is whirling as I climb into my own bed. I feel like a puzzle with all the important pieces missing.


None of this makes any sense.


I expect to spend what’s left of the night staring at the ceiling, but I’m out the moment my cheek hits my pillow.


Only it’s not a peaceful sleep. My thoughts race through a bizarre version of the night’s events. Rebel using her power to slam me into the ceiling during the break-in.


Riley turning into a giant microscope so he can study me on a slide.


Mom and Mr. Malone making out next to a grizzly bear in her office.


I’m pretty sure that last one’s going to require future therapy.


But then my dream turned to the past. Instead of Mom’s office, I was in Dad’s.


Four-year-old me, playing under his desk at the superhero high command.


He was president of the League before Mr. Malone. Before they built the Elite Superhero Lab.


The door burst open.


“Kenna?” my dad shouted. “Kenna, baby, where are you?”


I climbed out of my hiding spot. But when I saw the look of panic on his face, I wished I hadn’t.


He grabbed me, clutched me to his chest, and raced into the hall. Long and gleaming white. All brightness and light. Except for the gang of villains who stood at the other end.


When they saw us, they started running.


I panicked, screamed. The light fixtures in the hallway exploded.


The villains hesitated, startled by broken glass raining down. Dad turned his back on them and set me on my feet.


“Run,” he said, gently at first. The sound of footsteps echoed behind him. He shouted, “Run!”


I froze as he turned to face our enemies.


I tried to make out their faces, to see their features in the enveloping shadows. But I couldn’t bring them into focus. A dozen years of trying, and their identities still remained a blurry mystery.


“You shouldn’t have crossed us,” one of them said.


“What you’re doing is wrong,” Dad countered, stepping toward them. “You can’t just—”


The hallway exploded in a flash of light.



I wake up screaming, my body drenched in a cold sweat.


It takes me several deep breaths to remember where I am. When I finally calm down, I check the clock on my nightstand. It reads 2:43 in big, green numbers. Judging by the sun streaming through my windows, I’m guessing that’s two forty-three in the afternoon.


God, I must have been tired. My body feels like I’ve been flattened by a steamroller.


I need caffeine. Or sugar. Or—even better—both. I drag myself out of bed and downstairs. I’m just stirring hazelnut creamer into my coffee when the front door opens.


“Kenna?” Mom calls out, her voice strained with worry.


Can I blame her?


“In the kitchen,” I answer.


She drops her massive bag on the floor when she walks into the room.


Mom looks more frazzled than usual. Her messy brown bun is falling out, the circles under her eyes show through her makeup, and her cheeks are drawn like she hasn’t eaten in days. Driven by her research, it’s normal for her to spend twelve or even fourteen hours at a stretch at the lab searching for the key to eliminating villain powers and enhancing superhero abilities.


But today, she looks like she’s taken on Nitro, Quake, and the rest of the v-bag army—all at the same time.


I don’t bother asking if she wants food—she’ll just say no. Setting down my coffee, I grab a carton of eggs and a container of chopped veggies out of the fridge and start fixing a scramble.


“How’s the lab?” I ask.



“Almost back to normal.” She shrugs out of her coat and then flings it on the counter. “The Cleaners work fast.”


I turn my attention to the stove and throw some veggies into the sizzling pan. My culinary skills are limited, but I’m a scramble master.


“I’ve started the new batch of immunity serum.” She walks to the vitamin cabinet and pulls out the bottle of aspirin. “My alarm is set for me to go back at seven tomorrow morning for the second phase.”


I add the eggs to the pan, scraping and stirring to make sure it all cooks thoroughly.


Mom guards her immunity juice recipe like the password to Fort Knox. I can’t even help her make the serum, and if she knew I’d told Rebel about it in fourth grade, she’d have a fit. No one else knows it exists, but I think she’s still afraid someone might torture me for the information.


I don’t like to think about anything happening to her, but if it did, where would I be? You’d think she’d want me to know the formula, just in case.


“If you tell me what to add,” I offer, “I could go in and—”


“No.” She throws back a couple aspirin and swallows them without water. “I don’t want you going near the lab. The serum won’t be ready for forty-eight hours, and until then, you’re too vulnerable.”


“What? No,” I argue. “I’m in the middle of a trial. I have to go in to check the results.”


She shakes her head. “Now is not the time for your impractical experiments.”


“They’re not impractical,” I argue as I scrape the scramble onto a plate. My experiments are the only way I’m going to prove myself valuable to the superhero world. They’re my only chance of feeling powerful enough to go after the monsters who killed my dad. Not that I’d tell her that. “Besides, I left my backpack there. I need my stuff.”



Mom takes the plate from me. “It’s not safe.”


I clench my jaw, anger rolling through me. After surviving the villain attack and my fight with Rebel, I’m not in the mood for more bad news. “You can’t just make decisions like that—”


“Actually, I can. I’m your mother. In fact…” She sets her plate down and walks over to my purse. I’m too stunned to react as she reaches in and pulls out my ID badge. “I’m going to make sure you stay away from the lab.”


“Mom, no!” I lunge for the pass.


But I’m too late. She grabs the scissors from the junk drawer and cuts my ID into tiny plastic squares.


I watch in horror as my badge—my access—falls to the tile floor in a series of little pings.


For several seconds I can’t breathe. It seems like such an insignificant piece of plastic. But that ID with its magnetic strip and RFID chip represents my chance to do something that matters.


My experiments matter. They make me matter.


And she just took it all away, like it was nothing. Like I’m nothing.


“I’ll get another one.” I cross my arms over my chest. “Heather likes me. She’ll print me a new one.”


Mom casually picks up her plate and forks a bite of egg. “The lab is on lockdown. No new passes are being issued until the security breach is eliminated.”


The security breach—a.k.a. my supposed best friend.


Great. Just great. My life is getting better by the second. I swear I’m going to kill Rebel.



I clench my fists at my sides to keep from punching something. I might not have super strength, but I could do some serious damage to a stack of dishes right now.


“Hopefully they’ll have the new security measures in place quickly. Rex is trying to sneak cameras into the lab again, but I’ll tear them out if he does. That damn place already feels like NSA headquarters,” she says, her voice growing distant and distracted. “We’re just lucky the villains didn’t get to sub-level three, or he would have the entire facility on military lockdown.”


The hair on the back of my neck stands up.


“Sub-level three?” I echo.


Our lab is on sub-level one with the other neurological and bioengineering facilities. Chemical and physical labs are on sub-level two. There is no sub-level three.


But this is the third time in less than twenty-four hours that I’ve heard about a secret level. The first two I can dismiss as crazy conspiracy nonsense. My mom, however…


Her eyes widen for a split-second before she shakes her head and laughs. “Sub-level two. I meant sub-level two. It’s been a long day.”


Rebel’s words echo in my mind. My mom is the most senior scientist at ESH Lab.


If anyone had access to a secret level, she would. My chest tightens.


I must be so tired that I’m having aural hallucinations. Except…except Rebel seemed so sure. As did Draven and his friends. And even my mother said it casually at first, like its existence is obvious.


“I’m exhausted,” Mom says. “I’ve been up for nearly thirty-six hours, and if I’m lucky, I’ll sleep until morning.”


I nod and manage to force out a whispered, “Good night.”


She stops in the doorway and turns to me, a soft smile on her face. “In the meantime, don’t go getting into fights with any villains.”



I nod weakly as she walks upstairs.


They can’t be right. There can’t be a secret sub-level where heroes torture and experiment on kidnapped villains. Evil or not, villains are still people. They’re still human and deserve basic human rights. Superheroes are the good guys. They don’t hurt people. They sure as hell don’t torture them.


I’m not sure how long I stand there, palms splayed on the counter to hold myself up, mind whirling while I try to make sense of it all. Finally I shake my head, knocking the crazy thoughts from my mind.


“It’s not true,” I tell myself again. “Like Mom said, she’s exhausted. It was just a slip of the tongue.”


But as I stand there, trying to convince myself of what I know to be true—what I want to be true—I catch sight of her coat draped across the granite. Her coat…with her security badge.


She may have cut my pass to pieces, but hers is right there. She’s planning to be dead to the world for the next dozen hours. I could take her card, reassure myself that there is no secret sub-level at ESH, and get the stuff I forgot at the lab too.


She’ll never even know her badge was gone.


I stand there for another minute, staring at the badge. It’s the answer to all my problems. Well, at least, all my non-Rebel problems.


Then, before I can talk myself out of it, I snatch my mom’s pass and slide it into my pocket. In a few short hours, as soon as the sun sets and the security guards change shift, I’m going in.


I’ll prove Rebel and the villains wrong.











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