"What did you two get up to last night, anyway?" Maya asked.
Taran shrugged. "Oh, not too much. We ended up getting dinner and exploring the city a bit."
"Jesus, calm down."
"And how did that go?" Maya crossed her arms and looked expectantly.
Taran cleared his mind and thought of television static. The buzzing nothingness helped to block any emotions that might seep over into Maya's awareness. It was an old trick he had learned when they were children, back when she wasn't as skilled at staying out of peoples' heads. As long as he focused on the static, Maya wouldn't be able to sense his feelings, nor could she dig deeper. Nowadays, Taran usually did it just to annoy her.
Maya slapped Taran on the arm, clearly noticing he had gone blank. "Hey, RUDE! I wasn't gonna peek, you brat!"
Taran laughed and decided to relent. "It was a really nice time. I like him. He's a good person."
"And what?" Taran rubbed the back of his neck and looked to see that there wasn't anyone to overhear them. He knew what Maya wanted to know, but there really wasn't time to get into that conversation. "I dunno, he's cute, ok? What do you want me to say?"
"This is a welcome change, Taran! I'm happy for you."
"Yeah, well, no reason to get too excited. I don't know what any of this means, or where it's headed."
"Even still. Normally you'd be wracked with guilt if you thought this way about a guy."
Taran sighed. "Speaking of guilt, I better go meet my parents!" He gave Maya a quick hug and headed swiftly toward the gym's exit.
Taran left the Syndicate headquarters and took a town car to his parents' house. Or rather, to the penthouse that capped one of the tallest buildings in the city. He would have preferred to have just flown there, but it was still daylight, and the family had rules about attracting too much attention. For all anyone knew, the penthouse was occupied by a wealthy art dealer and her investor husband. Two people who had enough money to afford such a place, but anonymous enough where no one really asked any questions.
Taran rode the elevator to the top of the building, which opened to a small hallway that terminated at the penthouse door. He let himself in. The entryway was a modern slate gray color with a large mural hanging on the wall. He called out to the quiet house.
"Hello? I'm here!"
"Hello Darling, I'm in the kitchen!" His mother called from a few rooms away. Taran found her tossing greens in a large wooden bowl. He kissed her on the cheek and gave her a hug.
"I'm so glad you were able to make it," she told him warmly.
"I'm happy to see you too, Mom." She pulled away from him and started squeezing a lemon over the salad.
"Your father should be getting home any moment, he was taking care of some things at the West Coast Headquarters today."
"Sounds good." He was secretly relieved. Any reason to postpone the group meal worked for him.
His mother pushed away the salad bowl and gave him a once over. "My goodness, you look like you've lost weight. Have you been eating enough? Getting enough rest? I keep saying that you're going on too many patrols with the number of classes you teach during the day."
Taran counted on his fingers. "I haven't lost weight, just toned up a bit. Yes, I've been eating. My schedule is fine, I promise." So many questions right out of the gate. None of it came as a surprise. He had been expecting this kind of rapid-fire interrogation, as it had been several weeks since they had seen each other outside of official business.
"Hmm, perhaps you do look stronger. So handsome!" Taran rolled his eyes. "Why don't you stay here tonight? I can get your room made up."
He shook his head. "I have to get back to headquarters after dinner. Patrolling tonight." Taran always made sure to have an excuse for not spending any more time at the penthouse than was necessary. He liked having his own space, and living at the Syndicate building was better than staying with his parents, where his father was sure to say something that put him on edge. Visits every other month was just enough to keep everyone happy and well-adjusted.
Taran's mother poured him a glass of wine, and they moved to the veranda outside the kitchen. It wrapped around the southwestern side of the penthouse and afforded them a sweeping view of the city and its inhabitants. Taran could see the Syndicate building many blocks away, it's large square structure imposing even from a distance. The two sat on lounge chairs in the shade, Taran's mother making sure a cool breeze was always blowing towards them as they got caught up on what had been happening in each other's lives.
"It's so nice to have company over," she told him, taking another sip of wine. "This house feels so empty nowadays. You're always welcome to stay whenever you wish." Taran watched his mother as she relaxed on the veranda, surrounded by the many plants she lovingly cultivated.
When his father said that Taran got his looks from his mother, he was only half right. While it was true that they shared a mellow brown complexion and dark hair that shined brightly in the sunlight, Avani Webber was stunningly beautiful. She had sculpted cheekbones and was tall and slender, which masked the strength she had built from almost three decades of crime-fighting. In another life, she could have been a fashion model or a movie star. Avani's parents were originally from India and had moved to London shortly before she was born. She first developed abilities in her early teens, before superheroes operated so openly. Taran's grandparents, unsure how to keep their daughter safe, searched the globe for someone to help her. A mentor was found, and Avani learned to hone her abilities. She returned to London and had been a vigilante there until the Syndicate formed, but now spent most of her time in Liberty City. Avani was in her late forties now, and a few grey strands could be seen in her long flowing hair. Taran thought it somehow made her look even more distinguished.
He didn't like to think about how his parents were getting older. Not just because of the pressure they'd been putting on him to settle down, but also the hole they would leave in the Syndicate when they finally decided to retire. Professor Neuron had left the organization a few years back, leaving Warren and Avani Weber -- Crimson Cosmonaut and Zephyr -- as the two remaining founders. There would be a dramatic change in the group without their presence.
"Thanks for the offer to stay, but I like living on base," Taran told her. "It's nice to be close to the action if they need me."
"I suppose that's true. Your brother said the same thing, once," she smiled and offered Taran some more wine.
He declined the offer. "I've got patrol tonight, remember? Besides, reds always give me a headache."
Avani laughed. "Now, that's something you get from your father!"
"I guess it's nice to know I get something from him."
His mother gave a weak smile and nodded in agreement. "He does try, you know. Your father. He knows that he missed opportunities with you when you were younger, and he regrets that."
"If you say so." Taran wasn't so sure, but he appreciated the acknowledgment that things weren't great between them. The relationship with his mother had always felt easier. Their similarities in power sets meant that when he was growing up, she knew how to help him keep control over his abilities, something his father was never able to relate to. It was Taran's older brother Collin who had inherited the super strength and endurance, so he received the bulk of their father's attention. The disconnect and inability to communicate didn't resolve as Taran got older.
"So how have you been? Tell me what you've been up to." Avani asked, trying to change the subject.
Taran felt his cheeks flush and hoped his mother would think it was just from the sun. "Not much has changed, just keeping busy," he supposed it wasn't a total lie. "The recruits are advancing nicely, which has been great. I'm expecting a few of them to be calling for their provisional status examinations soon."
"And how's Maya? Cassandra told me there was an incident the other night," She was referring to Dr. Peters. Naturally, Zephyr would have been informed about that.
"Maya is good. Feeling a lot better from whatever happened. She's been working a lot of Control shifts and running with the Magic Division, which she seems to really like."
"Oh, that's wonderful news, they're lucky to have her. I just hope she doesn't have any more incidents."
"Yeah, it was a pretty scary thing to witness."
"I'm glad you two are still such good friends."
"Me too, Mom."
Avani paused as if about to speak again, and Taran braced for the inevitable question about his love life. But it never came. Instead, she rose from the lounge chair and began tending to the plants that stood in pots around the veranda. She cupped her hands over each one, and a tiny cloud formed above her palms. A small rain shower fell from the cloud and watered each of the plants. Taran had always liked to watch as she gardened. Though he had witnessed Zephyr conjure up some of the most violent storms on the planet, it was forever a comfort to see her work in such a gentle manner. In many ways, it was a reflection of his mother's personality. Incredibly strong, yet with the capacity for great understanding.
Perhaps Ronnie and Maya were right after all. Maybe it wouldn't be such a terrible idea for him to be honest with her.
"There's something I've been meaning to talk about--"
A voice boomed from within the penthouse. "I'm home!"
Avani stood up from the plant she was caring for and let the tiny rain cloud drift upwards into the sky. Taran watched as it floated away from the veranda before scattering in the wind. "Let's go greet your father."
Warren Weber stood in the kitchen wearing a suit and a pair of thick-rimmed glasses. It always boggled Taran that his father could get away with dressing like this without being immediately recognized by the general public. Sure he wore a cowl, but even still, the man was huge. His suits had to be specially made, and he often looked like he was ready to burst out of them with any rapid movement. Warren hung his coat up in the hallway and kissed his wife on the cheek.
"Welcome home, dear. How was San Francisco?" she asked him.
"The new leadership at the West Coast headquarters is all set up. I'm confident they'll be able to do the job while we get to the bottom of this."
"New leadership?" Taran asked from the end of the hall. "Has something happened to Mariner?" The hero was a long time family friend, and head of the San Francisco branch for as long as Taran could remember. He hadn't heard about any reason why new leadership needed to be appointed.
His parents exchanged glances. It was clear to Taran that he hadn't been meant to hear that.
"Perhaps we should discuss this over dinner," Avani responded.
Taran helped his mother bring the meal to the dining room, and the three of them sat down at the long table. There was silence as they served themselves, and Taran sat with quiet expectation until his parents decided to explain themselves.
"There's been a situation at the West Coast headquarters." his father started, voice uncharacteristically grave. "Mariner responded to a distress call yesterday morning. A ship was sinking off the Pacific coast. It was a standard rescue, and frankly uneventful. Only he never came back and hasn't responded to any communications... He's missing."
"What do you mean, 'he's missing'?!" Taran exclaimed, not believing the news. "Surely Control had coordinates on him." No hero went out on a patrol or an emergency mission without alerting Control first. They were able to monitor the location and other activities from headquarters, and then everything was documented as part of the mission log.
"That appears to be part of the mystery." his father explained. "Mariner had finished with the rescue mission and was headed back to San Francisco when he just… vanished." One minute he was speeding through the ocean, and the next, he was gone. We sent a team to his last known coordinates, but there was nothing to report."
"So, what are you doing now?" Taran mentally scrolled through all the various protocols might come into play in a situation like this. An emergency response was automatically triggered any time a Syndicate hero was injured in the field. Why wasn't anyone following the procedure?!
"We've set up temporary leadership of the branch, and are quietly looking into it."
"The situation is mysterious. We don't want to do anything to alert the media or the rest of the Syndicate at this time," his mother explained. "Doing so would only cause needless panic."
Taran couldn't believe his parents. Were they seriously going to pretend that everything was fine? "Sooner or later, someone is going to notice that one of the highest-profile heroes on the West Coast is missing," he told them.
Warren shook his head. "By that time, we hope to have gotten to the bottom of this. Until then, no one should know unless they're directly involved with the search efforts."
Avani spoke up. "I'll be leaving for San Francisco in the morning to assist. I was going to ask you to accompany me."
Taran felt queasy at the ask. Obviously, he was flattered to be considered. There hadn't been many opportunities to work with Zephyr after he graduated from provisional status, and part of him missed that. On the other hand, it would be exceedingly difficult to explain why he needed to jet off to San Francisco. People depended on him, and he had commitments he needed to uphold. And then there was Ronnie, who had suddenly become another compelling reason to stay behind. Was it so bad that he wanted to do something for himself, just this once? That particular thought resulted in a surge of guilt. His parents couldn't possibly understand.
Taran looked down at his plate and tried to come up with the right words. "I don't think I can do that. I'm in the middle of a lot of things right now."
His mother nodded and continued with her meal. "That's fair, it was just a thought."
Taran's father set down his fork and looked at him. "I don't see what could be so important that you can't help us with this. We could use another person on aerial search efforts. Surely someone else can take over your patrols until you return."
"It's not just that. The new recruit we got this week… he's showing tremendous progress, but he still needs a lot of help before he's ready to fall into a routine. I couldn't just leave him with one of the other trainers."
Avani looked up from her plate and smiled. "His name is Ronnie, correct? He was a lovely boy. I had the chance to meet him on his first day, Warren. His power readings show quite a lot of potential."
"He's a quick study, Mom, but he's new, and there's still a lot he has to learn—"
"This boy. Is he the one you rescued?" His father eyed him carefully.
"Well, Ronnie didn't need rescuing, but I was the one who found him after his powers manifested..." Taran was starting to get defensive. Why did he have to sit here and explain himself? He didn't want to go to San Francisco and help with some secret mission. The timing was all wrong, and there were more important things to do back home! It was just like his father to make everything so complicated.
Warren shook his head. "Well, when you're ready to finally become a major player instead of playing babysitter, we could use you. You'll never be famous if you spend all of your time at the headquarters training sidekicks."
Taran slapped his fork down on the table. "I'm spending all of my time training because people need to know how to be safe in the field. This family should understand that better than anyone!" Against his better judgment, he raised his voice. "And frankly, considering veterans like Mariner are going missing, I think you just proved my point!"
Warren chewed his food for a moment, clearly fuming. He never appreciated when Taran suggested the old guard could improve how they operated. "Always wanting more regulations, instead of trusting a hero to do what's necessary. Though I suppose combat techniques are useful for those with a more limited powerset."
Taran clenched his fist, and a gust of wind blew his wine glass over. A deep red puddle seeped into the linen tablecloth.
"That is enough, Warren!" his mother declared.
"I just don't understand why he insists on wasting the prime of his life tethered to headquarters when he could be out making a real difference! He needs to start thinking about his future!"
Taran stood up and threw his napkin onto the table. "I need to go. Patrol tonight. You know, the work that gets done when the cameras aren't watching." He kissed his mother on the cheek. "Be safe in San Francisco. I hope you find out what happened to Mariner."
He locked eyes with his father but had nothing more to say. Turning toward the doorway, he left his parents at the table in silence.