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"Ouch, motherfucker!" Ronnie yelped and stuck a stinging fingertip into his mouth. It flooded with the taste of blood and garlic, a terrible combination.

Taran was at his side in an instant, the air bursting around him and scattering ingredients across the counter. "Are you all right? What's wrong?"

"Okay, first off, I only nicked my finger," Ronnie held his hand out to Taran, showing him the shallow cut. "Second, did you just fly from across the room?"

Taran's cheeks darkened with embarrassment. "I might have overreacted. But you sounded hurt!"

"Find me a Band-Aid, and I promise I'll live to see another day,"

Taran bounded to the bathroom, looking back once before disappearing around the corner. Ronnie shook his head. His boyfriend had been slightly overbearing all evening as if he knew something was up. It was sweet, if not annoyingly perceptive.

Ronnie was having a bad day. He supposed it started the night before, restlessly staring at the ceiling and wishing he could solve all his family's problems. Sleep hadn't come easy, and he gave up trying when dawn finally broke. On the other hand, Greg managed to get a decent night's rest, so Ronnie left his father a goodbye note and slipped out the front door. As much as he would have loved to have a breakfast chat like the old days, Ronnie knew this was best. If nothing else, it saved him from having to make up more lies.

A dark cloud seemed to have followed Ronnie back to headquarters, ruining his concentration and making lessons less than successful. Forcefields materialized in the wrong spot or dissolved before he wanted them to, and the mounting frustration only made things worse. Ronnie's powers had behaved as erratically as his first few weeks of training. He was so off his game that Coldsnap practically threw him out of the target range after several bolts veered wildly off target. "Get out of here, Nolan," she snarled, "Before I freeze you to the floor!"

Unsure of what else to do, Ronnie retreated to Taran's empty apartment. The living room was dark, and he relaxed on the couch in comfortable silence. Ronnie closed his eyes and performed a few breathing exercises. He sent his mind searching for his power's focus, the ball of warm energy nestled deep in his chest.

Instead, Ronnie found a dark, wiry bramble of thorns. Green light flickered in the spaces between the tangle, casting out shards of unstable light. His focus was at risk of being snuffed out. Giving one of the black threads a mental poke caused Ronnie's stomach to lurch. Terrible feelings: guilt, doubt, and anger flared from the thorny darkness. The sensation poured outward from the center, threatening to sink deeper into his body.

With another deep breath, Ronnie focused on the emerald light. It pulsed brighter as he guided his thoughts around the black roots and into the center of the mass. A wave of warmth settled into his mind as he connected with the focus. With a final push, he forced the light in his chest to grow. It met resistance against the tangle of thorns for only a moment before burning them away. The light then pulsed down the glimmering, branching threads that spread across his body. Ronnie gasped at the sudden jolt of energy and opened his eyes to find the room awash in a shimmering green light that seemed to emanate from under his skin.

Reaching out a hand, Ronnie pulled the light down his arm into a single pool at the center of his palm. His powers seemed to be back under his control once more. "Well, that's a relief," he yawned, settling into the couch, thankful that he didn't accidentally destroy Taran's living room.

When he woke a while later, Ronnie found a blanket gently tucked around him. He sat up to find Taran puttering about in the kitchen.

"Hiya, sleepyhead," Taran called out, pulling a pot from the cabinet.

"How long was I out?"

"Just a bit. Thoughts on curry for dinner? Always helps when I've had a bad day."

Ronnie smiled. How did he guess? "I want to help," He joined Taran in the kitchen and got started on dicing potatoes. Working so close together was peaceful.

Taran broke the silence after a few minutes. "Mom's not coming back until tomorrow, I guess. Still helping with recovery efforts."

"Right, the earthquake," Ronnie remembered. Everyone at headquarters had been talking about it that morning, and the Syndicate dispatched a dozen heroes from Liberty City to help with search and rescue. It looked like things were going to be mostly okay, all things considered. "Well, you must be happy to have her home soon?"

Taran murmured something that Ronnie didn't quite catch, but he didn't pursue the subject. They settled back into silence, Taran stepping around the kitchen whenever he needed to grab another ingredient, a gentle hand at Ronnie's back whenever they were close.

"He's nervous," Ronnie thought to himself. "He knows something is up, but he doesn't know what to say."

"How about some music?" Taran slid around the counter and was in the living room, flipping through playlists near the speaker system when Ronnie sliced his finger on the knife.

Returning from the bathroom, Taran held up a first aid kit with a triumphant grin. "Let me see," he said, reaching for Ronnie's hand. His fingers felt warm against Ronnie's palm, and he gently wiped the wound and applied ointment. "Lucky for you, I scored top marks in field medicine," Taran joked. "I think we'll be able to save the limb!" He kissed the tip of Ronnie's bandaged finger and declared him healed.

"My hero!" Ronnie blushed despite himself. How was he so damn adorable?

"Now, do you want to tell me what's been bothering you?"

Ronnie turned back towards the cutting board and resumed slicing, the moment over. The sadness and frustrations of the day threatened to creep back into his chest as he delicately chose his words.

"Things were difficult at home yesterday… I — I need to be able to tell my dad what's going on. I can't keep lying to him."

Taran snapped the first aid kit closed and sighed. "Ronnie, you know what I'm going to say. "
"I know, and I'm not in the mood for a fight, trust me. But this is the hardest thing I've ever had to do. We don't keep secrets from each other!"

"There are rules that just have to be followed. You simply can't tell anyone what you really do here."

"My dad was a cop; he knows about all the 'duty' and 'secrecy.' Who's he going to tell, anyway?"

"That's not the point. Listen, you might not be in the field now, but when you are, anyone who knows your secret could be used against you. Do you really want to put your dad in that kind of situation?"

Ronnie slapped down the knife with a scowl. "Of course, I don't. But you weren't there; you didn't see how bad he was. If I can't be at home, I need him to know that it's for a good reason. He's the only family I have left."

"And that's all the more reason to keep him safe."

Ronnie took a deep breath as he blinked away tears. The last thing he wanted to be was a sniffling idiot in front of his boyfriend. He felt Taran draw in close, hands resting gently on his shoulders.

"I wish I could give you what you wanted," Taran whispered softly. The sadness in his voice only made Ronnie's eyes well up more. "Syndicate rules exist for a reason. Too often, they're written in blood." Ronnie felt a soft kiss on the back of his neck.

"There has to be something I can do," he replied, voice trembling.

"I'm sorry. But you know this is the only option."

The worst part was that Ronnie knew he was right. Telling his father the truth would only make him a target, and he would never forgive himself if something terrible happened. But he couldn't ignore how quickly the secrets had built up around them. How many more before Ronnie lost his dad forever? He pulled Taran's hand off his shoulder and kissed the top of it.

"I love so many things about my life right now, Taran," he sniffed, "But this part is the absolute worst."

"I understand… but," Taran's voice perked up. "I may have a bit of a compromise,"

"How so?"

Taran turned Ronnie around and looked him in the eyes. "Your dad loves everything about you and only wants you to be happy. That's something you need to celebrate together. So... whenever you think it's a good time, you should tell him about us."

Ronne gasped, "Are you serious?!" He was floored. This was a huge step forward for Taran, for both of them.

"It's truly unfair that you have to hide all of this from him, but I can help you keep the secret. You don't have to do it alone."

Ronnie wrapped his arms around Taran's neck and held him close. "Of course, I want him to know. You're the best thing to come from all of this." He drew Taran in for a kiss, falling into a familiar warm comfort that beat against the dark emotions weighing him down. Then it was his turn to be pulled in tight and to revel at the kisses that rained down his neck with frantic urgency. Ronnie pushed back against Taran until their lips found each other again. He relished in the moment before finally breaking away to catch his breath. Their eyes met, and Ronnie felt a pressure building. Fuzzy static lingered where their skin still touched.

"I love you, Ronnie."

Every nerve seemed to ring at the words, an echoing pulse that coursed through Ronnie's arms and settled deep in his heart. No matter how difficult or scary things might have been, Taran was always there with patience and understanding. And sometimes with infuriating stubbornness, if only to keep those closest to him on the right path. A hero in every sense. Ronnie knew there was no one else he wanted to face the world with.

He fumbled for the buttons on Taran's shirt, which crackled with prickly energy as it brushed over his body. Taran trembled at the touch, and he hungrily pulled Ronnie close, planting his other hand on the counter to steady himself.

A screaming flash of white-hot light erupted behind Taran. The force from the blast knocked Ronnie away and into the wall, leaving him coughing as a cloud of smoke and ozone wafted around them. Ronnie waved the haze away and noticed a thin, spidery burn mark etched across the kitchen counter. It spanned from where Taran's hand had rested — the outline of his fingers burned into the surface — to the electrical outlet near the sink.

"What the Hell was that?!" Ronnie gasped.

Taran rubbed at his temples and muttered. "I have no idea… everything just went blurry for a moment."

"Taran, your hand." Ronnie pointed.

Taran pulled his hand away to study it, and Ronnie watched as thin bolts of electricity danced across his fingers in jagged white threads. Taran yelped and frantically shook his wrist, extinguishing the tiny lights.

He met Ronnie's eyes and gave a weak smile before collapsing to the floor.

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BKWildenberg

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