The jostling impact of the plane’s wheels hitting the tarmac woke Kyoshi. In the seconds before she got control the thoughts, judgments, and trickle of emotions bombarded the young advanced mind from all sides. Mostly, people were irritated. It was a five hour flight from Atlanta to San Francisco and the recirculated air, unruly children, and crabby flight attendant didn’t help.
Kyoshi seized control of her power with a deep, calming breath. A little bit of focus and everything went quiet; quiet in her mind at least. The moment the plane hit the runway the kid sitting behind her started to kick her seat.
<I’m never having kids,> Kyoshi had always been open to the idea of one day being a mom, but the incessant irritation of anyone under the age of five had thoroughly turned her off to the concept. <Being a Hero is tough enough, but being a Hero and a mom must be brutal.>
She pulled her thoughts away from her career and lack of maternal aspirations, and turned her attention to the man sitting next to her. She focused and picked up the thoughts and emotions radiating from Mason like he was the bonfire at Burning Man. She didn’t want to violate his privacy, but it was tough not to notice how nervous her boyfriend was. A big mental picture told her why.
“Hey,” she slipped her arm underneath his and rested her head on his shoulder. “How are you holding up?”
“I’m good, just ready to get off this plane.”
Kyoshi had learned from their first flight to New York that her big, strong boyfriend wasn’t the biggest fan of flying thirty thousand feet in the air in a metal tube.
Kyoshi knew there was more, but she didn’t push it. They’d be meeting the object of his nervousness in the next half an hour; so she tried to cheer him up.
“Hey, do you remember that lady in Atlanta?” Mason knew exactly what she was talking about, and it replaced his anxious expression with a short laugh.
The flight from Orlando to Atlanta had been sort and sweet. Since it was less than an hour hop over the Florida-Georgia border, they were in an old-fashioned dual-prop plane that only sat about thirty people. It was a loud ride, but much more enjoyable than the flight to San Francisco; except for one passenger.
The woman looked like she could have been on one of those Real Housewives shows, and for all Kyoshi knew, she was. Everything the woman said and did during the flight came from a sense of entitlement. She expected them to have champagne so she could have a mimosa for the flight, she expected the overworked flight attendants to heed her every beck and call. She was clearly irritating everyone on the small flight, and she didn’t seem to be picking up on any of those social cues.
Once they arrived at the Atlanta airport, one of the busiest airports in the world, Kyoshi and Mason had been heading in the same direction as the woman. They followed her down the long line of gates and to the subway that ran between the concourses.
The airport was set up differently than a lot of other airports Kyoshi had flown in and out of. The concourses were set up like parallel lines or hatch marks, each separate, but connected by the subway that ran beneath all of them. You could try and walk the distance to your destination, but the subway was much quicker.
Mason and Kyoshi both boarded the subway behind the woman, and caused a bit of a scene because they had to bend down to fit through the opening; but on the bright side people gladly got out of the way and let them have the handholds. No one was as nice to the obnoxious woman who was now yelling into her cell phone. Kyoshi wasn’t sure what the woman was thinking, but she didn’t brace herself when the subway lurched into motion.
Kyoshi knew it was going to happen. This wasn’t a baby lurch common to something starting to move forward; this was a full yank. The metal handholds she and Mason were clinging to snapped tight during the lurch. Kyoshi could have moved fast enough, she’d been training in the HCP for a semester to react instinctually to situations. But the truth was that she was tired, and the woman had been annoying her for the last hour.
So Kyoshi let the woman face plant.
“Yeah, that was pretty funny,” remembering the woman eating subway floor, and then almost falling a second time when the subway stopped, helped ease the nervousness in the strongman.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to San Francisco where the local time in 7:34 pm. Until the captain has turned off the fasten seat belt sign please remain seated with your seat belt securely fastened. Thank you.”
Kyoshi heard grumbling along with a number of seat belts being clicked open, but the two Heroes in training waited for the plane to come to a complete stop at the gate. They were sitting near the back of the plane, so it was another ten minutes until it had cleared, and even then Mason let a bunch of people go ahead of them. It was just easier that way.
“Thank you,” the mother with the young child looked exhausted, but appreciative when Mason helped her grab her bag from the overhead compartment.
Kyoshi’s heart swelled as she watched him, and the woman shot her a “you’ve got a good one” look as she maneuver herself, the kid, and her suitcase down the aisle. By the time Kyoshi turned her attention back to her boyfriend he already had their luggage down and a hand stretched out to her.
<I should be asking you that,> Mason smiled even though his nervousness spiked momentarily. He was already committed. He’d flown the length of the country to be with her family on Christmas. That was kind of a big deal for him.
“Let’s go,” she took the lead.
Despite the later hour the sun was still up as they moved through the airport. Instinctually, they scanned the people around them for suspicious behavior. Coach Meyers would have been proud, but she also would have torn their technique apart. They weren’t being thorough; they were just making sure that nobody snuck up on them. That was something they wouldn’t ever allow to happen again.
Kyoshi expanded her senses and found them waiting. Both were a bundle of anticipation and love. Both couldn’t wait to see their not so little girl. “Here we go,” Kyoshi grabbed Mason’s hand for support as they followed the crowd through the exit, past baggage claim, and into the arrivals section of the loop that ran around the airport.
“Kyoshi!” her mother called with the stoic composure that her upbringing had drilled into her.
Kyoshi saw through all of that. Her mother’s mind was like a flower blooming with emotion. Love and gratitude poured out of it and filled up her daughter. “Mama!” Kyoshi slipped away from Mason to give her small mother a big hug.
That left Mason all alone to deal with her father.
Kyoshi’s hand slipped from his but he didn’t try to snatch it back. Mason watched as his girlfriend ran through the small gap between them and her parents. The crowd parted for her, not the other way around. Sometimes being tall was an advantage.
Mason crossed the space separating the two groups at a walk and headed for the only person around who was bigger than he was. Wilhelm Schultz’s attention was on the reunion of his wife and daughter. The grizzly of a man was openly smiling, and looked a lot less intimidating; until he turned his attention to Mason.
The man didn’t scowl or show any anger toward Mason, but his face went from warm happiness to neutral. Mason didn’t hesitate though. Hesitation was bad. “Good to see you again, Sir,” he extended his hand to the retired German Hero.
“Hallo, Mason,” the man replied in his thick accent as he accepted Mason’s hand.
For a moment there was a titanic battle of strength. Both men squeezed hard enough to crumble steel, but neither showed that it hurt them. The key word was showed; because Mason was pretty sure he’d bruised the bones in his fingers.
Wilhelm didn’t say anything, but Mason thought he caught a slight eyebrow raise from the larger man. <Probably your imagination.> He concluded.
“Papa!” the moment Kyoshi said his name Wilhelm released Mason’s hand, smiled, and caught his girl as she threw herself into his arms.
Mason smiled too, took a step back, and looked down to Kyoshi’s mother. “Nice to see you again, Ma’am,” Mason bowed awkwardly to the much smaller woman.
“Ma’am makes me feel old, Mason,” she smiled back, giving the strongman a pat on the forearm.
“Sorry…” he began to apologize, but she waved it off.
While his girlfriend talked to her father Mason grabbed the luggage and put it into the car. Then they all jumped in and headed home. Due to the size of the two men; Kyoshi and her mother sat in the back seat while Mason got to be the copilot.
<You’re doing great,> Kyoshi’s mental smile blossomed in Mason’s head at they pulled into her old neighborhood.
The neighborhood looked like the ones he’d seen in the old T.V. shows from the 90s. The road sloped up at a slight incline, and the houses stood shoulder to shoulder along the side of the road. The roads were moderately busy because this wasn’t a suburb. San Francisco was an island, so real estate didn’t allow for big open neighborhoods. It was a lot like New York, which made Mason more at home. The sunshine and warmer temperatures was different, but a good different.
Another good different was that this area was a lot nicer than his section of Brooklyn. Mason knew that Wilhelm provided a good life for his wife and daughter, and the house spoke to that. It was a little bigger than the others on the street, it seemed more recently updated than the others, and it had a large truck with Wilhelm’s business logo parked right in front. What surprised Mason the most was the small one car garage that was cut into the front of the home, and the way Kyoshi’s father easily maneuvered the sedan into the compact space.
“Home sweet home,” Wilhelm looked over his shoulder at the women in his life.
Mason felt like he was intruding on the moment until Kyoshi smiled that inviting smile at him. She wanted him to be a part of this, and in that moment he felt like the luckiest man in the world.
“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!” Seth and Liz belted out their horrible rendition of the famous Christmas song to the other unamused members of the first class cabin.
“Come on everyone, where’s your holiday spirit!” the mimosa in Liz’s hand came dangerously close to spilling as she got to her feet; but Liz was a professional. If there was a cardinal sin among college students it was spilling your booze.
“Take a look in the five-and-ten, it’s glistening once again. With candy canes and silver lanes that glow!” Liz belted out more lines to frowns and glares.
“Ah give it up, babe,” Seth grabbed her arm and pulled her down into his lap. “There’s no Christmas spirit on this flight.”
“Awwww,” Liz pouted adorably. “They’re no fun.” She pressed her lips to his and aggressively invaded his mouth with her tongue.
“Excuse me,” a flight attendant appeared and coughed diplomatically. “Could you please return to your seat and fasten your seat belt. We will be landing shortly.”
“Right-o,” Seth replied in horribly accented English. “Tally-ho love,” he playfully smacked Liz’s ass as she got off him. She giggled drunkenly.
It had been an interesting couple of flights from Orlando to the Cayman Islands. Liz had picked the destination and found a great package. It was an all-inclusive five star resort right on the beach, and best of all the legal drinking age was eighteen so they could get shit faced and not have to bring their fake I.D.s. It would have been prudent to wait, but Liz and Seth were doers by nature, so they started the party early; much to the disappointment of the businessmen and women riding in first class with them. This wasn’t spring break, but the two Supers were treating it like it.
“Ladies and gentlemen we’ve begun our descent into Owen Robert International Airport. Please bring your seats and tray tables into their upright position and fasten your seatbelt. We’ll be landing shortly.” The captain cut off the announcement.
Seth and Liz looked at each other and giggled. They were already too far gone to care. They still behaved themselves during the descent, because they didn’t want to get arrested when they landed. That would put an early end to all the fun they had planned. Of course, behaved for drunken Liz meant running her hand on the inside of Seth’s thigh once a minute to elicit a biological response.
They both knew the first thing they’d be doing when they got to their hotel room.
The landing was a little bumpy, with the plane bouncing twice before finally settling on the tarmac. The wind howled and the engines screeched as the brakes were applied and the engines went into reverse. Soon they slowed, and the two Supers felt the plane turn off the runway and towards the gates. Gates were a relative term in the Caymans. The plane had an assigned lane it turned into, but with the weather always so nice there was no actual walkway that attached to the door. Instead a set of stairs was dragged out and everyone disembarked down those.
Seth and Liz walked down those stairs and into perfection. Liz had done all the research before booking the package, and part of the reason they came the Caymans was because of its weather consistency. The averages fluctuated between seventy-seven and eighty-five degrees Fahrenheit, and as they disembarked Seth put the current temperature at a comfortable eighty. It was coupled with a light sea-breeze making the moment just perfect.
“We should get some sea-breezes,” Liz read his mind, thinking of the alcoholic beverage not the weather.
<This woman is perfect,> Seth didn’t know what else to think.
Unlike the rest of the passengers who veered toward the tropically decorated welcome center, Seth and Liz took a different path. A short distance from the edge of the stairs stood a group of people. The majority had on the uniform of the resort they were staying in. Seth and Liz handed their baggage tags to the leader of these men, who quickly ran to where the bags who being unloaded from the belly of the plane. Another was a man dressed in a black suit and tie. He was holding a sign with “Abney” written on it, and Seth could see the butt of his weapon peeking out of the shoulder holster when his jacket opened in the breeze. He was the protection that his father insisted on whenever someone traveled outside the U.S.
The last man of the group wore an official looking uniform. “Welcome to the Cayman Islands, Mr. Abney. It is a pleasure having you here for you holiday vacation,” the man’s voice was formally accented. After all, the Cayman Islands were technically a territory of the United Kingdom. “I will be walking you through the declaration process. Please follow me.”
Seth and Liz followed the uniformed man into the welcome center, but to a separate section of the building. A section designed specifically to process Supers entering the country. The U.K. had a strict policy of declaration of any Supers entering their territories. It was all a formality that Seth had to endure whenever he traveled, so he wasn’t nervous. Liz didn’t seem to care either.
The process was quick and painless. It started with a review of their travel documents, followed by a description of their abilities, and a brief demonstration. The U.K. had their own ranking system for Super’s, and Seth never learned what they classified him as. They both did as they were instructed, and were quickly passed along to their waiting limo. It was one thing to follow procedure, but it was another thing to keep wealthy visitors unnecessarily occupied.
The minute the door closed behind Seth, Liz was on top of him. It seemed she wanted him to occupy her full attention on the drive to the hotel. While Liz did her best to suck his face off he triggered the divider that separated them from the driver. They didn’t need the help watching them bone.
“Oh the weather outside is frightful, and the fire is so delightful…” as if on cue the car slid on a patch of black ice. Becca easily corrected, and didn’t even spill her hot chocolate.
The drive from Orlando home to Iowa usually took about twenty hours. With two drivers Becca wanted to do it in one straight shot. Once they got on the road things changed. Other colleges were getting out and more students were filling the interstates. Construction was everywhere along the route they’d planned, and then they hit a snowstorm when they got into Missouri on I-70 West.
“Let’s stop and get a room for the night,” snow was falling so thick Anika could only see a dozen feet in front of her.
Becca pouted as she watched the cars driving all around her with flashing yellow hazard lights. “Okay,” the speedster didn’t want to spend the money, but getting in a car accident would really affect her performance at the beginning of the next semester.
Becca pulled off the highway in some middle of nowhere town in Missouri that was basically a couple of hotels right of the highway and a diner. The parking lots were already packed with drivers who had the same idea Anika did. Becca pulled into the first place she saw, a little rinky-dink motel, and found one of the last parking spots.
Together the two Supers cut a furrow through the parking lot’s already ankle high snow and into the office. Behind the desk, looking a little harried was an old man. Becca put on a big smile as she approached, praying that her cuteness might be able to get them one of the last rooms.
“Hiya, Sir,” Becca was short enough that she perched on her tippy-toes to rest her forearms on the counter. “It’s really comin’ down out there,” she gestured with her thumb back outside. “Can we please get a room to ride it out?”
“I’m sorry, young lady,” the old man looked genuinely upset that he couldn’t help out. “We’ve only got two rooms with queens in them left.”
Becca cocked her head to the side, unsure of why that could be an issue. “That’s no problem, Sir. We can make them work,” she looked over her shoulder and smiled at her girlfriend.
When Becca turned back to face the old man, the concerned smile he’d been wearing had vanished. Instead, he frowned down at them and his eyes squinted in noticeable anger. “You best be gettin’ along now.” He waved them toward the door dismissively. “We don’t serve your kind here.”
“Your kind,” Becca’s mouth dropped open as she instinctually grabbed one of her braids. “You don’t serve Supers?”
It wasn’t uncommon for some people or businesses to be discriminatory towards Supers. Becca hadn’t dealt with it in her small hometown because everyone knew everyone. Everyone knew little Rebecca Whitfield was a Super, but they also knew her as the cute little girl who used to run around the hay maze in the pumpkin patch laughing and squealing with joy. She’d learned about the intolerance during her time in Orlando.
Becca also knew there were laws in place to protect Supers from this type of discrimination. Becca squared her shoulders and stared right back into the man’s eyes. “You know it is illegal to discriminate against Supers.”
“I ain’t discriminatory toward Supers. Hell, those Heroes are one of the best things to happen to this country,” the man still squinted angrily at them. “We just don’t serve you homosexuals.”
Becca felt like she’d been slapped. She took a step back, and found herself suddenly enveloped in Anika’s arms. She looked up to see her girlfriend’s eyes full of fire and brimstone. Becca knew that look, it was the look Anika had on her face before she kicked major butt.
“Ani, no,” Becca whispered so only Anika could hear. “It’s not worth it.”
The tension in Anika’s body didn’t ease until Becca placed her hand on top of the hers. The old man watched it all with a bigoted sneer. So Becca made sure to tilt her head upward and give Anika a tiny kiss.
“Get out or I’m callin’ the cops!” the man looked uncomfortable and disgusted as he reached for the phone.
Anika looked ready to fight it. She was ready to stay there, wait for the cops, and then tell them what a big pile of poop this man was for refusing service to them. Becca was about to join her when she thought a few steps ahead. A police report, and possible arrest, would set them back or even get them expelled from the HCP. If they ended up thrown in jail they’d have to have someone come and pick them up, and that meant someone from Becca’s family would have to drive five plus hours to get them. That was not how she wanted to start of the Christmas season, and it was not the rumor she wanted to get around her town about Anika. Small towns were great, but rumors spread like wildfires after a lightning strike.
“Fine,” Becca’s level-headedness prevailed. With a little bit of pressure on her arm she got Anika to follow her back out into the swirling snow.
“What a sack of shit,” Anika fumed as they brushed off the car. From the level of Anika’s temper, Becca half expected the snow to melt right off as she swept it away with her bare hand.
“He was mean, but that’s what he believes,” Becca tried to be empathetic.
“What!” Anika rounded on her like Becca had slapped her.
“That’s not what I mean,” Becca tried to organize her thoughts. “You know when my parents came for parents’ weekend.” It was an experience neither of them was likely to forget. You only came out of the closet to your parents once. “They didn’t handle it super well because they grew up in a place like this,” Becca motioned to the wall of white obscuring the small mid-western town. “Don’t get me wrong,” she hastily added. “It still hurts when people judge us because we love each other, but I get where their mind is at.”
Anika’s tempered cooled during the explanation, and she read between the lines. “You think this isn’t going to be the last time we run into this during break?” she asked it like it was a question, but they both knew the answer.
“The people in my town are good people,” Becca pleaded, and she didn’t know why. “I’ve known most of them my whole life. They just don’t understand because they don’t know anyone like us, and all people have ever said to them is that God doesn’t want it that way.”
Anika nodded, and reached out to wipe a tear from Becca’s cheek. The speedster didn’t even realize she was crying.
“I guess I wanted you to come home with me for two reasons. The first is because I love you and I want you to see this other part of me. Not city-slicker me, but farmer-girl me; the me I’ve been for basically my entire life.”
“And the second reason is because you want to show your town that we’re not something to be hated or despised,” Anika finished the explanation.
“Yeah,” Becca sighed, glad that Anika knew where she was coming from.
“That’s really brave,” Becca looked, and now Anika was the one beating back tears.
“Oh, Ani,” Becca laughed, smiled, and pulled the other woman into a hug.
“Shit, I’m sorry,” Anika wiped away the tears with one hand while she kept the other securely wrapped around Becca’s shoulders. “You’re just so awesome. I don’t know how I got so lucky.”
Normally Becca would say that Anika was the awesome one and they’d go back and forth for ten minutes, but this time she just accepted the compliment and hugged her girlfriend tighter. They held the hug for a while, until their teeth started to chatter from the cold, and their hair was white with snow.
Anika finally broke the hug and smiled. “Ok, enough of that,” they wiped away the last of their tears, and made sure that their eyes weren’t too puffy. “Let’s go find a place to stay. Hopefully this town isn’t completely full of assholes.”
It wasn’t. They tried a chain hotel next door, and both women were pretty sure that the guy who checked them in was gay.
The masked teleporter didn’t say a thing as they blinked into existence in a small living room. The man wasn’t a Hero. He wore a fine suit, sturdy but expensive shoes, and an air of professionalism that screamed private industry. Angela didn’t even have time to say thank you before he vanished.
The angelic shifter assumed that her parents had arranged for the transportation home, but neither of them was there. She didn’t expect them to be. They were Heroes and they had important work to do. Angela had work to do too.
She headed upstairs to unpack her bag. She’d left the majority of her stuff back in Orlando, and only brought what was absolutely necessary. She didn’t even know if she would be staying long. This was a DVA sponsored house. She’d been in enough of them to notice the bland, standardized furnishings. Her parents owned a few properties around the country, but they rarely spent any time at any of them. There was just too much to do. Lives needed to be saved or training needed to be conducted. There was no time for luxuries like a vacation.
The soft footfalls coming up the stairs caught her by surprise. They were almost unnoticeable, but not atypical of her parents. “Hey Mo…” the dart hit her in the neck and she immediately felt the world begin to spin.
<Idiot,> was her last thought before she fell backwards onto the bed and lost all control of her body.
Angela still had all of her senses, but her body didn’t respond. Whatever the tip of the dart was poisoned with, it completely paralyzed her. A handful of emotions flooded her consciousness, but all of them disappeared except for one when her attacker stepped into view.
Sophia Martin looked down at her daughter without empathy. She was in her shifted form. It was similar to Angela’s but with specific differences. They both had the expansive bronze wings, but Seraphim was naturally unarmored. The armor she wore was custom created by a tech genius, and cost more than a middle class family made in five years. The older shifter also lacked the full body glow that seemed to emanate from Angela. Instead, Seraphim’s eyes had a subtle burn to them. Beneath a helm of black, tech genius developed metal, they looked downright savage. But the thing that stood out the most was her tail. Angela had no tail, but her mother’s barbed appendage swung lazily behind her. If Angela had to guess the poison came from that tail.
“I thought my alma mater was going to teach you to be vigilant,” despite her intimidating appearance, Seraphim’s voice had an angelic quality to it. A quality that was perplexing considering the fangs in her mouth. “Instead you walk complacently into a trap.”
Angela wanted to respond but she couldn’t. She had to lie there and take the verbal bashing.
“No daughter of mine will be second best,” the comment seemed to be more for her mother’s sake that Angela’s. Seraphim’s hulking form appeared directly above Angela. “This is not a vacation. You will train, you will get stronger, and you will return to school to retake the number one ranking. Do you understand?”
Angela couldn’t respond, and even if she could it would have been yes.
“Excellent,” suddenly her father was beside her mother, his expression hidden behind his African mask. “Let’s go.”
Hunter reached out and grabbed his wife and daughter’s hands. The world spun and suddenly overwhelming heat slapped Angela in the face. She saw nothing but green and sunlight everywhere. She could feel stuff moving below her; worms or bugs squirming in the earth.
“The paralysis will wear off in another minute,” Seraphim spread her wings wide and blocked out the sun. “There is a camp one hundred miles from here at a thirty-three degree azimuth. You need to be there tomorrow morning at nine a.m. you will be unable to shift for another eight hours after the paralysis wears off, so you’re going to have to hustle if you want to make it on time. If you make it on time you can come home. If you don’t then we do this all over again. Understood?”
Angela could already feel the tingling working its way through her body, and she was able to give a small nod.
“Good, we hope to see you for Christmas dinner.” With her piece said, Seraphim and Hunter both disappeared leaving Angela alone to survive in some jungle somewhere.
<I really hate my family,> Angela didn’t even feel bad for the thought. She had other things to worry about.
One step at a time, using her watch with a magnetic compass, Angela headed toward her destination.