Daisy felt like she was having an out of body experience as she left Kevin’s house. She’d talked with the old Hero until the sun started to peek over the horizon. She needed to get back to her hotel quickly before the ForceOps surveillance team noticed she was gone. But her heart wasn’t totally in it. What she had learned from Mastermind had shattered her self-identity. If she was caught she wouldn’t really care.
<I’ve killed people.> That particular thought stuck with Daisy.
Daisy had killed lots of people over her half-century Hero career. That was the nature of the job. Not everyone could be saved, and some people had to be put down. But this was different. She’d taken orders from her government to assassinate people. These weren’t criminal Supers who were causing too much damage to take in alive; these were rival heads of state, communists that democratic nations needed gone, and important military members throughout the world. Mastermind even told her of how they’d broken into a North Korean testing facility back in the 90s and set their nuclear program back a decade.
<Not only that, but I’ve broken a shit ton of laws. Am I any better than the criminals I arrested? Did Mastermind and I help shape the course of human history from behind the scenes by spilling the blood of our enemies.> She felt her head start to hurt just at the thought. <Nope…not going to go there. That’s too big, way too fucking big. Focus on the small stuff and breath.>
Daisy took deep breaths in through her nose, held them, and let them out slowly through her mouth. Dr. Johnson’s techniques worked in a variety of situations, but she doubted her shrink would have imagined that “I used to do wet work for ForceOps” was one of the reasons he was teaching her to calm down from.
Getting back into the hotel was more difficult than getting out due to the growing light in the sky. She ended up getting in the same way that she got out. She had to create a distraction; all that cost was twenty bucks and a bum willing to wash a windshield. All she did was jump back up into her second hotel room. Thankfully, she got it on the first try; which was a miracle in itself. Repeatedly trying to jump into a third floor window was bound to draw attention.
<Maybe I’ve had a lot of practice.> Daisy’s memories were more open now. Mastermind had filled in some of the gaps, but she still wasn’t whole.
“Maybe one day.” Kevin answered when she asked if she’d ever get all her memories back. “But we need to ease into it. It’s like when you’ve been in freezing cold water for too long. <Because for some reason they’d both been in that situation at some point.> You can’t go jump right into hot water to get warm. If you warm up to quickly the blood will rush back to your heart and overwhelm it. You’ve got to do it gradually. It’s never what anyone wants to do, but it’s what you need to do to survive. This is just like that. I don’t want to overwhelm your mind and turn you into a vegetable.”
Daisy exited her secondary room and quickly proceeded to her original room. She didn’t know how long she had before the colonel sent his men to take her to see Mastermind. She was exhausted, despite spending a few hours unconscious and being telepathically worked on. That amounted to shitty sleep. She didn’t even bother to slip out of her clothes before she flopped down onto the bed. She was out a few seconds after her head hit the pillow.
She didn’t get much sleep.
After what felt like a couple of minutes, but was actually a couple of hours, rapid knocking woke her up. It was one of those wakeups where you either strangled the person who was waking you up or you smashed your alarm clock into little pieces. Since Daisy couldn’t do either, she had to get up and answer the door.
“Ma’am.” A young soldier wearing creased jeans and a button-down shirt stood with a ridged posture at the door.
<Looks like you drew the short straw, kid,> Daisy groggily thought.
“We’re ready for you.”
“And I’m not ready for you,” she shot back. “I’ll be down in thirty. I’ve got to shower, shave, and shit. Why don’t you and your friends grab some coffee and I’ll see you soon.”
The young soldier looked too shocked to respond when Daisy slammed the door in his face. She doubted he was used to hearing that a girl needed to take a shit before she was ready to go. <You learn something new every day,> she smiled as she stripped, cranked up the hot water, and jumped into the shower.
She was distinctly aware that she was literally going to learn new things about herself as Mastermind slowly restored her memory.
Thirty minutes later, maybe thirty-five if you were being stingy; which the looks on the ForceOps team said that they were, Daisy entered the lobby. There was no coffee, just a general sense of urgency in getting from the hotel to Mastermind’s house. The soldiers watched her the whole way. They didn’t show any emotions, which made her wonder if they knew she’d snuck out last night.
<Or they’re trying to trick me into revealing I snuck out last night?> Colonel Ford wasn’t dumb, and he’d probably anticipated something like that.
Whatever their true motivations were, it was best for Daisy if she acted like this was all a new experience. Of course, that was easier said than done. She’d never been a great actor, and she was playing for high stakes.
They pulled up in front of Mastermind’s house, which she’d never seen. “Is this it?” she asked genuinely.
“Let us secure the perimeter,” a large soldier, most likely a strongman, ordered. If Daisy had to put money on it this was the guy in charge.
Still, looking around the neighborhood, Daisy didn’t see any villains or foreign military operatives looking to get the jump on them. “After you, Captain America,” she shrugged, trying to play off her nervousness as irritation.
“I’m a Major,” the man replied, but that only got an eye roll from Daisy.
<The more pissed off I can make them the less likely they’ll notice that I’ve been here before.> It was a solid plan, and looked like it might even be fun.
The ForceOps team consisted of four men, including the major. One headed into the backyard, and two more took up positions in the front. The young soldier must have been a weak advanced mind, because he closed his eyes for a minute. When he opened them he gave a thumbs up to the major, and that was there cue to go.
“The Sergeant can sense hostile intent,” the major informed, as he watched Daisy give the sergeant the once over. “He’s handy to have in a negotiation, so if you plan on getting hostile we’ll know and I’ll stop you.”
Daisy couldn’t stop herself from laughing in the big major’s face. “Good luck with that big guy.” She gave his thick bicep a pat before walking ahead of him and straight into Mastermind’s house.
“Good morning, Major.” Kevin was sitting at the kitchen table sipping a cup of coffee.
Daisy had only briefly been in the room when she charged into the house and hid behind the granite countertop; so she let the major lead the way.
“Hello, Sir.” The response was professional but with an undertone of “don’t step over the line or else”. They’d been here yesterday and made it clear what Kevin could and couldn’t talk about.
They all sat down at the kitchen table, and Kevin started the conversation. “Hello, Daisy. You don’t remember me but my name is Kevin. We’ve been friends for a very long time and I have some things I want to tell you…”
Having a conversation you’ve already had, and pretending it was the first time you’ve had it was hard. Thankfully, Kevin didn’t go into nearly as much detail as before. He told Daisy that they had worked together for ForceOps a few times over the years, and that the majority of their relationship had been as Heroes in the U.S. The reason she didn’t remember a lot of those interactions was because all of her memories had to be erased to keep the covert foreign operations a secret. He didn’t go into any detail at all on how those memory wipes had monumentally fucked her up.
Daisy kept her mental shields up during the entire talk because there was no guarantee that the major had told her the full range of the sergeant’s mental abilities. Still, when Kevin was forced to skip the part about her mental degradation she couldn’t quite keep her thoughts to herself.
<Way to cover your ass ForceOps!> Kevin took that moment to tell a bad joke, which was good, or else his smile would have tipped off the observant soldiers that something was up.
The ForceOps approved conversation with Mastermind was a lot shorter than the one she’d had with him the previous night. But the one thing that did stick out was when they started discussing Saif al-Din. Instead of keeping the information a secret, the major did the exact opposite. He pulled out a thick file on the Super and dropped it right in front of Daisy.
“Saif al-Din,” the major started to explain. “Is one of the most wanted men in the world. He’s on the FBI, CIA, Interpol, every European police agency, and Mossad’s lists of people to kill on sight.”
It was an extreme statement, but Daisy didn’t want to think too much about it. In quite a few cases she’d been the person doing the killing.
“He’s the monster we dealt with in that initial flashback you had,” Kevin stated. Her flashback to that night in the desert had been fair game as far as ForceOps was concerned. Primarily, because she already knew about it, and secondly because it involved al-Din.
“His real name is unknown, and our only photo of him is nearly a decade old.” The major turned the page and showed Daisy a grainy black and white photo taken from a distance.
Even though the photo had poor resolution Daisy could tell the man was handsome. He had a carefully maintained beard and mustache in his culture’s fashion. He wore tan body armor and a slung AK-47 with a confidence that showed he knew how to use it. He looked like a leader and a dangerous man.
“The reason you were on the desert mission was because we suspected al-Din’s involvement. As far as we know you’re the only Super who has a chance at stopping him.”
“Saif al-Din is a shifter with an adaptive healing capability,” the major informed. “His shifted form will heal the damage done to him, but the newly healed part of the creature’s body will be resistant to that type of attack. It’s a formidable power, and one that has caused us and our allies headaches over the last two decades.”
“So basically anyone who goes up against this guy only has one chance to take him down.” Daisy saw the problem. “But he’s got to be a top tier healer, which would be tough for me.”
“Our current doctrine would be to have you attack him with your signature power from a distance while other Heroes and ForceOps soldiers engage in close combat. We know it will take time to wear him down, but we’re confident that we can succeed.”
“This sounds more like a recruiting pitch than a rundown on the guy.” Daisy shot a sideways glance at the major.
“It’s both,” the man stated matter-of-factly. “We have it on good authority that al-Din has recently been sighted in the U.S., and he has a particular grudge against you.”
<I’ll stop by, kill you, kill everything you’ve ever loved, and then I’ll take back what you have stolen from me.> The monster’s words from the desert echoed in Daisy’s mind.
Everything clicked into place.
<Anika…New York…John…the Patriots…> If she wasn’t surrounded by the ForceOps guys she would have crawled into a corner and cried herself dry.
Kevin knew she’d connected all the dots, and he did his best to give her a comforting look.
It didn’t help too much.
<Get it together, Daisy.> She battled with a tsunami of depression that threatened to overwhelm her.
“I have a lot to think about.” Despite her best efforts, her voice cracked a little bit. “I’m just gonna grab some fresh air.”
Kevin held up a hand to stop the major from following her out the front door.
As she stepped onto the front lawn the sergeant’s head whiped around, and his eyes widened at the sight of her. “Ma’am, are you ok?” His hand slowly drifted toward the sidearm strapped to his thigh.
His power had triggered when he saw her.
Daisy was so caught up in the sadness that she almost missed the rage bubbling just beneath it. She didn’t bother trying to take deep breaths or deal with her issues in a constructive way. She just wanted to feel the wrath. She wanted to be the old Reaper for just a few seconds. She wanted to be the woman who’d been feared by everyone. The woman who’d kicked ass across the globe, and the only woman who could stand up to that monster al-Din.
“I’m fine.” Her demonic eyes bored into the sergeant’s soul like the gates of Hell. “I just realized that someone needs to die, and I’m going to be the one to do it.”
The air had a crispness to it you just couldn’t get in Orlando. Even in the winter, Florida air had a mugginess in it. You couldn’t escape it; but Iowa was different. It reminded Anika a lot of Montana.
<It’s the peacefulness,> she concluded, as she rounded the curve of the track at a light jog. It needed to be a light jog so it looked like she was moving at normal human speeds.
Anika’s adoptive family had called the other day to wish her a Merry Christmas; which was probably why she was feeling a little homesick. It was hard to be homesick when you’d moved over fifteen times in eighteen years, but Anika still felt a little pang of sadness every once and a while. She loved her new family dearly. They’d taken in a half-barbaric little girl from the other side of the world and turned her into a lady; or something approximating that. Anika had never been the dresses, tea party, and playing with dolls type of girl; but that worked well for her family’s current cover story as ranchers.
<How ya doin’ over there?> Becca’s question cut across her mind just as she stepped across the finish line.
Anika’s petite blue-haired girlfriend had already done around two dozen miles in the time it took Anika to do three. She could show off her power here because it was her hometown, and as Anika had learned, everybody knew everything about everybody in this town.
It hadn’t been more than a few days and already Becca and Anika’s confrontation with Ben had spread through the entire town. Nobody was saying anything, but you could see it in the way they stared.
<It’s probably the biggest thing to happen to this town since sliced bread.> Becca had brushed off the new curiosity the town had in her, but Anika could tell it was gradually getting under her skin.
When word had reached Becca’s parents they’d drawn away slightly at first, but then firmly stood beside their daughter. It warmed Anika’s heart to see the Whitfield’s standing behind their daughter because she deserved their support.
“We should head back and change.” Anika didn’t miss the trepidation in Becca’s voice. “We don’t want to be late.”
It was the annual Christmas pageant being performed at the town’s one and only school. Everyone from kindergarten to seniors in high school took part in it. The whole town would be there.
As Anika and Becca left the track behind the school they could already see people setting up. The sets were getting a final coat of paint out front, moms and teachers were running around with robes in their arms to be distributed, and a truck full of food was getting unloaded for the after party. Even a few kids were milling around.
A lot of them stopped and stared as Anika and Becca walked by, and there was more than one unhappy look in the crowd.
<It’s going to be fine.> Anika shot a reassuring thought to her girlfriend. <You’re the smartest, bravest, coolest, and not to mention fastest girl I know. Sticks and stones may break your bones but words can never hurt you. On the other hand, my fist will crush their bones into a fine power that I’ll force-feed them if they insist on being a bunch of douchebags.>
That got a laugh from Becca. She slipped her hand into Anika’s and gave her the thousand watt smile that made Anika’s heart skip a beat. <Thanks.> The speedster didn’t need to say anything more than that.
They hurried back to Becca’s house, showered, and changed for the pageant. Becca emerged from the bathroom in the most conservative dress Anika had ever seen. It had a high collar that completely obscured any cleavage, it was long-sleeved and went all the way down to her wrists, and was long enough that it even touched the floor. It was something you’d see on a nineteenth century Victorian aristocrat, not a twenty-first century teenager.
“Ok.” Anika wasn’t sure what to say. “How about you just throw on jeans and a blouse and we’ll go like normal people.” It was a little blunter than intended, and Anika immediately regretted her words.
“Ugh…” Becca let out an exasperated sigh. “No, you’re right. I’m over-thinking this.” She gave Anika’s outfit an appraising look and smiled. “You look cute, that blouse makes your eyes pop.” Anika had picked it for just that reason.
Twenty minutes later they were ready to go. Becca’s parents had gone ahead with the younger kids to get them into costume and help them set up; so the two college freshmen had to fend for themselves. They could have run to the school, but they took Becca’s car instead.
If Anika was being truthful she would have rather run. She was feeling a little restless lately. It was quite a change of pace to go from the constant stress and vigorous activity of the HCP to a small quiet Midwest town. She kept expecting Coach Meyers to emerge from the shadows to test their constant vigilance.
<That’s stupid. She’s got better things to do with her winter break.> Anika had told herself the first time she eyed a particularly large show. She knew she was being paranoid, but she still kept a close eye on those shadows. <Seems like something rubbed off on me after all.>
The school’s parking lot was full, which meant that the entire town was present. Becca was just able to snatch the last spot at the back of the lot. It left them with a decent walk to the doors, and plenty of time to see what was ahead of them.
“I’ve got dumb, dumber, and dumbest waiting at the door.” Anika saw them first with her height advantage. “This could be trouble.”
“Ben’s all talk and no action.” Becca tried to defend the high school football star, but it fell flat. “I’m sure everything will be fine.”
They didn’t have to wait long to find out.
Anika and Becca started to walk up the steps but Ben and his posse stepped in front of them.
It was more than just the two other guys he’d had with him at the family-run supermarket. There were a dozen people this time. A few were kids their age, some looked like parents, and there was even an elderly couple. All of them stared Becca down like she was some sort of thing rather than a person. Anika instinctually took a step in front of her girlfriend.
“Nobody wants you here Becca, so don’t make this difficult. Just go home and stay away from the school. We don’t need you corruptin’ the youth.” The last sentence was from the elderly woman who had something just below a sneer on her face.
Anika’s link with Becca was deeper than her mental link with other people when using her telepathy. It might have been all the time they spent together, or the deep emotional bond they’d developed; but either way Anika knew that the people in front of Becca had just stepped on her heart and mushed it into the ground like rotten fruit.
<Ah hell no!> Anika’s temper flared, and it took a lot of restraint to keep her from knocking that bigoted asshole straight into next week.
<Ani, no…> Becca must have seen the look on her face, but Anika promptly shut her out.
Anika held up a hand for Becca to stay as she stepped towards Ben. <Develop a plan and execute it with the fewest amount of casualties.> Anika remembered the words of wisdom spoken by her coaches over the last semester. <Sometimes the best fights don’t need to be fought at all. Sometimes all it takes is a Hero’s reputation to end a fight.>
Anika rolled up the sleeves of her jacket to reveal the intricate, feminine, tattoos that had been a part of her for as long as she could remember. With her emotional state elevated to “pissed off” they glowed and pulsed with silver light.
The intimidation tactic worked. Ben and his group of assholes took a step back, but they didn’t flee. Anika stopped when she was inches from Ben’s face, and even though he was several inches taller, he seemed to shrink before her eyes.
“So you go to Iowa State, right?” she asked conversationally, taking the group by surprise. “Football scholarship?”
“Yeah, I’m a quarterback.” Ben’s chest puffed out the way that men’s do when they’re proud of something trivial.
“I bet you need a good arm for that?”
“Yeah.” Ben wasn’t sure where Anika was going with this.
“Let’s make a deal, Ben.” Anika relaxed her posture and crossed her arms. “You and your group of fucknuggets get out of our way, or I rip off your precious arm and slap the shit out of everyone here. That sound good?” Anika’s smile widened at the dumbfound look on the dozen faces surrounding her.
The old man reached into his belt and Anika saw a flash of metal. She just laughed in his wrinkled face. “That won’t do you any good, Sir.” She still remained respectful. “You pull that gun and this whole situation escalates, and I am justified in doing more than slapping the shit out of you. In fact, this is a school zone, and I doubt the authorities will take kindly to someone firing off a gun around kids. Hell, they might even call me a hero for stopping you.”
“What is going on here?” Anika breathed a sigh of relief as the authoritative mind she’d felt approaching finally arrived.
Anika didn’t know who he was, but judging by the look on Becca’s face this was the guy that would make everything better.
“People better start talking.” His eyes widened when he saw the old man’s hand on his pistol. “What the hell are you doing Arthur? Put that away right now or I’m going inside to get the Sherriff.” The old guy still looked like he wanted nothing more than to shoot Anika, but he took his hand off his pistol and covered it with his coat.
“Thank you, Sir,” Anika addressed the new man. “We were just coming to see the pageant, and these people were stopping us from entering.”
“Ben?” The new arrival turned to the small group’s leader.
“Principal Swartz, we mean no disrespect but…” He pointed at Anika and Becca. “We can’t let the kids see this. Morals are the pillar of our community.”
“Yeah.” The old guy sounded like he’d smoked a pack a day for the last thirty years. “We can’t have their kind gettin’ their ways in the heads of our young’ins.” Anika was waiting for him to spit out a wad of tobacco, but it never came.
“That’s enough!” The principal’s tone cut everyone off. “Everyone inside now. This is a season of joy and giving, not of hate.” There was grumbling, but everyone did what the man said.
Anika and Becca were the last to pass him, and he put out a hand to stop them. “I’m not going to stop you,” he stated clearly when he saw the look on Anika’s face. “But you need to know something Becca. Your…this…” the situation clearly wasn’t something the principal was used to dealing with. “Is a shock to the community? A chunk of people have already gone to the bank and demanded that it release the money they put into a scholarship for you.”
Becca looked like she’d been punched in the gut. Anika reached out and steadied her.
“It’s not everyone.” The principal tempered the bad news with the good. “People might not be comfortable with it, but three quarters of the town still supports you becoming a Hero.”
“There’s educational loans from the government and you could apply for aide from the university. “Anika ticked down the list of things she’d had to consider when applying to West. “If you only need a quarter of everything then you’ll be just fine. You’ll be a lot better than most of us when it comes to school debt,” Anika smiled, and gave her girlfriend a reassuring squeeze.
Becca smiled back, but Anika could tell this whole situation had hit her hard. “If you want to go home we can.” It was the last thing Anika wanted to do, but she’d do what Becca wanted.
“No.” The answer came quickly.
There was determination in Becca’s voice now. Anika wanted to kiss her. This was the girl she’d fallen in love with; but that might be a little too much for the principal to handle. He was doing better than most, but he needed to be eased into it.
“We’re gonna stay, but we’ll sit in the back.” It was a good compromise.
Even in the back of the room they got plenty of stares. The thoughts Anika picked up indicated that there were just as many people watching them as there were watching the pageant. The stares ran the gambit. Ben and his group stared daggers at them through the entire performance, but they were the minority. Some people just stared back with a confused look. They all remembered little Rebecca Whitfield and they’d never even suspected she might be gay; but if anything their thoughts were neutral. They didn’t know what to make of the situation.
The part that warmed Anika’s heart was the majority of stares they got. A lot of people looked back at her and Becca and smiled. Despite all of Becca’s fears about her conservative town rejecting her, Anika could hear the people’s support for her. Principal Swartz was right. About three quarters of the town still stood behind Becca and her dream to become a Hero. A Hero was a Hero, it didn’t matter what their sexuality was.
The whole situation helped Anika too. She was slow to trust and quick to anger, especially when someone threatened innocent Becca. Going home with the speedster for Christmas had been a good idea. Their training was going to suffer, but she guessed they wouldn’t be alone there. What Anika gained was far more valuable…trust. Trust in Becca, trust in strangers, and trust in herself to make the right decisions; even if she was a little dramatic in the decision making process.