The neighborhood looked like any one of the other hundred suburban enclaves around Orlando. The grass was green, even after the cold spell that just swept through the region. The palm trees were blowing in the breeze, and at least half the population was in retirement. Somehow the scenery didn’t fit the impression that Daisy had about Laurie.
Daisy parked her car down the street. She would have parked closer but the driveway was already full, and the neighbors on either side had put cones in front of their driveways to keep people away. Daisy didn’t mind the walk. She was actually feeling a little nervous.
It was like she was back in high school all over again. Daisy had been awkward back then. She’d been kept at home a lot due to her eyes, and had never really socially developed until college. She’d also just started growing into her body, and was not as confident as she was today. She’d never been invited to the cool people’s parties; but if she had, she imaged she’d be feeling like this.
<Of all the stupid shit to be nervous about,> Daisy scoffed at her emotions. <You basically learned that you were a government assassin for forty years, routinely had your brains scrambled, and happen to have one of the most dangerous terrorist Supers in the world who wants to gut you like a Thanksgiving turkey. But sure let’s go and be nervous about spending an afternoon with Laurie’s family.> That thought brought her to the front door.
Beyond the door it sounded like a small herd of elephants was running back and forth. Daisy only waited a moment before knocking.
Laurie didn’t answer the door, but a clearly pubescent boy in his late teens did. Daisy could practically see the boy blush and his pulse go through the roof as he stared momentarily at Daisy’s chest before looking up into her eyes. “Um…” he stammered.
Instead of crushing the young man’s spirits, and possibly instilling an inferiority complex on him, Daisy smiled politely. “Hi, is Laurie here?”
“M…Mom!” The boy called, still looking at her with wide eyes.
“What’s your name?” Daisy asked calmly. It was like talking to a stray dog you didn’t want to scare it off.
“This is David, and please excuse him.” Laurie appeared behind her son with her hands on her hips. “Stop gawkin’ at the lady and go corral your nieces and nephews.” She rolled her eyes as David disappeared back into the house. “Sorry about that, but you know…boys.”
“It’s ok.” Daisy face brightened into a genuine smile. “Thanks for having me over Laurie, it really means a lot.”
“After you made that semester bearable it’s the least I can do.” She smiled back, and they exchanged a hug. “Now hurry in here and meet the family.”
It turned out that Laurie had a big family. Her husband looked to be a few years older and didn’t seem to move too well, but he had a kind smile and a bad joke always ready. Daisy always throught of an old, lovable family dog when she saw him.
Then there were the kids, and grandkids. Apparently, Laurie and her husband had not slacked off in the reproduction department. They had six all together, but only five were present. The third child was a Marine on deployment.
The oldest two were both married and had their own rugrats running around; which explained the stampeding sound that occurred every couple of minutes. Between the two of them they had five more kids added to the mix, one of which was less than a year old.
The left Laurie’s two youngest: David and his twin brother Paul. Despite being twins they couldn’t be more different. David looked like your stereotypical computer science major. He was a little on the hefty side with a persistent case of acne that only seemed to be clearing up now. He talked a lot about role playing games and first person shooters, but he was clearly very smart. Laurie said more than once how he had a 3.8 GPA from MIT and a full academic scholarship. His status as a tech genius Super didn’t hurt. David was a low level technopath. He wasn’t HCP worthy, but he’d make a good living in the technology business.
While David seemed to take after his lovable father from what Daisy had observed in their short time together; Paul seemed to have gotten Laurie’s genes. Paul was the athletic twin. He didn’t have the same baby fat that David was slowly losing, and he didn’t have the same attitude. Paul was blunt and straightforward like his mother. He also had the telltale signs of a just completing his first semester at an HCP.
“Paul and David are so…” Daisy didn’t know how to phrase it politely.
“Different,” Laurie finished for her. “They always have been. They’re my twin babies, but they’ve never agreed on anything in their life.” As she said this an argument broke out about their construction methods.
One of Laurie’s family traditions was for everyone to get together on Christmas Eve and compete in a gingerbread house competition. It was more for the grandchildren, but the older children had been doing it for so long it was hard to give up. Even the mother of the newborn baby was sitting in a rocking chair and giving her husband directions. Judging by the interaction, Daisy could deduce that it was normal for that household.
“Aren’t you concerned?” Daisy pointed at the twins who’d started shoving each other.
“Nah,” she shot them a glance. “If one throws a punch let me know. They’re probably just trying to impress the pretty new girl.”
Daisy blushed, and caught both of the now wrestling boys glancing in her direction. “They know they don’t have a chance right. They’re way too young for me.”
“I’ve crushed their dreams enough in the last eighteen years. This one’s on you,” Laurie grinned, and walked away to hand the grandkids a bag of marshmallows.
Daisy wasn’t really sure what to do until David finally threw a punch at Paul. Paul dodged it easily, but that was where Laurie said to cut it off; and it gave Daisy the opening she needed.
“You two knock it off,” she called over at them. They let go of each other instantly. “Can I talk with you a second Paul?” She ignored the triumphant grin the athletic boy gave his brother before following her like a love-struck puppy.
Daisy led the way into the backyard, and shut the door behind them.
“Hey,” Paul leaned up against the side of the house with cocky grin. “I’m Paul.”
“I know numbnuts, I called you by name to come out here.” Her comment threw him off the nonexistent game he had.
Daisy quickly put an end to his pathetic attempts at a pickup. “I’m not interested in you Paul. You’re eighteen, you’re a baby to me just as much as your nieces and nephews are a baby to you.” She could see his shoulders sagging with every statement. “I didn’t bring you out here to talk about me; I brought you out here to talk about your HCP.”
Paul actually covered remarkably well for an eighteen year old, but the way his eyes widened and his slow movement into a defensive stance gave him away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Sure you do.” Daisy studied him closely.
David’s power probably had something to do with Laurie’s since there was no evidence her husband was a Super. Laurie’s power was her hands lighting up, so if she took that as a baseline and extrapolated it to HCP levels. “I’m guessing you’re some sort of light manipulator, maybe a blaster. I know you don’t go to West. Lander has a pretty good senior with what could be described as light manipulation abilities; but I don’t think you’re good enough for Lander.” She mused, ignoring Paul’s shocked expressions. “Judging by your tan, I’m going to rule out Korman and Sizemore. I guess you’re going to Overton. Is Rachd still there?”
At the mention of the Overton Close Combat instructor’s name, Paul’s jaw dropped. “How…?”
“The HCP community is pretty close knit,” Daisy shrugged. “So…are you going to show me what you got or what?”
Paul got over his shock quicker than Daisy suspected he would. “Ok, stand back.” Daisy took a few steps back.
Paul took a deep breath and then suddenly both of his arms were glowing white. He turned around and grinned at Daisy, but she returned his gaze with a bored one of her own.
“Watch this.” Paul pointed a finger at the grass and a small beam of white light shot from his finger and into the ground; immediately setting the grass on fire. “Oh shit!” Paul’s arm returned to their normal tan color as he ran to stomp out the small flames.
Daisy just shook her head. She had so many questions as the alternative instructor in her ate up the details of his power. <Can you do lethal and nonlethal? What’s your movement like? Does anyone who fights you hand to hand get a second degree burn when they make contact? Can you vary the size of your blasts?> She realized Paul was staring at her and cut the mental assessment short.
“Cool.” It was sweet, simple, and would probably make the kid work twice as hard next semester. Of course, if he was only in the HCP to get girls he wouldn’t last long.
Daisy walked back into the house and looked over the see David watching the door. He pretended that he hadn’t been watching when Daisy entered, and he failed miserably. She felt bad for the kid, so she gave him a harmless wink. The way he brightened up you’d have thought she gave him a million bucks.
“Great job.” Laurie found her ten minutes later. “David’s convinced you’ve got a secret thing for him, and Paul thinks you’re playing hard to get.”
Daisy just smiled and enjoyed the gingerbread competition. They had four hours to build their graham cracker masterpiece. Daisy helped out Laurie and her husband, and they took third place overall. Surprisingly the win went to Paul and David, and she was convinced they were still trying to impress her.
After the last few days, hanging out with Laurie’s family was a welcomed change. She could put all the other shit in her mind on the backburner and just enjoy the time with her old classmate’s awesome family. Fortunately, it wasn’t the only stop she had to make today. Topher was set to be discharged this evening. Just in time for him to introduce Daisy to his family.
If Daisy had been nervous going in to meet Laurie’s family, she was downright petrified to meet Topher’s. She could face down a murderous psychopath any day of the week, but meeting your boyfriend’s family was a whole other ballgame.
Church on Christmas Eve was something Mason was used to. In fact, church every Sunday was what he was used to. His grandmother was a devout Baptist, but even though he attended church a lot; Mason wouldn’t really consider himself religious.
When you lost your parents at a young age you tended to go one of two ways concerning God. The first was that you drew closer to him. That was what his grandmother did when she lost her child. Mason did the opposite, he pulled away. Telling a young boy that the death of his parents was due to some big guy in the sky’s master plan didn’t fly well with him. Mason still had to attend church with his grandmother. To not do so was a cardinal sin that would earn him a whoopin’. While Mason would admit a Baptist mass could be pretty entertaining, he never really contemplated the message beneath it all.
Church on Christmas Eve with Kyoshi’s family was a whole different scenario. They attended a late afternoon mass at a Lutheran church. Mason guessed that made sense. Kyoshi’s dad was German and Martin Luther was German. Mason gave himself a mental high five for remembering that little historical tidbit. That was the only high five he gave himself for the next hour.
<I’ve got nothing against these people, but this is boooooring.> Mason sent the thought Kyoshi’s way; which only got him a sly smile in return.
Compared to the Baptist masses he’d attended over the years this was a snooze fest. Everyone just sat quietly in the pews, responding robotically to something the priest said, and standing, kneeling, or sitting at the appropriate times. Mason spent most of the mass looking at the stained glass windows and studying the church itself rather than paying attention.
Once mass was over, and they exited the church into the slight chill of the late December air, Mason thought they were finished.
They hopped in the car and drove clear across town to a building that looked a lot like an ancient temple he’d seen on the history channel. They all unloaded from the car and passed under a distinctive arch and into the small temple.
There were no lights inside, but hundreds of candles made it easy to see. Mason looked around the room in fascination. <Take your shoes off.> Mason looked back and saw Kyoshi and her family removing their shoes.
Mason quickly did the same and followed Kyoshi and her mother into the building.
“We will sit and watch.” Wilhelm pointed to a bench at the back of the room.
Mason didn’t ask any questions, but he was dying to know where they were and what they were doing.
<This is a Shinto shrine,> Kyoshi clarified through their mental link. <When my mother left Japan she brought her religion with her, and she’s passed it on to me.>
All Mason knew about Shinto was that it was a religion. Other than that he had no clue what was going on or what he was supposed to be doing.
<It’s a beautiful religion,> Kyoshi and Sakura had gathered with a few other people and were starting some sort of ritual. <The way my mother has always described it to me is that it is all about building a connection to our past.>
<So there is no god in this religion?> Mason found it fascinating to have a religion without a god.
<Not quite.> As Kyoshi and her mother did the ritual, the thoughts she was projecting became laced with peace. Mason could feel it as she talked with him. Calm just seemed to radiate through her every word. <We have Kami, but they aren’t really a God. I guess the closest thing to what you believe would be the Holy Spirit. Kami is the divineness, the sacred essence of the world that can be found in all things. The shrines help us connect more deeply with Kami and get closer to our ancestors.>
The more Mason thought about it the more he saw the similarities. He’d always been taught by his grandmother that God was in everything, just like Kami; and was getting in touch with your ancestors that much different than praying for those who’d died and gone to heaven?
It didn’t take long for Mason to get lost in the calmness of this place. He watched the ritual with much more curiosity than the previous mass. He even got the impression that Kyoshi was leading them.
“I was,” she answered the question after the ceremony had finished. “Supers in Japan hold a sacred place in Shinto. The more superstitious believers think that Supers and Powereds are beings filled with Kami. The Kami allows them to do incredible things. Specifically, they place particular value on shifters.
“There are a lot of stories about Kami taking different forms in Shinto, so people believe that a shifter’s shifted form is a Kami’s true form.” She smiled up at him.
They were both thinking the same thing. If followers of the Shinto religion ever met Angela they’d have a lot of questions; specifically, why does a Kami look like a western interpretation of religion.
“I wonder what Angela is up to?” They both hadn’t heard a peep from her all break.
“Knowing her she’s probably training.” They both hoped she’d at least be taking a little bit of time to relax.
Angela stalked through the underbrush. She watched every step she took, making sure she didn’t rustle any leaves or step on any twigs. Even the slightest sound would give away her position, but at the same time her ears were looking for just the same signs of movement. Honestly, she didn’t know if she was the predator or the prey.
Angela didn’t know how long she’d been in this god-forsaken rainforest, but it must have been at least been a week. She’d gotten so dehydrated she’d started to hallucinate at some points. The training exercise her mother had devised hadn’t stopped when she reached her first objective. She got there late so she had to do it all over again. She didn’t make the rendezvous the second time either, and it took her the entire third trip to figure out why.
She couldn’t make the trip in the allotted timeframe, not if Seraphim pumped her full of that venom that stopped her from shifting. Once she’d reached the end of the third trip, again late, she didn’t shift back. She had a brief fight with the Hero, one that she lost, and then they went home.
Angela had one day off, one day to sleep in a real bed, before she woke up in a cabin in the middle of nowhere. Her mother must have gotten her in her sleep, and her father transported her here.
There was a single piece of paper lying on the table. Prepare yourself was all it said, so that was all Angela did.
There wasn’t any food, so Angela had to hunt. In her shifted form that was easy, but leaving the cabin always made her feel vulnerable. If she was preparing herself, then what was she preparing herself for? There was no answer for days, so she ate, trained, and mentally prepared herself.
The answer came on Christmas Eve.
Angela was sitting in front of the fire pulling the last bit of meat off a rabbit when a whining sound made her shift and jump to her feet. She wasn’t even halfway to the door when the cabin exploded.
One second Angela was walking toward the door, and the next she was waking up half-buried in the snow about twenty feet from the flaming wreck that she’d called home for the last few days. She shook the cobwebs from her mind and quickly assessed the situation.
It didn’t take long to find them; three people, wearing black, standing on the opposite side of the burning wreckage. They stared at each other for a few seconds before everyone sprang into action.
<The woods.> Angela knew them like the back of her hand now, and it would give her cover and concealment from her enemy.
The enemy knew she was heading that way, and they tried to cut her off. One black-clad attacker raised his hand and fired an orange beam at Angela. Angela jumped up, flapped her wings, and narrowly avoided the blast.
She looked over her shoulder as she barrel-rolled in the air to avoid any other follow-on attacks, but only saw one of the three attackers.
<Where the hell?> Her question got answered quickly.
The second black-clad attackers appeared out of thin air below her with a big rifle pointed at her.
<Dad…> She’d barely thought it when the weapon went off with a deafening roar.
If Angela’s shifted form wasn’t armor she’d probably be in trouble, but her armor saved her from the slug smashing through her body. But stopping the bullet didn’t get her off the hook. It felt like Mason had sucker-punched her in the chest. That was how hard her father’s tech genius enhanced rifle hit. It knocked the wind out of her, probably broke or at least bruised some internal organs, and it knocked her off course. She collided with a tree and fell into the forest.
The last thing she saw before falling into the sea of pines was the third attacker rise up on a set of wings and fly after her. It had been a game of cat and mouse ever since.
Carefully, Angela took a step and peered around a tree. She’d come to a clearing that she frequently set traps in. Now she had the feeling she was being trapped. Her senses had been honed by the HCP and sharpened by a break full of not-so-simulated attacks; and they served her well. She spotted the dark shape skulking in the trees, and launched an energy spear at it.
Her mother easily dodged the attack, cartwheeling into the air, and dive bombed her. Angela could have retreated back into the forest, but that was something a coward would do. She needed to stand, fight, and end this test. Instead, she summoned a shield and charged into the clearing.
If her mother was surprised by her tactic she didn’t show it. Seraphim twisted in the air, and hit Angela’s shield feet first. The resounding gong sent pine needles flying everywhere, and Angela stumbling backwards; even braced she had trouble standing up to her mother’s stronger blows.
There wasn’t time to think about it though, because Seraphim was already renewing her attack. Angela banished the shield and side-stepped one punch, batted aside another, and rolled out of the way of a high-kick that would have broken her neck.
Instinctually, she jumped into the air after she finished her roll. She knew from experience that her mother liked to poison people when they on the ground and vulnerable. While in the air, Angela summoned a sword, and swiped randomly below her.
The hiss of pain that escaped her mother’s mouth was sweet music to Angela’s ears. As she landed she saw the barbed end of Seraphim’s detached tail twitching on the ground. It was the first meaningful blow Angela had been able to land on her mother all break.
She looked up at her mother’s shifted form, at the bleeding, agitated tail sweeping back and forth behind the Hero, and couldn’t help but smile. Angela squared her stance and raised her sword for another attack…and then everything went black.
Angela woke up around noon on Christmas day. She way lying on the couch in her parent’s DVA assigned house. Her mother and father were sitting in chairs opposite her, sipping on coffee. They turned their eyes on her when she awoke.
“You forgot to check behind you.” Her father said like it was the simplest explanation in the world; which it was. “Now open your presents. You did well. ”
Getting a compliment from her dad, and then a smile from her mom, was a Christmas miracle. Angela couldn’t help but wonder if she was still unconscious from her blow to the head. Was this a good dream that would end abruptly? She expected to wake up in that clearing, her mother standing over her, and demanding she continue her training.
The beach was empty except for one candlelit table. Seth smiled as they neared it, and saw Liz’s face light up. “Merry Christmas Eve,” he grinned.
“This is awesome!” she ran to the table and plopped down in her seat.
Immediately, servers appeared form the kitchen area about a hundred yards away. They arrived with champagne and a choice of hors d’oeuvres. Seth watched Liz take it all in. She was absolutely stunning tonight in a long dress with a deep V-neck cut. She wasn’t wearing any shoes though, because who wore shoes for a private dinner on the beach?
<I don’t want this to be over.> Seth didn’t let the thought kill the positive vibe.
Originally, they’d planned to fly back on the twenty-third. That way they could attend a few family obligations. Of course, after a vacation filled of absolute bliss; neither of them wanted to go home. They extended the trip another few days. They had today and tomorrow to enjoy each other’s carefree company before they flew home on the twenty-sixth.
Seth was going to make the most of it.
The main course came out and they devoured it. They’d definitely worked up an appetite, and it wasn’t all because of the sex. They’d gone scuba diving earlier in the day to a coral reef not far from the resort. The sheer beauty of nature really put things into perspective. They’d even run into a shark. Not one of those wimpy little ones either. They’d found themselves less than a hundred feet from a Great Hammerhead. Their guide might have shit hit pants, but Liz and Seth just pointed and went to investigate. You didn’t really have anything to fear when one of you was a top tier elemental manipulator who’d been working on his control in an HCP environment for the last few months.
Seth trapped the predator in a bubble of water large enough for him to swim around in, but small enough that they could get a good look. The creature lived up to its name and rammed the solid barrier a few times before Seth let it go. He made sure to forcefully guide it in the opposite direction just in case it was thinking about revenge.
“Oh my god this is delicious!” Liz interrupted the memory as she bit into the steak.
Liz wasn’t one of those girls who only ate soups and salads. She could be a hell of a carnivore at times, and a twelve ounce filet was hard to pass up.
“I’m glad you like it.” He gulped down the rest of his glass of champagne, pulled the box from his pocket, and slid it across the table. “This is for you.”
It was an expensive looking velvet jewelry box. He saw Liz’s eyes double in size as she looked at the box, and for a second he thought about how this looked. They’d just spent a romantic getaway together, after having expressed their love for one another…
<Shit.> He quickly reached out and opened the box to reveal a necklace.
He visibly saw Liz exhale, and her eyes shrank back down to their normal, lovely, chocolate selves. She gave him a quick look, and they shared an identical thought. It was one thing to be in love, but it was a whole other ballgame to take that step. Neither of them was sober enough after a week of drinking their faces off to make that type of decision.
“It’s beautiful, Seth.” She reached for the box and took out the necklace.
The piece was expensive, but it would have been much more expensive if he’d bought it back in the States. It consisted of two hearts; one was plain white gold, and the other was diamond encrusted white gold. It didn’t take much to figure out which heart represented who; and to top it all off, they were linked together.
Seth got out of his chair, picked up the necklace and went to put it on her. Liz pulled her blonde hair away from her neck so he could see. It might make some guys time to get that little clasp open and locked into place, but not Seth. He had plenty of practice.
“Merry Christmas, Liz.” Seth returned to his seat and raised his glass.
“Merry Christmas, Seth.”
It was perfect.