<When did I start getting so nervous?> Daisy wondered as she pulled into the hospital parking lot.
Subconsciously, she’d been wondering this for a while. Since her panic attack, decertification, and drunken three-year binge across the country she’d lost a lot of her edge. She’d reacquired a portion of that since starting at West, and getting one foot back into the Hero life. But she wasn’t her old self, and she wasn’t sure she’d ever be that way again.
That was good in some ways and bad in others.
The change was even more prevalent now that Daisy knew a little bit more about her past. She used to be a stone-cold killer; and that wasn’t a metaphor. She’d been illegally contracted by ForceOps, a branch of the United States government, to find and neutralize targets that the average ForceOps assets weren’t capable of handling. And the cherry on top was that she’d been doing it for decades, and doing so had scrambled her brains.
So far it had been one hell of winter break, and it was only about to get more interesting.
Daisy got out and moved around to the other side of the car to get the door. An orderly approached pushing a wheelchair with Topher in it.
“Wow,” were his only words.
Despite herself, Daisy blushed. It wasn’t every day she got dressed up to go meet her boyfriend’s family. The outfit wasn’t really anything special. It was a light-weight, black dress that went all the way down to her shins. Even with her generous curves, Daisy would have looked like she wasn’t wearing more than a sleeveless potato sack if she just went with that. She threw a belt around her waist, and the whole outfit came together. The proper proportions were emphasized enough to be classy, but she still had full coverage; and more importantly, full momentum.
“Do I look ok?” A little bit of uncertainty crept into Daisy’s voice.
“You look more than ok, you look beautiful.” Daisy took a close look at Topher, and saw that his pupils were dilated. He was on pain meds for his injuries, but that didn’t make what he said any less of a compliment.
“Thank you.” Daisy smiled at back at him. “You look like hammered shit.”
The orderly failed to stifle a laugh, so he quickly muttered something along the lines of, “you two can take it from here” before retreating back into the hospital.
“I do, don’t I?” Topher laughed.
“Lucky for you, I like my men a little rough around the edges.” Daisy leaned in and pressed her lips up against his.
She wasn’t sure if it was the pain killers he was on, or the awkward angle of her standing and him sitting in a wheel chair; but when he went to put his arms around her, he grabbed a handful of her ass.
Because he’d been shot in the chest, Daisy gave him this moment; but she didn’t want to set a bad precedent. After a few seconds, she calmly removed his hands from her ass, and pushed him the rest of the distance to the car. It turned out he was well enough to walk, because he got into the car under his own power. Daisy returned the wheelchair to the hospital lobby, got into the driver’s seat, and headed toward Topher’s house.
Originally, the plan had been to have Topher’s family over for their Christmas Eve shenanigans on Christmas Eve. The hospital wasn’t ok with that. They wanted to monitor him for a certain amount of time to make sure his injuries didn’t worsen, and there weren’t any secondary side effects. As far as gunshot injuries went, Topher had it pretty lucky; but you couldn’t rely solely on luck to get you by. Unless you were a luck manipulator, but Daisy had only met a few of them over the years.
“So,” Daisy broke the silence. “What should I be expecting?”
It was a simple question, but there wasn’t a simple answer. Although Daisy could have, she didn’t have any of her contacts dig into Topher’s family. All she knew about them was what her boyfriend had told her, and that was far less information than any sane Hero wanted to work with.
Mr. and Mrs. Phillips were retired and lived in Daytona Beach, he was a retired police Captain, and she had been an elementary school teacher. Now they sat on their porch, less than a mile from the beach, and did whatever it was that retired people did.
Daisy tried not to think about the fact that she was older than both of Topher’s parents. Topher knew a lot about her, and her struggles over the years, but he didn’t know quite how many years she’d been talking about. And he still didn’t have all the information on her Hero days. Unfortunately, unless they got married, the DVA mandated that it stayed that way. Things were going great with Topher, but Daisy wasn’t willing to take that step. She’d been down this road more than once before, and she wanted to make sure Topher was the man she wanted; along with making sure that he stayed alive long enough for them to grow old together.
That was Daisy’s ultimate test for a man. She could theoretically live forever, something no one else had the power to do as far as she knew. Finding a person she loved more than her own life was a clear indication of true love if there ever was one. Was Topher that guy?
“I told you not to worry about it.” Topher was leaning back in the seat with his eyes closed. “My mom and dad are really laid back.”
“I have a hard time believing that a retired police captain is ‘really laid back’,” she added air quotes to the last part. “Especially, when he probably tried to look me up and couldn’t find anything beyond my basic information and the DVA cover story. I’m sure that went over really well when he told your mom about that, and she realized her baby boy was dating whatever the hell they think I am.”
By the time Daisy finished ranting; Topher had his hands up defensively and was gesturing for her to calm down.
“There might have been some questions asked early on, but I handled it.” He seemed confident.
<I’ll be the judge of that,> Daisy thought.
“Even if things are all copacetic with your parents, what about your sister?” Daisy didn’t know much about Topher’s older sister, but she knew enough about older siblings to know that they could be just as protective as parents.
<Especially, if that older sibling also happens to work for the DVA, and has access to all the details about me.> The last thing Daisy wanted to do was get into a pissing match with another DVA suit who also happened to be Topher’s sister. This whole night had the potential to go down in flames.
Topher saw the concern on her face, and reached over to gently pat her forearm. “Don’t worry so much about it. You’re awesome; I’ve told them you’re awesome. We love each other. The rest doesn’t matter.”
Daisy’s heart did a double thump in her chest. It might have been the pain meds loosening up his inhibitions, and his tongue, but Topher had said that he loved her. He hadn’t come right out and said it before. And judging by the looks of things, he didn’t even realize he’d said the L-word.
“Yes, yes we do.” Daisy knew she was grinning like a girl with a schoolyard crush, but it was hard to care.
Topher would come around one day and break the L-word to her, and knowing him, he’d make a special occasion out of it. But this was the moment that Daisy would always remember; the two of them driving from the hospital to his home, him a bit high on narcotics, and her stressing about meeting his family. That was the real life I love you situation, not some fairy tale romantic dinner setting.
Daisy couldn’t stop smiling the rest of the way to his house.
Topher lived in a cookie-cutter neighborhood in a decent section of Orlando. He wasn’t rich, and being a cop didn’t make him exorbitant amounts of money. Daisy knew he was a conservative spender who’d foregone eating out and buying new clothes every other week so he could save for a down payment.
Topher had bought the 1400 square foot Pueblo style home about a year ago. Daisy knew he didn’t get to spend nearly as much time in it as he wanted, but they’d had more than one date on his front porch with boxes of takeout in front of them. The interior had an open concept kitchen and living room space, along with two bedrooms and one and a half baths. He had a small backyard, and Daisy knew he wanted to get a covered patio built at some point in the future. It didn’t look like it was going to happen anytime soon, but after dropping the L-word Daisy thought it might be a good birthday present for her man.
After all, Daisy did have over seventy years of accumulated wealth. She was very well off, and all that money had been doing was sitting in investments and making more money. She’d been able to get in on some big name companies early on, and those investments were worth quite a bit of money now. Her merchandise sales were minimal, with the only people buying her limited merchandise being collectors or teens with a taste for the mildly-gothic eighties Hero grunge wear.
Economically, Daisy and Topher were a great match. They didn’t spend money carelessly, and their savings had allowed them to get the things that they really wanted in life. If things got more serious, money handling wouldn’t be a problem for them.
<But yeah, a covered patio does sound like a good gift.> Daisy’s mind was made up, all she need to do was wait for his birthday, get him out of the house, and get a Super contractor in there who could do the whole job in a few hours.
She knew a guy.
“Don’t be nervous.” Topher saw the look on her face and mistook it for nerves. “They’re going to love you.”
“Ok.” She put on a smile and helped him get out of the car.
Topher might not need a wheelchair, but his movements were still stiff and unnatural. He was on the mend, but it would still be several weeks before he was remotely close to normal.
Daisy put her arm around him. It was a loving girlfriend gesture as well as a move to keep him from face planting. Either way, they only made it halfway up the walkway before his front door flew open and the Phillips family descended on them.
“Oh my boy…” Mrs. Phillips was trying very hard to be strong, but her eyes were getting watery.
“You ok, son.” Topher’s father was a little better about it as he shook his son’s hand. “Looks like someone got the drop on you. Damn Supers.”
Topher had prepared Daisy for this, but it was still something else to hear it in person. Topher’s dad was a normal human cop. As a human cop who’d advanced all the way to Captain, he’d seen a lot of bad stuff happen. And a lot of that bad stuff had been done at the hands of criminal Supers. So he definitely had a biased view towards Supers, but Daisy didn’t blame him. After all the shit she’d seen, she didn’t like a lot of her own race any better than he did. Someday they’d probably be able to bond over that, but right now it just put them in an awkward position.
“Uh, Dad,” Topher coughed. “This is my girlfriend, Daisy. Daisy, this is my mom and dad, Christian and Penelope Phillips.”
“Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Phillips. It’s nice to finally meet you.” Daisy smiled and extended her hand.
They both had to look up at her, Penelope Phillips way more than her husband; but both discreetly judged her when they did, and for different reasons. Topher’s dad went right for the red eyes, but he didn’t look sorry about his former comment. Daisy got the impression he was reserving judgment on her for a later time when he knew more about her.
Topher’s mom was less circumspect about it. “I didn’t see you visit in the hospital.”
His parents had arrived when Daisy was up visiting Mastermind, and they purposefully hadn’t crossed paths until now. Topher had wanted it that way. He wanted to be there to run interference if it was needed, and it seemed it was.
“Mom,” Topher’s tone was stern, “Daisy was the first person to visit me after I got hurt, and she was there every day until she had to go on her important business trip. She’d been to visit me at the hospital more than anyone else.” The statement was clear. Daisy had been there for him more than his own parents.
Daisy wished Topher hadn’t said it like that, because now it put her and his mother in competing positions; and the look on her face confirmed it.
“Why don’t we head inside?” Daisy tried to undo the damage that had been done. “I’ve been waiting to see your decorations.”
Topher’s mother looked a little smug at the realization that Daisy hadn’t seen the holiday decorations yet, and that was exactly what Daisy wanted her to think. “Of course.” She moved in and grabbed Topher’s other arm. “Let’s get you inside and sitting down.”
Daisy let her take Topher without any complaint. A mother’s little boy was always going to be her little boy, even if he was now a man, and a cop kicking down doors and hunting criminals for a living.
“Daisy Lee Meyers.” Daisy had been so focused on Topher’s parents she’d lost track of his older sister. “I’m Debora Phillips, Chris’ older sister.”
Like her brother, Debora Phillips was tall and fit. She wasn’t as tall as Daisy, but much taller than the average woman at a solid six feet. She also held herself with confidence that was reinforced by the badge on her belt and the holstered weapon on her hip. Debora wasn’t some DVA paper-pusher, she was a field agent.
That could mean one of two things. She either admired Heroes and the work that they did, or they were a pain in the ass that she had to clean up after.
“Nice to meet you, Debora.” Daisy shook her hand.
Debora gripped her hand hard in a traditional masculine dominance tactic. Being in a field that was a least seventy-five percent male, Daisy considered that she might try this. After all, Topher was her baby brother.
Daisy just absorbed the trickle of energy that Debora put into the squeeze, and kept the smile on her face.
“I looked you up.” Debora didn’t dance around the elephant in the room.
Daisy just raised an eyebrow in response.
“Your file is marked classified above top secret.” Daisy couldn’t do anything but shrug. Debora was fishing, and Daisy couldn’t give her anything.
“That means you are either one of the greats, or you’re a fuck up.” Debora was scrutinizing Daisy’s face for anything, but Daisy gave her nothing.
Finally, Debora released Daisy’s hand. “Either way, if you hurt my little brother I will fuck you up. Understand?”
“Yes,” Daisy nodded.
If Daisy was anybody else she would have thought Debora Phillips was a total bitch, but Daisy knew where the other woman was coming from. She was a talented woman in a man’s field. She had to be direct, assertive, and have a take-charge attitude. That was what was needed to be a successful field agent. Some of her co-workers might call her a bitch behind her back; but Daisy saw another woman who got shit done.
Despite the threat to fuck her up, Daisy couldn’t help but like her boyfriend’s sister.
“Good.” Debora pointed for Daisy to lead the way. “Let’s go celebrate Christmas.”
“So that settles it. It’ll be held at Lander this year.” John nodded along with the other deans.
“We’d be honored as always.” Dean Blaine had a small smile on his face, but they all knew that smile wouldn’t be around for long.
Intermurals had a way of being both prestigious and a pain in the ass. John had coordinated only one in his tenure as dean, and he wanted to wait the maximum amount of time possible before doing it again. Security alone was a nightmare.
“Now that we have that resolved let’s move onto budgets for the upcoming semester.” Just like the freshman they taught in their introduction ethics classes, all the deans groaned loudly. When they all signed up to be Heroes decades ago, none of them though they’d be sitting around a table and discussing fiscal measures.
John was used to it. He’d been the leader of one of the most renowned teams in New York, and that made them a big deal throughout the country. Money was always a topic of discussion, just as much as catching the bad guys.
John reclined in his comfortable chair as the Secretary of the DVA turned to Blaine. As this year’s location for intermurals Lander would be getting the largest budget. All HCP’s had a standard amount approved by Congress, but as time wore on things got more expensive. They needed the latest and greatest equipment to train the next generations of Heroes.
There were three basic rules about funding that John had learned over the years: always ask for more than you need, always use all of the money, and if people threaten to cut your funding you decide to cut your most popular aspect first. You always needed to ask for more because you never got what you asked. You had to build compromise into the budget. You always needed to use all of the funds allotted to you. It was a cardinal sin not to. If you had left over money then you were never going to get that amount again. Lastly, you threatened to cut your most popular programs first to make the purse holders reconsider. It was tougher with the HCPs than a Hero team, but there was always a way.
“Dean Ditmar.” The Secretary interrupted John’s thoughts.
“Yes, sir.” John looked down at what he had prepared. “In addition to our previous allotted funds, we require additional funding to remodel our course.” John could already see people grimacing. Remodeling courses was always expensive and time consuming.
“Sir, I believe funding for this can be sought from another source. We were the pilot program for the project last semester, and funding might be able to be transferred from the Special Projects Department.
It was a solid plan in theory, but it still amounted to the HCP trying to steal funding from another part of the agency. John just hoped Special Projects had enough cash lying around.
“That should work.” The Secretary’s words were music to John’s ears.
“Good, sir.” John was barely able to hide his grin. “Aside from that it looks like we’re going to require a slight increase in our freshman trip budget. The class is larger than in previous semesters, and my instructors believe we won’t whittle them down to usual levels before then.”
“I’ve seen some of the stats those freshmen are putting up. They’re impressive.” Dean Jackson replied roughly. “I’d like to see what they’re capable of in four years.”
“We all are looking forward to that.” John smiled back. “But I’m particularly interested in your junior class, Blaine. The Class of Nightmares?”
“I didn’t coin the phrase.” Blaine rolled his eyes. “But it does fit. A few of them have frightening potential.”
“And then there is the DeSoto girl.” Sizemore’s dean jumped back in.
“Yes. That will make for an interesting intermural. If nothing else it will be entertaining.” Everyone could make out the competitive smile on Blaine’s face, and it was echoed on all the other deans, even John.
Intermurals might be a pain in the ass to host and coordinate, but that didn’t mean everyone didn’t want to win. John thought that Hannah Dixon had a good shot at doing well, but she wouldn’t win. She was a subtlety major, and subtlety majors preferred to not compete at a showcase of Supers’ powers.
“Let’s get back on track, please.” The Secretary corralled the old Heroes and restarted the budgeting conversation.
It took another two hours, but by then they had a framework to disperse extra money that the HCPs needed. “Thank you for your time. I’ll see you all next time.”
The portion of the screen that showed the Secretary’s face went dark. One after the other the other deans said their goodbyes and went back to do what needed to be done. Classes resumed on Monday, and that meant that everything was going to go from zero to a hundred in the blink of an eye. The seniors had something special headed their way, the sophomores and juniors needed to get back into their specialty work, and the freshman were just getting into the meat of their first year. It would be sink or swim time for a lot of those young Supers.
John thought about Anika Kemps, and what her upcoming semester would look like. They were still learning a lot about the young woman, and they were just scratching the surface. John had received an official note from the DVA at the end of December establishing Anika’s classification. Enough evidence had been collected to demand a new classification. They were calling it Omni, from the Latin meaning “of all things”. The classification was still considered a secret, so no one outside a few DVA employees and Heroes would actually know about it; but it was confirmation that they were dealing with something truly unique in Anika.
That knowledge made the whole situation with Daisy and the Anika’s father that much more serious.
“Come one in.” John only had to wait a moment before Colonel Ford stepped through the door.
The ForceOps officer was grim-faced and tired. He had dark circles under his eyes and was limping slightly.
“I’m fine,” he barked when John opened his mouth to ask what happened. “We were able to get some intel on al-Din and did a recon. It wasn’t him, but there were some other bad guys waiting there. It was an ambush, but we fought our way out. A few injuries and no deaths; at least on our side.”
“He’s playing games with us.” An iron ball of hatred formed in John’s gut just thinking about the terrorist. “He knows we can’t touch him now. We have to concentrate considerably more forces to take him down.”
Colonel Ford didn’t say anything. He didn’t like being reminded that the guy at the top of their most wanted list was extremely powerful and damn near unstoppable. The two Supers sat there for a moment contemplating how bad this situation could actually get.
“How did the meeting go?” John changed the subject.
“Surprisingly easy,” Ford replied. “In fact, I’m pretty sure she got to talk to him before she sat down with my team present.” John raised an eyebrow at the accusation. “It’s just a hunch.” Ford shrugged. “But knowing Reaper, I know she doesn’t do well with people telling her what to do. And me saying she had to wait for my team was basically an invitation.”
“You put a team on her?” It wasn’t a question as much as a statement.
“Of course, and they say she never left the hotel. But those were a bunch of junior ForceOps operatives with maybe fifteen years of service between all of them. Reaper was doing their jobs better than them when their parents were in diapers.”
John couldn’t stop from chuckling, because Ford had a point.
“Well I hope she got some closure.” John didn’t want to know the specifics of ForceOps illegal operations. “Because I need her back and focused for this semester. She has a lot of promising, young, potential Heroes who need her to guide them and discover new aspects of their abilities.”
Colonel Ford just nodded. This wasn’t his area of expertise, and he didn’t act like it was.
“Thank you for setting all of that up, Tom.” John extended his hand to his old friend. “I know it’s going to help her.”
“I sure hope so.” the Colonel gripped John’s hand firmly. “And she better keep her mouth shut,” he added, “because there are people way more important than me involved in this. If they get wind that there’s a broken link in the chain, al-Din is going to be the least of her worries.”
John didn’t like the sound of that; he didn’t like the sound of that one bit.