Angela struggled to wake. She’d been out like a light. A drug-induced sleep could do that to a person.
For just a moment as she regained consciousness, Angela felt completely at peace. The weight of the world hadn’t quite settled on her shoulders yet, and her brain wasn’t processing everything that had happened. For one blissful moment she was content just to be.
And then all the shit rolled back into place, and her heart broke all over again.
<My father is dead.> She felt like she’d been hit by a bus; again and again, every morning since the explosion.
Angela’s relationship with her parents was complicated. She knew that. She’d seen Becca’s parents when they visited and those were the sweet, loving parents you saw in Hollywood rom-coms. Angela’s parents were colder and more distant, but despite the warmth that Becca had received the blue-haired speedster was going into this life at a disadvantage.
Angela could never deny that her mother and father had prepared her for the rigors of the HCP, the difficulties of being a Hero, and the realities of life. She’d purposefully been brought to funerals when Heroes her parents knew were killed in the line of duty. She remembered sitting at a half-dozen of them with her hair done, in her somber black dress, and contemplating what exactly she was doing there.
Only one of those funerals had been open casket, and it had been a surreal experience to step up to it and see the Hero inside. The woman had been young, not even thirty, and she looked peaceful in death. Peace was something Angela hadn’t known since she first got her powers.
“She was good.” Angela’s mother, Sophia, walked up to stand next to the coffin. “She saved many lives in her time as a Hero.”
The gathering was private, and everyone was in the Hero community, so there was no reason to hide who they all were.
“How did she die?” Angela knew now that asking that kind of question at a funeral was a faux pas, but she’d been young and inquisitive.
Sophia didn’t say anything at first. She just looked back and forth between Angela and the dead Hero’s calm expression. It was one of the only times Angela remembered her mother smiling. Not the fake smiling she did for the cameras, a real genuine smile. Even if it was a little sad.
“Sometimes we die when we least expect it.”
That resonated with Angela now. She didn’t expect when she went to dinner with her father, which was ultimately a ploy to discuss Alec, that he would be dead two hours later.
<When we least expect it.> Angela fought back tears and did not succeed.
Angela sat like that for a long time; struggling not to cry, failing, and then running her tear ducts dry. Then it would start all over again twenty minutes later. She was in a seemingly endless cycle of pain and, even more so, regret.
<I should have done something. I should have stopped him. Begged him to listen to Mr. Morningstar. Even knocked him over the head to keep him from teleporting out of there.>
It didn’t matter that none of those things would have worked even if she tried. Hindsight was twenty-twenty, but that didn’t stop her.
The one constant in all of this, the one burning certainty that seemed to be fueling her existence at the moment, was that she would find whoever did this to her father. When she found them she’d make them sorry they were ever born.
<I’m coming for you, Wraith. Whoever you are you’d better run, you’d better run far away from here. Let me hunt you to the ends of the Earth like my father taught me. And then, when you’re cold, tried, and helpless, then I’ll give you a slow death. Then we’ll be even.>
At first Angela’s own thoughts frightened her, but the more she thought about it the more she knew it was what needed to be done.
A soft knock on the door interrupted the vivid imagery of Wraith’s death that was playing on a loop in Angela’s mind. It was the only thing that gave her solace as she sat alone in this hospital room.
“Come in.” She didn’t know why anyone was knocking. They had to get cleared by the two DVA agents guarding the door to get this close. Why not just come in.
“Hello, Angela.” Coach Meyers stepped into the room, her red eyes casually sweeping the room for danger.
“Coach Meyers.” Angela kept her tone neutral.
With the alternative instructor was a second man. Angela didn’t recognize this man, but he didn’t look like a threat. He looked like another doctor.
“Angela, this is Dr. Johnson.” Coach Meyers introduced the man whose profession Angela correctly guessed. “He works for the program.”
“Hello, Angela.” The man moved forward and took a seat next to her bed. “How are you doing?”
Angela felt her eyes narrow and her mouth tighten in anger.
“I know it’s a stupid question to ask,” the Dr. Johnson surprised her with a shake of his head. “You’ve just been through a significant trauma. A trauma that seasoned Heroes have to deal with, and sometimes can’t cope with. Asking you how you are doing is pointless. It’s obvious you are in pain from the experience, so please forgive me.”
Angela looked at the doctor in a new light and huffed out a brief chuckle, which got her a raised, questioning eyebrow. “As far as questions go that was the least intrusive one I’ve heard since I got here.”
“Did a DVA agent try to shove a thermometer up your ass?” Coach Meyers asked.
Despite her horrible mood, Angela couldn’t help but laugh at that.
“You think it’s funny now, but you just wait.” Coach Meyer’s tone was serious, but she was smiling. “Just give us a call if they try to insert things into sensitive orifices.”
“I can promise you that.”
Angela’s good mood was fleeting, but it felt good to smile and laugh if even for a moment.
That moment came to a flaming halt when the door to the hospital room burst open.
“Excuse me.” The woman standing in the doorway didn’t sound apologetic at all. “Who are you, and what are you doing in my daughter’s room?”
“Mom?” She was possibly that last thing Angela expected to see today.
“Good to meet you again, Mrs. Martin.” Coach Meyers turned to face to Hero Seraphim. “Professor Meyers, we met during parent’s week.”
“Of course. Good to see you again.”
Angela had never seen her mother look so distracted, but the delay in putting the pieces together was noticeable.
<Could she actually be feeling something.> The concept seemed about as likely as an impromptu alien invasion of Earth. Angela had never seen her mother feel anything but a never-ending aversion of people who couldn’t live up to her high standards. Namely, Angela.
“Our condolences.” Dr. Johnson stood from his chair and went to shake Sophia’s hand. “I’m Dr. Johnson, West Private’s resident psychologist. Please let us know if you need anything.”
“Yes, thank you.” Sophia’s response was stiff as a board.
<She is feeling something.> Angela put two and two together and was able to see that her mother was actually sad. That her mother actually loved her father and it wasn’t just a suitable partnership of two Heroes.
“Mom?” Angela’s voice quivered, as the tears fought their way back to the surface.
Coach Meyers and Dr. Johnson moved out of the way as Sophia quickly crossed the room to Angela’s bedside.
“Mom, Dad’s gone.” Angela couldn’t hold it in any longer. The tears started flowing freely along with a choking sob.
“I know, I know.” Sophia bent over and did something Angela hadn’t felt since she was a child.
Angela received a hug from her mother.
Not a halfway, ass out, awkward hug. It was a real hug. Sophia gripped Angela tightly and brought her in close, and began to stroke her hair.
“It’s going to be ok, it’s going to be ok.” Angela heard her mother’s voice quivering now.
Both women were on the verge of tears.
Coach Meyers and Dr. Johnson quietly left the room to give to two Martin women some privacy and a moment to grieve.
“Well look who it is?”
Daisy had barely stepped back from Angela’s closed door when a familiar voice called down the hall to her. Debora Phillip, her boyfriend’s sister, looked in her element as she walked the hospital halls with a stack of folders in one hand and a coffee in another.
“What are you doing here?”
“If you have to ask then you don’t have the clearance to know.” Daisy answered bluntly.
“Oh I have the clearance Professor Meyers. Since they assigned me to this case they gave me a full rundown of all DVA and HCP assets in the area of operations. That included the infamous Reaper.”
The hallway was basically empty. The only person close enough to hear them was Dr. Johnson, and knowing Daisy was Reaper was probably the tamest thing the good doctor knew about her past. Still, it wasn’t something she liked broadcasted in a public place.
The look she gave the DVA agent clearly conveyed her annoyance, and Debora acknowledged that with a blush.
“Can I help you with something?” Daisy asked, when Debora didn’t leave. “I can assure you I haven’t corrupted your brother too much.”
“I don’t care what my baby bro does behind the bedroom door.” Debora scoffed.
Daisy immediately made her regret that. “You meant even if there are copious amounts of leather, whips, and chains.”
The color drained from Debora’s face as Daisy continued.
“There is a particular thing he likes me to do where I stick my hand up…”
“Ok!” Topher’s sister couldn’t take anymore.
<If you can’t take the heat stay out of my fucking kitchen.> Daisy smiled smugly at Debora’s discomfort.
Daisy also couldn’t wait for the phone call her boyfriend would inevitably receive. Being accused of being a masochist and being dominated by a woman who he hadn’t even had sex with was going to confuse the shit out of him.
This conversation had successfully made Daisy’s day.
“So back to my original question.” Daisy kept a straight face through the whole talk. “Is there something I can help you with.”
“Yeah, actually there is.” The DVA agent waived Daisy over to an empty room across the hall from the nurses’ station. Once inside she opened up a file and pulled out a bunch of paperwork. “What can you tell me about the Sprout incident? You were there weren’t you?”
The memory flashed through Daisy’s head. It felt like much more than a few months had passed since she and John had rescued students and innocent civilians from the team of mercenaries and the ensuing fire. So much had happened, it felt like multiple lifetimes had passed. Since Daisy’s mind had been healed, and her past was slowly coming back to her, that was kind of true.
“I was there. What do you want to know?”
“I talked with a Mason Jackson, Kyoshi Schultz, Anika Kemps, Rebecca Whitfield, Seth Abney and Elizabeth Aretino earlier tonight. They came by to see how Angela was doing. Do you know much about them?” The DVA agent had out a fresh sheet of paper and a pencil to take notes.
“Five of the six are students of mine, so I know them extremely well. I do not know this Liz Aretino, so I can’t give you any information on her.” Daisy informed.
“What about the Sprout incident. How were they involved?”
“Well,” Daisy paused to organize her thoughts. “My report on the Sprout incident is pretty straightforward. I believe it was an attempt by Hellgate to snatch an HCP student, specifically Ms. Kemps. Ms. Kemps and Ms. Whitfield are a couple, and they were both present at the coffee shop. I was there with your brother, and Mr. Abney was as well.”
“Ms. Aretino claims she was present as well.”
Daisy searched her memory. “Blonde, about this tall.” She held her hand up to her chin. “Looks like a teenage boy’s wet dream?”
“Yes.” Debora frowned at the not by the book description.
“She was there with Mr. Abney on what I presume was a date.” Daisy paused and thought back. “If I remember correctly, Hellgate and his men tried to take her as a hostage too, but I’m still convinced their primary mission was Ms. Kemps.” Daisy stated, while Debora scribbled down everything she said.
“Any other information you can think of?”
“Not really,” the aftermath of the rescue mission involved a lot of pain for Daisy. “You’ll have to read the reports from the officers on the scene. I was taken away pretty quickly by HCP staff.”
“You were injured in the attack?”
“Severely burned,” Daisy wasn’t ashamed. Getting injured to protect people was part of a Hero’s job.
“Huh, I thought a legend like you would be a little tougher than that.” Debora grinned.
The dis might have been a little more effective if the DVA agent wasn’t grinning. Daisy could tell there would be a lot of good natured banter between her and Debora as long as she was with her brother. If she and Topher ever broke up that would most definitely change.
“Any other questions?” Daisy didn’t mind shooting the shit with someone, but less than forty-eight hours after a major attack wasn’t a great time for it.
“Not at the moment.” Debora put her notes in the file and her pencil in her pocket. “I know how to reach you if I have any more questions.”
With their impromptu interview over, Daisy left the room and headed back to meet Dr. Johnson. They had a lot of work to do before the class on Monday.
“Oh, Ms. Meyers,” Debora called after Daisy. “Be gentle with my baby bro. He can be a crier.”
Debora pushed through a far door after having the final word.
<What a bitch.> Daisy smiled as she rejoined a confused looking Dr. Johnson.
“Don’t worry,” she didn’t want to peak the psychologist’s interest.
Talking about her sex life was something they hadn’t quite progressed to in therapy, and she wanted to keep it that way for a while longer.
Lilly sat in the family room of her underground mansion utterly alone. She didn’t cry, crying was for babies, but she did brood.
The TV sounded like an angry mob behind her. The announcer was loudly listing Hunter’s accomplishments over his twenty-plus years of service.
<He literally pulled a cat out of a tree.> Lilly watched as a picture of a young Hunter, probably just out of the HCP, flashed onto the screen.
He might have started small but Hunter really stepped up his game. He’s taken down drug dealers, captured thieves, stopped large international arms deals, busted up an entire cartel along the U.S. border, and of course found and captured terrorist and serial killers alike. He was part of the two-man Hero team involving Seraphim, the winged menace. Rumors circulated that she was his wife, but they were never clarified. In fact, the whole memorial reel for Hunter was only a few minutes long, and almost all of those pictures featured him with Seraphim.
Lilly knew Hunter was a subtlety hero specializing in subterfuge and intelligence gathering. Being one of the most feared trackers on the planet was just a cherry on top of the sundae that was his power.
<And I killed him.> Despite her father’s anger, and the country’s mourning, Lilly had never felt more alive.
The only thing that was bothering her was Angela. Why was she at the motel? Why was she in the hospital? How much did she know? Lilly knew Angela’s parents were Heroes. She hadn’t been present when they showed up for the school’s parents weekend, but Seth had let enough slip. Lilly had to seriously consider the possibility that she’d just killed Angela’s father.
Of all the residents of townhouse #117 Lilly liked Angela the least. It wasn’t anything in particular, they were just polar opposites. Lilly liked to kick back, drink a beer, and fuck her man loud and hard whenever she wanted. Angela was the opposite; uptight, overstressed, and in serious need of a good boning. Angela just wasn’t Lilly’s style. The wannabe Hero had never been rude to Lilly before. In fact, they’d never really spoken too much at all.
<Oh well. Having to overcome tragedy builds character.> She’d just need to make sure she kept an eye on Angela from now on.
An explosive ring of fire announced the return of Hellgate. “Daughter.”
Lilly could tell he was still pissed, but he didn’t look like he wanted to go a round of fisticuffs. “Dad.”
“I apologize for my actions.” He stated plainly. “I should not have struck you. While you certainly deserved it, I should have shown better judgement.”
Not quite the full apology she was looking for but it was good enough. “No problem, Dad. Sometimes we get angry and do stupid things.” She was poking the bear, but she really didn’t care.
Lilly saw fire flash through her father’s eyes briefly before he got himself back under control. “Yes, well,” he coughed before continuing. “I have come to a solution to reconcile the situation.”
“Oh really.” Lilly instantly got defensive because there was no way this was going to be good.
“Yes. You will leave West Private University immediately. We will move up our time table and capture Anika Kemps for our client, and then you will lay low for the next year. After that time, we can reevaluate the situation and progress from there.”
“Well that’s a stupid fucking idea.” She didn’t hold back, despite the bristling of her father.
“Explain?” He asked through gritted teeth.
“Well first of all we so aren’t ready to try a snatch and grab on Anika. Have you even finished going through the DVA plans for her protection?” Her father didn’t answer, so she took that for a no. “I know enough that we’re going to need a major assault on the city to pull it off; which was half the reason we blew up the power plant and got the info in the first place,” she scoffed. “Manipulating the Fist into that situation gave us a lot of good intel on how the city reacts to a large-scale attack.”
“And now they will be prepared.” He stated matter-of-factly.
“Or they think they will be.” Lilly’s sly smile would have given anyone else goosebumps.
“They’re bringing in more people to counter the Fist, so we just need to give them one hell of a show to pull their attention away from the real goal. Our client might be able to give us a hand there.”
“It is not stipulated in our contract that he be involved.”
“Of course it isn’t, but your screw-up at the coffee shop already pointed the spotlight in his direction. It’s too late to take that back. Plus,” her smile turned downright wicked. “The guy is always claiming he’s invincible. It’s time to nut up or shut up.”
“Our client will rip your head off if you speak to him like that.”
“Only if he can catch me.” Lilly’s grin had returned to normal, but it was still overconfident.
“Beware of Icarus, Daughter.”
“Yeah…yeah.” Lilly waved away the thought. “Flying too close to the sun and all that. But I don’t fly, I move through shadow.”
Hellgate sighed and rubbed his eyes which had aged an entire year in the last twenty minutes. “I can propose a course of action, but I find it unlikely he will agree.”
“Of course he will.” Lilly was much more confident than her father. “Sometimes you sit on the sidelines for so long that you’re itching to get back in the game.”
“This is not American football, daughter.” Hellgate shot back. “But I do see your point, and will pass along the request.”
“Good. If we have a massive attack everyone’s attention will be diverted.” Lilly’s wicked smile was back.
“And what of the panic device.”
<So you have read that far.> Lilly didn’t know her father knew about ForceOp’s panic button.
“That’s simple. We just need to get her into a position where she feels threatened. That shouldn’t be too hard to arrange. After all, she’s just a first year Hero wannabe.” Lilly had just the person in mind. “We can get her in the situation, she’ll press the button. The ForceOps’ soldier will show, and I’ll be there to take him out. Then all we have to do is take her to a location of our choosing and mission completed.”
Lilly only felt marginally bad that she’d be kidnapping Anika. After Angela, Anika was the person Lilly liked least in townhouse #117. She wasn’t as uptight as Angela, but the Super with the silver tattoos had always been standoffish toward her.
Lilly knew all about her background, and all the shit she’d been through, so she understood. But that still didn’t stop the sideways looks and frowns the other woman gave her when she was with Seth.
“And if my plan doesn’t work there is always Anika’s weak spot.”
Lilly was too well-trained to put all of her eggs in one basket. There always had to be contingencies, preferably more than one. She was still working on the others, but an obvious course of action was Becca. Of all the people in the townhouse, Lilly wanted to hurt Becca the least after Seth.
<There’s just something about her.> Lilly kept her emotions in check. <Being an eternal optimist has to be exhausting. Gotta respect her for that.>
“You’ve given this some thought.” Hellgate scratched his chin and sat back down. The momentary violence between them forgotten.
<I just hope I don’t have a mark or Seth is going to shit a chicken.> She made a mental note to grab some concealer on her way out. <If all else fails then a good old-fashioned ‘I ran into a door’ will work in a pinch.>
“I feel more comfortable bringing this plan to the attention of our customer with this additional information.”
“Dad, don’t take this the wrong way, but you seriously need to get out more. If this is getting you excited, then you need a woman in your life; preferably an expensive escort type. I’m not in the market for a new mommy.”
Hellgate’s answering laugh was amused but sad. “Soon you will know how I feel.” He sighed again and closed his eyes. “So I take it you will not be leaving the campus.”
“No can do.” Lilly plopped into a nearby recliner and kicked her feet up. “Suddenly up and leaving will draw too much attention. Then there’s the fact that I need to be there to dispatch the ForceOps teleporter, and I’m afraid I’ve got to be in the line of fire for a little longer.”
“Very well.” Hellgate knew he’d lost that argument. “But I would prepare yourself for action sooner rather than later.” He looked over at an old-fashioned calendar on the wall. “It’s later January now, and our client’s culture generally takes this time off to recuperate and prepare for the next fighting season. I would guess that he will want to act early spring, late spring at the latest. I would be prepared, by this May, to leave the campus and start over somewhere else.”
Lilly hesitated, she knew she hesitated, and she knew her father saw her hesitate. Her mind flashed to Seth; their vacation over the winter break, meeting his family, and the hundreds upon hundreds of times they’d had some sweet sweet lovin’. The last thing in the world she wanted to do was have to leave him behind.
“I understand,” she replied after the hesitation.
“Yeah,” she snapped back, jumping to her feet and walking out. “I’ll call you later.” She called over her shoulder as she headed back to her room.
She looked her face over in the mirror and silently cursed. <That’s gonna leave a mark.> She grabbed some concealer, applied a generous amount, and then pocketed the rest.
With her face presentable, Lilly teleported into the shadow realm. She was there for a fraction of a second before reappearing in her usual alleyway.
By the time she exited the small space, she knew what she had to do. She knew she would need to execute the plan that her father was going to present to the client. She knew she would have to lure Anika or Becca away, and dispatch a soldier in the process. All of that was a given. What she could not accept was that she was going to have to leave everything behind. She couldn’t accept that things with Seth would be completely and utterly over in a few months.
<NO!> She ground her teeth and stubbornly dug in. <Fuck that noise. I’m going to figure it out.>
She’d keep Seth around, she promised herself that. She didn’t know how she’d do it yet, but she’d make it work.