“What the fuck, Seraphim!” Debora screamed into the air as the shifter floated back down to the ground.
The DVA agent gave a loud cough to clear her lungs. All around her, and the rest of the police presence in the area, was a steadily growing cloud of dust. The red and blue lights of the police cruisers holding a nearby perimeter hit the expanding cloud and were thrown in every direction. They were basically a great blinking beacon to the media that someone had colossally fucked up.
The winged Hero landed in front of Debora and waved her hand in front of her face. Seraphim’s uniform had seen better days, there was cement in her hair, and her face was screwed up in anger. Debora was pretty sure it wasn’t directed at her, but that didn’t make the situation any better for Debora, the DVA, or Orlando.
For one terrible second Debora felt that the PR weenie that stopped by earlier might have had a point.
<No time to Monday morning quarterback this clusterfuck.> Debora focused all of her attention back on the Hero.
“Any explanation for what the hell went on inside there?” Debora gestured at the former three story parking garage that was a pile of mortal, brick, and cement now.
“You had your cameras, you saw the fight.” Seraphim snapped back.
The Hero’s wings shot out to either side of her and gave a small flap. The thin coating of dust that was settling on them was discarded, but only succeeded in blowing right into Debora’s face.
If Debora wouldn’t have broken her fist on the larger woman’s jaw she might have taken a swing at her. The thought itself was satisfying until the squeal of tires from the rapid approach of four news vans ruined what little good mood she had left.
“Keep them back.” She waved the patrol officers in the direction of the approaching media. “And get me the city engineer. We need to start picking this up.”
“Wraith is in there,” Seraphim stated confidently. “I hit her.”
“Hit her with what?” Debora glared at the Hero. “Your frown and a general sense of disapproval.”
The demeaning statement literally ruffled the winged Hero’s feathers.
“No, I hit her with paralytic barbs from my tail.” The appendage in question twitched with irritation.
“How fast acting is it because if it wasn’t like ‘that’ then Wraith isn’t in there.” Debora snapped her fingers.
“It is very fast acting,” Seraphim answered, but not as confidently as before.
“Very fast and instantaneous are two very different things.”
“If I hit her with my barb it did more than just paralyze. If it was a good hit then we’ll probably find her corpse crushed under the rubble with my barb sticking out of her gut.”
Debora took a good look at the barbs and saw they were half a foot long. <Ouch.>
“I can’t just assume she’s dead, Seraphim.” Debora got her temper under control. “I need to excavate this site and call in my subtlety assets to assess the situation. Why don’t you ask around and determine if you really got her.”
“I got her.” Seraphim seemed to be talking more to herself than Debora.
<Whatever helps you sleep at night.>
“We’ll see.” Debora turned her attention away from the Hero.
The gust of air told the DVA agent that Seraphim had sprung into the air and was off to do whatever it was that the Hero needed to do. That didn’t concern her though. Deborah knew her mission. Her mission was to find out what happened.
And she knew the perfect person to call.
Debora pulled out her cell phone and hit one of her speed dials.
“Officer Phillips,” answered a brusque voice.
“Baby Bro, it’s Big Sis.” She grinned as he sighed.
“What do you want Debora? I’m a little busy right now.”
“No shit. I’m not sitting around drinking a warm glass of milk before bed,” she snapped. Her nerves were still a little frayed from the amount of shit she was going to have to endure.
“Was there a reason you called?”
“Yeah. Can you get me Daisy’s number?”
There was a several moments of silence on the other end of the line. “Why?”
“I need her expertise.”
“Ok.” He finally relented. “But I don’t like you two talking so much. It’s weird.”
“You have no idea,” she replied, copying down the digits.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Don’t have time, call you later.” She hung up the phone ignoring his last question, and quickly dialed the other number.
There were a few clicks and beeps as the call got routed and screened by some DVA communication’s unit somewhere.
“Hello?” The legendary Hero’s voice was warry as she answered the call.
“Daisy, it’s Debora.”
“Debora.” Daisy’s voice audible brightened over the line. “What can I do for you?”
“You can get your ass to my location ASAP.” Debora read off the address.
“What should I wear?” Daisy replied nonchalantly. “I’ve got this sexy red number that your brother absolutely loves, but it’s at the dry cleaners.”
“You can show up buck-ass naked for all I care, but I need you down here now before I have to tell the whole media whether or not Seraphim bringing down a building in the middle of Orlando killed Wraith.”
The seriousness of the conversation finally got through to the former Hero. “I’ll be right there.”
By right there, Daisy meant right there. Less than ten minutes later the tall blonde woman was standing at the back of the group of gathered reporters. Her attention was focused on the rubble while all the other reporters were screaming questions at the police, DVA, or anyone that walked close to them.
“Agent Phillips, Agent Phillips!” A couple of reporters recognized her from the scene of the night club raid. “Can you tell us what happened here? Eyewitness reports say that Seraphim was involved. Can you confirm or deny if this is another assault by the police on the Fist?”
Debora walked over toward them because that was the only way she could get close enough to reliably communicate with Daisy. Based on the DVA’s file on Reaper, Debora knew that Daisy was more than close enough to get a read on what was going on underneath the rubble that was being cleared.
The bulldozers clearing away the chunks of concrete were loud and made it hard to have a conversation with the reporters, but that was partially a good thing.
“I cannot answer all of your questions at this time, but I can give you the basics.” She took a deep breath and put on her best briefing face. “The success of the joint Hero, DVA, and Orlando PD raid on Club Spark yielded numerous leads. All local and federal agencies have diligently been following those leads over the past twenty-four hours. One critical piece of information led us to the parking garage where a deal was being made. We observed the culprits exchanging money and ordered the Hero Seraphim to move in for the take down.”
Debora shot a quick glance at Daisy, but the woman’s eyes were still on the pile of rubble.
“Due to the nature of the suspects in the parking garage it was necessary to have a Hero of Seraphim’s aptitude conducting the takedown. During the assault the suspects fought back, critical structural aspects of the parking garage were impacted, and the structure collapsed on them. Seraphim escaped unharmed and continues to patrol the city. As for the suspects. . .”
Debora looked back at Daisy. <It’s now or never.>
The former Hero tore her eyes away from the rubble and gave a quick back and forth shake of her head.
“. . .we have no information about their status, but will update you once we clear the scene. Thank you for your time.”
“Agent Phillips, who are the suspects? What are their crimes? Was this excessive use of force by the Heroes?”
Questions came at Debora from all directions, but she ignored them. She smiled politely into the camera then turned and walked away. Only once she had a firetruck between her and the reporter did she let her scowl return.
“Commander Jenkins!” she yelled, summoning the large SWAT commander from about a hundred feet away. “We need to get all of our subtlety people in here now. They need to go over this place with a fine-tooth comb and gather every spec of evidence. Seraphim took a steaming dump on this operation and we’re left holding the business end of the shovel.”
“How do you know?” The SWAT commander eyed her suspiciously.
“I’ve got friends in high places so I called in a favor to get a read on the situation now rather than in a few hours when we start pulling out bodies. All you need to know is we didn’t get the target and now there is going to be hell to pay. We need something to show for all this.”
The dust cloud had started to waft toward the city. Hopefully by morning it would be gone.
“I’m on it.” Jenkins nodded and jogged away to make some calls.
Debora poked her head out from behind the truck and searched for the tall blonde, but she was already gone.
<Fuck!> Debora clenched and unclenched her fists. <We were so close.>
And now they were back to square one.
Seth pressed against the barbell that threatened to crush his windpipe if he let it. Inch by inch he pushed the weighted bar away from his chest, until with one final surge of herculean effort he locked out his arms.
“Good set.” Mason grabbed the bar with ease and moved it back onto the rack. “That’s two-seventy-five for six. Not too bad.”
If it had been anyone else who could bench press a hundred time that amount easily Seth would have thought the remark condescending, but this was Mason.
“You gonna puke again?”
Seth took a few deep breaths, and grinned. That one was a little condescending, but only because Mason had to break out the mop and bucket once already.
Seth knew that even a night of heavy drinking couldn’t hinder his training regimen. Even the ache in his empty balls couldn’t slow him down. If anything it was days like today that allowed him to become better, faster, and stronger. You didn’t make gains when you were feeling great. You made them when you felt like absolute shit and pushed through the pain. Today was one of those days.
“Nah I’m good.” Seth wiped the sweat from his brow and got back under the bench. “I’ve got to do a good warm down.” Mason removed the necessary weight with the ease of throwing a Frisbee and Seth knocked out a final set.
Then it was the strongman’s turn. They headed over to the heavy weight section, and all Seth could do was watch. He’d break every bone in his body and be reduced to mush if he tried to spot his huge roommate. And that was just the warm up set.
“I couldn’t help but overhear last night.” Seth turned the conversation in the direction he wanted to take it when he first invited Mason to do a workout with him. “But I was pretty drunk. Was Kyoshi talking about babies?”
In typical Mason fashion the big man sputtered and almost lost control of the multi-ton weight. “You remember that?”
“Kinda hard to forget.” Seth grinned as Mason raised the weight and sat up on the bench. “And from what I remember you handled it pretty well.”
“It didn’t feel that way.” Mason frowned. “I felt like I messed it up.”
“So you don’t want to have Mason juniors?” Seth replied.
“Of course I do…someday. But that day isn’t going to be anytime soon. I mean I’m only eighteen. She’s only eighteen. We’re both training to be Heroes. That isn’t exactly a great environment to raise a kid in at the moment.”
“We’re drifting a little off topic,” Seth said, waving away Mason’s statement. “Working out with you is great, but you might have noticed you’re a bit out of my league. Why I really asked you here was to ask about. . .um. . .relationships.” Seth struggled to get the last bit out.
“Ok,” Mason looked confused. “Are you and Liz having problems?”
“No!” Seth shook his head vigorously. “We’re great, beyond great. Things are fan-fucking-tastic, with emphasis on the fucking.” He winked, and got a small chuckle from Mason.
“It’s not that type of stuff that I need advice on. I just. . .” Seth took a seat on the bench next to Mason and sighed. “I mean I see you and Kyoshi and I’m like ‘I want that’. So I want to know how you do it. How are you two so perfect together? How do you get her to talk about having babies with you when you’re only eighteen?”
Mason’s brow creased in a frown and he seemed to look through Seth for several seconds before scratching his head. “You dropped the L-Bomb with her, right?”
“Yeah, months ago.” Seth nodded.
“Did you mean it?”
“Yes.” There was no hesitation in Seth’s response, a fact that seemed to surprise him as much as Mason.
“Well that’s a good start.” Mason’s smile was warm, and it reminded Seth that despite the strongman’s incredible strength he was a big teddy bear at heart.
“Ok, what else?” Seth asked impatiently.
“What do you mean what else?” Mason asked confused.
“Don’t give me the ‘All you need is Love’ line.” Seth shook his head. “There’s definitely more to it that than.”
“Not in my opinion,” Mason shrugged. “I love Kyoshi. I’d do anything for her. I’d go to clubs I don’t want to go to. I’d get between her and anything that was going to harm her. I’d probably even kill for her, although I hope that never happens.” Mason’s face darkened with the last revelation.
“Love is the foundation you need to build your relationship on. I can’t tell you what is going to work because everyone is a little different. Kyoshi and I have completely open and honest communication. Partly because of her power, and partly because I don’t want to keep anything from her. But that’s what works for us.” He smiled at Seth.
“Open and honest communication. Ok, I can do that.” Seth psyched himself up.
“Whoa, hold on there.” Mason held up his hands in a stopping motion. “Let’s be honest with ourselves. You and I are a little different.”
“Yeah, so?” Seth was still on the honesty train.
“Let me put it this way.” Mason approached the subject for a different angle. “Are you really going to tell Liz, the same Liz that stalked you to your fake-date with Emilia last night, that you’ve had hundreds of sexual partners over the past few years?”
“I wouldn’t say hundreds.” Seth’s tried to play it down, but couldn’t keep the smile off his face. “Ok, I get your point. She’d probably try and castrate me on the spot.”
“Yeah.” Mason shivered a little at the thought. “But on the other hand don’t think that I’m knocking honesty. I do think that you and Liz need to be honest with each other if you ever want to be really serious. Not everything can be drinking and sex.”
“But we like drinking and sex,” Seth replied defensively.
“Both of your bodies are going to age with time. You’re gonna gain weight, she’s gonna sag, and you’re both gonna wrinkle. That’s life, bro. What’s important is that the person beneath that surface is beautiful. Once you make that clear to each other I think you’ll be ok.” Mason’s big smile split his face in two. “But that’s just me. I could be totally wrong.”
“No.” Seth waved his finger back and forth, but his attention was somewhere else. “No, you’re right. In fact you might be a fucking genius.” Seth jumped up from the bench. “I’ve got to go. I’ve got to talk to her.”
“Ok, buddy.” Mason smiled. “Just don’t overshare all at once.”
“Yeah, sure.” Seth wasn’t listening, he was already running toward the weight room’s exit.
“Focus on the future and not the past!’ Mason yelled his last piece of advice at the broad spectrum elemental manipulator’s retreating back.
<I’m going to get her favorite food, a bottle of wine, some flowers, set up a nice dinner, and just talk.> Seth felt like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders. He knew this could work.
He could feel his heart beating with excitement, and that didn’t stop as he ran all his errands. He practically burst into the house, threw Anika and Kyoshi out of the kitchen and started to get everything ready. Once the flowers were in a vase on the rickety table, he stuck the food in the oven to stay warm, and rushed to take a shower.
His room smelled a little stale so he took the spray from his closet and sprayed down the surfaces giving everything a ‘smells like spring’ scent. Then he stripped, threw his clothes in the hamper, which he also sprayed, and then rushed through a shower.
<No sex tonight.> He convinced himself as the water poured over him. Even thinking about not having sex got him aroused, but he clamped down on the sensation. <Tonight is about communication and honesty.>
He toweled off and dressed in a casual pair of slacks and a button down. He rushed back downstairs and made sure everything was ready. All he had to do was pull the meal out of the oven and serve.
<Perfect. Now all I have to do is wait.>
Four hours and four phone calls that went straight to voicemail and Seth finally started to deflate. <Where are you Liz?> Honesty and open communication could wait a day, but for some reason Seth had a bad feeling in his gut.
He didn’t like it when he had a bad feeling and the woman he loved was missing.
There were a lot of things in life Lilly Thermopolis had become accustomed too. She had grown up with wealth, and everything she’d ever desired had been given to her. That could lead to two different types of people. The first was a spoiled, self-entitled asshat who though the world was their personal play-thing. Lilly wasn’t this, although she always liked to have a little bit of fun. The second was a person who took everything they were given and put it to good use. They went to the best schools so they became some of the brightest people. They had available to them the best equipment in their field so they used it to become elite in whatever they were endeavoring to accomplish.
Lilly considered herself a member of this second group, and the field she’d endeavored to strive in was that of a supervillain. Normally, being a criminal and general menace to society wasn’t something people ascribed too, but she had nature and nurture pushing her in that direction since she drew her first breath.
Lilly was also used to attention. Whether it was because of her rockin’ body or her keen whit, she always had women wanting to be her and guys wanting to be on her. She thrived with all the attention, but rarely did she return it. It took a special type of person to grab her attention. One was her father, one of the most notorious villains of all time. Another was her Uncle Curtis, more commonly known as Armsman, whose notoriety surpassed even her father’s. The list of people Lilly respected and admired was pretty short up until about six months ago. Now that list had a new name, Seth Abney. The man fascinated her, kept her guessing, and she never got tired of him. Hell, he even put up with all her bullshit, and that was all on top of being absolute dynamite in the sack.
Lilly was accustomed to all those things. She was also accustomed to things like pain, more physical than emotional. She had more mental barriers thrown up keeping her emotions sheltered from the world than a person her age ever should. Physically, she’d been beaten, shot, and tortured with everything in the book short of anything sexual. Her father had wanted to prepare her for the worst, but there were some things you couldn’t prepare for.
Fear was something Lilly was not accustomed to. The total feeling of helplessness as she lay underneath her and Seth’s bed, drooling into the carpet, with nothing other than her own thoughts to keep her company was utterly terrifying. It occurred to her, roughly two minutes after she became fully paralyzed, that the one speck of light she could find in this horrible dark situation was that the Seraphim’s paralytic, whatever it was, didn’t affect her mind.
That was a good thing because if it had, Kyoshi would have picked something up, come to investigate, and found the infamous supervillain Wraith hiding under the bed like a child. Wraith being Liz Aretino was only the cherry on top of the cake.
Lilly really did like Kyoshi, but the tall woman’s ability to eavesdrop was a constant pain in the ass.
Another positive about the paralysis was that Lilly wasn’t able to feel the pain her body was undoubtedly in. Coming out of it would be a real bitch.
Another concern was the shallow gash that Seraphim’s barb had cut through her leg. Her high-tech armor hadn’t been able to stop the flying projectile, but it was doing a great job at collecting and clotting her blood. There was still a slow drip going, and she’d need to bleach the floor at some point, but as long as she regained the use of her limbs within the next day she’d wouldn’t die of blood loss.
<Always a good thing.> She mentally smirked as her internal clock tried to make sense of how much time had passed.
Then the door to the room flew open and feet pounded into the room.
If she’d had control of her functions she probably would have pissed herself. Lilly expected to hear the sounds of more boots on the floor, then the sound of the bed being thrown aside, rough hands grabbing her and hauling her to her feet, and then Seraphim appearing, putting her taloned hands around her throat and squeezing until the lights went out.
<Not the way I’d want to go.> Lilly had always envisioned a long-range sniper shot to the head. One moment she was there and the next she’d be gone.
It was the most likely way someone would kill her.
Seconds passed and nothing happened. No furniture was thrown or teenage supervillains strangled by pissed off angel-demons. She could still feel the vibrations of the footsteps moving around the room, and hear some rummaging through something. Then she heard a soft hiss, something she’d heard many times before.
Seth was a bit of a neat freak, and that included smell. He had this stupid little air freshener bottle he’d bust out all the time if he smelled something off. Considering that Lilly had been fighting a renowned Hero, nearly been crushed by a cement building, and had a slow drip of blood exiting her leg there was bound to be a little rankness to the room now.
Seth smelled something was off and was trying to fix it.
A fear so overwhelming it was almost debilitating passed over Lilly. The last thing in the world she wanted was for Seth to find her like this; weak and helpless. She didn’t want him to find out who she really was. She didn’t want to see the hate and loathing in his handsome green eyes. She didn’t want to have to watch his face distort in disgust as he put two and two together. She didn’t want to see the part of him that loved her wither and die. She’d do anything to keep that from happening. ANYTHING.
The footsteps continued to move around the room for a minute and then left. For the time being Lilly’s prayers had been answered. But that didn’t relieve the knot that had permanently formed in her gut. In her moment of utter helplessness, with everything on the line, a lightbulb had gone off in her head.
<I can’t keep living a lie like this with him. He doesn’t deserve that. Hell, I don’t deserve that. I can’t tell him the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but select truths might do it.> Her scheming was interrupted by the return of footsteps.
This time he was talking to himself. “Truth and honesty.” He breathed out heavily and she could imagine him looking into the mirror. “Connect with her on a deeper level. This isn’t about sex, booze, or rock n’ roll. This is about us getting to really know each other, sharing who we are and what we want. It’s not about the past it’s about the future. She won’t care about all the other women.”
Lilly’s heart felt like it was going to pound right out of her chest. She was sure Seth could hear it from his spot less than ten feet from the bed. <Truth and honesty.> She mentally tasted the words and found she agreed with them. <Not complete truth and honesty. I don’t want to scare him away.>
But judging by the motivational pep-talk even that might be difficult. Seth wanted something more, he was building himself up to confess that to her. If Lilly could smile she’d have a shit-eating grin plastered across her face.
<It’s about the future not the past.> Lilly felt those words would be their mantra as they went forward with their relationship.
Seth had other women in his past, Lilly had met one, and teleported her ass to the Serengeti. Lilly wouldn’t like it, but she couldn’t stop her man from being a stud. Obviously other women had wanted a piece of that, just like other men had wanted Lilly. Lilly’s transgressions were a bit more notable: grand theft, assaulting representatives of the US Government, attempted murder, murder, assassination, even a charge of public nudity that she wasn’t too proud of. That little wrongdoing was buried in some file on one of her fake identities in New Zealand.
<This can work.> Lilly didn’t know if it was wishful thinking and the paralysis talking, but she knew she could make it work. <Slow and steady wins the race of revealing you’re one of the DVA’s Most Wanted to the man of your dreams?> She wanted to laugh but her throat and mouth wouldn’t respond. <That would make a hell of a game show.>
During her self-reflection Seth had finished whatever he was doing and left the room. Then the waiting game started. She couldn’t really tell time, but when her phone started to vibrate in one of her vest pockets she could tell that it was probably an hour or more past the time they agreed to eat for dinner.
The smell of the spiced chicken was wafting through the townhouse, making Lilly’s situation even that more unbearable. It wasn’t as much the paralysis that was bothering her now, but the idea of him waiting alone downstairs for her. The disappointed looked she’d see on his face when she finally regained control of herself was going to break her heart.
<Hopefully this stuff actually wears off.> The thought that this might be a permanent situation was something she hadn’t considered before.
It reignited the primal fear in her gut, and took her two more calls to calm down. After four the calls stopped coming.
At some undetermined time the slow, trudging footstep of her boyfriend reentered the room. All the excitement and spring in his step she’d heard earlier was gone.
“Stupid,” he grumbled.
Lilly felt the bed sag above her as he sat down on it.
<No!> Lilly fought with everything she had just to move her little pinky. Anything, anything at all to show that she’d soon be able to get out from under this bed and talk to him. She needed to reassure him that everything was all right, and that she wanted to be honest with him, and she wanted him to be honest with her.
But her stupid finger wouldn’t budge, and she had to listen to Seth doubt himself until he fell asleep.
Without question this was the worst night of her life.