<This place isn’t that bad.> Scarlett Vaan thought idly as she typed away on her keyboard.
Homework had never really been a problem for the young woman. She followed along in class, took good notes, applied herself in exercises, and that led to a solid ability to grasp concepts quickly. All of that made her a good student, and being a good student got her accepted into West Private’s Doctoral Program.
The key difference between being an undergrad and being a doctoral candidate was the quality and quantity demanded of her. Her whole life was supposed to be this doctoral program. She was supposed to completely dedicate herself to the study of the human mind.
<But I can’t.> She mentally sighed. <Because someone has to pay the bills.>
Even with all the grants and work-study programs she participated in through the university, the tuition was still expensive.
“Good evening, Ms. Vaan.” A voice greeted from behind her that made the young Super tense.
She took a deep breath to get control of herself and then plastered a confident smile on her face. “Agent Phillips. I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“Here” was a nice, recently renovated coffee shop. It was pretty modern, but Scarlett could still see remnants of its hipster past poking through. It was packed nearly to capacity with college students. Some were doing work like Scarlett and others were hanging out, joking, and all together annoying the people trying to work.
“We like to keep an eye on people around campus now-a-days.”
<That’s very Big Sister of you.> Scarlett didn’t speak her thoughts out loud. Instead she tried to get a look at why the DVA agent was here.
Her attempt was met with a static sound. The DVA agent couldn’t keep all of her thoughts away from a skilled telepath, but she had decent defenses. That, and Scarlett still needed training to hone her gift and wasn’t going to poke around too deep. That wouldn’t do her any good.
“I’m honored.” The younger Super answered dryly. “What can I do for you? I assume you’re making contact to ask a favor of some kind.”
“It’s not a favor when we fund your college tuition, room and board, and give you a sizable stipend on top of an offer of future employment once you’ve finished your degree. It’s called an assignment.”
She had Scarlett there. The DVA was footing the bill for everything in return for her working for them after she graduated. Not as a Hero though. There was no way in hell Scarlett was going to finish four years of the HCP. If she really wanted it she was confident she could, but she didn’t want it. She was just here for the basic training and then it was all about school until she was a Ph.D.
“What’s my assignment then?”
“Who. Who is your assignment.” Agent Phillips corrected as she slipped a folder across the table.
It was plain manila and would have looked commonplace in any office in the country. Scarlett took it like it was no big deal, because doing a shady handoff would draw a lot more attention than two people seemingly exchanging notes. She flipped it open causally and studied the first page of the dossier.
“Cute.” She stated. “I’ve seen him around.”
“Good. We want you to keep tabs on him. Gather any information you can by extraordinary means.”
<She means using my ability not enhanced interrogation.> Scarlett just wished these government types would be a little more straightforward sometimes.
Part of Scarlett knew she could only do passive surveillance on anyone the DVA wanted her to, but a part of her wanted to be a little more active. She was still experimenting with her powers and starting to combine them with the knowledge she was gathering in her academic studies. She had a few ideas about techniques she wanted to try, but she need a human mind to do it. Her powers didn’t work on anything else. She assumed the HCP and DVA would frown on her hiring some stoner at minimum wage to pry around in his brain.
Right now, she could only think of one way to use her abilities.
“I also wanted to speak to you about your ranking.” The agent lowered her voice.
“What about it?” Scarlett did the same and had to stop from smiling at how ridiculous they must look.
“We would appreciate if you put forward a little more effort. At least give it the good old college try.”
“Thanks for the advice.” Scarlett smiled.
<Yeah, like I’m going to take HCP advice from a human who’s never been in one. I like my facial structure the way it is. I don’t want to take the chance and get my ass kicked all for the sake of someone’s report back to HQ.> She scoffed internally.
“Good.” The agent scanned the room. “We’ll be in touch.”
Just like that the government agent got up and walked out. One of the servers looked a little upset that she hadn’t ordered anything, but it was busy enough that she quickly faded from memory.
Scarlett on the other hand had one more thing on her plate.
<I get why they want me to watch Seth Abney, but they seriously can’t bring in another telepath to sit around and listen to his thoughts. I’ve got shit to do.> She also knew why the DVA wasn’t going to spend the cash to do that. They’d already bought her. Why would they shop around when they already had someone in place to do exactly what they wanted?
For the first time since signing that contract with the DVA before school, Scarlett wondered what exactly she’d gotten herself into.
Seth sat at the bar sipping his drink. He had a small pyramid of shot glasses piled up in front of him that he’d purposefully stopped the bartender from collecting multiple times. The place wasn’t too busy yet. It was still early. He liked to get a jump on the evening’s festivities. This place was pretty common with the college students. It didn’t serve underage kids knowingly. Seth looked like he could be in his early twenties and his fake ID was perfect. There were some people walking around with big X’s drawn in permanent marker on their hands, and that number was steadily starting to grow. Despite that, people were avoiding the drunk guy at the corner of the bar.
<Good.> Seth knocked back another shot and savored the burn of the alcohol going down his throat.
The sensation made him feel alive in a time when everything else was bullshit.
<How the fuck did she escape?> He wasn’t the only one thinking that. He was pretty sure the entire DVA was working on that.
Honestly, he didn’t really care about the how. He cared about what was going to happen next. Something deep inside him really wanted to see Liz again. He wanted to see her walk through that door like she owned the place. He wanted to see her hips sway and the way her smile seemed to dwarf everything else around her.
He knew he shouldn’t want it. It was like an addict knowing they wanted to get high but knew it was killing them. Liz was his drug, and he was pretty sure the feeling wasn’t going away any time soon. He was also scared. He was scared she was going to show up. He was scared she was going to walk through that door with her smile and bring a shitstorm down on his head.
He hadn’t done anything wrong. He’d never done anything to help Liz in committing her crimes. He’d just been a good boyfriend, or at least he thought he had. Now he wasn’t so sure. <What kind of person lets a person like her live right under his nose and never senses anything?>
It was the question he’d been asking himself for months, and he was no closer to an answer.
He waved his hand and another shot slid down the bar towards him. He caught it with a grace that seemed to ignore his blood alcohol level and downed it smoothly.
“Whoa, slow down there, champ.” A woman sat down next to Seth. The first to take the chance. “Save some for the rest of us.”
The woman was certainly cute, but Seth wasn’t in any state of mind to put in any effort to get laid. “Seat’s taken.” He replied sullenly.
“Yeah, I know. My ass is on it.” She ignored his surprised looked and ordered a shot of what he was drinking.
She just sat there after that. She didn’t say a word or even make eye contact with him. At one point she did sweep some of her loose silver hair behind her ear, but that was about it. She looked like her attention was somewhere else.
<Weird.> He shrugged, and continued his mission to build the boozy pyramids of Giza in front of him.
He only had two up when another person came running up to ruin his solitude.
“Hey, Seth!” Izzy was dressed for a night out and a group of girls followed behind her.
He appraised them quickly and thoroughly. He’d have sex with any of them any other night. Even if they were freshmen.
“I’m solo drinking, Izzy. This better be important.” He spun around on his stool and nearly toppled onto his face. She caught him before he fell, and he saw her blush from the physical contact.
She quickly let go as he righted himself.
“I just wanted to say hello and see what you think.” She modeled her outfit for him.
It took a minute for him to recognize it was some of the clothes he’d bought for her when they went shopping a few days ago. They really did look good on her.
“I also wanted to see if you were up for another drive sometime.” The words rushed out of her mouth so fast they nearly strung together. Then a panicked look came over her face. “I mean, you don’t have to buy me anything…unless you want to. I’m not opposed to it, but I really just want to get behind the wheel again.”
Seth was sure there was a sexual innuendo in there somewhere, but he bit his lip.
“Izzy, I…” He stopped not really knowing what to say.
Her face dropped, and he felt bad for her.
“Izzy.” He took a deep breath and tried to clear some of the alcoholic daze out for a moment. “You’re a good person, and I’m an asshole. You’re just getting your first year started, and you’re doing pretty well from what I hear. Third in the class?” He referred to the combat rankings.
She nodded, blushing again.
“Rumor is that you’ve got some serious talent, so I’m going to give you some free advice. Don’t hang out with people that are going to drag you down. Focus on school and your extracurriculars. You really don’t have time for anything else.”
Seth would have felt all noble if it wasn’t for the look of rejection on the younger girl’s face. His stomach rebelled at the sight, and he didn’t think it was totally from the booze.
“I’m just trying to be nice. You’re a good guy underneath all this whatever you might think.”
“You’re not my mother, Izzy.” The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them. “I don’t need you telling me who I am, what I’m capable of, and I don’t need a pity party thrown in my honor. I’ll be fine.”
Izzy looked shocked for a second before her face grew hard. It was a look he’d never seen before on her.
“Sometimes you’re an ass, Seth.” She spun, her styled black hair splaying around her as she marched away.
“Finally, we’re in agreement.” He muttered to himself as he turned back to the bar.
The silver-haired girl was gone, but another woman in his life was approaching.
“I can hear her mental grumbles about you being a stubborn bastard all the way over there.” Kyoshi took the seat next to him.
Her and Mason were here for the karaoke, not the drinking. The pair actually made a good duet.
“It’s better this way. She was getting attached to a suspect in a DVA investigation. That wouldn’t have done her any favors. They’re probably already watching her because I bought her some clothes.”
“Maybe,” Kyoshi shrugged. “But don’t ruin any chance of happiness because you think people will get hurt being around you. You are training to be a Hero.” She dropped her voice low. “And so is she.”
“If I didn’t know any better I swear you were trying to fix me up.” Seth shook his head, but couldn’t hide his smile.
“I know by now that Seth Abney doesn’t need any help in that department.” She smiled back.
“Damn straight.” A beer arrived for Seth and he took a long pull from it.
“How about you stop drinking for tonight and come sit with us.” Kyoshi pointed over toward the tables gathered around a small raised stage.
“Is it just the two of you?” His vision was blurry enough that it was harder to see. “No Anika or Angela.”
“Just me and Mason.”
“Good.” Seth got to his feet and walked in a remarkably straight line toward the strongman sitting alone at one of the tables. “Because I can’t deal with anyone bitching to me right now.”
Despite the momentary distraction, Liz was always on his mind.
“So, what do you think?”
“What do you mean what do I think?”
Daisy and Debora were sitting next to each other at the dinner table. The Phillips family had moved the meal outside because of the comfortable weather. The porch was still screened in to deal with all of the bugs but aside from that they were as close to nature as they were going to get. Topher and Debora’s mother was helping cart dishes from the kitchen outside, and their father was judging Topher’s grilling.
“Abney?” Debora gave Daisy a small glare and she pitched her voice lower. “I don’t trust the kid.”
Daisy thought carefully about what she said next. “Abney might be a douchebag, but I don’t think he’d ever knowingly support someone like Wraith. He’s probably conflicted about everything that’s happened, but we need to put a little bit of trust in the guy. He is a sophomore in the HCP.”
“If he helped Wraith at all it was indirectly: money, influence, or some abstract us of his power maybe. And then there is the report of the assault and tree.” Debora continued.
“From what I understand he has a solid alibi for Wraith’s escape. Probably the best one of any suspect ever. He was in the middle of an HCP subtlety class with one of the most renowned spies in the southeast. As for the other two. The guy was confirmed DUI at the scene by Campus Police. He says he got in a fight with a guy matching Abney’s description, but he also could have walked into a pole for all we know. Concerning the tree, we live in Florida. Sink holes swallow peoples’ homes down here. It’s not outside reason that a tree just fell over without elemental manipulation.”
Debora frowned. “Whose side are you on?”
“I’m on the side of catching Wraith. Not just catching anyone or accusing them of stuff without solid evidence.”
“Well, one guy got what he had coming.”
Daisy had gotten a picture of the crime scene photos. One of the guards had tried to get Wraith out and he’d lost his head because of it. Daisy had a pretty good idea about who could make a cut like that.
“Yep,” Daisy sipped on a glass of sweet tea. “Don’t team up with supervillains.”
Mrs. Phillips slid into the seat beside Debora and the conversation ceased. Soon the chicken was done and they were all happily enjoying a well-cooked meal and each other’s company. Daisy lathered BBQ sauce on her chicken and took a healthy helping of greens to get her vegetables for the day.
“So, Daisy,” Mrs. Phillips suddenly turned her attention on the younger-looking Super. “When are we going to get to meet your parents?”
Topher’s fork stopped hallway to his mouth. “Mom…”
“No, it’s ok.” Daisy patted him on the knee. “My parents aren’t around anymore. They died when I was younger.”
“That’s terrible.” And it looked like she actually meant it. “It’s awful when disease takes a parent so young. It leaves an impression on the child too. Was it cancer?”
<Old age.> Daisy told the truth in her head.
“My Dad was wounded in the war and that eventually caught up with him.” Daisy covered.
“Vietnam wasn’t fun.” Mr. Phillips got a sad look in his eye for a moment before shaking his head and taking a bite of chicken.
<Neither was World War II or Korea.>
“Where are you from, Daisy?” Mrs. Phillips followed up by shifting the conversation.
“Mom.” Topher grumbled. “What’s with the interrogation?”
“What? I can’t ask my son’s serious girlfriend about her life. We hardly know anything about her.”
Daisy smiled at the serious girlfriend part, but still caught the backhanded snark at the end. Even if what Topher’s mom was saying was true. They didn’t know a lot about her for national security reasons, but there were some basic facts she could tell them without compromising herself.
“Originally, I’m from Savannah, but I’ve lived and worked in a lot of places.”
“Mom…please.” Topher knew she couldn’t go into too much more detail.
“Before here I was up in New York City.”
“Topher used to be with the NYPD. You two might have even run into each other before.”
“Mom, there are millions of people in New York City and we didn’t even live in the same part of town.”
“Where did you live before the city?” His mom ignored him and continued on with the polite interrogation.
“After I graduated college I worked in LA for two years.”
“Tried the whole acting thing? I thought about it when I was young, but never took the leap and moved out there.” Mrs. Phillips focused on something in her past and that gave Topher the opportunity to shoot his dad a warning glare.
“No acting for me,” Daisy shrugged, “but I did meet some famous people.
<And was the famous person.> LA in the sixties and seventies had been crazy.
“How about you, Debora. How is your work going?” Mr. Phillips took his son’s cue and changed the direction of the conversation.
That was how dinner went. Mrs. Phillips tried to get more and more details out of Daisy about her life, and was more and more disappointed when she didn’t have much to give. Having no living family earned Daisy some pity points, but they wouldn’t last long.
“Wow, protective mamma bear alert.” Debora chuckled as she and Daisy started washing the dishes inside.
“Mom thinks you and her baby boy are getting serious enough to start digging through your life looking for dirt.”
“Is that a good or a bad thing?”
“Hmm.” Debora scratched her chin with a soapy hand. “It’s good that she’s finally seeing you in a similar way to Topher. Being on the same page is important for them. On the other hand, there isn’t much dirt for her to find.”
“Because all of that dirt is hidden behind firewalls at the DVA.”
“That…and you’re really old. Oh god,” a spark of something flashed across her face. “I just realized your older than my mom.”
Daisy hoped she’d gloss over that little fact.
“And you’re dating my younger brother…ewww…your code name should be Cougar.”
“Fuck you.” Despite the cursing both women were grinning.
“After dinner drink?” She asked. “Dad and Topher are going to have a man talk. Safe sex will probably be on the agenda, so it’ll do us both some good to get some alcohol in our system. Where does my bro keep the good stuff?”
Daisy gave her directions and she came back a minute later with a nice bottle of scotch. She opened it and poured a healthy helping for them both
“To being one of the family.”
Daisy didn’t drink it, but she didn’t want to be rude and ruin the moment. The comment still took her by surprise. “Whoa now.”
“I’m just saying.” Debora winked and took a big swig. “Ahhh that’s good shit.”
The conversation didn’t turn back toward Daisy’s past or the unusual courtship her and Topher seemed to be in the middle of. Mostly, Debora just got tipsier, didn’t notice that Daisy never touched her glass, and told stories that Daisy would use to blackmail Topher in the future. The best were the ones when she made her little brother dress up like a girl and sit in on her tea parties. Daisy didn’t know what was more surprising about that: that Topher had been forced to cross-dress, or that Debora had tea parties.
Unfortunately, all good things eventually came to an end. Daisy called Debora an Uber to get her back to her hotel. The parents retired to the guest room around nine-thirty, which left her and Topher alone.
“Did I pass?” Daisy cut right to the chase. “I’ll have to review my cover story when I get into work on Monday, but I’m sure I didn’t say anything that would give me away.”
“Sorry about that.” Topher polished off his last drink. “Mom does that sometimes.”
“Sometimes being when you’re getting serious with someone.” She got up from her seat, sat down in his lap, and gave him a quick kiss. She didn’t want to taste the alcohol on his tongue.
“Sorry.” He apologized again.
“Don’t apologize that we’re getting serious.” She gave him a stern look. “I’m not.”
“Me neither.” He kissed her back, and they spent a couple of minutes like that.
They couldn’t do any more while his parents were staying there. Neither of them was willing to risk that awkwardness.
“Let’s go to bed.” Topher meant it in as much of a plutonic way as he could after making out with her.
“I’ll be right behind you. I just need to grab something.”
Topher climbed the stairs as she walked back into the kitchen. She needed her laptop to check on any recent updates concerning the Wraith case. There was a good chance the supervillain would come back to town, and the HCP needed to be ready.
“Reaper.” He codename was whispered right next to her ear.
If she hadn’t been a seasoned Hero she probably would have blown the circuit breaker. Electricity flashed across her body, enough to stun a strongman if he was standing too close. Some of that electricity coursed into her brain and heightened her perception. She spun, ducking down into a crouch as she took in the room. Her eyes searched for the enemy but found nothing.
“Reaper.” The voice repeated itself, but no one was here.
It was only Daisy, the kitchen light, and the natural darkness that was permeating the rest of the room.
“Meet me.” The voice asked before reading off an address.
“That’s a big fuck no.” Electricity still crackled along her skin as she marched around the room double checking every nook and cranny. It was always possible someone had planted a microphone somewhere.
“Not even as a favor for an old friend.”
That stopped Daisy in her tracks. <No one is here but someone is speaking to me.> The number of people who could do that and would call her an old friend was a very short list. Under the circumstances, only one made sense.
“Meet me.” The voice repeated the address but sounded amused this time.
“Fuck me.” Daisy huffed, but didn’t get a reply.
If she didn’t know any better she would have thought the old gang was getting back together. Which begged the bigger question of what the fuck was going on?