A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 50

Daisy wobbled as she suddenly appeared in the middle of a parking lot. What was usually sparsely populated was now bursting with activity. There were enough patrol cars, with blue lights flashing, to patrol a small city. A few ambulances sat idle not far from the entrance, but unlike the majority of the police officers, the paramedics were hard at work on two individuals. Daisy ignored them for the moment. The first thing she needed to do in a clusterfuck like this was find the person in charge.

“Thanks for the lift.” She told the black-suited DVA teleporter, who nodded and vanished with a subtle pop.

She stood where she was for another minute until the vertigo subsided, and then headed toward the most likely source of authority. In a sea of law enforcement, it was a tried and true practice to find the group with the biggest vehicle, the biggest gun, or the most Heroes huddled around it. In this instance, that meant a converted mobile home with DHA painted in big letters on the side, and a few familiar faces idling around the front door.

“Seraphim.” Daisy nodded to the shifter as she approached.

“Reaper.” The other Hero replied stiffly. “Why are you here?”

“The same as you,” Daisy replied. The conversation ended there because another familiar face descended from the mobile command center.

“Everyone listen up and gather around!” Agent Phillips called out over a loud speaker to get everyone’s attention. Her words caused a mass shift as dozens of bodies began to push toward the large vehicle.

Daisy made sure to shoot a glare over her shoulder so no one crowded her. It also gave the local and state PDs the correct impression that she wasn’t the smiling, chipper, morning show visiting Hero. She was here to get shit done.

“Earlier today, at approximately six pm, Sheriff Douglas pulled up on a seemingly abandoned vehicle that turned out to have a single occupant. The sheriff quickly determined that the individual was lying and detained them for failure to identify. The subject made a stink about it, but came back to the station willingly. Attempts to ascertain the identity of the subject were unsuccessful due to equipment failure, and they were placed in lock up until such time as more resources became available. This was the subject.”

A screen unfurled down the side of the command center, and an unseen projector hummed to life to show a picture of the subject.

<Shit.> Daisy recognized the face of Seth Abney immediately. <What the hell are you doing Seth?>

Debora let the assembled lawmen and women take a good look at the picture before continuing. “The subject is Seth Abney, a HCP-trained broad spectrum elemental manipulator. If you locate Mr. Abney, do not approach. Call for backup and let the Heroes handle it. His intentions are unknown, but he recently escaped from a joint DHA police department detention center in Florida.”

Daisy had a hard time believing that Seth would really hurt any cops that found him, but he’d probably rough them up a bit so he could escape.

“At approximately 6:45pm a call came into the local dispatch.” Debora played the recording. The stupidity of it got a couple of cops to laugh, but Daisy knew better. She was ninety-nine percent sure who was on the other end of that line with the sheriff’s deputy. Debora seemed to be thinking the same thing, because next up was video footage from the police station standing on the other side of the parking lot. “At roughly seven, the individual from the call showed up here.” She played the footage and the laughter faded into silence as the car pulled in, a woman got out, hid her face from the camera, talked with the deputy, and teleported.

“Son of a…” Daisy heard a few of the cops inhale as the deputy went down and the chase between the second subject and the sheriff ensued.

It all ended with a spectacular explosion, and the destruction of two police cars. The cameras went out as shrapnel smashed into them. The sheriff survived, but he was definitely one of the two people getting treated by the paramedics right now.

“The woman who entered the station, disabled the deputy, teleported around the place, and released Mr. Abney before destroying public property with military-grade ordinance is this woman.” A mug shot of Wraith appeared on the screen. “The supervillain Wraith, aka Liz Aretino, and from recent intelligence we also believes goes by Lilly, is armed and extremely dangerous. She is a wanted terrorist implicated in the Orlando bombings earlier this year. She was tried and sentenced to life for multiple murders, and attempted murder on law enforcement officials. If you see her, do not approach, and radio in the Heroes.” Debora nodded at Seraphim and Daisy, but Daisy felt she really meant her.

“Lastly, we believe the third individual, the one that remained in the vehicle during the entire exchange, to be this woman.” A third person appeared on the projector. She looked like a half-starved junkie with crazy eyes, disheveled hair, and an unhealthy pallor to her skin. “This is Morina, no last name known, code name Blood Hound. She is a blood manipulator and convicted serial killer. She has a psychological compulsion, believed to be from a combination of her powers and traumatic experiences, to drain victims of their blood and bathe in it. Due to her abilities, this process seems to provide her with either some form of nourishment or refreshment. Make no mistake, despite how fucked up she is, she is an addict, and addicts make mistakes when they start jonesing for their drug of choice. Blood Hound was arrested after the ritual murder of more than two dozen people, sentenced, and locked up in Supermax until the recent breakout. It is believed that she met Wraith while in prison, and they befriended each other as much as there can be friendship between people like this.”

Daisy did a quick scan and saw a lot of disturbed looks on people’s faces. These were rural cops who’d never seen anything like this, and probably never would again. They’d be telling stories of ‘when the supervillain murderers came through town’ at the bar in thirty years, if they weren’t stupid and got themselves killed. Daisy refocused on Debora and saw someone was whispering in her ear. The look on the DHA agents face said it wasn’t good.

“Ok, we’ve got bodies people.” The statement sent a shock through the group. “A family of five was just found exsanguinated in a town not far from here. “Seraphim, I want you to lead a response team and secure the scene. You’re a fast mover and can get places quicker than we can in our vehicles.”

“On it.” Seraphim didn’t argue, which took Daisy by surprise. The Hero just jumped into the air and disappeared off in the direction Dispatch was directing her.

“Captain,” she turned to an older cop with an impressive mustache. You need to make sure you’ve got good communications with the roadblocks you’ve set up. Hunter is going to act as the quick reaction force to get on scene fast if someone encounters the subjects. Reaper, you’ll go with Hunter.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Daisy and the cop answered at the same time. She nodded to Hunter who stood at the top of the stairs to the command center before walking away. While everyone else was planning the ‘what if’ scenarios, she wanted to grab some intel.

She walked across the parking lot to the only people who’d interacted with Wraith in the last few days. “Sheriff Douglas?” She poked her head in the back of an ambulance, where a rugged man in a tattered uniform sat.

“Yes,” he had an oxygen mask on and there was noticeable bruising on his skin.

“Reaper,” she expended her hand. The pressure he exerted in return showed he was a super. “You’re lucky, Sheriff.”

“I know that now,” the man replied humbly. “I just thought it was some stupid kid as first, until the cars blew up. Now that I know who she was, I feel like she was toying with me.”

“What can you tell me about what happened?” Daisy sat down on the bumper.

“Well…” Coughs suddenly wracked the man, and he took a couple of deep pulls from the oxygen tank before he could speak again. “Sorry,” he apologized. “I can walk away from getting shot and a small explosion, but get enough smoke in my lungs and I’m just like everyone else.” His grin was charming, and Daisy smiled back politely. “Well…I came out to check on Emily, my deputy, something seemed off, and I found her down in the office. Then Wraith shot me in the ass with some sort of fancy stun gun. It hurt like hell, but I didn’t go down. I’m not HCP trained or anything, but I had great teachers at the police academy, and I know who to use my strength. I pursued, but it was like trying to catch the wind. Every time I got close she’d tag me once or twice with a real gun, and then vanish. I think I did get her once, but it didn’t slow her down. Now looking back on it, she was looking for the guy I brought in earlier. She got him out and led me away. I followed the bigger threat, and that’s when the cars blew up.” The sheriff shrugged, but Daisy could tell he was still upset about everything.

“You did everything you could.” She did her best to comfort him, but that wasn’t really her strong suit. What was, was identifying that Wraith was going for non-killing blows at first and only escalating when she knew the guy could take it.

<Apparently, Seth might be a good influence after all.> That went both ways though. Wraith had dragged him out of a promising HCP career and into a life of crime, so it wasn’t worth the tradeoff.

Next, Daisy talked to Emily, the deputy. She didn’t have much to add other than a description that matched Wraith. Then, Daisy walked the station to get a feel for what happened. Forensics had already been through, but she saw the yellow placards set where they found evidence like blood and bullet casings. It did seem like the sheriff grazed her, which was closer than Daisy ever got.

<Hell of a way to spend Christmas.> Daisy walked around the outside of the building to the check the burnt husks of police cars before returning to the command vehicle.

The fact with these types of manhunts was that they involved a lot of sitting around and waiting. The DHA had a teleporter and team standing by for when contact was made, but until then, a lot of the leg work needed to be done by local and state law enforcement. They knew what they were looking for, and what direction the three suspects had been heading from the security footage, but in this part of the country there were a lot of backroads to get around things like roadblocks.

Daisy really wanted to help, but there wasn’t much she could do. The DHA might have other resources they could put into play, but Daisy wasn’t read in on those, or aware if they were already in action. All she knew what her job was to stay by Hunter and go when they got word.

That didn’t stop the waiting from sucking, especially since the call might never come. With the person they were chasing being Wraith, Daisy had to place the odds in the fugitive’s favor.

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 42

Isla was still shaking when she exited the tent where the pushy soldier had asked her questions. Only part of the shaking was due to the explosion that had ripped through the city, and the chaos that followed. A lot of her anxiety had to do with the recent questioning.

No one told her how to handle that situation. She had her SI requirements, but this wasn’t some collegiate administrator or other student bugging her for details about her Super status. This was the Army and the DVA. They weren’t fucking around, and she didn’t know where to draw the line. So, she ended up telling them everything.

The soldier hadn’t even blinked when she whispered she was a member of West Private HCP’s freshman class. He’d probably become even more intrusive. Isla’s eyes had scanned the room for help in those moments; begging and praying that Coach McMillian or Coach Meyers would step in and handle everything.

She noticed some people in the room from around the HCP, one or two members of her own class, and then a bunch of normal looking people who she guessed were members of the Orlando civilian population who just happened to be Supers.

“Isla?” A familiar voice called out her name.

She turned around and saw a small gathering of her classmates. Since Aiden was the tallest, he was the one she saw waving her over. She hurried over to join the group, which had a couple of sophomores present. A terrorist attack kind of threw the “don’t group together and draw attention” instructions out the window. People were more concerned with their own shit, and the group of young Supers was only drawing limited attention.

“Hey.” She huddled with the rest of the group, her body still shaking a bit.

“Do you want my jacket?” Aiden asked with a look of concern.

“I’m good,” Isla shook her head and lifted her chin up. She didn’t want the rest of the class to think she was going into shock from everything. She was training to be a Hero, and Heroes didn’t shy away from the ugly.

“Can you believe that shit?” Scarlett was standing near the center of the group and fuming. “They’re questioning anyone who isn’t one hundred percent human and grilling them about their ‘involvement’.” She put the last word in air quotes.

“They’re just doing their jobs.” Someone else commented, but Scarlett just gave them a dismissive hand wave.

“I’m telling…” Scarlett started but stopped suddenly and just shook her head. “I’m just saying it feels wrong, and I’ve got a better idea about how that shit world works than the rest of you.”

“Not all of us.” Kyoshi Schultz stepped into the conversation and ignored the glare Scarlett shot her way. “But Scarlett has a point. It’ll be better if we head back to school and discuss this stuff there.”

No sooner were the words out of her mouth than all their phones got a text message simultaneously. It was a campus alert from the school. It told everyone to return to campus, if possible, so the school could get accountability of their students.

“Let’s go.” Kyoshi took charge and started to lead the group of students toward the nearest bus station.

It was a ten-minute ride back to the edge of campus and then another ten minutes for them all to get back down into the HCP without drawing too much attention. They had to be extra careful to ensure that no one followed them from the bombing site and tried to blow their secret identities. A random person off the street claiming that someone might be a Super from what they looked like back at the bombing sites was one thing, making a claim on campus was another. Everyone hoped that no one’s cover was blown in the next few days. That would just be the icing on the shit cake.

One of the professors that Isla didn’t really know – a Professor Willis – gathered them together in the gym and started to check names of a list.

“Everyone needs to stay put until we know the status of all the students. There are refreshments in the corner if you’re hungry. Getting a little sugar in you after what you’ve seen might not be a bad idea. Others might want to be proactive, do something so they don’t feel useless.” The Professor wasn’t pulling any punches. “If that’s the case, then get into your uniforms and I’ll run you through an exciting training exercise.”

Isla wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, but the exodus of students to the locker room made the decision for her. She went in and got into her black uniform and hit the track for their five mile warmup.

It wasn’t until a few miles in that she started to feel better. Getting the blood pumping was keeping her from thinking about everything that could go wrong in the next few days, and what had happened in the last few hours. The rhythmic breathing of her running helped to clear her mind and focus it on the simple tasks right in front of her.

The rest of the class was the same way. Soon, their concerns about the bombing fell away as they got further into their workout. That was exactly what Professor Willis wanted. When he was sure no one was looking he glanced back down at his checklist. There were a few names that didn’t have a checkmark next to them, and the DVA was reporting that all Supers had been interviewed and evacuated from the immediate area. The old Subtlety Hero hoped they were in route or else their week was about to get a lot worse.

 

***

 

“Three…two…one…BREECH…BREECH…BREECH!”

Daisy listened for the go order before taking action. She already had the life lines of everyone in that building dialed in. All she had to do was squeeze. Thirty-one people went limp and dropped to the floor. She suspected at least a few would have collateral injuries from the fall, but that wasn’t a big concern.

Loud cracks of gunfire cut through the air as snipers took out windows. The blinds and curtains were drawn so no one could get a bead on Nightingale, but there was always a chance someone would get lucky, and with the civilians unconscious on the floor, the risk to innocent people was minimal.  That was only a secondary goal. The primary reason was for the SWAT members repelling down from the roof to have easy access into the building.

That was only one phase of the complicated operation. Usually, you wanted to keep an assault like this simple, but nothing was simple with a psychopath like Nightingale. They had to go in from as many angles as possible. Daisy dropping the civilians was just a small part in the plan. Right now, Hunter was teleporting SWAT all over the place in the building to cover as many different approaches as possible.

The plan was to contain her as much as possible before she could even move. Daisy might be out on the perimeter, but Hunter was getting in on the action. He still had his big gun and been in more than his share of fire fights.

Gunshots rang out and the radio filled up with chatter. Daisy gripped the side of her chair and squeezed. The groan of warping metal was drowned in the hurried reports and yells of agents and SWAT officers.

More gunshots rang out. “Man down!”

“Shit…she’s…” Static followed.

“Hunter, report.” Agent Phillips was at the center of the chaos trying to hold down the fort.

“We’re pinned, she’s got…” The staccato roll of a rifle on full auto rang out and crashes and curses could be heard over Hunter’s line.

<Fuck it!> Daisy pivoted, broke through the perimeter, and reached the front door in a few kinetically-powered leaps. People were screaming behind her, but she didn’t give a shit. People were dying and she was able to do something about it.

A SWAT member in black tactical gear was slumped over a railing on the first floor landing. Blood dripped from two holes right where his armor ended and his neck began. It was expert shooting, which made Daisy take a few deep breaths.

<I should have grabbed a radio.> She shook her head. Her leg still itched like a bitch and she was beginning to regret her impulsive action.

A three-round burst rang out above her followed by a scream. Daisy grabbed the dead SWAT member’s side arms before bounding up the stairs two at a time. More bodies and blood filled the hallways. They’d all been expertly targeted with shots where their armor didn’t cover them or was weak. A good few were still alive, but they wouldn’t stay that way for long without medical attention.

“Hold on,” she whispered as she continued to move toward the sporadic gun fire.

It sounded like it was getting higher and higher, so she kept up her pursuit. The first bullet fired her way was meant to keep her head down. It smacked into the wood hard a few inches from her head. Splinters shot toward her face, but her absorption made them fall limply to the ground.

The gunfire was no longer sporadic. Shots rang out every few seconds. Daisy didn’t need a radio to hear the SWAT teams talking with each other and converging on Nightingale’s position. The BOOM of Hunter’s rifle felt like it made the whole building shake.

“Push! Push!” someone yelled. Two SWAT officers appeared in the hall in front of her and started moving forward while methodically firing to keep Nightingale behind cover.

It didn’t work.

Daisy didn’t see how the supervillain had gotten her shots off, but both officers went down. One had blood fountaining from his neck, while the other one grabbed his leg and screamed. Daisy rushed up the last few stairs to the landing and reached for the nearest guy. He was only a few yards from the cover of the landing, but that still put her in the open.

The first round hit her in the shoulder just as she got a grip on the back of the guy’s vest. She expected the unbelievable pain of a gunshot wound to radiate through her body, but instead heard the soft ping of the bullet falling uselessly to the ground.

“Fuck!” Nightingale swore from down the hall.

Daisy didn’t waste any time. She gave the guy a mighty pull and he flew back into the cover of the stairwell. His landing wasn’t pretty, but a few bruises were worth not bleeding out. Another round flew in her direction as she dove back behind cover. It barely missed her, and this time she felt the twinge of a bullet dipped in Nightingale’s nullifying goo.

<She’s not always using her special ammo.> Daisy thought as she quickly ripped off the SWAT guy’s belt and made a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. <It makes sense.>

It would take time and effort to coat the bullets and load them into magazines, and time was something she clearly didn’t have as the combined effort of the SWAT teams drove her back.

“Reaper, what the fuck are you doing here!” Hunter darted out of the hallway to take cover next to her.

“Helping.” She answered simply as she checked the shot officer’s pulse.

She couldn’t see the other Hero’s face behind his mask, but she could tell by the tightness in his neck that he was pissed. “Fine.” He ultimately relented. “You already inadvertently helped us. You kept her away from the stairs, and that stopped her upward progression. We’ve got her contained on this floor for now.”

A BOOM way louder than gun fire made the whole building shake and loose pieces of plaster fell from the ceiling.

“Unless she has an exit strategy.” Daisy and Hunter looked at each other for a moment before sprinting back into action.

“Watch him.” Hunter yelled back to the still-advancing SWAT teams, but the two Heroes took the lead. No shots rang out as they approached. “I’ll go high you go low.” Hunter ordered.

Daisy brought up her gun and waited for Hunter to count them down. When he hit zero they burst into the room to find…nothing.

“What the…” there was a large hole in the floor and nothing else in the room.

The two Heroes approached it carefully. Daisy poked her head in and jerked it back quickly to avoid any fire. Nothing came her way, but she got a good look at what was below.

“Shit.” She lowered her weapon and took a deep breath.

Hunter poked his head down and let out a similar curse. Below them were two more holes that lead all the way into the darkness beneath the building.

“She’s in the sewer!” Hunter passed the information along so the cops could expand the perimeter, but that was asking a lot. There had to be a thousand manhole covers in the city, not to mention other outlets. Nightingale could pop up anywhere.

“How did this fucking happen?!” Hunter finished his radio call and then kicked a chair over in anger.

“My guess is that she had military-grade detcord wrapped around her body,” Daisy guessed, but it had been a rhetorical question.

The DVA and cops would do what they could. They’d deploy everyone. Try and secure everything, but Nightingale was a trained operative, and they couldn’t be everywhere at once. Plus, if Nightingale went one on one with a patrol officer at a man hole she’d win.

<At least we’ve got Stal.> Iron Giant had made sure of that.

Daisy just hoped it was enough to get the ball rolling, reacquire Nightingale, find Wraith, figure out what the hell Abney was thinking, and ultimately put a stop to Seif al-Din’s plans.

With everything hanging over her head like this, the upcoming holidays were starting to lose some of their appeal.

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 40

“I hate this.”

“Of course you hate it.” Iron Giant was fully healed and sitting up on a cot in the medical tent the DVA had set up. Dr. Sanderson had outdone himself and stitched the wounded Hero up in record time.

Daisy wished her healer was as good. The hole in her calf was all patched up, but it felt like her bone itself had crabs. It itched like a mother, and this wasn’t an itch she could scratch without ripping open her leg. The healer confidently told her it would feel better in a few hours before walking away. Daisy had to grit her teeth not to drop the man on the spot. Even now she had to bite the inside of her cheek to give her mind something else to think about other than the persistent itch.

“You’ve always been a woman of action, and the woman that could be called upon to take the steps to resolve this type of situation. It frustrated you that you can’t be the one to end this.” Iron Giant stated calmly as he watched the TV screens.

The DVA had set up a tactical operations center in the tent next to theirs, and they had perfect seats to the unfolding operation. As Daisy had so painfully learned today, she was not the best Hero to deal with this situation. Her absorption didn’t work, and she was no better protected than the average cop when it came to a gunfight with the infamous villain. Not even John, as strong as he was, was a good fit.

Surprisingly, this was a less-is-more situation. The Orlando PD and the DVA were taking the lead this time. Nightingale strength was against Supers, not humans. To them, she was just a well-trained and well-armed hostage taker, and they had procedures in place to deal with these situations.

“There goes the power.” Daisy remarked as the lights to building finally flickered off. If it was the summer it would have become unbearably hot in the building within the hour, but this close to winter it wouldn’t do anything. The step would really work to the authority’s advantage in a few hours when the sun started to go down.

“Nightingale, this is the Department of Variant Affairs. We want to talk with you to bring this situation to a peaceful conclusion. We are tossing a cell phone to the front door. Please take it so we can talk.” Agent Phillips announced through a megaphone.

Three officers slowly moved forward toward the door of the building while the DVA agent spoke. Two had shields that they were using to cover them against attack. The third was crouched in the center of the protective shell and was holding the phone. They made it to within five feet of the door, stopped, and tossed the phone lightly so it landed in plain sight of the door. Then, they slowly moved back. Once they’d put enough space between themselves and the door, the door cracked open and a scared looking woman stepped out.

Nightingale wasn’t stupid enough to come into the open and grab the phone herself, so she had one of the hostages doing it. The villain looked like she’d caught the woman relaxing on the local half-day. She was in pajama pants, with bunny slippers, and a tank top with a bath robe thrown over it. She looked terrified, but there was a glint in her eye that Daisy immediately recognized.

“Shit! Don’t…” but it was too late. The woman pushed off and away from the door, making a break for safety.

She got about five feet before a loud POP cut through the air. Her body went instantly limp, and she fell forward hard, hit harder, and didn’t get up. Daisy couldn’t see, but feeds from officers’ helmet cameras showed a big, meaty hole in the back of the woman’s head.

<Fuuuuuck.> Daisy exhaled. <I fucking hate not being able to do anything.>

There was more movement near the door. Another person stepped out, a man this time. He looked at the woman’s lifeless body, Daisy thought he was going to puke for a second, but then he bent down, retrieved the phone, and walked back inside.

“That could have gone better.” Iron giant has a sorrowful look on his big, metal face. Most people would think that a man made of metal couldn’t be emotional, they’d be wrong.

Two DVA agents enter the tent and walk straight to them. “Reaper, Iron Giant, we’re here to escort you back to the HCP.”

Iron Giant just nodded and got up while Daisy gave them a hard stare. “Like hell you are.” She got to her feet and pushed passed the two men and walked the short distance to the command tent. She burst in ready to raise hell but everyone was silent and focused on Agent Phillips.

“Yes…Yes…Yes…We could do that if you let some hostages go as a gesture of good will.” The agent’s tone was calm and collected, but her face quickly wrinkled in fury. She calmly set the phone down and took a deep breath. “That fucking bitch.”

“So, I guess releasing hostages is a no.” Hunter stood off to the side. In another time or place the statement might have been funny, but no one was laughing here.

“She said she’d send them out in pieces if I didn’t do exactly what she wanted.” The DVA agent ran her hand through her hair.

“And those demands are…?” Hunter pressed her.

“She wants us to back up the perimeter two blocks, which gives us no line of sight except the snipers on the rooftops. She wants a teleporter she chooses to come in and take her away. After that, and only after that, will she release the thirty two…now thirty-one hostages,” she corrected herself.

“So, what’s the breech plan?” Daisy stepped fully into the tent.

“Reaper, you’re supposed to be out of here,” Agent Phillips looked passed Daisy at the two suited men who’d followed her in. One reached for Daisy’s elbow, but the look she shot him made him step back reflexively.

“I’m of better use here than anywhere else.” Daisy countered and plopped down next to the big table littered with diagrams of the building. It took every ounce of will power she had to not itch her leg.

“I’m not sure what use you’ll be. Your powers are useless against Nightingale.” Another DVA agent spoke up. He actually sounded like he was happy about that, so Daisy shuffled him onto her shit list.

“Her’s…yes…everyone else’s…no.” She smiled. “When shit finally goes down one thing that’s always a risk is having civilians do stupid shit, step into the line of fire, and just generally be a nuisance when we try to save them. I’m the perfect person to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

“She’s got a point.” Hunter stepped forward. “I can get teams into prepositioned places if we can get eyes in there and know where she is. We’ll be able to hit her hard and fast while Daisy drops all the civilians. We might have a few broken noses, but that’s better than SWAT shooting an innocent civilian.”

Daisy looked from Agent Phillips to Hunter, and knew she had them convinced.

“Fine. You can stay, but please stay out of my way.” Agent Phillips shot her a no-nonsense look.

“No problem.” Daisy leaned back casually in the chair and smiled.

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 39

<Who knew muscles could be a bad thing.> Morina huffed as she dragged Seth across the ground.

Wraith’s final teleport had dropped them in the middle of nowhere, which was a good thing considering what they’d fled from. The location was a dirt crossroads with some signs pointing toward the nearest civilization. She had to wipe the grime off them to read, and it told her the closest help was ten miles away. That was good and bad.

It was good that people wouldn’t ambush them, and bad because Seth looked like he was going to die. The blood dripping from him was calling to her, but she fought against the temptation. Wraith would teleport her into a volcano if she exsanguinated her man. So, she did the only thing she could think of. She pulled them off the crossroads.

She did Wraith first because that’s what friends were for. After everything that had happened in the last few months, Wraith might be the only person she could call a friend. Morina had liked Nightingale, but she knew a predator when she saw one, and what that type of person was capable of. After all, she was one.

After she dragged Wraith over to the side of the road she went back for Seth. Wraith was fit and athletic, but she didn’t weigh more than a buck thirty. With her armor, maybe one-fifty. Seth was easily over two hundred pounds. He would be good at punching things and dragging other people, but dragging him was a pain in the ass.

<Come on tons of fun.> She heaved, slipped, and landed right on her ass; making the pain he was causing her literal.

She coughed from the cloud of dust thrown into the air by her impromptu sit, and waved her hand rapidly to clear it. It might be nearing the holiday season, and the rest of the country was starting to see chilly temperatures, but wherever they were in Alabama it was still hot and dry.

She gathered herself after the dust cleared, grabbed Seth under the arm pits, and continued her slow trek to the drainage ditch where she’d placed Wraith.

She didn’t hear the person approach over her own grunting and the scrape of Seth’s body against the ground, but she did catch the clink of the weapon being taken off safe and pointed at her.

<Shit.> Her power swelled inside her, but she held it in.

She might be able to stop the blood from leaking out of her from a gunshot, but that wouldn’t fix the hole and whatever internal destruction the bullet wrought. Instead, she dropped Seth and raised her hands.

“We’re looking for a healer.” She figured saying they needed help was better than attacking him.

The fact that she didn’t get shot was a good sign she was headed in the right direction.

“These two.” The voice didn’t have that southern I-screw-my-sister drawl that the movies always portrayed people from this area having. In fact, she thought she heard some New York swagger in the person’s tone.

“Yep. One got shot and the other is purely exhausted.”

“I can fix the girl up for five hundred, but the guy is going to depend on the damage. I only take cash.”

<Shit…shit…shit…> She didn’t have anything on her, but knowing Wraith, she did.

“My friend has the money. It’s in her pockets somewhere,” she explained. “I can get it for you?”

“No sudden movements or I put a hole in you too, and then if you’re telling the truth I’ll charge you double to patch you up.” The person replied. “Keep your back to me.”

They circled each other so that the guy had a clear shot and Morina would have to turn to engage him. She couldn’t attack what she couldn’t see. She had an errant thought that this healer might know who she was, or at least who Wraith was, but the fact that he hadn’t shot them or called the cops was a good sign.

Being a Super and having a medical practice out in bumfuck nowhere told her that this guy might have his own secrets. It was common knowledge that people in this part of the country weren’t as accepting of Supers. There tended to be more Super-related crime, less tolerance from the authorities, and more animosity between Supers, humans, and then both weren’t fond of Powereds.

<Yeah, this guy is definitely sketch.> She knelt slowly and started to rummage through Wraith’s pockets.

Her eyes were rolled into the back of her head and she didn’t budge as Morina practically felt her up to find the cash. There were a lot of pockets with everything from duct tape to spare magazines for her pistols in them. She stayed well clear of the holsters on her thighs, and eventually found what she was looking for.

A wad of cash was rolled up tight and held in place by a rubber band. The outside bill was a hundred, and judging by that there was either a few grand in here or the bills got smaller. She pulled off five bills and slowly extended them behind her. The healer’s boots crunched against the dry ground as he snatched the cash away without touching her hand.

“Take ten steps forward,” he ordered.

She complied and waited for him to do what he said he would do, or shoot her. At the moment, she wasn’t sure which way it would go.

“What the shit!” Wraith’s gasp broke the tense silent. “Awwwwww that hurts like a bitch!”

“Sorry, it’s a side-effect of my healing.” The healer apologized.

“Feeling like I’m about to have diarrhea made of fire is a side-effect. No wonder you don’t get much business.” Wraith snapped back, but the apparent discomfort quickly faded.

“Hello, can I look now?”

“Sure.”

Morina heard the click of the weapon being put back on safe, and she turned to face the man.

<Damn.> He wasn’t wearing blue-jean suspenders with a beer gut and straw hat.

The healer was in a professional looking three-piece suit minus the jacket. The sleeves of his white dress shirt were rolled up to his elbows, and he had some nice muscles too. The glasses on his face highlighted his hawkish nose, but Morina didn’t mind, and his hair was an unnatural white color. He had a sleek hunting rifle tucked under his armpit, and he was extending a hand out to help Wraith up.

A spike a jealousy ran through Morina’s mind before she stomped it out. She didn’t know this guy from Adam, she shouldn’t be jealous that he was being nice to Wraith and not her. Plus, Wraith had Seth.

Wraith smacked the guy’s hand aside and climbed to her feet. She stumbled a bit, put her hands on her knees to steady herself, and took some deep breaths. “Is the nausea common too?” she asked.

“Yeah, it’ll pass just as fast as your intestinal pain.” The healer took a step back and watched the two women casually. The weapon was pointed harmlessly at the ground, but the way he handled it said he knew how to use it.

“I’m good.” Wraith straightened up and took one final deep breath. “Now help him.”

“He needs more than just an influx of energy.” The healer didn’t move from where he was standing. “I need to evaluate the wound, and probably clean it before patching him up.”

“What type of healer can’t disinfect wounds with his healing power?” Wraith turned to glare at the man.

“The only healer that you’ve got, and one who’s willing to turn a blind eye to your suspicious circumstances.” The guy had a point, and Seth didn’t look like he was going to survive another teleport.

“Fine, where do you need him?” Wraith kneeled next to Seth and with a surprising amount of tenderness started to check his vitals.

“My office is a short walk this way.”

Morina looked where he pointed and saw a dirt road that she’d missed up until now. If she looked at it from the right angle she could make out a small building nestled in the trees.

“Ok, Morina, help me.” Wraith grabbed Seth under the arm pits and she grabbed the legs. Together, they carried Seth down the dust driveway and into a surprisingly modern and clean room.

The outside of the building was clearly disguised to look like a mix between a shack and small house. Inside, it had a small ground floor set up as an office, and a large basement that the healer seemed to live in.

The healer bypassed the small office and took them downstairs and to a big room in the back. He opened the door and they were standing on the edge of an operating room.

“Get him on the table and get those clothes off,” he instructed.

“Whatever you say, Doc.” Wraith led the way on striping down her boyfriend.

“Mazel tov,” was the only thing Morina could think to say when she saw his junk.

“Now out, I need to work.” The healer ushered them both out of the room and shut the door behind him.

“Now what,” Morina crossed her arms across her chest and looked around the living room.

“Now we wait.” Wraith plopped down and turned on the TV.

It didn’t take Morina long to figure out her friend wasn’t even watching the daytime soap opera on the high-definition plasma. Her eyes kept darting to the door, her foot kept tapping against the tile, and she kept having to stop herself from chewing on her cuticles.

Wraith was worried, and Morina really couldn’t do anything to help.

 

***

 

“SNIPER!” Someone yelled as Iron Giant hit the ground as John.

<No shit!> Daisy didn’t waste any time in reacting.

They knew who the sniper was, where she was, what she was armed with, and exactly how many hostages she was holding. Unfortunately, some people were a little trigger happy after everything that had happened today. Law enforcement started taking shots at the building Nightingale was holding up in.

“Cease fire! Cease fire!” The police captain and DVA Agent Phillips were screaming over the Dispatch link.

Daisy took the moment of cover the return fire provided and dashed into action. Her legs pumped kinetic energy into the street as she pushed herself toward John’s prone body. She stopped on a dime next to him, ignoring the whiplash it exerted on her body, and picked him up in a bridal carry. She’d never be able to do this with Iron Giant, but little old John Ditmar was a different story.

“D…D…” blood leaked out of John’s mouth, and Daisy’s uniform was already slick with his blood.

“Hold on!” She turned around, and nearly took a bullet to the head. The turn was the only thing that saved her, but she felt the air parting against the bullet right next to her face.

“Cover me!” She yelled.

A force field appeared between her and the building Nightingale was using as a sniper’s nest. Daisy pushed off at the same time the second round hit the energy barrier. The barrier shattered as the bullet dipped in Nightingale’s nullifying goo and cracked into the pavement just to Daisy’s right.

<Fuck!> this wasn’t the first time Daisy had been under fire, but it might be the first time the bullets could actually kill her.

She was tempted to jump to safety, but that was an amateur mistake. You didn’t have any maneuverability in the air, especially while you were carrying someone as fragile as the currently very vulnerable Dean of West Private’s HCP. The jump up might be quick, but once she reached the apex, and started to come back down, Nightingale would be able to pick her off easy.

She needed to make herself a hard target to hit, and to do that she need some help. “Jetwash, you pompous ass, create a distraction. Blind her with wind, kick up enough shit so she can’t see, or draw her attention!” Daisy screamed the order.

Unlike her, the wind manipulator could easily maneuver in the air.

“Force Field, keep throwing up barriers. I don’t know if they’re deflecting shots a little, but even an inch helps.” Daisy knew Nightingale was a top-notch shot, so the last miss probably had something to do with the barrier’s temporary interference. “Get a healer ready.”

Daisy was running in a serpentine as she said all of this. She tried to keep out of the buildings line of sight as much as possible, but with the way the street was designed there just wasn’t anywhere to hide.

The wind started whipping and dust was kicked up enough that it made it hard to see.

<Not me you idiot!> It looked like something out of those old dust bowl films rolling onto the street, but instead of focusing on Nightingale it affected everyone.

Daisy ran right into it, and her visibility was cut to nothing immediately. Even worse, the dust stung at her eyes and made it difficult to see at all.

“Someone talk me through this. I can’t see shit!” Daisy had slowed to a straightforward walk as the dust swirled all around her.

<God, I hope she doesn’t have some type of heat vision.>

That got answered soon enough. A round tore through Force Fields barrier at a different angle. Nightingale had compensated, but her aim still wasn’t perfect. Instead of punching into Daisy’s center of mass, or John, it went into and through her calf.

Daisy dropped John who went rolling away into the dust storm while she cursed up her own storm. <Don’t stop!> She knew a lack of movement meant death, so she started to crawl.

Opposite leg and arm went up and she pulled herself forward, and then the other two. Every other crawl pain lanced through her as her open wound scraped against the ground. She searched out in front of her with her hands until they finally made contact. It wasn’t John. It was someone’s boot.

“Reaper, Ma’am.” A man in a SWAT tactical uniform stepped in-between her and Nightingale’s position with a large riot shield. “This should give us some cover.”

More police officers rushed forward and made a shield wall to protect the two injured Heroes.

“Iron Giant first.” Daisy grimaced as two more officers helped her to her feet. “He’s hit a lot worse than I am.”

“We’re on it, Ma’am.” The first officer to arrive nodded to another team of barely discernable black blobs moving in the dust cloud only a few feet away. “On my command we move!” He yelled to the rest of his team.

On three, the team started to shift. More fire rained down on them from Nightingale’s position, but their riot shields did what Daisy’s power couldn’t. Rounds pinged off the shield but didn’t penetrate. The team moved slowly and cautiously. They were respectful of Nightingale’s skill as a marksman. The fact the villain was hitting anything in this storm was amazing. Force Field threw up barriers more as a way to light the way to safety than protect them. Finally, after a few tense minutes, the team rounded a corner, the dust died down, and they were out of the villain’s line of sight.

“Healer!” The SWAT commander yelled as a pair of costumed Heroes approached Daisy and John. Dr. Sanderson was one of them.

“I’ve got him.” Golden mist stared to pour off the good Doctor as he crouched protectively over John.

Daisy didn’t recognize the other Hero, but his method of healing made her itch like a motherfucker. While she was waiting for the sensation to claw her own leg off to pass, Agent Phillips found her.

“Reaper.” The woman’s tone and voice made it clear she was pissed. “How about we don’t run out into the middle of an open street during an active shooter incident, where your powers are useless, and then we have to put more lives at risk coming out to save you.” She took a step closer. “Plus, do you know how much shit I would catch from my brother if you didn’t get out of this alive.”

“I’m sure a ton.” Daisy just shrugged. “I couldn’t leave Iron Giant.”

The DVA agent didn’t try to lecture her there because she knew it wouldn’t do any good.

“So what now?”

“Now we wait for the hostage negotiator to arrive, we set up a perimeter, cut the power to the building, and try to get the hostages to safety. Anything you can give us there?” Agent Phillips looked in the direction of the building.

“Thirty-two people not including Nightingale.” Daisy relayed what she was seeing with her sixth sight. “Do you think she’ll come quietly?”

“With her record…not a chance in hell. If she gets caught she’s going back to Avalon, and I don’t want to think what the government there has in store for the old regime’s chief torturer.”

“Good point.” Daisy suppressed a shiver.

<Things are about to get interesting.> She looked over at where John was transforming back into Iron Giant. <Or at least more interesting than a few minutes ago. It’s been a while since I’ve been in on a hostage negotiation.>

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 30

It felt good to be back in the suit. This wasn’t some emergency situation thing while the latest shitstorm was passing through town. Daisy was legit back in the show now, even though her Hero certification hadn’t been technically restored yet. There were more tests for her to take at the D.C. office when she got the free time, but the Protectorate was able to get around that right now by having her temporary status extended indefinitely until her certification reactivated. She was in team’s rotation part-time for the time being, and right now that meant she was the Hero on call.

She’d had customized fatigues ordered and delivered within twenty-four hours. They were a hell of a lot better than the crap they’d issued her for Mr. Morningstar’s detail. The fabric was lightweight and breathable while still being made of a ballistic material that would stop most small caliber ammunition. It was nothing like her old uniform that could hold together under artillery fire, but things were different here in Florida. She’d die of dehydration in that material down here, and it didn’t matter much for a kinetic absorber what caliber round it could handle. What did matter was them being top-grade fire-retardant material. She’d nearly been burned alive once in the last year and she wasn’t planning on going for two.

She’d dug her old domino mask out of her things, strapped it on, and immediately discarded it. It didn’t fit the circumstances. Shit was sliding sideways fast, and she didn’t need something to convey that. Her full-face shield came in with the rest of the uniform. The designer, a go-to for any serious Hero, had styled some red accents onto the metallic-black material that gave it a little devilish flair. On top of it went her black patrol cap. She’d had to slap it against her leg half a dozen times to get all the dust off of it, but it fit just right, and she wasn’t willing to get a new one. Her short hair went into a ponytail and through the open space at the back, and she was Reaper again.

Despite that, it had been a long time since she’d been on a call like this. <At least ten years.> She thought as she lifted the thin, yellow caution tape that made a horizontal barrier across the door of the apartment complex.

Even when she’d still been an active Hero, Daisy had usually been brought in for scorched-earth missions or things deemed serious by Iron Giant or the DVA. John was well aware of her short temper back then, so he didn’t waste her time with minor league shit. She was a different person now, and KaBoom was a different leader, so she got the same assignments as everyone else.

The neighbors were out in the hallway and their eyes went wide as she strode confidently down the hall to the gaggle of whispering detectives. She didn’t know if they remembered her from a decade ago, or if they just thought she looked bad ass. She didn’t pay them any attention other than a quick scan to classify them as non-threatening. What she was trying to figure out was the lead detective’s name. She’d seen him around the precinct before, and Topher had even introduced them once.

“Detective Martinez,” she gave herself a mental high-five when the man turned to regard her.

The next few interactions were crucial. Even though she wasn’t a new Hero in Orlando’s scene, she was new to the routine calls, and that meant she needed to carefully cultivate a relationship with the rank and file of the OPD. How she acted here with Detective Martinez was going to be spread around through the force. She was pretty sure the SWAT guys and a few uniforms that worked on the raids might have some stories, but Martinez was going to be the first to interact with her like this.

“Reaper.” He acknowledged her with a head nod and a look that said ‘I don’t really need you here, but I’ll take the help I can get’. It was a hell of a lot better than ‘Who the fuck do you think you are, and why do you think you can walk right into my crime scene and run the show?’.

“What have we got?” She decided to play it business-like for now.

“Nothing.”

She did a double take and got confirmation when Martinez shrugged.

“I’m not even sure why we’re here.”

“You’re here because I asked,” Daisy turned to see Debora striding down the hallway. She had her pant-suit jacket pulled to the side to show her DVA badge to the officer who looked like he was going to move to block her.

“Agent Phillips.” Reaper gave her the same tone and nod she did Martinez. Local vs. Federal beef was something she did not want to get in the middle of.

“Reaper.” The DVA agent returned the nod and strode past her and the detectives to the room where a man with CSI in big letters on his back was taking pictures of a perfectly clean apartment.

Too clean.

<Badge and gun on the table…no sign of forced entry…nothing looks like it’s been taken…> Daisy might not have done this in a while, but she remembered the basics.

“Do you mind telling us what the hell is going on?” Martinez asked as he followed Debora into the living room. Daisy brought up the rear.

“This is the apartment of DVA Agent Simmons. She didn’t report to work this morning, she didn’t call in sick, and no one has been able to get a hold of her since she left the office last night. This is atypical behavior from an agent with stellar reviews and perfect attendance.”

“So…she went on a bender and hasn’t crawled back out of the bottle yet.” Martinez suggested as he accepted a pair of gloves that Debora was handing to everyone. Daisy’s outfit came with gloves, so she walked into the kitchen to take a look around while everyone pulled on the latex.

All Daisy could think of was butt inspections when she heard the snap of the plastic and the weird squeaking sound of them being adjusted. She quickly pushed the thoughts aside and looked around the kitchen. She opened the fridge and found a dedicated agent’s contents: half a carton of eggs, milk that was about to go bad, and take-out that was either fresh or had been in there way too long judging by the noxious fumes wafting into the air. It didn’t tell her much about the agent other than she was a workaholic.

“Agent Simmons is a young, talented agent. She did not go on a bender. She is missing.”

“Unless things have changed, someone usually has to be gone at least forty-eight hours to officially be classified as missing,” Daisy said her piece and didn’t bother looking at Debora. She could feel the heat of the DVA agent’s glare on her back.

“Normally, yes, but there are exigent circumstances in this case.”

“Which are…?” Martinez asked as the group made its way into the bedroom.

Daisy scanned the living room before following. The bed room looked just as clean, but the bed’s comforter was missing. <Weird,> she wondered if anyone had checked the washer.

“Agent Simmons was part of a two-person team that captured an individual assisting the supervillain known as Wraith yesterday.” No one needed any further explanation.

They all split up and started to do their detective thing, and Daisy went over to the CSI guy. He was a little star struck and stumbled over his answers. It was what she’d already surmised. They’d dusted for prints and everything, but so far they’d come up with diddly. The evidence was pointing more and more in the direction of the bender theory.

“Do you mind?” she asked as she grabbed the UV light from the CSI guy’s kit of tools.

He didn’t, but he said he already took a look at everything and didn’t find anything. It didn’t matter. She had a hunch. It wasn’t a lot to go on, but she couldn’t buy that the breakout from the supermax prison and anything Wraith did from now on was coincidental. There had to be a reason, and so far every prisoner except one was accounted for. She’d read the file and knew what to look for.

While everyone else poked around the bedroom, she shut herself in the bathroom and closed the door. She flipped on the UV lamp and watched as the blueish glow washed over everything. The tile was clean, too clean, and the CSI guy probably noted that in his report. She also bet that aside from the food in her fridge, Agent Simmons was a classic neat freak. The orderly apartment suggested it, so that cleanliness would be written off.

Daisy wasn’t willing to assume that. She waved the light and looked into all the nooks and crannies. There was nothing behind the toilet, anywhere in the back of the closet, or under the lip of the sink where someone’s foot might accidentally leave residue. She waved it over the tub and it was just as immaculate. She was about to move on when a momentary shine caught her eye.

“Someone get me a screw driver!” she called out. Less than ten seconds later Debora had one, and had squeezed into the dark space with Martinez.

Daisy unscrewed counterclockwise and the drain cover popped off. The top of it didn’t show any residue, but the underside was shining like a beacon. The drain itself wasn’t too bad, but there were still some flecks of brightness. Normally, they would be swabbed and sent to the lab with the lowest priority since there still wasn’t any real indication that Agent Simmons was missing, but the bottom of the drain cover was the smoking gun.

“I’d bet you a month’s pay that if you swab and test this blood you’ll get a positive DNA test for Agent Simmons.” Daisy wasn’t happy she’d made the discovery.

“Shit,” Debora cursed and seemed to deflate in front of her.

“How the hell did you know to look there, and how do you know it’s blood?” Martinez was squinting at the bright underside of the cover.

“Bloodhound.” Daisy replied.

“What?”

“The only prisoner missing from the prison break in Colorado was a woman named Bloodhound. Her MO is to kill people, drain their bodies of blood, and bathe in it. My guess is that some of it leaked out while she was bathing, or she tried to drain some of it, or maybe she even forgot to put the stopper in when she cut her victim’s throats. I don’t know, but I do know that blood is thicker than water and doesn’t drain like it. She cleaned up after she was done, but she missed this bit.”

“Victims?”

“It’s just a gut feeling, but judging by the level of cleaning that went into this, and the amount of blood the human body has in it, I’m guessing two or more people were drained into the tub. I suggest we canvas the neighbors and see if anyone else didn’t show up for work this morning unexpectedly.” Daisy felt the weight of guilt settle onto her shoulders.

This was the part of the job she didn’t miss: the feeling that she could have prevented this if she was here or had done something different in the past.

<You didn’t do this. Wraith and Bloodhound did. Concentrate on that.> She took a deep breath, composed herself, and got to her feet.

“Get CSI in here and get the evidence. Then you can make this an official homicide case and get the resources that you need.” She looked at Debora. The DVA agent couldn’t see behind the mask, but Daisy’s face was pained. “Sorry for your loss, Agent Phillips.”

Debora didn’t say anything. She threw open the door and started yelling orders to everyone.

 

***

 

The last few freshman of West Private’s HCP shuffled into the auditorium just before the scheduled start time. The rest of the classes watched them without judging. They knew everything those first semester freshman were going through, and the last thing anyone wanted after a workout session with Coach McMillian was to sit in the auditorium for an announcement from the Dean.

Mason, Kyoshi, Becca, Anika, and Angela were sitting together and all hoping this would be quick. The grumbling of stomachs in the room was nearly as loud as the side conversations.

“Thank you, everyone, for coming on such short notice.” Dean Ditmar stepped out onto the stage with a hurried look on his face. The stress was something his students were not used to seeing. “I just wanted to gather everyone together this evening to discuss what has occurred and will be occurring.”

Several people in the crowd – mostly freshman – shifted uncomfortably. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out where this conversation was going.

“Not long ago, the Hero community and this city lost an icon.” The Dean’s tone was somber. “I have personally known Mr. Morningstar for more than half a decade, and his reputation preceded him long before that. He was a good man, a great Hero, and an asset to this city. As all of you know, he lost his life fighting against people who have attacked our city and our nation. Due to the media coverage, it was a very public death. Most Heroes who die in the line of duty do not get the moment captured on national television, but how his death was broadcasted does not affect his relevance as a Hero and guardian of this city. If anything, it shows everyone: Hero, civilian, and HCP student just how important the daily battle for peace and justice really is.” The Dean stopped to take a sip of water from the bottle on the podium.

“Most of you also know that his murderer is still at large, and once masqueraded as a student at this college.”

All of the eyes in the room pivoted in Mason, Kyoshi, Becca, and Anika’s direction. A few then moved down toward Isla in the front row, but none of them found what they were looking for.

“The public funeral and private ceremony for Mr. Morningstar are being held tomorrow starting exactly at noon. The city is pulling out all the stops. A funeral procession of Heroes and local law enforcement will escort Mr. Morningstar’s body through the city to the church. Once there, only close friends and families, transported by teleporter, will be present for the actual service. Members of the public may be inclined to stay and follow the procession to the cemetery where Mr. Morningstar will be laid to rest.”

Becca’s hand shot up the moment the Dean finished and he pointed for her to ask the question everyone was thinking.

“Can we attend?”

“That’s why I called this assembly.” The Dean smiled back with a hint of sadness. “Members of the West Private HCP are more than welcome to attend as civilians. The secret identity clause of your contracts still applies. You may not reveal what you are or what you are doing at West Private, and that is important because the threat level for tomorrow is high.” The Dean’s face grew serious. “As I mentioned, Wraith and the others who attacked the prison are still at large. If their goal is to continue to hurt this city then attacking the funeral will be at the top of their agenda. The DVA and over a dozen Heroes are tasked specifically with security, but no defense is perfect. That is a good lesson to take away from this meeting today. Several very powerful people will be there tomorrow, and there is still a chance for things to go very wrong. I can’t stop you from attending, but you all need to keep that in mind if you do go.”

“Are you on the security detail?” An overzealous freshman asked.

“No, but I will be attending the funeral and will do my duty if called upon. I’m an asset in reserve for the authorities to utilize.” The Dean looked around for any more eager question askers. “As the Dean of the HCP, your safety is my top priority and we will be ensuring accountability of all students throughout the day tomorrow. The whole city, including the school, has established tomorrow as a half-day in honor of Mr. Morningstar. It is as much a security concern as anything else, but I encourage all of you to take advantage of this time to train and learn.” The Dean looked around again for any raised hands. “If you are planning to attend tomorrow, please see Professor Livingston and she will give you the relevant information.”

The Dean stepped away from the podium and the classes took that as a sign of dismissal. Everyone gathered their things and started to either stream out of the auditorium or to the Focus professor. Surprisingly, despite the danger, more students headed to the teacher than to the door, but a few made a beeline straight to the Dean.

“Dean Ditmar,” naturally Becca got to him first, “have you seen Seth? He wasn’t in any of our classes today and we’re worried about him. He’s been a bit off lately, and with his probation we just wanted to check in.” Anyone who didn’t know the petite speedster would have thought she was giving the Dean puppy-dog-eyes, but it was just her natural expression.

“Mr. Abney has been temporarily removed from the program until the criminal charges against him get sorted out. How the issue is resolved will determine if he returns to this program or not.” The Dean didn’t elaborate before leaving the stunned sophomores.

“He’s gone?” was all Becca was able to say.

“Oh man,” Mason sighed as his face fell.

Anika kept her mouth shut and Angela just shrugged. Their eyes met briefly and they could both tell the other Super thought Seth was better off somewhere else. Neither thought he had the current mindset to be a Hero.

“Hey, have you guys seen Seth?” Isla walked up to the small group with the same concerned look on her face. The look only deepened when she heard the news. “I don’t understand?”

“It’s not difficult.” Angela started off, but softened her tone when Becca shot her a withering look. “Seth is obviously going through something, and with his legal problems the staff is probably correct in assuming he’s not ready to be a Hero now, so why would they waste resources training him?”

“It’s just…” Isla stopped and struggled over what to say. “Nevermind,” she sighed and walked away back toward the rest of the freshman who were gathered around Professor Livingston.

“What should we do?” Mason asked once they were alone again.

“Nothing,” Anika replied. “If he’s out then the HCP is going to wipe his memory so he can’t expose the rest of us. The Dean gave us the whole spiel last year. For all we know, Seth doesn’t even remember who we are right now.”

That sent Becca over the edge. She sniffled and headed for the door with Anika following after her apologizing. Angela agreed with the sentiment with a simple nod and followed the two other Supers out. That just left Mason and Kyoshi.

“I can’t sense him in the building, but we can drive by his place if you want?” She could tell Mason was taking it hard. It was always difficult to see someone you’d fought beside gone like that without even a goodbye.

“Sure.”

Kyoshi intertwined her hand in Mason’s and the two large Supers carved a path toward the exit. They’d both get with Professor Livingston tomorrow morning to confirm they’d go to the funeral.

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 29

“Three…two…one…breech!” The shape-charges on the warehouse doors warped the metal beyond recognition while blasting big ass holes in them. Flash bang grenades capable of crippling a mid-range strongman followed the explosions, and a few seconds later two SWAT teams stormed the building through the front and rear entrances.

KaBoom had led his team through the wall while Jetwash came in through the upper skylight. He controlled the fall of the glass with his aerokinesis. A field of flying glass daggers hung suspended in the air around the Hero as he took an overwatch position, and it was his aerial position that saved a bunch of lives.

“Everyone out!” He yelled over through the earpiece that was linked through Dispatch to everyone on the assault team.

The team hadn’t advanced far enough to see the laser trip wires the bag guys had planted near the collection of stuff at the center of the room. They could have placed the explosives at the doors, but they likely would have been triggered by the breeching charge and resulted in fewer casualties. Luring the cops and Heroes in before blowing the place to hell ensured a lot more carnage. Unfortunately for the bad guys, they’d been in a rush and forgot the skylight.

Jetwash had an eagle-eye view of the room setup and was able to direct the bomb squad in dismantling the explosives, but it took time. Everyone from the DVA to Hunter was chomping at the bit to get into the room. Any clue, even a small one, which could lead them to Wraith would be worth it.

“Clear!” The bomb squad called out and Hunter teleported to the middle of the room.

“She was here,” he informed immediately. “I need a circle of caution tape here.” He walked the perimeter of an area and the crime scene investigators quickly marked the area.”

As they did, Hunter put his hand out and felt the tear in space-time that Wraith’s teleportation created. It would be the easiest thing in the world to follow, but he’d learned his lesson last time. As much as he disliked the thought, he needed to rely on good old-fashioned police work to find her this time.

“I know you’re thinking about it.” KaBoom stepped up to the edge of the tape. Stepping across it wouldn’t do anything to the kinetic absorber, but it would alter the readings and taint their admissibility in court.

The DVA was already carting in big boxes of tech to document the rupture and confirm that it was Wraith who did it. It was the equivalent of a teleporter’s finger print; each one’s was different.

“What else can you tell me?” Hunter had only been briefed on the operation five minutes before it kicked off.

“We grabbed Seth Abney talking to her downtown, traced the phone call, and here we are. We threw it together in twenty minutes, and it shows just how good the local coordination between agencies has gotten in the last few months.”

A year ago, if the Fist was acting up it would have taken an hour for the cops and Heroes just to get on the same page, and there was no way in hell the DVA would even stick their nose into it.

“Do you think we’ll get anything?” KaBoom looked around at the massive amount of resources being expended.

“Maybe.” Hunter shrugged. Half his attention was still on the space-time rupture. “They’re smart, but we caught them with their pants down. They might have expected anything incriminating to go up in flames, but now that we’ve got it we might find an advantage.”

“Jesus Christ!” A cop stumbled backward out from behind a curtain and proceeded to empty his stomach all over the floor.

“Get him out of here!” The DVA agent in charge stalked over and did everything short of kicking the guy in the ass to get him moving.

“Agent Phillips,” Hunter nodded to the woman and then toward the curtain.

“Looks like a serial killer’s Disney Land in there.” The DVA agent’s face was a little green.

“Nightingale,” KaBoom and Hunter said in unison.

“Stripped the person’s skin off, extracted organs, and cut off some pretty important bits.” The DVA agent stopped there, but having read Nightingale’s file they both knew the torture expert did much more to that poor bastard.

“If you ask me, our best bet is going to be Abney. I knew there was something up with that kid.” Agent Phillips continued.

Having met both Wraith and Abney when they were together, Hunter didn’t buy the agent’s story one hundred percent, but he had to conclude that Abney had gone and monumentally screwed up his life with a single phone call.

“I say we dangle him as bait and wait for Wraith to bite.”

“He and his lawyer will never go for it.” KaBoom played devil’s advocate.

“It’s that or he rots.” Phillips’ shrugged. “I got the word from the brass in D.C. and the shit he pulled is covered under the Patriot Act. We can charge him as supporting terrorism. That’s hard time in a get fucked in the ass federal prison. Once we drop that bomb I think he’ll take the deal.” The agent was smiling.

“If she comes for him.” Hunter stated.

“Then we take her down.” The smile that crossed the agent’s face showed just how much she wanted to do that.

“Easier said than done.” Hunter added his two cents.

“Details boys. With big strapping Heroes like you two how can we fail?”

Both heroes knew from plenty of personal experience against Wraith that there were several ways to fail. For that matter, Agent Phillips did too, but it was hard not to feel some hope with this break in the case. Finally having something Wraith wanted couldn’t be overlooked.

“Let’s bet on it. Fifty bucks Abney takes the deal and helps us bring Wraith in.” She held out her hand for someone to make the bet.

“I’ll take that.” KaBoom shook on it.

“Even if we get Abney to cooperate we’re going to need more firepower to take her down. She won’t be alone.”

“We’ll bring in the big guns,” the agent smiled. “I heard Reaper is back on the job.”

“She is, but we’ll need more.” KaBoom’s statement surprised the agent. “We aren’t going to go into a close fight when we can bring overwhelming force to bear. Is Seraphim free?”

“I’ll have to check. She’s been operating along the southern border doing drug interdiction lately,” Hunter replied. He’d have someone else make the call, because if he did they’d probably get a big fat no from his estranged wife.

“Good.” Agent Phillips clapped her hands loudly. “Let’s get the scene tagged and bagged. We’ve got a busy weekend ahead of us. Mr. Morningstar’s funeral is already a logistical nightmare with most of the city wanting to attend, and now with word that Wraith is in town HQ is going to want us to throw everything including the kitchen sink at this thing. This funeral is as much about honoring a fallen Hero as it is about showing the world that Orlando is back on its feet.

Both Heroes bristled at the comment, but they’d been in the game long enough to know the reality of the situation. The funeral was going to be a big deal, and they needed to be ready, which meant they were in for some sleepless nights.

 

***

 

Agent Simmons was having a great day, and she felt guilty about it. The biggest bust in her career had occurred right in the middle of one of the shittiest weeks of the year, maybe even the decade: a prison break which was a mass casualty event for the prison’s staff, criminals unaccounted for, and the death of a legend. She knew she could feel proud of her accomplishments and still feel the pain of the last week like everyone else, but they were tough emotions for her to rectify. She wanted to celebrate her role in catching the Abney kid red handed, and play it up to her boss so he’d remember when it came time to write her evaluation. She’d been at the lowest field agent grade for the last year and she wanted to get promoted. Her bust was the key to that.

She pulled her small, gray Nissan into her assigned parking place at the apartment complex. Part of her being so low on the totem pole meant she couldn’t afford anywhere better to live. The neighborhood was ok, but after Seif al-Din’s attack it had kind of gone downhill. Her car had been broken into twice and she always carried her gun when walking around. Most of the people in the complex knew she was law enforcement, so she’d ended up the head of their new neighborhood watch. She hadn’t actually participated in a nightly patrol, but from what she’d heard it mostly involved twenty-something-year-olds sitting around and drinking while looking through a set of binoculars she’d loaned the group.

It was late when she arrived and the two watch members on duty gave her a wave. Judging by the cans in their hands, her impressions of the group weren’t that far off.

<Community activism is important in public safety.> She reminded herself as she waved back. As long as they didn’t rope her into standing guard all night with someone else she was ok with it.

Like most of the people in the complex, she was a late twenty-something-year-old, fresh out of an enlistment in the marines, and looking to work her was up the ladder in her new career. Judging by the amount of times guys came up to randomly talk to her she was fairly attractive, but she had a hell of a right hook, which intimidated some guys and kept them at bay. She was single and would be ready to mingle when she found the time, but right now her life was her job, so she wasn’t going to get shit faced with some junior banker in the middle of the night when she had to be at the office at six am.

One of the watchmen started making his way toward her, but she held up her arms full of files and shrugged. The guy took the meaning and made a “call me” sign with his finger and thumb. She smiled politely back with no intention of calling him. Then she was out of sight and heading up the stairs to her second floor apartment.

On the neighbor front, she’d gotten pretty lucky. The guy upstairs was never home because he was a night manager somewhere, and the couple downstairs didn’t bother her at all except for the occasional sounds of them humping or their Chihuahua barking. Often the two occurred at the same time.

Tonight the upstairs guy was gone and there was no humping or barking downstairs as she unlocked her door to the dark apartment. She did a quick customary scan of the space. The marines and DVA stressed situational awareness, and it was something someone in her line of work needed to succeed.

Everything was clear, so she closed and locked the door behind her, placed her keys on the table and headed to the bedroom. She stripped off her blazer, removed her holstered weapon from her belt, and placed it on the nightstand.

<I’ll close my eyes for five minutes and then I’ll get to work.> She had dozens of files to go over, but she needed a moment to unwind before diving into them.

She flopped down on the bed and…

“AH! What the fuck?!” she screamed as tiny daggers dug into her back, arms, legs, and neck.

She jumped back to her feet to see her white comforter stained red. She flipped on the light and the comforter started to glisten.

<Glass?> The sheet was covered in glass.

Her instincts screamed that something was wrong and she listened to them. She lunged for her nightstand and removed her pistol from its holster and pivoted to do a three hundred and sixty degree sweep of the room. She hadn’t even done one hundred and eighty degrees before she realized she wasn’t alone.

Two people were in the room with her. Her finger moved instinctually from where she’d rested it parallel to the trigger guard to the trigger. She line up a shot on the taller of the two people who was dressed in black with a mask she’d seen hundreds of times in files like the ones in her living room. She squeezed the trigger with the soft part of her finger between the tip and first knuckle…or at least that’s what her brain told her body to do. Her body did not comply.

She tried again…nothing.

“Look, Morina, it looks like someone has performance anxiety.” Wraith chuckled as she walked forward and easily disarmed Agent Simmons. “But where are my manners?” Wraith placed the weapon in her coat’s pocket. “My name is Wraith and this is my close personal friend, Morina. You have a lovely home, so lovely that we let ourselves in while you were running around ruining other people’s lives.”

Simmons tried to speak but her throat wasn’t working.

“You are Agent Claire Simmons. You were top twenty percent of your class at the DVA Academy with a distinguished record and honorable discharge from the Marine Corps. Plus, you were all state in high school field hockey if I’m not mistaken.” Wraith smiled as she walked in a circle around the frozen agent.

<What do you want?> Simmons could only think her response.

“What was that?” Wraith held her hand up to her ear and leaned in real close to mock her. “What’s the matter, blood manipulator got your tongue?”

Simmons wanted nothing more than to spit right in Wraith’s face, but like the rest of her she couldn’t work her mouth to gather the saliva. In fact, she was beginning to drool down the side of her cheek.

“My friend will give you the use of your mouth back so you can answer a few questions. Answer them truthfully and we’ll let you go with a minor ass whooping. Answer untruthfully and I’ll leave you to my friend.”

Simmons didn’t know who Morina was off the top of her head, but there had only been a few confirmed blood manipulators since Supers made themselves known. They went on of two ways: medical professionals that helped a lot of people, or deranged psychopaths. Since Morina was with Wraith, Simmons was betting on the latter.

Wraith turned and nodded to Morina. The iron grip that had seized Simmons vanished from the neck up.

“AAAAA!” She got half a scream out before the grip clamped back down on her.

“Stupid bitch,” Wraith’s haymaker hit Simmons across the side of the face. Her body reacted by toppling to the floor like a frozen statue. Luckily, she didn’t shatter on impact. Unluckily, she was pretty sure her jaw was fucked up.

“Keep an eye on her.” Wraith left the room, and Simmons heard her going through the files in the living room.

<Shit.> Most of the stuff was mundane, administrative crap, but a few were more sensitive documents.

“Look at what we have here.” Wraith’s feet came back into view and she bent down to shove the paperwork in her face. “Are those the security plans for Mr. Morningstar’s funeral?”

It was a rhetorical question, and Simmons tried her best to spit in the villain’s face again.

“Geeze, they’re going all out for that old fucktard. If I would have known killing him was going to get him a big-ass funeral, then I might have just shot his dick off as my revenge. The guy wasn’t that great. He didn’t do that much. Morina, can healer heal a dick that’s been shot off?” She turned to her partner in crime.

The blood manipulator shrugged. Her eyes were fixed on Simmons, and there was something in them that made the DVA agent’s blood run cold.

“Oh well,” Wraith pocketed the documents and squatted down so she was fully in Simmons’ eye line. “Let’s get back on topic. I need you to tell me all the latest upgrades to the Protectorate’s HQ. I’ve got the layout up here,” she pointed at her head, “but I need to know what new tricks they have up their sleeves.” She nodded and Simmons felt control of her mouth returning to her.

“FUCK YOU!”

A relatively light slap sent her reeling in pain, but Morina had already reasserted control. On top of the broken jaw, the slap nearly made her black out.

“I’m going to ask you again. What are the defensive countermeasures the DVA has in…”

Three repetitive knocks on the door brought the villain up short. Both Wraith and Morina looked in the direction. If she hadn’t been effectively paralyzed, Simmons would have made a move to escape, but all she could do was drool and bleed onto the faux wooden floor.

A second round of knocks and two people called her name. She hadn’t spoken with them much, but it sounded like the couple from downstairs. Wraith rose to her feet and pulled two sleek looking pistols from shoulder holsters.

“Coming, just give me a second!” She yelled into her arm to muffle the response, but still loud enough for the couple to hear.

Simmons wanted to scream a warning to her unsuspecting neighbors but she couldn’t do anything but watch as Wraith left the room. Simmons heard the sound of the door unlocking and being opened. “Hey…” was the only word spoken before two sizzles were quickly followed by two thumps. She heard more footsteps and something scraping across the floor before the door closed and locked again. Wraith reappeared dragging the young couple toward the bathroom.

“I’ll leave these two for you,” she said to Morina. “I’ve got a promise to keep.”

Once the couple was dragged into the bathroom, Wraith squatted back in front of Simmons. “Tell me the plans.”

They went back and forth for several hours. Simmons refused to talk and Wraith beat her some more. She cut off three of Simmons fingers’ on each hand, both of her big toes, and was getting ready to pull finger nails off of what remained when Simmons finally broke.

She knew she was going to die at this point and she just wanted to get it over with. Pain was a powerful motivator, so she gave Wraith everything and then some. Some things were true, others were lies, and a few were even elaborate fantasies. She was laughing and crying by the end of her recitation. The pain had frayed her grip on reality, and she’d given Wraith the biggest middle finger she knew in her explanation. The villain wasn’t getting any more out of her. She’d just have to verify for herself what was true and what wasn’t.

“She’s gone,” Wraith stood up and stretched her back. “She’s all yours.”

Morina had been steady for most of the interrogation, but she’d started to tap her foot and scratch her forearms the longer she sat there watching Wraith work. Now, the biggest smile split her face as she grabbed the DVA agent by the feet and dragged her toward the bathroom.

Wraith knew what would happen next. The blood manipulator would drain the three people of their blood, bathe in it, and do whatever her ritual was. Serial killers always had rituals, and although Wraith got along with Morina, that didn’t stop her from thinking the ritual was creepy as fuck.

While the blood manipulator worked, Wraith wiped down the apartment of forensic clues and studied the files. She had two missions coming up: the funeral and Seth. If she was lucky, she might be able to execute both in the same day.

<Use one as a distraction for the other.> It was pretty straightforward, so the Heroes would be prepared for that. <And I need to parcel through the bullshit she gave me.> Wraith knew a new energy cannon that sped up the passage of time within its confines was unlikely to be real, but it was going to be hard to verify what was the truth.

She’d be as well prepared as she could be, but there would be some risk involved. There was always risk in being a villain.

Morina emerged from the bathroom forty-five minutes later with perfect skin, a smile on her face, and a skip in her step. Wraith didn’t even ask. She just grabbed the blood manipulator’s hand and teleported them and the necessary files to several locations before finally returning to their base of operations.

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 14

<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.”

“Where?”

“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.

“What?”

“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.

“Night?”

“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?

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