A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 55

“Ouch…shit!” Anna Fletcher fumed as the red, semi-solid ball hit her hard in the boob. Someone on the other side of the court laughed at her pain, and she gave them the finger.

Becca winced at the sight of her teammate being eliminated. That left Team 3 with only two other players remaining. Team Two was methodically picking them off one by one. It was sweet revenge for the other team, and mildly embarrassing for Becca’s team.

To get the sophomore class back in the swing of things the instructors had immediately planned another team event for three days into the semester. Becca and the rest of the sophomores were still busy finding the optimum route to their new classes when they were unceremoniously thrown into a classic game of dodgeball.

The game had been outlawed at most public institutions throughout the US because people said it allowed the strong to pick on the weak. They were probably right, but sometimes people need to have their ass handed to them to motivate them to do better. It was better to have a relatively-benign ball do that than fists and feet. For members of West Private University’s HCP, a red ball was a welcome change of pace from fists, feet, and super powers that routinely were thrown around the place.

Becca deftly dipped to the right as a ball missed her by inches. For a person that was used to being faster and nimbler than anyone else, this game was more than frustrating. Coach McMillian had laid out the rules before they started, and rule number one was no powers. For some, like Mason and Casey, that was impossible, but most people in the class could control their abilities. The close combat coach was keeping a close eye on the strongman types to make sure they didn’t throw the ball too hard and hurt someone. The students might not be able to use their abilities but he could, and he would be able to get to the person before the ball could.

Becca backpedaled to increase the distance between her and the four remaining players from Team Two: Anika, Teresa Shaw, Liam Garrison, and Emilia Scarborough. Anika had just tried to take Becca out, and it wasn’t to dinner and a movie.

Winter Break had been great for them. They’d split the time between Becca’s family, and Anika’s adoptive parents. They’d laughed, loved, and enjoyed their time to the fullest while still doing occasional training. Still, the first couple days back demanded that they get back into fighting shape.

Becca clutched her ball and considered whether or not to throw it. It was useful to have one to deflect shots. If she knocked away and incoming throw with her ball then she wasn’t out, and giving up that advantage when Team Two had two-to-one odds against them was tough. On the flip side, she needed to give up the protection if she wanted to even those odds. It was interesting how life’s challenges of being stuck between a rock and a hard place were exemplified in such a simple game.

Finally she decided to take a chance. She raced up to the line and looked like she was prepared to return fire against Anika. Her girlfriend backed up, but watched Becca intently. She bent her knees, lowered her center of gravity, and prepared to make the split-second decision of trying to catch the throw to eliminate Becca, or dodge. Right when Becca reached the line she quickly pivoted forty-five degrees and launched her ball diagonally at an unsuspecting Liam Garrison. The toxic obfuscator was busy trying to read what Team Three’s only other remaining player, Carson Long, was going to do. Carson was normally an ass, but his smack talk did the job of distracting Liam perfectly.

Liam still caught the flash of red in his peripherals, and tried to get out of the way, but he wasn’t fast enough. The dodgeball hit him in the shoulder with a loud SMACK.

“Garrison, out!” Coach McMillian yelled as Liam started to slouch off the court.

Becca started to back pedal again when it was her turn to see a flash of red in her peripherals. <Stupid rules!> If she had her speed she would have been able to dodge easily, but without it, it became clear she wouldn’t get away. Even worse…

SLAP! The dodgeball hit her square in the cheek. Becca felt the sting immediately, and was sure it would be red for at least an hour.

“Whitfield, out! Scarborough, no head shots, you know that. You’re out too!” The Coach ordered, and they both complied.

Becca swore she saw Emilia grinning as they both walked off the court. Becca didn’t condone the nickname assigned to Emilia and her group of friends: stuck up bitches (SUBs), but she sure thought she was one at the moment.

Back on the court, it was now two on one. Carson was facing off against Anika and Teresa. Carson still had a ball for defense, but that virtually eliminated his ability to make a catch, which would remove one of Team Three’s players from the game while bringing back in one of his teammates.

Virtually was the key word there as Anika made a throw and Carson went for the long shot. Instead of dodging, he slid into the path of the ball. He maneuvered his own ball to one arm and tried to catch her throw. It would have looked awesome if he succeeded, but Anika was a virtual strongwoman herself, and even though she was backing off her strength, it still meant the ball had some zip behind it.

Carson misjudged the slide and the ball hit him high on the shoulder and rebounded at a bad angle. He reached for it, and got his fingertips on it, but it wasn’t enough. It hit the ground and Coach McMillian called the game for Team Two.

“That’s two-two. It’s the best of three, so next win takes the cake.” Becca was surprised when told there was an actual welcome back cake waiting for them after this training session. She’d be careful when she ate it though. She wasn’t a freshman anymore. There could be a ‘surprise’ training even just when the cake was starting to settle in their bellies. That was something the instructors would do.

The whole dodgeball tournament just seemed too nice.

 

***

 

Mason had dipped, ducked, dived, and dodged around for twenty minutes. People would think at six-nine, with the body of a bodybuilder, he’d be one of the first to go. They’d be wrong. He thought part of it was because people thought they could leave him to deal with later while they tried to get rid of his teams more deadly players. Rowan had proven to be a maniac, and since he was still a relative unknown to the class, he’d been vigorously targeted until finally being knocked out of the game. Likewise, Lorelai Gilford had proven clever and resourceful. She been the last to be knocked out, and left Mason alone to face the remainder of Team One.

Team Four hadn’t gone down easy though, and they’d been allowed for one player to remain in the game after being knocked out because they were down to six instead of seven members. No one talked about how they’d lost their seventh member.

Angela’s team was a worthy opponent, and Erin had made sure to knock out the angelic shifter as quickly as possible. Alex Webb had been tough, along with Natalia Romanoff, but when it came down to the endgame it was the last person Mason wanted to be playing against. It was a battle of the class giants, and most respected couple in the class, Mason versus Kyoshi.

“Don’t get beat by your girlfriend, dude,” Simon Skylar yelled from the sidelines. “You’ll never live it down.”

Mason ignored him and slid to the side to avoid Kyoshi’s throw. She missed, and he immediately returned fire, but she was already moving at the expected counterattack.  Despite all appearances, he knew she wasn’t using her power. It was just common sense. She knew him, she was thinking tactically, and she knew he would try and immediately take advantage of her vulnerability. Mason had even tried to foresee which nearby ball she was going to go for, but he must have telegraphed his move, because his throw was embarrassingly inaccurate.

“Come on, Mason.” Rowan groaned as Kyoshi grabbed another ball and they returned to the stalemate that had already lasted close to five minutes.

It was getting old, and Coach McMillian seemed to be thinking the same thing. The winner of this best-of-five match was going to face off against Team Three in a one match sudden death for victory. Mason was about to commit to another assault when Kyoshi beat him to it.

She surprised him by charging the center line, but more importantly, she brought her arm back to make the throw very early, and exposed her chest. Mason didn’t hesitate and stare at the chest like some love-struck idiot. He took action. He half-cocked his arm and threw. He felt a little guilty that he might have put a little extra zing on the throw since he didn’t wind up all the way, but McMillian didn’t call him out on it. There wasn’t any need to.

At six-seven, Mason didn’t think his girlfriend was capable of the maneuver. She had jumped, and while airborne, twisted so that she would not be able to land on her feet. She was going to land hard on her shoulder, and would feel it in the morning, but she clearly wasn’t thinking about that. The gutsy twist-leap made it so Mason’s center-of-mass shot passed in the space between her armpit and hip. That left him totally exposed, open for a counterstrike, but more importantly flat footed. He flexed his knees to dive away, but Kyoshi’s ball was already rocketing toward him. Of course, due to her aerial acrobatics, and her naturally uncoordinated nature, her shot wasn’t completely on target either.

The red ball flew in at a respectable speed and made solid contact with his junk. If Mason was a lesser man he probably would have gasped in pain, groaned, and fallen dramatically to his knees. However, anything short of a .50 caliber round hitting him in the nuts wasn’t going to elicit that reaction. Instead he rolled his eyes and looked at his girlfriend as she landed hard on her side and skidded to a stop.

“Really?” he asked as Team Four groaned in defeat.

She just shrugged, which included a small wince, as Team One rushed the court to help her to her feet.

“Team One wins!” Coach McMillian announced. “Why don’t you walk it off, Jackson.”

“I’m good, Coach.” Mason replied.

“Not that.” McMillian shook his head. “I’m talking about your dignity, man. You just got righteously outmaneuvered by your girlfriend. Go take a lap to earn your man card back.” The Coach’s good-natured smile accompanied the ribbing, but that didn’t stop the rest of the two teams from laughing at their class’ biggest and physically strongest member.

Mason took it all in stride, and even laughed a little himself. Kyoshi would make it up to him later.

 

***

 

“Are we going to talk about the elephant in the room?” Mason finally broke the silence.

All the original inhabitants of Townhouse 117 were sitting in a mostly-deserted corner of the Student’s Center. It was the first chance they had to gather together as a group since the start of the semester. The get together had started with some light bragging from Angela. Team One had gone on to win the face off with Team Three. Teams One and Three had become the two top contenders in the team competition; followed by Team Two, and lastly Team Four. That bothered Mason, and he knew Seth’s absence had something to do with it. It was hard for a future group of Heroes to grasp that they’d been teammates, and even friends, with someone who’d gone as far astray as Seth Abney.

“If by ‘elephant’ you mean traitorous, backstabbing asshole, then sure,” Anika replied. She had never liked Seth, and his recent choices only validated her position in her own mind. The voice of moderation, Becca, remained silent.

“Call it what you want,” Mason could quite bring himself to rebuke Anika. “We need a plan.”

“There is no plan. There’s only the truth,” Becca stated. It didn’t sound like much coming from the good-natured speedster, but everyone present realized she was putting her foot down.

“We’re not saying to lie, or do anything like that,” Kyoshi stepped in since she had a better idea what was on Becca’s mind. “What Mason is talking about is how we move forward from this.”

Everyone had been interviewed several times by the HCP staff, the DVA, and other law enforcement agencies. They’d milked every bit of information out of the small group that they could, but since the events of Winter Break, there was a new schedule of interviews lined up.

“We don’t know anything. We know that, they know that, but they need to keep pressing. When you fail to catch the bad guy sometimes you need to go back to square one and start over again with the investigation. Unfortunately, we’re square one.” Angela laid it out clearly, and everyone nodded.

“There’s a stigma attached to us now,” Kyoshi added, which surprised some of the group. “Not necessarily from our classmates or the HCP staff, but anyone outside our immediate acquaintances comes into our discussions with jaded thoughts and preconceived notions.”

“It’s human nature.” Mason knew a little something about preconceived notions growing up as a Super in NYC after Seif al-Din’s attack.

“It’s wrong,” Becca frowned.

“But it’s reality,” Anika countered, but put her hand comfortingly on her girlfriend’s shoulder.

“It’s meaningless,” Angela put her foot down. “We go into the interviews and tell them what they want to know. We don’t leave anything out and we give them anything that could help them track down Seth. He turned his back on being a Hero, and instead of just chilling as a civilian, he became a villain. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. We help them catch him. He shouldn’t be coming to us as character witnesses when it comes time for his trail anyway.” With her piece said, Angela got up and walked away.

“What she said.” Anika followed behind her. Becca didn’t say anything, she just waved goodbye.

“Well, that went well.” Kyoshi leaned her head on Mason’s shoulder and watched the few students who remained in the building go about their business.

“Things aren’t the same as freshman year.” Mason stated plainly, but Kyoshi felt the conflict inside him.

She knew he didn’t think Seth was an evil villain, but that was hard to believe after everything that had happened. Still, it wasn’t her place to judge. People were entitled to their thoughts, and she shouldn’t be prying anyway. She withdrew from her boyfriend’s mind and closed her eyes. The rise and fall of his chest coupled with the thumping of his heart lulled her to sleep.

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 51

“Bad boys bad boys…whatya gonna do…whatya gonna do when they come for you…” Lilly sang along to the song as she drove down the dark country rode. Only her two headlights pierced the blackness as she kicked up dust in her wake. That was a good thing because it showed no one was following her. It was bad because it was only her headlights. “Shit!” she didn’t see the road drop off until she was right on top of it, and she was not obeying the posted speed limit.

The bronco went airborne for a few seconds until it hit the ground hard enough to grind her teeth.

“Jesus!”

“What the hell!” The two passengers made themselves known as they braced for further impacts.

The car fishtailed, and sent bits of gravel careening into the woods, but she got control, and continued their retreat.

“Sorry. It’s tough to see anything out here.” She leaned forward and tried to make out anything beyond her high beams directly in front of her. Her biggest fear right now, aside from Heroes descending to kick her ass, was hitting a deer or something.

“Do you want me to drive?” Seth asked, but she shook her head. She needed to control some aspect of this situation.

They didn’t have a lot going for them right now. The police knew where they’d been, but not where they were heading. That didn’t matter a lot when you were able to pull the resources they were able to pull. Lilly had almost run into a checkpoint twice while navigating these backroads with nothing better than the map in the bronco’s glove box. Beyond that, she didn’t know the area, and she could feel the noose tightening around them. Worst case scenario…she took the risk of teleporting them all away, and hoped Seth didn’t burst something internally. She’d give him the choice to stay, obviously, but she doubted he wanted to be in prison any more than she did. He was just too pretty for that.

One bright point in this dark situation was the piece of machinery sitting below the center dashboard. She had an idea, grabbed it, and didn’t see any downside to trying.

“Breaker…breaker…this is BubbleGumBooty. What’s with all the hold ups. I’ve got some priority cargo I need to get to New Orleans. Anyone got a way out of this mess?” Lilly didn’t know the procedures for talking over the radio to truckers in the area. Only what she’d seen in the movies.

“I hear ya, BubbleGum.” A frustrated voice answered her in other a minute. “BigDogBilly here. I’m stuck on the 20 at a standstill. I’ve heard from a few other weary travelers that the 55 is backed up too.”

“Hey, BigDog and BubbleGum, RandyDandy here, if you can make it to the 10 on the coastline it’s smooth sailing.

“Thanks, BigDog and Randy, next drinks are on me if we cross paths.” Lilly cut the transmission and brought the car to a stop to look at the map.

If cops were watching the 55, then she was going to have to head east, back the way she’d come, to get on the 59 and down to the 10. The cops would probably be focusing their attention to the west, especially if the Heroes were involved. No one would expect her to head back toward Orlando, but navigating the fifty plus miles back to the 59, on the backroads, in the dark, was going to be a pain.

<Better than jail.> She considered as she did a quick three-point turn and headed back the way she’d come. <This could work.> She shrugged.

Seth and Morina didn’t asked any questions or try to debate the decision. As it stood, Lilly had successfully broken both of them out of prison before, so they figured they owned her a little trust at this point.

<I’ve got this.> Her headlights cut through the night as she drove on.

 

***

 

“How about this one?”

“Nope.”

“This one?”

“Getting warmer.”

“This has got to be a winner!” Mason hefted up the pineapple to give it a good once over.

He and Kyoshi were standing in the middle of the supermarket’s produce section. Mason was much more used to the cramped bodegas in Brooklyn than the spacious Californian Whole Foods, but he couldn’t argue with the food quality.

“Let me see.” Kyoshi took the fruit from his hands and proceeded to pull out one of the spikey leaves at the top. It came out easily; she nodded, and put the fruit in her basket. “That’s how you choose a pineapple.”

It was a weird thing for a couple of HCP trainees to be doing the day after Christmas. Just about everyone else was hitting up the stores for the deals that always occurred, but Kyoshi’s family had a different tradition. They were gathering up a feast of foods that were out of season, as a reminder that the warm weather was right around the corner; because it was not warm in San Francisco in the winter. It wasn’t New York, but it was in the mid-forties and raining. It was like all the happiness of Christmas went right out the door a day later and allowed the gloom to come sweeping in.

<Speaking of gloom,> Mason saw the Breaking News bulletin flash across the bottom of the TV hanging from the ceiling. There wasn’t a lot of volume, and that made it impossible to hear in the crowded store, but the closed captions were going, so he could read along.

Some reporter was outside a police station in Mississippi. Mason only had to watch for thirty seconds for his whole day to be ruined. <Hey,> he thought, and gave Kyoshi the equivalent of a mental poke in the shoulder.

She turned up to the news report just as mug shots splashed across the screen. Two of the three they knew very well.

<Oh, Seth, what had you gotten yourself in to?> The couple’s thoughts echoed each other, but there was nothing they could do.

 

***

 

“Can you believe this shi…stuff?” Anika fumed as she watched the same news coverage from Becca’s family room. Most of the Whitfield clan was out and about, but Becca’s youngest sister wanted to stay with the ‘cool’ girls at the house instead of going with mom shopping.

Becca watched the news coverage with the same frown, but not as much venom, as her girlfriend.

“Who’s that? He’s hot.” Becca’s sister stated plainly.

“You better not say that around Momma!” Becca chided.

Despite the long drive, Anika loved it when they came home to the Whitfield’s for holidays. She loved her own adoptive parents, but there was something so natural about being with her girlfriend’s family. Although, someone thinking Seth Abney was hot, instead of a steaming pile of no-good shit, was something new.

“It’s not all about looks.” Becca was trying to impart some wisdom on her sister. “You see that he’s wanted by the police. It says he’s done a lot of things wrong. He’s…he’s a bad guy.” Becca choked up a little bit, so Anika walked over to put her hand on her shoulder.

Becca might have trouble getting accustomed to this, but Anika wasn’t. She’d know Seth was an arrogant, egotistical ass from the beginning. She never thought he’d go this far, but she never thought he’d make it as a Hero. He just didn’t have what it took.

“You know what will help…ice cream.” Anika smiled when Becca’s sister immediately lost interest in what was on TV.

“It’s not even noon yet.” Becca frowned.

“Do you want ice cream or to continue that conversation?” Anika was already following the little Whitfield into the kitchen.

“Point taken.” Becca got up and joined them, while throwing one last look over her shoulder at the pictures on the screen.

<Oh, Seth, what had you gotten yourself in to?>

 

***

 

<One…two. One…two. One…two…three.> Angela said the combinations in her mind as she threw punches at that heavy bag. She followed up with some punishing knees and elbows, dropped back for a final kick, and then needed to wipe the sweat from her eyes. She’d let her hair grow out since earlier in the year. Now, she’d need to get it cut.

The HCP was virtually empty, but a few students and instructors still roamed the halls. Most everyone went home for the break, but Angela wasn’t everyone. She was top of her class, and needed to stay that way. Plus, both of her parents were gone on assignment, so her going anywhere else was a waste of time.

“Martin!” Coach McMillian walked into the gym where she was practicing. “What are you doing here?”

“Training, Coach.”

“Geez, you’re never not here, Martin. Go out, buy something, and have a hamburger.” The Close Combat instructor approached with a frown on his face.

“Heroes don’t shop, coach.” Angela continued with her next set of combination.

“Tell that to my bank account,” Craig mumbled.

“What?” Angela’s frown deepened.

“Nothing,” he waved away the statement like a bad smell. “The point is that you need to get out. There is going to be plenty of time for you to be unavailable to do anything but eat and breathe because you’re a Hero. Take a second and live a little while you’ve got the chance. Everyone needs the opportunity to decompress.”

“I can’t, Coach.” She continued with her training.

“Why not?”

“That’s why.” Angela pointed at a TV hanging from the ceiling. During the school year, and designated workout with coaches, the TVs were off, but during off time, and during the evenings, they were turned on to let everyone keep up with what was going on in the world. Today, that meant Seth Abney’s face plastered on national TV as a criminal.

“Oh.” Craig was momentarily speechless.

“We’ve got one of our own who’s gone rogue. Better yet, he’s gone rogue with a teleporter. He knows the layout of this place like the back of his hand. If they come looking for a fight. I want to be ready.”

“Security procedures have been changed since Abney got the boot. He’s not going to be able to get back in conventionally, and if he tries unconventionally, we’ll be ready for him.” Craig gave Angela a closer look. “Does this have anything to do with Wraith being the one who set off the bomb that nearly killed your dad, and forced you to see things no teenager ever should?”

“No.” Her answer was too quick, and betrayed her real emotions.

“You know Doctor Johnson is…”

“I’m fine,” she shot back and started hitting the bag faster and harder.

Craig took that as his cue to leave. “Just think about it.” Were his parting words as he left the sophomore class’s top student to work out her anger on a punching bag, which was better than Seth Abney’s face.

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 38

“Becca!” Mason pushed his way through the panicked crowd.

He hadn’t gone far. He’d met EMS personnel moving toward the bomb site less than a quarter of a mile away. He’d handed the injured woman over to them, and then brought a few others back to the site. Right now, he was acting as a bouncer. He pushed people aside, told them to get out of the way, and even took a few punches from frantic men trying to get out.

<Why isn’t anyone moving?> It was weird that everyone seemed to be bottlenecked. The crowd was starting to expand outward and get deeper, which was making things that much harder for emergency responders.

Once Mason finally pushed his way back to the front he saw why. There were two reasons. First, a building had collapsed and blocked the alley where the dumpster had exploded. Second, a barrier of light stood just beyond that. It flared as people pounded their fists futilely on it. Several people were even standing on top of the rubble and trying to bash their way to freedom.

<Good luck.> Mason had seen those barriers before. He knew an HCP professor’s power when he saw one.

He didn’t have long to shake his head at the humans before panicked calls started flying through his head. <Mason, hurry! It’s Becca and Anika.> An image of the building collapsing right on his two friends played right in front of his eyes.

He went from trying to find a less physical way through the throng of people to bodily pushing them aside. None of them could stand up to his strength, and he tried to leverage that while not making it too obvious he was a Super.

<Some things are more important than others.> He reached out a massive hand, palmed the side of a guy’s face, and pushed him aside. He crashed into the people next to him, and they only kept standing because the people were so closely packed.

“Make a hole! EMS coming through!” Mason tried to make it sound official, but that didn’t stop people from cussing up a storm at the giant black guy who was flinging people around.

Once they finally got to the rubble, he realized there were two types of people present. The first group was the one he’d seen while approaching. They’d climbed to the top of the pile of brick and mortar and were banging their fists against the barrier. Other people like them tried to climb up after them, and the people at the top pushed them back. In more than one case, a person went falling back down to the bottom of the pile and was scuffed up pretty bad. Mason fought the urge to go up there and throw everyone off. He understood they were in full survival mode, but there was no chance they were getting through Force Field’s barrier.

The second group of people were the one’s following Kyoshi’s lead. They were combing through the debris trying to find anyone who’d been injured in the attack. If what she had relayed to him was correct, then more than one person had been caught in that urban avalanche.

Kyoshi was discretely leading them to the survivors. She’d say she thought she heard something over there, or brick shifted over here to cover up her telepathy. He wouldn’t be surprised if she was pretending to be an angel and saying comforting words to those trapped beneath the rubble.

Despite all Kyoshi had shown him, Mason couldn’t stop from playing favorites. He’d watched Anika jump in front of Becca and both be pulled under. He wanted to help them first.

<Where are they?> He asked when he’d nearly reached the pile. People were starting to get the message and moving out of the way as he approached.

<Left side of the pile nearly halfway up.> Kyoshi couldn’t pinpoint the location more than that until he saw what he was working with.

<Guide me.> He broke through the small perimeter around the debris and went straight to work.

The pile was big. Mason wasn’t the best at math, but there had to be hundred if not thousands of tons of materials blocking the former alley. Lifting that wasn’t going to be a problem. He was a mid-level strongman, and for a sophomore in the HCP that was still getting stronger, that was pretty damn good. The problem was getting it off without crushing the people beneath it. Becca and Anika might be tough, Anika more so, but enough weight would crush the petite speedster, and she couldn’t run away from this one.

<There.> Kyoshi told him when he was right on top of the spot where their two classmates were buried. <Slow and steady, Mason. They’re conscious, and they’ll tell me if anything shifts while you dig, but please be careful.>

<Always.> He started slow, one brick at a time until he’d gone down a foot.

He tossed the bricks behind him toward the group of onlookers. They yelled at him at first, but a glare over his shoulder shut them up. <Nut up or shut up as Coach Meyers would say.> He went back to work, and a few people actually started to help by clearing the bricks away that he’d already cleared. Every extra body helped.

He dug and he dug. Because of where Becca had been helping the injured she was in the deepest part of the rubble. Becca and Anika relayed instructions through Kyoshi, and it was a big help. Becca could dial up her perception and see how his efforts shifted everything around them. The insight was invaluable, but it was still slow going, and that was their biggest problem.

<Mason, I don’t want you to freak out, but you need to move faster.>

He was in the middle of shifting a partially-intact piece of wall that weighted at least five hundred pounds, and he was doing it with the added difficulty of looking like he wasn’t doing anything.

<What do you mean?> Despite the warning, he was starting to freak out a bit.

Then it hit him. It didn’t matter how strong Anika was, or how fast Becca was. They both needed one thing to survive: air.

<They’re running low, and trying to conserve as much as they can.> Kyoshi heard him come to the correct conclusion and did her best to calm him. It didn’t help much.

He finished shifting the giant piece and got back to work. He was a little more reckless now. He took chances. He moved bigger amounts and didn’t always wait for feedback from Becca. If he didn’t move faster the feedback was pointless anyway.

Several hurried and fairly tense minutes later he finally broke through the outer pocket of the space created during the collapse.

“Sweet Jesus,” Becca coughed as fresh air replaced the stale carbon dioxide in the small space.

“Is she ok?” The sense of relief was short lived when Anika didn’t move.

She was lying on top of Becca. Her body had taken the brunt of the wall’s weight when it collapsed on them.

<Anika is unconscious but otherwise unharmed.> Kyoshi relayed as she checked the other woman. <I would get her medical attention though. Any loss of consciousness should be taken seriously.>

“You push and I’ll pull,” Mason directed Becca, and together they wrestled Anika out of the rubble. “Hold tight.” He walked Anika back down to the waiting EMS teams that had set up a makeshift triage unit at the edge of the rubble.

He dropped Anika off with them and went back to grab Becca. She was already climbing out of the hole when he arrived. She was covered in grime from head to foot, she had some cuts and bruises that would need some serious disinfecting, but other than that she looked fine.

“Did she make it?” Becca’s eyes scanned the area and immediately widened at the sight of the energy barrier behind them.

“They didn’t say, but it looks like Anika will be fine.”

“Not her,” Becca shook her head. “Anika’s tough. She’ll be fine. I’m talking about the woman who lost her leg. Is she going to make it?”

After the chaos of the last twenty minutes, Mason had forgotten about the woman they’d helped form the original explosion. “I left her with the EMS personnel back there,” he waved in the direction of the stage. “They didn’t tell me anything, but she looked like she was going to make it.”

Truthfully, he had no idea what the woman’s status was, but he sensed Becca needed a win. The perpetual positivity always present in the speedster was absent at the moment. She just didn’t look like Becca, and it had nothing to do with her whole body being dyed gray by the debris.

Whatever was on the speedster’s mind, she pushed it aside and started helping despite her own injuries. Mason followed in her wake with Kyoshi helping from the rear. It didn’t hit them until they were nearly done that this was what a Hero team up would look like in real life. The strongman and speedster in the field coordinating with local law enforcement to get the job done, while the advanced mind was in reserve helping piece together the puzzle or think of solutions to the problem.

Suddenly, capture the flag seemed kind of stupid in comparison.

 

***

 

“Keep the pressure on them!” Daisy yelled as another forked bolt of lightning shot from her fingertips. It crackled and died all around the two fleeing villains, but she could see it was starting to take its toll.

The smooth blackness of Nightingale’s compression armor on Stal was beginning to crack and dull. I had more of an ashen hue to it now, and that meant they were getting somewhere. Now that things were getting under control with the search for more dumpster bombs, more Heroes were pouring in to join in the action.

Stal and Nightingale dodged between buildings to avoid her lightening, but Jetwash caught them in an alley. The wave of hurricane-force winds broke around them, but all the crap it kicked up still slammed into them. Nightingale stumbled and fell as a crunched up beer can hit her in the ass at over one hundred and fifty miles per hour. Stal grabbed her by the belt without breaking stride and carried her away from the Hero. She didn’t leave without a parting gesture. She grabbed a pizza box from a passing dumpster and tried to make it into the Frisbee of Death. She chucked it at the flying Hero, and he barely got out of the way.

The Heroes hurried to reposition, and met the two villains with ranged attacks when they emerged on the other end. Stal stumbled under the brunt of the force, but Nightingale caught some flak. She got spun around by a beam of energy that exploded next to her. The sudden hole blocking her path forced her to go through a doorway to an upscale apartment building. Stal didn’t see her change course and she took that energy beam in the chest but kept on pushing.

“Separate them, keep them separated. Iron Giant, go…go…go…”

It was the moment the Heroes had been waiting for. Together, the two villains were strong, but apart their weaknesses could be taken advantage of. Stal was physically strong, but her nullifying armor was beginning to fray. Once it was gone she was vulnerable to Reaper’s particular talents. Nightingale was always protected from those same talents, and her nullifying bullets posed a problem to any Super, but anything non-powered she was as vulnerable to as any normal human.

Iron Giant pumped his powerful legs and spirited forward. The sheer strength of his bounds turned him into a silver blur as he tackled Stal just as the energy attack was letting up. Meanwhile, Daisy poured a ton of electric energy into the doorway of the apartment building. The building’s super was going to be pissed, but that’s why they had insurance. Keeping Nightingale’s head down while Iron Giant removed Stal from the battlefield was more than worth a melted entryway.

Iron Giant and Stal grappled. The big shifter got a leg behind Stal feet and tripped her. She went down to the ground, but used the shift to yank the hero off his feet. They both went down on their sides and started slugging for an advantage. Daisy watched out of the corner of her eyes as she poured volts into the building.

“Someone tell me about this building. I need a count of civilians, exits, and preferably someone up to cover the roof.” While the move the Heroes had just pulled isolated the villains away from each other, it also put a psychopath in a confined space with innocent civilians. Right now, Daisy had to assume they were all hostages.

Daisy knew what they needed. “Dispatch, where the hell is Hunter?”

“Hunter is…” the report got interrupted by a stone-crunching BOOM. Stal had somehow gotten her feet underneath Iron Giant and thrown him back and through the wall of a nearby building.

Stal was scrambling to her feet, and looked like she was about to jump away.

<No you don’t.> Daisy heightened her perception gauged the jump and fired herself off toward the fleeing strongwoman just before she jumped.

Her aim was a bit off. She hit Stal in the knees, but the kinetic energy transfer was more one way. Technically, Stal kneed her in the face, but she turned Stal’s vertical leapt into a head-over-ass tumble where she just ended up landing back on the street. That was mission accomplished as far as Daisy was concerned. Stal was still shaking her head and getting back to her feet when Iron Giant landed on her like a man-shaped cannonball. The street cracked under the impact and a big fissure spread for about fifty feet before stopping.

<She’s got to be down.> Daisy thought before the concussive waves of Super punched started to shake the area.

“Dispatch, say again. Where’s Hunter?”

“I’m hunting Wraith.” The teleporters frustrated voice replied. “With all the chaos going on, OPD and the DVA have been spread thin and someone hit HQ. Preliminary reports say it was Blood Hound.”

“Why would Blood Hound…?” Daisy stopped mid-sentence.

<No.> She hoped for once that she was wrong.

“Seth Abney is gone.” Hunter confirmed her worst fear. “He burned down half the Protectorate’s office and aided Blood Hound in the escape, but when he saw him it looked like he’d taken a bullet in the process.”

“We need to get him back.” Daisy’s professor mind overrode her Hero intuition.

“I’ve got a lead, but Wraith is up to her usual tricks. I’ve got about a hundred teleportation points to check here and then I’ll go after her.”

“Negative.” KaBoom’s broke into the conversation. “We need you on scene to help contain Stal and Nightingale.”

“Fuck that!” It slipped out before Daisy could stop herself.

“Think about it, Reaper.” KaBoom didn’t back down. “Wraith is a bad apple, sure, and I want her just as much as the next guy for what she did to Mr. Morningstar.”

Daisy didn’t think about it until this moment, but Wraith had fucked the old Protectorate leader again. First, she’d killed him, and now she’d literally blown up his funeral.

“But this is Stal and Nightingale,” KaBoom continued. “Stal is wanted in the US, EU, and a dozen other countries for everything from B&E to murder. Nightingale is a convicted war criminal.”

Once the Republic of Krezic fell, the new rulers of the Super-ruled Island had trails for all the government Supers who’d been the iron thumb of the regime. The US reviewed the facts of the case separately and agreed with most of the convictions. An extradition treaty had been signed to return those criminal supers if they were ever captured. Nightingale was right at the top of that list, and it would do wonders for the US’s relationship with the fledgling Super nation.

“We have to prioritize,” KaBoom’s voice was confident and unyielding, like a leader’s should be. “Hunter, how long until you have a fix on where Wraith went?”

“If I have to shift through all the portals…twenty minutes. Less if I find it early.” Hunter’s tone already said what the outcome of this conversation would be. There was no fighting it.

Daisy wasn’t willing to let is go that easy. A confident voice over Dispatch wasn’t enough to convince someone of her experience. “Do we have another teleporter that can review the portals while Hunter helps us subdue the threats? This way he can return to the scene and pursue the other murderers and fugitive as soon as possible.”

“I’ll relay the request to the DVA. They’re hanging back and letting Heroes handle the two takedowns. I’m sure Agent Phillips wants to do more than stand around and wait.”

<I’m sure too.> That was good enough for Daisy. Right after they took down Stal and Nightingale they’d turn their attention on Wraith.

Daisy turned her attention back on the fight. Iron Giant had Stal by the ankle and was swinging her over his head and repeatedly bashing her into the ground. Daisy stumbled slightly from each blow.

“Iron Giant, aim for the armor. Once that breaks I can take her down.”

The giant shifter didn’t give any indication that he heard, but the bashing shifted a bit so that the majority of the force was hitting Stal’s armor.

Daisy concentrated on her sixth sense. Life-threads popped into existence all around her. While Iron Giant continued the beat down, she checked Dispatch’s data on the apartment building. It was five stories with half a dozen apartments on each floor. Dispatch was still pulling the rental records, but there could be anywhere from thirty to over a hundred people in the building.

<That’s not going to be pretty.> Daisy didn’t look forward to that, but she focused on Stal for the moment. Cops, DVA agents, and Heroes were already securing the building. Nightingale had nowhere to go.

Daisy felt the moment Stal’s armor cracked and she got a glimpse of the life-thread. Daisy immediately squeezed through the metaphysical space in the armor and grabbed the thread. It was like grabbing searing hit steel, but she’d had practice bringing down Supers stronger than Stal.

Stal cried out, which she hadn’t done even as Iron Giant beat her down. She fought back, lashing out at Iron Giant with her feet, but his arms were too long and he was too tough. Stal didn’t have the leverage to bring all of her strength to bear. She might be a world class mercenary, but Iron Giant was a world-class Hero. It was only a matter of time.

Stal’s blows grew weaker and weaker as Daisy leeched the strength out of her. After several minutes, Stal went limp and Iron Giant let her go.

“Target down,” his deep voice rumbled. “Send…”

A single gunshot rang out and Iron Giant went down in a spray of blood. Iron Giant became John by the time he hit the ground, and Daisy didn’t even wait for cover fire before she sprinted into the open to help her fallen friend.

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 34

Chaos…pandemonium…a clusterfuck of epic proportions.

All of those were pretty good descriptions of what was going on around Daisy. She stood above a sea of surging people; people that were doing anything and everything to get out of there. She saw a woman struggling with the rest of the crowd, fall, and get swept underneath hundreds of feet. In this panic, it was doubtful she’d live.

<Where the fuck are you?!> She was scanning for the threat in a half-mile bubble around her, but hadn’t found anything.

“We need to evacuate these people…”

“Clear a corridor leading to…”

“Execute emergency contingency Alpha…”

It was chaos over the airwaves too. The mayor was yelling one thing, the SWAT commander another, and KaBoom was trying to rescue the woman Daisy just saw get pulled under by the crowd.

<Not your job.> It was a callous thought, but he was the leader, and he needed to think big picture.

That big picture was…

The madness was interrupted by another tearing sound. It sounded like God was shredding paper nearby, and it was immediately followed by smoke rising into the sky and the screams of injured people.

“That’s another one in the alley off Central!” The reports started flooding in, and any semblance of calm that had been restored was upended.

<That makes four.> Four improvised explosive devices had been planted along likely avenues that the crowds would use to run from the grenades falling from the sky.

Daisy expected the grenades, although she’s thought Wraith would go with fragmentary instead of flash bangs. Pulling her punches wasn’t Wraith’s style, but surprise attacks were. Agent Simmons’ death, and the missing plans of the ceremony were proof enough for the DVA to bring more Heroes in to secure the area. They’d thought it had been enough, but they were wrong.

<It’s not just Wraith.> That was where the miscalculation was. The big wigs were so focused on the one villain that they missed the others.

Wraith moved in the shadows and did sneak attacks, but she didn’t plant bombs to kill people. She only used explosives to cover her tracks, and the locations being relayed didn’t fit that description. This was Stal or Nightingale’s influence on the attack. Neither of those women gave a shit about anyone but themselves.

In the end it didn’t matter either way. It was on Daisy and the Heroes to keep people safe, and they’d shit the bed so far.

“Dispatch, get me Force Field.”

Robin Kirk, aka the Hero Force Field, was one of the Heroes brought in last minute for security. She’d been instrumental in stopping the grenades from falling from the sky, but less than effective with these IEDs.

“Force Field,” Robin answered. Her voice was strained and Daisy could feel the other woman’s exertion of the line.

The crowd was scattering like a dust in the wind, and she was trying to give them cover. Throwing up individual barriers over such a wide area would have kicked Daisy’s ass too.

“It’s Reaper. We’re doing this all wrong.” Daisy had seen the error in their prep after the first bomb went off, and her superior’s logical response was playing right into the villains’ plan.

The logical response when bombs were going off was for people to run for their lives and the authorities to evacuate. Anything other than that was madness. The problem with that plan was that it was clear now that the people were running toward the IEDs. They’d been placed outside the initial secure perimeter and each explosion was successively farther away from the stage where the grenades had gone off. The grenades were like cattle prods that had propelled the people into action, and they’d run right into the slaughterhouse.

“We need to contain the civilians. Dogs and Heroes have gone all over the area immediately surrounding the stage and church. We’re clear here. The bombs are out there. We need to stop the people from literally running to their deaths.”

“Reaper, I don’t know what I can do to help.” Force Field panted. “I’m barely holding it together as is.”

Daisy knew what needed to be done, and she knew Robin wouldn’t like it.

“Drop the overhead barrier and throw up vertical barriers to stop people from fleeing. Give me a half-mile perimeter. If any hostile comes in we’ll be able to handle it from there. This will also give EMS a chance to get to the injured people and the police to sweep the area.”

Robin was silent for several seconds. “You know that sounds insane. People are really going to start panicking when they think their only escape has been cut off. You think they’re panicking now? Just wait and see.”

“I’m willing to take that chance.” Daisy was, and there was a reason she’d wanted it at half a mile. If things got to out of hand, she was the ultimate crowd control.

There was a short pause before Daisy knew Robin had gone ahead with her plan. There were screaming and fleeing people everywhere, but a great roar of terror sprang up from people when they suddenly collided with a solid energy barrier that wouldn’t let them escape.

“What the hell is happening?”

“Is this a secondary attack?”

“Can anyone isolate what the hell is happening?!”

“Everyone, this is Reaper, I’ve ordered Force Field to contain the citizens to reduce further detonations of IEDs. Get EMS in there now, and have SWAT, Heroes, and dogs start to work to clear the area.

“Who gave you this authority?”

“On what authority?”

“You’re on temporary status.”

Everyone whipped out and began measuring their metaphoric dicks almost immediately.

“It’s already done, now get to work.” Daisy shot back.

There was going to be hell to pay, but she was sure she’d done the right thing. When no other IEDs went off she knew for certain she was right.

 

***

 

“Over here!” Becca called frantically as her hands blurred. She dug as fast as she could to get through the rubble-strewn alley.

The small group of sophomores had been running into an alley when something had exploded up ahead of them. Everyone else had just seen a flash and death, but Becca had trained herself to automatically engage her power to see the explosion. It was something she’d been working on during the end of freshman year, over the summer, and into sophomore year.

It was just a logical step in her development. When someone fired a gun, a bomb went off, or any other action that could be deemed criminal or violent, she engaged her super-perception and slowed everything down. What she saw when she effectively slowed down time around her could be invaluable to investigations and catching criminals.

Unfortunately, she’d never experienced the downside of it. When that bomb went off in that alley, and she slowed everything down to assess the situation, she saw horrible things she couldn’t do anything to stop.

It was a large blue dumpster that probably smelled like rotting Chinese food from the small restaurant it was on the side of. She saw as the metal bulged outward and buckled under the pressure. She saw the harmless metal turn into projectiles of death while fire fountained up and out as the whole object broke apart under the strain.

Then there were the people. A dozen were directly next to the dumpster when it went off. She saw their bodies crumble as the shockwave tore into them before the metal and fire. They were probably already dead before metal fragments large and small tore into their flesh. The way the metal flew, it was like their bodies weren’t even there. The shrapnel went in one side and out the other with hardly any resistance.

To add insult to injury, they were then engulfed in fire. Becca was sure they were dead by then, but it just seemed wrong to be pulverized, butchered, and then lit up like a bonfire during Homecoming Weekend.

She instinctually reached out and tried to get to the closest victim, but they were packed too close together and the shockwave was knocking people down left and right. She could lean into it and power through it to get to people who needed help faster, or she could get knocked down like everyone else, get back up, and help. If there was any chance those people were still alive, Becca would have pushed through the pressure wave and fought to get to them, but they weren’t, so she toppled over just like everyone else.

Then she jumped to her feet and tried to help.

“Mason, over here!” she called over the strongest person she knew.

She didn’t know what help he could be to the woman in shock with her leg blown off below the knee, but having the big strongman present offered a little reassurance in all this madness. Mason lumbered over and tried not to step on anyone who was a lot slower getting up than him.

Mason took one look at the situation and went to work. He pulled off his belt and fashioned a tourniquet a few inches above the woman’s knee. He tightened it and she cried out in pain, but the blood spurting out slowed to a trickle.

“It’s going to be ok.” Mason looked the woman right in the eye as he effortlessly picked her up and started to walk back the direction they’d come.

“MOVE! COMING THROUGH!” His bulk shouldered people aside at first, but once they noticed what he was doing they started to comply.

Becca watched them go and just sat there. There was blood on her hands, dust on her face and in her hair, and she was fighting back the urge to cry. She sniffled once, shook her head, and stood back up.

<Time to put your big girls pants on. It’s time to help people.> She was so busy talking to herself she hadn’t heard the ominous groaning of the building next to them.

The explosion had torn right through its intended victims and into the opposite building. It hit something important, because the wall was already teetering dangerously in Becca’s direction. She’d been so focused on helping the woman with the blown off leg that she’d missed what was happening right next to her.

“BECCA!” Anika screamed and leapt into action.

Becca just had time to look up and see an avalanche of brick and stone headed toward her, before Anika jumped in front of her and both were smashed under the cascading building material.

 

***

 

Lilly appeared at the designated rally point. A wave of darkness washed over the immediate area, and she felt everything around her. Stal and Nightingale were there, both ready to fight. There were some other people too, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Lilly held the darkness in place for a moment. She felt the tug in her core that happened whenever she did it, but she fought to keep her concealment up as she drew her weapons. Holding on in each hand, she fired the tasers at the unexpected civilians.

Unlike normal law enforcement tasers, Lilly’s specialized weapons didn’t shoot out metal prongs that dug into people while the power of the shock came from the weapon itself. Her pistols were equipped with electrified darts. The darts fired like regular bullets, imbedded in the target’s flesh, and sent out a fifty-thousand-volt shock that overrode a person’s central nervous system and knocked them out.

Six rounds later and the six civilians in their little assembly area were face down on the concrete. Only then did she let the darkness dissipate. Stal sneered when she saw the people on the ground, and looked like she was about to stomp on them, but Nightingale brought her back on task and directed them forward.

<You just want me as transportation then that’s what you’ll get. If anything gets too hairy then I’m getting the fuck out of dodge with or without you.> The thought helped ease the anger she felt toward the other two women.

The location they’d teleported to was in the opposite direction that all the civilians were fleeing. If there was one thing you could count on in a crisis that was for people to take the path of least resistance. And in this case, that path led directly away from where the first grenades had been dropped.

Lilly kneeled down and took a radio from one of the men she’d tased. He didn’t look like a cop, there was no badge or gun, but the radio was tuned to the tactical channel SWAT and the Heroes were using.

“…ordered Force Field to contain the citizens to reduce further detonations of IEDs. Get EMS in their now, and have SWAT, Heroes, and dogs start to work to clear the area.”

Lilly froze when she heard Reaper’s orders. There was no way she would ever forget that bitch’s voice.

“We need to move.” Stal had plastered herself to the wall and was looking around a corner. “Things will not be clear for long.”

Lilly didn’t argue after that last radio message. She followed Nightingale out of the alley, but kept to the shadows as much as she could. In their tight, black, nullifying armor they kind of stood out.

Reaper and the other Heroes coordinating would be near the stage area, and as much as Lilly wanted to knock that woman out, sling her over her shoulder, and drop her in Seif al-Din’s lap, she knew that was a long shot. Now that the Heroes were consolidating, their odds of success were dropping by the second.

That didn’t stop them from moving toward their objective anyway. They were nearly there when they ran into a squad of cops surrounding a large man with a single Hero as backup.

Everyone froze when they saw each other. It was like a scene from West Side Story where the two gangs paused dramatically before a big fight.

“Hunter,” she nodded to the large Hero whose fingers twitched in the direction of his rifle.

“Wraith,” he nodded back.

“How’re the old bones? Thanks to me a few of them are new?” she continued when no one moved.

“You been stabbed in the back recently? I heard you need to watch out when you drop the soap in prison.”

She grimaced behind her mask. She hadn’t been laid in months.

“Enough talk.” Stal took a step forward and hands went to guns. “Now, you die.” A few powerful steps and she smashed into the cops and started flinging them aside like unwanted wrapping paper around a Christmas present.

“We’ll take the Mayor.” Nightingale relayed their new objective before diving sideways behind a dumpster as Hunter brought his rifle to bear.

Wraith didn’t have to dive anywhere, she vanished in a blast of darkness, and reappeared behind Hunter, but the darkness showed he was already gone.

<So, the game begins.> she smiled to herself. She’d played the teleporter’s version of cat and mouse with her father for years. It was excellent training, and she was finally willing to put her skills to the test. <Good luck bitches.>

This type of game only involved two players with the world as their chessboard. Stal and Nightingale would have to figure their way out of this on their own.

That didn’t bother Wraith one bit.

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 31

There were two very different conversations going on during the morning of Mr. Morningstar’s funeral; three if you call the political chit-chat a conversation.

“No…no…no…We need more light!” A man cried dramatically on the stage as he looked up at the dark morning sky. “Today just had to be the day the universe decided to not cooperate with me.” He brandished his hands frantically at the clouds blocking out the sun.

The man stomped around the quickly erected stage just in front of the church where the fallen Hero’s private ceremony would be held. The stage was the brainchild of the Mayor. Preapproved people would be allowed to take the stage and use the microphone to tell the gathered crowd what Mr. Morningstar had meant to them, or how he had personally impacted their life. Having a stage meant having a stage manager, and the only one available had been a rather eccentric one from UCF. By the way he was running around and yelling at people you would have thought this was the Olympic opening ceremony.

That was what was happening on the ground. Very different words were being uttered all around the stage.

“Eagle-Two, comms check, over.” The SWAT captain wasn’t standing too far from the stage manager, but he was completely ignoring the other man. Where the stage manager looked like a whirlwind was about to pick him up and carry him off somewhere, the SWAT captain was a mountain of immovable granite with cold eyes scanning the horizon.

“Coms check, TOC, I read you five-by-five.” The sniper three hundred yards away on an overlooking rooftop replied.

“Show me you don’t have your head up your ass, Eagle-Two.” The Captain’s words were threatening, but they implied some sort of punishment the sniper would not enjoy if he wasn’t on the ball.

A second later a red dot appeared on the Captain’s chest. “Stay awake up there, Eagle-Two, the sun decided not to cooperate and I can feel a fall chill in my nuts.”

“That sounds like a personal problem, Cap. You might want to get that checked out.”

“Keep talking, Eagle-Two. I’ll get to you in a second, Eagle-Three.”

“Roger that, Sir.”

Daisy smiled as she took in the world around her with her sixth sense. For half a mile she could feel the life-threads of everyone. This early there weren’t a lot of people, but the number was steadily growing.

<The Mayor’s brilliant idea isn’t going to help.> The last thing the city needed was some grieving single mom talking about how Mr. Morningstar saved her baby to get her head blow off by Wraith mid-sentence.

It also meant overtime for Grace. As the primary telepath on scene, it was her job to vet everyone going up to take the mic.

<We need more bodies.> Daisy came to the same conclusion she had several times today. There were just going to be too many people.

The Mayor’s office was projecting over fifty-thousand people to turn out. To monitor them and keep them safe there were three hundred officers, two SWAT teams, the Protectorate, and half a dozen independent Heroes that were coming in for the occasion. There would be more off-duty Heroes in the church for the private service, but they weren’t there to protect the public. They were there to grieve, but they would help if shit started to slide downhill.

Daisy felt the pressure building in the back of her skull as she tried to keep everything in sight. The pressure would only get stronger when fifty-thousand life-threads needed to be monitored, and the very last thing the DVA, OPD, or the Mayor wanted her to do was drop everyone like she had at the prison. That was a one way ticket to losing her newly-granted certification.

“Minority community turnout is going to be hit or miss.” One of the Mayor’s aides stated from not too far away. “Polls show that they like the Protectorate overall, but of their members, Mr. Morningstar was their least favorite.”

“He was from an older generation and he didn’t really care about connecting with the community as much. I have reassurances from KaBoom that the team is willing to work in a new direction under his leadership.” Orlando’s mayor, Thaddeus Miller, was a former defensive tackle for the Miami Dolphins. He’d gone to UCF before sending twelve seasons in the NFL, and then going into politics. He’d started off with city council, was now the mayor, and insiders thought he had his eye on Congress or even the Governor’s Mansion in the next four years. He was a big man, with a shaved bald head that was shined daily. Even in the low light of the morning there was a slight gleam coming off the man’s brown dome. There was just as much of a gleam coming off of his perfectly-white teeth, and those were always on display in a smile. His life as a four-time pro-bowler had prepared him perfectly for politics.

“What about…” the aide didn’t say it, but that was enough confirmation for Daisy.

She was an unknown in this political situation. With something that was so going to be so public, politicians tended to not like unknowns; especially wildcards, and every report the Mayor was reading on her said she was unpredictable.

<I’m right here, dumbasses,> she bit her tongue. Her job right now was to literally step in front of a bullet if someone took a shot at the political leader of the city, and all they were worried about was what she would say when confronted by cameras. <There were some things about this job that I did not miss.>

<Easy there,> Grace’s voice popped in the back of her head. <Thad is actually a pretty good guy when you get to know him.>

<Thad?> Daisy’s eyes never stopped scanning the windows surrounding the stage. <And just how well have you gotten to know him?>

Daisy didn’t get a response, but a mental impression of a giant middle finger was answer enough. She suppressed her smile and continued to do her job.   

“Ms. Reaper,” the Mayor abandoned his little chat and walked over to her.

“Please just Reaper, Mr. Mayor. Ms. Reaper makes me sound like I should be on the Halloween version of a syrup container.” She accepted the Mayor’s handshake and didn’t know if he was doing the macho squeeze thing or not. She was on absorb-mode for all kinetic energy.

He barked a short laugh, gave an up and down shake and then let go. “Reaper it is then. I just wanted to welcome you to our fair city and thank you for everything you are doing today and going to do in the future.”

“Wrangling for my vote already, Mr. Mayor. Reelection isn’t for another eighteen months.” Daisy had a habit of sticking her foot in her mouth, especially when her attention was elsewhere, but in this particular instance she could really care less.

The Mayor followed the comment with a much longer laugh. “You can never start too early, Reaper.” The big guy’s smile was a bit startling. “Good luck today.”

“Thank you, Mr. Mayor.” That was all the time he had to talk to her, but she shadowed him until he was in the armored SUV and headed back toward his office. That was where her assignment ended. “Dispatch, he’s on his way out.”

“Thank you, Reaper.” The computer-synthesized voice of Dispatch hadn’t changed at all since the first time to support Hero came on the scene more than a decade ago. “You are relieved of your duties. Next assignments begin at twelve-hundred hours. You are free until then.”

“Thanks for the break.” Daisy didn’t take the earbud out, but she did pull out her phone and make another call. “Hey, baby, you want to grab a quick breakfast before we get sucked into this black hole of a protection detail for the rest of the day?”

 

***

 

“Damn, it’s freezing.”

Becca looked at the Floridian out of the corner of her eye and couldn’t help but smirk. It was low sixties – maybe high fifties – and the woman was acting like it was an ice age. Coming from the Midwest, where wind chill could drop the temperature fifteen or twenty degrees during the winter, this was nothing. All of her friends seemed to be thinking the same way.

Mason was used to New York, Kyoshi hailed from San Francisco – which wasn’t as warm as people thought – and Anika’s family had spent a lot of time in Montana only to recently move to the Midwest. This weather was nothing.

The residual body heat of everyone present would set in eventually. There were hundreds, maybe even thousands of people crammed on the sideways of the major roadway. In front of them was a line of police officers spaced every twenty feet. They were all in their dress uniforms: crisply ironed pants, a jacket with medals and badges pinned to it, and white gloves. They looked every inch the competent police force, and that was only highlighted by the weapons on their hips. Every third officer also had an assault rifle slung over their shoulder. Their eyes were scanning the crowd religiously. Just like the HCP students in the crowd, the officers were aware of the high threat level of this ceremony.

The civilians were blissfully unaware aside from a few questions about the cops’ guns. Not everyone liked the sight of such a heavily armed force. Becca kept her eyes forward and was grateful for them. If things turned bad, then they were going to need all the firepower they could get.

“Stop looking around,” Kyoshi whispered as Mason’s head seemed to be in a nonstop three-hundred-and-sixty-degree scan.

“Can’t help it,” the strongman grunted. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

All of them had the feeling. There were just too many chances for something to go wrong. There were too many windows, too many rooftops, and too many shadowy corners where threats could suddenly appear. It was the eternal pain of dealing with teleporters. They were all thankful Professor Meyers was here.

A drum could be heard in the distance. The beat was a solemn march. Becca knew from the safety briefing that the drummer was at the lead of a small contingent of officers and Heroes accompanying the casket of Mr. Morningstar. The casket was being pulled by a horse through the crowd-lined streets to the church where the private ceremony would be, and the politicians would be saying a few words.

“Shhh.” Becca shushed the both of them. This wasn’t a time to be talking. This was a time to be remembering and thanking the fallen Hero for his service.

 

***

 

“I can’t see.” Isla was cranky, and the six-plus-foot guy standing in front of her wasn’t helping.

A group of the freshmen HCP students were standing together at a safe distance from their HCP classmates. Professor McMillian had told them to spread out, but still travel in at least pairs. They needed to be vigilant about safety without drawing attention to themselves. The SI infraction rules were still in effect. If anything happened, the professors wanted them to run for safety.

“Let the Heroes handle it.” McMillian had said that at least a dozen times in their safety briefing.

“Sorry.” Aiden stepped aside so Isla could get a better view, but there was still a random woman in front of him that was taller than Isla’s unimpressive five feet two inches.

The drumming was growing closer, so they wouldn’t be staying for much longer. It was physically impossible for them to get any closer to the church and speaking area. They were nearly a mile away and packed into the sidewalks like sardines. They expected things to break up quickly once Mr. Morningstar’s funeral procession passed. The town had the afternoon off, and once people paid their respects they were planning to take advantage of the slightly longer weekend.

“Most of these people don’t care.” Scarlett Vaan stood with her arms crossed and a sour look on her face. “Most people are more interested in the time off then what happened. They want to forget about it, push it into the past, and move on.” She just shrugged when the younger freshman shot her shocked expressions.

“Most people like to avoid conflict,” she looked Isla straight in the eyes. “They feel they need to be here, but unless Mr. Morningstar directly touched their lives in some way their feelings for him and his death are only skin deep.”

“That’s a sad way to look at people. Psychology is giving you a jaded look on life.” Aiden shot her a warning look over his shoulder. The silver-haired woman was drawing some attention with her statements.

“Yeah…it’s the psychology.” Scarlett raised an eyebrow, but the drumming was almost on top of them now.

Everyone shut up and turned to face the procession. Whatever people thought about the situation, or the people involved, they all felt a certain way about death. It was only human to pay some sort of respect to the fallen, and whatever their feelings about humanity, they could do at least that.

It took a few minutes for the procession to pass at a slow march. Once it was a respectful distance away people started to get out of there. Scarlett led the charge. Isla stuck around a little longer as people streamed around her. There was something in the air that had the hair on the back of her neck standing up. She didn’t know if it was the circumstances, the HCP, or what was going on in her not-so-personal life, but the sensation was there.

If felt like something was watching and judging her and the city or Orlando. Her shiver had nothing to do with the cool breeze blowing through the city as she turned to leave.

 

***

 

“Do you still have eyes on Reaper?” Lilly was in her Wraith heavy-combat load.

Her costume, armor, pistols, knives, grenades, assault rifle, and sniper rifle were either on her person or strewn on the rooftop around her. They were over a mile away from the stage that had been constructed. It was way beyond her range to take out someone important – like the mayor – but it would serve as a staging area. She wasn’t going to pull armaments from her little bunker out west when Hunter would undoubtedly be on scene, so she’d hauled all of the stuff here, and set up booby traps for anyone who tried to take the roof by force.

“We have eyes on her near the stage.” Nano informed over the encrypted earbud the assault team was wearing.

Stal and Nightingale were on the rooftop next to Wraith getting set.

“Why does that matter? We have armor.” Stal announced patting the black, nullifying armor they were all wearing.

“It matters because the armor isn’t perfect. Belial still got taken down.” Wraith snapped back. Her nerves were on edge. The list of Heroes at this powder keg was a who’s who of people that wanted to kill her. “And some can easily target something next to us and kill me or Nightingale. We don’t have your durability.” Wraith was specifically thinking about Seraphim.

The bitch had it out for her despite the ass whooping she’d delivered during their last meeting.

“Fine.” Stal harrumphed. She didn’t pick up any weapons. Her hands and feet were WMDs, especially in a crowded place like this.

“We go in five minutes.” The procession had just begun. “Is she going to be ready?”

“She’ll be ready.” Wraith referred to the missing member of their little team. Morina had a different mission, and she was almost in position.

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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 27

The whispering was everywhere, but that was to be expected after a tragedy. Everyone had their own idea about what happened until the record got set straight. This one was easy to get the facts on because it had happened on live TV, but that didn’t stop the speculation. Why was the biggest question. Why did a notorious criminal who’d just broken out of prison go back to that prison and facilitate a jailbreak? Then, why did she go and get into a fight with Mr. Morningstar and kill him? Isla didn’t have any idea why any of it happened, but that didn’t stop the whispers.

The people above ground were speculative and general. None were directed at her. People were just wondering out loud – sometimes with puffy, red eyes and mascara smudges – why someone would kill their city’s Hero team leader. Mr. Morningstar was well liked in Orlando, and he’d been a staple of the community for over thirty years.

Below ground, in the corridors of the HCP, things were different. The questions were still the same, but the whispers had a focus. Word had spread through the students about her and Seth. It had been blown out of proportion and was flat out wrong in most circumstances, but the rumor mill was churning away, and once that started there was no going back. So, when Isla was making her way from her Ethics class to physical training there were whispers and sideways glances in her direction.

No one came right out and said anything but the implication was there…until she reached the locker room.

“So, I heard you’re banging the guy whose ex-girlfriend killed a Hero.” Martina, the resident strongwoman with a supermodel’s looks and body, broke the tension.

Isla turned around and looked right in the taller girl’s eyes. “You heard wrong.”

You could have heard a pin drop in the locker room.

Martina wasn’t exactly a bully. It was hard to be a bully when everyone in the room had superpowers and was training to fight, but she did throw her weight around. A lot of that weight was in her boobs, and even Super girls were still girls. Insecurities about looks affected them as much, if not more, than normal humans.

“Come on, Perko, give us the details.” Martina’s smile was aggressive. She wanted the scoop on this.

“There isn’t much to tell.” Isla shrugged and continued pulling on her black uniform. “I’ve talked to Seth Abney a couple of times and run into him around campus. It’s easier than you’d think. He’s a good guy that’s been put in a shitty situation. He hasn’t done anything wrong. He just hung out with the wrong person.”

Another round of whispers filled the room before Martina’s glare silenced them. “That’s not what I heard.”

“I really don’t care what you heard. That’s all that I know.” Isla zipped up her uniform and headed for the door.

“I heard he let that girl down here into the HCP, and since she’s a teleporter she could appear here at any second if she wanted to. I heard from another sophomore that Abney is a drunk. I heard he knew Wraith was a villain and was still boning her regularly. I heard…”

Isla was sick and tired of hearing what Martina heard. She knew Seth better than any of these stupid bitches and she was sick and tired of people shitting on him all the time. It was that constant barrage of crap that was keeping him down in the first place. If people would give him a hand, or just lay off him, she was sure he’d be back on his feet in no time at all.

Isla always had a motherly instinct, and it had nothing to do with wanting to have children. She was usually the only Super in the orphanage and that brought with it a lot of crap. Kids could be real assholes sometimes, so she had to protect her friends. She wouldn’t say that was where all of her fighting experience came from, but that was certainly where it started.

Her vision tinged pinkish-blue as her aura activated and she turned to face Martina. The other girl’s reaction was a smug smile. Getting that kind of physical reaction out of Isla was what she was looking for. She didn’t care though. She was just pissed, and she caught the slight hesitation on Martina’s face.

The strongwoman was ranked seventh in the class after the initial combat rankings, but that was still four places behind Isla, and Isla knew that.

“Hey relax, Perko,” she held up her hands in a non-threatening manner. “I’m just telling you what I heard. Don’t get bent out of shape.”

Isla looked around and knew the other girl had won. Every other girl in the room was looking at her like she had three heads. She’d overreacted, overplayed her hand, and now everyone who was on the fence about her and Seth knew there was something up. It was even more frustrating that there wasn’t anything between her and Seth. This would be entirely different if they were an item, but right now she was standing up for a friend, not a boyfriend.

The thought only made her more irritated. She dismissed the aura. The normal peaceful feeling that overcame her when she activated her power was noticeably absent this time, but she didn’t think about it. She pushed through the doors of the locker room and into the gym. She knocked out her pull-ups with gusto. She had a lot of pent up energy and she needed an outlet. Thankfully, this was the place to do it.

“What’s eating at you, Perko?” Coach Meyers looked worn out. There were dark circles under her eyes and she didn’t have that overbearing presence at the moment.

“Nothing,” she lied. The coach sat there waiting for more, but Isla didn’t elaborate.

“Fine, hit the track. If you don’t want to talk about it then work it out of your system.”

She was more than willing to comply. She hit the track at a steady jog and did a mile waiting for the rest of the class. When they exited the locker room, all the girls were gathered around Martina and talking rapidly.

<It’s high school all over again.> She groaned as she slowed down to join the class.

“You good?” Aiden Murphey asked her. She’d talked with the big, tattooed guy a few times before.

“Fine.” She repeated the answer she’d given Coach Meyers.

Unlike the Alternative Instructor, Aiden didn’t pry. He didn’t have time.

“You know the drill, people. Five miles, GO!” Coach McMillian shouted.

Isla took a second look at the instructor’s worn down looks before she was buffeted by nearly fifty students jockeying for position on the track. She focused on that task.

<One thing at a time.>

Thanks to her strength, Martina easily pulled ahead, but that gave Isla a goal to chase.

It ended up being her fastest five-mile run ever.

 

***

 

Becca zipped through the halls to get where she needed to go fast. Anika was right behind her. The still-unclassified Super was getting faster and faster. She could crack a hundred miles an hour now, but that was nothing compared to the natural speedster. Becca could consistently run faster than the speed of sound. She wasn’t anywhere near the proficiency of Coach McMillian, but maybe one day she would be.

The rubber of her shoes screeched as she pumped the breaks and left a bit of a black streak on the normally spotless floors. By the time the class let out she was waiting by the door with her hands on her hips and a forceful look on her face.

A shadow fell over her as Mason squeezed through the door. It was funny to see the defensive step backward he took when he saw Becca standing there.

“Hey, Becca, just…” he tried to get a few words in.

“Move!” She waved her hand in a shooing motion. She would never be able to move the strongman with force, but she could use her personality just as effectively.

With a sight, Mason stepped aside and Seth stepped out. He didn’t seem concerned in the slightest, and didn’t give Becca more than a passing glance before trying to move off to the side.

“Oh no you don’t.” The blue-haired speedster easily got in front of him. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“My next class, just like you should be doing.” Seth’s face was expressionless.

Becca’s nostrils flared in genuine anger, but she got control of herself. “I will. I just wanted to make sure my friend was ok. You know my friend, Seth. His apartment burned down. I didn’t hear about it until an hour ago when some freshmen were talking about it.” Her face flushed and she started talking faster. “I mean, friends usually tell friends when something as bad as a fire happens, because friends are there for each other. For example, they would give their friend a place to say if…I don’t know…there was an apartment fire. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe my views on friendship are different, but I’d tell my friends if something bad happened. How about you, Mason? Would you tell your friends if something like that happened?”

“Becca.” Mason looked back and forth between her and Seth. “I really don’t think…”

“That’s the problem with men. You don’t think!” She yelled the last bit and only calmed down when Anika placed her hand on her shoulder.

“You were kind of a douche, Seth.” She summed it up succinctly. “Make sure you at least give your friends a heads-up with what’s going on with you every couple of days so we don’t come looking.”

“Fine. Can I go?”

Becca was clearly not talking to him anymore, so Mason took over. “Yeah. See you later, buddy.”

As Seth walked away, Becca turned her anger on the big strongman. Words came out with machine-gun-like velocity and were impossible to understand. He got the gist though.

“We need to be patient with him.” Mason stood by what he believed despite the onslaught. “If we start piling on him, we’re going to push him away and who knows what will happen.”

“I tell you what will happen. We’ll knock some sense into that thick skull of his.” Becca was sulking now that her anger was spent.

“It’s more likely we’ll push him away and lose him forever. You don’t want that do you?” Mason gave her a patient look.

“No,” Becca sighed, but Anika remained silent.

Mason knew Becca’s girlfriend didn’t care about what Seth’s self-destructive behaviors caused. As long as it didn’t blow back on her or Becca she was ok with whatever he did. In terms of friendship, Mason was pretty sure Seth had lost hers when his girlfriend kidnapped her.

“We’ve all got class and then team practice. I’ll try and get more info from him, but I’ve got to do it slowly and carefully. I’ll talk to you at dinner.” Mason gave the two women a final smile before lumbering away.

Anika squeezed Becca’s shoulder comfortingly as Mason walked away. She might not care for Seth all that much anymore, but she cared about her girlfriend’s feelings, and didn’t like to see her hurting.

“It’ll be ok,” she tried to comfort Becca.

Becca just took a deep breath, sighed, took Anika’s hand in hers, and led the way down the hall toward their next class.

 

***

 

Seth walked away simmering. The last thing he wanted to deal with was Becca butting into his life. It felt like the closer his friend got to Anika the farther she’d drifted from him in the last few months. Intellectually, he acknowledged that he wasn’t pulling his weight in the friendship, but coupled with everything else it still felt like she was jumping ship with everyone else.

<Stop stepping on my dick.> He mentally mumbled as he traversed the corridors to his next class.

He wasn’t looking forward to it. With everything that had happened he hadn’t done his assignment. He wouldn’t get yelled at. That’s not how Professor Livingston worked, but she would give him twice as much work next time. She’d keep piling it on until he either caught up or quit because that was how real life was. The shit didn’t stop flowing because you were having a bad day.

<At least Mason was cool about it.> The strongman had sat down next to him in class, asked if everything was ok, accepted his answer, and then left the topic alone.

They’d talked about more important things. Like the upcoming funeral for Mr. Morningstar – the Dean would be giving out more information soon if anyone wanted to attend. They’d keep a low profile and not tip everyone off that future Heroes were in the house, but a lot of the students still wanted to show their respect for the dead leader.

Seth wasn’t sure if he was going or not. What was he going to say? <Sorry that my ex kicked your ass and shot you in the fucking face.> There wasn’t really any good way to think about it, and thinking about it sent the dagger of pain into his heart again.

He was angry. He was so monumentally pissed off, and it had nothing to do with Becca. It was the scalding sting of betrayal that bubbled into rage. Lilly hadn’t just broken her promise to him, but she hadn’t even lasted a day, <and it was on national TV!> He felt his temper start to spike so he took some deep breaths and thought about something else. It was tough. There wasn’t much else on his mind today.

“Mr. Abney.” Dean Ditmar appeared out of nowhere. It made Seth jump until he noticed that they’d just passed a t-intersection and the Dean merely veered to his side. “If you would follow me please.”

The Dean’s tone was polite but firm, which meant this shouldn’t be mistaken for anything less than an order. Seth was going with the Dean whether he liked it or not.

“Sure.” Seth tried not to let his unease creep into his voice, but it was hard not to. Since the Dean didn’t directly teach them anymore, a trip to his office was never a good sign. It felt like he was being called to the Headmaster’s office for sneaking into the girls’ dormitory.

“Please sit.” Nothing in the office had changed from the last time Seth had been in it, but this time it was just the two of them. “Would you like coffee, soda or water?” The Dean offered.

The caffeine from the coffee could have helped with the perpetual hangover Seth seemed to be dealing with during the weekdays, but he didn’t want to be any more dehydrated than he was before team practice later.

“Water please.”

The Dean dutifully handed him a chilled bottle from a mini-fridge before taking a seat behind his desk. There were stacks of paper nearly a foot tall waiting for him to review, but he placed them aside to look directly at Seth. He did pull out one folder and set it between them.

“Seth,” he began gravely, “I’ve been forwarded the police report and charges against you from the Orlando PD.”

“That was fast,” the words slipped out before Seth could stop them. “I mean…I’m surprised they are that concerned about a little misunderstanding. I’m taking care of the issue,” he attempted to recover.

“I’m well aware of your lawyer’s efforts and the agreement reached with the victim,” the way the Dean said victim didn’t bode well for the rest of the conversation. “But it’s not the outcome I’m worried about. It’s why it happened in the first place.”

“I honestly don’t know.” Seth replied truthfully. “One second I was on the couch watching the TV, and the next I was in the hallway and the guy was on the ground in front of me. I smelled smoke, picked him up, and ran for the exit.”

“Those instincts to save the man were good, but he wouldn’t have needed saving in the first place if you hadn’t beaten him.” The Dean’s eyes were hard and locked on Seth when the click of the door opening behind them broke the tense moment.

“Professor Livingston.” The Dean smiled as he broke eye contact. “Thank you for coming on such short notice.”

“Of course,” the Focus Professor looked tired but she didn’t act that way. “What can I do?”

“With Mr. Abney’s consent I would like you to search his mind for the missing pieces of his memory. As a Super, our greatest talent of all is the ability to control our powers. That is what separates us from the Powereds, and what allows us to be the Heroes society needs to protect the innocent. We need to figure out why and how you lost control.” It was a logical and straightforward request, but it immediately set off alarm bells in Seth’s mind.

Professor Livingston must have felt something, because she turned to look at him with a frown.

“No need to read my mind.” Seth shrugged and tried to play it all off like it was nothing. “I was pissed about Liz,” he was careful to use her old name, “and I was pissed about everything that happened. I just lost control and lashed out. There’s nothing more to it.”

He didn’t think they’d buy it, and he was right.

“I’d still like Professor Livingston to take a look,” the Dean insisted.

“I’d rather not.” Seth committed to his refusal. There was too much shit in his mind that could get him in even deeper shit. He couldn’t risk it.

“Mr. Abney…”

“No.” Seth said a little more forcefully. “You need my consent to fumble about in my head and I’m not giving it to you. Do I need to call my lawyer?”

The Dean sat back and regarded Seth with steady eyes. “That will not be necessary, Seth.” The use of his first name should have been the first warning side. “But until we have a better idea of the cause and effect that triggered this outburst, I cannot allow you to continue to train with your fellow classmates. Until the HCP’s investigation is concluded you will be put on probation.”

<What the fuck does that mean?!>

“You will continue to train on your own, and have complete access to HCP facilities. You will continue to attend class, but any exercises that involve the use of your ability will not be allowed unless you are alone and an instructor is present.”

“How am I supposed to participate in the team events?”

“You will not.” The response cut Seth to the bone. “My primary responsibility is the safety of this school and its students. Until we know for certain what happened I will not put them or this facility in danger. You are very powerful, Seth, and you could do a lot of damage if you lose control like that again.”

<The fucker is railroading me. He’s benching me until he gets someone to root around in my head.> Seth saw what was happening, and he had begrudging respect for the Dean. <He even played the safety of the students card.> After the attack on Lander no lawyer was going to try and fight that type of injunction. The Dean had successfully maneuvered Seth into a corner, and for him there was only one option.

“Fine.” Seth agreed and got to his feet. “May I go? I’m late for class.” Since it was Professor Livingston’s class, it wasn’t a big deal.

“One last thing.” The Dean held up his hand to forestall Seth getting up and storming out. “Any violation of this probation will result in you being expelled from the HCP. Your memory will be wiped and you will more than likely be asked to leave West Private University. Am I clear?”

“Crystal,” Seth replied as he got to his feet. “Should I tell the class you’ll be a little late?” He asked Professor Livingston since she wasn’t moving to leave.

“Tell them I’ll be there in a minute.” She continued to study him, but there wasn’t any tingling sensation in his mind that said she was violating the law by digging for information without his consent.

“Ok.” He opened the door, and put something solid between himself and the two older Supers.

<Not sure how this day could get any worse?>

A few hours later he’d figure out it could when he got back above ground, checked his phone, and saw he had a voicemail from a blocked number. The only person who’d be calling him from a blocked number was a certain teleporter who he wasn’t sure he ever wanted to talk to again. Even if he wanted to it would have to wait. His DVA tail was waiting for him in the lobby of the student’s center. He didn’t have a home to go home to since the fire damage was still being repaired, so he called an Uber and headed to a hotel. He didn’t feel like crashing on anybody’s sofa tonight.

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