Sunday, 08 December 2019 23:00

Business as Usual

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A Second Generation Whateley Academy Tale

Business As Usual

By Enemyoffun

 

“Ok, Clara, deep breath, you’ve got this.”

Saying it to myself was a lot easier than actually living it. That didn’t stop me from taking a breath before walking up the steps of the overly imposing building in front of me. Which if you’ve ever walked up anything in heels, you’ll know is no easy task. The heels were unfortunately not my idea. My roommate Gracie thought that they’d make a better impression. It didn’t matter that I already got the job. Gracie was all about trying to make a good first impression. She worked for an online fashion zine though so it was kind of her job. The whole outfit I was wearing was her doing as well. She told me I needed to look professional, not “roll out of bed” yuck. The thing is, I didn’t feel professional, I felt uncomfortable.

I was a T-shirt and Jeans type of girl.

That only made Gracie’s job harder.


She was determined though.

The pant suit I was wearing was too tight in places and not tight enough in others. Thankfully I talked her out of putting me in a skirt, no matter how good my legs might look. I missed my fatigues. I missed my routine too. It's one of the reasons I decided to take this job. They promised me a piece of what I lost six months ago. They also promised me a new beginning. One where I wouldn’t get stared at or pitied for what happened. It took me some time to accept. I didn’t want to leave the Corp. It was my life. Even if I didn’t make it as far as I would have liked, I still loved every day of it. Leaving was the hardest thing I ever had to do.

I needed to give this a chance though because I didn’t really have a lot of options left for me now. The accident had robbed most of them from me. I sighed thinking about it, still standing on the steps staring at my future. A future I never would have imagined for myself a couple of years ago. My family was career military. My grandfather was a Marine too, so was my father and older brother, Mark. It was in our blood. I never wanted anything more than to serve. I spent my whole life preparing for it. In high school I was in a junior ROTC program. I practically grew up with a rifle in my hand. I won my first marksman trophy when I was twelve. I followed it up with several more.

It was my calling.

I enlisted right out of high school. After Boot Camp, I was sent to the Middle East. I wanted to be a sniper, but women were just being allowed in combat. I was lucky to make it into a combat unit at all. I was the top shot in my class though, top marks. That at least earned me a little bit of respect. It didn’t stop them from putting me in support roles though. I was the only woman in the unit too, they called me “Princess”. It was demeaning and demoralizing. Things changed a month in. There was a mutant terrorist who called himself Suicide Bomber. He was blowing up our humvees for the past week, in the name of his one true God. We found him outside a small village. We thought we had the drop on him, but he turned it around quickly. He was supposed to have impenetrable skin. So when push came to shove, I put a bullet into one of his eyes. Killing him gained me a lot of respect. The others stopped calling me “Princess”, and started calling me “Raptor”. Suicide Bomber wasn’t the last. We weren’t the only country in the world who used mutants to fight their fights for them.

That’s when the accident happened. The mutant was called Acid Breath. He was a gun for hire. He caught us on a night patrol. He had some kind of active camouflage. We never saw him coming. He got two of us before he turned on me. He took my arm, but I put a bullet in his head.

My career was over before it started.

Thinking about it, I flexed the fingers on my new left hand.

It felt wrong.

Sure, the flesh looked real enough, but I still knew it wasn’t. The skin was synthetic, the alloy underneath a mesh of nanoweave fiber and titanium. The best money could buy. Fully paid for by good ole Uncle Sam. My tour ended shortly after. I spent a lot of time reevaluating my life, and what I found, I didn’t like. I dreamed about the Marines my whole life, and when I finally achieved that dream, it was empty. The accident only made things clearer. I fell off the radar for a while after that. I spent a year bumming around the world, trying to find myself again. That’s when they found me. They said they were a pro-Mutant organization, interested in my skills. I turned them down originally until my little brother Jimmy manifested. It was a big adjustment for our family. Our whole view shifted right then and there.

The thing is, it's ultimately Jenny that convinced me.

They promised me if I agreed to their offer, they’d put her in a special school. They couldn’t tell me much about it, only that it was back East. They offered her a full, four year scholarship. My parents were against it, but I knew Jenny wasn’t happy. Some of her old friends were already starting to cause her some problems. It stopped being about me when one of the assholes tried to kill her. She and I talked. One of their agents came and talked to her too. In the end, she got a new school, and I agreed to be assigned to a field office in Buffalo. Close enough that I could go to her if needed but not close enough that it seemed like I was spying.

I was trying to be the cool big sis after all.

It took me another month to finally make the move.

Gracie was an old friend of mine from school. She moved to NYC to make it in fashion, failed and made it as far as Syracuse on her way back home to Ohio. I was gratefully able to convince her to room with me in Buffalo. I promised an adventure. She promised to help me break away from GI Jane as she called it. Hey, it's not like I shaved my head or anything like that. I did keep my hair short though. It was around my ears now actually. It wasn’t my only issue though. My eyes were a pale blue now. I was told it was one of the side effects of the acid bath I received. The doctors still weren’t sure how it happened. Gracie loved them though. She told me it gave me even more character. I tried to hide them behind dark shades whenever I could. Back home a lot of people stared. Some of them even called me a mutant. Thankfully I grew up in a pretty welcoming town, no H1ers to foul things up.

“Miss Fairchild?” asked a voice as someone came down the steps toward me.

I perked up. “Yes?”

It was a woman, dressed very similar to me I might add. She had a welcoming smile and bright pink hair. I wasn’t expecting that. Sure, I was told that mutants worked here, but it just never really sunk in until now. As she got closer, I noticed that her top barely contained her large chest.

“Hi, welcome to Buffalo,” she said, holding out a hand. “I’m Courtney Knox, but around here they call me Allure.”

Allure?

Understatement of the century.

I shook her hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”

She smiled. “Likewise. Everyone here has been dying to meet you. If you’ll follow me, I can help you get processed.”

I smiled and took another deep breath.

Then I started to follow her up the stairs.

As we got closer to the building, my nervousness only grew. This was it, no turning back now. “Deep breaths, Clara.“ Courtney seemed to notice my apprehension because she gently touched my elbow. As soon as she did, I felt so much better. It was as if she had a magic touch. With a name like Allure, I couldn’t help but wonder if she did. She smiled warmly at me again then stopped to open one of the glass doors for me. We stepped inside, through a metal detector and finally into a large foyer that reminded me a lot of an FBI field office I was once visited in Toledo on a school trip.

Looking at the floor, I saw the familiar logo emblazoned in the marble.

“Agent Fairchild,” she said with an authoritative tone. “Welcome to the DPA”

I gulped.

“Thanks,” I said, letting out the breath I’d been holding. “Great to be here.”

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“And this is your work space."

We finished my tour in a large office space. It was filled with rows of cubicles. We were currently at one that looked just like the rest. I smiled and thanked her. She left me alone, wandering back toward the elevator. I’m not going to lie, I watched her walk. It was hard not to. I knew of some mutants who picked codenames that had nothing to do with their powers. Courtney hit her name on the nose. She was by far the most alluring woman I’d ever seen. It wasn’t her breasts either though those were pretty nice. Allure had the whole package, and it was very hard to ignore. The whole tour I found myself mesmerized by her. She caught me more than once and giggled, touching my arm, telling me it was “part of her charm”.

Literally, apparently.

She had some kind of pheromone that made her irresistible.

It was just starting to wear off, and I could finally think straight again. I still couldn’t stop smiling. She reminded me of a girl I used to date in high school, Tanya, who was bubbly and could dazzle people with her “wits”. She wasn’t the brightest girl but the things she could do with her…

“Hey,” said a voice as someone came sauntering up to my desk.

I looked and saw a tall guy, slicked back hair, wearing an award winning smile.

“I’m Martin, Martin Goodman. You’re the new girl, right?”

He was handsome in that smarmy kind of way.

I nodded. “Cor...I mean Clara Fairchild.”

He smiled. His teeth were so white.

I still wasn’t used to referring to myself without my rank attached. You can take the girl out of the Marines but apparently not the Marine out of the girl. I smiled politely at him, hoping he’d take the hint and leave. The last thing I needed was another complicated relationship. I left my last one in Peru. Both of them. Funny thing is, I got an email the other day, they were now dating each other. Strange how the world works these days. They were happy though, that’s all that mattered in the end.

“So rumor has it you’re Corp?”

Go away.

“I was once.”

“I bet there’s a story there,” he said, still smiling and now leaning on my cubicle.

“There is.”

“I’d love to hear it some time, maybe over...”

“GOODMAN,” shouted a female voice from somewhere. “Stop rubbing against the new girl’s leg and get back to work!”

There was a lot of laughter from around us.

Goodman’s face flushed the same color of his tie, then he quickly disappeared.

I peeked my head up, trying to see who saved my butt, but no one rose to meet me.

My Mystery Savior shall remain a mystery for now.

I settled back down, taking a look at my new workplace. I sighed. This was the last thing in the world that I wanted. I stared at my little cubicle, at the computer computer and tiny desk. This was going to be my home away from home for the foreseeable future. Or until someone in HR realized that they made some kind of mistake. Thankfully I was told not to expect much time here. I didn’t really know a lot of what was going on, but the person who recruited me told me the desk was a cover. In fact, my position in the Department of Paranormal Affairs was something that looked good on paper.

That’s all it was meant to be.

As far as my bosses in this office knew, I was a new rookie straight off a very stressful tour of duty with the Marines. It wasn’t a lie either. One look at my left hand was enough to tell me of that. After my voluntary discharge and drinking my way through Europe, I’m not sure how I was able to stand on my own two feet. By the time I reached Peru, I was pretty much at rock bottom. Roman and Tia were the only two things that brought me out of it. I met them at a nightclub, and what was at first just lust turned into something much more substantial. They helped me put my life back together. It was through them that I eventually ended up meeting The Directorate.

I was reluctant to talk to them at first.

I was angry at the world and blamed the government for my accident. I knew it was foolish, but at the time I needed someone to blame. They were a persistent group though. They vetted me, had been watching me for weeks and were determined to help me help them. When they told me who they really were and what they really did, I’m not going to lie that I wasn’t surprised. I long expected that there were groups like them. Clandestine groups that worked for mutant rights, inserting themselves into various government agencies to make sure their goals would succeed. There was a great deal of precedence for it as well. After all, with the MCO out there causing havoc, mutants needed someone.

I never considered their offer until after Jimmy manifested.

When I was approached in Peru, I figured they were some kind of hippy, “Save the Mutants with Peace and Love” type group. It became very clear to me that they weren’t. I asked around, some of my father’s old buddies had heard some stories. Even Dad knew a few. It was clear that they meant business and that they were sincere in their goals. When they offered Jenny a full ride to Whateley, my father warned us of the dangers that kind of “offer” might entail. Dad was a pretty by-the-book Marine. He loved his country. I respected him for that, I really did. The problem with said country though was how they let organizations like the MCO and Humanity First exist in the first place. My father wasn’t a bigot, but he wasn’t about to badmouth his Red, White and Blue either.

Jenny and I made the choice ourselves.

The folks still weren’t talking to me.

I could live with that if it meant my sister was someplace safe.

Someplace where her so called friends didn’t try to turn her over to the MCO.

Someone knocked on the side of my cubicle, breaking me from my thoughts. I turned and found myself staring at a cute blonde. She gave me a warm smile.

“You’re the new girl, Clara, right?”

I nodded. “Fairchild.”

She introduced herself as Kate Shepherd. She was middle aged, wore glasses. She was also apparently my boss. Well, the Section Chief. She just wanted to introduce herself and pass along my first bit of work. Work, as it turned out, would be nothing more than reading threat chatter from the last few months.

Joy.

“It’s not very glamorous, but then again we’re not really in a glamorous place.”

She left after that, leaving me with a flash drive.

I turned on my computer, and after it slowly booted up, I plugged in the drive. A few seconds later, the screen filled with several lines of phone dialogue.

I groaned.

Was this what I gave up bar hopping in South America for?

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Blah.

If I saw another spreadsheet or threat assessment, I was going to throw myself into traffic. Ok, not really, but I think my eyes were starting to bleed. A week. I’d been working there for a whole week, and it was all the boss lady kept putting on my desk. I understood I was the low girl on the totem pole, but surely there were other things I could be doing. According to Agent Shepherd, it was all part of the process. Personally, I was convinced she was pushing off her job on me. As it turns out, the Buffalo office wasn’t very active. It definitely wasn’t my first choice. From what I could figure, the agency couldn’t figure out where to place me. At least that’s what the official reasoning was.

I had other orders too.

I was on standby.

The Directorate appeared to work on a case by case method. I was here until I was needed. Then they’d move me as they saw fit. At least that’s what they told me a few months ago when I was recruited. I was technically a field operative, but I still wasn’t sure why. I didn’t have the experience for this kind of work. In the Marines I was a glorified guard. Those two kills of mine were pure luck. The second one was desperation. I’m not even sure how I pulled it off actually. The only thing it earned me was a pat on the back. There was a lot of talk though. The brass wanted to move me onto other things. I was excited about the prospect, but it felt like they were pitying me too. I spent months trying to convince them I was good enough only to be worthy after I bled for my country.

I wanted to be there on my own merit.

Not because they felt they owed me.

So I left.

It was the beginning of the rift between my father and me.

It had the opposite effect on my relationship with Jenny.

When she was still my brother, I’ll admit we were never close. Not only because of the ten year age difference between us either. Jimmy had declared himself a pacifist. My mother’s parents ran a Buddhist retreat in California, and Jimmy had become engrossed with it all. I’m not saying there was anything wrong with it, but in our family, it was a little weird. What with three of us in the Corp already, Jimmy was always the odd man out. It only got worse when he declared himself a Buddhist when he was twelve. Dad wasn’t sure what to make of it. I was in the Middle East at the time when Mom told me. To say I was not surprised was an understatement. It was a weird thing for our family, but I didn’t hate him for it.

I respected him for being his own person. I just didn’t understand it in the least.

A lot of that changed when Jimmy manifested.

I never really knew how much I wanted a sister until I had one.

I’m not a girly girl. Never had been. I was never one of those girls that dreamed of having a sister who could go shopping and talk boys with either. I was happy with having brothers. I was the daughter my mother wanted, and I could wrap my father around my finger if I needed. It's strange really. When Jimmy became Jenny nothing about her changed. She still said she was a Buddhist, she still declared herself a pacifist, but there was something different about her too. Not just because she was an Avatar and housed a spirit. It was her whole being. Jimmy used to be pretty outgoing. He liked to roll around in the dirt, throw mud, jump in puddles. As Jenny he was more reserved and downright timid. Strangely, I liked her a lot better this way.

Not that I didn’t like my brother, I did. For a while I thought for sure that liking Jenny more made me a bad person, but something happened. She hugged me one day. It was out of the blue and strange, but when it happened, something inside of me just broke. For a while I was convinced that the Spirit was somehow influencing her, making her act this way. I was scared it was possessing her and taking her over completely. There were times when she spoke that it felt like the words coming out of her mouth were not her own. When she hugged me though, I found my brother again. Jimmy was a hugger. Jenny was too reserved to do so. When the hug happened though, I knew everything was going to be alright.

Unfortunately for her, I wasn’t the only one who thought she changed.

Kids can be cruel.

I HATED myself for not being there when it started.

I ended it though.

Then I made sure she was safe.

“Excuse me,” said a voice from my left. “Is this seat taken?”

I was sitting at the bar, nursing my mug of beer. I hadn’t taken a sip yet. My mind was too preoccupied from the mush of work. Turning, I caught a gorgeous sight. I’m not going to lie, my eyes went right to her boobs. They were huge, about to burst out of the tight top she was wearing. The tight jeans were nice too. Her most alluring feature though was the hair: it was blue. It looked like it was glowing too. Of course that was probably the light. She sat on the stool next to me, not waiting for the invitation she asked for.

“Just give me what she’s drinking,” she said to the bartender before turning to me, holding out a hand. “Hi, I’m Tina.”

“Clara,” I said, shaking her hand.

Tina giggled. “I like the Asian ones, so cute.”

I flushed.

I had enough of my mother’s Asian features to be considered exotic. It did get me a lot of drinks. I guess tonight was another one of those nights.

“But only one fourth, right?” she said, still holding my hand. “On your mother’s side. Your father is of English descent.”

I nodded, looking into her eyes.

They were glowing.

I was mesmerized.

A second later, I blinked.

Wait, how did she know that?

She laughed. “Sorry, I needed to be sure.” She let go of my hand. “It's why they send me, it's my thing.”

I blinked. “They sent you?”

“Our mutual benefactor,” she said, bringing forth a bag I didn’t notice before.

She pulled out a large envelope, placing it on the bar top.

I looked at it, staring. Then looked at her, shocked.

“Wait, you’re my contact!”

She smiled. “Allow me to properly introduce myself. My name is Tina Royce, your handler, I guess is the proper term. From this day forward, your assignments will come through me.”

She placed a phone on top of the enveloper. “One of our devisors whipped up this baby. It’s encrypted, can’t be traced except by us. Has all the bells and whistles as they say.”

I continued to stare at her. Last night, I got a phone call. The person on the other end told me to come to this bar and wait. It was all they would say. I suspected it had something to do with a contact. I was told to expect one. When The Directorate set me up with the DPA, they told me it was more or less a cover. The badge would help me get through the proper doors. My real job was working for them. They didn’t exactly operate in an official capacity. They had their hands all over the place though. They protected mutants. It was their number one goal, and in this shifting world, it was a good one to have. Mutants needed all the friends they could get these days. The MCO was getting more dangerous. It was filled with psychopaths and deviants. Humanity First was just as bad. They were winning too. That was the dangerous thing.

The Department of Paranormal Affairs once had a larger foothold, but they failed. They were now trying to regroup and rebuild. The Directorate was helping them do that. I found it strange that the DPA didn’t realize it either. The Directorate worked in the shadows and told me they preferred it that way. It made me wonder how long they’d been spying on me. When they recruited me, they told me I was exactly what they were looking for. My year abroad had made me an asset. I bounced around the world, made friends in low places. I was always good at things like that. I was a people person. I liked to talk, and I was friendly with everyone. There was something else too, something I didn’t like to share. It was almost as if I knew things. I’m not sure how else to describe it. I used to call it “going with my gut”. I could walk into a situation and know where the trouble was. I either ignored the trouble if I wanted to stay out of shit or walk right into it if I was looking for a fight. It’s how I knew Suicide Bomber was going to be where he was the split-second before I killed him. It’s also how I knew Acid Breath was going to attack before he did. Unfortunately, my reaction time was a little slow on that last one. It cost us two lives and me, my left arm. I beat myself up a lot after that. It’s why I ran. It’s why I came back too.

I got the very same feeling about Jenny.

The Directorate could take all the credit they wanted about dragging me back, but it was my sister who saved my life. Then I saved hers.

“So what’s the assignment?” I asked, taking the folder and phone.

“It's all in there,” she said, pointing to the envelope.

I frowned, she laughed.

“I’m also an empath, Miss Fairchild. Pouting is not going to work.”

I stopped. “Not even a tiny hint?”

She sighed. “We need you pick up someone, take her to safety. That’s all that I’m at liberty to say without a proper briefing.”

“What’s my timetable?”

“You leave tomorrow morning, 0500 hours.”

Wow, that wasn’t a lot of time. I had worse though.

I checked my watch. I didn’t have a lot of time at all. Grunting, I looked at my beer. Guess I wasn’t drinking that tonight. Shame. I hated letting a good drink go to waste. I left the stool, realized that Tina wasn’t going to follow and sighed again. Here I thought I was going to get lucky; apparently it was all work and no play for her. Another shame. I started for the door, opening the envelope as I did. As I walked, I slid an ID out. I scrutinized it as I walked and grunted.

Rebecca Howe, MCO.

Well, this just got very interesting.

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I scrutinized myself in the mirror. You can do this, Clara.

I sighed, straightening the front of my shirt. I shouldn’t be nervous, but I was. I mean it’s not every day that one pretends to be an agent of an evil organization out to rid the world of mutants. No pressure right? I gulped. I’d heard a lot of stories about the MCO in my unit and none of them very good. Quite a few of my fellow Marines had mutants in their family. We even had one or two mutants on the squad. The MCO and Humanity First were frequent topics around meal time. No one shed good light on them. They were psychopathic bullies with a lot of funding. They pushed their massive weight around and made mutants disappear.

The Boogeymen.

And they wanted me to join them.

Well, not officially.

Thank God.

I managed to get a bit of sleep last night after the bar but only an hour or two. Waking this morning, I took a long look at the information in my folder. Like I discovered last night, it contained my cover identity. One that should hold up under light scrutiny but that’s about it. As far as I knew it was official MCO credentials, but my false name wasn’t in any of their databases. It was a surface identity. I was supposed to sell it enough so they wouldn’t second guess me. I practiced it a few times in the mirror after the shower too. I decided that Rebecca Howe was a Becca and NEVER a Becky. She was young, by the book and bigoted enough to pass for a scumbag. I was just hoping it was enough.

A girl’s life was at stake after all.

A girl I recognized.

Her name had come across my computer last week. She was in one of those threat files. Riley Spencer, age fifteen, recently manifested. She was at a Pro-Mutant rally in the city when a group of young H1ers decided to take their “peaceful” protest to the next level. Miss Spencer was one of the fortunate ones. She got away with a few cuts and bruises. According to the report, she actually started to manifest at the rally. Not a full blown burnout but enough to draw the attention of the H1ers. The local authorities were able to stop the violence before it got out of hand. The H1ers were arrested, and Riley became a key witness.

The Directorate’s file on her was pretty extensive.

They had her eye witness testimony as well as a thorough background and psych evaluation on the girl. The doctor who spoke to her made some notes, he seemed concerned about Riley’s honesty. According to the report, the girl had a lot of deep-seated anger. Her background told me she was the second daughter of superheroes, her father was Carson Spencer aka Tidal Wave, formerly of The Good Neighbors out of Buffalo. He was deceased. Died on duty while assisting the Coast Guard in a hurricane rescue in The Gulf. Her mother, Gloria, was retired. She left active duty when her first daughter, Summer, was born. She was known by the codename Charmcaster. They even had a small write up on Riley’s older sister, Summer. She would be a junior at Whateley Academy in a few weeks time.

That made me smile.

It’s the school that The Directorate were sending Jenny to.

It was also the place where Riley was going as well. On her own merit though. That’s where things got a bit complicated though. Riley was meant to go to the airport this morning under DPA escort. She ran away two nights ago. Somewhere in that time, the MCO intercepted her. The Directorate had an agent inside, deep undercover. According to his reports, they planned on moving Riley this morning. He was convinced they had no intention of letting her go to the school. They were arranging an “accident”. The agent didn’t know the details, only that Riley’s life was in danger.

That’s where I came in.

It was my job to insert myself into the extraction team, assess the situation and protect the girl. If necessary, I was authorized to use force. Looking in the mirror, I couldn’t help but smile at that thought. The Marines had trained me well, but I went into the Corp knowing a lot already. Not only did I have the marksmen trophies to back me up since junior high, but I had the martial arts training too. Being his only daughter at the time, my father wanted to make sure I could protect myself. I’d been learning how to fight since I was eight. I’d been shooting since ten, and for the last few summers of high school I had survival training in the woods all over the country. In other words, I knew how to take care of myself.

I would have no problem protecting this girl if need be.

A gentle knock on the door drew me from my thoughts.

“Clara, your ride is here.”

Gracie.

She didn’t much like being up this early, but I’d make it up to her as soon as I got back. I knew this little bistro she loved. Just two friends getting a bite to eat. It might have been something more once, but she moved on a long time ago. She was dating some artist. They met at Kane’s Art Gallery, it was love at first sight. At least that’s how Gracie tells it. I was happy for her, she deserved someone better than me. Raya treated her well too. They were already talking about moving in together. Which meant I’d probably have to find a new place soon.

Grunting, I walked out of the bathroom.

Gracie was in her robe, lounging on the couch. Her caramel colored skin and long legs as intoxicating as ever. I’m not going to lie, the girl still made my heart skip a beat.

“Looking tough girl. What’s the occasion?”

I couldn’t tell her the actual truth. As far as Gracie was concerned, I was a desk jockey at the DPA. I hated lying to her, but there were only a handful of people who actually knew what I really did for a living.

“Nothing glamorous I’m afraid,” I said with a huff. “Early morning inventory and guess who gets stuck doing the heavy lifting.”

Gracie frowned, nursing her cup of coffee.

“You regret it?”

I shrugged.

Honestly, I had no idea.

I’m not going to lie. I missed the corp. I could have stayed, I should have stayed. A large part of me felt less than human now. Flexing my fingers, I sighed. The arm was connected cybernetically to my nervous system. There were synthetic nerves firing, signaling my brain that my fingers were wiggling. I could feel it, but I knew it wasn’t real. When I took a shower or touched the fake flesh, I could feel that as well. It was all there, but it was still an illusion. My real arm was gone. I spent three months with a shrink at the hospital, talking about it. She wanted to make sure I didn’t have some lasting effects from the incident. After I was finally given a clean bill of heath, I checked myself out. I tried going home, but all the smothering was too much.

That’s why I left to travel.

I concerned a lot of people, Gracie included.

When I came back, I thought she was going to kick my ass.

I would have let her.

She was determined not to leave my side again. She was the one who suggested we move in together here. I hated that she uprooted her whole life to do it, but she told me it was going nowhere fast. She found a job here. It wasn’t as glamorous as New York City, but it helped pay her half of the bills. We were making it work, piecing together or lives. Gracie had an easier time of it, but we were doing it.

The car beeped downstairs.

“Well I gotta go. I’ll see ya later.”

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I waited as the agent in front of me finished reading the letter I handed to him. It was fake, but it was authentic enough to fool anyone. I also knew if he called it in, one of The Directorate’s people would intercept the call and confirm it. By the time they realized they were fooled, Riley would be on a plane to New York City. That didn’t stop me from being nervous though. There was a lot of dangerous risk here, and I’d never done anything like this. Thankfully our intel from the inside was good so far. He phoned in the location as I was driving. The MCO were keeping Riley at a small safe house on the west side of the city. It wasn’t the best part of the city either. It was almost as if they picked it specifically because of the high crime rate here.

I couldn’t help but wonder if they planned on killing her here or elsewhere?

The agent grunted, handing me back the letter.

“They never tell me anything,” he said, looking at his female partner. “Willows, call it in."

Just like clockwork.

Thankfully, our agent on the inside was embedded enough to know the ins and outs of the operation. He’d been feeding The Directorate useful info for months. Nothing this big or solid though. It was a strange set of circumstances that led Riley to us. There was something else going on too. I hated walking into something blind like this. In the Corp I was a good soldier and followed orders, but that didn’t stop me from questioning them. Especially the ones given to me. My father would tell me it's not my job to ask questions even if something didn’t make sense. The thing is, this wasn’t the Marines anymore. If something didn’t feel right, I was going to be overly cautious about it.

Like now.

It got me thinking.

Why Riley?

Why now?

The only thing I could think of was the timing. A group of teenagers was flying into JFK today. It was a small changeover flight for them. From there they would hop a plane to Berlin, New Hampshire. Riley was supposed to be on that flight. At least that was the official plan. The MCO had another one. They planned to make her disappear somewhere in transit. It was the next part I didn’t like though. Instead of stopping it, The Directorate wanted me to allow it to happen. Not because they wanted harm to come to her but another reason entirely. They wanted to see where she went. A lot of mutants had disappeared in MCO custody over the years, and The Directorate was taking a more proactive role in stopping it.

I didn’t like it.

It felt wrong.

I thought the whole point of me being here was to rescue this girl, not let them take her.

“Howe?”

It took me a third time hearing that name to realize I was being spoken to.

Crap.

“Yes sir,” I said to a very annoyed man.

“You check out,” he grumbled.

Then he starting mumbling about bureaucratic bullshit. I don’t think I was supposed to hear that part.

Regardless, he stepped aside and let me into the little house. The interior was dated, built probably around the turn of last century. Everything had a very cramped and narrow feel. Whereas the living room felt large, the hallway that led off it was thin and foreboding. I stood in the foyer, waiting for them to tell me what to do. In the meantime, I looked around for exits. It was all thanks to my father’s survival training. I’ll admit, I might have been a little paranoid. In this situation though, I had a right to be.

I was also starting to get one of my feelings again.

I suppressed it, but I did not suppress my nervousness though.

Which Agent Willows apparently saw.

“You nervous?” she asked in a polite tone with a raised brow.

I turned to her and nodded. “Sorry, it's my first assignment.”

Which technically wasn’t a lie.

She smiled pleasantly, but it looked forced. She seemed friendly enough, but I had to remember that she and her partner were here to make Riley disappear. There was nothing friendly or truly pleasant about this woman. Looks could be deceiving. It was clear they sent her for a reason. She was a beautiful woman. She was tall and leggy, a cute redhead with a smattering of freckles across her nose. She was easy on the eyes, and her top was just a bit tighter than it should be. She couldn’t have been much older than me either. She looked like someone’s babysitter or older sister. That was the point too. It was clear that Willows was here to reassure Riley and lull her into a false sense of security.

They wanted Riley to be complacent.

Willows was giving me a look.

It was a calculating one. Though she smiled at me, her eyes told me everything. She was angry that I was here. With me here now, she was going to have to try harder to gain Riley’s trust. It made me wonder though. Looking around the house, it was clear that they only just arrived. Probably last night. Was this the pair that picked her up off the street? If they were, why was she trying to get Riley to trust her? Our intel told us they’d only be with her for a few hours more at the most. So why go to all the trouble? Unless of course, the rest of the intel was correct. They were really planning on taking her to some facility somewhere?

I bit my lip.

This was all dangerous.

“Well you don’t have to worry about this one. She’s a sweet girl for a Mutie.”

And there it was.

She both complimented and insulted Riley in one sentence.

Her partner scoffed. “It's a lie. None of them are sweet. You just remember that Rook, and don’t turn your back to her. Ever!”

He stomped off down the hall, probably to retrieve this “evil backstabber”.

Agent Willows rolled her eyes. “A mutie killed his brother.”

And typical bigot, he damns them all for the actions of one.

Sounds about right.

I wanted to roll my eyes too.

A moment later, I saw them in the hall. They came out of the third room. The jackass was pushing a slip of a girl in front of him. Riley no doubt. As they got closer, I recognized her face from the picture we had on file. Today her light blue hair was covered with a hood, but I knew it was there. She looked scared but was pretending not to be. She was a tough girl, the ring in her lip a clear sign. It was rebellious too. I remember when a couple friends of mine convinced me to pierce my bellybutton. I thought my parents were going to have heart attacks right on the spot. Then I almost died of embarrassment the next day when Dad dragged me into the mall by my arm and into the jewelry store, demanding they remove it. It healed up on its own a few months later, but Dad never let me forget it.

“Keep moving,” snapped Jackass as she slowed down.

“I want my guitar, asshole!”

The agent looked like he was about to smack her. I twitched, ready to go for my gun. Undercover or not, there was no way I was letting him hit that kid. Thankfully, Willows shot him a threatening glance. No doubt telling him they needed her alive. Something about his body language felt off to me though.

“Pierce, easy. We’re not supposed to rough her up!”

The Jackass, Pierce, grunted and pushed Riley into the living room.

I wanted to comfort her, but I knew how that would look.

She rubbed the back of her neck and her arm. As she was doing so I thought I caught sight of blue on her wrist?

She glared at me. “What the fuck you looking at?”

Charming girl.

“This is Agent Howe, Riley. She’s here to assist us.”

Riley scoffed. “Whatever.”

“Nice to meet you, Riley. You can call me Becca,” I said, holding out my hand.

I could pretend to be an MCO agent, but there was no way I was pretending to be an asshole.

Pierce glared. “You actually want to shake its hand?”

I hated the way he said “it” like Riley was a thing and not a person.

“Yes, I was raised with manners.”

My hand was still held out for Riley. Reluctantly she took it and shook.

I made sure I was shaking with just my right. I hated not feeling anything. Even though my new left arm was state of the art, it still felt like metal to me. I was told that the new flesh on it could feel things like touch and pain, but I didn’t care. It still felt wrong to me. Almost as if it was something foreign and dead attached there. Ever since they put it on, things felt different. It was more than just losing an arm. It was like a part of me was gone. Without that part, something didn’t quite work. It was hard to explain. I tried to for three months with a base shrink, but she didn’t really understand. My parents didn’t understand either. It's one of the reasons I left.

When she let go, I saw her smirk.

While this little exchange was going on, Willows stepped further into the living room. She was on her cell, having some kind of heated conversation. I didn’t like what I was hearing.

I checked my watch, it was a little after nine thirty in the morning now. I cursed. Why did they make me wake up so early again? Thankfully Riley’s flight didn’t leave for another hour. Even though I was pretty certain that was never going to happen.

Willows cursed. “This is utter bullshit!”

“Something wrong?” I asked, trying to be both friendly and helpful.

“There’s some bullshit going on in New York. JFK is being shut down. No flights in or out.”

Pierce groaned.

Riley looked scared.

I watched the two MCO goons. Willows looked pretty pissed, but Pierce seemed pretty calm about the whole thing. Too calm. I made a mental note to watch him.

“So what’s the back up plan then?” I asked, looking from one to the other.

They both gave me looks.

Shit.

“You have no backup?”

Pierce shrugged. “This was supposed to be a simple escort. Pick the girl up and drop her off.”

Riley scoffed.

I knew why she was scoffing. There was nothing simple about kidnapping a girl off the street. With the other two preoccupied with not caring, I gave her a quick once over with my eyes. Besides the bitchy attitude, she looked unharmed. I did notice a bit of dirt on the knees of her jeans that caused me some alarm. There also looked like dried blood under one of her nails. I noticed a healing scratch on Pierce’s hand earlier. I almost smiled, realizing that this girl didn’t go easily. I’m just glad she didn’t try to use her powers. There was nothing in the DPA file on them sadly. They didn’t have time to do a powers test before she was released. We weren’t able to get a copy of the MCO file on them either. There was a note in the report that The Good Neighbors did their own power testing on her.

There was a codename listed for her though.

Mist.

It intrigued me a lot.

“We have a drop off point, but...” said Willows, still on the phone.

She was looking at me while talking.

I felt it.

Something in the room shifted.

A moment later, she pulled her gun, pointing it right at me. Shit. I guess we didn’t plan for every possible situation ourselves. It was just my luck. I wasn’t really paying attention to the rest of her conversation, but it was clear now that she mentioned me to her real superiors. The very same superiors whom Pierce thought he was talking to before. The superiors who told her that I did not exist.

Double shit.

“What the fuck is this?” snapped Pierce, glaring at his partner.

“Guess who was not sent from the home office!” she said, sneering.

Her gun was pointed for my chest.

Center mass, just like she was trained.

“Son of a bitch!” snapped Pierce, quickly pulling his own gun.

I could have reacted then. I should have reacted. Then I looked over at Riley. I could see the fear and confusion on her face. I cursed. If I had reacted, she might have gotten hurt. This was all so fucked up now. My first mission and I blew it almost right out of the gate. I told them when they recruited me that I wasn’t field tested, and I definitely wasn’t cut out for this covert shit. They disagreed, told me they knew my record and all my accolades growing up. This type of work was exactly what I should have been doing all along. I wanted to laugh at how wrong they were. If I was so suited for this kind of work then why were two guns being pointed at me right now?

“Who the fuck are you?”

Pierce all but shouted at me as he took a step closer.

I watched him, waiting.

I needed to play this cool.

For Riley.

“Rebecca Howe, I showed you my badge. You called it in, remember?”

“Bullshit,” snapped Willows, being smart and keeping her distance. “I just asked about you, no one sent you. Who do you work for? FBI? CIA?”

If only.

“I work for the same people as you. There’s been a mistake,” I said, looking Pierce directly in the eyes. “Call it in again."

He took a hesitant step forward.

“Pierce, she’s playing you! I’m the senior agent here. Let’s bag her with the freak and sort it out later.”

Pierce nodded, taking another step.

It was enough.

I’d had a lot of fight training in my life. Not just because I was the only girl in the family. My mother wanted me to be a ballerina because I was so small and dainty. I stuck with it for a couple of months. At the same time though, my older brother Brian was taking Karate. I was mesmerized watching him practice his katas in the backyard. I started begging my parents to let me drop ballet and join Brian’s class. Dad thought it was funny at first, but when he saw how serious I was about it, he finally caved. Mom wasn’t happy. She wanted the perfect daughter to do all the girly things with. I wasn’t her. I took to Karate like a duck to water. It wasn’t long before I surpassed even Brian. Dad was so impressed with me that he brought an old Marine buddy of his, Buck, to the house to give me private lessons.

After a lesson or two, Buck decided I was a natural.

He convinced my parents to let him teach me at his Mixed Martial Arts gym in the city. Of course Mom was against it, but Dad was over the moon. Buck kept up with the Karate but started to add other things as the years went on. I was an apt pupil. By the time I graduated high school, I was fairly competent in several forms of martial arts, including Judo, Muay Thai and Tae Kwon Do. Dad often joked that if my career in the Marines didn’t work out, I could always try my hand at vigilantism. Mom didn’t think it was funny. It was strange though. Add to that all the training I received in the Marines, I was like a weapon.

A weapon honed to do one thing.

Tear my opponent apart.

Pierce never saw it coming.

Most didn’t. At the Karate dojo, I was laughed at because I was so small. People who underestimated me stopped laughing after the first beat down. I never got much taller than five four. I hated being so short, but I used it to my advantage while fighting. Being smaller meant I moved quicker and could get closer to my opponent. I was below most men’s reach too.

When Pierce reached for me with his free hand, I grabbed his wrist, twisting his arm and quickly snapping it upward. There was a crack as I broke his radius. He screamed in pain before I pushed into his chest and, utilizing my Judo, tossed him over my shoulder like he weighed nothing. I didn’t let go of his arm though, and as soon as he was on the ground, I drove my knee into his throat. It was over in less than a minute. I was back on my feet with his gun before Willows even had a chance to blink.

“Drop it!” I snapped, pointing at her head.

An easy shot for me.

She smirked. “My backup is already on the way. You’re in over your head.”

She wasn’t lying.

They weren’t here yet though.

“Your gun. On the ground. Now!”

She smirked, but she knew she was fucked at the moment. I wasn’t going to budge. Slowly, she undid her holster strap, removed her pistol and tossed it on the floor. I watched as it dropped out of the corner of my eye, and she lunged. She was fast. She went right for the gun I was holding. She grabbed my wrist and tried to wrestle it away. It probably would have worked if I wasn’t holding it in my left arm. She tried disarming me too. She slammed her elbow into my forearm, hoping to break it and force me to let go. She screamed out in pain, her elbow shattering against the titanium. She stumbled backward, allowing me to clip her in the head with my right fist.

I dropped lower, sweeping her legs out from underneath her with a quick kick.

She was down but not out.

She scrambled across the floor, trying to make it to her gun.

I shot at the floor in front of her.

“Don’t try it!”

She stopped moving.

“Holy shit,” gasped a startled teenager.

I almost forgot Riley was here. Almost. She’d been hiding behind the couch the whole time. She was now on her feet, standing and staring. Both MCO agents were out of commission for the moment. I didn’t lower my gun though, keeping it trained on Willows.

“Riley can you do me a favor and get her cuffs?”

Riley didn’t hesitate.

She ran over to Willow’s bag on the coffee table. It was a little black duffel, the agent must have brought with her. Instead of cuffs, Riley produced some zip ties. Without me even asking, she went over to Willows, and with no concern for the woman whatsoever, pulled her arms behind her back and zip tied them there. Willows screamed out in pain. That arm probably hurt like hell.

Willows rolled over, struggling but finally getting herself into a seated position.

“They’re still on their way. You’re fucked!”

I ignored her. She wasn’t wrong. Riley and I needed to get out of here and fast.

“Riley, secure him too.”

She didn’t have to be told twice.

She was a brave kid. Most kids in her position would have fallen to pieces by now. It made me wonder what kind of life she’d led up to this point?

With Willows secure, I turned and watched Riley zip tie Pierce as well. Thankfully, he was still unconscious. I bent down next to him, pulling the keys from his pocket. I noticed their black SUV outside. At this point, we didn’t have a lot of options anymore. My plan was already blown wide open. I was burned. The enemy was on the way. I would be outnumbered and outgunned soon. The only viable option we had left was to run.

“You’re not with them, are you?”

“What do you think?”

“If I had to guess, I’d say you’re here for me?”

I smiled. “Well someone was supposed to go to Whateley. Then she ran away from home. Does that ring any bells?”

She sighed. “I never wanted...”

I stopped her. “We can talk later. Right now we need to leave.”

I felt it again.

There was something coming.

Something bad.

I turned and looked toward the door.

“Get your stuff. We really need to go.”

She nodded and jumped to her feet, running off down the hall.

“They’ll send a tactical team. They’ll be wearing power armor too. You think you can stand up to that?”Willows was trying to scare me.

I didn’t scare easily.

Once again, she wasn’t wrong.

“You’re going to what, run off in our SUV? They’ll track it. Then what?”

She was really starting to annoy me.

“I could put a bullet in your head, that might stop my current irritation.”

She scoffed. “All of this for one fuckig mutie. It's pointless. Especially...”

She stopped herself.

She slipped up. She was about to say something important. Something she wasn’t supposed to say.

“Especially, what?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. Kill me now. I’m a dead woman anyway. We all are.”

Riley came back into the room, carrying a backpack and a guitar case. She looked from me to Willows and back again. I smiled at her then walked over to where Willows had thrown her gun. I picked it up and walked over to Riley, biting my lip at what I was about to do.

“I need you to watch her. I hate giving you...”

Riley rolled her eyes and took Willows’ gun from my hand, pointing it at our captive.

“I got this.”

Like I said, tough kid.

Smiling, I walked over and slowly pulled Pierce to his feet. Grabbing him under his shoulders, I dragged him down the hall to the bathroom. I threw him in the tub and made sure I locked the door afterward. I quickly returned back to the living room, Riley still holding her newly acquired weapon on our new hostage. The girl was playing tough, but I could she was scared too. Her hands were shaking. Taking the cue, I slowly took the gun from her hand, ejected the clip and tossed the gun across the room.

“What the hell?” snapped the teenager.

I ignored her and instead went over and pulled Willows to her feet.

“This is your plan?” she grunted out a laugh. “You going to put me in the bathroom too?”

“No, you’re coming with us.”

She laughed. “You think they’re going to let us walk out of here? You have no idea what you’ve bumbled into here. This is way above the MCO, way above anything you can possibly think of. These people, they’re going to kill me, then you, then they’re going to take the girl. We can’t win.”

“Then start talking. Who are we dealing with?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. Don’t you see, you’re not going to live to tell anyone!”

As soon as she said it, sirens starting ringing in the distant.

She laughed. “We are so fucking screwed.”

I started pushing Willows toward the door, using her as a shield. I gestured Riley behind me. My captive was still laughing. I’m not sure why she thought any of this was amusing. If we were going to die like she claimed then I was pretty sure she was losing it. What she said made me wonder though. If this wasn’t an MCO operation like she claimed then what the hell did I walk into? How much shit was I in?

“Tell me,” I said, before I opened the door.

She stopped laughing. “They’re everywhere. They have their hands everywhere. I tell you, they’ll just kill you. Hell, you’re a Dead Woman Walking anyway. We both are. They don’t stop, nowhere is safe. Even if you somehow manage to get out of here, they’ll find you and kill you!”

“Who?”

She snorted. “The...”

POP.

It happened so fast. Whatever she was about to say was cut off in mid-sentence. The bullet went right through the little window on the front of the door and clean through her skull. Willows was dead in an instant. A moment later, another bullet went through the door, but it was wild and missed me. Riley screamed. I dropped Willows’ and went to the floor, pulling Riley with me.

The sirens were getting closer.

They weren’t the threat though.

There was a sniper out there.

There was more too.

I heard a vehicle pull up. Grabbing Riley, I dragged her out of the room and down the hall.

“What the fuck, what the fuck!”

I ignored her panic.

I needed to think.

I needed to get us out of here.

“Are there any other doors in this place?”

It took her a moment. “The kitchen maybe?”

I pulled her down the hall, ignoring her protest that I was hurting her arm.

We got to the kitchen. Sure enough there was a door there. Sighing, I made the distance pretty quick. I was almost to the door when it was slammed open on its own. Riley screamed as a man in black tactical gear charged in, machine gun at the ready. I moved on pure adrenaline. I smashed my left palm into the faceplate of his helmet, shattering it. He staggered backwards, allowing me to put my pistol to his chest and shoot several rounds into his armor there, in the same spot. I was confident one of my bullets went through as he dropped to the ground.

Still holding her wrist, I pulled Riley into the backyard.

Another assailant was there.

They were well armored but not their feet.

I shot him in the foot. When he dropped to his knee, I grabbed his head and smashed it into the concrete of the patio. There was a muffled scream as I rushed on. Two more came around the side of the house. When they saw us, they reacted quickly, blind firing in our direction. I felt a rubber bullet sting my shoulder. It hurt like hell. It told me something important though. These people wanted us alive. Staggering, I dropped to the ground. I switched my gun from my right to my left, catching it by the barrel as I did so. Coming back up, I slammed it handle first into the nearest one’s face. His helmet caught the impact. I used his own weight against him, grabbing the front of his suit and spinning him into his friend.

While the two men slammed into one another, I spun my gun around and put a round into the back of their necks, just below the base of their helmets.

They might be trying to take us alive, but I wasn’t going to let them harm Riley.

I was tired of playing with them.

My right shoulder stung like hell, but it could have been a lot worse.

Keeping the gun in my left hand, I motioned Riley to follow me as we slunk slowly along the side of the house toward the front.

“You killed them,” she gasped.

I stopped and turned toward her, talking in a low tone. “Listen to me very closely. These people are using nonlethal rounds. They don’t intend to kill us like Willows. They want us alive. I’m not going to let them take you. We’re going to walk out there. I’m going to stop as many as I can then you and I are getting in that SUV and getting the hell out of here.”

“I can help!” she said, raising her hand, but I pushed it down.

“I can’t let you do that.”

She frowned but nodded.

We started moving again when she pointed something out.

“The sirens have stopped.”

I stopped a second and listened. She was right. I couldn’t hear the police sirens anymore.

I’m not sure I liked that.

I couldn’t let it distract me though. I needed to stay on target.

Right now, that was getting Riley out of here.

“Stay behind me,” I said softly as I moved forward again, gun raised.

When I got to the edge of the house, I noticed two guards standing guard near their vehicle. Had I really taken out the whole squad or were there others waiting? No one was rushing us, but I could feel that we weren’t in the clear yet. Taking a deep breath, I stepped around the side of the house. I snapped off two shots. One hit the closest guard, just below the right arm, a gap in his armor. The other bullet hit the second guard in the same spot I executed his friends in the backyard. They dropped to the ground. One dead, the other wounded. The wounded man tried to raise his gun, but I shot his hand. I heard a muffled scream before shooting him in the neck too.

“Get in the MCO SUV,” I said, tossing Riley the keys I took from Pierce.

She caught them in one hand and ran for the vehicle, keeping her head down.

I checked the clip of Pierce’s gun.

How many rounds had I fired?

I quietly counted.

Nine.

I had six left.

Reloading the clip, I walked toward the house. I could have just left it alone. After all, we could get in the SUV and drive. The thing was, I knew they’d come after us. They weren’t MCO either. I knew that the moment they started shooting at us. Those bastards would have never used rubber bullets. They also would have come at us in full power armor. These guys were something new and something equally dangerous. If I had to guess, I’d say private contractors. Maybe some kind of security detail that worked for a larger company. They were skilled, heavily armored and packing MP-5s.

They were also ill-informed.

They all seemed pretty surprised to see me and hesitated before firing outright. Which meant they probably thought I was MCO.

It told me that they were either working with either Pierce or Willows or they had orders not to harm the MCO agents.

They wanted Riley.

That much was for certain.

I wasn’t going to let that happen.

I moved slowly back into the house through the front door. Willows’ dead body still where I left it. Stepping over it, I kept low. There had to be one or two of these guys left now. They came in one vehicle after all. My biggest concern was that sniper. He meant to kill Willows, that much was obvious. He didn’t take a shot at either me or Riley though. It told me that Willows was always collateral damage. I needed to watch my back regardless though. I also needed to make this fast. Leaving Riley out there like that was stupid. It was only a matter of time before more came.

I searched the lower floor, checking all the rooms.

I even checked on Pierce. The door was open. They found him first. There was a bullet hole in his head.

These guys apparently weren’t taking any chances anymore.

I looked into the kitchen briefly before making my way back into the living room and up the stairs.

I found the first one at the end of the hall, his back to me.

Stupid.

I shot him in the back of the knee. There was another muffled scream before I put another round into the base of his skull like the rest.

The gunfire drew the last guy.

He came out of the next room, shooting. I dropped to the ground, rolling as I did so. A bullet grazed my left leg. They weren’t using their rubber rounds anymore. It stung like hell. Gasping, I barely managed to get away. Taking cover behind the wall, I dropped low and blind fired. I heard my bullet hit his armor, there was a distinctive thud sound. I snapped around the corner after that first shot. The shooter was staggered so I took the advantage and charged him, sliding across the carpeted hall. I slammed into his legs below the knees. He fell on top of me as we slid to a stop. I grabbed the front of his chestplate, rolled over so I was on top and stuck the barrel of my gun under his chin.

BAM.

I dropped his dead body, panting heavily from the exhaustion.

Done.

Staggering to my feet, I winced from the stinging pain in my leg. I hobbled my way down the stairs and slowly out the door. I caught sight of Riley in the front of the SUV and sighed. We weren’t out of the woods yet though. I kept my head low, trying to stay behind cover. I dropped low enough that my head wasn’t a target. I’m not sure what this guy was doing though. He had ample time to kill me. Was he toying with me or was he letting me escape? If it was the latter then why?

Trying not to think about it, I managed to make it to the vehicle.

Riley had the door open for me. I climbed inside, wincing a bit.

“You’re bleeding,” she said, looking at my leg then, “Oh my god, you’ve been shot!”

“Grazed. I’ll be fine. We need to get out of here.”

I wasn’t fine though. It hurt like hell. So did my shoulder.

I had priorities now though.

Safety first, pain later.

Gritting my teeth, I started the truck. I pulled out the driveway, waiting for the bullet to come.

It never did though.

I had no idea why.

linebreak shadow

“Tina, we have a problem.”

There was a grunt on the other end of the line. “That’s an understatement. What part of covert did you not understand?”

I winced. I had her on speaker.

“Covert,” gasped Riley from the backseat. “Like in spy, you’re a spy! That’s AWESOME!”

I heard Tina suck in a breath. “You put this conversation on speaker!”

“I’m driving!”

My handler groaned. I bet she was rubbing her temples too. I shot Riley a look though, she gave me an apologetic one in response. Well I guess the cat was out of the bag now. There was no point hiding it. So I quickly filled Tina in on everything that happened. Riley even helped a bit. When we got to the end of the story, Tina said nothing. At first I thought she actually hung up on me. After thirty seconds of silence, she responded with another sigh.

“This is really, really bad timing,” she said, clearly exhausted. “There was an incident in Central Park a little while ago. Everyone is scrambling like chickens with their heads cut off. All flights out of the city are grounded. The school has made other arrangements but not until tomorrow. You think you can get to Boston before then?”

I checked my watch. It was nearing noon now. We’d been driving in the MCO SUV for a couple of hours now. The city was long behind us now. We were on a secluded country road, heading East. I told her as much.

“Ok, we’ve triangulated the GPS on your phone. There’s a town about ten miles up the road. Ditch the SUV there. I’ll make arrangements for another vehicle.”

I nodded. Then looking to see if Riley was paying attention anymore, I picked up the phone and clicked it off speaker. “How bad is it?” I asked, realizing Riley was preoccupied with her own phone.

“They have an APB out for your arrest. The MCO has spun it that you’re a rogue agent who killed two of their own and kidnapped Riley.”

I smirked. Of course they did.

“And the others?”

“Gone.”

Wow, they cleaned up fast.

Whoever they are.

“Who are they?”

She didn’t respond for a bit, but when she did, she sighed. “We’re not really sure. They could be a private firm, contracted by the MCO but...”

The MCO had their own men do the dirty work.

They definitely weren’t MCO.

If I had to wager a guess, I’d say ex-military. If they’d been MCO, they would have made a big spectacle out of it. They would have gone in guns blazing, and they would have been wearing those power armored suits. These guys were trying to remain low key, they were a small team. Very fast and very efficient. At least they probably would have been. I’m not sure they were counting on me being there. It was clear that whoever sent them was not fully informed. So I had the advantage in that fight. I knew that advantage wasn’t going to happen again. It was going to happen again though. I looked into the overhead mirror at Riley.

They wanted her.

At first I thought it was because they were trying to kill her, but I’m not so sure anymore.

“You need to find out the truth from our young friend,” said Tina in a soft whisper just in case Riley could hear. “There’s something not right here, something she isn’t telling us?”

“My thoughts exactly.”

“Good. Call again when you’ve swapped vehicles. I’ll try to do some damage control on this end, maybe get the cops off your ass.”

I clicked off and saw Riley staring.

Those pale blue eyes of her were pretty intense.

“So where to now, boss?”

“Boston,” I said, turning onto a side road that would take us back toward the main highway. “Then you’re going to school.”

She groaned.

I watched her for a few seconds, wondering what kind of secrets she might be hiding?

linebreak shadow

“We’re staying here?”

I ignored the groaning teenager in the passenger seat. Instead, I pulled the little gray sedan up in front of the office at the motel. It wasn’t my first choice either, but it was off the beaten path and far enough away from whatever city we were currently driving through. If we were lucky, we’d go unnoticed for the night. It would give me some time to think too. Driving through New York the last few hours hadn’t been easy. Sure, we switched cars the next town over just like Tina had arranged, but there were roadblocks every few miles. Tina had made the calls like she promised, but that didn’t stop the MCO from looking. Thankfully, none of them had a picture of either of us.

I suppose it made sense.

After all, they really did kidnap her, and I didn’t exist.

Not technically anyway.

That didn’t save my nerves though. I might have had a lot of training to be a badass soldier, but that didn’t stop me from getting nervous. I thought for sure one of the cops would flag my fake credentials, and I’d have to shoot my way out. It never happened thankfully. It came close at the border to Massachusetts though. Thankfully Tina came through again. Along with the car, there was another ID waiting for me. I’m not sure how she arranged it, but Becca Howe was now in the wind. I was currently Dinah Grant and Riley was my sister, Caroline. The Directorate truly was an impressive outfit. They had everything waiting with the car, including new clothes.

I was more than happy to ditch the pant suit.

Riley grumbled as we got out of the car.

“Can I lose the wig yet?”

I ignored her again. Gone was the girl who thought I was “awesome”. I think the excitement from earlier had finally worn off, and she realized where we truly were going. She made her feelings known for about an hour after I hung up with Tina. Apparently the whole point of her running away was because she didn’t want to go to some stuffy boarding school. She bitched about it for a while before I tuned her out. The irony was not lost on me either. I used to be like that. Before the ROTC and the Corp. I used to whine like a typical teenager, and it used to drive my mother nuts. Jimmy used to whine too. I say used to because well, Jenny was a different type of person. I’d like to say it was for the better, but there was something disturbing about it too. She was so demure and polite now, it scared me. It was better than the alternative but…

“What’s that smell?”

I groaned. “Are you going to do this the whole time now?”

She gave me a look. “Do what?”

“Complain!”

She huffed. “I’m tired. People are trying to kill me. You’re taking me someplace...”

I rolled my eyes as I pushed my way into the office, grabbing her arm and dragging her along as I did so.

The woman behind the counter barely looked at us. If she had, she would have been able to tell that Riley was definitely not related to me. Then again, in this day and age, anything was possible. It's one of the reasons why I used my mother’s maiden name growing up. No one ever believed that I was half white. It was just easier to say my name was Clara Wu and be done with it. Jimmy and Brian never had those problems though. They both looked enough like Dad, plus no one cared if a boy was half asian or not. People always expected more from me because I was half Chinese. Thankfully, the Corp didn’t care. It's why I started to use my real last name. It helped that Dad was a Colonel and their direct superior too.

“You girls on a holiday?” asked the woman, taking the time to look up from her magazine.

I smiled. “My sister and I are heading to Boston tomorrow. Getting in a bit of sightseeing before school starts.”

The woman smiled.

We small-talked while I got us a room, making sure it was on the ground floor just in case. She gave us the key, I gave her another fake smile then we left.

“Now can I take off this fucking wig!”

I didn’t say anything. Instead, I headed back to the car. I went to the trunk, got our “bags” and carried them to our room. Riley followed close behind but didn’t actually pull the wig off until we got into the room. As soon as she did, she sighed in relief. That is until she saw the state of the room. Then she made a face. I’m not going to lie, I made one too. The place was a dump, and it did smell. I tried my hardest not to gag as I tossed the empty suitcases on the bed closest to the window. All part of the illusion. Riley dropped her backpack on the other bed then gently put the guitar on the dresser next to it. I tried asking her about her music during the ride, but she was still mad at me.

I was only cool so long as she thought we were running away still.

Now I was the “bad guy” too.

I sighed.

This wasn’t going to make things any easier.

Riley was lying on her bed, fiddling with her phone still.

“Hey,” I said, sitting on the edge of my bed now. “We need to talk.”

She looked up from her phone and sighed. “I’m sorry about being a bitch earlier. My Mom keeps telling me I need to be nicer.”

“It's not about your attitude. I’m not your parent, I don’t care how you treat people,” I said and meant it.

“Ok...”

“We need to talk about what happened.”

She shrugged. “Crazy people tried to kill me.”

This time I sighed.

“We both know there’s more to it than that. Now, get off your damn phone, and tell me the truth!”

She let out a long, teenager wail before tossing her phone on the bed. “Happy?”

I wasn’t good at being a hardass, even when Jimmy was being rebellious. I’d like to say that I didn’t act like that as well, but I’d be lying. I think it was in the teenager genome. Mom and I still weren’t on good terms after the way I spoke to her back then. Now she was trying to make up for it with Jenny. I’m not going to lie, a small part of me was a tad bit jealous. She wanted me to do what she wanted and never could accept me for who I really was. It wasn’t just the whole military thing either. She never liked my friends or my music or how I dressed. Let’s not even get started on who I dated.

I shook my head. This wasn’t about me right now.

I needed to focus. Taking out my own cell, I set it on the bed in front of me, hitting a recording app.

“Tell me about it?”

She gave me a shrug. “About what?”

“The people who tried to kill you but didn’t.”

She stared at me for a long time then bit her lip. She reached for her phone again, and before I could protest, she typed away a few seconds before turning it to face me. On the screen was a blog of some kind: MUT-A’INTS. The blogger was anonymous, but their message was pretty clear, they wanted mutants to... well, to put it politely, “disappear”. They weren’t really polite about it though. It was written in mostly journal format, each entry about the blogger and a person she referred to as a “The Stain”. It was clear The Stain was a mutant, the blogger was not, and they HATED this Stain with a passion. Scrolling through, I noticed it went back about a year or so. There were a lot of vague details but obviously no names.

“This girl sounds like...”

Riley sighed. “She’s me. I wrote those.”

That surprised me a bit. Especially because the girl who wrote the blog was clearly a baseline and hated mutants. That’s when I remembered something about Riley’s file. “You manifested late...”

She grunted. “A few months ago actually. Do you have any idea what it's like to be surrounded by special people and just be ordinary?”

I laughed. “I was a Marine. My father is a Marine, my older brother too. Women aren’t allowed to be actively involved in combat roles in the MAN’s Marines, so yeah, I get it...”

She stared for a few seconds, a look of surprise.

Then there was a smile but only for a moment.

“Well, I come from a superhero family. A family whose members all manifested when they were young. My parents. My aunts and uncles. My cousins and my EVER perfect sister...”

Oh, “The Stain”.

I think I was starting to get some of her anger.

“I started writing the blog in anger, and it helped. I know it was stupid, but I was angry. There was a group of kids at school though. They were like me. Well not exactly like me, but they hated mutants just as much.”

“H1ers?”

She sighed. “I didn’t know it at the time. They never called themselves that. They just liked to hang out after school, at the mall and things. I thought they were cool at first. We’d smoke, do a bit of tagging, but mostly we’d bitch and play music. It was fun at first...”

“What changed?”

She scoffed. “A couple of days before I manifested, my boyfriend Brody, the de-facto group leader, came to us and told us that there was a guy who wanted us to do something for him. He never told us the guy’s name but said he was offering a lot of money to go to some rally and get this girl for them.”

Now, we were getting somewhere.

“What can you tell me about her?”

Riley shrugged. “Not much. Brody just said she’d be at the rally. So we went. There were a lot of protesters, but it was actually pretty tame. They do rallies like it every few months. My sister liked to attend them all the time. My cousin Abbie too when she could. I’d been to one or two with my Mom as a kid, but that was years ago, when I thought it mattered.” She laughed. “Ironic, huh?”

“You didn’t know...”

She snorted. “I should have! Doesn’t matter anyway, I was a part of it.”

“What happened?”

“We found the girl. I thought they were going to talk to her. If I knew the guys were going to grab her and drag her off, I would have NEVER agreed to be involved. Suddenly it was like all that pent up mutant hating anger of theirs burst forth because they threw her on the ground and started to kick her. As their anger intensified, my anger toward the girl vanished. I snapped too but on them. I’m not sure when it happened, but halfway through trying to stop them from hurting her, I manifested. It’s not every day that you go from throwing fists to...”

She stopped for a moment and looked around before raising a fist.

For a second, nothing happened.

Then I started to see tiny blue particles in the air slowly start to form around her first, almost as if she was making them into a glove. The more and more particles that started to gather there, the more I realized that they weren’t “particles” of light like I thought but actually…

“Water,” I said softly as the water glove fully formed around her first.

She smirked. “I can pull from the air….”

“That’s really cool!”

She shrugged. “Not so cool when it happens without you knowing it. Brody and the others stopped wailing on her pretty quickly and directed their anger towards me. It goes to show who your true friends are. Thankfully, they didn’t get very far in their beating before the cops showed up. There was a lot of confusion after that. We were all arrested. Except the girl of course, they took her away in an ambulance...”

I nodded. I remembered reading something about her in Riley’s file. “She’s ok, by the way. You’ll be happy to know that you stepping in probably saved her life.”

Riley was tearing up. “I know. I tried visiting her at the hospital, but her parents...”

I understood. I’d been fighting back the urge to hug her before, but now I couldn’t. Leaning forward, I grabbed ahold of her in a tight embrace. She cried on my shoulder for a bit, sobbing about how stupid she was and how she ruined her life. I did my best to reassure her. Sure, she did something stupid, but her life was far from ruined. In the end, she did the right thing too. She tried to help the girl, and that’s all that really mattered. I held her until the tears finally stopped. She pulled away when they did, wiping her eyes.

“You ready to continue?” I asked, she nodded. “So you were arrested too, that doesn’t sound too fair to me?”

“I was a part of it. I was just as guilty as the others...”

“The authorities didn’t see it that way, Riley.”

She scoffed. “Only because of my uncle…”

That wasn’t in the file, but I knew why it wasn’t.

Supers protected their own.

I needed to steer her away from the anger and the tears. “That wasn’t the end of it, though, was it?”

She shook her head. “Mom grounded me for a week. Told me it would be ample time for me to get a handle on my new gift. Brody and the others were officially charged. I got a slap on the wrist, some community service because in the end I tried to do the right thing. Everything was good for a bit. I stopped writing the blog, I formally apologized to my family. That’s when Mom decided to punish me even further by deciding to get rid of me...”

There was bitterness in her tone again.

“Whateley?”

She scoffed. “It's how my mother deals with her problems. Instead of facing them, she pushes them on someone else. After grounding me, she wouldn’t even look at me for a week. I shamed her that much...”

“So you ran away?”

I laughed. “I’ve heard those words before...”

I lived them too. For a year.

“It might sound cool, but trust me, running isn’t the answer. Been there, done that, have the sunburn and scars to prove it.”

She raised an eyebrow, probably hoping I’d share, but when I didn’t, she continued her own tale. “That’s when they found me. Look, I’m many things, but I’m not an idiot. I know the MCO when I see them, and I know to get as far away from them as you can. They caught me off guard. Told me they were here to help me, but we both know that was bullshit...”

I nodded. “We have a man on the inside of the MCO”

“Who’s we?” she asked, another raised eyebrow.

I smiled. “The people who saved you.”

She sighed. “Fair enough.”

I spent the next hour asking her questions, mainly about the people who asked her to “grab” the girl for them. She knew nothing about them because she never actually met them. She could have been lying, but there was something about the way she talked that told me she was telling the truth. Whoever they were, they didn’t want to be known. If I had to guess, they probably pretended to be someone else with her friend, Brody. Our conversation wasn’t a complete loss though. I did know some things about them that I didn’t know before. They were well funded, able to hide in the shadows, and they wanted mutants. They also never worked in the open, recruiting others to do their dirty work for them, like Riley and her friends. They didn’t much care who they hired either. If I had to guess, it was them who silenced both Pierce and Willows.

No loose ends.

Yet, they let both Riley and I live?

I didn’t like it.

“Becca, you ok?” asked my young companion.

Oh, right.

“It’s Clara actually,” I said with a sheepish smile and a laugh.

“I suppose that makes sense,” she said, laughing too.

About as much sense as anything else.

I didn’t say that though.

I wanted to ask her a few more questions, but I saw her yawn. I looked at the little clock on the wall, it was only four in the afternoon. Then again, after the day we’d had, I could see why she was exhausted. I was a bit tired myself. I didn’t like the idea of laying low in this place until morning, but I had my orders. Whereas the local authorities wouldn’t hound us anymore, that wasn’t going to stop the MCO. They still had warrants out for our arrests. I was labeled a “rogue” agent, and Riley was a “dangerous” mutant. It was all pretty crazy. Then again, these people didn’t like to be humiliated. I tried to tell Tina it was all the more reason why I should just drive her straight to New Hampshire, but I was overruled.

There were too many things that could go wrong.

Putting her on that train in Boston was my best bet.

So we’re waiting.

“Hey, why don’t you take the first shower, I need to make a couple of calls.”

Riley gave another trademark weird look of hers but didn’t question me. I waited until she was in the bathroom, before finally shutting off my recording app. As soon as I heard the water running, I made my call. Tina picked up on the second ring.

“I’ve got something for you,” I said.

I sent her the file.

It only took a few seconds. “I’ll have someone take a look. So what do you think, honest opinion?”

“I think she’s a kid who got in over her head. She caved to anger and peer pressure, and someone out there took advantage of it.”

“You think she was targeted then?”

I shrugged even though I knew Tina couldn’t see it. “These people seem to like to have ties to important things. Riley was an ideal choice. She comes from a family of superheroes. She probably hears and sees things that most people don’t. It's clear they have people in the MCO too.”

“They’re also not afraid to execute their operatives too...” reminded Tina.

I shook my head. “They could have killed us several times. They’re after something else with her.”

“Then why the strike team?”

“Theatrics maybe?”

I still didn’t have all the answers. All I knew is that they recruited Riley and her friends to get them a mutant, and the kids failed. Then they sent two of their hired stooges to acquire Riley after she manifested. They would have succeeded if I hadn’t stuck my nose into things. It was clear they were after mutants. They wanted them alive too. It told me that whoever these people were, they had an agenda. They weren’t afraid to kill either. The thing that I didn’t understand was why they were letting us get away now?

“You think they deliberately let Riley go?”

No clue.

“I think these people have a plan, and I think they’re going to use Riley to achieve said plan.”

Tina sighed. “All the more reason to get her to the school.”

Maybe that was the plan all along?

Of course I didn’t express that concern.

I didn’t want to scare anyone.

“So, speaking of plans, is ours still a go?”

“We informed the school about Riley’s delay, they know the full situation. They wanted to send some of their security personnel as an added escort, but I told them you could handle things.”

I couldn’t help but smile at that.

Besides, the last thing I needed was a group of rent-a-cops getting in my way.

We discussed a few more specifics but were interrupted by the arrival of Riley. She stepped out of the bathroom, a towel wrapped around her body. I gasped. Not only was she extremely pale, but she had blue intricate tattoos wrapped around her arms. They were made all the cooler by the fact that they were glowing. She seemed to notice I was staring because she blushed.

I turned away quickly.

What the hell was I doing? She’s a minor.

I quickly hung up with Tina.

“Sorry,” I said, making sure she didn’t see my blush.

I need to get a girlfriend and fast.

“It's ok, everyone always stares at them...”

When I turned back around, she had a shirt and a pair of bed shorts on. I could still see the tats on her arms, but they weren’t glowing anymore.

“They’re really cool tats...” I said, trying to make this less awkward.

“They’re not tats actually,” she said, sitting on the edge of her bed. “They’re runes.”

Runes?

She smiled at my puzzled expression. “How much do you know about magic?”

I shook my head. “Not a lot I’m afraid. I’m still pretty new to all of this...stuff...”

She nodded. “Well, these are runes. My mother placed them on my arms to...well...let's just say that when I manifested things got complicated...”

I was still staring at her like an idiot, so she took a deep breath and closed her eyes. For a second, I thought she was about to do that annoyed teen thing and ignore the adult. That’s when I started to see those blue particles again. They start to float around her, only a few at first but more and more started to form. They were like little blue fireflies, but they weren’t the weirdest thing about this situation. I looked at Riley’s arms and saw they were glowing. The particles floated all around her. More and more appeared until the room started to fill with a heavy fog. I jumped back, snapping around toward the window. It was shut, and yet more and more fog started to appear.

“Before,” she said, eyes still closed. “I couldn’t concentrate. “Mom thinks my powers are based on my mood. After manifesting, everything was erratic, and lots of things got ruined.”

I could barely see her through all the fog.

“So the runes...”

“It's a spell,” said her disembodied voice from the thick fog. “One to help calm my mind and focus. My mother comes from a long line of Users, my grandmother was Spellweaver, her mother was as well. The ability to craft spells has been passed down for generations.”

“Do you….”

She sighed. “It skipped my sister and I. Mom thinks it's because of Dad. Summer and I seemed to have inherited his side of things, but my cousin Rachel, Mom’s sister’s daughter, can use magic. So can her older sister, Beth.”

I guess that made sense.

It was still pretty freaky.

So was all this fog.

“Hey you think you can...”

She laughed, and just as quickly as the fog appeared, it started to vanish. I saw the blue particles again, this time they started to disappear. I watched as the fog was seemingly pulled back inside of Riley, almost as if it was coming from her. A few seconds later, the room was just like before. It was as if there was no fog. Though I couldn’t help but notice that everything, including myself, was covered in a layer of condensation.

Riley sighed. “Sorry about that.”

I shook my head. “I needed a shower anyway.”

She smirked. “It's an unfortunate side effect. I’m trying to find ways to control it, but no such luck so far.”

“It's still pretty cool,” I said, smiling. “So is the fog your chief thing?”

“Well fog is after all, water.”

“And you manipulate it?”

She shook her head. “I’m manipulating the water vapor, the particles of water in the air around us. If I concentrate enough, I can pull enough of it together to form solid water constructs.

Oh, the tiny blue dots.

“So that’s why you called yourself Mist?”

She grunted. “Didn’t have a lot of choice. My family has a lot of water users. Coming up with a cool name is pretty hard.”

I shrugged. “You could have called yourself Vapor?”

She stared at me for a few seconds then cursed.

I laughed.

I guess it never occurred to her.

While I watched as she sat and silently moped, I decided it was time for my own shower. A real one this time. I left her sitting there. I almost thought about handcuffing her to the bed in case she decided to run on me. It was a stray thought though. I trusted her, I just hoped she didn’t take advantage of said trust. I shook off the thought, confident that she wouldn’t let me down.

Walking into the bathroom, I sighed at the sight of it.

Riley was apparently a slob.

Her clothes were strewn all over the place.

I pitied any future roommate she might have.

Speaking of which, I cursed.

Quickly pulling out my phone, I sent a quick text to Gracie.

I needed to let her know I was Ok.

That done, I started to pick up Riley’s mess. As I picked up her bra, I grunted. Even a fifteen year old had bigger boobs than me. Life was very cruel sometimes. Stripping off my shirt and staring at my sports bra, I wanted to cry. Ok, not really but I hated how life turned out sometimes. The other day I was doing laundry at home and found one of Jenny’s new bras. How is that a fourteen year old was already a C cup? It wasn’t fair. Especially because she was more asian than me now. Asian girls were supposed to be small. I couldn’t help but smirk at the irony of it all though. Growing up, little Jimmy used to tease me about wearing bras. There was a lot of strap snapping. I smirked. It was one of the first things I did to her when I caught her without a shirt on.

I stripped off the rest of my clothes, standing nude.

I looked at my left shoulder.

I know the “arm” was supposed to be as real as it could be, but it was hard to see that. Especially when I got to see the small seam where prosthetic met flesh. I flexed the fingers on my left hand. Then I ran my fingers along the back of my neck, to the base of my skull where the little neutral implant was placed. It was there to help my brain interface with the arm. It was a small little thing I wasn’t supposed to notice. Like an itch you can never fully stop scratching though, I knew it was there. Just like I knew my real arm was never coming back.

Sighing, I turned on the water and stepped into the shower, hoping to use the time to wash away the events of the last twenty-four hours.

Sadly, there weren’t enough showers in the world for that.

I tried though.

linebreak shadow

Twenty minutes later, fully refreshed, I was wrapping myself in a towel.

Maybe some time lounging in front of the TV could help me forget things.

Wait, that’s…

Shit.

Rushing into the room, I stopped dead. There were three of them, two were sitting on a bed with Riley between them. They were large, one holding a gun with the barrel pressed against her thigh. The third man was sitting in the recliner. Tall and thin, dressed in an expensive gray suit. He smiled at me as I entered, but it wasn’t a leering one I might get from a perv waiting for a woman outside her shower.

“Ah, Miss Howe, how nice of you to join us,” he said, his tone polite and casual. “Or is it, Miss Grant now?”

Shit.

I looked around the room. I left my gun by the door. There was no way I’d be able to get to it fast enough. I had no options here. I could try to make a run for it, but they’d kill me before I got the chance. Or worse they’d kill Riley. I silently cursed.

They had us.

“What the fuck is this?” I asked, trying to play the fool. “We don’t have any money, just leave my sister alone before I call the cops!”

The man smirked. “We both know she’s not your sister. We also both know that your phone is over there, along with your weapon.”

“Well, you have me at a disadvantage then. You seemingly know all there is to know about me.”

He smirked. “You can call me, Mr. Graves. I think you’re associated with my clients as well.”

Clients?

“You’re a lawyer?”

He smiled. “Something like that.”

I wasn’t expecting that.

“So is this where you tell me you’re taking the two of us downtown for some quality time?”

He chuckled. “No, this is where you and I have a conversation while my friends make sure your little charge over there keeps her hands to herself.”

I looked over at Riley. She was pretending to be calm, but I could tell she was scared. I could also tell she was itching for a fight. One of the blue marks on her arm was already starting to glow. I locked eyes with her and gave my head a slight shake. The last thing we needed was her trying to be a hero. She was young and untrained. Plus, no amount of fog could stop a bullet. She might be able to accomplish one thing before a round tore through her kneecap.

“What’s there to talk about?”

Graves made a move toward a small attache case sitting to his left. He placed it on his lap, but made no move to open it. “After this morning’s incident, my clients are willing to negotiate a deal with you.”

I scoffed. “A deal? For what?”

He inclined his head toward Riley. “Well, Miss Spencer of course.”

He can’t be serious!

“She’s a human being, not a prized mare!”

He laughed. “You mistake the offer. We have no intention of buying Miss Spencer. We merely wish to form a working relationship with her so we can come to some kind of mutual agreement over the issue.”

“Issue? What issue is that?”

He smiled. “Miss Spencer broke a contract with us.”

I looked at her, she was just as surprised as me.

“Bullshit.”

He sighed, finally opening the case. He removed two sheets of paper, he held one out for me. I reluctantly leaned forward and took it. It looked like a letter of some kind, I ignored the block of text, but I looked at the signatures at the bottom of it. I realized then it wasn’t a letter but in fact a contract of some sort. I didn’t recognize any of the names, except one, of course. Riley’s. So she did sign something after all? I moved back up to read what the block of text said, but he pulled it away too fast.

“As you can clearly see, Miss Spencer signed...”

“I didn’t sign anything!”

He ignored her. “You understand the delicate situation I am in. The girl breached a contract with my clients, and they do not take a thing like this very lightly. The way I see things as it stands right now, there are two options. The first being monetary compensation, but I assure you, you can’t afford that.”

Damn.

I wanted to punch him in his smug face.

I would have too if not for the gun pressed against Riley’s thigh.

“And let me guess,” I said, weighing my options in my head. “The second one requires you to take the girl?”

He smiled. “Very astute, Miss Grant.”

They weren’t going to let me walk out of here. I saw it in his smile. They weren’t going to let Riley walk out of here either. Well, not unless she was in their custody. There were only three of them. I might be able to get the two holding her before they got a shot off, but it was risky. They positioned themselves far enough away from me that they knew it would take me longer than a few seconds to reach them. I didn’t have a lot of choice here, unless…

“Well, what say you?”

I looked at Riley. She was still trying to be the tough girl.

She was a good kid. Life kept punching her in the gut. I couldn’t keep letting someone do that to her.

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to decline.”

Besides, I already formed my plan.

Mr. Graves sighed. “I was afraid you might say that.” He put the papers back in his case and stood up. “Clean this mess up. I will call the front office and tell them not to expect any new guests.”

He straightened the front of his shirt before looking at me with contempt. “You should have accepted their offer. Now you both lose.”

Then he turned and walked out of the room.

As soon as the door closed, the goon holding the gun turned toward me. He raised it toward my chest, preparing to fight. That’s when I dropped the towel. Ok, so it wasn’t the greatest plan, but it was all I had. I was hoping that it was enough of a distraction too,and yep, he was looking at my tits. Typical man. He stared at them, stunned for long enough for me to strike. I quickly closed the distance, ignoring the embarrassment of fighting completely naked. I grabbed his wrist holding the gun, making sure I did it with my left hand. A simple squeeze and I heard several bones in his wrist break. He screamed out in pain. Then I smashed my knee into his face. More pain, more screams. I grabbed his gun and shot him twice in the chest, silencing it all.I hadn’t planned on killing him, but given the circumstances...

His partner fumbled to get his own gun out, but he was too slow.

Another shot to the forehead and he was down for the count.

I grunted.

Riley stared in stunned awe.

“You...you….killed them….”

I sighed, lowering the gun. “They would have killed us. Are you alright?”

She nodded, tears running down her face. Before I could say anything else, she was on her feet and wrapping her arms around me.

We held the awkward embrace only for a few seconds though because well...yeah..

She blushed as she pulled away quickly, realizing her mistake.

“Sorry,” she blurted out quickly.

“Get your things. We have to go and fast!”

She scrambled over to where her bag and guitar were.

While she was getting that sorted, I rushed back to the bathroom where I left my discarded clothes. I’ve dressed in a hurry before, but never when my life depended on it. I’m pretty certain my shirt was on backwards, but I didn’t care. I was putting on my boots when I heard several cars pull up outside. I cursed. With both boots on, I rushed to the window. Three SUVs and a large black van. The men piling out were wearing tactical gear. They weren’t LEOs either. A moment or so later, the back of the van opened up, and two men in power suits stepped out.

“Shit, MCO."

“What?” asked Riley, rushing to the window to take a look.

She cursed too.

Rushing over to one of the dead bodies, I noticed a tiny camera pin on his lapel. Whoever was on the other end of that feed must have called in the jackasses when they realized their men failed. I’ll have to give it to them, their response time was pretty impressive.

I pulled the pin off the jacket and stared into it. “You’ll have to do better than that!” I warned before crushing it.

I walked back over to the window. They were taking up position around the front of the motel, a crowd of onlookers was already starting to form. Too many onlookers. There was someone trying to coax the people back into their rooms, but no one seemed to be budging. I cursed. This wasn’t good. There was no way I could shoot my way out now, not with all those people around. Riley was standing next to me.

“This is the MCO. Throw down your weapons and turn the mutant over to us!”

“Like hell,” said my young companion before pushing her bag and guitar into my hands. “Hold these for a second!”

I fumbled with her things before she raised her hands and closed her eyes. For a second, I had no idea what she was doing until I saw the little particles start to form again. Then a second later, the room started to fill with fog. I wasn’t sure what she was hoping to accomplish until I started to see it creep under the door. Then it dawned on me, and I smiled. Outside, the fog moved faster than I expected. The men closest to the stairs were enveloped first. I saw them stagger before they disappeared into the inky gray mass. More men staggered before being consumed. It wasn’t long before the whole parking lot was covered in fog.

The SUVs, the van, all the men.

All gone.

Riley sighed heavily as she finally opened her eyes.

“Did that work?” she asked, panting.

“You ok?” I asked, concerned.

“It's exhausting.”

I squeezed her shoulder. “It worked, kiddo."

I gave her a few seconds before handing back her stuff. Then I slowly opened the door. I expected to be ambushed, but we weren’t. They were probably blundering about, trying to find which way was up. Which was a hindrance to them but to us as well. I managed to find the wall, pressing against it, keeping the gun in front of me and Riley behind. It was a good thing I got the room on the first floor. I would not have wanted to do this while trying to find the stairs too. I just wish I could see a bit more.

A moment later, I felt a bit of a tingle in the back of my head.

Not unlike the ones I get when I have my gut feelings.

A second later, the fog didn’t seem so bad.

Maybe I was just overthinking it in all my panic.

We came upon our first MCO agent, but he wasn’t doing nearly as well as we were. I dropped him with the butt of the gun. There was no need for any unnecessary killing here. I did the same to two more. Then we managed to make it to our sedan. By that time, Riley could barely stand. She was starting to go pale and could barely stay conscious. For a moment, I thought she was going to pass out. I was about to ask her what was wrong, but I noticed the fog was starting to thin. It didn’t take a genius to figure it out. Because she was controlling the fog, it was starting to sap her energy. The longer the fog was out, the less energy she had. As cool as it was, it relied heavily on her and vice versa. If she kept this up any longer, she was going to pass out. Then when she did, the fog was going to go with her.

“Just for a few minutes,” I told her as I started to unlock the car. I managed to get one of the back doors unlocked before I heard the distinctive thump of power armor.

A second later, the wearer appeared at our side. Like a medieval knight in plate mail, only black, he struck a menacing figure. I took a step back, raising my gun. I managed to squeeze off a shot before he smacked it from my hand. The bullet did nothing, ricocheting harmlessly off his chest. He didn’t even flinch. Instead, he slammed one of his heavy fists as hard as he could into the hood of the car. There was a groan of metal on metal, and when he pulled his hand away, it was clear the car wasn’t going anywhere. Cursing, I took a swing with my left. My blow glanced off the side of his head, he only staggered slightly.

Shit.

He smirked. “Mutant loving bitch!”

I managed to put my arm up to block the punch he threw my way. Just barely. In that armor he was fast, faster than I expected. It was clear the MCO had made some upgrades to their equipment. As it was, the blow knocked me back several feet. It left Riley wide open, and she was in no position to fight back. Of course, that didn’t stop her from trying. She staggered to a standing position, mustering whatever strength she could into her fists. I saw the water start to form around them then she struck. The first punch staggered him, the second brought him to one knee. I had to give it to her. Those punches of hers were pretty impressive, but they still weren’t enough to stop him.

I cursed.

I knew what I had to do, and I didn’t want to do it.

“Mutant bitch!”

She tried to block his punch and was only half successful. The blow brought her back to the ground. She cried out in pain.

That settled it for me.

Pushing my palm, a six inch blade grew from my wrist. It was a last resort weapon that the military tech built into the arm. Consisting of the same nanoweave material, I could use it in a pinch. Without a gun, it was my best option. I also knew exactly where to hit the MCO agent. With him distracted, I charged in, dropped to the ground and aimed for one of his knees. In power armor one might think they’re indestructible, but it was an illusion. No armor was truly damage proof. Like most human beings, joints were always the weak spots. It was no different here.

I jabbed the blade into his knee bend, slipping it between the armor there.

He let out a hollowing scream.

He wasn’t finished though.

I was so distracted by landing some kind of victory that I never saw his fist as it went for my head. He caught me off guard, sending me flying. The room spun several times before I hit the pavement. I gasped in pain. Those things really packed a punch. I turned, hoping to see her running. Instead, I saw Riley trying her best to stop him. She was landing punch after punch, but none of them seem to do much. Sure she was pushing him back, but she just didn’t have enough force to put him down again. She was tiring herself out too, each punch slower than the one before it. Grunting from my own pain, I pushed myself to my feet. Just as I managed to do so, someone grabbed me from behind. I tried twisting to throw him off, but I was still dazed from the punch. There was a sharp pain in my side too. I continued to struggle though until I felt the pain again. I realized that it was a taser. Screaming out, I watched as Riley finally dropped. The fog around us disappeared in an instant.

We were done.

Shit.

There were several MCO agents staggered about still, lost for a moment before they realized the fog was gone. One of the ones closest to me recovered a bit faster than the others.

“Get the girl, I’m done with this,” he barked before turning to me. “Kill this bitch!”

I felt a gun pressed against my temple, heard the click as the hammer was pulled back and closed my eyes.

Game over.

There was a whoosh of air, and I felt the men holding me sharply pulled away.

The force of the air was so strong it brought me to my knees.

Opening my eyes, I gasped.

There was a girl here. She was dressed in a silver crop top and skintight pants. Two of the agents raised their weapons to fire. She smirked, snapped up her arms and send a blast of air at them, sending them flying into the nearest vehicle. Another managed to open fire, but the bullets harmlessly bounced off some kind of forcefield surrounding her body. She rushed them, faster than humanly possible. I watched her feet, they were actually floating off the ground. She slammed into them, sending them flying. Turning, she sent another blast of air at another group. They went flying too.

At this point, the agent in the power armor charged her.

She turned, bracing for the impact of his charge.

He slammed into her, but she barely moved. The blow she delivered to his head knocked him to the ground. The kick she hit him with sent him flying. He smashed into an SUV and didn’t get back up.

“Amateurs,” she said, looking around her.

It was at this point that I noticed there was a swirl of wind all around her.

Almost as if she was using it as some kind of protection.

I got back to my feet again, using a nearby car to steady me. Looking around, I realized no one else was standing. She took them all out in a matter of seconds. If I wasn’t in so much pain, I think I would have asked her for her number. She was amazing. She was also drop dead gorgeous too. That sun kissed skin, that long flowing black hair. She was fit too. She was everything I looked for and wanted.

“You ok?” she asked, giving me a look of concern.

I scoffed. “Been through worse.”

She smiled. “You’re just lucky I checked my texts.”

She turned toward Riley and frowned.

Without saying a word, she walked over to the girl and scooped her up in her arms. Riley stirred and woke a few seconds later. When she did, her eyes opened wide.

“Abbie!” she said, throwing her arms around the girl’s neck.

Abbie? Wait, they knew one another?

The girl frowned. “It's Gale Force when we’re in public, cuz.”

Cuz?

Riley looked sheepish but nodded.

Gale Force set the girl down. Riley staggered but managed to stand. She turned toward me as I came walking over, confused as ever. Riley threw her arms around me in a tight hug.

“You were awesome, Clara,” she whispered into my ear.

“You too, kiddo.”

The sound of sirens interrupted our moment.

Gale Force sighed. “Look, we need to go now. My apartment is not too far. We can talk there.”

“Your place, so soon?” I joked.

She laughed. “All the cute ones get there eventually, some before the date.”

I blushed.

Riley rolled her eyes.

“C’mon, my car is this way."

It was the last thing I expected a superhero to say, but who was I to argue with the girl who just mopped the floor with an entire MCO tactical team in less than a few minutes.

linebreak shadow

The train station was crowded. I didn’t like it, there were too many unknown factors. I kept looking over my shoulder, waiting for the MCO or Graves’ people to come out of the woodwork. It was nerve wracking. It didn’t help that I had a very unenthusiastic teenager to deal with too. After leaving the motel last night, she spent the better part of an hour trying to convince me to let her run again. It took me and her cousin Abbie most of that hour trying to convince her it was for the best. Contrary to what Riley might think, this Whateley place was the safest place for her. The MCO had no jurisdiction there, and I was hoping if Graves tried anything again, he’d get a face full of the school’s legal team.

There was something else worrying me though.

I had one of my feelings.

It was this nagging foreboding that kept me on edge. I couldn’t shake it either. It wasn’t just the crowd. That I could handle. It was something else, something distant. I was very fond of the term, “until the other shoe drops”, and that’s what this felt like. The other shoe was floating above my head, and I was waiting for it to fall. I didn’t like this feeling. I wanted to reach out and smack it in the face, but without a true direction for it, I was lost. I hated that. I hated not being able to handle something without force. I hated…

Abbie gently grabbed my hand.

It broke me from my paranoid jumpiness.

It surprised me too.

“You ok?”

I sighed and took a moment to answer. “There’s too many people here, too many faces I don’t know or can’t read...”

Abbie stared at the ground with me, still holding my hand.

“Well that guy is definitely suspect,” she said with a giggle.

I looked to where she was clearly indicating.

The man in question was at the newspaper stand.

I elbowed her in the ribs.

She giggled.

Abbie was fantastic.

After leaving the motel and going to her brownstone across town, we spent the whole night talking. She was a junior at Boston University, pre-Med. Her parents wanted her to go to Harvard, but she turned it down. She felt it was too high profile. In her line of work, she said it was important to go unnoticed. She only talked briefly about her career as “Gale Force” though. She, like the rest of her family, picked up the superhero thing after she graduated from Whateley. Unlike her over-enthusiastic twin brother, Brian, she didn’t want to make a career out of it though. She had fun with it for a bit, but mostly she was doing it to make some extra money. The Good Neighbors had a lucrative deal with a New York City modeling agency. Abbie and a few of the other girls modeled in costume, did the PR and poster thing.

It helped pay for the team’s expenses.

As soon as she graduated from college, she planned to transfer to Med school. She had no qualms about leaving the whole superhero thing behind her. The team and the agency were happy for her. They were already grooming her cousin Summer, Riley’s older sister, as a replacement. Abbie was happy to pass on the job. Apparently not only was she absolutely gorgeous, she was also really shy too. She was done with all the limelight.

I didn’t blame her.

I think that’s why I loved all this covert stuff so much.

I’m not sure what I’d do if I was a mutant like her, with all the obligations from her family.

It wasn’t all bad though.

After all, it led her to me.

I’m not going to lie. I was attracted to her. She was amazingly gorgeous. I wasn’t one hundred percent certain she was interested, but there were hints. Like her holding my hand. A hand I was happy to see she was still holding. Looking at her now, I could see her blush. I was certain I was blushing too.

Riley groaned from the other side of me.

“Get a room, you two,”

I forced a laugh then slowly, we pulled apart.

Damn kid.

“Hey don’t be rude,” snapped Abbie, “or I’m calling Aunt Gloria again!”

The color drained from Riley’s face at the mention of her mother.

The teenager got a chewing out last night. As soon as we got to the apartment, the first thing Abbie did was call Riley’s mother. Mother and daughter spent the better part of an hour on the phone together. At first, I heard the yelling. Then there was some crying. It was happy and apologetic at the same time I think. Her mother almost jumped on a plane, but they were still grounded from yesterday. Just as well. By the time she got here, her daughter would have already been on the train.

Speaking of which…

“Now boarding...”

Riley groaned.

She snapped around to me, trying one last time. “There’s still time,” she said, desperation in her voice.

I smirked. “You’re going to be fine. This place is good for you. My sister is going there too, in fact...”

I excused myself from the cousins, Abbie was taking my place trying to convince Riley that everything was going to be ok. I smiled as I walked off, pulling out my cell. I needed to check in with Jenny. I felt like such a bad sister. Then again, I was pretty busy. I’d been a bit worried about her though. What with the whole thing in New York and those people trying to grab Riley, it made me worry about Jenny’s problems. She ran into her own mess over the summer after manifesting. Luckily, The Directorate was there to help her, but I felt guilty that I wasn’t there more. I’d been so self absorbed in my own problems, I almost failed to help her with hers.

She answered on the second ring.

“Jie jie?”

For a moment, I almost forgot who I was talking to.

It sounded so weird to be referred to in Chinese.

Especially coming from my former brother. A boy who made it very clear on numerous occasions that he wanted NOTHING to do with our Chinese heritage. Of course, all of that changed after he manifested and became an Avatar host to a Chinese “god”. Her whole outlook changed. She went from this brash, arrogant teen boy to this demure, respectful and somewhat traditional teen girl. A girl who embraced her heritage fully, so much so that “Jenny” was actually a nickname for Jiaying. She even stopped using Dad’s last name, doing a complete reversal of my own situation.

I was still trying to get used to it all.

Especially the fluent Mandarin that she now frequently spoke in.

“Jen, you ok?’

“You’re checking up on me. You promised you wouldn’t do that...”

I sighed.

After what happened to her, I was being a bit overprotective.

Hey it's my right.

“Humor me, I’ve had a shitty day or so. I helped someone like you. There was a lot of bullshit involved...”

She cursed in chinese. “Is she ok?”

“She will be,” I said, looking over to where Riley and Abbie were still talking. “It's actually the reason I’m calling. Well, one of them. I was hoping you might seek her out at school, but don’t make it obvious. Just accidentally run into her or something...”

Jenny groaned. “I can make my own friends...”

“I’m not trying to tell you who to be friends with. I’m just trying to help two people who might have had similar circumstances...”

Jenny paused. “Wait, she wasn’t a boy too, was she?”

No.

Well, I don’t think so.

Her file said nothing about that.

“No, she’s just been through a lot. I’m not going to betray her trust, I just need to make sure she’s safe...”

Jenny was a bit of a badass. Even before she manifested, Jimmy went to the same Mixed Martial Arts classes I did. Mom wasn’t happy about that either. Once again, Dad overruled her. Besides, it was supposed to be good for him. It helped for a while. Then he started playing soccer and got a big head. After she manifested though, things changed for the better. Suddenly, she was gifted with years of combat experience, ancient martial arts from centuries of Chinese knowledge. Plus, there was that whole being able to turn her body into metal. If anyone tried shit with her again, they’d never know what hit them. I needed that around Riley. I couldn’t protect her at school, but maybe Jenny could. At least until the school provided Riley with a means of protecting herself.

“So you want me to be her bodyguard?”

I sighed. “There might be bad people out to get her...”

“Say no more, sis, I’ve got this!”

Wow, that almost sounded like Jimmy.

The old one I mean.

I smiled. “Thanks, Mei mei.”

Hey, I was fluent in Mandarin as well.

We shared some pleasantries. She told me a bit about her DPA escort and about something that happened in NYC. Something about some girls beating up some squid people. She was raving about a video, told me I should watch it. I promised I would, but it wasn’t really my thing. There were more important things in the world then spending my time glued to some amateur future hero on the internet.

I hung up with her only for my phone to ring again.

“Status report,” said Tina, sounding all formal.

“All in the green, boss. We’re at the train station, Riley is about to board now.”

I could hear Tina sighing on the other end. “That’s good, real good.”

“You want me to board the train with her...”

“No, we’ve got people in position. They’ll ride with her in secret until they reach Berlin. The school has arranged some buses. We’ve got someone at the school too, in security. He’ll keep an eye on Riley from there on out. You did a good job, Clara. You should be proud of yourself.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

I was proud, but that nagging feeling was still there.

“Something wrong?”

I sighed. “They’re still out there.”

She scoffed. “We’re looking into them now. The most we’ve been able to get is that they’re some kind of Think Tank, call themselves the Epsilon Group.’

Epsilon Group.

There was no way those people were a Think Tank.

“How many Think Tanks have hired mercenaries?”

“Like I said, we’re looking into it.”

Well I guess that was something.

I was happy to know that I was able to save Riley from them. At least for now. I knew they’d try again though. A group like them, they were bound to not give up so easily. Which meant this was far from over. Who would have thought I would find a purpose doing this job and after only my first assignment?

“When you find something out,” I said, determined. “I want in.”

“I wouldn’t give it to anyone else but you. Right now though, take a few days off. The office isn’t expecting you until Monday. Have some fun, see the sights, take that cute girl out for coffee...”

I blushed.

I looked around, could she see us?

She chuckled. “The Directorate is everywhere, Clara.”

With that she hung up, I sighed.

I took a moment before wandering back over to Riley and Abbie. There were several people boarding the train now, lots of teenagers I couldn’t help but notice. I spotted one group and squinted. I’m pretty certain one of those girls had blue skin? There was another one that was as white as a sheet too. I blinked. They had to be going to this Whateley place too. I smiled, glad to know that both Riley and my sister would be in good hands. Who knows, they might both even enjoy themselves?

I was so lost in thought that I was ambushed by Riley’s hug.

“Thanks for everything, Clara. You saved my life.”

I choked back tears.

“All in a day’s work!”

She smiled. “I’m sorry I was a bitch...”

She then turned and walked to the train, blending into the group of the others as they boarded. I watched and waited until she was on. I continued to watch until the train left the station. As soon as it was gone, I finally let go of my tension. I let out the breath I’d been holding too. I did it. I successfully got the girl to where she needed to go. Mission accomplished, job well done.

Business as usual as one might say.

Well, starting from today, I think.

Abbie nudged me. “You ok?”

I nodded, smiling. “All good!”

“So...” she said, looping her arm through mine. “What does a super secret agent do after she finishes her job?”

I sighed heavily. “Takes a nap.”

Abbie laughed. “Would you settle for some coffee, instead?”

I smiled.

“I think I can manage that.”

 

CLARA WILL RETURN.
Read 2636 times Last modified on Saturday, 21 August 2021 17:29

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