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Second Series, Act One

Chapter Text

Her legs are dangling over the tallest building she could scale without drawing attention to herself. Her radio sat on the edge beside her, softly playing music as she looked over the city that she called home.

It was night and the city had become alive with lights. All three levels of the metropolis looked dazzling from this level, from the elegant Silver Level to the densely populated Bronze Level. Blood Gulch, despite being built around a canyon, was cool as the wind rustle softly against her hair.

Rarely, if ever, did Carolina take a moment like this to just relax and enjoy the moment.

But then her radio blared to life, the same time her wrist communicator beeped to life, and the familiar sound of Jax Jonez broke the calm night as he exclaimed, "There’s a bank robbery currently underway at Valhalla Bank! Who will be the first of our heroes to come and stop it?"

Carolina smirks because this was exactly what she was waiting for.

Quickly scooping up her helmet and securing it tightly, she turns around and faces the skyline.

Taking a deep breath she leans back.

And falls.

The wind rushes past her, and she turns midair to see the highway. She tucks her knees close to her body and rolls to soften her landing, taking not even a second to pause as she races off to the marbled bank.

She dodges cars, racing past with just the capabilities of her suit alone until she can see the structure close in front of her.

Then she activates her power, feeling it course through her body, strengthening her muscles and making her a hundred more times powerful. And although no one could see it behind her armor, her eyes were glowing a striking blue, her skin illuminated by the equally blue glow that surrounded her.

Her countdown started, five minutes to go.

As she passed by one of the monitors that were situated all over the city, she heard the exuberant announcer exclaim, "This just in! It seems as though Agent North is on his way- no wait! Do my eyes deceive me? No that’s right ladies and gentlemen, Agent Carolina has arrived first on the scene! Incredible, immediately our Queen of Heroes is awarded twenty-five points!"

Skidding to a stop in front of the bank, she surveyed the scene and saw two men trying to race off towards a getaway car, carrying cases filled with money.

"For those of you who are just tuning in, the way the game is played is simple! Our heroes are awarded two-hundred points for every criminal captured and a hundred for every civilian saved. At the end of our season whichever hero with the most points is crowned King or Queen of Heroes," the announcer continued, the news copter nearing closer to the scene of the crime from above.

The two criminals were getting away, but not if she had anything to do about it.

Chasing after them, she jumped on top of a car and used it to propel herself forward. Landing firmly on top of their car, she gripped tightly onto the roof, denting the metal firmly, and then she pulled back. The metal tore and ripped, revealing the shocked robbers beneath.

One of them scrambled to get his gun, but she reached down and tosses the two of them out of the car, watching as they tumbled against the concrete. They looked knocked out and she was secure in her victory that she almost forgot about the driver.


Turning towards the man who was now driving erratically, she hopped down into the open back seat of the car and grabbed the back of his head, slamming it against the steering wheel.

Pulling back, she saw that he was disorientated enough for her to pull him out of the seat. Throwing him over her shoulder, she steadied herself before jumping out of the car, letting it veer off course and hit the railings on the highway, crashing through it and plummeting to the bottom of the canyon.

She winced slightly, knowing that her sponsors wouldn't be too happy about having to pay for all the damaged, but she didn't let that stop her from, returning back towards where she had thrown the other two criminals.

Her walk back was calm, and she could see that North had indeed arrived second, earning himself only five points this go around, talking to the police officers who were cuffing the two other robbers.

"Another exciting win for Agent Carolina," Jax's voice betrayed what he said, sounding much more subdued than when the crime had initially started. "For all three of the criminals she apprehended, she is awarded six-hundred points. And with this concludes this season of FreelancerTV, if you join us in an hour for our final reception, you can find out who out of all our heroes will be crowned!"

North had noticed her approaching with the final robber, and although she couldn't see his face without the helmet on, she knew that he was smirking somewhat.

"If it isn't our lovely Queen, couldn't wait for the rest of us to arrive," he walked towards her, as she dropped the man onto the ground, a police officer approaching to place handcuffs on the man.

"No," she huffed. "You should be grateful that I dealt with it quickly, we have to attend the ceremony in about thirty minutes or so."

"Doesn't mean we can't get a few more points in before then," his voice still sounds polite, but she can tell that he's disappointed at only getting five points.

But that wasn't her problem, if he was too slow to arrive before her then that was his fault as a hero not her own.

"Well," he sighs, looking at the police cars that were retreating, heading back towards the station. "May as well get ready for the ceremony, see you then."

He took off, hopping onto the quad bike that had been gifted to him by his sponsors, leaving Carolina behind.

And with that, five minutes had passed, and she felt the adrenaline leave her body, the blue dissipating as quickly as it came.

Knowing that she would have to reach the stage soon, she zipped off towards FreelancerTV headquarters thinking back on the announcer's voice.

That tone, something about it bothered her. Jax Jonez was as annoying as he was good at getting the audience hyped up about crimes in progress, but in that final moment, he sounded defeated.

She wanted to know why.

The stage was lit, bright lights shining down on the armored wearing heroes, showing to the live audience all of their sponsor ads, and for those at home, they got an aerial view of the whole ceremony, along with close-ups.

All of her fellow heroes were already lined up, and for the ones whose faces were revealed, their expressions were stony as they stared out towards the audience.

There was one vacant location in the middle reserved for the previous Crowned Hero.

Sauntering up to the position, she heard how the audience cheered for her, excited that the ceremony could now commence.

Strutting onto the stage, Jax Jonez appeared holding a microphone, wearing a blue and black mismatched suit, hair skewed to the left, messy in a way that one would expect from his voice alone.

"Welcome citizens of Blood Gulch," he said to the audience, pausing for the effect of hearing the audience cheer. "It's so wonderful to know that you all have supported our wonderful heroes through another successful season, but I know you're all excited to know who will be crowned once more."

The audience cheered loudest at that, and with a bright grin Jax gestured widely towards the large scoreboard, announcing, "The final points are in, and as you can all see..."

He trailed off, waiting for all the points to appear on the board, the heroes being shifted to show the final rankings, Carolina's name at the very top of it.

"Agent Carolina is once again our Queen of Heroes!" Jax applauded and gestured for her to take the mic for herself and say a word to the audience.

But just like she has in years past, she stayed exactly where she was, refusing to play along.

She saw no reason to act in front of all these people, saw no point in putting on a smile and pretending like she did this for all them, or her sponsors especially.

Coughing, and adjusting the collar of his dress shirt, Jax laughed nervously before facing the audience, "Well what else can you expect from our lovely Queen of Ice folks?"

The audience laughed, having expected the response from her as she as shown every time she's won.

"Now, I know you're all tired from a long day of excitement and thrill, but if you would just stay with us while the Director and CEO of MOI Media gives a message that would be beautiful," the announcer gestured towards the coolly composed man, walking across the stage.

Unconsciously she straightened, watching as the Director took to the podium with little to no flair.

"I would like to thank you all for appearing here tonight," the man drawled, face not changing. "As this season draws to a close, I would like to ensure you that the next season, I promise, will be something worth watching and that I hope you tune in to see just exactly what we have planned. Thank you."

He turned, having said what he needed to, and walked off the stage.

But before doing so, he had made eye contact with Carolina, and she just knew that those jade eyes were watching her critically, and it almost felt like a dare.

He just wanted her to slip up and do something wrong.

Not caring to stay on the stage any longer than she had to, she turned and walked right off, ignoring the way that York watched her go.

Her father's announcement... something about it just made her skin crawl.

What could her father have planned? Did it have something to do with the way that Jax had been acting on the commentary earlier today?

Staring up at the balcony floor of MOI Media, she knew that the best chance for answers would be up there.

The banquet feast was going to start in a few minutes anyway, a small amount of time allowed for the heroes to change into formal outfits.

She turned sharply towards her locker, shedding her armor in record time, and slipping on her cyan suit as quickly as she could.

Carolina wanted a chance to talk with the Director before all the other guests arrived, not wanting to make a scene in front of any sponsors.

Slamming her locker closed she passed by York who looked surprised at how quickly she had changed but called out to her nonetheless.

"Whoa, there, Carolina," he reached out to grab her hand. "Mind telling me where you're going in such a hurry?"

"To the banquet," she looks at him, and he returns her look. "I want to get there before any of the other guests arrive."

Her helmet is off because there's no worry for her to secure her identity. Everyone knew that she was Carolina Church, and very much her father's daughter.

But York had his helmet on, but from the way he gripped her hand, she could tell the kind of look he had on his face.

"Want to get a grab at all the good stuff before the rest of the agents get a chance?" he jokes.

She rolls her eyes good-naturedly, removing his hand from her own saying, "You should get ready, York. Wouldn't want to disappoint your sponsors again."

"Hey, I'll have you know that I'm the second highest ranked hero," he placed his hands on his hips. "I know it's no crown but I like to think I'm a people pleaser."

"Exactly, a people pleaser," she walks out the door, her pace a lot more relaxed than before York had stopped her. "Not a sponsor pleaser."

"Hey wait, Carolina," he called out to her again.

She paused this time, looking back at him.

"You think after this banquet we could go somewhere, just me and you," his voice was soft as he asked. "Like a date or something?"

"Or something," shaking her head, she said, "Goodbye, York."

She knew that he would find her sometime later she entered the elevator that would take her to the top floor.

It was a long ride up, and she wasn't too pleased to find that there were a few guests already present, mingling quietly waiting for the heroes to appear.

Looking around she expected to see the Director somewhere, present before anybody else, and yet she couldn't see him nor the Counselor, who always seemed to be by his side.

Tsking, she walked further into the hall.

She saw some of the sponsors turn to look at her, but none of them tried approaching her. They knew that she didn't care for their talk at all.

Carolina was just about to settle outside the terrace to stare down at the city when she heard the clacking of heels against the linoleum floors.

"Carolina, a word if you would," she turns to face the new producer of FreelancerTV, Dylan Andrews. The woman is smartly dressed, wearing a blue suit with white trimmings.

Nodding her head, Carolina follows the man to a more secluded area, leaving the banquet hall to enter the corridor where they could be alone.

"What is it that you wanted to talk to me about," she can't help the glare that she gives the woman. She wasn't in the mood to fool around with someone who was more concerned with making the show 'exciting' or whatever nonsense that she tried telling the other heroes.

This wasn't the person that she wanted to talk to, but she supposes if the woman gave her any sort of information it would be worth it in the end.

"I merely wanted to inform you before the formal statement goes out tomorrow," her voice is light, but the look on her face implies something more. "A common courtesy, I suppose."

Her back straightens and her arms drop from the angry fold that they were in, asking, "Inform me about what?"

"We're putting the First League on... hold, for just a season," Andrews winces slightly. "I know it's not ideal, but-"

"Putting us on hold?" she glares. "What do you mean by that- are you just going to leave the city unprotected for a whole season? That's irresponsible-"

"If you'd let me finish," the woman interrupts her. "Then you'd know that I don't expect to leave the city unattended."

Probably chided, Carolina settled into glowering at the woman.

Andrews didn't back down in the slightest, and she continued, "As I was saying, I know it isn't ideal, but unfortunately for us, ratings have been dropping steadily for, well, a while."

"The ratings have been dropping?" this was news to her.

Nodding her head, Andrews said, "Unfortunately. Polling has shown that our audience has become, much more stagnant, and while we hoped it wouldn't, it's gotten back to the sponsors."

"How did this happen," she asked, genuinely confused. As far as she could think, the crimes were still as thrilling as they had been since the show's conception.

"You happened," Andrews stated bluntly. "You've won year after year, and audiences are tired of it."

Anger boiled just beneath her skin, and she gritted out, "If you mean to imply that I'm winning because of some sort of nepotism, I'll have you know I've earned all my points."

"Oh, we know that," Andrews didn't even seem phased. "You're good, but that's the thing, you're too good. There's hardly any competition when you get there first and deal with the criminals before anyone else can even get a chance to arrive."

Jax's voice from earlier enters her head soundly, the dejected way he sounded as he commentated on her capture.

"Audiences can just turn the broadcast on, see that you're on the scene, and tune off knowing that you're going to get all the points, you're predictable," Andrews stressed. "And the sponsors know this too. They're pulling out because to them it looks as if they've got no investment in this if their heroes can't even get on the scene or on camera."

A deep frown settles on her face at the mention of sponsors, everything just came back to them it seemed. That's not what being a hero should entail.

"So we're putting the First League on hold for a while," Andrews returned to her original point. "Give the audience some time to adjust to something new and give the sponsors a little trust that we can make the show interesting again."

"They're not going to like that," she said in a clipped manner. "Not going out and helping people would just drive the other heroes crazy." Her, it would drive her crazy.

Waving off her statement, Andrews gave a confident lopsided smile, "I'm sure none of them would mind a sabbatical in this line of work."


"Now, I'm sure you're dying to know who we're placing in charge of keeping the peace while you all have fun on your little vacation," Andrews stops as some more guests arrive. She gives them a charming smile, and wishes them an eventful evening, waiting for the door to soundly close before continuing. "And I'll be frank with you- you're not going to like it."

"I already don't like this," she muttered, repressing a sneer.

Andrews took a deep breath, before breaking to her, "We're putting the Second League as the mains of FreelancerTV."

Carolina just stared at her before barking out a laugh saying, "You're kidding."

"Not at all," Andrews focused on her datapad for just a moment, pulling up some documents as she said, "I know what you're thinking-"

"Of course you do," Carolina haughtily said. "For you to entrust this city in the hands of the Second League you must be really desperate for views."

"You'd be surprised," clicking on a video, Andrews showed her a clip of those nobody heroes getting a cat down from a tree, only for it to latch onto one of them and start hissing at him, causing the man to drop the cat with a scream. There are bystanders laughing at the display, as the hero is chased by the ferocious pet. "People seem to really like them, when present, and we think that a change like this is exactly what this channel needs."

"So you're willing to risk the lives of innocent civilians for a few views," Carolina shook her head. "Those idiots are hardly proper heroes, I'm surprised anyone would trust them to save their cat, let alone their lives."

"I'm surprised you would speak so harshly on something your brother made," Andrews says, a quiet tone to her voice. "He dedicated a lot to this team, and I trust his judgment."

That shuts her up quickly.

She hasn't thought of her brother in a very long time. And distantly she had been aware that he had spent a lot of money getting the funding for a second and alternative team of heroes. But the heroes he had picked, they had just about the most useless NEXT powers that she had seen in a very long time.

Sometimes she wishes that she could just get into his head and ask him what he was thinking.

But now she didn't have that chance anymore.

He's been dead for years now.

"That's about it," Andrews looks back at the doors of the banquet hall. "I wanted to inform you because not only are you the Queen of Heroes, but we've got a special offer for you."

"What type of offer," her voice is much more subdued.

"We think it would be an attention grabber if we had the Queen of Heroes mentor and assist the new team," Andrews tucked her datapad under her arm. "You don't have to agree obviously, but it's either this or joining your fellow heroes on vacation. It's your choice."

Turning away from her, Andrew tries to give her a reassuring smile, "I'll give you some time to think about it, but the official statement goes out tomorrow, and it would be a relief to know that we could still include you in the show lineup."

And with that Andrews stepped within the hall once more, and Carolina was left alone her in the corridor.

She was feeling many things, all swirling together like a mini-maelstrom inside of her.

She exited the building as quickly as she could, skipping the feast altogether, hurrying towards her apartment.

Carolina had finally figured out what was going on.

And she didn't like it at all.

"Hello, Dylan Andrews speaking?"


"Good morning to you too, Carolina."

"I'll consider your offer-"

"That's fantastic!"

"But on one condition."

"Of course, ask away and we'll see if it's doable."

When Tucker woke up, it was to a blaring alarm clock and a phone full of text messages that he sure as hell did not have the time to read.

Yawning, he hit snooze on his alarm, smacking his lips together as he rose lazily out from under his bed covers.

Peering at his alarm clock, he saw that it was ten thirty in the morning, and reasoned that he could probably afford to get a few minutes in.

That is until he remembered that he started work at nine.

"FUCK," he scrambled out of his bed, tangling himself in his covers in his haste.

Getting out of bed, tripping slightly, he pulled off his tank top and threw it on top of his bed, opening his closet door in a rush, exclaiming, "Junior if you're not awake yet you better get ready for school before you're later than you already are!"

Slipping on a long sleeve aqua shirt, he proceeded to shuffle on a pair of slacks, zipping it up and looking for a belt before saying to hell with it.

He's hopping on one foot to slide on a sock, opening his bedroom door to zoom to the coat rack to grab his coat, turning towards his sons room, already starting to call out for him when he notices that his son was already awake, eyes wide in befuddlement as he saw his dad's frazzled state.

The eight-year-old was situated in front of the TV, watching cartoons with a bowl of cereal in front of him.

Oh right, it was Sunday.

That was a relief.

But then he remembered, again, that just because his son didn't have to go to school that did not mean he didn't have to go to work.

"Daddy will be back ok, kiddo," Tucker shuffled over, hugging his son quickly. "Don't watch too much TV, try to go play outside for a little bit."

His son huffed, and rolled his eyes, before making a shooing motion with his hands.

Tucker walked back towards the door before he remembered that he had forgotten his phone, so he had to race back to get that.

Today fucking sucked so far.

Phone, wallet, and keys secured he opened the door and told Junior, "Close the door behind me, ok bud?"

Once outside, he booked it like hell to his car, getting the shitty thing to start up before he fucking floored it to Outpost Alpha.

Oh, the guys were just going to kill him.

One thing he was thankful for was living on the same level as the Second League's Headquarters. That made his commute a hell of a lot easier.

Now Grif, that was a bastard he felt bad for. The poor fucker lived on the Bronze Level. It would take him hours to get home and back.

Despite his horrible luck that morning, the drive over wasn't too terrible. So as soon as he parked, he got out, locked the doors, and ran into the building to get to the group's meeting area.

Was the building a little shitty? Yeah kinda, but that's what happens when you only ever had one sponsor, and then that guy kicks the bucket.

Not that he's not grateful for the chance to be a hero! It just feels like he could be something a lot more useful than saving a bunch of cats or helping old ladies cross the street.

By the time that he gets to the meeting area, Grif's already hanging around the closed door, leaning against the wall.

"Someone's late," Grif says, peering at Tuckers ragged form. "How could you oversleep on a day like this?"

"What makes this day so different from any other," he mutters, glad to finally have a moment to rest and catch his breath.

"You haven't heard yet," Grif looks genuinely curious. "Dude, you're gonna wanna get inside then."

Side-eyeing the lazy hero, Tucker opens the door and enters. Immediately he recognizes the forms of his fellow Second Leaguers.

But there are two new people too, one he doesn't recognize and the other-

"Holy shit is that the Queen of Heroes," slips past his mouth, everyone turning to stare at him all at once.

Except for Grif who had his head on top of his arms, taking a nap against the table.


But he just saw him outside?

"You're late," Agent Carolina's voice is just as icy as it is on TV. "My expectations were low for you already, I didn't think you could disappoint me further."

And there goes all thoughts on how Grif magically got into the room.

Damn, he really just had to go and make a bad impression on the strongest hero, didn't he?

This was probably his only chance to talk to someone with the same power as his own, a chance to get some real advice on how to be a proper hero.

And he blew it.

There goes his plans to learn the Hundred Power secret skills and tips.

"Who else are we waiting for," she turns her attention to the unknown woman.

Said woman takes a look at the assembled heroes, and looks down at her datapad, before answering, "Well, according to this, all we're missing is-"

And just like that, the weasel of a teenager enters the room, eyes closed in nonchalance, announcing loudly for everyone to hear, "Why the fuck is there a fancy ass car parked in our parking lot, who stole it, and why do I have a feeling that Grif and Simmons finally became criminals together?"

Ignoring the indignant squawk that came from Simmons at the very implication, Tucker watched as Agent Carolina stiffened at the sight of the hero.

The teen had opened his eyes by that point, and his jaw dropped at seeing her too.

But then he said something that had Tucker reeling.

"Aunt Carolina what the fuck are you doing here?!"

Chapter Text

When she had woken up the morning after the banquet, there were multiple messages on her phone. Some from the night before, asking her where she was. Although most of those were from York.

However, a majority of the messages were from the whole First League, asking her if she knew anything about their forced sabbatical.

She responded to none of these.

Instead, the first thing she did was call up Andrews, fully prepared to accept her offer, on the account that she could meet the heroes first. And test them to see if they were worth her time and effort.

Andrews had been tight-lipped about the heroes and their powers, so Carolina didn't have much to go on besides the scarce videos that existed of their 'heroics,' if they could even be called that.

And considering how two of them hadn't appeared by their own work time, she highly doubted that they would manage to change her opinion of them.

But everything changed the second that she saw her nephew enter the room, which caused her to pause because he looked so much older than the last time she saw him.

How long had it been since she was connected to that part of her family? Had she really let time slip past her fingers?

She knew the reason why she had distanced herself from her brother, the reason why she didn't attend his wedding, the reason why she had only seen her nephew a handful of times.

It all went back to her mother and that night.

The night where everything changed for the Church family.

As a child, she had thought nothing of it, beyond the grief that it caused her.

But now, with her brother dead, his wife right alongside him, she had more than a little suspicion about certain things- things that made her more critical about the world.

A part of her feared that her nephew would face the same curse that had killed nearly every last one of them.

Which is why she is filled with rage at the thought that he was willingly putting his life on the line by becoming a hero- no matter the fact that the Second League didn't do anything dangerous.

She hadn't even known that he was a NEXT.

"I should be asking you the same thing," she growled, glancing at Andrews, who suddenly found her datapad to be the most interesting thing in the room.

"Wait," the first late hero said, holding up his hands, head snapping between the two of them. "She's your aunt?!"

"Hardly," her nephew huffed. "A woman I've only seen a handful of times can hardly be counted as my aunt, but I sure as hell ain't gonna call her agent, so aunt it is."

"Leonard L. Church the Third," she moved forward. "You are going to tell me what you're doing here, right this second."

Leonard crossed his arms, turning his nose up at her, saying, "Yeah right, you can't do anything to me, you're not my mom."

"Wait, wait," the late hero raised his hands again. "Can someone please tell me what's going on, weird family connections aside?"

Andrews looked pleased to get the conversation away from what could possibly develop into a family spat.

"I'm happy to tell all of you, now that you're all assembled, that the Second League is being promoted," she says, gesturing at all of them.

The heroes seem more invested into who she is now because the one who has cybernetic implants looks at her and exclaims, "Wait, you're the newest producer of FreelancerTV, Dylan Andrews!"

Nodding her head, she cocks her hip and smirks saying, "Glad to be recognized."

"So that announcement," the hero continues, a small blush forming on his face. "This morning. You were talking about-"

"That's right," she interrupts him. "The Second League will be running the show for the next season of FreelancerTV."

The late hero's eyes widened, jaw-dropping, and Carolina wants to roll her eyes at the nauseatingly excited, "No way! We're going to be real heroes?!"

"How is this possible," the cyborg looked down at the hero who was still asleep on the desk as if he was going to wake him up to hear the news, before aborting the motion. "And- why?"

"The Director thought it was time for a change in direction," Andrews lied, causing Carolina to raise her eyebrow at her. "And we thought it was time you all deserve your position in the spotlight."

So that was the game she was going to play. Not tell the heroes that they were a last ditch effort to keep sponsors on board.

Like that's not going to blow up on her eventually.

"In fact," Andrews continued. "Agent Carolina here has stepped up to assist you all in being the best heroes you can possibly be."

"This is amazing!" the late hero continued to get excited. "Finally we can be the heroes we were meant to-"

"Before any of you get too excited," Carolina interrupted, glaring at all of them. "You must know this: for the duration of this season, I am going to be your mentor and the senior hero on the scene. This means you must follow what I say when I say it."

Only the cyborg looked nervous at the tone she had taken, the rest seemed indifferent or at the least a bit peeved that she was taking control of their operations.

"There is much we must inform you all about," Andrews stepped in. "The spot of First League is much different than it is here on the Second League, but don't worry, I and my crew will be here to guide you along. For right now, we'll settle for setting up your stat cards."

"Stat cards?" the oldest hero in the room questioned, before barking out a laugh. "Why would we need to have that, it'll just let the enemy know all our skills- and weaknesses!"

"While that may be true, it is much safer for it to be public knowledge on what exactly you guys can do, so that we can avoid as many civilian casualties as possible," Andrews said, pausing and mulling over something in her head before she tacked on, "And they sell rather well."

The older man frowned but otherwise didn't say anything more on the subject.

"So how are we going to do this," the cyborg asked, cutting to the chase.

"Agent Carolina here will test each of you individually, and based on how well you do we'll make the cards. For that, we'll also need to take a few pictures, just to make the cards more visually appealing," Andrews brought up Agent York's stat card as an example.

He had done a very dorky pose for the photo, and his sponsors hadn't been too happy about that until they saw how well it sold.

She tried to hide her smile at the thought, but by the way, her nephew glared at her she doesn't think she was too successful.

"So get suited up," she snapped, trying to save face. "And meet me in this facility's training grounds. From there I'll choose you in any manner that I please."

She walked towards the door, hearing one of the heroes whisper loudly, "Since when did we have a training ground? I didn't know that we had to train our floors!"

On her way, she passed by the sleeping hero, and the way that he had just missed the entirety of the meeting sparked a flame inside her, and before she could catch herself, she was slamming her hand harshly against the table.

That didn't get the hero to snap up straight, but he did slowly lift up his head to glare at her.

"Did you have to do that," he muttered, and for a moment his left eye flashes blue but in a blink, it remained his normal amber color.

"Perhaps not, had you been attentive," she growled, striding towards the door once more. "Idiots."

She made her way to the training grounds, lip curling at the state of it.

How much money had her brother spent on this again? And yet, it was practically run down, just years after his death.

Everything about this team was disgraceful.

"You could have handled it a little bit better," is Andrews way of greeting her, looking down at her datapad, opening some sort of document. "They are new to this after all."

"That's no excuse," she tsked. She looked around the room once more before asking the pivotal question, "Just who is backing this season anyway?"

Looking up at her in surprise at the question, Andrews answered, "I'm glad you asked. There's this new entertainment company that's starting to lay down its roots in Blood Gulch, and they were generous enough to be our main sponsor for this season. So each of the heroes will be sharing a sponsor, however, they will be advertising the different products of this company."

"What company," she asked, curious at the idea of a new company settling down in the city.

"They call themselves Rooster Teeth," Andrews got a lopsided smile at the name. "A strange name, I'm aware, but you can recognize their building by the bronze statue situated outside. As you can probably guess it's-"

"A rooster?" Carolina filled in the blank.

"Got it in one," Andrews looked amused. "They're eccentric, but without their backing, this season wouldn't have been greenlit, so I can't complain."

Well, she certainly could if Andrews wouldn't.

“Their support is all funneled through what they’re calling their FIRST NEXT sponsor program,” she pulled up the details of it to show Carolina. “So in a way, the people are supporting this team. It’s definitely an angle we can sell to get more people on board this season and more money to them, a win-win for all.”

“Hm,” she said as she thought about that.

It would certainly be strange to have the public supporting heroes directly like. Guess it would be a first for everything.

Then one by one the heroes came into the training grounds, some of them crossing their arms in discomfort and some of them nervously shuffling their feet against the ground.

And all of them wearing absolutely atrocious suits.

Looking at the wince that Andrews herself had, and the murmured, "They're even worse in person," gave her the impression that she wasn't the only one who was appalled by them.

Carolina gave her a hard stare and wanted to ask what they were going to do about this.

The producer must have known exactly what she was going to say as she answered the unasked question by saying, "We're getting better suits for them later this day. Trust me, it'd be practically criminal to let them fight crime wearing these."

Nodding at the answer, she walked down the line, looking at the heroes trying to decide who she would test first, with only one them actually catching her eye in terms of his suit.

While she would have loved to confront her nephew right away, perhaps she would leave him for last so that she could spend as much time as she wanted to talk to him beforehand.

Or perhaps she would leave the hero with the aqua and white domino mask for last, given how excited he seemed. And due to him leaving a bad first impression on her.

Having made up her mind, she stopped in front of the brown dressed, stout hero saying, "Everyone else leave, I'll be testing him first."

Some of the heroes looked relieved at that, not having to be the one to get their ass kicked first. Except for the aqua hero, who seemed exceptionally disappointed.

Once alone with the hero, she tapped the side of her visor, the recording turning on.

"State your name and powers," she demanded.

"Mi nombre de héroe es Diamante y mi poder es invulnerabilidad," My hero name is Diamond and my power is invulnerability, the hero spoke in a low monotonous tone. "Mi verdadero nombre es López LaPesado desafortunadamente." My real name is Lopez LaPesado unfortunately.

She blinked once, and then a second time for good measure.

"I'm sorry, what," she asked incredulously.

The hero repeated his sentence, and when she glanced down at the bottom of her visor she watched as it translated the sentence for her.

"Can you not speak English," she squinted her eyes at him.

"No," the hero's face darkened.

"So you can speak English," she asked for good measure. "Then why don't you."

"No me apetece explicártelo," I do not feel like explaining it to you, he said. "¿Vas a continuar con la prueba o no?" Are you going to continue with the test or not?

"You people are annoying," she growled under her breath, pulling out her gun.

Without warning, she aimed her weapon at him and fired.

Immediately his eyes widened, turning soundly blue and accompanied by the blue glow around his body. The bullet pinged off of his practically unarmored body, falling to the ground at the sudden stop in movement.

Looking down at the bullet, LaPesado said, "Grosero." Rude.

Her visor had analyzed his reaction time, the way his power had strengthened his skin in order to make it impermeable.

"You are dismissed," she clipped. "Bring in any hero of your choosing, it doesn't matter to me."

The hero grumbled as he walked out of the training grounds, possibly saying some crass words about her, but she didn't care enough to see exactly what he was saying.

She wanted this whole day to be over as quickly as possible if she had her way that is.

The next hero to come in was the cyborg, looking increasingly nervous as he entered the room.

He fiddled with his hands as she repeated the same thing she had told LaPesado, saying, "State your name and powers."

The hero flinched slightly, stammering, "N-name. Oh right, Dick Simmons reporting for duty sir- ma'am!"

"Name and powers," she growled out.

"Oh you meant my superhero name- right, uh, about that," a hand snaked to the back of his neck to rub it nervously. "I kinda don't have one? Yet! I don't have one yet."

"How," she stressed. "Could you possibly not have one yet."

"It's- it's important to make sure I have a good hero name!" he defended, forgetting his nervousness as he crossed his arms and glared. "If I don't make sure I have the perfect name, I'll have to live with something horrible forever."

Her eye twitched at Simmons' reasoning, and it took all her willpower to not pinch the bridge of her nose in exasperation. Instead, she opted to ask, for the third time, "Just tell me your power so we can get this over with."

Perking up the hero exclaimed, "It's technokinesis, well, ferrokinesis, er- metal, I can control metal and technology."

And it was, of course, another relatively useless power.

"Is that all," she asked, already mentally looking him over, noting how he didn't seem physically strong or anything of the sort. The only good thing about his form was his cybernetic parts, but that wouldn't do much to help him defeat crime if he were to wear full body armor as most male heroes did.

"Wait, I know it seems useless, but! I can do this," the hero went to demonstrate his power, extending his cyborg arm, eyes glowing blue as he gestured with his human hand.

The pieces of the arm lifted up, shifting into the air, and he demonstrated that he could indeed propel them forward, with a stroke of his fingers.

Only for them to collapse and fall midair, losing control of his power, his eyes returning to normal as he looked down at his dismantled prosthetic in dismay.

"Theoretically, I was supposed to use that the apprehend the mobility of the criminals," he muttered, as he lowered himself to the ground, turning on his powers again. "I'm, uh, still working on it?"

Once his arm was properly assembled again, she just deadpanned, "Get out and send someone in," to him.

What was her brother thinking?

Considering what she had seen so far, she was sure that he hadn't been thinking at all.

Then, lo and behold, the next hero to enter the room was the one who had been previously napping during her meeting with them.

This was the hero who stood out from the rest.

Because surprisingly enough, he was the one who had the most advanced and, as much as it pained her to admit, the most respectable armor, with some sort of weapon carried in his hand. He wore a golden star-shaped visor that was adorned by a silver circlet, wrapping around the top points of it. The armor was mainly orange with red and blue pieces, and white trimmings.

Armor that already had sponsor tags on it.

Reaching up, she tapped her visor and it locked onto the tags and the weapon, informing her that the tags were for the American Grifball League of America and that the weapon he was carrying was one of their own inventions- a gravity hammer.

Noticing that she hadn't yet said anything, the hero raised his hand in a lazy salute saying, "Yo."

"Where did you get your armor," she asked, trying to keep the genuine curiosity out of her voice.

"What this," he looked down at his armor. "I already have a sponsor, unlike these other guys. They supplied this."

"How did you, a Second League hero, manage to get a sponsor already," she'd much rather believe that he had somehow acquired the armor on his own.

The hero shrugged, saying, "Ask my manager. He's the one who set this up, apparently, the League was fond of having a hero with the same last name as their sport."

"You told them your real name," anger bleed through her voice. "Do you know how irresponsible that is?"

His eyes widened only marginally at the tone of her voice, as he raised his hands in a placating manner saying, "Hey, don't blame me! Like I said- it was my manager's idea."

Rolling her eyes, she asks, "Your hero name and powers, if you would."

"Phantasmagoria," his lip curled as he said the name. "And as for my power, hm, I don't think I want to say."

"Excuse me," she glared at me. "I don't believe you have a choice about this- you will tell me your power."

"Yeah, see, I could do that," the hero leaned against the hammer. "But, that might lead people to have expectations for me and that sounds like a lot of work. What I have going on right now, where no one knows what my power is, that makes it much easier to avoid doing anything really."

Fine, he wanted to play the difficult game? She could play along.

And force him to tell her.

Now she had a choice, she could either activate her power and expend five minutes forcing the hero to reveal his power, to which she wouldn't be able to use it until an hour had passed. Or she could just do this the old fashioned way, and give the weaker hero a physical beat down.

She was probably going to need her power to deal with her nephew later.

So the old fashioned way it is.

As she cracked her knuckles, the hero had his eyes closed saying, "So if it's not too much to ask, could you just- I don't know- make up some stats for those cards or whatever? The lower they are the better."

"I have a better idea," her voice was low, and in an instant, she dashed forward, arm reared back ready to punch the hero.

"Huh?" the hero opened his eyes, and then panic blossomed onto his face as she got closer.

He just barely managed to dodge out of the way, almost stumbling over his hammer in his effort to not get hit, exclaiming, "What the fuck?! What are you doing?!"

"If you won't tell me, then I will just have to beat it out of you," she spun around in an attempt to roundhouse kick the hero.

"To hell with this!" the hero exclaimed, running away from her and then in what she can only assume was a deliberate trip to throw her off her game, he covered his head to protect it, eyes clenched shut.

She vaguely heard a door opening and slamming behind her, but paid it no mind as she delivered a swift kick towards the hero-

Only to be met with nothing as her leg phased through the hero who, at the contact, wavered and collapsed- disappearing altogether.

She was alone in the training ground and recalling the sound she heard, she raced to the door, forcibly opening it and glaring at the assembled heroes who all stiffened when she set her gaze on them.

"Where is he?" she growled.

"Where is who," the tallest hero asked, tilting his head slightly.

Looking at the heroes, she realized that they wouldn't reveal where the hero had run off too, so she angrily pointed at the oldest hero and said, "You. Get in here."

She turned and stalked back into the room not waiting to see if her orders were being followed.

The man came in, looking at her as if she was some sort of alien.

Not wanting to waste any time, she growled, "Name and power."

"Hero name: Redstar, Power: Gravity!" the older man barked out a laugh. "First name Sarge, last name also Sarge!"

She glowered at him, not wanting to deal with any more stupidity from this group, and must have been effective because the hero corrected himself, mumbling, "Last name LaPesado."

So he was related to the first hero she had tested, interesting.

Even more interesting that he spoke English unlike his, what she presumed, son.

"Demonstrate your power to me," she demanded, prepared to feel the gravity on her to increase or perhaps to be sent into a zero-gravity state.

None of that happened as the hero activated his powers and made the equipment stand sink into the floor, destroying the floorboards.

"Uh oh," Sarge looked the mess he made and said, "I'll fix that."

She couldn't stop her hand from snaking under visor so she could rub at her eyes saying, "Send in the next hero."

He turned tail and ran in retreat, not wanting to test the limits of her ire.

The tallest hero rushed in with an exuberant, "Hello!"

Taking a glance at the time, she was dismayed to see that it was still ripe in the day, whereas she was hoping it'd be night by now. Time seemed to crawl to a fucking stop in this building, and she wished that it hadn't because then perhaps she could be free to go home by now.

"Name and power," she said, not even bothering to return his hello.

"I am Snow White!" the hero said excitingly. "My friends call me Caboose!"

The universe was laughing at her certainly, there was no other way to interpret the turn that her life had taken.

"Is your power snow based," she asked, knowing that it absolutely would not be.

"I can speak to animals!" he cheerfully supplied. "And they listen to me when I ask them, super nicely, to do things for me."

"Get out," she cut him off, knowing there was no real way for her to test this useless power.

"But you didn't let me go all blue," the hero protested. "Here watch-"

"Out," she repeated, placing her hands on her hips.

"Oh you are not a nice lady," the hero said as he walked out the doors, and his voice was so loud that she could hear him call out, "TUCKER IT'S YOUR TURN!"

These idiots were absolutely exhausting.

Finally, the hero wearing the aqua and white domino mask came gamboling in, his excitement having increased during his wait.

"This is seriously such an honor, dude," the hero stopped then added, "I can call you dude, right? Since you're going to be mentoring us and all-"

"State your name and power so we can get this done with," she interrupted, not in the mood to deal with more Second League nonsense. Were any of these heroes functioning people, enough that they didn't let their idiocy get the better of them?

"Right, oh man you're going to love this," the hero puffed up his chest, announcing, "I am the hero Teal Lightening and my power is Hundred Power."

This shocked her, and she wouldn't lie when she said her eyebrows raised at hearing that.

This was quite the development. But thankfully it meant that she could just get him to leave by mimicking the stats she had based on her own power.

"You're dismissed then," she said, turning away, trying to brace herself for the confrontation she was going to have with her nephew.

"Wait, I didn't even get a chance to show you what I can do," the hero argued.

"Don't need to see it, I can already make a guess based on my own experiences," she glared at him. "Of course, you're probably weaker and less experienced with them than I am."

"Oh no way in hell are you getting rid of me so easily," he fought back, activating his power.

She watched as his muscles increased and got bigger, knowing that the same thing happened to her whenever she activated her own power.

He ran towards her, and she waited while he did so.

He was of no concern to Carolina.

Because the instant he was close enough, she grabbed his arm firmly and propelled him to the wall, where he crashed against it soundly.

He gasped out in shock and didn't get back up.

Stalking towards him, she looked down at him and said, "Don't fool yourself into believing that just because you have the same power as me that you'll ever be as good of a hero as I am."

The hero didn't say anything, looking properly chided.

Silently he got up, walking out of the room and pulling off his domino mask.

Only one more hero left.

Soon enough, her nephew stepped into the room, a glare behind his round glass frames. His arms were crossed and he was wearing a light blue sleeveless hoodie.

"Leonard," she started, pausing when she realized that she still didn't know what to say to him.

"No," her nephew snapped. "Don't call me Leonard, I don't go by that name anymore. Either call me Church or Epsilon- even better, you can only refer to me as Epanalamváno- my hero name. Nothing else."

"You're acting irrationally," she said, watching at the way the teenager managed to wind himself up.

"I'm acting irrationally," he yelled, incredulously. "I think I'm acting just fine for someone who's mad at his only remaining family left!"

"Calm down," she instructed.

"Calm down?!" his eyes started glowing blue, and the glow around his body turned threatening as he said, "You want me calm down after you intrude on my life again?! You didn't even go to the funeral- neither of theirs!"

"Leonard-" she said, only to be cut off when his body started to glow brighter.

"You know what, I think you should say sorry to them," his voice was calm as he said this, an angry storm hidden behind the words. "Here, let me help."

A white and black glow emanated from his body as two forms separated from his own.

And beside beside him were crude replicas of her brother and his wife, the symbols for Alpha and Beta adorned on their simple jumpsuits.

"Leonard stop this right now," she hissed, her heart beating faster at the sight.

"Say sorry," he retaliated. "Say sorry now."

"No," she growled out, activating her own power to show him that she was prepared to neutralize him if necessary.

At seeing this he deactivated his power, the replica's fading away, as he whispered, hurt, "You're a fucking coward, Aunt Carolina."

Turning away from her, he ran out the door, not looking back once.

She willingly let her power fade away, as she closed her eyes to hold back tears.

How had everything gone to shit?

Because her nephew was right, she hadn't gone to their funerals. Not for when her brother's wife passed away, and certainly not when her brother died years later.

She had visited their conjoined graves days after, in the rain, not bothering to shield herself with an umbrella, accepting the freezing needles to attack her skin.

Her father hadn't gone to either funeral either, except, he hadn't visited their graves after, unlike her.

She had failed her nephew. And Carolina knew she couldn't make it up to him, all this lost time.

She stormed out of the training grounds, ignoring the looks the heroes were giving her.

Carolina made her way towards the front, only to be intercepted by Andrews, who had her hands on her hips asking, "Where do you think you're going?"

Taking off her visor and thrusting it towards the producer, she said, "I'm considering my involvement here, for the day, done."

Looking at the visor, Andrews frowned, looking at her and asking, "You didn't even try to test them properly did you?"

"Look at the footage for yourself," she huffed. "You don't need detailed tests for those ridiculous stat cards of yours."

She aimed to walk out, but the woman blocked her off from the entrance.

"That doesn't mean you can leave just yet," Andrews pulled up a checklist on her datapad, scrolling down to show her that they still had some things left to do. "We still need to establish the teams as the main gimmick for this season, and to do that we need to make the teams! And that's not even including their introduction to how the show works intricately, how they're supposed to work with the sponsors- their armor still hasn't arrived for Pete's sake!"

"All this I'm sure you can do without me," she stepped around Andrews and pushed the door open, ignoring the car that she was brought here with, knowing that the producer would be cross if she just took off with it.

She was going to walk to the nearest bar that was respectable enough for her to be seen in.

Carolina needed a stiff fucking drink.

He was right, today was the worst fucking day possible. It sucked. It sucked fucking balls.

His hero, the one he admired for having the same NEXT power as his own...

She fucking hates him. And he couldn't even last a ‘fight’ against her.

Agent Carolina didn't even turn her power on.

Looking down at his domino mask he felt as if he was just one big mistake.

His only conciliation was that it looked like she was harsh against everyone else too, so it wasn't just a vendetta against him.

Church was currently in there for his test, and Caboose was nervously playing with the bottom of his uniform, nervous about leaving his honorary nephew alone with his blood-related aunt.

It wasn't long before the teen came out, holding back tears, face red with anger as he stormed past all of them.

Caboose watched wide eyes as the kid headed towards the locker room, before looking at Tucker and announcing, "I will go and see what is wrong," before hurrying after the kid.

At the sight of Agent Carolina, everyone stiffened up, watching as she too stormed off, though in her case it was towards the exit of the building.

What a fucking shit show.

It was quiet in the room thereafter, but it was broken when Grif, who had definitely not been sitting on his right a moment ago, asked, "Is she fucking gone?"

Tucker jumped, arms braced, ready to slap him as he said, "Dude what the fuck? Where did you come from?!"

Grif had to have teleportation powers, this was one time too many where that bastard had gotten the jump on him- or had been in places where he definitely wasn't before- Tucker just knew it!

Grif ignored him, looking in the direction that Agent Carolina had stormed off asking, "No seriously, does anyone know if she's going to come back? Because at this point I think I'd be better off taking my chances talking to my manager than her."

"I don’t know, she looked pretty angry," Simmons said as he nervously bit his nails.

Looking at his friends, Tucker sighed as he said, "Raise your hand if you think that your test went horribly?"

All of them raised their hands, with Grif saying, "Dude she fucking attacked me!"

Great. Just great.

They sat around waiting apprehensively for someone to come back into the room, and thankfully, the only people to return were Caboose with a sullen Church.

Church sat down in his isolated corner, pouting but looking much better than he had before.

Turning towards Caboose, Tucker asked, "How'd you manage to get him to calm down?"

"Oh," Caboose's expression lit up. "I promised him that I'd go and buy him some ice cream! Ice cream always cheers everyone up!"

Ice cream did sound good right about now. Maybe he could go home and take Junior out to the nearby ice cream parlor, under the guise as a treat for trying out for the basketball team and getting in, but in reality a pity reward for himself.

Yeah, that sounded like a plan.

"Hello Troopers," Dylan opened the door slowly, an apologetic smile on her face. "I hope you're not too beat up from the tests Carolina administered, we've still got a lot to go over."

"They were hardly tests," Tucker muttered under his breath but hoped that Dylan wouldn't hear him say.

"What's left to go over," Simmons asked, folding his hands on his lap.

"Not much," Dylan promised. "I still need to give you an introduction to the First League procedures. But before that..." she trailed off.

She fiddled around with her datapad, tapping something before turning it towards all of them.

On the screen, she saw that their names had been neatly organized into two columns, one titled Red Team and the other Blue Team.

Under the Red Team column was Sarge, Grif, Lopez, and Simmons. And for Blue Team, it was him, Church, and Caboose.

"This season of FreelancerTV will be done a little differently," Dylan started, gesturing to the datapad. "There will be, of course, still one hero titled King of Heroes by the end of the season, but this year there will be a side section to the show- one team will be crowned Team of Heroes based on the cumulative amount of points earned by the season's finale. I've divided the two teams the best I could."

Simmons adjusted his glasses slightly as he looked at the datapad, before shaking his head saying, "This doesn't seem very fair at all Mrs. Andrews, Blue Team has one less member than we do."

"I based this on the fact that Church's power allows him to create multiple tangible duplicates," she gave a wry smile. "So if you think about it, Blue Team has more members than you do in the end."

"Seems fair," Sarge huffed out, giving Lopez a side glance, noticing how the younger man looked bothered about the team set up.

"Well with that out of the way, if you will all follow me back to your meeting room, I have set up for all of you to watch, an introduction to the world of FreelancerTV. It will explain everything you'll need to know, in depth, about how the show functions and how you'll be working with your sponsors," she gestured towards the door. "After that, we'll have one more thing to deal with and then you'll all be free for the day."

Tucker hoped the video wouldn't be boring. Maybe it would show them the insights of the heroic life, maybe some juicy gossip and behind the scenes footage too.

He was hopeful that this could brighten his spirits.

It didn't. It absolutely did not brighten anything.

It was long, it was boring, and the only one who actually paid attention to any of it was Simmons that absolute nerd.

Grif had, honest to God, fallen asleep on the table five minutes into it. Simmons was probably making a copy of his notes to give to the tired hero.

Well, at the very least, he could ask the cyborg for the brief notes and summaries he had compiled about the damn thing.

With the video having come to a close, Andrews entered the room, having left in the middle of it to answer a phone call that she had gotten. Following her were two men, wheeling in crates.

They settled them in the room, as she thanked them for their service, before turning back towards the heroes.

"Enjoy the video," she quirked her eyebrow at them, noticing that literally no one was even trying to pay attention.

"Uh huh," Tucker nodded, head resting against his hand. "Very interesting, totally informative. Say, what's in those boxes?"

"Well, at the very least, you'll all be excited about this," Andrews gestured towards the crates. "These are for you."

Everyone perked up, Church slid his handheld game in his pocket as he eyed the crates the same way as everyone else.

"I don't mean to be, rude," she sounded pained as she said this. "But the company who, at the moment are the people who are sponsoring all of you, decided that it would be their good luck gift to supply you all with brand new hero suits. Custom made, their sponsor tags already on them."

Seemingly having woken up, Grif lifted his head and yawned, asking, "Uh yeah, I already have a proper suit. Can I be dismissed now, if there's nothing else left to do?"

"Of course, I've already talked it out with your manager," Dylan nodded her head. "Before the premiere of the show we'll be adding on the new brand to your armor, that was the deal made between the two companies."

"Cool," Grif nodded his head, heading towards the locker room. "Then I'll see all of you tomorrow then."

"Bye Grif," Simmons waved good-bye to him, and for no real reason at all Tucker was compelled to follow the hero.

He quickly excused himself, with the excuse that he wanted to put away his old suit so that he can admire the new one properly.

He caught up with the other hero as the man was walking in the locker room.

"Uh, what are you doing," Grif narrowed his eyes at him.

"Just making sure you're all good dude," he crossed his arms. "You said that Agent Carolina attacked you earlier."

Grif winced, walking into the locker room and reaching his own locker, responding, "Yeah, she tried to punch and kick the shit out of me. I managed to distract her and get the fuck out of there before she could notice."

"Yeah, how did you do that," he asked, trying to get the other man to tell him his elusive NEXT power.

As he fished for information, he too shed his crappy suit, not wanting to get caught on his lie- no matter how see-through it had been.

"Wouldn't you like to know," Grif snorted, shaking his head as he took off his intricate visor, a frown on his face as he looked at it. "What I wouldn't kill to get new armor like the rest of you guys, this shit is so gaudy."

"Why don't you ask for new ones then," Tucker asked, curious. "I'm sure with the change in sponsor-"

"Yeah, like that's not a horrible idea," the other hero shot down. "Nah, that sounds like a lot of effort. As much as I hate it, I'll stick with what I have right now."

Tucker frowned at that, and while he mulled over a possible loophole to help his friend out, Grif had already put away his armor and changed into his other sponsor supplied outfit, the AGLoA's official sports jumpsuit.

No wonder the hero had fallen straight asleep during the video, the dude already had experience being a walking advertisement. He'd been dealing with sponsors since the first day he officially joined the Second League- hell, Tucker would bet that he'd been dealing with them long before.

His elusive manager certainly had connections.

"Come on, I'll walk you out," Tucker offered, dressed in his own civilian outfit.

Grif shrugged, digging his hands into his pants pockets, walking out with Tucker.

They talked about nothing of importance, trying to fill the empty space. As they neared the entrance, they walked by a window that showed the parking lot, and as he glanced out of it, Grif paused nearby it, looking at an unknown vehicle waiting in it.

"What the fuck is he doing here," Grif muttered, narrowing his eyes in suspicion.

"Who," Tucker asked, looking at the car too.

"My manager, Hammer," Grif rolled his eyes. "He's probably just here to talk about the new duel sponsorship deal or something."

"Good luck with that then dude," Tucker said as he began to turn towards the meeting room. "Have a nice ni-"

"Do you ever feel like you don't have any control," Grif asked, apropos of nothing. "Like you're just being pulled along without making any decision for yourself."

"Um, not really," he worried the back of his neck. "Is this a sponsorship thing or...?"

"Never mind," Grif shook his head, and Tucker swore that it looked as if one of his eyes were blue for just a second. "You're too much of an idiot to understand anyway."

"Hey, what's that supposed to mean," Tucker asked offended.

Grif ignored him, heading towards the door, lifting his hand up lazily as his goodbye.

Geeze, what was with that guy. Could never get a straight answer out of him on a good day.

As he neared towards the meeting room, he heard a loud and squeaky scream of, "What the fuck is?!"

Rushing towards the door, he swung it open, looking at Simmons who looked absolutely mortified- looking like he wanted to just melt into a puddle and fucking die.

And in his hands he was- he was holding-

Tucker burst out laughing, exclaiming loudly, "Oh my God, please tell me that's your hero suit, Grif's going to have a fucking field day!"

Chapter Text

Club Errera is normally what is known as a FreelancerTV bar.

It's the type of establishment that prides itself on having monitors placed all over, each of them tuned into the broadcast so that patrons from all angles can witness the thrilling events that occur just outside the club's doors. It had ridiculous drinks based off of all the heroes, and the employees wore ridiculous outfits modeled after whichever hero of the week it was.

It's bright vibrant orange lights and neon signs were perfect to attract hero fanatics like moths to a light.

Usually, she would detest being in an establishment like this one, with her identity out in the open it would often attract the attention of just near about everyone in the bar. And of course, they would fawn and fall all over themselves just to be in the same building as the Queen of Heroes.

But in the downtime before a new season starts, it's practically empty, with only a few stragglers enjoying their drinks and watching something other than FreelancerTV for once.

It was the perfect place for her to enjoy a drink and think about how shitty her day was in peace.

That was, of course, before a very familiar and annoying brown-haired hero settled down next to her.

Of course, York would be the one to intrude on her brooding like this.

"Now what's a monarch like yourself doing in a place like this," her fellow hero said, signaling towards the bartender.

The man came over and York delightfully complimented his Agent York attire before asking for a simple beer.

"York," she clipped. "How did you find me?"

"You think I was searching for you," he asked, raising an eyebrow. "How do you know that I wasn't coming in here for a drink when coincidence occurred and you happened to be here as well?"

She brought her glass to her lips, raising an eyebrow in return, knowing that he was full of shit.

Bringing his hands up, he said, "Ok, you caught me. I was checking my phone when I saw one of those 'Agent Carolina Spotter!' blogs post about seeing you on the Steel Level entering this bar."

"You actually follow those blogs?" she looked at him amused, whilst also thinking about whether the bar was about to become packed with other people who had seen that post. If it did, she would have to relocate to somewhere more private, she wasn't in the mood to deal with any more idiots.

"No," York shifted subtly. "And before you get antsy, the bouncer for the club has been keeping back all your fans, and apparently he has been doing so since he noticed that you were entering the bar."

"That's a relief," she sighed, settling her glass against the table. She would have to give her thanks to the man on her way out.

The bartender came back with his drink, and he thanked the man for doing so.

"Rough day?" he asked, noticing her put out expression.

"Tch, like you wouldn't believe," she frowned angrily at her glass as if she could blame it for all the problems in her life.

But she knew that she had no one to blame but herself.

"Tell me, York," she said. "Do you think I'm a bad person?"

"What," he looked at her in shock, almost spitting out the swig of beer he had taken. "No! Why would you even ask that?"

"According to everyone else, I'm a right bitch," she muttered.

"Fuck everyone else then," York said without hesitation. "Carolina, what happened today?"

She was silent for a moment, pondering what words she could possibly say, when she settled on asking, "You've heard about our sabbatical, yes?"

"Of course," York nodded his head. "About all forty-eight of us agents heard about it. Why? Does you thinking you're a bad person have to do with that nonsense?"

"We're being put on temporary leave because the sponsors don't believe in us anymore," she paused before amending, "They don't believe in me anymore."

"What," this was news to York. "Why- you've been doing an amazing job!"

"Too good of a job apparently," she glared at her drink once more. "They think me an attention hog, looking to gain points and points only as if that's all there is to me."

York's lips pressed into a firm line, and he looked to the side for a moment.

"You think the same," she said softly.

"Of course not," York shook his head. "But, I've gotten complaints from my own sponsors, and... the others have too. They've gotten a bit envious, but for now, they're all confused on why we're getting taken off the show."

"Right," she said.

York opened his mouth to say something but she cut him off by asking, "York, are you aware of why there are only forty-eight members of the First League instead of fifty?"

He closed his mouth, mulled over the question, before saying, "I will admit that myself and others have been curious."

She swirled the remaining whiskey in her glass as she felt herself get tangled up in her memories, "When we were younger, my brother, Leonard Jr., thought it'd be cute if we were both Carolina's. I was South Carolina, he decided, because he was older than me. So he was North Carolina, and it was our thing."

She closed her eyes as she continued, "When my father made the First League, and MOI Media, and FreelancerTV, it was all with the hope that we would both be heroes. My mother was a NEXT and he assumed that we would both be as well."

She stopped, lips quivering slightly.

York was quiet, letting her have all the time to compose herself.

"I was the only one to actually be a NEXT," she concluded. "Leonard, God, he felt so horrible, and dad let him feel that way."

York's face became pinched as his fist tightened as he listened to her.

"We become more distant," she admitted. "He met someone, after a while, a girl named Texas. She was in the League for a while, you know."

"I remember hearing about her," York nodded. "What...?"

"What happened?" she filled in.

"Yeah," he said quietly.

"Suddenly, he wasn't North Carolina anymore, he was Alpha, and Texas was Beta, and that became their thing. I didn't go to their wedding, I regret not doing so," Carolina shook her head. "When Texas became pregnant with my nephew, they jokingly referred to him as Epsilon."

"I placed my brother under my shadow even as a kid," her hand tightened against her glass.

"Carolina, I'm being one-hundred percent serious when I say, that if the Director wasn't my boss, I would kick his ass," York said, a serious looked on his face. "Hell, I'm considering doing so anyway."

"York," she chided softly.

"I mean it I would! But," York said quietly, internally hating himself for making her get back on such a horrible topic. “You still haven't told me what happened.”

"When I was younger, my mother died in a fire," her voice got lower as her expression darkened. "Leonard, nor my father, was there that day, but I was. And I saw a man there, he held a gun and my mother's corpse was laid out in front of him, of course with the fire no one could tell the difference."

"Fuck," York managed to get out.

She nodded in a morbid agreement, continuing, "He had a symbol on his cheek, I could hardly see it but it looked like a snake eating its own tail, a sword piercing through the middle."

"Freaky," York said as he imagined it. "Do you know what it means?"

"Not a clue," she shook her head. "Never wanted to search into it and find out what it was if I'm being honest. I had other things to worry about."

York looked thoughtful at that, and she suspected that he would go into what she could not.

"All I know is that years later, my sister-in-law dies in the hospital due to some 'unknown' illness," she said. "And my brother is soon to follow years after, dying in what was claimed as a 'workplace' accident."

"You suspect foul play," he asked.

"I'm positive of it," she growled. "And while I've been playing the pity game, I've left my nephew all alone and vulnerable to those who want my family dead. He's even joined that ridiculous Second League that my brother set up, and now they're going to be at the forefront."

It was in her ostracization of her brother that lead to their deaths. Perhaps if she had reached out, just a little, maybe, just maybe they wouldn't have died. She could have saved them. All of them.

"So I was right," York said to himself. "They are replacing us with the Second League. That should be, well, something all right."

He glanced up and saw the look on her face.

Reaching over he clasped her hand and squeezed gentle saying, "Hey, none of that stuff was your fault, you know that right?"

"I do, it's just," she struggled to find her words. "It's tough trying not to blame myself."

"I'm sure, that they wouldn't want you to blame yourself," he squeezes her hand again. “Besides, now you have a chance to make it up to them by protecting your nephew, right?”

Rolling her eyes, she responded, “If he even lets me near him. That whole team of idiots makes me want to pull out my hair in frustration.”

“Come on, I’m sure they’re not… that bad,” York said weakly.

“One of them already has a sponsor but refuses to reveal his power,” she held up one finger, preparing to count. “Another refuses to speak any other language than Spanish, God knows why,” another finger went up. “One of them has the power to talk to animals, the most useless power on that team by far,” a third finger went up.

“And those aren’t the most frustrating ones,” she placed her hand against the bar countertop. “The rest of them have useful powers, if only they were in other people. My nephew included, he’s too overcome with rage to think properly. I still don’t know the extent of his powers.”

“Well, at least you were asked only to test them right,” York tried to cheer her up. “Then you can spend the rest of your vacation just relaxing, and I dunno, praying that the whole city doesn’t collapse?”

“I’m their mentor for the duration of the season,” she revealed, much to her displeasure.

York winced and cleared his throat saying, “That’s rough. Good luck with that.”

“Thanks,” she deadpanned.

"Well, if you want to get absolutely blackout drunk, Illinois is holding an early retirement party later this week, since he seems like the only one truly happy about this whole vacation thing," York said, trying to lighten the mood. "But if you would prefer, you and I could do something a little more intimate, what do you say? Candlelit dinner, watching down at the beautiful metropolis as I shower you in flowers?"

"You're just being nice," although she still felt a little bit lighter. "You should know as much as anyone else how much of an ice queen I am."

"My Queen," York puts on an affronted tone as he places his hand on his chest. "To think that you don't warm my heart every day."

He taps the place where his heart is, letting the clinks of something metallic ring out between them before slipping his fingers into his shirt pocket he pulls out a very familiar lighter, wearing an absolutely shit-eating grin.

"Still carry that around with you," she asks with a quirk to her lips that she hides behind the rim of her glass.

"It's mine, why wouldn't I?" York gives her a playful weary look. "Unless you're thinking of taking it again."

"Wouldn't dream of doing so York," she settles her glass down.

"I'm starting to get worried about this poor old lighter," he held it up towards the lights. "Always back and forth between the two of us- do you think it's starting to suspect that we're it's divorced parents?"

"It's a lighter, York," she shook her head. "It doesn't think."

He cradled it towards his chest, shooting her a look, saying, "Hey, don't let it hear you say that!"

Chuckling, all she could respond with was, "You're ridiculous, York."

"No, I'm pretty sure my name’s still York," he brought a finger to his chin in mock thought. He lowered it, as his face relaxed into something much softer, saying, "There's that laugh I was missing."

Calling over the bartender to pay for her drinks, she realized that yes, she was feeling much lighter now.

"Goodnight, York," she said to the other hero, resting her hand against his for just a moment.

She got off of her stool and started walking towards the club's exit, as he called behind her, "We still never had that date, ya know! So that means you have to keep in touch!"

Carolina didn't respond, but she did smile.

Perhaps, things would be much more tolerable if she just kept her head up high and not let those bumbling fools get to her.

And perhaps, she would take up York on his off of a date.

He watched her go, noticing that his hand was suspiciously empty.

York turned back to his drink, mulling over their whole conversation.

A snake eating its own tail, huh.

The day before, a fellowship had been made. It was a holy fellowship, one that couldn't be defeated by inner desires or any evil doer.

It was the fellowship of 'Absolutely None of Us Should Tell Grif What Simmons Hero Suit Looks Like.'

It was so strong, that Tucker had absolutely no worries that someone would snitch. And Simmons was easy to convince, what with how embarrassed he was over the damn thing.

Had Simmons had his way, Grif would never find out because he would have had the damn suit destroyed- obliterated, eviscerated into tiny micro pieces spread out across the sea- before he could see it.

Unfortunately for Simmons, Tucker was an evil, selfish bastard. See, in his mind, absolutely ambushing Grif about the suit was an act of retribution.

Because he had given up the chance to have his sponsorship brand be some pretty bitchin outfits. But no, of course, he had to choose the other option- some animated show about mech's or whatever- because it wasn't fair that Grif wasn't there to have a chance to argue for his own brand choice.

Plus, he knew how much his fellow hero absolutely hated the outfits that he had to wear for his other company. So some change would definitely brighten his spirits.

So yes, Tucker was one-hundred percent selfish.

Which is why he formed the fellowship in the first place.

Everything was going beautifully- even more so when Grif had called ahead to tell Dylan that he was going to be a little late coming in today, claiming that the commute looked as though it was going to be absolutely horrible today.

He was probably full of shit, but that just meant that Simmons was going to be in his suit by the time Grif got there- so the hero would get the full experience.

It was perfect, it was delightful, and by God was it evil.

"Look how the tables have turned," Tucker said, lounging against the wall as he watched the late hero enter the building, totally not copying the pose the other hero had done yesterday.

"Shut the fuck up, Tucker," the hero grumbled. He looked slightly disheveled, and he made his way right past Tucker to head towards the locker rooms to change into his suit for the photo shoot Dylan had prepared for them.

Running after the other hero, he clasped his hands behind his head and became the dictionary fucking definition of suave- not showing even a slight bit of mischief as he internally chuckled at what he knew was going to be his friend's ultimate demise.

"So, how has your day been so far," Tucker asks faux-innocently, trying to rile up the other hero.

"Absolutely horrible," Grif rolls his eyes. "I slept through my alarm- don't even fucking think about making a wisecrack, Tucker- because I stayed up late last night arguing with that dickhead Hammer. Then, of course, because the Bronze Level couldn't get any shittier, there's a fucking traffic jam. So now, I'm late- I had to skip breakfast for fuck's sake- and we have to do this stupid photo shoot."

He reached the locker room door, and he gripped the door handle roughly as he turned to glare at him, concluding, "And of course, I have to deal with your stupid ass now."

Maybe Tucker would have taken offense to that, but after Grif had finished ranting he had swung the door open and stepped firmly inside-

Only to stop in the doorway as he jaw fucking dropped when he saw Simmons.

The other hero was putting on his ornate crown, frowning as he looked in the mirror, only realizing that Grif was there at the last possible second.

Simmons shrieked, face turning red in embarrassment, and he slammed his locker door closed, exclaiming, "GRIF!"

Tucker watched, in pure absolute delight, as Grif's roamed over Simmons' form, soaking in his hero suit.

The cyborg was begrudgingly forced into what, in his own words the day prior, he called "Fucking booty shorts!"

The shorts were maroon and white, and the same went to what, again, had been expressed as, "A fucking crop top!" by Simmons the other day as well, with a metallic covered gorget, but it was ultimately fabric as well.

And to top it all off, Simmons was wearing thigh high boots and elbow-high gloves on the human limbs. Now his cyborg limbs, on the other hand, they had been modified to display his sponsor tags, but in the scheme of things this detail was very much not important.

And Grif started to become flushed as well, and he coughed roughly into his hand looking to the side, but he kept darting his eyes over to Simmons.

"What are you wearing," his voice cracked slightly, and he grimaced at that.

Subconsciously, Simmons shifted as if he could hide and cover all of his exposed skin, stammering as he responded, "This is my hero suit apparently."

"That-" Grif stopped, looking as if he was actually choking on the words, much to Tucker's absolute joy. "That can't possibly be safe- for hero work! So you have to change it."

"I fucking wish," Simmons muttered darkly. "But Dylan apparently says it's mandatory."

Waving his hand as if he was fanning his face, Grif managed to get out, "Well, that- that must suck for you. I'm gonna- I'm gonna get changed. Into my hero suit!"

"Want me to wait for you?" Simmons asked, trying to get rid of his own blush, literally willing his self-consciousness to fuck off.

Tucker was enjoying all of this immensely.

"No!" Grif blurted out. "No, that's- that's not necessary, you can just, wait for me outside."

With that he rushed towards his own locker, passing by Simmons and trying desperately not to look at the other hero. He opened his locker and used the door as a physical barrier to stop him from accidentally gazing.

"That's a good idea," Simmons said, glad for a chance to escape.

He hurried out of the locker room past Tucker, wobbling slightly as he was unsteady wearing the slightly heeled boots.

But Tucker was only watching Grif watch Simmons leave, eye roaming where they certainly shouldn't have been roaming.

Once Simmons was absolutely, one-hundred percent gone, Grif covered his face with his hands and whispered, "Holy fuck."

Sufficiently satisfied, Tucker left with a devilish smirk on his face.

Today was going perfectly, and it could only get better from here.

"Good Morning, Troopers," Dylan greeted as she looked at the assembled heroes. "You've all got a big day ahead of you, so if we could move along with the schedule I have set that would be splendid."

Tapping her datapad, she brought up a checklist of things to do as she went through them verbally, "First things first, I want to get this quick preliminary photo shoot out of the way as soon as possible. As soon as we instate you guys as official full-time heroes we'll have time to do more extensive ones later. But the purpose for this one is so that we can send it to the publishing companies for the stat cards, and so we can use them tonight for the shows big premiere."

"So soon," Simmons questioned. "I thought we'd have a bigger buffer period to get used to being the main heroes."

Shaking her head, Dylan said, "Unfortunately, crime waits for no one. This is already the longest we've gone without the next season occurring due to the League changes, so you must understand our urgency to get back on air as soon as possible."

"Yeah, I guess," he rubbed the back of his neck, feeling nervous.

"Moving on," Dylan gestured towards the next checkbox, "After the photo shoot is done you'll have some downtime but not much. Call time is at five, with the show starting at seven, so you'll all need to head to MOI Media to wait there sometime between. You'll be able to get in with these."

She gestured to an open box next to her, containing silver bands with different colored trimmings.

"These are your wrist communicators," she explained. "They'll act as your identification into all FreelancerTV facilities and devices, but also as my primary form of contact with you all to tell you when there's a crime in the area. Once you accept these, you must wear them at all times, do you understand?"

At receiving a series of agreements she started to pass them out, going alphabetically as she sorted through them.

Tucker got his last, and he admired the aqua trimmings to it, internally pleased that it matched the color of his domino mask.

"Then lastly on the agenda, of course, is the actual event itself," Dylan said. "You won't have to do much, just present yourself to the audience so that they can get a good look at their new heroes."

A nervous energy filled the room as some of the heroes glanced at each other.

He personally couldn't wait.

"Alright then," Dylan nodded to herself. "Let's get started shall we?"

She led them towards a room she had accommodated into a set, a green tarp laid out properly, with lights and a camera team at the ready.

"Let's try to make this snappy, people," Dylan commanded to the team. "I'm sure none of you mind me setting up like this, but you haven't been authorized to be in any of our production sets just yet. So this will have to do for now."

"I'll go first," Grif volunteered, causing Tucker to stare wide-eyed at him.

"Since when do you ever wanna do shit like this first?" he couldn't help but ask.

"The sooner I get this over with the sooner I can sit down and nap," Grif deadpanned, walking over to the set.

He dragged his gravity hammer along, and once he was on the green tarp, he propped it up to lounge against, giving the photographer a charming, but very fake smile.

The photographer took the photo in a snap, nodding in appreciation of how quickly the hero managed to get it done.

"Thank you, Grif," Dylan said, making some notes in her datapad. "Your cooperation is much appreciated."

"I'll go next," Sarge offered, stepping up, and snapping a quick salute, posture firm and proper.

Once again, the photographer took the needed photograph and moved on.

Lopez didn't say anything, he merely walked onto the tarp, crossed his arms and tilted his head up just so to make it look domineering.

The photo was taken, and since every other member of Red Team had gone, Simmons went up next.

But this is where the problems began.

"Now for you," the photographer spoke up. "I want you to do a pose that's, hm, how to put this..."

Simmons narrowed his eyes in suspicion, guessing, "Are you about to say sexy?"

"Technically no," the man winced. "But essentially yes."

"No," Simmons turned his nose up at the man in anger.

"'No?'" the man questioned. "I'm sorry, but, excuse me?"

"It's one thing to put me in this silly costume," Simmons complained. "But I am not gonna act- provocative because of it!"

"Excuse me," Dylan butted in. "Simmons, I explained this to you yesterday, do I need to do it again?"

"No, I still remember," he crossed his arms. "Doesn't mean I have to like it."

"You are appealing to a very specific demographic," Dylan explained anyways. "Our focus groups tell us that cyborgs are very appealing to teenage girls- hell, women of all ages. And your costume is meant to accentuate your cyborg limbs, among other things, yes, but it's not for no reason."

"I stand firm in my position," Simmons muttered frostily.

"Do the pose, Simmons," anger bleed into her voice.

"Make me," he bit back.

They glared, with much venom shared between the two, and Tucker knew one of them was gonna break eventually.

And he knew for a fucking fact that it would be Simmons.

After probably a few seconds, Simmons wilted and sighed, a long-suffering sigh of a man who probably was on his way to his execution- not taking a photo that internet models would have had no problems doing.

Turning his body to the side, he looked over his shoulder, bending his cyborg leg and his hands clasped into a finger gun.

"Is this good enough," he gritted out.

Wanting to get the hero off of the set, the photographer took his photo and shooed him away, with Simmons storming off anyways.

"You," the photographer pointed at Caboose, who blinked at the tone. "You're next, do something- anything, just don't argue with me."

Blinking at the photographer, Caboose slowly raised his hands and did a very unsure double finger guns.

"Perfect! Now if you add a bit more confidence," Caboose adjusted accordingly, becoming much more relaxed now that he knew that the man wouldn't yell at him. "There we go."

Caboose walked away from the green screen, standing next to the heroes who were done as well.

Grif gave him a small pat on the shoulder, giving him his condolences. Photo shoots were always a bitch like that. At least he got off relatively scot-free.

Church went up without too much of a fuss, although his pose was pretty lame, with him only placing on hand on his hip and having the other brush against the rim of his visor.

When it was his turn, finally and last, Tucker had had a lot of time to think about what he should do for his pose. He wanted it to inspire kids, wanted to radiate confidence and power.

But, he didn't know how to fucking do that so he just settled for a simple, hands at akimbo cocky grin pose.

Damn, was he the lame one in the end?

Fuck, well it was too late to change his mind anyway.

"Excellent, thank you all," Dylan muttered sourly, giving a side glance at Simmons who was still upset. "You now have a short break, you all know the call time. I'll be dealing with all the last minute nitty-gritty details, but you guys don't need to concern yourself with those. I will be seeing all of you later today."

She turned and walked out with her crew, gesturing to some of them some stuff on her datapad, leaving the heroes relatively to themselves.

And there wasn't anything else to do but lounge around and eventually make their way to MOI Media right?

He could do this, he was totally ready. They all were.

Just had to wait for tonight.

He was filled with nervous excitement as they all waited behind stage.

This was literally it, this was their big moment.

He could just picture it- his future all laid out in front of him as he became a First League hero.

Tucker hoped that his son was watching this broadcast live from the TV in their living room. He even encouraged his son to stay up and watch, even though the event would breach into his bedtime.

Everything was going to go perfectly.

As the assembled heroes waited in the wings, at some point Tucker watched as Agent Carolina entered as well, decked out in her full armor, face obscured by her helmet.

Some petty part of Tucker's mind was pleased to note that his hero suit looked like it was the foil to her's. Juxtaposed as the two heroes with the same powers.

Except his was better because he was wearing it. Obviously.

Peaking towards the stage, he watched as Jax Jonez maneuvered himself across the stage with the air of a man who has done this many, many times.

It was show time.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” the stage was dark as Jax gestured widely towards the audience. He was wearing his iconic blue and black suit, hair neatly combed back for once. “I know you have all been waiting patiently for the newest season of FreelancerTV, and do we have some special planned for you all!”

The giant broadcast screen lit up behind him, showing the FreelancerTV Live logo, it’s bright blue colors lighting up the stage just a tad.

“We left you off on quite the mysterious lead,” Jax continued, bringing the microphone closer to himself. “One that I’m sure you’re all dying to know what’s going to happen this season.”

The crowd cheers loudly at that, and he waits for them to settle down before continuing. From where Tucker and the others were waiting in the wings, it looked as if the audience was really excited for the big surprise.

This was it.

The moment he's waited for his entire life.

"It's time that I reveal it to you, folks," Jax grinned cheekily at the audience. "For this season of FreelancerTV, we will have a completely new team saving the day."

The crowd went wild, the roar of it being so deafening that Tucker would have sworn the whole world's population was waiting out there in the crowd.

"Isn't this exciting?!" Jax pointed his microphone towards the audience as they cheered louder. "And I have the absolute pleasure of introducing them all to you today."

A loud drum roll permeated from the speakers, filling the amphitheater, as two spotlights circled the stage.

"First up we have a hero who could capture your hearts with his excellency and he's royalty to boot, so I am proud to present to you, our newest hero, Snow White!" Jax gestured towards the side of the stage where Caboose was waiting in the wings.

At seeing the signal, Caboose walked out onto the stage, going to the spot that they had all made sure to tell him was his spot, and not a single step further.

The screen above displayed the photo that he had taken just earlier that day, followed by a brief description of his power and overall hero stat's.

"Do you have anything to say to the people of Blood Gulch," Jax asked Caboose, pointing the microphone at him.

Tucker could hardly see his face with the visor and mask, but he saw Caboose look at all of them from the corner of his eyes, so he gave his fellow Blue a thumbs up.

At seeing this, the corners of Caboose eyes crinkled, and Tucker just knew he was giving him a thankful smile.

"I just want to promise that I will protect all of you and that I love all of you very much and hope that by being your hero we can all be friends," Caboose said before opening his arms up wide as if he could give all of the crowd a huge hug.

The crowd roared in excitement, absolutely delighted by what he had to say.

"Thank you, your excellency," Jax bowed slightly before turning to the audience once more. "How's that for our first hero, huh!"

"Now, onto our next hero," the spotlights started all over again in anticipation. "This hero is as feisty as he is young, and be careful because if you blink there might be more of him then you remember! I welcome to the stage, the newest hero, Epanalamváno!"

Church huffed but walked out onto the stage nonetheless, coming to a stop behind Caboose.

The same as before, his information and photo were displayed as well, with the only difference being that his age was disclosed to the audience, painting him as a teenager to all viewers.

"Have anything to say kiddo," Jax said, extending the mic.

Rolling his eyes, and knowing that he wouldn't be allowed to curse on live television, he simply said, "I'm happy to be your hero, or whatever."

The audience laughed good-naturedly, growing louder when he gave a half-assed bow.

"Next up, we have a hero who we know literally nothing about- seriously folks! He's tight-lipped about his power, but I'm sure that won't stop him from catching criminals with the hammer he lugs around," Jax joked. "His first time on this stage appears the enigma, Phantasmagoria!"

Whispering in wonderment as Grif walked across the stage, his gravity hammer slung across his shoulders.

He stopped by Church, absolutely dwarfing the small teen, as the screen broadcasted the only information they had on him, his picture displayed over the screen almost completely.

"Willing to share anything," Jax questioned, not too sure on whether he would get a real answer.

"It's no illusion, my desire to keep this city safe," Grif said before flashing a bright smile towards the audience, but to Tucker, he knew how rehearsed the whole thing was.

And yet, the audience swooned. Hard.

Tch, show off.

"Charismatic, I like it," Jax looked as though he was cheering internally that the hero had actually cooperated.

"Our next hero may not speak English, but it's clear for all to hear how he'll stay firm and strong to protect our city. So let me introduce to you all, Diamante!" Jax gestured towards the side once more.

And out Lopez went, face as monotonous as ever, standing next to Grif as his information was displayed in both Spanish and English. A common courtesy apparently.

"Do you have any words for the viewers back home," Jax had a slightly ridiculous look on his face since he knew his answer would be in Spanish only.

"Todo esto es ridículo, pero supongo que los protegeré a todos," This whole thing is ridiculous, but I suppose I'll protect you all, Lopez deadpanned.

"What a riot, isn't he folks," Jax said, not understanding a single word that the hero had said.

"Next up, ladies and gents, is a hero most likely past his prime, but he's here to shake you all to your core and keep you grounded to your seats, welcome our new hero Redstar," Jax smiled brightly.

Sarge only mildly grumbled about the joke against his age, and as his information went up, it suspiciously didn't include his age, despite the crack at it.

"Anything to say to the younger audience, sir," the audience laughed at his joke.

"I served in the military to protect the public one and I will proudly do so again," Sarge announced, his eyes closed as he nodded firmly.

"A veteran," Jax exclaimed. "And now a hero! A fighter through and through!"

The audience clapped respectively, and while they did so, Tucker bit the inside of his cheek, knowing that perhaps the audience would have reacted differently, a little more ashamed maybe if they were to know that Sarge was dishonorably discharged from the military because he had been a NEXT.

And back then there wasn't any fancy show to make the public treat NEXTs with respect.

But he keeps this to himself.

Especially when he realizes that his introduction was happening at that moment.

"Perhaps you all will get a kick out of this, dear audience, our next hero has a power very similar to one of the heroes from last season!" The audience tittered in excitement over this. "Teal Lightning, it's a name that insights power, real power. Perhaps, we could say, Hundred Power?"

At those words, the audience burst into a cacophony of noises, excited beyond all belief at this new information.

Taking this as his cue to walk out on stage, Tucker gave his best smile, glad that he had chosen to keep his helmet visor up with his domino mask firmly on.

"How does it feel," Jax began to ask. "Knowing that you share the same power as our previous Queen of Heroes?"

"It's good to know I'll have someone to learn the ropes from," he said, knowing that it would piss Agent Carolina off behind stage. "But I swear to do my absolute best to protect all of you!"

"Brave words," Jax said good-naturedly, most likely knowing exactly how pissed off Carolina would be. "It's good to have you on the League!"

Jax looked down at all of the heroes, and took a big step towards the audience, saying, "Now folks, before I introduce to you our last hero, I would like to explain to you all one last change to the show this season."

The audience fell into a quiet hush, waiting to hear what the announcer would say next.

"We've never done something like this before, but we're sure you're gonna love it," with a snap of his fingers, the stage was separated into red and blue lights. "While we still will have a crowned King of Heroes this season, there will be an additional crowning this season."

"We've separated our heroes into two different teams," the screen takes the hero pictures and separates them into two color-coded categories. "So you could say that this is a special Red vs Blue edition of FreelancerTV!"

At the very least the crowd looked purely ecstatic at the concept of a new gimmick for the show.

"Now, our next hero, I'm sure will be an eye-pleaser, and I'd like to invite him on stage first before introducing him any further," at this Simmons walks onto the stage, trying his very damn best to not flush red in front of thousands of spectators and viewers.

Now, if Tucker was listening clearly, and he liked to think he could distinguish these things at this point, he was pretty sure the female audience started cheering, a lot louder.

Ah, figures. At least Dylan was right about demographics and all.

Now Tucker knew Jax was stalling, really hard since Simmons, that intelligent idiot, still hadn't chosen a hero name, and you very well couldn't introduce a fucker who didn't have a hero name.

So he couldn't wait to see how the announcer bullshitted his way out of this one.

Luckily, he didn't have to.

"I'd love to introduce, to you, the audience- the ones here live and watching at home!- our newest hero-" and suddenly-

The Silver Level shook and rumbled at the sound and force of multiple explosions being set off at once.

Chapter Text

As much as she hated to watch the circus act that was the Second League's introduction to FreelancerTV,  she knew she had an obligation to appear, as both their 'mentor' and as the previous Queen of Heroes.

The plan was after all the heroes were announced, she would appear on stage and recite some ridiculous speech about how she was passing down the torch on behalf of the First League to Blood Gulch's new heroes. It made her want to roll her eyes, but she supposes that it was necessary as a show of goodwill.

Perhaps it would have been made genuine if the entirety of the First League was there to do so. But she knows that- while they weren't banned from the event per se- they had been advised not to come to the event.

And behind that advisory was a hefty sum of money as a bonus.

She scowls furiously as she hears that idiot hero announce that, "It's good to know I'll have someone to learn the ropes from."

The absolute nerve of that hero.

As it seemed, her initial beat down against the man wasn't enough to discourage him from pressing the same power issue.

She wondered if he would be as cocky if they really went toe to toe, Hundred Power against Hundred Power.

Maybe, if she did it in front of live TV it would properly humiliate the man, and get him off her back.

It's as she's fantasizing about this, thinking of new and creative ways to kick his ass in a little less than a minute that she feels the very ground beneath her rumble and shake.

It's accompanied by a loud, thundering explosion and smoke in the sky.

She rushes towards the edge of the backstage, peeking out from the side to see the direction that the smoke was coming from.

Behind her she hears Andrews rush forward, fumbling with her headpiece, yelling into it saying, "What the hell was that?!"

The producer rakes a hand through her hair as she barks, "I want cameras in the sky immediately! I'll be heading to the production van, tell Jax that as soon as he gets a chance to meet me there. The heroes-"

"I'll handle this," Carolina cuts her off, striding onto the stage, stalking towards the announcer who was worriedly assuring the crowd.

"Ladies and gentlemen, if you could all stay seated," the man held up a hand in a placating matter. "We are safe here in the amphitheater, I understand your need to leave but we don't want to cause any sort of unnecessary panic!"

The audience doesn't look the least bit reassured and the nervous energy doesn't leave the room.

His eyebrows furrowed, but suddenly his expression lit up as he said, excitedly, "Worry not everybody, as soon as the location of the explosion is revealed, I'm sure that our new heroes will be able to save the-"

Reaching forward, she grabbed his microphone, her visor sliding upwards, revealing her face as she firmly announced, "I'll be heading towards the area and will handle the situation, there's no need to worry. Stay in your seats, the broadcast will continue shortly."

She roughly handed back the microphone, and the announcer fumbled with it.

Her visor slid down, as she heard the man say dejectedly, "Of course, Agent Carolina will handle this disaster."

She activated her power, feeling the same rush of energy that she always did, and she hurried off towards the part of the level where the explosives must have detonated.

Over her comms, she hears the angry voice of Andrews scolding her saying, "Carolina what do you think you're doing?!"

"Handling the situation as the senior hero on the scene," she gritted out, racing forwards.

"This is exactly what you're not supposed to do! You're supposed to let the Second League handle this, they're the ones in charge now!" the producer sounded furious.

Carolina deigns to not answer.

The other woman growls in anger, yelling off to the side for Jax to hurry up, and it's at this moment that Carolina decides to end the transmission.

She's done listening to people who wanted to keep her from doing the right thing. She could handle this on her own.

She was Agent Carolina, the best of all the heroes.

And she was going to handle the fucking situation.

Tucker watched as Carolina came onto the stage and just- commandeered the whole thing! This was supposed to be their moment to prove to the world on live TV that they were capable heroes and she just, snatched it away from them!

But to hell with that.

So as Jax hurries off stage, telling the audience that he's needed out in the field, Tucker looks at his fellow heroes and says, "Come on guys, we're going to kick ass and save the day!"

"Are you sure that's a good idea," Simmons throws him a worried look. "Didn't Agent Carolina say she had the situation handled?"

"Yeah, and isn't she supposed to be taking a back seat to us," Tucker rolls his eyes. "Dude, we don't have to listen to her!"

"We kinda do," the cyborg retorted, glaring a little bit. "She literally said that we had to defer to her orders the first day we met her."

"I must not have been listening," Tucker jerks his head towards the audience. "Do you know what all these people are seeing right now? They're seeing us standing around and just talking- not doing anything to save the city. What kind of heroes are they thinking we are?"

Simmons frowns slightly, looking towards the sea of people, still unsure about what was happening, and undeniably looking at the heroes on stage and wondering what they would do.

It was their choice after all.

"Fuck, you have a point," he mutters. "Alright, what do we do?"

"First things first," Tucker said, trailing off as he approached the backup microphone that hadn't been used during the premiere.

He tapped it, just to see if it was on, and at hearing the sound amplified he brought it close to his face as he tried to speak in the same calming voice he used when Junior had a night terror, saying, "Hello, citizens of Blood Gulch."

The crowd quieted into a hush, all of them paying attention to the hero on the stage.

"I know this must seem frightening to you all," he continued. "And I know that Agent Carolina just told you that she would handle the problem, but we just pledged to you all our desire to keep you all safe. And that's exactly what we're going to do."

Taking in a deep breath, he kept his shoulders squared as he finished, "The Reds and Blues are on the case- and we promise to do everything in our power to make sure you all make it back to your loved ones tonight."

With that, he places the microphone back down, and jogs towards the side of the stage, knowing that the others would be following close behind.

"How are we supposed to get there," Church asked, tugging on Tucker's arm to get the older man's attention.

"Shit," he cursed, stopping in the hallway. He looked around but didn't see anybody else but them. "I didn't think about that part."

Church scowled, saying, "Are you kidding me? You didn't even think about how we were supposed to get there?"

"Look, I just figured it would-" he cut himself off as he noticed Grif continuing down the hallway, not glancing back towards the group. "Grif, where the hell are you going?!"

Looking back at him, Grif rolled his eyes, responding sarcastically, "I'm going home."

"Grif!" he narrowed his eyes, mouth open to scold the lazy hero for neglecting his duties to the general public.

"Relax," the other man rolled his eyes. "Unlike you, I actually have a way to get to the crime scene. I'm heading towards my jeep obviously."

"Oh," he blinks and feels a bit shameful that he had immediately assumed the worst. "I-"

"Simmons, Lopez, Sarge," Grif interrupted. "You guys are with me, I can get us on the scene in no time."

"Right," Simmons nodded as if this was something that happened all the time.

"Wait a minute-" and this time he was interrupted by a man and a woman racing down the hallway, one of them dressed in regular pilot gear and the other holding a camera.

Clearly, they were a part of the aerial crew, and Tucker noticed how Sarge's helmet turned to follow them as they raced down the hallway.

"As much as I'd love to lead you all into battle, I'm afraid I'll have to decline the offer," Sarge said, shocking the other Reds.

"What? What are you talking about Sarge," Simmons looked confused and tilted his head slightly.

Lopez, however, glowered as he said, "No se puede estar hablando de volver a sus hábitos ODST." You can't possibly be talking about returning to your ODST habits.

"That's exactly right Lopez, I can handle myself!" Sarge nodded his head, ignoring the way Lopez crossed his arms.

The father-son duo had always confused Tucker but now was neither the time nor place to contemplate the LaPesado family issues.

They had a city to save.

"But Sarge!" Simmons tried once more to get the older gentleman to go with him. Grif and Lopez were leaving him behind, heading towards the parking lot, not trying to waste any more time.

"I might be a bit rusty, but I'm still a hero, son," the older man said gruffly. "You worry about getting to the scene yourself."

Simmons frowned but decided to listen to the veteran hero, so he turned and ran in the same direction that Grif and Lopez had retreated towards.

"What about us," Tucker asked, gesturing to himself and Caboose and Church.

"Well would you look at the time, I have a ride to catch," Sarge said, completely ignoring his fellow heroes, running off towards where he had seen the crew members in charge of the sky filming go.

"You asshole!" Tucker yelled after him.

Even from a distance, Tucker could hear the distant yell of, "Suck it Blue!"

Oh, he already hated this team bullshit.

Looking around at the abandoned hallway, Tucker quickly waved his hands towards his fellow Blues saying, "Come on guys, we can't let Red Team beat us to the scene."

"Of course that's what you're worried about," Church snarked, a subtle poison hidden beneath his words. "Not the fact that the Silver Level literally got bombed- no, you're worried about us losing points this early in the game."

"Hey!" Tucker admonished. "I want to get there to be a hero too! But we need to play into the desires of FreelancerTV if we're gonna get anywhere in our career. Plus we gotta prove to our sponsors that we're capable heroes!"

"Whatever," Church shook his head, but then got a thoughtful look on his face. "Hang on, I think I have an idea on how we can get to the crime scene."

"You do?" Caboose asked, looking down at the teen.

The teen activated his power, glowing a bright white as the light separated and once more became the form resembling his late father, the Alpha symbol a glaring mark on the man.

Cabooses eyes pinched, and if it weren't for his gold visor and mask, Tucker would have been able to see the barely concealed tears and a deep frown.

Church ignored him and looked at the duplicate, announcing loudly and firmly, "Get us access to MOI Media's military hanger."

The duplicate nodded and started to lead them further into the building, to which the three heroes followed him.

"Either of you two better know how to drive," the teen glared at the adults. "I won't be able to call dad for help for the rest of the day after he gets us down there, so this better be worth it."

"What's even down there," Tucker asked, curious.

"You want to make a big entrance," Church said, rolling his eyes. "Well guess what, I'm giving you your big entrance."

As they raced down the corridors Tucker shot a look towards Caboose, but at seeing the equally perplexed look he realized that they had no idea what their fellow hero meant.

Well shit.

The thing about late nights like these in the Silver Level is that the highways are essentially empty. There's not usually a lot of traffic on bad days either. And especially when everyone and their pets were tuned into FreelancerTV Live, that made the streets as bare as all can be.

Which is the only reason that Simmons isn't absolutely freaking out about going so far over the speed limit that Simmons is pretty sure he left his stomach behind five red lights ago. Of which Grif had ran all those red lights.

"Grif could you please at least adhere to one of the many traffic laws we have!" he tries to yell over the rushing wind.

The other more, well 'experienced' for their group, hero doesn't look at him, keeping his eyes firmly on the road, but he does smirk a little bit, teasing, "What's the matter, can't take a little speed?"

"No!" he hollers, eyes wide, or as wide as they could go considering the wind was lapping at his unshielded face.

"Relax," Grif settles into his seat. "I know what I'm doing, I've been driving the Puma since I was a teen."

"Did you ever go to a driving school," he grips tighter onto the rails on the side of the jeep. "Also, the Puma? Why would you name it that- it clearly looks like a warthog."

Grif's eyes narrow, and he actually peers at Simmons, as he retorts, "This is a car that drives on all fours and goes fast. Why the hell would it be a warthog?"

"Uh, because of the tow hooks?" he feels himself relaxing at the easy banter. "Besides, what car doesn't drive on four wheels- that's a ridiculous argument!"

Fully turning towards him, Grif opens his mouth to respond, but he's interrupted by a voice filtering through their shared radio transmission.

"Hello, Troopers," Dylan greets them. "I'm beyond excited to see that you've all taken the initiative to come deal with this bombing yourselves."

"Of course, we're heroes after all," Simmons flusters, even without her physically being there he was still a little intimidated by the woman. He knew what kind of power and dominance she held.

His hero 'suit' was a testament to that.

"I just wanted to brief you quickly on some things," she says. "The frequency we're currently talking on is one that's shared with the production crew. We'll use this to mainly give you tabs on what's going on, as well as you'll be able to hear everything that Jax announces."

"Understood," Simmons nods. In the nearing distance, he can see some sort of construction site covered in smoke. There's a huge statue, still half built, but it reminds him of Atlas, holding up the world.

"Now, you can turn this off at any time, like Agent Carolina does," her voice dips into distaste at that. "But I wouldn't advise it, it often creates more complications, such as needing to rely on nearby broadcasts for what's being announced. Of course, I could still contact you through a private line, but this is much easier, wouldn't you agree?"

It does sound logical, so he admits, "Yes, ma'am."

"Now, for one last thing," the producer says. "I'd hate to give you a quick geography lesson, but considering what you're facing, I'm afraid you're going to need it."

Pursing his lips, he glances towards Grif who hadn't said anything yet but had what seemed like a look of interest in his eyes.

"As you know, Blood Gulch is composed of three levels- Bronze on the bottom, followed by Steel, and what we're on now the Silver Level. All of these levels are built on top of each other, with Bronze taking up the entirety of the bottom of the canyon, Steel a layer suspended above with some of the buildings built into the sides of the canyon, and Silver being built on the top ground with some additional suspension levels, are you following me," she asks.

"Of course," he responds.

"So here's where things get tricky," she continues. "The area of the bombing was a construction site for a new park on the Silver Level, but it hadn't gotten that far into the process. So what we're looking at is a possible minor collapse of this section of the level, but thankfully it looks like none of the support columns were hit. Besides, if it does fall it won't fall onto any Steel Level buildings, but we'd like to avoid that at all costs still."

Simmons goes to reassure her that they wouldn't let that happen when Grif interrupts with a, "I'd hate to interrupt your little lesson, but you're wrong about there being three levels."

"I'm afraid I don't follow," Dylan sounds genuinely confused.

"While all you fancy Steel and Silver citizens have been living, literally, the high life, us Bronze Level citizens have made some, additions to this city," Grif sounds slightly hesitant.

There's silence on the radio, before Dylan finally responds with a curt, "Explain."

"There are actually four levels to this city," Grif reveals. "Underneath Bronze, in what used to be the Blood Mines, is a completely functional level. We call it the Neon Level because Red Light District would have been too obvious in everyday speech."

"Please tell me you're joking," she sounded exasperated.

"Trust me, I wouldn't be revealing this to you if I didn't have any other choice, but here's where it gets worse," there's a deep frown on Grif's face. "The Neon Level doesn't just sit underneath the Bronze Level. It branches out throughout every single wall of the canyon. So when you say that if this part collapses it won't take anything out with it? You're wrong."

"No," she denies urgently.

"We've been keeping track of this construction site, trying to see if it'll accidentally cause a collapse on one of the branches," Grif sighs. "If I'd had to guess, the explosion must have already created some deep cracks into the support. If any more explosions go off or if something heavy falls down, that's it for all the people there."

"Can't you call for an evacuation," there's an urgency to the producer's voice.

"No cell reception, it's completely off the grid," Grif shook his head. "Besides, where would they all go? There's a reason why they're down there."

The producer curses, and there's some quiet mumbling on the other side before she comes back clearly says, "I'd hate to leave you, but I have to update my crew on the new parameters. This has just gotten a lot more dangerous."

"We're almost there anyway," Grif said.

There are so many things Simmons wants to ask Grif. Like, how come he never told Simmons about this Neon Level? Or how did he even know about it?

Was it just passing knowledge or was it an intimate knowledge?

He flushes a little when he recalls how it was gonna be called the Red Light District.

He'd have time to grill him later. When people's lives weren't in danger.

The comm goes silent, and Grif speeds up just a little more.

He's looking down at the Silver Level from way up high in the air, the sounds of the rotor soothing his nerves.

Now, he's very lucky that the crew in charge of the aerial filming was so 'willing' to let him hitch a ride with them.

Even now he can see the camera woman sending him looks from the corner of her eyes, trying very hard to not to be caught looking at him, but failing at it.

Heh, he supposes that this may seem unusual to them. On the off chance, he's seen a few broadcasts of those fancy-schmancy First League-ers and he knows it's common for the heroes to have their own form of transportation to the crime scenes.

Now, he couldn't willingly buy his own helicopter in this economy. It would constantly get destroyed what with him having to leave it unattended mid-battle! It would surely be a poor investment and would leave his savings bare.

No, he would leave his money for parts for weapons of mass destruction. It's only a shame that he hadn't finished his O-blue-terate Ray. It would have certainly aided Red Team today.

But, of course, he wasn't expecting to fight on the opening night.

The helicopter nears the cite of the crime, the smoke getting thicker and heavier from the aftermath of the explosion.

"Fuck," the pilot muttered. "We're gonna have to go back and find a new angle, we can't get any footage with all this smoke."

The camerawoman peered out, face blanching at the destruction, and she held tightly onto the handrail as she muttered, "Yeah, that's probably a good idea."

"Well, this is my stop,"  Sarge announced, nodding to himself at the height they were at.

"What?!" the woman did a double take, worry, and concern painting her face. "Are you crazy? How are we supposed to get you down there- there's too much fire and smoke! We can't possibly land in these conditions!"

"Who said anything about landing," he walks towards the opening of the copter.

"Sir, you don't mean-" she cut herself off as he turned to face her, face obscured by his helmet, his tunic like cloak billowing with the wind.

"'Feet first into hell'," he quoted, a touch of nostalgia tinging his voice. "It'll be like the good ol' days!"

The days before the military realized that the reason he was so good at his job was that he was a NEXT, a new and confusing and strange phenomenon that kept popping up more and more.

Without waiting for a response from the woman, he stepped off and backward, and let himself fall.

He watches the helicopter become smaller and smaller, he can even see a glimpse of the camerawoman peering out after him.

But then he turns around and peers down at the ground that's surging towards him.

Closing his eyes, he clears his mind and activates his power, the blue light being hidden underneath his hero suit.

In the past, he used to use his power to make his descent faster, and it made him a more efficient soldier.

But then one day someone had gotten a good look at his eyes as he landed, and realized that he was one of 'them.'

He didn't want to leave the military, but perhaps it was for the best. His boy missed him at home.

But of course, it all went to shit anyways.

Snapping his eyes open, he cuts off the force that tethered him to the surface of the planet.

And just like that, he's suspended mid-air, feet down like always.

He always had an easier time using his power on himself than anything else.

Increasing the force little by little, he floats down, boots landing firmly against the ground.

It looks as though he's the first one here.

A voice filters into his comms, announcing, "What an exciting start to the newest season of FreelancerTV! Right away our newest hero Redstar is awarded twenty-five points for arriving first on the scene! Now, I know technically our beloved Agent Carolina was here first, but as she's not participating in this season, the points cannot go to her."

He's surprised to hear the voice of Jax through his radio frequency, but he can't complain.


He moves deeper into the smoke, glad to be wearing a full helmet, as he listens to Jax announce, "Even if you're just tuning in now, I'm sure you know our standard rules of the show. For every criminal captured that's two-hundred points awarded to our heroes, and for every civilian saved it's a hundred points- with up to a maximum of five-hundred points."

Sarge catches movement ahead of him, and he hurries after the figure, as Jax continues, "This season however we have some new point systems. For every team combo, our heroes will be awarded fifty points, as this year we shall have a King of Heroes and a Team of Heroes!"

In the distance, he hears the sound of a car coming to a halt, and he just knows it's his boys when Jax announces excitedly, "And there is the rest of the cavalry! For being the driver, our newest hero Phantasmagoria is awarded five points for being the second to arrive on the scene!"

Three pairs of footsteps sound out and soon enough Lopez, Grif, and Simmons are at his sides.

Lopez is wearing a proper helmet, but for a moment Sarge worries about the two other Reds.

Simmons has no facial coverings in the slightest and Grif only has a visor.

"Perhaps you two should sit this one out," he advises, making a gesture at the smoke that still permeated the area. It was beginning to clear up a little, but it wasn't going away any time soon.

They both raise their eyebrows at him, with Simmons responding, "With all due respect sir, my lungs aren't exactly made out of flesh. They can filter out the smoke better than yours probably could."

That was fair, but when he turned towards the other hero, Grif merely crossed his arms and said in a challenging manner, "I live on the Bronze Level."

That... was also a fair excuse.

"Alright men," he said, turning back towards where he saw a movement in the smoke. "From here on out, only our hero names for communication. We don't want a slip up on live TV of course."

"Right you are sir," Simmons said immediately, before realizing, "But sir, I still don't have a hero name-"

"Suck it up, buttercup," Sarge cut him off. "Let's get a move on!"

They hurried into the smoke, ready to face down whatever villain came their way, bringing glory to the Red Team and to themselves as heroes.

By the time that she had already arrived on the scene, she was already down to four minutes left of her power.

Dammit. this area was a lot harder to get to than she thought it would be.

She was going into this one blind, there weren't any convenient TV broadcasts set up for her to listen in on Jax's commentary.

Besides, there wasn't anything to commentate on anyways. She wasn't doing this for points, and she certainly wasn't participating this season.

Tapping the side of her helmet, she activated her visor, trying to get a lock on anybody in the area.

This was surely the act of some villain, it wasn't like those petty crimes that the League occasionally dealt with.

There. In the distance she can see the form of what looked like a petite man, casually wondering the bombing site.

Jumping onto the metal beams, she loudly declares, "In the name of the law, and if you know what's good for you, you will surrender and willingly let yourself get arrested."

The figure pauses, before turning towards her, and with a gust of wind, she gets a look at whoever this terrorist was.

He's wearing big and bulky goggles, dark lenses so that she can't even see his eyes. His tunic is a clash of blues and reds, the arm and leg braces being the only neutral colored pieces to the whole ensemble. Hanging out of his back pocket is dirtied and tattered flag.

"I will do no such thing," the villain said in a high pitched voice, making Carolina flinch at the sound of it. "Our Holy Flag has decreed to me to set this place ablaze and crush those who seek sanctuary away from her!"

Great, a religious nut.

"This is your last chance," she said, taking a quick glance at her timer. She still had a few minutes left of her Hundred Power, and she would have to make it count.

"This is your last chance!" the man retorted, pulling out a remote detonator. "If you think that those first few explosions were anything, then you haven't seen anything yet. For the Holy Flag-"

Rushing forward, she reared her arm back, and swung at the man, making contact with his head and knocking him back into the unfinished buildings support column.

What she wasn't expecting, however, was to hear a loud crack and she's greeted with the image of the man's neck snapping at an unnatural angle.

Her eyes go wide. She wasn't aiming to kill the man.

She's horrified, at herself and her actions.

This hasn't happened before, she doesn't even know the procedure for when a hero kills a criminal. Could she even claim self-defense for this-

There's a loud squelching sound, and she watches as the body on the ground convulses, and she's even more horrified.

The villain's neck snaps and before she knows what she's doing she's clenching her fists ready for the man to get back up.

So he was a NEXT.

A NEXT with a regenerative power it seems.

"My Holy Flag has revived me once more!" the man pronounced, rolling his shoulders back and giving her a bloodied smirk. "As the Zealot of Healing, you cannot hope to defeat me!"

"I don't need to," she growled, all previous concerns over having thought she murdered the man disappeared. Now she just wanted to pound him into the dust.

Racing forward she delivered a barrage of punches and kicks, not faltering as her seconds continued to count down.

In morbid fascination, every attack landed solidly but did nothing to deter the villain, who merely took it all in stride.

Hopping backward, she took a momentary breath, before picking up a stray metal beam, swinging it and letting it go, watching as it collided with the man.

It launched him off the platform, and with a loud clang, he fell onto the floor below.

Hopping down, she watched as the man got up yet again, not even looking phased.

Dammit, she would have to think this through.

The best that she could hope for was for him to drop the remote or for her to confiscate it herself.

"Is that the best you got," the man laughed, gesturing with the remote for a second. "You want this so badly, go get it!"

He threw it to the side, running the opposite way while she dived for the remote.

Grasping it she prepared to deactivate it when it flimsily broke on its lonesome.

A decoy.

Snapping her head in the direction that the man went she went to chase after him, pocketing the broken decoy, when she heard cackling from above.

Looking up, the villain was two floors above her, a humming resonating from the machine on his back.

"Blasphemous heathen," the man yelled down at her. "By the name of the Holy Flag, I sentence you to a witch burning!"

He stomped harshly against the beam he was standing on, causing the structure to shake, and for boards to shift collapsing under the strain. The fires that had spread from the explosions had set the boards on fire, so when they came crashing down towards her she knew that it would burn her in some way or another.

She prepared to dash away when she heard it.

Five. Four. Three. Two. One.

Carolina felt her power leave her body and in the shock that she had lost track of time, she forgot her impending doom.

Tires screeching shattered her out of her state of shock, and she heard a loud shout of, "AUNT CAROLINA."

Bracing herself for the impact of the boards, she raised her armored hands and turned her head away.

Silence. Then, the loud sound of something smashing against a solid surface.

"Aunt Carolina, are you ok," a young and soft voice asks her.

Opening her arms and lowering her arms she widens her eyes when she sees a shield made of translucent light yellow hexagons.

And in front of her is a much younger version of her nephew, decked in a blue and red jumpsuit. He looks exactly like how she remembered him looking the last time she visited him- back when both Tex and Leonard were alive.

But there are differences because one of his eyes is pure blue and the other pure red, and on that jumpsuit- so similar to the white and black ones that had haunted her recently in her nightmares- is the symbol for Theta.

"What..." she trails off breathlessly, looking at the duplicate in front of her.

"Aunt Carolina!" she hears again, except this time from a much older voice, and she turns her head to see her nephew open the hatch to a tactical assault vehicle.

He jumps out of it and runs out onto the construction site, the panels of the shield disappearing to let him enter. He wears a light blue jumpsuit, the same as all of his duplicates, with a subtle Epsilon symbol on it. His face is obscured by a blue screened mask, but by his tone of voice, she knows that he's worried about her.

"What are you doing here," she asks, trying to scold him but mostly confused at his presence.

"We came here to do our jobs," and just like that, he goes back to sounding like an angsty teenager.

"It's about time you Blues showed up," a voice announces across the room.

Looking on the other side she sees the remaining heroes, the so-called Reds, approaching the area as well.

"Ah come on, are you kidding me," the aqua hero complained, getting out of the vehicle followed by his fellow hero. "How long have you fuckers been here?!"

"Not too long," the cyborg admits bashfully. "We've been mainly wandering around chasing after shadows. Turns out the criminal we were trying to trail has been running around this area."

"And I am still here," the NEXT yelled, glaring down at them from above. "Why have you interfered with Her holy judgment? The Holy Flag has decreed that the Queen's head must roll!"

"Oh god, not these wackos," the orange hero groaned. "I should have known that it was one of these guys, they're completely nuts."

"What nonsense are you talking about now, dirtbag," the older hero reprimanded, adjusting his fighting stance, centering himself towards the villain.

"He's one of these zealot guys from this cult that's been popping up more and more," the orange hero revealed. "This cult's been rampant on the Bronze Level for years, I'm just surprised they're resorting to terrorism now."

"So you know of Her Holiness, the Holy Flag," the man proclaimed, pointing at the orange hero.

"You mean that old crone who used to run the only level-paid orphanage?" the hero tilted his head. "Yeah, I know about that hag."

"How dare you!" the man said, accompanied by a scandalized look on his face. "Heresy! Utter heresy!"

"Oh, she fucked you up good," the hero remarked with a raised eyebrow. "Well, good luck dealing with this one, guys."

"What's that supposed to mean," the aqua hero questioned.

The orange hero stepped backward and continued to do so, watching the Zealot as he fumed from up above, spitting out praises towards the woman who apparently went by the name Holy Flag.

"Phantasmagoria!" the aqua hero yelled out, but he quickly lost sight of the hero in the smoke. "That asshole! Leaving us to deal with the cult criminal!"

"All of you will pay, for standing in the way of the Holy Flag!" the Zealot interrupted what would have turned into a verbal spat, pressing one of the many buttons on his arm brace. Missiles launched out of the machine on his back, locked onto the heroes.

"Theta!" her nephew called out.

The duplicate stepped forward and raised his arms, making a dome once more over the gathered heroes.

The missiles struck down on the shield, exploding, but not causing any further destruction.

"How many more of those shields do you have left in you, bud," he asked the duplicate.

The younger version of Leonard flickered a little bit before announcing, "Sorry, Epsilon, I only can do six more before I have to leave you."

"Fuck," her nephew cursed. "Ok, I'm gonna put you away now, and call you out later if I need you."

The younger duplicate nodded his head and disappeared back into him with a bright light, the shield crumbling without the duplicate there to uphold it.

"Let's not get hit by any more explosives ok, assholes?" her nephew said, looking at the assembled heroes.

"I don't plan on getting hit," the older hero huffed.

"Try not to embarrass yourselves too much, Reds," the aqua hero said, activating his power. "I know it'll be hard when we make the first capture of the season, but still."

"Bold words coming from a Blue," the cyborg snapped.

"Don't think about coming up any further," the man threatened, fingers poised over another button. "I'll detonate all the remaining bombs if you do!"

Looking at his fellow heroes, the aqua one saw that they were all in sync, and decided to ignore the unstable man and jump onto the next level. His fellow heroes followed after him, using either their powers or their armor to do so.

And Carolina's not too far behind.

"I mean it," the Zealot sounds panicked. Activating the machine on his back, he levitates himself towards the next platform, making sure to keep two floors between himself and the heroes. "You don't want to mess with-"

The man stops his rant, his hand lowering from his detonator device.

"Your Holiness you can't mean that," the Zealot yelled out, unprompted, looking around widely. "What- no!"

He shook his head violently, continuing to shout, "You can't mean that, please Matron! Why are you saying that!"

"What the hell is going on with him," the aqua hero asked his fellow heroes.

"Beats me," the orange hero, who had most certainly not been with them a second prior, said in response.

"Yeah, thanks Grif, that's real helpful," the hero snarked, before realizing the same thing she did, and exclaiming, "Where the hell did you come from?!"

"I went to find a different way to get onto this platform," the orange one shrugged.

"Why didn't you wait for the rest of us!" his fellow hero exploded in anger.

"It seemed like a lot of work," shrugging and holding lightly onto his hammer. "Besides, I got here in the end anyway, right? So I don't see the problem."

Not planning to stick around and listen to their banter, she jumped up onto the next platform, landing near the Zealot who had his hands over his ears still screaming out to some unknown voice.

If she really strained herself to listen, she too could hear the sounds of an older woman chiding the man in front of her, but the words were nearly incomprehensible with her helmet on.

From down below she could hear the continuing conversation of the Second League heroes.

"Oh, right of course, because that totally makes up for it Phantasmagorgasm," the aqua one snarked.

The orange one crossed his arms, a difficult thing to do considering he was still holding onto his hammer, saying, "Do you really want to go there Teal Lightning? I'm sure that's what the ladies call you in bed because of how quickly you fucking-"

He was cut off by the cyborg, who said, "Are you guys seriously doing this right now? Really?"

"The mean lady already went up to the next platform," the blue knight like hero pointed up towards her.

Taking her chance, without the other heroes to distract her or the Zealot, she slammed her fist against his unsuspecting face, watching as it broke him out of his spell as he stumbled backward.

"What a cruel trick," the man hissed out. "To use Her Holiness against me."

Even without her Hundred Power, she was still a capable hero, as she stalked towards the villain. She was nearby one of the open walls of the unfinished building as she cornered him.

The Zealot looked thoroughly beaten up, and it seemed as though so long as the hits didn't kill him, he wouldn't heal from them.

Perfect. That would work in all of their favors.

But even covered in cuts and bruises and blood the Zealot still had the audacity to grin.

"You know, you didn't even notice," the Zealot huffed out a burst of laughter. "Earlier, that decoy..."

She glanced towards the fake remote that she still had on her persons.

"Was actually a bomb," he smiled, a bloody and proud sight, as he pressed the button on the cuff of his arm braces.

"No," she said, unable to stop the device from exploding, but being able to knock the villain backward onto the lower platform.

The force from the explosion sent her flying off the side of the building and she couldn't activate her power for at least another hour.

There wouldn't be any shields to stop her fall.

Closing her eyes, she thinks that perhaps she could, after all, say sorry.

When she sees Leonard and his wife again, she would do it. She would say sorry.

Sorry for not attending her sickly sister-in-law's funeral.

Sorry for not attending her brother's untimely funeral.

Sorry for not taking care of her nephew.

Sorry for-

The touch of someone gripping her hand tightly has her eyes flying open.

There, the aqua hero-

He was holding precariously onto the side of the building, one hand clenching tightly against the edge of the metal beam, and the other holding onto her wrist, straining to support both of their weights.

"What are you doing," she yells at him, not at all expecting him to come to her rescue.

"What- does it- look- like I'm doing," he gritted out.

"You're being an idiot, I order you to let me go," she narrowed her eyes at the hero.

"Can't- hear you- did you say- to pull you- up?" he started to lift her up, having to stop when that didn't look like it would work.

"Why would you save me," she asks, not believing that he was genuinely trying to save her life.

"Well-" he huffed out a laugh. "Can't exactly- let my- friend's- aunt- die!"

He tried once more to lift her body up but stopped when his grip on the edge started to slip.

"Besides-" he readjusted his grip. "This is what- heroes do."

The hero clenched tightly onto her hand, and then in a show of strength, he hurled her upwards her body landing firmly onto the floor.

She rolled on impact, her sides aching from when the bomb exploded, and as she struggled to get up, she saw the other hero place his elbow onto the floor, pulling himself up.

He grunted with the effort but managed to get himself back onto the platform.

He pauses in his labored breathing for a second, before laughing and announcing, "Did you hear that, guys! A hundred points awarded to me for saving the life of Agent Carolina!"

Rolling her eyes, she realizes that he's connected to the same frequency with the announcer of the show.

She goes to chide him, properly this time, but perhaps not too harshly- he did save her life after all- when she hears yelling from the level down.

"You asshole!" her nephew goes to hit the Zealot, and even with all the hits, the man had taken he doesn't falter in the face of a pissed off teenage hero.

The Zealot resoundingly smacked her nephew clean across the face and it took everything in her power to not get up and go after him. If she got up now she would surely collapse and hurt herself further.

"Epanalamváno!" the two older heroes yelled, not hesitating to jump after the downed teenager.

The aqua one separated her nephew from the Zealot, supporting him as the teen recovered from the hit.

The taller of the two heroes, however, had forcibly pushed back the villain.

His fists were clenched as far as they could in his gauntlets, and his face was shadowed as he shook in anger.

A blue glow surrounded the man, as a hushed whispered was muffled by the man's mask.

Wondering what the hero was doing, his power, in her mind, near useless, she was appalled when rats of all shapes and sizes squeezed through cracks and skittered across the construction sites support beams.

They swarmed to the man, tons of the creatures at once, climbing over themselves in their haste.

"You are not a nice person," Snow White says firmly. "And my friends don't think so either."

The rats hissed at the Zealot whose face contorted into a look of complete disgust and revulsion.

"Where did these things come from," the Zealot shrieked in his squeaky voice.

"These things are my friends," Snow White glowered at the man, eyes glowing a menacing blue. The rat's eyes glowed an equal blue, as they moved forward. "I do not appreciate you calling them things."

"You!" the Zealot pointed at him in fear. "You're the Great Destroyer, the man who speaks to beasts and commands armies of them! You're the one our Holy Flag warned us about!"

"I don't understand what you're talking about," Snow White moved forward. "But you have hurt my nephew and my friends and that makes me very, very angry."

At seeing how close the rats were to him, the Zealot raised his hands in the air quickly, exclaiming, "I surrender! Call off your army!"

His stopped his advance on the villain, with his eyes becoming dimmer.

In a much chipper voice he exclaims, "Oh, yes thank you! That's much easier!"

The Zealot breathed out a sigh of relief, but he was knocked firmly unconscious when Snow White slammed his hand down sharply against the man's skull, the metal from the gauntlet making a loud clunk from the action.

The villain crumbled down to the ground and seeing that he was sufficiently defeated, Snow White nodded to himself before sending a smile to the rats, saying, "Thank you so much for your assistance!"

His eyes lost their blue shine, and the same happened to the rats. No longer communicating directly with them, they approached him, squeaking loudly, and he complied, giving a few of them gentle pats.

And Carolina watches this all from where she had been left, abandoned on the incomplete platform.

She leaves the scene of the crime, thoughts rattling around in her head, confusing her and making her question her decisions.

It looked like the Second League really did have everything handled.

She had a lot to think about.

Carolina doesn't stay to listen to the sound of the show's announcer proudly gifting points to the new heroes.

"What an exciting first capture!" Jax cheered. "That's two-hundred points right off the bat for our newest hero Snow White! Now, I'm sure we're all riled up from what has been an intense first episode of-"

She doesn't hear how the announcer was cut off by a sound that reverberated around the construction site either.

Tucker listens as a loud creaking fills the area. He looks around trying to find the source of the sound, perhaps worried that the Zealot had brought back up with him.

But a breeze clears out the smoke for just a moment, and he can clearly see the way that the large statue of Atlas was bent and melted, finally giving away after all of the chaos that the heroes had caused.

Glancing down he notices how, if the statue fell, it would cause the platform to collapse, and it would certainly hit the top of the canyon below.

A look of absolute panic comes across Simmons' and Grif's faces, and Simmons turns to Sarge saying, "Redstar can you use your power to prevent it from falling?"

"Don't!" Church interrupts, glancing at the giant statue and the platform. "You know as well as I do that he can't centralize it to objects other than himself without causing them to sink immediately, and that is the last thing we want to happen! The most logical thing to do is abandon this platform entirely and just let it fall- that way we have time to save ourselves."

"We can't do that!" Simmons looks at the teen, panicking further. "Didn't Dylan tell you about-"

"Maybe it's for the best," Grif's solemn voice speaks up. There's a strange look on his face, as he shakes his head, saying, "Anything we try to do will just cause this platform to speed up in its collapse."

"Phantasmagoria, you can't be serious," Simmons looks at the hero in shock.

"We have to cut our losses somewhere," Grif looks at him, voice tinged with regret. His eyes looked haunted, and Tucker just knows that he's missing something important.

Gritting his teeth, Simmons stalked forwards, announcing, "No, no we don't."

Before anyone can stop him he jumps off of the platform and takes off running towards the large unfinished structure, nearing the base before crouching low and digging his heels into the platform.

Then, due to his costume, they can see in full detail as his cybernetic leg starts to shift, the plates and machinery lifting into the air before lowering down towards the base of the foot.

A look of utter seriousness is on the heroes face, his eyes a brilliant glowing blue.

And then without warning, he uses his modified leg and propels himself into the air, the force of the jump causing the nearby smoke to separate roughly, clearing the area.

"SI-" Grif cuts himself off fiercely, to avoid outing the hero's civilian identity. He jumps off of the platform, and all of the other heroes follow him down.

"What's he doing that for?!" Church looked at the group, and more specifically at Grif, but the older hero only had eyes on his fellow Red.

Simmons had grappled onto one of the ledges of the statue's base and did the same process that he did with his leg with his cyborg's arm, getting the plates to shift towards his hand. Adjusting himself, he placed his heels flat against the side and pushed off, using his enhanced arm to propel himself onto the flat base.

The statue continued to creak under the strain of the weakening supports, but the hero didn't waste any time running off the platform, launching himself into the air.

Turning mid-jump, he faced the statue, opening one hand up, palm towards the ground, with his other human arm reaching out towards the statue.

Where any else would have fallen, the hero hovered in the air, his limbs shaking unsteadily.

"What the hell is he doing?" Tucker shot a wide and worried look at Grif.

Grif's eyes darted over to him, clutching his gravity hammer tightly in his hands as he answers, "He's using his powers to force his metal limbs to keep being suspended mid-air, while he multitasks using his power on the statue."

"Since when can he do that!" Tucker looked back up at the other hero.

"He can't," Grif looked like he wanted to rush towards his fellow Red. "The strain- he's going to push himself too far."

"What?!" Tucker cursed the fact that he had already used up his five minutes of power. He wanted so desperately to jump up and tackle the hero away from the crumbling hero. "Why would he do that?! If it falls who cares?!"

Glaring at him, Grif growls out, "He's doing it because if that statue falls it'll kill who fucking knows how many civilians."

"What civilians?" Tucker looked around, only see them and the unconscious body of the Zealot.

Church's eyes widened, and a hand shoots up towards his hair, "Fuck, you're talking about the Neon Level."

"The what?" Tucker asks, confused, but he watches as Grif stiffens slightly.

"How do you know about the Neon Level," there's a slightly scandalous look on the man's face, as he stares down at the teenager.

"My dad used to tell me everything," Church gives the other hero a knowing look. "Especially when it came to recruitment for the Second League."

Grif blanches at that, eyes wide in shock, before turning his head away from the teen.

"What are you guys talking about," Tucker demanded, tired of being out of the loop.

"Don't worry about it," Church shook his head. "All you need to know that if this whole platform collapses because of that statue, tons of people are going to fucking die."

Holy shit.

Looking up at Simmons he hopes the hero knows what he's doing.

The other hero is still straining himself to keep himself floating when suddenly a horrible groaning sound is heard from the statue.

The beams from the unfinished sphere start to shake slightly, before bending backward slowly, curling in on themselves as they separated. As they begin to do that, the top of the figure of Atlas began to split from the top, the metal creaking and getting torn apart.

In front of them, they watch as the metal warps under Simmons' powers, the threatening form of the giant statue being deformed into thin scraps, blooming like a threatening metal flower.

The statue was no more, and Simmons heaved a sigh of relief, as he lowered his arm slowly, his head lolling forward slightly.

"He's gonna collapse," Grif exclaims in fright. "A fall from that height's gonna kill him- he doesn't have any sort of protection in that suit!"

This prompts Grif into action, as he barks at Sarge, "Redstar, I know this is asking a fucking lot but when I make contact with my hammer I want you to increase the gravity- and don't fucking argue with me, just do it!"

Looking at Lopez, he said in the most insincere voice, "I'm sorry about what I'm going to do next."

Racing towards the other hero, he reared back his hammer, jumping up, and swung.

Lopez tensed, his power activating instinctively, and at the same time the hammer made contact with his chest, Sarge had activated his power as well, doing his damn best to try and increase the force of gravity.

Tucker knows that the weapon that Grif often casually slung around was actually used for the sole purpose of making hits more deadly, often the simple impact from the hammer could collapse someone's entire rib cage, and while it had been re-purposed by the AGLoA for sport, it still had its roots in combat.

Now he also knows that when Lopez activates his power, not only is he impermeable to all and any attacks, but he can also use it to his advantage to ground himself firmly like a stone wall. They hadn't encountered anything that could make him move from force alone.

So when Grif's hammer hits Lopez, combined with Sarge increasing the already deadly gravitational force on from the hammer itself, it acts as a sort of springboard that launches the orange hero backward.

Just in time too, seeing as Simmons had just passed out and crumbled mid-air, his power failing him.

Soaring through the air, Grif collided with the other hero, grappling at the unconscious man, curling around him. Maneuvering their combined forms in the air, he twisted around so that his back was facing the ground and that Simmons was facing safely upwards.

Tucker watched with worry as they crashed into the platform, causing it to shake slightly form impact, but a quick look at the cracked ground he saw that they hadn't spread further.

The two had, however, created a small crater in the pavement, and he rushed over to them.

As the dust began to settle, he saw Grif sit up, still cradling Simmons in what he'd call a princess carry- one arm under the other heroes legs and the other supporting his back.

"Come on, come on," the other hero muttered. "Wake up, nerd."

Tucker stopped in his approach, merely watching as Simmons groggily fluttered his eyes open, before groaning and closing them again.

"What... what happened," Simmons asked, opening his eyes and blearily focusing them on Grif.

Grif huffed out a laugh, shaking his head and teasing, with a weird echo to his voice, "Glad to see you're awake, Nerdbot."

Simmons stared up at the other hero, slowly becoming more and more aware of the position that they were in, a red flush appearing on his face, visible despite all the soot.

"I-" Simmons stopped when he also noticed that he had a similar echo, and before he could question it the answer was given to him.

"Now don't mind us, audience, we're just zooming in for the kiss," Jax spoke over the broadcast. He continued with what was undoubtedly tears in his eyes, "It's always a beautiful thing to find love on the battlefield, and to think sparks are flying amongst our own heroes!"

"WHAT?!" the two heroes shouted together, but despite their obvious shock, Tucker became absolutely delighted to see that Grif had yet to release the other man from the protective hold he had over him.

"What an amazing way to end our show," Jax said, ignoring their outbursts. "For his excellent display of teamwork, Phantasmagoria is awarded fifty points, but even further, for saving his fellow hero- and possible lover perhaps?- Nerdbot, he's awarded a hundred points!"

"THAT'S NOT MY HERO NAME," Simmons shouted at the same time that Grif insisted, "He's not my lover!"

"I'm afraid that's all we have for you tonight, dear audience," Jax went on ignoring them. "Thank you all for tuning in tonight!"

The broadcast supposedly ended, but from their private comm frequency they could hear Jax say in an aside to Dylan, "Oh, I can definitely sell their romance."

"That's- we're not!" Simmons cut himself off with a furious muffled scream, face as bright as a goddamn tomato.

Looking at Grif, his face pinched and he slapped the other hero roughly across the face, knocking Grif's visor right off of his face.

It clattered across the ground violently, and while Tucker couldn't see his face, he saw the other heroes hand raise to his face in shock.

Holy shit.

"That's for giving me the worst hero name ever," Simmons yelled, not really paying attention to the other hero. "And it's for giving up on those civilians in the branch below us- I thought you wanted to... wanted to..."

Simmons trailed off as he actually looked at the other hero, a look of confusion painted onto his face.

"Grif, your... your eye and...," a hand reached up to touch the other heroes face, but it retracted in shock once more.

Tucker could see the gears and wheels turning in the other heroes head, and then a look of utter realization seep into his eyes.

Coughing into his fist, Tucker got both of the heroes attention, and they both turned to look at him in annoyance.

Finally getting a chance to look at Grif's face, Tucker was perplexed to see that it looked the same as always. He was expecting, perhaps, a bad cut or bruise from when Simmons had slapped him, causing Simmons' reaction, but there was nothing.

What did Simmons see?

"You two done," he smirked slightly, not that they could see it from behind his helmet.

"Yeah, yeah," Grif grumbled, releasing Simmons and reaching for his visor. "We're coming, we're coming."

He slipped it on as he stood up, not waiting for Simmons to get up and follow.

For a moment the maroon hero stared after the other, lips pursed in thought before a firm resolution appeared on his face.

He got up, wobbling a little bit, probably still feeling weak after straining himself, but returned back towards the other heroes nonetheless.

"Good job, Troopers," Dylan's voice appears on their radio again. "We're sending law enforcement and firefighters to deal with all the fires. You can rest easy for now, and after the Zealot is in the hands of the police you can go home to recuperate."

"Awesome," Tucker breathed out in relief. "This has been- wow."

He felt like he could just collapse on his bed and never wake up again. Yeah, that actually sounded pretty good right now. His soft bed with his comfy blankets and pillow…

"Although, tomorrow we will all need to have a talk," Dylan said sternly. "Your choice of... language... was not suitable today for broadcast. I can't even tell you the number of times we had to turn off your mic's."

Oh right, FreelancerTV was meant for all audiences...

Goddamn it.

Chapter Text

Tucker went home with bruises all over, but with a happy grin on his face.

Because holy fucking shit they had done- really done it.

Him and all the other’s, they really were heroes now.

He stumbles into his apartment, trying his best to not make any noise. He's not carrying his normal duffel bag with him, because he and the other's had been instructed by Dylan to leave their armor at the guest locker room that was present in the MOI Media building.

Tomorrow they would all meet up there again, get scolded and chided and most likely yelled at by Dylan for their excessive cursing on the broadcast hours earlier, and then they would get back in their armor to move towards what Dylan had informed them was the Equity Tower, a building still owned by FreelancerTV but was essentially multi-purpose.

That was where they would spend most of their days now, filling out reports- ugh- and training. As part of the FreelancerTV facility, they would have open access to it and everything that was connected to it. While he had been mistakenly under the impression that they would be relocated to MOI Media itself, Dylan had corrected him by informing him that while, yes, MOI Media is the owner and producer of FreelancerTV, it was still a production company and thus had no room or need to have heroes there constantly.

Equity Tower, on the other hand, was built with the express purpose that the heroes would be primarily stationed there. There was a meeting room for the sponsors of the heroes to meet, but seeing as there was only really this Rooster Teeth company, MOI Media itself, and the American Grifball League of America, Tucker had a feeling that room would be relatively unused.

Oh, and the Justice Bureau was stationed there too. That was something they would have to keep in mind from now on. Considering that they were dealing with high stake crimes and all.

Tucker's only ever seen the building once, on a visit to some house warming party for some old college fling who had moved to the Silver Level from Steel. It was back when Junior was still a newborn baby, and he had brought him along.

He passed by the building and looked up at it, at the tall statue of the Goddess of Truth staring down at all the civilians below, a small smirk on her gentle face- as if she was the only one who knew what was going on with the world, and that she was laughing at everyone's blind trust in falsehood.

It made a shiver go down his back then, and it did now.

And to think he would have to stare up at her every day now as he entered the building for work.

He shucked off his coat, and sloppily placed it on the coat rack. He tiptoed his way through the apartment, as he went towards Junior's room.

Opening the door slowly, he admired the small form of his son underneath his blankets, his little chest going up and down as he slept deeply. Stepping inside the room, he reached his son and placed a small kiss on the top of his forehead, quietly wishing the boy goodnight.

Leaving the room, he closed the door silently and turned towards his own room.

In the background, he heard his coat fall of the rack and onto the floor.

Sighing, he debated going over and putting it up again.

Nah, that would be a problem soundly for morning him.

The him of right now wanted to collapse into his bed and just take a long ass nap.

And that was exactly what he was going to do.

Simmons had waited until all of the other heroes had left. All but him and Grif.

He's tugging at the edge of his glove that's threatening to slip down, looking down at his feet.

Grif's still slowly undoing his armor. Taking the pieces off and settling them lightly against the table in the waiting room. Simmons assumes that he's going to bring them into the locker room when he's done because it's just the two of them right now.

"Hey, Grif," he speaks up, still not looking at the other hero. He swallows harshly and tries to find all the words that he had wanted to say earlier. "Can we talk about earlier?"

The other hero sighs, pausing in placing down his visor.

"Do we have to," Grif sounds tired, and normally Simmons wouldn't bother the other hero when he's exhausted, but...

He knows what he saw. And he also knows what he doesn't see now.

"Yes," he tries to sound firmer. "I just can't forget about what I saw."

"What if you tried really, really hard," Grif tries to make his tone sound lighter, but it still comes out terse. He's starting to slip off his undersuit, rolling it down to his waist, before stopping.

"I already know what your power is," Simmons reveals. "But I just don't understand why..."

"Why what," Grif turns around to look at him, and while Simmons would flush at the sight of his bare chest, he's got other things to focus on right now.

"Why you would use it to hide what you actually look like," Simmons finishes.

There. He said it- he said the thing that had been plaguing his thoughts all night.

"What I actually look like?" Grif quirks an eyebrow at him. "I wouldn't go that far."

"I want to see you," Simmons continues, ignoring the other hero. "I only got a glimpse earlier, but I want to see everything."

"Everything? That's really bold of you, Simmons," Grif looks down, and fails at a teasing smile. "I guess there's no real reason to not indulge in your fantasy."

Reaching up, Grif covers his left eye, before swiping his hand to the side.

In a shimmer, like the waves of heat one would see whilst stumbling through the desert, the skin around his left eye, and the eye itself, change. Discoloration bleeds onto the hero's face, and his eyes are closed before they open again revealing the true color of his left eye- a bright, crystalline blue.

There's also a harsh cut starting from just above his eyebrow to the top of his left cheek.

"Grif, I-" he starts to say before getting cut off.

"But you wanted to see everything, right," Grif turns his head to the side, raising a hand to his chest and giving it a harsh swipe. "There, now that's everything."

And he's shocked because he watches in morbid fascination as the same thing occurs again. A long mean looking scar in the shape of a 'y' reveals itself on Grif's chest, and that's not even the least of it. Tattoos appear all over his chest, a strange wispy looking one with harsh curves on his left arm and on the right vines wrap around his bicep. The vines continue into a yellow flower that Simmons is pretty sure is a hibiscus, and that flower lies behind a very strange and peculiar tattoo, partially distorted by the scar tissue.

Simmons is thankful that he has some knowledge over alchemy, otherwise, he was sure that he wouldn't have recognized it.

He tries to speak again, once more saying, "Grif-"

"Not exactly the most useful NEXT power," Grif muses, looking down at his hands. "If somebody touches my illusions, that's pretty much it for me."

Simmons' fingers twitch at the memory, of how he slapped Grif and watched as the illusion had crumbled away like it was nothing, before quickly returning before anybody else could see.

He had done it, he had been the first to figure out what Grif's power was.

But he was still so, so confused.

"I don't understand," Simmons shakes his head. "Why keep it hidden- your power and- and everything else?"

Looking up at him, Grif crosses his arms, saying, "This is probably the only time I actually agree with my manager on something. When your stat card reveals that your power is illusions of all kinds, it makes it so criminals don't fall into any of my tricks. Like today."

The memory of the Zealot shouting out to unknown whispers, and how Grif had left before this occurred, breaches to the forefront of his mind.

Simmons can see what he means, that even with the element of surprise if the criminal was smart enough, they would be able to figure out that whatever they're seeing or hearing wasn't actually happening, and that would leave Grif at a stark disadvantage.

Which then went on to explain why he was the only hero to have an actual weapon.

"But what about your face and- and your chest? Why would you actively use your power..." he trails off slightly before realizing, "That's why you're always so tired! You're using your powers all the time. Grif, that's not healthy!"

"Like I've ever cared about what's healthy or not," Grif looks thoughtful as he stares at Simmons. "But to answer your question, it's another one of my manager's ideas. It makes me more, hm, appealing to viewers."

"'Appealing?'" he's absolutely puzzled as he repeats that one word. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"You know," Grif gestures vaguely. "Appealing. Visually speaking. Better looking."

His eyes turn a telling blue, as a similar glow surrounded his body. He goes to wave his hand over his body, likely ready to hide everything again.

"But you're fine as is!" he steps forward, grabbing Grif's hand because he absolutely means it. "That's such a horrible thing to say."

The other hero stares at their conjoined hands, before looking back up at Simmons.

Shaking his head slightly, he tries to argue, "Come on, even you have to admit that the scars are off-putting, trust me, sponsors prefer heroes who-"

"Well fuck what the sponsors want!" Simmons interrupts him with an angry fervor. "Ever since we got bumped up it's been sponsors this and sponsors that- but who gives a shit? Who's really gonna take the time and stare at the face of the hero who's saving their life? It's ridiculous. You look fine."

And just like that, it's silent between the two. The only thing lighting up the dark room is the glow from Grif's eyes, illuminating the curves to his face. They're close, very close.

Grif coughs into his other hand, eyes dimming and turning normal again, saying, "Alright, I get your point. Fuck the sponsors and all, now could you... let go of my hand?"

"Oh right," he drops it and takes a good step back. He too coughs into his hand, and decides that perhaps it would be ok to ask, "So, maybe you could tell me about your tattoo's? If that's ok?"

"Huh?" Grif looks down at his chest, and wow, now is not a good time to remember that Grif was indeed shirtless, despite the fact that he had indeed posed the question about the other hero's tattoos, "I got most of these drunk."

"Still, maybe you could explain the thought process of, uh, drunk-you?" he pushes the question, although he is genuinely curious. "Like that one," he points to the only one he can't actually describe.

"I'm pretty sure this was supposed to be the golden spiral," Grif seems happier at the change in subject. "Or maybe some weird evil eye thing. Like I said- drunk."

It definitely did not look like the golden spiral, unless the tattoo artist was also drunk.

"What about the other ones?" Simmons gestures to the other side of his chest.

"The vines flower combo was actually something my sister drew was she was little," the other man's eyes got softer. "I promised her that I'd get it tattooed on me one day, but she hasn't gotten a chance to see it yet- she's still working on her degree."

"I didn't know you had a sister," there wasn't a lot that he knew about the other hero actually.

"She's away, anyhow," Grif shrugged. "She mentioned visiting, but she's got friends and her own life, so I don't think she will."

Ah, that'd explain it.

There was still one more tattoo left...

"What about the ouroboros one?" he asked, pointing it out.

Grif seemed confused at first before his eyes trailed down to where he was pointing.

"Is that what this is called," he asked, although his tone was hesitant.

"Yeah!" he nodded his head. "It's meant to symbolize wholeness or infinity, it's a well-known alchemist symbol. Although, I've never seen this variation with a sword in it..."

"I wouldn't know about any of that," he rubs at the skin a little, looking to the side. "I don't want to talk about this one, actually."

"Oh, yeah, that's fine," he runs a hand through his hair. "It's getting pretty late anyway, I should, um, I should go. Unless you want me to wait for you!"

"Go home, Simmons," Grif softly tells him. "I still gotta clean up here. I'll you see you again tomorrow, ok?"

"Of course," he says a little too quickly. "I- uh, good night, Grif."

"Night," Grif turns his back to him, also revealing that there were more tattoo's on his back as well.

As much as he would have liked to stay and admire all the designs, and spend more time in Grif's presence, he knows that he's practically dead on his feet right now and that he really should go home to rest before he passes out whilst driving.

But still, he wishes that he could have spent more time with Grif.

Tucker's humming to himself as he works on making breakfast for both him and Junior. Despite the long and tiring night that he had, he felt well rested and energetic.

Because fuck it all he was a goddamn hero.

And he had saved the previous Queen of Heroes herself.

He would never forget that day, never.

Tucker was such a badass.

Soon enough, he was finishing up cooking when his son sleepily walked into the kitchen, rubbing tiredly at his eyes, but fully dressed and ready for a long day at school.

"Good morning, bud," he greets his son, placing a plate in front of him. "Eat up kiddo, as soon as you're done you're heading off to school and I'm heading off to work."

His son nodded and gave off a quiet yawn whilst shoveling eggs into his mouth.

To fill the apartment with noise, Tucker turned on the TV, internally pleased to see that they were showing highlight reels of last night's episode of FreelancerTV.

"So, how'd you like the show last night, Junior," he asked, hiding his excitement from his son.

His son shrugged, his lack of usual reverence a sign of how staying up late had affected his sleep schedule.

"I thought you'd be more excited," he was slightly disappointed, but he knew how grumpy his son could be in the mornings if he stayed up a little late.

His son settled his fork down to reach up to his chest, fingers extended and elbows up before dropping them. Tired.

"That's to be expected I suppose," he sighs. "But, what do you think of that new hero, what was his name again... oh, that's it! Teal Lighting?"

Junior scrunched his nose before sticking out his tongue at his father, not knowing that this action had destroyed his father's entire self-esteem.

To think... his own son... didn't even like his hero self.

This- this was a damn travesty.

Obviously, he had to be cooler- more spectacular moves! He had to get proper validation from his sweet, small son.

He's broken out of his stupor when he hears the newscaster's voice take a serious dip in tone.

"Yesterday, a single mother and her daughter were viciously attacked in their apartment," the regular newscaster reported. "The mother was found dead at the scene, and while the daughter was in critical condition, it's been reported that she's expected to make a full recovery when she comes out of her coma. As of now, there are no leads on who could have committed such a crime on the B-"

He frowned, before quickly changing the channel. This wasn't the sort of thing he wanted his son to hear about.

But fuck if he didn't feel absolutely horrible about it. To think, while he and the others were stopping that crazed bomber the other day, someone else had used it as a cover to murder that poor woman, and from the looks of it, the daughter wasn't too far behind.

He hoped that the police would catch the bastard soon because if not them, it would end up being him and the others and he doesn't know if he would be able to hold back his power while trying to capture the killer.

Because all he can think of is the thought of someone sneaking into his house to attack his son. If he came home and saw that he doesn't know what he would do.

Probably something bad... and illegal...

Shaking his head, Tucker tries to forget hearing the news report. He doesn't need the death of an unknown woman on his mind, or the possible chance of that little girl dying too.

If it comes back to him through the League then fine. He'd think of it then.

But for right now? No, not at all.

When he, and all the other's, assemble at MOI Media, it's to an uneasy energy between them because Dylan looks pissed.

"I have many things to say to you all," she starts, her voice so stern that it almost reminds Tucker of his old elementary school teacher who would absolutely not hesitate in slapping a ruler against the hands of unruly children.

Holy shit- they were the unruly children, and Dylan was about to slap the shit out of them.

"I'm going to start with the easiest thing, and work my way from there," she stared each and every one of them down. "I'm going to say this as plainly as possible, and hope it sinks into all your stupid, little heads."

He started to sweat a little, and he gave a wide-eyed look at Grif, who only looked mildly worried, which on Grif, meant the dude knew they were in so much goddamn trouble.

"FreelancerTV is a family-friendly show," she says slowly. "Is it action based? Yes, but we have full control over all camera's to ensure that nothing too graphic appears. Would you like to know what does not fly past our censors?"

Nobody answers her.

"Cursing," she answers her own question. "Foul language, that does not and should not appear on our broadcast. With how much you all curse in general, I should just make the executive decision and cut off all your mic's, but I'm not going to do that because I'm telling you now to cut that shit out."

Lopez, that glorious Spanish speaking bastard, was the only one who dared to speak up, "Apesta ser tú, idiotas. No tengo que curvar mi lenguaje." It sucks to be you, you idiots. I do not have to curve my language.

"I don't know what you just said, but if it's even an inch of sass, I'm here to remind you that everything you say will be subtitled and that if you think we don't have Hispanic viewers then you're dead wrong," Dylan snapped.

Lopez was quiet for a moment, before letting out a quiet, "Mierda." Shit.

"Do you want to know what also doesn't get past the censors," this time she looked directly at him and Grif. "Sex jokes, sex references, anything related to sex."


"So this is your one warning to not make jokes like the ones the two of you made last night again," she threatened. "You do not want to see an angry Dylan Andrews."

"How is this not her angry," Caboose whispered to Church, eyes fearful of the woman in front of them.

She runs a hand through her hair, scrolling on her datapad slightly before bringing up some footage from the night previous.

"This, perhaps, is more serious, but not too much of a problem to fix," she sounds much more subdued, but also much more tired. "Tucker, last night you made a really big mistake."

"I did?" he looked at his other heroes, who were conveniently not making eye contact with him since he was the one under fire now.

Pulling up the feed, she goes to a certain timestamp, and his voice comes out from the speakers, saying, "Yeah, thanks Grif, that's real helpful."

He can feel all the blood drain from his face.

Because Dylan was right.

He made a really big mistake- a colossal fuck up.

"We're all very lucky, that I had your mic muted from the comment you made before this was said," she sighed. "But please, refrain from saying your real names on the broadcast. Next time we might not get so lucky. But..."

She trails off as she turns her attention to Church, giving him an apologetic look as she says, "We weren't able to turn your mic off when you called out for Agent Carolina. There's no going back from that."

"Fuck," the teenager looked down with his eyebrows furrowed.

"We were planning on releasing a statement later today, about how you're following in your family's footsteps on being a hero," her eyes pinch at that. "I know this isn't what you wanted-"

He waves off her apology, saying, "It's my fault, don't beat yourself up on it."

"Of course," she nods her head, quickly checking things off on her datapad. "I suppose, that's it for group announcements. I'd like to ask that you all retrieve your equipment before going to Equity Tower, and there's someone I'd like to introduce you to as well there."

Everyone turns to leave the room, glad as hell to get their sorry asses out of there as soon as possible when Dylan calls out again, getting them to all stop in their tactical retreat.

"Oh, and Simmons," Dylan gives him a sorry look. "You already have been summoned by the Justice Bureau."

"What?! Why," Simmons looks shocked, absolutely befuddled by what the producer was telling him. "I didn't do anything wrong!"

"Technically, you weren't authorized to destroy the statue of Atlas at the construction site," Dylan winced while saying that. "And while you were lucky that it wasn't one of the city's priceless monuments, and that it wasn't even finished, you have still destroyed city property and need to go to court to deal with the fine."

"I- but-" Simmons stuttered and fumbled, looking down at his hands as if they were at complete fault for what had happened.

"I'm sure it will be fine, Simmons," Dylan tried to reassure him. "Justice Temple will be handling the trial, and he's been known to be sympathetic to some of our First League heroes, I'm sure he'll be the same to you."

Tucker wasn't even sure if Simmons was paying attention to her anymore, his eyes distant as he wrapped his head around the fact that out of all the heroes, he was the first one to get in trouble with the law.

"Your court date is later this week," Dylan continued, either not noticing that the cyborg had practically blue screened or not caring at this point. "So be sure to not miss it, because at that point there's really nothing more we can do for you."

There's still no response, but Sarge steps in to say, "Don't worry none, when he gets to I'll remind him about it."

She nods her head and marks off everything in her checklist before getting to the last one.

"One last thing, I promise," she gets serious, more serious than when she had been talking about their etiquette for TV. "Grif, stay after, I believe there's something you need to show, not just me, but some representatives from the Justice Bureau as well."

This seems to have snapped Simmons out of his shock, and he quickly interjects saying, "I'm coming too!"

Dylan gives him a perplexed look, and before she can either deny or ask why, he adds in, "You never know if you might need my help."

The producer debates it, truly debates, but ends up giving in, saying, "Fine, you can come along. Both of you need to change out of your suits and into some civvies."

With that, the woman leaves the room in a hurry.

Looking at the two heroes, Tucker asks, "What's all that about?"

Ignoring him, Grif walks out of the room and Simmons follows close behind, only throwing Tucker a passing look.

"God, you really are dumb," Church shakes his head.

"What?" Tucker looks at the teen. "Am I missing something?"

"Do you remember what even happened last night?" Church rolls his eyes. "About the Neon Level?"

Thinking about it, he does recall how quickly Church and Grif changed the subject away from this mysterious level that he's never heard about before.

"Yeah, I do," he nods his head. "But what's so bad about it?"

"If only you knew," Church seemed slightly bothered. "It's the most miserable level to this city, even more, miserable than the Bronze Level."

Grif and him and Dylan's crew and a few people from the Justice Bureau are standing in front of what looks like a caved in entrance to a mine.

"Would you look at that," Grif says in faux-innocence. "Turns out, the explosions really did collapse the mines."

"No, this can't be true," Dylan shakes her head, and she steps closer to the entrance.

The whole thing is built into the side of the canyon, and it's tall and domineering. There's a broken lantern on the ground, amongst the rubble of everything else.

"How do we know that it's not some sort of hologram to hide the entrance," one of the Justice Bureau mooks asks.

In response, Grif picks up a sizable rock and throws it at the boulders and rubble blocking off the entrance. It bounces back firmly, landing at the feet of the man who asked the question.

"I think that answers that," Grif says.

"We should start excavations, to see if there are any survivors," this time it's a woman asking, turning to the man who spoke first.

"I wouldn't advise that," Grif cuts in once more, gaining the attention of the group. "I know these mines and tunnels better than you do. They weren't designed to survive if the entrance collapsed."

"So all those people..." Dylan trails off, staring hopelessly at the entrance. She turns towards Grif, "How aren't you more horrified?"

His eyes flick down, and Simmons tugs sharply at his sweater cuff.

The man shakes his head, turning towards Dylan trying to reassure her by saying, "Mrs. Andrews, if he's telling the truth, then... perhaps it's best to leave the Blood Mines as the Blood Mines. People dying down there is nothing new."

At the same time that Simmons frowns, Grif starts scowling.

Shaking her head, Dylan takes one last good look at the ruined entrance, before sighing and saying, "Thank you for all your help, Grif."

"Of course," he nods curtly at the producer.

She walks off, her crew following her and the Justice Bureau representatives too, muttering under her breath, "I just wish there was more to be done."

The two of them watch as the group leaves. As soon as they are well out of sight, the entrance shimmers with light and crumbles away, revealing a perfectly clear and stable mine entryway.

And waiting on the other side is a man that Simmons has never met before, tossing the rock up and down, watching the display with hooded eyes.

"Considering you took down the illusion, I'm assuming they're gone," the man raises an eyebrow.

Grif lets out a long-suffering sigh and responds, exasperated, "Yes, Hammer, they're gone. And hopefully, they've given up on the Neon Level."

Simmons only hears the next part because he's standing next to him, but there's no mistaking the angry, "Like the other levels ever give a shit about the Bronze Level anyways."

Hammer stalks forward, giving Simmons a once over, before asking Grif, "Who's he?"

"This is Simmons," Grif says tentatively. "He's... a friend from work."

"From work, huh," Hammer doesn't look convinced. "He your secretary?"

"Sure," Grif waves off Simmons, giving him a look that clearly told him to give them some space.

"You know, if this friend of yours wants a pass to the Neon Level he could just ask," Hammer jokes.

"That's not funny," the other hero snaps.

"If he knows you then eventually he's gonna go down there," the manager waves off. "I'd say you're down there more often than I am."

"That's different and you know it," Grif hisses. "I did what you asked, ok? Can you just leave it be?"

After everything he’s heard in passing about the man, Simmons can firmly say that he does not like or trust the man at all.

"Good job, today," the manager looks at Grif, a proud smirk on his face.

"I didn't do it for you," Grif glares sullenly at the man, crossing his arms defensively, but his voice is quiet, and given the way he peers back at Simmons, he's pretty sure that this is a conversation that he doesn't want the cyborg eavesdropping on.

Well, tough shit.

"Sure you didn't," Hammer laughs, but claps him on the shoulder, making Grif stumble slightly. "I know how you actually feel about me, kid."

"Oh, so you know how much I hate you with every fiber of my being?" Grif shakes off his hand. "Besides, I'm not a kid anymore, so could you, ya know, stop calling me that?"

"You were a kid back when I first met you and you're still a kid now," Hammer rolls his eyes, but he gets the memo and takes a step back.

Good, if he hadn't Simmons might have felt compelled to step in and forcibly tell the guy to leave. Which wouldn't be a good thing, but he's pretty confident that that'd be a fight that he would win. Maybe.

"God, you're so annoying," Grif clenches his fists.

Hammer's previous carefree expression turned sour as he reached out and gripped Grif's fist tightly, hissing, "Don't forget whose in charge here. And who gave you everything."

Grif doesn't say anything, but his face is pinched, and Simmons has to wonder how it is that he hasn't decked that asshole in the face yet.

Simmons wants to punch Hammer. A lot.

But Grif doesn't do anything, and Hammer let's go of his wrist. Then he nonchalantly looks at his watch, as if the previous exchange hadn't happened.

"I've got a meeting to go to," waving lazily he walks off, most likely towards his car. "Next time you're on the broadcast make sure to accentuate your logo's. It'll make the sponsors happier, and that, in turn, makes me happier, and you much richer."

For as much as he'd like a chance to fist fight the man right there, Simmons is glad to see the man go.

"You ok?" he asks tentatively, approaching Grif.

Grif's rubbing his wrist, frowning as he says, "God, he's such an asshole."

Huffing, he can feel his fists clenched tightly as he says, "Yeah. I can tell."

Ruffling his hair, Grif apologizes, "Sorry you had to see that."

"Don't be," he doesn't hesitate to say. "It's not your fault that you got stuck with the world's shittiest manager."

"Yeah," Grif turns back towards the entrance of the mines. "I should probably go down there to see if everyone's ok."

"Are you sure," Simmons glances back. "Wouldn't they have left by now if there was actual danger around?"

Shaking his head, Grif plants his hands firmly in his pockets, "Not really. I know I said that it was gonna be called Red Light District, but there's a real reason why that name didn't go through."

"Oh," he asked, looking at the other hero.

"It's mostly filled with daycare's," Grif shrugs. "Anybody with a brain can tell you that Bronze is overpopulated. And no one has any money to move up a level, so desperate times called for desperate measures and we built down instead. Families who can't even afford to live on Bronze go to Neon and live in the shelters built there."

Simmons never knew how bad the Bronze Level was getting. It was as Grif said, of course, he knew that it was often referred to the densest level, but he didn't think it had gotten so bad that whole families had relocated further down into the canyon itself.

"But sleazy fucks don't care about that part of Neon," Grif rolls his eyes. "All they care about is the unregulated sex clubs and gambling rings."

"Like Hammer?" Simmons dares to ask.

Unfortunately, even though he expected it, Grif nodded his head, saying, "Like Hammer."

"Ok," it comes out shaky, but Simmons feels very guilty for no reason at all.

Looking back towards the entrance, he shakes his head, saying to the cyborg, "Perhaps tomorrow. I'm pretty sure Dylan is expecting us back at Equity Tower."

Words start to build up at the back of his throat, and before he can stumble over all of them, he manages to say, "I'm not gonna tell anybody! About your power or your, um, your illusions."

The other hero looks surprised at him, but gives him a lopsided smile and says, "I wasn't expecting you to."

A smile finds its way onto his face too.

Maybe a different day he could say all the other things, but for right now, he's satisfied with what he's said.

She leads them into the spacious testing room, straight towards the man that she wanted to introduce them to.

Spinning around in his swivel chair, the engineer laughed loudly as he greeted the assembled heroes, saying, "Oh dudes, it's so awesome to see you all in person!"

Every single one of the Second Leaguers looks at her, and she can see the confusion bleeding off of them.

Dylan walked up to Vic and introduced him, "This is Vic, he's going to be your main engineer and weapons specialist for the duration of your time on FreelancerTV."

Simmons shifted slightly, looking at all the machines in the room, gesturing to them saying, "An engineer you say, so what's all... this?"

"Oh man, am I glad you asked," Vic jumped out of his chair, and he bounded over to the cyborg, getting up close and personal with him. "That is my work in progress death ray, amigo."

"Di- did you just say death ray?" Simmons threw her a worried look.

She didn't have a way to reassure him. Or any of the other heroes who also shot her worried looks.

"That's right, but that is not even the best thing in this room!" he guided the cyborg over to the two pod-like machines and gestured towards them proudly. "This is the real holy grail here."

"And that would be," Grif walked up to the machine, poking it as if it could blow up on his face at any time.

"Healing pods!" Vic exclaimed. "You heroes ain't as tough as you all look! So I whipped up these bad boys to fix you up real good when you get all banged up."

Caboose slowly raised his hand and waited for Vic to acknowledge him for him to ask, "Ah, yes, well I am very good at math. And those are two pods, but there are seven of us. So you must have made a mistake because I know that that doesn't add up."

"No I know alright," Vic nodded. "I was thinking that you guys could fight to the death for who gets to use them at one time. Or maybe one could be for the Reds and one for the Blues."

The heroes looked at him quietly.

"Or maybe you guys could just not get hurt, that is also a possibility," he chimed.

Then, all together, they looked at her and begged, "Please don't leave us alone with him."

"Well, would you look at the time," she glanced down at her not turned on datapad. "I'm afraid I have a meeting to get to. So I suppose I'll leave you all here in Vic's very capable hands while I deal with that."

She's walking out of the room, hearing their loud, "NO" and Vic's exuberant, "Oh, this is gonna be so amazing, my duderinos!"

Perhaps, she would have felt more sympathy had they not cursed on her broadcast.

This would serve as an appropriate punishment.

She enters the elevator of Equity Tower with as much flourish as anyone could have after dealing with a bunch of idiots. The elevator rises, and her thoughts start to wander to places she didn't want them too.

Even hours after, she can't stop thinking about that collapsed cave entrance. And how apathetic Grif had seemed about the whole thing.

But that contradicted from what he had shown last night, the footage was enough for her to see that even thinking that they would have to let the statue fall and kill all those people had pained him deeply.

So why the change?

She had some suspicions, and she had plans to go back to the mine entrance that night.

If it was still collapsed, then she would recommend Grif see some sort of psychiatric help, since he must have become closed off because of the whole thing.

If it wasn't ... well.

Then she would know that he was lying to her.

The doors opened and she headed towards the CEO meeting room.

Walking inside, she saw how the Director of MOI Media was facing away from her, watching some of the broadcast, whilst the Counselor, Mr. Price, greeted her with a small smile.

"Mrs. Andrews," he said, getting up to shake her hand. "It's a pleasure to be meeting with you like this."

"The pleasure's all mine," her eyes flicked towards the Director who had still not turned towards her. "I'm sure you will be pleased to know that ratings have greatly improved based on last night's broadcast. I can show you the comparisons between last season's premiere and this one if you'd-"

"How is my grandson doing," the Director cut off, staring at the broadcast where the Zealot had hit the teen across the face.

"In terms of points, sir?" she asked. "He hasn't earned much yet, but it is only the first episode so I'm sure that he'll get more."

"Anything else?" the Director clipped. Mr. Price shifted uncomfortably, before offering her an apologetic smile.

"I'm sure what the Director is asking is, does he seem mentally ok to you?" the man asked.

She blinked, but answered easily, "He seems alright to me, he acts as any teenager would. Why, is there need to worry about something?"

The Director hummed but didn't say anything else.

Shaking his head, Mr. Price said, "Of course not, he's just worried about his grandson after all. What was it you were saying about comparisons?"

"Oh, yes of course," she steadily looked down at her datapad, concern flooding into her head once more, because something was going on and she didn't know what. "I can bring them up right now, sir."

While she was a producer right now, her roots still very much lied in journalism.

And she would always want to know the truth above all else.

Carolina walks into the bar with none of her usual swagger and a lot more trepidation then she's used to.

She's wearing a simple outfit, not really sure what's she's doing here, beyond the fact that York had extended the invitation to her.

Illinois looks up at the sound of the door opening, and when he spots her, a large grin breaks across his face, as he exclaims, "Carolina! What a pleasure, I'm glad to see you made it!"

"Of course," she nods politely, but the man just comes right up to her and gives her a big hug. She can smell a slight stench of liquor on the man, but given his jovial spirit, she's sure that he's spending his sabbatical well.

"Welcome to my newest pride and joy," he gestures around at the blue lighted bar. "Mi bar es su bar!"

"You bought this place," she raises an eyebrow at the man.

Scratching his beard, slightly sheepish, he responds, "Couldn't stop myself, it was just asking me to buy it."

She looks around once more, noticing all the large and brimming aquariums filled with fish of all shapes and sizes.

"I see," she's still stiff.

But she can see a few of her fellow heroes have already arrived, and she feels herself relaxing at the sight of York amongst the group.

Illinois leads her over, asking her what kind of drink she'd like, before hurrying off to get her some scotch.

"Carolina, my Queen, I believe you have something of mine," York greets her, opening his palm towards her and looking imploringly.

"I don't know, York," she quips, pulling out the lighter. "I think it's still my week with it."

"Oh, say it ain't so," he mock groans. "You've committed to being divorced from me, how did our marriage crumble so quickly?"

"You can't destroy something that never existed in the first place," North jokes beside the other hero. And since he was the more sensible of the two, he greets Carolina with a polite, "It's nice to see you, Carolina."

"Likewise," she nods. She glances around the table and notices the missing sibling, before asking, "Did South not come with you?"

"Ah, no," he shook his head. "She's spending the week with our grandparents... and blowing off some steam."

York perks up at this, and he joins in with, "Speaking of, since I'm sure we all know why South's pissed, we saw the broadcast last night, are you doing ok, Carolina?"

"As well as I can be with a healing wound," she grimaces. York looks concerned, before she waves him off, "I'm fine, just sore."

"Those heroes sure are something," North jokes. "I mean, did you see how often the production crew had to mute their mic's?"

"Those poor bastards," York sighs, resting his head on his fist. "They haven't learned the most important lesson about this line of business- don't say the shit that you normally would on TV."

She's quiet and contemplative at the mention of the heroes. Illinois comes over with her drink and she thanks the man before he's bounding off greeting CT who just entered.

"They're not... horrible," she admits, even though it feels like she's swallowing nails.

York looks at her surprised, but North merely raises an eyebrow.

"They have potential," she continues, pausing to take a sip from his glass. "And I suppose it wouldn't be too bad to help mentor them."

"Good luck on that, Carolina," North offers. "Just from last night, I can tell you'll have a handful on your hands."

"Perhaps you should say that they had a handful of you," Wyoming quips from where he's playing solitaire by himself. He chuckles slightly, continuing, "Considering that one of them saved your life."

"Oh, quiet you," York defends.

She shakes her head, agreeing with, "No, he's right. That hero really did save my life, and it made me think. Perhaps, they're more capable than I thought, and I'm willing to give them a chance."

She can't tell exactly what it is, but there's a softness that hadn't been there earlier that bleeds into North's eyes, and when he offers her a smile, it feels more genuine than before, as he says, "I'm excited to see what'll become of you all. Consider me an active viewer."

Carolina awkwardly sips on her drink again, not sure how to answer that.

York gets up, letting her know that he was going to get refill his own drink.

She watches him go to the bar, and open up a new beer, drinking it from over there when CT wanders over and makes small talk to him for a while.

But she refocuses her attention onto North and finds that she has a very pleasant time speaking with him.

Before she knows it, quite some time has passed, and for the remaining stragglers of the party Illinois gestures with a camera saying, "I want to put this in my scrapbook, to signify the start of my long awaited vacation from hero work!"

York wraps his arm around her as they pose for the photo, and while she may have hit him for doing that, there's a part of her that's relieved that Illinois sent them all a digital copy of the photo.

And when she gets home to print it out, who can really blame her?

He’s enjoying his drink when Connie slips into the seat next to his, a drink settling down against the table gently.

Just as he turns to greet her, she quietly asks, "I heard that you’re looking for snakes. I want to know why."

His greeting dies on his lips, but he doesn’t pause for long. He picks up his beer and takes a sip, before answering her, "Can’t a guy be curious about them?”

“Depends,” she shrugs. “What type of snakes are you looking for?”

"The ambitious kind," he's side eyeing her, and he notices how her hand is resting suspiciously against her thigh. "The kind that hides in crevices, the kind that sometimes bites at its own tail, perhaps."

Now, York wouldn't say that he was the smartest Freelancer, but there's a reason why he's the second highest ranked hero.

And part of it's due to charisma and knowing when to keep his mouth shut.

"Those are the hardest to handle," she quips, raising her drink to her lips. "Did you know that most people, when dealing with snakes, tend to hire a handler?"

"Would you say that you're qualified to be a snake handler," he's hoping he's right on where she lies on this topic.

"That also depends," her eyes are cold, and he's holding his breath, waiting for her to continue. "Would you consider yourself one to join the snakes?"

"Nah," he gives her an easygoing smile. "I've always been more found of mongoose's, ya know?"

Instantly she relaxes, her hand straying from her side, where undoubtedly she has hidden a knife, and she gives him a small relieved smile, "Then yes, I am a snake handler."

He sighs out in utter relief, and he rests his hand on his cheek, "That's really good to know. So, where did you hear about my looking for snakes?"

"You're not that good at covering up your tracks," she warns. "You're lucky that I tend to monitor some of the other heroes internet usages and noticed what you were doing, and oh so helpfully erased what you left behind."

"That," he starts to say, raising a finger at her. "Is an invasion of privacy."

She snorts, rolling her eyes at him as she says, "An invasion of privacy that very well has saved your life."


"So how deep am I gonna have to go," he says this is a lowly as he can, laying his palms flat against the table.

"Not even I know that much," Connie admits. "But what you're going up against is big- bigger than you or your girlfriend can even imagine."

"How do you know Carolina's involved with this," he asks.

"How come you didn't deny that she was your girlfriend," she teases. "But, it's clear as day that you're doing research for someone else. The lack of specifics in your searches tell all- it's not a personal one."

"Ok, you got me," he sighs. "But Carolina doesn't know I'm doing this. Sure, I suspect that she suspects that I'm doing this on my lonesome, but she'd rather not delve too deep- there are more important things that she's gotta focus on."

Connie nods, and brings her drink to her lips again, taking a small sip. When she places her glass down again, she asks, "What have you found out so far?"

"I've managed to get the name of the symbol she told me about," York reveals. "And I know that it's an ouroboros. But beyond that, I've got nothing. I don't even know the significance of the sword."

"Well I'd like to think you've gotten something pretty substantial," Connie stands up, leaving her empty glass on the counter. "Considering you know the name and symbol of the organization."

"What organization," he follows her movements.

Instead of answering, she slides over a card with an address on it.

"Meet me here," at his wary look she rolls her eyes. "Relax, that's just my apartment. I'll tell you more there, now's not the time to discuss... things of this nature."

"Got it," he nods at her, fingering the card.

"Well, I'll be seeing you," she bids her goodbye. "Be more careful, never know when there are snakes in the grass."

"I'll be mindful of that," he sighs.

As enlightening as that conversation was, it troubled him something fierce.

Something bad was going on, and somehow Carolina and her family were wrapped up in it.

And York was willing to do anything to protect her. And if that meant taking on something that even he didn't understand then, well...

He's glad he's never been the brightest hero.

The bar is empty, and while that might have made Illinois feel a tad sad, he just couldn't find it in him to be morose about it.

Just knowing that he owned this bar now, with its brilliant blue lights and the multiple aquariums, made him feel truly happy.

Knowing that he didn't have to risk his life as a hero, for at least a season, also lifted his spirits higher than before.

He was busy cleaning it up, wanting to make sure that this beau of a place was in tip top shape when he finally opened it to the public under his ownership when he heard footsteps.

Thinking that it was one of his fellow heroes who had left something behind, of which there were a few items here and there, he called out, "The lost and found box is at the front, I thought one of you knuckleheads would have forgotten something."

When he didn't get an answer, he turned around and was somewhat shocked to see somebody standing quietly by the front entrance, decked out in some sort of suit.

The helmet was a haunting mimic of an angler fish, a long wire attached to a yellow bulb hung in front of the person's face, slowly swaying back and forth.

"You must be one of those new heroes, from the Second League," there's an easy smile on his face, and he slightly admires how the new hero had an aquatic theme going on- that was something he could appreciate. "Forgive me, I didn't watch the broadcast the other day, too busy getting drunk!"

He continues with what he was doing, finishing up sweeping, before settling the broom down against one of the chairs.

The new hero still hasn't said anything, but they did walk further into the bar, looking around, probably admiring it.

The hero stops at one of the many aquariums and stares at the fish inside.

"I like the look," he says to fill the silence. "As one aquatic themed hero to the next, I have to say it's good to see some interesting designs in the new League."

No response, again, it looked like the hero wasn't a talker.

"Care for a drink?" he offers, going behind the bar and reaching for one of the many bottles. "I just got this place and am feeling generous. We can pretend that this is me passing the torch to you, except its alcohol and not a flaming stick, how does that sound?"

His hand clenches against a bottle of rum and as he turns around, he blinks at how close the hero had gotten. He hadn't even heard a sound.

Then suddenly, he feels every muscle in his body tense up, a pressure surrounding his entire being.

He tries moving his arm but is horrified to find that no matter what he does, it won't budge.

"It really is nice to meet you," the man speaks up for the first time that evening, helmet staring him down. "I've been waiting for this moment for quite some time, you see."

That voice, it was slightly familiar, but he couldn't remember where he'd heard it before, not when he was struggling to break free from the hold the NEXT had on him.

He tries to activate his own NEXT power, even if it could partially destroy the bar, he would give anything to force this man away from him by way of explosion.

"Are you trying to activate your power," the man tilts his head. "I can tell, you know, by the way, the muscles in your eyes are trying to struggle against my hold."

Illinois couldn't even open his mouth to tell the man off or ask on what the hell he thought he was doing.

This must've been another criminal, and to think that he had thought that he was finally done with all that nonsense.

Just goes to show, he shouldn't have left his guard down.

"You must want to know who I am," the man sounds amused. "My voice should be vaguely recognizable, but you, you've been in my court many times over for me to know who you are."

If he could widen his eyes he would because he knows exactly who this man was-

"You can call me Frozen Angler, or well, perhaps not," the villain chuckles. "Given, the fact, that you are not going to be leaving this establishment alive."