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Thursday: 2:12 a.m.
Unexpected complication in the Steranko Plaza Werewolf case. Hypothermia, Hybrid, and Phantasmo took some samples to Iota's lab for some quick testing. Got a lead on Chittenburg Biological Testing -- corporate logo imprinted on sample cells indicates they may have created the "werewolves" who burglarized the Steranko lab office.
Unfortunately, an older Chittenburg logo was imprinted on Hybrid's blood cells, too. Hybrid reacted badly. Doc Denziger sent me the security tapes:
(Interior: Denziger lab: Hybrid, Stephen Denziger, Hypothermia, El Phantasmo in front of wall of monitors displaying enhanced microscopic data on biological samples)
Denziger: "Hybrid, that's -- That's not from the clones. That's your blood sample."
Hybrid: "What? N-No, Iota, you're mistaken. I'm a mutant. I'm a human."
Denziger: "I'm not mistaken. That's your blood sample, I swear it. I wouldn't joke about it for the world."
Hybrid: "Like hell, Iota. I'm a mutant."
Hypothermia: "Okay, let's settle down. This is something that actually helps our investigation a lot. Someone has been playing around with biological engineering, and this puts us in a good position to shut them down."
Denziger: "Right, and it won't take much to compare your genetic codes, see how they differ from baseline, and figure out how much firepower we'll need to take down the rest of Chittenburg's lifeforms."
Hybrid: "Maybe you shhhould jushht shhhut up."
Hypothermia: "Fangs in, Hybrid. Fangs in. You're among friends, remember?"
Hybrid: "Shhhorry -- S-sorry. Just, ya know, s-stop making me mad."
Denziger: "There's nothing to be angry about. There's nothing wrong with your genetic heritage."
Hybrid: "I'm human, Iota. Human. I don't care what your faulty equipment says."
Denziger: "I'm just -- what do you mean, 'faulty?' There's nothing wrong with this equipment. The findings are perfectly accurate."
Hypothermia: "People, we can talk about this another time. It's late, we're all stressed out. Let's drop it."
Denziger: "I built this equipment and tested it extensively. It's just showing you what's there."
Hypothermia: "Stephen, shut up, please. This is not helping."
Denziger: "She's humming music and trying to pretend she can't hear me, Kelvin! You can't ignore the truth, Hybrid."
Hypothermia: "Stephen, I don't care, just shut up, and we'll talk about this tomorrow."
Phantasmo: "Hybrid, it's not so bad, I promise."
Hybrid: "I don't want to talk about it, Phantasmo."
Phantasmo: "It doesn't mean anything's changed. You're still you, right?"
Hybrid: "You guys leave me alone, I need -- need to th-think about music, alright?"
Phantasmo: "No one will think anything bad about you just because you're an artificial lifeform."
Hybrid: "Human. I'm h-hrr-HUMAN!"
(Hybrid shifts into feral form, grabs Phantasmo by throat and pushes him against a wall. Denziger seizes Hybrid's arm.)
Denziger: "Hybrid, calm down, what are you --"
(Hybrid throws Phantasmo aside, swipes Denziger across the chest with claws. Denziger stumbles back against wall of monitors. Hybrid lunges for Denziger, is intercepted by Hypothermia and several of Phantasmo's half-formed spirit attendants. Hypothermia and spirits attempt to force Hybrid to floor, but she kicks free, slashes at Hypothermia twice and pushes him away. Hybrid snarls at Denziger, who has fallen to floor, then turns, drops to all fours, and runs out the door as Hypothermia begins to get to his feet. A crash is heard off-camera as Hybrid tears Denziger's front door off its hinges and exits the building.)
Not as bad as it could have been. Phantasmo's throat will hurt badly for a few days, and Iota didn't need nearly as many stitches as I'd feared. But still pretty bad.
I'm relieved Hypothermia had the presence of mind to attempt to defuse the situation, but that's countered by frustration that Iota and Phantasmo insisted on running their mouths when they should've kept quiet. Phantasmo has an excuse -- puberty makes him an idiot. Dr. Denziger should've known better.
And worse -- no word back from Hybrid yet. Gearbox ran a tracer on her cell phone and found it dropped on the ground a few hundred feet from Iota's lab.
Thursday: 1:30 p.m.
Still no word from Hybrid. Got nervous, called her home phone number, got nothing. Called her parents, pretended to be a curious friend. They sounded worried. Decided I'd better make some actual visits.
Decided to risk going by Darcy Sandoval's apartment in civilian garb. No answer at door. Used one of my spare keys to get in, found everything in order. I suspect she didn't come home last night.
In transit to Sandoval family home, in costume, hoping for no trouble.
Thursday: 4:03 p.m.
The visit to the Sandoval home took longer than I expected. They live in a row house on the south end of Mauldin Boulevard. Decent neighborhood and quiet, but I didn't want anyone noticing me enter the house, so I activated my stealth field and jimmied the lock on the back door.
Darcy's mother, Mrs. Nina Sandoval (Hispanic female, low-50s, 5' 5", thickset build, short black hair) was talking on the phone when I entered. She saw me and hung up the phone.
"You know who my baby is, right?" she said.
"Yes, ma'am," I replied.
"Where is she? She usually calls every morning to let us know her patrol went fine, and we haven't heard from her."
"I don't know where she is," I said. "I was hoping you knew."
She sat on the couch. Body language indicated emotional exhaustion and fear. "Can I call my husband to come?" she said. "He's been driving around town looking for her, but I can't stand being here alone any more."
After a few minutes, Darcy's father, Detective Fred Sandoval (Hispanic male, mid-50s, 6' 2", stocky build, graying black hair and mustache) arrived with his partner and Darcy's godfather, Detective Leon D'Arcy (Caucasian male, low-50s, 5' 9", wiry build, graying red hair, clean shaven, wire-rim glasses). They both entered with guns drawn, unfortunately. "Where's my daughter?" Detective Sandoval barks at me.
It would have taken me about two seconds to disarm both of them. But I didn't feel much enthusiasm for beating up a couple of police officers, especially when I shared their concerns. So I put my hands up and said, "I don't know, Detectives. I think you're already aware of that, aren't you?"
"Fred, Leon, what's the matter with you?" said Mrs. Sandoval. "Put those guns down and don't act like such fools. Don't go threatening Darcy's friends."
Neither really needed any convincing. I've seen this sort of behavior before from people who are feeling frustrated and helpless. They immediately holstered their weapons.
"Sorry, Nina," said Det. D'Arcy. No apology for me, but that's to be expected.
"So where is she?" Det. Sandoval asked again. "What the hell happened last night?"
I gave them the short version of the story. Considered showing them the security tape footage but decided that would be needlessly upsetting.
"I'll inform the other heroes in town that she's missing," I told them. "We'll comb the city and see if we can find her."
"You think she's okay?" asked Mrs. Sandoval. "She couldn't be lying hurt somewhere, could she?"
"I don't know," I said. "We'll take it into consideration while we're looking for her."
Around this time, Darcy's sister, Leah (Hispanic female, 16-17 years old, 5' 3", average build, short black hair, dyed dark blue) got home from school. I had to repeat the whole story to her. And sign an autograph. Reminded me of why I avoid the spotlight.
"What should we tell the people at the dance company?" asked Det. Sandoval. "They'll expect to know where she is."
"I'm not concerned about the dance company," I said. "We've got to keep our priorities straight."
"Screw that," said Det. D'Arcy. "She gets fired from Lieber, she won't be able to get another position at any other company in town. She'd either have to move to another city or quit dancing. I helped pay for those lessons, and I wanna be able to watch my niece perform."
"How do you think she'll react if she can't dance anymore, Ms. Cobra," said Mrs. Sandoval. "She'll get really upset then."
They had a point. My own secret identity allows me to drop out of sight for a few days with no one noticing. Darcy didn't have that option.
"Hospital," I said. "Car accident, maybe a bad flu."
"They'll wanna take the whole troupe out there with flowers," said Det. Sandoval.
"Okay, out of town. Vacation."
"No one gets to take a vacation without clearing it with the boss," said Det. D'Arcy. "That'd get her fired for sure."
"Attending a grandmother's funeral."
"She's got no grandparents left," said Mrs. Sandoval. "Even if she did, they'd only give her two or three days off for a funeral. What if she was gone for longer than that?"
"What about the Church of Sorrow?" said Leah. "They're always kidnapping people and trying to sacrifice them to demons and stuff. Say the Church of Sorrow got her and you're trying to track down their latest temple."
Honestly, I like the idea. The mundane excuses are easy to question -- extraordinary excuses can be easier to accept, if you present them the right way.
"Might work," I said. "Don't file any police reports on this -- I don't want the real Church of Sorrow involved. I'll talk to Dr. Cameron at the arts center, tell him I learned she'd been abducted and need it kept quiet so the Church doesn't know I'm after them. That should give adequate cover for any long absence."
We all agreed on the particulars, and I made my exit. In transit back to base to get a sandwich and start making some calls to the other heroes.
Thursday: 7:46 p.m.
Defender called in a Hybrid sighting. She was patrolling near the docks and saw her behind one of the warehouses nearby. She was eating a fish. Still feral. Defender flew down to check on her, and Hybrid just roared at her and went bounding off. Wasn't able to establish a tracking lock, and she lost her in the vicinity of the Perez Projects.
So the good news is she's alive and healthy. The bad news is she's apparently stuck in her monster form.
Friday: 11:45 p.m.
Several Hybrid sightings today. At 2:20 p.m., Gearbox engaged her on top of an apartment building on the corner of Everett and 44th. He attempted to capture her, but got partially disassembled. Of course, he was able to put himself back together in about 20 seconds, but by then, she'd disappeared. He's unusually unhappy about this -- said he expected better treatment from a fellow manufactured being. I asked him to avoid using that term around Hybrid. The heroes in this town need lessons in diplomacy, and coming from me, that's probably saying something.
The Star found her three hours later on top of the Caniff Bridge. He tried putting one of his cosmic snares on her, and she jumped in his face and clocked him good. Knocked him off the bridge for a few seconds, and by the time he'd recovered, she was gone again.
Penitente ran into her just before 10 p.m. in an alley behind the Kane's Kosher on 116th. She was rooting around in a dumpster. He had brought along a package of hot dog wieners and coaxed her out with the promise of free food. He cut the package open, laid it on the ground, and backed up about five feet. Kept up a soothing monologue the whole time. He said she ate the hot dogs without even chewing them up. Glared at him suspiciously the whole time, then took off as soon as she was done.
"It was like she didn't even recognize me," he said. "Like she was a stray on the run from everyone. Depressing as hell."
Darcy's family is putting on a hopeful face, but I can tell this is scaring them bad.
I need a better plan.
Sunday: 12:35 a.m.
Frustrated. More sightings of Hybrid. Wheelman caught a glimpse of her in an alley while he was waiting at a stop light. (Don't know why he was stopped at a light. Probably flirting.) By the time he got his vehicle turned around and into the alley, she'd seen him coming and disappeared again. Greg snooped around in the alley a bit -- he thinks she was eating a rat. That was early afternoon, around 1:30.
Jonni saw her early in the evening, but never managed to get close to her.
Defender managed to engage her again a couple hours after that. Hit her with pacification burstcasts, hoping to keep her calm, if not put her to sleep. Hybrid shrugged it off, slashed at her, and threw her off a building. Got Defender good and angry, and she's not someone who loses her cool easily.
"Rageface, the Grouch, Malice, Beelzebambi -- not a one of 'em could handle the burstcasts!" she ranted. Defender completely drops the "Daaaarling!" and "Sweeeeetie!" affectations when she gets mad, so I wish she'd get angry more often. "Dammit, I had Zorgosaurus sawing logs in less than 20 minutes, and he was 200 feet tall!"
Civilians are starting to see her, too. She isn't doing anything to them, but she's really frightening them good now. I'm sure she'd be happy about that, if she could think clearly at all.
I talked to Express this evening about doing a superspeed capture, and he actually turned me down. Here's the tape of the call. I'm too pissed about it to comment.
Express: "Sorry 'bout hanging up on you back there, Cobra. Just ran into the Damned Yankee out near the Gaines Cemetery."
Chrome Cobra: "No problem. He give you any trouble?"
Express: "Faded away too fast to give me any trouble. Might better give Phantasmo a heads-up that he's back in town."
Chrome Cobra: "I'll send him a note tomorrow night. He's sitting out patrols and studying for a history test tonight."
Express: "You sure this can wait? We're talkin' the Damned Yankee here."
Chrome Cobra: "I've seen Phantasmo's history grades, Mr. Battle -- he needs all the study time he can get. As for the Yankee, how about if I give the Ethereals a buzz? I'd like Phantasmo to have some knowledgeable backup if he's gonna tangle with someone like that."
Express: "Fair enough. And sign me up for that team-up -- Ghostfire and me used to hang back when he was alive. So what were you needing before?"
Chrome Cobra: "I was wanting to talk to you about Hybrid."
Chrome Cobra: "If you encounter her, could I get you to knock her out and bring her to a location I've got set up? I've got something that we can hold her with until we can figure out a way to calm her down."
Express: "Seriously? No. No way."
Chrome Cobra: "What? Sorry, repeat?"
Express: "No, Cobra. Ain't doing it."
Chrome Cobra: "You aren't -- Okay, listen, explain this to me."
Express: "Alright, first, you know I'm not the most subtle fighter around, right? You got speedsters like Blitz and Nanosecond and Roadrunner who do all those really cool superspeed tricks. I hit people really fast and as hard as I can."
Chrome Cobra: "I've seen you do subtle plenty of times."
Express: "And you've seen me get my ass kicked trying to pull it off, too, haven't you? I got lots of cool superspeed stunts I can do -- all us speedsters do. But I'm a brawler, first and foremost."
Chrome Cobra: "Fine. Ultimately, that's what I'm asking you to do. Go in and knock Hybrid out."
Express: "No, that's not what you're asking me. You know how tough Hybrid is. You know how fast she heals. I could hit her as hard as I can, hit her maybe 20 or 30 times a second, knock her down hard, and she'd bounce right back. If you're asking me to knock her out for more than a few minutes, what you're really asking me to do is to do enough damage to possibly kill her."
Chrome Cobra: "Derek, quite honestly, you overestimate how tough she is, and probably how tough you are. I don't think you could seriously run a risk of killing her, or I wouldn't be asking you to do this."
Express: "I don't care what you think. I believe there's a chance, and I'm not willing to take the chance of doing something like that to a friend. I will not risk Hybrid's life. Not just for her sake, but for my own. It'd kill me dead, Cobra."
Chrome Cobra: "Okay, what if I give you a weapon you could use on her. Tranquilizer darts, let's say, or gas bombs. All I'm asking is some way to get her confined so we can try to calm her down and get her to change back."
Express: "Cobra, you -- no, listen, I know you think everything through, but you haven't thought this through. The issue isn't whether Hybrid is calm or agitated, okay? I mean, you tell me, does Hybrid sleep?"
Chrome Cobra: "What do you mean, does she sleep?"
Express: "I mean, does she sleep? I know there's metas out there who never actually go to sleep, ever. Is Hybrid one of them, or does she go home after patrols and sleep?"
Chrome Cobra: "Well, yeah, sure. I don't know what this has to do with anything."
Express: "Well, there. The issue is not calming her down. It's been days since she lost it at Iota's place. She's slept since then. And you can't sleep when you're agitated or keyed up. She gets calm enough to fall asleep, and even then, she doesn't change back to normal."
Express: "Are you still there, Cobra?"
Chrome Cobra: "Yes, I'm still here."
Express: "Don't get mad at me. I'm just telling you what's up. If you catch her, it won't matter how calm she gets, she won't change back. You'll just stick her in a cage for a few weeks, a few months, a few years. I'm not doing that to a friend either."
Chrome Cobra: "So you think it'll be better if we just let her run wild forever? Let her live the rest of her life like an animal? Wait and see if she eventually kills someone? Her family's going nuts worrying about her, Derek!"
Express: "I ain't saying I know what we should do. All I'm saying is, I've seen Iota's security tape. They'd just been talking about how artificial lifeforms don't have normal human rights. And then she finds out she's an artificial lifeform, and an older, possibly less advanced version of those freaks who attacked the lab that night. Those guys who couldn't do anything but snarl and drool and attack people, and who dissolved into black tar sometimes. She's just had her entire worldview and sense of self flipped right over. She's undergone mental trauma, and losing her shit is her way of coping with having her whole universe yanked right out from under her."
Chrome Cobra: "Great. We'll drop her a card for a good therapist next time we see her eating a stray cat."
Express: "Fuck you, Cobra. She needs something important. I don't know what it is, but whatever it is, she needs it a lot more than she needs tranquilizers, or me beating her into a coma, or you locking her up and feeding her a can of Alpo every day for the next decade. You find out what that is, and she'll come back to us. You know I'm right."
Chrome Cobra: "If you're not going to help, I have other things to do." (CLICK)
Very frustrated, very angry. Very tired, and I can't stand to call Darcy's family again and tell them there's no new progress. I'm going to bed.
Monday: 8:49 p.m.
I finally encountered Hybrid myself on a high-rise downtown near 42nd and Linsner. This was about a half-hour ago. She was trying to eat a half-frozen cod she'd probably lifted from the fish market down on Milligan. She was filthy, matted hair, torn costume. There were some bloodstains on her costume, her face, her claws, and I hope that was just from eating rats. She was focused on the fish and didn't see me until I was almost on top of her.
She jumped back, snarled. I was in flight, descending to the roof slowly, keeping both hands open, trying to communicate that I didn't mean her any harm. "Hybrid, remember me? Wanna sit down and talk?"
She grabbed the fish, stuffed it in her mouth, and jumped a few buildings away. I pursued, of course. I had my infrared filters on to help me track her by body heat. And she has to know I'm still after her, so I had to be careful.
And I guess I wasn't careful enough. I've been thinking of her as an animal for too long, and I never thought to question why I was catching up to her so easily. She caught me completely flat-footed when she suddenly jumped backwards at me, hit me mid-torso, and used me as a platform for another super-leap, all without losing the fish in her mouth. She drove me into the brickwork of the Waid-Claremont Hotel and knocked the wind out of me. I almost hit the street, but I got my boot-jets back under me in time. I doubt it would've killed me, but I wouldn't have been able to get back up in time to renew the chase.
I kept a little distance now -- not enough to lose her trail, just enough to hopefully make her think she'd lost me. Seemed to work. She slowed down, stopped on top of an old apartment building, looked around (I snapped my stealth gear on just in time), and sniffed the air. She looked satisfied that she was alone, jumped off the apartment onto a smaller deli next to it. Lost sight of her when she dropped down, so I picked up the pace, but it looked like she was going to eat some more fish.
And she suckered me again. As soon as I came over the top of the apartment building and started descending toward the deli, all my stealth bafflers on, she dropped the fish and jumped straight up at me. Grabbed both my arms and tried to bite into my head. Didn't get through the armor, but she cracked my goggles. Couldn't see a thing. Was cycling through the filter commands to get the lenses to pop off so I could see again when she flipped us around and threw me onto the deli roof. The goggle lenses popped off and I was ready to kick ass.
And she landed on me hard. Hit my kidneys. The armor held fine -- no danger of actual damage. But that didn't stop it hurting. The armor can bounce a point-blank .44 without me feeling a thing, but this felt like someone had kicked me without the armor.
I still bucked her off me. I still jumped back to my feet. But my legs felt like jelly, my eyes were tearing up bad, and I felt like I was about to piss myself. I hoped it was just piss.
She knew she had me. She was vocalizing. I think it was laughter. Like a panther laughing, or a hyena, or a viper. She was coming at me, I could hear her.
I activated the hard-light weapon fabricator in my gloves. No time to select a weapon, had to take whatever would materialize fastest.
Mace. Big spiked mace. Glowing like a sun. Hot fucking damn.
Swung it. Couldn't believe I could still move so fast. Swung it hard. Connected. Smashed it into her face.
Laughed. Stomp my kidneys, bitch, and you eat a fucking morningstar. Sucks to be you!
She flew back, bounced on the roof once, went over the side of the building bonelessly.
Yelped when she hit the pavement in the alley. Yelped like a wounded puppy.
I could hear Express just like he'd said it the other day. "I will not risk Hybrid's life. Not just for her sake, but for my own. It'd kill me dead."
I ran to the side of the building and looked over.
She was fine. No, not quite fine. Cuts, contusions, abrasions. A gash on her right leg. An ugly bleeding slash on her cheek. Already getting a huge bruise from that mace. But she heals fast. Even from here, I could see the wounds stitching up.
Hybrid glared up at me. Hate and rage and fear and not a trace of human recognition in her eyes.
She snarled at me, got to her feet, and bounded away.
I let her go.
The microtransmitter was attached just below her shoulder. I could hear it beeping in my ear.
Wednesday: 3:15 a.m.
I made some calls earlier today.
Miss Mega: "Hello?"
Chrome Cobra: "Hey, got a minute? I have a plan to corral Hybrid."
Miss Mega: "This is not a good time."
Chrome Cobra: "Oh. You in class?"
Miss Mega: "Yes."
Chrome Cobra: "Sorry. Can you help out?"
Miss Mega: "Please e-mail me that information, ma'am."
Chrome Cobra: "You bet. Say hi to the kiddies for me."
Miss Mega: "Thank you, good-bye." (CLICK)
And I buzzed Express back.
Chrome Cobra: "Hey, Express."
Chrome Cobra: "I need your help."
Express: "If this is about Hybrid, I've already said all I had to say."
Chrome Cobra: "I have a better plan. We will not hurt her. We will not cage her."
Chrome Cobra: "Yeah. I think I know what she needs. But I need your help."
Express: "Okay. Whatever you need, I'm there."
Chrome Cobra: "Thanks. Meet me and Mega on the south side of Fox Gardens at 1 a.m.?"
Express: "You bet."
Chrome Cobra: "Thanks again."
And that was that.
I got to the park almost a half-hour early, and I already had company. Express and Miss Mega were already there. Squid Kid was, too.
"What are you doing here, Lenore?"
"Miss Mega spilled the beans, and I want to help out," she said with a grin.
"Not tonight," I said. "I need some level of maturity for this."
"Oh, like hell," she said, turning serious. "You can't kick me out. I want to be able to help her when she needs it, and she definitely needs it after this week. Hybrid and me are pals, Cobra -- we know each other's secret I.D.s and everything!"
"Oh, really? When did she tell you her real name?"
"Wwwwwell, she doesn't actually know I know it yet," Lenore said. "I scoped her with my X-ray vision and recognized her --"
"Wait, you have X-ray vision?!"
"Sure, I -- Oh my god, did you guys see that?" Lenore laughed. "I just surprised the Chrome Fucking Cobra! High fives all around! High fives!"
Miss Mega and Express both high-fived her, though they at least had the decency to look embarrassed about it. But still amused, dammit.
"Okay, keep it down," I barked, probably a little too quickly. "We're trying to keep a low profile here. And you better know to keep everyone's secret identity quiet. Or else."
"No worries, Cobra," she said, sobering up a little. "I've known Hybrid's for months. And just 'cause I can see your face doesn't mean I know your name. There are seven million people in Metro City -- ain't like I can meet all of 'em."
"Alright, fine," I said. Like I need more stress in my life. Crazy gothic-punk jokester monster-girl with X-ray vision.
Squid Kid turned to Express and theatrically whispered, "She's blonde and pretty!" Turned back, eyes front, and tried to suppress another grin. Turned back to him and stage-whispered, "And she's got a Hello Kitty tramp stamp!"
Damn them, all three laughed. And no, for the record, no tattoos I didn't ink myself.
"Ha ha, very funny," I interrupted. Dammit, I even sounded irritated. I am not supposed to be the person who gets irritated. "Let's get serious, please. I need all of us to be professionals now."
All three sobered up immediately, thank god. Squiddie made a zip gesture across her lips.
"Okay, sorry," said Miss Mega. "What's the situation?"
"I got a tracer on Hybrid, and I know where she holes up to sleep." I pointed out a dense patch of dried-up grass in the remote northwest corner of the park, near the old railroad tracks. "You can't really see it from here, but there's a little crevice down there, like a burrow. I bet the city parks crews don't even know it's there. She's in there right now, sound asleep."
"Okay, so, what do you need us for?" asked Squiddie. "I could hold her, maybe."
"Cobra, this isn't about us attacking her, is it?" said Express. "I already told you I won't do that."
"No, that's not it at all," I said. "I'm hoping none of us will have to do anything. I just want us here as guards."
"Guards?" asked Miss Mega. "Guards for who?"
Some days the universe provides the perfect timing. An SUV pulled up, high beams in our faces. The car was shut off, and the occupants got out.
"Ms. Cobra? Are we on time?"
"Right on time, Nina," I said. "This is Express, Miss Mega, and Squid Kid. Guys, this is Hybrid's adoptive family, Nina, Fred, Leah, and Uncle Leon. No last names, please, let's keep as much of a secret identity for Hybrid as we can."
"Ahh, I'm a little reluctant about this, Cobra," said Express. "This could be a dangerous situation, and not really something to expose civilians to."
"Civilians, my ass," grumbled Det. Sandoval. "Grandstanding spandex prima donnas..."
"The four of us can keep the family safe," I said as quickly as I could. "But I don't think we'll be needed. Come on, let's get going."
Ten minutes later, we were all situated. Darcy's family standing together about 10 yards in front of the burrow. The rest of us close by -- not hidden, but not calling attention to ourselves. We were close enough to the family to help them if necessary -- Express was more than fast enough to catch Hybrid if she charged anyone, and Miss Mega is vastly stronger and tougher than Hybrid and wants to protect anyone weaker than she is -- which means she'd be careful not to hurt Darcy. Even Squid Kid ended up being a good, though accidental, choice -- if she and Hybrid are really friends, that's one more person who could connect with her emotionally, if the situation deteriorated.
I gave Mrs. Sandoval a nod, and she sighed, took a deep breath. Her husband took her hand. She called out, "Darcy? Darcy, can you hear me?"
There was no other sound, and she said, "Darcy, it's your mom, baby. Come on out."
I switched on my telescopic lenses. I could see a little hint of glowing yellow eyes inside the burrow.
"Darcy, your dad's here, too," said Mrs. Sandoval.
"Hey, Darcy," called Det. Sandoval. "We -- You know we're missing you bad. We haven't heard from you in, in a while."
"And your sister and Uncle Leon came to see you, too," said Mrs. Sandoval. "They wanna say hi, too."
"Hey, Tiger," said Det. D'Arcy. "Come on out, hon. You've had us scared stiff. Come on out, and I'll, I'll -- God help me, hon, I'll help ya shop for tutus and toe shoes, I swear."
"DARCY!" Leah screamed. Good grief, I wished I'd turned down the audio enhancers in my mask before that. "GET YOUR BUTT OUT HERE! I KNOW WHERE YOUR OLD DIARIES ARE, AND I CAN PICK THOSE LOCKS EASY!"
"Come on, Darcy," called Mrs. Sandoval. "We all came out to bring you home. Come out and see us."
She nosed her way out of the burrow, sniffed, whined, ducked back inside.
"Darcy Corazon Sandoval, don't you hide back in there!" Mrs. Sandoval cried.
I saw Miss Mega and Express shuffle uncomfortably out of the corner of my eye. I imagine they were both trying to think of some way to push that name into short-term memory. Too bad, guys -- that's one more secret you've got to keep hidden away.
"Come out, Darcy, please," called Det. Sandoval. "You know we love you, you know we always have and always will, no matter what!"
"Come on, Darcy, come on!" Leah and Det. D'Arcy called out, almost in unison.
There was a short, sad howl from inside the burrow.
"Darcy, please, please," called Mrs. Sandoval. "Don't make us cry for you any more, please."
There was a shuffling noise inside the burrow, and Hybrid crawled out on her hands and knees, got to her feet. Fully, completely human again. Dirty tear-tracks running down her face.
"Mom," she cried. "Mom," and she was running, and they met her halfway, and they all collapsed into one bearhug.
Miss Mega made a loud sniffle. "Sorry, sorry. Allergies."
"Mom, Dad," Hybrid was crying, "I found out -- I found out I'm not a human. I'm not a real person." Her muzzle pushed back out of her skull, pulled halfway in, pushed the rest of the way out. Fangs, yellow eyes, and claws again. "I'm a monshhter. I'm a m-monshhhter."
"Darcy baby," said Mrs. Sandoval. "You've been saying that since the first time you changed, and it hasn't been true yet." And they all fell back into the bearhug as Hybrid's face again transformed back to human.
Miss Mega was just openly weeping now. "Stupid allergies," she mumbled.
The other two were holding it together a bit better. Squid Kid was smiling, her eyes were glistening. She opened her mouth to say something, closed it again, kept smiling. Even Express had damp eyes. "I didn't have to hit anybody," he said with a smile. "Thanks for bringing me along, Cobra."
I don't cry over sentimental stuff. And I wear a mask that completely covers my face.
I caught Darcy's eye, pointed a finger at her, switched it to an "OK" sign. She nodded and gave me a thumbs up.
Everybody went home.
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