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A Generation 2 Whateley Academy Adventure

I Don't Think We're In Kansas Anymore

by ElrodW and Nagrij
(with help and contributions from the usual suspects)

Part 5


Friday, September 9, 2016 - Dinner
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

The small clutch of girls walking into the caf with Taka struck Laura as being particularly unusual; in looking around Crystal Hall, she didn't see any other groups that had one guy surrounded by four girls.

"He sure attracts them, doesn't he?" Bailey chuckled beside her.

"It's just ... strange. I get the feeling that it's going to be ...." she paused and frowned, "trouble." She'd spotted the trio of boys, chests puffed out with self-importance and expressions that announced that they were badasses, on an intercept course with Taka's little group. As she stepped resolutely toward her teammate and friend, her hand instinctively went to her purse before she remembered that security was holding her neural neutralizer until she passed the firearm safety class. "Hell of a time to be unarmed!" she spat angrily. "Well, I guess I'll have to help the old-fashioned way."

"Hey, if it isn't our newest gay-boy!" one of the boys jeered at Taka, loudly enough that many of the kids in the waiting line could hear.

"How are you girls doing today?" another laughed. "Going to do your nails or hair after dinner?" He was staring directly at Taka, and his mocking insult was directed Taka's way.

"Leave us alone, Eddie," Alvery, one of Taka's retinue, replied angrily.

"The little fag has to have girlies defend him?" the third boy said. "Oooh, poor little gay boy, can't stick up for himself!"

Eddie grabbed a fistful of Taka's shirt. "Listen up, you fucking queer," he hissed angrily, "maybe in your country they don't mind faggots, but we don't like them here. So why don't you go back where you came from and take your gay stench with you?"

"I give you chance. Let go ... of shirt," Taka said, his voice strangely devoid of emotion.

"Oooh, we've upset the little boy! What if I don't? Are you going to run to your room and cry?"

"Hey, didn't he say he couldn't fight?" another asked, remembering their last encounter. "You said you couldn't fight, fag!"

"Eddie, back off!" Alvery snarled. Laura, too, slid into the ranks of the girls around Taka - just in case.

"Or what?" Eddie turned arrogantly toward Alvery.

"Do you remember what grade I got in my spring combat final?" Alvery asked smugly.

Taka shook his head, extending an arm to gently shoo the girls back away from the confrontation. "Not allowed to fight," he said calmly to the boys.

"Because you'd break a nail?" the first boy laughed.

"But ... allowed to defense." Taka continued. "Remove hand please."

The trio seemed to realize for the first time that there were now a multitude of spectators who'd finger them if a fight started, and that there were now five girls - four of whom were known quantities in a fight. Eddie released Taka's shirt but leaned close to the Japanese boy's face. "We don't like your kind around here," he hissed angrily. "You aren't going to have your girlies around to defend you all the time, so you better watch your back. Because you never know when some foreign faggot might get hurt."

"You call me gay," Taka said firmly. "Not gay. Like girls ... very much."

"Yeah, playing dress-up and dollies with them!" one of the taunters said provocatively.

Taka didn't take the bait. "Suggest you not ... start fight."

Alvery stepped between Eddie and Taka. "Leave him alone, asshole," she spat at the gay-bashing boy.

"Just watch it, you fucking queer!" the first boy snapped as they turned away.

Disappointed or relieved - both types were present in the line - that there wasn't going to be a fight, the students turned away from the confrontation.

"Why don't you fight back?" Alvery asked, puzzled at Taka's reaction.

"Not permitted," Taka answered. "Government say so. Would be big trouble."

"So you were bluffing when you said you would defend yourself?"

Taka's eyebrow lifted. "What ... bluffing?"

"Faking it. Trying to get your opponent to give up without a fight," Laura explained to Taka before looking at the girls. "I've seen him fight. He wasn't bluffing." Reading their puzzled expressions, she chuckled and continued. "He took down three henchmen in seconds. And when I say he took them down, he took them down in a way that they stayed down."

Alvery looked suspiciously at Laura. "Wait, when did you see him fighting? And ... you said you're not supposed to fight," she said to Taka. Then she turned back to Laura. "You aren't going to be jealous if we try to recruit your boyfriend, are you?"

After a brief flirtation with disbelief, anger clouded Laura's features. "I am NOT his girlfriend!" she snapped firmly and loudly. Sighing and rolling her eyes, she shook her head. "Why is it that everyone thinks I'm his girlfriend?"

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If it hadn't been piled high with food, Laura swore that Bianca would have tossed her tray with significantly more vigor at the table. As it was, the silverware clattered onto the table. "Damn!" Bianca's expression of disgust and frustration seemed a fitting accompaniment for the noise she'd already made and the additional effort she now had to expend rounding up her wayward utensils.

"What's wrong?" the blue-haired girl asked as Bianca dropped her butt into a chair. Her posture and tone of voice indicated that something was definitely the matter. Since Laura was facing the stairs, she instinctively started scanning for trouble.

"Just ... damn!" Bianca spat before taking a couple of deep breaths to try to calm herself. With a heavy sigh, she went on, not really noticing that she had everyone's full attention. "I had to go through full power testing again!" she groused.

"We all have to do that," Morgana said without sympathy.

"It's ... I went through that in Chicago," Bianca explained. "We ... paid a lot to get quality testing done so I wouldn't have to do it again."

To Laura, Bianca's disgust was a little excessive for just having to repeat power testing. Was there some secret that she didn't want to talk about?

"The power testers were pretty excited by my spirit, too," Bianca noted before mouthing a forkful of salad.

"Isn't it just an avatar spirit?"

The white-skinned girl shook her head, swallowing the partially-chewed salad. "Nope," she commented. "One of the doctors said they thought it might be a few spirits bound into one ... thing, maybe like a new Force."

"Like the Champion Force?" Tanya asked, suddenly excited for her friend. "Or the Astarte Force."

"Yeah. So I'm going to be a lab rat for them periodically," Bianca groused. "Every six weeks, or if I notice something different, they're going to retest the spirit to see if it's changing. And who knows how long they're going to want to do that?"

"That doesn't sound too bad."

"You weren't the one being tested," Bianca retorted.

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A few of the girls looked up at the boy who'd casually walked up to their table. He didn't so much stand there, as loomed. Well over 6 foot tall, even without counting the bush hat he was wearing, he caused a number of nervous glances despite the wide grin plastered across his face. There was a quick exchange of glances, before Laura spoke up.

"Hi, can we help you?"

The boy nodded. "I hope so, I was told I could find Morgana Jones here?" His Australian accent was so thick as to be almost a caricature.

This time pretty much every eye swiveled to look at Morgana, who looked confused as she put her coffee mug down carefully. "I'm Morgana. What can I do for you?"

"Ah, great. My name's Drop Bear, I'm in charge of the Commonwealth group. I was hoping you'd come and meet us at the show tomorrow?"

Morgana looked puzzled for a moment..."The Commonwealth? Oh, right!" then she paused, eyes wide. "hang on...Drop Bear??!" Her obvious recognition of the name just made the boys grin get even wider, while the others just looked on in confusion. For her part she looked like she was trying not to burst out laughing.

"Yep, Drop Bear." He gave the redhead a considering glance. "You're Welsh, right?"

Morgana nodded, still looking at him with that odd expression.

"Well then, you might want to know that one of the things we do is get ALL the rugby feeds..."

Morgana sat up straight. "All of them! Oh, I'll definitely look you guys up tomorrow."

Drop Bear nodded again, touching the brim of his hat. "Look forward to it."

Tanya watched the ambling figure leave, then turned to Morgana. "Ok, what's so funny, and why is rugby so important?"

"Uh... well, you have to be Welsh. As to his name..." she shook her head slowly. "I'm not sure I even want to try and explain that one!"

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Friday, September 9, 2016 - Evening
Ballroom, Poe Cottage Basement, Whateley Academy

"It's going to be fun!" Laura encouraged the reluctant trio she was half-pushing down the hall. For some reason, they didn't share her enthusiasm.

"We met the girls on our wing!" Bailey protested.

"Yeah," Laura acknowledged, "but there are so many more in the cottage to meet!" Clearly, Bailey needed more time socializing, which she hadn't gotten from her mother during their schooling. Either that or she was hyper-sensitive about her changeling status. Time to change that, she thought.

"I don't see why we have to go as a group," Bianca objected. "Groups draw more attention."

That comment elicited a chuckle. "And that's the point," she replied. "Girls do things in groups specifically to draw attention to themselves!" From the sighs and muttering the others emitted, she wasn't sure they understood. "Okay, let's put it this way. Have you ever gone to a dance?"

"Yeah." "Um hmm"

"Okay. What happens when a girl walks in by herself?" It took a moment for the others to see the point, and their eyes widened while their jaws dropped in varying degrees. "Exactly," Laura said triumphantly. "A girl walking into a party by herself could just as well have a spotlight on her. Everyone will know she's unaccompanied."

"But ... but this is ... this is Poe!" Bianca protested. "We won't have that problem!"

"Oh? Did you forget that some of the boys are bi?" Eyes were wide as saucers at the implication. "Or that the girls might be sizing you up for ... companionship ... if you enter alone?"

"Point conceded," Morgana surrendered. "So what do we do when we get there?"

"I don't know about you," Laura said cheerfully, "but since it's a mixer, I'm going to mix. I want to get to know my cottage-mates!"

"You just want to flirt with more girls," Bianca observed, causing Laura to blush.

As they were conversing, they took the elevator to the basement, and emerged to somewhat raucous noise coming from the ballroom. Led by Laura, the quartet entered the ballroom and after looking around a bit, they migrated to a vacant table.

No sooner had they sat down when one of the older girls, a curvy, well-endowed, tall black girl, sidled up to the table. "Hi," she said, her eyes focused hungrily on Morgana. "I'm Tomika Johnson. Welcome to Poe. Wanna dance?"

Laura forced herself to not giggle at her friend's sudden predicament. At the same time, she felt a pang of jealousy that Morgana had been the first one approached.

"Um, we just got here," Morgana answered hesitantly. "I'd kind of like to get some refreshments and look around a bit." It was a lame excuse, she knew, but she couldn't think of anything else to say.

Laura smiled to herself; Morgana quite obviously wasn't used to turning down attractive women's invitations. Possibly not even getting invitations from girls! After all, before manifesting, Morgana had been a nerdish-type boy.

The girl smiled. "I understand completely. It's all kind of overwhelming - new school, new powers, living away from home." She licked her lip seductively. "I'll be back later after you've had a chance to relax a bit, and you can dance with me then. Or you can come find me when you're ready." She made a kissing motion toward the girl. "Either way, we'll have a nice dance tonight, okay?" She turned and strutted toward a group of older girls, an exaggerated sway to her very shapely bottom.

Laura laughed. "I think you already made a new friend!" She gazed at the girl walking away, then practically leapt to her feet. "I think I'll give it a shot," she said confidently. "Back in a bit." With a quick, happy step, she scurried to Tomika's side. "Hi," she said as cheerfully and confidently as she could. "I'm Laura. Wanna dance?"

Tomika started at the forwardness of the new girl. "Kind of blunt, aren't you?"

"And you weren't?" Laura shot back.

"Touche!" she answered with a grin. "What makes you think you're my type?"

"Dunno," Laura replied. "Do I have to be your type to dance with you?" She leaned a little closer, looking up to the tall girl. "Besides, you know the phrase 'black and blue?' It's kind of karma, like the fates want us to dance?"

Tomika laughed. "That's usually associated with fights and sports and bruises." She waggled her eyebrows naughtily. "Unless you like ... playing ... a little rough!"

It was Laura's turn to blush. "Um, I ... that is, I've ...."

Tomika lightly touched her arm, grinning. "Gotcha!"

"Why, you ...!"

"Besides," Tomika added, "I have a steady, so I'm not looking."

"But you are dancing, right?"

Tomika nodded, still chuckling. "I like your spunk. You got style, girl!" She took Laura's hand and led her to the dance floor, where the two danced and bumped through a couple of songs.

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As she walked off the dance floor after thanking Tomika for the dance, Laura spotted Misty coming into the ballroom alone. Knowing that attention was going to focus on the shy, self-conscious girl, she changed direction and intercepted the Hispanic girl. "Come on, Misty," she said, gushing enthusiasm. "Come and sit with us." From the way Laura was guiding the newcomer, it was less a request than it was direction.

They hadn't gotten more than a halfway to the table when another girl joined them. "Hi," she said with a pretty smile. "I'm Jamie." The girl was radiating a soft luminous glow, like a nightlight. "Also known as Moonlight." She was talking to Misty, not to Laura. "I thought you might like to dance."

"Um, I'm not ...," Misty started nervously. "That is, I've got ...."

Moonlight smiled warmly, an effect enhanced by her radiant glow. "So I've heard. And I don't care. I want to dance with you."

Misty glanced nervously at Laura, who simply smiled and nodded, so the Hispanic girl let herself be led to the dance floor.

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Laura and Bailey were returning to the table with some punch, only to find that a large boy was sitting in her chair talking to Morgana. The British girl looked up at Laura, her eyes asking for help.

"Tyrone, right?" Morgana said hesitantly, "this is Laura, one of my wing-mates."

"No, don't get up," Laura said hastily when she saw the boy start to rise, either to formally greet her or to offer her a seat. "I'll grab another chair," she said, turning and sliding an unoccupied chair from the neighboring table and gracefully easing herself into it.

The dark-skinned boy talking to Morgana was huge. Huge and wide like a football lineman, but he looked quite friendly and gentle, not at all rough or macho or pretentious. "They call me Nose Tackle," he said with a grin.

"Because you play football?" Laura asked.

"Nah, 'cause I trashed a couple guys from the football team who was harassin' me with their anti-gay bullshit."

"Ah, so you're ..."

Tyrone grinned, an infectiously warm smile. "Actually, I walk both sides of the street." He glanced at Morgana. "And I was just tryin' to convince this lovely creature to go dance with me."

"Um, Laura likes Dr. Who, too!" Morgana said, sounding a little desperate to deflect attention from herself. "And we were talking about Red Dwarf the other day, too!"

Tyrone's eyes lit up. "Really? Two lovely girls appreciate the good Doctor? I heard there's a good Sci Fi club I wanna join; perhaps you'll join too!" He looked at Morgana. "Both of you!" He smiled pleasantly at Morgana before glancing back at Laura. "But first, maybe you can persuade her to do me the honor of a dance?"

"I'm ... I'm a ... terrible dancer!" Morgana said, obviously clutching at excuses. "I'd probably trip all over and embarrass you!"

"Nonsense, milady," Tyrone replied. "Allow your favor upon a gentleman, and permit me to take the chance of you injuring my feet." He'd shifted into a quite formal - and good, at least to Laura - British accent.

Before Laura or Morgana could reply to his smooth approach, Flower bent down beside him and whispered in his ear. At first, he looked puzzled, then concerned, and then most contrite as he nodded in acknowledgement of what Flower had told him. She backed away, one sharp eye still on her charges, while Tyrone turned back to Morgana. "I didn't know," he said apologetically, "of your ... situation." He rose, looking a little awkward. "Um, I ... I hope you join the sci-fi club, too," he repeated.

"It sounds interesting," Laura replied when she saw Morgana stumbling for a response. "We'll think about it. Won't we, Morgana?" She gently kicked the other under the table.

"Yeah," Morgana said. "We'll have to check it out. It might be fun."

With a nod, he backed up a couple of steps and then strode off; from what Laura could see, some of the other boys - the purely gay boys - were jeering at him, and she suddenly felt sorry for Tyrone. Being bi in a cottage full of gay boys had to be awkward, maybe as awkward as being gay in a world of heteros.

"What did you tell him?" Morgana demanded of Flower, her eyes narrowed in anger.

Flower sat down where Tyrone had been, patting Morgana's hand. "Just that you had some trauma at the hands of males when you manifested and that you have some PTSD."

"Oh." Morgana's anger deflated instantly.

"Like I said, dear," Flower patted her hand again, "Poesies watch out for each other."

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On her way back from the restroom, another girl came up to Laura. "Am Irina," she said in an accent that was very eastern-European or Russian.

"Hi," Laura answered back. "I'm Laura. I'm a freshman."

"Yes, I know," Irina replied. "Was wondering - you wish to dance?"

"I was taking a breather," Laura replied, trying not to discourage Irina. "But .... okay."

After a couple more dances, Laura thanked Irina and started to excuse herself.

"Have friends you should meet," Irina insisted, holding Laura's arm. "Is mixer after all!"

"Okay." Laura wondered why she didn't feel reluctant, and realized that, for the first time in over a year, she was in a group where she didn't have to fear people learning that she was a mutant or that she was gay. It felt remarkably liberating.

"Hello again," Laura said cheerfully to Tomika as Irina led her to a table.

The black girl grinned. "I see you get around pretty fast!"

"It's a mixer," Laura replied, smiling. "I'm mixing." Her nose got her attention, and she tried to discretely inhale to identify the wonderful scent around the table. It smelled like some kind of perfume, but unlike any she'd ever tried or smelled.

"Kandy, Roni, is Laura. New student," Irina said.

"It's really Kandace," the first girl, a stunning brunette curvier than a Formula 1 race track, said with a smile, rising to give Laura a quick hug.

"Formally, I'm Veronica," the second girl, a drop-dead-gorgeous, curvy blonde added. She noticed Laura's distraction. "I'm also known as Persawr, which is Welsh for perfume!"

"Not another one!" Laura cried out with mock indignity, grinning all the while.

"Another ... what?" Persawr asked, puzzled by Laura's reaction.

"My friend over there," she turned and pointed to Morgana, " the redhead - she's Welsh, too."

Roni perked up. "Oh really? Well, we'll have to make sure someone talks to her about the Commonwealth, then."

"Some guy called Drop Bear already talked to her in the caf."

"Oh, good!" Roni smiled.

"That perfume you smell," Kandace said, smiling knowingly, "is why Roni is called Persawr. She can manifest perfumes and other various aromatic compounds."

"Wow! That'd save a lot on fragrances!"

Roni nodded, then she leaned close to Laura. Her fingertip lightly touched the side of Laura's neck, and the blue girl got a noseful of a different but no less delightful aroma. Roni brushed the other side, and then in the neckline, which was somewhat low and gave a view of a hint of cleavage. Seeing Roni's gaze lingering, Laura blushed significantly. "Um, thanks," she stammered, not sure how to react to Roni's blatant staring.

"Let's see how it goes with you," Roni said, standing and taking Laura's hands.

"Um, goes with me?"

"A scent is different on every woman who wears it because of her body chemistry," Roni replied, smiling sweetly. "So we need to see how this one works for you."

"Um," Laura started to reply. "But ..."

"Shhh," Roni said, holding Laura's hand and gently pulling her to the dance floor. "It works best to try after one has a little exercise and the pores are open so the scent mingles with your body's natural smells."

Unable - or unwilling - to refute Roni's logic, Laura danced with the girl, including a slow dance where Roni held her very close, their heads side-by-side and touching. When the dance ended, Roni led Laura back to their table. "I think that works for you," Roni said with a smile.

"Which?" Kandy asked, chuckling. "The perfume or dancing with you?"

Laura blushed again, while Roni giggled. "Both, actually."

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She bumped into Krystal, and at the girl's urging, Laura spent time with the Poe gadgeteers and devisors who were huddled almost conspiratorially around a table; it was a good opportunity to learn tips about the lab faculty and various classes, and of course about their projects.

After a good bit of 'tech talk', Laura set off in search of some punch and Antonia; now that she knew some of the gadgeteers and devisors, she could talk with them some more in their free time. In the meanwhile, she wasn't going to waste the whole evening when she could be dancing and flirting and having fun. It wouldn't be fair to Antonia at the very least.

"Hi!" a girl said when Laura wandered past her. "You one of the new freshmen?"

"Yeah. I'm Laura."

"Alicia," the girl said. "You want to talk about what got you so blue?" she joked.

Laura groaned inwardly, while forcing a smile. "Not like I haven't heard that one before."

Alicia winced. "Sorry. It's just ... the first thing I could think of."

"At least you didn't call me that name!" Laura replied, smiling and lightly brushing Alicia's arm to let her know it was okay. She sighed. "I really, really hate it when people call me Smurfette."

"I can understand why that might make you a little sensitive."

"But," Laura leaned a little closer "maybe someday I'll find the right girl who could persuade me to put on a blonde wig and white dress!"

"Is that a challenge?" Alicia grinned. "'Cause I've got a nice, short, white dress in my room, and it'd be dynamite on you!"

"Do you think I'm that easy?" she asked with an innocent smile and batting her eyes.

Before Alicia could respond, a second girl slipped an arm around her waist and pulled her into a passionate kiss. "Hi, love," Alicia said when the two girls separated. She turned to Laura. "This is Irma Payne, my steady."

Laura cringed; she'd been having fun flirting all evening, but this was the first relationship she'd flirted into the middle of. "I'm sorry," she apologized quickly. "I ... I was just ...."

Irma smiled disarmingly at her. "No harm in a little playful flirting," she reassured Laura. Then she very slowly and deliberately scanned up and down Laura's figure. "Besides, you'd make a nice addition for a threesome!"

Laura's eyes threatened to bug completely out of their sockets. "Um ..." was all she could stammer.

Alicia and Irma laughed. "Just teasing," Irma said. "Besides, I know Antonia, and she'd get more than a little upset if we tried to seduce you!"

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Bailey was not at the table when Laura finally returned; on the other hand, a few others were.

"Grimes is very fair," a boy at the table said. "Unlike Chulkris."

"Ms. Chulkris is fair," one of the older girls protested his comment. "You're just pissed because she gave you a C last term."

"I heard Dr. Tenent is going to teach a special topics class in the winter term - tantric magic!" another girl said softly, giggling as she spoke.

Morgana wrinkled her nose. "Tantric magic?"

"Magic associated with sex," both girls replied, which elicited a gasp from Bianca and a quickly-smothered half-grin from Morgana. "Hey, don't knock it," the first girl said. "It's a powerful catalyst for magic, and the magic part can make it really, really ... interesting." She had a knowing smile.

"Not that stale rumor again!" the boy countered. He looked at Bianca and Morgana. "Better to take Practical Enchantment if they offer it. You'll learn to make spell patterns on things that you can activate later, or booby-trap them. Always useful to pre-make some and have them as holdouts ...."

Laura missed the rest of the conversation; she wasn't a mage, so she had no use for their entirely practical discussion. As she was wandering around, Antonia caught up with her and gave her a big hug and kiss.

"Ah, I see you met Persawr," she said with a smile. "You smell irresistibly good!"

"She … put a little of her perfume on me," Laura blushed in reply. "Do you really like it?"

"Most definitely."Antonia said after giving Laura a nice kiss. "You've been dancing with a lot of other girls," Antonia changed her expression to a fake pout. "And not me!"

Laura flinched; she'd worried that her new girlfriend would be jealous. "I'm sorry," she apologized quickly. "I ... I just wanted to meet ...."

"Dance with me," Antonia said, smiling again as she tugged Laura toward the dance floor, "and all will be forgiven."

"Okay." As they walked to the floor, Laura noticed Misty dancing with two girls. "I met Kandace," she said to Antonia, "but who's the other one?"

Antonia glanced, then smiled. "Cynthia. We warned her that she'd be very popular!"

"Yeah, but I don't think any of us believed you!"

"I bet she gets lucky tonight," Antonia chuckled. "Maybe with more than one."

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"Who are those guys?" Laura asked as she and Antonia walked off the dance floor toward the refreshment table. She was looking at a quartet of boys in one corner, separated from everyone else, and having somewhat dazed looks on their faces.

Antonia glanced. "Oh, them? That's Acid Trip and his retinue."

"Acid Trip?"

"Yeah," Antonia nodded. "Stay away from him. He can emit a very powerful hallucinogenic gas that'll make you really trip out."

Laura's goggled at them. "Really?"

"Yeah. The guys with him are a few of the Dylans - the school's stoners." Antonia shook her head in disapproval. "They don't do much besides hang out tripping off his gas. He's been told to stop, even threatened with expulsion, but they haven't been able to catch him actually releasing his trippy gas, so ..."

Laura frowned. "If it's so bad, why isn't he in Hawthorne?"

"He started out there," Toni explained. "But when he got control of the gas release, they moved him over here."

"I wish he was still in Hawthorne," Laura muttered, unhappy with the thought of accidentally tripping out because of a cottage mate.

"We all do, hon," Toni replied. "We all do."

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Something about the way Stahlfaust watched her was making Laura very uneasy. She couldn't put her finger on it, but it seemed that the Amazon was angry at her. She'd been friendly earlier in the week, so her change of attitude was puzzling.

Morgana breezed right past the table where Laura and the others sat. "Hi, Brita!" she cheerfully greeted the Amazon girl.

If anything, Stahlfaust's expression hardened even more. "What makes you think I want to talk to you?" she snapped angrily at Morgana.

Morgana was quite taken aback. "But ... the other day ... you wanted to talk about the Amazons? And I haven't had ..."

"The Amazons is a group for real girls!" Brita snarled. "Not fake girls like you!" Her gaze swept over the table where Laura, Bailey, Bianca, and Antonia sat. "Or you!" Her voice carried further than she intended, or perhaps she had intended to make a very public scene; in either case, background noise faded, and the DJ stopped the music.

"But… I am a girl!" Morgana protested, looking confused at the unexpected attack.

"Nein!" Brita snapped, glaring daggers at her. "You're a pathetic imitation of a girl" She pushed herself forward right into Morgana's face. "You and those loser wing-mates of yours - all fake girls!"

"Stop it!" Morgana almost shouted at Brita, her voice rising in anger at the taunts. "We are girls!" Still confused at the way Brita was yelling at her, she took a half step back from her attacker.

Brita followed Morgana, staying right in her face. "Or what, little boy?" Brita taunted. "You'll cry like a pathetic loser?"

The hostility and taunting were too much. Snarling in rage, the British girl stood her ground, horns curling from her head as the confused and angry girl reflexively shifted into her dragon form. "Stop it!" she screamed, her voice halfway between a cry of rage and a growl.

"Both of you, stop!" It the voice of a boy that pushed himself between the two would-be combatants, but he - tall, chiseled, blonde - was facing Morgana, staring her down as if this was all her fault. "There will be no fighting in the cottage tonight!" he sternly reprimanded Morgana.

"She started it!" Morgana snarled, face flushed with embarrassment from the public confrontation and the abuse from Brita and now apparently being blamed by the older boy. "Everyone saw her start it!"

"Brita started a verbal confrontation," the boy scolded her. "You were the one who changed form to escalate."

Laura and Bianca stepped boldy beside their friend. "She was verbally escalating, and was kept in Morgana's face when she tried to back off," Bianca said. "She was attempting to withdraw, but Brita was not allowing it. Therefore, from a perspective of self-defense, Morgana had the right to assume ...."

The boy shook his head, frowning deeply. "Stop! This is not a legal proceeding. It's about to become a security matter, though, if you keep pressing the issue!"

"What gives you the right ...?" Laura demanded.

The boy squared himself. "I'm a security auxiliary," he said sternly. "That gives me the responsibility to prevent or stop altercations."

Laura wasn't intimidated. "By accusing our friend of starting something that Brita started?"

"Would you like to file a security report?" the boy challenged. "Or make a formal complaint to the house-parents?"

"Damned straight, we do!" Laura snapped in response. "Just because we're freshmen ...."

She stopped when she felt Morgana's hand on her arm.

"Just drop it, please? I don't want you getting into trouble over me." Morgana almost begged her.

Laura looked at her friend for several seconds, then nodded slowly. "Okay," she relented. "But I'm more than tempted to go complain to the administration or head of security or Mrs. Horton! This is bullshit, and he," she tilted her head toward the security auxiliary, "knows it."

The boy stood rigidly, arms crossed, while Bianca and Bailey escorted a thoroughly shaken and confused Morgana back to their table. Other changelings gathered around to offer comfort to Morgana, while another ran to the refreshment table to get something for her to drink.

Laura glared at the boy. "That was crap and you know it!" she spat venomously at him.

"I can only act on what I saw," the boy replied. "I didn't see the start. All I saw was that your friend shifted forms. When you take power theory and lab, you'll learn that when a shifter changes form in an altercation, it is almost always a sign of impending violence."

"So Brita gets away with taunting and harassing a freshman?"

The boy shook his head. "I didn't say that. I'm obligated to report this to Mrs. Horton or Mr. Babich." He uncrossed his arms. "I'm Adam Hinz, by the way."

After a couple of seconds, Laura's frown wavered. "Laura. Laura Samuels."

Adam smiled. "Yes, I know. I read the reports." He watched Laura's jaw drop. "Which is why I knew to stop Morgana before she threw the first punch."

"What?" Laura was totally confused.

"Brita knows better. She was trying to get Morgana to attack. Then she'd be justified in filing a complaint with security, which would get your friend transferred to Hawthorne or expelled." The boy seemed pleased with himself as the light-bulb turned on in Laura's head. "I'm not the enemy. Actually, if anything, I'm on your side. Like you guys, I changed kind of radically, too." He glanced over at the table where the changelings were comforting Morgana. "I would strongly suggest you not let your friend leave the party right now."

"What?"

"Brita left. If Morgana leaves, and something happens, there may not be witnesses if something happens. It'll be better if Morgana stays here, with her friends. Witnesses." With a smile, he turned and walked toward the refreshment table.

Laura looked around, seeming to notice that at some point during the altercation, Antonia had slipped beside her and clutched her arm. "That sure was a buzz-kill," Laura said, looking at the less-than-festive mood in the people.

"Then let's do something about it," Antonia said. With a tug, she led Laura to the empty dance floor, where the two began to dance and bump and grind to the music. Slowly, the party came back to life and the minor confrontation was set aside - at least for the night.

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With time and attention, Morgana was recovering from the encounter with Stahlfaust - mostly; it had taken her a lot longer than normal to resume her more normal appearance. Several of the girls - older and younger - had come by to see how she was and to offer encouragement and support, so it wasn't surprising when a girl with long, reddish-brown hair approached the table. She strutted very confidently, her very gait oozing sex appeal.

"May I?" she asked Morgana directly, gesturing to an empty chair beside her.

"Sure."

The girl eased herself very gracefully into the seat, and even that motion was somehow quite sexy. "One of these days," she said with a smile, "she's going to piss off the wrong person, and she'll get her clock cleaned. I want to be there to watch when it happens."

Morgana visibly relaxed at that comment, though she was still upset and perhaps blaming herself. "Thanks."

"Has anyone told you that you're cute?" the girl asked bluntly, eliciting a furious blush from Morgana. "I take that as a no," she laughed. "Oh, by the way, I'm Sinopa Stsimake."

"Sinopa S...." Morgana fumbled with the foreign name.

"That's why everyone calls me Vixen," the girl said with a chuckle. "Much easier, don't you think?"

Laura turned her attention from Antonia to Morgana across the table, watching the new girl's blatant flirting, but Antonia just laughed. "Forget it. Vixen is appropriately named. She's a huge flirt!"

"Well, it seems to be helping Morgana relax," the blue girl observed.

"I thought Vixen is what they call a female fox," Morgana observed.

"Very good," the other said. "It fits, too, because I'm a were-fox." She read the look of disbelief on Morgana's face. "No, really! I'm a were-fox. You want me to show you?"

"I'd just rather you don't bite me," Morgana said cautiously.

"Oh, don't worry - I'm long past where I bite people. Unless they want me to!" she added with a coy grin. "And usually, that's to be kinky, not to give them the were-virus!"

"Um, no thanks. I think 'I've had enough of being shape-changed to last me a while." Morgana sounded less than reassured.

"You don't look like a freshman," Vixen observed, changing the subject abruptly.

"I'm a little older than average," Morgana admitted.

"Good!" Vixen muttered. Seeing the British girl's puzzled look, she smiled sweetly. "Nothing," she said quickly. "Just talking to myself."

Laura had heard Vixen's comment. "Is she trying to seduce Morgana?" she whispered to Antonia, upon whose shoulder Laura was resting her head.

Antonia laughed softly. "Yeah. She does that a lot."

"What do you do for fun?" Vixen continued the dialog. "Hobbies? Things you're interested in?" Seeing Morgana thinking, she quickly added. "Do you like to dance?"

"Yeah, but after what happened, I'm not really in the mood for dancing," Morgana said with a heavy sigh.

"They have dance classes here," Vixen's dialog was smooth, almost well-rehearsed. "Ballroom dancing, modern dance, ballet." She chuckled sweetly. "They even teach pole dancing in special sessions."

Morgana goggled at her. "Pole dancing?"

"Yeah. It's a really good workout, and it helps you stay stretched and limber. And it's good for coordination."

"I take it you've been in the pole-dancing class?"

Vixen smiled and nodded. "Yeah. And some of us girls had a pole installed in one of the third-floor common rooms so we can practice!" She clutched Morgana's arm lightly. "C'mon! I'll show you if you want!"

Morgana's face lit up with a joy that had been absent since her altercation with Brita. "That sounds like it might be fun."

As Vixen started to rise from her seat, Krystal was suddenly beside her, bent over and whispering in her ear. The girl frowned, then glanced at Morgana. "Really?"

Krystal nodded. "Fifteen."

Vixen sighed. "Well, at least you kept me out of trouble." She stood. "Sometime, I'll show you our pole-dancing setup. I ... just had something come to my attention." With a seductive wink at Morgana, she scurried off, wiggling her butt playfully.

"What's that all about?" Morgana asked the grinning RA. Laura, too, seemed to have caught on, because she was trying to keep from giggling aloud.

"Vixen is named vixen ... for appropriate reasons," Krystal said. "And not just because she's a were-fox, which she really is."

"I don't ...."

"She obviously thought you were older," Laura blurted out, still trying to stifle her giggles. "I bet she figured you were sixteen, and was trying to seduce you." Morgana looked wide-eyed at Laura, then at Krystal who nodded in confirmation. The redhead gulped audibly.

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The party had finally started to wind down; most of the older kids had either paired up or left, as Laura and her friends got up to leave.

"Hang on a moment."

Laura looked at Morgana. "Something the matter?"

The girl shook her head. "I'll only be a moment." She squared her shoulders, and walked over to where Nose tackle was talking with a couple of his friends.

"Excuse me."

The boy turned to look at her, his eyebrows raised, as she continued. "I wanted to apologize for earlier. You didn't know about my, well, issues with guys, and you were a gentleman about it. Thanks."

The boy gave her a big smile. "Thanks yourself."

"I just wanted you to know, I did appreciate you taking it the way you did." She paused for a moment. "'There's just one thing, though...'what's a nose tackle?"

The guys' face-faults could be heard right across the room.

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Friday, September 9, 2016 - Evening
Melville Cottage Ballroom, Whateley Academy

The room, decorated seamlessly as a Victorian-era ball room, was full, or, to be precise, it seemed full since there had to be a couple hundred students in it - some on the large dance floor but most hanging around the walls, seated at candle-bedecked dining tables, or gathered at the buffet tables which bore full candelabras.

A second glance revealed the illusion; the band playing some lively classical number Tia didn't recognize was a hologram facade on a DJ with a laptop, plugged into speakers lining the room; even if she couldn't see the DJ the music quality gave it away.

Likewise the large picture windows festooned with heavy purple drapes, for all that they were showing a view of outside, were fake, or at least the windows were. They had to be, since they were on every wall and the views didn't match. The large crystal chandelier, large enough for Errol Flynn to swing from and held in place by an intricate chain, was suspect as well, but Tia couldn't say if it was real or not with any certainty.

Most of the guys were in suits - or clothes that suggested suits without actually being suits - and most of the girls were dressed as she was, in at least semi-formal dresses, some of which looked more expensive than hers. The girls seemed to have taken the event as an opportunity to dress up even as the guys seemed to have dressed down as much as they could get away with.

And just like that Tia was out of things to distract herself with. Nothing left to do but to get on with the night, she thought.

Squaring her shoulders she strode to the nearest group. It was hard, but at least there was someone there she'd seen before; a tall blonde girl who she'd seen running in the morning. She was clearly with a brunette that was shorter than Tia was; the brunette seemed uncomfortable in her cocktail dress and was hanging on the outskirts of the group and close to the blonde. The girls' cocktail dresses matched; both dark green hemmed in black; somehow the blonde made it work, even though the colors weren't her best.

Standing next to them was an auburn-haired girl-next-door, perhaps Tia's height. She also looked a little uncomfortable in her dress, which was a dark blue evening gown with lighter accents that brought the copper out of the girl's hair and was long enough to cover her shoes. Her hair was in a loose cascade, and more than long enough to be a pain in the butt to wash, Tia noted without thinking. As Tia strode toward her, the girl gave her dress an unconscious tug to smooth it over her thighs.

The final touch to this group, the reason Tia chose it as her first target for 'mixing', was Squall from Final Fantasy, fidgeting in a charcoal gray suit missing its tie.

Something was clearly wrong with this school, she thought as she sidled up. "Hello. Mind if I join you?" Tia asked; manners drilled into her for occasions like this mixing with her caution. "I'm Tia."

The blonde replied first. "Sure. We were just discussing the political climate in China. I'm Danica. Danica Floros."

The Squall-wannabe snorted his reply, fiddling - taking off - his cufflinks. "No, you were discussing the political climate in China. The rest of us were wondering if we cared or not." He smiled at Tia. "Hi, I'm Bernie Bandis."

The brunette chimed in, sporting a serious look that combined with her thick glasses made her look adorable and years younger, somehow. "But you should care! It could mean war! And oh, sorry. I'm Felicia Moore."

The auburn-haired girl-next-door rolled her green eyes. "Come on, we all know it won't come to war; the Chinese aren't stupid. They'll back off before they piss off the world." She put on a pleasant expression as she turned to Tia. "Riley Callahan."

"Tia Del Bosque. Pleased to meet you all."

Danica continued as if the introductions hadn't interrupted her train of thought in the slightest. "Oh it'll come to war alright. Just give it a few years. What do you think, Tia?"

"I think I don't know enough to contribute a good opinion on the situation. Is there a reason you're paying so much attention to China?"

"Haven't been keeping up on current events?" Felicia asked.

Tia shook her head no, a little ruefully. Here it comes, she thought. "No, I've been a bit busy with other concerns closer to home."

The expected shock and disgust did not come. Instead Bernie just gave a measured nod as she looked into faces showing polite interest and nothing more. "That's fair; my own issues have kept me from keeping up with current events, too. Do you know how hard it is to get a custom sword made?"

Tia chuckled; the grin told her it was a joke, even as she cast her ears around - even with the distraction of the music she could hear well enough to tell that no one was talking about her. They all had to know by now she thought, but not one word was being spoken aloud about her.

"Does it have a gun in it?" Tia asked with a smile.

Bernard actually made dodgy eyes. "It might."

Tia laid her ears back. "You're going to get sued."

Riley laughed. "See, that's what I said! The copyright lawyers can't sue over the look, and can't really sue over code names, but that sword is just too far! They'll have to go after you then, Bernie!"

Bernard looked sour. "Probably, but what they don't know won't hurt them."

Tia debated telling him how pernicious copyright lawyers were - but a first offense was a simple cease and desist, so it wouldn't really matter. There was no sense in tempting fate, she decided.

She wanted to stay with that group the entire night and try to blend in - but that wasn't what the night was for. "Alright well I'd love to stay, but I really should meet more cottage-mates. So I'll talk to you all later, if you don't mind?"

Tia cringed. That sounded way too hesitant at the end and not at all confident.

None called her on it. "Good point, we should probably do the same.' Danica stated, turning to Felicia and giving her a firm nod. Felicia looked about as unhappy and resigned as Tia imagined she did, but nodded her agreement anyways. Tia left in a hurry as the two of them all but marched off - literally.

The next group she came upon was comprised solely of girls. A raven haired girl in a dark evening dress held a small plate of finger food. Two of the girls that had recently taken to following Taka around, a fine-featured elf-eared girl with chestnut hair and a human girl who managed to pull off the librarian look even in a dress like Tia's, seemed as if they were posing while just standing around.

Next to the pointy-eared girl was someone that looked like she might belong in a Japanese horror film. The girl was young and pretty, with very pale skin and long blonde, almost white, free-flowing hair. And that was the problem - if she ducked her head and hunched down some, she could probably look like she crawled out of a well, and her long puffy white dress didn't help matters. For now though, she looked more Disney than dismal.

Next to her and rounding out the circle was a girl about the same size as Tia, but with red-highlighted brown hair and freckled cheeks. The amount of skin shown by her little black dress made it clear she worked out, and her hazel eyes were piercing.

It was almost enough to make Tia stop and turn around. That and the talk of French fashion she overheard. "Hello, I'm Tia Del Bosque."

The librarian spoke first. "I'm very pleased to meet you, Miss Del Bosque. I'm Cynthia Kincaid."

The raven haired girl waved and spoke out of turn, earning a glare she didn't even see. "Scarlet Hayes."

The pointy-eared girl spoke while still frowning at Scarlet. "Alvery Rosseu."

The white-haired girl held out a hand. "Elisa Avondale."

The last girl waited until the two had shook and then held out her own hand: "Meredith Tapia."

"Pleased to meet you all." Tia replied, half in hope as Cynthia's eyes were on her, lit with predatory fire. She hoped saying it would make it true.

As expected, Cynthia spoke first again, while pushing her glasses up her nose with a finger. "I trust your trip to Whateley was pleasant?"

"It went about as well as could be expected," Tia got out, hiding a wince and trying to make sure her ears stayed put.

"Oh? Trip from where? Did something happen?" Scarlet asked, nibbling on some kind of cookie-like thing.

"Just a small layover in New York due to some sort of misunderstanding at the airport."

Tia had looked up the aftermath of the incident, it was muddy to say the least - but it looked like while the case was another government overstep, it wasn't clear the MCO was to blame; after her own recent past she was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Scarlet dropped half her cookie, mouth gaping. "You were in New York for the ...."

"For the incident there, yes. Though in our case it probably isn't what you're thinking. I was nowhere near Central Park."

Cynthia grinned and showed she knew more than most. "No, but there was another, lesser-known scuffle between a group of freshmen students and a minor villain who was robbing a jewelry store, or so I heard."

Meredith raised an eyebrow and looked Tia up and down. "You fought a villain?"

"No," Tia tried. None of the group seemed to buy it. Scarlet was all but hopping up and down in excitement even as she frowned.

"If Cynthia says you did, then you did. You don't know her yet, but she's really good at getting information. So spill, what was the villain like? Was it very dangerous?"

Tia barely managed to keep from stepping back. "No, I meant, I saw the villain and his henchmen, but I ran and called the police, I didn't fight. I'm not very strong or powerful or anything, so there wasn't much I could do."

"Quite wise of you, then." Cynthia returned. "Even the weaker villains can be dangerous to those without power or skill, and devisors can be among the worst, as they seem to check common sense at the door whenever they make a new machine."

"Yeah, that's me. A total noncombatant."

Scarlet stepped up and wrapped an arm around her. "Hey, don't worry about it. We can't all just jump into life or death situations, and calling the authorities is the right thing to do. They're trained for that stuff."

"Do you...?" Tia went to ask but hesitated.

"Do I? Oh, do I have bad powers?" Scarlet grinned and whispered. "No, not really. Watch."

"No, wait!" Elisa hissed as a hammer, a large wooden mallet as tall as Tia was, appeared in Scarlet's hand.

"See? I can teleport things I've marked to me; it's great for smashing perverts." The hammer vanished as Elise hissed again.

"You're not supposed to do that here! We're at a party! You'll get kicked out!"

"Green flag day," Scarlet shrugged and went back to nursing her drink with a twinkle in her eye. "And speaking of perverts...."

"Oh crap, not again." Alvery sighed out.

"What?" Tia whirled to find a boy approaching, wearing a white tuxedo with black accents, clearly overdressing for the occasion.

He was obviously an exemplar, with dark hair and hazel eyes, and he was clearly confident as he approached, adjusting a golden cuff-link absently. "Hello! I saw the new face, and thought I should introduce myself. My name is Alan Howard. By all means, call me Alan."

"Hello Alan, My name is Tia." He held out his hand, and when Tia took it he bowed and brought it to his lips for a quick peck.

"Pleased to meet you, Tia. You look much more beautiful in person, I must say."

And just like that whatever mood Alan had been going for was killed by the reminder that Alan knew who Tia was.

Merideth snickered. "Very smooth, Smooth."

Cynthia shook her head and checked her watch. "Less than five seconds to eat shoe leather that time."

Alan shot them both a glare, then adjusted his jacket. "I've no idea what you're talking about." He turned back to Tia. "So, I was quite surprised to see you here. I, like many, thought you were still in California."

"Unfortunately, several adults decided I should continue my education." Tia left out that if she'd known then what she knew now, she would have stayed home; confront her fears, her butt.

"Well this is certainly the place for it. It's expensive, but certainly worth the cost. I hate to be rude but I have to ask; have you really met my father?"

"Your... father? I think I'd remember a Mr. Howard, and I don't seem to."

Scarlet giggled, then pulled herself close and whispered. "Smooth there, that's his code name, keeps telling everyone that Hugh Hefner is his father. None of us believe it of course."

Tia gave the boy another once over; while he endured the scrutiny with a smile. He must have heard or at least suspected the whisper.

Tia sighed. She didn't want to do this; she was wrong to think that she could fit in with the 'rich kids' and she wasn't prepared to do this high society thing. Anything she said could reflect badly on her sponsors and friends, and while it was just a bunch of rich kids - it was a bunch of well-connected rich kids.

But they were expecting an answer. "Yes, I've met Hugh Hefner, and I've met the Iron Bunny. In fact, they're my sponsors here. I wouldn't have the money to go here on my own. Mr. Hefner even wants me to call him Uncle. I hung out in those circles for a few months, learning business and a few other things," - the business of not making a fool out of yourself counted, to Tia's thinking - "But I didn't see you there, and I would have remembered you."

There, Tia thought with some satisfaction. That was so polite no one could find fault with it, and still called his claim into as much question as if she'd shouted 'no way!' Because honestly, while he was working for the look, she couldn't see it. Hugh was effortless, and he was working at it too hard.

He winced theatrically. "Well, that's true. I don't live near there, and last summer saw me vacationing somewhere else."

Which implied that Hugh was ashamed of him or something, possibly, Tia thought. That was almost clever, except while Hugh could do class, he just couldn't do shame. The 'products' he made sure were shipped to her were proof of that... Tia winced herself; it was best not to think of those.

The other girls were all trying hard not to giggle, or at least most of them; Scarlet was giggling rather openly. Alan frowned at her, but anything he was going to say was interrupted by the arrival of three more people.

The first was a boy that looked more like a man, in full Norse ideal. Tall, broad-shouldered, and blond, he was probably as clear a case for an exemplar as one could make.

The second was a girl attached to the boy's arm like a limpet; she was perhaps as close as one could get to the exemplar ideal without going over, She was taller than Tia, with a figure just a shy bit less generous, and with long blonde tresses that were almost seamlessly dyed with red streaks - to make her hair looks as if it were on fire.

The last was a boy following just behind the obvious couple. He was handsome and well-built, with astonishing turquoise eyes and vibrant light brown hair. He was also moping more than a little.

The Norse god spoke first. "Hello, I'm Andres Gunter, this lovely lady is Cindy Shan, and the big guy behind me is Derek Seaver. And you're Tia Del Bosque, right? Pleased to meet you."

The big guy thing must be a joke, Tia thought, because if anything Andres was a bit taller than Derek. "Yes, I am. Pleased to meet you."

"We heard you had a bit of trouble in New York?"

Tia sighed. She knew stuff like this was coming, but it still rankled. "Yes, but I didn't do much there. My friends and I saw a minor villain, and I called the police."

Andres cocked his head. "Do you know which villain?"

Tia nodded with a grin. "Yeah, he called himself 'The Mighty Squid'. He was kind of a joke, at least according to the police we talked to afterward."

"Ah, yes, we know of him. He's, well, he's ... something. But these friends of yours took him down?"

Tia nodded. "Yeah." She thought better about telling the three before her how hard it had actually been. Angering new friends seemed like a bad idea.

"Interesting." Andres had a thoughtful look in his eyes for a moment, as if his mind was miles away. "So, what do you think of Melville?" he continued, changing the subject.

Tia thought for a moment. "It's easily the most amazing place I've stayed in, it has posh hotels beat - but it's not home."

Cindy nodded. "I can understand that. Be it ever so humble, and all that."

"Exactly."

The conversation fizzled awkwardly for a minute before Andres spoke again. "Well, it was nice meeting you, Tia. See you later, alright?"

They left, with Derek getting poked in ribs with an elbow by Cindy. Tia could hear her clearly: "Cheer up Derek, Gwen is fine! So she had a tussle with someone over the break, clearly she got the better of the guy and she'll be out of the cast in just a few more days. Moping about it doesn't help anything, and you're bringing us all down."

His response was a shrug. Tia turned back to the group. "What was all that about?"

"Those were representatives of the Future Superheroes of America, otherwise known as the Capes." Scarlet answered with a grin that could easily have been interpreted as mocking. "They were probably looking to recruit you, or for information on friends of yours they might recruit. It's a club thing."

Tia shuddered; she didn't want to think about her driver's test tomorrow. "I didn't think the clubs around here would be quite so ... gung ho about things."

Scarlet grinned and shook her head. "Girl, you ain't seen nothing yet."

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Hikaru snuck another sidelong look at the buffet. It was catered, it had to be. But from the looks of things it had to be catered from elsewhere; was it a breach in the rules, or was such a thing allowed? The wait staff offered no clue. She decided not to ask; after all the lobster puffs looked delicious. After her third sample, she decided they lived up to her expectations. She turned around in time to spot the group of kids closing in on her.

The first was a boy that could give Taka a run for his bishonen money, she decided. Tall muscular and wiry, with a swimmers build and a face just a trifle less delicate than a female of the species. He was dressed in a full but casual suit, the dark muted colors of which matched his hair.

The second was also tall and wiry, with a slightly more muscular build, but bore lighter hair and a lantern jaw to contrast his surprisingly aristocratic nose. He looked as if he was trying to lead the way, almost shouldering the first boy out of the lead as Hikaru watched.

The third was a girl with skin the color of cream filled coffee, with a good half a foot on Hikaru and an athletic build. Her dark hair was curly and free, and she walked with the gait of a trained fighter, predatory and dangerous.

The final member of the group was a bit shorter, only a head taller than Hikaru, but far more curvy. The bright blue eyes set in her triangular face did not match her dark green hair, but both matched her dress, an aquamarine knee length that moved as if to simulate ocean waves when the girl moved.

They were clearly heading her way. She waited, sneaking another puff.

The four broke upon the table, snagging finger foods with polite haste. The one who wanted to lead looked her way. "Good evening and welcome to Melville. How are the shrimp puffs?"

"Lobster. Maine lobster, if I had to guess." Hikaru corrected. "And you are...?"

"Oh, how rude of me! I apologize, I am Karel Lorenc, heir to the Hapsburg-lorraine line, and you are?"

"Hikaru Myoujin."

The second boy opened his mouth to say something, when Karel interrupted. "Allow me to introduce my companions - To my left is Didier Pellerman, also known as Icarus."

The dark haired boy gave a slight chuckle as he bowed with a look of amusement while Karel continued. "Behind me are the beautiful flowers, Jane Chorley and Melisande Shinall, also known as Knock-out and Glam."

Karel then straightened up and puffed up. "And I am known by another name as well; I am called the Bohemian Lion."

Didier snorted softly into his glass, it was a wine glass that Hikaru suspected might be filled with the real thing; another item not to ask too many questions about.

"So, Mr. Lorenc; why have you sought me out?"

Didier looked apologetic as he finally got a word in edgewise, his voice tinged with a distinct yet skillfully tamed southern accent that Hikaru recognized. "I'm afraid that's my fault, ma'am. Good evening, and the name is Didier Pellerin by the way, not Pellerman, as Karel here knows full well. Due to my being the leader of another - influential - club, I was picked to be the President of the Student council. I was told you were aware of us, so I thought I'd take the time to get to know you a bit, welcome our newest RA, and maybe talk some about the real estate market in Japan." He paused for a moment and gave Hikaru a sheepish, almost apologetic grin. "That is, if you don't mind. Karel here heard about that, and decided to tag along."

Karel nodded. "Yes, I too wanted to talk of real estate, but in my native Prague."

That excuse was so flimsy even his two hangers-on rolled their eyes. Behind his back, of course. It was clear this one was a social climber, Hikaru thought... but that was alright, she had training to deal with those. The other though, she knew he didn't need to climb. He gave the impression he was already there, wherever there was for him.

The two other girls looked all but bored; this talk was clearly not for them.

Hikaru fixed her attention on Didier as she took a seat at the closest table.

"I'd be delighted to chat for a while," she said with a mischievous smile, "but if I'm going to talk about real estate in Japan, then it's only fair that you tell me about the market down in New Orleans."

Didier looked pleasantly surprised but smiled all the same as he and the others moved to join Hikaru at the table. "Of course, mon cherie. It would be my pleasure."

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The night had been going well, and Tia had begun to enjoy herself, to feel almost at home. She was once more talking to Gerard, the boy who'd ceded his appointment with Bellows to Tia after she'd bumped into Jamie, as well as his friend, a senior named Richard Heath who was tanned dark with almost black hair. He looked mismatched next to Gerard, lacking his friend's looks, but Tia wasn't about to mention it.

Gerard and Richard both had been charming and almost witty in a vaguely familiar way, and she was answering questions about the national park near where she lived... and so when Gerard waved two more friends over, twins apparently, Tia thought nothing of it.

They looked average but decently toned, with sandy blond hair and shoulders that seemed a trifle too wide for their size. They both wore matching frowns as Gerard introduced her.

"Sam, David, this is Tia Del Bosque. Tia, this is Sam and David Darby, fellow members of the Southern Heritage Society."

"Pleased to meet you both. Richard has been trying to get me to join you for a get together of some kind, but he's been pretty close-mouthed about it."

Gerard smiled pleasantly. "Oh there's no ulterior motive; Rich just wants to see you stuff yourself inside an antebellum dress."

Well it would be less revealing than the one she had on now, Tia thought.

"Well, Tia can't really, can she? Being from California and all." Sam replied. He seemed pensive.

"We can invite whoever we want, as long as it isn't a club function. After all, it's hard to hold a ball with only a few people." Gerard answered him. Tia tensed; something in David's face....

"Well, good luck getting something like that to act like a proper lady."

Tia's ears wilted as David's words hit them. "What do you mean?" She asked him, hoping she was wrong, and it was just a rude joke or something.

Sam tried to shush his brother with a wary eye. David didn't even spare him a glance. "I mean, I know who you are, and not only are you not proper, but you ain't a lady. You might qualify as human, barely, but...."

Gerard stepped forward despite Richard's hand on his arm. Tia noted Richard's other hand was signaling someone. "I think you better stop there."

David didn't back down. "What, you really do like this tranny freak? I thought you were just humoring it."

Richard jumped in front of the two as Gerard took another step, interposing himself. People were beginning to take notice.

"I think you better leave, David, now." Gerard didn't sound so jovial now, and Tia caught the sound of his teeth grinding.

Sam stepped shoulder to shoulder with his brother. "Really, man? You really going to do this?"

Gerard glanced at him, overriding Richard as he opened his mouth. "You share your brother's attitude?"

Sam didn't back down. "Now that you mention it, yes. But why are you defending that thing?" He spit at Tia, but it slid off something that had been invisible before it hit. Someone was using a power in front of her.

Richard set himself just in time, Gerard lunged and almost got past him. Another invisible barrier bent and broke, but it was enough to keep anything physical from happening, at least for now. "Then you both better leave, now. I don't think I can hold him any longer, and I don't really think I want to."

Tiff arrived in lockstep with Hikaru. "What's going on here? I saw your power, Richard. You have a good reason, I hope."

"These two have insulted a cottage-mate to her face, and one of them tried to assault her. I stopped that much, but thought you'd want to handle it before Gerard did."

Tiff stepped in front of Gerard, who stepped back but still looked visibly angry. "You're right, I do. Concierge is around. Richard, please go find her."

Richard and a couple other students strode determinedly toward the ballroom exit doors. Tia wished she could be one of them, but there was no escape route open.

David all but yelled. "What is this?!? You're all taking this thing's side?"

Hikaru hissed at him. "Be silent."

The circle didn't offer any escape to the twins, either.

Only moments later, Richard came back, Concierge following behind, already pinching the bridge of her nose. She looked much more natural in her finery than many of the students around her did in theirs, but that stern disapproval on her face spoiled it. Her eyes settled on Tia immediately.

"What happened here?" She asked without preamble.

Tia resisted the desire to step back in the face of her glare, and answered clearly. "David insulted me, and Sam tried to spit on me. Gerard stepped to my defense and someone, I think Richard, used their powers to shield me."

Concierge turned to the twins and asked again. Mumbled excuses were their response; barely heard over the background noise and music. The same question directed to Tiff and Hikaru revealed they hadn't seen or heard everything, but they had both seen the spit. A few others, people Tia had just met tonight, accurately recalled the insults thrown.

Concierge turned back to the twins. "This behavior is not acceptable. Not from captains of industry or heads of state. You both should know this already, given your father. You will leave this party, and you will head directly to your room. There you will stay for the duration of the night. All of your cottage reservations for the next week are canceled, and use of the cottage facilities is revoked during that time. Understand that if this had progressed to a physical assault, or if either of you had spittle-based powers, the punishment would be much more severe. If another incident such as this is brought to my attention, it will end in my reconsideration of whether you belong here."

Sam exploded. "But you can't just do that! We paid good money to...."

Concierge interrupted him, icily calm. "I can and did. Now, march. Or would you prefer I added another week? Do you need me to escort you?"

The twins turned around, and an opening in the circle appeared before them. They marched - or stomped - towards the stairs.

Concierge pinched her nose again. "I suppose I should go make sure those two don't get lost. Tiff, can you handle things here until I return, please?"

"I've got it, Miss Bellamy. Don't worry."

Concierge smiled. "I won't. At least not yet." She turned to Tia. "And you, miss Del Bosque."

"Yes?" Tia managed to squeak out.

Concierge leaned in and smiled. It transformed her face from stern to caring. "You shouldn't worry either; we don't tolerate foolishness here."

Then she left, hurrying after the twins without seeming to hurry at all.

After a brief exchange with Hikaru, Tiff took charge, standing straight and scanning the crowd. "Alright, let me make this clear, for all the new blood, and all the upperclassmen who might have forgotten, like the Darbys did. For the record: Melville cottage and its inhabitants have a bad reputation among the rest of the school, for a variety of reasons. Whether jealousy or fear of our families' successes, we already work against a tide of hatred. The nickname Melvillains is a badge of pride to us now, but it wasn't always.

So here's the deal. If you have a problem with someone, you work it out. If you can't work it out, you avoid the person, and ask that person to avoid you. If you have to, you ask one of us RA's or the house parents to mediate. What you absolutely never do is cause a scene, and never, ever cause a scene outside the cottage. What one person does affects us all. Most of us won't put up with such bullshit. Understood?"

There were nods and muttered yeses.

"Good. Now that that's over, let's get back to it!"

Hikaru made her way to Tia. "Are you alright?"

Tia glanced over to Tiff. She had a look Tia associated with Ibby on her face; the one Ibby got when she was preparing to talk you into doing something. "I'm fine Hikaru. I just want to go upstairs and read."

Tiff shook her head. "No can do; I'm not letting you wallow around upstairs. I have some people I'd like you to meet - so let's do that. Afterwards some truly amazing cookie dough ice cream is on me."

Tia really hated being right; she sighed as Tiff grabbed her hand and led her off, actively hunting whatever group she had in mind with Hikaru in tow. But still, maybe this wouldn't be all bad. From the looks of things, most of the cottage had stood up for her, and the outrage she saw painted on their faces could not be feigned.

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Friday, September 9, 2016 - Nearly Midnight
Secret Inner Office, Manhattan

The strange little man eased his shoulders back from being hunched over his ... magical stuff. It was best to work like this - late at night when no-one could bother him, and it helped prevent someone accidentally seeing his secrets. Not that they'd recognize the extremely bizarre magical tomes and alchemical apparatus, it's just that people would not stay sane if they ever saw them. Having someone trip out because of an accidental discovery drew the wrong kinds of attention, and he most certainly didn't need that now.

After allowing himself to stretch his shoulders and back, he leaned forward again and incanted a strange-sounding spell, utterances which no human should ever hear, let alone pronounce. And yet, he did, and as a result, a large but very subtle wave of extremely foul, dark energy rippled out across the globe like a wave of despair and doom. Concurrently, a glowing sphere, four feet in diameter and made entirely of light, coalesced above the man's casting circle. Slowly, it became recognizable as a globe - a model of the earth with four large, glowing red dots against the blue sphere. As the globe spun, the man leaned closer.

"Australian outback - too hard to get to, but it's possible." He watched as it continued to revolve. "The one on the ocean floor? Can not get." Still the globe spun, and he focused on the third of the four glowing dots. "Istanbul?" he considered it for only the briefest of moments. It was too populated, and the Islamists who struggled for political control were unstable and very superstitious; if any magic showed around them, they'd attack en masse to kill him. "Last resort, I guess," he muttered to himself.

The globe brought the fourth dot to his view, and as he goggled, he reached out and touched the sphere, stopping its rotation. "New England?"An evil grin, the kind that would send shivers down the spines of the bravest men, spread across his face. "That might work!"

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Friday, September 9, 2016 - Nearly midnight
Tunnel Section Bravo 16, Whateley Academy

As a wave of dark energy rippled through the granite bedrock of Whateley Academy, a device embedded in the wall of one tunnel began to glow, a soft, greenish-blue color emanating from the alien metal and bathing the tunnel walls in an unearthly light. For a brief moment, the wall section holding the alien metal, resembling nothing so much as a large door frame, wavered, seeming to lose substance for a few seconds. Then the wave passed, and the glow vanished, and the wall resolidified.

And because of the lateness of the hour, no-one was in the tunnel to see the spectacle.

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Saturday, September 10, 2016 - Mid-Morning.
Kane Hall, Whateley Academy

Tia walked up to the garage entrance to find Hikaru already there, waiting by the door. She looked a little irritated.

"What's the matter, it wouldn't open for you?"

Hikaru nodded and pointed to the door panel. "That and I can hear people within; they are not responding to my knock or their own bell."

"Well don't beat them up." Tia replied. Tia tried her ID in the door; it buzzed and swung open. The loud sounds of heavy metal music wafted out to greet them. "Huh. Guess they coded me because my car is in here."

Stepping inside was like stepping into another world. Tia's eyes took a moment to adjust; even though the lighting was bright, it still wasn't sunlight and this place was underground. There were several kids surrounding two cars; one was a red Mitsubishi Tia had seen while parking her car, and the other was a smaller green car that looked more modern, and closer to her own. There was only one other girl present.

"So finally going to use your own car this year, Quinn? Being your last year, surely you want to win with your own car."

The guy who spoke was leaned up against the green car, a smug looking smile on his face. He was small for a guy, thin and wiry, and the lighting showcased his acne. Quinn was ignoring him, face in the hood of the red car, checking the engine.

"You going to go out in the Lancer? Why not the Peugeot?"

Quinn finally answered as he stood straight, eyes still on the engine. "Testing freshmen."

The girl spoke. She was pretty, but built like a female boxer; around here, that probably meant she could lift the cars without a jack. "Freshmen, already? It's not even rush week!"

"Have anything to do with that car you won't even let us see?" Another spoke; this one a guy slightly larger than the smug looking one, and clearly of Polynesian descent of some kind.

"Yep. That car belongs to one of them, and you know the rules."

The music cut off. Tia turned; Hikaru had made a beeline for the music player, and finally reached it. The sudden silence was rather deafening, and now everyone was looking at them. Tia took a breath.

"Um, Hi. I'm Tia, and I'm here to take my driver's test."

From behind her Hikaru spoke up: "I am Hikaru, and I am here for my test as well."

The shock and dismay from the others was audible, along with a yelled "Yes!" from one of the better looking boys as he looked them over.

Quinn gently shouldered his way past. "You're right on time, good. I'm done checking the car we will be using. If you want, you can look it over yourself, in case I missed something."

Tia shook her head. "I wouldn't know what I'm doing. I thought we would take my car?"

"Nah, can't do that. More safety features in this one, more room too; we have more people taking the test, and having someone else drive your car for a test might be a bad idea."

Hikaru cleared her throat. "Perhaps introductions are in order…?"

Quinn blushed and quickly started pointing. "Ah, sorry. Hikaru, Tia, this is Owen, Erik, Malcolm, Justin, Janis, and Nelson." Erik was the Polynesian, Owen was busy heading back to the music player, Malcolm was the one currently eying Tia and making no attempts to hide it, and Justin… she recognized Justin from Melville; he was the senior RA. Janis was of course, the boxer girl.

Tia waved and sighed. "Alright, makes sense. I was just hoping I wouldn't have to sit in another terrible car seat; they all tend to squish my tail."

Quinn shrugged. "Sorry."

The guy eying her, Malcolm, waggled his eyes. "Don't worry babe. If your tail gets all hurt, I'll kiss it and make it better. So glad to see new blood; maybe this place will stop being a sausage fest."

Janis glared at him. "Control yourself. Besides, I've been here as long as you."

Malcolm grinned at her. "Of course you have Janis, but you don't count."

Janis punched him in the shoulder and Malcolm winced through his grin. "Jerk."

Quinn on the other hand, just stated: "They aren't in yet."

Tia agreed; the more she saw, the less she was certain she would belong. It was best to just get this over with, one way or the other.

"Then we should probably get going to wherever; the sooner we start, the sooner we can pass this test."

Malcolm whistled. "Good attitude."

Quinn shook his head again, shutting the car's hood. "Still waiting on one more."

The door chose that moment to beep. Tia spared a glance at her phone as the newcomer walked in; it was technically a few minutes past her appointment time. The figure running in was easily recognizable, it was Mr. Boucher.

"Sorry I'm late. Had a bit of a problem with a student's schedule that needed to be resolved."

"Get in, I drive."

Hikaru was at the car before Tia could move, but gave up shotgun; Mr. Boucher took it instead. She instead took one side, and Tia walked around and got in the other. Nelson and Janis piled into the red car, and the others piled into the other cars present with assorted yells and whoops.

Tia hated her curious streak, but she had to ask: "So where are we going to test at? I mean, the service roads here aren't much of a challenge, and the road down to Dunwich probably doesn't offer much either. Do you all have some sort of drivers ed facility where you test people, or something like that?"

Mr. Boucher actually smirked. "Something like that, yes."

Instead of Quinn driving out, he headed deeper inside, pressing a button. The door further inside opened up - revealing additional garage space for more... unusual vehicles. Unusual being giant robots or tanks. Both had very big guns attached, and there were other assorted things which could be weapons. Tia wasn't sure how she should feel about all that, other than glad they weren't being piloted at the moment.

Then Quinn hit another button clipped to the sun visor, and the light show began. Tia forgot all about the giant death machines at that point.

Her attention was taken by one of three circular rings, large enough to drive a semi truck through or maybe even larger; it was currently spewing colors like an aurora themed kaleidoscope while a darkness in the center formed, untouched by all the light. They were driving directly towards it, and picking up speed.

"Uh, what's going on? What is that?" Tia hated how unsure she sounded.

"Steady, Miss Del Bosque. It's as you fear, a gateway. But it's perfectly safe, the school has used them for years."

Tia looked to Hikaru, who seemed unflappably calm. Before she could open her mouth again, they hit, and there was a feeling of inversion, as if she contracted and expanded in an instant - a not altogether unpleasant feeling, oddly enough - and they were through, the ring now behind them, and another garage in front, built the same as the one they had left but completely empty.

Another button opened the door, and they drove out into the mid-morning sunshine. A small beep, and her phone updated her GPS location; they were somewhere in Tennessee. They took a right, but all the cars behind them took a left.

Quinn pulled over and got out. Mr. Boucher turned to Tia.

"You're up first, Miss Del Bosque." Tia unbuckled herself and switched places.

"Just follow my instructions, and of course all traffic laws." Mr. Boucher told her as she adjusted things; Quinn was tall.

"Yes, sir."

Tia had read the state driver's handbook so she knew the differences between the laws between her own California and New Hampshire… but she hadn't expected this; the laws were probably different in Tennessee!

She was super careful, driving all these back roads through a rather nice forest. It wasn't quite like back home, the trees were too small, but the sunlight was warm and the wildlife active. She managed to stop in time for a suddenly-appearing deer with ease. Every so often, Mr. Boucher would ask questions like 'how far ahead are you looking?' and 'what can you see to the left?' and 'anyone behind us?' which were a little nerve wracking, but she answered as best she could.

Then it was Hikaru's turn, and she did much the same, though she was clearly less rattled by the questioning, which Tia thought was a little unfair. Either another deer or the same one jumped out in front of her, too, which seemed a little suspicious.

They ended up back at the road they started on, and this time took the left branch. Quinn pulled out his phone and texted someone; Tia had to ask.

"Who are you texting?"

"The guys. Got to let them know we're coming, so they can hopefully stay out of the way."

Okay, that didn't sound ominous at all. "Out of the way of what?"

Quinn didn't even blink. "The second half of your test."

"Surely you didn't think we'd simply take you out and drive you around somewhere for a half an hour, and then pass you, did you?" Mr. Boucher asked in a mild tone.

Tia had hoped that was all there was to it, yes.

Instead they drove past what looked like a series of garages… and beyond that, smooth asphalt with bleachers to one side. Was this a race track?

There were all sorts of people here, not just the group from school; some of them looked a little rough around the edges, but most of them were sporting friendly smiles and yelling things to Quinn and Mr. Boucher over the various engine noises; because they all had cars.

Old ones, new ones, brightly painted ones with decals all over them, weird paint jobs, ones with engines sticking out of their hoods… there were probably thirty people or more here, and more in the bleachers. Some of them even had homemade signs sporting names Tia didn't know, but who were probably here. The other kids were here too, their cars parked in the garages… or was it pits? Tia didn't know.

Before she could ask just what the hell was going on, Tia was answered. "Part of being able to drive, is knowing how a car operates, how it handles, and what its limits are. In order to do that, we must go beyond the rules and limits placed on us by polite society, and test our limits. That, we shall do here."

Tia stared at Mr. Boucher; he was serious. Worse, Quinn and Hikaru were both nodding along, as if he had just spoke sense; he really wanted her to race a car. What did racing a car have to do with driving one? You didn't need to do one to do the other.

"Alright, stop here." Mr. Boucher pointed, and Hikaru stopped before the last garage, which was empty. "Tia, you will go first. Quinn will administer your test. Hikaru, come with me; I will administer your test myself once they return."

They switched places again, and Quinn took the driver's seat.

"You're an exemplar, right? Mental package? Eidetic memory?"

Tia started, then nodded. "Yes."

Quinn started idling up to the track itself. It wasn't an oval, Tia noticed. Quinn looked right and left, then accelerated smoothly out. "Did you read anything about how your car drives?"

That was almost insulting. "Of course I did." Tia's new car was too expensive to break, after all.

"Well this car behaves roughly the same way. Watch." And Quinn took off.

Tia managed to stifle the scream - barely - as the car rapidly climbed its way past a hundred. Quinn threw it into the first turn with a screech of rubber, doing things (tapping the brake for 7/10ths of a second, downshifting and then going straight to the gas) and the car rounded the corner pointed the right direction… at better than 50 miles per hour. If the window was rolled down, Tia could touch the wall with an ear.

With a high pitched roar the car started speeding up through a straightaway, Quinn staring straight ahead, his actions seeming automatic. He knew right where everything was.

"So, um, what happens if I can't do this as fast as you?"

Quinn checked the mirrors, not looking at her. "Then you fail, and you're out."

That… wasn't fair at all. That was bullshit, in fact.

Then they hit another corner, and Tia ignored the view, watching Quinn's hands, counting seconds to match the course with his actions.

He was done in just under seven minutes, back at the starting point, where everyone was watching and waiting, some with ill-concealed impatience. Tia switched places with him, wiping her hands on her pants when he wasn't looking. She belted in and adjusted everything, noticing they weren't exactly where they had started before. She wondered if that was on purpose, for some reason.

"Go."

She didn't peel out, that would slow her down. Instead she accelerated steadily, hit the first corner, and mimicked Quinn's actions on it as best she could. With a wobble the car followed through, but Tia frowned; that didn't seem the best way to do this.

She was into the third corner when Quinn suddenly spoke up. "Why are you here, exactly?"

Tia frowned, focusing; maybe if she flattened the curve out, and tried to take it from farther out… but no, she should stick to Quinn's plan, so they didn't kiss a wall and die.

"Why are you here, taking this test? What does the car, or driving, mean to you?"

Tia couldn't answer for a minute; it was hard to put into words.

"I got shot, and my life changed. I lost a lot, mental skills and memories even, and at the same time I was put under a microscope. I've had death threats and people cuss me out who don't even know me. But I kept my driving, and when it all got to be too much, I could just take off, and go somewhere, find someplace where people didn't care or anything. Even just being in the car was safe. So driving to me is freedom; the ability to just make up your mind on the spot and go somewhere."

Quinn was silent.

And then the car engine just cut out for no reason at all, on a corner.

"What's going on?"

Quinn looked over, and tapped the gas gauge. It went from half full to empty at his touch. Tia stared at him.

"You're kidding, right?" She didn't believe it for a second.

Quinn grinned at her, and flicked a switch under the dash, and the needle crawled back towards full.

"Don't worry, got it covered. Better hurry, you're still being tested. You don't make it across the finish in 2 minutes, 24 seconds, and you fail."

"Why, you….!" They had done it on purpose!

Tia took off again, using everything she had read or watched from racing streams. She even tried the line trick she had discarded before; Quinn hadn't taken this car over 130 mph earlier; Tia was pushing it to 140 on the few straights left.

She made it with five seconds to spare.

Quinn didn't have to tell her to stop, but he did have to poke her in the arm to get her attention.

"Alright, Hikaru's turn. Out of the car."

Tia unbuckled herself and got out, steadying herself with the door. Hikaru was already there, hands out for the keys. Tia handed them over.

"Be careful, the car has tricks."

Hikaru actually grinned. "I certainly hope so." was the response. Tia shrugged; the warning was given at least.

Quinn led the way into the stands, where many of the others present were already seated, only half of them from the school. One, a large middle aged guy with a receding hairline and scruffy beard, grinned as they approached. At his side were two men who looked almost as old, one better looking and slim, and the other larger than the first, but in a pear sort of way. He was also sweating a small river, and catching it with a handkerchief.

"So who's this Quinn? A new recruit?" His eyes said he recognized her… but he didn't say a word on it.

"Yep." Quinn never seemed to have much to say.

Nelson, it seemed, more than made up for the lack. "And I for one, say about time. Has her own car, too. No one has seen it yet since Quinn's been guarding it like a hawk, but that's probably the last time you'll see her in one of ours."

"That's assuming I passed." Tia wasn't about to take that for granted, despite what she was told.

The older man shrugged. "At least now the guys and I all know why this half hour was reserved. I honestly lost track of time; didn't realize it was a new school year already. As for passing, you posted a pretty good time in the Lancer there. It can do better, but I'm guessing it's your first time?"

Tia nodded, catching Quinn doing the same out of the corner of her eye.

"Yeah, not too bad. You'll want to control the understeer more, going in. Probably a little harder braking to set up a drift around the corners."

Tia frowned; she was pretty sure she'd done things exactly as Quinn had - so maybe Quinn had been setting her up in more ways than one.

"Thank you for the advice sir."

He laughed, and so did his friends. "Oh, I'm no sir! I'm big John, but everyone calls me Big John. I'm the proud owner of the Mustang in pit 4. This here is Jerry," the slim one - "and Jeff." the larger one. "Together we are the three J's. We all get together and race or fiddle with cars here on weekends."

"Tia Del Bosque, pleased to meet you all."

Jeff poked John in the ribs. "She's got better manners than your wife."

John nodded with a grin. "That she does. Anyways, as I was sayin'. You posted a decent time, and most of the punks who come here don't do as good even with practice laps, so I don't think you need to worry about passin'."

Tia looked at Quinn; he shrugged the look off. "It's up to Boucher. I can't say you passed or not, yet."

Jerry snorted. "That one's a perfectionist. Still it'd surprise me if he told you no."

"I don't know sir, I have a car, and can drive it, but I don't know how they work at all, really. Best I can do is check the battery and change the oil."

John grinned at her. "You would not believe how many people come here without knowing even that much. It's an epidemic; just look at Nelson over there.' Nelson looked up from his location further down the bleacher. 'Ignorance is fixable, little lady."

Nelson walked over. "What crap you spouting now, old man?"

Big John looked innocent in a way that no one would believe. "Why, none at all Nelson. I was just sayin' that you have professional mechanics work on your car is all, and it doesn't seem to hurt you none."

Nelson thought about it a moment before nodding. "True. I guess you could say that, for all that, they're high school students." His gaze had settled on Janis as he spoke, still talking to Erik in low tones.

The Lancer pulled in again with a screech of stressed brakes and Hikaru hopped out, almost seeming to float. The board behind the bleachers posted her time… and it was less than half a second behind Tia's. Mr. Boucher got out with a grin, shaking his head.

"I was going to tell you to park it, Hikaru."

He waved her off when she reversed course. "No, it's fine. I got it." Then he took a breath and shouted: "We're done! Track is open!"

Big John slapped his thigh while Jeff levered himself upright. "Alright! A bit early, but I won't complain." He grinned at Tia. "Stay put and watch while I smoke these kids, eh? I promise I'll make it entertaining."

Nelson scoffed openly as he sprinted toward his car: "In your dreams old man! I'll lap you three times before you get that bucket of bolts up to speed!"

"Teenagers. No respect at all!"

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Jules Boucher sighed. No matter how he wished it, the fun always came to an end. His kids were looking at him silently now. He turned to Quinn.

"So, your thoughts?"

Quinn shrugged. "Tia's first time is better than some people's best time, and it wasn't from exemplar bullshit. I did enough things to throw off an eidetic memory, and she still beat the time I set for her by five seconds. She went from terrified to competitive, and handled the Lancer as if she knew how - after just reading about handling characteristics. She loves driving; I say she's in."

Boucher nodded but Nelson interrupted. "That time was ridiculous. It was way too slow. You were too lenient, Quinn."

Boucher gave his second a wry grin. "He did so on my order. First lap on a new track, with an unfamiliar car? A smart driver shouldn't push at all under those circumstances. Hikaru Myoujin managed much the same, only her experience in driving is clear. They are both in. You all can go now, if you want, the meeting's over. Don't forget - next meeting we have the apology pizzas, like normal. Quinn set that up for me, would you?"

Quinn nodded; a tradition, the pizza party of apology was always held for the newbies, as a way of showing them the Gearheads weren't actually jerks looking to haze people. In it they all apologized for their part in the rather draconian anti-exemplar testing practices.

Malcolm raised his hand. "Not that I mind the verdict at all, but why did we have to wait to come back here before deciding? Normally we discuss this and decide at the track."

Boucher just looked at him a second, then face-palmed. "There were extenuating circumstances, not the least of which is that Tia Del Bosque has bunny ears. There wasn't any place we could have all talked at the track where she couldn't have heard us. If there was an argument, like our usual, I didn't want her getting the wrong impression about us."

Malcolm grinned. "Ah, didn't want to scare off the new blood so soon, eh?"

Boucher couldn't deny the charge. "Exactly."

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Saturday, Sept 10th, 2016 - Late Morning
Holbrook Arena, Whateley Academy

A sharp whistle of feedback echoed through the arena when Elaine Claire neared the microphone, making her wince uneasily. Up in a control room, the technician quickly adjusted the gain to cut off the noise, giving relief to those in the crowd whose enhanced hearing had made the feedback noise painful.

"Okay, can everyone please take a seat?" Elaine asked, looking around at the milling students, some seated and chatting, some still in the aisles. "Please be seated, everyone," she repeated, and slowly, the throng settled into their chairs as the background roar of over seven hundred students muted.

"Okay, thank you," she said, looking around the crowd. "To our new freshmen, I'd like to say welcome to Whateley Academy. I'm sure you'll find the school interesting and exciting. To all our upperclassmen, welcome back for another fun-filled year."

"Maybe it's your idea of fun!" one of the students called out loudly, eliciting a roar of laughter.

Ms. Claire decided to ignore the heckler. "I'm sure by now you've heard about the, um, incident. I assure you we've told you all that we know, and as more becomes known, your houseparents will keep you informed. Just in case you haven't heard, though ..." She swallowed uneasily and looked around the arena stands. "A few weeks ago, while giving a tour of the tunnels to some of the trustees, Mrs. Carson, two trustees, and a security escort mysteriously vanished."

A hush fell over the crowd as every upperclassman listened for any new news, any scrap of a detail that they hadn't heard before.

"At the same time, a team of researchers was trying to locate the source of some unusual power readings in the tunnel, and they were apparently caught up in the same ... event ... which was responsible for Mrs. Carson's disappearance." Ms. Claire looked like she was fighting back tears as she spoke. "For personal reasons, Ms. Hartford resigned her post as Assistant Headmistress. And to add insult to injury, in her haste to return to campus, my boss, Mrs. Shugendo, was involved in a car accident and is in a medically-induced coma to recover from extensive injuries."

One could have heard a pin drop in the arena.

"As you can well imagine, it has been quite chaotic to replace three key members of our administration so close to the start of a new school year. I am acting Dean of Students, so you'll find some continuity. But the Trustees - the remaining ones - had to select new leadership for the school. It's my distinct pleasure to introduce them to you, even though the circumstances are less than ... pleasant."

"Our new headmaster has served for many years in a ... well-known organization as both a field commander and in management and logistics."

"Syndicate!" one of the students called out sharply, interrupting her.

"I would remind all of our students that Whateley Academy is neutral territory, and as such, any disparaging remarks about any organization are not tolerated," Ms. Claire sternly rebuked the boy, and indeed the entire assembly, while confirming without words that the new Headmaster was indeed Syndicate.

"Dr. Geoffrey Mazarin was born in Canada ..."

"Boo!"

"... and educated at Whateley, the University of Toronto, and Harvard Business School," Ms. Claire continued, ignoring the wisecrack about their northern neighbor. "He served as a distinguished and accomplished field commander for eleven years before he retired from field work due to injuries sustained in the line of duty. He's served his organization in a management and logistics role until his retirement two years ago, and earned accolades for his efficiency in those roles. Students, faculty, and staff, I give you Dr. Geoffrey Mazarin."

Eyes shot to one side of the stage where a spotlight snapped on, illuminating a tall, thin figure in a dark Armani suit as he limped with a cane toward Ms. Claire. A few gasps sounded at his appearance; he looked old, with white hair that was perfectly combed, and a white, neatly-trimmed Van Dyke beard. The cane was jet-black, highly polished wood, with a silver tip and from what could be seen under around his large, bony hand, the handle was some kind of ornate silver figure. His eyes, though brownish-hazel, seemed alive with energy, evidencing an alert, active mind. He made no effort to conceal a nasty, jagged scar on one side of his neck, which, with his slightly gaunt appearance, gave him an intimidating or even menacing aura; Laura was immediately reminded of the actor Christopher Lee, and she gulped nervously.

Dr. Mazarin took the mic from Ms. Claire's hand with a smile, and then turned to the student body. "Good morning," he said in a voice that resonated deeply and ominously. "It's my pleasure to welcome you to another year at Whateley Academy. I know we all have some serious adjustments to make, so I ask your patience as we all adapt to our new roles.

"Let's get one thing straight right now," he said solemnly. "I am not Mrs. Carson. My style of administration is very likely different from Mrs. Carson's." He waited a moment, looking around with his stern expression, as his words sank in. More than one student winced or swallowed uneasily.

"Let's get one more thing out of the way," he continued in his deep, booming bass voice. "I AM retired Syndicate." He paused, as if daring someone to challenge him on that statement. "I am retired. If you have a problem with that, we'll be happy to send your transcripts to the school of your choice." Again, he waited, but the silence was almost palpable.

"Whateley Academy is a neutral establishment. Its success is due to that neutrality, and I intend to respect it fully. No matter your parents' occupation, no matter your status, you can expect fair, equitable treatment. I will not favor or be prejudiced against any organization or student. If you're a future superhero, you will not be treated any differently than if you already have a record working on the other side of the law. Is that understood?"

After a suitable pause, he continued, "I expect your full adherence to the rules contained in your Whateley handbook, and your full cooperation with the teachers, faculty, and staff. I have a reputation for strictly adhering to policies and rules, and I will continue that policy." He straightened, drawing himself to full height and stature. "If you or your parents have any issues with my role as Headmaster, you may schedule an appointment to discuss your concerns. Normally, however, issues associated with campus life should be dealt with in the Dean of Students' office. Are there any questions?"

Perhaps it was his intimidating, straight-forward style, but none of the students - even known trouble-makers - dared to speak up.

"Our primary mission is to provide all of you with a solid high-school education," he continued, "as well as teach you how to use your powers responsibly and safely. For some of you, this is ... professional training," he smiled thinly at the slight bit of humor, "while for others, it's education that will enable you to blend into a sometimes-hostile world. All of you returning upperclassmen know our schedule, but I would be most remiss if I didn't outline things for our newcomers." Another smile barely crept onto his face. "And that includes me, I believe." Getting no response, he plowed on. "Whateley requires about half-again as many credits to graduate as a normal high school. While most classes can be found in any average school, we also have many which are geared specifically for mutants. To accomplish this, our school year is divided into three terms - fall, winter, and spring terms, and for some of you, there is a summer term to catch up should you fall behind."

A few groans in the audience let the newcomers know that some kids had obviously had to take summer classes because of failing in the regular terms. Several freshmen swallowed nervously; there were more groans than they thought there should have been, which meant that the classes were going to be tougher than they might have been expecting.

"In general, the fall and spring terms are used for the majority of your regular high school classes and some courses in using your powers, and in the winter term, Whateley hosts some 'catch-up' classes as well as many 'special topic' classes, the likes of which you'd never see outside of this institution." He smiled congenially. "Given that many of you are exemplars and have enhanced memories and mental skills, there are classes available to challenge you which one might not usually find until the last two years of college. Our facilities are first-rate, and our staff is recruited from the most qualified individuals in the world." Dr. Mazarin paused a moment and looked around. "I could give you the normal high-school introduction and tell you that these will be the best years of your lives, and that you'll make lifelong friendships here, but that would be trite, and most of you have heard it before. So instead, I challenge you to make the most of the learning opportunities we have for you. While it may not be easy, you can learn things at Whateley that you might never have an opportunity to learn outside of these campus walls."

"We will have opportunities to get to know each other as the year progresses - hopefully in a positive way." With that, he handed the microphone back to Ms. Claire and stepped back to one of three chairs which someone had surreptitiously placed on the stage behind the mic while he'd been speaking.

"Thank you, Dr. Mazarin," Ms. Claire said with a smile that seemed a trifle forced. "The other new member of our administration is Mr. Robert Turner, also known in his earlier days as Falcon, a member of STAR League. An alumnus of Whateley, Mr. Turner served two years as president of the Whateley Alumni Association, and for the past few years, he and his wife - also an alumna - have taught special classes and seminars here. Whateley is a family tradition; their daughter is also an alumna. Mr. Turner has served on the Whateley advisory committee and the President's Special Committee on Mutant Affairs. Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Robert Turner."

The man striding confidently onto the stage was a marked contrast to Dr. Mazarin. A little taller than average, he looked like a superhero was supposed to look - even in a suit it was clear he was ripped. Green-eyed, square-jawed, with short black hair cut in a no-nonsense, businesslike style, he was ruggedly handsome, and despite her preference for girls, Laura couldn't help feeling a little ... something ... at his appearance. Though he looked to be in his early thirties, a bit of quick math told Laura he was at least forty, but as with most exemplars, it was hard to judge his age.

"Good morning," he said affably. "As the preceding speakers have said, welcome to Whateley. I know what it's like for you sitting out there, wondering about the school; it seems like only a few short years since I was in your place, and if anyone had suggested that, after graduating, I'd be a successful superhero and then come back to work at Whateley, I would have said you were totally insane." He smiled as chuckles and laughter rippled through the audience.

"This is going to be an adjustment for all of us," he continued, "because I'm a little new to the school administration game, and I'm not used to working for a man who, only a few years ago, I'd have tried with everything I had to put in prison!" He grinned at Dr. Mazarin, who gave him an acknowledging thin smile and nod, while the students guffawed.

"However, since anything our new Headmaster might have done is well past the statute of limitations, I won't be doing that."

Laura had to admire Falcon - he was handsome, he had a very nice voice, and his sense of humor was delightful. She caught herself - was she getting a crush on the new Assistant Headmaster? No, she assured herself - that was a ridiculous thought! More likely, she mused, it was because he was so unlike her father in a friendly, approachable, respectful way that she wished she'd been his child.

"I want to have an open-door policy for you. If you have an issue that you can't resolve with the Dean of Students, feel free to stop by the office, and if I'm not in, you can make an appointment. That having been said," he continued with a slight frown, "my wife and I have raised a teenage daughter, so I am not a pushover for teen antics!" The titters of laughter had a slightly nervous edge, as if students were all wondering if he'd have some special insight into teenagers that would defeat their machinations.

"I have one thing that really, really sets me off," he continued, pausing for dramatic effect, "and that is lying. I know when people are lying, and not through any special power or gift, but through my study of people - and a daughter - over the years." The frown returned. "Don't try to fool me," he cautioned. "Have the integrity and honesty to come clean if you get caught doing something. That I respect."

Laura couldn't believe what she was hearing; her dad had never spoken like this, nor had her mom. It was like Mr. Turner expected and respected mature, adult behavior.

"If you lie, I will find out, and the consequences will most likely be more severe than if you'd just told the truth and taken your punishment. Does that sound like a parent?" He smiled with a knowing, parental look. "Yes, it does - but remember this - while you're at Whateley, we are your parents, legally and morally. It's called in loco parentis, which by the way does not stand for 'crazy parents,' as some tend to think."

Laura had heard that one before from Mrs. Horton, so it was a little stale; still, she smiled at the way Mr. Turner delivered the line. As she sat, a thought occurred to her - what if her dad had been like Mr. Turner, instead of the self-centered, hateful ass she had? Why couldn't she have had someone like Mr. Turner. A tear or two moistened the corners of her eyes, but she managed to keep them from spilling onto her cheeks.

"I know this is hard for some of you; you knew Mrs. Carson for one or two or three years - and maybe in one or two cases, more than that. I knew her too, both as a student and as a parent of a student. We have counselors for those who need to talk. You have a lot of faculty members with whom you can talk - and by the way, that is the proper way to say it; Mrs. Carson made sure I learned proper English when I was a student!"

"Now," Mr. Turner continued, "I believe that our chefs have some hamburgers, hot dogs, potato salad, and all the other fixings of a proper 'back to school' picnic. And for you energizers and bricks that tend to eat ... enthusiastically ... we have very LARGE grilles, so you should be able to get enough!"

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Saturday, Sept 10th, 2016 - Late Morning
The Quad, Whateley Academy

Brita set her tray, with several hot dogs and fully-loaded hamburgers, on the picnic table and slid in beside Val.

"Did you leave any for anyone else?" the dark-haired beauty asked with a chuckle.

The German girl shook her head. "Always the same, stale joke." Under the table, one hand slid onto Val's leg, squeezing it playfully and causing the dark-haired girl to jump.

"Find out anything?" Val asked as Brita turned her attention back to her plate and started shoveling in hot dogs.

Brita nodded as she swallowed the last bite of a helpless wiener and bun. "Yeah. Look at this." She pulled out her smartphone and opened up a display page. "The ones I've marked in bold look like good candidates."

"Still going after Kirsten Bischofsheim?" Val observed with a little surprise. "And Janis Owens?"

Brita nodded. "And Brenda Ward." She pointed to the display. "And here's a couple that we really need to get."

"Carla Meeson? In Dickinson? And Linette Steele?" Val frowned deeply. "Linette is junior high!"

"She's a brick," Brita countered. "I figured you could persuade her. The only problem is that she's got a boy hanging all over her, or she's hanging all over him," she spat the last words with disgust.

Val smiled wickedly. "Give me a month; I'll fix that."

Brita grinned wickedly. "That's what we're counting on." Then she frowned. "As long as you don't get hung up on that ... that blue fake girl from Poe!" The venom in her voice was palpable.

"I think you're wrong about that," Val said, shaking her head. "She's way too feminine in her actions to...," she looked around to see that they weren't being overheard, "to have ever been a boy! She's too cute, and sexy! And if I was reading her body language right, she's already part of the sisterhood!"

"She's trouble," Brita said angrily. "Just like all changelings! Just stay away from her!"

Val patted Brita's cheek, which made the German girl scowl even more. "You're so cute when you're jealous!"

"I'm not jealous!" Brita snarled. "Just don't go trying to up your notch count with one of them!"

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Saturday, Sept 10th, 2016 - Late Morning
Melville Cottage, Whateley Academy

Tia jumped as her phone went off; looking up from her book and around the empty atrium, she was happy no one was around to notice. A glance revealed the text was from Tanya: "RU coming to lake? bring swimsuit." A map was included, complete with a flashing dot on it.

She thought a moment - that must have been what the assistant headmaster had been saying while she was adjusting her ear clips in an attempt to block out noise from the stands around her. She'd heard 'picnic', but nothing about a lake or swimming.

It wasn't as if she had anywhere else to be, Tia thought with a shrug. But if she was going, she wasn't going alone.

Hikaru had vanished upon their return from the headmaster's address, and she could probably use some time around people too. Tia texted her on her way to her room.

Kenshin probably wasn't doing anything either. Tia texted him too.

She received two more texts while retrieving her suit, the same one she used for the pool. One was from Aerys, and the other was from Quinn. Both were asking where she was - was she coming to the lake? She responded to both, saying she'd be there.

She stepped out and knocked on Hikaru's door. The answering yes came immediately.

"Come on Hikaru, picnic time."

The door opened, and Hikaru leaned out of it. "Oh, you again. What's this about a picnic?"

Tia sighed. "I sent you a text a good ten minutes ago; you have an AI answering your phone. What were you even doing in here that you couldn't answer your phone?"

Hikaru's gaze sharpened. "Meditating."

Tia matched her, for all that she didn't like that look. "Great, let's meditate at the lake."

"Kurenai, what is happening at the lake?"

The little holographic projection bounced up and down, cheering. "A picnic, a picnic! Oh, can we go? Please?"

Hikaru sniffed. "A picnic is hardly a fitting place to meditate."

Tia had been ready for that response. "But it's a wonderful place to look after all your charges, many of whom are probably already there. I know one who could use your help making sure no one takes advantage of her."

When Hikaru looked back at her, Tia waggled her eyebrows and twitched her ears.

She wished she'd had her phone on; that snort of laughter Hikaru hadn't quite suppressed made her sound almost constipated and would definitely have been blackmail material. She went for the throat... so to speak.

"Come on, cheap hotdogs and burgers by the bucket-load, awkward or yelling kids, that whole school dance vibe, it'll be fun!"

Hikaru eyed her as if to say 'are you serious?' before sighing. "Fine. But I reserve the right to leave at any time. Let me just get my suit."

"Sure, I'll wait." Running off ahead would defeat the purpose of going in numbers, after all. Tia needed someone to watch her back, and the more the merrier on that score.

Tia wondered if Hikaru would bring the same suit she had worn to the Melville freshman mixer; if she did, she would probably be beating boys off with a stick again, and staying close would serve another purpose; camouflage.

Hikaru came out. "You owe me, bunny."

Tia hesitated visibly, but nodded. "Sure, within reason."

Hikaru clarified. "You owe me fruit."

Tia blew a breath. "That's all? Sure!" She would have shared anyway.

Hikaru nodded with finality. "It is a deal, then. All the strawberries of your basket."

Tia winced; the strawberries were very good. But she dutifully repeated herself. "Sure."

Hikaru strode off without a backwards glance, high heels clicking on the floor. Tia figured she'd regret the shoe choice later, but followed. Taka was waiting outside the front door, leaning against the wall in silk shirt and slacks. He fell in as Hikaru sighed and shot Tia an accusing glance.

"The more the merrier, right?"

Tia mouthed her thanks to Taka as soon as Hikaru turned back to stomping ahead, her eyes fixed forward and scanning for threats. Taka nodded in acknowledgment as he fell in behind her, probably doing the same behind. It was uncanny really, they didn't even talk about it, they just did it. It made her feel safer... and useless.

The lake was actually a short hike away, without the map Tia would have gotten lost. Once there it was easy to spot the picnic though; along a stretch of white sand that had to be an artificial beach, there were easily hundreds of kids, mostly settled on blankets or picnic tables around no fewer than five industrial sized barbecue grills – the kind pulled around on trailer hitches. There were tables already piled with food, mostly hot dogs and chips, and mountains of raw meat on the other side.

Tia watched, fascinated; it was almost like a conveyor belt of meat; like an assembly line for food.

There was, of course, a vegetarian option, so at least Tia could eat something, even if it wasn't a burger like she would have preferred.

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Saturday, Sept 10th, 2016 - Lunch
The Lake, Whateley Academy

Tiff, Aerys, and J Dean (Tia remembered Tiff calling him Justin) were waiting on the outskirts of the mess.

"I thought you were going to be late again, Hikaru." Tiff teased with a grin.

"I had a student demanding my attention." Hikaru replied, nodding in Tia's direction.

Had Hikaru just used her as an excuse for being late? Wait, late again? Didn't that imply she was supposed to be here, and that Tiff was waiting for her?

"You tricked me! You were coming here anyway!"

"Oh, did I? I did nothing little usagi. You did it all yourself."

Well, it wasn't like Tia cared, really; she'd have shared the fruit anyway. But had everyone known about this party but her? When in doubt, ask.

"So... I didn't know a thing about this. I certainly didn't expect anything this big."

Tiff looked confused while Justin muttered "there's always one..."

"But how did you not know? It's in the newsletter you got."

Tia blinked. "Whoops. I was a little busy researching cars, and I didn't get around to reading it yet. I thought it wouldn't have anything I needed to know until Monday!"

"Well, surprise." Aerys grinned, getting a dig in herself.

Justin explained. "Treat this as kind of a massive school wide mixer. Groups will start to feel out prospects, prospects will start to feel out groups, everyone will get to know one another, and hopefully there will be few fights or other B.S."

Now that was a sentiment Tia could agree with.

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Laura gawked at the pile of buns and wieners on Tanya's plate. "Did you leave any for anyone else?" She shook her head in disbelief. "How many are you eating anyway?"

Tanya shrugged, knowing that Laura was engaging in a little hyperbole. "They only let me take a few at a time, so I had to go back once."

"How many times?" Vic asked with a wry grin. The group was sitting under a spreading tree near the lake, where one of the grilles was set up. The students seemed to be evenly split between the lake and the quad, but the cooks at the grilles were still having trouble keeping up with the demand for hamburgers and hot dogs.

Tanya stuck her tongue out at him. "Only once for hot dogs," she declared.

"And two plates of hamburgers," Bailey noted with a chuckle.

"They're not as good as Dr. Barton's," Laura said, wrinkling her nose. Then she grinned at Tanya. "But you and Morgana are shoveling them in your face so fast that you probably don't even taste the difference!"

"I'll have you know that I've only had four burgers," Tanya sniffed indignantly, and then thought for a second. "Um, I think this makes ten hot dogs," she added with a sheepish smile.

"Don't forget the four fizzy drinks and five bags of crisps," Morgana interjected.

"Crisps?" Bailey and Laura asked simultaneously, baffled by Morgana's statement. "Fizzy drinks?"

"Chips and soda," Tanya translated, grinning toward the redhead. "You have to remember Morgana talks funny 'cause she's from the UK!"

"Who's shoveling them in?" Morgana protested between bites.

"Anyone interested in swimming?" Jimmy asked. Strangely, Vic flinched from the suggestion, though, and Laura noticed. She figured there was a story behind his reaction; she'd have to ask him sometime in private, but the picnic wasn't the time or place.

"Nope," Bailey responded immediately, while Laura and Bianca shook their heads.

"Besides, the water's probably way too cold," Morgana added.

"Oh, you'd look cute in a bikini!" Laura shot back, waggling her eyebrows. "I'd like to see that!"

"So would every guy here," Morgana scowled. "Not going to happen today."

Erica leaned close to her friend, curious. "Why not? "

Morgana gave a very heavy sigh. "My back's still not something I want to show off in public, OK?" The Poe girls who'd seen Morgana's back cringed at her reminder; they couldn't blame her because it would attract a lot of unwanted attention.

To change the subject, Laura turned to Taka, who'd been mostly quiet. "You haven't eaten a lot," she observed.

"Food ... too ... much taste," he said. "And no teriyaki sauce."

"Teriyaki sauce ... on a hamburger?" Erica gasped as if he'd spoken the worst blasphemy imaginable.

A muffled chortle sounded behind Laura; she practically gave herself whiplash turning her head.

Hikaru stood, holding a plate almost regally and smirking down at Taka. Wearing a bikini top, not unlike many of the girls around, she wore a matching wrap skirt in vibrant red and gold; no doubt she intended to swim.

"What?" Laura couldn't help but ask at the girl's self-assured smile.

"He's joking," Hikaru chuckled. "To be honest, I didn't think he had it in him." She eased herself gracefully down to the grass, ignoring the possibility of a grass stain on her skirt. "In Japan, most burgers are ... not good. Very plain, tasteless meat."

"Oh."

"And apart from near American military bases, no-one puts teriyaki sauce on a burger," she added.

"Ah," Laura nodded understandingly. "And ... I bet you got a bison burger, too," she said to Taka, eliciting a puzzled look on the boy's face.

"Bison?" he asked, worrying his brow with confusion.

"Yeah," Tanya said. "Buffalo. Big wild shaggy animals with horns and a bad attitude. They live in the western US."

Taka's eyes widened as recognition dawned. "Ah. Cowboy, Indian. Buffalo Bill!"

"Uh, yeah," Erica replied. "No, not so much. Not any more, anyway. But some people raise bison for food - like cattle."

"So, Vic," Tanya glanced at the boy, changing the subject yet again, "you're going swimming with us, right?"

Vic winced slightly. "Uh, no. The water's probably too cold," he said by way of an excuse.

"The lake is heated by the cooling system from the campus' reactor," Laura countered. "It's supposed to be nice and warm for swimming right up until Thanksgiving!"

"What? Cooling a reactor heats the lake?" Bianca said, astonished at Laura's information.

Laura shrugged. "Sure. It's a secondary cooling loop, so there's a heat exchanger between it and the reactor. Besides, it's a fusion reactor, so there's no radioactivity anyway." She seemed totally unconcerned at having a reactor heat the swimming lake.

Vic looked a little more uncomfortable. "Um, we just ate," he argued. Seeing the puzzled looks, he shrugged. "Didn't your moms tell you that you have to wait an hour after eating before going in the water?" It was clear he wanted to end the discussion. "Besides, it's a nice day to hang out here. Like Bianca and Erica and Jimmy!"

"I think I'm going to check out the sci-fi club," Laura announced to change the subject and take Vic off the hot-seat. "They've got Anime, too," she noted to Taka as she scrambled to her feet. "And no doubt a herd of Dr. Who fans," she added for Morgana's benefit.

"Count me in, then," Morgana replied at the mention of Dr. Who.

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"So, how warm is the lake?" Aerys asked. Tia approved of that too; it was fall in New England, after all.

"It should be warm enough. If not, we can always have the reactor crew heat it up."

Tiff slapped James on the arm. "No, the last time they did that they killed the fish; the whole area stank for weeks."

Tia looked at the crowd already swimming and splashing around in the water. Laura must have been right about the water temp; nobody was turning blue from cold water.

"Think I'll try it out." Aerys said, stripping to reveal her suit on underneath, and put her clothes in her bag.

"Care to join me, Tia? The rest of us are over there." Aerys pointed at a nearly deserted stretch of beach that only a few kids were using. From the distance she couldn't tell who, but knowing Aerys it was probably the underdogs.

"Sure, lead the way." Tia could always eat later.

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Hikaru startled as she heard it; the first strain of music. 'Da-dum.'The water was cool, but not clear; the splashing about of hundreds of kids stirring up the bottom. It almost seemed as if the sound was coming FROM the water itself, but that couldn't be right.

'Ba-dum. Ba-dum ba-dum ba-dum, ba-dum...." It was easily recognized now. The theme from the movie Jaws. Then she spotted it, coming straight at her; a black fin. She moved, already gathering light to blast the devisor's experiment or strange creature or whatever it was when it broached the water.

"Tag! You're it." Tia exclaimed with a grin, wriggling her ears back to their normal position as the water gushed out of them; the music was coming out of those clips of hers."

Hikaru looked pointedly at her hand where the light was gathered, then at Tia.

Tia shrugged. "School full of kids. Plus I could have ducked back in the water." Tia replied, patting her on the shoulder. "You need to lighten up a little."

Tia sank back in the water, the music starting up again; she swiveled her ears and somehow placed them together, one after the other. The effect was like a furry shark's fin, if you weren't looking very hard. With a wave, she sank under, already heading towards Aerys.

Hikaru shook her head. Tag, huh? She was it, was she?

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Saturday, Sept 10th, 2016 - Lunch
The Quad, Whateley Academy

"Hey, I bet you're interested in Anime!" a girl called out as the trio walked past a table. Somehow, with everything swirling around them, Laura and Morgana had almost missed the little display. The girl who spoke was, judging from her elfin-ears, a Sidhe, with medium-length brown hair in stylish waves. Her attire, too, seemed a little more formal than expected, as if she was going to be suddenly called on to model.

Laura realized the girl was looking specifically at her. "Why would you say that?" she asked, frowning deeply and angrily at the girl because she did know what the girl was probably thinking.

"Because ...," the girl stammered, a little taken aback, "because you're ...."

Morgana put her hand on Laura's shoulder to offer support and to restrain her if she got angry. "Don't even go there," the redhead snapped angrily at the Sidhe girl.

A taller girl with long black hair took a half-step forward, the smile on her face warm and cheery. Laura couldn't help but stare - the girl had a very shapely figure, and reminded her of someone she should know .... "Tina wasn't trying to be mean," she said in a bubbly voice. "It's just ...."

Laura sighed. "Yeah, I know. I'm blue. I've heard all the blue jokes, including all the references to La Blue Girl, Star Trek Andorians, Naavi, Aayla Secura and other blue Twileks, Smurfette, and all the others." She forced a smile. "Some days, it gets a little old."

"All the others?" The third girl, shorter and slightly stouter than the other two at the table, asked skeptically. "Surely ...."

Laura shook her head, sighing again. "Cru? Demona? Aayla Secura? Lethal, Shadow Lass, Andromeda, Indigo, Vanessa Carlyle, Nebula, Jai Jing, Fen ...."

"Okay, okay," the third girl chuckled. "I give!"

Laura relaxed at the girls' tones. "Aw, and I was just getting started." Seeing their stares of disbelief, she chuckled. "After I started turning blue, I had a few weekends with nothing to do, so I started finding female blue characters from movies, TV, comic books, anime ...."

"I'm Tina," the first girl said, stretching out her hand to Laura, turning an almost fawning attention to Taka. "And I've met Taka." She smiled at the boy, who nodded in acknowledgement. "And since you mentioned it, are you interested in anime?"

"Laura Samuels," she introduced herself. "And," she shrugged, "kinda. My aunt introduced me to Tenchi, and I've been interested ever since. I really, really like Kancolle."

A light shone in Taka's eyes. "Ah, Kancolle," he grinned. "Like ... Fubuki and Sendai - much cute!"

"Vicky Stone," the third girl stretched out her hand.

"Onishi Kiyoko," the second girl, quite clearly Japanese judging from her appearance, name, and accent, said cheerfully.

"So what does the club do?" Morgana asked. "And I'm Morgana," she added.

"We share our anime collections," Tina replied.

"We have an 'anime weekend' once a month," Kiyoko said cheerfully. "It's kind of a marathon anime-fest!"

"And we do some costumes for the Boston and Montreal Anime Cons," Vicky added.

"Like this?" Morgana asked with a mischievous twinkle in her eye as she changed into her dragon form, horns curling from the sides of her head as her skin got a distinct reddish tint. Grinning as she was, small fangs were visible, and her nails had changed slightly into small but definite claws.

The trio of anime-fan-girls gawked at her. "That is so cool!" Vicky gleefully screeched.

"Are you, like, a demoness?" Tina asked, her eyes wide with a mixture of fear and excitement.

"No," Morgana chuckled. "It's just my ... alternate form."

"So you're a shifter then?"

"To be honest," Morgana said with a tiny wince, "they don't know quite what I am. Only that I have my normal form and what I call my dragon form."

"If you showed up at anime con like that," Nancy observed, "many people would want pictures with you. But you couldn't enter a costume contest like that."

"There's a good anime con coming up in early November in Montreal," Tina noted. "We're going to try to get a group of us to go. It'd be so cool if you'd come with us!" She looked at Laura. "Both of you!"

"And in the spring, there's a good one in Quebec." The three girls were in rapid-fire sales-pitch mode.

"The best part is, you can spend the whole day without any makeup or cover or anything, and people think you're a normal fan in costume, and that it's cool!"

"That sounds like fun," Laura replied cheerfully, then she shot a warning glance at the girls. "As long as there are no more La Blue Girl references!"

Vicky winced at that. "I can't promise ...."

"Just kidding," Laura laughed. She glanced at Taka. "What do you think?"

Tina looked a little disappointed. "Is he your boyfriend?" she asked a little hesitantly.

"No!" Laura shot back, blushing lavender. "He's ... a friend, and some of us are starting a team, and ... and no, he's not my boyfriend!"

The trio's eyes widened, while Morgana chuckled softly. "But ... it seemed ..." Kiyoko said hesitantly.

"Taka's English isn't very good, so we're all trying to help him a bit," Laura explained. She shook her head. "Why does everyone think he's my boyfriend?"

Kiyoko nodded understandingly. "Ano. Sensible. But ...." She wrinkled her brow, as if there was something she was thinking but wasn't sure she should say.

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"I appreciate taking extra time to talk to the Anime club so I could change back," Morgana said in a low voice to Laura as they strolled across the campus, passing various tables that had no interest for any of the trio.

"No problem," Laura smiled. "I didn't think you wanted to walk around frightening everyone all day." In her peripheral vision, she saw a table with what looked like a Union Jack flag. "Hey, I think this one is for you," Laura chuckled to Morgana. "Seeing how we had the good sense to toss you guys out in 1776!"

"Oh, pbthhh!" Morgana replied, giving her friend a raspberry. "You Yanks would have been in much better shape if you'd have not been so rude!"

"Us, rude?" Laura asked, astonished.

"Yes, rude!" Morgana reiterated. "You started it by ruining a perfectly good shipload of tea! When you got done, it wasn't even fit for consumption - not even by you colonials!"

A few feet away, two older boys and a girl stood by their table, chuckling at what they overheard. Morgana, hearing their light laughter, turned to them. "What?" she practically demanded.

"I bet you're Morgana Jones," the larger of the boys said with a distinctly Aussie accent.

"Yeah," Morgana said hesitantly. "How do you know ...?"

"Drop Bear told us he'd talked with you," the second boy said. "Quintin St. James, at your service, milady." He graciously bowed toward Morgana.

"Aw, knock off with the uppercrust snobbery!" the first boy scoffed. "I doubt she's taken in by your fancy talk. Who are you trying to imitate today, anyway? Jeremy Clarkson with one of his plums caught in the seat belt?"

"Ignore this uncultured shackledragger" the second boy shot back, then he turned to the Aussie. "And that was Prince William, you uncultured oaf!"

"Really?" the girl laughed. "I thought you were doing Boris Johnson with gas!"

"Anyway," Quintin tried to ignore the two, his voice resonant and rich, "since you're from Wales, you're automatically eligible to join the Commonwealth."

The girl glanced at Laura. "Sorry," she said, "but you aren't allowed. We don't take Yanks. And unless your friend is from Hong Kong, he's not eligible either."

"Ah, from Japan," Taka corrected the girl. "Not Hong Kong."

"So what do you guys do, anyway?" Laura asked before Morgana could speak. "Sit around and pine for the days when the British Empire was meaningful?"

Quinten clutched his hand over his heart and put the other to his forehead in distress. "Be not so cruel, fair maiden! Thy sharp tongue doth wound me so!" he cried out like an over-the-top Shakespearean actor.

"Are you guys all this crazy?" Morgana ignored Laura and Quintin.

The Aussie looked at the girl with a sheepish grin. "Pretty much, yeah."

Morgana grinned. "Then count me in."

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Any but a blind man would have known the focus of the group; all three wore gis, and several common martial arts weapons were arrayed on their table, together with some Xeroxed fliers about the club. Of the three students at the table, one was a nearly-blinding scintillating flash of lights, as if light was afraid of him and fled in absolute terror. In any event, it wasn't possible to really see what he looked like because of the dazzling light-show he put on with every motion. Assuming, of course, that it was a 'he'.

The others were girls, and not unattractive ones at that. Laura caught herself staring at one of the girls, a very attractive brunette, and if the lines of the gi were anything to judge by, probably quite shapely, but something seemed out of place a bit. She was staring at Taka, but the look in her eye wasn't the adoring, lustful gazes that the Venus Inc. girls had displayed as they fairly swooned over Taka; instead, her eye was sharp, focused, and critical, as if she was sizing up the Japanese boy.

"Hi, I'm Kelly Mishkin," the brunette girl introduced herself, then turned directly to Taka, "You've attracted a lot of attention with your morning workouts. And with that little sparring match this morning, I take it you know some martial arts?"

Taka puzzled over the words for a fraction of a second before recognition dawned in his eyes. "Ah, yes," he said curtly. "Know ... martial arts. Some."

The girl started a bit at Taka's broken English. Seeing the reaction, Laura chuckled and stepped forward. "You'll have to excuse our friend," she said to Kelly and the others. "His English isn't very good. He only got here from Japan a few days ago."

"Understand ... much," Taka interrupted Laura. "But speak ... not good."

"And yes," Laura added, "he does know some martial arts."

"Club ... to practice and learn?" Taka asked.

"Yes," the rainbow-hued flash of human-shaped light answered in a booming, bass voice. "We practice and spar a lot."

"Ano. Good to practice ... always," Taka answered.

The light-boy reached out a hand, open for a handshake. "I'm Elliot. Elliot Jones. But around here, most people call me Rainbow Flash - for obvious reasons."

Taka clasped his hand and gave a slight bow. "Ono Taka," the Japanese boy said, clasping Elliot's outstretched hand while out of habit he gave a half-bow. "Pleasured ... to make acquaintance." The girls tried, but universally failed, to hide their giggles and guffaws at Taka's awkward use of the English language and the inadvertent double entendre.

The girl who hadn't spoken recovered first. "I'm Joanna Reyes," she introduced herself. "Do you know any weapons?" she asked bluntly, turning her gaze to the table.

Taka nodded. "Katana. Nagamaki. Wakazashi," he said firmly. "Use ... shinai and bokken ... practice."

"A sword man?" Joanna raised her eyebrows.

"You should have seen him sparring this morning with a shinai," Kelly interjected enthusiastically.

"Train with all weapons when possible," Taka replied. "Tanto - okay. Know bo, hanbo, and jo. Master teach some Kusari Fundo and Yumi."

The girl cocked her head appreciatively. "The Kusari Fundo isn't very common here," she said. "How about the normal Karate weapons, like the nunchuka, sai, and kama?"

Taka shrugged. "Master teach first. More interesting in swords." He got a slight grin. "Katana weapon of Samurai."

Kelly smiled - it looked like they had Taka's interest. "We have some other weapons in our clubhouse, and some of the faculty visit from time to time to teach them." Seeing his inquisitive look, Kelly continued. "I think we have naginatas, and a chain and scythe weapon."

"Kusarigama," Elliot corrected Kelly. "You'll have to come by to check it out. I think you'll find it interesting. Maybe even spar a round or two with some of our members."

After a moment to parse the wording so he understood, Taka looked a bit alarmed. "Not to fight," he said, shaking his head. "Except in dojo or to defense."

"Well, then, it's no problem," Joanna said with a triumphant grin, certain that they had the boy's interest. "We have our own club dojo."

Taka's eyes broadened for a moment in a look that Laura would only describe as wonderment, as if he'd found the Treasure of the Sierra Madre or the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine. "I will come," he said. "I like to see."

"How about you two?" Joanna asked Morgana and Laura. "Any experience in martial arts?"

"Mom had me ..." Laura started to say.

"Wait," Elliot interrupted her. "Did you test with Tolman Sensei yesterday?"

"Yes," Laura said hesitantly. "Why?"

Joanna and Kelly smiled; it was impossible to know if Elliot was smiling as well, but the sparkles from the area that should have been his mouth suggested that he was. "We were told to watch for you," Kelly replied. "Tolman Sensei suggested that, with your background, you might be interested in our club."

Laura gawked incredulously. "Um, she did?" to which the trio nodded affirmatively. "I'm a gadgeteer," she said by way of excuse, "and they said I'll be in the labs a lot."

Kelly simply smiled more broadly. "Gadgeteers and Devisors need to learn martial arts just as much as the rest of us," she said. "Besides, it's a fun hobby."

"I'll think about it," Laura promised.

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As the trio walked among the milling throng of students, dodging frisbees and other campus-quad games, a thin, gangly boy with wire-rimmed glasses fell in beside Laura. "Excuse me," he said awkwardly.

Laura noted that he was walking with them, so she didn't stop. "Yes?"

"Someone told me that, um," the boy stammered, "that you're Laura Samuels, and that you're a gadgeteer?" No doubt he felt awkward around girls because he looked like a stereotypical nerd, and his nasally, cracking voice didn't add anything to his appeal.

The blue girl scowled at the boy. "What of it?"

"Are you on the technical track?" the boy continued, voice quavering nervously.

"Yes."

"Um, can I, um, speak to you for a minute?" the boy asked, glancing warily at Taka and Morgana. "Um, alone?"

Laura thought a moment, judging the boy and his potential as a threat or a perv, then looked at Morgana and Taka. "Give us a sec, okay?" As the two halted, she followed the boy off the walkway away from prying ears.

"Okay," Laura said when they stopped. "What's so secret? And who are you, anyway?"

"I'm Sly Blair," the boy replied a little more confidently. "Um, my name is really Sylvester, but … I prefer Sly. Anyway, I wanted to let you know about a, well, a club isn't the right word. More like a ... a secret society of us labcoat types."

Laura's eyebrows arched. "Oh? You've got me intrigued. What is it, the Q-society?"

The boy smiled for the first time at the Bond reference. "No, but there is one of those in the Gearheads and their friends. Has anyone told you about the Worn Wrench?" Laura shook her head no. "It started a long, long time ago," Sylvester explained, "as a collective ... agreement, I suppose is a good word, for all us labcoat types. Y'see, with all the bricks and exemplars and such, we're mostly Underdogs, and individually, we're pretty vulnerable to being picked on."

Laura recognized his particular choice of words. "But together ...? United we stand and all that?"

Sylvester nodded. "Exactly. You mess with any of us, you mess with all of us. And considering we have expertise in virtually every facet of science, the results would be pretty nasty."

"That sounds ... useful."

The boy nodded. "We're having a little get-together in the labs Tuesday night. Strictly off-the-record. We've got some ... events ... that we want to discuss kind of privately. Oh, by the way, what area do you work in?"

Laura smiled. "Security won't let me carry my neural inhibitor until I take firearm safety, and I've worked on some non-lethal incapacitating defensive technologies - mostly electronic, but a few in the chemical area."

"Sounds like you'll be well-prepared for the weapons fair, then."

"Weapons fair?" Laura asked incredulously, her mouth agape.

"We'll talk later. But yeah, some of the students will pay big bucks for devises and gadgets for holdouts." He smiled. "Well, I'll see you later. Someone in your cottage will lead you to the gathering Tuesday." He was about to turn away, but he hesitated. "By the way, what cottage are you in?"

"Poe."

The boy rolled his eyes and sighed. "Figures." He strolled away muttering, and Laura could hear his words a lot more clearly than he probably intended. "Why are all the cute ones in the nuthouse?"

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A table with a very chic banner announcing that it belonged to Venus Inc. was still quite a few yards from the trio, when one of the three girls behind the table glanced up and saw Taka. She interrupted the other two Venus Inc. models, who were talking with two girls who were obviously interested in the club, and all three of the VI girls practically ran toward the Japanese boy.

"Taka!" Alvery said happily, greeting him enthusiastically with a quick hug. "It's so nice to see you today." Like her companions, she was dressed as if going to a cocktail party instead of a casual picnic.

"I'm glad you stopped by," Lisa Derflin said, falling in on the other side of Taka and taking his arm so that he was sandwiched between herself and Alvery. "Have you thought about helping us out?"

"We could really, really use a male model," the third girl, Cynthia Kinkaid, pleaded. "You will help us out, won't you?" She was really turning on the helpless-female-begging-for-help thing.

"Please!" Alvery looked up at him, batting her eyes.

"Oh, give me a freakin' break!" a large, burly upperclassman who was strolling by snarled. "You're wasting your time on that faggot!" he snapped at Alvery, causing his two buddies with him to laugh at the comment. Their amusement was cut short when all three suddenly went sprawling face-first into the grass.

The boy dragged himself back to his feet, his face red and his eyes flaring angrily. "Bitch!" he snapped as he stepped toward Alvery. "You're gonna pay for your finger-waggling shit this time!"

"Why Wayne," Alvery said in a syrupy sweet voice, "whatever are you talking about?"

"You tripped us!" he growled, stepping closer with his fists balled.

Taka eased himself from between the girls and took a half-step forward. "Excuse, please," he said calmly. "You insult friend. Apologize now."

Wayne Ramos drew himself up to full height, easily a head taller than Taka, and much bulkier. "Who's gonna make me? You, gay sissy-boy?"

"Taka," Laura cautioned him, "you aren't supposed to fight."

"Not allowing ... insult to girl or friend," Taka replied.

"You think you can take all three of us, pansy?" Wayne chortled, knowing his buddies were by his sides.

"Maybe he can't," Alvery said with an evil grin as the girls all stepped to Taka's side, "but it's four against three. Do you think you guys can handle that?"

Laura and Morgana stepped up in the group as well. "If you think you're gonna bully my friend, you better think twice."

"By my count, it's six against three right now," Morgana chuckled.

Wayne glared at the girls, then puffed up his chest. "I've got better things to do today than teach manners to a queer!" He leaned forward right into Taka's face, trying to intimidate the Japanese boy. "This is not over, you little faggot!" he growled before turning and stomping off with his little posse.

"You know assholes like that won't stop," Alvery said as the trio of bullies marched away.

"I ... deal with," Taka replied.

"Perhaps," Lisa said, "but if you join, you'll always have us around ... just in case."

"Besides," Cynthia purred, "we're a lot better company than those kinds of guys."

"Um, I hate to interrupt the Taka-worship-fest, but Taka is on our team, and he's our friend," Laura noted, "and we're kind of sticking together."

"More friends are always better," Leslie countered. She turned to Taka. "You will join our group, won't you?"

"It ... interest me," Taka replied, smiling at the girls on either side of himself. "Much."

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"Hey, there's Dr. Barton!" Laura said enthusiastically to her companions.

Morgana peered in the direction Laura was looking. "Your advisor?"

"Yeah, and I'm going to be in his history class. Let's go say hi!"

"It looks like he's with a group," Morgana said cautiously, "and it might be rude to interrupt."

Laura didn't seem to hear her. "I don't see Mrs. Barton," she said with a slight frown. She turned to Morgana. "You'd like her. She's really nice, and she's a magic user!"

"Oh?"

"She's a part-time faculty member, so you might have classes with her!" Laura gushed.

"Who's that with them? Do you know them, too?"

Laura shook her head. "No, but Dr. Barton has some pictures of them with him and his wife. I think they're really good friends or something." She stared a little bit, then stole a glance at Morgana. "It's not fair."

"What?" Morgana asked curiously.

"She's ... the redhead - she's ...."

Morgana chuckled. "The phrase you're looking for is 'well-endowed'."

"Yeah, and she's tall," Laura said with a sigh. "It's not fair. Why can't I be taller and ...?"

Morgana laughed aloud at that. "You're envious because your boobs aren't big enough?"

Laura blushed a pretty shade of lilac at Morgana's words, even as she had to nod slightly to acknowledge that her friend was right.

Morgana patted her friend on the shoulder. "You'll get there," she reassured Laura. "Just give it ... er, them ... time." She leaned a little closer. "Besides, from the ways the girls in Poe react," she whispered, "I'd say you've got enough to attract attention."

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"If I were you," one of the older Poe girls passing by said to Laura and Morgana as they paused and looked toward a table with 'Hello Kitty' motif, "I'd avoid this bunch of wackos like the plague!" Laura didn't know her name yet, but she'd seen the girl in the halls of Poe several times.

"What?" Laura asked, confounded by the seriousness of the warning. "What do you mean? Who is that?"

"That is Wondercute," the girl cautioned. "Mistresses of Mayhem and a menace to all things sane and logical."

"What exactly is Wondercute?" Morgana asked, her curiosity stirred.

"Mostly girls who like things that are cute. Like their logo - Hello Kitty!" the girl said distastefully. "And their training team uniforms - like customized Sailor Moon outfits!"

"And what's wrong with 'Hello Kitty'?" a voice behind and slightly above them questioned, startling the trio and eliciting a scowl from the Poe girl.

"Knock off the flying, Gigi," the Poe upperclassman said, shaking her head in disapproval.

"Green flag day," the girl, Gigi, countered. "Besides, Daddy got me a new supersuit over the summer and I want to show it to everyone!" She turned to Laura. "What do you think? Oh, I'm Alicia Garrett, but they call me Gigi because my code name is Gravity Girl!" The last was said with a bit of a superhero pose to show off her outfit.

Laura gasped at the outfit; if she ever saw a superhero coming toward her in a costume like Gigi wore, she'd run as fast as she could the other direction. "Eeep!" Laura gasped, trying to figure out what to say and how to say it. The suit was cute to a level of being disgusting. "Er," she stammered, "it's ... interesting."

"Hmphhh!" the Poe girl snorted. "First, supersuits should NOT have huge pink ribbons on their backs. Second, a buttoning blouse will take too long to get into. Third, little dragon-head plushies as shoulder caps and dragon wings on your back will snag on things. Fourth, the skirt is longer than recommended for a super-suit, which means impeding leg motion. Fifth ...."

Gigi pouted. "Okay, okay, Ana," she said. "Maybe you don't like my suit, but you don't have to be such a poopyhead about it!

As soon as Gigi said the girl's name, Laura recognized her from the mixer - Ana O'brien, a senior. "Like I said," Ana whispered to Laura, leaning a bit to be slightly more discrete, "they're nuts. You don't want to be associated with them unless you want others to think you're nuts, too!"

"Isn't that our cover?" Laura whispered to Ana.

Instead of saying anything, Ana shook her head, laughing softly. "Don't say I didn't warn you!" she said as she turned away from the Wondercute table.

Now thoroughly curious, Laura couldn't help but step through the milling students to the table, followed closely by Morgana and Taka. "Hi!" she announced herself to the two girls who were sitting at the table playing some kind of weird game with plushies, dice, and a deck of cards that looked like a cross between chess, Sorry, and blackjack.

"Hi!" the first girl said enthusiastically when she turned toward Laura. "I'm Petshop!" she introduced herself. "Do you wanna learn how to play?"

Laura gasped when she saw that the plushies weren't stuffed animals at all, but were cute, furry, and apparently living chess-, er game-pieces. "Those are ...."

"Aren't they cute?" Petshop exclaimed gleefully.

"They're ...!" Morgana tried to say something, gawking at the little cute creatures.

"It took, like, forever to train them to play and not run off!" Petshop declared. "On the next batch, I'm going to have to try to tune in some hardwired instincts so they're easier to train!"

"You ... made those?" Laura gasped as one of the creatures, in response to a particular card, hefted its round, purple, furry, tribble-like body on two tiny bird legs, and peering with a pair of eyes that popped out on stalks, strode to a large square that was occupied by a pink thing, where it began to push and shove to dislodge the pink creature. It seemed to be some kind of strange battle that was hugging and pushing the other critter into submission.

"I'm a biodevisor. I like to make cute little pets," Petshop announced proudly.

"I'm Jean Smith," the other girl said, then she suddenly pouted as the pink creature walked back to a small 'holding area' with a few others of its kind. Jean had some cat-like features - probably mild GSD, Laura figured - but was attired with what must be the Wondercute Uniform in a way that highlighted her unique features into an overall kitty-girl theme in the same way that Gigi had done with dragons.

"I'm Laura," the blue girl introduced herself hesitantly.

"Are you going to join Wondercute?" Petshop asked bluntly.

"I bet you could come up with a really neat theme!" Jean gushed.

"Um, I'm just looking around today."

"Oh, that's okay! According to the stupid rules, we're really not supposed to ask anyone to join today," Gigi replied, having floated above the crowd to descend with her friends behind the table.

"But you'll think about it?" Petshop pleaded, turning on some kind of sad puppy-dog look.

"I'll think about it," Laura replied.

"How about you?" Jean had turned her attention to Morgana.

"Not on a bet!" Morgana replied, trying not to sound snarky but clearly not interested in a group who seemed to live for cuteness. She tugged Laura's elbow. "Come on, Laura," she said, false urgency in her voice, "we have to meet the group, and we're late."

"Oh," Laura looked puzzled for a moment before she realized that Morgana was actually rescuing her from the coven of cute. "Oh, yeah." She looked at the girls. "Sorry, but I gotta run."

"We'll see you later, then," Gigi said eagerly.

As they walked away, Morgana sidled up beside Laura. "If you join them," she said softly, "I, for one, will vote you off our team!"

"Oh, come on!" Laura objected. "They're not that bad!"

"No, they're worse!" With Taka falling in behind them, the girls strolled toward another table.

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"Are you interested in the Whateley Literary Club?"

"Flower said something about this," Morgana said to Laura, who was beside her. "They call this group the Lit Chix." She thought she was being circumspect, but evidently not.

"I beg to differ," a boy's voice said from one end of the table; Morgana and Laura had assumed that he was either just looking or was a boyfriend hanging around. "I'm a member, and I'm hardly a chick, am I?"

Morgana had the sense to blush. "That's what our RA called the group."

"Well, it used to be all girls," an eastern-Asian-looking girl said with a disarming smile. "Until Gordon joined a couple of years ago."

Laura nodded, and then did a double-take when she saw another girl approaching. "Oh, hey, Misty!" she called out to her wing-mate.

Misty started and turned to toward Laura. "Oh, hi, Laura!" she replied.

"I didn't know you were into literature," Morgana commented.

Misty blushed. "I ... like to read," she admitted sheepishly. "Sometimes it's nice to ... get away from a hectic life and read a novel."

"I read ... much," Taka volunteered. "Help ... learn English."

"Oh, good!" Gordon practically gushed. "I'm having a hard time keeping all these girls satisfied all by myself! I could use a break now and then!"

"In your dreams!" the other girl, a bookish-looking brunette with glasses and short hair scoffed. She turned to the newcomers. "I'm Ruth Lawless, and this," she indicated the other girl, "is Mayamiko MacRay."

"Mayamiko ... is ... Japanese name?" Taka asked, eyebrows raised.

Mayamiko nodded and gave a half-bow to Taka. "<Sansei>," she replied. "<Grandmother and Grandfather are Issei. My mother is Nisei>"

<MacRay does not sound Japanese. Your father ...?>

<Mother married an Irish-American,> Mayamiko said with a smile. <You are from Nihon?>

Taka bowed. <Yes. I am here for school.>

The girl beamed. <I look forward to getting to know you better, then. And you might be interested in PanAsia. It is a club for students of Eastern Asia.>

<I will inquire about them,> Taka said. <Thank you.> He bowed toward the girl again.

"How about you two?" the first girl asked, switching back to English and addressing the other two.

"Sorry," Laura laughed. "My idea of a good book is a technical manual," she added in a very poor imitation of a Scots burr.

"Oh, gods!" the second girl said. "Another Star Trek fan!" She rolled her eyes and sighed. "You want the sci-fi club."

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Laura stepped boldly to the table, smiling at the display of various symbols on the table runner - a Star Wars imperial logo, a Star Fleet Enterprise badge, and various other symbols from various shows and movies. "Now this is more like it!" she said enthusiastically.

"Miles Belt," a boy extended a hand. "I take it you're interested in sci-fi? Any particular show or series?"

Laura smiled. "General interest," she said, "but I like Star Trek and Battlestar." She shook the boy's hand. "Laura Samuels."

"Original or the reboot?" a second guy asked, intrigued.

"Both, actually. There's a lot to be said for the complex storyline of the reboot," Laura began.

One of the girls rolled her eyes. "Debate that later," she said with a worn smile. "How about you?" she asked of Taka and Morgana.

"Whovian, actually."

The girl sighed with relief. "Oh, good. There are too many of these barbarians who don't appreciate the good doctor." She extended a hand to Morgana. "They call me Delivery Woman, and some of these ... unimaginative dullards think of me as a living breathing Transporter." She shot a glance at the two boys. "As if Trek is the be-all and end-all of sci-fi! I'm a warper," she said by way of explanation. "Name is Megaera.

"So, are you interested?"

"Depends," Laura said cautiously. "Are you guys partial to one theme in particular?"

"Nope. We're equal opportunity," Miles said. "Once a month, we have a 'marathon weekend' where we get a theater room in one of the cottages and have an extended show of movies and shows, including pizza and snacks."

Laura glanced at Morgana and grinned. "I don't know about you, but I'm interested!"

Morgana nodded, smiling back. "Me, too."

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Saturday, Sept 10th, 2016 - Afternoon
The Quad, Whateley Academy

Among the milling students enjoying the afternoon, one seemed to be rather distracted, her eyes focused intently on someone, although she was scanning the crowd periodically. A boy approached her from a small gathering of students, holding a cup of soda in one hand and smiling nonchalantly.

"Hey, I'm here to take over," he said easily.

"Good. Anything on the other one?" the girl asked bluntly.

"Rumors are that someone is a little interested in the other subject."

"Oh? In what way?" The girl's eyebrows arched noticeably.

The boy shook his head. "Nothing credible, but the subject's name has been overheard outside of her cottage."

The girl snorted in disgust. "Well, keep an eye on her. I'm late for a status report, and she's going to be very angry!"

"Full-time watch?" the boy whistled. "That's going to be tough."

The girl thought a moment. "We got funding. Give the Squirrels some financial incentive if you need to." She started to turn, but then thought again. "Better yet, make up something about her - daughter of a villain or something. Get the rumors going. Bait the Squirrels so they do the work for us." Without further discussion, the girl stormed off, heading away from the group gathering toward a copse of trees on a nearby hillock.

Satisfied that she had some privacy, she took out her cell phone and dialed a number from memory.

"Ja?" the voice answered brusquely.

"It's me," the girl replied. "I've got a status report."

"Go ahead."

"Both subjects are behaving normally and fitting in. However, Subject A is apparently attracting some unwanted attention."

"Attention? How?" The diffidence in the other person's voice was gone, replaced by serious concern.

"We're not sure. But her name has been overheard in a couple of groups that shouldn't be talking about her."

"Verdammt!"

"I've taken the precaution of putting a tail on her." The girl looked around warily as she spoke.

"Discretely, I hope."

The girl nodded out of habit, even though the person on the other end couldn't see her. "Of course."

"Sehr gut."

"When classes start, it's going to be tough to keep a tail on her though. We're going to see if we can bait the Squirrels - the Intelligence Cadet Corps, I mean - to do some of the watching for us."

"Handle it as you feel necessary. Now I must get back to my notes. Report immediately if anything unusual happens."

"Jawohl, Tante Hilde!"

"Idiot! Do not EVER use my name again! What if you are overheard?"

The girl winced at the tongue-lashing. "Sorry. It won't happen again."

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To Be Concluded

Comments   

+2 # ShockHawk 2016-08-02 06:18
The outback, the ocean floor, Istanbul, and New England...
Can you say "Ominous"?...
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0 # Richie2 2016-08-02 16:30
Great new chapter Thanks keep them coming KUDOS
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+2 # Schol-R-LEA 2016-08-02 18:11
> Tomika nodded, still chuckling. "I like your spunk. You got style, girl!"

And now I'm chuckling at the thought of what Morgana would have made of that if she overheard it... separated by a common language, indeed.
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0 # Horrid 2016-08-08 01:21
Without any slight intended towards ElrodW, who is great, it should be said that Nagrij is a fantastic addition to the Whateley Canon Cabal and Lupin is a personal favorite of mine among the 2nd Gen characters. Stories like this one are the reason why. I found Nagrij's fan fiction to be wonderfully entertaining and am so happy that N is adding such good stuff to the 2nd Gen saga. All fans of this website should be extremely pleased that this author has been so prolific and generously giving of time and effort in the production of these tales.
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0 # Naomi_Alt 2016-12-26 07:03
*Frowns at Morgana* Wondercute are really exuberant and need to learn proper rules of engagement and to not pick fights, but they're a perfectly fine group. Even joking about kicking Laura out for joining them is, I think, completely out of line, and I'm honestly not sure that she was.

Thank you to all the authors; being able to read all of these stories is fun and inspiring. :)
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0 # reist 2017-03-04 02:19
Carson and Tywyswyr(sp) were eaten by a mythos portal? Considering them dead can probably be construed to be positive in this case :sad:
And somehow, every story up to now that sprinkles Japanese words for the heck of it, seems to be hit or miss...mostly miss. Here it's Sansei - approval/agreement to suggestion, when it's supposed to confirm a positive question. I can only wonder about what mistakes there are in the other languages spruced in.
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