----Still Saturday, early afternoon
"Okay, here's what we got so far..." It was, Jack was loathe to admit, not much at all. Of their surveillance missions that morning, only Vapo-rub had delivered any reliable intel. That Shieldwall kid had proven as beta as he seemed -- Mac'n'Cheese had complained of boredom -- and as for the fag... Jack was still trying to make sense of the one report that Shake'n'Bake had sent in. Queries for more intel had gone unanswered.
"Right now, the trap is at band practice. Insert your own flute jokes here," he said to much sniggering. "How much longer she'll be down there, we dunno, but the school picnic and battle event are officially kicking off at three, and she said she'd be there."
"We hit her before, or after?" asked Gouyasse.
"Better before." He drew a line between the band's practice room and the quad. "We put dudes in the tunnels along this route, and on the paths above, just in case. I've made arrangements that should keep her in the under areas."
The dudes around the table accepted their assignments, some more enthusiastically than others. Shake'n'Bake was still out on recon duty, where he couldn't get in the way of the big boys. Everyone else there was hand-picked from the club membership for their abilities and strengths, not to mention some level of obligation owed to either High Gear or Jack.
There was one holdout, Rutherford Grimsby on the far end. It was to be expected; he was still on edge after that incident at the Emerson-Dickinson mixer at the start of the school year. They'd all warned Ol' Ruthie dozens of times not to jump to roofies immediately, to play the long game and wear his target down through charm, but they didn't call him Contact High for nothing. When all you had was a hammer, everything looked like a nail, and when you sent sedatives through your fingernails...
"I shouldn't be here," Ruthie said. "Seriously, if we get caught, then that's my third strike."
"C'mon, bruh," said one of the sophomores from Melville, the optimistically named Lucky Lad. "We need that whammy of yours. Ain't no way she's gonna go quietly once she realizes we're springing her trap."
High Gear patted his rig. "I'm all set to black out the cameras along the route. You keep the masks on while you move in, and she doesn't see anything incriminating. Grab her, do whatcha gotta, dump her, and done. In and out, simple as that."
Ruthie's face never lost the sneer, but it did tilt up in the middle a little as more of High Gear's plan was outlined. There went one of Jack's few worries about this operation. It was almost time to trip the trap.
It was still a little early, but Erica was headed over to the designated picnic area. Someone had to reserve a space for their tarp, and it turned out she had the fewest personal obligations to deal with that day. A nice, grassy corner, currently in the shade but guaranteed to be well lit as the sun set, was soon claimed.
"Let's go a different way," an unfortunately familiar voice said behind her, loud enough to ensure its mistress was overheard. "We would not like the neighbors in this patch of weeds."
"Gutentag, Kirsten," Erica said with a sigh. Turning her head, she could see the dark-haired German girl from Mannheim loitering with her usual contingent of Euro students. The redheaded Adrienne le Floc'h held a basket, while the young British peer Gregory Crumbley was carrying a heavier load with a pair of oversized PK arms projected in shimmering cobalt over his own appendages. Leslie, the Scottish wolf-girl, was trotting along behind them.
There was no sign of Gouyasse, the Belgian beer giant. Erica's well-trained suspicion gland started pumping.
"Why, she speaks! And politely, too!" said Kirsten. "It is true then; even pigs can learn etiquette."
"You haven't been looking in the mirror lately, have you?" Erica asked back. The glare that earned her was definitely worth it. With a loud sniff that would've won first place at a truffle-hunting competition, Kirsten Bischofsheim stormed off with her retinue in tow.
Erica grinned as she lay back on the tarp and spread it flat. She could hardly wait for someone, anyone else to show up.
He was awake and sober, washed and fed, and feeling much better physically. It was his mind that was still ill at ease. The more he'd moved away from the morning's hangover, the clearer his few memories of the night before had become, and though too many details were still obscured, there was enough there to make him worry.
A quick call to his friend Macarthur had gone unanswered, and he couldn't seem to find anyone else from the ODS that he recalled, anywhere he went on campus. The clubhouse was locked up.
It was by chance that he spied Fio's roommate sitting by the trees, her nose in a book. He could recognize the type, if not the title; the baroque lettering and fantastical scene meant it could only be one of those gaming books his sister favored. As much as he would have liked to stop and chat, his record with Erica was not the best, and he was trying to stay on Fio's good side.
A little farther around the way, Fra spotted some friendlier faces. Several boys from his English class -- mostly Twain residents -- were laying down tarps, sheets, and blankets. One, the young man from Mongolia, had a small rounded tent set up. "Sain uu!" Arsi Khan called to him as he passed.
"Eh, si. Hello," he called back. "What is this?"
"Is yurt! Little one, but one-hundred-percent okeydokey honest real deal!" Arsi beamed at the mishmash of English coming from his mouth. Fra wasn't sure what any of it meant, but he nodded appreciatively.
"It is, ah, nice," he said. "But, why?"
Arsi's roommate, the American with the parabolic bunny ears, answered in more understandable English: "Dude here is officially a cultural representative of is country. I doubt the embassy had anything in mind when they did it, but he's taking it really seriously. Arentcha, Arsi?"
"Tiim ee! Come, come! Let us play bone darts! Just like grandfather on the steppe."
Fra let himself be led away to where the games were set up. Bone darts were just about what he'd expected them to be, but they were a surprising challenge to master. The young Mongolian was a pleasant and respectful winner, as everyone had a chance to discover.
It was nice. A better afternoon than hanging out with Mac and the ODS, that was for certain.
With Cookie's K9 training done for the day, Daniel had enough time to catch a quick shower before getting down to dirty work. Whateley's Home Ec. department wasn't as glamorous or eccentric as its other branches, but it had a very well stocked kitchen area in the tunnels near the cafeteria. Daniel had a stock of supplies and ingredients there as part of his core curriculum. He was one of the few students specializing in culinary arts, and Mrs. Sampleton the Home Ec. teacher was happy as punch to let him use the space whenever he wanted.
He was making an extra dozen cookies for her, to say thanks.
True enough, he could just magic up five dozen, plus a sixth for Mrs. Sampleton, but he was here to practice and learn. The better he understood, the better the baked goods he could magic up, but he never learned anything the easy way. Pour, sift, mix; hands-on was best. And with cookies, he could guarantee warm results in time for the party.
Cakes... cakes were a different matter. Much as he liked to make 'em, there was no way he had enough lead time to get one done, and certainly not two. He did have to cheat with those, which made the decision to do the cookies for real all the smarter.
His power had limits, he'd learned. Not really a hard limit, like one dozen cookies an hour, but a soft one. Single, big items took more out of him than lots of little ones, even if all the little ones together were a lot bigger. Stuff like cookies or donuts could get spaced out, but cakes...
Once the last of the cookie trays were in the oven, Daniel went over to the table, where he'd already set up a cake box. He placed his hands around it and took a deep breath.
The trouble with cakes was that they were complicated, with lots of layers and fillings and stuff. Size and mass were only half of it.
Tensing up, he let the magic feeling flow, and a perfect tiramisu appeared in the box. Its layers of sponge cake and cream were clearly divided, the coffee and rum mixture soaking evenly through. Chocolate squiggles decorated the top.
He closed up the box and placed it in the fridge. Then he sat down before his knees wobbled out from under him. The cookies were almost done before he tried again.
It was a rare sight which crossed the quad, though few students would realize. Three students, two teachers, one oddball sorta-family unit. The Barneses had arrived to picnic -- as soon as they found a good spot. Chessa had the old quilt, a mish-mash patchwork of fabric swatches and clothing rags sewn expertly together by someone's granny years ago. Her little brother Marcus was carrying a portable generator that he'd been working on.
The reason for the generator was carted along beside them by their big sister's boyfriend. Chessa had known Dr. Derek Speers for a reasonable amount of time -- since the first day of the rest of her life, in fact -- and there was no denying that Myra Barnes had been a good influence on the man. It actually looked like he used a comb and hair gel instead of cable cutters and grease, for one.
In the cart was a devise, a prototype model of the one in the Crystal Hall that students knew simply as the Machine. Pour milk in one end, choose a number combination, and out came ice cream. What kind of ice cream, that was left for the user to discover. The cafeteria's Machine had a two-digit code system, allowing one hundred options from 00 to 99, which made it easier to ensure that everything was edible, if not always recognizable.
The prototype's keypad allowed for six-digit combinations. Chessa didn't know if there actually were one million flavors of ice cream on the planet, and no one else could say for sure either. In between the cracks of possibility, there lurked things like Ghost Pepper Honey Surprise, Prickly Pear Puree, and Phlegm. Affixed to the front of the devise was a big red button labeled DO YOU FEEL LUCKY?
Her ersatz twin brother and odd-couple roommate Pat led the way. He'd already warned them off two spots, otherwise tempting but for the vibes off the neighbors. Chessa trusted Pat knew how to read a room, though.
"Right over there," Pat announced. Looking ahead, she could see a nicely shaded corner of grass with one tarp already laid down. A familiar face was sitting on it.
"Erica!" she shouted. Dumping the quilt onto a protesting little brother's head, she ran over to hug her friend. "You brought your source books!"
"Promised I would, didn't I?" the blonde girl replied. "Oh, and hello to everyone else, too. Marcus, Pat, M... er, which name should I use this time?"
"Myra is fine," Chessa's big sis said as she rescued Marcus from his burden and laid the quilt upon the grass. The morning's hippie flower child outfit was replaced by a more mature ensemble befitting a teacher. "We're all here to relax. Are you waiting on friends?"
Erica noded. "The gang will all be here, eventually. Dunno how many of them you might've met. Oh yeah, Kenshin's in your English class, so there's one."
"And like, four Poesies too," Chessa added. "Big sis keeps a room in Poe," she explained. "For Marcus's sake, since he's still a bit messed up."
Her little brother waved a wrench at her menacingly. "You're a pretty piece of work yourself," he growled.
"How lovely of you to notice!" She giggled and fluttered her eyelashes.
Erica picked up her smartpad. "That reminds me..." she said. "Marcus, would you know how to make or acquire anything on this list?" She passed it over for his perusal. "My Uncle Adolf is getting things together for my cousin's birthday, and... well, long story short, but he's making up for lost time."
Marcus whistled. "I'd say..." His eyes tracked from side to side like a kitty-cat wall clock. "Hey, Dork," he said, tugging on Derek's sleeve. "Some of this stuff's on the mega-list. Think we can comp part of it as research?"
Big sis butted in before the conversation could go any further. "Picnic, people! Business at a later date. But," she concluded, "before anything is agreed to, I'd like a talk with this uncle of yours."
"Understood, Ms... er, Myra." For the moment, Erica and Chessa had to content themselves with the source books, which was just fine by them.
Michelle Brown was a girl of simple tastes. Big or small, flat or curvy, she didn't really care. From her perspective as a middling-short person, the view was wonderful no matter which way she looked, and the only reasonable option when presented with a plethora of choices was to collect them all. And oh what a plethora Whateley presented!
Much like her codenamesake, a technologically supreme yet misunderstood genius from the anime series Sekirei, Michelle was the mistress of surveillance tech. She knew when each girl from her floor of Melville went to the wonderfully spacious showers, what their favorite shampoo brand was, and even what patterns they preferred on their knickers.
Outside of the ladies' washroom, her surveillance network wasn't yet ready to play. The sheer density of monitoring tech present on campus -- official, semi-official, and most certainly not official -- meant that there was a disproportionately large number of countermeasures also in play.
It just wasn't fair.
She did have to admit there was a certain je ne sais quoi about doing it the old-fashioned way, however. Hiding in the bushes with long-range binocular lens cameras and a laser microphone was an experience that only made her prize all the sweeter.
Okay, so technically she didn't need to go to such lengths. The gaggle of girls now setting up for picnic were all from her own floor of Melvile, and she was even technically kinda-sorta maybe friends with some of them.
But, much as one could lose track of the forest because of the trees, so too was it distracting to be in the midst of such beauty. Without a camera. She clicked a good photo of Elizabeth "Velvet" Taylor as the girl bent over to get something. Oh yeah...
A faint rustling from behind was her only warning. She'd gotten used to needing fast escapes, though. When a hand thrust through the branches to grab at her, she responded with a quick jab from her stungun. This counted as self-defense, right?
"Okay, you quickjerk splatter-weasel," an angry female voice growled from beyond the branches and leaves. "Either you get out of there right now or I'm getting the napalm."
Now there was a bluff she'd rather not call. Michelle backed slowly out of the bush, on the far side where the objects of her surveillance would not be able to spot her. "I thought you Americans were against forest fires," she said. "You know, Smokey the Bear and all that?"
"You're a girl," the would-be arsonist said in surprise.
"So are you. Oh, what serendipity! Oh, what kismet!"
"... what the hell are you going on about."
Michelle straightened her jacket and picked the leaves out of her brown braids. "Why, I've been looking for people to join my circle of research and mutual enjoyment, and those smouldering eyes of yours -- not to mention that blaster in your hand; oh my, does it work? -- well, all that makes you a perfect candidate. If you can pass the last test, of course."
The girl with the offensive hardware rolled her eyes. "And that is?"
"One good snog, right here," said Michelle, tapping her lips flirtatiously.
"...you're a nutter, aren't you."
"If you mean I'm, ah, 'nuts' over all the lovely ladies -- and gorgeous hunks; we cannot forget them! -- who inhabit this campus, oh yes! So what do you say? Care to join my research harem?"
The girl's scowl was answer enough, and unfortunately negative. "Camera," she demanded.
Michelle sighed and handed the device over.
"Quite a collection," the girl noted, scrolling through.
"Oh yes, I do try to keep a balanced and varied diet," said Michelle. "My RA is a literal ray of sunshine. Total hime-sama type, of course. And those junior high girls are just so adorable. Natural boku-chan in the flesh, and I cannot wait for them to grow up more. Eliza's got that o-jou-sama vibe going for her, and then there's Tia for the moé."
"Tia." Those smouldering eyes lit up. "Lucretia del Bosque?"
"Yes, actually. Such a perfect blend of innocence, vulnerability, and inexperience. Perfectly moé in the classical sense. Why..." Her rambling petered off as her eyes focused on the blaster, now aimed an inch from her nose.
"I'm only going to say this once," said the other girl. "The slut-bunny is mine. Do you hear? She is mine. If you so much as touch her..."
Michelle put on her biggest, brightest, don't-shoot-me-est smile. "I didn't realize she was already spoken for. My apologies, truly. So you would be... Jamie, was it? Is that correct? I must commend you on your handiwork. It's right up there with Eliza's."
"Whose?" the girl, Jamie, asked.
"Eliza. Velvet. Her photos are in there with the rest. She has a little sister in Poe, and rumor has it that Velvet's the reason she's there. Ah, Time Bomb, I think her name was?" To be honest, she'd been paying more attention to the violet-eyed big sister and that tall, dark, and beautiful Nightingale girl at breakfast.
Jamie had her blaster down and her smartpad up. "Hm... ah, here we are. Time Bomb. On the list. Good. Okay, you little perv--"
"Please, miss. I'm a major perv. And call me Matsu."
"...okay, Matsu. Call me Calibrate. Now, how would I go about meeting this Velvet girl in private..."
He wanted to say this had seemed like a good idea at the time -- but it hadn't. From the moment it was described, he could tell it was a very bad idea indeed. Unfortunately it was the only idea in town, and by process of elimination that made it the best.
Not good, though. No plan involving this many electrodes could ever be called good.
"Are we ready yet?" he asked Ping. Begged, really. Pleaded, even.
"Only three more to go!" the redheaded China girl said sunnily. She taped the next one to his forehead. "And don't be such a baby. We need a little jolt to reboot the sections of your brain that Jack-Bastard whammied. It'll just be a moment."
Vic's paranoia was quick to point out to him that "a little" and "a moment" were not actually measurements and could be anything.
They were sitting in Ping's personal lab space, a well-lit area with three desks and two tables, all covered in electronica. Some of it even looked like it actually did stuff. Vic was sitting in the only chair, while Chrissy and Gwen held up the wall a safe distance away.
"Okay," said Ping as she hefted a boxy construct onto the table next to him and connected some cables. "Let's get this party started!"
"Er, is that a car bat-t-teree-ee-ee-ee-ee-ee..." Once he hit the final syllable, he found it hard to stop. For that undefined length of "moment," miniature bolts of lightning snaked across his vision, leaving behind a trail of black so bright it made every other color invert: red to green, blue to yellow, and then all of them together turned into something best described as "blgrglhrgl..." because that was all he could say.
From somewhere deep, he could hear a girl screaming in fear and in pain. It all went black after that.
Damnit, Les!" Gwen shouted. "We're trying to help him, not kill him!"
"It's a fine line," Ping admitted. The redhead was examining Vic's body, checking for vitals. "Got a pulse, a strong one. He'll be okay." The patient groaned. "See?"
Gwen sighed. Leslie Wainwright had a cavalier attitude towards patient experimentation -- somewhat hypocritically, considering her own past. As a member of the FSHA and an aspiring heroine, Gwen knew she should say something, but there really hadn't been any good options on hand.
"Hey, Vic. Little bro," she said, shaking him gently. His body rolled limply from side to side while his head swayed lazily against his chest. "Hey!" she tried again, putting a finger under his chin and lifting up.
Her brother's eyes snapped open, and there was an unmistakable flash of blue from their depths. His right hand shot straight to her throat, palm slamming into her larynx and pushing onward until her head hit the table behind her.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Chrissy was pulling them apart. A back-handed slap, delivered at not-inconsiderable velocity, knocked Vic to the floor.
Gwen coughed and rubbed her throat. "I swear, Chrissy," she said. "If both of you managed to kill him on the same day..."
Her speedy friend tugged at the pink-dyed tips of her brown hair. "Um, he's still breathing?"
That he was. Coughing, too. And groaning, which quickly turned into cussing both in English and in Spanish. When Vic finally sat up, his eyes had returned to their usual black with dark bags beneath them. The red imprint of Chrissy's hand was visible across his face. "Urg..." He tried to stand, then thought better of it. "Did it... did it work?"
"You tell us," said Gwen. "Seriously, tell us what Jack-in-the-Box said to you."
Vic's head bobbed and weaved, and for a moment she feared he would pass out again, but: "He, he gave me instructions. To, to find Cally -- Calliope, one of my teammates -- and, and..." He gulped. "We, we need to find her, right now!"
Band practice had finished at last, and well was it done. Electra had not said another word to her the entire time, for which she was glad, but that did not mean she could not feel the other girl's negative vibes from the far side of the auditorium. They were as sharp and discordant as Electra's mechanical instrument sounded round and sweet.
She was happy to leave it behind.
"Yo Cally-girl!" Her dusky dancing angel was waiting outside the door. In the overhead lights of the tunnels, little reflective freckles could be seen across her skin. "How'd it go?"
"Eh, the music is good. The people..." She held out her hand flat and made a wibbly-wobbly motion, as she had seen her friends do sometimes.
Neff's grin was the moon. "Gotcha. Had to deal with the same shee-yit -- pardon my French -- all the time back at dance school. Always somebody out there who envies whatcha got, or is jealous of you cuz they think you're a threat to what they've got. That's life, I guess."
"Si..." She let out a long sigh. "But now it is finished, over with. Shall we to picnic?"
"Whatever you say, Cally-girl." Neff grabbed her arm, hooking their elbows and holding hands as they walked along. The nerves up and down her arm shivered happily.
They'd only ever kissed -- okay, and a little bit more, besides, but not much more -- and Calliope was having trouble imagining anything that felt better than this moment right now. She enjoyed the sensation of skin on skin as they skipped down the hall of the tunnel.
With a quiet dun sound, the lights behind them shut off. Dun, dun, dun, the lights ahead of them joined in the blackout. The long bulb directly above them stayed lit, though it only served to make the darkness deeper.
"Shee-yit..." Neff swore slowly. "This ain't good." She pulled Calliope over to the side, keeping the wall at their backs.
Calliope strained to hear, with ears that were both there and not there. She caught the sound of footfalls, light and furtive, and the harsh buzz of negative emotions. It was a complex blend, far from subtle but well-sloshed, and she caught traces of anger, desire, fear, and loathing, both towards her and towards themselves. Her stomach flipped and her palms went cold with the sweat of terror.
She'd felt this mix before. Not at Whateley, and certainly not from the same people. In Italy, Genoa, a group of young men hellbent on making her understand what it meant to be a girl, in their eyes...
"Cally-girl, you okay?" Neff asked.
"S-si," she bravely lied. "Let us go, and fast."
Oh! that her legs could share in the false sense of bravado! But instead they tripped with every step, trembled instead of strode, buckled instead of keeping pace with her friend, who had to hold her tight and carry her along. "No, no, no..." she whimpered, unaware that she was speaking, or of how loud, until a voice in the darkness responded.
"I am afraid yes, little trap." A boy's voice, smooth but only partially tempered by the experience of manhood. She'd never heard it before.
A different voice chuckled from behind them. "The trap is trapped. It's time for springing."
"Nuh-uh." Neff stood tall and defiant in front of her friend. "That ain't copacetic. Not at all. But..." she said, turning a grin that gleamed under the sole working light, "I am. Just call me Copacetic."
"What does that even mea... oof!" The owner of the second voice had come close enough to be seen at the light's edge, his face hidden behind a crude mask. Neff had aimed a bit lower, one toned dancer's leg finding its mark unerringly.
"C'mon, who all's next?" she cried, pushing Calliope back against the wall.
"We don't mean to make any trouble with you," said a third voice, its owner now barely visible.
"Like hell we don't!" gasped the unfortunate owner of the second.
The third speaker whacked his downed comrade across the head. "Quiet, you! So, ah, Ms. Copacetic. Our business is not with you. We only wish to deal with the trap back there."
"What da fuck are you talkin' about?" Neff said with a sneer.
"Oh, she hasn't mentioned? I knew she wouldn't. She wouldn't tell anyone if she could help it, which is what makes her such a clever and dangerous trap for dudes. And ladies," he added. His mask hid his face, but the leer was obvious in his voice.
His words echoed in Calliope's head, and how she wished they would not! She could claim ignorance of what 'trap' might signify when these boys said it, but she could guess. Oh, how she could guess. "J-just go away!" she stuttered. "Leave us alone!"
"Brave words, little trap. Your friend is free to go, but you... you need to face the consequences of lying, of saying things which aren't true... Fabrizio."
Merda, merda, merda, merda, merda, FUCK! No room to think, no room to worry; all the space in her head was filled with a blind panic that poured from her lungs as one extended note of raw terror. The remaining light vibrated and cracked overhead, throwing the tunnel into a dull, scattered twilight where everyone was a stranger, all faces were wicked and twisted, and no straight line wanted to stay so. All around her, the world seemed to melt.
A hand grabbed her wrist. The corner of her mind capable of thought and hoped wished it were Neff's, but then the sickly chill registered through her skin, and she turned her head to stare at the crude mask of Contact High. She knew it had to be him; the sedative touch was achingly similar to what he'd done at the dorm mixer weeks before. It numbed and froze her thoughts, forcing the panic to subside as her voice died in her throat.
"Good work," said the third boy, coming over to inspect Contact High's work. "You really should work on that, trap," he said to her. "Your friend, Miss Copacetic, took the brunt of that little outburst. But I guess that's what she gets for dating someone so unworthy of trust. Now, just take my hand and come along quietly."
There was something strapped to his palm, small and barely noticeable except as a darker spot in the dimness of the tunnel. She tried to shrink back as he grabbed her other hand and slipped in for a handshake...
A loud clap repeated broke in, repeating several times with a cadence that could almost have been ironic in its slowness. "What a brave group," came the voice of a young woman. "Facing down two dangerous girls like this." The speaker was barely visible in the murky darkness beyond the lights.
"Shut your mouth!" said the second young man, still grunting from the kick to his gut. The others helped him to his feet, and he continued. "You don't know the score here, and have no business interfering. I tell you now, we are the ones who are in the right, the injured parties seeking justice for a lie maliciously told."
The boy's tone was a little odd, booming and projected like he was play-acting on a stage. The other young men could be heard snickering in the background. The one who had acted the leader just moments ago was staying conspicuously quiet, letting the loudmouth take all the attention.
"Says you," came another girl's voice, from the other direction. The collective necks of the gang snapped with whiplash as they turned to look en masse. This newcomer was a little more visible, with a visor over her face and fair-seeming hair pulled back. "All I see is a group of idiots doing stupid things."
Even with the mask on, Calliope could see the second boy go stiff with indignation. "You, madamoiselle, are mistaken! We are justice! We are retribution! We are..."
Her ears caught a faint whir, a buzzing that could have been imagination, tinnitus, or some effect of Contact High's narcotic touch, only it got louder -- and fast. It zipped through the air, clipping past the gathered masked malcontents and smashing square into the chest of the group's most obvious brick.
Boom. His body took most of it, but more than one of his friends were thrown to the ground as well.
The two young women raced in from opposite directions, clotheslining the loudest of the young men and knocking him flat to the ground. "You are so busted," said the first girl.
Calliope was suddenly aware of someone else sneaking up beside her, but with her head swimming so, she couldn't react. Contact High might have reacted, but he was so distracted by the fight that he wasn't even looking closer to home. A hand snaked out, tagging the boy with a small devise that went buzz when it connected. He fell to the ground, shaking.
Released from his grip, Calliope could gasp for air, but actual movement was harder. Her head was swimming in clouds of cotton, and if the effect were not as strong as last time, it was still dizzying. An attempt to stand up took her down to the floor instead. Whoever she landed on probably deserved it.
"We gotcha." She barely caught the words, dizzy as her head was. One of the girls was helping her stand, while Neff was being pulled up by a young man without a mask. The others didn't seem to mind his presence, so Calliope assumed he was alright.
The girl whose arm she now clung to was blonde with dark brown tips. They walked away as fast as they could manage, though the boy helping Neff along did take the time to put a boot to the side of the leader's head. The ugly mask had slipped to the side, revealing a lock of hair, vaguely orange in the dim light.
"C'mon!" Calliope's savior shouted. The six of them raced down the tunnels until they reached the end of the flickering blackout. She thought she would pass out, or throw up, or any number of other ill reactions, but the worst of Contact High's touch faded quickly. A minute later and they were safely outside.
"Er, uh, what?" Neff was coming around. Calliope's own lethargy lightened when she heard her friend's voice.
"Hi, I'm Celerity," said the brunette. "Or Chris, when we're off-duty. I make things go fast."
"Star Sentry," the blonde with the brown tips said. "We're with the Future Super Heroes of America."
Neff was recovered enough to muster a look of sarcastic disbelief. "The Cape Squad? Seriously?" She laughed. "And I'd been hearing how you all were wannabe misfits."
"The previous school year wasn't good for our image..." Star Sentry admitted. "But we're trying to fix that."
"Thank you," Calliope said. The blood rushed to her head for a second as it continued to flush Contact High's poison from her system, and she swallowed a gasp. "Ah. Er. How did you know?"
"That would be my step-brother here." Star Sentry pulled the boy over, and by the light of day Calliope could recognize him.
"Vic?" she asked. Her head was still woozy, and for a second she thought she saw double. Then her eyes focused right and he went back to having just the one head. "What's going on?"
Oh man, there was a stumper. For all that he'd been in the thick of the plot, he still didn't know why Jack-in-the-Box was doing this. "Er, well," he stumbled. "Jack, er, one of the guys back there, he... he was forcing me to spy on you and set you up for something, but I didn't know what or why, promise!"
"You, you set me up!?" Cally screamed. "Why? We were friends, Vic! How could you go and do a thing like that to a friend, you... you... belin! No!" she cried as Gwen stepped in to defend him. "I am not ready to listen to excuses or apologia! Thank you very much, miss superheroes, but I am out of here!" Grabbing the black girl by the wrist, Cally stormed off, audibly humming with rage.
Chrissy whistled. "Well, that could've gone better."
Vic's brain was still grasping for a clue. "That... that bitch!" his mouth started without him. "Everything I had to go through today, all the freak outs and black outs and electrodes, all to help save her skinny ass, and this is the thanks I get!?"
"Comes with being a hero," Gwen said. "And I get why you're so chuffed about it, but you better watch your language. Cool down, get your head together. No sense chasing after her to bring her back."
"Why not? That's what you usually do," he said.
"Hey now, that was different."
"Was it? Cuz it seemed to me that I just needed time to calm down and get my head together, and you were gonna force me to go back with you right then and there! And we both know how well that turned out."
"Um, guys..." Chrissy tried to interrupt.
"Only because you were being stupid, you dummy!"
"I'm the dummy here? News to me! I was trying to play it smart and safe, and then you barge in and start giving commands because that's what heroes do best, isn't it? You never thought about what I wanted!"
"What you wanted was dangerous and unethical and probably illegal."
Vic stared her right in the eyes, the one part that hadn't really changed in the last two years. "What I wanted was to have Ollie back."
Gwen hissed through her teeth. "And that's the one thing you can't get. I'm Gwen now, and there's no going back on that."
"More's the pity," said Vic. He turned to walk away. "I used to know how to talk to you. Now, anything I say is a mistake. See you later... Gwen."
He was afraid she would try to stop him this time as well. If it came to a rematch, there wasn't enough water around to ensure that he'd win. And... he wasn't sure he wanted to. Not that way. It was hard to forget the sound of snapping bone, and he had no desire to hear it again.
--Shawn Barker, ODS dud
His phone had buzzed twice in the past hour, both times with messages from Jack. Shawn ignored them. There were more pressing things at the moment. Awesome things.
On the grass in front of the Mongolian kid's tent, a thick rope was laid out in a circle. Within it, Arsi Khan squatted with his chest bare, a bit dirty and beaten but smiling wide. He'd just thrown a kid built like a body-building warthog out of the ring. "Bökh! Mongolia's great wrestling tradition!" he shouted. "Much fun, great exercise! Who next?"
Kenshin stepped up to the rope, shucking his shoes and stripping down to the waist. "Friendly match?" he offered. "I am fan of sumo. You?"
"Baigalin! Many great sumo from Mongolia, all start with native technique! Asashoryu! Hakuho! Best of best," Arsi boasted.
His Japanese opponent took his spot, hunching into a grappler's pose. "Then, for honor of our lands, let us do this."
Shawn kept his eyes open for this one, though it didn't go quite as fast as the duel he'd witnessed earlier in the day. There was a rush to the center, hands and arms locking into a clinch as the two young men strained for dominance. Arsi Khan was small and wiry, but he had muscles like steel coil. With a roar, he tossed Kenshin back with a step, reaching in to grab the Japanese by the belt and sweep his legs.
Kenshin somehow hooked around, hanging onto Arsi without hitting the ground. Kicking off, he threw the Mongolian's balance out of true, and almost sent the other to the dirt.
Arsi twisted in mid-stumble, and while Kenshin managed to land his feet squarely to push back, those feet landed outside the rope.
"Out!" shouted the boy with the bunny ears who was currently acting as referee. He waved a white flag.
The two grapplers returned to the center of the circle, bowed, and shook hands. "Good match," said Kenshin.
"All matches good matches," Arsi agreed. "Is all good fun-fun sportsmanship, yes?"
"Anyone else want a go at it?" shouted the bunny-ear boy. "Chance to show off, have a valuable cultural experience, yada-yada-yada."
There was a general chuckle from the crowd, but no takers. Shawn was mulling it over when a hand to his back made the decision for him, shoving him forcibly towards the ring. He turned around to glare, but couldn't tell who'd done it.
"We have a volunteer!" bunny-boy announced. It was hard to tell how much cheering as actually laughter. "So, what's your name?"
"Nice to meetcha, call me Saumer. You clear on the rules?" Parabolic ears twitched his way.
"Pretty simple. No shirts, no shoes. Step out of bounds, you lose. Anything but your feet hits the ground, you lose. Powers are allowed within reason, cuz we know it's hard to turn off the super-strength, but if you got something like laser-beams out your eyes, keep it out of the ring."
"No, nothing like that..." Shawn could feel the shakes coming on, but he held them back through force of will. It wouldn't do to vibrate through the ground, again. As he took his place and bowed, looking at the grinning Mongolian in the eyes, that resolve began to crack. Any pretense of control was lost when the clinch began.
Shawn was always hard-put to describe his power in action. "Vibrating" almost covered it, except it wasn't really a physical effect. He was a warper; when he vibrated, it wasn't necessarily in three dimensions.
He fumbled the clinch, and Arsi got an arm around him, ready to throw his body to the ground. Only... it was hard to get a grip on him. His body occupied a range of space, and wherever the Mongolian grabbed, Shawn wasn't there at that instant. Well, half the time at least.
For his part, Shawn was having trouble hanging onto Arsi. The Mongolian slipped and twisted through every attempt to hold, and Shawn's own power made it even worse. Wrestling was not a sport intended for five dimensions.
He steadied himself enough to make one last grab, and that was enough for Arsi to get him by the arm and toss him to the dirt. Shawn landed on his back with a thump and a groan.
"Good match!" A grimy hand reached down to help him to his feet. "Interesting power. Hard to catch. Maybe practice again sometime?"
Kenshin came over. "I agree," the Japanese kid said. "You do not have experience, but you did well. Your power, good for grappling. You should practice more."
"Th-thank you." He'd been trailing Kenshin all day, but this was the first time they'd spoken. And it was a compliment, even. A great many feelings were duking it out in his head, but the first thing that came to mind was a meme he'd seen often on the internet. It made more sense to him now.
Senpai notice me...
There was plenty of applause for the brave lad who'd gone up against Arsi. After the Mongolian had successfully taken down Bacon the powerfully pig-boy, no one but Kenshin had the guts, but now Fra was finding himself tempted. Somehow it was hard to fear embarrassment from the enthusiastic Arsi, who seemed simply ecstatic that anyone was interested.
Fra would have, only he had bigger things to worry about. His sister was now storming across the grass nearby, and it did not take an empath to see she was pissed. He could hope she wasn't angry at him, but he knew the odds were against him there.
"Hello, Fi--" He was interrupted by a sharp slap across the face. Ten months ago, that would've been an invitation to fratricide, but things were different now. They were different now.
"What the hell is going on?" she screamed at him -- not in English, or even proper Italian, but in the Genoese dialect such as few ever spoke these days. Fra couldn't really speak it himself, but Fio had always been a fan of certain singers who used it. One was even her namesake... former namesake.
"Do not play the dunce with me!" she continued, so fast that he could hardly follow. Each word cracked like a whip. "Where am I to be safe, if my brother helps me not? Where can I learn to be myself, if my idiot, belin brother tells secrets! Where, Fra? Where?"
"I, ah..." She had him off balance, and with no intention of letting up.
"Nowhere!" she screamed. "I was just attacked, Fra. Attacked! Marauders, malcontents, rapists! They knew who I am. They knew what I am. They. Knew. My. Name. Not Calliope. Not Fiorella. The other."
He was so glad no one at the school could understand the thick Genoese blasting from his sister's mouth. There were questions he'd rather not answer, about himself or his sister. "I, I do not know what... how..."
"Were they your friends?" she demanded. "Were they this group you have been hanging out with, thick as thieves and dense as rock? Belin!" she spat. "They are, aren't they? You told them!"
"I, I don't remember..."
He deserved the next slap, and the one after that.
"Um, I hate to interrupt..." It was the brave lad from before, showing even more courage now than he had in the ring. Belatedly, Fra recognized him from the ODS. "I, er, can't understand a word you're saying," the boy continued, "but I think I know what it's about. Never thought Jack would go through with it... Um, well, they gave the F-dude here a spiked drink last night and got him babbling. For the fun of it, that's all. But then they got suspicious and did some real digging, and, um..." The ODS boy was beginning to wilt under Fio's glare. "Er, what it's worth, I think you're perfect and beautiful as you are, and the rest of them are idiots. I'm, uh, gonna go now. I need to speak with Security..."
The Italian twins were mute as he walked away. The circle of spectators to their one-sided argument were much louder.
"You. Got. Drunk." Fio had him by the shirt, and suddenly his feet were off the ground. "You blabbed!"
"I didn't know!" he protested. "They're... I thought they were my friends! You told me to make friends, remember?"
"You have horrible taste in friends!"
He had to concede the point. "Yes. Fair. And they will not be friends from now on, except maybe the kid from just now. Fio, please!"
With a twist of her arms, she threw him face-first intot the dirt. As she stepped over and around his head, she said in perfect English, "That is not good enough. We are finished, Fra. I no longer have a twin brother. Goodbye."
As her club's chief recruiter, Val had developed a particular and peculiar sense of timing. The approach was everything with most girls; few would run straight to the Amazons with open arms, simply because most girls were straight and emotionally reliant on men. Yet inevitably there would be a moment in their life, some minor tragedy or act of melodrama, where the female faith in males was at its lowest. All she need do was step in with a few kind words and a little practical psychology. Most times she didn't even need to exercise her psionic faculties of persuasion.
And she never regretted taking theater classes, despite the number of unfortunate Romeos she'd been forced to kiss.
"Calliope!" she cried, running across the grass to intercept the Italian. "Are you okay?" A stupid question, but necessary for the act.
"Niente." So much rage to be constrained within one word. Calliope's hair was a mess, her face and hands dirty. Her clothes were pulled slightly out of true, but otherwise fine. A minor scuffle, or one that had ended before it had really begun.
"Who're you?" demanded the black girl side-tailing Calliope. The girlfriend. Val had done some digging into Ms. Nefertiti "Copacetic" Copeland, and she liked what she'd found.
"Valentina Maria de Sanchez y Hernandez," she said. "A friend to those in need. And it certainly seems that Calliope is. Come, come." Val motioned to the spot chosen by the Amazons for their picnic. "Whatever is happening, the sisterhood can be your shield for now."
"Grazie. Thank you," said Calliope, her voice hoarse. "I, I should find my friends..."
The recruiter put on her most genuinely fake smile. From behind it, she sent out a whisper of a feeling, too vague to be a pulse but still enough to be felt. In Calliope's current state, it passed unnoticed as an outside influence. "Just for a little while?" Val wheedled. "We brought ice cream."
A ghost of a smile passed over the Italian's face. "I guess I could... Would you like to sit down, Neff?"
The black girl nodded. "Amen and hallelujah, yeah. I'm still feeling a little loopy over here."
"Good!" Val said. "Well, not on the loopy part, but you know what I mean, ha-ha." She led her little ducks along, to the safety of the Amazon's territory. So far, so good.