Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, July 4th, 2007
The Fourth of July had always been my favorite holiday, even more than Christmas and Thanksgiving combined. It meant good weather, a parade in the morning, watching the kids play in the back yard while I manned the grill, and then sitting back to watch the fireworks while enjoying a beer and a good cigar. And above all, the Fourth of July meant spending the day with my family.
Today was the Fourth of July, the American Independence Day, and my favorite holiday of the year, but today there had been none of that. There had been no parade this morning, no picnic lunch, and no grill to flip burgers on. Tonight, there would be no fireworks, beer, or cigars. And worst of all, I wouldn't be spending the day with my family. Instead, the only company I had was the steady beep of the heart monitor next to my bed.
This year, I was spending the Fourth of July alone, stuck in my hospital bed and waiting to die. It was cancer, which had spread through my entire body. Maybe it was too much of the beer, burgers, and cigars, or maybe it was just life in general. What I did know was that when the first symptoms had appeared, I'd ignored them and had been too stubborn to go to the doctor. By the time I did get checked out, it had been far too late.
I chuckled weakly at the irony that 'Big Al' Morgan would die like this, wasting away to nothing. I was six foot 3 and pretty husky, or at least I had been until the cancer got hold of me. Now I was barely a buck fifty... a hundred and fifty pounds. My breathing was pretty ragged, my entire body hurt like hell, and I felt so damn tired that I couldn't even get up to go take a piss anymore. The doctors said I probably had a few weeks left at most.
Since I had nothing else to do, I just lay there with my eyes closed, focusing on breathing, which had become something of a task lately. My thoughts drifted back to other Fourth of July's, ones from better days. I remembered when my wife Meg had still been alive and our kids had still been kids. The kids had been so young and innocent back then, and I wished that they'd been able to stay that way.
Then I heard a noise and opened my eyes again to see the nurse had come in to check on me. I was relieved to see that it was Janet instead of that guy nurse Rob. Rob was nice and seemed pretty competent, but call me old fashioned, I still thought only women should be nurses.
"How are you doing Mister Morgan?" Janet asked me pleasantly.
"About how you'd expect," I grumbled. Then I asked her, "Why aren't you out with your family? You shouldn't be stuck here with a grumpy old bastard like me... "
"I'd hardly call you old," Janet responded with a somewhat forced smile. "You're only a couple years older than me."
"I turn fifty next month," I responded grimly, knowing full well that I'd probably never see that birthday. "And I feel older."
Janet gave me a sympathetic look that she quickly tried to cover up. Then she changed the subject and said, "You're a mechanic... "
I nodded weakly at that from my bed before responding, "Over thirty years."
"Well, I have a problem with my car," she told me, "and I was wondering what you thought." She was obviously trying to keep my mind occupied more than anything else, but I appreciated the effort. It was good to feel useful.
After she was done telling me about her car's symptoms, I told her, "Sounds like the clutch... "
Just then, there was a knock on the door and a man's voice said, "I hope we're not interrupting anything."
I looked up and saw my son Rich coming into the hospital room, giving me a sad look as he did so. He was short and skinny, taking after his mother more than he ever had me, both in physique and temperament. He'd just graduated from college with a degree in computer science, while I'd never even finished high school and could barely figure out how to turn a computer on.
A moment later, I realized that Rich wasn't alone as the rest of my family trailed into the room behind him. My daughter Melanie was the next to enter, followed by her husband Mark and their two daughters, Kimberly and Kaylie. In spite of being exhausted and hurting like hell, I still smiled at the sight.
"Grandpa," seven year old Kimberly exclaimed as she rushed over to my bed. She was wearing a cute little frilly dress, the kind her mother used to love wearing back when she was that age. In fact, it seemed that every little girl went through that princess stage and wanted to dress like that. "See my new dress?"
"Very nice," I told her with a forced smile.
"Hey Grandpa," Kaylie said, giving me a really worried look and keeping her distance, as though afraid she might catch my cancer.
Kaylie was twelve and had recently gotten out of the whole 'princess' thing and was instead wearing a lot of black. She even had a pin on her shirt that looked like a skull with a pink bow on it. I couldn't help but remembering the time her mother had come home with a purple mohawk and had nearly given me a heart attack. It seemed that within just a few years, Melanie would be getting a taste of her own medicine.
"Hey Dad," Melanie greeted me with a pained look on her face. "How are you feeling today?"
Janet hurried out of the room, giving me a bit of privacy with my family. I grimaced in pain, then answered, "I'll feel better if you brought me a beer... "
"I heard that," Janet called from outside the door.
"Sorry Dad," Rich told me.
I grumbled at that, muttering, "I'm dying. What the hell could one damn beer hurt?" Then I glanced to my granddaughters and added, "Pardon my French."
"That doesn't sound like French to me," Kaylie responded with a smirk.
"We really missed you at the parade," Melanie told me with a forced smile. "It just wasn't the same without you."
"It was great," Kimberly exclaimed excitedly. "We got to see the marching band, and the princesses, and some super heroes, and another princess... "
Kaylie snorted, "It was okay... "
Melanie chuckled at that and told me, "Don't let her fool you. She was just as into it as Kimberly was." Kaylie just glared at her mother.
"The MCO was there too," Rich said with a clear note of disdain in his voice. "They had some power armor in the parade, doing some of their usual propaganda to convince everyone that they're here to protect us from mutants."
I scowled but bit my tongue and didn't say anything, at least not this time. Rich had a good heart, but he was a little too liberal in his beliefs on mutant rights. He honestly thought that mutants were all innocent victims and that the only reason the MCO existed was to persecute them. I knew better. I'd seen first-hand just how dangerous mutants could be and the kind of havoc they could unleash, even by accident. We'd argued about this more than a few times, but I wasn't in the mood for arguing right now. I was just too damn tired for it.
"Rich," Melanie told her brother, giving him a warning look. "Not now."
Rich looked at me and then gave a faint nod, apparently deciding that he didn't want to argue right now either. Mark just stood back, looking a little awkward and uncertain. I'd given the guy a hard time when he'd first started dating Melanie, even doing the whole 'polish the shotgun' thing on him before their first date. However, I had to admit that he'd done right by my daughter and granddaughters.
"Grandpa," Kimberly said, staring at me with a curious expression. "When are you gonna get better?"
"As soon as I can," I told her with a forced smile.
Having my family come to visit was the one thing that I'd been looking forward to and it was the bright spot in my entire day. However, the conversation was extremely awkward as everyone kept dancing around the subject of my situation. They seemed to think that any mention of the C word... Cancer, would shock me horribly or something. I thought it was kind of foolish since there was denying the truth. I was dying and there was nothing to be done for it.
Unfortunately, talking this much was using up what little energy I had so Janet came in after awhile and told everyone that they'd have to leave soon. That got the whole round of goodbyes started, which was damn near as awkward as the conversation itself. Tears started to fill their eyes, and it was obvious that they thought this could be the last time they saw me. And honestly, it might very well be.
I was choked up as well, thinking about everything and everyone I was leaving behind. I didn't want to die. I wasn't ready to go. But I didn't want to worry my family any more than I already was, so I did my best to show a strong face. I refused to let them see me cry like some kind of baby, even now. That wasn't how I wanted them to remember me. Still, there were things that had to be said, things I had to say while I still could.
"Rich," I said, my voice weak and shaky. It was taking almost everything I had to talk right now.
"Yeah, Dad," he said as he came over and took my hand in his.
I stared up at my son and gave him a weak smile before saying, "I'm proud of you. I'm proud of the man you've become... " I don't remember if I'd ever told him that before, but I wanted to make sure he knew. I looked at Melanie and added, "I'm proud of both of you... "
"Dad," Melanie started, tears running down her cheeks.
Then I turned my attention to my son-in-law Mark and said, "You'd better keep taking good care of these girls."
"Yes, sir," he responded with a nod of his head.
"If you don't," I warned him, barely able to speak at this point, "I'll have to climb out of this bed and kick your ass." Kaylie giggled at that and I quietly added, "Pardon my French." Melanie smiled faintly in response.
"I'll try and stop by again tomorrow," Melanie told me with a sad smile. She took my hand in hers and gave it a gentle squeeze.
After that, everyone started to leave the room, though Kimberly rushed back to my side. Then she pulled a brightly colored ribbon out of her hair, where it had been tied, and put it in my hand with a big grin. "For good luck Grandpa," she told me with an innocent look before she half skipped out of the room after her parents, calling out, "I hope you feel better soon."
I held the ribbon in my hand and smiled faintly. It was nice and smooth, maybe even silk, though I doubted Melanie would have given her a silk ribbon. Still, it had looked cute in her hair and I felt touched that she gave it to me.
Once everyone was gone, I was left alone in the room with only the steady beep of the heart monitor for company. I closed my eyes to rest, and in moments I drifted off to sleep, absently wondering if this would be the last time.
My dreams were strangely vivid, just like they'd been ever since the doctor had begun giving me the medication. I dreamed of sweet little Kimberly dancing around in her little dress, calling out, "Grandpa, watch what I can do... " Then in my dream, Melanie joined her, looking exactly like she had back when she'd been a little girl of that age. And finally, they were joined by a third little girl who also danced and spun, giving a celebration of youthful innocence.
I awoke to a sudden noise, which in my hazy state, took me a long time to identify. Boom. Boom. Boom. It came again and again. Finally, I wakened enough to identify the sound. Fireworks. I looked towards the window, which was covered in closed blinds, leaving me to imagine what they looked like.
I was so distracted by the sound of the fireworks that it took me a full minute to realize that I wasn't alone. There was someone in the room with me, though it was dark enough that I couldn't make the person out very well.
"You're awake," a woman's voice said, right before she turned on the light.
My visitor was tall for a woman, with shoulder length black hair and dark eyes. She wore a costume that was green and black, with a stylized skull on her chest. There were multiple belts and harnesses, each holding pouches and odd looking metal devices. And when she opened her mouth, I could see that all of her teeth were sharp and fearsome looking.
Of course, I knew who my visitor was. Anyone in the area would have recognized Lady Havoc, one of the most notorious and lethal super villains in the state. She was a mad scientist whose creations had caused untold property damage, and more importantly, had cost dozens of lives. The very sight of her was more than enough to send most people running for their lives, but that wasn't an option for me.
She looked exactly the same as the last time I'd seen her, except for the fact that she'd been wearing an orange jumpsuit at the time. Eight years ago, I'd given the tip that helped the authorities find and arrest her, then I testified against her during her trial. It hadn't been easy. In fact, it had been the hardest thing I'd ever done in my life, but it had also been necessary.
Most people would have been both shocked and terrified at finding such a notorious super villain standing at the foot of their bed, but not me. I'd been expecting her.
I stared at her for several long seconds, then whispered, "Hey, Pumpkin."
She gave me a sad and gentle smile that most people would never imagine her capable of, then responded, "Hello Daddy."
In spite of myself, I actually teared up at the sight of my daughter Rachael, who I hadn't seen in years. Rachael was my middle child, just two years younger than Melanie, and at one time, she'd been a total 'Daddy's girl'. However, that had been a very long time ago.
While growing up, Rachael had been a sweet and outgoing girl, until the day she manifested as a mutant. I remember getting up one morning to find that she'd dismantled the toaster, the coffee machine, and several other things in the house, and had built some weird contraption that would actually cook, eggs, bacon, and toast all at once. It had been amazing, even if it did spit out sparks every few minutes.
At first, I'd been stunned and confused by her sudden ability to invent things, and admittedly, I'd even been impressed. After all, I spent my entire life working on cars, so when I saw my daughter grabbing my tool box and beginning to build things, I'd been filled with an odd sort of pride. I'd felt like she was following in my footsteps, even if she was doing things I could only imagine.
But then, we realized that there was something wrong with her. Whenever she started building something, she got lost in a trance and would simply go and take whatever materials she needed for it, even if they belonged to someone else. This sudden kleptomania was disturbing, but not nearly as much as the 'episodes'. Whenever she got angry or frustrated, she'd have an episode where she'd throw a tantrum, destroying anything she could get her hands on. The first time, it was our living room, then all the dishes in the kitchen. We got her counselling and medication, but it did no good. It turned out she had a condition called Diedrick's Syndrome, which sometimes affected mutants like her. There was no cure and no real treatment.
Rachael grew angry and frustrated over her situation, but that only made her episodes occur more and more frequently. It was a downward spiral, and when she was nineteen, she had a particularly bad episode that ended with nine people dead. After this, she was officially declared a super villain and had continued on that path ever since.
Watching Rachael go through all this had been a nightmare for our family, though we tried to protect Rich from the worst of it since he was the youngest. It had been hard on all of us, especially Meg who felt guilty over all the deaths, as though she herself was somehow to blame for Rachael's actions. Shortly after Rachael became Lady Havoc, Meg seemed to just give up on life and died. The doctors said it was a heart attack, but I knew it was more of a broken heart.
I loved my daughter, but I couldn't stand back while she murdered innocent people. Because of that, I'd helped the authorities find her, hoping that she'd be able to get the help she so desperately needed. Unfortunately, she'd escaped from prison a short time after and I hadn't seen her since... until now.
"I saw Richie and Mel were here," Rachael said awkwardly, looking more than a little self-conscious. Then she asked, "How are they doing? How are Mel's kids?"
"They're doing all right," I said quietly. "Rich just graduated from college... "
"I heard that," Rachael told me with a sad smile. "I miss you Daddy. I miss all of you." Then she paused to stare at me for several long seconds before saying, "You turned me in. You told them where I was and testified against me... "
For a moment, I wondered if this visit was so that she could get revenge on me for betraying her, while she still could. However, she looked sad rather than angry, and even after everything she'd done, I couldn't imagine Rachael intentionally hurting me.
"I'm sorry I had to," I told her quietly, my throat feeling dry and sore. I really wished I had a beer to wet it.
"It's okay," Rachael responded with a faint smile. "I understand. I know you just did what you had to, and I know it wasn't easy for you. That's why I've kept my distance since. I didn't want to put you in that position again."
"It's good to see you again," I told her honestly, no longer holding back the tears. Obviously, being sick was messing me up because normally I'd never cry, or at least that was what I told myself. Then, since I didn't know what else to say to the daughter I hadn't seen in years, I weakly asked, "So, what have you been up to?"
She gave me a faint look of amusement before responding, "Oh, the usual. Planning to take over the world." At my look of surprise, she actually chuckled. "Actually, I'm not interested in taking over the world or anything like that. All I really want is to make things and be left alone."
"They won't leave you alone," I pointed out quietly, thinking of all the deaths she'd caused over the years. "They can't."
"I know," Rachael responded with a sigh. Then she went to the window and peeked out the blinds, saying, "They'll kill me if they ever catch me. Or just as bad, lock me up so I can't ever build anything again." After several long seconds, she turned to look at me again, adding, "Building things... it's all I have. If I couldn't build all these things in my head... "
I nodded as though I understood, though the truth was, I didn't understand. My daughter was driven by things I could never understand and they'd turned her from the sweet and innocent girl who used to pester me for a piggy back ride into the monster who'd murdered dozens. I desperately wished that she'd never become a mutant, that she could have lived a normal life like her brother and sister.
"I wish things could have been different," Rachael said, echoing my own thoughts.
"If wishes were horses," I started weakly.
"Then we'd all be wearing hip waders," she finished for me with a chuckle. I smiled faintly, wondering if I'd used that line a few too many times while she'd been growing up.
"So," I asked her with a grimace of pain, "do you think you could grant my last request and get me a beer? It's been too damn long since I've had anything to drink but water... "
"Isn't that against hospital rules?" Rachael asked me with a look of mock innocence. She really couldn't pull it off though, especially with all those sharp teeth that made even the most innocent of smiles look threatening.
"Damn it," I groaned. "Not you too... "
Rachael just gave me a scary grin, though I was pretty sure it wasn't meant to be menacing. In fact, she actually looked excited. "Daddy, you can forget about a last request. I'm not here to say goodbye. I'm here because I found a way to save you."
"What?" I gasped, sure that I must have heard wrong. The cancer had spread through my entire body and the doctors had said that it was too late for chemo or anything else to do any good.
"I made a cure," Rachael told me, removing her gloves and taking my hands in hers. "I don't want to lose you, Daddy."
For several long seconds, I just stared at Rachael, feeling dazed and hopeful. Then I gulped and asked, "You made a cure for cancer?"
"I'm a devisor," she reminded me smugly. "I can invent just about anything I put my mind to." Then she hesitated a moment before admitting, "But this one was custom made for you, so it wouldn't work for anyone outside our immediate family."
I licked my lips, which felt even drier than before. At that moment, I really could have used a beer, or hell, even that crappy wine that Meg used to drink. My eyes remained locked on Rachael, knowing that this was too good to be true. I had no doubt that if Rachael said she could cure my cancer, then she could do exactly that. From what I knew of how her power works, once she put her mind to it, she really could make just about anything. However, I also knew Rachael well enough to know that nothing she made ever worked quite the way she'd intended. There was always something wrong with it, some unexpected cost or side effect. Always.
A few years back, Rachael had run into some super hero who'd busted her chops and knocked out half her teeth. She'd made something to grow her teeth back, and it had worked... sort of. Her teeth came back as those scary looking shark teeth she now had, and from what I understood, she kept shedding those teeth and growing replacements, just like a shark.
Rachael could cure my cancer, but there would be a cost. I had absolutely no idea what it could be, but there was a chance that the cure would end up being even worse than the disease. I gulped, shaking as I imagined the worst that could happen, and it wasn't pretty. However, the truth was, I didn't have much other choice. I was literally on my death bed so things couldn't get much worse.
"All right," I said quietly, letting out a tired sigh. "Let's give it a go."
Rachael nodded at that, giving me a gentle and reassuring smile, which didn't show any teeth. Then she reached into one of the pouches on her belt and pulled out a transparent vial of golden liquid, which she slipped into an odd looking device that looked a little like some kind of snub nosed laser gun.
"I'm not going to lie," she told me with a serious look. "This is going to do more than sting. In fact, this is probably going to be the worst fucking pain you've ever felt."
"Watch your language," I told her with a frown.
Rachael just chuckled at that, then reminded me, "Swearing is the least of my sins."
I scowled in annoyance, knowing she was right, but I still didn't like it. In spite of everything she'd done, a part of me still thought of her as the little girl she used to be. Even now, I couldn't let that go completely.
"This will destroy all the cancer cells in your body," Rachael explained in a professional manner as she held up the odd looking gun she'd put the vial into. "Essentially, this will consume the cancer cells, then transfer the cellular energy to your healthy cells in order to regenerate your body and restore you to full health." She paused to look at me, smiling faintly and adding, "It's going to replace the bad parts, flush your oil and transmission, then give you a full tune up."
"Gotcha," I said, understanding the second explanation a little better than the first.
A few seconds later, Rachael put the odd gun to my arm and pulled the trigger. I would have expected to feel a needle or something, but there was absolutely nothing except for a strange warmth that started to spread through my arm. It quickly spread over my entire body and suddenly I was feeling way too warm, as though someone had turned the heater up on a hot day and had then thrown a couple blankets on top of me for good measure.
"How are you feeling?" Rachael asked me with a gentle smile and a faintly worried look.
I was about to respond, when suddenly it felt as though I was on fire. A scream of pain tore out of my throat before I'd even realized it, making Rachael jump back. My body had already been hurting like hell, but this took it all to another level. She'd told me it would hurt, but I hadn't expected anything like this. For a moment, I wondered if she'd made some kind of mistake and gave me a shot of acid instead, but then I was too distracted to think of such things anymore.
"It's okay, Daddy," Rachael promised me with a pained look on her face. "You'll be better soon... "
Just then, the door flung open and the night nurse burst into the room, only to stop and stare at Rachael. A moment later, she was screaming as well, then running back out as fast as she could. Of course, that was probably how most people would react to the sight of Lady Havoc.
"Damn," Rachael exclaimed with a look of annoyance. Then she gave me a sad smile and, "Sorry, but I have to go. I don't think it would be a good idea for me to stick around, not for you or anyone else in the hospital."
With that, Rachael touched a strange device on her belt and suddenly there was a loud 'boom' sound, right before a large hole appeared in the wall right where the window had been. In spite of the 'boom', there hadn't been any explosion, nor was there any debris. There was just suddenly a hole. My daughter paused long enough to give me one more long look, flashing me what was probably intended to be a reassuring smile, but which wasn't because of her teeth, then stepped through the hole and vanished.
Once Rachael was gone, I closed my eyes and tried to deal with the pain that burned through every fiber of my body. I would have screamed again if I'd still been capable of it, but as it was, I wasn't able to do anything, not even stay awake.
It was the Fourth of July, the best day of the whole damn year. The air was filled with the delicious smell of sizzling burgers and the lighthearted sounds of little girls squealing in glee. I grinned as I looked up from the grill and surveyed the back yard that was my kingdom, feeling like I truly was the king of my castle. If there was such a thing as Heaven, this was definitely it.
Meg came waddling towards me, her stomach bulging out from the baby that was due to be born within the next two months. This was our third child, and after having two girls, I was really hoping it was a boy. I grinned every time I imagined taking him under my wing and teaching him to be a man, teaching him how to change the oil in the car and giving him advice on girls. Of course, I wouldn't trade Melanie or Rachael for anything, so even if I had a third girl, I knew I'd be happy.
"There you are," Meg said with a smile, absently brushing her long black hair back out of her face. Then she handed me a beer and said, "Don't forget to put the chicken breasts on. You know Lisa doesn't eat beef."
"Doesn't eat beef," I muttered with an exaggerated scowl of disapproval. "That's un-American."
"That's okay dear," Meg told me a twinkle in her eye and a smile that showed she was humoring me. "But she is my best friend so we should respect her foreign customs."
"At least it isn't tofu," I said, pronouncing 'tofu' as though it was a profanity.
I popped open my beer and took a big swig, then absently scratched at my beard. It was pretty hot out today, so my beard was keeping me more than a little warm. Still, I wasn't about to shave it off, no matter how many times Meg threatened to do it for me while I was asleep.
While I flipped the burgers, I looked out over my domain again, smiling proudly as I watched my daughters run around the yard with some friends. Mel and Rachael were both wearing frilly dresses, having dressed up nice for the parade this morning. Meg always made sure they dressed up for special events, like parades and church. And though I sometimes teased them about being so girlie, I couldn't help but smiling whenever I did. They looked like they were having so much fun.
Then my old buddy Russ came wandering over to me, checking over my work to make sure I wasn't burning the meat. I didn't take it personally though since I did the same thing whenever I was at his house for some backyard grilling. "Looking good," he finally said.
"Yup," I agreed.
We stood there in silence for about a minute, just staring at the burgers and the yard before he finally said, "So, I hear you've finished restoring your mustang... "
"Yup," I agreed again. Then I grinned, thinking about the old car I'd been working on as a pet project. "I finally got it purring like a kitten."
Russ nodded at that, then chuckled. "Pity the paint job doesn't match the engine." Since Russ ran a body shop, I could see he was leading up to something. It took another half minute before he acted as though he'd suddenly come up with the idea and said, "Hey, I've got an idea. You help me get my truck up and running again and I'll get you a decent paint job."
I scratched my beard while I considered his offer. Russ just stood there, absently polishing his Humanity First pin and waiting for an answer. Without saying a word, I finally nodded agreement then held out my hand to shake on it.
After this, we started putting the food on the picnic table so we could sit down to eat. The kids were still playing, with Melanie and Rachael doing some kind of tug of war thing with a long strand of ribbon. Of course, being two years older and a lot bigger, Melanie won.
"It's okay, Pumpkin," I told Rachael when she came running to me. I picked her up and carried her to the picnic table saying, "We're having cake for dessert, and then we'll watch some fireworks."
I smiled proudly as I looked over the gathering of friends and family, knowing that life couldn't get any better.
Suddenly, the backyard and everything else was torn away from me and I found myself in a world of pain and confusion. Every fiber of my body screamed in agony, and when I opened my eyes, all I saw was a bright light that blinded me. My thoughts swirled in fear and confusion until I remembered I was in the hospital... that I was dying.
"Rachael," I whispered, grabbing onto the memory that she'd come to see me. Had that just been a dream? One last daydream before I died?
"He's burning up," a voice exclaimed. "Get me more ice... "
The bright like was broken by the face of an unfamiliar woman bending over me. She was a black woman with short, tightly cropped hair. She reached down and touched my face, looking right into my eyes and saying something that I couldn't quite make out. Everything was blurring again and I slipped back into the darkness.
I was home, in the living room of the house where I'd lived with the girls while they were growing up. A part of me knew that this was a dream, but an even larger part accepted it as reality. All that part felt was a strong sense of deja-vu as I looked around, seeing the dismantled TV in the middle of the floor while my prize stereo system was in pieces next to it. Without even having to look, I knew that Rachael was in the garage, putting together some kind of weird gizmo.
"She's a MUTANT," Russ yelled at me furiously. "Your daughter is a damn mutant... She's a threat... "
"She's my DAUGHTER," I yelled back just as angrily. "Don't you dare say a bad word about her."
Russ glared at me, spitting out, "You call yourself a member of Humanity First when you have that THING living in your house?"
Without thinking about it, I punched Russ as hard as I could, sending my friend of twenty years flying back. He yelled out, holding his nose which was gushing blood and was obviously broken. I snarled and took several steps towards him, glaring down at him the entire time.
"Here," I told him, taking my Humanity First pin off my jacket and throwing it at him. "Rachael is my daughter and I'll be damned if I let you or anyone else lay a finger on her. If you think I'm gonna let you run her out of town, you've got another thing coming."
"I never thought that YOU were a damn mutant lover," Russ exclaimed, getting back to his feet and glaring at me. "Whatever happened to protecting your family from those freaks?"
Russ punched me, but I took his hit then gave him a couple of my own, smashing him in the face and knocking out one of his teeth and then hitting him in the gut and making him bend over in pain. I was pissed and was damn well ready to kick his ass from wall to wall, and the only reason I didn't was because my kids were in the house and I didn't want them to see that. I didn't want them to see me beating the living shit out of their 'Uncle Russ'.
"I am protecting my family," I told Russ grimly, looking for the slightest excuse to really kick his ass good. "So if you or anyone else is thinking of coming after them or causing Rachael trouble, I'd think again. You see, I know you and some of the boys have gotten too rough in the past, and I know which closets have skeletons in them."
Russ' eyes went wide in realization, and he knew that if I opened my mouth about everything I knew, he and a couple of the other guys could be facing jail time. Or worse, if the wrong mutant heard about it, they and their own families could be in deep shit.
"Fuck you," Russ spat out as he started for the door. "Fuck you and your gene tainted family."
As my best friend of twenty years walked out the door, our friendship ended for good, I felt a knot of anger and frustration. Russ had been like a brother to me, but when it came to choosing between him and my daughter, there was no choice. Rachael might be a mutant, but she was still my daughter and I was going to do everything I could to protect her.
Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, July 8th, 2007
When I came to, it was with a fuzzy head and a lot of confusion. I vaguely remembered dreams... lots of really vivid dreams. I also remembered periods of waking up to pain and people I didn't know, though those times hadn't lasted long before I'd lose it again. However, this time was different. This time, there was no pain at all, not even the constant pain that I'd felt from being sick.
I was in some kind of hospital room, though it obviously wasn't the one that I'd been in before. In fact, it was different enough that I didn't think it even fit in the same hospital, which made me wonder where I was.
"Damn," I muttered, looking at the heart monitor and other equipment that was set up beside my bed. "This is familiar."
"Good," a woman's voice said. "You're awake."
The woman came over and I got a look at her, seeing that she was a slender black woman with really short hair. I guessed that she was probably in her late thirties or early forties, but you couldn't always tell anymore, what with all the makeup and plastic surgery that was out there.
"You a nurse?" I asked her, noticing that she was wearing some kind of hospital scrubs.
"No," she answered, looking vaguely annoyed. "I'm Doctor Franklin."
I grunted at that, realizing that I'd just put my foot in my mouth and not wanting to do it again. I looked around the room again, then asked, "Where am I?"
"Mister Morgan," she said with a faint smile that was more professional than friendly. "You've been moved to a special clinic."
A moment later, she started giving me a quick examination, taking my blood pressure, temperature, and asking me how I felt. Considering everything, I was feeling pretty damn good. I didn't feel any aches or pains at all, and for the first time in quite awhile, I actually felt like I had some energy.
"So, Doc," I started once she was finished with her examination, "can I go take a piss?"
She hesitated a moment before nodding agreement. "If you think you can handle it." She undid some of the sensors and things from my arm so I could get up.
I hesitated a bit as I slowly climbed out of bed, feeling a bit wobbly but also excited. I hadn't been able to climb out of bed under my own power for a couple weeks, so even something as basic as going to take a piss by myself was a huge improvement. I probably grinned like an idiot as I slowly made my way to the bathroom door, realizing that Rachael had done it. I didn't know for sure if she'd actually cured me, but I sure as hell felt better.
I noticed that Dr. Franklin was watching me, and I was pretty sure that after being as sick as I was, it wasn't because she thought I had a good butt, even if I was wearing a hospital gown with my backside hanging out. She was probably surprised that I was able to move around so well after all I'd been through. The thought made me chuckle faintly, thinking that we Morgans had never gone down easily, a fact that numerous heroes had found out the hard way while chasing after Rachael.
The bathroom was about what I'd expect from a hospital, plain and sterile with lots of space for a wheelchair and handles to help you move yourself around. I just stood up in front of the crapper, used the wall to help me keep my balance, then took a nice long piss. Something so simple had never felt so good. Then once I was done, I went to wash my hands in the sink, catching my reflection in the mirror as I did so.
"Shit," I muttered as I looked myself over. I looked pretty damn scrawny. I knew I'd lost a lot of weight from being sick, but I hadn't realized it was quite that bad.
Then I noticed my hair, which caught me by surprise. The last time I'd looked in the mirror, my hair had been thinning and had mostly turned gray, but now it was pure white. I figured all the stress and medications could have done that... or Rachael's cure. That wouldn't really be that bad a side effect, especially since my hair didn't look nearly as thin as it had before either. In fact, I looked like I almost had a full head of hair.
"Cancer cure and Rogaine combined," I said with a chuckle. "Not bad. Too bad she can't patent that stuff. She'd make a fortune."
After a few seconds of looking over my hair, I ran a hand over my jaw, surprised at just how soft and smooth it was. I used to have a nice beard that I'd been rather proud of, but after I got sick, the hair started falling out, leaving it pretty patchy looking. I'd ended up shaving the whole thing off because of it. However, even if a nurse had given me a shave while I was still out of it, I should have had some stubble. I hadn't been this smooth since I was teenager.
It had been awhile since I'd dared to look into the mirror, and the last time I had, I'd looked like crap. My cheeks and eyes had been a bit sunken and I looked a good ten years older than I actually was. However, now that almost seemed to be reversed. I looked much better, even younger than my actual age. Rachael had said she was going to improve my overall health, and I could actually see the results.
When I left the bathroom a minute later, I was startled to realize that Dr. Franklin was the same height as me, which meant that she was pretty damn tall for a woman. She was giving me an odd look, though she was obviously trying to keep her expression all professional.
"There are some things about your situation that I need to discuss with you," she told me, gesturing for me to have a seat in a chair rather than going back to bed. "But someone else wanted to have a talk with you as soon as you were awake. I've already contacted him while you were busy, so he should be here any minute."
A few seconds later, there was a knock on the door, then it opened up and a man came into the room. The first thing that I noticed was that he was huge, a good six inches taller than me. The newcomer had dark hair and was ripped with muscle, which was pretty obvious since he was wearing a red and white spandex costume that covered his entire body from the neck down. He even had a red cape.
"Pinnacle," I said, recognizing the local super hero.
"You know who I am," he responded with a faint smile, as if pleased by the recognition.
I snorted at that. "We've met before."
I had met Pinnacle before, though just barely. It had been years ago, back when I'd helped the cops find where Rachael was hiding so they could get her off the street. Since the cops didn't think they could handle her on their own, they'd also called in some of the local super heroes, including Pinnacle. However, I didn't remember Pinnacle being quite so big.
"You're a very lucky man," Pinnacle told me, giving me a curious look. "A lot of people don't survive an encounter with Lady Havoc. What I need from you is to know why Lady Havoc went through the trouble of breaking into a hospital to try killing you."
"She wasn't trying to kill me," I responded with a snort, glaring up at the man as I did so. "She was trying to cure my cancer."
Dr. Franklin looked surprised at that, then blurted out, "Why in the world would you think that someone like Lady Havoc was trying to cure you?"
I looked her straight in the eyes as I answered, "Because she's my daughter." Dr. Franklin's mouth dropped open at that and she just stared at me with an expression of stunned disbelief.
Pinnacle stared at me for several seconds as well before he finally said, "I remember you now. You helped us capture her... "
"On the condition that you didn't hurt her," I reminded him, somehow feeling it important to point out that distinction. It was hard enough living with the knowledge that I'd betrayed my own daughter, even if I didn't have much choice at the time. I wouldn't have been able to live with myself if I'd just stood by and let her kill more people.
"I remember," he said, giving me a sympathetic look and adding, "I know that couldn't have been easy on you."
"You have no idea," I muttered.
"That... explains a few things," Dr. Franklin said, still staring at me.
Pinnacle and I both gave her curious looks, though he was the one who asked, "What things?"
"That he survived at all, for one," she responded with a thoughtful look. Then she glanced at Pinnacle before looking directly at me. "Please tell us exactly what happened during the encounter, and anything she may have said involving whatever she did to you."
I scowled at that, then nodded, not seeing any reason not to tell them. "When I woke up, she was there waiting for me. I thought she'd just come to say goodbye before... " I paused at that, then shook my head. "I just thought she was there for a visit... " I told them about the short visit and what we'd talked about, though I left out any of the real personal details. When I went to tell Dr. Franklin what I could remember about the stuff she injected me with, it wasn't really useful. I remembered the car repair analogy a lot better than the medical one, which had Dr. Franklin looking frustrated while Pinnacle just chuckled.
"She did say something about it eating the cancer and then fixing my other cells," I added with a shrug.
"Did she say anything about where she's been staying?" Pinnacle asked me with an eager look.
I laughed at that. "Yeah right. She already knows I'd turn her in so she's been keeping her distance and didn't say a word about it. This was the first time I've even seen her in years."
"I thought it might be too much to hope for," Pinnacle mused.
With that, I turned my attention to Dr. Franklin, who kept giving me odd looks. "Now, what the fuck aren't you telling me?" I paused at that, realizing that I was talking that way to a lady and apologizing, "Pardon my French."
Dr. Franklin frowned, then told me, "When you were first examined, your temperature was extremely high and you were showing other symptoms that made us assume you were a mutant going through burnout."
"What?" I asked in surprise, then burst out laughing. "Sorry, but I ain't no mutant."
"That was just our first assumption, based off the symptoms," Dr. Franklin continued, her tone and expression going completely professional. "Then the blood test discovered the foreign substance in your blood that was somewhat akin to nanites or a synthetic virus. We saw that this was making alterations, attacking the cancer cells and reinforcing the healthy ones. The process put an intense amount of stress on your body, which quite frankly, wasn't healthy enough to handle it. It's a miracle you actually survived her attempt to save you."
I just grunted at that, not really all that surprised. I was pretty much up shit creek without a paddle, so even having just a single paddle was a big improvement. If Rachael had waited any longer, it probably would have been even worse. I didn't blame my daughter since I'd known the risks when I agreed.
"Your body lost mass in the process," Dr. Franklin told me, holding up a folder that was stuffed full of paperwork, obviously my medical records. "This says you were six foot three inches tall... " She paused at that, giving me a sympathetic look before adding, "I'd estimate your current height to be closer to five foot ten."
"What?" I asked in surprise, looking to Pinnacle and realizing that this was why he seemed so huge. He wasn't bigger, I was shorter.
While I was absorbing that, Dr. Franklin continued, "Your body went through some other changes while we were treating you, though none nearly as obvious as the loss of mass."
I touched my hair self-consciously, then said, "Damn, I need a beer." I looked to Pinnacle and then Dr. Franklin and added, "Or something stronger."
Dr. Franklin didn't seem to pay any attention to my interruption. "The foreign substance in your system successfully destroyed the cancer cells, and my examination could find no trace of any remaining cancer. At the same time the cancer was being destroyed, it triggered an effect through the rest of your body that was much like giving you a burst of the regeneration power." She paused for a moment, giving me an odd look. Then she cleared her throat and said, "The entire process took three days, and at the end of it, the foreign substance completely cleared from your system."
I frowned, trying to make sense of everything she was telling me, though I didn't quite get it all. Still, I understood enough of what she was saying and didn't want to look stupid by asking too many questions.
"So I was out of it for three days," I said, having caught that part.
"Four," Dr. Franklin corrected me. "After the process ran its course, you remained unconscious for another day while your body finished recovering."
I nodded at that, then let out a sigh of relief. "So I'm cured... The cancer is gone." I chuckled at that, feeling a surge of pride for Rachael. She'd done a lot of crappy things, things that I hated to think about, so it was nice to have something I could feel proud of again.
"Yes," Dr. Franklin agreed with a shake of her head. "As hard as it is to believe, Lady Havoc created a cure for cancer."
"Tell him the rest," Pinnacle said with a scowl. He'd been so quiet for the last couple minutes that I'd almost forgotten he was there. I gave Dr. Franklin a suspicious look while she flipped through some notes and charts, as though trying to delay whatever she needed to tell me. After several long seconds, she turned her attention back to me, her expression going from curious to professional.
"As I said, Lady Havoc's substance seems to have run its course and then cleared from your system," Dr. Franklin explained carefully. "However... "
She paused at that and I suddenly felt very nervous at that 'however'. I knew that Rachael's inventions always had some kind of catch or side effect, and it seemed that every time I thought that I knew what this one was, there was more to it. I braced myself and waited for the doctor to continue.
"Your body is still changing," she stated, looking me right in the eyes. "After the foreign substance flushed itself from your system, the regeneration effect didn't end and your body is showing other indications... "
Dr. Franklin started going off into a bunch of medical technobabble that made me scratch my head in confusion since I couldn't really understand a single word she said. There was bone density this, plyocentric adaptation that, and a bunch of other crap I couldn't make sense of.
"Doc," I finally snapped in annoyance. "Pretend I'm a high school dropout who spent his entire life under the hood of a car. Now, in English, what the hell is going on?"
Dr. Franklin gave me an exasperated look while Pinnacle chuckled in amusement. She gave him a quick glare, then said, "In simple terms... you're a mutant."
"Bullshit," I responded with a snort. "I thought we already went over that... "
"You have multiple indications of an active mutation," Dr. Franklin explained grimly. "Either that foreign substance introduced something to your system that is giving you the mutant gene complex, or it triggered a latent mutation to manifest. Since your daughter is a mutant, I suspect it's probably the latter."
"Congratulations," Pinnacle told me, still looking faintly amused. "You're a mutant."
Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, July 9th, 2007
I was in the bathroom, having just finished with a nice long crap. As I washed my hands in the sink, I was very careful not to look up into the mirror. Ever since I'd woken up in this place yesterday, every time I looked into the mirror I was caught by surprise. My body had changed while I was out of it, and as Dr. Franklin had warned me, it had continued to change more.
Without having to look into the mirror, I already knew what I'd see. I looked younger than I actually was, a lot younger. In fact, the last time I'd looked into a mirror a few hours ago, I would have guessed myself to be in my twenties, and probably early twenties at that. My skin was all soft and smooth, and I still didn't have any signs of stubble growing back. I even had a full head of hair, which had grown out a good five inches since yesterday. In fact, the only thing about me that didn't seem younger was my hair color. My hair was longer and thicker, but it was now a silvery white color.
"I get to look older and younger at the same time," I said with a forced chuckle, trying not to think about the most noticeable change that I'd gone through.
After I woke up yesterday, I'd been pretty shocked to find out that I'd shrunk a good five inches. That had been a tough pill to swallow, but not nearly as much as the fact that I'd lost another five inches of height since then. At first, I was looking Dr. Franklin straight in the eyes, and now I actually had to look up at her. For most of my life, I'd been known as Big Al, but now I was damn near a midget.
"I'm a mutant," I stated with a sigh, taking some of the running water and splashing it on my face. I still refused to look into the mirror.
I'd always known that God had a wicked sense of humor, as proven by the existence of giraffes, platypuses, and scientologists, but this particular joke on me was a doozy. When Melanie had just been a baby, I'd joined up with Humanity First, which had been something like a neighborhood watch that looked out for dangerous mutants instead of regular criminals. As far as I'd been concerned, no one in their right mind would give some fifteen year old kid a flamethrower and then let him walk around in public with it, and I saw no difference between that and a mutant kid who could do the same thing with his bare hands. Mutants could be pretty dangerous and I wanted to do anything I could to protect my family from them. But then Rachael had manifested as a mutant and I'd had to protect her from a threat I'd never expected, my own buddies. I'd left Humanity First on less than friendly terms. Now here I was, a middle-aged guy with two grandkids, who was manifesting as a mutant, which was something that normally only happened to teenagers.
Though I'd never admit it out loud, the idea of being a mutant scared the crap out of me. Being a mutant had not only destroyed Rachael's life, it had also caused a lot of pain for the rest of the family. I couldn't bear the thought of putting everyone through that again.
But in spite of everything that was happening to my body, and all the worries I had because of it, I was in a surprisingly good mood. Then again, maybe it wasn't all that surprising since a couple days ago I'd been dying of cancer but now I was cured and had a second chance at life. Not only was my cancer gone, but I actually felt better than I ever had in my life. There were no aches or pains at all, and I was practically bursting with energy.
I turned off the water, only to have the faucet handle break off in my hand. I frowned for a moment before dropping the handle in the sink, not too surprised by it. After all, just about everything in this place seemed to be made as cheap as possible because it kept breaking in my hands. Yesterday, when Dr. Franklin had given me some real clothes to wear, the shirt was so flimsy that I'd accidentally torn it in half.
With that, I looked down at the clothes I was currently wearing and let out a sigh. The clothes had fit perfectly fine when I'd gotten dressed this morning, but now they were all too baggy on me, a clear indication of just how much I've been shrinking.
"Things could be a lot worse," I reminded myself with a chuckle. "You could still be in a hospital bed dying."
Whenever I started to worry about the way my body was changing or began to feel sorry for myself, that simple reminder helped to put things in perspective. And besides, I'd agreed to this, knowing that there would be risks. When I'd told Rachael to cure me, I'd known full well that I might end up with scales or something else, so there was no point in complaining about it now. I'd made a decision and I was going to have to live with the consequences, both good and bad.
I finally looked up into the mirror and saw that my reflection had changed a little more since the last time I'd looked, though it wasn't anything especially obvious. My face just looked a little softer, a little younger. I looked like I was in my late teens now.
As I left the bathroom, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the ribbon that Kimberly had given me back in the other hospital. Dr. Franklin told me that when they'd brought me here, I'd been clutching it firmly in my hand. I smiled faintly, thinking that she'd given it to me for luck, and it seemed to have worked because I couldn't think of very many things that would have been luckier than finding a cure for cancer. However, a cure for Diedrick's did come to mind.
I continued holding the ribbon as I looked around the hospital room where I was still staying, though most of the medical equipment had been moved out to the side. Dr. Franklin didn't seem to think I needed a heart monitor or any of that anymore, though she had run me through a few tests yesterday after I'd woken up, then a few more this morning. She assured me that Rachael's cure was completely out of my system and that everything I was going through now was part of my mutation, though she still wasn't sure if Rachael's cure had caused the mutation or if it had simply flipped the switch on one that was already there.
After Rachael had given me the cure, my body was in pretty bad shape, probably worse than what she'd expected. Dr. Franklin said I went into an artificially induced burnout state, though I didn't fully understand what that meant, only that it came close to killing me. I would have figured that it was a good thing I was already in a hospital, but apparently, the doctors there didn't think they could handle it. They figured I was either a mutant or was having a bad reaction to the stuff Rachael had given me, so they'd actually sent me here, to what they just referred to as the Clinic. Apparently, the Clinic was a small private hospital that had been made specifically to deal with mutants and other people with powers.
Yesterday, after I'd been declared healthy enough to leave the room, I'd been given a quick tour of the place. The Clinic itself wasn't very big, but it was kind of impressive in its own way. Apparently, they have access to some of the best medical gear on the planet. I didn't know much about medicine once you got past putting on a band-aid, but even I could tell this place was something special.
I sat down in a chair and let out a sigh, wondering what my kids would say about this whole situation. I imagined that Melanie would be pretty worried about me while Rich would probably find it hilarious. After all the times we'd argued about mutants, he'd probably laugh his ass off at me turning into one.
A moment later, there was a knock on the door, right before Pinnacle came into the room. He'd looked pretty tall to me yesterday, and since I'd gotten smaller, he now looked enormous. From my perspective, he looked like he was over seven feet tall, though I knew he was 'only' 6 foot 4.
"Hey, Al," Pinnacle greeted me, giving me a curious look. "How are you holding up?"
"Not too bad," I responded, not about to go whining about my problems. "I could use a beer though."
Pinnacle chuckled at that and responded, "Sorry, I'm all out at the moment."
I nodded at that, looking up at Pinnacle and trying not to show how annoying it was to have him towering over me like that. I was used to being the biggest guy in the room, so this was definitely a novel experience for me, and not one I particularly liked. But considering my situation, I had a feeling that I'd better get used to it.
With a body like that and a name like Pinnacle, I would have thought he'd be an arrogant prick. However, he actually came off as a decent guy, though that might just be the fact that he'd brought me a beer last night. Anyone who'd sneak a beer past Dr. Franklin was all right in my book.
"Doctor Franklin wants to talk to you in a bit about the results of your tests," Pinnacle told me, giving me a weak smile. "You haven't done any power testing yet, but there a couple obvious things that I think I can give you a heads up about."
I nodded at that, scowling slightly at the mention of powers. There was something vaguely appealing about the idea of having some kind of power that other people didn't, but it also made me more than a little nervous. After all, mutant powers could be extremely dangerous, for the mutant as well as everyone else. I'd firmly believed that when I joined Humanity First, and everything that had happened with Rachael had only confirmed it.
I expected Pinnacle to just start telling me whatever it was he wanted to say, but instead he left the room and gestured for me to follow. He led me to an elevator, and I realized that he probably meant to go to the cafeteria. It was about lunch time and I was starting to get a bit hungry, so that was fine by me.
Though I'd been told about the cafeteria, all my food had been brought to me in my room so this was actually my first time seeing it. I was surprised when I looked around and saw that the room looked more like a nice restaurant than anything else.
"Technically," Pinnacle told me as we went to take a seat, "the Clinic doesn't own the cafeteria. It... shares it."
"Shares it?" I asked curiously.
An actual waiter came by and gave us our menus, and Pinnacle waited until he was gone before he explained. "A small group of donors own the building and fund the Clinic. The Clinic gets two floors, and they share the cafeteria here with the other occupants."
"And who are the other occupants?" I asked, looking through the menu and deciding the burger looked good. I haven't had a good burger in way too long.
"The Freelancers," Pinnacle answered.
A hospital orderly who was walking past at that moment joked, "You mean the Freeloaders... "
"We Freelancers get two floors to use as a headquarters," Pinnacle told me, giving the orderly a glare.
"So, you've got a group called the Freelancers," I commented with a grunt. "Seems weird having a group of heroes sharing a base with a hospital."
"We're not actually an official group," Pinnacle responded with a chuckle. "Basically, we're all freelancers... solo operators who just share a headquarters. The donor group built a headquarters and then invited local independent heroes to come and use it. It's their way of trying to support our work... and maybe keep track of us."
"Freeloaders," I said with a chuckle, remembering what the orderly had said.
"As the Clinic people like to call us," he admitted. "It is a good deal for us. We have good facilities, though admittedly, some people use it more as a social club than for actual business."
"I don't know," another man in a costume said as he came and sat into one of the chairs at our table without invitation. "Sharing information on possible opponents sounds like business to me."
"Or just gossip," Pinnacle responded. Then he gestured to the newcomer and told me, "This is Asset. He makes gear and weapons for any of the Freelancers who require it."
I looked at the slender man with sandy blonde hair, noting the goggles on his head and the belt full of odd devices at his waist. "You're a devisor," I said grimly.
Asset gave me a curious look, then asked, "What do you know about devisors?"
"They make things that don't make sense," I answered.
"That's true, more or less," Asset agreed. "Devisors alter the laws of physics to suit their purposes. They can make some impressive things, but their devices can't be copied by other people."
I nodded at that, knowing exactly what he meant. I'd once disassembled one of Rachael's devices to see how it worked, not that it had done any good. Afterwards, I put it back together exactly the way she'd had it, and it refused to work again.
"I'm familiar with devisors," I said, earning a grim look from Pinnacle, who was obviously thinking of who the source of that experience was.
Asset nodded at that, then told me, "I'm actually a gadgeteer." At my blank look, he explained, "We have a psychic ability that lets us instinctively understand technology, in one form or another. We deal with normal physics, which means our inventions can be duplicated by others."
"Doctor Franklin is a low level bio-gadgeteer," Pinnacle told me. "She has an instinctive understanding of human biology, the kind that might take a baseline doctor decades of experience to even approach."
"The chef is a gadgeteer too," Asset added, gesturing in the direction of the kitchen. "His specialty is food science, flavor profiles, and that kind of thing, which makes him one of the best chefs in the world."
At this point, the waiter came over to take our orders. "I'll have a burger and a beer," I told him.
The waiter gave me a patronizing smile and said, "I'll need to see your ID before I can serve you alcohol."
I snarled in annoyance, realizing that I didn't have my ID on me. I don't even remember if I'd had my license with me in my old hospital room before I'd been brought here. It had been so long since anyone had bothered carding me, that I hadn't even considered the possibility until now.
"I left my license in my other pants," I said.
"Then I'm afraid I'm not allowed to serve you alcohol," the waiter responded with the same smile that was probably meant to be pleasant but ended up pissing me off instead.
"Sorry there little lady," Asset told me with a chuckle, "but you're a bit too young."
I glared at Asset, but it was Pinnacle who said, "HE is older than HE looks. He's going through a late onset manifestation that's regressing him."
"Oh," Asset responded, obviously embarrassed for the mistake. "I'm sorry... " Asset apologized a couple more times, then made some excuses before rushing off.
"I'm sorry for that," Pinnacle told me once Asset was gone. He stared at me, looking a little uncomfortable. "But the way you're changing... "
"Just tell me what you wanted to," I told him gruffly. "What was it you wanted to say about my powers?"
"Of course," Pinnacle responded, his expression turning serious and professional. "As I said, you haven't had any power testing yet, but you are demonstrating several obvious ones."
"Regeneration," I stated since Dr. Franklin had mentioned that one several times. That morning, she'd cut my finger and I'd watched as the cut healed up right in front of my eyes.
"High level regeneration can slow down the ageing process," Pinnacle told me. "And if powerful enough, even reverse it to a degree." He stared at me for several seconds, then continued, "But your other changes strongly suggest that you're an exemplar."
"An exemplar?" I asked, trying to focus on the conversation rather than why Asset would mistake me for a girl.
"I'm an exemplar," he told me. "An exemplar four... and an energizer with a power that simulates PK Superman abilities." He paused at that, then said, "But you don't need to worry about that at the moment. Right now, we're talking about exemplars."
"All right," I said, waiting for him to continue.
"Exemplars have increased physical abilities," Pinnacle explained. "Strength, stamina, reflexes, and sometimes other things, depending on your level. At higher levels, exemplars also get the mental package... things like improved memory and intelligence. Basically, exemplars take normal human abilities and just kick them up a notch or five."
"That sounds interesting," I said, definitely growing more curious, though it sure as hell didn't explain all my changes or why he thought I might be one of these exemplars.
"The strength of these abilities vary," Pinnacle continued. "But every exemplar has a BIT... a Body Image Template. Think of it as a blueprint for your body that forms when you first manifest. No one knows for certain where it comes from, though most of the time it seems to be based off some ideal version of yourself, but not always. However your BIT is formed, your subconscious mind seems to have a lot of influence over it."
I frowned thoughtfully at that, then asked, "And what does this BIT thing have to do with me?"
"Exemplars change until their bodies match their BIT," Pinnacle told me, suddenly making it clear.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out the ribbon that Kimberly had given me, then I absently rubbed it between my fingers as I thought about what Pinnacle had said. The ribbon was oddly comforting, making me feel a little closer to my family.
Pinnacle told me a little more about what kind of things I could expect as a regenerator and an exemplar, though this only left me with even more questions than before. If I was changing to match this BIT thing, then what did my BIT say I was supposed to look like? Considering the way I'd been changing so far and the way Asset had thought I was a girl, I had a pretty bad feeling about it.
After our food came, Pinnacle and I continued talking, though he began asking me about my family. He thought he was being subtle about it, but it was pretty obvious that he was fishing for information about Rachael. And from a few things he said, I found out that he'd been after her for a long time and apparently seemed to consider her his arch-enemy. That was why he'd been so interested in talking to me as soon as I woke up, and probably why he was being so friendly to me now.
"I told you before," I said, deciding to just cut through the bullshit. "I don't know where she is and that day in the hospital was the first time I'd seen her in years. The truth is, if I did know where she was, I would have called the cops and turned her in. I love my daughter, but I can't stand the thought of her being out there and killing people. That ain't the girl I raised."
Pinnacle nodded at that, then said, "I know, and I believe you. It's just... " He paused at that, frowning thoughtfully before he continued, "I've run into Lady Havoc more than a dozen times over the years, so I know quite well what she's like when she's on one of her rampages. But until now, I've never really thought about what she must be like when she isn't. It's just strange to think that someone like that started out normal and has a nice family."
"Diedrick's Syndrome," I spat out bitterly and Pinnacle nodded again, as though that explained everything.
When we finished eating, I reached into my pocket and pulled out Kimberly's ribbon again, only to pause when I noticed it was already sitting on the table from where I'd left it earlier. Feeling confused, I held up the ribbon I'd just taken from my pocket, then compared it to the one on the table. They were almost identical, with the one I'd just taken out being a few inches longer and feeling just a little softer and smoother.
"What's wrong?" Pinnacle asked me with a curious look.
"I don't know," I responded, feeling a little confused. "Where did this other ribbon come from?" I reached into my pocket again just to make sure there weren't any more surprises there, and at first, it seemed to be empty, but then my fingers touched something soft and smooth. A moment later, I pulled another ribbon out of my pocket. "What the hell?"
Pinnacle stared at me for a moment, then said, "I take it you're surprised to find those in your pocket... "
"My granddaughter gave me a ribbon," I say a little defensively. "For good luck. But now I've got a couple more of them popping out of nowhere... "
I reached into my pocket, and it was definitely empty, but as I went to pull my hand out, I felt another strand of ribbon. When I pulled it out and stared at it in disbelief, Pinnacle burst out laughing.
"Unless I miss my guess," he told me with a grin. "You might be a manifestor too."
"A manifestor?" I asked him curiously.
"They can make things appear," Pinnacle explained, gesturing to the small pile of ribbons that were now spread out on the table in front of me. He gave me a thoughtful look, then said, "Try making one appear outside of your pocket... "
I thought it was kind of stupid, but I had to admit that I was kind of curious at the same time. I frowned as I wondered how I could do what he suggested, when I suddenly felt something smooth between my fingers. I looked to my hand and saw that I was holding yet another ribbon. That clinched it. I wasn't just finding ribbons in my pocket, I was somehow making them.
"At least I'll be able to entertain the girls," I said with a chuckle, knowing that Kimberly would get a kick out of this magic trick.
The idea of having mutant powers was still a little disturbing, but I had to admit that being able to summon silk ribbons out of thin air was pretty harmless. I amused myself by making a couple more of them, finding that I could even make them in different colors. Pinnacle just watched me, not saying a word.
Once I was finished goofing off, I started back to the Clinic while Pinnacle went a different direction, saying, "I'm a Freelancer, not part of the Clinic. The only reason Doctor Franklin let me question you immediately after you woke up is because she and I both wanted the same information about what Lady Havoc did to you."
When I got back to the Clinic, I found Dr. Franklin was standing in the hallway with a blue-skinned woman who had a cast over her arm, and the whole thing was in a sling. "Your powers may make you difficult to injure, but they also interfere with normal healing," Dr. Franklin told the woman. "Unless you go through this procedure, it may take more than a year for your broken arm to heal on its own... "
I stood back and waited until Dr. Franklin was finished, bending down to roll up my pant legs again. My clothes were getting way too loose and baggy on me, and I kept having to grab my pants to keep them from falling down. It was getting really annoying, especially when I thought about what this actually meant.
A few minutes later, I was back in my hospital room with Dr. Franklin. She had a look of grim professionalism on her face, the same look that I'd seen before on doctors who were about to give me bad news. But whatever she had to say, I doubted it could be anywhere near as bad as, "You've only got a couple months left to live."
"I've gone through the results of your MRI, X-rays, and blood tests," Dr. Franklin said, looking at my chart and making a quick note. Then she looked me in the eye and said, "Though I can't determine exactly what your final form is going to look like, I can tell you a few things for certain. Unfortunately, I suspect this won't be easy to hear... "
"I'm sure I've heard worse," I pointed out, bracing myself for the bad news.
Dr. Franklin gave me a knowing look then said, "From your anatomical changes, hormone levels, and the altered chromosomes in your body, I can say with certainty that you are well on your way to becoming female."
I stared at her for a moment before carefully saying, "So I'm turning into a girl."
However, as shocking as that news should have been, I wasn't really surprised. After Asset had mistaken me for a girl in the cafeteria, I'd taken a peek at my reflection on the way back to the Clinic. It had been easy to see why he'd made that mistake, because if I hadn't known better, I would have thought I was a teenage girl as well.
"I'm sorry," Dr. Franklin told me, obviously attempting some good bedside manner.
"Well," I said with a sigh, thinking about the alternative and exactly where I'd been a week ago. "It could be worse."
Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, July 9th, 2007
I was sitting in the Clinic lobby, absently playing with a long strand of green ribbon. It had been a few hours since I'd discovered the ability to make these things and only a short time less since I'd learned I was turning into a girl. As it was, my body had changed enough that most people who saw me would assume I already was one. When I'd looked into a mirror a short time ago, I'd looked almost exactly like a thirteen year old girl.
I reached up and ran my fingers through my hair, which was now an odd silvery white color and went down to my shoulders. I wasn't used to having long hair and it felt strange to me, especially whenever it fell down into my eyes or brushed my neck. However, I also felt an odd sense of delight at having a full head of hair again, and even at having so much of it.
Next, I looked down at my clothes, which were just a little loose on me. I'd only put these clothes on about two hours ago, and at the time, they'd been a little too tight. This was yet another reminder of just how quickly my body was changing and just how small I was becoming.
At the moment, I was filled with a nervous anticipation, but it wasn't actually directed at my body and the way I was changing. Ironically, I felt an almost calm resignation about that. After all, turning into a girl wasn't the worst thing that had ever happened to me. In fact, it couldn't come close to being told my daughter was a mass murderer or that I was dying of cancer. Keeping those things in mind really helped to put my changes into perspective.
What made me nervous was the fear of what my family would say about my changes. Dr. Franklin told me that after I'd been brought to the Clinic for treatment, they'd been keeping Melanie updated on my condition, or at least on the basics. My daughter knew that I'd woken up and was in good health, and even that I'd manifested as a mutant and was changing as a result, but she hadn't been told the details. And now, Dr. Franklin had finally cleared me for visitors.
I tied the green ribbon into a knot and then dropped it into the chair beside me before suddenly making a bright red ribbon appear in my hands. Whenever I was nervous, I tended to fiddle with whatever was at hand to keep me distracted. In the past, this often meant grabbing a cigar, taking a drink of beer, or just cleaning some of my tools. Since none of that was an option at the moment, I found myself playing with these ribbons instead.
Then Melanie came through the front doors, somehow manageing to look both relieved and worried at the same time. She made a beeline straight for the receptionist and announced, "I'm here to see my Dad... Al Morgan... "
I stood up at that and slowly walked towards her, surprised to realize that my daughter was taller than I was. I took a deep breath, then cautiously said, "Hey, Melanie... "
Melanie turned to look at me, showing no signs of recognition on her face. "Do I know you?" she asked, looking a little confused.
I frowned, feeling incredibly self-conscious. "It's me," I told her with a forced chuckle. "Your Dad." Then I weakly joked, "As you can see, I've lost a bit of weight."
Melanie stared at me, her eyes going wide in stunned disbelief. Then she skeptically asked, "Dad?"
"Do you want me to prove it?" I asked with a snort. "Remember the time I had to come pick you up at school because that girl Janine... "
"I believe you," she interrupted me, turning bright red at the reminder of the incident. Then she gasped, "Oh my God. What happened to you?" She continued to stare at me as she added, "They said Rachael did something... " There was a strong accusatory note in her voice.
I nodded awkwardly, then told her, "Rachael cured my cancer." Melanie gasped at that while I gestured down at myself and added with a forced chuckle, "But there were side effects... "
"Of course there were," Melanie responded with a sigh. Then she cautiously asked me, "Are you really cured?"
"The doctors said there ain't a trace of cancer left," I assured her with a faint smile. "But on the other hand, I'm turning into a girl. A mutant girl."
Melanie stared at me as she tried absorbing all this, then she gave me a nervous smile before grabbing me in a hug. "I'm glad you're all right, Dad," she blurted out.
"Me too," I responded with a chuckle, grinning at the fact that I could actually stand on my own two feet and hug my daughter again. For awhile, I'd been pretty sure I'd never be able to do this again.
"Ouch," Melanie cried out a moment later. "You're squeezing too tight... "
I quickly let go of Melanie, feeling guilty at hurting her, though I was relieved to see she didn't seem to really be hurt by it. "Sorry," I told with a wince. "Apparently, I'm some kind of exemplar. I guess that means... "
"I know what an exemplar is," she told me with a faint smile. "I've been reading up on mutant powers. Since Rachael is a mutant, I thought there's a chance Kaylie or Kimberly might be too." She hesitated a moment, then admitted, "Since Kaylie is about that age, I've been keeping a close eye on her for any indications... "
"Good thinking," I told her in approval. Then Melanie and I went and sat down while I explained what had been happening to me. "The doctor says I'm still changing and she wants to keep me here till I finish, just in case."
"Good idea," Melanie said, giving me a worried look. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"I'm a lot better than I was a week ago," I pointed out, then gave her a broad grin as I added, "And I feel better than I have in ages... if ever."
Melanie looked relieved at that, then she told me about how Rich and the kids were worried about me. Then she added, "And Rich said he's going to come by after work."
I nodded at that, realizing that if I'd been nervous about seeing Melanie, it would probably be worse with Rich. After all, he was my son and I'd taught him how to be a man, but now I looked like anything but one. I had no doubt that seeing him was going to be embarrassing, but I still looked forward to it anyway.
"Thank Kimberly for giving me that good luck ribbon," I told my daughter with a smile. Then in an almost conspiratorial tone, I added, "Tell her that her grandpa said it worked."
Melanie laughed at that, then responded, "She'll be happy to hear that."
Sitting here with my daughter like this was really putting me in a good mood, so I decided to show off a little. I did a fancy move with my hand, which I hope looked like something a stage magician might do, then I made a bright pink ribbon suddenly appear in my hand. Melanie gasped in surprise.
"Can you give this to Kimberly for me?" I asked her with a grin. "It seems that I've got the power to make ribbons appear out of thin air."
"That's... impressive," she said, trying to hold back a snicker.
I just smiled and made another ribbon appear in my hand, this time a black one. Since Kaylie was dressing all in black these days, I thought she'd appreciate this color a little more. I didn't even need to say who this one was for as I handed it over to my daughter.
We talked for a little longer, then as Melanie was getting ready to leave, she kept giving me hesitant looks. I knew her well enough to know that she wanted to talk about something but wasn't sure how to bring it up. Her mother had always been better than me about noticing this kind of thing and drawing her out, though fortunately, I didn't have to wait long before she got to it.
"Rachael," she finally blurted out, giving me a worried look. "How was she?"
"She seemed healthy," I answered, though I could see that wasn't enough. I frowned for a moment as I thought about my reunion with her. "She seemed clear headed... but a bit sad. I think she was having one of her good days." Then I gave Melanie a gentle smile and added, "Rachael said she misses you... that she misses everyone."
"Thank you," Melanie told me, looking as though she might be getting teary eyed.
She gave me a hug, which was very strange since she was now bigger than me. I was careful not to squeeze back very hard since it seemed that the smaller I got, the stronger I became. As corny as the old line was, I really didn't know my own strength and I didn't want to risk hurting her.
Once Melanie was gone, I decided to go to the cafeteria for dinner. It was a little early, but I was getting hungry again. Thankfully, they didn't charge ridiculous prices, and the whole cost went right onto my Clinic tab. I just really hoped my insurance company would cover this whole Clinic visit.
As I looked for an open table, Asset waved to me. I saw that he was sitting with two other people who were wearing costumes. One was an Asian woman with glowing green eyes and a dark green cloak, while the other was a stocky man with a beard, who reminded me a little of myself, or at least the way I used to be.
"You look... younger," Asset said in surprise as I came over. He looked me over, making me feel a little self-conscious.
"Really?" I responded with a snorted, glancing to the woman and editing my language a little as I added, "I hadn't fu... freaking noticed."
"This is Mystery Woman and the Occultist," Asset introduced his companions to me.
"Nice to meetcha," I said, holding out my hand to the Occultist, who seemed amused as he shook it.
"A polite young lady," he said, only to earn a glare from me and a snicker from Asset. I quickly reminded myself that I was going to have to get used to that, so I didn't correct him. After all, it wouldn't be long before I really was a young lady.
Asset didn't introduce me, maybe because I didn't have any kind of codename yet, or maybe because he didn't want to embarrass himself by admitting that he didn't even know my name. That was fine by me because I figured that introducing myself as Al would have brought up a few more questions than I felt like answering at the moment.
"Now, where were we again?" the Occultist asked in a deep voice. "Oh yes, discussing theatrical villains... "
"The worst I've ever seen personally was the Vaudevillain," Asset said with a chuckle. "He wasn't too dangerous but he liked to put on a show while he committed robberies."
"I would have to go with the Protagonist," Mystery Woman commented with a faint smile. "He seems to believe that he's the star in some adventure novel and he always talks about himself in the third person."
"I've heard of him," the Occultist mused, scratching at his beard. "He and the Narrator got into it and he ended up dead."
"The Narrator?" I asked, wondering if these clowns were messing with me. "Who the hell comes up with these names?"
"The Narrator is actually quite dangerous," the Occultist told me with a serious look. "He's a mind controller who manipulates heroes, villains, and bystanders, making them play out scenes as though they were actors in a movie while he records them."
They continued their conversation about different villains they'd encountered or heard of while I looked through the menu, deciding on a nice steak. I hadn't had one of those in a good while. It was just too bad I couldn't get a beer here to wash it down with.
I'd gotten my steak and was in the middle of eating it when the topic turned to local villains and someone brought up Lady Havoc. I immediately froze at that, though Mystery Woman said, "I've met Lady Havoc. She's a merciless killer without a shred of conscience... "
"You don't know what the hell you're talking about," I finally spat out, glaring at the woman who didn't seem the least bit intimidated by my reaction. I was used to people getting a little nervous when a big guy got upset, but I wasn't a big guy anymore.
"And I suppose you know more about Lady Havoc than I do," Mystery Woman commented in a patronizing tone.
I gave Mystery Woman a cold look, then stated, "I know that when she was a little girl, she had a pink stuffed elephant that she called Ellie. I know that her favorite color is sapphire blue and her favorite ice cream is mint chocolate chip. I know that the very first device she every made was a machine to help her mother make breakfast." I paused at that, then stated, "And I know that in spite of everything she's done, she still has a good heart."
With that, I stood up, seeing that all three of the heroes were staring at me in surprise and confusion. I didn't bother to stick around and answer their questions though, because if I did, I knew that I'd be damn tempted to punch someone, and I had a feeling that wouldn't be a good idea.
Since my dinner hadn't worked out quite the way I would have liked, I made my way back to the lobby where I made myself comfortable. I didn't know when Rich would get here, but I wanted to be here when he did.
Like most lobbies and waiting rooms, this one had a stack of old magazines, most of which didn't interest me much. There was one on cars, but it was an old issue that I'd seen before. However, there was also a bookshelf that was packed full with all sorts of books. I'd never been a big reader, but I had plenty of time to kill so I grabbed something that looked at least vaguely interesting and began to flip through it.
The book was an autobiography from some super hero whose real identity had been made public by one of his villains. I remembered that they'd made some noise about the book back when it had first come out, and back then, a lot of the Humanity First guys had protested it as mutant propaganda.
I quickly looked over the first page and then went to the next, just glancing over the pages and flipping them one after another in rapid succession. I'd flipped most of the way the way through the book by the time Rich arrived.
Unlike Melanie, Rich stepped into the lobby and almost immediately looked directly at me. "Dad?" he asked awkwardly.
"I see you talked to Melanie," I responded with a chuckle, knowing that his sister must have warned him about my new appearance.
Rich nodded at that and just stared at me in disbelief. "I still can't believe it though... " Then he asked, "How do you feel?"
"Actually," I answered him honestly. "I feel pretty damn good. This is embarrassing as hell, but I feel so light on my feet and full of energy... " I shrugged at that. "And after what I was going through, this is a hell of a lot better."
"So Rachael did it," Rich said, looking impressed. "She really cured you... "
I nodded at that, thinking that it was strange that we'd all been talking so much about Rachael. Over the last few years, we'd barely mentioned her name at all. After what she'd done, it was too painful to think that she was out there hurting people. We never forgot about her, but her name just wasn't spoken very often.
"She seems to be doing all right," I added with a sigh. "Considering... "
"Yeah," Rich said with a bit of a grin.
Rich had never really seen Rachael at her worst, for which I was thankful. But that also meant he didn't fully understand just how bad she got when she was having an episode, even when it was shown on the news. In fact, he was sure that the news just exaggerated her rampages and the deaths, all as part of some anti-mutant propaganda conspiracy. Even after all these years and everything that Rachael had done, he still looked up to his big sister.
We sat down and talked, much the way I'd talked with Melanie earlier. Rich and I had never been great at having conversations, especially since most of them seemed to turn into arguments, but it was nice seeing him.
"So," Rich said after a bit, "You're a mutant now... "
"It seems that way," I responded with a sigh. "It seems I'm some kind of regenerator, exemplar, manifestor thing... " I shrugged at that, then gave him a brief demonstration by making a ribbon appear in my hands. "Not exactly impressive."
Rich stared at me with an odd expression, though he'd been giving me odd looks since he came into the lobby. Then he shook his head and admitted, "It's just hard to believe that you of all people are a mutant. This is so strange... "
"Try it from my perspective," I pointed out, gesturing down at myself.
"I'm glad you're alive Dad," Rich told me, giving me a hug. Then as he pulled back, he said, "Not many people get a second lease on life like this. You should take full advantage of it."
"You just might be right," I agreed, thinking that I really was being given a second chance. I just had no idea of what to do with it.
We spent a minute saying goodbye, then when Rich left, I turned my attention back to the book that I'd been flipping through. I absently wondered where I'd left off, until I remembered that it was page 273, at the start of the third paragraph. Wayne Peters, the writer of the autobiography, had just been talking about how he was having problems with his marriage.
"Stupid shmuck," I said, thinking that the guy had to be an idiot for marrying a girl who'd obviously only been dating him for the excitement. As he said on page 73, she'd only become interested in him after she'd accidentally discovered he was secretly a hero.
I paused for a moment, surprised to realize that I'd picked up a lot more from just flipping through that book than I'd realized. And as I thought about it, I was even more surprised that I remembered the entire thing, including what was on each page. I thought about a page and I could suddenly picture the entire thing in my head, clear as day and word for word.
"Well, ain't that something," I muttered with a shake of my head.
I was about to put the book back on the shelf, but then I hesitated. I'd only been flipping through it to kill some time, but since I seemed to have actually picked something up from it, it seemed like a shame not to finish it. With that, I went back to the last page I'd looked at then started to flip through the rest of the pages, a bit more slowly than before. This time, I was aware of the fact that just one look at the page was enough for me to absorb everything on it. In just a few minutes, I'd finished reading through the rest of the book.
"Speed reading," I said, knowing that it was actually just a little more than that. "I'll be damned."
After putting the book back on the shelf, I bent down and rolled my pant legs up again so I wouldn't trip over them. I tried not to dwell on my increasing loss of size and age, but it wasn't easy.
Then before I left the lobby and returned to Dr. Franklin for another round of tests, I grabbed a couple more books off the shelf. Since I was still stuck in the Clinic until tomorrow and I had a lot of time to kill, this seemed like one way to do it. Besides, if I could read through that whole book as easily as that, I wanted to see if I could do it with other ones too.
Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, July 10th, 2007
When I woke up, I was instantly wide awake and full of energy. There was no need for my usual half pot of coffee, which was proof positive that this entire situation was completely and totally unnatural.
The bed was huge, easily large enough for me to stretch out and still feel like I wasn't close to taking up all the space. The truth was, this was just a normal hospital bed, one I would normally consider to be too small.
I sat up and put my legs over the edge, but my feet didn't even touch the floor. I dropped down the rest of the way, then looked around the hospital room which seemed to have grown larger to my perspective. I let out a sigh and tried not to think about that as I made my way to the bathroom.
The mirror above the bathroom sink was just a little too high, so I grabbed the small footstool that was sitting on the side so I'd have something to stand on. That finally gave me a good look into the mirror, and the girl who stared back at me.
The girl in the mirror looked to be about ten years old and was very pretty, with long silvery white hair and violet eyes. I imagined that in ten years, she'd be a total knockout. I thought I even noticed some resemblance to what Melanie and Rachael had looked like at that age, but that might just have been my imagination.
After splashing some cold water on my face, and noticing that someone had repaired the faucet handle, I took another look in the mirror. It was hard to believe that this pretty little girl was really me, or that I'd have to get used to seeing this face looking back.
I got off the stool and then reached between my legs, finding just what I'd expect of a little girl. Last night when I'd gone to bed, my balls had already pulled up into my body and vanished and my dick had barely been there. I'd known then that by the time I woke up, my changes would either be finished or pretty damn close.
"I think it's done," I mused aloud. I looked about the same age that I had when I'd gone to bed, and I felt pretty sure that my body had finished changing. I felt a sense of resignation as I simply said, "I'm a girl."
I sat down on the crapper to take a piss, finding the sensation familiar yet strange at the same time. Since I'd raised two girls, I already had a pretty good idea of how to treat my new parts. After all, I'd overheard Meg giving them both 'the talk', though I'd tried not to pay much attention to it at the time. However, now those words of years ago came back to me with a shocking clarity.
After I was done in the bathroom, I went and grabbed some of the clothes that had been left in the room for me last night. There were several different sets of various sizes, just so I'd have something to wear no matter how small I got during the night. I was just thankful I didn't have to use the smallest size, because that would have left me as little more than a toddler.
There were a couple books sitting next to the clothes, ones I'd read last night. I'd never been much for reading, having always found other ways to spend my free time. However, I'd been able to read through these books in almost no time at all, and I could remember absolutely everything in them. I'd done more reading last night than I had in the last five years combined.
I let out a sigh and shook my head, only to have my long hair get in my face. Since it went halfway down my back, I had a feeling that it would be getting in the way quite a bit. With that, I used the ribbon that Kimberly had given me to tie my hair back into a pony tail. I chuckled faintly, never having imagined that I'd ever actually use the thing.
When I left the room a minute later, I ran into one of the nurses. "Doctor Franklin isn't in yet," she told me pleasantly. "Why don't you get breakfast. She'll want to check you out once she's in."
I was hungry, so I didn't need more of an invitation than that. I went to the cafeteria and found an empty table, then sat back and watched the other people who were eating. There were only a few others, with one of them wearing a costume. Since he looked pretty banged up and had his leg in a cast, I assumed he was a patient at the Clinic.
A waitress came over and gave me a pleasant though slightly patronizing smile and said, "Hey sweetie. Are your parents around?"
"Oh no," I responded with a forced smile. "My Mom died over thirty years ago, and it's been even longer for my Dad."
The waitress gave me a look of surprise, though she quickly covered it up. Working here, with both the Clinic and the Freelancers, she'd probably encountered stranger things than me.
"Can I take your order?" she asked politely, no longer being patronizing.
"Coffee," I told her, glancing over the menu. "And the chef's special... "
Normally, I wasn't into fancy foods like eggs benedict, but Asset said the chef was one of the best in the world, so I should at least try his special. And besides, if there was ever a time to start trying new things, this was definitely it.
Once breakfast arrived, I quickly decided that I'd made the right decision. Normally, eggs were just eggs, but this stuff was unbelievable. In fact, they were the best damn eggs I'd ever had in my life. I would definitely have to try more fancy food, especially if that guy was cooking it.
The amount of food that I had on my plate was about normal, but because of my smaller size, it almost felt like they put a full platter in front of me. The cup of coffee was the same way, feeling like it was an extra large cup instead of a normal sized mug. However, in spite of my smaller size, I didn't have any trouble eating the entire thing.
I was nearly finished with my meal when the spoon bent between my fingers like cheap tin. I'd already done the same thing with the fork a little earlier, so I muttered some profanities and bent the spoon back, hoping that the waitress hadn't seen that.
I picked up my coffee, but someone almost right behind me burst out laughing. I nearly jumped in my chair and the ceramic mug shattered in my hand. I snapped around to glare at whoever had jumped me and saw that it was a large and muscular man, who looked bigger than any bodybuilder I'd ever seen. He was wearing jeans and a T shirt rather than any costume, but he was also walking with a limp and had nasty looking bruises on his exposed skin.
"Sorry for startling you," the man said in a deep voice.
"I just manifested," I said defensively, to explain why I'd been breaking everything I touched.
He gave a knowing nod at that and simply said, "Eggs."
"Eggs?" I asked blankly.
"Get some fresh eggs and practice picking them up and holding them," he explained. "It'll help you get used to handling things with your new strength."
"Thanks," I said, grateful for the advice. With as many things as I kept breaking by accident, I was definitely going to have to do that.
I finished up a few minutes later and went back to the Clinic where Dr. Franklin had just come in. She immediately took me to an examination room and began giving me some tests, the same ones that she'd been giving me over the last couple days.
"All I need now is another blood sample," she told me, holding up something that looked similar to the thing Rachael had used to inject me with the cure. She put it against my arm, then pulled it back before popping out a small cylinder filled with blood. "Simple and easy, even for people with extra tough skin."
"So it's all done?" I asked her, though I already knew the answer.
Dr. Franklin nodded at that, then told me, "Your changes appear to be finished, but I'll run some tests on your blood to verify there are no more issues. But as it stands, you are now physically a healthy little girl. But more specifically, you are also a regenerator and appear to be a high level exemplar... "
I nodded that, then said, "I guess that means I'm going to stay healthy."
"Very healthy," Dr. Franklin agreed. "This means that you'll effectively be immune to most illness, have an increased resistance to injury, and have the ability to heal very rapidly if you are injured."
I let out a sigh, feeling a little overwhelmed as I considered what that meant. "I guess I'm gonna need to get some power testing," I thought aloud, remembering about all the things we'd needed to go through after Rachael had first manifested. "And get an MID."
"I can make an appointment for you at the local MCO testing facility," Dr. Franklin assured me. "They'll be able to help you determine the exact nature and level of your new abilities as well as issue your MID."
Then she paused to stare at me with a guarded look, the same one that told me she had some more bad news for me. I braced myself for whatever it was going to be, wondering what kind of bomb she was going to drop on me this time.
"A lot of higher level exemplars have a slower than normal ageing process," Dr. Franklin carefully told me. "As do higher level regenerators."
That suddenly caught my full attention as I realized exactly what she was getting at. I had a sinking feeling as I realized that as weird as it was being ten years old again, I might have a long time to get used to it.
"For some, their ageing doesn't slow until their bodies are fully developed," Dr. Franklin explained with a sympathetic look. "But for others, this effect becomes active as soon as their powers manifest. To be honest, I'm not certain yet which category you fall into, but I have a strong suspicion that you'll experience at least some slowing."
I closed my eyes and took several deep breaths, silently reminding myself, "You're still alive. You're free of cancer. You've got a chance to start your life all over again." And of course, "I can handle this."
"Well," I said, joking about this because the alternative was to cry, and there was no way I was gonna do that. "I guess that means I get even more time to get used to the idea of having periods."
Dr. Franklin and I talked about my situation for a few more minutes, then she went to a computer and did something before printing out a sheet for me. I looked at it and seemed to be an appointment slip for my MCO testing, listing 'exemplar ?, regeneration ?, and manifestor ?'
"Keep this with you until you get your MID," Dr. Franklin told me. "As long as you show that you do have an appointment for testing and getting your MID, you should be fine. When you go, you should probably try to show up with several possible codenames in mind."
"Should I be worried about them?" I asked, remembering Rich's paranoia about the MCO and his claims that they're constantly harassing mutants and making them disappear. I'd always thought that was a bunch of conspiracy theory nonsense, but now that I was a mutant myself, I couldn't help but feeling a little more cautious.
"The local MCO shouldn't give you much trouble," Dr. Franklin told me with a faint smile. "Honestly, they're pretty lazy and tend to overlook things that might give them extra paperwork. So as long as you don't come off as dangerous or do anything too blatant for them to overlook, they'll probably leave you alone."
Once I was done with Dr. Franklin, I signed out of the Clinic and then went to lobby to wait for Melanie. I killed time by flipping through another book that I'd found on the shelf, deciding that maybe I should take advantage of this whole speed reading and memory thing to read something educational. A short time later, I'd read and memorized a book about the Civil War.
Before I could start on another book, Melanie arrived with two kids in tow. I stood up, staring at Kaylie and Kimberly, suddenly realizing that I was now younger and smaller than one of my own granddaughters. At least I was still older than Kimberly.
"Dad," Melanie said awkwardly when she saw me.
I looked up at her and nodded self-consciously. "Well," I joked, "I guess I can't use that old line about not being as young as I used to be anymore... "
"Grandpa?" Kaylie blurted out, staring at me with a look of shock.
"Hey kiddo," I greeted her, annoyed by the fact that she was bigger than me. It really made me feel even smaller than before. However, I was pleased to note that she had the ribbon I'd made for her wrapped around her wrist. "I bet this is quite a surprise... "
"You can say that again," Kaylie said, still staring at me.
"You're not my Grandpa," Kimberly protested, looking at me suspiciously. "You're a girl... "
I looked down at myself, then gasped in mock surprise. "Well, what do you know? I am." Kimberly giggled at that.
"I'm afraid she really is your Grandpa," Melanie said with a forced smile. "Your Aunt Rachael made him all better, but it turned him into a girl too... "
"Yup," I agreed, looking Kimberly over and noticing that she had the ribbon I'd made for her tied into her hair. I reached up for my own hair and the ribbon that I had tying it into a pony tail. "I'm all better now because this good luck ribbon you gave me really worked."
"Really?" Kimberly asked in wide-eyed wonder. "Wow... " Melanie was smiling at that while Kaylie shook her head.
"I wasn't expecting you to get this small," Melanie told me awkwardly. "I mean, you look like a little girl... "
"Yeah," I responded with a sigh. "But we'll have plenty of time to get used to it." I thought about Dr. Franklin's warning about my ageing more slowly than normal. "A lot of time."
As we went out to the parking lot, Melanie told me, "We've fixed the spare bedroom up for you... "
I just nodded at that, knowing I couldn't go back to my own house. After I'd found out that I had terminal cancer, I'd sold both it and my garage in order to take care of the medical and funeral bills. There was no way in hell that I wanted to leave my kids with a pile of bills once I was gone.
Once I climbed into the car and strapped myself in with a seatbelt, I tried not to think about the fact that the entire car seemed enormous to me. Then again, from my new size, absolutely everything seemed huge to me. The entire world had grown larger, and it was a perspective that I was going to have to get used to.
"Are you really a girl?" Kaylie asked while we drove him. "I mean, are you really a real girl?"
"I'm afraid so," I told her with a sigh. "I've got all the parts and everything... "
Kaylie nodded thoughtfully at that, then admitted, "I don't know whether to think that's cool or really scary... "
I chuckled in response, then responded, "I'd say a bit of both."
Kimberly and Kaylie both pestered me with non-stop questions on the drive, so finally I just decided to distract them by doing a brief magic show. I made a few ribbons appear, getting some nice 'oooohs and aaaahs' from them.
When we arrived at the house, I went to check out the spare bedroom which had been set up for me, or at least it had some of my old stuff moved in there. I looked at the bed, which would have been too small and cramped for me before, but which now looked quite roomy.
I waited until the girls were occupied, then asked Melanie, "What does Mark think about this?" Somehow, I couldn't imagine that he'd be happy with me moving in on them like this.
Melanie was hesitant to answer at first, then she finally responded, "Honestly, I don't think he knows what to think about this. He's pretty shocked about what's happened, and since he hasn't even seen you yet, I don't think it's really even sunk in." Then she quickly exclaimed, "But don't worry Dad. We're happy to have you here."
And though Melanie didn't say it out loud, there was the silent, "And where else could you go?"
My own home had been sold when I'd gone to into the hospital to stay, so there was no going back there. Looking the way I now did, I couldn't go back to work in my garage, even if I hadn't already sold it. And who would even consider hiring a mechanic who looked like a cute little girl? I didn't have any way of supporting myself anymore, which meant that for the time being, I'd have to stay with one of my kids.
Rich was a young bachelor with a single bedroom apartment, and even if he did have the room for me, he wouldn't need me cramping his style. And besides, the two of us would probably be at each other's throats within a week.
Out of all my kids, Rachael would be the most understanding of my situation, but I certainly couldn't live with her, for obvious reasons. I might be looking at life through mutant and female eyes now, but that didn't change the fact that she was still a wanted criminal, not to mention extremely unstable. It wasn't really her fault, but she was dangerous to be around.
"Thank you for taking me in," I told Melanie, looking up and giving her a gentle smile. "I know it's an inconvenience... "
"Don't think that," Melanie told me, looking as though she was starting to tear up. "This is a bit strange, but we'll get used to it. I'd much rather have you living here with us than being in the hospital... or what would have happened. And if Mark even thinks otherwise, well, he can sleep on the porch."
I chuckled at that, definitely seeing a lot of her mother in her. I just wished that Meg was still around to see how Melanie was doing, and to meet Kimberly. She'd never had the chance to meet our youngest granddaughter.
Just then, Kimberly came rushing into the room, holding a doll in one arm and a stuffed rabbit in the other. She had a manic look of excitement in her eyes that suddenly made me nervous.
"Grandpa," Kimberly exclaimed, nearly bouncing with excitement. "Wanna play tea party with me?"
I was about to protest that I was too old to play tea party, but one glance down at myself reminded me that was no longer a good excuse. Nor was pointing out that boys didn't play tea party. I looked up to Melanie for help, and she was fighting just to keep from laughing.
"Why don't you go play with her?" Melanie suggested with a broad grin. "You can get to know Kimberly a little better... "
"You know, I'm gonna get you for this," I joked, though I'm pretty sure I didn't exactly look or sound nearly as threatening as I would have in my old body. Melanie didn't even bother trying to hide her laughter this time. Then I looked to Kimberly and shrugged. It seemed that life was making me try new things, whether I wanted to or not, so it wouldn't hurt to try this. "Sure," I finally said, "I'll give it a go... "
I let Kimberly drag me back towards her bedroom where we ran into Kaylie in the hallway. Kimberly immediately asked her, "You wanna play too?"
"I'm too old to play with dolls," Kaylie protested with a snort of disdain.
"Try another excuse," I told her with an evil grin. "If I'm stuck with this, then so are you... "
Kaylie looked like she was about to protest again, then she stared at me and had an evil grin of her own. I had a bad feeling that I'd just invited a lot of trouble on myself, because she obviously liked the idea of putting her poor old grandfather through the whole little girl routine.
I spent the next couple hours playing with the girls, doing the tea party thing for awhile and then summoning ribbons so they could tie ribbons in each other's hair... and in mine. It was silly and girly, but I tried to relax and have fun with it. If nothing else, I was getting to spend time with the girls and getting to know them in a way that I'd never been able to before.
Eventually, Mark got home from work so I went and greeted him politely. "Thanks for letting me stay here," I told him, feeling a little self-conscious since the last time I'd talked to him, I'd mentioned something about kicking his ass.
"It's no problem... Al," he said, obviously having a difficult time with my name. He kept starting at me, just as clearly being shocked by my appearance. "I'm just glad you're healthy again." He looked to Melanie, then added, "You're welcome to stay here as long as you need."
When dinner came, I was embarrassed about being the second smallest person at the table, especially when Mark put food on my plate for me, the same way he had for Kimberly. He also gave me the same kind of smaller portion, but I didn't complain. However, when I finished eating what he'd put on my plate, I helped myself to seconds. In spite of my smaller body, I didn't seem to need any less food than before.
"I guess you're a growing girl," Kaylie said with a giggle.
I winced slightly at that, then gave a faint smile as I answered, "No, I'm not." I was silent for several seconds, then explained, "It seems that I'm probably not going to age normally... Let's just say, it's possible that it might be twenty or even thirty years before I look like I'm old enough to drive again."
"Oh my God," Melanie exclaimed, giving me a look of horror. Even Mark winced and gave me a sympathetic look.
"I don't know for sure," I admitted. "They said I might age normally until I hit puberty again... or even until I stop developing, but probably not. Doctor Franklin figures that since I'm an active exemplar and regenerator, I'll see at least some slowing."
"What does that mean?" Kimberly asked.
Kaylie gave me a sympathetic look, then told her sister, "It means that in a couple years, you might be older than Grandpa... "
"That's just weird," Kimberly responded skeptically.
The rest of dinner was quiet, and I kept catching everyone sneaking looks at me. I tried not to pay attention to that though and just focused on the fact that I was sitting at the dinner table with my family, something that I'd never expected to be able to do again. In spite of my situation, I felt pretty damn lucky.
After dinner, I went to the fridge and helped myself to one of Mark's beers. He always went for those expensive micro-brews instead of normal beer, but I had to admit they were pretty good.
I sat down in the living room and took a long drink of the beer, only to have Melanie stare at me in shock. "Dad... You're too young to drink... "
"I'm not nearly as young as I look," I reminded her wryly.
"But what will the girls think?" she demanded, obviously getting upset. "You're setting a bad example for the girls. I don't want them to see you drinking and then think that it's okay for them to do so too... "
I looked Melanie right in the eyes, then pointed out, "And you'd rather set the example that you should treat people based off how they look... "
"What?" she gasped at that, her eyes going wide. She was suddenly caught with a look of confusion and even guilt. "No, that's not what I meant... "
"I might look like a kid," I reminded her gently, "but I'm not one. I can't just forget about the last forty years of my life and pretend that I'm a normal ten year old girl."
"I know," she responded with a sigh, sitting down next to me. "It's just that... You look like a little girl... "
I nodded at that, knowing exactly what she meant. I'd noticed at dinner how Mark had automatically begun to treat me as though I was a girl, and I knew that I'd have to do something about that soon. If I let them, Melanie and Mark would start to treat me like a little girl, probably not even realizing that they were being patronizing. I figured I'd better nip that in the bud before they started giving me an early bedtime and sending me off to elementary school.
"Up here," I said, tapping my temple, "I'm still the same cantankerous old bastard I've always been."
Melanie laughed at that, then admitted, "You would be quite a handful as a kid... "
"So don't try to treat me like one too much," I said. "I know you'll want to, you won't be able to help yourself, but you'll only piss me off." I paused at that, noticing that Kaylie was standing at the doorway and eavesdropping. "Pardon the French."
Melanie chuckled again, then admitted, "I see your point. I guess I'd hate it if I suddenly turned into a little girl again and people who knew who I was started to treat me different because of it." She gave me a wry smile and promised, "I'll try not to."
"That's all I ask," I told her, taking a drink of the beer and then letting out a sigh. I stared at the beer, then told her, "Honestly, I probably couldn't get drunk off this if I wanted."
"What do you mean?" Melanie asked, only to pause and then nod in understanding. "The whole mutant thing... "
I nodded at that, knowing that from what Dr. Franklin and Pinnacle had said, I'd probably have to down a couple bottles of bourbon one after another, and then I might feel buzzed for a couple minutes before my body took care of it. Apparently, I could expect the same kind of immunity to pain medication and just about any other drugs.
"Maybe that's a good thing," Melanie offered cautiously. "I mean, you were almost borderline alcoholic."
"Maybe," I agreed with a sigh. I frowned thoughtfully, knowing that I was going to have to make a lot of changes to my life, whether I wanted to or not. Maybe I should take the opportunity to make a few good changes to my life while I was at it.
"I don't know how you're not freaking out about this," Melanie admitted, giving me a sympathetic look. "I mean, I know I'd freak out if something like this happened to me."
I took a slow drink of beer, then pointed out, "It wouldn't do much good, would it? I mean, crying over spilt milk never got it back in the bottle, and considering where I was at a few days back, I wouldn't want to go back anyway." I looked Melanie in the eye and then chuckled. "The truth is, I'm pretty damn lucky and I know it. This sure as hell ain't what I would have asked for, but at least I get the chance to live with it. Yeah, this is weird as all get out, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that it's a second chance."
Melanie took the beer from my hand, then took a long drink before handing it back. "I don't know if I'd be able to be that positive about it," she told me, giving me a smile and then a hug. "But I'm glad you are."
"The way I look at it," I told Melanie with a smile. "Rachael didn't just save my life, she gave me the chance to have a whole new one. The only problem is, I don't have a clue what to do with it. At least not yet."
Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, July 11th, 2007
When I opened my eyes, I was immediately wide awake and full of energy. A single glance at the alarm clock beside the bed told me that it was too early to be this damn awake, but it was too late to do anything about it now. I sat up in bed, realizing that between this morning and yesterday, I'd woken up too early and too easily. I wondered if part of my new powers was that I didn't need as much sleep as before, then figured that give it a week or so and I'd know for sure.
I hopped out of bed and went to get dressed in some of the clothes that Melanie had left for me. These were actually Kaylie's old clothes, which Melanie had pulled out of the attic for me. To both my annoyance and amusement, the clothes Kaylie had worn when she was ten were a little too big for me, so I was having to wear her clothes from when she was nine.
"I can't believe I'm wearing my granddaughter's hand-me-downs," I muttered with a chuckle as I put them on. And then, perhaps to be ironic, I grabbed a t-shirt that read 'Girl Power' across the front in sparkly letters. I was pretty sure that Melanie had been messing with me a little when she'd left that shirt.
A minute later, I left my bedroom and found that I was up before anyone else. Since I didn't want to wake everyone else in the house, I tried to be quiet as I looked for something to do. I quickly settled on grabbing a couple eggs from the fridge, then I began to practice picking them up, moving them from one hand to another, and setting them back down. Though I was already getting better at controlling my new strength, as proven by the fact that I'd only broken a couple things since I'd arrived yesterday, it wasn't good enough. I didn't want to break anything, and more importantly, I didn't want to risk hurting anyone.
I broke a couple eggs at first, but then I quickly got the feel for them and just how much pressure they could take. Before long, I really had the hang of handling the eggs without breaking them, though I continued with the practice for a bit longer.
While I was playing around with the eggs, I felt bored and was looking for something else to do. My attention turned to the computer, which was sitting in the corner. Rich was always going on about how great computers were, about how you could use one to find out just about anything you wanted to know. Melanie had tried getting me to use a computer too, though she went on more about how you could buy just about anything you wanted online, without ever having to actually go to a store. Even Kaylie had tried getting me to use a computer, though her reasons had more to do with games and keeping up with her friends. I'd never had much use for a computer, though the truth was, I'd actually been a bit intimidated by them. I didn't really understand how that kind of thing worked, not like with a car where I could take a look under the engine myself.
For perhaps the first time ever, I was seriously thinking about getting onto their computer and fiddling with it. After coming that close to dying and then getting a second chance, I'd already decided that I wanted to take advantage of it. I wanted to be open to trying new things. And considering the way the world was going, learning how to use a computer seemed like a good place to start. However, I was still just a little intimidated and unsure of where to even begin.
Then I noticed the short bookshelf next to the computer desk, and more specifically, the books it contained. A couple of them were on computers, so I reached down and grabbed one titled, "Computers for dummies." That seemed like a good place to start.
I finished reading through the entire book in less than five minutes, and when I was done, I could clearly remember every bit of information in it. And even more importantly, I could actually understand it as well. It was becoming pretty clear that being an exemplar hadn't just given me a photographic memory and let me read faster. I was actually understanding what I read a hell of a lot easier as well. Being a mutant hadn't just made me stronger, it had also made me smarter. The very idea both excited and scared the hell out of me at the same time.
I'd never considered myself an especially smart man and I'd never been very good at learning things from books. For my entire life, I'd always found that the best way to learn something was to just do it. Don't bother reading about it, get your hands dirty and figure it out for yourself.
I'd taken pride in that and even felt a bit of contempt for those educated idiots, people who had an expensive education, but had learned absolutely everything they knew from books. I had absolutely nothing against a good education, and I'd taken a great deal of pride in putting Rich through college so he could get one. What I did have a problem with were the people who assumed that because they'd read a few books, they knew everything, when they actually had the common sense of a hubcap.
For several minutes, I stared at the book I'd just read, feeling a strange sense of delight in being able to learn something new so easily. But at the same time, I dreaded what it meant for me and who I actually was. My entire body had been changed in ways that I'd never imagined, but I'd comforted myself with the knowledge that I was still the same me inside. Now, that was no longer true. This exemplar mental package was changing the way my mind worked, the way I learned things and probably even the way I thought. I wanted to read more... to learn more... but I was afraid that I'd lose myself... maybe even end up like one of those educated idiots.
I felt a strong temptation to just turn around and walk away from the computer, to just forget all about that and the whole speed reading thing. After all, I could just stick to what I knew and was comfortable with. I could pretend that everything was still exactly the same way it used to be, that I was the same person I used to be. But at the same time, I knew that was utter crap. I could no more pretend that I was the old 'Big Al' than Rachael could pretend she was a normal baseline human without blood on her hands. Reality was what it was, and I'd never been one to hide from that.
"I promised myself that I was going to take advantage of this second chance," I said aloud, feeling foolish for having these doubts now. Besides, being able to learn something and refusing to do so just out of stubbornness would have been pretty damn stupid.
With that, I turned on the computer and began to play around with what I'd just learned. After all, learning something from a book might be fine and dandy, but I still wanted to get my hands dirty and figure some things out for myself as well. Maybe that part of me would never change.
I was on the internet, playing around with this Google thing that I'd heard so much about when Melanie got up and found me. She stood back and watched me for a minute without saying a word, then she finally cleared her throat to announce her presence, as though I hadn't already noticed her. "Wow, Dad," she said, "I never thought I'd see the day you'd be online... "
"Things change," I told her with a chuckle. "I figured it was time to expand my horizons a bit."
Mark came stumbling in, muttering, "Coffee... " He still looked half asleep, making me chuckle faintly at just how awake I felt.
"I already started a pot," I said, though I'd gotten distracted by the computer before I'd had a chance to have a cup.
Mark muttered a, "Thanks," before shuffling in for the coffee. When he came back out of the kitchen with a cup in hand, he said, "I think I can get used to you living here... "
When the girls were up, Kaylie came over to see what I was doing and began telling me about various games I should try. I just stepped away from the computer and let her have it, then I stood back and watched as she checked her e-mail and some other websites where she apparently talked to her friends. I watched carefully, trying to get a better idea of what she was doing.
Then Melanie called out from the kitchen, "Hey, what happened to all the eggs?" I took that as a sign that it was time for me to duck out of sight for awhile.
After breakfast was over, Mark took off for work while I went to go take a shower. However, one look at the tub was enough to make me change my mind. I hadn't taken a bath since I was a kid, partly because men took showers instead of baths, and partly because most tubs were just too small for me to use like that. However, neither of those reasons held true anymore. Technically, I was a little girl, which meant that it was perfectly acceptable for me to take a bath instead of a shower. Hell, I could even get away with taking a bubble bath. And of course, with my new compact size, the tub actually looked pretty big to me, more than large enough.
I filled the tub, holding back on the bubble bath for now, then I climbed in and out a contented sigh. I no longer had the aching old muscles that needed to relax, but this still felt pretty damn good. For several minutes, I just enjoyed soaking in the hot water, absently wondering if maybe I should have used the bubble bath. After all, I was a kid again so I might as well take advantage of that. Then I finally got around to washing up.
At my current age, there wasn't really a lot of physical difference between boys and girls, other than the obvious. The fact is, my body was still too young to have developed any curves, so there wasn't really much point to exploring my new body. I'd already checked out my new equipment while going to the bathroom, and the idea of exploring it further was actually pretty creepy. I let out a sigh, thinking about how weird things were that even seeing myself naked made me feel like some kind of sick pervert.
"Maybe I'll feel differently by the time my hormones finally kick in," I told myself as I climbed out of the tub. Then I shuddered faintly, deciding that going through puberty again as a girl was not something I was looking forward to. At least I'd have plenty of time to get used to the idea first.
I dried myself off, finding that my wet hair was a soaking mess that was probably going to take quite some time to dry. I did my best with that, then wrapped the towel around my waist the way I usually did, only to pause and look down, remembering that I was a girl now. I might not have anything worth covering yet, but it was a habit I should probably get into. With that, I went and wrapped the towel around myself a little higher than before so that now it covered my chest as well.
When I left the bathroom a minute later, Melanie saw me and tried to hold back a laugh. "Your hair," she finally said, giving me a faint look of disapproval. "You've raised two girls, so I would have thought you'd have picked up something about how to manage long hair... "
"I'm not exactly used to this whole girl thing yet," I admitted self-consciously.
Kimberly and Kaylie began giggling, then Kaylie leaned over and whispered something to her sister. A few seconds later, the two of them ran off, still giggling. They were obviously up to something, but Melanie gently ushered me back into the bathroom and pulled a brush and hair dryer out of one of the drawers.
"Come on Dad," my daughter told me with a shake of her head. "It looks like I'm going to have to give you some lessons in basic hair care... "
I nodded at that, appreciating the effort and knowing that there were a lot of things I was going to have to learn. Sure, I lived in a house with three women at one time, but admittedly, there were a lot of things I hadn't paid attention to. Then again, I'd never expected to have to know how to take care of long hair.
"It's so soft and smooth," Melanie said with a jealous tone in her voice as she brushed my hair. "I wish I had hair like this... "
I smiled at that, remembering how my hair had been thinning quite a bit over the last few years, even before I got sick. It felt kind of nice to have hair again after that, even if this was overcompensating a bit.
Melanie nodded at that, then let out a sigh. "You know what I miss. I miss that machine Rachael made that would dry our hair in fifteen seconds... Now that was an invention worth building."
"I remember that thing," responded with a chuckle. "Every once in awhile it would hiccup and make your hair change color too... I wonder whatever happened to that thing... "
Melanie spent about half an hour brushing my hair and drying it, and as awkward as this was having my daughter brush my hair, there was also something oddly soothing about it as well. I could see why Meg had always looked at this kind of thing as mother/daughter bonding time.
"I've never spent so much time drying my hair in my life," I jokingly complained once we were done.
"You'd better get used to it," Melanie responded with an amused smile. "At least if you want to keep your hair anywhere near that long. And if you cut off that beautiful hair, I'll be very disappointed."
I ran a hand through my hair, feeling an odd sort of pride in it, similar to what I used to feel for my beard. "I think I'll keep it for now, though maybe a bit of a trim or something... "
With that, I went back to my room so I could get dressed again, only to find that the two boxes of clothes were missing. And in the middle of the bed, there was a powder blue dress, one that I vaguely remembered Kaylie wearing. I heard some giggling from out in the hallway, right before the girls ran off.
Melanie poked her head in, saw the dress and then chuckled. "Well," she told me with a look of clear amusement. "You did say you wanted to try new things."
"Me and my big mouth," I responded wryly.
"I'll go see if I can find where they hid the other clothes," Melanie told me with another chuckle.
I nodded at that, though I stared at the dress and began to laugh at their little joke. Well, if the girls wanted to mess with me, I was just going to have to show them that it wasn't that easy. While Melanie went to find the rest of the clothes, I put on the dress, feeling a little self-conscious as I did so. However, once I had it on, I looked down at myself and had to admit that with my new body, it probably looked pretty damn cute on me. I couldn't resist spinning around and twirling the dress either.
As I stood there, my mind went back to when Rachael and Melanie had been little and wore dresses like this. I'd actually been thinking about those days quite a lot recently, or at least, I'd been thinking about them all the time when I was in that hospital bed. The girls had still been kids, sweet and innocent, well before Rachael had manifested as a mutant and began to have her problems. Meg had still been with me, and as a family, we'd been happy. Those had been some of the best days of my life.
A thought suddenly occurred to me, or at least several things came together in my mind in a flash of clarity. Dr. Franklin and Pinnacle had both told me about exemplars and how a person's subconscious mind seemed to strongly influence their BIT. I'd been thinking about my girls quite a bit, both my daughters and my granddaughters, because those girls had been present during nearly all the happiest times of my life. In a flash of understanding, I realized why I must have turned into a little girl. My subconscious mind must have locked onto the image of a little girl, perhaps as some kind of symbol for my happiness.
"That's where my BIT came from," I said, feeling a little shaky. Of course, I didn't have any kind of proof, but from what Pinnacle and the doc had told me, I was pretty damn sure that was it.
I was a bit shocked to realize that at some level, I'd actually had a hand in turning myself into a girl. Sure, Rachael's cure was responsible for turning me into a mutant, but I'd made my own BIT... and I was going to have to live with it. Whether I liked it or not, this was what I looked like now and only time and age could change that.
Then as I thought about it, I actually felt a strange sense of amusement. After all, if I was right, then it seemed that I was only a little girl because my subconscious mind was trying to make me happy again, in a sort of odd and twisted way. It was the only thing I could think of that really made sense, and it sort of felt right.
"I found your clothes," Melanie said as she stepped back into the room, only to stop and stare at me in surprise. "Are you all right, Dad?"
"I'm fine," I told her with a smile, gesturing down at myself and asking, "What do you think?"
Melanie blinked at that, then responded, "It looks nice on you but... " She shook her head then said, "I'm just surprised you'd wear something like that."
I shrugged in response. "I always said that girls should dress like girls."
"Oh, I remember," Melanie responded with a chuckle and a gleam of amusement in her eyes. "I was actually going to remind you about that once you settled in a bit more... "
"Sorry I ruined your fun," I told her with a chuckle of my own, knowing where her daughters got their mischievious streak.
Melanie stared at me for a moment, then admitted, "I'm just surprised at how well you're taking this... "
"I don't have a lot of choice," I pointed out with a shrug, trying to act as though my new body didn't bother me at all. "I always said that if you have a problem, either fix it or learn to deal with it. And I can't exactly change back, even if I did want to." I shuddered at the sudden thought of waking back up in the hospital bed and discovering this whole thing had just been some sort of dream. To be given this second chance and then have it snatched away... that would be the real nightmare. "This is pretty damn weird, but it sure ain't the end of the world. In fact, for me, it's the start of a whole new one."
"Now I'm almost jealous," Melanie told me with a chuckle.
After this, I went to find Kimberly and Kaylie, who were actually waiting in the hall to see if they could catch a glimpse of me in a dress. Kimberly was wearing a frilly dress of her own and both girls squealed in delight when they saw me.
"Now then," I said, putting my hands on my hips and staring at Kaylie. "You're not dressed right young lady."
Kaylie's eyes went wide as she realized what I meant, then started to protest. However, Melanie told her daughter, "You were the one who brought up wearing dresses, so fair is fair... " Then she turned to look down at me and commented, "I've been looking for an excuse to see her dressed up again... "
"Yeah, get a dress," Kimberly cheerfully told her sister, who practically pouted as she went back to her room. Then Kimberly looked and me and said, "You look really pretty... "
"You too sweetheart," I told her with a grin.
Then to entertain Kimberly, I created a new ribbon for her, which had already become her favorite magic trick. At the rate I've been creating these things, the house would probably get full of them in no time if it wasn't for the fact that they just vanished after about a day. I'd discovered that yesterday when all my oldest ribbons started to disappear. After a few seconds, I decided to impress Kimberly further by creating a larger ribbon, one that was four inches across and eight feet long.
"Wow," Kimberly immediately exclaimed, grabbing the ribbon with an almost manic gleam in her eyes. "It's huge... "
A short time later, Kaylie came out of her room, reluctantly wearing a dress. However, I noticed that she had a necklace on with a small skull on it as well as a pin of a skull with a bow tie. I chuckled at the image and she stuck her tongue out in response.
Since I didn't have anything better to do, I played around with the girls for awhile, still amazed that I could play with my granddaughters like this. I was getting to know them in a way that I never could have before, and I was actually having a lot of fun doing it. Several times, I was pretty sure that they even forgot who I really was, at least until they had to call out, "Grandmpa... " I had to admit, I didn't look anything like a grandpa, so it got a little awkward.
Eventually Melanie came in to check on us and found us playing a game of tug-o-war. I was holding one end of the giant ribbon, using a single hand and making a show of yawning. The girls were both grabbing hold of the other end and were pulling as hard as they could, though they couldn't budge me.
"Just how strong are you?" Melanie asked me curiously.
I gave her a faint smile, then admitted, "Honestly, I don't have a clue. I know I'm a lot stronger than I used to be, but that's about it." Then I shrugged and told her, "I'll find out more tomorrow when I get tested."
Melanie looked vaguely worried for a moment, probably because I was playing with her daughters and we didn't even know what I was capable of. That thought sobered me up as I realized that she had to be thinking about Rachael, and how her powers and mutation had seemed harmless at first. I was being extremely careful with Kimberly and Kaylie, but I was still dangerous.
At that moment, my good mood crashed and all I could think of was how I might accidentally hurt the girls. That was the absolute last thing I wanted to do. Maybe I should leave, find someplace else to live until I had better control of my powers.
"Dad?" Melanie asked, giving me a worried look. "Are you okay?"
"Just worried," I told her honestly. "I don't want to do anything to put you or the girls in danger... "
"You won't," Melanie insisted, giving me a look that suggested she didn't doubt that one bit. "I know you've got these weird new powers, but I've seen how careful you are with them and I know you wouldn't do anything to hurt them."
I was still feeling depressed, but Melanie bent down and gave me a hug. It was warm and comforting, and very strange getting a motherly hug from my own daughter. However, it did make me smile and brought my mood back up again.
"Thank you," I told her. Then I smiled faintly and held out my hand, deciding to show her another trick that I'd discovered with my power last night. Instead of a ribbon, I formed a large silk scarf, which was technically pretty close to being a ribbon. "Here you go," I said, presenting the scarf with a flourish. "It should only last a day though."
Melanie accepted the scarf and then ran her hands over it, saying, "It's so soft and smooth... It feels like silk, but I don't think it is... "
"I'm not sure what it is," I admitted. "Hopefully, I'll find out more about it tomorrow." Then I paused and mused, "I'll also have to figure out a codename... "
"Supergirl," Kimberly exclaimed excitedly.
"She can't be Supergirl," Kaylie told her sister in a smug tone.
"Super Duper Girl," Kimberly offered next, stating this with a serious look on her face that suggested she really thought this was a good name.
"I don't think so," I responded with a chuckle.
"Mighty Mite?" Melanie offered with a faint smirk of amusement. "Maybe Power Princess... or Tiny Titan... "
"Yeah," Kimberly agreed cheerfully. "Power Princess... "
I shook my head at that, "No... not quite what I was looking for." And of course, there was no way I was going to call myself 'Princess' anything.
"How about... the Crusher?" Kaylie offered with a grin. "Or Lady Lethal... "
I shook my head at that, thinking that those names were getting worse and worse. Those names actually sounded like something a villain would use, and I definitely had no intention of following the same path as Rachael.
"How about Havoc Girl?" Kaylie suggested.
This time Melanie gave her a flat look and simply stated, "No."
A few more names were passed around, though I still hadn't decided on anything. I wasn't looking for one of those names that made me sound like a badass. I didn't want a name that would make people be afraid of me or think of me as a possible threat. That kind of thing might be looking for trouble.
"Ribbon Girl," Kimberly said. "Because you make pretty ribbons... "
"Well, that name certainly is less threatening," I admitted with a smile.
Then Melanie pointed out, "Dad, I was just thinking about how awkward it will be calling you that when we're out in public... "
"Yeah," Kaylie responded with a smirk. "People are really gonna stare when I call you Grandpa."
I nodded thoughtfully at that, seeing that they had a point. My hair and eye color were already guaranteed to get me attention whenever I was in public, so I imagined that having people call me 'Dad' and 'Grandpa' when I looked like this was abound to draw even more. I let out a sigh.
"I guess I need a new name to use too," I said, giving Melanie a wry smile and adding, "I don't exactly look like an Al anymore." I thought about it for a moment, then asked, "How about Alice?"
"Lame," Kaylie blurted out. "I mean, it's really old fashioned... "
"I am an old fashioned kind of guy," I reminded her. "Girl."
"How about Alyss?" Kaylie suggested, then spelled it out.
After thinking about it for a moment, I mused, "Alyss... " My first thought had been to turn that name down, but I actually kind of liked it. "Alyss it is."
Kaylie grinned at that, obviously proud at having picked out my new name. "You need a middle name too," she insisted.
"Megan," I said quietly, thinking of the woman who must have been a saint to put up with someone like me for all those years. Even though she'd been gone for so long, I still missed her a great deal. My eyes started to mist a little as I announced my new name, "Alyss Megan Morgan."
"I like it," Melanie told me, looking as though her own eyes were starting to mist up. She gave me an approving smile.
"You have the same middle name as me," Kimberly blurted out.
"So I do," I responded, looking to my youngest granddaughter and smiling. "We were both named after a very special woman."
Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, July 12th, 2007
The couch was nice and comfortable, especially as I sat back with my feet on the coffee table while sipping a cup of coffee. It was early in the morning, and like yesterday, I was the first one up. It was becoming pretty clear to me that my new body didn't need as much sleep as it used to. With barely more than four hours, I was wide awake and bursting with energy, which meant that I might end up making a habit of this early morning quiet time.
I finished reading the book I was holding, then as I closed the cover, I also closed my eyes and thought about what I'd just read. I'd absorbed everything so fast that it took a moment to put it all together in my head and look at it consciously. This was the fourth book I'd read this morning and it still amazed me at how easy this was. There had been two books on computers, one on household plumbing, and now I'd just finished a horror novel that I'd found sitting on the couch. I shuddered faintly, deciding that in this case, my new photographic memory might end up being a downside.
But in spite of the bad imagery that the horror novel left in my head, I was still feeling eager and excited. After learning so much from the other books, I was looking forward to finding something else to read. It was strange, but being able to absorb knowledge so quickly and easily only made me hungry for more. I realized that books were becoming like potato chips for me. I couldn't stop with just one. And since I'd never been much of a reader before, this was almost as big a change for me as turning into a girl.
Like yesterday, Melanie was the next person to get up, and when she saw me sitting there with a small stack of books, she let out a loud yawn and asked, "Do you really plan on reading all that?"
"Actually," I responded wryly. "I just finished reading all that." She gave me a look of surprise and I pointed out, "My new powers include speed reading and a photographic memory."
Melanie stared at me for a moment, then let out a sigh. "You know, I'm really starting to wish I could get that mutant upgrade too... "
I chuckled at that, then joked, "Well, we could always see if your sister can hook you up... "
"No thanks," Melanie responded with a visible shudder. "I don't want to risk waking up with tentacles... "
I nodded as I looked at the small stack of books, then mused, "I think I'm going to need a visit to the library... "
Melanie gave me another odd look, then shook her head, "You know Alyss... "
She hesitated at that, obviously using my new name to help her get into the habit of using it. We'd gone shopping yesterday so I could buy some clothes of my own, especially shoes and underwear, and Melanie and Kimberly had both slipped and called me 'Dad' or 'Grandpa' while we were out. I'd already gotten some odd looks because of my hair, and this had definitely added to it. However, I was pretty sure that the people who'd overheard just thought they were teasing me because of my hair color.
"When I was growing up," she continued, "I don't think I remember you ever reading anything other than a magazine... "
"People change," I told her with a sigh, feeling self-conscious as I thought about just how much I'd been changing in so little time. "Even a stubborn old bastard like me."
After this, I went to go take a bath, this time giving in to the temptation and using the bubble bath. Not only did the thick layer of bubbles help to hide my body so I didn't feel like some kind of pervert, it was also the kind of silly fun that I hadn't been able to enjoy since I was a kid the first time. The way I figured it, since I was stuck being a kid again, I might as well take advantage of it.
When I was done with my bath, I turned my attention to drying off, which as I'd learned yesterday, was a real pain in the ass. I was rather proud of my long hair, but it took forever to dry. I sat down and began to dry my hair and brush it the way Melanie had shown me yesterday, making sure it didn't tangle and knot up. But considering the nature and texture of my hair, I was pretty sure that I wouldn't have nearly as many problems with that as most girls would.
Eventually I was able to go back to my room to get dressed, which left the choice of what to wear. My eyes went to the dress in the corner that I'd worn all day yesterday, even while we were out shopping. Though it had been hard to admit, I'd actually had a lot of fun wearing it. I was pretty sure, a large part of that had simply been because it brought back so many good memories.
"Little girls should dress like little girls," I mused, having said that same thing to Meg and our daughters on numerous occasions. Of course, Meg usually had her own thing to say about that. I smiled at the memory.
Then my attention turned to another dress that was hanging from the closet, one that was purple and a bit frilly, and which went well with my violet eyes. That was one of the main reasons I'd bought the dress while we'd been out shopping. Since I'd been having fun in Kaylie's hand-me-down dress, I'd decided on an impulse that I wanted one of my own. And since I now had it, today seemed like the perfect time to wear it.
I got dressed, then created a couple of small purple ribbons which I tied through my hair. When I was done, I felt satisfied that I looked like a proper little girl. I couldn't really say why I was so interested in playing up the whole little girl look, though I definitely was. Maybe, it was because it made me feel like I wasn't only accepting the second chance I'd been given, but was embracing it as well.
Once I was ready, I went to get breakfast, finding that everyone else was up now as well. However, Mark was just on his way out the door to work. He paused to stare at me for several long seconds, looking a little surprised, though I wasn't sure why he was since he'd seen me in a dress yesterday. Then he called out a goodbye to the family before leaving.
"You look really pretty," Kimberly told me. Then she looked down at the pajamas she was still wearing and announced, "I wanna wear a dress too... "
"Not me," Kaylie responded emphatically, apparently having reached her limit by wearing one for a couple hours yesterday.
"Isn't Grandpa... I mean Alyss pretty?" Kimberly pestered her sister. "I wish I was that pretty... "
"You're a lot prettier than I am," I told her with a smile, earning a squeal of delight from the little girl.
"Yeah," Kaylie said, staring at me with a skeptical look before almost reluctantly admitting, "But you look kind of... weird."
"Weird?" I asked, reaching up to touch my hair a little self-consciously.
"I wasn't going to say anything," Melanie said, looking down at me with an uncomfortable expression. Then she quickly blurted out, "I mean, you do look very pretty, but... "
I let out a sigh at that, wondering why I felt bothered by that. I'd never considered myself vain before, at least not about anything but my beard. But now, I actually felt a little bothered by the idea that they thought I looked weird. And the fact was, with my eye and hair color, it wasn't a surprise.
"You do make a very pretty little girl," Melanie told me, choosing her words carefully. "And it isn't just that your hair color is... different. It's... a lot of little things. I mean, you look like a little girl, but you don't talk like one or have the right body language. And the way you look at people... It's just... " She paused at that, trying to decide how to say what she wanted to.
"Creepy," Kaylie blurted out, though she looked at me and suddenly looked guilty and embarrassed. In a quieter voice she said, "You come off as just a little creepy... "
Melanie gave me an apologetic look. "I'm sorry... "
I frowned at that, then went to the bathroom where I got a footstool so I could get a better view of myself in the mirror. A single look was enough to see just how exotic I looked, not only with the hair and eye color, but with the dress. After all, I knew that most little girls didn't wear dresses like this except on special occasions. But now that Melanie had pointed it out, I could see what she meant. There was something in my facial expression and the way I was holding my body. But even more than that, there was something in my eyes. I didn't have that innocent look that would have been expected from a real little girl. Instead, these eyes were just a little too knowing.
"Ah, crap," I exclaimed in annoyance. I went back to Melanie and the girls, saying, "Now I feel like a damn idiot... "
Kaylie had a guilty look on her face, as though I was going to somehow blame her for pointing out that I came off as a little creepy. Then she stared at me and suddenly began go grin. Without saying a word, she ran back to her bedroom, coming back half a minute later.
"Here," Kaylie exclaimed excitedly, holding out the pin I'd seen her wearing. It looked like a skull with a pink bow, something which should have been dark but which had been made girlie instead. She put the pin on my dress, then she held out a hair clasp that also had a skull on it and put it into my hair. I let her do this, wondering what she was up to. When she was done, she announced, "There... "
Melanie stared at me for a moment, then started to laugh. When she stopped she said, "Actually, that does sort of help... "
I went back to the bathroom to check myself out in the mirror, and it took me a moment to see what Melanie meant. Though I looked every inch the cute and innocent girl, my hair, eyes and more adult mannerisms clashed with that and came off as a little creepy. But with those skulls, it looked like I was intentionally trying to look a little dark and creepy, so it actually reduced the effect.
"That might actually be a good look for you," Melanie told me a few minutes later. "I mean, I'm not sure I'll ever get used to you looking like this, but... " She paused at that, giving me a thoughtful look before adding, "To be honest, you'll never be able to look like a normal little girl, so you might as well stand out on your own terms."
"Now you look cool," Kaylie told me.
I gave her a look of mock hurt and asked, "Are you saying I wasn't cool before?"
She had a look of being caught in a trap, until Kimberly, Melanie, and I all burst out laughing. Kaylie just glared at me for a moment before announcing, "You're mean... "
I had to admit, I rather liked this look myself. I'd been surprised to find that I liked wearing a dress and playing up the whole little girl thing, but I'd had too much life experience and too many bad memories to feel comfortable with the sweet and innocent look. In spite of being a little girl, I wasn't sweet and innocent. My hand went to the pin Kaylie had given me and I ran my fingers over the skull, smiling faintly at the sight. The skull was a traditional symbol of death, but for me it was a good reminder of just how close I'd come to dying, and more importantly, just how lucky I was to even be alive.
"I think I like it," I admitted, though I knew that I'd have to experiment a bit to make it really work.
Melanie shook her head, though she looked amused as she said, "Even in my wildest dreams, I never imagined my Dad would go for the gothic lolita look."
I laughed at that, then teased, "Just think of this as revenge for the time you came home with a purple mohawk and damn near gave me a heart attack... "
"My little sister was a mutant," Melanie responded, turning bright red in obvious embarrassment. "I had to stand out somehow... "
"You had a Mohawk?" Kaylie demanded of her Mom, suddenly looking quite interested.
At that moment, I suddenly saw my opportunity to pay my daughter back for all those ulcers she'd given me when she was younger. Sure, Rachael had given me more, but Melanie had still contributed to them. Now, I had plenty of embarrassing stories to share with her daughters, and perhaps a few ideas to give them at the same time. I began snickering as I thought about my long delayed revenge.
After this, we all settled down for breakfast, though I took the opportunity to entertain Kimberly and Kaylie with a few stories about their Mom. Melanie kept trying to change the topic or distract them, then she finally threatened me with no dessert if I told them anymore. I stuck my tongue out at her, trying to play the part of little girl, but I figured she'd had enough for now. Besides, I needed to save some material for later.
Eventually, it was time to leave for my appointment at the MCO powers testing facility. I'd always believed that the MCO were necessary, that they helped to track the dangerous mutants and protected normal people from them. But now that I'd become one of those dangerous mutants, I couldn't help but remembering all of Rich's paranoid claims and conspiracy theories about them over the years. And more importantly, I couldn't help but wondering if maybe I'd been wrong.
Melanie drove me to where I was going to be tested, and as I got out of the car she said, "We can wait for you... "
I took one look at the girls, who were sitting in the back seat and shook my head. "This will probably be all day," I told her, remembering what Dr. Franklin had told me to expect. "I've got a cell phone so I'll call you when I'm done."
"Good luck," Melanie told me, looking just a little worried. "And be careful."
"I will," I promised her.
Once Melanie drove away, I carefully adjusted my dress then did my best to get into the 'sweet and innocent' little girl mode. Dr. Franklin had warned me that the local MCO probably wouldn't mess with me unless they thought I was dangerous, so I'd specifically chosen to wear the dress partly because it would be more difficult to think of me as a threat. I went to the front door, trying to act like a normal little girl, at least as much as I could.
To my surprise, there was someone standing by the front entrance who I recognized. It was Pinnacle. He took one look at me, then his eyes went wide and he did a double take.
"I certainly wasn't expecting you to adjust so quickly," he told me, still looking surprised.
I looked up at him, then responded, "You don't seem surprised to see me though... " I bit my lip thoughtfully, then added, "Running into you isn't a coincidence... "
"You got me," he agreed with an easy smile. "Doctor Franklin told me about your appointment today, so I thought I'd show up for a little moral support." He paused at that, then admitted, "And because it will be more difficult for anything to happen if you've got a witness who saw you come and can confirm whether or not you actually left."
Somehow, those words weren't all that comforting. Sure, it was nice that he was trying to look out for me, but the fact that he thought this kind of thing was necessary only made me more nervous about my testing.
"They aren't supposed to ask you for your real name or any personal information," Pinnacle continued grimly. "They're supposed to track everything under your codename in order to protect your privacy, but sometimes a tester will try getting you to tell them more so they can put it in their records."
"Thank you," I told him appreciatively before I went inside, noticing that he was still staying outside.
I went to the receptionist desk and handed her my appointment slip. She stared at me with a look of surprise, then one of sympathy. "So young," she whispered with a shake of her head. Then she gave me an obviously forced smile and asked, "What's your name sweetie?"
I knew that the appointment slip didn't have my name on it, only an appointment number. And since Pinnacle had just warned me about them trying to get my name, I gave her my best innocent smile and said, "My Mommy said I'm not supposed to tell you my real name." I knew that even with the skulls decorations on my dress and hair, I didn't look like any kind of a threat, and I wanted to continue giving that impression. I did my best to whine, "My hair just turned white... just like my Grandpa's... "
The receptionist gave me another sympathetic look before saying, "I'm sorry to hear that. Now, why don't you go right on back there. The nice men will help you test your new powers."
"Thank you," I said before going through the door she'd indicated.
A minute later, I was in front of a desk, being stared at by a short balding man with thick glasses. Though he was taller than I currently was, it was only by six inches, so I still considered him to be short. One look at him was enough for me to immediately think 'accountant'. Or at least, that was the impression he gave off.
He pushed a button on some kind of recorder, then announced, "I am Doctor Henry Pivvens, and I am about to begin the power testing of a young female mutant who appears to be nine or ten years of age." Then he looked at me again and continued, "Your MID and all records of your power testing will be tracked under your codename. Have you decided on your codename yet?" His tone was calm yet bored, adding yet something else that made me think he was an accountant.
"Yes," I answered, not even having to pretend the nervousness I actually felt. I'd been thinking about a possible codename since yesterday, and I'd decided that I didn't want it to be one that would draw attention to me or make me look dangerous. I wanted to play down the whole 'dangerous mutant' thing, so I'd picked my codename to help with that purpose. "Ribbon. My codename is Ribbon."
Dr. Pivvens looked in the computer before confirming, "That is not a codename that is currently in use. I am officially registering you as Ribbon." Then he said, "Now in your own words, tell me everything you know about your mutation, what your powers are, and how you think they work."
I did my best impression of Kimberly's bubbly enthusiasm as I said, "My hair turned all long and white... and my eyes turned this really pretty color... "
I rambled on a little, neglecting to mention that my mutation had also changed my sex and made me forty years younger. And I definitely didn't say anything about the fact that my mutation had either been caused or triggered by an outside source. The last thing I wanted to do was give the MCO the idea that Rachael had the ability to turn baseline humans into mutants.
"I'm really strong now," I told him proudly, just like a little girl might. "And I heal really fast. And I make ribbons... " I put a little extra excitement and emphasis on the word 'ribbons,' even making one appear in my hands at the same time. He looked less than impressed.
Once we were finished with the interview, Dr. Pivvens took me to another room and we began the testing. It started with tables filled with machines and piles of random parts. For the machines, I was told to try figuring out what they did, how to use them, and even to take them apart. For the parts, it was the opposite, with me having to try to figure out how to put them back together. I did pretty good taking the machines apart and with at least one of the piles of parts.
"I help my Daddy work on his car," I told Dr. Pivvens, who wrote down some notes.
Dr. Pivvens then had me to some test for psychic powers and magic, as well as a few other things, but he didn't spend a lot of time on the tests. I had the feeling that he was rushing through the tests, or at least, that he wasn't putting much effort into testing for powers that he had no reason to believe I had. I wondered absently if he had an early tee time or something that he didn't want to be late for.
Then we finally got to something that really interested me, testing my manifestor abilities. Dr. Pivvens had me make ribbons, starting with small ones and then moving to larger ones. He also had me try to create different colors, textures, and shapes. To my surprise, I discovered that I could do a little more than I'd realized. I could still only create flat pieces of fabric, but I did create a large square of silky fabric that would have been perfect as a sheet for a king size bed.
Dr. Pivvens began to test some of the ribbons I'd created, putting pieces under a torch, into bottles of chemicals, and into some weird scanning machines. When he was done, he spoke into the recorder, stating, "The default manifested material simulates the appearance and texture of silk, but it demonstrates thrice the tensile strength... " He continued to give a bunch of technical details from the testing that didn't make any sense to me, but I paid close attention because I planned on looking it up online to find out what he meant.
After we were done testing my ribbons, Dr. Pivvens announced that we were taking a break for lunch, and that I should return in one hour. I was stunned that he took someone who he believed to be a little girl, and basically kicked her out the door on her own. Maybe he thought I'd have parents waiting for me in the lobby, or maybe he didn't care. However, as I left the building, shaking my head in disgust, I half suspected the man was a robot.
As soon as I stepped outside the main entrance, Pinnacle descended from the sky and floated in the air in front of me for several seconds before he landed. "So," he asked as a greeting, "How is it going so far?"
"Not too bad," I admitted, annoyed at Rich for making me paranoid about the testing. Of course, Dr. Franklin and Pinnacle had done their share to make me worry as well. "We're supposed to test all my physical abilities after lunch... "
Pinnacle nodded at that, then asked, "Do you want to have lunch with me? My treat."
"Sure," I responded with a shrug. I'd never been one to turn down free food.
We went to a small cafe right across the street from the testing facility, and though a couple of the other customers stared at us, the employees didn't seem the least bit surprised to have a super hero sitting there. Then again, being located where they were, they must have a lot of mutants coming in from testing.
After we'd ordered, Pinnacle asked me, "What codename did you end up going with?"
I felt a bit self-conscious as I answered, "Ribbon." I summoned a ribbon, then wryly pointed out, "It seemed pretty accurate... "
Pinnacle chuckled at that, then gave me an odd look. "I'm pretty surprised to see you dressed like that," he finally told me, looking just a little confused. "I thought that with who you really are, that you'd be fighting the little girl thing tooth and nail... "
"I thought about it," I admitted with a shrug. "Then I decided to embrace it instead. I mean, I'm going to be stuck as a little girl no matter what I do, so I might as well have fun with it."
"Good way to look at it," he agreed. He hesitated a moment, then asked, "Have you talked to Lady Havoc about this?"
I shook my head at that. "No, I haven't seen her since the hospital. Honestly, I wish I did know how to get hold of her so I could at least let her know I'm alive."
We continued talking for the rest of lunch, then we returned to the MCO building. He nodded to me, then flew up into the air while I went inside to continue my testing.
Dr. Pivvens had me change into a jumpsuit that apparently had some sensors build into it, then he had me run on a treadmill. Running was easy, even when he increased the speed and raised the angle. I kept at it, surprised to realize that it was not only easy, but that I didn't feel the least bit tired. But then, without warning, he threw a tennis ball at the back of my head.
"No danger sense," he mused as he wrote down a note, not even bothering to apologize to me.
Next, Dr. Pivvens had me test something that I'd really been curious about, my strength. There was a large machine, that didn't look anything like what I'd ever seen in a gym, other than the fact that there was a bench and a bar in the middle of the whole thing.
When I asked about the machine, Dr. Pivvens answered, "It uses electromagnetic fields to help simulate whatever weight is required." His tone was flat and bored, with a faint hint of annoyance at the interruption.
I climbed on the bench, then had to wait as Dr. Pivvens adjusted the bar height for my size. Once that was done, he turned on the machine and I lifted the bar up, finding it ridiculously easy. But as I held it there, I felt the weight increasing, pushing back with more and more weight. However, I continued pushing the bar up until it finally became too much for me to hold.
Dr. Pivvens stared at me with a look of surprise, and for a moment, I thought I even saw a gleam of fear in his eyes. Then he covered it up and wrote down a note.
"That was fun," I said, still trying to play the innocent little girl routine, though I wasn't sure how well it was actually working. "How much was that?"
When Dr. Pivvens told me, I nearly shit my pants in surprise. I stared at the machine in disbelief, sure that he had to be messing with me. I knew that I was a lot stronger than before, but I'd thought that I'd probably end up benching a thousand pounds or something. But to my shock, what I'd been lifting hadn't been measured in pounds so much as in tons. Specifically, I'd just benched over seven tons.
"I can bench press a car," I blurted out, only to pause as I realized that even my old truck would be fairly light for me now.
Until now, Dr. Pivvens hadn't been telling me the results of my tests, though he still looked a bit shaken at this one. He cleared his throat and said, "You're an exemplar six... and you'll probably get even stronger as you get older."
I stared at him as I absorbed that, knowing that mutant power levels ranged from one to seven with seven being the most powerful. I wasn't among the most powerful exemplars, but I was definitely pretty high up there. This was way more than I'd expected, even after Dr. Franklin told me that I was probably a high level exemplar.
After this came a few more tests of my physical abilities, and I found myself surprised a few more times, but not nearly as much as I'd been by the weight lifting. It seemed that as a high level exemplar, speed, reflexes, durability, stamina, and numerous other things had all been improved. And as Dr. Pivvens pointed out again, I was still young, so my abilities would likely improve further as I grew older.
Eventually, the testing was finished and I ended up back in Dr. Pivvens' office. He typed on his computer as he put together my MID, and when he was finished, he printed it out and presented me with the small plastic card that was the size and shape of a driver's license.
My picture was on the card, and right across the top it said my name, Ribbon. My ratings were listed as exemplar 6, regeneration 4, and manifestor 3C.
Dr. Pivvens had lost much of the cold boredom after seeing how much weight an innocent looking little girl like me could lift, and he hadn't quite recovered it since. He cleared his throat, then repeated what he'd already told me about being an exemplar and probably getting stronger with age.
"Your durability and resistance to injury are drastically increased as well," he told me, looking as though he couldn't quite believe it. "Your bones will be extremely difficult to break. Your skin will be tough enough to stop small caliber bullets, and higher caliber rounds will be unlikely to penetrate deeply or cause serious damage." He paused at that, looking me in the eyes and adjusting his glasses. "I wouldn't bother to explain this to most children your age, but as you've also acquired the exemplar mental package, I think you'll be able to understand what this means."
I nodded at that, still feeling a bit stunned by these revelations. "And even if I do get hurt," I mused aloud, "I'll heal."
"Very rapidly," Dr. Pivvens agreed. "You're a high level regenerator four, and I believe that you'll eventually grow to level five."
Dr. Pivvens had much less to say about my manifestor abilities, which weren't really all that impressive. That was okay though, as I'd known my ability to summon ribbons wasn't going to impress anyone except little girls, which was why I'd chosen to use that as the basic for my codename.
Since we were done with the testing, I took my new MID and hurried out of the building, letting out a sigh once I'd stepped outside. After Dr. Pivvens' reaction to my new strength, I'd been a little nervous that they might try something.
"Hey there," Pinnacle called out as he flew down and landed beside me. "So, what are the results?"
I handed him my MID, then said, "Ironically, turning into a little girl made me really strong and tough."
"You're a brick," Pinnacle commented, sounding just a little surprised.
I glared at him and demanded, "Are you calling me dumb?"
"No," he quickly assured me. "That's just a term for a power... or for an effect. Anyone who's strong and tough enough gets called a brick."
"A brick," I mused, thinking that was probably a decent term for someone who was pretty tough.
"Admittedly," Pinnacle told me with a chuckle. "Exemplars tend to be on the squishier side of the brick spectrum, unless they have something else like a PK shell going for them too... "
I nodded at that, then called Melanie to let her know that I was ready to be picked up. While I waited, Pinnacle and I continued to talk, mostly with him giving me advice on what to expect as a mutant and how to avoid trouble.
When Melanie finally arrived, pulling her car up in front, I told Pinnacle, "Thanks for all your help." I shook his hand, adding, "I hope I see you again sometime."
"Well, you know where to find me," he responded with a smile. Then as I went to climb into Melanie's car, he called out, "Good luck, Ribbon."
Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, July 13th, 2007
It was late morning and I was in the back yard, watching as Kaylie and Kimberly tried to play jump rope with ribbons I'd summoned for them. The ribbons were actually too light to work well for that purpose, but that didn't stop the girls from trying, giggling loudly as they did so.
When I'd come out into the back yard, it hadn't been to play with the girls, though it hadn't been long before they'd followed me out here to see what I was doing. My original intention had been to practice with my powers, to see how far I could stretch my ability to summon ribbons. As I'd learned during my power testing, I could do more than just silk ribbons, so I wanted to find out exactly how much more.
Since the first things I'd summoned had been ribbons, I hadn't really thought about it and assumed that my ability was to summon them. Now, I was starting to realize that my power was a little broader than that, though perhaps not by too much. Still, I suspected that my focus on ribbons was probably because I'd been clutching one in my hand when my mutation manifested and my body began changing, and I'd been thinking about that same ribbon when I first discovered that power. In a way, I'd probably imprinted on the image of a ribbon, which had directed the way I'd used that power until now.
While the girls were occupied, I summoned a large sheet of fabric, about the size of a bed sheet. Normally, anything I summoned seemed to automatically come out as silk, but as I'd learned during power testing, that with a little concentration, I could control the texture almost as easily as the color. This sheet wasn't nearly as soft or smooth as what I was used to creating and felt more like cotton, which was what I'd been going for. I was pleased that it had worked, though annoyed that I still couldn't seem to create anything other than fabrics. All my attempts to create anything else had failed.
Melanie came out and watched as I experimented with a few other fabrics, creating a soft sheet of velvet without trouble, though I couldn't really manage wool. It seemed that the texture of that one was pushing my abilities just a little too far. I wasn't actually creating real silk or velvet, though the stuff I created seemed to mimic it pretty well.
"Maybe you should take up sewing," Melanie suggested with an amused look. "At least you'd save a lot of money on materials... "
"Except for the fact that everything disappears in one day," I pointed out with a chuckle.
I stared at the various ribbons and pieces of fabric that were scattered about, suddenly wondering if maybe Melanie's idea might not be a bad one after all. Of course, sewing my summoned material would be absolutely pointless, but maybe I could use it for more than just ribbons and scarves. I thought about it for a moment, realizing that with the experimenting I'd done so far, I hadn't actually tried anything very complicated in shape.
"Might as well give it a go," I mused, focusing my attention on what I wanted and then willing it into existence.
A moment later, I was holding a piece of red silk in my hand, though this was much more complicated than a simple ribbon or sheet. This time, I'd actually created an entire silk shirt. I held it up, marvelling at my success, though it took me a few seconds to realize that it actually looked like crap. For one thing, while it was a shirt, it was extremely basic and plain in design. And then there was the fact that the neck hole was too small and the arms were too long and narrow. No one could possibly wear something like this, or even want to, but it was a shirt.
"When did you learn to do that?" Melanie asked, coming over to look at the shirt.
"Just now," I admitted, giving her a wry smile. "You just gave me the idea."
She gave the shirt a skeptical look, then admitted, "Your sense of fashion could use some work... "
I just shrugged at that since she was absolutely right. The truth was, I could rebuild an engine block with my eyes closed, but I'd never even thought about how clothes were put together. That just hadn't been part of my life or experience. Hell, I barely even paid attention to what I wore most of the time, a fact that Meg used to tease me about all the time. I could still hear her exasperated voice saying, "You look like you just got dressed out of the rag bag... "
"There aren't any seams," Melanie pointed out, touching the shoulder where she sleeve connected. She was right, there weren't any seams or stitches at all. The entire shirt was made of one solid piece of fabric. Then she grinned at me and said, "Now imagine what you could do if you actually learned to sew... "
I shuddered at that, saying, "No thanks." I might be a LOT more open to trying new things, but I still didn't have any desire to sit in one spot for hours on end, sewing two pieces of fabric together. However, I was pretty sure that Melanie was going to try giving me lessons anyway, probably dragging the girls into it as well.
Before Melanie could nag me into doing whatever she wanted the way her mother used to, a voice called out, "Hey Sis. Hey... Dad."
"Uncle Rich," Kimberly exclaimed as she ran to greet him. Kaylie stood back and nodded her acknowledgment.
Rich came into the yard, smiling at the girls, though his eyes were locked on me. Rich had seen me in the Clinic when I still looked like I was a teenager, but this was the first time he'd seen me since I'd finished my transformation. He stared, obviously already knowing what to expect since Melanie had told him on the phone, but he was still a bit stunned.
"Hey, Rich," I greeted him, just a little awkwardly.
"Wow Dad," he started uncomfortably. "You look... "
I gave him a wry smile, wondering what he would have said if I'd been wearing a dress again today. Then again, I had a few ribbons in my hair so that must have been girlie enough to create an impression, even with the skull decorations I was still wearing.
"I'm calling myself Alyss now," I told him with a sigh. I gestured down at myself and gave him a wry smile. "It would probably be a bit too weird if you called me Dad when we were out in public."
"Definitely," he agreed. The he admitted, "It's hard to even think of you as Dad... and I know who you are."
"She certainly doesn't act much like she used to," Melanie told him, almost as though I wasn't right there. "I mean, she spent a couple days wearing dresses... "
"Hey," I protested.
But Melanie continued as though I hadn't interrupted, "And I think that if she had a clean one, she probably would have worn that today." Then she stuck her tongue out at me, which got Kaylie and Kimberly to giggle.
"They are kind of comfortable," I mumbled, knowing that I was blushing. After all the talks I'd given to Rich over the years about how to be a man, he had to be laughing his ass off at this.
"Alyss is really pretty in a dress," Kimberly added proudly. "And she makes really pretty ribbons... "
"I see that," Rich responded with a chuckle as he looked at the various ribbons that were scattered around the yard. I shook my head and let out a sigh, knowing that I'd brought it on myself. Then he looked at me and asked, "You ready to go Dad... Alyss?"
I nodded at that, looking forward to having lunch with my son. Ever since I got out of the Clinic, I'd been spending a lot of time with Melanie and the girls, so Rich called and demanded his share of my time as well. Or at least, he'd called and asked if I'd have lunch with him.
"What time is it anyway?" Melanie asked.
"Ten forty-seven," I answer absently, earning a look of surprise since I hadn't looked at a watch.
Yesterday, I'd set Melanie's old watch, and had then kept an eye on it for a couple minutes. Afterwards, I could still see the time clicking away in the back of my head, continuing just the way it had on the watch face, and still keeping accurate time. Even now, that little clock in the back of my head was still there whenever I thought about it, like a computer program that was running in the background.
A minute later, I climbed into the passenger side of Rich's car, letting out a sigh as I did so. This was a reminder of the fact that with my new body, I wouldn't be driving anywhere for a long time, at least not while behind the wheel. Sure, I could probably get Dr. Franklin to sign some papers confirming my identity so I could get an updated driver's license, but the truth was, every cop who saw me behind the wheel would pull me over. Being known as a grown man in a little girl's body would get me a lot of attention, and none of it was the kind I wanted to deal with. That was why I was trying to keep a low profile and play up the whole little girl thing.
"What's wrong?" Rich asked me as we pulled out of the driveway. Then he paused and let out a sigh. "Sorry, I guess that's kind of obvious."
"It could be a lot worse," I said, reminding myself at the same time I told him. Every time I started to feel sorry for myself, I just had to remember that. And I had to remember that even with all the problems I was dealing with, I was pretty damn lucky to even have the opportunity to do so.
We drove in silence for several minutes, then Rich cautiously asked, "What's it like? I mean, turning into a girl?"
"Pretty damn strange," I admitted with a shrug. "I mean, it's like the whole world suddenly grew larger around me. Every time I look in the mirror, I'm startled until I remember that's me. And then I've got people being insulting, treating me like I'm stupid because I look like a kid." I paused at that, then quietly added, "And at first, I was scared shitless that I'd end up with Diedrick's."
"That sounds... horrible," Rich admitted, giving me a sympathetic look.
"Yeah, but it ain't really all that bad either," I said, earning a look of surprise. "I mean, I'm young again, I'm healthy, and I've got more energy than I know what to do with. Honestly, it freaks me out, but it excites me at the same time. I've been given a second chance, and I feel like I can do damn near anything with it."
When we reached our destination, a decent restaurant that was a bit nicer than what I would have sprung for, we went inside. I looked over the menu and immediately went to the burger, but then I paused, remembering that eggs benedict that I'd had back at the Clinic's cafeteria. That wasn't something I would have tried normally, but it had been pretty damn good. With that in mind, I decided to order something I'd never had before instead.
"Quiche Loraine?" Rich asked, staring at me in surprise. "I never thought I'd see you order something like that... "
I just chuckled at that and pointed out, "I've been trying lots of new things lately. I figure, what's the point of a second chance if I don't take full advantage of it."
Rich gave me an odd look. "Yeah," he agreed, giving me a smile. "You shouldn't waste a second chance."
We continued talking as we ate, then when we'd finished, he asked to see my MID. I hesitated a moment, then I pulled the card out and slid it to him. He stared at it for several seconds, nodding faintly.
"Exemplar six," he finally said, giving me a curious look. "That's pretty impressive."
"I'm trying not to make a big deal of it," I admitted. "I know good and well how people treat those they're afraid of, so I figure I'll just keep looking harmless. The way I figure it, the less people think of me as being dangerous, the better."
Rich nodded again, giving me another odd look and saying, "I know exactly what you mean." He handed my card back to me, then a moment later, he slid something else across the table to me as well. I looked down at it and was surprised to see that it was another MID.
"What the... ?" I started, though the answer was obvious. Rich was a mutant.
"My codename is Shortcut," he told me quietly, staring at the table instead of me. "I'm a teleporter."
I stared at the MID and then at my son, remembering his passionate arguments about how mutants were an oppressed minority and the MCO were fascist thugs. I'd always thought he felt that way because of Rachael, never having guessed that it was something even more personal.
"Why didn't you ever tell me?" I asked, feeling hurt that he'd keep something this big from me.
Rich gave me a guilty look, then explained, "I manifested right after Mom died. You were broken up over that... and over Rachael. I was afraid that my being a mutant would be too much... that after what happened with Rachael, you'd freak out at having to deal with another mutant kid."
I frowned, feeling almost as though he'd hit me. Did he really think I could ever turn my back on one of my kids? Did he really think I wouldn't have accepted him... that I wouldn't have loved him anymore?
"At first," Rich continued, giving me a weak smile, "I told myself that I'd tell you when the time was right. But it never really seemed to be the right time, and the longer I waited, the harder it was to bring it up."
"Does... does Melanie know?" I asked him quietly.
Rich hesitated a moment, then admitted, "Yeah. I made her promise not to tell anyone... " He paused for several seconds, then admitted, "I bribed her with a trip to Paris."
I stared at Rich for a moment, then I burst out laughing. "Yeah, that would do it."
The mood lightened again after that and Rich gave me a faint smile, saying, "I'm glad I finally told you," Then he paused and had a thoughtful look on his face before adding, "It means I can also tell you about a job offer I just got... "
"A job offer?" I asked curiously.
"From a company called Trin and Macintyre," he told me, grinning rather proudly. "They want me to work for them as a courier... "
"A courier?" I asked in surprise. Then I carefully asked, "This wouldn't involve wearing spandex or anything, would it?"
"God, I hope not," he responded with a shudder. "That would be a deal breaker."
When we left the restaurant a short time later, we were both in a good mood again. Though I was still a little hurt that Rich hadn't told me he was a mutant until now, I was kind of excited about it as well. Or at least, I was pleased to discover that he had at least a little understanding of what I was dealing with, and it would give us a lot to talk about in the future.
"While we're in the area," I told Rich, "I want to stop off at the library and pick a few things up."
Rich gave me a brief look of surprise, then commented, "Melanie said you'd been reading a lot to kill time... "
"Not to kill time," I told him with a grin that probably resembled the manic one Kimberly had whenever she got excited. "Let's just say, I've discovered a new love of learning... "
"You really have changed," Rich said with a note of approval.
Since the library was just a few blocks away, we decided to just go ahead and walk there. I had a feeling that Rich was eager to show off his teleporting power, but he was also happy to spend a little extra time in my company, getting to know the new me. After that shocking revelation in the restaurant, I definitely found this to be a relief.
We hadn't gone very far down the street when we noticed that there was some kind of protest going on ahead of us. I scowled in annoyance, having a dislike of protestors in general. Most of the time, all they were doing was getting in the way, messing with traffic, and making pests of themselves so they could feel good about whatever it was they were protesting, without actually doing anything real. But then, I noticed what was written on the signs, recognizing the symbol that I'd once worn on a pin.
"Humanity First," Rich spat out bitterly.
At this point, we were almost right on the anti-mutant protestors, who were shouting out about how mutants were abominations. I felt a knot in my stomach as I remembered being part of a couple similar protests in the past. I'd done it because some of my buddies were, but I'd felt like an idiot just standing out there with a sign in my hand and yelling. I'd been worried about dangerous mutants being in our schools and putting my kids at risk, but I hadn't seen how standing out with a sign would fix that.
"What the hell?" one of the protesters demanded, staring straight at me with a look of disgust. "Is that kid a damn mutant?"
"Of course not," Rich snapped, acting as though he was offended by the very idea. "She's too young to be a mutant... "
I played along, giving my best innocent look and hoping that I didn't come off as too creepy. "He called me a mutant," I whined.
"The hair color is because she's albino," Rich lied, though that wouldn't fool anyone who actually knew anything about albinos. "My buddy is with the MCO and already checked to make sure... "
Several of the protestors were staring at us suspiciously, but their leader nodded reluctantly and gave me a sympathetic look, "Poor kid... I mean, being that young and having freak hair... " I was careful not to look directly at him, hoping that he didn't notice my eye color. "You'd better make sure you keep getting her checked too... just in case."
"Of course," Rich responded. "Once a year... "
We continued walking past the protestors, and I was growing more and more pissed off as we did so, though I tried not to show it. Rich was obviously trying hard not to show how upset he was either, knowing that the last thing we wanted was to spark this group into doing something stupid. I actually recognized a couple people in the group and knew first-hand that they tended to get carried away and go way too far.
Once we were past them, Rich muttered, "Fucking assholes."
I just nodded grimly at that, clenching my fists tightly and adding, "Russ sure as hell hasn't mellowed out any."
"Russ?" Rich asked with a look of surprise. "You know that guy?"
I nodded again, feeling the anger building as I spoke. "So do you. He was my best friend for more years than I want to think about, and he used to come over every once in awhile for dinner... " I smiled bitterly as I added, "You and the girls used to call him Uncle Russ... but you were pretty young."
"Uncle Russ," Rich said with a grimace before shaking his head and saying, "I think I vaguely remember that... " Then he stared down at me, obviously not happy with the reminder that I used to be a member of Humanity First. "What happened?"
"Rachael," I answered simply. "Russ suggested he could help make my mutant problem go away... "
"What did you do?" Rich asked me with a grim look.
I didn't bother looking at him as I answered. "I broke his damn nose and told him not to come anywhere near our family again." Rich laughed at that.
I clenched my fists tighter, feeling the anger bubbling up as I thought about those events. Russ had been my best friend. Hell, he'd even been best man at my wedding. However, in spite of that, he'd threatened my daughter. He'd threatened my family. Even now after years had passed, the very memory was enough to piss me off.
"Damn," I snapped, slamming my fist down on the hood of a parked car that we were walking past.
The entire hood of the car caved in under my blow, much to my surprise. I glanced back in the direction we'd come from, but it seemed that we were far enough away that none of the Humanity First protesters had noticed this.
"Let's get out of here," Rich exclaimed, giving the car a nervous look and half pulling me away and towards the library.
I was actually shaking with fear, though not fear of the protesters. I was afraid of myself. I'd known I was pretty damn strong now, but this was the first time I'd really seen it in action. This was the first time I'd actually seen just how much damage I could cause, even by accident. I'd started to get used to the idea of being a mutant and had almost forgotten just how dangerous they... WE could be.
I'd always had a bit of a temper, and I'd lost track of how many times I'd gotten pissed off and punched someone. But before, the worst that could have happened was that I'd get the shit kicked out of me, or I'd end up in jail. But now, if I lost my temper and hit someone without thinking, I'd probably kill them. I shuddered as I realized that I could end up doing the same thing that Rachael had. I could end up hurting people... killing them without meaning to.
"Alyss," Rich said once we stopped in front of the library. He stared down at me with a worried look and cautiously said, "Dad... "
"What if I hurt someone?" I asked as tears started to come. As a man, I sure as hell hadn't been one to cry, so I blamed my little girl hormones for this. "What if I hurt the girls... ?"
"You won't," Rich assured me, trying to be gentle and comforting but looking awkward at the same time. I absently thought that maybe he was a little more like me than I'd thought. "I mean, Mel told me how gentle you've been with the girls... as if they're made of fragile glass. I know you Dad. You'd never hurt them... even by accident."
"Neither would Rachael," I pointed out bitterly.
"You're not Rachael," he reminded me, looking a little hurt at the memory. "She can't control herself. You can."
I nodded at that, knowing he was right. I could control myself and I'd have to do that. With as much power as I now had, I didn't dare lose my temper anymore. Too many people could get hurt or killed if I did.
"Maybe I should sign up for some anger management classes," I half joked, wiping the tears from my eyes and feeling embarrassed to have been crying in front of Rich. I shouldn't have done that, whining about my problems to him. My job was to protect my family, not to burden then with more problems.
Rich surprised me by bending down and giving me a gentle hug, telling me, "Everything is going to be fine, Alyss."
"I'm not some little girl," I reminded him gruffly, only to have him give me an amused look and then ruffle my hair.
After this, we went into the library, though I wasn't really in the mood to do any reading anymore. However, it didn't take long for that to change. I looked over row after row of shelves, seeing countless books all spread out in front of me. My problems were forgotten for the moment as I began to think about just how much I could learn here, and I nearly drooled in anticipation. Even with all the reading I'd been doing lately, I was still surprised by this growing hunger for knowledge.
There were so many books to choose from that I had absolutely no idea where to begin. Then I remembered my experiments that morning and decided on the perfect place to start. I found the area with books on how to sew and make your own clothes, pulling one out and flipping through it.
"Are you going to check that one out?" Rich asked from behind me, probably surprised by the subject I was looking at.
"No," I responded with a shake of my head, putting the book back and grabbing another. "I already read it."
Rich stood back and watched me as I read through a second book and then grabbed a third. I was about halfway through the third when he said, "I guess I'll look around while you do your thing... "
I nodded absently at that, then continued reading, first through a few more books on making clothes, and then I went and found a couple on women's fashion and read through those as well. These were subjects that had never interested me in the least, but considering my ability to make fabric, they suddenly seemed very practical. And if nothing else, I'd always considered myself to be a practical person.
Rich and I were at the library for an hour and a half, and in that time, I read through more than a dozen books. When it was time to go, I would have grabbed more books to take with me, but I didn't actually have a library card. However, I knew that I was going to fix that the next time I came in, because after today, the library had become one of my favorite places.
"I can't believe you read all that," Rich told me as we left. "How much of that can you even remember anyway?"
"Every single page," I admitted with a wry smile. I hesitated a moment, not sure how to explain more without sounding like I was trying to brag. "It's part of the whole exemplar thing. I didn't just get a hell of a lot stronger... I also got smarter." Then I chuckled at that and joked, "You'll never believe it, but your old man is something of a genius now."
Rich stared at me for a moment, then teased, "You're right. I don't believe it."
Just then, I saw something from the corner of my eye and snapped around, just in time to see a baseball bat coming right at my face. It caught me right in the face and knocked me to the ground, but to my surprise, it didn't really hurt. It felt more like someone had smacked me in the face with one of those styrofoam swimming pool noodles.
"What the hell... ?" Rich demanded, only to have the large man who'd jumped me swing the bat at him. Rich jumped back, looking horrified.
I jumped back to my feet, feeling pissed off at this attack and the fact that he was going after my son. The large man turned to stare at me with a look of surprise, then worry.
"I knew you were genescum," he spat out triumphantly, even as there was a flash of fear in his eyes.
I snarled furiously, remembering him as being one of the protestors. He swung the baseball bat at me again, but this time I caught it in my hand, much to his surprise. Without a word, I shoved him, actually being very careful as I did so. Still, he went flying back and hit the ground. I just tossed the baseball bat aside, realizing that I didn't need to use something like that. Not anymore.
"Alyss," Rich called out, staring at me in amazement.
"Genescum bitch," my attacker snarled, looking as though he was about to jump me again. But instead, he turned and started to run.
I was pissed at this man and wasn't about to let him just get away. And though I knew I could have chased him down with ease, I reacted on instinct and tried something else instead. A long strand of silk ribbon formed in my hands, and without consciously thinking about it, I flung one end at him almost as though it was a lasso. The ribbon was far too light to be flung like that, but it ignored the laws of physics and obeyed my will instead, stretching out almost like a tentacle and then wrapping around his ankle. With his leg caught, he fell face first onto the ground, then I used the ribbon to pull him right back to me, kicking and screaming the entire way.
In seconds, I had the man hogtied with ribbon, gagging his mouth with it at the same time. And since I was feeling at least a little playful, I even made a nice big bow. Only then did I crouch down next to his head, giving him an evil smile as he stared up at me with a look of terror.
"You really shouldn't have done that," I said, grabbing his face in my hand and holding it firmly. However, in spite of my anger, I was actually being extremely careful with him. I took several deep breaths, trying to calm down so I didn't hurt this man by accident. I'd practiced handling eggs in order to learn how to gauge my strength, and as with everything else, I was able to learn quite fast.
"Alyss," Rich said, clearly worried. However, I wasn't completely sure if he was worried about me or my attacker.
"I'm fine," I told him, letting out a long sigh. I REALLY wanted to kick this piece of shit, but I didn't dare do that. I couldn't afford to lose my temper again, even for a second. Even now, I had to control it. Especially now. After several seconds, I looked the main in the eyes again and I was suddenly struck by recognition. It only took me a moment to remember where I knew him from. "You're David Barrow's kid." His eyes went wide at that.
David Barrow was one of my buddies back in the days I was in Humanity First. He'd been a big guy with a big mouth, but he'd always been quick with a joke and an invitation to dinner. His son had been a kid at that time, and the last time I'd seen him, he'd been a gangly teenager with a perpetual baseball cap on his head. I stared at the man on the ground, remembering that at one time, he'd had an obvious crush on Rachael. But of course, that all changed once Rachael manifested.
"Bobby Barrow," I said, seeing his eyes widen even further. There was a look of shock in that expression as well as fear. I felt my anger fade away as I remembered the goofy kid he used to be, and how he used to watch my daughter with those puppy dog eyes. Still, even though I knew him and his family, I couldn't let him think that jumping little girls with a baseball bat was all right. What if it had been a real little girl? A normal one with no powers? "Yes," I told him quietly. "I know where you live. I know where your family lives. I know everything about you." Of course, that wasn't true, not after all these years, but he didn't need to know that. I'd already given him enough real information to prove that I knew things I probably shouldn't.
Rich stepped closer and started to speak, but I held my hand up to indicate he should stay back, then I gave him a faint smile to show that I hadn't lost it. I was still pissed, but I wasn't about to hurt Bobby, at least not other than in his pride. I didn't feel the least bit guilty for doing that.
"So, you think that it's okay to go around and attacking people because they MIGHT be mutants," I said carefully looking him right in the eyes. "That's a VERY bad idea. Just like it's a very bad idea for you if I ever happen to see you again." Then I gave him my best evil smile and added, "And especially if I ever hear about you jumping someone again. Do you understand?"
He nodded emphatically, and I suddenly realized that I could smell piss. I glanced over and saw a small wet puddle, which both amused and disgusted me at the same time. I wondered if I could get him to shit himself too.
"Now then," I announced, giving him my best cheerful little girl smile, knowing that it probably came off as creepy too. "If I was you, I'd be pretty damn humiliated if anyone found out that I got beat up by a little girl. If it was me, I'd just tell everyone it was a big guy who did it... " I paused at that and corrected, "Or three big guys."
With that, I stood up and Rich let out a sigh of relief. He stared at me with a strange expression that seemed both surprised and impressed at the same time. After a few seconds, Rich held out his hand to me, and after I took it in my own, the air in front of us shimmered and blurred. We walked through the blur, and a moment later, we were standing right next to Rich's car.
"So," Rich asked a little awkwardly. "Do you still like pizza?"
"Of course," I responded, though I hadn't actually had pizza since my body had been changed. There were some things that I figured would never change.
Rich nodded at that, then as we climbed into the car, he gave me a grin and said, "Well, I know this great little pizza place in Chicago. Maybe next time, we can go there for lunch."
Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, July 15th, 2007
I was sitting in the back of the library, in an out of the way corner where most people wouldn't notice or bother me. A small stack of books sat beside me, though these were ones I'd already finished reading.
This wasn't the same library I'd gone to a couple days ago with Rich. After the encounter with the Humanity First protestors and the incident with Bobby Barrow, I'd thought it would be a good idea to avoid that area for awhile. Instead, I'd caught a bus to this library, which was actually a little larger and better stocked.
A woman came through one of the aisles and stood in a position where she could notice me if she actually bothered to look. I tensed up for a moment, then I let out a sigh of relief when she wandered away without coming my way.
Shortly after I'd arrived at the library, one woman had seen me with the books and had commented to someone else, "Isn't that cute, looking at the pictures and pretending she can read." It was rude and obnoxious, especially since most normal girls of my apparent age were more than capable of reading.
I finished with my latest book and set it to the side, closing my eyes and thinking about what I'd just read. I'd done this with each of the books, finding that taking a break to absorb the information made it easier to organize it in my head.
When I'd come here nearly two hours ago, I hadn't been looking for any specific book or subject. Instead, I started grabbing a variety of different things that caught my interest, ranging from subjects like math and basic physics to things like Alice in Wonderland and Othello. There were even a couple books on cars and engines, which were subjects I was already more than familiar with.
"That should do it for now," I mused, having finished with my entire stack of books.
Of course, I still had to grab a few more books that I could check out to read later. I smiled eagerly at that, having already noted some books and subjects earlier that I'd wanted to read through. And fortunately, I remembered exactly where each and every one of those was.
A short time later, I had another six books, which was the limit of how many I'd be allowed to check out. It annoyed me that I could only get so few, especially since I'd finish these in almost no time at all. Still, there was always the internet to search afterwards.
When I went to the librarian, she took a look at my books and chuckled. "Tolkien, algebra, and an English to Spanish dictionary," she commented, giving me a curious look. "That's quite an eclectic mix."
I just shrugged at that, gave her my best little girl smile and responded, "I'm an eclectic kind of person."
She seemed amused by that and continued to sign the books out to me. From her expression, I was pretty sure that she didn't think I'd actually read all these books, but that was perfectly fine with me, just as long as she let me borrow them anyway.
When I left the library, I started down the street for the bus stop, only to realize that someone was following me. I took a quick look back, trying to act as though I wasn't. It was a guy in his late thirties to early forties. The question was, was he following me because he wanted to make sure a little girl who was by herself was all right, or did he want something else?
"One way to find out," I mused, turning and walking down an alley between two buildings. He followed me, so I stopped and turned to face him. "What do you want?"
"You look lost, little girl," the man said, giving me a look that I definitely didn't like. Then he kept walking right towards me, adding, "Let Uncle Nico help you out... "
"Go away," I told him simply, definitely getting the creepy vibe from him.
When 'Uncle Nico' suddenly lunged forward and grabbed me by the shoulder, I lightly tossed him up against the wall. It only took me a few more seconds to have him wrapped up in pink ribbon like a mummy, with a nice bow.
A minute later, I was back on my way towards the bus stop, hoping that I didn't run into any other people like him. I also hoped that I didn't run into anyone who was legitimately trying to help me, because I wouldn't be able to brush them off quite as easily. Sometimes, being a little girl was a real pain in the ass.
I made it back home without much trouble, though one kindly lady on the bus was starting to get a little too nosey until her own stop came up. It would be a lot easier if I had someone who at least looked like an adult with me, someone whose very presence would cut off a lot of potential trouble, but I couldn't expect Melanie or Rich to tag along with me all the time.
The house was quiet when I returned home, though it wasn't a surprise. Mark was at work, Kaylie was going to spend the day with one of her friends down the street, and Melanie had taken Kimberly out to see the latest Disney cartoon. For the moment, I had the entire house to myself, and that was perfectly fine with me.
Once I set my books down, I turned my attention to a project that I'd been working on for the last couple days. I'd been practicing with my manifestor power, trying to gain enough control over it so that I could use it for something more practical than just impressing little girls. Of course, this was bound to be even more impressive to them than the ribbons anyway.
With that, I stripped down to my socks and underwear, then mentally formed an image of a dress in my mind. I'd done my research, reading up on fashion, dress patterns, and how to make your own clothes. I'd also studied my dresses and several more that I'd found in a store. I held the dress design firmly in mind, creating every little detail. And since I'd measured myself last night, I hoped I could get the dress to my own exact measurements.
A moment later, a fully formed dress appeared on my body and I grinned in delight that it had worked. Of course, I'd tried this last night and again earlier this morning, but the size hadn't been quite right. This time, it felt perfect. I began stretching and moving around, verifying that it fit like a glove and gave me a full range of motion.
"This should do it," I announced, feeling rather proud of myself. Of course, I still had to make sure that it actually looked the way I wanted as well.
I went to the bathroom and looked myself over in the mirror, seeing that the dress looked exactly like I'd envisioned it in my mind. It was a frilly purple dress that was a bit old fashioned in style. And after looking it over, I decided that I could probably make a few improvements in style and cut, but for now this was quite acceptable.
"But I still need a few touches," I mused.
It only took a few minutes to put the final touches in place. I summoned a black silk ribbon around my neck as a form of choker, a larger silk ribbon which I tied around my waist like a sash, forming a little bow with it, and I created a purple bow, which I put in my hair. Then, I added the skull decorations which made it look as though I was trying to be a little dark and creepy, but which actually mellowed the effect. All in all, I was pretty happy with it.
"And to think," I said with chuckle. "I was expecting to have a few more failed attempts."
Just a short time after this, Melanie and Kimberly returned home, with my granddaughter singing badly off key. I figured that this was one of the songs from the movie, and from the look on Melanie's face, I guessed that she'd been singing this for awhile.
"How was the movie?" I asked.
"It was great," Kimberly exclaimed excitedly, nearly bouncing as she began telling me about the plot, though not in any kind of coherent order.
"It was good," Melanie told me with an amused look. "The place was packed though. A bunch of kids were there as part of a birthday party and they'd reserved most of the best seats."
"You should have come, Alyss," Kimberly told me. "It was fun... "
"Maybe next time," I told her with a smile.
"That's a very nice dress," Melanie finally said, looking my new dress over. "Where'd you buy it?"
"I didn't," I responded, feeling rather smug though I tried to keep that out of my voice. "I made it."
"You made it?" Melanie responded, giving me a look of surprise.
"I've been practicing," I admitted, doing a little twirl to show it off. That whole twirling around in a dress thing was actually kind of fun. It was no wonder little girls always did that.
Melanie looked the dress over, touching the shoulders and commenting, "No seams... " She looked more than a little impressed as she added, "This is way beyond just making ribbons... "
I nodded at that, still feeling quite pleased with my work. Then I admitted, "I've had more than a few failed attempts. I hid them in the back of my closet until they fade away."
"Can you make me a dress too?" Kimberly asked me eagerly.
"Of course," I responded with chuckle. "But I'll have to take your measurements so I can make sure it fits right."
Melanie stared at me with an odd expression, then said, "You know, Mark and I are having a date night next Friday... and I could use a new dress... "
I laughed at that, then told her, "I'll see what I can do. But like I told Kimberly, I'll need your measurements and an idea of what you want the dress to look like."
"My Dad, the seamstress," Melanie teased me.
"Are you sure you really want that dress?" I asked her wryly.
I got out a tape measure and string, then began taking measurements of both Kimberly and her mother. Both of them were patient as I did this, watching me with a lot of curiosity. I didn't bother writing any of the measurements down, nor did I need to. I remembered every one of them.
Once I finished with the measurements, I went online and looked up some pictures for that Disney movie they'd just been to. Then, I created a dress for Kimberly that looked quite a bit like the one the princess in that movie had been wearing.
"You just made her day," Melanie told me, watching her daughter with a smile. "It's like Christmas morning... " Then she told me, "You know, you're spoiling her rotten with this... "
"That's one of the benefits of being a grandparent," I pointed out, only to have her shake her head and walk away, muttering about how I wasn't like that when she was little.
Kaylie returned home a short time after this, bursting through the door and immediately announcing, "I hate boys... "
"Good," I responded with a chuckle. "You keep feeling that way. You'll avoid a lot of trouble."
"Is there any boy specifically?" Melanie asked her.
"That stupid Brandon," Kaylie exclaimed. "He's such a jerk face... " And with that, she stormed back to her bedroom where she slammed the door.
"Brandon?" I asked Melanie.
"Her best friend's brother," Melanie answered, looking quite amused. "I think he has a crush on her, but he's at that age where he'd still rather tease her... "
I nodded at that, musing, "I remember it well."
Mark returned home from work next, though he didn't seem to notice my new dress, or at least he didn't say anything about it. That was no surprise though, because the guy code kind of frowns on noticing things like that. He did give me an odd look, but that was no surprise either. He'd been polite and friendly to me since I'd moved in, though I knew I weirded him out a bit.
Melanie went in and started on dinner right after Mark returned home, and after hesitating a moment, I went in to help her. I'd never been that good a cook, but I'd recently read through a couple cook books and wanted to get my hands dirty trying some of that stuff out for real.
My daughter gave me a curious look, then commented, "No offense Alyss, but you're not exactly good in the kitchen... "
"Maybe not," I agreed, knowing that my cooking skills had always been focused more on the grill than in the kitchen. I could cook up a great steak, and I made some mean babyback ribs, but I had also been known to burn water. "I'm just trying to expand my horizons a bit."
Melanie looked pleased at that, then told me, "Then I'm glad for your help. Now only if Kaylie would stop pouting over a boy, I could give her a few pointers too."
I helped Melanie get everything together, paying close attention to everything she did and cross referencing it to the cook books that I'd read. That gave me a few ideas from other recipes that could have worked here, but I kept my mouth shut and just made mental notes to try them on my own another time.
Dinner worked out pretty well, and I felt a bit of pride for my part in making it. But more than that, I just enjoyed spending time with Melanie and doing something together with her. When she and Rachael were younger, this was the kind of stuff they used to do with Meg, not with me.
Once dinner was over, I played with Kimberly for a short time, then I settled down to read the books I'd borrowed from the library. Of course, they didn't last me long, and the entire time I read them, Kaylie stood back and watched me, skeptical that I was actually reading that fast.
"No one can read that fast," my oldest granddaughter insisted stubbornly.
"And no one can just make a clothes appear by snapping their fingers either," I pointed out smugly, snapping my fingers and making a dress appear in my hands. It was bright pink and pretty ugly, but I'd made my point.
"That's not fair," Kaylie complained, giving me a jealous look. "I want mutant powers too... "
Melanie gave her daughter a wary smile and pointed out, "There are mutants in the family, so it is possible... "
Mark grimaced at that, then reminded them, "But as we've seen, being a mutant can come with a lot of problems."
Melanie glanced to me and then nodded thoughtfully, probably thinking more of Rachael than me. I wondered if Rich had any downsides to his powers. If so, he hadn't mentioned them to me.
Eventually, everyone else began getting ready to bed. First the girls went back for the night, and then Mark and Melanie did as well, leaving me up by myself. In spite of my apparent age, I wasn't about to accept an early bedtime, a fact that I'd made clear to Melanie when I first moved in.
I went to the kitchen and poured myself a glass of bourbon from Mark's private stock, then I sat down on the couch to make myself comfortable. I'd been trying to make a point of not drinking in front of the girls, but that didn't mean I was going to give up drinking entirely. As I sipped the bourbon, I decided to turn the TV on and watch something, though I realized that the remote was a little out of reach.
"Not a problem," I mused, not wanting to get up now that I'd made myself comfortable.
I summoned a long ribbon, then it stretched out under my will, reaching for the remote. As I'd discovered by accident, I could actually control the fabric that I summoned, at long as I was actually touching it. However, just because I could move the fabric around, that didn't mean I could make it do everything I wanted.
The end of the ribbon wrapped around the remote control, then raised it up and brought it to me. Unfortunately, the amount of weight I could lift with my ribbons was pretty limited, which was a real shame, because it would have been pretty impressive if I'd been able to use my ribbons to grab hold of people and then lift them up off the ground. Instead, I could just reach out with the ribbons and wrap people up, then drag them back to me by pulling on the ribbons.
"But who knows," I thought aloud. "Maybe I'll get better at that with practice."
I turned on the TV and began flipping through channels, but there wasn't anything on. I ended up turning to a local news show, which was giving reruns of all the news that had come on during the day. Since I hadn't actually watched any news earlier, it was still new to me.
The anchor talked a bit about some minor scandal involving a politician, then they went into some feel good piece about a shelter that was finding homes for rescue dogs. Both pieces were pretty boring and I was about to go to sleep.
But as I took another sip of bourbon, they started another news piece that caught my attention. There was camera footage of Mystery Woman fighting some guy I didn't recognize. He was wearing a black and red outfit with gold metal trim. His entire head was covered with a black mask so I couldn't make out his face or even his hair color, and in his hand he was holding what looked like a golden scepter.
When I'd met Mystery Woman before, she hadn't told me what her powers were so I watched carefully as she fought the man. She had a green glow around herself as she hovered in the air, then various things around her would glow green and suddenly fly around, making me think that she was a telekinetic or something similar.
Text announcing 'Mystery Woman versus the Marquis' began scrolling at the bottom of the screen letting me know what who her opponent was, or at least what his name was. I still had almost no idea about anything else about him.
"Go get him," I said, cheering for Mystery Woman simply because I'd actually met and talked with her. In spite of her insulting Rachael and then patronizing me, she'd seemed like a decent sort. Then again, she was a super hero so that was probably required.
The Marquis fired blasts of energy from his hand, putting holes in walls and causing the side of a car to bubble and melt. Mystery Woman kept lifting random things and putting them between her and the Marquis in order to shield herself from her attacks.
I couldn't see everything that happened during the fight because whoever was filming the fight ducked behind a car for cover. When they came back out, Mystery Woman was standing over the Marquis, who looked completely defeated. Then he suddenly raised his scepter and a spray of smoke poured out of it and right into her face. A moment later, she suddenly collapsed to the ground without moving. The Marquis got back to his feet, picked Mystery Woman up and slung her over his shoulder, then he walked away.
"Oh shit," I gasped, realizing what I'd just watched.
The video ended at that point and the news anchor came back on, talking about how earlier today, the Marquis had not only defeated Mystery Woman, but had kidnapped her afterwards. I grimaced, watching the rest of what they had on the situation, but it was obvious that they didn't know anything more than what had been on the video.
A minute later, I turned to the TV off, then took a long sip from my bourbon as I thought about what I'd just watched. I hadn't particularly liked Mystery Woman, but hadn't really disliked her either. I shook my head sadly and gave a silent prayer that things would work out for her.
I knew that the Freelancers weren't a real team, that they were just a bunch of solo heroes who happened to hang out at the same place, but I certainly hoped that at least one of them would go after her. After all, what was the point of making all those contacts with other heroes if they couldn't back her up when she needed it.
I leaned back and finished my bourbon, thinking about what I'd just seen and the fact that Mystery Woman might not even be alive anymore. I'd learned a long time ago that anything involving super powers was dangerous, but even more so once costumes became involved. This had just served as a clear reminder of that fact.
Most mutants seemed to think that just because they had powers, that they should put on a costume of some sort and either become a hero or a villain, as if there were no other choices they could make. I'd seen where the villain path led, and I had absolutely no intention of following Rachael down it. But at the same time, I couldn't imagine myself putting on spandex and playing at being a hero either.
I had power, more than anyone who looked like I did had any right to possess. However, I refused to follow either the hero or villain paths. As far as I was concerned, that video had merely reinforced my previous decision to keep my head down and avoid the whole thing.
Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, July 18th, 2007
I was stretched out in the tub with my eyes closed, enjoying the hot water and the way the bubbles tickled my skin. Bubble baths were something of a guilty pleasure that I'd taken to enjoying every morning. The way I figure it, if I'm stuck being a little girl, at least I can take advantage of the benefits.
When I finished my bath, I climbed out of the tub and began drying off, including taking care of my hair. Drying off this much hair was a real pain in the ass, but I had to admit that there was something soothing about brushing it out as well. Between the bath and the hair, I was feeling pretty calm and relaxed by the time I returned to my room to get dressed.
Once I was in my room, I slowly looked around, finding my shoes exactly where I'd left them last night. The dress that I'd haphazardly tossed into the corner last night was still there as well, though I made no move to pick it up. After all, it would dissolve and vanish before very long. One of the advantages of making my own clothes was that I didn't have to worry about washing them.
"What to wear?" I mused, absently forming a pair of silk panties that were a perfect fit for me. Then I created a new dress as well, picking one of the four designs that I had firmly memorized, making this one in black. I created a white sash for the waist and a black ribbon to tie into my hair as well. Before long, I mused, "Perfect. And to think, the best part about being a mutant is all the money I'll save on clothes."
I chuckled as I thought about it, knowing that Melanie was actually pretty jealous of my ability to summon clothes. She'd even told me that if she could do this, she'd probably get carried away making new clothes as well. Of course, even the girls had a blast with my power, spending half the day yesterday demanding that we play dress up. I was more than happy to play with them, largely because it gave me a lot of opportunity to practice making other kinds of clothes besides dresses. The girls hadn't been picky, but I had definitely improved.
In spite of already knowing that I looked perfect, I stood in front of the full length mirror that Melanie had placed in my room for me. I looked every inch a little girl, albeit a somewhat creepy looking one. I was dressing up in what Melanie called gothic lolita style, wearing a faux Victorian style frilly dress that was decorated with a few small skull decorations.
I left my room a minute later, though by this time, no one in the house was really surprised to see me dressing like this. Melanie commented, "That's a lovely dress this morning," while Kaylie asked about a new skull themed hair clip I was wearing. Without saying a word, I handed her an identical one, having bought a couple of them yesterday.
"So, what do you have planned for today?" I asked Melanie.
"I was going to take the girls swimming at the pool," she answered pleasantly, giving me a curious look. "You're more than welcome to come with, though it might mean going to the library later than usual."
"I just might," I responded with a smile, which earned me a faint look of surprise from Melanie.
Back in my old life, I'd never spent much time swimming. Though I never would have admitted it to anyone else, I just hadn't been comfortable in the water. Every time I went swimming, my thoughts turned back to that old Jaws movie and I kept imagining what might be swimming around underneath me. And then of course, there was the fact that no one wanted to see my fat and hairy body in a swimsuit.
"I'm gonna need a swimsuit though," I mused, knowing that it should be pretty easy to make one.
After this, Kimberly and Kaylie both ran and brought me their swimsuits to look over, then I looked online to get a few more ideas of what I wanted to do. Before long, I created a pattern in my head for the suit I wanted to use, though I decided to wait until I was in the pool locker room before creating it. I didn't see any reason to carry anything more than I had to.
We were just getting ready to go when my cell phone started ringing. As soon as I picked it up, Rich exclaimed, "It's Rachael... "
"What about her?" I demanded, feeling a surge of worry at the tone of his voice.
He hesitated a moment, then asked, "Are you still at the house?"
"Yes," I responded, "but... "
Suddenly, there was a swirl in the air in the living room, then Rich stepped right out of it. Kaylie and Kimberly both gasped in surprise and confusion, which told me that neither of them knew about Rich's abilities.
"How'd you get here?" Kaylie demanded, giving her uncle a suspicious look.
"He's a mutant," Melanie calmly told her daughters, who both gasped in surprise. Then she gave me a worried look, probably afraid of how I'd react to learning this. I hadn't told her that Rich had already revealed this to me, though my reaction to his appearance now was a clear indication.
"What's this about Rachael?" I asked him, turning off the phone.
"I sometimes work for the Clinic," Rich blurted out, looking almost as though he was on the edge of a panic. "Usually, emergency patient transport. They just called me because they might need me to help them evacuate... "
"And what does this have to do with Rachael?" I demanded, growing impatient.
"She's attacking the Clinic," Rich exclaimed frantically. "Rachael is attacking the clinic... and I think she's looking for you."
"Me?" I gasped.
"You have to stop her," Rich pleaded with me. "You have to talk some sense into her... "
Melanie looked more than a little shaken as she said, "You can't talk sense to Rachael... "
"Maybe," I said grimly, knowing that Rachael might listen to me IF she wasn't having an episode. But if she was... I shuddered, having learned a long time ago that when she was having a Diedrick's episode, there was absolutely no reasoning with her.
"Take me to her," I told Rich grimly.
Melanie gasped at that, giving me a look of fear. "You can't... You know what she's like... "
"I have to," I told her quietly, turning my attention back to Rich. Rachael might be an adult now... and a super villain. But more important than either of those things was the fact that she was still my daughter. I had to try.
Rich used his powers to open one of those weird swirls in the air, then the two of us stepped through. A moment later, I found myself standing on the street sidewalk, with Rich right beside me. All it took was a single glance to see why he was so worried.
There were robots scattered around the street and sidewalk, more than a dozen of them. There were three different models of the robots, with some of them looking vaguely humanoid in shape while others looked like metal dogs. Then there were the third kind, which were metal balls with four legs, which somewhat resembled giant spiders.
I quickly looked over the robots, then my attention went to Rachael, who was standing on some kind of hovering platform above the entire scene. She was currently in full Lady Havoc mode, dressed up in the costume that she'd been wearing at the hospital. However, what made me more afraid than that was the look on her face. Even from where I was standing, I could see the manic expression that told me she was in the middle of one of her episodes.
"Where is he?" Rachael demanded loudly. "I know he was brought here... "
Rich looked worried and near panic and I knew why. Though he'd grown up with Rachael, he'd never seen her in one of her really bad episodes, at least not personally. Sure, he'd heard about it from others and had even seen it on the news, but that wasn't the same thing.
I grimaced, knowing that Rich wanted to help but also that even with his powers, this would be pretty damn dangerous. "Go help in the Clinic," I told him with a scowl. "I need to go have a talk with your sister."
Of course, I wasn't the only one trying to have a talk with Rachael either. Pinnacle, Asset and one other hero I didn't recognize were present, fighting the robots and trying to keep them from the Clinic. There was another guy helping as well, who I thought might have been a hero. He had the right kind of build, but he was in civilian clothes with his arm in a sling, more likely a patient from the Clinic than a Freelancer on duty.
Rich hesitated a moment, then reluctantly nodded agreement. A swirl appeared in the air, and he told me, "Please save her," before he stepped through the swirl and vanished.
I stood where I was for several long seconds, nearly shaking in fear. I wasn't afraid for myself but for Rachael... and for what she might do. My daughter had not one, but four heroes going after her at one time. I didn't know them or what their limits were. For all I knew, they'd decide that the best way to stop her rampage was to kill her. I dreaded the very thought of that happening.
At the same time, Rachael's robots were wandering around, destroying things at what appeared to be random. People could get hurt... or killed. That had happened in the past and there was a very real possibility of it happening again right in front of me. I couldn't stand the idea of that happening again. I'd spend more than enough nights, having nightmares about my sweet girl hurting people while I was helpless to do anything about it. But for the first time, I actually did have the power to do something about it. Or at least I hoped I did.
I walked towards Rachael, wondering how I was going to get up to her on that platform. However, before I'd gotten too close, several of the robots started coming towards me. I reached out with both arms, creating a massively long ribbon and carefully controlling it. One end wrapped around a light pole and tied itself into a knot while the other end wrapped around a parked car, creating a strand right across the road. I smiled faintly as it reminded me of one of those ribbons that they had at the end of a race.
I stepped back and several of the robots ran into the ribbon and tripped. Then I created two more ribbons, spreading one out from each hand. One of them wrapped around a robot's legs and I yanked, pulling his legs out from underneath him. At the same time, I used the other ribbon to try the same thing on one of the spider robots, though it lifted its leg out of the way before I could entangle it.
"At least I've got this one," I exclaimed, jumping at the robot I'd just tripped, then sending one ribbon to wrap around his body until he was tied up like a mummy.
One of the dog robots leapt at me, but I reached out and caught it in the air, then flung it over into another dog robot. As soon as the two of them collided, they both exploded, much to my surprise. I would have thought that they'd just crunch up and break, not explode like robots in some cartoon. Then again, they were made by Rachael, so that tendency to explode was probably one of the unintended features that cropped up in her inventions.
Pinnacle landed beside me and demanded, "What are you doing here?" Then before I could answer, he asked, "Are you to help her or try to stop her?"
"I'm here to try talking some sense into her," I responded with a grimace.
Pinnacle nodded at that, perhaps realizing that if there was anyone capable of talking sense to her, it was me. Then he smiled faintly and said, "Nice trick with the ribbons."
I nodded at that, then charged at one of the spider robots, sending several ribbons to wrap around its legs. However, part of its metal sphere opened up and suddenly spat out a burst of flame, which hit my ribbon I was holding. The ribbon immediately burned and dissolved, revealing that even though my ribbons might be pretty strong, they were definitely vulnerable to the fire. The robot then aimed its flame thrower at the ribbons entangling its legs, freeing them completely.
"Well, fuck me with a garden hose," I spat out in frustration.
Another of the dog robots leapt at me, but I saw it coming and easily dodged to the side. I gave it a swift kick right as it landed, sending it flying back where it hit a parked car and exploded. Unfortunately, the humanoid and spider robots didn't seem to have that particular weakness.
Pinnacle punched one of the humanoid robots and smashed its front, though it continued trying to fight. Asset threw some kind of grenade at one of the spider robots, and the explosion took out the legs. He then threw another grenade at it and finished it off.
"I can't believe this crap," I grumbled.
I'd just barely turned into a mutant, and in spite of my decision to avoid the whole cape and costume nonsense, I'm already caught up right in the middle of a battle between heroes and a villain. I was pretty sure that somewhere up there, God was laughing his ass off at me.
"Where are you hiding him?" Rachael demanded again, holding up some kind of energy rifle and shooting it at the clinic. The blast hit the front doors and they melted into a nice hole. "Bring him out here immediately... "
Asset scowled and responded, "Bring out who?" However, from the look on Pinnacle's face and the way he glanced to me, he realized exactly who she was asking for.
"Rachael," I called out, though she was far enough away that she didn't seem to hear me. I tried again, but there was an explosion and the crunching sound of one of her robots being destroyed. It was no good. I'd have to get closer.
While I was distracted by trying to decide how to reach Rachael, one of her robots started coming up from behind me. I noticed it in time to avoid being hit, but then it swung heavy metal arms at me several more times. The thing was slow and clumsy, so it was easy to dodge and avoid. Then I grabbed one of the arms and flung it over my shoulder, slamming it into the ground and then tearing the arm right off. I beat the robot with its own arm, then started for Rachael again.
When I got closer to Rachael, I flung one of my ribbons up to grab her floating platform, thinking that I could climb it like a rope. However, at the same time I was trying to do this, Pinnacle flew right at her. A glowing blue bubble appeared right around Rachael and her entire platform, and when it appeared the bubble actually cut right through my ribbon, dropping me back to the ground. It was a fifteen foot fall, but it didn't hurt at all.
"Come on Rachael," I snarled in frustration, wondering how I could possibly get through to her when I couldn't even get close.
Pinnacle punched at Rachael's force field bubble, and after a minute, Asset got involved, using what looked like some kind of rocket launcher. I cried out in horror, but after his attack hit and exploded, she was unharmed. But a moment later, he tried something else and suddenly her force field bubble popped and her platform dropped out of the air as though it had lost power. She hit the ground hard, but quickly got back to her feet.
I saw my opportunity and started going towards her, holding out my hands to show that I was unarmed and harmless. "Rachael," I tried one more time.
Rachael finally turned to look at me, her eyes gleaming with madness. It was enough to instantly fill me with pain over what she'd gone through and what she'd become. However, she didn't seem to share any of those emotions because she snarled, revealing her sharp teeth which made her look all the more terrifying.
"Calm down," I told her, trying to be firm but gentle at the same time. "You need to calm down so we can talk... "
For a brief moment, Rachael hesitated and looked as though she might be willing to listen. But then Asset got too close and she suddenly snarled and opened fire on him, causing him to jump to the side. She began to open shoot at random, not seeming to aim or care what she was hitting. She was so far gone into her episode that all rational thought seemed to have fled.
"Rachael Anne Morgan," I exclaimed, trying to get her attention.
That was enough to make Rachael hesitate again, but only for a moment. She suddenly swung her rifle right at me and fired. My entire body was engulfed in a searing pain that shot through every nerve, right before everything went dark.
Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, July 18th, 2007
I awoke in a hospital bed and my first response was to feel a surge of momentary fear that everything had just been a dream. When I grabbed at my body and found it small, slender, and female, I actually felt a powerful sense of relief. It struck me as ironic that I'd be relieved to wake up as a girl, but it meant that everything that had happened hadn't just been in my mind. I wasn't still dying of cancer and merely spending my remaining days lost in hallucinations.
After my initial fear and relief, I realized that I was back in the Clinic again. This wasn't the same room I was in before, but it was similar enough in layout and decor that there was no mistaking where I was. And since I was in the clinic, that obviously meant that Rachael hadn't destroyed it.
"That girl," I said with a snarl as I sat up and took a survey of my body to make sure I was all right. "I don't care how old she is. The next time I see her, I'm throwing her over my knee and giving her a good spanking."
I climbed out of bed and went to take a piss, and once I'd done that, I checked myself out in the mirror. Other than looking a little tired, I didn't look any worse for wear. In fact, there were no indications at all that I'd suffered so much as a bruise or scraped knee from that fight, though I wasn't sure how much of that was because of my increased resistance to injury and how much was the simple fact that I could heal from just about everything.
By the time I got out of the bathroom, I found Dr. Franklin had come in to check on me. She let out a faint sigh of relief when she saw me, then put on her professional face again. "You're lucky to be alive," she stated simply.
"How lucky?" I asked grimly, still having a hard time believing that Rachael had actually shot me. Sure, she'd been in the middle of a severe episode and obviously didn't recognize me, but she still shot me.
"When Pinnacle brought you in a few hours ago," she told me in a calm and professional tone, "the front half of your body had been severely burned. If it hadn't been for your exemplar durability, you would have been killed instantly. As it was, you survived long enough for your regeneration to kick in and repair the damage."
When she said 'severely burned', I suddenly remembered the way Rachael's weapon had burned a hole right through the building wall. I gulped at that, realizing that I really had come close to dying... again. Cancer was one thing, but dying at the hands of my own daughter would have been even worse... and not just for me. I had no doubt that once Rachael had calmed down and found out, she never would have forgiven herself.
"I was concerned that taxing your regeneration like that might trigger another burnout," Dr. Franklin said as she checked my temperature. "I'm pleased to see that isn't the case, though I suspect that you're rather hungry right now."
I nodded at that, feeling more than a little hungry. In fact, I felt like I was starved, which shouldn't have been a surprise. After all, my body mused have used up all of my reserves in order to heal myself that much so quickly.
"I'll see if I can find you something to wear so you can go to the cafeteria," Dr. Franklin told me.
"Don't bother," I said with a faint smile.
With that, I formed a pair of silk panties right on my body, then removed the hospital gown that had been leaving my back side to hang out. To Dr. Franklin's obvious surprise, a new dress appeared on my body. This one was a nice dark purple, with a black silk ribbon around my throat. Unfortunately, the skull pin and hair clip must have been destroyed when Rachael shot me.
"That should do it," I said, though I was still missing shoes. And of course, I'd need to take a shower as well, but for the moment, food came first.
Dr. Franklin gave me a vaguely surprised look, then nodded faintly and said, "Shortcut keeps asking about you and is waiting for you in the lobby."
Rich had told me that he'd occasionally worked for the Clinic, performing emergency transport for some patients. Because of that, Dr. Franklin clearly knew him, but from her expression and tone, I was pretty sure that she didn't know we were related.
A few minutes later, I went to the lobby where Rich immediately rushed over and gave me a hug. "I'm so glad you're all right," he told me with an almost haunted look on his face. "When I saw what Rachael did to you... "
"I'm better now," I told him, trying not to think about it. I shuddered at the memory, feeling a flash of pain and fear. I joked, "Thank God for regeneration."
Rich nodded at that, then admitted, "I've never seen Rachael like that. She was... scary."
"Yeah," I responded with a tired sigh. "The first time I saw her fly off the handle like that, I nearly shit my pants."
Rich's eyes went wide at that. "I always thought people were exaggerating... "
"Afraid not," I told him with a shake of my head. "She is scary... and dangerous. It isn't her fault, but that doesn't change the fact that she kills people when she's like that."
While we talked, I started walking to the cafeteria and Rich followed along, perhaps realizing how hungry I'd be. My mental clock was still running and told me that it was about time for dinner, so even if I hadn't used up all my resources healing, I would have been feeling hungry anyway.
Rich and I ate in near silence, with him still being a bit shaken after seeing Rachael in one of her episodes. He'd always looked up to her and denied that she was anywhere near as bad as people claimed, but now he'd seen it for himself... and he'd seen what she did to me. I just focused on my food, though my own mood was pretty dark as well.
We were about finished eating when Pinnacle came in and said, "Doctor Franklin told me you'd be here... " He paused and looked to Rich, then said, "I see you've met Shortcut."
"You could say that," I responded, glancing to Rich who looked self-conscious. "So, you're with the Freelancers... "
"Oh no," Rich quickly assured me with a wince. "I've just given a couple of them emergency transportation."
Pinnacle nodded at that, then told me, "When you're done eating, a couple of us would like to have a talk with you in the headquarters." I scowled at that, giving him a wary look. However, he quickly assured me, "We just wanted to share information on Lady Havoc's attack."
I hesitated a moment, then responded with a shrug. "Why not?" After all, I had some questions of my own that needed to be answered.
"You know," Pinnacle commented, giving me an amused look. "Lately, several men have been found, tied up with ribbons and bows."
Rich gave me a quick look, then asked, "Several?"
"And the funny thing is," Pinnacle continued with a chuckle. "Each of them claims they were jumped by a group of large men."
"Funny how that is," I agreed with a smirk.
Pinnacle nodded, then continued, "And it turns out, one of them had an outstanding warrant for assault and another was in violation of his probation."
I gave Pinnacle a curious look, noting how he seemed to be pretty up to speed on that situation. I wondered if he was a cop in his real identity, or just had some good connections. However, I was too distracted by my food to bother asking him more.
To Rich's amusement and Pinnacle's obvious annoyance, I ordered a dessert to go along with the very large meal I'd already eaten. The chocolate cake looked pretty damn good, and after what I'd just gone through, a few extra calories wouldn't hurt anything. Then again, Dr. Franklin had told me that as an exemplar, I'd never have to worry about getting fat, no matter how much I ate.
After I'd finished up and we began to leave, Pinnacle gave me a curious look and asked, "Where in the world did you get a new dress so fast?" I just chuckled at that but didn't answer him.
The three of us walked to the elevator and then went to one of the floors that was set up as a headquarters for the Freelancers. I was led to a large room, which immediately reminded me of the fact that Pinnacle had once said that a lot of local heroes just used this place like a social club. Even if he hadn't told me that, this room would have immediately given me that impression.
The room looked less like a super hero meeting room, or at least like what I thought one should look like, and more like a gentleman's club. There were wooden panels around the walls, rugs scattered over wood floors, a bar in the back, and then a bunch of comfortable looking chairs that were vaguely arranged in a circle. And of course, there were other pieces of furniture scattered about as well.
Asset sat in one of the chairs with a pair of crutches lying on the ground beside him. He looked pretty banged up from the earlier fight with Rachael, though he seemed to be doing all right as he was nursing a beer in his hand.
The Occultist looked comfortable as he sat in a chair with a glass of booze in one hand and a lit cigar in the other. There was obviously magic at play because the cigar smoke never left his personal space, merely floated up above him where it was drawn into a floating gray ball. I couldn't help but feeling impressed at the sight. Meg had forbidden me from smoking cigars in the house, saying that the smell got everywhere. However, it looked like the Occultist had found a solution to that problem.
There were a few other heroes present as well, though I didn't know who any of them were. One was a slender black woman in her early twenties, who was sipping from a bottle of water. Sitting beside her was a blonde woman who appeared to be about ten years older, and she held a glass of red wine in her hand. The last person present was an Asian guy, who just stood back with his arms crossed, not looking happy at all.
"Why did you bring in a kid?" the black woman asked curiously.
"This is Ribbon," Pinnacle said, gesturing to me. "She helped in the earlier fight against Lady Havoc." He hesitated a moment, then added, "And in spite of her young appearance, she probably knows more about Lady Havoc than anyone here."
"I find that rather unlikely," the blonde with the wine glass commented, seeming more amused than anything.
Pinnacle told me, "Have a seat. We were about to share notes on various problems we've run into lately." Then he looked to Rich, still looking curious about why Rich was tagging along. "You're welcome to stay too, Shortcut."
"I don't mind if I do," Rich responded, sitting down and watching me with a curious look, probably wondering how I was going to react.
Without waiting for an invitation, I went over to the Occultist and asked, "Do you mind?" Before he'd even answered, I picked up the bottle of booze from the table beside him and poured myself a glass. His drink of choice was scotch, which I'd never been a big fan of. The only people I'd ever known who drank that stuff were rich men and pretentious pricks. However, beggars can't be choosers.
Then I took a cigar from the humidor and prepped it, being fully aware that absolutely everyone in the room was staring at me in disbelief. After I lit the cigar, I sat down in a chair, taking a nice drag and then blowing the smoke out overhead. As with the Occultist, my smoke floated right up to the gray ball. I was definitely going to have to get one of those.
"You can't smoke," the young black woman exclaimed, looking offended. "You're just a little girl... "
I took a drink of my scotch, then stated, "I'm older than I look." I didn't bother adding anything to that, though Pinnacle looked like he was about to burst out laughing.
"Some things never change," Rich muttered as he did a face palm.
"Not bad," I told the Occultist, making a point of ignoring the fact that he along with everyone else was still staring at me. I took another drag from the cigar, savoring it as I did so. I hadn't had a cigar in months, not since I'd gotten sick.
"Havoc was looking for someone," Asset pointed out. "She wasn't clear who... "
Pinnacle hesitated a moment, then looked at me. I frowned thoughtfully for a moment, wondering how much to tell them. It seemed to me that Pinnacle had been keeping my read identity to himself, for which I was grateful.
"The person she was looking for had already checked out of the Clinic," I commented, earning several looks of surprise. "She was having a severe Diedrick's episode so obviously wasn't thinking clearly." Then I looked to Pinnacle and asked, "What happened after she shot me?"
"We managed to destroy all her robots," Pinnacle told me, "but she used a force field to protect herself and escape."
"I haven't had the pleasure of encountering Lady Havoc yet," the blonde woman commented, putting plenty of sarcasm into the word 'pleasure'. "But I hear she's pretty slippery that way."
I nodded at that, remembering how she'd sneak out of the house after she'd been grounded. She was really good at getting away with it too, even once creating a hologram of herself in bed for when we checked in on her.
"From past experience," Pinnacle said, "it's likely that she's going to lay low for awhile, then start making small raids for parts and supplies. If we don't stop her at that point, she'll eventually show up with a full arsenal again."
"She's a pain in the asset," Asset joked.
"How likely are we to find the person she was looking for?" the black woman asked, giving me a curious look.
"Very," Shortcut said with a shake of his head.
"Not very," I added, knowing full well that Rachael wouldn't recognize me. I'd been standing right in front of her and there hadn't been even a glimmer of recognition in her eyes.
"I'll follow up with Lady Havoc," Pinnacle told the room, then adding, "And I hope Ribbon will help me."
I frowned slightly at that, wanting to see Rachael off the streets where she couldn't hurt anyone else, but I didn't like the idea of setting myself up as some kind of super hero to go after her. In fact, even after what had happened a few hours ago, I couldn't imagine myself going after her directly. Even with everything she'd done, I wouldn't be able to bring myself to hurt her.
After that, the other heroes began telling about some of the issues they'd run into lately. The black woman, who I learned was named Aerial, said, "I ran into a group of Humanity First who were harassing a mutant vagrant. Other than that, I haven't been very busy this week."
The blonde woman, who was called Miss Fortune, said, "I dealt with Snoozefest and a baseline bank robber, both of whom were taken into custody."
The Occultist was about to say something when the Asian guy, whose name I still didn't know, demanded, "I want to know about Mystery Woman."
"What about Mystery Woman?" Aerial asked, looking confused.
"The Marquis got her," the Occultist stated grimly. Aerial let out a gasp at that.
Asset nodded and explained, "He snatched her the other day. It was all over the news."
"Damn," Aerial commented with a shake of her head. "That poor woman." She looked at the Asian guy and said, "I'm sorry to hear about your sister, Ceasefire."
That immediately caught my interest and I could see why the Asian guy... why Ceasefire was in such a grim mood. I'd seen the news footage and had worried for the woman, so I could only imagine how much worse it would have been if it had been someone from my own family.
"I'm afraid I don't know who this Marquis is," Rich commented, looking self-conscious. Then again, neither of us were members of the Freelancers, so we were both outsiders.
"The Marquis is a power thief," Pinnacle explained grimly. "He likes to capture other mutants, keeping them locked up and close at hand so he can keep taking their powers. At one point, Champion took him down... barely. It looked like he's escaped and is trying to build up his collection again."
"He sounds like a problem," I responded carefully, knowing that if someone as powerful as Champion just barely defeated him, than that was an understatement. "But if he needs to keep them alive for their powers, then that's a good thing for Mystery Woman."
Aerial shook her head, having a haunted look on her face. "I've heard some bad things about the Marquis," she said, glancing to Ceasefire. "They say he likes to... hurt his prisoners."
"We have to save her," Ceasefire insisted.
All of the other heroes suddenly looked very uncomfortable and I could see a couple of them squirming in their seats. It was pretty obvious that they were afraid of the Marquis. Then again, as a power thief, not only could he steal their powers away from them if they got too close, he'd be able to use other people's powers against them as well.
"I'm afraid he's a bit out of my league," Miss Fortune commented with a scowl. Then she added, "But I'll try."
"I'd be happy to help," Asset told Ceasefire. Then he gestured down at his crutches and added, "But I'm out of action for awhile. I can provide weapons though."
"I'll help," Pinnacle stated, as though there was no other option.
Aerial gave a guilty look and said, "I'll keep an eye out for him." It wasn't a definitive commitment, but Pinnacle nodded slightly.
"I'll do some scrying," the Occultist volunteered. "I'll see if I can find where the Marquis is hiding out."
They continued talking about what they could do to locate the Marquis and rescue Mystery Woman, but it was pretty obvious that most of them had serious doubts about being able to beat the Marquis on their own. Listening to their conversation made it pretty clear that, though they shared information, they didn't really work together. I shook my head, having a bad feeling about Mystery Woman's chances.
Eventually, the meeting ended and everyone began to leave. Asset muttered, "I wish the Dark Rider would come to these meetings so we could ask him. I'm pretty sure he's fought the Marquis before... "
As Aerial was leaving, she gave me a glare and told Miss Fortune, "What a weird little girl... "
Once just about everyone else was gone, I turned to Pinnacle and asked, "Why isn't Ceasefire going after the Marquis himself?"
"He doesn't have the powers for it," Pinnacle answered with a shake of his head. "Ceasefire can create a wide field that shuts down certain chemical reactions such as gunpowder, internal combustion engines, and fire... "
"He shuts down guns and cars," Asset added, as he was the only other hero who remained. "It makes him great against baseline criminals and fires, but not so great against most people with powers. That's why he usually helps the fire department or works alongside Mystery Woman."
Pinnacle nodded, then told me, "If you hear anything about Lady Havoc, please let me know. She'll probably lay low for a few months, but you never know."
Rich frowned at that, then asked Pinnacle, "Why are you so focused in getting Lady Havoc? I mean, it seems rather personal."
Pinnacle's expression suddenly darkened. "I suppose it is," he said carefully, "When I first began my career, I ran into Lady Havoc while she was in the middle of robbing an electronics store. At the time, she was a complete unknown, and admittedly, I was cocky and mocked her." He paused again, shaking his head sadly as he continued, "She lost her temper and then... went insane. She went on a rampage... what appears to have been her first, killing nine people."
"You were there," I said grimly, remembering reports that some super hero had tried stopping Rachael during the first episode where she'd killed people. I felt a cold knot forming in my stomach. "You triggered that episode... "
"She's insane," Pinnacle stated sadly. "If it wasn't me, it would have been someone else. Over the years, I've seen her go on rampages with far less excuse than that. But... I still feel guilty for my part, and I've been trying to stop her since."
"Are you the one who knocked out her teeth?" Rich demanded angrily, obviously surprising Pinnacle who hadn't expected such a personal reaction from him.
"Rich," I said, and he stopped, glaring at Pinnacle. "It's not his fault. You know Rachael has issues and she can't be talked down when she's like that." I shuddered and reminded him, "Look what she did to me when I tried talking to her today."
"I know," Rich admitted grimly. "But I don't like it."
Pinnacle stared at Rich and then me before carefully asking, "Is there something I should know?"
"Every family has a black sheep," I told Pinnacle while Rich created a swirl in the air in front of us so we could leave. "But that doesn't mean we love ours any less." And with that, Rich and I left to go home.
Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, July 20th, 2007
I let out an exasperated sigh as I walked through the toy store, nearly being dragged by my enthusiastic granddaughters. Just a few hours ago, Kaylie had firmly insisted that she was too old to play with toys, yet now that we were here at the mall, she was just as excited about looking over them as Kimberly was.
"And I want this," Kimberly exclaimed, picking up a doll and cuddling it, only to drop it a moment later and dash over to the next display.
"In case you girls have forgotten," I pointed out wryly, "Grandpa doesn't have a job anymore so he... she won't be able to spoil you for Christmas."
"Its okay, Alyss," Kimberly responded. "We'll let you play with our toys."
I nodded at that, smiling at her innocence and happiness to share. Now if only more adults could be that way. However, I'd just reminded myself that I did have some problems to deal with. Namely, that I didn't have a job or any way of supporting myself anymore. My garage was gone, I couldn't work for anyone else looking the way I did, and I couldn't mooch off Melanie and Mark forever. I was going to have to figure out how to get back on my own two feet.
"I like this one," Kaylie commented, pointing to a doll that looked like some kind of dark Barbie knockoff.
I snickered, muttering, "It's S&M vampire Barbie... " Then I told her, "I don't think your parents would approve of that one." The grin on her face told me that was the entire appeal.
Then Kimberly blurted out, "This one looks like you, Alyss... "
I looked at the doll she was holding up, a cute stylized little pigmy thing with an overly large head. However, she was also wearing a goth style dress and had white hair, so I could definitely see the resemblance. Kaylie looked at the doll, then began to giggle.
"Doesn't look anything like me," I lied.
When we left the toy store a few minutes later, each of the girls had a new doll. Kaylie had bought the doll that resembled me while Kimberly had settled on a more traditional doll that came with a bunch of pink clothes. Admittedly, I bought a doll as well, more because the girls insisted that I need one than anything else. At least mine was a creepy looking porcelain doll that went with my new image.
Melanie and Rich had been standing just outside the toy store, waiting for us. They'd both wanted to give me a little time along in the store with the girls, or at least that was their excuse for staying back. Personally, I suspected it had more to do with them wanting to avoid the high pitched squeals of delight. I hadn't tried any of that myself yet, but made a mental note to try it out sometime when I wanted to mess with my kids.
"Are you girls having fun?" Melanie asked, smirking faintly as she looked at me.
"Yeah," Kimberly exclaimed excitedly. "We found a doll that looks like Alyss... "
Rich laughed at that, then said, "This I have got to see... " Kaylie pulled her new doll out for them to see and Rich grinned. "Yeah, I can see the resemblance."
I just watched Rich, thinking about how odd it was for him to hang around while Melanie took the girls to the mall. Of course, I knew that the real reason he was hanging around was me. Lately, he'd been finding lots of excuses to be around so we could spend time together. Before my change, the two of us hadn't been all that close, and I was pretty sure he was trying to take advantage of this second chance just as much as I was.
"Where to next?" Melanie asked.
The girls immediately began offering suggestions while I just looked around, thinking that we'd already hit nearly every place in the mall that interested me. We'd even spent some time at a kiosk where Kaylie and I had both bought some skull pins and hair clips. She seemed to think it was funny that we we'd bought very similar items, though Melanie had rolled her eyes the entire time.
"How about the bookstore?" I suggested a little eagerly.
"But you'll be in there forever," Kaylie protested.
Melanie smiled, as if that had been the very thing she needed to make up her own mind. "The bookstore it is," she announced while Kaylie groaned in response.
"Sounds good to me," Rich added, chuckling as Kaylie made exaggerated gagging sounds.
The bookstore was on the other side of the mall so we began making our way there, making a couple brief stops on the way. A couple minutes later, we were halfway there, right in the large open area in the very center of the mall.
"You know," I mused, looking towards a spot where a custom license plate frame kiosk was currently set up. "The last time I was here, Santa Claus was set up right over there." I didn't bother to mention that this was actually a few years ago.
Suddenly, a loud voice yelled out, "Nobody move!"
I turned to look at the source, only to see a green glow that drew my eyes up, to the glowing man who hovered in the air, right in the middle of the large open courtyard. He had a black and red costume that had a few gold metal armor pieces. A black mask covered his entire head so I couldn't make out any of his features, not even his hair.
"Oh shit," I exclaimed, feeling a cold knot of dread forming in my stomach as I recognized him from the news. "The Marquis."
"Look," Kimberly exclaimed excitedly. "That man is flying. He's a super hero... "
"No he isn't," I corrected her, knowing that we had to get out of here NOW.
The Marquis held out his hands and a half dozen people suddenly began to glow green, right before they floated up off the ground. He deposited them in a spot right in front of him, then used his power to grab a few more hostages. The license plate kiosk began to glow green and lifted into the air, then it smashed into the ground a short distance away.
I recognized the glowing green effect on the people and things he was lifting up into the air, having seen the exact same thing on the news. But then, it had been Mystery Woman using those same powers. This just confirmed what I'd been told about him being some sort of power thief.
"Freeze," a security guard yelled, running up and pulling out his gun. At the same time, one of the mall shoppers pulled a gun out of her purse as well, and the two of them both opened fire on the Marquis at the same time. Or at least they tried to. Neither gun actually went off.
"Now isn't that a kick in the balls," I spat out, glancing to Kaylie who was standing next to me and muttering, "Pardon my French." From the way the guns didn't work, I had a bad feeling that Ceasefire had joined his collection.
"We have to get out of here," Rich said, his voice shaking with fear. He kept glancing towards the Marquis.
"Kimberly," Melanie cried out, realizing that her youngest daughter was missing.
I saw Kimberly on the ground about ten yards away, having been separated from us in the sudden chaos. Melanie rushed towards her daughter, leaving me and Rich with Kaylie.
I looked up at the Marquis, wondering what he was up to. It didn't make sense to come and bust into a crowded mall, not unless he wanted to take people hostages or rob a bunch of stores. Sure, he'd grabbed a few people and was keeping them close, but he was letting almost everyone else run away. And of course, he wasn't making any moves towards the nearby jewelry stores. He was just floating there, as if waiting for something.
Then it suddenly hit me. The Marquis wasn't here to rob stores or ransom hostages. He was here, creating a big scene, just so he could lure in more super heroes to catch.
"I've got her," Melanie called out to us, holding Kimberly by the hand.
"Let's go," Rich announced, creating a swirl in the air so we could escape.
The moment Rich did this, the Marquis snapped around and stared right at us, announcing, "A mutant... "
"Go," I ordered.
Before anyone could go through Rich's portal, Rich was suddenly glowing green and flying through the air, right towards the Marquis. His portal vanished the moment he'd been yanked away from it. Rich stopped moving a few seconds later and just hovered in front of the villain.
"A teleporter," the Marquis commented, sounding more than a little pleased by that. "Excellent... You'll increase my range a great deal... "
"Let him go," I screamed out, remembering all the bad things I'd heard about the Marquis.
"But you aren't the only other mutant here," the Marquis told Rich, holding out his scepter. Smoke poured out and into Rich's face and my son went slack and unconscious. Only then did the Marquis look at me and announced, "There are two more... "
"Two... ?" I started, only to find myself lifting up into the air. But to my surprise, Kaylie was lifted up into the air as well.
"Two young ones," the Marquis mused as he pulled us closer. "Very young." He stared at me and said, "Strength, regeneration and something else... That could be quite useful until I find someone even stronger... "
"Let us go or I'll kick your balls up into your throat," I demanded, growing angry at his threatening my family.
The Marquis ignored me and looked at Kaylie, continuing, "Only on the verge of manifesting... just enough for me to sense you. But you aren't there yet."
I stared at Kaylie with a cold knot in my stomach, understanding exactly what the Marquis was saying. He seemed to have the power to sense mutants and what their powers were, and he'd just announced that Kaylie was one.
Kaylie didn't react to being called a mutant, though she was obviously terrified and was crying. I clenched my fists, getting more pissed off with every second. How DARE he threaten her? How DARE he threaten my family?
"Fortunately for you," the Marquis continued in an almost bored tone. "You're below the limit so I'm throwing you back."
With that, the Marquis let Kaylie drop, all the way to the ground where she hit and cried out. I snarled and wanted to punch him, but I was well out of reach. Of course, my fists weren't the only thing I had to hit him with, but I was so distracted that I hadn't remembered that fact until just then.
A moment later, I formed a ribbon around each of my arms and sent the other ends lashing out at the Marquis. I caught him by surprise because he lost his concentration, causing him to drop his powers... and all of us. I fell down and hit the ground, barely manageing to catch Rich at the same time.
"Are you all right?" I demanded of Kaylie, who nodded tearfully.
"Then run," I told her, yelling out to Melanie and Kimberly, "RUN."
I was about to run with Rich in my arms, being much larger than me but feeling no heavier than as if he was made of Styrofoam... light Styrofoam. However, before I'd taken a single step, the Marquis fired a blast of energy at me, catching me in the side and sending me flying back. I dropped Rich in the process.
"God damn mother fucking bastard," I exclaimed, more annoyed than anything else. I'd felt pain for a moment, but it went away in mere seconds. And when I glanced down at my dress, it looked a little charred but still good.
"Such a foul mouthed child," the Marquis commented. "You're far too young for my tastes, but that may make you easier to train... "
I lashed out with my ribbons, trying to entangle him, but there was a green glow around my ribbons and they were pushed back away from him. He fired another blast of energy at me, hitting me in the chest and sending me flying back. It stung like hell for a few seconds, but didn't seem to do much real damage.
I glanced back towards Melanie and the girls, relieved to see that Melanie had done the smart thing and took them away from here. I knew it couldn't be easy for her to leave me and Rich behind, but the girls had to take priority.
With a snarl, I charged right at the Marquis, deciding that if I couldn't get fancy with my ribbons, I'd just bust his chops in the old fashioned way. Before I could even get close enough to punch him, I found myself surrounded by a green glow again and lifted in the air. I was really starting to hate Mystery Woman's powers.
"You are a persistent child," the Marquis said, sounding vaguely annoyed.
The Marquis raised his scepter and a burst of smoke came out and covered me. I immediately began to feel dazed and confused, and when he released his power over me, I slumped to the ground.
Just then, a voice yelled out, "Cease and desist." It sounded vaguely familiar, though even with my improved memory, my dazed state made difficult to recall immediately.
"The Occultist," the Marquis commented, naming the voice before I could.
I slowly looked over and saw the Occultist standing there, holding a staff in one hand. His other hand was glowing with a golden light. He looked imposing, but he was also alone and he'd previously seemed doubtful of his ability to defeat the Marquis on his own.
"You aren't a mutant," the Marquis stated, sounding disappointed. "A pity. I'd hoped to lure in someone I could use."
"I'm so sorry your plans didn't work," the Occultist responded with a sarcastic chuckle. "Now to make sure none of your other plans do either."
The Occultist held out his hand and a blast of golden light shot out at the Marquis. One of the hostages suddenly flew up into the air, surrounded by a green glow, and blocked the attack. There was a look of horror on the Occultist's face as the hostage dropped to the ground.
The Marquis fired several blasts of energy at the Occultist and a golden disk of light appeared in front of him, blocking the attack. Seconds later, the Occultist held out an amulet, and an eagle made of fire burst out of it and flew into the air, only to be smashed by part of a kiosk that was sent flying right at it.
"Unfortunately," the Marquis said, "you've caught me while I'm still weak. Once I regain my full power, your efforts will be nothing more than the buzzing of an insect."
"Then it's a good thing you aren't at your full strength," the Occultist responded with a false cheerfulness.
I grimaced and got back to my feet, finding that the dizziness was fading rapidly. Rich was still out cold, so obviously my powers were taking care of whatever drug he'd used on me, and doing so pretty quickly.
I didn't say a word as I sent a ribbon to grab the Marquis' arm so I could yank him off balance. He hit the ground and I continued pulling on the ribbon, dragging him right to me.
"Of course," the Marquis responded, suddenly sending a hostage flying right at me. I had to let go of the ribbon to catch the hostage. "I'd nearly forgotten about your constitution."
The Marquis got back to his feet, then held his hands out. Suddenly, a strong wind began to blow through the area, knocking the Occultist back though I was able to remain standing.
"Aerial," the Occultist exclaimed in surprise. "You got her... "
Instead of responding to that verbally, the Marquis merely sent a small tornado swirling through the air towards the Occultist. Since the Occultist was still on the ground, pinned down by the wind, he couldn't jump out of the way. Because of that, I sent out a ribbon to try pulling him away, but my ribbon couldn't push past the wind either.
The Occultist didn't need my help though as he called out something in a strange language and his staff flashed with a blue light. The tornado dispersed and vanished while the Occultist got back to his feet.
I charged at the Marquis again but he snapped around and blasted me with an energy blast, knocking me back. And before I could fully recover, he lifted me off the ground again.
"This is most inconvenient," the Marquis finally said, sounding annoyed.
The wind picked up again and drove the Occultist back. Then the wind stopped and the Marquis began firing blasts of energy, one of which hit the Occultist in the side. The hero yelled in pain and dropped to the ground, clutching his side.
"I fear I've spent too much time here," the Marquis said grimly. "Fortunately, I'll still profit from this excursion." With that, he bent down and touched Rich.
"Get your hands off him," I demanded, charging at him again, this time sending my ribbons out at the same time I did so.
The Marquis snapped around and hit me in the chest with another blast of energy, commenting, "Unfortunately, I don't have time to subdue you at the moment. The teleporter will have to do."
A moment later, the Marquis gestured and the air in front of him began to swirl and formed into one of the portals that Rich created. The Marquis grabbed Rich and picked him up, then jumped through the portal. Both of them vanished... along with the portal itself.
"RICH," I cried out in horror.
I stared at the empty space where my son had vanished, then snarled in anger and backhanded a nearby support column. The stone shattered at my hit but I didn't care. I REALLY wanted to lash out, screaming and hitting everything around me, but I couldn't afford to do that.
"Damn it," I exclaimed bitterly, turning and going to check on the Occultist.
"I'll live," he told me with a wince of pain. "But I doubt I'll be field worthy for some time."
I nodded at that, feeling angry, not just at the Marquis but at the Freelancers themselves. They outnumbered the Marquis, but they refused to actually work together. That was why the Marquis was taking them down one at a time, becoming more powerful with each one he defeated. In fact, that was probably the very reason he'd come here to build his strength.
"How do we find that bastard?" I demanded of the Occultist, clenching my fists and doing everything I could just to keep from lashing out in anger. At that moment, I understood Rachael and her rampages far too well.
"I don't have any idea," the Occultist admitted with a grimace. "None of us do."
I nodded at that, disappointed but not surprised. If they'd been able to find him, then they would have taken the fight to him, or at least I assumed they would.
"Useless," I spat out bitterly, thinking of all these so called heroes. Then I scowled and mused, "If the heroes can't help me... maybe a villain can."
Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, July 23rd, 2007
The villain was probably called something like Frog Man, Leapfrog, or something equally ridiculous. His costume was a bright green spandex outfit and he had a pair of large goggles over his eyes, which helped give me the impression that he was doing some kind of frog theme.
I was watching the villain from a good distance away, through the window of the jewelry store he was currently robbing. He'd been there for about half an hour, taking his time as he tried to get every piece of jewelry he could.
There had been more than enough time for any super heroes to show up and stop him, but none had. Lately, the local heroes hadn't been doing very well, with their numbers being reduce from either injury or capture by the Marquis. As a result, small time villains were starting to take advantage of the opportunity.
My attention turned from the villain to the news reporter who stood outside the jewelry store, holding a camera and filming the entire thing. It was her footage that told me the robbery was occurring and where. It said something that this guy had been sticking around long enough for not only the reporter to get here, but me as well.
"And where are the damn cops?" I muttered.
There were some cops present, but they seemed more interested in blocking off the street and keeping anyone from getting close than they were in actually catching that guy. Then again, he probably had some unknown powers that they were afraid of. In fact, the cops were probably waiting for either the MCO or some hero to show up and deal with him.
Since the villain didn't appear to be in any hurry, I'd taken a look around and found his transportation hidden on the other side of an alley. It was some kind of small two person hover car, which I knew was his because the whole thing was the same bright green color as his costume. I'd flipped it over to make sure he couldn't escape that way, then I'd gone to work setting my trap.
Suddenly, the hover car thing began to hum and I could see jets activating on the back and bottom. It looked like it was about to take off, or at least that it was trying to. The fact that it was currently upside down meant that it wasn't going anywhere, a fact that made me chuckle.
The villain came out of the jewelry store with a pair of large duffel bags hung over his shoulders. He looked around, appearing to be confused and frustrated, probably by the fact that vehicle wasn't flying right to him so he could escape.
After several seconds and a profanity cried out loud enough that I could hear it, he ran across the street and in my direction. I couldn't help but thinking that if his name was Frogger, having him get hit by a car while running across the street would have been hilarious.
It didn't take long at all for the villain to come towards me, running down the alley so he could get to his vehicle. He didn't seem to notice that the alleyway was covered with brightly colored ribbons, all of which had a single end coming right to me.
Holding the ends of the ribbons, I stretched out my power to control them, and as one, every one of them came alive and began to attack him. The villain cried out in surprise as ribbons wrapped around his arms and legs, holding him tight. In mere seconds, I had him wrapped up like a mummy, all except for his head, and hanging upside down from a fire escape.
"Hello mister villain," I said in my best innocent voice as I came out of hiding and walked up to him. He was hanging at the right height so that his eyes were at the same level as my own. "Do you mind if I ask you some questions? It's for my school paper."
"What the fuck?" the villain demanded, staring at me with a completely confused expression.
"Naughty naughty," I teased him. "My ears are far too young and delicate for such language."
I could only imagine what he thought about seeing a cute little girl with a frilly dress, who obviously wasn't afraid of him. I just gave him a smile, and not a pleasant one, letting my image soak in a little more.
"First off," I continued, my expression going serious as I gave him a cold look. "I want you to tell me where the Marquis has been hiding out."
"The Marquis?" he blurted out, still confused.
I shook my head, wondering if there was some kind of IQ test before you could be a villain. If there was, the bar must be set pretty low.
"You know," I continued, "The villain who's been kidnapping heroes... "
"And villains," he blurted out. "He's grabbed a couple villains too... "
"Now that, I didn't know," I responded, giving him a thoughtful look. "Now then, Frogger... "
"That's not my name," he protested.
I gave him a gentle pat on the check, then responded, "I don't really care. Now then... Frogger... do you know where the Marquis is?"
"Hell no," he said, looking nervous.
I smiled at that, deciding that he must be about as nervous of the Marquis as the heroes. Then again, he'd come out and wasted a lot of time, so maybe he just didn't think his powers were good enough for the Marquis to bother with.
"Are you sure?" I asked, putting a pleading note in my voice, the same one Kimberly used when she was trying get something her parents.
He nodded at that, then demanded, "Let me go... "
"Not until you finish answering my questions," I told him firmly. "Do you know who might know where the Marquis is?" When he shook his head at that, I let out a sigh. After several long seconds, I hesitantly asked, "How about Lady Havoc? Do you know where I can find her?"
"No," he answered, but there was something a little off about his reaction.
I grabbed the side his face and held it firmly, giving just enough pressure that I wouldn't hurt him, but that he'd see it wouldn't be a good idea to piss me off. "Now then Frogger," I insisted in a cold tone. "Let's try that last one again... "
After just a little more prompting, Frogger told me, "There's a club... a bar where villains hang out and socialize."
"I bet the heroes would love to find out about that place," I mused thoughtfully.
"They already know about it," he explained nervously. "There's sort of a truce... I mean, they leave our club alone and we leave Freelancer headquarters alone... "
I nodded in understanding, definitely seeing the appeal of such an arrangement to both sides. Both sides have a place where they can hang out and socialize without worrying about being ambushed. I absently wondered what Rachael's attack on the Clinic meant for the truce, then decided it didn't matter at the moment.
"And Lady Havoc is at this club?" I calmly asked my prisoner.
"Sometimes," he admitted. "She likes to show up every week or two... usually on Thursday nights."
"And the Marquis?" I asked Frogger. "Does he hang out there?"
"No," Frogger answered. "He's not a local."
I nodded at that, then asked Frogger a few more questions, such as where the club was at and what I could expect. I had to give him a few more 'gentle nudges' to encourage his cooperation, but I got what I wanted
When I was done, I gave Frogger my best sweet and innocent smile before saying, "Thank you for being so helpful."
"But you can't go there," Frogger insisted, looking worried. "The treaty... Heroes aren't allowed."
I just laughed at that before asking, "Do I really look like a hero?"
With that, I turned and walked away while he cried out, "Hey, let me down... "
I'd finished with my business with Frogger, who was much more helpful than the last two villains I'd talked with, but I wasn't ready to leave quite yet. There was still something that tickled my curiosity, so I started towards the jewelry store, and more specifically, to the reporter who was still hanging out there. I remembered from the local news that this reporter was named May O'Connel, and she always seemed to be the one who rushed out to cover the hero and villain fights.
"Hello Ms. O'Connel," I greeted the reporter pleasantly.
"Oh, hello," she responded, giving me a look of surprise.
"I was just wondering," I commented, gesturing to her outfit. "Why do you always wear a yellow jumpsuit? I mean, doesn't that make it easier for these bad guys to see you?"
May stared at me for a moment, then started to chuckle. "Actually, that's the entire point. I wear the bright jumpsuit for the same reason a hunter wears orange... so other people can see me and don't hurt me by accident."
"That makes sense for heroes," I pointed out. "But villains... "
"Let me tell you a secret," May said, looking quite amused. "Most people who wear these costumes do it because they like attention... including villains. A lot of the villains want to be on TV, so when they see me and my camera, they usually leave me alone... and sometimes even show off a bit for me."
I shook my head at that, thinking that was rather crazy. Then again, this whole super hero and super villain thing was crazy to start with, so why should the reporters who cover them be any more sane than they were.
"And speaking of unusual outfits," May commented, gesturing to my dress. There was a spark of sharp interest in her eyes that made it clear she wasn't fooled by my 'innocent little girl' routine.
"You know," I said as innocently as I could. "I think I heard someone calling for help from over there... " I gestured to the alleyway where I'd left Frogger tied up.
May hurried off to go check out the tip I'd given her, and though I should have hurried off immediately, I couldn't resist hanging around for another minute, curious to see what her reaction to finding Frogger. Then I heard Frogger calling out, "It was a super hero... A BIG one... "
I chuckled at that, then finally hurried away. However, I didn't get very far before someone dropped out of the sky and landed right in front of me. I nearly jumped at first, until I realized it was only Pinnacle.
"You know," Pinnacle commented pleasantly, "I come to deal with a super villain, only to find you beat me to the punch. I didn't know you wanted to go into the business."
"I have no idea what you mean," I responded.
"How about the other two villains who were found tied up in ribbons?" he asked me with a chuckle. "It seems you've been pretty busy over the last couple days."
"Shouldn't you be out looking for the Marquis?" I demanded a little sharply.
Pinnacle's expression turned grim at that. "We're still looking for him. He's taken a third of the local heroes, some of them friends. Trust me, I'm not about to let him get away with this."
"I looked him up online," I admitted grimly, clenching my fists and nearly shaking in anger, frustration and even fear. "I heard about what he does to his prisoners... "
Pinnacle nodded at that, giving me a sympathetic look as he said, "Don't worry. We'll rescue Shortcut."
I nodded at that, not sure I trusted myself to speak at the moment. The Marquis was a monster... and a powerful one. He kidnaped mutants to steal their powers, and then he tortured some of them until they died. From what I understood, the only reason Champion had beaten him before was because the Marquis had accidentally killed a couple of his most powerful donors before their fight.
"I'm getting my son back," I stated firmly, refusing to accept any other alternative. My eyes were starting to tear up at that and I simultaneously wanted burst into a violent rage, turn into a sobbing mess, and just go and get plastered so I wouldn't have to think about it. "I'll be damned if I let that bastard hurt him."
Pinnacle gave me a worried look, then promised, "I'll do everything in my power to help."
A few seconds later, Pinnacle flew off, leaving me behind. I snarled in rage, then turned and punched the side of a building, smashing the brick wall with my bare hand and leaving fist-sized hole right through it. My hand felt vaguely bruised for a moment, but then that brief pain faded away. Or at least, the physical pain faded away.
Years ago, I'd been helpless to do anything as Rachael's life was destroyed, as our family was nearly torn apart. And now, when I was stronger and tougher than I'd ever even imagined, I'd been helpless to do anything when the Marquis took Rich. I was bursting with frustration, feeling helpless to protect my family.
"Not again," I whispered, knowing that I couldn't bear to lose Rich as well.
I remained where I was for several minutes, waiting until I calmed down a little more. Since I'd finished what I needed to do for now and there was nothing else I could do at the moment, I went to find a bus stop so I could catch a ride home. I was desperately worried about Rich, but I wasn't the only one. Melanie was having a hard time dealing with it as well, and I had to be there for her.
When I arrived home, Kimberly immediately rushed over and gave me a hug, exclaiming, "You're back... " There was more relief in her voice than excitement, which made me scowl. If kidnapping Rich hadn't been enough, I'd be more than pissed at him just for what he'd done to the girls.
"Of course I'm back," I assured her, giving her a gentle hug. I wanted to squeeze her with a comforting bear hug, but I didn't dare do anything like that.
Kaylie looked relieved when she saw I was back safely, but she didn't say anything. She was still a bit shocked over her close call with the Marquis, and last night she'd even woken up screaming from a nightmare.
"Everything is going to be all right," I assured both of my granddaughters, praying that I wasn't lying.
"You were at the library for a long time," Melanie told me, giving me a knowing look.
I nodded at that, then once I was out of earshot of the girls, I admitted, "I wasn't at the library. I was trying to find Rich."
"Please don't get hurt," Melanie told me, looking more than a little worried. "We came so close to losing you before. I don't know what we'd do if we lost you now."
"I'll try to be careful," I promised her with a sad shake of my head. "But I can't leave Rich... I can't just leave it in the hands of those heroes... "
Melanie nodded at that, then had a look of determination on her face as she said, "Then if you do find him, you'd better kick his ass and bring back my brother."
"Of course," I agreed. I fully intended to either do that or die trying.
Melanie nodded again, this time looking a little more comforted. She glanced back at Kaylie, then whispered, "I'm worried about Kaylie... She hasn't said anything about what that guy said... but... "
I understood exactly what Melanie meant. The Marquis had seemed pretty certain that Kaylie was a mutant and that she was getting close to manifesting. I wasn't sure if she'd been so scared by what was going on that she hadn't noticed that, or if she was trying to pretend that she hadn't heard it.
"If she is a mutant," I told Melanie quietly, "then we'll deal with it when the time comes and help her adjust. For now, treat her the same as you always have."
"Thank you," Melanie told me, giving me a hug and admitting, "I'm not sure how I'll raise a mutant... "
I smiled faintly at that, remembering my own difficult experiences. "You'll do the best you can," I assured her gently. "And you'll do fine. You're a good mother."
"Thank you," she told me again, giving me a nervous smile.
After this, I started back towards my room, only to find Kaylie standing in front of me. She stared at me for several long seconds, looking uncertain and afraid. Then she grimaced and had a look of determination that was very much like the one her mother possessed. In fact, it also reminded me a great deal of Meg.
"When you find that bad guy who took Uncle Rich," she insisted. "I want you to kick his ass good."
"You know I will," I assured her, giving her a hug and promising, "I won't let anyone get away with hurting this family."
Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, July 26th, 2007
The super villain social club was right where Frogger had told me. It was an out of the way location, with the main entrance being in a side alley. There were no signs or indications that this was a club for super villains or even any that it was a club at all. For anyone who didn't know where they were going, it would merely appear to be the fire exit from the building.
I'd been sitting back for awhile, watching as two obvious super villains entered through the door while another one left. I was pretty certain that I had the right place, but knowing where it was wasn't the same as being able to walk through the front door. After all, not only did I not look like a super villain, I also looked too young to go into any kind of bar or club.
"Might as well get this over with," I said, trying to pretend that I wasn't extremely nervous and even a little afraid. I went to the door and stepped through, only to find myself immediately confronted with a bouncer. He wasn't dressed in any kind of costume, merely slacks and a nice shirt, but I was still pretty sure that he was a villain or at least had powers. After all, not only he was he tall and almost impossibly muscular, he also had eyes that glowed ever so faintly.
"No kids allowed," the bouncer told me, almost gently. "This ain't no place for you."
"I'm here to see Lady Havoc," I said simply, suddenly getting a look of surprise followed by one of intense suspicion.
"Like I said," the bouncer repeated. "No kids allowed."
I gave him a flat look as I said, "I wouldn't have thought that a place that caters to super villains would be concerned with laws about minors in a bar."
"We're not," he responded with a faint smirk. "We just don't let kids in."
I scowled at that, beginning to get annoyed and frustrated. However, I was pretty sure that it wouldn't be a good idea to try anything on the bouncer. After all, you probably didn't get to be the bouncer in a bar for super villains unless you could really handle yourself.
Just then, someone else called out, "Hey Lenny, is that little girl giving you trouble?"
There were snickers and laughter from the other occupants of the club. I looked up and saw several people in costumes sitting around with beer and shots in front of them. And there a few more who were wearing civilian clothes, most of whom wouldn't have been out of place in any other bar. Of course, the woman with green skin and horns on her head was an exception, even if she was wearing jeans and a T-shirt.
Then I looked at the guy who'd called out to 'Lenny', the bouncer. The man was big and bulky, with muscles on top of muscles, though still not quite as big as the bouncer. He had a mask that covered his entire face, but there was something about him that seemed familiar. It was his voice and build... I suddenly remembered exactly where I knew him from.
"Thanks for the advice with the eggs," I called out to him. "Practicing with eggs like you suggested really helped."
Though I couldn't see his face, his body language definitely suggested he was surprised, probably at the fact that I recognized him even with that mask on. Of course, if it hadn't been for the whole exemplar mental package thing, I probably wouldn't have.
"You know her?" Lenny asked him.
The masked man just responded, "I met her briefly at the Clinic... when I was getting taken care of after that fight with Captain Saturn." Then he came over and joined us, staring down at me though I couldn't see his expression. "I'm Jack Hammer."
"Ribbon," I answered, earning a snicker from Lenny. Admittedly, like my appearance, my name didn't come off as very threatening at all. And while that could definitely be an advantage for appearing harmless, I now realized that it would also make it difficult for anyone to take me seriously.
"What are you doing here, kid?" Jack Hammer asked me, being a bit friendlier than Lenny had been.
"I have a message for Lady Havoc," I said simply, having noticed that Lenny hadn't denied she was here.
Jack hesitated for a moment, then said, "I really don't think she wants to be bothered by anyone right now."
"That's an understatement," the green skinned woman added with a snicker. "The way she's been lately, she's likely to kill the messenger."
I frowned at that, trying to think about how I could get to Rachael while avoiding a scene. After all, I was pretty sure that if I tried to start something here, I'd just get my ass kicked. I might have powers, but there were a bunch of professional super villains present who probably wouldn't take kindly to me if I caused trouble.
After several seconds, I said, "Can someone tell her I have a message from Big Al?"
"Who's Big Al?" one of the uncostumed customers mused.
The guy sitting next to him answered, "Big Al is that loan shark... "
"No," another customer responded. "He's a big time numbers guy in Atlantic City."
Lenny nodded to a nearby waitress, an attractive redhead who had glowing blue tattoos of lightning bolts on her arm. She hurried off, coming back a minute later and announcing, "Lady Havoc wants to see her... "
Jack and Lenny both seemed surprised at that. "I'll show you to her, honey," the waitress told me as she gave me a curious look.
"Havoc isn't the kind of person a kid should get involved with," Jack warned me, actually sounding a little concerned. "And this isn't the kind of place you should be hanging out."
I just smiled at him and said, "Thank you, but I can take care of myself."
The waitress led me to the next room, which had secluded booths instead of tables. Because each booth area was partitioned, I couldn't make out just how many other people might be present. However, it was pretty quiet in this room so I was sure there weren't many people.
"She's back there, honey," the waitress said, pointing to a partitioned booth in the far corner.
"Thank you," I told her pleasantly.
As I walked towards the partitioned area where I'd been directed, my heart began to race. I'd already been nervous just coming in here, but now it was getting worse. How would Rachael react to seeing me like this? Would she even believe I was really me? All I could do was brace myself and find out.
I stepped into the partitioned area and saw that it wasn't really one of those booths you see at a family friendly restaurant, like I'd been picturing. Instead, there were the same kind of table and chairs as in the other room, only they were surrounded by these thin walls to give more privacy.
Rachael sat at the table, facing in my direction. She was wearing her Lady Havoc costume, and I couldn't help but noticing a large and scary looking energy rifle sitting in the chair beside her. In fact, I was pretty sure that this was the same weapon she'd used to shoot me. On the table in front of her, there was a half empty glass of beer and two empty shot glasses.
Rachael stared at me with a cold look, then her eyes widened slightly in surprise. "You," she said in obvious recognition. "I remember you... vaguely."
I nodded at that, not knowing whether I should feel relieved or not that she remembered me at all. When she had her episodes, her memories tended to blur and even go missing, especially during her severe episodes like the one at the Clinic. In a way, it was a good thing that she remembered me, but I also knew that I certainly wouldn't want to be stuck with the memory of having killed a little girl.
"I thought you were dead," she commented, looking vaguely relieved, though she quickly covered it up. However, her eyes darted to her weapon, perhaps in case I was here to get some kind of revenge.
"I'm harder to kill than I look," I said with a shrug, trying not to think about just how much that had hurt.
"I hear you have a message for me," she stated. Her expression was grim, but there was a look in her eyes that seemed hungry to hear what I had to say.
"Your cure worked," I told her simply. She didn't bother hiding the intense look of relief, then her body language all relaxed. I bit my lip for a moment, then added, "But there was a side effect."
"A side effect?" Rachael demanded, giving me a worried look. "What kind of side effect?"
I looked away from her for a moment, glancing around at the partitioned walls before meeting her eyes again. "It caused burnout," I finally said, unable to keep my voice from shaking. "And a late manifestation of mutant abilities."
"WHAT?" Rachael blurted out, her eyes going wide in obvious surprise and disbelief.
If I'd had any lingering suspicious that Rachael's cure was intended to turn me into a mutant, her reaction definitely removed them. Her expression was stunned and a little confused, and under other circumstances, I might have burst out laughing.
"He's a mutant?" she gasped, probably more to herself than to me.
"A high level exemplar to be exact," I told her, trying to keep my voice calm. Then I gestured down at myself and gave her a nervous smile, cautiously asking, "Well Pumpkin... what do you think of my new look?"
Rachael's eyes went even wider than before, and for a moment, I thought she was about to start choking. I just stood there, feeling unbelievably self-conscious as she stared at me. This was even more awkward than the first time Melanie or Rich had seen me like this.
"Daddy?" Rachael finally asked, looking more than a little doubtful.
I nodded at that, then let out a sigh. I sat down in the chair across from her and said, "I didn't exactly have a way to get ahold of you to tell you about this." Then I forced a weak smile and added, "And when I tried talking to you at the Clinic, you obviously weren't in the mood to listen."
"You can't be," Rachael protested weakly, looking a bit dazed and confused. "You're a little girl... "
"I have a weird BIT," I explained with a shake of my head. Then I admitted, "This is pretty damn weird for me."
"I'd imagine," she responded carefully, seeming to get hold of herself.
"Your cure worked," I explained, fully aware of the way she was staring at me though I tried to act as though I didn't notice it. "But as you see... " I gestured down at myself. "The doctor isn't sure if your cure gave me the mutation... or just triggered a latent one I already had." Then I paused, thinking about the fact that two of my kids were mutants and now it looked like at least one of my granddaughters was as well. "It's probably the latter."
"I'm sorry," Rachael said, giving me a pained look. "I didn't mean for... "
"You saved my life," I quickly pointed out. "I knew damn well that there were risks, but they were better than the alternative. Sure, I'm a little girl now... but I'm still alive. Hell, I feel better than I ever have in my life. I'm not blaming you for this. I'm thanking you."
Rachael stood up from her chair and came around the table, so I stood up as well. She was quite a bit taller than me, which was no surprise. Just about everyone was taller than me now. She stared at me for several long seconds before abruptly giving me a hug.
"I'm glad you're alive," she told me, pulling back and looking teary eyed. "I was afraid something had gone wrong... that it hadn't worked."
"I gathered that from what happened at the Clinic," I responded wryly, only to have her wince at that that.
"I'm sorry I hurt you," she said awkwardly.
"What if it had been a real little girl?" I asked her in a cold tone. "One who didn't have regeneration to save her life?"
Rachael hesitated a moment, then admitted, "Trust me, I've already been thinking about that a great deal." She sat down again, suddenly looking very tired. "You have no idea how relieved I was to see you alive, even before you told me who you were."
"You can't keep doing this," I told her quietly, thinking about all the people she'd killed. "You can't keep going on these rampages... "
"I know," she responded with a sad shake of her head. "I've spent years trying to find a cure for my Diedrick's, but every time I think I might have something... it goes wrong. The closest I came is something that has a sixty percent chance of curing it... but an eighty percent chance of frying my brain and turning me into a drooling idiot. I get so frustrated... and that just triggers an episode... " She gave me a tearful look and said, "You have no idea what it's like when you can't even control yourself."
I gave her a gentle hug, wishing I could do something for her. It broke my heart to see what she was going through, knowing how it not only hurt her but everyone else as well. I knew that mutants weren't the only ones who could have mental issues, but combining them with super powers always made for a very dangerous combination.
"I go by Alyss now," I told her, not sure what else to say. Then I joked, "It would be pretty damn weird having people call me Al or Dad when I'm out in public... at least when I look like this."
Rachael chuckled weakly at that, responding, "Yeah, I can see that." Then she tested the name, "Alyss... "
"Alyss Megan Morgan," I said, giving her my full name.
Her eyes widened slightly as she caught my middle name, then she smiled faintly and said, "I like it."
"My codename is Ribbon," I added, making a foot long ribbon in my hand for demonstration. "Not exactly impressive."
"Neither is the ability to make a toaster," she pointed out wryly.
I shrugged at that, then added, "Well, I can also move an engine block without needing a hoist now, so that's pretty handy."
Rachael chuckled again, then asked, "So, how do you like being a girl? And a mutant?"
I thought about it for a moment, then told her, "It's a lot to get used to for both of them. But the way I figure it, you gave me a second chance and I'd be an idiot if I didn't try to embrace it."
"And what are you going to do with this second chance?" she asked me, giving me a curious and somewhat wary look. "If you're here for my help getting into the business, I can definitely hook you up with the right people. But somehow, I don't think you'd like the lifestyle."
"That's not why I'm here," I told her, remembering exactly why I had come. "I didn't come here so I could become a criminal."
Her expression turned even more wary and she asked, "Have you decided to be a hero then? Are you here to try taking me in?"
"No," I responded with a sad shake of my head. "I have no intention of becoming a hero either." I paused at that, then said, "I'm here because I need your help."
Rachael stared at me for a moment as she absorbed that, then she cautiously said, "I'm afraid I can't do anything with your BIT, Daddy... Alyss. I wouldn't have the first idea of how to turn you back into a guy... "
"I need your help with the Marquis," I stated grimly.
Rachael gave me a blank look, then commented, "I thought you said you didn't want to be a hero."
"He has Rich," I blurted out in frustration. "I need you to help me save your brother... "
"But the Marquis only takes mutants," Rachael started to protest.
I cut her off and exclaimed, "Rich is a mutant." She paused, looking surprised at that. I shook my head and admitted, "I only found out recently... He's been keeping it a secret for years. He was afraid that I might worry about him doing the same thing you did."
Rachael winced at that, then stared at me for several long seconds. "My Dad turns into a little girl," she finally said, "and a mutant. And now my little brother is a mutant too... " She scowled for a moment, then demanded, "Is Mel a mutant too?"
"Not that I know of," I responded, pausing for a moment before admitting, "But the Marquis seemed pretty sure that Kaylie is... and that she's going to manifest soon."
Rachael didn't say a word to that at first. She just took a long drink from her beer, looking worried. "I was the only mutant in the family," she finally said, her voice quiet and tired. "I felt like a freak. Now, suddenly everyone is." Then her expression darkened and she demanded, "What happened?"
I told her about the attack at the mall and she listened without interrupting me. Once I was finished, she began asking questions, trying to get details on what Rich could do, on what powers the Marquis demonstrated, and on what he'd said about Kaylie.
Finally, Rachael said, "Only an idiot would go after someone like the Marquis. You have no idea how dangerous he'll be once he starts getting more powerful donors." She finished off her beer, then said, "But there is no way in hell I'm gonna let that fucking asshole have my baby brother." Her eyes flashed with anger, but it wasn't the anger that came with her Diedrick's, but more the kind that could lead into an episode. Then she suddenly looked at me and weakly joked, "Pardon the French. Your delicate little ears shouldn't have to hear that kind of language."
In spite of the dark situation, I still found myself chuckling at that. It was nice having my baby girl back, even if it was only for this short time. I'd really missed her.
Without a word, Rachael stood up and grabbed her energy rifle. She took my hand in hers, reminding me a great deal of when she was a little girl and liked me to hold her hand whenever we went someplace. However, this time it was her hand that was larger than mine. Still, I smiled faintly as we began to leave the club together.
When we got to the other room, one villain in some kind of fire themed costume taunted me, "Oh, the little girl has to run away from the big bad super villains... " He laughed as though that was the funniest thing he'd ever heard.
Suddenly, Rachael had her energy rifle pointed right in his face, looking furious as she snarled, "No one fucks with my family... "
The villain looked like he was about to piss himself, and I gulped, expecting her to pull the trigger any moment. She was clearly starting to slip into one of her episodes, and everyone in the club could see it. But after several seconds, she lowered the weapon, then gave me a reassuring smile to show that she was still in control.
"She must be Lady Havoc's kid," the red headed waitress exclaimed, staring at me in disbelief.
"Baby Havoc," the fire themed villain joked weakly.
Jack Hammer was sitting at the bar, holding a whole pitcher of beer in his hand as though it was a glass. He watched me for a moment before musing, "Now that I think about it, there is a resemblance."
Neither Rachael or I said anything as we started for the door, with Lenny quickly stepping out of the way and giving me a wary look. After the way Rachael had reacted to the one villain teasing me, he was probably a little nervous about what she might do for the way he'd treated me. He looked relieved as the two of us left without causing any further trouble.
As soon as we were outside, Rachael gave me a curious look and commented, "I know you didn't have any choice about turning into a girl... but what's up with that dress?"
Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, July 26th, 2007
The secret super villain lair of Lady Havoc was almost exactly what I would have imagined for a mad scientist... depressingly so. The building was an old single screen movie theater that looked like it had been closed down and probably even condemned at least fifteen years earlier. Nearly everything from the old theater had long since been stripped out and removed, including most of the seats.
Nearly every available square foot was filled with machines, half-built machines, half-dismantled machines, or the tables and equipment needed to work on these machines. To my untrained eyes, some of it looked extremely high tech, like something I'd see in some science fiction movie, while other bits and pieces looked like they'd been scavenged from a junk yard. All in all, I could barely make sense of anything.
The 'kitchen' consisted of two hot plates, three microwave ovens that were wired together in a weird way, and what looked like some kind of high tech coffee pot on steroids. On second thought, it looked more like one of those fancy espresso machines on some kind of super soldier serum. The only thing I could make out about it for sure was that it produced coffee, and that was only because of the coffee spill in front of it.
And then there was Rachael's 'bedroom', which consisted of a mattress that was tucked between a couple work tables. I stared at the setup in horror, realizing that absolutely everything in this place was designed for making her inventions. Everything related to her living arrangements or taking care of herself seemed to have been nothing more than an afterthought. I felt a deep sadness as I thought about the way my daughter was living, and I desperately wished there was something I could do to make things better.
Rachael seemed rather proud as she led me through the clutter, pointing out various odds and ends. "This is my molecular disintegration ray," she told me, pointing to an odd looking weapon that resembled the energy rifle she was still holding. "Unfortunately, it freezes up after a couple shots and I have to tear it halfway apart each time just to get it working again."
Then Rachael stopped in front of one work bench that had several bottles of chemicals stored on a rack. She pulled out a vial containing a golden colored liquid and held it up for me to see.
"My cancer cure," she told me with a grin. "I wonder if this would trigger Kaylie's manifestation... or maybe even Mel... " She paused at that, looking excited for a moment before she shook her head and let out a sigh. "It wouldn't work. It would need a large enough concentration of cancer cells in order to generate the cellular energy required to boost the metabolic process... "
"Rachael," I said, trying to get her attention before she got lost in another idea.
"Sorry," she apologized with an embarrassed look. "Sometimes, being a devisor is like having ADD. I start off planning to make a universal remote for my home electronics, then one idea leads to another and the next thing I know, I'm invading a research lab for the materials to make my own flying saucer."
I gave Rachael an odd look as I commented, "That sounds oddly specific."
"Doesn't it?" she responded with a smirk, showing just a bit too much of her scary looking teeth.
"About Rich," I reminded her.
"Of course," she said, her expression going serious again. She stopped and just looked over her lab, then shook her head with a look of disgust. "I've lost all my robots and won't have time to build any more before we need them. But of course, that would be pointless anyway unless we can find the Marquis."
"And how do we do that?" I asked, fully aware that when it came to super villains, she knew more than I ever could. In this case, I'd have to rely on her expertise, which was why I'd come to her for help in the first place.
"I'll have to call in some favors," Rachael answered.
Rachael went to one corner of the lab where a comfortable looking chair was set up, surrounded by computer monitors and odd bits of equipment. She sat down and touched a button, then a glowing keyboard made of light suddenly appeared, floating in the air in front of her. She began typing a few things.
"Leonides," Rachael abruptly said, looking off to the side rather than at me. A few seconds later, it became obvious that she was having some kind of phone conversation. "I'm sorry to bother you, but I have a problem I was hoping you could help me with. I'm trying to locate the Marquis and was wondering if you've been keeping track of him." She nodded at that, then asked, "Do you have any idea? Well, thank you for your time anyway, and good luck with Saint Louis."
"Who was that?" I asked curiously.
Rachael glanced at me and simply said, "You don't want to know."
I nodded at that, knowing the circles she socialized in and suspecting that she was right. I probably didn't want to know the kind of people she had on her speed dial.
A few seconds later, Rachael was repeating the process, exclaiming, "Hellbinder... Its Lady Havoc you sad sack of shit. And fuck you with a lamp post. I need something from you, you useless waste of flesh... " I just stared at Rachael, surprised because she was talking in an almost pleasant and friendly tone while she was saying these things. "No, you'll only get my soul when you pry it from my cold dead flesh. What I need is the location of a wretched sinner... No, I'm looking for a specific one... "
I just stood back and listened in as Rachael made a series of calls, some of which were actually seemed to be video calls, though I couldn't see who the other people were. However, the conversations included things like, "You owe me for that hover conversion on your battle tank," and "If you can get this for me, I'll provide you six automatons... "
This glimpse into Rachael's life was interesting and very educational. I was seeing a side of my daughter that I'd never seen before, and I felt an odd sense of pride that she was good at her chosen career, even while I felt horrified by the things she did.
Once Rachael was finished with her phone calls, she told me, "I've done what I can for the moment, so now we have to wait until one of my contacts gets back to me. The hard part is finding someone who is not only capable of finding the Marquis, but willing to give me the information. A lot of people don't want to risk crossing him."
I nodded at that, telling her, "Thank you for looking."
Rachael nodded at that, giving me a worried look. "I might not have been a very good sister," she admitted, "but I'll be damned if I let him kill Rich."
"He's always looked up to you," I told her quietly. "Even after all this."
Rachael winced slightly at that, then joked, "Well he shouldn't. I'm a horrible role model." I wasn't about to argue that one.
Since there didn't seem to be anything else we could do at the moment except wait for Rachael's contacts to get back to her, we sat down and began to talk. "What has everyone been up to?" she asked me, both eager and nervous at the same time. "And what are Mel's daughters like?"
I smiled as I thought of the little girls, though it turned into a scowl as I remembered how scared and shaken they both were thanks to the Marquis. "They're good girls," I told her honestly. "Kaylie is twelve, and she's starting to get a little rebellious, or at least show a bit more independence. In fact, she reminds me a bit of Melanie at that age."
Rachael chuckled at that. "Then Mel is in for a rough couple of years."
I nodded agreement, then told her, "And Kimberly is seven... and into the whole princess thing. She's the sweetest thing... " I paused, feeling a little sad as I thought about how much she was like Rachael at that age. I just desperately hoped that Kimberly didn't have to deal with a quarter of the things that Rachael did.
While we talked, Rachael moved to a stool by one of her work benches and began to fiddle with an invention, which looked more like a small pile of parts than anything else to me. I was pretty sure that she just needed to keep her hands occupied while she talked and I didn't take it as anything personal. I remembered that she used to do this all the time when she was younger too.
After I'd filled Rachael in about how everyone else was doing, she asked, "But what about you? How are you doing? I know it can't be easy turning into a kid... much less a girl."
I chuckled at that and admitted, "It can get pretty awkward... not to mention frustrating. People treat me like a kid, and admittedly, I kind of bring a lot of that on myself with the dress and all." I gestured down at myself. "But it's kind of exciting too. It's like everything is new and I'm seeing the world for the first time."
"But what are you doing to do?" she asked me, looking a little worried. "I mean, it isn't like you can go out and get a job when you look like that."
"I don't know," I admitted, having thought about this quite a bit. I had a second chance and I definitely didn't want to waste it, but I still had no idea what to do. "Maybe I could work for the cops as bait for pedophiles or something."
"Maybe," she agreed, though she looked rather skeptical about that.
"Whatever I do, I can't stay where I am forever," I told her with a sigh. "I can't keep mooching off Melanie and Mark."
"You always were too stubborn to accept charity," Rachael told me with a smile. Then in her best gruff imitation of me, or at least of the old me, she said, "I don't need anyone to give me anything. If I want something, I'll damn well earn it myself or do without."
I chuckled at that, especially since she could do a better imitation of me than I could at the moment. "Well, it's true."
We sat there in an awkward silence for several minutes, with me just watching as she worked on her electronics. She kept glancing at me, as though having a hard time believing that I was really me, or maybe that I was even there in her home. Finally, she cautiously asked, "You haven't noticed anything like Diedrick's, have you?"
"No," I answered, and she immediately looked a little relieved. Then I took a deep breath and admitted, "But the doctor says I'll probably have to be on the lookout for some exemplar related issues... especially once I hut puberty again." I shuddered at that and added, "I am NOT looking forward to going through it again, especially not from this side of the fence."
"I'd imagine not," Rachael said with a chuckle. "But you might have a couple years to prepare for it."
"Probably longer," I admitted with a sigh. "There's a good chance I might not hit it for ten years."
And though I didn't say it aloud, there was also the chance that I never would. It all depended on if my ageing had merely been slowed down, or if my BIT would remain frozen like this for good. Fortunately, Dr. Franklin had told me that most BITS could change over time, at least enough to allow for ageing.
"I'm glad you don't have to deal with this," she told me with a faint smile, suddenly looking exhausted.
"It's getting pretty late," I told her gently. "Since there isn't anything we can do right now, why don't you get some sleep... "
Rachael gave a short and bitter laugh at that. "I don't sleep... or at least, I haven't had a good night sleep in years."
"I'm sorry," I said, once again feeling worried about my daughter and depressed over what had become of her.
"Nightmares," Rachael admitted with a pained smile. "And for the last week, it's been even worse." She stared off into the distance as she quietly added, "Every time I close my eyes, I see your face... "
"What?" I asked in surprise.
Rachael gave me a forced smile and explained, "Every time I close my eyes, I remember killing a little girl... shooting her right in the face." Tears began running down her cheeks and she choked out, "What kind of monster would do something like that?"
"It's not your fault," I told her, giving her a gentle hug.
"If not mine," she demanded bitterly, "then whose?"
"But I'm still alive," I quickly reminded her, feeling my heart break all over again. "You didn't kill me."
"And you have no idea how thankful I am for that," she said in a near whisper. "But it doesn't change the fact that I shot a little girl in the face without having any suspicion that she'd live through it. What if it had been a real little girl? What if I really had killed her?" She paused at that, wiping the tears from her cheeks, asking, "And what about the next time?"
I certainly couldn't argue with this, especially not when this was the exact same thing that I'd been thinking of. I wanted to comfort her and assure her that everything would be all right, but neither of us was foolish enough to believe that lie.
"I'm tired, Daddy," she told me quietly. "So very tired."
I continued to hug Rachael in silence since I couldn't think of anything else to do. She clutched me back, holding me so tightly that it probably would have hurt a real little girl, though I was sturdy enough that it wasn't a problem.
Once Rachael pulled away from me, she said, "I've given up on trying to find a cure for my Diedrick's. Instead, I've spent the last week desperately trying to just figure out a way to contain myself. I wish I'd done this ten years ago, because now it's far too late."
With that, Rachael touched the device that she'd been assembling right in front of me. The surface was mostly a golden colored metal, and it was shaped like it was meant to go over someone's forearm like a bracer. There was also a gold metal band as well, which looked like it might have been a tiara for a Halloween costume party.
"What is this?" I carefully asked her.
Rachael held up the gold tiara and gently touched the arm bracer, giving me a faint smile as she did so. "This measures my brain waves, and whenever I reach a set threshold in a Diedrick's event, it should paralyze my nervous system." She paused at that, then explained, "When I drick out, this should paralyze me so I can't hurt anyone."
"That's great," I exclaimed, only to realize that she didn't seem as excited about that as I was.
"If I use this," Rachael told me with a sigh, "it should keep me from hurting anyone else."
"But there's a side effect," I stated, knowing how her inventions worked.
"Not a direct one," she responded. "The problem is, if I use this... I might as well be committing suicide."
I stared at her in surprise. "What do you mean?"
Rachael just ran her hands over the new device, shaking her head slightly. "I have a lot of enemies," she finally told me, keeping her voice calm and almost flat. "And some of them want to do more than just put me behind bars." She gave me a wry smile as she added, "I'm not always picky about who I steal supplies from, or who I drick out on, and some of them really hold a grudge."
"So you don't just have super heroes after you," I said in understanding. "You've got villains too."
With a faint nod, Rachael responded, "One or two. Every once in awhile, they make a try for me. Usually, it isn't much of a problem but... " She shook her head at that and said, "You know that stress is one of my triggers... " I nodded at that. "Well, if I'm using this and someone comes for me, I'll probably freeze up and won't be able to defend myself. I'll be helpless."
"So," I said grimly. "You either leave yourself vulnerable if you're attacked... or you risk killing more people."
Rachael frowned but nodded reluctantly. "And the same holds true for dealing with the Marquis."
"But if you have an episode then," I pointed out grimly. "You might end up hurting me... Rich... and any other prisoners."
Rachael just sat there, staring down at her new invention for several long seconds. Then she scowled intently and stood up, announcing, "I'm not going to just stand still and let someone kill me without doing everything I can to fight back. If I was going to do that, I would have just stayed in prison."
As she started to walk way, I cautiously said, "Rachael... "
"Like I said," she responded grimly, turning and giving me a flat look. "It's far too late for that thing to do me any good." Then she gestured towards the back and told me, "You're welcome to use the bed. I've got too much work to do to bother with sleep."
I stared at my daughter's back as she continued walking away from me, not bothering to look back again. I shook my head sadly and muttered, "Ain't that a kick in the balls."
Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, July 27th, 2007
It was strange to wake up on in the middle of a super villain's lair, but not really much stranger than anything else that had happened to me lately. In fact, it almost seemed like every time I woke up, I found myself in a different place.
"Better than the hospital," I reminded myself, thinking of the real hospital rather than the Clinic.
My internal clock told me it was just after 7AM, which meant that I'd had a full night's sleep of four hours. I chuckled faintly as I thought of the fact that I now considered a mere four hours to be a full night's sleep. And considering what time I usually woke up, this was really getting up late too.
I was fully aware that Rachael hadn't gone to bed last night, a fact that I knew since I'd not only used the only bed I'd seen, but because I'd heard her moving around and working on things the entire night. I had no idea how she was able to keep going on so little sleep, but from what she'd said about her insomnia, she was well used to it.
After I got up, I noted that my dress was gone, having dissolved and faded away while I was asleep. I'd created it yesterday morning around this time, so that was no surprise at all, nor was it a problem. With only a little concentration, I was suddenly wearing a black silk bathrobe. And as an afterthought, I created a pair of slippers, though they were more like cotton socks on my feet, not thick enough to protect the bottoms of my feet if I stepped on anything sharp. But since my body was pretty tough, the slippers were more to keep my feet clean than anything else.
I followed the sound in the distance until I found Rachael, who was busy working on a machine that looked like a gold metal beach ball. To my surprise, I saw a gold metal tiara on her forehead along with the bracer on her arm. She glanced at me and nodded faintly in acknowledgment but didn't say a word about why she was wearing the device when last night she'd firmly insisted she couldn't.
"Where did you get that robe?" Rachael finally asked, giving me a curious look.
"Did you want one?" I asked pleasantly, holding my hand out and making a new robe appear, one about the right size for my daughter. "It will only last a day though."
Rachael looked only vaguely surprised, commenting, "So you can summon more than just ribbons."
I nodded at that, then joked, "Since I can't work on cars anymore, I've taken up sewing as a hobby."
Rachael nodded at that, then abruptly asked, "Do you want breakfast?" But before I could even answer, she was already starting towards the area she'd set aside as her kitchen.
A couple minutes later, Rachael poured two cups of coffee, and when I took a sip of mine, I was suddenly thankful that I had an exemplar constitution. This was the strongest and nastiest coffee I'd ever had, and I'd had some pretty bad stuff over the years. However, she didn't show any signs of being bothered by it. Then again, considering her sleep habits, she probably lived off this stuff.
After this, Rachael made breakfast, if it could be called that. She nuked up a bunch of cheap microwave sausages and then made up two bowls of what looked like green mush. I poked at the mush with my spoon, wondering if it was about to start moving.
"Protein, carbs, and all the vitamins and nutrients required for the day," Rachael said as she ate hers. "Very efficient."
I took a bite, thankful that it tasted better than it looked... though not by much. In fact, it was so bland and tasteless that I might as well have been eating soggy cardboard.
"When was the last time you had a good meal?" I asked Rachael. "I mean, the last time you had a good home cooked dinner?"
She hesitated a moment, then admitted, "I don't remember." Then she scowled and said, "I'm too busy to waste time cooking when I don't need to." She sounded just a little defensive as she said that.
We ate in near silence, and it was definitely a little awkward. It was obvious that Rachael didn't have a lot of company or get out and socialize much. Then again, I couldn't imagine that it would be easy to relax and be friendly with a bunch of super villains. Still, in spite of her odd behavior, she did seem somewhat happy to have me there. After all, she'd taken a break from her invention in order to eat with me, and I had a feeling she didn't stop working very often. Then it dawned on me. She was lonely.
I felt another wave of sadness as I thought about the way Rachael was living. It was obvious that she needed help but was too stubborn to ask for it... and probably even to accept it. She'd always been a bit stubborn, a trait I was sure she'd inherited from her mother.
Once we finished eating, I went to go clean up, only to find that she only had a small shower, which would have been more than large enough for me to use. Still, one look at that was enough to make me immediately miss a nice large tub filled with bubbles. After a few minutes of consideration, I decided to just do a sponge bath so I wouldn't have to worry about drying my hair. For all I knew, her hair dryer might have a chance of making all your hair fall out, and I didn't want to risk anything like that.
I cleaned up as quickly as I could and then got dressed, this time creating a nice black dress with a slightly different cut than I'd used before. Once I'd decorated myself up with a few bows and ribbons, I went to go check on Rachael.
Rachael took one look and me, smiling faintly and shaking her head. "I still can't believe that's you, Daddy," she told me with a chuckle. "I mean, it's hard enough seeing you as a little girl, but dressing like that... I never would have imagined you'd EVER wear something like that of your own free will."
"Things change," I reminded her with a forced smile, thinking about just how much things had changed for her and how few of them had been good.
Rachael nodded at that and came closer, staring at me thoughtfully before she reached out and touched my skull shaped hair clip. "You know," she teased me, "this kind of decoration is fairly common in my business... though usually not on a hair clip. Are you sure you're not going into the business?"
"Pretty sure," I responded, glad to see that Rachael seemed to be in a good mood at the moment.
"Things change," she pointed out with a faint smile as she repeated my own comment. Then her expression turned serious and she said, "I haven't heard anything back from my contacts yet, so we'll have to keep waiting for now."
I nodded at that, even as I clenched my fists in frustration. I REALLY wanted to just punch something to let loose a little steam, and before I'd turned into a pint-sized powerhouse, I probably would have. Now, I was trying hard not to act on these impulses, but it wasn't easy. I'd never been known as a bastion of calm and self-control, though with my new powers, that might have to change.
"You're wearing that thing you made," I said, gesturing to the metal bracer on Rachael's arm and trying to distract myself.
"I... worked on one of the flaws last night," she answered after a moment. "I built in a force field generator that should kick in when I get paralyzed. That way, I won't be completely vulnerable."
"That's good to hear," I responded, not sure what else I could say to that. I knew that even with this addition to protect herself, getting paralyzed at all during the wrong moment could still be very dangerous for her. She was putting herself at great risk in order to avoid losing control again.
"Unfortunately," she commented as she walked over to one of her work benches. "Air won't pass through it, so I can't be targeted with poison gas, but that means if I'm in it for too long, I'll suffocate." She said this in a casual tone, as though this wasn't a big deal.
I blinked at that, then asked, "Can't you get an air tank or something... ?"
"When I get time," she agreed almost absently.
A moment later, Rachael picked something off the work bench and handed it to me. It was a metal remote control, though it only had two buttons on it. One of them was labeled with a lightning bolt and the other was labeled with a circle. I gave her a curious look.
"If I drick out while facing the Marquis," she told me with a grim look. "If I freeze up but there isn't anyone else at risk... you can end my paralysis so I can fight him."
"And the other button?" I asked, though I already knew the answer.
"You can deactivate my force field," she answered.
I stared at Rachael for a moment, realizing just how much trust she'd placed in my hands. With this simple remote, I could release her while she was wild and out of control, letting her hurt or kill innocent people, or I could leave her paralyzed, without anything at all to protect her from danger. And since I'd once betrayed her and turned her in to the police, this show of trust was especially potent.
"I'll just have to be careful not to have an episode at the wrong time," Rachael told me with a faint smile. "It would be quite awkward to get paralyzed while out driving. But you know what they say... don't drick and drive." She chuckled as if that was an old joke, but for all I knew, it might very well be a common joke among the Diedrick's crowd.
Rachael continued to fiddle with various inventions for the next couple hours, while I stood close by, watching and occasionally talking. It was strange being so close to her after such a long time, especially considering everything that had happened. However, in spite of everything that had happened, it was nice to see my daughter again and spend time with her.
When I was talking to her, some of her words and expressions gave me a good look at the hard and dangerous woman she'd become, and that woman scared me a little. But at the same time, I also kept seeing glimpses of the little girl she used to be. She was lost and lonely, but deep down, she was still the same girl who used to squeal in delight whenever I gave her a piggy back ride. I was pretty sure that I was the only person she'd allowed to see that part of herself in a very long time.
Rachael kept taking breaks from her work to see if any of her contacts had gotten back to her yet, and I could see her slowly growing more tense and frustrated. I watched nervously, knowing that she was on a downward spiral and that her worry about Rich was going to trigger an episode soon. I wasn't sure how bad the episode would have to be before it triggered her new device, but I didn't want to risk her getting anywhere near that bad.
"There isn't anything more you can do right now," I told her, trying to calm her down though I felt the same way myself. "You can't help Rich if you go off into an episode."
"You're right," Rachael admitted with a scowl. "But I have to do something."
I hesitated a moment, then put my hand on hers and gently reminded her, "We aren't the only ones who are worried about Rich. I think... I think that maybe you can help make them feel better in the meantime."
"What do you mean?" Rachael asked, giving me a suspicious look.
It was nearly two hours later when I finally returned home. As soon as I stepped through the door of the house, I called out, "Honey, I'm home." Doing so in the voice of a little girl really just didn't have the right effect.
Melanie came rushing into the living room, crying out, "Alyss... " She threw her arms around me in a tight hug, not having to worry about squeezing me too tightly. "I was so worried... You said you were probably going to be home late last night, but I wasn't expecting you to be gone all night... "
"Sorry about that," I told her with a faint smile. "I got caught up in something and forgot to give you a heads up... "
Kaylie and Kimberly came into the room, with Kimberly rushing over to give me a hug too. "I'm glad you're back," she told me, then gave me a stern look and said, "And don't you worry me again." She looked so much like her mother at that moment that I couldn't resist laughing.
"Did you find uncle Rich?" Kaylie demanded with a hopeful look.
I shook my head at that, then carefully said, "No... but I did find someone else. Someone who can help."
Melanie gave me a look of surprise, then asked, "You found one of those super heroes?"
"Not exactly," I started.
But then, a voice announced from the door behind me, "I wouldn't exactly call me a hero."
Rachael stepped into the house, wearing civilian clothes that looked like they hadn't seen a lot of use. She still had on the golden tiara and arm bracer, which along with her sharp teeth, made it difficult for her to look like a civilian no matter how else she was dressed. She looked around nervously, and her body language suggested that she was almost ready to run right back out the door.
Melanie stared at her sister, her eyes going wide in disbelief and amazement. "Rachael?"
"Hi, Mel," Rachael greeted her with a nervous smile. "It's been awhile."
For a moment, Melanie just stood there as if too stunned to move. Then she slowly moved closer to Rachael, staring her in the face. Without warning, Melanie suddenly slapped Rachael across the face.
"Don't do that," Rachael warned her.
"Why?" Melanie demanded angrily. "It's going to make you flip out and kill us all?"
"No," Rachael responded with a forced smile. "Because it hurts."
Then Melanie lunged at Rachael again, but instead of hitting her, she grabbed her in a tight hug. My daughters hugged each other in silence for nearly a minute before they pulled apart, and when they did, both of them were teary eyed.
"Eight years," Melanie finally said. "It's been eight years. Where were you?"
"Keeping away from you and your family," Rachael answered grimly. "I couldn't put you in danger... "
"But you can now?" Melanie asked suspiciously.
Rachael glanced to me and absently ran a hand over her metal bracer. "I've taken precautions to protect you from me."
"Who is this?" Kaylie demanded, staring at Rachael suspiciously.
Melanie turned to her daughter and hesitated a moment before answering, "This is your Aunt Rachael."
"Aunt Rachael?" Kaylie asked nervously.
Rachael tried giving the girls a gentle smile, though it didn't quite come out that way. "Hi," she started, though Kimberly immediately hid behind Melanie. Rachael looked a little hurt by that.
"Are you really my aunt?" Kaylie demanded, still looking nervous but also defiant.
Rachael nodded at that, giving her another smile, this time with her lips closed. "You probably don't remember me," she told Kaylie. "You were pretty young the last time I saw you." Then she looked at Kimberly, who was carefully peeking out from behind her Mom. "And this is the first time I've ever seen you."
Melanie continued to stare at her, finally asking, "You're here because of Rich?"
"I'm going to get him back," Rachael stated firmly.
"You're gonna save Uncle Rich?" Kimberly asked, coming out of hiding at that and looking hopeful.
"You'd better believe it," Rachael responded, her look of determination making it clear that she wouldn't accept any alternative. I fully agreed.
"I thought the whole family needed to be here for this," I said, looking to Rachael.
Melanie stared at me with a look of relief and gratitude, saying, "Thank you so much for finding her... But how... ?"
I grinned mischieviously as I answered, "I just asked a few villains where I could find her."
Rachael gave me a curious look, then mused, "I was wondering how you tracked me down. I thought it must have been part of your powers."
I chuckled at that, remembering the way Frogger had been hanging upside down from the fire escape. "Indirectly."
"Can I get you something to drink?" Melanie asked Rachael abruptly.
"Nothing alcoholic," Rachael told her with a faint nod. "I have to be ready to go as soon as I hear back from my contacts."
A few minutes later, we were all sitting down in the living room. Rachael had a cup of coffee in hand while Melanie and the girls both sipped cranberry juice. I had a beer, though it had been poured into a plastic cup so that it wasn't so obvious to the girls. Of course, while I was pretending I wasn't drinking beer, they were pretending not to know that I really was.
I sat back and watched with a smile as Melanie and Rachael caught up, with the girls coming out of their shell and asking her all kind of questions. The only thing that would have made this better was if Rich was here with us to enjoy the reunion as well. As it was, his situation was on all our minds.
"What's it like being a super villain?" Kaylie asked Rachael curiously.
Rachael hesitated at that, then answered, "I wouldn't recommend it as a career."
"Crime doesn't pay," Melanie told her daughter, giving Rachael a glare as if Rachael had been trying to tempt the girl into following her path.
"Actually," Rachael responded with a faint smile. "It can pay very well." Melanie glared at her again, but Rachael acted as though she didn't notice it as she continued, "However, there are a LOT of downsides."
"Like what?" Kaylie asked.
"For one," Rachael told her, "it's very dangerous. Most people in my business either don't live until retirement... or they spend it behind bars. We can't do a lot of things that most people take for granted, at least not without taking a big risk. And of course, we can't have friends or family because they might be used against us... " She glanced to me at that, then quietly added, "Or get hurt."
Kaylie's eyes went wide with a look of horror. "Then why'd you become a villain?"
Rachael frowned at that, looking sad and not sure how to respond. Melanie gave Rachael a sympathetic look, then explained, "Your Aunt Rachael is sick. She has a disease that sometimes makes her do bad things."
"Poor Aunt Rachael," Kimberly said, going over and hugging my surprised daughter. Rachael sat there, looking frozen and confused, not sure how to deal with something like that. Then she gently put her arms around Kimberly and began to cry.
"I'm glad you're here," Melanie told her. "And whatever happens after this, please promise that you'll at least keep in contact. If nothing else, it should at least be safe to e-mail... "
"No promises," Rachael told her with a faint smile. "But I'll try."
A short time later, Melanie said, "Mark should be home from work in just a little while... "
"Oh," Rachael responded, looking just a little tense.
She and Mark hadn't exactly gotten along well before she'd gone into hiding, due in no small part to his disapproval of her actions and concerns about her being safe for his family to be near. At the same time, she hadn't been sure he was good enough for her big sister, an opinion I'd shared for some time, though I'd eventually come around. Obviously, Rachael was taking Melanie's words as a warning that she might want to leave before Mark returned.
To my surprise, Melanie continued, "Will you be staying with us for dinner?" She looked rather excited by the prospect. "Alyss has been helping me in the kitchen lately."
Rachael's eyes went wide and she gave me a look of surprise. "You? In the kitchen?"
I shrugged at that, feeling a little self-conscious. "Hey, I can't live off mac and cheese forever."
"Oh sure, NOW you agree," Rachael teased me. "It only took turning into a girl for you to learn to cook."
"Hey," I protested, thinking about my mastery of the grill. "I've always known how to cook." Rachael and Melanie shared a doubtful look while I reminded them, "Remember my legendary steaks... ?"
Just then, the doorbell began to ring. Kaylie jumped to her feet and exclaimed, "I'll get it." However, a few seconds later, she called out awkward, "Um... Alyss... It's for you... "
I stood up and absently smoothed my dress, wondering who could possibly be here for me. But when I looked towards the door, I was surprised to see Pinnacle stepping through and into the living room.
"Alyss," Pinnacle started, "I wanted to talk to you about... " Then he froze, his eyes locked firmly on Rachael.
Rachael instantly jumped to her feet, reaching behind her back and then pulling out an energy rifle. I was stunned at that, wondering how in the world she could have possibly had that thing on her without my noticing it. However she'd done it, it was obviously some trick she'd designed. She pointed the weapon directly at Pinnacle, snarling with an expression that was pure Lady Havoc, showing little of the Rachael who'd been there a moment before.
"Lady Havoc," Pinnacle stated grimly, obviously about to charge at her.
"Asshole," Rachael responded coldly.
"NOT IN MY HOUSE," Melanie yelled out with a look of panic.
Rachael and Pinnacle both hesitated at that while Kimberly ducked behind Rachael, hiding behind her the same way she had her mother after Rachael had first arrived. She peeked out from behind Rachael to stare at Pinnacle.
"I thought you didn't know where she was," Pinnacle accused me.
"I didn't," I responded, annoyed at his suggestion that I was a liar. "I managed to track her down yesterday."
Pinnacle glanced at me, though he kept most of his attention locked on Rachael. "I came to talk to you about the Marquis," he said grimly, "to see if you remembered anything about him that the Occultist might have missed. I wasn't expecting you to be drinking tea with another villain... "
"It wasn't tea," Kaylie argued defiantly. Her expression was so much like Melanie's that I nearly laughed.
"You keep away from my Aunt Rachael," Kimberly demanded, barely sticking her head out from behind Rachael. Pinnacle looked startled at her reaction.
"Kimmie," Rachael suggested gently, not taking her eyes from Pinnacle. "Why don't you and Kaylie go play in the back yard for a bit... ?"
"That's a good idea," Melanie announced, gathering her daughters and half pushing them towards the back.
I looked back and forth between Pinnacle and Rachael, feeling caught between the two of them. I considered Pinnacle to be something of a friend, though that didn't come close to being family.
I looked at the hero and told him, "She's helping me find the Marquis."
"He's intruded in my territory," Rachael started with a sneer.
Pinnacle just stared at her for a moment, his expression softening just a little. "And I would have thought it was because he had your brother."
Rachael winced at that, then she snarled, looking more annoyed. After a few seconds, she glanced to Melanie then announced, "I'm not going to fight you here. If you want to fight, let's take it elsewhere... "
Pinnacle seemed surprised at that, then responded, "That surprisingly reasonable for you."
"Please don't fight here," Melanie begged, looking more than a little worried. She kept glancing at Rachael, as if expecting her to have an episode at any moment. I could see from Rachael's expression that she was getting close to it, making me wonder just how bad her episode had to be before her failsafe kicked in and paralyzed her.
Just then, there was a beeping sound coming from Rachael, making me groan as I realized her device must be about to trigger. But to my surprise, instead of freezing, she merely reached into her pocket with her free hand and pulled out a cell phone.
"Lady Havoc," she said into the phone, still not taking her eyes or weapon off Pinnacle. "Yes... Good... Send it to me. Now we're even."
"Was that it?" I asked Rachael, feeling a surge of hope and worry at the same time.
Rachael nodded, then announced, "I just found where the Marquis is hiding. We can't wait long, because he has a teleporter and could move if he gets wind that he's been blown... "
"Good," I said with a sigh of relief, at least about finding the Marquis. However, the fact that we were under a time crunch wasn't good. I hated working under a deadline, because something unexpected always turned up and screwed up whatever you had planned.
"I don't have time for this," Rachael said, giving Pinnacle an intense scowl. "I don't have time to deal with you."
"Too bad," Pinnacle responded. "You don't have a choice."
"I know where the Marquis is," Rachael stated, just a little smugly. "And I know some of his weaknesses. Whether you like it or not, I'm your best chance at rescuing your friends."
"I'm not just letting you walk away," he warned her with a determined look. "The Marquis might be a monster, but so are you, and you've twice the confirmed death toll."
For a long moment, Rachael just stared at him with a grim expression, then she finally asked, "Then how about we make a deal?"
"I don't deal with mass murderers," he responded, giving her a cold glare.
"Oh, I think you'll like this one," Rachael told him with a faint smirk. "If you help me rescue my brother... I'll surrender. I'll turn myself in."
"What?" I gasped in surprise, sure that I must have been hearing things.
Rachael had escaped from prison and had spent years avoiding capture, even though she knew this meant she was putting other people at risk. Even though this meant people had died as a result. And though I would have been absolutely delighted to get her off the street so that she couldn't hurt anyone else, she'd already managed to chain herself. She'd already figured out a way to protect other people from her. Then of course, there was the fact that I'd only just now gotten her back and didn't want to lose her again. I grimaced, feeling confused by the powerful mix of emotions I felt from her offer.
"I'm getting my brother back," Rachael told Pinnacle with a look of fierce determination. "Whether I have to go through you... or work with you. Whether I have to lose my own life... or even spend the rest of it behind bars. One way or another, I'm going to save him... and I have a better chance of doing it with your help."
Pinnacle continued to stare at her but I could see that he was thinking about her offer. How could he not? He'd just been given the opportunity to not only take in two dangerous villains, but also rescue the people who were being held by the Marquis... including some of his friends. This was far too good an offer for him to possibly turn down.
Finally, Pinnacle nodded in reluctant agreement and responded, "Fine. You've got a deal."
Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, July 27th, 2007
From the outside, Rachael's transportation looked pretty much like any normal U-Haul, the kind of moving truck that you saw all over the place but rarely gave a second thought about. However, it was clear that my daughter had heavily modified the inside, though I had no idea of what all she'd done to the vehicle, or even if it had actually started off as a real U-Haul. For all I knew, Rachael may very well have made the truck so that it transformed into a giant robot or something. I certainly wouldn't put something like that past her, which made me just a little nervous as I rode in the truck.
I was sitting uncomfortably in the cab of the truck, which was a tight fit because Pinnacle had insisted on riding with us. Though he could have flown and followed us from the air, he'd wanted to keep a close eye on Rachael, which meant that I got squeezed between the two of them. For once, I was grateful for my small size because it meant that I wasn't quite as squished as I could have been otherwise.
"Are we there yet?" I asked in my best little girl voice, which was pretty damn good.
Rachael didn't respond to that, which didn't really surprise me. She had a grim look on her face and obviously wasn't happy about having Pinnacle along, even though it had been her idea to invite him. She trusted him about as much as he did her, which was to say, not at all. As a result, it was a quiet drive, with no one really speaking.
Rachael was the only one of us who knew where we were going, and she kept watching the GPS with a careful intensity. She was keeping what she knew to herself, probably because she was afraid that if Pinnacle didn't need her anymore, he'd forget the deal and try to grab her right away. I didn't know if he was the kind of person to break an agreement or not, but considering the circumstances, I wouldn't want to take the risk either.
We drove across the city in near silence, finally stopping on the edge of the city limits, in an area that had once been fairly upscale but which had fallen into hard times. I didn't know all the details, other than that it had to do with city planning and economic shifts, but property values had dropped and homes had been foreclosed on. It seemed that the Marquis must have decided to move in to one of the empty properties.
"We're here," Rachael stated as she climbed out of the truck.
We were parked in front of an iron gate, which was in severe disrepair, as was the property on the other side of it. From where I was at, I could see a small mansion which looked like it had survived a fire and then years of abandonment and neglect. One look made me think that it would be the perfect place for gangs and squatters to start hanging out, or in this case... a super villain.
"Are you sure?" Pinnacle demanded, giving her a suspicious glare.
"The contact who tracked him down for me is rarely wrong," Rachael responded flatly.
I stared at the building through the gate, scowling intensely as I did so. Rich was in there. I was sure of it. This wasn't due to some psychic ability that I'd gained along with my mutation, but more of a desperate hope since I refused to think otherwise.
Now that the Marquis had Rich, he also had the ability to teleport anywhere he wanted. For all I knew, the Marquis could have picked up his entire operation and moved it to the other side of the planet. However, the Marquis had continued operating in the local area even after he'd taken Rich. And of course, having the ability to move himself to another location didn't do a lot of good unless he had a new base already picked out and arranged, one that was capable of holding all his prisoners.
"Thank God it would probably be a huge pain in the ass for the Marquis to move," I said, more to myself than to anyone else, though Rachael nodded agreement.
"I have something for you," Rachael abruptly told me. She gave me a faint smile as she added, "Think of it as an early birthday present."
"You already gave me a great one," I reminded her, smiling faintly as well. After all, she'd saved my ass from a slow and painful death, and I couldn't think of much that would be better than that.
Rachael led me around to the back of the truck where she opened the door and revealed a metal box, about the size of a shoebox, which was sitting right at the opening. Without saying a word, she opened the box and revealed the contents, a pair of glossy black metal rings. They weren't the kind of rings you'd put on your fingers, especially since they were actually large enough for me to use as bracelets.
"Okay," I said, a little curious about what she had in mind as I picked one of them up.
The metal was smooth and completely rounded in my hands, and after a moment, I slipped it over my hand and onto my wrist as a bracelet. Then I grabbed the second one and did the same with my other wrist.
"Thanks," I told Rachael, still feeling a little confused. "But I don't exactly need jewelry."
Rachael was watching me with a faint smile before admitting, "Those weren't meant to be bracelets, but I guess they are the right size."
"Then what are they for?" I asked.
Rachael stared at me for a moment, then said, "When you told me about your fight with the Marquis, you told me about how easily he was able to deflect your ribbons... "
"Yeah," I responded with a scowl of annoyance, remembering that he'd done it with Mystery Woman's powers and then again with that wind power he'd taken from Aerial. "It was pretty damn annoying."
"I made these for you to tie the ends of your ribbons to," Rachael explained. "They can give a little extra weight and momentum to your ribbons when you fling them, which should make it more difficult for the Marquis to stop them."
I looked at my new bracelets, seeing how I could easily tie the ribbons to them, though I imagine that adding any extra weight to the ribbons would also make them more difficult for me to control. Still, something like this might have been useful when I was trying to send a ribbon against the wind to help the Occultist. Then again, they were pretty small and I doubted they'd have enough weight to do much good.
As if reading my thoughts, Rachael grinned at me and said, "They're made of a special alloy I found some time ago."
"You stole them," I translated aloud.
Rachael shrugged at that. "A few years ago, I acquired some rare metals from a gadgeteer metallurgist, but never had much use for the small amount of this metal. It's extremely hard, but also extremely dense and heavy. Each of these rings weights close to thirty pounds."
"Really?" I asked in surprise, staring at my new bracelets and having a hard time believing they were that heavy. With my new strength, I hadn't even noticed the weight.
"Being that dense and heavy makes the metal less than useful for most of my purposes," Rachael admitted, "especially when there are lighter metals that are every bit as strong. However, it seemed perfect for this purpose."
"Thank you," I told her, growing eager to try out these new weights. "These might be useful."
"I'm glad you like them," she told me with a chuckle, then teased, "And besides, every girl needs jewelry." I stuck my tongue out at her in response, something I never would have done before my transformation. But since I was a little girl now, I felt surprisingly free to act as immature and childish as I wanted.
Just then, a heard a woman's voice call out, "Pinnacle... "
I looked over and saw Miss Fortune, who was standing on top of a giant tarot card that was floating ten feet above the ground. But as surprising as that was, I was just as amazed by the fact that she wasn't alone. Asset was standing on the card beside her. The last time I'd seen him, he'd been on crutches and was supposed to be out of action for awhile.
"Miss Fortune," Pinnacle greeted her with a clear note of happiness in his voice. "Asset... What are you two doing here?"
The floating tarot card landed on the ground and then vanished. Miss Fortune smiled faintly and said, "The Occultist narrowed down the Marquis' location and told us he was somewhere in this area. We were just looking for him when we saw you."
"Then you arrived at just the right moment," Pinnacle said with a chuckle.
"Quite fortunate, then," Miss Fortune responded with a laugh of her own, making me think that this was some old joke between them.
"We were just getting ready to launch an assault on the Marquis," Pinnacle said, gesturing to the dilapidated mansion.
"We?" Asset asked.
Pinnacle scowled and gestured towards us, just as Rachael stepped around the truck and into view, dressed in her Lady Havoc uniform and holding her energy rifle. Miss Fortune and Asset both gasped in surprise and immediately prepared to attack her. It was probably the fact that I was standing right beside her that made them both hesitate in confusion.
"Lady Havoc," Asset stated grimly, glancing to Pinnacle and demanding, "What are you doing with her?"
"Haven't you heard?" Rachael asked with a smirk. "Pinnacle has agreed to become my new partner."
Miss Fortune and Asset both had a look of shock on their faces, but that was nothing compared to the one Pinnacle had. "That's not it," Pinnacle blurted out, giving Rachael an angry glare. "She was leading me to the Marquis... "
"Why in the world would someone like her do that?" Asset demanded, giving Pinnacle an accusatory glare.
"I have my reasons," Rachael answered with a grim expression. "Let's just say, the Marquis made a serious mistake and I aim to see him pay." Then she looked at Pinnacle, keeping her weapon ready in case he jumped her. "I don't want you think that the arrival of your friends changes our deal. If you're thinking about arresting me now that I've led you to the Marquis, think again. I'm not surrendering until AFTER I get what I want."
"I made a deal with her," Pinnacle explained to the other heroes, looking as though he was sucking on a lemon. He glared at Rachael but made no move to attack her. "She helps me take down the Marquis and rescue his prisoners, then she turns herself over to me." He gave her a flat look and said, "And don't even think about not holding up your end."
"As Asset already asked," Miss Fortune asked, giving Rachael a suspicious look. "Why in the world would she make a deal like that?"
Rachael gave her a flat look and simply stated, "It's personal."
"And what is that girl doing here?" Miss Fortune demanded, looking right at me. She was obviously confused by the whole situation and not the least bit happy about it.
"It's personal," I answered, repeating Rachael's response.
"You brought a KID?" Miss Fortune demanded of Pinnacle, who had the same kind of look on his face that I probably had after Meg asked me if her butt looked big. It was the kind of look that said he was desperately looking for an answer that wouldn't get him in even worse trouble.
"We don't have time for this," I told her and Asset, giving them both cold glares that caught them by surprise. "We know where the damn Marquis is, but he'll probably run like hell the moment he realizes we're here... "
"Doubtful," Rachael said, catching me by surprise. "From what I know of him, he has too much pride to cut and run without a fight, especially since it would mean leaving most of his prisoners behind and having to start over. However, we don't want to give him the chance to prepare for us either."
"And you're an expert on the Marquis?" Asset demanded of her, sneering as he did so.
"Of course she is," Miss Fortune told him. "She's just like him."
Rachael snarled and was obviously starting to get angry. I put a hand on her arm and she paused, letting out a breath and calming a little. She scowled, then abruptly asked, "Have you ever heard of Snip and Snap?"
"I ran into them once," Pinnacle answered, giving Rachael a suspicious look. "A couple of low level villains... pranksters and vandals rather than cold blooded killers." He glared at Rachael, his eyes filled with accusation.
"The Marquis captured them," Rachael explained, keeping her tone calm and in control. "He didn't have much use for Snap's powers, so he tortured him to death. Snip was forced to watch her brother die this way, then the Marquis spent the next month stealing her powers and torturing her... until she was rescued by Champion."
"Shit," Asset gasped, staring at Rachael in disbelief.
"Snip survived the experience," Rachael continued grimly, "but now she needs a wheelchair to move around... and she's developed such a severe case of agoraphobia that she hasn't left her home since." She paused to look at each of the heroes, her expression cold and hard. "This was done by the man who kidnapped my brother."
"Your brother?" Miss Fortune exclaimed with a look of surprise.
"Shortcut," Pinnacle said, glancing to Rachael. "It turns out that Shortcut is her kid brother."
"Oh shit," Asset gasped, staring at Rachael with an expression that was hard to read.
"Snip is one of my contacts," Rachael said, ignoring the way that all three of the heroes were now looking at her. "She told me everything she learned about the Marquis and his weaknesses while she was his prisoner."
Pinnacle suddenly looked interested at that. "What weaknesses?"
"He requires physical contact for several seconds to take a power," Rachael said, keeping her tone calm and professional. If I hadn't known better, I would have thought that she wasn't bothered at all by talking to three people who wanted to beat the crap out of her and put her behind bars. "Snip says that he can only hold a limited number of powers at a time, though she isn't sure of the exact number, only that it's between five and seven. He can hold the powers for several hours before they fade, but the more he uses the stolen powers, the faster he loses them. However, his biggest weakness is that he's self-destructive."
"What do you mean?" I asked her, fully aware of the irony of her talking about someone else being self-destructive. Then again, if there was anyone who was an expert on the subject, it would be her.
"From what I understand," Rachael explained, "there's no real threat of him becoming the next Gizmatic or Lord Paramount because he's too distracted by his... hobbies. He keeps torturing and killing his most powerful donors, weakening himself in the process. That's how Champion was able to take him down before."
"So," Pinnacle mused, "our best bet is to hit him with everything we can, force him to use up his stored powers, and keep him from recharging."
"And don't let him touch you," I added grimly.
"I can't bring myself to hope he's already killed off his most powerful ones," Miss Fortune said with a look of disgust. It was obvious that everyone else agreed, even Rachael, though I doubted any of the heroes would have realized this. Then Miss Fortune looked at me again and said, "I'm not going in there with a kid."
"She can take care of herself," Pinnacle said.
Rachael looked at me and hesitated a moment before saying, "You don't have much experience in this kind of thing, so it might be best if you stayed back." The heroes all stared at her in surprise.
"Hell no," I exclaimed, angry and insulted that she'd even suggest I should stay back while my son was in danger. "There is no way in fucking hell that I'm going to sit this one out."
Rachael stared at me for several long seconds before letting out a sigh of defeat. "When you're like this, there isn't any changing your mind." She gave me a faint smile and said, "Just promise me you'll be careful."
I hesitated a moment, then told her, "I'll try." The truth was, I wasn't about to make any promises other than that I was going to get her and Rich both out of there safely.
Rachael nodded at that, then went to the back of the truck. A few seconds later, three robot dogs climbed out while the heroes all watched with wary expressions. I gulped faintly at the sight of the dogs, remembering the way they'd attacked back at the Clinic. I also remembered the way they tended to explode when hit, so made a mental note to keep my distance from them.
"These are the only robots I had that were near ready," Rachael told me, almost apologetic.
"A couple of those humanoid ones you have would have been useful," Asset commented thoughtfully.
"Maybe," Rachael agreed with a shrug. "But I can't keep any of those around long. If they're active for too long, they tend to become sentient." She shook her head at that and admitted, "I usually use them as cannon fodder so they don't stick around long enough for that to happen."
Asset gave Rachael a worried look, probably having second and third thoughts about working with her at all. Then he shared a look with the other heroes, one that spoke a great deal about how little they trusted Rachael. They might be working with her today, but they fully expected her to turn on them at any moment and they were prepared to deal with her.
Rachael went and looked over her robot dogs, then grabbed a few more weapons from the back of her truck. While she was doing that, the heroes quietly talked among themselves, though I was close enough to overhear a few words.
"No," Pinnacle told the other two sharply. "I made a deal." And then a few seconds later, he added, "Besides, we still need her... "
I was relieved that Pinnacle at least seemed willing to keep up his end of the deal, at least for the moment. I didn't know what Miss Fortune and Asset were going to do, though from their looks of disgust and frustration, I suspected that they would reluctantly follow Pinnacle's lead... at least for now.
Finally, Rachael held her energy rifle in hand and stared through the fence at the mansion, a cold hard look on her face. She sneered, revealing her sharp teeth and looking every inch the dangerous super villain.
"No more fucking around," she stated firmly, not bothering to look at me or any of the heroes. "It's time to go."
"I've got the gate," Pinnacle said, going to the metal gate where he easily broke the lock and then flung the gates wide open.
With that, everyone began walking through, though Rachael snarled and yelled out, "Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war... " And with that, her robots all rushed through the gate to lead the charge.
"A little dramatic," I commented wryly.
Rachael just gave me a faint smirk and responded, "I thought it was appropriate. Now, let's go kick some ass... "
Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, July 27th, 2007
We charged through the open gate and ran towards the broken down old mansion, getting more than halfway there before I heard the first gunshot. I jumped at the sound, sure that my heart was about to leap right up my throat. I felt a momentary surge of terror since this was the first time anyone had ever shot at me. Sure, I'd been threatened with guns a couple times, but being shot at was something else entirely.
"Oh shit," I gasped, noticing that Rachael and the heroes were dealing with this as if it getting shot at was a normal occurrence.
Pinnacle, who was bulletproof, charged ahead without any indication of fear. Asset ducked down and looked around with a calm but wary expression. Rachael just snarled and fired a shot from her energy rifle in the direction of the house, where the gunshot seemed to have come from. And Miss Fortune merely stood there, holding out several tarot cards in her hand and almost daring someone to shoot her.
"What the hell?" I growled, suddenly realizing how ridiculous the situation was. Here I was, about to attack an incredibly dangerous super villain, and I getting terrified of a simple ordinary gun. I grimaced at that, then muttered to myself, "Get your ass in gear and don't be such a little girl... "
Rachael fired another shot from her energy rifle, and a man who was crouched down in hiding near the mansion entrance jumped to his feet, revealing that he was in his early to mid-twenties and dressed in street clothes. He looked more like a gang member than some kind of super villain or one of his henchmen. But then again, the only thing I really knew about henchmen was what I'd seen in the movies.
Miss Fortune threw one of her tarot cards in the air, and suddenly there was the ghostly image of a grim reaper, which began flying towards the revealed shooter. He screamed in terror and ran but the grim reaper chased after him until it caught him. When it did, a ghostly scythe went right through the man, who screamed and then collapsed to the ground. He wasn't dead or even bleeding, though he did curl up into a ball and begin sobbing.
There were more gunshots, though I couldn't see where these ones were coming from. However, I was suddenly hit in the shoulder and staggered back under the impact. To my surprise, it didn't hurt quite the way I would have imagined. In fact, it only felt like someone had punched me.
"Alyss," Rachael cried out, rushing to my side.
I felt my shoulder, stunned to find that there wasn't even a bullet hole. At most, I had a bruise, and even that faded away in seconds. "I'm fine," I said awkwardly, having known intellectually that I was somewhat bullet proof... or at least bullet resistant, but this was the first time I'd actually seen real evidence of that. "Holy shit... I got shot and I'm fine... "
"Good," Rachael told me with clear note of relief. Then she turned in the direction of our enemies and snarled, revealing far too many sharp teeth. "Those bastards... It looks like the Marquis hired some local help." Then she shook her head and muttered, "Fucking amateurs," before she opened fire and charged towards the house.
"Don't kill anyone," Pinnacle ordered her, clearly still not happy about having her present.
Several more of the armed gang members had been forced out of hiding, and one of them ran at me, yelling, "Anyone moves and I gank the girl... "
Miss Fortune stared at us in horror while Pinnacle burst out laughing. I waited until the gang member was close enough, then lashed out, using a ribbon to grab his gun and yank it from his hand, much to his obvious surprise. I picked him up off the ground with one hand, which resulted in an especially funny look on his face. Mere seconds later, I had him wrapped up like a mummy in bright pink ribbon.
"Boy," I said with a mock cheerful grin as I casually dropped him onto the ground. "It must be really humiliating to get your ass handed to you by a little girl... "
And with that, I turned and walked away, noticing that Miss Fortune was still staring at me in stunned disbelief while Pinnacle and Rachael were both smirking. I gave them both my best 'innocent look' which got them to start laughing.
Just then, Pinnacle called out, "The Marquis... "
I immediately looked and saw that the front entrance of the mansion was now wide open, with the Marquis standing in the doorway. He looked exactly the way he had the last time I'd seen him, when he was running away from the mall while dragging Rich behind him. I snarled in anger, seeing a brief flash of red and wanting to charge him and tear into him with everything I had.
"A pity," the Marquis commented as he looked around the defeated gunmen. "I knew that such cheap help would be of limited use, though I'd hoped they would have put on a better show."
"Surrender now," Pinnacle demanded in a cold firm voice.
The Marquis actually laughed at that, clearly not being afraid. With all his goons taken out, we outnumbered him five to one, and that wasn't even adding in Rachael's robot dogs. However, the Marquis didn't seem the least bit concerned about that. Then again, we didn't really know what kind of powers he was currently loaded up with, though we could probably guess a few based off who he'd taken.
"This is very considerate of you," the Marquis said, sounding almost amused. "Coming to me and saving me the trouble of having to track you down. A couple of you may even be of use to me."
Rachael let out a loud whistle, and suddenly her robot dogs all charged at the Marquis at once. He fired a blast of energy at one of the dogs and it exploded on impact, catching a second dog in the explosion and triggering it to detonate as well. Her third and final dog rushed forward and launched itself at the Marquis, but he suddenly glowed green and flew up into the air and away from the mansion, barely manageing to avoid the attack.
Asset threw some kind of grenade at the Marquis, but it suddenly glowed green and changed direction in mid-air, flying right at Pinnacle instead. The grenade exploded in Pinnacle's face and sent him flying back, but didn't seem to have really hurt him otherwise. However, a moment later, Pinnacle began to glow green and was flying through the air, right at Asset, who only barely managed to jump to the side in time to avoid being hit by the other hero.
"Mystery Woman's powers," Miss Fortune stated in clear annoyance.
Miss Fortune lifted up into the air on a giant tarot card, just like the one she and Asset had arrived on. However, the Marquis suddenly fired several blasts of energy at her, causing her to leap from the card while the blasts hit it and destroyed it. Pinnacle had already returned to his feet and managed to catch Miss Fortune just as she was about to hit the ground.
Rachael opened fire with her energy rifle, causing the Marquis to turn his attention on her. The weapon glowed green and was yanked from her hand, though she had a cold smile on her lips anyway. It took me a moment to see why. While the Marquis was keeping his attention on her, her remaining robot dog leapt high up into the air, hitting him from behind. The Marquis and dog both fell to the ground, with the Marquis' scepter flying from his hand. A second later, the dog was suddenly flung away from him, smashing into Pinnacle and exploding.
"I am REALLY getting tired of explosions in the face," Pinnacle exclaimed, looking like he was starting to get pissed.
I took the opportunity to rush towards the Marquis, only to have him look at me and exclaim, "I can't believe you people would bring a child into this. How irresponsible... "
The sight of the Marquis filled me with rage and I wasn't in any mood to respond to his taunting. After all, this was the man who'd kidnapped my son and had done who knew what to him. This was the man who'd terrified my granddaughters and had given them nightmares. If anyone deserved a serious ass kicking with no holds barred, it was him.
Without saying a word, I sent two long ribbons out towards him so I could hold him in place long enough to hit him. However, I and my ribbons were covered with a green glow and lifted up into the air. "God damn fucking bastard," I spat out angrily, knowing that even with my new memory, I'd let myself forget that he could do this.
"Such language," the Marquis commented, glancing towards the heroes and asking, "What are you teaching this child?"
And with that, the Marquis sent me flying back where I slammed into Miss Fortune, knocking both of us to the ground. Miss Fortune let out a gasp of pain as I got off her and she was holding her arm with a grimace.
"Are you okay?" I asked her.
"I'll survive," she answered with a scowl and a glare at the Marquis.
"I hate children," the Marquis commented almost absently. "Especially ones that refuse to learn their lessons."
"Then I really hope you don't have any kids," I said grimly. "In fact, by the time we're done with you, you won't be in any shape to ever have any... "
Rachael had recovered her energy rifle and began shooting at the Marquis again, at the same time Asset threw a grenade. The Marquis flew out of range and began throwing random debris around, including his defeated and tied up gunmen. The man who was tied up in pink ribbons flew right into Miss Fortune, knocking her down again, much to her obvious frustration.
I wanted to just run up and hit the Marquis as hard as I could, and the only thing that kept me from doing so... beside his telekinesis... was the realization that if I got close enough for him to touch me, he might damn well copy my powers. That bastard was tough enough to deal with as it was, so I sure as hell didn't want to see him with exemplar strength and regeneration.
While I was trying to decide what to do, everyone else was busy trying to attack the Marquis. A ghostly sword appeared in front of Miss Fortune and flew right at the Marquis, though Pinnacle suddenly glowed green and was flung into the sword's path, taking it right in the chest. He let out a scream of pain and was then flung through the air to slam into Asset.
The Marquis was focused on everyone else, so I saw my opportunity and tried coming at him from behind. I managed to catch him by surprise, sending out ribbons to wrap around his arms and legs. I grinned as I yanked his feet out from beneath him, knocking him to the ground. In just a few more seconds, I'd have him hogtied and helpless.
"Then we'll go find Rich," I reminded myself with a grim determination. And if I found out that rat bastard actually had hurt my son, then he'd better pray those heroes were willing to protect him from me.
"You brat," the Marquis exclaimed with clearly growing anger.
Suddenly, the Marquis burst into flames... His entire body became covered with bright red fire which immediately burned through the ribbons I'd wrapped around him. He stood back up and gestured at me, sending a blast of fire in my direction. I just barely managed to jump aside in time to avoid being hit.
"The Crimson Flame," Rachael exclaimed with a snarl.
Rachael had mentioned the Crimson Flame to me earlier this morning, saying that she was one of the local villains that the Marquis had supposedly kidnapped. With this display of power, it seemed that the Marquis had just confirmed his role in her disappearance.
"Damn," I snarled, knowing that as long as he was covered in those flames, my ribbons were next to useless against him.
Asset was on the ground, or at least taking a knee and wincing with a look of pain. I guessed that his injury wasn't nearly as healed as he was pretending and that the stress of the fight was making it worse for him. The Marquis apparently noticed this as well because he gestured at Asset, making a show of forming a ball of fire in his hand and then throwing it at the hero.
"Look out," I cried out.
At the same moment, Rachael threw a gold metal ball at Asset, which hit him only a moment before the ball of fire did. There was an explosion of flames, and when they faded down several seconds later, I was shocked to see Asset still there, covered with a shimmering blue glow and appearing to be completely unharmed.
"What the... ?" Asset started, staring down at himself in surprise. "I'm not hurt?" Asset grunted in pain and got back to his feet while the blue glow faded away. His eyes went wide suddenly and he snapped around to stare at Rachael and exclaim, "You hit me with a force field... "
Rachael didn't say anything in response, showing almost no indication that she'd just saved Asset's life. Instead, she reached to her belt and a second later, another metal sphere suddenly appeared in her hand. She threw it at the still burning Marquis, and the sphere exploded in a wave of foam. For a brief moment, the flames vanished, but then the Marquis glowed green and the foam was all pushed away from him. A second afterwards, he was once again covered in crimson flames.
"Damn it," Pinnacle cried out, hovering in the air and looking frustrated.
I glanced to Pinnacle, understanding exactly why he was just hovering there. With his powers, he was pretty much immune to the fire attacks, which meant he was the best choice to just walk up to the Marquis and take him down. However, Pinnacle didn't dare get close to the power thief since that would only make the situation worse.
Asset looked at Rachael and jokingly asked, "You wouldn't happen to have one of those disrupter cannons you used last year, would you?"
"Sorry," she responded, giving him what was probably intended to be a friendly grin though it came out far too menacing for that. "I'm all out. Besides, the damn thing kept jamming."
"I can't believe this," Asset said, pulling something off his back which unfolded into some kind of hovering drone. "I never imagined I'd be fighting alongside Lady Havoc... "
"Me either," Pinnacle responded, giving her an odd look. "And this is a hell of a time for her to be without the robot army... "
Rachael snorted at that, then reminded him, "And who was it who destroyed my robot army?"
I just snarled in frustration, wanting to do something more, but my ribbons were useless at the moment and I didn't dare get close to the Marquis. Then I looked to one of the fallen gang members and smiled faintly. A few seconds later, I was picking up his abandoned gun and using it to shoot at the Marquis.
The gun fired several shots and then suddenly stopped working. My first thought was that I'd run out of ammo, but then I noticed that the Marquis was no longer on fire. It suddenly dawned on me that he was using Ceasefire's powers to neutralize the gun. But before I could think do to anything with that knowledge, the gun was yanked from my hand and I was suddenly thrown high up into the air. I must have been thirty yards up when I was released and began to fall, hitting the ground with an impact that should have broken damn near every bone in my body but actually felt no worse than doing a belly flop into a swimming pool.
"ALYSS," Rachael cried out.
"I'm fine," I told her with a grunt as I got back to my feet.
A moment later, everything around me turned red, though it took me a second to realize that it was because I was on fire. I didn't feel any pain at first, then it suddenly hit and I screamed.
"Alyss," Rachael cried out again, rushing to my side.
I'd dropped to my knees again almost as soon as I felt the pain, though the flames vanished after only a couple seconds. Every inch of skin hurt, almost like I had the sunburn from hell. But after several more seconds, the pain began to fade.
"Damn that hurts," I exclaimed, slowly getting back to my feet again. I stared at my arm, seeing charred skin that was already starting to grow over and heal.
"I can't believe she survived that," Miss Fortune exclaimed, staring at me with a look of shock.
"High level exemplar," Pinnacle told her with a cold anger in his voice. "And regen... "
"I figured the first part," Miss Fortune responded, giving me another look before adding, "And the second."
I was shaking with a mixture of shock, fear, and growing anger. Then as I looked down at my nearly healed body, which was now fully naked, I gasped, "He ruined my dress." Even as the words left my mouth, I knew it was an idiotic thing to say, especially since I could make a new dress in a flash. However, I wasn't thinking clearly and that was all that came to mind.
Suddenly, Rachael screamed, "YOU HURT ALYSS!"
My attention snapped to Rachael, had now had a look of manic fury on her face, one that told me that she'd slipped into a full blown episode. I gulped at the sight, feeling a mixture of fear and worry. I wasn't afraid of her or worried about myself, only dreading what his meant for her.
"Rachael," I yelled out, but she was too far gone to even notice.
Rachael opened fire with her energy rifle, shooting at the Marquis and anything in his general direction. Pinnacle flew out of the way and avoided being hit, but several energy blasts hit the wall of the house and blew holes through it. But then, Rachael suddenly froze, glowing with a blue bubble that surrounded her.
"What did he do to her?" Asset gasped, staring at Rachael in surprise. "I don't recognize the power... "
"He didn't do anything," I explained grimly, creating a replacement dress. "She did it to herself... "
"What do you mean?" Pinnacle demanded as he landed beside me, glancing to Rachael but keeping a closer eye on the Marquis.
"She built a failsafe," I said, worried about Rachael and what it must be like being paralyzed like that. "She... put a leash on herself... in case she had an episode. She didn't want to risk hurting anyone else if she flipped out."
Pinnacle stared at me in surprise, looking a little confused as well. However, it was Asset who asked, "Why in the world would Lady Havoc do that? I thought she lived to cause destruction."
"In case you've forgotten," Miss Fortune called out in annoyance. "We're in the middle of a fight here... "
The Marquis had just been standing back and watching us rather than taking advantage of the distraction. Once we turned our attention back to him, he gestured to Rachael and announced, "First she aligns with you fools, and now she's restrained herself. I must say, I'm quite disappointed in this Lady Havoc. I'd heard much better things of her."
"You don't know the first thing about her," I stated with a snarl, clenching my firsts tightly and really wanting to kick his ass bad.
"Perhaps not," the Marquis responded absently. "Nor do I care. But perhaps I should thank her for restraining herself for me. I'm certain she will provide days or even weeks of amusement."
I was REALLY hating this rat bastard and wondering how far I could put my foot up his ass. But more importantly, I was wondering how in the world I could do that when I couldn't even get close to him.
With that, the Marquis held his arms out wide and the crimson fire that covered his body suddenly began to burn even brighter. A moment later, a wave of flames exploded from him and spread out.
"Look out," Pinnacle cried out, diving to cover Asset who was the closest one to him.
The wave of fire hit and washed over us, singing my newly forming dress and skin, though not hurting me nearly as bad as the last burst of flame had. I looked up as soon as the fire had passed, seeing that Pinnacle had kept Asset safe, Rachael had been protected by her force field, and Miss Fortune was standing there unharmed, surrounded by the ghostly image of a castle tower.
It took me a moment to realize that none of the defeated gunmen had been protected from the attack, and I could see their charred and burning bodies. At least one of them was screaming in agony, and I knew that those who hadn't been killed by that were probably wishing they were dead.
"DAMN IT," I snarled. "I just made this dress... "
The Marquis dropped the flames and began firing blasts of energy from his hands instead, hitting Pinnacle, who didn't seem bothered by it, and hitting me with one of them as well. The blast stung a little for a few seconds but was nothing compared to the flames.
"Enough of this," Miss Fortune exclaimed, holding out several cards which began to glow and then vanished.
A second later, ghostly images appeared in front of her, one of a knight holding a sword, one of a woman in a dress, and one of an old man with a walking stick. The three ghostly images charged the Marquis, who began blasting at each of them.
The Marquis was no longer covered with fire, so I sent more ribbons after him, trying to be sneaky and sending them along the ground like snakes. And while I was doing this, Asset had his flying drone move around and come at the Marquis from behind.
Asset and I both struck at the same time, with me yanking the Marquis' legs out from underneath him at the same time Asset's drone shot darts out of some hidden gun. However, the Marquis glowed green and my ribbons were torn away while the darts and drone were flung back.
"You fools," the Marquis called out, his voice filled with arrogance. "Do you really think you can beat me? I'll enjoy breaking each and every one of you... even you girl. A regenerator can last for a very long time... "
"Dream on, asshole," I responded, flipping him off with both hands.
"I will admit this," the Marquis announced, "your mistaken belief that you can defeat me is amusing."
With that, the Marquis held his hands out and all of us began to glow green again. I was lifted up off the ground, as was everyone besides Rachael, who was still frozen solid. As I floated up in the air, I sent a ribbon to try grabbing something in order to pull myself back down, but the Marquis' power shoved my ribbon back at me. Then once we were more than a dozen feet in the air, Pinnacle and I were suddenly flung into each other, hitting with a thud that knocked the air out of me but wasn't quite hard enough to be painful.
"It seems I shall have to teach you all a lesson in humility," the Marquis stated in an arrogant tone. "I can assure you, those I allow to live long enough will learn to appreciate my talent with pain."
"I don't think so," Pinnacle exclaimed, only to suddenly be slammed right into the ground with enough force that if he didn't have his powers, it would have broken every bone in his body.
Just then, the green glow faded away from me and everyone else, then all of us fell right back to the ground. Miss Fortune and Asset both cried out in pain when they hit, showing that the rough treatment had really been getting to them. Miss Fortune clutched her arm with a look of pain while Asset was on the ground, holding his leg.
"It seems that I've used up that power," the Marquis commented with a vague note of annoyance. "A pity. It was quite useful."
A moment later, the villain was covered with red flames again and I cursed, knowing that when he was on fire, he was even more difficult to deal with. The Marquis fired a blast of fire right at Asset, but he was too injured to get out of the way and Miss Fortune looked like she was trying to do something in response, but couldn't seem to do it with only one good arm. Pinnacle was a lot closer than I was and jumped in the path of the flames, protecting Asset from being hit.
"Damn it," I snarled, glaring at the Marquis and knowing that even with him having run out of one of his powers, he was still far too dangerous for us to keep this up for much longer. We already had three people down, two from injuries and one from self-inflicted containment. If this went on much longer, we'd all either be dead or locked up with Rich and the other prisoners. There was no way in hell I was going to let that happen.
My eyes went to Rachael and I scowled, wishing that she was in a condition where she could still help us. Unfortunately, even if she hadn't frozen herself up like this, she'd be wild and out of control, perhaps almost as much of a threat as the Marquis. Then again, I realized that at the moment, someone who was wild and out of control might still be better than not having that extra firepower at all. And of course, there was also the fact that I didn't know how much air she even had left in that force field bubble and didn't want to risk leaving her in there too long.
I thought about the remote Rachael had given me earlier, realizing that I'd had it on me when the Marquis had set me on fire. I let out a loud curse, then rushed to the spot where the ground was now blackened and burned. For a moment, I looked around in desperation, then I saw it sitting on the ground a short distance away. With a sigh of relief, I snatched up the remote, thankful that it didn't appear to have been damaged.
"Please work," I muttered pointing the thing at Rachael and pushing a button.
A moment later, Rachael suddenly moved, dropping to her knees and letting out a loud gasp. She sat there shaking for a moment before exclaiming, "That fucking hurt... I didn't expect it would feel like I was getting jammed with a damn cattle prod the entire time... "
"Rachael," I called out as I ran to her side, helping her to her feet.
When I looked Rachael in the eyes, I was surprised to see no sign of the manic insanity that had filled them a short time ago. She looked angry, but still in control of herself.
"I'm... clear headed," she said, sounding just as surprised about that as I felt. Her hand went to the bracer on her arm and she whispered, "It... knocked me out of my episode... " Her eyes went wide at that and she whispered, "This is a side effect I can live with... "
I felt myself starting to tear up at that and wanted to throw my arms around her and give her a hug, congratulating her on finally finding something that at least had some positive effect on her Diedrick's. However, this was definitely not the time for that kind of thing.
"Rich," I started to say.
"Gotcha," Rachael interrupted, her expression turning hard and determined.
"Havoc," Pinnacle exclaimed when he saw Rachael moving again. He stared at her with a worried look, clearly remembering the fact that she'd gone off her rocker again right before she was frozen.
"Don't worry about me," Rachael told him grimly, turning and shooting at the Marquis. "I'm not out of this fight until I get what I came for."
The Marquis fired another wave of flames in our direction, but Rachael held up a small device and the two of us were suddenly covered in a force field bubble that lasted until the flames passed. He tried it again, this time firing a wave at Miss Fortune, but Pinnacle covered her, blocking her from the attack.
"No," the Marquis cried out, sounding annoyed. "This power is fading... I must depart while I can... "
The Marquis turned and started to run but Asset's drone blocked his path and fired several darts at him. For a moment, the Marquis stood there, staring down at the darts sticking out of his chest as though he couldn't believe they were there.
"Your regeneration," he cried out, looking at me. "Give it to me now... "
"I don't think so," I responded with a smirk, pleased to see that the flames around his body were completely out now. He dropped to his knees, looking weak and helpless, which meant that it was the perfect time to make sure he stayed that way. "I've got this... " I walked up to the Marquis, keeping well out of arms reach, then I reached out with several ribbons, wrapping them around him and leaving him firmly tied up.
"Pink ribbons," Miss Fortune commented as she came towards us, still holding her injured arm. She gave me a curious look and mused, "Now where have I heard about pink ribbons before... "
I just gave her my best innocent smile and said, "I have no idea... but aren't they pretty."
Asset snickered at that, getting helped to his feet by Pinnacle. "I know that if some little girl had tied me up in pink ribbons," Asset commented with a chuckle. "I'd be too embarrassed to ever admit it."
"Havoc," Pinnacle started, giving Rachael a steady look.
"Not until I get what I came for," she said sharply, turning and starting for the mansion. I nodded to Pinnacle and went with her.
Rachael and I stepped into the mansion, being careful since we didn't know if the Marquis had left anyone behind. From what little I could see, the furniture was all gone and the whole place was in severe disrepair. Graffiti was painted on the walls and there were clear indications that squatters had been living here, perhaps even the same gang who'd attacked us. I imagined that the Marquis might very well have decided he was going to use this as his base of operations, then simply recruited the people who were already here. Of course, that was all just a guess.
"This place is pretty big," I mused, wondering where to start looking first.
"I've got it," Rachael said, pulling a small out of a pouch on her belt. She held it up and slowly moved around, then gestured down one hall, "I'm reading some body temperatures in this direction."
We walked down the hall and down some stairs, keeping a careful lookout for guards or traps, though we saw no sign of either. It took us less than two minutes before we entered the basement, where I gasped at the sight in front of me. There were a dozen cages spread over the basement, looking as though someone had taken iron bars and welded them all together themselves. And in most of these cages, I saw chains, shackles, and even metal frames with people chained to them.
"Sick fucking bastard," I exclaimed, clenching my fists in anger as I looked around.
Along with the cages, there were things that looked like they belonged in a medieval torture chamber... or were the modern equivalent. There was a heavy metal chair with straps to hold people in, with a table full of nasty looking tools sitting beside it. And of course, I noticed the blood.
After taking everything in and wishing that I'd never seen this, I looked at the cages, many of which held prisoners. There was a skinny black woman in the cage closest to me, strapped down to a chair and with an IV drip stuck into her arm. She had a severely dazed look on her face, making it obvious that she was drugged out of her mind. Most of the others weren't much better.
"Crimson Flame," Rachael said, looking at the black woman with a grim expression on her face.
I grimaced, feeling a mixture of relief, worry, and anger. We'd finally gotten past the Marquis to where he was holding his prisoners, but after seeing the way he was treating them, I was filled with dread over what I'd find. Had he tortured Rich? He had killed him? Those thoughts increased my worry and anger, making me look around with a growing desperation to find him.
Just then, a nearby voice gasped, "Lady Havoc... "
I looked at the speaker, seeing a naked woman in the cage beside Crimson Flame's. She was a pretty young Asian woman, or at least she would have been if she wasn't filthy and covered with bruises. Her hands and legs were shackled and I could see track marks which showed that she'd been given some shots, probably more drugs to keep her helpless.
"Mystery Woman," I said in realization and horror.
Mystery Woman stared at me with a look of surprise and confusion, then glared to Rachael and spat out, "It figures you'd be working with the Marquis... "
Rachael grimaced and began to unlock the cage door, saying, "You'll find this hard to believe, but I'm actually here to rescue you... " Mystery Woman just snorted skeptically.
As soon as Rachael had the door open, she pulled out a small device that looked a little like a lighter and used it to unlock Mystery Woman. Mystery Woman stared at her with a look of surprise and confusion, obviously expecting Rachael to hurt her at any moment.
But a second later, another voice came from the cage beside her. "Rachael... "
Rachael and I immediately snapped around and the figure curled up on the bottom of the cage. As it sat up, I exclaimed, "Rich... "
I grabbed the cage door and tore it open, then released the shackles that were holding my son. He was in the same condition as Mystery Woman, looking like he'd been beaten a bit but I didn't see any other injuries. He immediately threw his arm around me in a hug, and after several seconds I helped him out of the cage and to his feet.
"Rachael," he repeated, staring at his sister with a look of stunned disbelief. Then he grabbed her in a hug while Mystery Woman stared at us in surprise.
"Hey Richie," she responded with tears rushing to her eyes. "Long time no see... " Then she joked, "At least you didn't hit me like Mel did."
"You're here," he blurted out.
Rachael gave him a weak smile and told him, "Alyss found me and told me what's going on. There is no way in hell I was gonna let that fucking bastard have my little brother... "
"Brother?" Mystery Woman exclaimed, now staring at Rich.
"We've got the Marquis all tied up," I announced so everyone could hear. Then I told Rachael, "Let's get everyone else free... "
"Ceasefire," Mystery Woman gasped, remembering her own brother. "Aerial... " With that, she hurried around the basement to find their cages so they could be freed as well.
"Thank you," Rich told us, looking unbelievably relieved, for which I couldn't blame him. Then he said, "I can't wait until my powers come back so I can get away from here... "
"What?" I gasped, staring at him. "He has your powers?"
"He took them about half an hour ago," Rich spat out bitterly. "Again... "
Rachael and I gave each other worried looks, then she pointed out what I was thinking. "Why would the Marquis try running away when he could have teleported at any time?"
"Oh shit," I blurted out in realization. "It's a trick."
Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, July 27th, 2007
I stood in the dungeon basement, my mind whirling as I considered the fact that the Marquis was holding onto Rich's powers but hadn't shown them at all during the entire fight. He could have escaped at any time but had chosen not to do so, which left the rather large question of why. The Marquis had obviously wanted the fight, probably certain that he could win it. However, even after we'd defeated him, he still hadn't teleported away. Then I suddenly wondered if maybe teleportation wasn't the only power he currently possessed but hadn't shown during the fight.
"The Marquis is up to something," I told Rachael with a growing certainty that something was wrong.
Rachael scowled at that, then responded, "Those heroes aren't my concern... " She put a gentle hand on Rich's shoulder to try comforting him more.
Rich was bruised and beaten, and he looked like it was taking everything he had just to stand there. However, getting him out of the cage had brought immediate benefits and he was already showing renewed energy and determination. But this was starting to waver and he stared at me and Rachael with a look of fear.
"He's escaping?" Rich gasped, his voice shaking. "Oh God, he's going to come after us again... "
Rich's obvious fear struck me almost like a physical blow. As relieved as I was to have found him, the man who'd taken him and hurt him was still out there and up to something. "He won't touch you again," I announced, stating it as a simple fact. Come hell or high water, I wouldn't let the Marquis lay a finger on him again.
"No he's not," Rachael promised him, her expression shifting from gentle and comforting to hard and grim. "After what he did to you, there is no way in hell I'm gonna let him walk away from this... "
With that, Rachael and I hurried out of the basement dungeon while Rich and Mystery Woman were left behind to free all the other prisoners. I just hoped they were able to do it quickly and get out of the mansion as soon as possible. I was pretty sure that none of them wanted to stick around a second longer than absolutely necessary.
Rachael and I ran up the stairs and back out the mansion, and as soon as we stepped back out the front door, I saw I'd been right. The Marquis was standing up, completely free from any kind of bindings and looking as though he'd never even been taken down. He had his arm outstretched in front of him with his hand firmly grasped around Pinnacle's throat. He was holding Pinnacle up off the ground with ease, as though Pinnacle weighed nothing at all.
"Oh shit," I blurted out, realizing now what the Marquis had been doing. The whole 'defeat' thing had been so he could lure Pinnacle close and take his powers.
"Your powers will serve nicely until I can find someone stronger," the Marquis announced, speaking to Pinnacle, who was still struggling in vain. Then the Marquis mused, "Sadly, you're too useful to kill right now, but I can still amuse myself by using your own powers to break your bones... one by one."
"You bastard," Asset gasped from where he was on the ground a short distance away, looking as though the Marquis had already been a bit rough on him. He was struggling to even stand and couldn't seem to manage even that. Not only was his leg still injured but one of his arms was blackened and burned.
"A gadgeteer is of little use to me," the Marquis commented in an amused tone. "You I can kill now."
The Marquis absently dropped Pinnacle and gestured towards Asset, who was frantically trying to assemble something. A moment later, a blast of red fire shot out of his hands and would have hit Asset if Miss Fortune hadn't interfered. The ghostly image of a woman suddenly appeared in front of Asset and she gestured with a large staff she was holding. The fire suddenly stopped as if hitting an invisible wall. A moment later, the ghostly woman vanished.
"Thanks," Asset said, holding up some kind of gun that he'd just finished putting together. "Now it's my turn... "
Asset couldn't get off the ground and one of his arms seemed to be useless, but he had still managed to put together that weapon and aimed it at the Marquis. He fired and a tight beam of green energy shot out at the Marquis, hitting him right in the chest. However, the Marquis didn't seem bothered in the least by this, much to Asset's surprise. Unfortunately, that just confirmed that he was now protected by Pinnacle's power.
Rachael took aim and shot at the Marquis as well, hitting him right in the back. Unfortunately, her blast had no more effect than Asset's had. "Fuck," she exclaimed in frustration. "I always hated that about Pinnacle."
I started towards the Marquis, though I was bursting with anger and frustration, wondering what I could do against him. I'd used my ribbons on him a few times, though it hadn't done a lot of good. He just kept switching on the fire power and burning them right off again. And sure, I could run up and punch him, but getting close to a power thief was kind of stupid, and considering that he now had Pinnacle's power, it would probably be kind of useless.
Miss Fortune created another ghostly image, this one looking like a large man who had a noose around his neck. He was holding the long rope as he started towards the Marquis, apparently planning on using the rope as a weapon. However, the Marquis flew forward and punched the ghostly man, who vanished on impact.
"Now," Miss Fortune exclaimed, standing up straight and glaring at the Marquis with a cold imperious look, not seeming to even care about her own injuries. "It is time for you to face JUDGEMENT." She shouted the last.
"I think not," the Marquis exclaimed, suddenly flying at Miss Fortune and grabbing hold of her. "Your powers are of little use to me." Before he'd even finished the words, he twisted her body, resulting in a gurgling scream that ended abruptly. Then he tossed her lifeless body to the ground, musing, "That was far too quick to be satisfying."
"You monster," Pinnacle snarled, standing up though he was wobbly and without power. He glared at the Marquis with a look of cold hate.
The Marquis laughed at that, then responded, "The judgments of my inferiors mean nothing."
Rachael snarled in anger, then told me, "Use the damn weights. I made them for a reason."
I blinked at that, then looked at the black metal bracelets I wore, having almost completely forgotten about them. With that, I took one of them off and formed a ribbon with one end tying itself around the heavy ring. I took a breath, then used the ribbon to swing it around over my head, building up speed before finally releasing it. The metal ring flew through the air and hit the Marquis in the chest hard enough to throw him back, much to my delight.
"Thirty pounds of weight thrown with superhuman strength," Rachael stated with a smirk. "That is quite a great deal of force concentrated into a relatively small surface area... "
"And it hits like hell," I added with a grin of my own, suddenly realizing just how effective my new jewelry could be as weapons.
The Marquis had been knocked back by the impact, though Pinnacle's powers had protected him from being seriously hurt. Still, I had no doubt that if I'd hit a normal person in the chest with that thing, it would have crushed their ribs and probably killed them. I used the ribbon that was still tied to the ring to pull it back towards me, noting that with that weight on the end, it seriously reduced my ability to control the ribbon.
"I despise children," the Marquis said, slowly walking towards me. "It seems I must teach you the discipline your parents neglected."
Instead of responding to that verbally, I flung my weighted ribbon at him again, this time swinging it wide so that the ribbon came at him from the side, hitting his leg with the weight still moving so that it wrapped around his leg. I yanked on the ribbon and pulled his feet out from beneath him again. Then as I began to drag him towards me, more because I could keep him off balance than because I wanted him close, he suddenly flew up into the air.
"Come back here," I snarled, trying to pull him back down though he ended up lifting me up off the ground instead. I finally had to let go of my ribbon, falling back to the ground where I hit without injury.
Up in the air, the Marquis was suddenly covered with red flame for a moment, burning off my ribbon yet again. The weight was now free and fell back to the ground, where I rushed to grab it. Then he fired a blast of fire back towards the ground, right at Pinnacle.
"Look out," Rachael exclaimed, shoving Pinnacle aside a moment before the fire hit where he'd been standing. Pinnacle stared at her in surprise while she snapped, "Pay attention."
The Marquis was no longer covered in flames and quickly came back towards us, hovering in the air only about ten feet above the ground. I stared at him, thinking about how much more dangerous he was when he had the fire going on at the same time as Pinnacle's powers. But then again, I realized that he usually only used a single power at a time, and the times he did use two at once... he kept it very quick.
"I think he has a hard time using multiple powers at once," I called out, wondering if this was a weakness we could take advantage of.
Rachael snarled and opened fire again, shooting him with blast after blast while he just hovered there, taking it without flinching. The Marquis laughed, obviously delighting in the power he'd gained from Pinnacle and the fact that none of us could harm him now.
"This is fucking useless," Rachael exclaimed before turning and running.
"Rachael," I called out, shocked that she'd run away and leave me like this, while simultaneously being relieved that she'd be safe.
"I knew we couldn't count on her," Asset said as he threw another grenade at the Marquis.
"At least she didn't shoot us in the back," Pinnacle pointed out grimly, though he did look vaguely disappointed.
I grimaced at that, and as I looked at Asset and Pinnacle, I realized that without Rachael, I was the only one left who was able to fight. I glared at the Marquis, feeling terrified and furious at the same time. He'd just killed Miss Fortune right before my eyes and he was probably more than capable of killing me. Unlike these other guys, I wasn't some super hero who put on spandex then ran around fighting monsters like the Marquis. In spite of all my new powers, that wasn't me. I was a simple guy... girl... and all I wanted was to take care of my family.
"But you hurt my family," I muttered with an angry snarl, remembering the way Kimberly and Kaylie kept having nightmares. And of course, there was what he'd done to Rich.
I felt my anger building again, surging with an almost explosive force. Ever since I'd turned into a pint sized powerhouse, I'd been careful to control my temper... to keep from hurting anyone. But now... Now I had the perfect target to let it all out on.
I formed two new ribbons, wrapping one end of each to one of my hands and the other end to a weighted ring. The ribbons were only a couple feet long, not nearly long enough to give me the kind of range that I'd like to use with the Marquis, but I'd already found that wasn't working. I needed to get closer so I could hit him faster and harder. And with that, I ran at him as fast as I could, jumping into the air and then swinging both ribbons at the same time. Two metal rings struck the Marquis at the same time, hitting him hard enough that he was knocked out of the air and fell back to the ground. I followed that up by giving him a swift kick to his legs, hoping that I could break through his protective field do some real damage.
"You BRAT," the Marquis yelled, growing angry. It appeared I was getting through his protective field enough to start doing damage. He lunched forward, hitting me hard enough that it would have broken the bones of any normal person, but it only felt like a hard slap to me.
"Hitting little girls," I taunted him. "How big and brave of you... " He snarled and hit me again, this time sending me flying back about twenty feet, though it didn't hurt any more than the last time. "That's child abuse... "
I launched myself at the Marquis again, swinging my weighted ribbons and hitting him over and over. I snarled in anger, thinking of Rich and what this monster had put him through. I screamed and lashed out with everything I could, not doing much damage to the Marquis but slowly driving him back from the sheer fury of my attack. He tried hitting back, but I realized that I was smaller and faster, with better reflexes. And with the weighted ribbons I was using to attack, I had a longer reach as well.
Suddenly, a tornado formed around the Marquis and a powerful burst of wind caught me and sent me flying back. Before I even hit the ground again, I knew that this was courtesy of Aerial's powers. I thought the Marquis had been holding something back besides Rich's teleportation, so I was just glad it wasn't something more dangerous than wind. Then again, hurricanes and tornadoes were just wind too.
"You're strong, girl," the Marquis announced, his voice dripping with contempt. "It's a pity that you're an exemplar though. Taking exemplar abilities is always so... inefficient. Without a BIT or the biological modifications, I can only use a portion of what I take. However, your regeneration should prove quite useful to me. And if nothing else, you'll survive my ministrations for a very long time... "
"You are seriously screwed up," I commented, right before charging at him again.
Suddenly, there was the booming sound of thunder and I hesitated, glancing up and gasping at the sight of the sky. There were dark clouds forming overhead, far lower than they should have been. Another boom of thunder followed, and I gulped, realizing that Aerial's powers were a lot stronger than I'd thought. I had a feeling that I was in serious trouble.
There was a flash of light, and suddenly a bolt of lightning shot out of the sky... hitting the Marquis. He cried out in pain and staggered back, only to get hit with another one. I stared at him in surprise, wondering if he was building up for something big... or if he'd just lost control of his power.
"Alyss," a familiar voice called out. "Keep back... "
I looked at Rachael, who'd returned and was watching the Marquis with a look of dark satisfaction. I looked up at the clouds again and noticed a gold metal sphere floating in the middle of them, with sparks of lightning shooting from it to the clouds. Then realization dawned. Rachael had made a weather machine.
"I had to pick a few things up from the truck," she stated, pausing as another blast of lightning hit the Marquis.
Finally, the Marquis burst into flame and shot a blast of fire up in the air, right at the golden sphere. The sphere exploded and the clouds immediately began to break apart. However, he immediately shifted powers again, back to Pinnacle's powers.
"Did you really think something like that would stop me?" the Marquis demanded, clearly pissed off.
"By itself... no," Rachael responded, her eyes looking just a little manic, showing that she was on the edge of slipping into another episode. She paused and muttered something under her breath which sounded like, "Keep it together." Then she took several deep breaths and continued, "But you can only use Pinnacle's powers so much before you use them up, and I just forced you to use almost everything you had left defending yourself. I expect you won't be able to use Pinnacle's powers for more than a minute or two more... "
"Good idea," Pinnacle said, giving her a look that indicated he was impressed.
"Then it seems I will have to finish you all quickly," the Marquis responded.
Rachael held up a new weapon, one that looked like an oddly shaped pistol. Without a word, she pointed it at the Marquis and shot, firing out a beam of golden light which hit him in the chest. He didn't bother trying to get out of the way, seeming perfectly confident in his ability to withstand the attack. But then there was a weird golden glow around the Marquis before it all suddenly exploded into sparks.
The Marquis screamed in pain and then dropped to his knees. "What did you do?" the villain demanded, quickly getting back to his feet but seeming unstable.
"Pinnacle's energy field operates on a specific wavelength," Rachael explained rather smugly. "If you know the wavelength, it's relatively easy to design a device that can disrupt it... "
Pinnacle's eyes widened and he gasped, "You made that thing to use on me... "
Rachael grinned at him, though it definitely wasn't a reassuring one. She looked back at the Marquis and pointed out, "I doubt you have enough of Pinnacle's power left to reform his energy field... "
The Marquis snarled and held out his hands, firing blasts of energy at Rachael. This time, it was Pinnacle who tacked her and knocked her out of the way. However, the Marquis continued firing blasts I ran and jumped between them, taking several hits which stung but weren't nearly as bad as the fire. Then the blasts stopped coming and from his body language, I had the feeling that he'd just run out of juice with that power as well.
For a moment, the Marquis stared at Pinnacle, and I could almost see the wheels turning in his head. I couldn't read minds, but I was pretty sure he was trying to figure out how easy it would be to reach Pinnacle for a recharge. Of course, he'd have to go through me, and as I'd already shown, I could keep out of his reach while still doing some serious damage... especially now that he no longer had Pinnacle's protection.
"It seems I must depart for now," the Marquis stated, gesturing to the side where a swirl formed in the air.
But as the Marquis was just about to step through the portal he'd created, I latched onto his leg with a ribbon and yanked, pulling his feet out from underneath him again. I started dragging him back towards me, but he burst into flame, destroying the ribbon. He got back on his feet, but he was limping, indicating that the sharp tug I'd given him may have done some damage.
"Foolish child," he said before he turned towards the portal again.
"Hey, asshole," I called out.
The Marquis turned to look at me again, only to see one of my weighted ribbons flying at him. He sent out a wave of flame and destroyed my ribbon, but the weight continued on its path, hitting him in the shoulder and sending him flying back with a scream of pain. I started towards him, only to see the air around him starting to blur. He was going to create a portal right beneath himself, so I grabbed him with another ribbon and yanked him back, earning another scream of pain.
"Use this," Asset said with a wince of pain, handing a fist sized device to Pinnacle. "It'll jam any teleportation within ten feet... "
"Good to know," Pinnacle told him, walking over towards the Marquis and placing the device on the ground, making sure not to get close enough to be touched again. After what had happened the last time, I was surprised he'd risk even this much. "You're not going anywhere... "
Rachael and I came closer as well and we both glared at the Marquis, who was now quite injured. I might have broken his leg when I'd yanked it out from under him that last time, but I'd definitely shattered his shoulder. He made an awkward lunging attempt to reach me, though it did no good.
"Careful," Pinnacle warned us, taking a step back. "He might be injured, but he's still extremely dangerous... "
I nodded at that, fully aware of the fact that even though the Marquis had burned out several of his stolen powers, he still had more than enough left to be a serious threat. At the moment, he was probably pretty distracted by the pain, but I knew good and well that he could still set us on fire, which made it pretty risky getting this close.
"You hurt my family," Rachael stated, her voice cold and hard. Then she pointed her energy rifle at the Marquis' head and fired. A single glance was more than enough to confirm that he was dead. "No one fucks with my family."
There was a faint shimmer around Pinnacle for a second, and I guessed that meant his powers returned. He stared at Rachael and braced himself to deal with her, but she just dropped her weapon, not even looking at him.
"You know," Rachael commented quietly, almost as if talking to herself. "This was the first time I've ever killed someone intentionally."
Rachael let out a long sigh, suddenly looking completely exhausted, in a way that went far beyond the physical. I was immediately at her side, giving her a hug which she seemed to desperately need.
"It's going to be fine," I lied.
"No it isn't," Rachael told me quietly, giving me a forced smile. "It's far too late for that." Then she chuckled weakly and added, "At least this time, I don't have to feel guilty."
Pinnacle stood back and watched Rachael with an odd expression on his face, one that seemed to be a little confused but definitely showed signs of sympathy. He finally came over and gently put a hand on her shoulder.
"Lady," Pinnacle started.
She looked him in the eyes, then nodded faintly. "Go deal with your friend," she said, gesturing to the injured Asset. "I'm not going anywhere."
Pinnacle hesitated a moment, then he nodded before going to check on Asset. Rachael and I walked a short distance away from the Marquis' body, then she grabbed me in a hug, not saying a word as she held me tightly.
Less than a minute later, the freed prisoners began coming out of the house, being hesitant and cautious at first. But once they realized that the Marquis wasn't waiting for them, they began coming out as quickly as they could.
Most of the prisoners were in bad shape, being roughed up at the very least. However, Rich and Mystery Woman seemed to have gotten off lightly, because one woman was carried out with a bandaged stump where her hand would be and more bandages over her eyes. I felt sick at the very sight of her injuries and was suddenly very thankful that Rachael had taken care of the monster who'd done that to her.
Rich came straight for Rachael and I, not saying a word as he gave us each a hug. Only then did he whisper, "Thank you," again. I was fully aware of the fact that several of the freed prisoners were staring at us, or at least staring at Rachael with looks of confusion.
"There was no way in hell I was going to let that bastard keep you," I told him firmly.
Rich chuckled at that, then told me, "You always were too stubborn to let something like a super villain get in your way... "
"True," Rachael commented with a faint smile of her own. "Daddy always was stubborn."
Rich snorted at that, then pointed out, "What are you talking about? You're just like him." Then he gave her a worried look and glanced back towards Pinnacle and said, "You'll probably want to get going... "
Rachael shook her head and gave Rich a sad smile. "No," she told him quietly. "I made a deal and I'm going to keep it. Besides, I'm tired of hiding under a rock like some kind of bug. I'm tired of everything."
Unfortunately, the police had finally begun to arrive at the same time. Pinnacle gestured to the Marquis' remains, as well as those of the scattered gunmen. I'd forgotten all about them, but the Marquis had either killed or severely injured all of them with his waves of fire.
Then Pinnacle gestured towards us and began leading a group of police in our direction. Without a word, Rachael undid her belt and dropped it to the ground, then stood there with her hands out, making it clear that she wasn't going to resist.
"Its time," Pinnacle told her gently, giving her a sad look as the police cuffed her hands behind her back. Then he told her, "Thank you for helping us free everyone."
Rachael nodded faintly at that, not saying anything in response. We all knew that she'd come for Rich, not for any of the others. However, in spite of that, Pinnacle also knew that they wouldn't have been able to beat the Marquis and free everyone without her.
"I'm glad I could see everyone again," Rachael told Rich and I, right before the police led her off.
I felt a knot in my stomach as I watched Rachael leave, knowing that I could free her from the police and Rich could take her away to somewhere safe. However, I didn't do that. As much as I hated the thought of my daughter going to prison for the rest of her life, I also knew it was necessary. She'd done some horrible things and they didn't go away just because she'd helped defeat a dangerous lunatic.
"Come on," I told Rich in a quiet voice. "Let's get you home. Melanie and the girls are worried sick about you."
Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, August 3rd, 2007
I was stretched out in the bath tub, soaking in hot water and enjoying the scented bubbles that covered the entire surface of the water and ticked my nose. But as calm and relaxed as I might appear, that was all on the surface. Underneath it all, my thoughts were running around in circles, and honestly, they were starting to get a bit tired.
After I climbed out of the tub, I grabbed the largest and fluffiest towel in the house, one that was so big that it threatened to engulf my small body. I found a certain amusement in using this towel, just as I was now entertained by a lot of simple things that I'd never given a second thought to before. Part of having a second chance was that it was giving me the opportunity to experience things from a new perspective, one that made almost everything seem like I was seeing it for the first time.
Once I'd finished my long but relaxing new routine of brushing and drying my hair, I got dressed, forming silk panties and a beautiful purple dress. In minutes, I even had ribbons tied into my hair. About the only things I needed to add that I couldn't create for myself were my shoes and a few decorations like a skull shaped hair clip and the black metal bracelets that I'd left sitting on the counter.
I absently ran my fingers over the smooth metal of my bracelets, thinking of Rachael and how she'd given these to me a week ago. I didn't really need them as weapons anymore, but I felt much better having them with me anyway. And if nothing else, they reminded me of the daughter who'd made them.
I went back to the living room where I found Melanie sitting on the couch, watching a news report on TV. I immediately saw that it wasn't a new report but a recording of one that had aired after the fight with the Marquis. Without saying a word, I sat down beside my daughter to watch it again.
The reporter May O'Connel was on the screen, making me smile faintly. I remembered her showing up at the mansion right after the police had, wearing that bright yellow jumpsuit. That jumpsuit let me see her well before she'd noticed me, giving me plenty of opportunity to get out of sight. I hadn't wanted to be on the news and Pinnacle had cooperated and redirected her attention elsewhere.
Pinnacle stood in front of May O'Connel, looking a little bruised and banged up from the fight, but otherwise being in good condition. Unlike Miss Fortune. "As unlikely as it may seem," Pinnacle told the reporter, "Lady Havoc played a critical role in defeating the Marquis and freeing his prisoners... " After May asked a few questions, he answered, "No, I can't speculate on her motives, only to say that I believe they were personal. However, I should add that after the Marquis was defeated, she surrendered and turned herself in of her own will when she could have escaped in the confusion."
"At least Rachael is getting some credit," Melanie said with a sigh, turning off the TV.
I nodded agreement, wondering how Rachael was doing and feeling a bit worried. After all, I hadn't seen her since she'd been taken away by the police. Since she was a dangerous super villain who'd already escaped once, they had her locked up pretty tight and weren't allowing her any visitors except for her lawyer. This frustrated me since I wanted to see my daughter, even though I understood their reasons.
"I don't think Rachael really cares about the credit," I said carefully, knowing full well that the only reason she'd gone up against the Marquis and had turned herself in was because of Rich. "But it is nice to see her getting some."
Melanie gave me a faint smile and pointed out, "But they didn't say anything about your part in this."
I chuckled at that, then responded, "Thankfully." Then after a couple seconds, I added, "I asked Pinnacle to keep my name out of it as much as possible. That kind of attention would be a real pain in the ass."
"Alyss said a bad word," Kimberly exclaimed from the other side of the room, where I hadn't even noticed her.
"Sorry," I said, glancing to Melanie who gave me a look that seemed to be equal parts amusement and disapproval. Then I looked at Kimberly, who was staring at me with a smug look. "Okay," I told her with a roll of my eyes. "I owe another dollar to the swear jar."
"And don't forget," Kimberly insisted before rushing off.
The swear jar had been Kaylie's idea, and I was pretty sure it was just a scheme to collect as much money from me as possible. At the rate I was going, I was going to empty my limited bank account in no time at all. I REALLY needed to get a new job soon.
Of course, I'd been thinking about what I should do with my second chance at life ever since I'd woken up like this, and over the last week, I'd been thinking about it even more. I knew that I had to make good use of my second chance, that I had to do something worthwhile... something to prove that it hadn't been wasted on me.
My thoughts turned to Rachael, who'd given up her freedom in order to save her brother. When he'd needed her most, she'd come through for him. When I'd been in that damn hospital bed, in pain and feeling my life slipping away, she'd come for me. In spite of the fact that I'd once betrayed her and turned her in, when I'd needed her most, she'd been there for me. She'd saved my life and gave me this second chance, one that I wasn't sure I'd deserved. After all, when she'd needed me most... I'd failed her. I'd been powerless to do anything while her life spiraled into hell.
While I'd been in the hospital, I'd had countless hours to think about my life, about everything I'd done and was leaving behind. During my life, I'd done a lot of things that I wasn't proud of, but in that hospital bed, I'd realized there was only one thing I'd truly regretted. There was only one thing I would have given anything for another chance to fix. However, it seemed ironic that while I'd been given another chance, it was still too late to help Rachael.
I'd thought about this quite a bit over the last few weeks, ever since I'd woken up as a little girl. But for the first time, something suddenly clicked. I suddenly knew what I wanted to do with my second chance... what I needed to do with it. I had absolutely no idea of how to go about it or where to even begin, but with the gifts I'd been given, I knew I at least had a chance.
"Thank you," I whispered, wondering if maybe Rachael hadn't been the only one to answer my prayer. I'd given up on praying to God a LONG time ago, but in this case, just maybe he'd finally decided to answer.
I was still thinking about this when the doorbell began to ring. Before anyone could get up to answer it, the door opened and Rich let himself in.
"Uncle Rich," Kimberly exclaimed, excitedly running over and giving him a hug.
"Careful," Rich told her gently. "I'm still a bit bruised."
I got up and absently adjusted my dress, then said, "I'm ready to go when you are."
"What all do you two have planned?" Melanie asked us curiously, though I'd already told her. I figured she was just being polite.
"I'm taking her to the library," Rich answered with a chuckle, still amused by just how much I'd taken to reading. "Then I'm going to stop off at the Clinic for a checkup... to make sure there aren't any surprises from the drugs that asshole gave me."
"You owe a dollar for the swear jar," Kimberly insisted. Without saying a word, Rich took out a five dollar bill and stuck it into the jar on the table. Kimberly just stood there, looking a little smug.
Rich and I took off a minute later, using one of his portals to go straight to the library. I immediately dropped off the books I'd previously borrowed, then went to work finding the ones I wanted to read now.
We didn't stay at the library for very long, at least not compared to how long I stayed when I went on my own. I knew that Rich was bored, flipping through a few books while I read through a dozen of them, so I cut it as short as possible, much to his relief.
After the library, we went straight to the Clinic. I stayed in the waiting room while Rich went in for his appointment. And though I could have read one of the books I'd brought from the library, instead I looked over the bookshelf, being disappointed to realize that I'd already read everything that even remotely interested me.
"I might as well expand my vocabulary," I mused as I grabbed a dictionary and began flipping through it. It was pretty boring, but I figured the knowledge might be useful. When I was only a quarter of the way in, I paused to muse, "So that's what that word means... "
Rich finished up and came back to the waiting room after only half an hour, much to my relief since I was getting bored. I set the now finished dictionary back on the shelf, absently smoothed my dress, and asked, "What did the Doc say?"
"She gave me a good bill of health," Rich answered with a smile. "I've still got a couple bruises that haven't gone away yet, but other than that I'm fine."
I nodded at that, knowing just as Rich did how lucky he was. The Marquis had drugged him with something that kept him from using his powers to escape, and had apparently beaten him just for the hell of it. And in spite of that, Rich had gotten off easily. One of the kidnapped villains had lost her hand and eyes to the Marquis, one of the prisoners had two broken kneecaps, and the police had found the bodies of two other people who'd been tortured to death. And then there was Miss Fortune, whose death had been relatively quick and painless compared to the other ones.
When I thought of the Marquis, I felt a surge of anger and disgust. If Rachael hadn't killed him, I would have been pretty damn tempted to break into jail and put a bullet in his head myself. I just hoped that monster was burning in hell.
"While we're here," Rich suggested, "why don't we eat in the cafeteria."
"Sounds good to me," I told him, licking my lips as I thought about their menu.
Rich and I went to the elevator, and when the doors opened, three people stepped out. They were all in civilian clothes, though one of them was a woman with green skin and horns, who looked familiar. It only took me a second to recognize her as being a customer from the super villain bar, along with one of the men. The two of them gave me looks of recognition, then as they continued on their way, they whispered to each other. All I could make out were, "Havoc's daughter," and a few seconds later, the words, "Little Miss Havoc... "
"Do you know them?" Rich asked me, noticing the way I watched the villains.
"Not really," I admitted with a faint chuckle and a shake of my head. When I'd crashed the bar, I'd had absolutely no idea that I'd end up with a reputation from it, much less that the villains would somehow think that Rachael was my mother. I chuckled again at the very idea, even if I did look young enough for that to be true.
When we reached the cafeteria a minute later, Rich and I began looking for a table, only to see Pinnacle having lunch. He noticed us and gestured for us to join him. I'd actually been looking forward to just eating with my son, but I had to admit, I'd been wanting to talk with Pinnacle about a few things as well.
"How are you holding up?" Pinnacle asked, looking at Rich and then me. I was pretty sure he was asking more about how we were dealing with Rachael being in jail than about Rich's health.
"I'm doing a lot better," Rich told him while I nodded sadly, thinking of Rachael and where she was currently at.
"How are the Freelancers holding up?" I asked Pinnacle.
He was silent for a moment, his expression grim. "We've all been having it rough," he admitted with a deep scowl. "Miss Fortune's death hit us all pretty hard. Most of us aren't close to each other, but still... " He sat there for several more seconds, then told me, "I was the one who had to tell her fiance she'd been killed. It turns out, he didn't even know she was Miss Fortune until then. It was... difficult."
"I'd imagine," I said with a frown.
"Asset and the Occultist are both out of action for another month," Pinnacle continued. "But they will both recover... at least most of the way. Ceasefire, Aerial, and Mystery Woman are recovering quite well physically, but they're all taking a break to... deal with things."
"I can certainly understand that," Rich said with a grim nod, having gone through the very same thing himself.
"At the moment, I'm the only Freelancer in any shape to still be active," Pinnacle admitted. "There are a couple other local heroes who occasionally swing by the headquarters, but no more regulars."
"So, what's going to happen to you guys?" I asked curiously. "I mean, I know you're not an official group or anything."
Pinnacle snorted at that. "Unfortunately, that was part of the problem. We're all pretty good on our own, but we aren't a team. We didn't coordinate with each other and we barely cooperated. That was why the Marquis was able to take us apart. He didn't need to divide and conquer because we were already divided."
I nodded at that, definitely having noticed the same thing. "He kept picking you off one by one... "
"If we'd worked together more," Pinnacle said with a grimace. "If we'd gone out in teams instead of by ourselves... " He stared off into space for several seconds before saying, "I wish things could have been different."
I snorted at that, pointing out, "If wishes were horses, we'd all be wearing hip waders."
Pinnacle chuckled faintly, then admitted, "I don't think I've ever heard that particular one before."
"I have," Rich added with a roll of his eyes.
"Anyway," Pinnacle continued, "the others agree that we can't let this kind of thing happen again. We've shared contact information, and once they're ready, we're going to have some training exercises. I don't think we'll be an official team, but at least we'll be able to work together when we have to."
"That sounds like a damn good idea," I told him, thinking that it was about time too. If they'd done that kind of thing before, then none of this would have happened.
"And that brings me to something I've been wanting to talk with you about," Pinnacle told me. He looked at Rich and then me before saying, "I talked with the others, and they agree. We'd like to bring you two in as an official part of our unofficial non-team."
"Thanks, but no thanks," Rich said, beating me to the punch. "I appreciate the offer, but I've had more than enough danger to last me the rest of my life."
"I can understand that," Pinnacle responded, looking just a little disappointed.
"Besides," Rich added with a smirk. "I'd look horrible in spandex." We all chuckled at that, then Rich added, "But if you need help with transportation, feel free to give me a call."
"Will do," Pinnacle agreed, looking at me again.
I shook my head, then told him, "Thanks but no thanks. Spandex ain't exactly my thing either."
"Of course," Pinnacle said, giving me a wry look. "You wouldn't be caught dead in a silly costume."
"Something like that," I agreed, glancing down at my dress and grinning. "Besides, I'm not really into playing hero... "
Pinnacle gave me another wry look, then commented, "You know, a couple days ago, a known pedophile was found in the park, tied up in pink ribbons and hanging upside down from a tree branch... "
"Let me guess," Rich added with a smirk. "He was attacked by a group of large men... "
"Yeah," Pinnacle agreed with a chuckle, giving me an amused look. "Funny how that keeps happening."
"Hey, I had nothing to do with that," I lied, giving my best innocent look. "It's not my fault some vicious gang keeps tying thugs up in ribbons."
"For someone who keeps trying to avoid attention," Pinnacle told me with a faint smile, "you seem to be pretty good at drawing it. I've heard that there's a rumor going around among the villains that Lady Havoc has a daughter running around... "
"I've heard that too," Rich said, smirking again. "I wonder what Rachael will say when she finds out she has a daughter... "
"She'll probably laugh her ass off," I admitted with a sigh.
Pinnacle hesitated a moment, then carefully said, "Actually... she did."
I stared at Pinnacle for a moment, then stated, "You've talked to her."
"Yesterday," Pinnacle admitted.
"How?" I asked suspiciously. "They aren't letting her have any visitors."
"The warden is an old acquaintance," Pinnacle explained, his expression turning serious again. "He allowed me to talk to Lady Havoc so I could interrogate her."
"Interrogate?" I asked, tensing up as I thought of those cop shows and movies where they roughed up suspects during the interrogations.
"Probably not what you're thinking," Pinnacle quickly assured us. "I just went in and talked to her."
"Why would you do that?" Rich asked.
"She knows a lot of other villains," I pointed out thoughtfully. "She could probably give some good leads."
"That isn't it," Pinnacle responded, suddenly looking awkward. He was silent for several seconds, then explained, "I spent years chasing after Lady Havoc, trying to put her away. In that time, I just thought she was a dangerous lunatic. I never really saw a human side until recently. I suppose, I wanted to reconcile these two sides, so I went and talked to her."
"That... must have been awkward," I said carefully, not sure I could even imagine that conversation.
"It was," Pinnacle agreed with a faint smile. "At first. She was surprisingly congenial... considering the circumstances."
Rich gave Pinnacle a skeptical look, as if half sure the hero was lying. "In spite of what she's done... she's a good person."
Instead of arguing that, Pinnacle gave a sad nod of agreement. "I had a nice talk with her," he said quietly, giving me a faint smile and adding, "It really made me wish that I'd met her under other circumstances."
The three of us were silent for several minutes as Rich and I ordered our food. After the waiter had departed, I asked, "How's she doing?"
"She seemed strangely calm," Pinnacle responded after a moment of consideration. "Resigned."
"That won't last forever," I said quietly, knowing it was only a matter of time before she had one of her episodes, if she hadn't already. I had a vision of her being wrapped up in a strait jacket and tied up like Hannibal Lecter. The very thought was enough to bring a knot to my stomach.
"The warden has a devisor looking over the restraint device she built," Pinnacle said with a thoughtful look. "They think that after a few modifications, like removing the force field and making it so she can't access the components, she may be able to keep it."
"Really?" Rich blurted out in surprise.
"It is a restraining device," Pinnacle pointed out with a faint smile. "They know it could make dealing with her a lot easier on them."
"That's good to know," I said, thinking of the irony that she finally invents something to keep herself under control, right before she finally goes to prison where she couldn't hurt anyone anyway. Unfortunately, Rachael had been right when she'd told me that her bracer had been too little too late. "At least she'll have that to help."
Pinnacle nodded, giving me a sympathetic look. "She gave me a message," he said, looking straight at me. "She told me that the next time I saw you, I should tell you that she's sleeping well."
"She's sleeping well?" Rich asked with a look of confusion.
"That's what she said," Pinnacle responded with a shrug.
I just sat there, feeling my eyes get teary. Neither Rich or Pinnacle could understand what that really meant, but I did. I smiled faintly, feeling a little better about her now.
"Thank you," I told Pinnacle quietly, feeling self-conscious as I wiped the tears away. "You don't know how much that message means."
Pinnacle smiled at that, then asked, "So, what are your plans now?"
"What do you mean?" I asked him.
"You said you're not interested in being a hero," Pinnacle commented, "so I'm curious about what you are planning to do."
"I have some ideas," I responded carefully, though I wasn't really ready to share the decision I'd made this morning.
I had a feeling that if I told people what I had in mind, they'd react the same way they would to a kid who announced he wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up. They'd pat me on the head and say, "What a wonderful goal," all the while thinking I was being cute but unrealistic. Unfortunately, I'd done just that to Rich when he was a kid.
"I'm a high school dropout," I said after a few seconds. "I'm damn good at fixing cars, but other than that... " I shook my head, then admitted, "This time around, I want to get an education. I want to do something with my life."
Pinnacle stared at me for several seconds, then asked, "Have you ever heard of Whateley Academy?"
"What?" I asked blankly.
"It's a school for mutants," Rich told with a faint smile. "I've heard of it."
"A college for mutants," I mused.
"No," Pinnacle responded with a chuckle. "Whateley is a high school. I've heard it's quite good... "
A new voice suddenly announced, "The best."
I nearly jumped in my seat and looked over at the Asian woman who'd come up behind me. She was in civilian clothes, but there was no mistaking who she was.
"Mystery Woman," I said in greeting.
"Call me Min," she told me with a faint smile. Then she looked at Rich and added, "I take it you were here for your checkup as well."
Rich nodded at that and gestured for her to sit at the empty seat. "How are you doing?"
"Better than my brother," Mystery Woman... Min answered with a shrug. She shook her head and chuckled faintly. "The Marquis barely touched him, but then he goes and twists his ankle while running out of that place." Then she asked, "What was this I heard about Whateley?"
"I was just suggesting that Alyss consider applying to the school," Pinnacle said, looking to me again and adding, "If you're looking to start over, I think it would probably be a good place to do it."
"Whateley is a great school," Min stated proudly, giving a clear indication that she'd gone there. She gave me a curious look, then added, "It's one of the best schools for mutants in the world. The classes are... unique."
With that, Min began describing the school, though I had a hard time believing some of her claims. After all, I couldn't believe that even a mutant school would have classes on how to build death rays, or that they'd make students fight each other in some arena like gladiators. She was definitely pulling my leg on that one.
"Now you're making me wish I'd gone there," Pinnacle commented with a joke.
Min smiled in response, then admitted, "I just wish I hadn't forgotten a few of the things I learned. If I hadn't, my fight with the Marquis might have gone differently."
I just sat there, thinking about what they'd told me and then sighing. "I'm too old to go back to high school." Rich and Pinnacle both started chuckling at that while Min gave me a confused look. The real irony was, I actually looked too young to be in high school.
Sure I'd dropped out high school, but the idea of going back and starting over was... humiliating. Getting a GED would be quicker and easier. In fact, with my ability to read and memorize things, getting a GED shouldn't be very difficult at all. However, there was also the problem of my legal identity, and the fact that I didn't have one other than what the MCO had on me.
As far as I was concerned, the subject of me going off to some boarding school for mutants was over, but the others at the table disagreed. They continued talking about it while we ate, though I think Rich and Pinnacle were doing so just to mess with me.
When we were finished eating, Pinnacle announced, "Wait here for a few minutes," then he rushed off. When he came back, he was holding a large packet which he handed to me.
"What's this?" I asked suspiciously.
"Application forms," he told me, his expression serious. "I honestly think you should consider this. After everything you've been through recently, this might be just the thing you need."
"Fine," I lied, rolling my eyes but deciding to humor him. "I'll think about it."
"Make sure you do," Min told me, giving me a gentle smile. "I can see you aren't taking this seriously, but Whateley has a curriculum that can not only challenge a high level exemplar... but can help you reach your full potential."
I stared at Min for a moment, thinking that she was definitely pushing this whole mutant school thing a bit hard. However, I was pretty sure she was actually sincere. She actually meant what she was saying, which made me pause just a moment.
"We've got to get going," I said, glancing to Rich and then saying a quick goodbye to both Pinnacle and Min.
"I'll talk to the warden," Pinnacle abruptly said, giving me a sympathetic look. "I'll see if I can talk him into allowing a visitor."
"Thank you," I told him, definitely appreciating that. Then I nodded to Rich, and mere seconds later, the two of us used a portal to return home.
"So," Melanie asked, giving Rich a curious look. "How did the checkup go?"
"Not bad," Rich responded pleasantly. "No surprises or unexpected reactions." Then he looked at me and grinned, "But a couple people recommended this boarding school for Alyss... "
"A boarding school?" Melanie responded, giving Rich a skeptical look, as if trying to determine if he was joking.
I rolled my eyes at that, then went and made myself comfortable on the couch and began to read through the books I'd checked out from the library. While I was doing that, Rich continued talking to Melanie, repeating everything we'd heard about Whateley Academy. He even broke open the registration packet and they looked through the school pamphlets. I just did my best to ignore them and focus on my books, but I found myself listening in on their conversation anyway.
Eventually, Melanie and Rich both came over and stood right in front of me, with my daughter announcing, "Rich and I were talking... "
"I know," I responded, setting my book down and looking up at her with a sigh. "I heard most of it."
Rich and Melanie shared a look, then Melanie said, "I think you really should consider this school... "
"It's a high school," I pointed out wryly.
"And you never graduated the first time," Rich reminded me. "You're young again and have a whole new life ahead of you. You said that this time you wanted to get an education, and I think this is just the thing you need to get it started right... "
"It will also help you build a new identity," Melanie added almost eagerly. "You're going to need some kind of background and history if you want to go to college or get a job... Getting a high school diploma will really help... "
"So, you're telling me it's time to find a new place to live," I joked to Melanie.
Melanie frowned at that and protested, "That's not what I mean... You're more than welcome to stay here as long as you want, but... "
"You know," Rich continued, "going off to school will be good for you. It'll give you a chance to stand on your own two feet and learn more about who you really are." Those words were almost the exact same thing I'd told Rich when he was going off to college, and the smirk on his face confirmed this was intentional.
"That's very wise of you," I responded wryly.
However, my kids weren't done with their arguments yet, and before I could even come up with a decent response to what they'd already said, Melanie decided to bring out the big guns. "Kaylie might manifest as a mutant any day now," Melanie said, giving a worried look in the direction of Kaylie's bedroom. "When that happens, I don't know what kind of powers she might have, but this school sounds like it would probably be good for her. It sounds like a good place for her to learn to control her powers... and learn how to deal with being a mutant. If that does happen, then it would be nice for her to have someone there who could look after her and show her around."
"Now that's playing dirty," I grumbled. Melanie knew damn well that I could never turn my back on family, especially when they needed me.
As much as I might argue otherwise, Melanie and Rich both had some damn good points. Of course, they were also things that I'd already been considering on my own, at least, all but being able to help Kaylie out if she ended up going to that school. I did need to build a new identity for myself. I did need a good education, especially for what I wanted to do with my new life. And the truth was, as nice as it was being here with Melanie and the girls, I needed to get back out on my own again. I needed the freedom and opportunity to explore this new person I was becoming.
But for every good reason for me to do this, there was also an argument against. I was too old and stuck in my ways to go back to high school. I was too young, or at least too young looking, to fit in with the kids who would be attending. In spite of my newfound youth, I wasn't really one of them and knew that I would never belong or fit in. And of course, it would be pretty damn humiliating to be treated as a kid again. Sure, I got that whenever I went out in public, but my family knew who I really was, and at the end of the day, I could come home, kick back with a beer and just be myself. If I was at some boarding school, I didn't think I'd ever get a break from just being seen as a kid.
"It's a fancy private school," I said quietly, thinking about my nearly empty bank account. "There's no way in hell I could even afford something like that."
Rich and Melanie shared another look, then Rich stated, "We'll pay for it."
"What?" I gasped in surprise. "I can't... "
"It's not charity," Rich insisted, guessing what I was going to say. He stared down at me with a gentle smile and said, "I know how much overtime you did to put me through college. You worked your ass off to make sure I got a good education, so let me help you get one too... "
"You helped Mark and I with the down payment for this house," Melanie added, giving me an almost pleading look. "And you offered to put me through college too. You've always been there for us, so let us be here for you. This is what family does for each other."
I stared at my kids in silence for several long seconds, wondering what Rachael would say about this entire thing. If we'd known about Whateley when she'd first manifested, if we'd sent her there for help, would things have turned out the same way? Would she have learned how to control her Diedrick's before it was too late?
I let out a sigh, knowing that it was pointless to keep asking 'what if'. With that, I looked over at the book I'd just finished reading. The title was 'The History of Treatment for Mental Illness,' though all the other books I'd checked out from the library were on similar topics. There were books on first aid, human anatomy, and on mental health issues.
When I'd been on my death bed, the one great regret that haunted me was the fact that I'd failed my daughter. Rachael had an illness that I couldn't possibly understand, and I'd been helpless to do anything but watch as it destroyed her life. I'd burned with grief and frustration as the sweet and innocent girl I knew and loved was transformed into the kind of monster who killed dozens of innocents. I had no doubt that if I'd been offered a single wish while I was lying in that bed and breathing my last, I would have used it to save her life before my own.
Whether I deserved it or not, I'd been given a second chance at life, and I realized now that this meant I also had another chance to deal with my greatest regret. Unfortunately, it was probably too late to help Rachael, but even if it was too late to help my own daughter, there were still a lot of other people who were suffering because of Diedrick's Syndrome and maybe I could at least help some of them. Of course, I didn't know jack shit about medicine or psychology, but with my new abilities, I could damn well learn.
"I've spent most of my life working on cars," I said carefully, staring off into space while Rich and Melanie both gave me curious looks. "And I'm pretty damn good at it too. But now, I think its high time I learn how to fix something more important."
I had no illusions that doing something like this would be easy. Hell, nothing worthwhile ever was. I had no doubt that this was going to take dedication and a lot of hard work, but I'd never been afraid of that. However, it was also going to take resources and knowledge, the kind I just didn't have yet. I'd need to build my identity. I'd need a proper education, not just a bunch of random facts I memorized from books. And of course, I'd actually need access to experts in mutant powers and mutant related diseases like Diedrick's. Regardless of how embarrassing the idea of going back to high school was, Whateley was actually my best chance to make something of my new life.
After considering all of this for another half hour, I finally said, "I'll do it." Then, just hours after hearing about Whateley Academy for the very first time, I began filling out the application.
Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, August 18th, 2007
My eyes were closed, but in my head, I could clearly see an image of paradise... or at least of one of the happiest days of my life. I was in the back yard, manning the grill with a beer in my hand while Meg put food on the table. Her belly was swollen as she was pregnant with Rich, and she seemed to glow with joy over it. Just a short distance away, two little girls in dresses chased each other around the yard, with Melanie teasing her little sister by keeping her favorite doll away from her.
When I finally opened my eyes, the scene in front of me looked almost the same. Mark was standing in front of the grill, holding one of his fancy micro-brews while he flipped the burgers. Melanie was setting the picnic table, looking quite happy with herself, though she showed no signs of being pregnant again. And just a short distance away, two girls in dresses chased each other around the yard.
Kimberly had been more than happy to wear a dress for the party, though Kaylie had been a little more reluctant. I was pretty sure my eldest granddaughter was only wearing a dress because Melanie had convinced her to do it for me. Of course, Kaylie's current dress was all black and she was trying out the gothic lolita look in my honor, though I suspected a large part of that reason was really just to mess with her mother.
I smiled as I looked over the back yard, somehow feeling like the king... queen... princess of my domain. After all, it was my birthday party and all this celebration was being done in my honor. Or at least, my birthday made a pretty good excuse for a party. And since it was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, the weather was absolutely perfect for it.
It was August eighteenth, my fiftieth birthday. Under normal circumstances, turning fifty probably would have left me feeling old and depressed, but it was hard to feel old when I saw a little girl staring back at me from the mirror. And since the doctors had been almost certain that I wouldn't even be alive to see this day, I actually felt pretty damn lucky.
I went to the cooler and grabbed myself a beer, which I promptly poured into a large plastic cup. I felt a little silly drinking beer out of a plastic cup with Disney characters all over it, but this was part of the compromise I'd made with Melanie after I'd moved in. My daughter hadn't wanted the girls to see someone who looked their age drinking alcohol, so I disguised my drinking habits whenever they were around. No one was fooled, but Melanie was satisfied and I still got my beer.
Just then, Rich called out, "Sorry I'm late... "
My son had just arrived, stepping out of one of his portals along with his new girlfriend. Min... AKA Mystery Woman, was dressed in civilian clothes and was holding onto a casserole dish. From what I understood, the two of them had bumped into each other a few times at the Clinic, and somehow they ended up dating after that.
"I got caught up at work," Rich told me with an apologetic smile. "The company had me running a few rush deliveries... " Then he paused and added, "One of my deliveries was to someone with the last name of Goodkind, but I'm pretty sure she wasn't one of THE Goodkinds. Then again, Trin and Macintyre are pretty expensive, so someone involved in the delivery has a lot of money."
"I seriously doubt it was one of THE Goodkinds," Min told him with a faint smile. "None of them would ever rely on mutants for anything, not even delivering their mail."
"Anyway," Rich told me with a broad grin. "Happy birthday... "
"Thank you," I responded, giving him a brief curtsy the girls and I had been practicing. The look on his face was enough to make it worth the effort.
"Um... how old are you?" Min asked me a little awkwardly.
She'd been stunned when she first found out who I really was, not to mention my relationship to Rich and Rachael. After her initial shock, her response had been, "That explains so much... "
"Fifty," I answered cheerfully. "Going on ten."
"I still think you look closer to nine," Rich teased me. "Maybe eight... "
A minute later, Rich and Min took the food they brought to the picnic table and began helping themselves to snacks. I just stood back, watching everyone and feeling pleased to have the family together like this. Of course, there was one notable absence, one that made me sad just to think about. Rachael.
About a week ago, I finally got in to visit Rachael in prison, and to my surprise, she seemed to be doing fairly well. She'd been wearing that tiara and wrist bracer that kept her under control, and she'd even seemed more relaxed than she had in her own lab.
"Hello my darling daughter," she'd greeted me with a smile, obviously amused by that whole misunderstanding. Of course, that whole misunderstanding may have been the only reason I was allowed to visit her. We'd only been allowed to talk for about an hour, but it had been a nice conversation. "The cot isn't very comfortable," she complained, "but I've actually been sleeping a little better than I have in years. And the food sucks... but it's still better than I'm used to... "
Rachael told me that while she'd been locked up, she'd only had a few episodes, all triggered by her frustration over not being allowed to build anything, and they'd all been cut short by her device. Then she told me about her lawyer, and how he was going for an 'insanity' defense. Apparently, he was going to use the fact that she'd designed her own restraint device to push for leniency, along with the way she'd helped rescue the Marquis' prisoners. And though I had serious doubts that they'd ever let her leave prison after what she'd done, I still hoped and prayed that someday she'd be given another chance at having at least some kind of decent life.
The thing that had surprised me most was when Rachael told me that Pinnacle had continued to visit her. Apparently, he'd come to 'interrogate' her six times since she'd been locked up, and she actually seemed to be looking forward to his next interrogation. It was nice that she'd found someone to talk to, though I couldn't help but laugh at the irony of it being the super hero who'd spent years trying to lock her away.
Then before I'd left, Rachael had given me a gentle smile and said, "Don't worry about me. This place isn't really that bad, and as long as I'm here, I don't have to worry about hurting anyone else."
I'd left the prison with mixed feelings and a heavy heart. It had been nice to see Rachael again and see that she was doing a lot better than I'd feared, but it still hurt to see her locked up like that. It hurt to know that she'd probably never leave that place again, and this just fueled my determination. I wasn't a doctor, scientist, or shrink, but I was going to do everything I could to help find a cure for that damn disease.
"Are you okay?" Melanie asked, coming over and putting a hand on my shoulder.
"Yeah," I told her with a faint smile. "I was just wishing Rachael was here with us."
"Me too," she admitted sadly.
I turned my attention back to the girls, chuckling as Kaylie told her sister, "No, I'm not gonna play dolls with you... I'm too old for dolls... "
I watched Kimberly, suddenly having a temptation to go over and play dolls with her. One thing about being a little girl, it might not do much for my dignity, but it sure as hell made it easier to get to know my granddaughters. However, instead of going over and doing that right then, I just continued watching them, especially Kaylie.
So far, Kaylie hadn't shown any signs of manifesting as a mutant, which made me wonder if maybe the Marquis had been wrong about her. I kind of hoped he was since being a mutant had brought Rachael nothing but problems. Still, Rich seemed to really enjoy being a mutant, and if it wasn't for being one myself, I'd probably be pushing up daisies rather than spending time with my family. I guess we didn't really have any choice but to wait and see how things turned out. And as I'd learned, sometimes life could really surprise you.
My thoughts turned to Whateley Academy, and more specifically, the fact that I hadn't received any response from my application. School was supposed to start up in just a couple weeks and I didn't even know if I'd been accepted or not. I suspected that the lack of news meant that I hadn't been. When I'd filled out the application, I'd been pretty honest about my mutation, including my gender change and age regression. In hindsight, that was probably a bad idea since I doubted they'd want someone like me in that school. In fact, they'd probably take one look at it and assume I was some kind of pervert.
I was just starting to think about what options I might have when Kimberly suddenly ran into me and exclaimed, "Tag, you're it."
"Oh no I'm not," I responded, thankful for the distraction. I grinned evilly, then began chasing after the giggling girl, calling out, "I'm gonna get you my pretty... and your little dog too... "
"Hey, don't call me a dog," Kaylie joked before she made a show of running away as well.
An hour later, we'd all finished eating and it was time for cake and presents. Melanie pulled out the cake, which only had ten candles, much to my amusement.
"It was easier to use ten candles than fifty," Melanie teased me.
"Hurry up and get it cut," I joked. "I'm not getting any younger... "
Everyone started laughing at that, then Rich pointed out, "I hope not. If you got any younger, we'd be changing your diapers."
"Oooh gross," Kimberly exclaimed.
However, Kaylie laughed and joked, "And I'd get to babysit her... "
Then came the presents, with Kaylie exclaiming, "Open mine first... " Kaylie's present wasn't really wrapped for obvious reasons. It was basically a lacy black umbrella with a ribbon wrapped around the handle. "It's a parasol," she exclaimed proudly. "I thought it would really go with your look... "
"Um... thank you," I told her, taking the parasol and making a show of walking back and forth while holding it over my shoulder. That seemed to make Kaylie happy.
When I opened Mark's present next, it was a box of good quality cigars, which immediately earned a grin from me and a glare from his wife. Ever since my transformation, the only cigar I'd been able to enjoy had been the one in the Freelancers' headquarters. Thanks to the way I looked now, I couldn't exactly go into a smoke shop anymore, so I was going to take my time and enjoy these.
"A very thoughtful gift," Melanie told Mark, who just chuckled in response. Then she gave me a flat look, letting me know that I'd better not smoke those in the house or when the girls were around.
"I can't believe he'd give cigars to a kid," Min whispered to Rich. "I know she's not really a little girl, but still... "
Rich leaned over and quietly responded, "I think he's just trying to make up for the way Mel keeps trying to make her more girly... "
Melanie's present was next, and when I opened the box, I saw that it came in several parts. On top, there was a hand mirror with a beautiful silver metal frame and handle, and a matching hair brush that went with it. Beneath those, there were three books. The first was 'Manners and Etiquette,' and the other two were, 'How to be a Lady' and '101 Things Every Girl Should Know'.
"Are you trying to tell me something?" I asked Melanie wryly.
"Well," she responded, just a little defensively, "When you go to this new school, you'll have this wonderful opportunity to completely reinvent yourself, and I thought it would be nice if you tried to act more... ladylike."
"Instead of like an auto mechanic," Rich added with a grin. I stuck my tongue out at him, earning giggles from Kimberly and Kaylie.
There were a couple more presents, then Min told me, "Pinnacle was planning on stopping over, but he got caught up chasing some villain who decided to start bouncing off buildings downtown like she was in some kind of giant pinball game... "
"I saw it in the news," I responded, remembering May O'Connel giving the report just before everyone started getting ready for the party.
Min nodded at that. "Anyway, he asked me to pass this on to you." With that, she handed an envelope which had 'Alyss' written across the front in a smooth script that I knew wasn't Pinnacle's.
I opened the envelope and found a letter which began, "Happy birthday Daddy," in Rachael's handwriting. I smiled at that and read through the letter, forcing myself to take my time and to read much more slowly than I normally would. My eyes got a little teary as I read my daughter's birthday wishes. Then near the end, she said, "Roger promised that he was going to arrange another visit before you head off to this school... "
I paused at that and mused, "Roger?" I wondered who Roger was for just a moment, until I realized that she had to mean Pinnacle. I was a little surprised at that and guessed the two of them had become a little friendlier than I'd thought if she not only knew his real name but felt comfortable using it.
While I was distracted by the letter, Melanie began cleaning up, taking some of the leftover food into the house. She was just coming back out for another trip when she paused at the door and announced, "Someone's ringing the doorbell... " Melanie rushed back into the house to answer it, returning just a minute later and awkwardly calling out, "Alyss... It's for you... "
"Who?" I started, getting up to go see. The last time I had a surprise guest asking for me, it had been Pinnacle. However, when I looked at the woman who'd come into the back yard behind my daughter, I didn't recognize her at all. She was a very attractive blonde in her late thirties, and she was wearing a professional looking gray suit and skirt.
"Mrs. Carson?" Min blurted out in surprise.
The blonde woman... Mrs. Carson looked at Min with a faint look of surprise. "Min Hinaka," she responded with a smile. "I certainly wasn't expecting to encounter a former student on this trip." Then she turned her attention to me, staring at me for several long seconds with a thoughtful expression. "Miss Morgan," she finally said. "If we could speak in private... "
"Sure," I responded with a nod, giving her a curious look. From the way Min had reacted to her and the way she'd referred to Min as a former student, I guessed she might be a teacher from Whateley.
I led Mrs. Carson back into the house and into the living room, which was empty at the moment since everyone else was in the back yard. "Would you like something to drink?" I asked to be polite.
"I wouldn't mind a glass of water," she answered, watching me with a curious look.
With a nod, I hurried to the kitchen, coming back with a glass of water for her. I'd left my beer outside and didn't think it was a good idea drinking it in front of her anyway, what with the whole 'being a minor' thing.
"I am Elizabeth Carson," she finally began. "The headmistress of Whateley Academy."
"Okay," I responded in surprise, not sure what to say to that. I'd guessed she was a teacher, but not the damn principal.
"As you might guess," she said carefully, "we don't come and personally interview every applicant to the school. However, it is my responsibility to ensure the safety of my students, and a security check found something in your background that has us... concerned. That's why I've come here to personally see whether or not you might be a potential threat to the students."
I nodded at that, just a little surprised by her honesty but appreciating it as well. I'd always hated it when people danced around a subject and never really got to the point. "My real age," I said after a few seconds. I'd been afraid that they wouldn't take a fifty year old former man since it would probably be creepy having me around the kids, and it looked like I was right.
"You wouldn't be the first student who's gone through a gender change," Carson told me with a faint smile. "Nor even the first who's been rejuvenated and came to Whateley for the chance to start over." At my look of surprise, she continued, "What I was referring to was your association with Humanity First."
I was a little startled by that since I hadn't been involved with Humanity First in a long time, but I guess I shouldn't be. For a school designed for mutants, that kind of thing would be considered a pretty big deal.
"You're worried I might be some kind of plant for them," I said in understanding. She didn't respond to that, but she didn't need to either. "I was a member for fifteen years," I said simply, not bothering to deny it.
"Can you tell me why?" she asked, sounding more curious than accusatory. Of course, she was probably laughing her ass off inside over the irony. After all, a member of Humanity First turning into a mutant was pretty damn funny in a way.
"Mutants are dangerous," I answered her honestly, remembering how worried I'd been that some mutant who was careless or out of control might hurt my family. "If I suggested you give a fifteen year old kid a flame thrower and then have him to go school, you'd think I was out of my fucking mind... " I paused at that, glancing to Carson and saying, "Pardon my French." She didn't respond, so I continued, "I don't really see any difference between that and a kid being able to throw fire from his bare hands. However he's making it, he's a danger every kid in school... and I didn't want my daughter in that kind of danger."
"I see," Carson responded with a guarded expression. "And why did you leave?"
"Because some of my old buddies decided my daughter needed to disappear," I answered in a cold voice. "I joined Humanity First because I thought it would help protect my family, and I left for the same reason."
"I imagine your situation would have made you revise your views on mutants being dangerous," she commented, watching me with a careful expression that I couldn't quite read.
"Not really," I answered with a shrug, which seemed to surprise her. "I used to think mutants are dangerous... now I know."
Carson took a sip from her glass of water, then commented, "I see."
"My daughter is a mutant," I said, deciding that I might as well be up front about this since I'd already stuck my foot in it. "But since you've checked up on me, I'm sure you already know that." She nodded faintly at that. "And you probably know who she is and what she's done." She nodded again. "And me... It used to be that when I got pissed, I'd haul off and punch whoever set me of. But now, if I do that, I'd likely kill them. All it would take is to lose my temper for one second and... " I paused at that and scowled. "I could do something horrible."
"So you still think mutants are dangerous?" Carson asked me.
I nodded at that. "How could I not? I mean, having powers can make you pretty damn dangerous, whether you want to be or not. And when it's a kid with power... " I shook my head, then added, "I wouldn't trust my neighbor to own his own tank, and he'd been in the Army for years. But some kid who doesn't even have a driver's license can put one together in the garage and cause all kinds of trouble." I shuddered when I remembered Rachael doing that very thing. She'd been hesitant to actually try the thing out, at least until she had an episode, then I was just grateful that the thing literally fell apart before she'd gone very far.
"And how do you think dangerous mutants should be dealt with?" she asked me, her expression still being tightly controlled and difficult to read.
With a shrug, I admitted, "I don't know. But if you've got some kid with powers and you're afraid he MIGHT hurt someone, you sure as hell don't jump him or try chasing him out of his home. That's just going to make it a hell of a lot more likely that someone's going to get hurt. Nothing is more dangerous or unpredictable than someone who's scared and desperate. I thought those kind of tactics were stupid when I was with Humanity First, and that hasn't changed. That kind of thing only makes things worse for everyone."
Carson nodded agreement and said, "That's quite true."
"I don't know the answer," I continued, trying to explain my thoughts. "It will probably take someone a lot smarter than me to figure it all out, but I think that giving mutants a safe place to learn to control their powers is a good start. At least that way, there won't be as many accidents, and maybe not as much reason to be afraid of mutants."
Carson just stared at me with a flat look, not saying a word for several seconds. I knew that this was just an intimidation technique, intended to make me squirm in my seat, and it probably worked pretty well on most of her students. However, Meg used to do the same thing, and after all those years of being married to her, I'd built up a bit of a tolerance.
"Miss Morgan," Carson finally said, smiling faintly. "You are a bit of a contradiction."
"Yeah, I get that," I responded with a faint smile of my own. "I mean, I've got the mind of a fifty year old man and the body of a ten year old girl."
"True," Carson agreed. "But I was referring more to the fact that you spent fifteen years as a member of Humanity First... then over the next fifteen years you made numerous donations to a charity that researches treatments for Diedrick's Syndrome. A charity run by mutants for the purpose of helping mutants." I was surprised that she knew about those donations, especially since I hadn't even told Melanie or Rich about them. "And your will states that after your debts are paid off, everything left of your estate is to be donated to the same charity."
"It's a good charity," I responded defensively, more than a little disturbed by just how much she had on me. She said the Whateley security people had done a background check on me, so whoever they had doing that really knew what they were doing. Either that, or I was really crappy about hiding stuff. Probably a bit of both.
"It is," she agreed pleasantly, seeming vaguely amused. Then she stared at me for several more seconds before saying, "You seem to have control over your abilities, so why are you interested in attending Whateley?"
I considered that for a moment, deciding how I should word my answer. "I've been given a new life," I began carefully, "and I don't want to waste it. I want to do something with my second chance, but honestly, I don't know enough to even know where to start. It's been pointed out to me that I need a good foundation to start from, and that Whateley would probably be the best place for that." Then I paused to chuckle and added, "Besides, I dropped out of high school the first time, so I figured I should do things right this time around."
"You do understand," Carson told me with a serious expression, "that if you attend Whateley, you will be treated like any other student. Only myself and a select few other staff members will know of your past, unless you choose to share it yourself."
"I can live with that," I responded, frowning as I thought about how embarrassing that was going to be. However, it would probably be a little less awkward if no one there knew how old I really was. At least then, they'd just think I was a creepy little girl instead of a pervert.
Carson watched me with an odd expression that softened a little. "It won't be easy," she said in sympathetic tone that shifted the conversation from an interview into something more personal. I gave her a curious look and she explained, "Most people won't take you seriously because of your apparent age, and the nature of your ageing issue will ensure you continue to deal with this for quite some time. You'll need to control your frustration and work harder than most to earn people's respect."
I was surprised by her words, and when I looked into her eyes, I saw something in them, something that suggested she was older than she appeared. "You're speaking from personal experience."
"Yes," she responded, smiling faintly but not explaining.
I hesitated a moment, knowing this was a bad question to ask a woman, but I had to ask anyway. "How old are you?"
"Old enough to be your mother," Carson responded with a faint smile. "I was nearly forty before I looked old enough to buy alcohol." With that, she stood up and held her hand out to me. As I shook it, she said, "I think our interview is finished."
"That's it?" I asked in surprise.
"I've done what I came to do," Carson told me as she began walking to the door. "I've confirmed that you aren't a threat to my school." Then she paused and turned back to me, giving me a pleasant smile as she added, "Welcome to the Whateley student body."