Leaving flowers on your grave
Show that I still care
Black roses and Hail Marys
I can't bring back, what's taken from me
-Gone Away, Offspring
Sunday, October 27, 2007
“So yeah, Natalie Mahren has Diedricks. She’s also an Exemplar 1 with Energizer 1 traits. Completely able to hang below the radar.” Dr Hewley looked at Carson. “Hell, even her Diedricks seems to manifest similarly to standard-issue histrionics if you don’t know what you’re looking for.”
Carson sighed. “All her life, and never knowing. Is it treatable?”
Hewley shook his head. “No, not this variety, there’s no chemical that could regulate it. Best she can do is hope someone can restrain her.”
“Lovely.” Carson gave him a dry look. “Remind me to give Officer Mendez a raise. Her arrival here could have gone much worse were it not for his fast thinking.”
“The thought did occur to me.”
“So how in the world does such a weak manifestation trigger such a strong one in her one child?”
Hewley looked at Carson with a raised eyebrow. “Forgetting one?”
“Caitlin is the result of a spiritual parasite, effectively. No metagene needed.” She shook her head.
“Fair. In any case, Miranda is probably going to look like her mother’s identical twin, or damn close when she hits adulthood. “Mrs. Mahren’s aging process appears to be about as stunted as yours. She looks to be, physically, about twenty-two if she cleaned up and didn’t have that ‘weathered parent’ look, though Miranda hasn’t shown signs of that yet.”
“If she does, here’s hoping it happens after she turns eighteen rather than turning out like I did.”
“Amen. Have you talked to our resident walking time bomb about this?”
“I haven’t had the time. I was going to go to Hawthorne next.” Carson sighed. “I would appreciate it if you’d not refer to Eldritch as the Walking Time Bomb, Hewley. If she was going to go psychotic she would have done so years ago.”
Hewley rolled his eyes. “You’ve never tried to deal with her as a patient.”
“And God willing, I never will.”
The nightmares coming when you sleep was a filthy lie. Caitlin didn’t sleep anymore, and the nightmares still came. A thousand scenes of her life, all of the terrible events, the death and chaos resulting because of her enraged flight from home to the recruiter’s office in a bloody-minded fury all played out.
She’d been seventeen years old when she’d almost kicked in the doors of the recruiters offices, one by one, three days out from her eighteenth birthday. The Marine recruiter had seen something in her bloody-minded desire to escape her life. He’d given Erik Mahren a place to stay so he could finish school, a requirement to enlist.
Boot Camp had been a nightmare. All Erik had wanted was to rip chunks off of someone in a blind fury. He’d had to learn fast how to bottle his new-found rage and keep it contained. His nights in the racks of the squad bay were spent dwelling on the last day at home, his father evicting him from the family, his mother saying nothing, just holding Miranda tightly while Cally hid in her room.
Erik didn’t sleep well, didn’t have good discipline because of it, and was constantly on the quarterdeck being drilled through physical exercise as hard as the smokey-wearing sadists could do so without endangering him with a heart attack. His platoon mates and he didn’t get along, but that was mostly because they were convinced he was going to be the next exploding postal worker or something.
Erik had never felt emotion so raw in his life, and was poorly equipped to deal with it for the first two months of training. It was his newfound knack for sheer aggression and stoic ability to push through literally everything that saved him from being checked out as a psych case. After graduation, while the other recruits went home on leave, Erik simply ground his teeth and hiked from MCRD San Diego to the bus stop, then figured out how to navigate directly to Camp Pendleton and the School of Infantry. He didn’t have a home to go back to. The rest was history, a year of training, boredom and being called “boot” followed by two and a half years of pure hell, then finally six months as a Primary Marksmanship Instructor only to get cashed out on a medical discharge two days before he would have gotten an honorable.
The last part still stuck in Caitlin’s craw in a way nothing else in her life quite could. It just felt like a dick move tacked onto a nightmare just for fun. The demotion from sergeant back to corporal wasn’t quite as bad. The smug M-Soc Exemplar-Four had been far too cocky in the face of a Dragonslayer with a mere nightstick and no sense of self-preservation. It had been worth it, even if the hospital trip had sucked mightily.
All of her misery could be traced right back to that fateful day when Andrew Mahren discovered that his son had been dating a girl with minor GSD at school. Caitlin loved her family, that likely would never change, but the level of pain and rage the mere thought of them caused her was nigh unto incomprehensible.
She looked at the clock, sighed, and for the first time in months, just sat unmoving, staring at the wall. She didn’t want to go anywhere, simply wanting to sit on her bed until all of the demons haunting her past decided to find somewhere to be other than Whateley Academy.
The knock at the door startled her out of her unwelcome reminiscence. She looked around at the shambles of her room and sighed before stepping to the door and opening it.
“May I come in?” Elizabeth Carson’s voice was quiet, barely audible over the noise of the Thornies slowly coming awake. Caitlin could hear CNN playing out in the common room, a sign that Adore was going to be glued to the TV all day. A thump, a shriek and a giggling rendition of Evil Laugh #3™ gave voice to Shifty ambushing one of his friends on their way, groggily, to the bathroom.
“Sure, why the hell not?” Caitlin got out of the way and let Carson enter and shut the door herself. “Sorry about the mess, been feeling a bit stressed out.”
The room was more than a little torn up, and Caitlin hadn’t bothered cleaning up the mess that inevitably piled up during late-night bouts of boredom battled with video games, snacks, gun-cleaning and random bouts of carving runes on shit in one of her creepy trances. Carson looked at one of the disassembled automatic weapons scattered across an end-table and sighed. “I see.”
“What’s up Liz? Can I come out of hiding yet now that I have the tattoos?” Caitlin had to admit that she was chomping at the bit to get the hell back to work since sometime in the last year.
“If you absolutely must, but even with the tattoos your position is precarious, Caitlin. You have a lot to learn about yourself, and if you bury yourself in work, you won’t.” Carson gave Caitlin a wry smirk. She’d come to recognize the question Caitlin trotted out in order to avoid talking about what was really eating at her. “Your friends are worried about you. The other Outcasts said you’ve been missing since yesterday. Mister Turner said something about a music box?”
Caitlin snorted lightly. “How much did he tell you about that?”
“He told me you gave it to Jack so he could stay calm when he needed it.”
“Music Box, Jack can pop it open to cause a wash of calm to fall on everything in the area. It’s how he stopped Gogmagogg dead in its tracks right before he killed it.”
Carson gave Caitlin a look. “And you didn’t feel it worth mentioning?”
“Why? You can’t use it to render anyone helpless. If you’re attacked, or you’re facing something you consider a dire threat or enemy or imminent danger it won’t affect you. It’s meant to soothe intense emotions, not incapacitate anyone.”
and you gave a Construct Serpent-familiar to Diamondback? Elyzia has been having near-fits of Apolexy trying to figure the thing out.”
“Good.” Caitlin just grinned. “Construct is actually a protector and familiar for children, something they grow into. It wasn’t attuned. Now it’s attuned to Diamondback and it gives her little tips and pointers that allow her to figure out how to maximize her essence rather than storing essence for her like a normal familiar.”
“And the Adamant Shield that Jericho promptly bolted to his armor? Mr. Bumsfeld is going crazy trying to do a metallurgical sample.”
“Eh, it’s a slab of adamant intended as a small shield. For an Ogre.”
Why did you give them all christmas presents that are going to give the staff headaches?”
Caitlin chuckled even though she really didn’t feel it. “Best gifts are the ones that your loved ones will adore and will drive the people around them mad.”
“Very true, though if you tell anyone I said that I’ll deny it.”
“Only the Bad Seeds would believe me.” Caitlin considered. “And Gunny, but he’s known you for a while.”
Carson smirked and nodded slightly. “I came by to check on you, and to let you know that your mother was here. Apparently your baby sister wasn’t as abandoned as we all thought. She clocked Mendez on the way in, and he reports that her right hook felt rather familiar.”
Caitlin couldn’t figure out whether to laugh or cry at the mental image that popped into her head, so she did a bit of both, dropping onto her bed, trying to hold the tears back. “I saw her yesterday. I thought I’d gotten over it, moved on, and then I saw her and after Miranda everything just came back like it was yesterday, Liz!” Her voice was cracking, dinged with the desperation of someone who had never really learned how to cope with her own emotions, just bottle them up and pretend they didn’t exist.
Carson sighed and nodded. “I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you sooner.” She sat next to Caitlin and put her arm over the younger woman’s shoulder. “If it makes you feel better, I now understand that your temper is genetic.”
Caitlin laughed despite herself. “Oh God she really did pick a fight with Jerry?”
Carson nodded. “Your mother has Diedricks, Caitlin.” She dropped the bomb rather abruptly. “She’s an exemplar one, energizer one, and she has Diedricks Disorder, and I’m pretty sure she has been since before you were born.”
“She… wha?” Caitlin looked at Carson incredulously. “Are you fucking serious?”
“Wish I wasn’t.” Carson looked at Caitlin seriously. “She thinks you’re dead, and had been hoping you and your father could reconcile, but her last straw was your father dropping off Miranda with Child Protective Services without telling her he was doing so. There appears to be a rather vicious divorce in your father’s future.”
“Better late than never,” Caitlin muttered. “That motherfucker lost his shit and disowned me for embarrassing the family when I was still fucking seventeen. I had to bunk out at a recruiter’s place for three months till I finished High School. Then I shipped out, all because I wasn’t welcome in my own fucking home for dating a damn GSD girl.”
“Hell, Barb broke up with me when she found out so I could reconcile, but I was way past able to talk at that point.” Caitlin’s eyes were fighting tears again, and Carson just listened. “Ten years, Liz. Ten fucking years of not a goddamn peep, not so much as a fare-thee-well. I’ve been in combat, I’ve been homeless, I’ve been a damn sight close to joining the Syndicate more than once, and they never bothered to find out what I was doing.”
She hissed out pure rage. “And then my sister gets dropped off at fucking CPS! I don’t even know what to think anymore. I thought I’d left all this bullshit behind!”
Elizabeth Carson sighed and sat down next to the shaking, crying young woman as she tried to put a lid on emotions she’d been bottling for a decade and seeing the effort fail miserably. The genie was finally out of the bottle, Caitlin Bardue had to learn to deal with her emotions, and her past.
All Liz could do was put an arm over Caitlin’s shoulder and let her sob the fury out.
Whateley Academy Gate
Imp almost had to dive out of the way as Razorback tore past her on all fours, charging right at the crowd of suddenly freaked-out adults and mixed children as the dinosaurian, spined boy tore gigantic furroughs into the ground, tearing the lawn up relentlessly in a spray of grass and soil. He grabbed a small boy who was squealing happily, threw the child on his back, and promptly tore off right back the way he came while everyone had horrified, disbelieving looks as the child rode the dinosaur with a maniacal giggle, expertly holding onto the speedster’s spines for dear life as the two went tearing off through the campus.
As everyone watched disbelieving, the teacher smirked. Sure enough Jack came tearing back through the area mere moments later, the little boy on his back wielding a small shield, helmet and replica lance as Jack stopped in front of a willowy redhead who was shaking her head facepalming, and chirped. “Can I play with Jack Mum, Pleeeeease?” The little boy was adorable when he pleaded for fun, Imp decided.
“Go ahead,” she said, resigned as everyone gaped at her thinking that her child had been absconded with by a monster.
The boy whooped and the dinosaurian GSD boy immediately tore off again, bombing down the quad towards a group of students Imp had come to smile about when she saw them.
Imp grinned and shrugged, and abandoned her quasi-plan to wear her Candice Kade illusion. There really was nothing she could do to top that particular shocker, and she didn’t really want to do it anyway. She had to chuckle to herself as several obviously super-powered parents settled themselves after the odd sight.
As she sauntered up to the facepalming redhead, tail flicking back and forth with amusement. “Hello there, I’m guessing you’ve met the campus’ star dinosaur?”
To her credit, the woman only did a mild double-take, disappointingly lacking in the shock factor. “You could say that,” she said in a lilting Australian accent. “He’s my son, Jack.”
Imp did her own double-take and immediately did a re-assessment of the woman, then did it again to be sure. “Oh then I have plenty to talk about with you. I am, of course, the Fabulous Imp, and I happen to be Jack’s art teacher! I’m pleased to meet you!”
Debra Carlyle laughed, shaking her head. “So you’re the cute teacher with the best sense of humor ever? I can see why he likes you.”
Imp, for once, was at a loss for words. Except for the occasional oddball uttering of amazing taste, the only person who said things remotely like that to her was Chickenhawk. “I believe we will get along just fine.”
Imp, for her part, watched with amusement as the various parents getting off the bus looked nervous about the seeming raptor attack. “Don’t worry ladies and gentlemen, the boy is safe, it wasn’t Dingos this time!”
Debra snorted back a laugh as the furtive glances shot back to the obviously GSD Imp. “Oh God, if he’s learning from you, he’s going to be impossible when he gets home, you know that, right?
“I am shocked. Simply shocked that you would imply that!” Imp put her hands on her hips. “Your son was impossible before we met. I really can’t push him any further off that edge. Believe me, I’ve tried!”
“There’s your problem. You try to push him off something, he leaps off, takes you with him and climbs back up the cliff face for Round Two before you’ve fully recovered.”
“See? And you were blaming me for his impossibility!” Imp gave a mock-glare as the willowy redhead matched her.
“Blaming? No, I would never do that! I’m accusing you of making him worse!” Debra grinned and held out a hand. “Pleasure to meet you. I’m just glad Jack’s doing better this year than last.”
“Well if my class is of any indication, he’s doing quite well.” Imp smiled warmly, unused to normal people treating her like a person, though to be fair, the woman before her had a handful of a son who was worse off than she was, physically. Truth be told, Imp felt a little stab of jealousy for the boy whose mother still stood beside him.
Natalie Mahren stood at the memorial park, tears flowing freely, kneeling at the last memorial for the two people she never really got to know. Her son had become a stranger shortly after he’d abandoned the family, ejected by her husband. Hoping that time would heal the wounds and bring her boy back to her had turned out to be futile, and all she could feel was the guilt of not having fought Andrew more to get her son back sooner.
The fire wings were a representation of the woman her son had come to love somehow, absent his family. They had been engaged when she died defending the children of the school, and her son had broken because of it. She desperately wished she could have met this fiery woman who had captured her baby boy’s heart so totally.
The Poison Oak representing her son seemed someone’s horrible idea of a bad joke until Carson explained it. Toxic, sure, her boy had been a baseline who had been the terror of many students, and viciously protective of those he cared about, including said children. The circle of the poisonous plant was representative of how he chose to live, as a shield against the things that would do harm.
Natalie would still much prefer the Forget-Me-Nots. She was afraid her boy might someday be forgotten.
“He won’t be forgotten, not anytime soon.” A quiet voice sounded behind her. It was oddly comforting.
Natalie looked over to see a man who could only be described as average was standing nearby. He had the type of face that would disappear in a crowd, an unremarkable, brown haircut, and a build that was too “normal” to be real.
She didn’t bother to hide the tears. “I miss him. I haven’t seen him since he was still in High School. My baby boy, and I lost him.”
She cried, staring at the memorial garden, looking at all of the plots and beds of flowers. “Why so many? How many people die here?”
He recognized a deflecting question when he heard it. He’d listened to them often enough from the woman’s erstwhile child to know exactly how to handle it.
“Last year was… odd.” He drew himself up and began walking. “Normally, we have a few deaths from Burnout, a condition where the Mutant body goes into a hyper-accelerated state and basically cooks itself off. We only had two severe burnouts last year, Adrienne Richter and Erik. I’m sorry, but there’s almost nothing that can be done to stop a burnout once it becomes severe enough.”
“How old was Adrienne?”
“She was fifteen years old. She was in a martial arts class when her body finally gave out on her. She left a twin sister behind who was empathically linked. Janine felt her sister pass away.”
“And the rest?”
The man sighed. “Tragedies. Last year was probably the worst year we’ve ever had. Your son's Fiancee, Cat, was killed preventing an attack on the school during our school Halloween party. Erik just gave up at that point.”
“What was he like?”
“Kids didn’t much like him, except the Hooligans and the Grunts. Erik had a knack for knowing how and when to cut loose and just be scary. He was officially on paper a Teacher’s Aide because he didn’t have teaching credentials, but in reality he ran Range 4 like it was a Marine Drill Range. We never had an accident on his watch.”
“Erik never had the temperament to be a Marine. He wouldn’t hurt a fly when I knew him.”
“People change. But Erik woudn’t hurt anyone who hadn’t directly earned it, even after the Corps. It’s how he ended up here.”
“I never wanted a hero, I just want my son back.” The words were choked out, and there was very real rage behind her words. “I wasn’t even informed that he’d died until after Andrew took Miranda and abandoned her. It wasn’t important.” Her last words were spat out with very real venom.
“Why didn’t he tell you?”
“A better question is ‘why didn’t I divorce or stab him for disowning my son?” She turned away from the memorial marker. “And the answer is because I was afraid, and I still had hope.” The disgusted tone followed her as Louis Geintz watched a very troubled woman walk back in the direction of Hawthorne and her daughter. He followed along quietly to make sure she was safe, and because something was gnawing at him.
What he’d seen in Natalie Mahren’s mind wasn’t all that different from what was usually going through Caitlin’s.
A strange grouping came together as Team Awesome! dragged their respective parents together to meet the others.
Natalie Mahren watched the four children take turns, or more accurately talk over each other in a mad rush to tell the best parts, telling stories about all the cool things they saw and could do at Whateley. There was a Senior girl who was very patiently watching over Angelina “Ember” Cromwell as she’d joined her friends. The other two sets of parents looked rather solidly shellshocked at the mad, excited, happy crush of children talking all at once while showing all of the cool stuff they’d learned to do and how they were getting better at it.
The Indian couple trying to corral Revekah “Pahelee” Chatterjee just seemed lost at the prospect of tracking everything happening at once while Shifty’s mother admonished him not to turn his fingers into spiders when he was shaking someone’s hand. She, at least, had some experience with all of this, having been a Whateley Alumnus herself. She was coping with the excited madness of children as best she could.
“You never had a whole lot of little ones running rampant around the house, have you?” Natalie extended a hand to the Indian woman.
“No.” The flustered woman watched with a bemused expression as Team Awesome! got bored and immediately tore off towards Hawthorne Cottage. The parents followed as Revekah’s mother semi-laughed nervously. “I’m glad she found friends, I just don’t know how to take all of this.”
“One step at a time.” The brown-haired woman whose hair was cut to chin-length smirked. Anette Harper just watched her son bounce back and forth between forms, playing with the girls. “I’m a bit more lucky, I was a student here, so having my son turn shifter on me wasn’t a complete panic attack moment.”
“I can only imagine. Miranda manifested by throwing a station wagon at a bear with her mind.” Natalie’s dry smile brought her attention to the Senior. “What about Angelina? You’re a bit young to be “mom.”
Tansy smiled lightly. “A bit, but then Angelina’s parents didn’t make it. She doesn’t know the details, and every year someone plays surrogate parent for her. She’s a handful, but she’s a sweetheart.”
“She was the one who was being taught her powers on my son’s range, wasn’t she?”
“Your son has one of the ranges?” Mr. Chatterjee perked up, suddenly more interested. Truth be told, he was bored out of his mind, and the thought of a proper firing range perked his interest.
“Had. My son was one of the Range instructors. I found out about him too late to make it to his service.”
Tansy’s eyes widened involuntarily a bit. “Miranda is Corporal Mahren’s little sister?”
Natalie smiled tightly, willing the tears to stay back this time. It hurt, but she didn’t want to hide from it. “Yeah. If you have things to do I can keep an eye on Angelina. It’ll keep my mind off other things.”
Like thinking about how Erik died. Tansy couldn’t help feel the thought pass as they got close to Hawthorne just as one of the Outcasts, the 6’2”, cobalt-tattoed amazon that ran with the Hooligans was leaving.
“I honestly don’t mind tagging along. Angelina’s a sweetheart, and she could use a big sis if nothing else.”
“I think you’ll do well.”
Tansy saw, and Natalie did not, the agonized, thunderstruck expression on Caitlin’s face as they walked past her into Hawthorne. It was not an expression, that the rager girl was known for, and for a brief instant, tansy felt real pain, and saw the tears forming before the tattooed girl snarled silently and stalked towards Arena 99.
Janine “Deimos” Richter followed the boiling emotions like a bloodhound. Her mother and father would not be coming, and Joe, Sandra, Monica and Jack were all greeting and giving the tour to Mama Turner and Debra Carlyle, while Jericho tries to balance helping out with Peeper of all people. It was madness, and it was overwhelming.
Normally the bittersweet emotions from the Carter Twins would keep her occupied as their Surrogate family of the Turners acted as their parents today. But they didn’t hold a candle to what her other sister was feeling. It hurt, and it overwhelmed the others in a wash of pain. In the brief times she’d joined with Caitlin, she’d felt the bare edges of why the woman was always in such bleeding turmoil in her head.
But Fury, part of both, shielded her from the reality buried in her blood-sister’s mind. And that shielding held an old, raw wound that had been ripped open wide. She knew it was old, she knew it never healed. And the barely-suppressed despairing madness cut through her like a knife, rivalling what she had felt when her sister had gone.
Janine never expected to feel it from the red-hot-iron emotions of Caitlin, and the mix of blind fury and suicidal sadness was all too real. The mix was bad, and it was explosive.
She wasn’t expecting to see a man in Uniform camo and a black beret sitting at the simulation monitor she was watching. The name tag read “WILSON” and he had a worried look on his face.
“Can I help you?” He looked over at her quietly, worried expression dissolving into a mask of authority.
“I’m here to help.” Janine didn’t know what to say. “Caitlin… I can feel her, she’s…”
“Deimos, right?” The man’s expression softened just a bit as she nodded. “How much do you know about what’s going on?”
“I know she’s hurting, I know she doesn’t like to talk about the past. I know who she was, and I know she came to help me when I was like this.”
He gave a curt nod. “I don’t think anyone can help her. She’s gone right now. I’ve seen it happen before, but not since before Cat…” He sighed. “I haven’t seen this since before Cat McQuiston died on Halloween.”
“Caitlin saw her mother. Her baby sister manifested.” Janine looked at him. “Where is she?”
“In one of the isolated pod sets. She came in, hooked in and set the simulation on a loop. She used to do this when she was ready to snap, and couldn’t handle things anymore, fought shadows until she was too tired to think or dream anymore.” Wilson sighed. “Erik stopped doing it when he started dating Cat. Stopped grinding after he asked her to marry him. Now she’s doing it again.”
“It’s not going to help. She doesn’t get tired anymore. She’ll just go forever.”
“I know kid. But I don’t know how to help her anymore. It used to be I could go in and we’d trash each other and get him worn out faster. She’s been at this over an hour, no lull.”
“Deimos I don’t think that’s safe.”
“She won’t hurt me.”
“How can you know that?”
“Please just trust me. Start winding her down. I’ll find her and I’ll bring her back.”
“Fuck it. What do I have to lose?” He started punching in commands as the four-armed, GSD girl walked into the Simulator pod area, hooves clipping against the hard floor as he began inputting commands. “What are you going to do?”
“I’m gonna call Fury. Can you isolate the sim from any outside connections?”
“Already done, and what the fuck do you mean, ‘Call Fury?”
“Let Janine go, Wilson, I think I know what she’s doing.” The familiar voice of Louis Geintz came from behind him, even though Wilson knew he wasn’t there.
“Alright Foob, I gotcha but what’s happening?”
“It’s complicated, involves magic, and trust. But Janine has been the closest to all of the Outcasts so far, including Caitlin. I think she can handle seeing Caitlin in the Raw. Go ahead and spin Caitlin down, slowly. Make the targets ignore Deimos.”
“Done. She’s in. Damn one of these days I need to figure out how the Outcasts suit up and get locked in so fast.”
“Motivation.” Louis just looked at him. “Outcasts have a reason to take the training extremely seriously.”
It had been a bit of time since the parents had been fully allowed to get away from their escorts to explore the campus with their children. Edith Turner and Debra Carlyle were leaving Kane Hall having been watching Edith’s son working on helping another student overcome his powers’ downsides.
“Your son is a classic you know,” the Australian woman chuckled. “I knew Joseph was a madman for medical, but never seen him like that.”
Edith smirked. “Yeah that’s pretty normal. When he manifested I found out when he’d built a contraption to heal Ryan’s busted leg. Damn thing worked, then promptly fell apart on us. That was one of the first hints that our son was a bit more special than we thought.”
“I suppose we should go see what the kids are doing. Jack ran off with Adam, and knowing them they won’t stop until Adam passes out from exhaustion.” She carefully checked her watch. “We should head to the Crystal Hall. It’s about Lunch time, and if there’s one thing Jack never does, it’s miss a meal.”
“Sounds like a plan. Since Zack is hanging out with his brother and watching the show here, we should probably see what the rowdies are doing.”
Debra rolled her eyes. “You know despite the hell they’ve been through, I think the lot of them will be good ones.”
“No doubt of that.”
Both carefully avoided speaking of the events around Christmas and New Year, neither wanting to invite the memory of madness to return. The Turners had been just outside the radius of Reaper’s attack in Darwin. And they had watched with nightmare fascination to hear if their boy and his friends had escaped the kill zone. Mr Turner and Kieran Carlyle had to be physically restrained to keep them from running in blindly to their deaths in search of the missing children and Debra.
Mama Turner had to be tazed.
They made it out, but there was a piece of the Outcasts that would never leave the streets of Darwin. Debra and Adam had left a piece of themselves there too, in that bright, shining moment when Debra had watched her son attack a life-devouring force of nature, thinking she was going to lose him.
It was a quiet, somber walk to the Crystal Hall, and inside was a massive crush of bodies seeking food and jockeying for tables. Jack, Monica and Sandra were at the table, stuffing their faces while Adam tossed eggs for his brother to catch in his mouth from Sandra’s serpentine lap.
Both women stood patiently in line, grabbing a light lunch and marvelling at the organized Chaos around them. Parents, students, siblings, displays of power and food being annihilated at a pace unheard of all co-mingled in the Crystal Hall. The actual cafeteria had changes since last they saw it, having grown into a multi-tiered affair with trees and a waterfall.
When they arrived at the table, Monica was scrawling NOMNOMNOMNOMNOM onto the table with a sharpie, and Sandra was carefully etching small runes into the table while Adam tossed another egg at his brother, to laugh when it was snapped up and devoured.
The Outcasts looked very comfortable under the mid-tier platforms usually reserved for Sophomores.
“Jack stop encouraging Adam to throw food,” Debra said absently as she sat down. She didn’t need to look to know that he was shaking his head at her while Adam giggled.
Edith picked a spot and sat between the Carter twins.
“I haven’t met you, you must be Monica. Edith’s been telling me about you.” Debra held a hand out to the six-armed girl who really did look like Sandra without scales from the waist up.
Monica, for her part, grinned. “And you’re Debra, right? Pleasure to meet you!”
Debra smirked as Edith leaned over. “Don’t let her fool you. She’s the polite one, Sandra’s the good one.”
A trio of smirking smiles gave testament to the statement.
“Where’s Caitlin?” Edith looked around for the Amazonian girl.
Sandra’s smile slipped a bit. “She’s off by herself, she’s having some issues today. Dimes is trying to get her to calm down.”
“Dimes?” Debra asked.
-Deimos, Mom, Janine, the girl we went to help over the summer. She’s with us now.-
“Oh. Why does she need to calm Caitlin down?”
“Caitlin’s Mom is on campus, with her baby sister. They’ve had some… rough patches, and haven’t really reconciled and Caitlin’s face isn’t one her mom would recognize anymore,” Monica looked over at the table where Miranda and her “Team Awesome” buddies were regaling their parents with stories.
“So she can’t… Oh shit.” Debra looked at Edith, and both traded a worried look. “Where is she right now?”
Janine simply followed the trail of bodies and wreckage to her destination. Most of them had been shot, she noted clinically, not realizing that the Whateley sims sanitized the scenes quite a lot, so that what would be an abbatoir in real life just looked like a movie scene in many ways in the scene. The Whateley sims were to teach, not traumatize, except in very specific situations.
The dead men wore uniforms ranging from the jackbooted SS wannabes of Wulfin the Purifier’s stable of minions to the wrecked blade wheels of Reaper. There was little rhyme or reason to the mayhem, with Klansmen standing shoulder to shoulder with insurgents. It didn’t seem to matter what face they wore so long as they were recognizable as evil, and the enemy.
Three eyes took in the scene, and Janine stepped carefully through the scenery, finally catching a hint of the genie her blood-sister kept bottled in her heart. She couldn’t always keep it in, and from the sounds of crashing and gunfire, she wasn’t quite petered out.
Janine pulled her hair back behind pointed ears as she picked her way through a neighborhood battleground in the Mob scene, one of the scenarios that was the pinnacle of nightmare fuel for most students. It wasn’t one you could really win. You could only escape, or let the monster loose and burn out like a guttering star. The sim really would never end until you lay broken at the feet of the antagonists or you achieved ten minutes unseen.
It appeared Caitlin had opted for the first one. And as Deimos simply walked through the crowd they ignored her, parting ways as they converged on the angry, frustrated, suicidal woman at the center of the crush of bodies. Janine climbed up onto a car, standing above the crowd and watched a moment as the mob rushed futilely at the woman who would never tire.
It wasn’t even a fight, really, and the few in the mob with guns were too close and surrounded by too many to do more than incidental damage. It was very different seeing the mob from this side. Mercifully Janine couldn’t feel the simulated emotive output of fear, rage, hate and screaming terror as the mass of bodies washed forward in a seemingly unending tide.
A fist lashed out, a nightstick struck bone, a hand with a liberated sidearm was cut loose upon seeming people made of flesh and bone, but their efforts were showing fruit. Clothing torn, tattoos cut and skin crackling with painful, eldritch energy, skin cracking from multiple impacts and the occasional hit from one of the crush gave testament to inevitability. As powerful as she was in comparison, Caitlin couldn’t win. She never intended to.
Deimos didn’t really note Caitlin’s fighting style, her methods, how fast she took down opponents. It wasn’t important. What was important was the singular, horrible fact that this was the only way Caitlin knew how to bleed off the nightmares. That realization was sobering. Her sister was a rager in her own mind.
Caitlin had no quiet space, no one she could really relate to at her own level, someone who had been through everything she had, who she could share with, trust with her demons.
A lucky hit to the back of the head with a piece of rebar and the mob surged as the Artificer fell to her knees, worn out, and Deimos raised a hand to the sky. “Now would be a great time Wilson,” she said calmly.
The mob vanished.
Janine walked up behind the battered sister, kneeling and putting her arms around Caitlin, and pulling her tight, projecting comfort and calm at her sister as the battered woman wracked sobs, finally letting go of the bloody-minded fury.
The world seemed to ripple inward, and the pair vanished, and Fury Screamed as she erupted into the sims, then reality tore, and she found herself between two empty simulator pods, out of the virtual system as her conjoined minds processed everything that had been released in a blind instant of vulnerability, and she lived two lives side-by-side in the span of an instant with her own, bridging the gap of age, experience and emotion in a flash that lasted only an instant, but within her mind took on the march of years.
For that brief instant, Caitlin, Phobos and Fury lived all three lives from start to finish… and understood. Then she winked out of existence, disgorging Caitlin and Janine back into reality.
Wilson found them on the floor, Caitlin clinging to Janine who held her stoically, letting the tattooed woman just cry, mourn, and be in her arms. He never thought he’d see his friend of six years so vulnerable. All he could do was step out, and shut the door and wait until the pair was ready to come out.
Caitlin didn’t need to say anything, explain, Janine had seen it, felt it all and it had taken all of her will to not bawl with her sister, letting the tears go as she comforted the woman a decade older than she while she processed everything that had happened.
Janine’s perspective had changed. She hadn’t intended to… but she’d somehow bridged the gap of experience and lived, in a brief moment, Caitlin’s life, and the reverse was true. She wasn’t sure she would be able to see the world as she had before, as she whispered the two words that had broken her sister before they had ever met.
Dr. Bellows looked up at Carson as she walked into the room. “Liz, what brings you to the psych ward?” He grinned.
“I’m trying to figure out how to word questions so you can answer them without violating Patient confidentiality.” Liz Carson got straight to the point. “Can I ask if Caitlin is talking to anyone?”
“You can, so long as this is in an official ‘In Loco Parentis’ capacity. To that, yes, she’s talking to me. Our last discussion was last week.”
Carson nodded slightly. “Has Caitlin talked about her family?”
“Enough that I’m fairly certain the root of most of her issues revolves around them. Miranda being on-campus has bluntly done wonders for Caitlin’s sense of self-worth, in that I think she might have something worth living for, rather than something she tells herself is besides the Outcast kids.”
“Caitlin’s Mother is here, I need to know if putting them in a room together would be helpful, or asking for a tragedy.”
“Depends on ‘Mom’ there.” Bellows leaned against a wall. “Caitlin’s under the impression that both of her parents basically disowned her. Her father is the focal point of her rage, but…”
“Silence implies agreement.” Carson sighed. “All of this is made more complicated by the fact that Natalie Mahren is an undiagnosed Exemplar one, Energizer one with Diedricks until this morning. She stayed silent because she was terrified of having one of her outbursts during that argument. She’s been holding out hope that her son and husband would reconcile but now because Erik is officially “dead,” I have to tiptoe through the goddamned tulips with both of them.”
“Tell her about Caitlin, and you betray Caitlin’s trust, Don’t tell her and probably betray both of their trusts.”
Liz nodded sourly. “And I have to figure this out in the next… five minutes because I have to get back to smiling for the families.”
“My gut?” The older-looking man gave her a serious look. “Tell Natalie, or be there and let Miranda tell her. Either way… I don’t think Caitlin would confront her, but if she did things could go downhill if Natalie’s personality is anywhere near Erik’s.”
“I’m tempted to say when the apple fell from the tree it grabbed onto a lower branch and held on out of sheer defiance,” Liz said in a deadpan voice.
“Well there’s going to be fireworks no matter what you do. Miranda can mitigate some by being nearby, and it’s not like Caitlin doesn’t know how to cope with a Diedricks episode.”
“I’d rather not have Miranda get into the habit of poking at peoples’ thought processes without a very good reason.”
Bellows rolled his eyes. “If the apple and the tree are that much alike, the common thread is that neither one is going to risk going completely thermal on the other while the little one is watching. Caitlin will feel the need to keep herself contained, which might keep things from devolving into a screaming match that no one wants over an amazing level of butthurt that both of them really very likely need to put behind them.”
Carson nodded once, then smiled. “Then I think my plan will work.”
“Feeling better?” Janine asked as Caitlin came out of the bathroom after cleaning up a bit.
“Hell no. But I can deal.” Caitlin looked at her. “You?”
“I don’t think I’ll ever look at an MCO agent the same way ever again, or feel the desire to join the military…” She just stared at Caitlin with her three eyes, a sadness creeping in. “How the hell did you do it? Keep going after all of that…”
Caitlin rolled several answers that would be flippantly dishonest, but tossed them out. She’d had her entire life laid bare in front of Janine… and Janine’s had been laid bare to her in turn. “Same way you and Adrienne did when your manifestation turned GSD. Same way you did when she passed away. One day at a time, focusing on putting one foot in front of the other, and having friends who can at least have a prayer of understanding some of what you were going through to lean on when I needed it.”
“I wouldn’t exactly call the two on the same scale…” Deimos was disbelieving.
“Trauma is Trauma, Janine, doesn’t matter what caused it. Nightmares? Check. Issues with feeling like your life isn’t worth a shit? Check. Can’t stop dwelling on shit you should be able to let go but can’t? The scale doesn’t matter… It all just… hurts. Doesn’t mean you should feel you have less of a right to need help to recover than I do or something.”
“Are you going to talk to her?”
“Fuck no.” Caitlin almost snapped, then softened her voice. “Shit I dunno where I’d begin. Hi I’m yer dead son come back with a different face and a set of tits. I’m glad to see you again… Just doesn’t seem to cut it. I can’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t just make it worse. All things in balance…”
“You’d rather deal with the pain you have than go looking to borrow more,” Deimos finished.
“Exactly.” Caitlin looked around, then grabbed Janine in a hug, and whispered “Thank you.”
Janine, for her part, wasn’t overloaded by the pain her blood-sister crushed back into the background. Caitlin was still Caitlin. But the very real feeling of gratitude was there. Neither would ever be able to fully articulate what had passed between them, the sharing of lives had given Caitlin… something.
Her emotions didn’t confuse her anymore. She had some concept of context. Neither could give a rational explanation for it.
“Let’s get out of here before we start crying again,” Caitlin said. “Have you met Adam yet? Little runt’s gonna love you.”
“No, this is Jack’s brother?”
“Yeah, the one that would do things like demand Sandra give him a slinky ride while clinging to the top of her tail.”
“A slinky ride?” Deimos’ eyes, all three of them, went wide. “Oh God I’d pay money to see her reaction to that!”
“Jack has a polaroid photo of her expression. It’s priceless. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone with an expression that baffled and confused.”
“Aunt Sandra! Is that your mom??? Are those your sisters?” The six-year-old was pointing at something.
Diamondback followed Adam’s pointed finger and her jaw just dropped with a “what the fu…”
“Sandra!” Debra called out. “Please don’t teach my son to cuss.”
Jericho stopped and his head slowly turned to what Sandra was looking at even though he didn’t need to. “Son of a bi…”
“Joe!” His mother barked out. “Watch your mouth now.”
It was at that moment that Jack “forgot” his vodor was on, signing rapidly. -FUCK ME THEY CLONED SANDRA.-
“JACK!” Debra threw her hands skyward. She didn’t need to look to see her oldest child was grinning horrifically.
Adam was, of course, grinning at the profanity. He knew all the words, especially after listening to Jack and his friends talk to each other when they thought he was asleep or in another room. He was simply smart enough to let THEM get in trouble while he got a laugh out of it.
The three little mini-Diamondbacks covered the distance between the two groups, having been distracted from poking and making fun of their sister’s stick-legs when Adam’s outburst had drawn their attention his way. Now, instead of singing “Sapphire’s got no scales, Sapphire’s got no tail!” tauntingly they were slithering faster than most kids their age could sprint and immediately seemed to dogpile Diamondback.
“Hey! She has a proper tail and scales!” the red one seemed a bit excited.
“You’re green like me!” the second one chirped Despite her more bright and vivid emerald green scales compared to Sandra’s black-diamond on green pattern..
“Are you going to be our new sister? Our old one broke.” The pearly white one said
“OPAL!” The sharp crack of the mama-naga’s voice ripped across the intervening distance. “That was over the line! You three get back here… Now!”
She was huge, she was covered in black scales, and she dwarfed Diamondback’s size at about seven feet tall had she been born human and pushing forty feet long in all. And the three little critters darted back like their tails were on fire as the outcasts, and the two parents with them, just kind of started at each other… then back at the little family scene playing out, with Sapphire, the blue-haired girl that everyone thought was afraid of snakes and had been weirding Sandra out looking miserable and on the verge of tears.
“Now… I have seen everything.” Monica just shook her head, as baffled as her sister.
As the Outcasts regained their composure and the group started moving again, they caught the end of what seemed to be a truly epic ass-chewing.
“Now you three go apologize to your sister. This is supposed to be a fun day with family, not a competition to see if you can make her cry." The massive, black-scaled snake-woman watched as the seemingly eight-year-old girls slithered over to their sister to apologize for being mean and getting hugs in return.
The massive snake woman turned to Diamondback and approached her cautiously. “Sorry dear, the girls don’t get to come out much, and they tend to get a little excited. I apologize for that little bit of madness.”
“It’s… okay?” Diamondback was more than a little intimidated by the Naga-mama. In another life or light she might have been considered very attractive, though her “hair” being composed of long, flexible black scales just seemed to work. She also made Sandra look tiny. “Sorry, I’m not used to…”
“I was where you are once,” the larger naga said. “My name is Ebon, and I’m guessing you know Sapphire.”
Jack signed something, and the mother of the troublemakers cocked her head quizzically.
“Jack said ‘we all thought that Sapphire was scared of snakes.’ Jack watch your language or I’m gonna give Carson permission to hide bars of soap in the steaks just for you.” Debra said helpfully as Adam rather fearlessly got close and started walking around Ebon, eyes wide.
“He’s a brave one,” Ebon watched the boy walk around her and then back when he decided the tip of her tail was too far away to walk and see everything.
“He grew up with Razorback as a big brother. After having a Jurassic Rager in the family, you look downright human to Adam.” Edith Turner was more than a little intimidated, but she put years of arguing down some of the most intimidating people in the world at her job to good use.
Razor, of course somehow managed to look wounded at the comment.
Monica poked him. “Oh please, like you wouldn’t have said it first, ya great scaly… You know, what DO you call a great, dinosaurian oaf? Oh wait. Answered my own question.” The six-armed redhead grinned.
Jack poked her back.
Monica poked him again, and it rapidly devolved to speed versus limbs in a poking competition to see who could get the most digs in while Adam laughed at them and Sapphire and her three serpentine sisters started giggling at them despite herself.
Ebon looked at the two women escorting the Outcasts, then at Adam as the fascinated boy was scooped up by Sandra without so much as a protest or struggle. “I’m guessing there’s a few good stories here. Sapphire, could you introduce your family to your friends?”
“I don’t know all of them, Mama.” The blue-haired girl looked severely out of place amidst her family. “But you met Mama, I’m Sapphire, and these are the noodles: Opal, Emerald and Ruby.” She pointed at the three mock-glowering snake-girls in order of white, green and red in turn.
“I’m not a noodle, you’re a stickbutt.” Ruby stuck her tongue out at her sister.
“Girls…” Ebon warned and got an instant “Sorry mama” from all four.
Diamondback blinked a bit and pointed out her friends. “I’m Diamondback, and the quiet one there, for once, is Jericho.”
“Why do I need to say anything? The comedy writes itself in this act!” The blind boy grinned evilly.
Diamond rolled her eyes and adjusted the six year old in her arms. “This is Adam, the fearless baby brother of Butthead McSpiny there. Butthead is also called Razorback.”
Razor gave a wounded shriek.
“This is my twin sister Monica, watch out, she’s a troll.”
That got a stuck out tongue in turn.
“That’s Edith, the woman who’s been taking care of me since…” She looked down at herself and shrugged.
“Pleased to meet you,” Edith actually gave a proper greeting, “This is my other son, Zack, who has actually learned to use manners.” She looked pointedly at the two Outcast boys, who pretended to be oblivious.
“And that’s Debra, the Mother of Adam and Jack.”
Debra nodded to Ebon and thwacked Jack, whose hands were waving. He stopped, grinning.
“Lewd?” Ebon asked simply.
“Smartass. He saves lewd for when he wants to shock people,” Debra said without so much as skipping a beat.
The three “Noodles” giggled, as did Adam.
Abruptly the odd meeting ended as Adam’s attention went elsewhere and he squirmed out of Sandra’s arms and bolted across the lawn yelling “Aunt Cait!” If he even noticed the four-armed, three-eyed, clawed, horned, hooved and tailed girl walking with her he gave no sign.
“Wow. Short attention span does run in the family,” Sandra deadpanned. “Those two would be Eldritch and Deimos, the last of our merry band.”
Ebon smiled.”Well it was nice meeting you, but we should probably move along. There’s a lot of things we need to see. Sapphire said one of the art teachers here was amazing.”
“That would be the imp,” Jericho grinned.
“Yep!” Sapphire grinned as well. “Head that way mama, I’ll catch up!”
“Alright sweetie, don’t take too long.”
As the serpentine family slithered away, Sapphire turned to Diamond. “I’m sorry if I’ve been a bit weird, but I lost… and you got…” she looked at Diamond’s tail, and at her family.”
“Trade you.” Sandra deadpanned.
“In a heartbeat if I could.” Sapphire did look at her critically. “After all this is done though, I really need to teach you how to slither properly.”
“I didn't realize I was doing it wrong.”
“No offense, but you slither like a toddler. You should be a lot more graceful. And faster.”
“I don’t know how to respond to that.”
“My sister says ‘yes, Sapphire, I would love for you to teach me to adult.” Monica grinned doubly hard as Sandra gave her the finger without even looking at her.
“Annnd now I have confirmation that my sisters are more ‘normal’,” she even used the air quotes, “than I thought. I’ll catch you later, Diamondback. Maybe we can figure out how to trade.”
“Bye,” Sandra said as the odd, blue-haired girl walked off.
Caitlin walked up to Jack, with a giggling Adam held in one hand, dangling by the ankle. “Lose something?”
-Hey! That’s my lunch!- Jack signed.
“No I’m not, I’m your brother!”
“Kinda small and squirmy. You sure you couldn’t have found a better meal?” Debra asked in a deadpan to everyone else’s semi-shocked looks. “What? Jack’s still MY son!”
Adam just started giggling again.
“Debra, Edith, this is Dimes, Or Deimos. We call her Janine.” Monica pointed to her four-armed buddy.
As each of the parents greeted the girl in turn, Sandra looked sidelong at Caitlin, her empathic senses detecting something odd.
Caitlin wasn’t LOUD.
“Mom. Mom. We have to go somewhere. Louis says the Mrs. Carson needs to talk to us.” Miranda tugged on her mother’s arm as the woman bemusedly watched some of the kids on campus leading their families around.
“Ok honey. Wait, who’s Louis?”
“He lives in a fish tank and talks to people in their minds. A lot of kids call him Cthulhu Plushie. Caitlin calls him Cthulhu Plushie too.”
“Over there!” Miranda dodged the question by darting over to the Hawthorne door where the Headmistress was standing.
“I see you got the invitation,” Carson smiled. “Welcome to Hawthorne cottage, this is our special needs cottage for children with either debilitating changes or control issues as well as some of our Junior High or younger students.”
“Miranda has special needs?”
“I can’t stop hearing people mama. Mister Louis helps me learn to keep things quiet.” Miranda was already breathing just a little easier as she had help blocking the noise only she could hear.
Natalie was picking up her daughter with tears forming as Carson spoke. “Miranda is one of the more natively powerful psychics we have seen. Package Deal Psychics as we call her type can have serious control issues. We are lucky to have Louis to help her as he is around the same level but knows how to control. He’s been acting as her tutor when she needs help or is being overwhelmed.”
“I would like to meet him, to say thank you.”
A male voice attached to the rather nondescript and rather generic-looking balding man from the memorial park came around the corner. “I am more than happy to help, though meeting in person can be iffy. This is just a psychic projection. My actual body has to live in a pool, submerged at all times due to massive GSD, the medical name for when the body shifts to grotesque or nonhuman traits.” He answered her question before she asked.
Natalie nodded slowly. ”Thank you for helping my daughter.”
“You are welcome. But for now, meeting me is not why the headmistress met you here, so I’ll be off.”
“Thank you Louis,” Carson nodded as the man faded away. “Normally I wouldn’t be able to spend much time with any given parent, but your son was a remarkable person and we are feeling his loss quite keenly. I do have some things to share with you that you have a right to know, especially given information recently come to light.”
Natalie nodded and stepped gingerly around the massive, rocklike Slab and a girl who seemed more giantess crouched than normal as they entered a lone, empty room.
There was a feeling of vague familiarity as Natalie looked at the organized chaos of the living space. There were parts of guns and what looked like engines strewn about a meticulously made bed with little signs of someone in a hurry or with something on her mind.
“We’re borrowing a student RA’s room while she’s out because she has the only monitor kit capable of playing this video set that isn’t already in use.” Carson looked at Natalie oddly. “Before we begin, please understand that I did not show you these things earlier because my first loyalty and protection goes to students and my staff. I had to be sure that Erik’s estrangement from you wasn’t a mutual thing.”
“What do you mean?”
Miranda climbed down and hopped on the bed, watching silently, glancing at the door occasionally.
“What I mean is I believe someone was gaslighting you and your son. His next of kin contact number for you is off by one digit from what you provided, so he could not call you. One of our psych doctors confirmed that he had sent home letters with contact information, but never received any calls, nor notifications of any. He gave up after his first year.”
“But I never got any letters from Erik! Andrew…” her eyes widened as she connected the dots, “That Narcissistic, lying son of a BITCH! He told me and Cally that Erik told us not to contact him, that he had DISOWNED US!”
The volume steadily rose as Natalie began rapidly going over her memories of everything. She had always assumed her very detailed memory had been a natural thing, never realizing she gained exemplar recall when she blossomed early in high school.
If her soon-to-be ex-husband were present, she likely would have tried to kill him on the spot. As it stood, she couldn’t put her hands on him as she realized what her son must have thought. “He changed the phone number… he told us because the switchboard had gotten a glitch they had to give us a new line… That…”
All she could do for several minutes was seethe, and try to keep a handle on herself to not fly into a screaming harpy fit in front of her daughter and the School’s headmistress. She very nearly lost the battle.
Carson and her daughter waited quietly, with vaguely worried looks as they focused on not adding any more input that might push her over the edge. Finally, she took several deep breaths and forced herself to croak out “Show me what you brought me here for.”
“Your son manifested early last year. I don’t know how much you acknowledge magic, but basically Erik had been latched on to by a particular type of spirit. It turned him into a power sponge and either gave or enhanced your sons native knack for pulling things apart and putting them back together. But what no one realized because Erik was about as mystically adept as your left shoe, is that he was building a critical charge.”
Natalie nodded, not understanding all of the implications, but getting the gist.
“This culminated in Erik saving a student by destroying an artifact that would have killed her. Absorbing the flash of energy is what tipped him over, leading to this...”
She hooked the recording to the rather elaborate screen that was showing a live feed of a vault inside what looked to be an armory. The image that popped up was an amazing security camera set of footage that finally showed Natalie the face of her son.
He was tall with a hard edge, showing little of his father’s features. Erik looked like he had the kind of hard face that begged to be put up on a recruiter poster. She also saw the resigned expression as he talked to the older man in a tweed suit. There was no sound, but she saw the tired, drained, burned out expression and posture, his thousand-yard stare.
This was not the boy she raised, this was a completely different person, grown up, hurt, and tired, wearing his face without the look of oblivious confusion she had come to associate with her son. But it was him.
The sharp arc of electric-like energy that ripped across him looked incredibly painful as she realized that they were outdoors.
Erik turned and ran, the arcs that had snapped at him as he moved erupted into a shrieking dynamo of light, color and madness as reality immediately came apart.
The camera switched and she saw the technicolor mass charge through the brush, the foliage twisting and burning, warped by the energy, turning to ice, or just exploding as he passed. The madness continued for a few seconds before a multicolored flare erupted outward like an explosion formed of a tornado and consumed the surroundings in flickers of insanity. The camera was devoured.
The camera flickered back on at a different angle, showing the epicenter of the devastation, yet somehow did not wink out. It showed the beginning of the final eruption, then the maelstrom of energy sped up as the time fast-forward through a scene straight out of someone’s vision of Hell, skipping ten minutes in thirty seconds.
As the energy faded, the image was one that was surreal. A blue-crystal plate with striking stone runes surrounded the figure lying naked on the ground. It was very different from the man who had run in, with pale skin, softer features… and metallic, black, long hair. She looked like any young woman might between eighteen and twenty-five, with the visible muscles of a girl who worked out in a way that complemented the body rather than drifting into looking like a guy.
The figure curled into a fetal position on her side, and the video skipped to rescue crews led by the old man in the tweed jacked and a pissed-off looking black man in a Marine Corps uniform barking orders.
Even after the video flickered to black and shifted back to the dead armory scene, and for several minutes after, Natalie stared at the screen, wide-eyed, mouth agape trying to process what she had seen.
“Everyone thinks he’s dead…” She was shaking.
“Everyone had to think he is dead. That transformation is known, and it is one that has been consistently made a slave over and over through time because of what she can do. We could not allow someone to draw a line from who she is now to Erik Mahren. There are people who would cheerfully have taken your whole family to force her to submit, used her old identity to lock and bind her. Your oldest child is a target, Mrs. Mahren, and I am only telling you now because its becoming clear that your estrangement was created by a third party.”
“How much of a target?”
“Less of one now, as she’s figured out how to lock out the main means of controlling her. But she cares enough about others and not enough about herself that using you or Miranda under threat? She wouldn’t even hesitate or think about trading her life for yours.”
“How is … how is she handling the… changes?” She finally looked over at Carson, hugging her youngest daughter tightly as Miranda hugged her, sensing her mom needed comfort.
“By doing what Erik always did with problems he couldn’t change, by ignoring it as much as possible.”
Natalie frowned slightly, concerned and miffed. That DID sound like her son.
“She’s here.” Miranda had seen Carson’s plan and let it be known that the subject of their discussion had arrived.
“Well far be it for me to interfere but I do have to see about the other parents.” She turned to leave, only to find that Miranda had given the warning after her new big sister had opened the door, glaring at Carson and blocking the way out.
“Oh hell no Liz, you are NOT pulling a fucking drive-by this time. What the merry FUCK is going on in here?” The runes carved into the steel discs were molten, a sure sign that she was less than pleased.
Natalie was frozen, staring at the amazon with blue-metal tattoos fused to her skin blocking Carson’s escape. Her jaw was quivering, mouth moving, but no sound coming out with tears forming.
Carson just looked over at the nine-year old imp looking at her with a wry, evil smirk. “Et tu Miranda?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” came the youngest Mahren’s reply, though the creeping grin told the tale.
Caitlin, for her part, was glaring bullets at Carson. Fortunately she wasn’t stupid enough to threaten, or bluster, or swing a fist. Carson could mop the floor with the entire Outcast team, much less her alone. “Why?” was the word that ground out like a rock shattering under a millstone.
“Because you’ve both been lied to. Because you both still care. Because you’re part of Whateley’s family, Caitlin, and even when it hurts we take care of our own. Lastly, because subtlety is lost on the lot of you, it’s best to just hit you all over the head and let you deal with it.”
Miranda could clearly hear her mother’s thoughts, and the brain-locked loop her mind was spiraling in. The youngest member of the family simply grabbed her mom’s hand, tugged, and said “this is real, mama. It’s not a dream.”
That small act broke Natalie’s seeming spell, and it finally clicked in her brain. Her missing child was alive and standing right in front of her, not dead, not buried in some deep, cold hazard lockup, not refusing to accept her worried calls. Her child was here, wearing a new face, trapped in a new life not her choosing.
All Natalie could feel was guilt as Caitlin, for the first time in just shy of a decade, had her mother rush forward, tears flowing as she gripped tightly like she was never going to let go sobbing “Oh God, my baby I’m so sorry,” over and over again.
Caitlin froze, not knowing what to do for moments, unsure of how to react to the one thing she never envisioned happening in her adult life should she meet either of her parents again. She barely realized it when Carson and her baby sister slipped out, quietly closing the door.
For a long moment, she was frozen, like a statue, unsure of how to react to the incoherently crying woman hugging her like a lifeline. Slowly, she moved, arms wrapping tightly, careful not to crush, just letting her own quiet tears flow as she, again, relived all of the memories that told her that her whole family wanted nothing to do with her… and it was a lie.
Finally, after the only sounds were Natalie’s desperate apologies, she finally found her voice. “God Mom I missed you.”