----Still Saturday, Oct. 1st
It had been the better part of a month since she'd last stepped foot into the Security office at Whateley. Calliope would much prefer that she never need do so again, but that was not the sort of world they lived in. With the upperclasswoman Valentina holding her hand supportively, she gave her account of the attack in the corridor beneath the school, somewhere between the music class's practice hall and the quad. Of the five boys who'd threatened her and her friend Neff so, and of the chill, sedative touch of one boy's power as he gripped her arm. Experience unfortunately gave her a potential name to that attacker, the Emerson student Contact High, but she couldn't begin to identify any of the others.
"The, the leader... he might have had orange hair," she said towards the end. "He, he was partly unmasked, but it was so dark and hard to see..."
The officer's pen made rasping noises against his notebook, though only she with her hearing made keen by nerves seemed to notice. "Thank you for coming in, Ms. Persico," the man said. "Too many kids here are simply scared to do so, or else decide to take the law into their own hands." He was staring Val's way when he said it.
The Venezuelan Amazon made a teasing kiss-face.
"As it is, we'll do everything we can to investigate. If we find anything, you'll be the first to hear."
"Grazie," she said, trying not to sound disappointed.
"Since you described a drug-like effect, we'd also like you to go to the lab down the hall for a small blood sample. I'm sure Ms. Sanchez there can show you the way."
Val nodded. "Of course. Come along, Calliope."
It wasn't a long walk to the lab, but her legs did not wish to hurry. They shuffled and slipped, so that every two steps barely measured a one.
"I wish I could say that this had gone better," said Val, "but I'm afraid that most Security reports are equally disheartening. They must deal with things like evidence and certainty, that quaint concept of habeus corpus, and thus those we know to be guilty may slip away."
Calliope sighed. "Is there nothing more to be done?"
"Play the game, just enough to say we tried, and then hunt down those dogs and make them pay," said Val. "And cover our own tracks so well that the flaws inherent to the system work in our favor."
"Normally that kind of talk would frighten her, but at the moment scarier things lurked in the shadows behind her eyelids. The Amazon's words sounded so much more reasonable that way.
He finished his written notes, put the pen down with a sigh, and paged his boss over. Sergeant Lafayette was an old Whateley hand, having lasted five years so far in a private police force whose turnover rates -- whether due to injury, breakdowns, or transmogrification -- were astronomical. "Ms. Persico finally showed," he reported.
"About time." The sergeant took the notes and gave them a quick scan. "This matches up with what we got from the Barker boy and Star Sentry's group. Good."
"Think we'll get them this time?" It was a constant source of stress for the Security forces, having to deal with kids who not only had the ability to do the impossible on a regular basis, but who were frequently encouraged or even trained to break the law in as many creative ways as they could.
"Canterbury got a good read on the group this afternoon, says she can give us half-a-dozen likely names, but..."
"Evidence, alibis, and Whateley bullshit," Pruitt finished for him.
"Exactly. Now we just need to wait for the last two known witnesses, Mr. Rivera and Ms. Copeland, to stop by. Give 'em another hour and then send someone to find them."
Officer Pruitt tapped his temple with a pointer finger in brief salute. "Understood, sir."
The picnic had been fun, and the tournament entertaining, but Jack had stayed only long enough to cement his alibi on camera. There were loose ends in need of tying up, and he wasn't going to do that in public. So as soon as the freshman round finished, off he went to his private lounge space, one of the countless little rooms hidden away in the tunnels by some trick of non-Euclidean geometry. The entire complex had to be devisor-craft; nothing else could explain it.
He liked this location because, although the door could not be seen from the outside, it was simple to give directions to it. Just walk five steps down from the tunnel marker I-09, turn to the righthand wall, and knock.
After a five-minute wait, he heard the knock. Quickly he let his latest 'guest' in.
Ms. Nefertiti Copeland, Neff to her friends and Copacetic on her MID, was a fine one to look at. Skin like bitter chocolate, dewy eyes, a dancer's physique enhanced by a body image template that promised a figure more exotic than classical ballet... Oh, how he'd lucked out there, getting her alone long enough to lay that classic Jack charm before introducing his secret weapon.
True, she was someone else's girlfriend: the trap's. That fake girl who added insult to injury by stealing the real girls away from deserving dudes. Sometimes it seemed there was no justice in the world.
The little devise strapped strapped to his palm was a potent equalizer of justice.
He let her stand in place a moment, looking for any twitches that might suggest she fought his control. Nothing. Good. Until he figured out what combination of traits had allowed that beta dweeb Vapo-rub to resist, he needed to stay careful. "Report," he commanded.
Words fell from her mouth in slow, robotic order. Most of it he already knew, details of that ambush that he himself had led her into. A third-person account of his humiliation was hard to hear, but valuable nonetheless.
Celerity, Star Sentry, and Vapo-rub. They'd been the cavalry. He'd suspected as much, but confirmation was good.
To be safe, he applied his handbuzzer for the third time that day. The peculiar frequency it sent out hit the target's brain in a similar manner to certain mind-control drugs, rendering the person quiescent and pliable. "Okay, Nefer-titties," he said. "Here's what you're going to tell Security..." He rattled off a list of completely erroneous details. "Understood?"
"Good. Now, before you go..." He settled into his comfy armchair with a leer. "Dance for me. Something sexy. I don't wanna see anything on you by the time you're done."
There was a moment of hesitation, the briefest hint of reluctance, and then she began, stretching her legs and gyrating her hips as she pulled her blue jeans down.
Oh yeah, this was what mind control devises were for.
The jeans were down to her ankles when another knock sounded on his door. He ignored it. A second knock, louder. He frowned, but kept his eyes on Nefer-titties' shirt as it started to come off.
The third knock bent the door in half.
Oh shit. He slammed the red button on his armrest, and the panic systems kicked in. A force field sprang into being across the door, and three floodlights focused on the intrusion while the room went dark. Through the ruins of his door, he could see three young ladies, with the butch haircuts and general poor fashion sense of the Amazons.
Oh triple shit. They were still outside, but not for long.
"Stay," he commanded the black girl. "Do not move from that spot, and don't let anyone move you for any reason." With that, he high-tailed it to the escape hatch. He'd only used it once before, just as a test, but he trusted in the insane internal geometry of the tunnels to keep those bitches from figuring out where he would pop out.
He hated to abandon his little dancer like that, but she was expendable. His manhood was not.
After the first sophomore bout, a lackluster match-up that pales in comparison to the freshman round's speed, fury, and mad rhymes rap battle, Erica decided to go hunting for her roommate. Calliope had promised to be there, and everyone waited patiently, but worry was setting in.
Hikaru admitted that Kenshin had mentioned something about a sibling argument near the Twain picnic spot, but hadn't thought anything of it. Zapper said that she thought she spotted Cally sitting in the crowd near the ring, but honestly her attention had been elsewhere.
She'd settled into a rough orbit of the quad, scanning the crowds for Cally's signature brown and gold-veined hair, when the girl herself came walking down the path from the Security office.
"Where have you been?" she asked, running up to Cally and giving a very measured hug. The Italian wasn't nearly tough enough for a full-force embrace. "Everyone's worried!"
"Ah, they are? Thank you, but..." Cally was shaking in her arms. "It's all, all okay..."
That was a bald-faced lie, and they both knew it. "What happened?" she pressed.
A deliberately loud footfall on the path announced someone else's presence. Erica looked up to see Valentina of the Amazons standing nearby. She'd heard a lot about the girl, both good and bad, and she'd yet to decide which was more right.
"I shall leave you with your friend, then," said the Amazon, touching Cally tenderly on the shoulders. "Take care, sister, and be strong. And you," she said to Erica, "be kind. She has not had the best of days today."
Erica waited till Valentina was well down the path and then pivoted, guiding Cally towards their cottage dorm. "Let's get you home," she said.
Her roommate didn't protest, clinging tightly to Erica's side and sobbing quietly as they passed the curious eye of Panoptikon, the RA currently on front desk duty. Erica shook her head at the older girl's unspoken question.
Once they were safely in their room, sitting all huddled together on Erica's mattress, still she didn't ask, no matter how much she wanted to. Petting the girl on the head and murmuring sounds of comfort were the best she could do right now.
Now that had been fun. True, she was having fights like three times a week, but how long had it been since she'd really been able to let it all out on someone? At least five months, and that time had been Claude, too. It was nice to see him upping his game. Going in, she'd expected to be bored.
But that was the past, by going on twenty minutes. She had her sights on a new target in the present. People got out of her way fast as she slowly made a circuit around the the picnic area of the quad towards where she'd spotted Wilder earlier.
Where he was not, in the here and now. Rachel let out an annoyed sigh.
"Did you honestly expect him to sit and wait after your little announcement?" The question came from a lady sitting on a quilt nearby. Not a student. Rachel searched her memory and came up with an answer: the English teacher, the one who'd taken out Wilder with a baseball bat and a sleep spell.
Rachel grinned. Teacher-lady was her kinda girl. "Mind telling me where he went?" she asked. "Got some business I wanted to settle with him."
"Not another fight, I hope?" The teacher had blue and gold eyes locked on to Rachel's face, and a grim frown showed that she didn't much like what she saw.
"Nah... well, maybe, but that's not the main business. But a fight'd be nice, too."
The woman motioned her to sit on the quilt, which she did, taking her rightful place of wherever she wished to be. "Ice cream?" The offer came with a thumb pointed at the odd little machine on the grass nearby.
"Don't mind if I do!" Rachel happily slammed the I FEEL LUCKY button and accepted the multi-colored mish-mash it produced. "Yum... taste the rainbow!" she exclaimed. "Okay, lady..."
"Okay, Ms. Barnes, I'm gonna level with you. I think your boy Wilder is adorable, as well as a real fun sparring partner. If I can get him as my boyfriend, then it's the best of both worlds for me. And after that episode last Thursday, I'm willing to bet that not a lot of people are interested in even being near him. Well, I'm certainly not a lot of people."
"No, you're just a handful, all by yourself."
She spooned in another gulp of ice cream. "Fuckin' A, ma'am."
Ms. Barnes sighed and shook her head. "Well, I cannot deny that Daniel could do with more people in his life, but... he's fragile. Emotionally. If you want him, really want him, you'll have to be more understanding and less blunt-force traumatic. Leave him alone for a day or two, then approach him in the open, no physical threats, and stay within sight of me. Then and only maybe then might you have a chance with him. Got that?"
"Loud and clear, ma'am!" Rachel saluted. "I'll be on my best behavior. Honey badger's honor!"
The teacher sighed again, waving her off. Rachel polished off her ice cream and left at her usual, no-shits-given pace.
Fights were easy, but relationships took planning...
He'd never willingly entered a law enforcement office before, and truth to tell Vic wasn't too keen on doing so today. But with Tanya on his arm to pull him along, getting through the door wasn't nearly as bad as he'd feared.
The fact that the campus cops knew him on sight and by name was enough to make him regret everything very quickly.
"There's no need to worry," said Officer Pruitt as they sat down at his desk. The man was in his early 30s, with a bristly mustache and sideburns, both peppered black and white. "Your stepsister came in earlier, and your friend after her. Just tell us your side of this mess so we can corroborate details, and we'll be done in no time."
Details, details... He had a lot to unpack, starting with what he could surmise of the previous night's meeting with Jack-in-the-Box. Tanya was startled when he admitted how plausible it was that the Masterminds might recruit him, though the officer merely nodded. Obviously the man had heard stranger things at Whateley. Talking about the hand-buzzer, about the mental gaps and blackouts, was harder since he hadn't been able to recover a lot of those memories, but the footage that his stepsister's friend Ping had gotten on video supported him there.
All the while, Tanya's hand never left his. She might've squeezed it a little too hard, once or twice, but that was only because she cared, he knew. No complaints were coming from his mouth, that was for sure.
When the interview came to an end, Pruitt asked if there was anything else Vic would like to mention.
"Um, maybe. Yeah..." He took a deep breath. "Maybe half an hour ago, I kind of got in a fight with Megaton, from the Cape Squad. He was hassling me, and after everything that happened today, I just wasn't up for taking any more crap, so..." He shrugged. "If he wants to file a complaint against me, I understand, but I think I got enough witnesses to make him look bad too."
Officer Pruitt made one final note. "Thanks for sharing. That's certainly the kind of thing that looks worse if we discover it on our own. And for what it's worth..." A smile cracked beneath the man's mustache. "You did good today. Just because they want you for the Masterminds doesn't mean you're a bad guy. Never forget that."
"Th-thank you, sir..."
Walking out of Security, free and easy, was an excellent feeling. It was almost as good as holding hands with Tanya.
Sera, the Icelandic girl who'd been Tanya's shadow for practically the entire day so far, was waiting for them on a bench not far from Security, sitting with her knees up and with a look that said she wasn't sure why she bothered. For some reason, the bench seemed emptier than his brain felt it should have been.
"Where'd Sterling go?" Tanya asked.
"Who?" Sera replied, speaking for both herself and for Vic as well, at least momentarily. His memory of Tanya's silver-haired roommate was a funny, fickle thing, and it took a few seconds to recall she'd been sitting outside waiting for them.
Tanya sighed. "Never mind... I'll find her later. Shall we head back to the picnic? Morgana was trying to organize a lake party last I heard."
A pale hand waved them off. "You two go on ahead. I am still feeling the jet lag, so I should go rest for a while. Ah, enjoy your afternoon, I guess I should say?"
"Thanks," said the lavender girl. "Pleasant dreams."
"That would be nice for a change." The Nordic girl unfolded herself, stretching arms and legs that had begun growth spurts at different times and were still playing catch-up with one another. "See you around."
Val was hurrying one way when an unfamiliar face passed the other. The girl's expression was such a masterpiece of annoyance and resentment, with a roiling mess of emotions underlying it all, that the Amazon was forced to take note. There was someone to look into at a later date, she decided. Unfortunately, she was too busy at the moment. A distress call from Kammie had confirmed her worst fears of a sister in need.
The errant male's hidey-hole wasn't so hidden, now that its front door had been crushed inward. She nodded in approval as she stepped through. The proper application of terror was one of the few ways by which a male could be made to understand anything, and although this one had escaped for now, that terror would hound him forever.
Her bigger concern was in picking up the pieces of his broken toys.
"Madre es Dios," she swore when she got a good look. Calliope's girlfriend, Val's potential recruit, was standing stock-still in the center of the chamber with her pants down around her ankles and her shirt half-off. "Couldn't you give her some dignity?" she asked her sisters. "Or even some clothes?"
"We tried," said Kammie. The girl's frustration could be seen in the constellation of twinkling lights surrounding her, an effect she was normally at pains to suppress. "She won't move from where she's standing now. We tried carrying her, but she's too strong for us to do it safely, and we left the knock-out gas in the dorm with the other holdouts."
Red lips pursed in displeasure. "Do we know whose boudoir this is?"
"Only got a glimpse," said Kammie, "but looked like Tang-head, the wannabe pickup artist."
Jack-in-the-Box, of course. Prime suspect for the attack on Calliope, and serial creeper. Val remembered last year all too well. "Eileen?" she said, turning to LightSaber. Their newest recruit straightened up, all serious. "You live in Poe, so you're probably familiar with Leslie Wainwright, code name Ping? I need you to go find her. Now."
"Her?" the freshwoman asked. "Why? She's, ah..." Her eyes darted nervously right and left. The seal of the Poe Secret still weighed heavily on her heart.
Val sighed. "I know. But for now we need to ignore Brita's feelings and standing orders. Tell her we have another of Jack-in-the-Box's victims here. If anyone knows a quick and relatively safe fix, it's her. Is that good enough? Yes? Then hurry!"
"I don't like this," Kammie said after LightSaber lit out. "Ping certainly doesn't like us..."
"But she hates Jack more," Val noted. "Plus, she's in good standing with the Worn Wrench. If we are to deal with that orange-haired bastard the way he deserves, we need to ensure that we ourselves are not open to retaliation from every devisor on campus. The enemy of my enemy is a temporary convenience which we must make use of."
"Understood," said Kammie, still frowning.
Val ignored her. Circling Nefertiti Copeland slowly, she noted how the girl's eyes tried to follow her around, even though she wouldn't move her head. "It's okay," the Amazon purred. "Everything will be alright. I'm here to help..."
The members of the ODS had stayed at the picnic for as long as their nerves held out, and when his group-mail alerted them to an emergency meeting, no one dawdled. Soon all members were assembled in their clubhouse -- save for the F-dude and that little shrimp Shake'n'Bake, of course.
"What are we going to do?" The self-styled Lucky Lad was the first to speak after Jack had laid out the basic situation. "If this gets out..."
"We will survive," Gouyasse assured him.
"Easy for you to say, but a thing like this can ruin an acting career."
"Spare us, please." Jack-in-the-Box rolled his eyes at the latest reminder of Lucky Lad's now-defunct career as a child actor, which the boy was obsessed with resuscitating. "The good news is, there were only five of us involved with the attack on the trap, and a lot more than five of us overall. Obviously most of us weren't in on it, as far as Security could ever know, but there's no way to tell who did what."
"As best we can surmise," High Gear continued, "the three of us most at risk are myself, Jack, and Rutherford." In the corner, Ruthie was turning green with fear. "Yeah. Unfortunately, your effect is pretty distinctive, and it may show up on blood tests."
"It, it metabolizes out in under ten minutes," Ruthie spluttered. "Even if the effects last longer. They got nothing on me!"
High Gear shrugged. "Nothing but your record, and that just might be enough. As for everyone else," he addressed the club. "I'm sorry to have dragged you all into this fiasco. As the leader, I have to take the hit for you all. Bros before hoes, et cetera. Wait here, try to relax, and the three of us will work out what to do in the side room. The less you all know, the better, understood?"
The other ODS members nervously settled in, and the principal suspects moved to more private surroundings. As soon as the door was shut behind them, Ruthie started gibbering, "What are we gonna do? What are we gonna do?"
"We aren't going to do anything," said Jack. "You, on the other hand..." Grabbing the boy's arm as hard as possible, he pulled Ruthie in for a jolt from the hand-buzzer. Ruthie tried to fight back, and Jack's arm even went a little numb, but the boy just couldn't deal it out fast enough.
"Okay," said High Gear, once the boy had settled back into the mindset of a receptive dullard. "Listen up, Rutherford: here's what you're going to tell Security..."
The red-haired mutant known around campus variously as Jenifer Chalmers, Scarlyt, and Oh-Hell-Not-Her was not a fan of large parties or crowds. She could stand them as necessary, or turn them to her advantage, but she found no enjoyment in them. Skipping out on the Bohemians' party caused her no worry, though she knew that Glam would take it out on her in some manner. At least there would be a reason for it.
From the edge of the quad, she watched the end of the Junior Round, as Knock-Out proved how true her code name could be. The other kid didn't have a chance. There would be a victory party later; there always was. Scarlyt couldn't really look forward to that, either, though it was fair to say that the others would enjoy her presence thoroughly. As usual.
She bit back an annoyed sigh. Eventually the three leaders of the Bohemians would be more trouble than they were worth. Until she was ready to move on from this wretched school, however, things would stay as they were.
Her ears tingled, though the feeling was more imagined than physical. She heard her name on the breeze, as girls many yards away noticed her and decided to go a different route. That brought a smile to her lips.
Others weren't so wary. The pastry boy, the one who'd delivered the cakes to the party earlier, walked down the path without a single glance in her direction. He had that guard dog with him, however, that two-headed freak of nature the size of a pony. All four of its eyes were tilted at her, and the hearing that wasn't through her ears caught the dog's nervous whine.
"C'mon, pup. Let's get home." The boy tugged at one floppy ear, urging the oversized canine on.
She followed at a distance, mostly out of curiosity. Karel had been right when he'd joked about how out of place the pastry boy was among all these super-powered nitwits. A mutant with a purely non-threatening power was actually a rarity as far as she was concerned.
If the dog noticed her, it gave no further sign. Instead, several yards down the path it dragged its boy off to the side, where a girl was sitting and looking sad. Why this was of importance, Scarlyt couldn't say. That girl always looked depressed. Perhaps it was the absurdity of her coloration, green skin and silver hair, that made her aware of how freakish she was, and her little heart couldn't bear the strain. Whatever. She'd written the girl off as unimportant weeks ago.
Now she was reassessing that. From inside her head, Scarlyt stretched her mental ears until the words filtered in.
"Whatcha on to now, pup?" the boy was saying, to be answered with a plaintive whine. "Ain't no one there, so let's go..." The boy shook his head, then peered at the silver-haired girl again. "Oh, sorry, miss. Didn't notice you there."
"It's okay..." Scarlyt heard the reply. "Most people don't... Even my roommate slips up from time to time, and she's usually the best at remembering."
Oh, this was interesting. She listened in on the rest of their conversation, boy and dog sitting down beside the girl with an ease that told Scarlyt this wasn't the first time they'd arrived to help someone. The girl's complaints of no one noticing her would have been banal, even selfish in any other context, but here...
Here, Scarlyt had to assume this Sterling girl was speaking literally. Her memory flipped back over the past month. How many times had she seen this girl, with never another person around? Far, far more often than not, to be sure. Social invisibility, as described, made as much sense as anything else in this blasted school.
It also made for an enticing ability to have on one's own side if possible. The scar that lay unseen across her face itched, and the sensation was mirrored upon her chest and along her left arm. Scarlyt left the little ones and their dog to themselves. She had plenty to think about now, plenty to keep her distracted through another of the Bohemians' little parties. There would be ample time to introduce herself later.
The beeping of a phone woke her up. How long she had been asleep, she could not say. She barely remembered getting back to the dorm, let alone getting into bed.
Beneath her head, the things she'd been using as a pillow shifted, and she realized there was a pair of legs under the dorm standard comforter. Calliope tilted her head and opened her eyes to find Erica looking down at her. The phone was in her roommate's hand.
"Sorry," Erica said. "Didn't mean to wake you. Was it a nice nap?"
"Ah... it was nice," she admitted. "Too short, but nice. What... what time is it?"
"A bit past four," her roommate reported. "I was just texting Morgana and the rest about how you were doing. She's trying to get everyone over to the lake for water-skiing. I was about to send our regrets for not coming."
"Oh!" Calliope rolled over more so she could speak better, but never took her head off Erica's lap. "No, no, no. That won't do. I wouldn't want you to pass up something like that for me. You go and have fun. I shall be okay."
Erica's sideways frown and raised eyebrows spoke more eloquently than words.
"No, really! I, I, well... it is maybe the last chance to hang out with our friends at the lake this year, and I wouldn't want you to..."
"Cally, I swim like a flounder. You remember, right? Put me in water and whooooosh..." The blonde made a swirling downward motion with her free hand. "Right to the bottom I go. Water-skiing is the last thing I want to try."
Memories of a pool party that summer resurfaced -- more elegantly than Erica had, after a cannonball dive. Calliope giggled.
"See? Not the best idea in town."
"Si, si, I... see? Si, see, si..." The giggles, once started, were refusing to stop, and sh had to smother them in Erica's shirt. Once again, she found herself wishing that Erica showed even the slightest amount of interest in girls. What she wanted so much right then was a loving kiss. What she got was a friendly pat on the head. "But, but, but really," she stuttered out. "I, I should call Claudio, and, and I could use some privacy. Go meet with everyone. I'm not going anywhere tonight."
"Okay..." Erica quickly packed a swimming bag and left, depriving her of prime snuggle time but giving her space to think.
With a sigh, she retrieved her phone from the desk and tapped the first quick-call option. The device whirred once, twice, and then on the third there was a click. "Pronto," came the sound of her oldest brother's voice over the connection.
"Ciao, Claudio. Sono Fiorella..." She tried to say more, but only a sob came out.
"Eh, what is wrong, Fio?" he asked in the familiar Italian of home.
She gulped down the first few words that came to mind, before finally settling on what she needed to say. "There, there... today..." Somehow she finally got it all out, even if it took a while. Claudio listened quietly, speaking up only to encourage her, and waited till she was done before saying anything for himself.
"It is a little late for today, but I shall be there as soon as I can tomorrow morning."
"No!" she cried. "Ah, I mean, it is too much trouble, and your work is important."
She could almost hear the sound of Claudio shaking his head, could picture it in her mind clearly. this familiar expression of body language. "First, it is the weekend. These Americans wouldn't know a proper lunch break if you sent them printed invitations, but they are bigger on Sundays than our most Catholic maiden aunt. Second, I need to speak with a few of the researchers there anyway. Third..." His voice lost several degrees of warmth. "There are words I must convey to Fra, and over the phone simply will not do them justice."
"I, I shall look forward to it, Claudio."
He chuckled. "Get some sleep, Fio."
Of all the outfits and suits should have worn that day, Tanya had not expected to swap out her combat suit for a two-piece swimming ensemble. Morgana was insistent that they enjoy the water while they could, however, so here she was in an orange and white polka-dot bikini that predated her mutation by a month. It was already too light in the wrong places -- or perhaps the right ones, to judge from Vic's reaction when she'd stepped out of the dressing room. He'd about fallen out of his chair.
It still bugged her, to be having fun like this after all that happened that morning and afternoon, but Calliope was staying shut in her room and Vic had begged a reprieve from talking about the entire incident yet again. The rest of the group was as concerned as anyone could be from the details they had, but the allure of the lake was strong for a group of teens that really wanted a moment to forget.
"Okay!" Morgana announced. "Here's the harness!" The Welsh girl hefted a mess of straps and buckles. "Put this on, and we'll be ready to go!"
Tanya groaned. "I didn't think you were serious about that."
"Of course I was," came the reply. "We've got everything we need for water-skiing except for the boat, but who needs a boat when we've got a flying brick?"
"Thanks for the kind words," Tanya muttered. "Please tell me you brought actual water skis?"
Morgana was a lady of many grins, none of them reassuring. "The school has a bunch available to borrow. Where'd you think I got your harness?"
She looked down at the criss-cross of straps and buckles, reminded uncomfortably of that time in junior high when some joker bypassed the age controls on the library computers and plastered the halls with questionable printouts. "I honestly was not going to ask," she said, blush rising.
The redhead burst out laughing. "What, you thought I was into some creepy weird shit or something? Well," she said with a wink. "I might be, but not today. Today, we water-ski! So ramp up those horsepower, Purple Pony!"
"Lavender," she corrected automatically.
It wasn't just the M3 kids lining up for a try, she saw with dismay. Hikaru had come along in a scandalously sun-loving bikini, and several of the Melville girls had tagged along. The only one she could name for certain was Tia.
Now she felt bad for agreeing to this. It was one thing to drag around friends whose powers were known quantities, but complete strangers, abilities unknown, going over water that was ten feet deep for much of its length? Tanya could spell D-I-S-A-S-T-E-R as well as anyone.
Vic leaned in to whisper, "Hey, don't count me out. I can catch any wipe-outs, so relax."
"Thanks," she whispered back.
Morgana finished tightening up some of the many buckles on Tanya's harness while her lavender friend wriggled. "Now, remember, start off at about 20mph," she said, "and speed up when I tell you. Left when I point left, right when I point right and speed up when I wave in a circle."
Tanya nodded, still looking unhappy. "What about slowing down?"
"Eh, who needs a command for that?"
Sighing yet again, the put-upon improvised towing machine headed out over the water, a splash and happy yell behind her showing Morgana was waterborne in her wake. The redhead was still amazed that she'd talked the girl into doing this.
For her part, Morgana was having fun, her main instruction being to speed up. As directed, Tanya kept reversing in a figure of eight pattern to keep them roughly in front of the mob of their friends and associated. After a couple of loops, Morgana decided this was too tame, so they sped up again and this time she bounced herself over her own wake, shooting a few feet in the air before slapping down again.
Tanya looked back at her a few times, so Morgana waved to urge her on before trying the same trick again, but over more disturbed water and at higher speed. This time it didn't quite work; when she landed, one ski wasn't straight and it bounced up as it came off, leaving Morgana flailing in mid air. She crashed into the lake with a spectacular plume of water.
The watching crowd went silent for a moment as the remaining ski floated to the surface - followed by Morgana's head, split by a massive grin as she pumped her fist up into the air. She was greeted by a round of cat-calls and jeers from her friends, which just made her grin widen even more. Laughing, the redhead launched herself into an easy crawl stroke back to shore, while Tanya sighed yet again and retrieved the skis. She had a feeling that wouldn't be the only time she had to do that this afternoon.
Morgana sauntered ashore, wringing the water out of her long hair and doing her best to look like she'd meant to do that.
"You know, I'm not really sure dragons are cut out for water-skiing," Laura snarked.
The redhead grinned at the blue girl. "Sure we are. Just don't let us get on roller-blades, a dragon on roller-blades is always a disaster!"
Of all the things about his powers that were hard to get used to, extended periods of time underwater had been the worst. There was always the sense of crushing pressure, growing in force as one descended, and an overwhelming sense that there shouldn't be anything pressed so close to his face. Experience had helped acclimate him to it, but they hadn't necessarily been good experiences.
Thankfully the lake was not so deep and he could stick to the surface.
Tanya zoomed overhead, giving him just enough warning to avoid the person she was towing at relatively unsafe speeds. This time it was one of the younger Melville girls, the Japanese one, and she was pretty good at it. No matter how choppy the water got, she seemed to anticipate every bump. When she stopped at the lake's little pier, it was to a standing ovation from her dorm-mates.
Next up was Kenshin. Vic had hung out with him a few times, and there really was no cooler customer to be found. Nothing really seemed to faze him... which made the look Kenshin gave the skis all the more worrisome. Everyone else was cheering the boy on from behind, so only Vic with his lakeside perspective could really see.
The lavender wonder began to build speed, and Vic's worries increased. Kenshin's stance was just a little off, with a hint of uncertainty that was alien to how he normally acted. As Tanya pulled around and brought him back across the wake, Kenshin jumped, wobbled, and tumbled into the water. A second later his skis surfaced without him.
Oh shit. Well, this was what Vic was there for, wasn't it? With a powerful kick and some subtle manipulations of the water around him, he shot towards the spot of the wipeout, then dove a few feet down to locate the errant samurai kid, already on his way back up. Vic's hand was accepted gratefully, and together they broke the surface.
"Arigato," Kenshin said between coughs. "Thank you."
"Never done this before, have you," Vic guessed.
Kenshin's grin was sheepish. "Ah, no. Swimming, yes. It is taught in all schools. This water-skiing?" His body bobbed in the water as he tried to shrug. "I am not so good with such things on my feet, for example roller skates. Bicycles, okay, but not favorite. My feet are best. But..." he concluded as they reached the shore, "it is something to work on."
"Yo, dude!" They were greeted by the Melville junior high boys. Vic didn't know either of their names, but they seemed on good enough terms with Kenshin. "That wipeout was awesome!"
Vic left the Japanese teen to his fans, chuckling all the way back to the center of the lake.
--Matsu & Calibrate
Michelle Brown excused herself after that awesome wipe-out, citing some vague feminine need that could only be fulfilled in the powder room. No one jumped at the chance to join her, which was somewhat disappointing. Going to the loo en masse was one of those things girls were supposed to do, same as pillow fights at sleepovers.
On the other hand, this meant she had the necessary privacy to do what was needed. Walking right past the lakeside facilities and into the woods a ways, she tried to whistle a signal.
"Cut that out. You're only embarrassing yourself." Jamie Howe, code name Calibrate, was an interesting sort, Michelle had realised. In her quest to collect them all for her private scientific research consorti-harem, she had encountered plenty of tsundere and coodere types, and eventually she knew she would win them over. Jamie was her first ever yandere, however, and it got her to questioning whether some types were better off not collected.
"Now," Jamie continued, all business. "Where is this Velvet girl?"
She hooked a thumb back over her shoulder. "Currently third in line for water-skiing, and looking quite fetching in that one piece of hers. It's perhaps half an hour till sunset, so shall we make our move then?"
"Yes..." The other girl drew out the syllable over a tight smile. "Get her away from the others on the way back, and then you can introduce us. I do so wish we could be upfront, but I'm afraid I'm a persona non grata with your RA."
That was putting it mildly. The only things Michelle had heard about Jamie prior to today had been from the mouth of Hikaru Myoujin, interlaced with the sort of language to make anyone's mother blush.
"Well, I am sure Velvet will be amenable to your requests once you have the chance to speak with her," Michelle said. "And after that, I shall get her all to myself, oh yes..." She was still chuckling as she walked back to the lake.
Jamie watched her go, shaking her own head in amusement. A crazier girl, the devisor from California had never met.
The sun was low but not quite touching the trees in the distance. It would be a glorious sunset. Jack shut the door behind him, cutting off the sunshine and leaving him to his natural environment of overhead lighting. The faint buzz of fluorescent bulbs soothed his ears as he made his way down the hall to the last-minute rendezvous.
"This had better be good," the woman he knew only as Patience said as soon as he entered. Tall, severe of hair and expression, and with a pair of horn-rimmed glasses that did nothing to soften her appearance, she was not someone he saw out and about campus. He had only met her once before, earlier in September when she was introduced as the new faculty liaison for the Masterminds.
What had happened to Old Hardass, no one was sure, but rumor said she'd lost it after Carson and the rest vanished. Jack was more focused on the here and now, anyway. People said that patience was a virtue, but from where he was standing Patience was a stone-cold bitch.
"Need to do a bit of plea-bargaining," he admitted through clenched teeth, taking the seat across from her.
"I hadn't seen your name in any reports," she said evenly, sipping from a cup of tea that was probably as British as her accent. His money was on both being fake.
"Let's call it preemptive bargaining," he said. "I have a patsy set up; I just need to make sure that Security doesn't dig any deeper."
An aggrieved sigh answered him. "At least you lot are learning to plan ahead better. Well then, what horrendous deed are you avoiding the blame for this day?"
"My friends and I discovered that a student here was not what she seemed to be, and when we confronted her about it, things got ugly."
"Not what she seemed to be." Another long sip of tea. "That would describe a good deal of the campus, students and faculty alike. Myself included. You shall have to be more specific."
"She was a fucking male!" he shouted, his cool cracking against hers. "We all thought she was so hot, so perfect, and it was built on a lie! How's a guy supposed to not react to that? So yeah, we called her on it, made big growly noises to scare her and..." His sigh was a practiced hair short of dramatic. "It all blew up on us. The Capes stepped in, and they've certainly reported it by now, but they can't specifically identify anyone involved."
"And yet you've already got a patsy lined up," Patience noted. "And it seems that I have read a report of your recent activities after all, Mr. Thawne. It does not quite match the tale you are spinning."
"Of course the bitch'll make it sound worse..." he grumbled.
Patience tutted. "Either she is female or she is not, Mr. Thawne. Please make up your mind. As it is, I'm also referring to the apparent use of contraband mind control devises? Of a sort you were explicitly banned from making last year?"
"Yeah. That." He lifted his extra bag up onto the table. "That's my bargaining chip here. Miniaturized, immediate, reliable within reason. I worked it down most of the way to reproducibility. A Syndicate researcher could probably get a generic model working in six months."
She eyed the contents of the bag. "This is everything?"
"All prototypes, last remaining working model, hard copy notes, data on flash USB drives," he confirmed. "I've already purged my systems of all mention of it, and any online caches I may or may not possess will remain inaccessible till I graduate. I'm officially out of the mind control biz. If we have a deal."
Thin lips remained pursed as a terrible calculus of benefit and risk played out behind those horn-rimmed glasses. "You are a scoundrel and a swine, Mr. Thawne," she said. "Yet I am afraid you will go far in this world. By my authority as Syndicate liaison, this bargain is accepted. I shall make the proper arrangements to cover for this infraction. For anything else, you are on your own."
Muscles he didn't even know could tense let out all their tension at once, and he slumped back in his chair. "Thank you, ma'am."
"But," she added tersely. "If you ever go after one of my girls in Dickinson again, for any reason, you will find that despite my code name, patience is not something I possess in great abundance." Her hand was on his wrist, gripping in tight. "Should I make myself clearer?"
"N-no, ma'am...." His eyes were focused on the thin red line now growing darker where her nails pressed in. "I, I get the picture A-OK."
"Good." She released him and returned to her tea, waving him away dismissively. He took the opportunity for what it was and retreated, good hand coming its bleeding brother.
The impromptu lakeside post-picnic had turned out well enough, she thought. Not that she'd been in much of a mood to enjoy it, but watching others make fools of themselves out in the water was entertaining in its own schadenfreude. Erica contented herself with sticking to the wading depths, mentally adding 'any sort of emergency flotation equipment' to her Christmas wishlist. Her body stubbornly refused to be more than minimally buoyant, sinking back as fast she pushed up.
"Not gonna try the Invictus Express?" asked Chessa Barnes, wading up beside her. The light of sunset hit her at a perfect angle to show off the brassy scale pattern of her skin. It usually wasn't so apparent, and Erica caught herself staring a moment too long.
"Er, um, no. I'd rather not risk my life today," she said. "I'm a lot more massive than I look, and well... I don't float. At all. If I lean back too much here, I'll be napping on the lake bed. What about you?"
"Oh, I already had my turn," said the dragon girl. "Just enjoying the water now. The blood lineage on my old character sheet was brass dragon, yanno?"
Erica nodded. "And brass dragons are amphibious."
"Zactly. So even though I never swam much before, now I take to the water like the proverbial fish." Chessa flipped and dove under the lake's surface, swimming a few quick circles around Erica before breaching with a splash.
"So I see. Any thoughts on what your new character will be?" The two of them were probably joining a new campaign soon enough, and neither wanted to bring in their old regular characters. For Erica, it was a clean start from her old life. For Chessa it was more complicated and personal -- she'd literally turned into her own character.
Chessa splashed around a bit. "Something fun. Something weird."
"Kobold Wild Mage with 3 Wisdom?"
"... not that weird. Probably. Dwarven bard who's into interpretive dance, maybe."
She almost snorted lake water. "Go for it."
Leslie Wainwright, Les to her friends, was not a devisor. She never claimed to be one. And yet, people always seemed to assume the Chinese girl with the atypically red hair and green eyes -- courtesy of her dad's side of the family -- was a worker of technological miracles, someone who could work with the less sane branches of the scientific family tree with a smile and a sunny disposition.
She generally had neither on when she found herself called in to help.
"There," she announced, tapping a key on her laptop. The keyboard didn't actually do anything; she just kept up the appearance that it did. Through an anomalous lump on the back of her head, she mentally directed the computer to display what she desired. "Got her mapped out. Nothing more I can do to make this safer, so let's get cracking."
"Thank you for coming," Valentina said again. "Especially after..."
"Please, don't make this any more weird." Les sighed and checked the connections to the patient. Neff still stood in place, though she twitched from the mental and physical strain. Jack-Asshole had whammied the girl hard and then just left her. Granted, anyone would cut and run when a squad of Amazons was after them, but it was still a dick move.
A dick move that made her life harder. After last year, she was the person with the most experience at countering Jack-Asshole's tech, and she was guestimating far more than she'd like. This wasn't like zapping Gwen's little step-bro; he'd been fighting it off well enough, and the effect wasn't actively engaged at the time. With Neff, it had yet to be disengaged, and while it would probably wear off sooner rather than later, the girl had to be suffering from the enforced muscular action.
What she needed to do, same as with Vic, was to reboot the affected nerve clusters in the girl's head, but a little more gently. They were already in a hyper-excited state.
Neff didn't react as one of the Amazons placed a pair of noise-canceling headphones over her ears. In fact, nothing short of moving the girl physically off the one foot by one foot square of floor prompted anything at all, but when that did happen... Les was afraid the girl may have fractured something in her mad frenzy to stay in place. One of the Amazons was sporting a black eye.
"Starting up program Code:Dysphonia now," she announced, mentally rotating a digital dial. At 1, there was no response. Neff began shaking, a faint tremor of the fingertips, at 5. Les kept going. 6... 7... 8... The girl was bouncing in place, eyes blinking a message of Morse gibberish.
Like any good gadgeteer, Les always made sure her control dials went up to 11, even if it wasn't necessary to go that high -- because for times like this, it was.
Neff cried out, stumbled, and collapsed to the floor.
"Get those headphones off her!" Les commanded, already dialing it back down.
"Whatcha even playing on these things... Oh shit!" one of the Amazons shouted, dropping the headphones before they got within an inch of her ears. "What the fuck was that?"
"An acquired taste," she said drily. "Okay, she should be safe to move, and she probably won't fight it when she comes to. So let's get her to Doyle."
Valentina moved in. "We can take it from here."
"I'm sure you can." Les was equally sure that the junior had other things in mind. "But as I am the resident expert on what's happened to this girl -- pretty much by default -- you all are gonna need my sworn statement on this if you want to justify whomping that bastard later."
The Amazon leader grimaced. "Well, yes..."
"So come on. Day's a-wasting." Les nodded as an Amazon wrapped Neff in a light blanket from Jack-Asshole's love nest -- ooh, ick -- and cradled her gently as she was carried out.
Sometimes it was worth it, working with these ladies. Not often, and quite likely she would regret it soon enough, but for the moment she had the warm, fuzzy feeling of a job well done.
That cold, crackly feeling she felt through the back of her skull was something else. With a thought, she finished disabling the misguided boudoir's domestic systems. Her downloads were complete; now it was time to sift them for anything actionable. It was going to be a long night.
There was a feeling that he had sometimes, and ever more frequently these days: a feeling that he shouldn't be somewhere, or at least not as he was at that moment. But when he'd heard that a bunch of the Poesies on his floor were having a swim party with their team, he surprised himself by tagging along.
Not so much a surprise there, said Glee in his head. They're all Calliope's friends.
Okay, so it was hard to convincingly lie to himself when he had a semi-biased fact checker in residence within his skull. He'd still gone so far as to wear an actual swimsuit, one with cargo-short bottoms so the state of his crotch wouldn't be so obvious. Even if his equipment down there was barely functional these days, it would still bulge out a pair of bikini briefs.
I coulda fixed that for you!
No, he thought as loudly as he could. This was his time, his decision, and he didn't need any manic pixie girl episodes interfering.
Aww... but then we could be wearing one of those cute little swimsuits...
Noah shuddered at the thought of having one of those things, mostly rayon thongs and minimalist patches of fabric, anywhere near his body. There were reasons why Glee was no longer allowed to put him in happy mode while he was out shopping unsupervised.
He ignored the mental raspberry as he scanned around. Calliope was absent when he'd arrived, and while her roommate showed, the Italian was still nowhere to be seen. Finally he waded out to where Erica von Abendritter was chatting with Chessa, ignoring the evening chill of water on his junk. Once he was waist-deep in the artificially heated waters of the lake, it felt better.
"Hey... Nina," said Chessa, pausing a half-second over the name. They'd told him it'd be easier if he just chose one and stuck with it, but he wasn't ready for that yet.
Erica echoed the greeting. "Hey. You're one of Cally's friends, right? Seems like we've never had a chance to say hi."
"Yeah, well, busy is as busy does, right?" he tried to joke.
"Amen!" Chessa cried.
"So, um, is Calliope going to be joining us this evening?" He tried to sound nonchalant, even as the dragon-girl's grin broadened into a toothy moon. Erica seemed to take the question at face value, at least.
"No." Erica frowned. "There was, well, something happened earlier. I still don't have all the details myself, but she was in pretty bad shape emotionally. I only came out here this afternoon to give her some privacy while she called her big brother. Claudio's doing some research at MIT," she explained. "I'll let her know you asked, though."
"Thanks..." Hopefully he didn't sound too worried. "Um, let me know if there's anything I can do to help."
"Will do. Anyhoo, I should get going." Erica was eyeing the western horizon. "It'll be dark soon, and no matter how well they heat this lake, going home's gonna be chilly."
Just the thought made him shrink a little more between his legs. At this rate, he wouldn't need Glee to turn him into a girl.
Ewwwww.... came the reply in his head.
Day long. Soon night. Good night.
Boy happy. Girls happy.
Happy ears. Lots scratches.
Water-smell boy. Happy smell. Good.
"Hey, pupper. You having a good day today?" More scratches. Happy ears. Happy whine.
"Good to hear. Later."
Heads down. Short nap.
He was riding high on a swell of happy thoughts as he returned to Twain. As much as it had started out sucking, the day had turned out pretty well for him by the end. He spared a moment's worry for Calliope. Her roommate had described her as being pretty shook by the incident that afternoon, and he couldn't really blame her for that. The others had gotten his piece of the story -- the bits he felt safe in telling -- but they were just going to have to wait for the girl herself to give them the full story.
So right now, the important thing was that he'd just walked Tanya back to her dorm and received a peck on the cheek as a reward. It felt like he was the one who could fly, not her.
The dorm's resident most-senior, Lenape of the two-dimensional mohawk, was entertaining company of his own in the foyer lounge. The ladies were olive-toned and dark of hair, with large brown eyes in a matched pair of faces. They were also talking at the same time, in stereo.
"A moment," Lenape asked of them, waving Vic over. "So, did you get your problem sorted out?"
"Um, yeah." Vic nodded. "Thanks for the pep-talk."
"No problema, man. Oh, let me introduce. Vic, this is Maria-Isabela and Isabela-Maria. Don't worry about keeping their names straight. Can't be done."
"Oh, Darius, it's easy!" said the lady on the left.
"I'm whichever I wish to be," said the one on the right.
"Or whichever confounds others more," added the left.
"If I'm in the mood," chuckled the right.
Vic was scratching his head. "Um..."
"I'm disomatous," the two ladies said together, as if a word like that could be within a light-year of his usual vocabulary. "For the moment, at least. I can be more if I wish, but it gets confusing even for me."
Lenape was laughing at his expression. "It gets better. Her code name? La Primera y La Segunda. Again, with no way to tell which is which."
"Cuz it doesn't matter?" Vic guessed. "Encontado de conocerle," he said to the lady with a bow.
"What manners!" she said in stereo. "There is hope for this year's freshman class yet."
He grinned sheepishly. "Well, you... two have a good evening. I should wash up now."
"Hasta mañana!" said Lenape.
Cally was sleeping. She'd checked that, first thing. There was even a faint smile on that slumbering face, so the call to Claudio must have gone well. After a brief wash-up, Erica went knocking on a few doors, and soon a small meeting occurred in the floor's rec room.
"...that's what I know about it, at least," she was saying to the girls sitting around the table. The RAs -- Panoptikon and Paint Oracle -- were taking notes. Natalie 'Nana' Bosch, of the ladybug hair and appetite, looked ready to punch something. Her roommate Hannah had tears running down her face. The inimitably short Essemmelle had her solar system of fidget toys spinning so fast in orbit around her head that they'd asked her to sit her chair back so no one would lose an eye.
"When I find out who did it," the midget growled, "they're gonna wish I'd used a plain old ugly word on them. Milena got me a thesaurus, and I know how to feckin' use it!"
"Speaking of which, where is Milena?" Erica asked. The older girl, in her identity as Sister Secret, was her actual RA after all.
The other two resident assistants shook their heads and shrugged. "She's got something going on this evening," said Panoptikon as she nervously smoothed the lock of hair which fell over her lack of a right eye.
"Terrible timing, but that's life," said Paint Oracle, who must've been deep in a project today as well, judging from the spatter on her overalls.
Nana was consoling Hannah. "Let us know as soon as you get more news," she said.
"Will do," Erica promised.
When she got back to their dorm room, Erica was all ready to collapse onto her own bed and add her Z's to Calliope's somnolent concert, but there was one last bit of unfinished business sitting on her desk.
The little mystery card from this morning was a pale rectangle in the darkened room, with its neat black symbols clear to her enhanced sight: 00:30.
Thirty minutes to go. Until what... that was the question. She flipped the card forwards and back, staring at its design of a rosebush growing from a stylized heart. The obvious answer was that it was an invitation of some sort, or a summons. There was the possibility that it was related to the other events of the day, but she dismissed that as unlikely. The card had lain there waiting for when she woke up this morning, but was designed so as not to do anything until almost bedtime. Whoever made and/or sent it must have been planning this for some time.
So instead of her usual pajamas, Erica grabbed a warm pair of pants and a jacket, dressing for an early October evening where temperatures plummeted with the farewell of the sun. The last twenty minutes or so were spent killing time with her 3DS, which hadn't seen a lot of play in the last month. She didn't want it to feel neglected.
Halfway through a valiant planetary defense versus a ravenous alien overlord, the time on the clock reached its final minute. Erica paused in mid-barrage, shut the 3DS, and observed. For a brief instant, the microdot square on the card went completely blank, to reform into a 60-second countdown. 59, 58, 57... each number flowed hypnotically into the next, until at last it arrived at single digits. 3... 2... 1...
The microdot square blanked itself again, and then a few dark spots sprouted on its surface, growing organically into spidery lines that curved and connected into a recognizable map of the campus. One tunnel entrance was marked, and the map continued underground a short ways past it to a final spot marked with the same heart-shaped seed as the back of the card.
Well, an invitation it was, and a fancy one at that. Idly she wondered who would go through so much trouble to get her attention and yet in so clandestine a way. Not so idly, she tugged on her force-multiplier gloves, a parting gift from some heroic friends in Wichita. Today had been a bad one for surprises.
The directions on the card updated as she went, zooming in and adding names and other details the closer she got to the tunnel entrance. By the time she reached the proper spot, the card had resolved into a list of instructions on how to locate a secret door.
"Just how many of these things are down here?" she grumbled as she first located the control panel, its cover practically flush with the wall, and tapped a code onto the pad therein. A section of the wall recessed inward, sliding to the side to reveal a much more normal-looking wooden door. Erica tested the knob for electrical current, felt none, and prayed there weren't anything more advanced trapping the door as she opened it.
The room inside was dimly lit, and her eyes barely caught the outlines of people sitting towards the far wall before a spotlight was on her. "State your name!" boomed a boy's voice.
"Erica von Abendritter," she shouted back. "And after all this nonsense you'd better darn well know who you're inviting into your little clubhouse!"
"Do you know who we are?" the voice demanded.
She shrugged. "Not offhand, but if I had to guess..." One hand came up, shielding her eyes from the direct glare of the spotlight. It was just enough for the silhouettes behind it to be visible. For most people, that would be the limit. She wasn't most people, and her eyes were as good as the rest of her. "It looks like... Esquire, was it? We met at the dorm mixer. And is that you, Andrzej? From the Beret event? The next two of you I don't know, but... Hey, Milena! Check your email; we've got a situation at Dickinson! Oh, and hello to you too, Twitch. What are you doing here?"
There was a most satisfyingly stunned silence. "Dude..." said an unfamiliar voice. "I know you said 'enhanced sense,' but that's still hella impressive."
"Screw this," said the group's first spokesman. "Get the lights up right. Whose dumb idea was this, anyway?"
"A committee effort, I believe," Milena said drily. "And after the way we fumbled our last potential recruit, we were ready to try anything, anyway."
Erica waited patiently for the room to return to regular lighting. "So what's this all about?" she asked.
All heads turned to Milena Tarkisian, a familiar face on Erica's floor at Dickinson with her long single braid of dark hair down the back and Lennon glasses on the front. "This is... I suppose you could call it a social club, even if we aren't all exactly... well..."
Andrzej snickered. "An anti-social club. That is better. We do not all like each other, but we are bound by common experience. Our forefathers were all on the wrong side of the law, morality, or common decency, and others judge us still for that tainted filial connection."
"You mean, this is the Bad Seeds?" Erica asked. She'd heard stories by now -- teens gossiped -- but the tales had mostly been past tense stuff, seasoned well by the passage of time. "I'm, ah, not sure why you'd..."
"Yeah, that makes two of us," grumbled one of the boys whose name she did not know.
"Excuse me, but you are...?"
"Hammer, son of Anvil, outta Chicago," the boy said with pride. "Pop's stone cold and bad-ass when it comes to the job, so I got my place here easy nuff, but what about you, huh? You gotta go back to who, you're great-grandpa? What'd he do that was so bad?"
She sighed. "Ever see the first Captain America movie? Remember the end, with the Red Skull's airwing flying off to bomb New York? That. That's the sort of thing Baron Dämmerung used to do. After the war when they thought he was safely dead, one comic company decided to use him as a villain in a series, and he reminded him that they thought wrong by sending a plague bomb to their headquarters. The survivors ended up creating three different very successful villain characters to cover all the stuff attributed to him. We're talking A-list here."
"Seriously?" Now she could connect the second voice from before to a face, a black-masked young man whose costume was obviously raccoon-themed.
"Yeah, sometime in the late 50s, before he finally kicked the bucket. No tears wasted there; my grandfather and his brother weren't his biggest fans either."
Hammer grunted and shook a fist. "That doesn't mean you belong here, though."
"Honestly? I agree with you there. Sorry, Milena," she said, "I appreciate the invitation, but..."
"It was worth a shot," the RA said. "And our door is always open."
"Yeah, sure," Hammer grumbled. "Just invite anyone, why dontcha..." The boy stomped away. The raccoonish kid shrugged, waved bye, and followed him out.
"Just a ray of sunshine, isn't he?" said Erica.
The sophomore known as Esquire made a dismissive gesture with his left hand. "He is a boy of limited emotional tools. When all you have is a hammer... well, he is right enough that this little soiree is over. Farewell, all."
"Wait..." Erica stopped him. "I, er, my roommate and I never had a chance to thank you for helping us out at the mixer party last month."
"Do not mention it," said the young man. "Seriously, please do not. It is bad enough that it happened at all." With that, he was gone.
Milena snickered. "He's an ass, but even he does something good from time to time. You going too, Inkblood? It's rare enough we even get you to one of these meetings."
Andrzej's eyes were as inky black as his hair, and gave up nothing about his feelings. "It seemed good to show solidarity here," he said. "Even if my own grandfather fought against Baron Dämmerung, he did not live the life of angels, either. Best of luck, Ms. von Abendritter, and... for what it is worth, I am supporting you in this Beret matter. It is amusing to see Kirsten lose her shit so thoroughly whenever your name comes up. Dobranoc."
Then it was just girls in the room. Erica pulled a chair up to where Milena and Twitch sat. "So, what now? And what are you doing here anyway?" she asked the tween.
"My daddy's the Tek Knight, the infamous magi-tech mercenary." The girl beamed. "He's awesome!"
Milena ruffled the girl's blonde ringlets, a grin on her face. "Let's get back to Dickinson," she said. "But before that... there was something I wanted to ask you, Erica. Something I couldn't while you didn't know about the Seeds."
"What?" Erica asked.
For perhaps the first time since she'd met the RA, Milena looked sheepish. "Earlier in the term, we offered membership to a friend of yours, Bianca St. Claire."
She nodded. "Yeah, that makes sense."
"Yes. Well, she turned us down, for good enough reasons, but then Esquire tried to lean on her, and it all, like, went to pot." Milena quickly explained the rumors and stayed attack on Bianca that completely failed to have the expected outcome. "So now she thinks we're all awful people, but... honestly, she's going to need us someday. People who 'get' where she's coming from, with no judgment. Just... tell her I'm sorry. Please? That's all I can ask."
"Got it." She sighed. "Is high school always like this? Pointless drama, mostly caused by our own issues?"
Milena grimaced and shrugged. "That's, like, life. Just gotta keep going and hope the next day's better than the one you just had."
"It'd better be," said Erica. "Cuz today was crazy enough all on its own."