A Whateley Academy 2nd Generation Tale
----Wednesday, August 10th, 2016
--Sheriff's Office, Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana
As far as such places went, the holding facilities at the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff's Office were about on par. Renée Jameson had seen her share of such, though never as an official guest. Her perspective would likely not be appreciated by any of the drunks and minor offenders in the first two pens, any more than she appreciated their whistles and comments as she passed by. She made a mental note to discuss her uniform design with Jean-Baptiste later; the quasi-military blue on blue with the crescent moon insignia was supposed to leave a better impression than that.
Or maybe it was just drunks being drunks. Southern Louisiana had enough of that as it was.
"Thank you for stopping in, Miss... ah, Ms. Muse?" Assistant Sheriff Jeffreys' attempt at a polite address ended on a confused note, as the man completely missed the name tag on her chest, while staring near-directly at it.
Yes, the uniform would need an update, she decided. The name on the tag, Nola Rizing, may have been nothing more than one more layer to her hero persona, but it was what she used professionally, nonetheless.
After an embarrassed pause, the sheriff continued his welcomes: "Um, well, we would've called the MCO first, you understand, but you were already in the area and things have been difficult since Agent Priestley, ah..."
Ah... indeed. The memory of Mike Priestley pained her heart, and she almost doffed her hat in his honor. The Krewe of Kthon affaire had claimed the lives of many a hero, empowered or otherwise. "He will be missed," she said, her voice never once betraying the understatement there. "And the Cajun Counter-Force will handle the communications with the MCO Gulf Office if it is fine with you."
"Fine and dandy," said Jeffries.
"So what am I looking at?" she asked. The third pen was occupied, and the answer should have been evident, but nothing could be counted on these days.
Case in point: there was only one person currently in the jail's largest holding pen. This person appeared to be a young man, perhaps thirteen or fourteen years of age. The clothes were ripped and stained, not to mention being a haphazard clash of colors and styles that did not fit him well at all.
Also, he was curled up on a bench, bawling his eyes out.
"We got a disturbance call earlier this evening," said the sheriff. "Neighbor phoned it in. A 'crazy-ass racket.' Their words. We've had calls to the house before, figgered it was more of the same. But then Deputy Gibson got there, and our usual reason to visit was found in a pool of his own blood, with crazy claw marks all over."
"Amen to that. Found the kid out back with a girl. Younger daughter of the victim. Ain't located the older daughter yet, and that kid's not stopped cryin' long enough for us to ask."
"Where's the girl? Did she say anything?"
Jeffries had the habit of chewing tobacco. She could tell that much by the way his mouth screwed up at the corners while he was thinking. "The girl got picked up by her grandma an hour ago. But according to her..." The sheriff let out a long, nicotine-scented breath. "She went to bed early, was sleepin', and a monster came into her bedroom. Only a 'big cat man' appeared to fight the monster, and then she ran away. The boy found her a few minutes later, and then Gibson arrived on the scene."
"And how does the boy fit in to this?"
"No idea, but he was covered in blood when we found him."
Renée felt like repeating a few more minor blasphemies, but she'd already hit her allowance for the day. "Well then..." She nodded to the locked gate. "Let me in and I'll ask."
The sobs didn't stop as she entered the pen, but they did slow down a little. From between his fingers, the boy's eyes stared at her approach. For a second, they seemed to glow a feral gold before returning to a perfectly normal brown.
"A-a-are you..." The voice was rusty from tears. There was a sense of surprise as the boy's hands went from his eyes to his mouth. "Crescent Muse?" he mumbled through knit fingers.
"That I am," said Renée. She took a seat on the bench opposite his. "What gave it away? Was it the uniform? Because I have been considering redesign."
"Ah... Ah s-saw you last spring. At, at the parades," the boy said. "Granma took me and, and Michelle. You, um, arrested somebody."
"So I did." That actually happened at least once most every Mardi Gras, but this year the idiot in question had messed with the wrong niece. She did not regret in the slightest having to cuff the man's ass to a fence. "You live with your grandmother, then?"
"Used to..." The boy curled back in on himself some more. "In, in Thibadoux. B-but our dad came back from... wherever, and we had to go... go..." The shivers were small to begin with, turning to tremors as the boy clutched at his sides in distress. One visible ear had gone pointed and tufted, and the eyes had regained that feral, golden gleam.
"So! You saw me at Muses, you said? Get any good throws from the parade? It was all candy and cake-shaped toys last time, as I recall. They even had me fighting a possessed king cake in the annual Muses comic book," she rambled out. Anything to change the subject, and fast.
The eyes went blank for a second, shifting back to ordinary brown. The rest of the boy's body was slow to follow, but at least he uncurled and sat up to look at her. "Ah got a muffin," he said. "Or mebbe a cupcake. 'Chelle got a donut. An' the usual half-ton a' beads."
"Sounds like a good time."
It did not take a degree program in professional heroism to tell that this situation was way out of her wheelhouse. She needed expert assistance. Not the MCO; most of their agents would've shot the kid as soon as the ears showed just now. No... this would require some favors.
"Hey, I know stuff's all scary right now," she told the kid. "But I know a guy or two who can help you get through it. Hang in there, okay? We should be able to do more tomorrow."
"You got a name?" she asked. "Sorry for not asking sooner, but..."
"N-no, it's okay. 'm Danielle... Fontenot," the kid declared, like there was a choice to be had, and he'd just made it.
"Well then, Daniel, we'll see..."
"Um, no. Not Daniel. Danielle." The boy stressed the ending syllable. "But, um, dunno why, but..."
Several details clicked together, leading to a realization that could only be phrased politely as "Oh snap," because otherwise she'd be well over her personal allowance of profanity and blasphemy for the day. It occured to her that she was going to need a few more consultants than she'd first thought.
----Sunday, October 9th, 2016
--Poe Cottage, Room 111
Morning light on a Sunday poured through the bedroom window. His bedroom window. Almost two weeks now, and Danny was still getting used to that. The room didn't look right, feel right, smell right -- and the fact that bedrooms could smell so different from one another was also a thing that had taken time for him to get used to. But it was true. For him, a bedroom was white plaster walls, old carpet with unidentified stains, grubby windows, and the lingering odors of mildew and dog. For much of his life he'd taken it for granted that, somehow, a home was supposed to be like Granma's place in Thibadeaux, even as reality continued to prove otherwise.
His new room -- the entire building, in fact -- was built of pine and brick, and even the newer spots that whiffed of concrete still had those other materials laid over them. It had a feeling of age that his granma's little house on the outskirts of bayou country couldn't match. But the smell... Everything had smelled so clean when he'd moved in, like wax and soap and detergent. Even now the only real odor to build up was, well, himself. Kind of musty, kind of musky, and closer to the smell of his granma's old Yorkshire terrier than he was comfortable to admit.
The wallpaper had a fair texture to it whenever he ran his fingertips along the wall in the morning. It was one of those little rituals he'd developed, a reminder that it was all real, had all really happened, and was still happening whether he liked it or not. Little touches like that were safer, he'd found. Checking the big items, the big changes first thing in the morning, well, that would only lead to anxiety, which led to panic attacks, which...
He ignored the presence of bars on his windows. Some things were simply a given.
The time was... not too late for lunch, according to the clock on the shelf. Beside the appliance, a foam-rubber cupcake, or maybe a muffin, sat there to remind him of what good junk food looked like. It'd been weeks since he'd been allowed that much sugar at once.
The daily change from pajamas to day-clothes went without fuss. The jeans were old and baggy, the t-shirt half-shredded, and his granpa's old leather bomber jacket had seen better decades, but it all fit. The display on his school-issue smartpad was still mostly a mystery to him, but he knew enough to be able to check the temperature outside. Informed that it was indeed still warm enough for sandals, he spared his socks and sneakers the task of dealing with his toenails. The breeze through his toes was cool and comforting.
Poe Cottage was a big place, bigger than the name made it seem. There weren't a lot of rooms on the first floor, and they were all for special cases of one sort or another. His neighbors fit the description almost as well as he did.
"Hey, Marcus. Hey, Bev," he said as he walked into the shared common room near the front entrance to the dorm. "Er, good mornin'?"
The two junior high students looked up from what they were doing -- some sort of school project of the less explode-y variety. "Hey, Danny," said Marcus. The boy had no fewer than three pencils currently stuck behind his ears, though more might've been hidden by messy brown hair.
"You just now getting up, fuzz-brain?" said Bev. The junior high kid known as Beverly Taylor was wearing her favorite off-time t-shirt, the one with a cartoon time-bomb on the front. It matched both her code name and her personality. "Maybe we should get Marcus here to crank up the power on your alarm clock," she was suggesting.
"Er, ah, um, no... that won't be necessary..." His ears drooped at the very thought. Loud noises hurt now.
The boy chuckled at his expression. "Don't worry. I wouldn't do that to you. So, lazy Sunday?"
"What, no date with your girlfriend?" Bev said with a nasty little snicker.
"Shutchermouth," he growled. The area along the top and back of his shoulders -- the hackles, he'd learned they were called -- tensed and rose. Beneath the shirt, he could feel the fur growing just so it could stand on end.
Marcus bopped Bev on the head with an empty folder. "Stop winding him up."
"Aw, but it's fun!"
"And how'd you feel if people kept bugging you about boyfriends, huh?"
That put the girl's smile upside-down. "They'd be getting an extra-special little surprise to the face."
"Exactly. So shush." Marcus started to pack his papers up. "Mind some company for lunch?"
"Um, sure... er, no, don't mind, if you wanna." Those hackle-things were still tensed up, but he was on top of things. Maybe. He hoped. Quietly he turned away from the table, taking deep breaths and trying to be mindful of how his body was reacting, just as he'd been told. Finger- and toenails were still nails, not claws; good. Ears were... long, fuzzy, and stuck back; understandable. Teeth were all in their proper positions for humans. No mirror to check his eyes, but hopefully they were a mellow brown.
His pants pulled oddly at the crotch, reminding him of one last anger-fueled hormone reaction that he'd rather ignore. As soon as he was out the front door, around the corner, and out of sight, he made some modest adjustments to his jeans so that a certain unwelcome body part went down one pants leg instead of getting caught in his boxers.
Damnit, how were guys supposed to live with something this annoying, all day and every day?
"You okay?" Marcus asked from behind.
With a surprised yelp, Danny fixed the button and prayed nothing got caught in the zipper again. "Um, yeah. Just, um, fixing mah pants, um..." Damn, that sounded bad... The problematic piece shrank in embarrassment. "Could ya forget Ah said..."
Marcus was a fair bit shorter, and had to reach up to pat Danny on the head. "There, there. Don't worry. I think any other guy at school could commiserate. And some of the girls. Even Bev, if she weren't so P.O.'ed all the time."
"Why she gotta be so..." he mumbled as they walked away from the dorm.
"Most of us, all we can really blame is Fate," said Marcus. "For Bev, she can blame her sister, so it's... easier? I guess? For her to stay angry?" The boy shrugged. "Anyhoo, ix-nay on the etails-day, ot-it-gay? Entering normal territory."
For a place like Whateley Academy, 'normal' was relative. And on a green-flag day, it was a distant relation, a kissing cousin to 'normal' as the rest of the world might know it. Over the quad, members of the school flight team were playing some sort of game with balls that buzzed and zoomed under their own power. Teens raced past at speeds better suited for highway traffic. Out on the lawn, a gangly young man was wrestling a six-and-a-half-foot tall clown with weird-ass hair.
Danny found himself growling at that last one.
"Hm?" Marcus waved a hand in Danny's face. "Whoa, there. Calm down. I thought you guys were square?"
"Don't mean Ah like 'im any," he muttered.
"Yeah, yeah. But try not to rip him a new one again."
"An' you try notta shoot holes in nothin'."
"You just had to bring that up..." Marcus groaned. "I only did it the one time..."
"An' Ah only whupped a clown's ass once, but ain't no one lettin' me ferget it."
"Yeah, well..." Marcus put his fists to his ears with the pointers up and wiggling. "We can see the warning signs on you a lot easier."
Danny's ears drooped. "Grr... sorry."
"No need," said the boy. "C'mon; lunch awaits!"
The Crystal Hall, main cafeteria and social center for Whateley campus, was... big. Danny knew that wasn't the right word to do it justice, but dangit all if he couldn't think of a better one when he needed it. There had to be a word for 'big' that could tell a body just how... how... big the damn place actually was. Oh well. That was why he was in remedial English class. Maybe some better words would find a way in, eventually.
The main sunday lunch rush had slowed down, so it only took them a few minutes to get food. Some of that time was spent signing Danny into the meal tracker program at its little kiosk. With a short printout in hand, he only had to wait a while longer before the tray with his name appeared at the pick-up window.
It was mainly meat, with some thick slices of bread and a generous side salad. No fruits, no sweets, no caffeine. His drink for meal was, as usual, a chilled brown liquid that smelled like grass and tasted mostly like water. He was mostly used to it.
The Barnes family -- Pat, Chessa, Marcus, and their older sister who prefered to be called Moonbrook when she was there -- had a table staked out on the first floor, not far from one of the staircases. Such claims on space were usually informal and unenforced on the ground floor of the cafeteria, though on the second and third floors things were a bit different with all the cliques and the clubs and the training teams at the school. Marcus's brother and sister were already there to maintain the family freehold, and from the look of things they had been there for much of the morning.
Danny kind of felt bad for not bringing any homework. It seemed like all the cool kids were doing it.
"Ooh, I need to get something," said Chessa as she eyed his carnivore's special platter with eyes that were always green, but more so now with envy. "Maybe another burger, or some quesadillas..."
"Energizers..." her official twin brother said, shaking his head with a well-practiced expression of disbelief. Everyone giggled as if he didn't make the exact same remark at least once a meal.
"What's the word?" Marcus asked. "Things settling down after yesterday's big show?"
His ears were still on the long and fuzzy, the better to twitch around and hear with. The Whateley attitude towards school fights -- keep it organized, keep it contained, try not to kill each other -- was only one thing on a long list of craziness about this school, but it was at the top of the list for sure.
"Not too bad," Pat reported. "Haters gonna hate, of course, but I think Kirsten's little meltdown showed a lot of the fence-sitters how dumb her position actually was. No one's seen her since yesterday afternoon, either. The M3 all came and left already, no fuss, and the mood was pretty good."
That was enough to put Danny at ease. His ears were almost back to normal.
And then the ears went up again, just a little. It wasn't that he had anything against the three boys walking over, but they weren't really friends in his head yet, either.
The three young men walking over were part of the Poe Boys, as the dorm's freshman male wing liked to call themselves. It just made Danny think of sandwiches. Gnawing into his makeshift meal of brisket and bread with mustard, he thought about asking the school nutritionist about that on his next check-up.
But as for the Boys, the nine of them held down a single wing of Poe Cottage, which made them a social unit more or less by accident. And much as he hated to admit it, Danny had all the required parts for membership, so they'd decided to hang out with him when the opportunity was there.
"Yo, yourself," Chessa said back at them, thumbing her nose.
Kieran and Zander were the regular spokesmen, and they each had their own way of doing it. The first boy, code name Bebop, claimed his chair with the usual grin. "Don't worry, we think of you as an honorary dude." The glow behind his eyes was faint in the daylight, but still obvious when he winked.
"Speak for yourself," said Zander, a.k.a. Swerve, who made three fast circuits around the table before settling on the far corner away from Chessa. His red hair was barely a fuzz on his head.
"Shaved it all down again?" Pat asked.
"Duh. Keeping things aerodynamic and smooooth," Swerve replied. "Gotta keep it looking good. Don't you agree, Sam?"
Sam mostly just hung around. The boy had taken his seat by Danny without a sound, not even the scrape of chair against floor, which would've been unnerving as hell if Danny didn't already know the kid's code name was Tiptoe. "Er, um, I guess so, Zander..." the boy stuttered. "I mean, if it looks good on you, then..." Behind the boy's chair, his tail twitched nervously.
"How's it going with the Fra situation?" Chessa asked Sam cheerfully.
"Ah!" The boy's tail went stiff and straight. Danny was pretty sure he was the only one who could see it, but no one else would've been surprised. "Well, um, haven't really talked to him since, um..."
"You really should," said Kieran. "If only to see what he thinks."
"B-but..." Sam looked like he wanted to hide under his salad. "H-he's gonna say no..."
Kieran grabbed the boy's hand and squeezed it. "Hey, it happens. And honestly, if he isn't interested then it's better to find out now."
"Yeah, instead of just ogling him at wrestling practice," Swerve snickered.
"Hey, you were there to watch, too!" Sam protested.
"Well, yeah." The fuzz-headed Zander waved a fork-full of macaroni at his friend. "I mean, not all of 'em are exemplars, but they still look nice with their shirts off. Even clown-boy."
"Don't call him that," Sam and Danny managed to squeak out at the same moment. "Seriously," Danny continued. "Ain't worth the trouble. An' Ah don't think you could take 'im out."
"Wouldn't have to," said Swerve. "I can just outrun him. Wouldn't be the first time..." Zander caught himself, and Danny almost thought he saw a shiver run through the boy. "But how about you, fuzzy? Interested in anyone nice?"
"Ratel's got her stake claimed there," Pat reminded.
"Yeah, yeah, but anyone nice? Get away from those girls, find a better sorta guy?"
"I think I should be offended here," said Chessa.
"Eh, we all know you barely count."
"Don't make me sneeze at you..."
"Yeah, like I'd let you within breathing distance, you--"
The sharp rap of a spoon on the table brought things back to order. Danny wasn't sure how Pat did it, but when the boy called for attention, he always got it. "Save it for the dorm," Pat warned. "This isn't the place or the time."
"Yeah, whatever." Swerve crossed his arms and leaned back into a sulk. "But seriously, fuzzy. I know Sergio's on the market, and he says he doesn't mind a bit of GSD."
"How do you even know that?" Danny said.
"Dudes talk, yanno?" Swerve's smile took a hard right turn around his mouth to curve in a contented way. "If you stuck around the showers more, you'd hear it too."
His brisket hit the stomach with a thump. "Um, well, Ah'm not sure..." A heavy swallow was all that kept the lump in his throat from slamming downward as well. "Not sure Ah'm ready for, um, anything."
"Except being some girl's punching bag," Swerve said.
"Can we talk 'bout something else?" he begged. He could feel himself getting worked up, with all the prickles and tingles around the edges of his body that signaled that things were only going to get fuzzier in the worst possible way. His next bite tore through his brisket like a pair of sharp scissors, and chewing only reminded him that his teeth were gone all saw-like.
"Cut it out, Zander," said Kieran. "Just because you're fast doesn't mean you should tempt fate."
Swerve's shoulders raised in a shrug, to fall to a level equal to how much he could pretend to care. The boy shut his mouth, though.
Focus on the meal. Focus on how it felt for his claws -- no, his nails! -- to dig into the thick of the bread, and the way his teeth ripped through the meat. The savory juices of the brisket mingled with the sharpness of the mustard on his tongue, providing another welcome distraction from the conversation around the table. He just had to keep himself from having another episode that would make it about him again.
Focus, chew, swallow...
----Thursday, August 11th, 2016
--Sheriff's Office, Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana
One step through the door to the parish sheriff's office that morning, and Renée could feel the tension. She was not an empath of any stripe -- thank God! -- but a decade of life as a public hero, both as a promotion and as a reality, had meant developing and refining a sense for the atmosphere of a place. Right now, you could take an ice cream scoop to the air and get a cone full of raw stress.
Damnit, what had happened since she'd last been in? No answer came immediately to her eyes, so she went straight to the assistant sheriff's own desk to make her hellos and get the quick and dirty version.
If the man himself could get to the point: "Ah, yeah. Well, Miss... Ms. Muse..."
"You can call me Ms. Rizing," she reminded him, tapping the name plate of her uniform.
"Er, yes. Well, you know we're not really rated for this sort of containment, and folks are started to get worried that Danny... Well, he's a fine enough boy, I suppose, keeping to himself, and of course no one else is in the third holding cell... Good thing things are slow lately. And, well..."
"What happened." Her sigh kept the sentence from ending on a questioning tone, but the meaning was still there.
"Well, um, you see... Deputy Collins, he's a chatty guy, likes to walk the line and gab with the folks in the cells, make some jokes and all -- he's got a peculiar sense-a humor, but they all enjoy it -- and..."
"What. Happened." Double-damnt, but she should've had her morning coffee before she got here... "Or better, where is the security footage. And don't even try saying that you lost it, please."
The video surveillance system was surprisingly good for a parish office. Shiny and new with brand labels to suggest that someone had splurged the leftover budget money on something theoretically useful, instead of booze and strippers. Would wonders never cease... Holding Cell #3 appeared on the main screen, and she could turn her attention to things that were more worthwhile.
The camera angle wouldn't be winning any prizes for cinematography, but she clearly saw Deputy Collins making his way down the line, taunting the overnight drunks and clanging his police baton along the bars. "Your man's watched too many bad prison dramas," she said. The sheriff grunted back.
The time stamp on the video said 6:15, and she was certain Danny hadn't slept well, not in this place. The boy on the screen was tossing and turning even before Deputy Collins got to him, and the way he shuffled to the front of the cell did not in any way look like someone who was more than one-quarter awake.
No sound, so she could only guess at what at what the deputy might have said. Some form of slander or slur, perhaps a threat veiled in false humor, or an implied plan to turn him over to the MCO. Or perhaps all of the above; Collins might be more clever at words than he first appeared. Whatever was said, it was alas lost to memory, as she doubted Collins would ever admit to remembering one letter of what came out of his mouth. Danny's response was all too memorable.
The sleepy boy stood there for a few breaths as Collins got started, fidgeting and twitching ever more noticeably as the authoritative monologue continued. Everything about his presence seemed to shrink in shame, which only encouraged the deputy, but like a tightly wound spring, shrinking meant the build-up of pressure, and it only took another two breaths for it to be let loose.
In one frame of video, the boy was staring down at his bare feet. Ten frames later, a feral beast, vaguely cat-like features on a human figure, was screaming and clawing its way through the bars of the holding cell. The nine frames in-between logged the transition, and the Crescent Muse would have experts looking over it carefully soon enough in the future. Danny's transformation was swift and vicious, going from frightened child to murderous intent with a flip of a switch.
She watched the video to the end, as Deputy Collins high-tailed it out of there with a prominent dark spot spreaading across the crotch of his pants. Danny continued to scream and spit as his clawed hands reached through the bars, but no one came close enough to scratch. After five minutes on the time stamp, the boy collapsed to the floor, exhausted, and his form resumed being that of a boy. The only sign of any trouble was the claw-marks lightly gouged into the floor.
"It looks like I've got my work cut out for me," she said with a sigh. "Has he been fed yet?"
"Shee-yit," said the assistant sheriff. "Do you think any of us would be stupid enough to go into a cell with... that?"
She pretended to ignore the tone the man was using. "Okay, then. Have someone get me two cups of coffee: one that's at least as dark as I am, and the other with as much cream and sugar as you can manage. And point me to the nearest snack machine. Poor kid's probably starving after a calorie burn like that."
"You're going in there?"
"I am the hero here," she reminded him. "Doing bravely dumb stuff because it's the right thing to do? Practically in the job description. Now..." She made a show of looking around, her flattened hand shading her eyes. "Where is that snack machine?"
A few minutes later she was carrying a bag full of MostestTM brand snack pies, her personal coffee, and a cup of what was essentially coffee-flavored sugar milk into the third holding cell. Danny had managed to get back onto the bench and cocoon himself up into his borrowed blanket, but that appeared to have used up all that was left of his energy. She chose to interpret his assorted mumbles and grunts as "Good morning!"
"Rise and shine," she chirped, in that voice that had never failed to annoy her own teenage niece to consciousness. "I come bearing tasty calories!"
"Don't... wanna..." the boy mumbled. "Just... let me be..."
"Now, now, we don't want you starving to death." From the groan that elicited, Danny might not have seen that as such a bad thing. "No, seriously. Your little episode must've burned a lot of energy, and the last thing we need is for you to crash into a low-key burnout state. Trust me; it is even less fun than it sounds. So, eat!"
There was one of every flavor of MostestTM fruit pies in the bag, each filled with a different sort of syrupy fruit-like substance within fried, sugar-glazed shell. The strawberry pie was the first to go, followed by the peach, apple, raspberry, lemon, pineapple, and golden sapote. That last one was actually hers; she'd not had breakfast yet, either, and the limited-time special flavor was too tempting to pass up. Danny still got half of it, though.
"Why?" the boy mumbled through his cup of coffee-flavored milk.
"Why ya gotta be so nice?" He was sitting up now, and the blanket did little to hide his skinny frame or the state of his clothing after that little episode of his. "Ah mean, ya had to've seen it..."
She shrugged. "I'd say it's my job, but it's really more of a calling. And anyone with two eyes and a brain can see you're a good kid, in spite of everything else. Helping out... that part's my favorite thing about this job."
"So, um, why were you in town?" the boy asked. "If, um, ya don't mind me askin'."
"Following a lead," she told him. "Someone thought they might have maybe seen le Grand Escroc in the parish, but it didn't pan out." A shrug. "It happens. The heat makes people imagine things, but at least most criminals are inside where it's cool, rather than out and about."
That was about the only good things she could say about this month full of dog days, or about the general state of summer in Louisiana. And considering how l'Escroc was cold-blooded, it wasn't too heartening, either. But she kept that to herself.
"Well, um, that's good, good for me, Ah, Ah s'pose..." Danny was twitching, and not in the usual way. The cup trembled in his hands, and the coffee-milk would have spilled for sure if there were any of it left. The toes tapping on the concrete floor were already looking more pointed, and the boy's eyes were flashing between brown and gold like a warning strobe light. "Ah, um, kinda feelin' weired..."
She wasn't sure if that last word was supposed to be 'wired' or 'weird' -- either was certainly true. It was occuring to her that perhaps MostestTM brand fruit pies had not been the wisest of choices for breakfast. Nor the coffee. "You know, I think I'd better let you rest," she said quickly.
"W-why? Ain't sleep-p-p-y..."
"I've got the feeling you will be soon." She was on her feet and to the cell door. The little gas canister she'd left behind was a Cuckoo Channel special, Knock Out #7. It was the strongest thing she had from that morally questionable -- but undeniably useful -- marketplace. Overkill? Probably, but the devisor sedative gas ensured that the fuzzy young man had a good cat nap, while not dispersing far enough to cause problems for anyone else.
-tap, tap, tap- A message flew from her phone into the ether. Backup was on the way soon, she knew, but it needed to be here sooner.
----Sunday, October 9th, 2016
--The Whateley Quad
The day was always better after a full stomach. There'd been an explanation for this -- something, something, metabolism -- but he could never remember the details. Not that those mattered; he knew the truth of it in his gut. Fed meant happy. Happy meant relaxed. Relaxed meant no accidental episodes to apologize for later. All he had to do was to keep his head down and stay out of trouble, which was easier said than done in this madhouse. It would take patience and luck...
Or he could just give up and say hi to the girl swaggering up the walking path towards him now.
Rachel Altus did not look like much at first glance -- and if you were in her way, a first glance was all that you'd be getting. She was short, with frizzy hair that added an inch or two around her profile, kind of cute in a freckled way. But if you made it to the second glance, you'd see the warning signs, like how her glasses were held together with electrical tape, or the assorted bruises and scars.
The t-shirt should've been a dead giveaway. On the front, it read 'Carpe Scrotum,' and while Danny understood exactly as little Latin as the next teenager, he and the rest of campus had quickly learned at least those two words of the language. On Rachel's sleeve there was a special armband, the one to let everyone know that this student was as Ultra-Violent. It matched the one on...
Gawdammit. His hand went to the spot where his own armband was supposed to be, but found nothing.
"Well, well. Look who's in non-compliance with the school dress code, amendment two, paragraph three?" Rachel said to him. The gleam in her eyes was not a good sign for his continued well-being.
"Ahem, 'Armbands of special designation, as listed below, must be warn in order to claim the privileges attached to them, including but not limited to... long break here, yada yada yada... reduced penalties for violent conduct."
With a flourish, Rachel pulled a second swatch of cloth out of her bag, its colors matching her armband. "Lucky for you, I always bring a spare in case the first gets ripped up in a fight." She wrapped it around his bicep and tied it in a neat bow. "There, all better!"
"Er, um. Thanks, Rachel."
"What are girlfriends for, hm?" Brown eyes winked behind battered frames. Hooking her elbow onto his, the girl dragged him along. "Now, there was something I wanted to discuss with you..."
"Another fight?" He groaned. Rachel's idea of a 'friendly practice bout' left something to be desired, for anyone but her.
"Something like that." Her smile was sharp. "Did you catch the main event yesterday?"
"Kinda hard to miss it," he said. "Ah don't think there was a TV in Poe that weren't tuned in." At least, he was a hundred percent certain that every trans student in the dorm, plus most of the rest, had been glued to the screen. The situation behind the fight had hit close to home for just about everyone there.
"Yeah! Awesome, right? It's just a shame I couldn't get in on the action personally. Stupid rules like 'have to be on the team' or 'no mercenary hires'... phooey."
From what he'd seen and heard, Rachel had been involved in the M3 response and combat challenge all the way up past her lightly cauliflowered ears. Then something clicked in his brain, and he realized what she was really getting at. "Oh no. Nuh-uh. Ah can't..."
"Sure you can!" That sharp grin gleamed. "And I mean, you're going to have to, sooner or later. The only way to avoid the training team requirements is to officially register as a pacifist, and we both know that's not going to happen."
His hand went back to his be-ribboned armband. Her armband. Whatever. "That still don't mean..."
"Pleeze?" The frames might've been busted, but the lenses in her glasses worked perfectly well to magnify her brown eyes into a pitiable puppy-dog expression. "I don't have that many people who ever want to play a second time."
"Surprise, surprise," he muttered.
"... and Tanya 'n Erica are already on a team anyway," she continued, not seeming to notice his comment. "And look at me. I'm asking politely! That's how serious I'm being here. So please, pleeeeze be on my training team?"
"Need more'n two to be a team," he snorted.
"How right you are! That's why you need to help me find a third while I get a fourth!"
"Wait a minute. Ah didn't say..." He let the complaint die the slow death it deserved. Rachel had the idea going, and there was no stopping her. With a sigh, he accepted the inevitable. "Ah'll keep an ear out," he promised. "Dunno who'd wanna team up with either of us alone, or anyone nutso enough to go with the both of us together, but..."
"Yay! You're the best boyfriend, fuzzy." Launching herself up on her tiptoes, Rachel landed a kiss right on the lips. "Well, I'm off to find someone! Happy hunting!"
Danny watched her go, with that swaggering gait of hers that never seemed to care if anyone got in her way. The after-feel of that kiss burned on his lips, same as always, and he had yet to figger out exactly what he actually thought about the sensation. Digging his phone from his pocket, he tapped in the number for counseling services. It took his fingers a few tries to get it right.
----Thursday, August 11th, 2016
--Sheriff's Office, Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana
A good nap had done the boy wonders, Renée thought as she walked into the holding cell for the second time that day. Knock Out #7 was a potent blend, though it dissipated to practically nothing within a few feet of release. At point-blank range, it should have put Danny out for half an hour. The boy had slept for six. No one had dared disturb him.
"Rise and shine!" she chirped. "Again."
"Oh. Hey." The boy sat up, still cocooned in his blanket. "Um, Ah don't really remember, but..."
"And I brought lunch." She held up a bag containing a double cheeseburger and fries. No soda. She was not pushing her luck again. "Eat up, because we'll be out of here soon."
"We?" Danny's ears perked, and his nose actually wiggled at the smell of the fast food. "Um, Ah thought Ah wuz under arrest or somethin'..."
"The sheriff's office is remanding you to my custody," she said. "Quite happily, in fact. All we're waiting for is our ride, which should be here any time now." A rumbling sounded through the barred windows of the cell, a deep bass voice such as could only be produced by an engine of immense weight and power. "Ah, right on cue. Better finish your... ah..."
The only trace left of the cheeseburger was a few crumbs left on Danny's embarrassed grin. The fries were still there, or at least a few were.
A moment later she was escorting the boy out of the building, a ratty old deputy's jacket wrapped around his shoulders and chest. She hoped that her backup had thought to bring a change of clothing for him. The extra-long touring trailer now parked beside the sheriff's office certainly looked big enough to have everything, but she knew that most of it was devoted to tech, and the tech-heads were liable to forget their own socks, some days.
"The Cajun Caravan?" Danny said, his eyes about ready to pop in surprise. "That's our ride?"
"The Cajun Counter-Force Mobile Command Center 01," she confirmed. "There are protocols for transporting potentially dangerous folks with powers, even if we know you don't really mean it." A pat on his head for reassurance. "I hope you don't mind, but at least your room in there will be a lot more comfortable than a jail cell."
"Ah'd hate to see what'd be worse..."
"That's the spirit?" She tugged him along. "Now, there's someone you should meet. I called in an old friend, a former member of the Cajun Counter-Force who understands your predicament better than I can."
"Bein' a boy?"
"Um, no." Damnit, she had to keep reminding herself about that. Having never met Danielle, it was hard not to accept Daniel as he appeared -- even if Danny still couldn't. "I meant the fuzzy rampage part. Now..." she continued as she entered the trailer through the side door. "I just have to warn you, my friend's not got the most welcoming face on the planet, but he's a nice guy under all the scales."
"Scales...? Wait a minute. Former teammate, scaly, rampagin'..."
A chuckle greeted the boy's dawning realization, but it wasn't hers. This laugh as low and rumbly, an organic analog to the CC-01's engine block. "I think he's guessed it already," an equally deep voice carried through from the next room of the trailer. "If you could introduce us, Nola?"
She rolled her eyes. Finally, someone who took her fake secret identity name seriously, even when it was least necessary. "Danny, I'd like you to meet Nemean. He's come down from Memphis just to help us out here."
The passenger in the next room nodded in greeting as they entered, but did not stand. Honestly, she was amazed that Nemean could even get his scaly butt into the trailer. At close to two and a half meters in height, the musclebound mutant was unable to stand up straight, and someone had had to get his old custom seat out of mothballs and install it very quickly in the CC-01, because none of the other chairs could ever have survived the experience of him sitting in them. As it was, Nemean filled the room except for one corner, where a more modestly proportioned seat was installed.
A pair of custom spectacles sat on his snout, connected to a chain which hooked into one of the many ornamental piercings in his vestigial hood-flaps.
"Enjoying the book?" She knew the cover well; it had been her gift to him on the Secret Santa program last Christmas.
"Quite." Nemean rumbled his approval as he laid the book down and secured the spectacles in one of the many pockets of his habitual vest. "And this must be the young man I've been hearing so much about. Come, have a seat. I know this must all be confusing, but there's no need to be frightened. Of me, at least."
"Um, thanks, sir." Danny settled in, but never lost the nervous look in his eyes.
"I'll just let the two of you chat," said Renée, shutting the door to the room gently. As she walked back up the narrow corridor, the vibration of the engine suggested that someone had changed gears, and a moment later the entire trailer shambled into motion. When she arrived at the forward cabin and debriefing room, she found company waiting for her.
"Why, Jean-Baptiste! You came out all this way, for this?"
The so-called Jean-Baptiste was dressed well, as usual. The bespoke business suit was a deep purple, almost as dark as the man's skin, and a silver pin shone on its lapel. His head was shaved on the sides and back, but the hair on top was shaped and flattened until it -- in her opinion -- resembled a pencil eraser. Beneath a thin moustache, the man's mouth was sour.
Honestly, she doubted it was possible to look any less like a voudoun witch doctor, which was the point. Instead, the man could have been a stunt double for Wesley Snipes in his prime.
"Did you locate l'Escroc?"
And ever to the point. She had to sigh at that. "No, Jean-Baptiste. No trace, no sign that this was anything but a mistaken rumor. It's like this every year, remember? Any township within spitting distance of the bayou's going to claim they've seen le Grand Escroc at least once. And he is dead," she added.
"For the time being." The man took a sip of water. "A pity it never seems to take. I would damn my three-times-great grandmother, only it would be redundant."
"Enough about old business," she said. "What about new?"
"Ah yes, your newest stray." Another sip of water. "I hope he proves to be worth the effort of keeping him out of prison."
"He's a good kid."
"Who was caught red-handed in the worst, most literal sense."
"We should be investigating the social worker who signed off on giving that Ratherford man custody of his own children."
Another calm, measured sip, and then: "We have. Foolscap had one of his contacts run it through this morning. Ratherford forged the signature and then bullshat his way past anyone who might have tried to argue it. He took the girls straight out of school before their grandmother even realized that he was back in town. Make no mistake; the man deserves to be in prison. Not the morgue." Sip. "The MCO are sniffing around. An agent is likely to arrive soon at the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff's Office, to find that we have absconded with a murder suspect, and it will not matter the circumstances."
"If only Priestley..." This time she did remove her cap, placing it over her heart. "I don't suppose his replacement is..."
"Agent Visellius," said Jean-Baptiste, "is everything we have come to expect from that organization."
"Damnit. Then we can't trust him not to manufacture an incident."
"If he even needs to." Jean-Baptiste poured himself some more water. "We are talking about a Rager here, by all accounts."
"Yes..." She looked to the monitor wall, where one screen showed the room at the other end of the trailer. The fuzzy-eared teen and the lizard-man were deep in conversation. "But maybe that can be helped."
----Sunday, October 9th, 2016
--Doyle Hall, Psychiatric Wing
Today was officially his eleventh day at Whateley, and Danny still was not familiar with much of the campus. One spot in particular, however, was already so well known to him that he could make his way there blindfolded, following his nose alone. Set into the side of Doyle Hall, the school's counseling and psychiatric department had its own wing full of professionals to help the student body through their various issues before it all boiled over and something was blown up, melted, or disintegrated.
The door he was looking for had the name Hortensio Shu on its nameplate. It was open when he found it.
"Come in!" shouted Dr. Shu from the interior. "Have a seat! The herbal tea is almost ready."
There were plenty of chairs to choose from. Danny plopped down onto an oversized beanbag that looked like a certain blue Pokémon. Dr. Shu, as usual, took the other beanbag chair after he set the tea on the table between them. The drink was good, kinda fruity. Better than what they had him drinking at meals.
"So, to what do I owe the pleasure?" asked Dr. Shu.
"The, um, the usual reason."
"Miss Altus it is, then. You know," said the man, "she has a scheduled standard appointment with me later this week. If you want, I could have a word with her about you."
His ears grew long just so they could droop further. "Um, no. Th-thanks for offerin', but..." He sighed. "Dunno if it'd do any good. She's j-just, just too..."
"Too much herself?"
"Yeah! And... Ah ain't even sure who Ah am, myself. An' Ah hafta worry 'bout my wild side, an'... an'..."
"And?" Dr. Shu prompted after a long pause.
"And Ah know it's crazy to keep her 'round, that she's crazy, but... she's right, too. She can beat me, all the time, any time, an' Ah need someone 'round who can do that, so Ah won't... Ah won't..."
"What do you want, Danny?" asked Dr. Shu. "What did you want, before Whateley?"
"Ah wanted mah life!" he cried to the ceiling. "Ah was gonna be goin' to high school back home, an' Gramma was gonna show me how to use the make-up kit an' mebbe Ah could go on sleepovers an' we could braid each other's hair an' talk 'bout boys, like they always do on the TV shows, an'..." He shut his eyes tight, willing the little faucets in them to plug themselves. "An' then Pa showed up wi' his papers an' his signatures, an' it was the old life all over again. He took me 'n Michelle away an'..." His voice grew ragged, even snarling. "An' Ah had to dress up then to keep Michelle safe, an' even that didn't work, an'..."
There was no real need for him to repeat his life story; Dr. Shu had it all on file anyway. But once that ball started rolling, it was really hard to get it to stop. He couldn't even be sure that the counselor understood his words through gritted and growing teeth.
"So how's your Pokémon game coming along?" It was a silly question, like a verbal banana peel to slip on.
"Only, I just started a game myself. Pokémon X, in fact. Went with the Chespin as my starter. I always did seem to have an affinity for the heavyset ones," the man explained, patting his own robust belly. "Bulbasaur, Totodile, Mudkip, Turtwig, Tepig..."
"Beat the fourth gym," Danny reported. "Chose, um, a Fennikin to start."
"And almost beat Marcus in a battle..." Well, not really. He'd lost five to one, but he'd tried. Maybe on the rematch...
"Did you see the new starters for the next game? Er, games? Oh, what were the two of them called..."
"Sun and Moon?" He was nodding along. There'd been a big press release just the Wednesday before to announce how the starting critters would evolve. Much debate had followed throughout the dorms. "Think most 'a mah friends here are goin' for, um, Litten? I think it was? Little black 'n red kitten, turns into a big red tiger wrestler thing?"
"Another heavyset fellow. I guess I know who I shall be choosing this time. Oh, but it will be a bother to expand the collection again."
Danny snickered at that. The counselor had an entire set of shelves dedicated to little plastic figurines of various series, from which he would occasionally pluck an object example of whatever point he was trying to make. The collection did not include every single Pokémon, but that was probably more for space reasons.
"So, which of them will you choose?"
That was the sort of tough question he could handle. "Well, before the big update, Ah mighta said Litten, cuz, yanno, cat?" His ears wiggled. "An' most 'a mah friends are prolly gonna get 'im, too. But Ah dunno... Ah might go with Popplio this time. Like the look of its evolved form."
"Fair enough." Dr. Shu never seemed to have pen or paper in hand, yet notes kept stacking up on the man's desk. Danny didn't really care; he knew he was all messed up anyhow. "Would you like to return to our earlier conversation now?"
"Do we hafta?"
"Not at all, but I wanted to ask."
Danny leaned back in his bean-bag chair, with the result that he was stretched so far across its top that the ends of his hair now brushed the hardwood floor as he stared up at the ceiling fixtures. "Ah, Ah just wanted a normal life, yanno? Be a typical high school girl? Get dolled up, go on dates, write mah initials wi' his in mah notebook with a little heart drawn 'round? Silly stuff like that. And Ah... Ah'm never gonna have that. They tell me Ah gotta accept it, cuz there's no way to fix it. No way to know what to fix, even. And Ah... Ah dunno how to deal with it all."
"If you ever do figure it out," said Dr. Shu, "please write a book about it. That would help me in my work immensely.
"Shee-yit, if you don't have the answers, doc, then who does?"
The counselor made a big show of being flustered, placing his palms on the cheeks of his face and imitating a fish's mouth. "Oh dearie me, you thought I was the person with answers? Why, the only reason I have made it this far in my profession is that I very well realize that I know nothing at all. And because of that, I am far less tempted to tell others what to do when they already know the answer for themselves. Questions are so much more fun, as well. So, to take 'it all' in smaller chunks: Miss Altus."
Various parts of him shrank. "Yes?"
"What do you want to do with her?"
That was a hard question, and not only for the one part of him that was refusing to shrink. He'd had to learn the proper meaning of the word 'hormones' just so he could damn them for making his life even crazier than it already was. "Ah... Ah could tell you something right now, an' mebbe a different one in an hour, and a completely diff'rent one an hour ago..." And one very specific one in his dreams the other night, only he did not want to think about that at all right now. "An'... and Ah can't really say what she wants, besides a punchin' bag."
"Why not ask her?"
Because he was afraid to know the answer. Danny could be at least honest with himself there.
"Well, I cannot tell you what to do -- I know nothing, after all! -- but I can suggest you know what to do already."
"Run away?" He cringed at the look the counselor gave him. "Yeah, okay. Um. T-talk to her 'bout it?"
"That would likely be the best option," Dr. Shu conceded. "I've only had the one scheduled appointment with her for preliminary assessments, but she does not strike me as being irrational or cruel. Merely focused and blunt."
"Like a baseball bat," he muttered. "But... Ah guess Ah can try..."
"Hang in there," said Dr. Shu. "And never forget that you have friends."
----Tuesday, August 13th, 2016
--Cajun Counter-Force HQ, New Orleans
The Cajun Counter-Force made its headquarters at the end of Decatur Street in New Orleans, up past the French Quarter where the street met Esplanade and Elysian Fields. It was still fronted by an old house that must have dated to before the Civil War, but a sleek, modern office building now stood behind that. She'd never heard how the CCF had come by it, but if she had to guess then she'd put her money on Foolscap, either the older or the younger. That family had so many connections that it should have counted as a legitimate superpower.
The common interview room was still in the house, in an old parlor with antique fixtures and well-upholstered chairs, though some concessions to modern reality were necessary. A wide-screen monitor was affixed to the wall above the fireplace, an ornate computer array sat upon one end-table like a monument of silicon and steel, and the entire far wall was now dominated by a reinforced sofa seat, installed specifically for guests like Nemean, who was now testing its physical specs as he sipped tea.
In a different corner of the room, trying to make herself at least look comfortable in her chair, Ms. Harmony Fontenot had yet to try her own drink. The woman did not look nearly old enough to have a grandchild in their teens, if barely, but Renée had not been surprised. The Fontenot family history read like a tawdry soap opera from the bayou. Unfortunately, it was the only family Danny had available.
"So you found Danielle?" Ms. Harmony said, finally starting the serious discussion. She was staring down at her tea. Her accent was not quite so pronounced as the boy's, and to Renée's ears only a few trace elements of the bayou remained.
"We never lost her," she said. Her old uniform cap was on the table, but the rest of her revised Crescent Muse ensemble was shiny new. "And I think you knew that from the start."
The tea cup rose to the grandmother's lips, more to hide the frown than to take a sip. "The boy. I'd hoped he was only a sketchy boyfriend Dani'd picked up -- wouldn't be a first, for this family! -- but that's really..."
"Daniel," said Nemean, stressing the accent of the syllables, "has had a terrible few days, and could use some family support. Does he have any?"
Ms. Harmony stared hard over the rim of her cup. "I remember you. That time some villain conjured up the Lake Pontchartrain Monster to wreck the causeway again, you were out there rippin' off tentacles right and left."
"Ah, yes. That was twelve years ago, wasn't it?"
"One o' those damned rubber-arms nearly fell on my car." The woman's scowl softened a little. "And you caught it 'fore it could. Dani never even woke up in her car seat." Some tea was actually consumed this time. "How... how bad is it, really? What's wrong with Dani?"
"That's a tricky word, 'wrong'," said Renée. "But to answer the first question, it's bad. The MCO are making a case to have Danny transferred to their authority."
"Cuz she did in that rat bastard of a father of hers. The man deserved it, for what he did and tried to do."
"The problem," Nemean rumbled, "is that the MCO will not countenance Danny as a victim, because he is obviously not the daughter of Charles Ratherford. Not anymore."
"Yeah, that. What the hell's up with that?" Ms. Harmony squinted as the monitor came to life, showing footage of Danny. The boy was currently sitting in a little apartment within the main headquarters, playing a borrowed video game. His face was clearly visible and still oddly whiskerless, for all that the rest of his hair was growing out into an unmanageably leonine bush. "I mean, the face is still sorta Dani's, just more... boyish? That's really her?"
"That he is," Renée said. "And no, we don't know why. It's just something that happens sometimes with mutation, for whatever reason."
"No changing back either, huh."
"According to the literature," said Nemean, "the vast majority of such attempts end in failure. A small number succeed, and an unfortunately far larger number than that end up worse off than they were before."
"But you do see that he's your grandchild, right?" said Renée. "Even if it's a grandson instead of a granddaughter?"
"Hell, Miz Rising, I got eyes! I'm just sorry I didn't bother lookin' on Saturday, else I might brought Dani home then, too!"
"That probably would not have been a good idea," said Renée. "Danny was at his lowest right then, and with no idea what he could do. One bad moment, and..." She let her shrug say the rest. "Like it or not, he's definitely a Rager, and needs training before we can with good conscience let him walk around freely."
"And here's where you tell me why this situation sucks," said the boy's grandmother. "Rager, huh? Like the big, green, angry dude from the movies?"
The resident big, green, angry -- not to mention scaly -- dude in the room winced. "That one is, ah... always the worst possible scenario," Nemean admitted. "And not so long ago, we might have needed to assume the worst. The MCO always does, to this day."
"So talk me through it," said Ms. Harmony. "This is my, um, little boy we're discussin'. How bad is bad with this Rager thing?"
"Depends on the case, ma'am," said Renée. "A lot of Ragers are what you'd get if you add boosted muscles and testosterone to a normal joe. Get angry, punch, then regret it. Only, they might punch the other guy's head clean off."
"In other words, how my late son-in-law mighta been if he got himself some superpowers." The woman sighed. "I did warn my Gabby against foolin' with him, but bad romantic decisions seem to run in the blood. I learned from mine, she hasn't yet. But that ain't Dani, is it? What's next?"
"Another sort," Renée continued, "stems from personal trauma. Some Ragers respond automatically and unconsciously -- and violently -- to emotional triggers, which is again magnified by extra hormones, muscles, and powers. Danny definitely has some of this going on, and the good news is that proper therapy can do a lot of good in treating it, but..."
"If I wanted to see a 'but' that badly, I'd go to Bourbon Street for Mardi Gras," said Ms. Harmony. "Just spill it. I'm here for Dani, no matter what."
Oh, how Renée hoped that was the case... "Some Ragers, notably those with GSD... er, that is, extreme physiological alterations..." Not to mention adverse reactions to pure sugar or caffeine...
"The need to fight becomes a part of what we are," Nemean finished for her. "To look at me, I am obviously no longer human. My body is no longer built the same, and the hormones which surge through my blood feed a set of instincts different from what anyone might expect. It took me many years to learn the ways of my new body, to harness my new instincts so that, in those times when the world becomes a blur of red-hued violence, I may still tell friend from foe, innocent from opponent. I am fortunate to have had that chance when so many did not."
"An' Dani still needs to learn all that," his grandmother said flatly. "Shee-yit."
Renée pulled up a different file on the computer, and the monitor flipped through images until it stopped upon the promotional page for a school. "Fortunately, we can help there," she said. "There are places where Danny can learn in relative safety, and the Cajun Counter-Force is willing to sponsor him."
"That place any good?" Ms. Harmony examined the pictures with a critical eye. "Looks fancier than my old community college, but looks ain't worth shit. You'd send your own kids there?"
"My niece is attending," Renée admitted. "She'll be in the same year as Danny."
"And my god-daughter as well," said Nemean.
"She take after you any?"
"Thankfully she takes after her mother," the reptilian man replied, face even more deadpan than usual.
"But we can talk about this later," said Renée. "Ms. Fontenot, would you like to go meet your grandson?"
The not-so-old lady placed an empty tea cup on the table. "Yes, please."
----Monday, October 10th, 2016
--Poe Cottage, Room 111
In his dreams, Danielle ran through the park. Which park, he was not sure. The simple certainty of dreaming was enough to tell him that it was the park, with soft grass that felt so nice underfoot.
Or underpad. The world seemed to wobble at odd times, and he with it. Now he was Danielle, dressed in a Sunday summer smock with a flowery pattern, just happy to be out and about. Now he was Daniel the not-exactly-cat, not-exactly-wolf, not-exactly-boy. He was naked but for the fur, paying no mind to how certain parts hung out. Now she was Danielle, naked and furless and still not caring. Now...
A loud bleat woke him up before he could discover what the next now might bring. On the shelf by his bed, the little alarm clock that could, did. And it did so loudly, at least to his sensitive ears.
What the fuck had been up with that dream? Danny had been trying to cut back on the profanity, but if anything deserved an f-bomb... He ran his fingers along the wallpaper: still there, still lightly textured. He ran them through his hair: a little sweaty, oily, could use a shampooing. Perhaps the dream made him a little braver, or a little crazier, because the next place his fingers went was the No-Go Zone itself. They slipped under the waistband of his boxer shorts, reached down past the bush of hair and...
His heart skipped a beat as, just for a second, it seemed like his fingers had found nothing at all in his shorts. Muscles clinched in surprise, and then up... it... came. As usual, it was stiff for reasons that surely existed but which he never wanted to learn. "Stupid morning wood," he'd learned to call it.
Damnit... He grabbed the offending member, fully intent on ripping it clean off of him, only the skin was loose on that part, and it slid in weird ways that felt too damn good, and...
"Aw, fuck," he groaned, feeling and smelling the mess that was now in his boxers. All over his body, muscles twitched and shivered, either in pleasure or stress. He honestly could not fucking tell any more. There was a box of tissues by the alarm clock, placed there in case of something like this happening. He hated the tissue box, too.
A shower. He needed a shower in the worst way. If he could smell... that on him, then there was no small chance that someone else on campus could, just walking past. Normally he skipped the morning washup, preferring a quick evening rinse, but already he could feel the humiliation building. Grabbing a towel, a change of clothes, and his toiletries bag, Danny set out.
He didn't get too far. The first-floor student quarters had its own shower, and right now there was a line of one: Marcus, looking annoyed.
"Aw, man. What is it this time?" he asked the boy.
"Bev's locked herself in, and won't open up for anything," growled Marcus. "C'mon, Bev! Yanno we're waiting out here! What's the holdup?"
"G-g-go away!" the junior high girl stammered through the closed door of the washroom. "G-g-get outta here or I'll... I'll... I'll set boom-booms all over and put them on proximity mode so they blow up as soon as you sit down and t-t-take your balls with them!"
"She can do that?" Danny asked out the side of his mouth. Marcus shook his head and shrugged.
Much as he hated the dangly bits under threat, Danny was pretty sure there were better ways to deal with them. And better ways to deal with Bev. His ears caught the echoes of faint sobbing, as well as the clink of a brush hitting the mirror with the intent to break it, if not the force. That there was another thing he hated: that he could identify that exact sound so well.
"Go get Ms. Barnes," he told Marcus. "Bev's... she's in there freakin' out, an' neither of us can help."
"Gotcha." The boy dashed off towards the apartment at the end of the hall, where his older sister was presumably getting ready for the day as well.
Danny kept his attention on the door. When he spoke, he also listened, and the faint scrapes and bumps told him that he was being heard. "Hey, Bev. Ah know we ain't got along too well, an' that's okay. Ah kinda know where this is all comin' from, an'... an' it's a bitch, ain't it? Lookin' in a mirror an' seein' somebody who ain't you. No matter how many times you look, or how much you tell yerself that yer over it, it still catches ya sometimes, an'..." He sighed. "Ah guess what Ah'm sayin' is, we ain't alone. Not you, not me, not a lotta other kids in this crazy house. Hang in there."
A calming hand came to rest on his shoulder. He'd heard and smelled it coming -- the lavender scent of soap was hard to miss, so he didn't jump or yelp. If he'd had a tail out, it might've wagged, though. "Beautifully said, Danny," Ms. Barnes told him.
"Thanks'm," he mumbled.
Marcus tugged at his arm. "Come on, let's get to the washroom upstairs. Big sis is gonna be busy for a bit, and we need to get to breakfast soon."
His stomach gurgled at that. With a final goodbye for Bev, which the girl again did not reply to, Danny let himself be led upstairs to the regular boys' wing.
The hallways in the cottage always reminded him of a nice hotel, with the carpet and the paintings on the walls, but minus the orange stink of the industrial cleaning soaps. His nose appreciated the smells of old wood and wax, the scent of flowers in their little pots, and even the lingering odor of potpourri that was crawling out from under one of the doors near the washroom. Anything to cover up the funk that was the smell of young male habitation.
He only hoped his own room didn't smell so bad to strangers.
A familiar blur streaked down the hall past them, a "Hey, guys!" stretched weird by how fast the mouth was moving by as the words were formed. A half-second later, and Swerve caught himself and backpedaled at a slower pace to meet up with them. "What're you two doing up here?" the speedster asked.
"Need to borrow your washroom," Marcus explained. "Bev's holed up in ours with an anxiety crisis."
"Heh, girls." Swerve tried for an ironic shrug. "Whatcha gonna do, huh?"
Danny ignored the boy, shouldering his way past to reach the washroom door. There wasn't a line. There weren't really enough kids on this wing of the floor to make a line for long. At least three of the rooms in this section were still empty, even.
He had to take a long, calming breath before he went in. This was something he knew he had to get used to, using the boys' room for showers and stuff. The only reason he wasn't living on this floor already was because someone in the administration had feared he'd lose his temper or something, so if he wanted to prove that he wasn't some crazy rage-beast, he would... he'd have to brave the boys' room. It was harder than it sounded.
Not that Danny was gonna tell Swerve that. The speedster would probably just make some crap joke out of it.
"Glad to have you!" Swerve was still running his mouth off as they walked in. "I mean, it's kinda weird how they've got you sequestered downstairs, right? Not you of course, Marky-man," he said, apparently not noticing how Marcus's face went sour at the nickname. "Junior high stays downstairs; we get that. But Danny! You're one of the guys now! Ain't that right, guys?"
The young men who were already in the washroom produced a series of grunts and 'uh-huh's that could largely be read as an affirmative, but for the most part they were too busy with their own washing-up to do much more than wave at the visitors. Danny was more than happy to be ignored here. Though he'd wiped the mess out of his shorts as best he could with some tissues back in his room, his god-damned thing was still leaking a little, and so when he had to take his boxers off, he found that offending member had glued itself to the front part of the fabric. He hid his wince as best he could as he tugged the shorts off.
The wet, sticky patch in the fabric wasn't too obvious to the eyes, but his nose could find it from three feet away. As he piled up his dirty laundry on the changing rack, those boxers got the place of shame at the very bottom.
With a handful of lather on top, Danny did his best to wash up quickly, all the while praying for the impossible: a little peace. The shampoo made for an excellent excuse to keep his eyes squeezed shut. Just because he had a thing himself now, that didn't mean he wanted to see anyone else's ever again.
"Where do you get all that hair, anyway?" Swerve's mouth continued. "I mean, when you first arrived you were shaved down almost as short as me, but now it's almost past your shoulders."
"It's mah power," Danny mumbled through a miniature waterfall as he poured the washbasin over his head. "Hair grows fast when Ah'm fuzzy."
"Better trim it down soon," the speedster said. "Or people might start thinking you're still a girl."
"An' what's the problem wi' that?" he snapped back. "Long hair ain't a bad thing."
Marcus tsked at Swerve as he soaped down his own mess of brown hair. "Better not let Pat hear you say that," he told the speedster, "or there'll be no end to the lecture on the issue of... oh, what did he call it... enforced gender signaling. So you do you, Danny."
"Come on, man!" said Swerve. "You switched to the other team, the better team, so represent!"
"Zander..." Kieran said from across the way. "Drop it, please."
"Oh, alright... Change of topic! Any more thought about boyfriends?"
"What?" Frecked shoulders rolled into a shrug. "It's just us gays here. Oh, and Marcus."
The junior-high boy rolled his eyes. "Thanks for remembering."
"Just let us know when you change your mind about those girls, Marky-man," said Swerve. "But what about you, Danny?"
"Well, you used to be a girl, right? And odds are that you liked boys then, so what about now?" Swerve's head may have been buzzed short, but his eyebrows were still thick enough to waggle suggestively. "Don't tell me your tastes have changed that much in the last few months."
"You're assuming a lot..." said Kieran.
"Am I?" Swerve said. "Look at the other side. How many of the new girls in the changeling wing are lez or bi? Laura's with Antonia, Bailey's hooking up with Zapper, Glyph's got that one devisor gal fawning over her all the time, Morgana's... well, Morgana, and even Calliope over in Dickinson's already on her second girlfriend -- who also used to be a guy."
"Don't think that last one's official," said one of the other young men from his wash station, the round-faced, curly-haired Sergio.
"What, the dating part or the used-to-be-a-guy part?" Swerve waved the complaint away. "Doesn't matter. We've already got a definite pattern going on here. So what do you think, Danny?"
His cheeks felt so hot, it was amazing that there wasn't any steam coming off of them. "C-can we change the subject again?" he pleaded. "Or, or just shut up for a while?"
"Hey, hey! Inquiring minds want to know! Can't you just give us a hint or something..."
"Ah said shut da fuck up!" In the confines of the washroom, Danny's shout echoed into something more like a bellow or a roar. With gritted teeth he dropped a now-mangled bar of soap to the tiled floor, washed his hands clean, and took a towel to his hair. At no point did he look in the mirror. He did not wish to know what color his eyes were in that moment.
There was a complete lack of locker-room talk as he attended to his washing and then left.
----Wednesday, August 15th, 2016
--Cajun Counter Force HQ, gym space
There was something to be said for being a teacher. Many somethings, in fact. Some of them were even positive, though few were printable. Perhaps the most important were the somethings that one learned about one's self in the process. The mutant called Nemean had borne that name as his own for almost four decades at this point, two of them with pride. 'Todd' didn't suit him anymore.
That had been an important moment in his life, realizing what name fit him best, and he thanked the memory of his own teacher, the late Loup-Garou, for helping him survive long enough to reach it.
The young one who was now stuck with the name Daniel Fontenot had his own issues with what to call himself, made no less complicated by the fact that no one would ever mistake him for a Danielle. There was a tic, a tiny twitch of muscle under the boy's right eye that would go off every time someone used the masculine intonation for the name. Nemean could read the signs, could recognize the twitch for the warning that it was, and so a daily visit to the CCF gym became an essential part of the routine. Sometimes all one needed in life was a secured, padded room and a punching bag to eviscerate.
From the safe side of the chamber's viewing window, he could coach the boy along, talk him through the feelings of frustration and help identify where the roots of rage were set in. This generally did not take too long.
With an incoherent shriek, Danny covered the distance between his starting point and the punching bag -- five meters -- in a single leap. The boy's form shifted in mid-air, gaining mass and momentum from God-knows-where and applying it directly into his target. The poor punching bag did not stand a chance.
Arms grabbed and locked around it, while taloned feet -- shreds of sock still dangling, raked the outer casing like it was Christmas wrapping. Once the punching bag was ceremonially disemboweled, Danny's hands went to work, reducing the rest to shreds.
Nemean watched this as it played out, noting the movements as Danny's new instincts dictated them. The boy was a prowler at heart, a stalker, using his human side as unwitting camouflage, and Nemean could only hope that the human guise remained the dominant one. He had seen what happened to those mutants like himself and the boy when the outer layer of empathy and humanity was stripped away. There were response teams out there which were ready to deal with such an eventuality, and they were highly efficient at it.
A muted cough and the sound of a scuffed shoe attempted to announce that he was no longer alone. He'd noted their entrance, but had feigned a preoccupation with the boy's actions for a few minutes longer. "Yes?" he said finally, turning to acknowledge the human-shaped elephant in the room.
Agent Visellius, current field commander of the Gulf Coast MCO office, New Orleans branch, was what Nemean's own grandmother would have called a 'narrow man.' Narrowed face, with a tall nose for staring down at others. Narrow of body, fit but not large. Narrow of mind... which almost went without saying for a man of the MCO. His predecessor had bucked that trend, but Visellius showed no signs of following suit.
A narrow mouth parted to speak. "So this is the murderer."
"In self-defense," the Crescent Muse was swift to point out.
"Ms. Rizing, that part matters not. Once a wild beast has learned the taste of man, it is a man-killer, and must be put down. And this young man is wilder than any beast of the forest. You know this; you have named him Wilder on the reports you were so late in providing my office."
"First," said Nemean, "it is pronounced 'will-duhr,' as in wilderness. Second, as a DPA affiliate with full proxy authority to make the preliminary Report of Mutant Trait Manifestation, we did not need to provide you with anything at all. That we did so was a professional courtesy."
"I was not aware the the Cajun Counter-Force was in the business of defending murderers." A narrow moustache wriggled as Visellius sniffed.
He let the Crescent Muse be angry for him. "We are in the business of providing justice," said she. "And I could only wish we had brought Charles Ratherford in for proper justice before his victims were forced to take action on their own."
"Ms. Rizing, murder is still murder."
"Unless..." Nemean raised a clawed finger to point out. "... it is a situation of emergent powers used without knowing intent or -- in the case of Wilder -- with a clear lack of conscious reason in the moment of the act itself. That is, by both federal and Louisiana statutes, what happened was first-degree manslaughter, to which a plea of no contest has already been filed. And so," he growled, "I must ask what you are even doing in this place."
"I am here to inform you that the Mutant Commission Office is lodging a formal complaint with the Louisiana governor's office. That young man is a menace, and one day he shall have to be put down, much as Loup-Garou was."
If that was a calculated hit upon his temper, then Visellius had aimed well. "You are comparing a fourteen-year-old boy to a poor old man suffering from senility," he said in clipped tones. "It does not speak well of you."
"That senile old man, as you put it, left fifteen bodies in his wake."
"And it would have been seventeen, had I not stopped him," said Nemean. His fists were clinched hard enough for his claws to draw blood, only his palms healed faster than they could leak. A guttural growl was forcing its way up from the diaphragm, and atop his head a scaly crest had begun to stand. "And if you dare say one more--"
"Hey, hey!" The Crescent Muse proved her bravery in that moment, setting herself between Nemean and the man who seemed to want a narrow gash in the chest or throat. "We're talking about Wilder here, and the prosecutor's office has already accepted the plea deal for him."
"That moronic social experiment they call a school, in the north-east?" Visellius shook his head as he turned away. "He will only return stronger and nastier. Better we end it now, while we have only one corpse to bury."
The Crescent Muse already had the door open for him. "You've said your piece; now go."
In the gymnasium chamber on the other side of the glass, Danny Fontenot gave no sign of having heard the discussion of his fate. Though still in his feral mode, the boy's rage was apparently spent, and now instead he romped and played with a medicine ball, for all the world like an overgrown kitten with a ball of yarn. It was a beautiful thing to Nemean's eyes, a sign that there was hope to be found in this situation.
The school would be good for Danny, like nothing else could be.
----Monday, October 10th, 2016
--Whateley English Language Learners Class
Breakfast had been cold, small, and short: a bowl of plain cereal with whole milk and a triple side of bacon that had long since said farewell to the frying pan. There hadn't been time for more than that, which did not bode well for the rest of his day. His belly gurgled on half of its usual morning load, and his first period class stretched out far too long.
He could've killed for a MostestTM fruit pie right about then. And with that much sugar, someone else might've ended up hurt for real. His sweet tooth suffered on.
But then it was passing period, ten wonderful minutes to get from here to there. Danny's next stop was right down the hall, no rush, but he hurried on over anyway. There were perks to getting to Ms. Barnes's English Language Learners class promptly.
He wasn't the first one there by a long shot. Half a dozen other students were already milling around inside the classroom in a loose mob around the class's other Daniel, the kid they called Donut. This other Daniel was a little rounder, a little heavier than Danny, with bright pink eyes like the frosting on last year's birthday cake. Danny's stomach gurgled at the memory.
"The usual?" asked Donut as Danny walked up. At the nod, the pink-irised boy took a napkin, wrapped it around his palm, and then revealed a meat pastry. Just where the treats came from, Danny couldn't say. His nose never sniffed a thing until the napkin came off. This one was pretty as a picture, at least: a leaf-shaped wedge of pastry with an actual image of a leaf cut into the top of its crust.
"How'd'ja even think of a thing like that?" he asked.
"Eh..." Donut shrugged. "Me and Miz Debbie -- she's my guardian, yanno -- we useta tune in to this show every week, a bakin' contest from England, and then we'd try to make the stuff they made on the show. Not the super-fancy stuff, but whatever we thought was int'restin'."
It looked super-fancy enough to Danny, and tasted it, too. The pastry was gone in two juicy bites, once he'd sat down at his desk.
"Ah, eh-excuse me..." His ears perked up as someone spoke to him. That was a surprise; not many of his classmates wanted to chat him up before class, not since that fight he'd had with the clown-faced Humorless on his very first day. The accent was a bit strange, too, making it sound more like "ess-coose me." But that wasn't as surprising; maybe half the class was in ELL because their first language was something completely different.
No, the biggest surprise was who was doing the talking.
"Um, hello. Miss... Ab-sell?" he said. His brain flipped a few times as it tried to recall how to say the young woman's name correctly.
"It is close," she said with a thin smile on her lips. "Avsel. And you are Dahni." The young woman had eyes like polished gold, and it felt to him like they sent heat straight at his face.
His own eyes darted away nervously, looking for something, anything to center him in his current confusion. "Um, yeah. Guess Ah am. Er, I like your scarf. On your head."
It really was a nice scarf-thing, deep blue with little coin-shaped patterns in yellow. He kinda wondered how he might look in one.
"Ah, thank you." Avsel tugged at a corner of fabric. "But that is not the thing that I was wanting to say. You... Do you know a girl named Ratel? The devil badger girl?"
The meat pastry was a rock in his stomach. "Aw hell, what's she gone done now?" There was really no other way to reply to a question like that.
"Nothing! Ah, that is... she is been... ah, had been asking people. About team training?"
Inwardly, he groaned. A second later and he was groaning outwardly as well. "She don't know when to quit, does she?"
"No. No she does not. But..." The girl rubbed a spot on her forehead, right below a fold of her scarf, as if it itched. "I am thinking to be saying yes to her. They tell me to be on the training, and she seems good at it. But I am worried about is you."
"Me?" Blink. Blink. No other words seemed to jump in to help finish that thought.
"Yes. Ratel, she is saying you to be her second team-mate, and that is the worrying. She is the crazy, I know. Are you the crazy, too? I am not sure."
"Ah... Ah ain't crazy," he told her. "Just... just got some problems, and they're tough to deal with."
Eyes like lanterns stared him down. "And you are the wild one."
"Maybe." He sighed. "Ah'm workin' on that."
"It is not something for the apology. We are who we are. Apologize for what you do."
"Ain't done nothin'," he said. "Well, recently."
Was it really just him, or did the glare off her eyes seem hotter? It wasn't until the shine of gold dimmed that he realized that Avsel's eyes had in fact been glowing. Now after, they merely seemed a little dazed. "Ah... ahem, yes," said the girl. "The training will be good. I shall tell her yes."
"Ah'm sure she'll be delighted."
"Until then." With a final word in her own language, which he assumed to be a bye-bye, the girl in the headscarf returned to her seat. According to the clock on the wall, it was two minutes to classtime, which meant the teacher would be stepping in at any moment now...
Ms. Barnes was not one for big appearances, but everyone knew exactly when she arrived. The entire atmosphere of the room shifted to class mode just by her being there. He wondered if it was some kind of superpower that teachers could get, because some of the old ladies at Danielle's junior high school had the same effect on people. It took him a moment to see that Ms. Barnes was not alone.
Standing right behind the woman, practically hiding behind her profile, Bev Taylor shrank. The girl's hair was half a mess -- and by the smell of it, the other half was scorched. His nose wrinkled at the odor from yards away. Bev's eyes were red and puffy, even now.
Dangit, Danielle could've gone right over and given the poor girl the hug she so desperately needed, but if Daniel did it, everyone would think he was a weirdo or a perv. His hackles raised a little at the thought of embarrassment. And Bev might just stick a bomb down his pants, too. Couldn't forget that.
"Mr. Diggins," said the teacher to Donut. "If you don't mind, could we make a special request of you? It has not been a good morning, and neither Ms. Taylor nor I have had a chance to eat breakfast."
"Not a problem, ma'am," Donut assured her. "Muffins okay?" Before the junior high girl could react, Donut was handing her a loaded paper towel of baked treats. "Got blueberry, cherry, banana, bran..."
"Any there for me?" Ms. Barnes asked with a chuckle.
"Raspberry and cream cheese, just for you."
"Excellent... Okay, Bev. Go find a quiet spot and rest for a period. Teacher's orders. I already messaged your next class instructor."
The girl nodded timidly and hurried out the door as the period bells started ringing. The English Language Learners class was delayed a few minutes as its teacher enjoyed a much-deserved breakfast.
Danny couldn't grudge the lady any. He knew firsthand how bad that morning's situation had been, and nobody would say her wrong for helping out like that. They needed all the support they could get, some days.
----Tuesday, September 27th, 2016
--Boston Logan International Airport
Eve Hilton liked to think of herself as a woman of the world. She had certainly seen enough of it in the seven years since she had graduated high school in spite of herself. Some places she could have done without, and others she would visit again in a heartbeat. But stuck exactly in the middle between those two poles was General Edward Lawrence Logan International Airport of Boston, an expertly banal exemplar of the American airport experience. That she kept finding herself within its terminals was a matter of business rather than pleasure.
"Passengers for Flight 862 from New Orleans are now arriving," came the announcement. She readied her sign, holding it up as the tired passengers made their slow and shuffling exodus from the plane. Behind blue eyes her brain was in gear, keeping open ears that were not there, the better to hear the words that were not spoken. Trouble could come from any angle.
Deep-reading wasn't really her thing, but she could pick up surface projections, the thoughts that people around her were focusing on. It usually wasn't worth the effort unless she had a reason to be on the alert. Even now, the main thing she was picking up was a mental commentary on her own ass by some perv about a meter to her rear.
It was a wonderful ass, she knew, but she could have done without the opinion of some random jerk like that.
A flash of recognition in the crowd pulled her attention back to the business at hand. Someone had reacted to her sign, and it took only one more heartbeat to locate a face she'd learned just that morning: a young man, head recently shaved down to stubble and wearing a shirt and jacket combo that was almost too lazy to dignify as grunge. Alongside him was a man, about Eve's own age or a little older, who caught her gaze and nodded to her directly.
"Daniel Fontenot?" she asked as they walked up. "And handler?" She could feel the boy bristle a bit at the sound of his own name, at the edge of her own ability to sense. "Or do you prefer Danny?"
The boy mumbled a reply, but the prickliness subsided.
The man with him chuckled. "We merely happen to be going in the same direction. James Huskinson." A hand was offered, and she took it. The man's surface thoughts were held tightly in place, and all she could hear were the tones of good humor and a general sense that the so-called James appreciated the sight of her in her business suit.
Eh, it was more flattering than a focus on her ass, at least. "Eve Hilton," she replied with a smile that bordered on genuine. "I guess I'm taking Danny off your hands now."
"So it would seem," James agreed. "Ah, if you wouldn't mind showing me towards the baggage claim? I need to get my gear and be at a meeting in about three hours."
"Not at all." She waved them along. "With whom, if you don't mind me asking?"
"Just my counterpart with the Boston Brigade," said the man. "Adjutant work, all very dull, I'm afraid. Foolscap wanted to have some things verified."
That got her eyebrows up. "Oh? The Mardi Gras Man of Mystery, himself? You know, I've always wondered what he really looks like."
"And you think I know?" James laughed. "My dear, I merely work for the man!"
"Worth a shot." But she laughed along. "How about you, Danny? Have a good flight?"
"Yes'm..." the boy mumbled. "Not, um, not bad. Ah guess."
"Flying doesn't agree with him," James interpreted. "But it was a smooth flight."
"Good. Oh..." A grimace hit her face as her metaphysical ears caught some incoming noise. Why were the mean and nasty thoughts always the loudest... "One moment, gentlemen. Yes?" she said to the black-suited gorilla now approaching.
No, that wasn't fair to gorillas. Better to call him a Morlock -- after all, one couldn't spell the word without MCO.
The mockery of a man flashed his badge. "Official order. The young man needs to go through proper exit screening. Now."
Her own badge was out in a flash, bearing the Whateley coat of arms and the title of Field Operative. "And here is where I remind you that exit screenings are only to be done at the point of final disembarkation," she said coldly. "So save us the petty power games, Agent..." The mook's name hadn't been visible on the badge, but his surface thoughts filled in the blanks. "...Mikkelson. One more word, and you can expect to see a formal complaint lodged against you personally."
She wasn't sure if the MCO agent actually said the word 'bitch' as she strutted away, or had only thought it. Either way, she ignored it.
James walked alongside. The man's attention was a nice change of pace; most guys preferred to stay a few feet behind her. Danny was shuffling after like a dazed duckling, but from what she could read off him, he wasn't even noticing the view. Curiosity won out over manners, and she tapped his mental space with a probe, the lightest touch she could manage. There was hardly anything under the surface to feel.
"Um, is he okay?" she asked James.
"He had a double-dose of air sickness medicine, before and during the flight. It's got him woozy, but it also reduces the risk of an incident."
Ooh, there was a euphemism if she ever heard one. Her briefing had been... well, brief, with only the barest details of one Danny Fontenot. Top of the list were two items: Don't feed him sugar or caffeine; Don't get him upset. Eve had enough experience behind her to understand the rest left unsaid. A Rager, but a relatively contained one. As long as she could keep that rat in man's clothing Mikkelson off their back. She could feel the attentive thoughts aimed at her by the MCO mook.
"Okay, here's the way to Baggage Claim," she told James, right under the huge and obvious sign that stated as much. "Will you be in town long?"
"A few days," he said. "Perhaps I shall see you around."
"Perhaps," she replied with a smile, which only grew wider as the man consciously broadcast his contact info in a manner only she could pick up. She might assume that the Cajun Counter-Force had been informed of who would be picking up the kid, but even so, someone had done his homework. She would have to grill him on that later. Over a nice Merlot. Eve watched him go all the way down the escalator to Baggage Claim and out of sight before turning back to Danny.
"Okay, kid," she said. "We've got one more to pick up and then we're off to Hogwarts."
"Huh?" Dazed eyes stared as the words trickled through. "Um, er, okay. When's this other person showin' up?"
Eve waved him along. "Her plane landed fifteen minutes ago, but she'll need to pass through Customs, which means we've got at least an hour. You hungry?"
"Good, think about what you'd like while we walk around to Terminal E. We can pick something up along the way."
They were currently in Terminal C, where the boy's flight from New Orleans had put him. To get to Terminal E, where the international flights awaited, all it took was a nice, leisurely stroll along the promenade. Since Danny's luggage was being forwarded to the next flight anyway, they wouldn't even need to exit the security zone and give that Mikkel-shit a reason to badger them.
Speaking of whom... Her mental ears strained from being held open, but she wasn't about to relax her sixth sense until she stopped getting pinged by the rat-bastard's mean-and-nasty every five seconds. Their resident Morlock just would not give up the chase.
"So what's for dinner, Danny?" It was still a little early, but she would bet the kid hadn't eaten much on the long flight from New Orleans. "There's a pretty good burger place at the end of the terminal here."
"Um, sure. Guess that'd be good..." Danny perked up a few minutes later when the burger made its appearance. That wasn't even figurative; the boy's ears actually wiggled in delight at the sight and smell of a quadruple quarter-pounder with a heart attack's worth of cheese on top. Served with a tall glass of water, because there was nothing else on the drinks menu that he'd be allowed to have.
It was a thing of beauty, that hamburger, made all the more so by the brevity of its existence in this world. Eve's own salad took twice as long for her to devour, but she wasn't a hungry teenage boy.
"Whew, Ah'm stuffed... That'uz good..."
"Glad you liked it. Now..." She was checking her digital timetable. "Ms. Magnusdottir should almost be through the security kabuki by now."
"All the stupid crap that they do to give the appearance that we're all safe," she said. "And unlike you, she does need to go through the MCO checkpoint before she can transfer. We'd better go claim her."
The MCO's checkpoint was not difficult to find; they'd certainly made the sign big enough. Pure kabuki for the sake of kabuki, of course. There were plenty of loopholes in the transit laws concerning mutants as it was, but the hoops required for air travel had only spurred the development of alternatives. She herself rarely flew for anything but official business, and yet had visited many more countries than the stamps on her passport could account for.
Mikkelson was there, of course. The idiot in need of a village must have passed them by while they ate, and then was left waiting this entire time for them to catch up, to judge from the sour look on his face. The fellow agent standing beside him looked no less sour, but one didn't even need surface thoughts to divine the meaning of the side-eye that man was throwing. A quick eyeball of the situation was enough to tell her how to start things off.
Namely, she walked right in and presented her badge to the second agent, ignoring Mikkelson entirely. "Hello, my name is Eve Hilton, here on behalf of the Academy. I believe there is someone waiting for me, Agent..."
"Gallagher," the man introduced before she even had the chance to pull his name from the surface of his thinking mind. After a cursory examination of her ID, he even offered a hand for her to shake. "You are expected. Ms. Magnusdottir is in the inner waiting area."
"Hopefully she hasn't been there too long," said Eve.
"No, no. Your timing is impeccable," said Agent Gallagher. They both ignored Mikkelson's huff of annoyance. "I've got the usual forms for you to sign, and then we'll be through here."
"What about the other one?" Mikkelson demanded.
Eve had a very deliberate sort of blink that let the world know that her brain was mentally eliding over unnecessary details. And that the red-faced Mikkelson was just one such. "So have you been working this post long?" she asked Gallagher. "I had a pick-up here last July, but didn't see you then. Did Dixon quit?"
"Nah, Agent Dixon's working mostly down in Providence these days," the man replied. "I started here a month ago. Before that, they had me picking up the pieces at the Great Plains office for a bit."
"Oh, was something the matter there?"
"You might've heard, but the director had a psychotic episode, tried to shoot a presumed suspect in FBI custody, got his face planted through a tabletop." Gallagher shrugged. "Can't say he didn't deserve it."
"What about him!?" This time Mikkelson shouted and pointed directly in Danny's face. The boy blinked groggily at the offending digit, and there was a subtle shift in the feel of his mind that started up warning signals in Eve's own.
"Oh, Agent Mikkelson!" she cried, as if just now noticing his presence. "What a surprise to see you here! I thought you were assigned to the main terminal office and check point."
"He is," said Gallagher. "And he was just getting back over there. Weren't you, Caleb?"
Mikkelson proved himself a true baseline in that moment, because the glare he sent at Gallagher completely failed to turn the other man to radioactive dust, no matter how much he'd like that. What irony if it had, though Eve would have been terribly sorry for that rare MCO man with a sense of humor.
"Now see here, miss," the human-shaped pig dropping said, thrusting a finger in her face. "I've had it up to here with you and your ignorance of proper procedure, lugging a dangerous mutant halfway across the airport when he should be safely contained, disrespecting a due officer of the law..." With each half-baked accusation, the man puffed himself up more as he did his best to be physically imposing over her.
It was to laugh, really. She'd met pre-teens more threatening than him -- though granted, her life experiences could not be considered normal, having graduated from Whateley as she had. The only things stopping her from laughing right this moment, in fact, were a lopsided sense of professionalism and the low growl now interrupting the MCO goon's power fantasy.
Danny Fontenot still stood two meters away, but the sound coming through his gritted teeth was a thing to make one wish for a few meters more. The boy's eyes had turned yellow, like those of a wolf or wildcat, and the hair on his head had lengthened just enough for it to visibly stand on end.
"Agent Mikkelson..." Eve said slowly. "While you doubtless wouldn't mind an incident to pin on someone, unless you quiet down soon then you shall be the incident. I doubt you would like that very much. Back off, and let me and Agent Gallagher conduct our proper business here."
"Caleb, get going," said the other agent.
"I've said all I have to say," Mikkelson asserted. "You better watch yourself -- ah!" The man flinched as a snarl sounded from Daniel. "Ah, yes. I'll leave this to you, Gallagher."
The man's path to the exit made as wide an arc around Danny as possible. Those wild yellow eyes followed him out, but though the kid's legs trembled, Danny did not leap to give chase.
"If you could let us into the waiting area," she said quietly to Gallagher, "I think we could use a breather to calm down."
"On it," said the agent.
She approached Danny carefully, no sudden motions, as her mental ears strained to catch every fragment of nuance she could glean from the boy's surface thoughts. There wasn't a lot of actual thinking going on there; rather, raw emotion bubbled through like a wellspring.
"Danny?" she said in her most soothing tones. "Let's go sit down, okay? The bad man is gone..."
That got a whole lot of activity from the boy's brain, but it flew past before she could catch anything. Still, he did relax as she continued talking, letting her lead him through the door to the waiting area. By the time she had him seated, a most hangdog expression was starting on his face.
"M... Ah'm sorry." The words came out half as sobs. "Ah, Ah promised Ms. Rizin' Ah'd stay calm, not let nothin' get to me, an'... hic." He took an offered tissue from her and blew his nose loudly. "An' Ah let 'im get to me anyhow."
"Hey." Eve sat down beside him and patted his shoulder. "Agent Mikkelson walked away on his own two legs, still attached, so you didn't really lose it, right?"
"Ah, Ah guess so..."
The door to the inner section of the MCO station slid open, and Gallagher walked through with a young woman who had to be Eve's second charge for the day. In her mind's eye, she quickly confirmed the identity from the file she'd glanced at before she'd arrived at the airport: Sera Eir Magnusdottir. Mother American, father Icelandic. Supposedly fluent in English, though Eve had been asked to confirm that if possible. Sera looked somewhat different from her profile photo, longer in face and body, but that was to be expected. To Eve's experienced eye, the young woman was only beginning to develop into her Body Image Template, which left one looking gawky and half-done for an embarrassing period of adolescence. Her heart went out to the girl.
So did her hand, though more literally in that case. "Ms. Magnusdottir? Eve Hilton, from Whateley. Good to have you here. Was your flight a comfortable one?"
"Ah, yes." The hand that gripped Eve's was clammy and nerveless for a second, then it squeezed hard enough make the woman hide a wince. "Ah, my apologies. It is this strength, you see..."
"Understood." Eve flashed her winning smile. "Well then, let's get you two on the flight to Berlin, then. New Hampshire, of course." Danny gave her a funny look, but Sera chuckled.
Nice kids, she thought as she escorted them through the rest of the airport hassle. Whateley would be good for them. Probably. Most likely. One could never tell some days at that school. She herself had certainly her share of problems, but she'd turned out well enough.
----Monday, October 10th, 2016
--The Crystal Hall
Sometimes it was hard to remember that Whateley was just a school like any other, because it hid all the common points really well. Lunch, for example. In Danny's experience, school lunch was a thing to avoid at all costs. Who'd want to eat cardboard pizza and broccoli mush, anyway? But at the cafeteria in the Crystal Hall, it was like a whole all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant without any of those limitations on the 'all' part. Danny's plate was filled up with his usual meat-lover's special plus salad, bigger than any meal from his old life, and it was dwarfed by some of the overloaded platters that passed by.
Only Pat Barnes was at the usual table; everyone else must've been running late that day. With a grunt of acknowledgment, Danny sat down and opened his napkin over his lap.
His nose gave him a half-second warning, a scent of muscle cream and peaches that he'd come to associate with one person in particular. That half-second was enough for him to stay calm and not smash the girl out of the park -- or the cafeteria -- when she ran into him from behind and gave him a hug.
Not that Rachel would have minded; she seemed to enjoy occasionally getting thrown around.
"Hey, boyfriend!" Rachel burbled. "Avsel talked to me about talking to you and you know what? She said yes to being on the team. Wooh!" The hug tightened around his chest until his so-called girlfriend buried her face in the back of his head. "Oh! this is going to be so awesome and amazing and... is that a new shampoo you're using?"
"Er, yeah," he admitted.
"Smells great." Rachel released her hold on his upper body, only to weasel and squirm her way around the chair and into his lap. Planting a quick kiss on his lips, she said, "Now, I have to go finish lunch. Got a quick match lined up with Erica before next period starts. You stay out of trouble till I get back, and then we can get into trouble together, okay?"
"Er, okay?" His lips weren't quite working again yet.
"Oh, and we still need a fourth person for the team. I'll leave that up to you, boyfriend. Bye-bye!" And she was gone before his lips managed to form a complaint.
"That girl does not stop, does she?" Pat mused.
"C-can we talk 'bout somethin' else?"
"Sure. Fun or personal?" Pat's eyes were a kind of hazel that day, shading towards green, but the look of concern in them was something that rarely changed. "If we need some privacy..."
"Um, no..." Um, yes, actually, but he couldn't stop worrying about what other people would think if he ran out of the cafeteria screaming, like he wanted. That would be about the only way to get any privacy in the crowded hall, though.
Across the table from him, Pat was tapping his chin thoughtfully. "Okay. I think I've got a solution to the privacy issue, but you'll have to do something to help."
"Pay attention." Pat took a deep breath, and the entire cafeteria seemed to fade into the background. Everyone and everything was still out there, but only Pat seemed real. "Okay. Maybe a little too much attention. I'm still working the kinks out of this."
"Whatcha even doin'?" asked Danny.
"My power literally commands attention," said Pat, "so it's very difficult for me to make everyone not notice me. But I was thinking that if one person is watching closely, I could force all that on just them and lock everyone else out."
"Is it workin'?"
"I think so. Just keep your eyes on me and keep talking. So what's up?"
"The ceiling." Danny grimaced at his own lame joke. "An'... ya heard about Bev this mornin'?"
"Kind of hard not to."
"Well, Ah'm feelin'... kinda like that, Ah think. Some mornin's, all Ah wanna do is smash the mirror an' make it quit showin' me, well, me. An' Ah know that ain't healthy, but..."
"Hold on a moment," said Pat. "Have you talked about this with Dr. Shu?"
"Y-yeah, a little."
"And what did he have to say?"
"As damn little as possible."
That got a chuckle from Pat. "Yeah, that sounds about right. Well then, let me ask you a question which I know the doc won't, not without prompting at least. Look me in the eyes, right now, and tell me true: Are you a boy, or a girl?"
"Look at me, Danny." Pat didn't try to grab him or touch him in any way, but the off-colored eyes kept him locked in. "You don't have to answer right away, or at all, but it's an important question. From my own personal experience, it sounds to me that you're suffering from physical and gender dysmorphia."
"Take me, for example. I am a boy. I know that I am a boy, and that I have always been a boy, but my body has decided not to agree with me on this. When I am out and about as a girl, even if it's necessary for some reason, I feel stressed because that's not really me. Is this beginning to sound familiar?"
"Mebbe... a little..." He could feel the tears welling up, but he couldn't break eye contact long enough to blink them away. "But Ah can't change back. An' they keep sayin' Ah'll get used to it, but..."
Pat's smile was long gone. "I know. The administration can be very body-literalist. And I'll admit that the classes on gender conformation and appropriate skills for girls are useful if you're working with exemplars and BITs, but neither of us have a Body Image Template to reinforce our sense of self-as-now-gender, now do we? My body changed, but my mind and heart have not. Not like Chessa's, for example. Or a majority of the changeling wing of the dorm."
"What can Ah do, though?" Danny groaned.
"First, talk to Dr. Shu. A real talk, a long one. Tell him straight up how you feel, and then demand to know what the options are. No one's allowed to recommend this stuff, because most attempts to alter or go against a BIT end badly, but you're a Shifter. Maybe there's something to be done. You won't know until you ask."
"Ah, Ah just might..."
"Now, about Rachel... No! Eyes on me, remember?"
"Sorry..." He released the squint and kept his eyeballs unrolled. "It's just... yer right. This body don't feel right, an' everything she does to me feels good in the wrongest ways..."
Pat was nodding. "I can vet her for you, see if she's safe to come out to about your past."
"Would it make a difference?"
"You'd be amazed. Simply knowing about another person's problem goes a long way. Look, she likes to practice her punches in the gym around the time I have my morning martial arts proxy lesson. She usually chats me up anyway, so I'll just see to it then and let you know later."
With a long breath out, Pat relaxed, and the background of the Crystal Hall became a little more real again. "Whew, I managed that for longer than I thought I could."
"Hey!" Pat's official twin sister Chessa trotted over. "I've been looking for you two for, like, five minutes. Where were you?"
"In a conference," said Pat.
"What, really?" Chessa eyeballed the both of them. "Fill me in later, okay? But for now, consume mass quantities!"
Chessa's Energizer Special was a good three times as heavy as Danny's own plate. Pat made all the usual sarcastic remarks about his sister's appetite while Danny dug in. There was more than enough to think about, but not nearly enough time to finish lunch while thinking about it. He saved the worrying for later.
----Tuesday, September 27th, 2016
--Poe Cottage, common room
One of the most important things to cultivate in life, Chessa had found, was a proper sense of curiosity. That meant that she was always working on her ability to notice when something new or interesting was afoot, because you couldn't rely on anyone to tell you when the cool stuff happened. Not till after the fact, at least. By the time you heard, it was often too late. So when she saw the sophomore known as Mganga descend the main staircase of Poe and head out the door, she paid attention. The tall, athletic young man from Kenya was a serious sort who rarely left the dorm after dinner, and yet there he was, dressed nicely in his uniform with his medical holdout belt clipped around his waist.
Her history book slapped shut. Mr. Duchamp's homework could wait. This looked more interesting.
"Whatcha up to?" she asked, skipping quickly to match the young man's steps. Mganga was long-legged and stick-thin, and just by looking at him none would have guessed that three years ago his name had been Victoria.
Well, none would have guessed that she used to be a two-hundred-plus pound loser named Chester, either. It was funny how the world worked out sometimes.
"We have a new arrival," Mganga told her. "Someone much like myself, it would seem. I have been asked to give him a proper welcome and explain things in private."
"Oh... can I come too?" Kind of a pointless question, what with the two of them already being out the front door. "I'd ping Pat, too, but he's having his regular girlfriend chat now, and I'd hate to interrupt."
"Something the matter?"
"No... well, yes, but it's the usual. Y'know..." Her hands fluttered as they tried to encapsulate the totality of existence. "...stuff."
That was the nice thing about Whateley, and about Poe in general. No matter how actually, literally, honest-to-God insane and/or out of this world the problem was, there was always someone there who got it. Chessa quickened her steps. Whoever this new kid was, she wanted to be a someone for him.
Out in front of the school, a long driveway winded its way uphill from the main gates and into a circle surrounding a brick-paved plaza. In the middle of it all, the statue of Noah Whateley stood, his face grim and troubled as only a man who had seen too much of the world could be. At least, that's how she remembered it; since the start of school she hadn't seen the statue left unmolested even one day. The last time she'd wandered past, it had been wearing a Wookie mask. Today, it had on an old metal helmet with a glass porthole, as well as a jacket with the words MISKATONIC UNIVERSITY DIVING CLUB on the back. The logo looked like an octopus had exploded.
They weren't the only ones there to wait. Sensei Tolman had on her most official-looking suit, with the only visible weapons being her own two hands. Her hair was even out of its habitual knot.
Next to the teacher was one of the RAs from Whitman, a tall and slightly red-skinned young woman, straight and tall as a tree with a mane of hair to match the foliage. And next to that one were two familiar faces.
"Tanya? Morgana?" She hopped right over to them. "What are you doing here?"
"Sequoia asked us to come," the lavender-toned Tanya replied. "You?"
"Oh, I'm just tagging along with Mganga."
"Brought your own girl-squad, Sequoia?" the young man from Kenya teased. "Worried there might be trouble?"
"Says the guy who brought his medical kit," the arboreal RA retorted. "Whereas I made sure to bring someone who could speak some basic Icelandic -- which is amazingly relevant here -- and someone strong enough to hold off a potential Rager." From the slight gulp Chessa heard from Morgana, the Welsh girl was not so sure about that.
"Not to worry," she whispered over to Morgana. "He gets to punching, and I'll sneeze at him, okay?"
"Please no," the girl said back. "We don't need the extra property damage."
"Hey now, my aim is getting better..." Really, what was the point of having an electric line attack breath weapon if no one would let her use it? "So," she said, turning to Tanya. "Icelandic, huh?"
The girl's blush was more mauve than lavender. "My godmother's from there," Tanya admitted. "Silver Sylph. She was on my mom's old team."
"So how do you say 'Hi, nice to meetcha'?"
"Um... Góðan daginn, gaman að kynnast þér... I think," Tanya said.
"Hey, they're here!" Morgana shouted.
A mini-van was halfway up the drive, and it cleared the last half with record speed. Tires screeched as it whipped around Old Whateley in his diving helmet and skidded to a halt in front of them. The driver stepped out, legs first. It took a while for the lady to get the rest of her body out because those things went for miles.
Chessa might have only had the memories of proper gonads at this point, but she could still appreciate the view. Next to her, Morgana was carefully examining a passing cloud while Tanya turned mauve in the face.
"Done showing off yet, Heartbreaker?" Sensei Tolman called out.
"I do have to live up to my reputation sometimes, sensei," said the driver. When the woman finally got out of the vehicle, the rest of her matched the legs. Someone's BIT had been very kind, indeed. "Now, who'd you get to help with the luggage?"
"Oh, now I see..." Morgana muttered. Chessa only chuckled as she walked with her fellow freshgirls to the rear of the minivan, which opened to reveal several steamer trunks and suitcases. All but two had blue and white tages that read 'Icelandic Airlines.' Those two without were also the lightest ones by far. "Hey, Tanya, looks like you've got your work cut out for you."
The two new students were out of the car by now. It was easy to guess which one was the foreign kid; the girl with the pale blonde hair was dressed lightly for the early fall evening weather, and none of her style looked American. The boy, on the other hand, was bundled up in a beat-up old leather jacket with a heavy scarf around his neck and a knit cap over his ears. She wondered what he was going to do when it got really cold in the evenings.
"Sera Eir Magnusdottir," said the woman called Heartbreaker. "Also known as Einherjar. I'm guessing... Whitman?" Sequoia nodded as she stepped over to claim the girl. "And also introducing Daniel Fontenot."
"Danny," the boy mumbled.
"...also known as Wilder. Going to... Twain?"
"Poe," said Mganga. He came over to shake the boy's hand. "Nice to meet you, Danny. The name is Devon, but everyone calls me Mganga. Don't ask me why they go with the harder one to say. I really don't get it myself. I have been asked to help mentor you this semester."
"...figured," Heartbreaker said under her breath. Chessa wasn't sure if anyone else heard. Apparently the dorm's reputation preceded it.
Not that she cared; mixed nuts had always been among her favorite snacks. While Mganga was busy with Danny, she walked up to Sera, stuck out a hand and said "Goh-than duggin, gaman athy canasta there."
The sound of Tanya's palm hitting forehead was quite audible. "That's not how you pronounce it..." the girl said.
"Ah, it is okay," said Sera. "I... think I understand. So you are... in the same dorm as me?"
"Nah. Well, Tanya over there is, but I'm actually in Poe with him." Chessa chucked her chin towards Danny.
What little smile was on Sera's face vanished. "Yes. Him. I don't want to sound like a bitch, but you are welcome to him." The Icelandic girl took the handle of one steamer trunk, the biggest of the lot, and lifted it easily. Tanya and Sequoia grabbed the rest, and the three of them departed for Whitman.
"Everything okay on the way here?" Sensei Tolman asked Heartbreaker.
"Okay enough. Just flight fatigue getting to them." The woman shrugged. "So, if I am no longer needed..."
"What," said the martial arts instructor. "You've got a date lined up for this evening?"
"Oh how I wish. But no, that's for tomorrow, so I should be getting back to Berlin for the return hop to Boston."
"Make your report to the office and get outta here."
"Aye-aye, ma'am." Stepping over to Danny, Heartbreaker gave him a pat on the shoulder. "Hang in there, alright? I know it's been rough so far, but it's going to get better."
"Th-thanks," said Danny. "Ah, Ah 'preciate it." Chessa wasn't sure what accent that was, other than South Of Here.
And then it was time to show their new friend to Poe. With only the two bags to carry between them, Chessa felt like the fourth wheel on a tricycle. Mganga and the Welsh girl had enough muscle between them to manage a pair of suitcases, so that left her free to chat up Danny.
"So... mind if I ask what was up with Miss Not-To-Be-A-Bitch?"
There was just enough light left in the day for her to see the boy blush. "Ah... Ah said Ah liked her hair," he admitted. "An'... Ah guess she thought it was weird. Didn't... Ah didn't mean it that way, but..."
"Hoo-boy, I know what you mean," she said. "You open your mouth to say something that seems completely normal, and you don't realize until about three seconds too late that it's only normal if you're still the opposite... er..." The words cut out, or rather were cut off by a gesture from Mganga. "Let's pick this up again when we're in Poe, okay?" she finished lamely.
Soon enough they were at the dorm. Mganga helped Danny move his stuff to his room -- one of the specials on the first floor -- leaving Chessa and Morgana to round up the usual suspects from the Poe freshman class, plus a few sophomores and tweens.
They'd told her that changelings, mutants with transgender alterations, were supposed to be rare. Chessa couldn't have told by the turnout in the Poe common room. She and her completely-official-on-paper twin brother Pat were there to represent, of course, as were Morgana's buddies in the oddly named Mutant Mayhem Machine: Laura, Bailey, Bianca. Peregrino and Nina -- no, it was Noah tonight -- sat uneasily on the edge of one sofa, while the other end was taken by the sophomore trio of Gwen, Leslie, and Chris-not-Chrissy. She'd been informed repeatedly not to use the diminutive for that last girl. Only Flower, RA for the freshman now-girls, was there for the upperclassmen, though. It must've been a busy night for homework.
"Okay, everybody," said the young man from Kenya, with Danny by his side. "Wilder here is joining our cottage from tonight. I've already filled him in on things, but let's not overload him with the crazier details just yet."
"Can't be any crazier than mah life," the boy grumbled.
"You would be surprised."
There wasn't much more to their little meet-and-greet beyond sharing names and offering sympathies, so the common room was half-deserted again after a few minutes. Danny had taken the introductions stoically enough -- or maybe his brain was just broken, seeing how he was slumped on the sofa seat.
"Hey," she said. "It's a lot, right? Well, we're here for you."
"Even if Ah'm a crazy rage-beast sometimes?" the boy said.
"Sure. We all have bad days."
"And we'll introduce you to our little brother Marcus when he gets home from the labs," Pat added. "You two are neighbors now, and I'm sure he'd like a third person for those games of his."
The boy from the bayou sniffled. "Thanks. Ah... well, Ah..." A deeper sniff. "Um, you said you were a boy, right?" he asked Pat.
"That I am." It took some experience with Pat to tell when he was nervous. Usually the best sign was when his posture went absolutely perfect and his voice was even and pleasant, motoring on without stopping... like now. "And as I am sure you know, it's a very complicated matter to discuss. However, I do have some interesting literature in my room..."
"Only, you smell like a girl," Danny continued, the inertia of his speech undaunted by the flow of Pat's. Another sniff. "A girl on her..."
"So why don't I go get some brochures for you right now, okay? Buh-bye!"
Danny blinked at the sudden Pat-shaped hole in the scene before him. Fatigued cogs in his brain finally clicked, and: "Shee-yit, Ah really should shut mah trap before Ah get in more trouble."
"Don't mind Pat," she reassured him. "He's antsy right now because of, well, you know. And when he freaks he just sorta goes on auto-pilot. He'll be okay. Probably calling his girlfriend Dina again for emotional support, but..." Her mouth clamped shut at the sight of Danny's hangdog face. "Just get some rest, okay? Whateley's a big, new, scary place, I know, but we're all in this together. You are not alone."
Those were the kindest words she could manage, though they were as much for herself as for him. Sometimes they all needed a reminder, and it was better to get Danny off on the right foot before he got to experience the less fun parts of the school experience here.
----Monday, October 10th, 2016
--Whateley, after classes
All through his classes after lunch, the same question bounced through Danny's head: Who could he ask to join the team? It wasn't as difficult to handle as the other question, the one Pat had posed, and he wasn't the only one wondering about training teams. It was a big topic of discussion among the freshmen of Whateley. No one was expected to be on a team this soon -- and from what he'd heard, it wasn't uncommon to wait till sophomore or even junior year to decide -- but there was a sort of buzz when people talked about this person or that person joining up. The last few days in particular, ever since the freshmen of the Mutant Mayhem Machine had gone up against the sophomores of the Western European Alliance in what everyone was calling the Beret Brawl, the topic of teams was all anyone really seemed to talk about.
So why was it so hard to find someone?
"Sorry," Pat had told him. "I'm spoken for."
"His girlfriend," Chessa had helpfully provided. "She mutated yet?"
"No, but she's claiming that her eyes have changed color. From brown to slightly lighter brown."
Most of his other prospects were equally negative. Marcus and Bev were in junior high, and couldn't join a team even if they wanted to. Most of the guys in the English Language Learners class were already in the American Mongolian Wrestling Federation, which would probably be an official training team soon, the way they were going at it. And it seemed like half the changelings in Poe were founding members of the Mutant Mayhem Machine.
This did not leave many people who cared to hang out with him, much less wanted to be his teammate.
But Rachel was expecting him to find someone anyway, in that cheerfully optimistic way that simply assumed the world was her oyster.
He hated shellfish.
By the end of the day, he was getting desperate. There were a few students in his sixth period math class that he could feel comfortable saying hi to. Not that he expected them to say yes or anything, but Ms. Rizing had encouraged him to reach out to others anyway.
"Hey, what's up?" Tanya asked as he walked up after class. "Oh, I almost forgot, but Nemean says hello from Memphis. I was chatting with him and Sylph after... um, after Saturday."
Danny wasn't sure what color it made when a lavender girl turned green around the gills, but it wasn't a pretty one for Tanya. He felt sorry for her; he knew what it was like to do something stupid and damaging and then regret it later. That jerk Gouyasse was still in the infirmary, last he'd heard.
"Mebbe Ah'll call 'im up later, mahself. Could use some advice."
"Oh? What's the sitch?"
He sighed. "Rachel's gotten it into her head to form her own trainin' team. An' Ah gotta help her find a fourth."
"Not I." The words shot out of Tanya's mouth. "Even if I weren't on one already, such as it is... no. Sorry. I don't like how Rachel plays."
From how he'd heard it, Tanya's Day-1 fight with Rachel in the quad had been a sight to see. His so-called girlfriend definitely remembered it with fondness as one of her better brawls. "Wasn't gonna ask you," he reassured her. "But... wouldja know if anyone's interested?"
Lavender lips pursed. "Hm... how about Sera?" she suggested. "I know she was talking about training, and that PK halberd of hers would be a cool thing to have on your side."
His ears went limp. "Um, Ah don't think she likes me much..." He winced on the inside. Of all the stupid things he'd ever done, complimenting the wrong girl on her hair was not one he'd think to regret, but Sera Eir Magnusdottir was still giving him the stink-eye, almost two weeks later. "But, um, thanks anyway."
"Well then, how about..." The lavender girl got a funny look on her face, then turned and waved to the far side of the room, where a few students were still in the middle of study planning. "Hey, Mist! You still looking for a few?"
"It's Malcontent," the other girl replied. Her hair was a blue to rival Tanya's own light purple.
"Yeah, but not until the paperwork goes through. So, still looking?"
"What of it?" The girl's name, her real name, was Riley. He was pretty sure of that. They'd probably passed each other a dozen times in the last two weeks, not even counting this class they were both in. Damned if he could remember talking with her before, though. Not even her code name rang a bell. Either of them.
Tanya motioned towards him. "Only, Danny here is in the market for a team-up."
"Er, Rachel is, actually..." Some part of him felt the need to keep repeating that fact. This wasn't his idea, he wanted to stay low, but...
But Riley's eyes were already gone narrow. "Rachel. From our cottage?" Any question of whether the blue-haired girl and his so-called girlfriend had gotten acquainted was answered in a single cuss word. "No. Hell no. Fuck no. I don't have enough words to say no. In fact..." The final word turned out to be sign language, as Riley grabbed her left bicep with her right hand and then delivered a single-fingered salute in his direction.
"Eh, it was worth a try," Tanya muttered as the other girl stormed away. "I know Rachel thinks highly of her."
"Prolly cuz she puts up a good fight," said Danny, his ears were drooping, and his feet had already begun the slow shuffle to the door.
"Yeah, sounds right. But in any case, I gotta get going. You too, I guess. Good luck with everything," she said to his back as he slinked away in embarrassment.
Dinner was lonely that evening. Everyone who usually sat with him was out doing more important things, and his steak was not much of a conversationalist. There was much jaw exercise, but nothing vocal. And rare as it was, his meal would've only said 'moo' anyway.
He wasn't too set on returning to Poe Cottage, either, but he had homework to take care of. Ms. Barnes had assigned them a non-literary task that morning: to watch the six o'clock news and be prepared to talk about it the next class. She'd even promised him and Sam Warner that she'd have the common room TV reserved for them.
Which was why, when he finally got there, he found the teacher and assistant dorm mom holding court from the central sofa. Bev and Marcus took up space to either side of her, and from the griping it seemed that Ms. Barnes's junior high class had gotten the same homework that day.
"Right on time, Mr. Fontenot," she said. "Grab a seat; it's almost time for the news to begin."
"Aw, do you really have to do this now?" whined one of the girls in the back corner -- Lightsaber, he thought her code name was. He mainly remembered her from the friendly picnic tournament two weekends back, where she'd gone up against Tanya and lost.
Lightsaber glared at him as he squeezed past. He wasn't exactly sure why this girl in particular didn't like him, but he took it as a given at this point that he'd said something stupid.
"It behooves us all to pay attention to current events," Ms. Barnes tutted. "Big things are in motion, and much of it affects you... well, us all. So while ignorance may be bliss, it's hardly bulletproof."
The first few stories were local news, and as high up in the Miskatonic Valley as they were, the news was odd enough to rival a day at Whateley. One crop circle, a short rain of fish, and the one-year anniversary of a serial killer's last known victim; the local news anchor made it all sound so normal and boring. And that was not something that should've been said about someone called the Ritual Redhead Reaper.
Only when the news moved to the regional anchor did the presentation switch to anything approaching enthusiasm. The feeling was not matched by the mixed audience of teens who'd gathered in the common area in search of something to do besides homework.
"Ugh, this guy," said Sergio. He and Swerve were sitting over by Sam, and together they thumbed their noses at the TV set on the wall. The screen was currently dominated by a hawk-nosed, slick-haired individual identified as Senator Alteria of New York. "Upstate asshole," Sergio continued. "Keeps saying the whole state would be better off it certain elements of the city would just shove off."
"So he's a loudmouth," said Morgana from her seat by the fireplace. "What else is new? Politicians speak out their arsehole all the time."
"Well that arsehole's running for governor," said Sergio.
Ms. Barnes was nodding. "And the sad thing is, he might just win," she said.
"Um, how?" asked Swerve. "People don't just vote for assholes."
"Oh you sweet summer child..." The teacher shook her head. "People do just that, all the time. Especially if they think they like what said ass... ahem, arsehole is spewing. In that man's case, he's taken the Gene Pledge, had the full metagene screening, and is a founding member of the Rights of Man coalition. Which tells us..."
"When he's talking shit about the city, he's really talking about mutants," Sergio concluded.
"And the Rights of Man propaganda loves to frame things in terms of safety and security," said the teacher. "As in, it's not safe to have people like us around."
"He's got a point," Danny said. He felt like curling up on himself. "Ah know Ah'd feel safer without someone like me around..."
From behind him, the girl known as Zapper reached in to ruffle his hair. With the exception of cobalt blue eyes, the dark-skinned energizer strongly resembled her aunt in New Orleans. Even the smell was the same. "Don't worry, fuzzy. You can't stop being you, but they could stop being assholes if they wanted. Their fault if they don't."
"Ahem, it's 'arseholes,'" Sergio reminded, sparking off another round of laughter.
"But they don't want to change," said Lightsaber.
"Yeah, which is why they're such big ass... arseholes."
Senator Alteria's brief moment of fame had long since passed off screen, but the insults continued through several less interesting news items. The program rotated through each of New Hampshire's closer neighbors, including a feel-good story about some puppies in Ontario, before ending with Rhode Island. It would have been nice if they'd saved the best for last, but instead the words TRIAL FOR ILLEGAL MUTANT DUO PROCEDES dominated half the screen. The other half showed a pair of older women, both in prison orange and with MCO-provided collars around their necks.
"What, they look like they've already been convicted!" yelled Morgana. "What the hell is wrong with this country?"
"I guess we can agree on something," Lightsaber sniffed. "I read about this; my mom sent me the newsclipping. All it talked about was the 'mutant menace' and how it threatened children. And you know what?" Blonde hair bristled with indignation. "I did my due diligence, checked other sources, and those two ladies were just running a summer camp! The one with the grey hair's even a healer, taking care of scrapes and breaks, and those bigots are going to punish her for that! Why, the News Evolved website said..."
"Bullshit." The expletive was a bullet in the heart of Lightsaber's rant. All eyes were on Swerve, whose face was a fuming red to match the fuzz on his head. "I don't care what your website says. Those two deserve whatever they get."
"Because they're mutants?" the girl shouted back. The paired devisor bracelets on her wrists sparkled and glowed. "You've got a lot of nerve to say something like that, here of all places!"
"Because they're a pair of uptight, holier-than-thou bitches who should be burning in hell! Swerve screamed. "And you can go join them, you Amazon asskisser! You have no idea what you're talking about!"
Neither did anyone else in the room, it seemed -- know what Swerve was talking about, at least. Ms. Barnes had her gaze firmly on the speedster's face as she said, "Zander, I think you need to find someplace quiet for a while. Now, I know that you won't listen to anything I could say, but if I ring up Dr. Yeager and ask him to call you, would you let him listen to you?"
It was hard to recognize Swerve just then. Face scrunched up, nostrils flared, and still red all over, the boy sent a middle finger at Lightsaber before zooming up the stairs.
"I shall take that as a yes, then." Ms. Barnes sighed as she tapped a message into her phone. "Oh, and Eileen?"
"What?" Lightsaber looked about ready for a time-out, herself.
"You should do your research better. Pop quiz: just what sort of summer camp were those ladies running? If you cannot answer that, then I suggest you dig deeper into the details. And then apologize to Zander later."
"Apologize to him?" The girl turned the pronoun into a swear word with only a slight twist of intonation.
"Yes," was all the teacher would say. The girl's reply was even shorter, being mostly the sound of footsteps as she stormed off.
Ms. Barnes seemed to forever have her head stuck in a left-right shaking pattern. "I shall need to warn Mrs. Horton about this, but I do so hate having to ruin her evening off. Ah well, there's nothing to be done about it. Everyone else, enjoy yourselves, but please, no brawling over the TV remote."
"Who, us?" Morgana asked in a too-sweet voice that got everyone else to laugh again.
"Okay, let me amend myself: no obvious property damage."
The choice of programming didn't matter to Danny. Leaning back against the sofa cushions, he let the others argue it out. Instead, he wondered what he would say to Swerve the next time he saw the boy. There were things he'd seen in Zander's face that he could recognize all too well, even if he didn't know how to talk about them. He hoped that Dr. Yeager guy could help.
"How are you holding up?" His eyes blinked open, and then up at a grinning moon of white with two blue stars that resolved itself into Zapper's smiley face. "Aunt Renée's been asking, yanno."
"She has?" It still seemed odd to refer to Zapper's aunt as anything other than the Crescent Muse. Even her 'secret identity' as Nola Rizing seemed too familiar, even now that he knew it was a fake for publicity purposes. He wasn't quite ready to call her Aunt Renée, even if it did feel sometimes like the superhero had adopted him.
"Well, yeah." Zapper nudged him over so she could sit. "It's kinda cute how she talks around the whole trans thing. Should probably let her know that you know that I know that she knows sometime. Yanno?"
"Yeah..." He tilted his head back and blinked some more. "Dunno how mucha the craziness is mah life, an' how much is the school."
"Amen, brother." Zapper had her arms back and over the top of the sofa as she stretched. Danny had to remind himself not to stare, that the girl wouldn't have been interested in him anyway. Instead, she seemed to be aiming for the attention of Bailey, who was sitting with her friends across the way.
"All right with you?" he asked back.
"Huh? Yeah. Just... Nah, it's silly."
"Go on," he prompted.
"I just need to ask Bailey out on a date. Something proper, yanno? Was gonna try last weekend, only that Brawl business got in the way." The girl shrugged.
"Mebbe a picnic by the flowers while it's still warm out?" he suggested. "Ah... Ah always wanted someone to ask me out on a date like that, back when..."
She patted his hands. "That's just adorable, fuzzy, but you can do the asking-out, too."
"Yeah, but Ah dunno if, well..." He tapped his forehead. "Ain't all right up here, an' the whole rage thing... Rachel's 'bout the only girl who'd give me the time 'a day. Er, no offense."
"Only interested girl," she corrected for him, still grinning.
"An' Ah'm not sure Ah wanna do anythin' like that anyway," he finished lamely.
Zapper laughed. "It's too bad you've been claimed by a girl who thinks fight-nights make for date nights."
"Yeah, right..." But that did remind him... "D'ya... Do you like fightin'? Ah mean, Ah saw ya go against Franklin at the picnic tournament, but y'all didn't do a lotta fightin'..."
"Before we turned it into a rap battle?" Zapper laughed some more. "It was all in good fun, even the fighting. And if I want to apprentice with Aunt Renée in the future, I'm gonna have to learn, right? That's half of why I'm here!"
He didn't ask about the other half. Zapper was blowing kisses at a blushing Bailey. Instead: "Um, Rachel's tryin' to get a trainin' team together..."
"Yeah, really. But we need one more, an', um... Do you wanna?"
Cobalt eyes sized him up and down. "That'd certainly be an experience," she said. "Who else is on the team so far?"
"Um, me an' Rachel. And Avsel," he added. "Fast girl, wears a scarf on her head all the time?"
"Oh yeah, I've seen her around." Zapper gazed up at the ceiling for a moment. "Sure, why not? I'm in."
"Really?" Somehow he had not expected that response. Pulling out his phone, he started to text. "Um, are ya sure, for sure? Cuz as soon as Ah send Rachel the news, ain't no way she's gonna let ya back out."
"Sure I'm sure. Text away."
His nervous fingers made so many typoes, it was a wonder that Rachel could read it at all. Nevertheless, her reply was immediate: 「Awesome! Celebration sparring match @ usual? C U in 1/2 an hour!」
"See?" said Zapper. "That's how you ask someone out on a date."
"But it's gettin' late... Dunno if Ah can..." His complaint was was cut off by a second text, a cut-and-paste from the Whateley regulations explaining how UltraViolent-designated kids could schedule practice matches against each other at all hours if necessary to relieve stress. It was followed by a 「No excuses. Fun times!」
"She's got you there," said Zapper.
"Yeah..." He let out one final sigh. "Just wish Ah knew why she's so stuck on me, outta all the fighty-types on campus."
One long hug from his new teammate later, he was off to grab his raggedy set of fighting clothes. No sense ruining a new pair of pants or a shirt just yet.
----Thursday, September 29th, 2016
A lot of people liked to rag on Whateley. They said it was weird, that it was dangerous. Rachel Altus couldn't see why they were complaining. She and everyone else here had come in knowing what kind of school this was, and so far nothing had really surprised her. As far as she was concerned, swaggering down the halls with a big grin on her face, everything was exactly as she'd thought it would be. Normal where it counted, different where it was cool. As for dangerous, well, she hadn't had any problems with that so far.
Rachel took it as a matter of course that other students cleared out of her path as she walked around.
To her left and slightly behind, Erica von Abendritter shuffled along nervously. Great kid, helluva punch, but a bit lacking in the confidence department. Rachel figured she could help out with that. She liked self-assurance in her sparring partners; it meant they weren't likely to run away too soon.
"Seriously, you and me need to have another go sometime soon," she said to the blonde. "I'm itching for a rematch!"
"Um, I nearly sent you through a wall last time," Erica pointed out. The girl rubbed her knuckles at the memory.
"So you did, and if you're lucky you might do it again sometime," said Rachel. "And honestly, if Security weren't such prudes about it, I'd challenge you right now. I need the warm-up."
"Are your ribs even healed yet?"
"Mostly." She ignored the twinge as she shrugged. "I'm just saying that there's too much red tape about these things. Coordinating schedules, renting a fight room, keeping the infirmary on the line -- and that's only for the sanctioned stuff." She snorted her annoyance. "Heaven forbid if you just jump someone, even if they really deserved it, because you have to worry about Security surveillance and blind spots, or else your ass gets hauled up for nine different infractions and then they add insult to injury by limiting your legitimate avenues even more." She doubted her face showed even a quarter of the disgust she felt. Deep inside her soul, she could feel the spirit of old Honey Boo-Boo, the late and lamented honey badger from the Rosevear Zoo back home, stir in sympathy. "It's like they don't want me starting anything!"
"Maybe with extenuating circumstances?" Like a good kid, Erica was trying to cheer her up.
She shook her fuzzy brown head. "Nope. Start a fight, get in trouble. I mean, if someone else's fight happens to fall in my lap, but--"
But the universe was her friend today. Down the hall a ways, where the English classes all seemed to congregate, a dull shout rattled the door to one room. Half a second later and the door was rattled off its hinges as a student was thrown through it. Rachel didn't recognize the boy, but he sure did take a tumble. Leaping over to him, she did a quick vitals chck, figured him to be reasonably okay, and then got to the important part: "Hey! Tag me in! Nod! Anything!"
Seriously, this was too good an opportunity to let pass. It was time to seize the day -- or as her t-shirt phrased it, the nutsack. Carpe scrotum.
The boy wasn't down for the count, though she figured most would've been. Not her, of course -- she'd bounced right back up from worse. And that's what the boy did, too, flipping himself to his feet as if the passage through the door was nothing. "No, no, ain't gonna..." he mumbled, his eyes glinting a feral gold as he stared back through the hole at a surprised clown face. "Oh, the fuck with it."
That was her kind of attitude. Her kind of language, too. She'd have liked this kid for those two things alone. But then he leapt at the clown who'd punched him, and Rachel got a good look at everything as it suddenly appeared. The muscles, the fur, the fangs and claws -- the boy went from nearly zero in all categories to perfect tens. Or maybe even elevens; she wasn't sure number scores mattered at that point. The important thing was that this boy was pretty normal-looking one second, and a raging fight-beast the next, literally ripping his opponent a new one across the chest.
"Thank you, Sweet Fighting Jeebus!" Rachel shouted. Oh, the universe deserved a big old birthday present after this!
Self-defense. It was an obvious case, right? Or at least someone's defense. No matter; it was a fight, and she hadn't started it. Time to play.
She could hear Erica shouting things in the background. They sounded like orders or tactics or something, but Rachel didn't bother to listen. She knew what she had to do. And she would have so much fun doing it. Was having so much fun right now, in fact. The spirit of Honey Boo-Boo stirred in her breast, and she could feel the shadow of a mask crossing her face as silvery claws like savage dreams formed from her fists. With a single bound, she was on boy-beast's back, leaving track marks as she clambered her way up.
Boy-beast didn't seem to notice, so intent he was on attacking the clown from the other room. Well then, she just needed to get his attention. Her teeth tingled as more silvery PK force capped them.
When she chewed on one fuzzy ear, the flap of skin did not last long. Boy-beast screamed, waving his arms backwards to grab at her, but she was already perched upon the hump of his back where it was least easy to reach. Digging a clawed hand into the scruff of his neck, Rachel whooped and hollered as boy-beast bucked beneath her.
That was fun for a moment, but not too challenging. She did a flip off before he could think to slam backwards into a wall, landing low to the ground and punching up. She did not aim for the most obvious target -- despite the logo on the front of her t-shirt, she only did that sort of thing when she wanted a fight over quickly. So instead she swiped at his shins, dodged his claws by a hair's breadth, and got in some practice at wall-flips. Because really, when was a better time? Up and down, all around, letting the walls take the hits while she grabbed well-muscled arms and hauled herself up to nibble on the boy's other ear.
It was only a love-nip this time, barely any blood. Boy-beast's roar sounded as excited as she felt, and she delighted in slapping her hands on as much bare skin and muscle as she could.
Oh, this was the most fun she'd had, ever! Rachel didn't mind how ripped her uniform was getting, or the myriad bruises and scrapes that she didn't even feel. With the blood pounding in her ears and the adrenaline in her veins, she felt so massively alive in this moment that she could almost explode! She sighed with satisfaction at each hit, cooed into the ragged remnants of boy-beast's ears as she rolled across his back, and then, with the greatest of affection, she grabbed what was left of the classroom door and smacked her lovely foe neat in the face, laughing with each slap of wood on snout.
The roar turned to a surprised yip, and when those golden eyes found her again, the boy-beast pounced.
She was almost tempted to let him catch her, but this was not a private party. the hallway was clear of all but a few students, but it was still more of an audience than Rachel would like, if she were to continue things the way she wanted. So when he pounced, she went under, below, and then up again, slipping inside his guard to grab that fuzzy muzzle by the whiskers and pull herself up into a quick kiss.
She didn't think anyone else saw that, fast as it was, but it made her fuzzy one pause in surprise.
"Alright, this has gone on long enough," said a voice of authority. Rachel recognized the tone, if not the speaker. She scrambled out of the way as a shining white baseball bat hit her playmate in the gut -- and wow, she had to respect a teacher who could swing that hard! Fuzzy wonder doubled over in shock, and then with some sort of magic word the woman with the bat breathed a cloud of glittery yellow light over his face.
He coughed twice, golden eyes completely crossed, and then collapsed to the ground. A moment later, he was snoring. Rachel sat by his side, running curious fingers through his fur as it shrank and receded. It took longer for him to revert to human than it had to change to beast, but not much more. She ruffled his hair, studied his face, and ran an appraising eye over his body -- now naked, save for some rags and a pair of apparently indestructible undershorts. "Aw, he's cute in this form, too," she concluded happily.
"Rachel Marie Altus!" She looked up to see a Security detail approaching, headed by the lady Rachel was proud to call student advisor. "What in all hell did you stir up this time?"
"Hey, Officer Canterbury!" she said, with her clothes ripped three-quarters to shreds as she stroked an almost-naked boy's hair. "This isn't what it looks like."
"Do tell." The helmeted woman was surveying the damage. "I would love to hear what explanation you might have that doesn't implicate you."
The teacher lady with the baseball bat stepped up. "Myra Barnes, English Department. There was a multi-rager incident at the end of my class just now. Miss Altus was able to keep young Mr. Fontenot occupied while other students evacuated the area or attended to the wounded."
Well that was nice of her. Rachel wasn't used to a teacher defending her actions for her. She'd have to look up Ms. Barnes later, see if she could get into the lady's class next semester. But for now, she kept her attention on the cutely snoring Mr. ... Fonty-no, the lady had said? Eh, she could figure out the spelling later. The boy would always be her fuzzy, whatever his name.
"Mr. Fontenot will need to be moved to a safe location," Officer Canterbury was saying. "I doubt he'll be too happy when he wakes up, and we don't want to risk anyone getting injured."
"I'll go with him!" she immediately volunteered.
"No." The teacher and the officer spoke practically in the same voice.
Eh, it was worth a shot. Rachel shrugged it off. "Oh well, catch you later, cutie." She bowed down to bestow a kiss upon the slumbering shifter boy's forehead. "C'mon, Erica. We're late for English class!"
"Um, your uniform?" said the blonde.
The uniform? It had been a nice little outfit, though Rachel liked it more the way it was now: ripped, torn, and shredded. Those were some nice battle scars to show off. "Eh, I've got a needle and thread in my bag. It'll fix up in a jiff."
"Rachel..." Officer Canterbury had her best business face on. "Unless you want to be in violation of Article 3, item 6 of the school dress code, to whit flagrant displays of wardrobe malfunction, you will go back to your dorm immediately and change into your next spare uniform. Failure to do so will constitute ignoring of a direct order by Security, which in itself is a violation of your current probationary status, and will result in your combat restrictions to be extended indefinitely. Do you understand?"
"Yeah, yeah. No need to get your knickers in a knot." She shrugged, and the remains of the garment almost fell off. Maybe the officer did have a point. And much as she loved her leather corsetry, it was a little cool to go strutting around in just that today. "Catcha later, Erica."
The quad was a lonely place at this time of day. It wasn't quite deserted -- a devilishly stylish lady was directing her art class to a prime spot for watercolors as Rachel swaggered past -- but compared to a Saturday, there was nothing at all going on. It wasn't a long walk back to Whitman, but it was long enough to be an opportunity.
Digging her phone out of her bag, Rachel hit the first button on speed dial.
"Hello?" Mother sounded confused, but that was not so rare a thing when dealing with her one and only daughter. "Rachel? What are you doing, calling at this hour?"
"How's breakfast?" Rachel asked cheerfully.
"Just fine. Now. Why aren't you in class?"
"I have to take a side trip to my room to get a spare uniform."
"Why..." A loud sigh rattled over the ether. "Another fight?"
"I didn't start this one," she said proudly. "Two guys with anger issues going at it, endangering bystanders, but I stepped in to save the day! My uniform was a casualty of necessity."
"I'm sure." Mother's voice was set to its most sarcastic mode. "When that wardrobe insurance charge was included in tuition, I thought it pointless, but..."
"Oh, Mother. I'm not even the worst at losing uniforms!" Rachel giggled. "There's this girl over in Poe who burns through them faster than you'd believe!"
A parental grunt contested that assessment. Six months of experience with her daughter had made Mrs. Altus more than willing to believe the ridiculous. "So you're calling me up because...?"
"Can't a girl miss her mother?"
"Oh, alright, Mother." Rachel's grin strained hard enough at the corners that Mother could probably hear their twang over the connection. "You see, there's this boy..."
"Hold it right there; you're calling me up for advice on boys?"
"Well, yeah. See, I've only just met him, and..."
"By 'just met' do you mean 'fought'?"
"Oh Mother, what kind of girl do you think I am?" After receiving a deafening silence in reply, Rachel continued. "Alright, yes. He was involved in the fight. But it was such a good one! Why, I actually had to work to avoid the claws, sometimes!"
"Hence the need to change clothes now." Another sigh echoed over the line.
"It's not like he meant to rip my uniform half off," said Rachel, biting her lip as the thought tingled through her. "I wouldn't mind a rematch, though."
"Oh, don't worry, Mother. I promise no serious fooling around until after the third fight, er, date."
"And I guess I should invest in some protection."
"Rachel!" Mother cried in her why-did-I-quit-drinking voice. "What did you want to ask me?"
She'd almost lost track of that thought. Whoops. "How do I get him to notice me?"
"I thought you'd rather taken care of that already," Mother said dryly.
"I'm not sure he'll remember, though. He was a cat-wolf-were-boy at the time, and rather focused on destroying that clown."
Her trip up the stairs to her room was made to the accompaniment of much confused sputtering from her mother. "Rachel..." the woman said finally. "All I can tell you is that you should be yourself. It may be the best advice for any relationship. And if he doesn't run away in blind, panicky terror, then he might just be the one for you."
"Thanks, Mother." Rachel giggled. "You're the best. Love you! Mwah! Enjoy your breakfast! Bye-bye!"
Be herself, huh. As far as maternal advice went, that was easier to do than most. Stepping out of her tattered uniform, she admired her padded leather corsetry in the mirror. There was a lot to like about herself, she was proud to say. Now to make sure Mr. Fonty-no noticed.
----Monday, October 10th, 2016
--Underground training room
What the fuck was he even doing out here? Danny was sure that anyone else who was right in the head would've been asking that question all the way back to the comfort of the dorm. But not him, oh no. He was trotting across campus with two jackets on and a bag full of extra clothing over his shoulder. More than once he'd thanked Ms. Rizing for getting the advanced option on that wardrobe insurance thing. His closet now had more clothes in it than when he'd arrived on campus. Only his grandpa's old bomber jacket had survived unmangled so far, because he was extra careful with that one. No way he was wearing it out tonight. The cheap-o extras would have to do.
Rachel's usual place was a combat practice room one level below the main gymnasium, a padded cube with a window for the viewing gallery and not much else. When he arrived, his so-called girlfriend was there waiting with her own bag of exercise equipment and a cooler. Her smile was genuine, but that didn't make him any less nervous.
"Right on time," she declared happily. "So, celebration first, or work up an appetite?"
"I dunno..." he mumbled, eyeing the cooler. Knowing the girl's sweet tooth, he doubted there was much good for him in there. "Um, ya gonna fight in that?"
Rachel was still in her school uniform, and those things weren't cheap. She of all people should've known that; she'd ruined enough of them.
"Oh, yeah. One moment." Before he could even think to object, Rachel had her top off. Beneath the uniform blouse, a sturdy leather corset was doing its best to pad her figure. "Now, I know I had my fighting t-shirt in here somewhere..." she mused, bending forward to search her bag. The view displayed was certainly intentional.
"That's my name, boyfriend. Wear it out." Her head bobbed up to send him a wink. "You like?"
Parts of him most definitely did like, but he wasn't on friendly terms with any of them. "Whu... What are you doing?"
"Isn't it obvious? This is, what, our fifth fight?"
"Fourth," he corrected.
"Nope, you're forgetting our first fight in the school hallway." The girl shivered. "Oh, that was a good one... Anyway! I promised Mother that there would be no fooling around until after the third fight. Or date. You know."
"An' you promised Ms. Barnes to take it slow," he said, trying not to sound desperate.
"Hey, it's the fifth fight, not the third, isn't it? That's slower than I'd planned. Besides..." she said, adjusting her corsetry in completely unnecessary ways, "I thought boys liked this sort of thing."
"And yeah, it's not like half the girls on campus don't have me completely outclassed in the boobs department," she continued as she inspected her lacing, "but I've certainly got them beat when it comes to attitude. Seriously, what's not for a boy to love, huh?"
"Ah ain't a boy!" And all of a sudden, his brain was back on Pat Barnes's question from earlier in the day, now answered.
He needed a hole to crawl into so he could die of shame.
That stopped Rachel from messing with her straps any more. "Well, you're not a man yet, fuzzy," she said. "Not for a little while longer at least."
"That's... that's not what Ah meant..." The room was spinning, and his eyes were too blurry to see straight. "Ah... Ah gotta lie down..." he mumbled as the padded floor rose up to greet him.
"Hey!" Rachel was shaking him gently. When Danny got an eye open, he saw that the girl had on one of her signature t-shirts, in bright pink with teal lettering. "Are you... are you okay?" the girl asked.
"Thought'cha didn't give a shit," he mumbled.
"Well yeah, that's what it says on the back of the shirt," Rachel said. "That doesn't mean I can't give a damn about someone I care for, right? And you are definitely not doing well. Wanna talk about it?"
"No," he snapped. "Yes. Mebbe. Dunno... Aw, fuck!" He wiped tears from his cheeks. "Ah only been a boy fer two months an' Ah keep fuckin' it up!"
Rachel stroked his head gently, dabbing away a few more beads of salty water. "Two months, huh? So before that...?"
Fuck it. In for a penny, or whatever it was they said... "Ah wuz a girl. Named Danielle."
The petting never slowed. "So you're like Calliope in Dickinson? Or that bunny girl in Melville? Think I heard something about a boy in Emerson..."
"Jean-Marie," Danny confirmed. "He came out to his friends a few days ago. Dunno if Ah'd ever be that brave."
"Hey, you just told me."
"Ah'm too scared to move right now."
"Then don't move," Rachel told him. "Just talk to me. If you want to. I'm all ears."
"Not the time," she declared. "Too busy giving a damn about my fight-buddy."
That was... strangely reassuring. Rachel may've been batshit crazy, but she wasn't insane. His shakes had already settled some under the calming strokes of her fingers. "Y-yeah..." he began again. "Ah... Ah'm a girl. Wuz a girl. Until... until two months ago."
"And now you're stuck this way?"
"Mebbe?" He rolled over onto his back and stared up at the ceiling lights. "Ah, Ah'm still a girl, inside. Ah can feel it. And Ah ain't an exemplar, ain't got one of them BIT thingies, so mebbe there's a way to shift mah way back. Ah, Ah didn't mean to be like this ever..." His eyes screwed shut against faucets of tears. "It just... it just..."
He felt a brief kiss upon his forehead, like the dance of a butterfly. "Take your time. Or don't say anything at all. Your call."
Begin at the beginning. He just had to begin at the beginning... which was the worst part of all. "Gotta start with mah, mah dad then," he said. "He, he was a bad guy. Real bad. He had me for a while when Ah was little, an'... they couldn't prove nothin', an' Ah was too scared to tell. But then me an' mah sister Michelle, we were stayin' with mah gramma, an' things were good, but mah dad..." A deep sigh turned into a groan that shook him bodily. "Mah dad came back, grabbed me an' Michelle outta school. He, he liked to make me dress up, all grown up, and... and..." His mind skipped the next few beats as it scrambled for a safe harbor amid the waves of emotion. "He said if Ah didn't, then maybe Michelle would..."
Rachel petted him in silence for a few minutes as he choked down sobs. She never said a word, hadn't prompted him since the start of the tale, but her presence there was an anchor in a storm.
"That... this one evening," he finally said, clinging on to the thread of the conversation like a lifeline. "Michelle'd gone to bed early. Not usually her thing, but she was feelin' tired after dinner, an' then mah dad, he... he promised!" Danny wailed. "He said he wouldn't touch her and then he tried to an', an' it was like somethin' snapped inside 'a me, an'..." He gulped up all the air in the room, it seemed. "An' then Ah was standin' there, an' mah clothes were all messed up an' mah pants felt funny an' mah dad was lyin' on the floor with his throat torn out an'..."
Danny didn't mind a hug from Ratel at all this time. It was a surprisingly gentle gesture, coming from her, and the scent of muscle cream and peaches was strangely relaxing. He let it fill his nostrils until it crowded out the memory of blood.
"So... yeah. Ah guess right then Ah didn't wanna be a girl," he said. "Not like mah dad wanted. But, but that didn't mean Ah wanted to be a boy!" There was another long, slow hug after that.
"Do you feel a little better now?" Rachel asked.
"Mebbe..." He wasn't about to commit to an answer at this time. The big one had been enough for an entire evening.
"Would a snack be okay? I know they always make me feel better."
He opened an eye to look at the cooler again. "Dunno if there's anythin' good for me in there. Yanno Ah ain't supposed to eat..."
"What's the worst that could happen?"
"Well, Ah could turn into a crazy hyperactive cat monster an'..." It was clear from the expression he was getting from her that Rachel did not see any particular downside to this. "It ain't good, okay?"
"Says who? Have they actually checked to see what happens?"
"Er, no? They, um, just won't let me..."
Rachel was back on her feet, her phone in hand. She rubbed the back cover of the device a few times and then pressed it to the glass of the viewing gallery window, where it stuck. "Setting it to record for half an hour... It sounds to me," she said, "that it's high time we tested this supposed reaction, and celebrate the founding of Team Ratel at the same time."
"Yeah, it does lack a certain something, doesn't it. Maybe... well, we have two speedsters and you, so how about The Fast and the Furry-us?"
"...let's talk 'bout it with Zapper an' Avsel tomorrow."
"Good call. Tomorrow we talk, but tonight we dine!" Rachel popped open the cooler to reveal an assortment of cakes and ice cream in cups. "Got a to-go order from the dessert lane and then spun the dial a few times on the Machine," she said proudly. "We got choco-banana, rum raisin, stracchiatella, bacon and maple syrup... okay, that one sounds really random, but it's actually..."
"Ah'll take it," he said. The dessert turned out to be a milk-flavored base with ripples of maple syrup and bacon bits mixed in. Danny licked at it carefully, enjoying the mix of salty and sweet. It'd been far too long since he could treat himself, though , and after the third lick he wolfed down the entire cup. "Whew... that'uz good."
"I know, right?" Rachel beamed around a mouthful of ice cream and cake. "Here, have a brownie."
She called it a brownie. Others might call it a slab of chocolate the size of a brick with pebbles of peanut butter embedded in its strata. After a moment of admiration for its proud caloric count, he called it delicious. The chocolate tickled on his tongue and his ears shivered in delight.
"Hey, save some for me!" said Rachel, reaching for the brownie. He growled back at her. "Oh, so that's how it's going to be, huh?" The girl had a fighting grin on, and her eyes twinkled with excitement, even without the shadow of a mask for contrast. Most any sane person would be running away right now.
Buoyed by the feelings of chocolate on the brain, Danny wasn't feeling sane at all. And he didn't care. When the girl grabbed for the brownie, he grabbed back, taking a handful of t-shirt and flipping its owner over his head, to land behind him with a thump. Not that it stopped her any.
"Gimme!" she shouted, leaping onto his back and thrusting an arm forward to take the snack. The other arm was in a choke hold around his throat. Rachel held on tight as he jumped to his feet and danced around the room.
"Get off!" he growled at her, more than once, but the girl only cackled and blew kisses into his twitching ears. He tried a forward roll, flipping Rachel back onto the mat and then steamrolling over her, which gave the girl the opportunity to grab one of the remaining ice cream cups. Next thing he knew, she was in his face, kissing him with a mouthful of sugary goodness. Choco-banana.
Big, panicky warning bells were going off in his brain, but the sugar rush did its best to drown them out. The world felt too warm, and his shirt too tight. That might've been the fur, though.
"Okay, time out," said Rachel. Her unclawed fingers made short work of the buttons on his shirt that his own hands couldn't currently manage. "There, no wasting a good piece of clothing. Shoes, too!" she commanded, pulling velcro and yanking off his size 10s along with the socks. "Don't want you regretting anything from a good fight. Not tonight!"
His ears heard, and he remembered the words later, but in the warmth of the moment, he wasn't really listening. Couldn't really listen. Everything that was Danny Fontenot was now in the back seat, there to enjoy the ride, and the world melted into a warm and fuzzy moment.
Run! he felt, and so he ran. Jump! Leap! Bounce! The walls of the world were soft and pliable, taking the impact and helping him to spring away. Fun!
She was there. She was smiling. Not a scary smile. Happy one. She was holding... a ball! Ball! He batted at it when she tossed it his way, sent it flying towards the walls. Bounce! Hit! Catch! She leapt over him, took ball! Chase!
Fun chase! Grab, miss, leap. Catch! He howled with delight.
Her turn. Run! Be chased! Leap, skip, tumble and trip! Do it all again!
Time was not something he really felt. There was no past, no future. Only the warm and fuzzy right now, with the ball and her and the fun, fun, fun. That was all there needed to be, and it lasted until it stopped.
Danny woke to a darker version of the training room, the lights dimmed to an indoor dusk. There was a sizable gap in his recollection of the evening, but he recalled enough to not panic about losing his shirt, and he remembered not enough that the fact his pants were still on came as a relief. Up to a moment ago, he'd been sleeping comfortably on the padded floor of the training room with his clothing bag as a pillow. A pair of arms still had him in what would, for any other situation, be described as a professional wrestling hold. Here, he supposed it was what they'd call 'spooning'. Rachel was the big spoon, of course.
He wasn't sure he was relieved or disappointed that her clothes were all still on, too.
Something must've alerted the girl, because her arms tightened around his chest. "That was good..." Rachel mumbled in his ear. "Just, just fun romping..." A cute little yawn sounded. "Hey, Danny... could you promise me something?"
"What?" he murmured back. This wasn't a time or place for loud voices.
"When you figure it out... When you get to be your right self again, can we still have this?" The arms squeezed his chest again. "Fighting and romping and cuddling and snuggling? So nice..." He could feel her burying her face in his hair. "And I really like this shampoo. Really..." After a few more mumbles, his girlfriend was returned to slumber.
With a mumble of agreement, Danny soon followed. His dreams were even less cohesive than his sugar rush experience, but they seemed happy.
Nothing much had changed by the next time he woke up, other than the lingering sense that they'd been there in the room for too long. "Rachel, hey, Rachel..."
"What time is it?" He'd lost the habit of wearing a watch a couple months back for obvious reasons.
"Huh? Oh! Phone, time please!"
From the gallery window, the little device beeped. In pleasant tones, it announced, "The time is now 5:15 AM."
"Shee-yit!" That shocked him awake. "Ah gotta... we gotta..."
"Oh calm down," said Rachel, still refusing to let go of him. "You don't have a roommate to tattle, and Water Lily is probably happier that I'm not in. And if anyone gives us trouble, they they're asking for it, right?"
Those weren't the things he was worried about, but he did relax a little. "Ah still got homework," he admitted.
"Well then, in that case..." Rachel bounced to her feet. "I guess we should wash up and get ready for another day. Huh, is your hair longer?"
"It does that, remember?"
"Yeah, I know that, but even so!" The girl gave his hair a tug, and only then did he realize that it'd grown considerably faster this time. Halfway down his back, in fact.
"Double shee-yit," he said. "Gotta get it cut today."
"Why?" Rachel asked. "I think it looks good on you. But..." Her smile was back. "If you want to have some fun... Get back to Poe, wash up, and then meet me here again in half an hour. I'll be back with some tricks and tools and whatever I can grab off Water Lily."
"Um, are you sure...?
"Trust me; I've done enough sleepover hairstyling in my time." The girl giggled. "Didn't think it would prove useful here."
Once upon a time, he might've been scared of that laugh. Now... he wasn't sure what he felt when he heard that pretty little sound, but it was good.
----Tuesday, October 11th, 2016
--Breakfast, the Crystal Hall
It was now 7:30 in the Crystal Hall, and Danny was finishing his homework like a good kid, over a meal of bacon and eggs. Every now and then he'd feel the weight of his hair as he turned his head right or left. Rachel had done some fast, fine work there.
"Hey," said Pat as the boy passed by, en route to the buffet line. "I didn't have a chance to talk with Rachel yet, but it looks like I might not need to? Things went well last night, I take it."
"Yeah..." He let his smile answer most of it for him. "Me an' Rachel talked 'bout lots 'a stuff. Got an answer to yer question, an'... got mahself an appointment to chat wi' Dr. Shu later today."
"Awesome. See you again in a few minutes, and you can fill me in on the details, dude... ette."
One thing about being in to breakfast early: lots of people had to pass by so they could pick up their stuff. Danny couldn't really feel the stares, but he knew they were there. But, as a certain young lady of his acquaintance liked to say, "Don't give a shit." It was a pretty good commandment to follow, he figgered.
Swerve zoomed past, then backpedaled even faster. "Dude! What the hell happened?"
"What, this?" Danny tugged at the end of the three-ply braid of hair now running down the length of his back. Smaller braids circled his temples to hook around. His bangs had seen a curling iron recently, and now bounced springily above his forehead. "It was Rachel's idea..."
The speedster snorted. "That girl is crazy, man! Why the hell do you let her get away with that shit?"
He shrugged. "Ah dunno... kinda like it."
"Whatever," the boy said. "You better hope no one tries to mess with you about that."
As if they'd dare... Danny pulled the Ultra-Violent armband back into place as Swerve left a trail of dust. The swatch of fabric didn't seem so bad, now that it meant folks would think twice about giving him trouble over how he chose to present himself. Between the armband and Rachel's willingness to take any and all blame with a winning grin, he was going to see just how long he could get away with keeping his hair this way. It felt righter than most things in his life.
On the table there was a little scrap of memo paper, half-hidden by his math book. In large, flowy letters, he'd written DF&RA. With a smile of his own stretching his face, Danny drew a big heart around the initials and then tucked the scrap away.