Laura and the Village
A Second Generation Whateley Academy Adventure
Laura and the Village
Tuesday, September 13, 2016 - 2nd Period
Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy
"Miss Samuels," the large man in the navy sport coat at the front of the room said, leaning back casually against his desk, his expression quite bemused, "I know you like history, but do you think you could possibly curb your enthusiasm a tiny bit so that someone else could answer?"
Laura, the blue girl in the front row, winced, scrunching down in her desk and cringing as her normally-pale-blue skin blushed a lovely shade of lilac, withdrawing her upraised hand. "Sorry," she said meekly. "I ... I got carried away." Around her were titters from the other students, and more than a few who'd been grateful that she'd been so eager that they hadn't been called on.
"There's nothing wrong with being enthusiastic about history," Dr. Jake Barton said, still smiling pleasantly. "In fact," he looked around the room, letting his gaze settle on a few faces, "I'm sure there are some of you who could use a little more enthusiasm for this class."
"Suck-up!" a girl behind Laura muttered angrily and softly, so that only Laura and a couple of others could hear. That just made the blue girl sink lower in her seat.
The sting of the mocking and laughter stuck with the girl for the rest of the class; she'd refrained from shooting up her hand to answer questions, or just blurting out the answers. In fact, she'd pointedly done anything but raise her hand even when she knew the material well.
As the students started to file out of the room, the girl who'd been sitting behind her, a sophomore or junior, made a point of turning toward one of her friends so that the upperclassman's book bag hit the blue girl in the shoulder, while the girl's hip knocked Laura's book off her desk.
"Watch it freak!" the girl snarled at Laura, as if the whole incident was her fault.
With a heavy sigh, as if she was used to being bullied, Laura picked up her book.
"Here," Tanya said, having stooped to help collect Laura's papers. "Just ignore her. She must be one of those world-class bitches."
One of the other older students, a good-looking guy with movie-star looks, stopped, leaning with a cocky air on Laura's desk. "Yeah," he said, having overheard, "but that's not all. For one thing, you're a little better looking than she is," he said smoothly. "You really rock the blue hair look."
Laura blushed again. "I'm not ...."
"Hmmm," the guy interrupted smoothly, pausing to think a moment. "You're not in Venus Inc., are you?" His question sounded more like a statement of fact, spoken in a way to be mildly insulting.
Laura's jaw dropped open at the implied put-down. "I could be ...." she started to retort.
"She has a ... thing ... about kids with GSD. Not sure why, but ...." The guy had already moved on in the conversation. "Besides, she's probably jealous that you Froshies snagged a table on the second floor in the caf. She's been stuck down on the first floor for two years because no-one wants her on a training team or in their club."
"Well, we did get into a fight with a villain," Tanya retorted, but considering how the guy ignored her, she could have been invisible.
"So you have got a team?" the smooth-talker asked. "Sometime, you should go watch when the Grunts or another very skilled team does a sim. Your team might pick up a few pointers." He turned and sauntered off casually, as if he'd done Laura a huge favor just talking to her.
"You realize what he's up to, don't you?" a girl with mild GSD asked from near them as Tanya and Laura finally got all her belongings collected.
"No, what?" the blue girl asked, curious about why an upperclassman would talk to her.
"He's running game," the newcomer said with a knowing smile. "Alice Roberts," she introduced herself. She was tall and slender, with a yellowish-green tint to her skin and long, wavy brown hair. Her pupils were slits, which fit, since she had some scales on the backs of her hands, arms, and legs. "Also known as Gecko." She glanced over her shoulder at the retreating boy. "He's called Smooth. And just a warning - he sometimes get fascinated with cute girls with GSD." She spread her hands, inviting Tanya and Laura to notice her. "Like me. And like you. Anyway, since you're froshies, I thought I'd warn you so you don't end up one of his many, many exes."
"He's not a pump-and-dump type," Alice said, her voice a little wistful, "but he tends to get bored with a girlfriend and moves to another ... challenge. A little mild neg, a little air of superiority - it's all supposed to get you interested in him, like he's some kind of top-dog or something."
"Well he's wasting his time," Laura huffed, "because I'm definitely not interested."
"Just be careful," Alice said before leaving the classroom. "Smooth is a really good pick-up artist. He's had more girls than ... well, let's just say way more than his share." The way she spoke and the look in her eyes strongly hinted that she had been one of his conquests and that perhaps she still had some lingering fondness for the boy.
While Tanya went out of the classroom, Laura stopped at the teacher's desk. "You wanted to talk to me, Dr. Barton?" she asked softly.
"Yeah," the big ex-hero smiled. "You like history, right?"
"Yeah," Laura answered slowly, but then had a sudden thought about his smile, some tiny clue. "You ... you want to get students hooked on history, don't you? You ... you want to see if I can be ... persuaded ... to be a new history junkie?"
Dr. Barton chuckled. "I didn't think it was that obvious. I'd like to find out what areas of history interest you most, because I can help you find some good reading material." He saw the girl's puzzled look. "If you're interested in the ancient world, books about Asian history or the American West might discourage you."
That made sense to the girl. "Okay. How ...?"
"Come by my offices after classes are over for the day."
"It's not going to be some kind of test, is it?"
Jake chuckled. "No. We'll just talk, and that'll help figure out your area of interest."
"I could come by today," Laura volunteered, "before I go down to the labs."
"Okay," Jake said with a smile as he picked up his instruction material. "I'll see you then."
Tuesday, September 13, 2016 - Afternoon
New York City
Jennifer Kelly walked quickly down the sidewalk, eager to get home to her lover. And yet, like every day, behind her pleasant smile, her eyes had a haunted look that belied her outward cheer. At least in her job, she didn't really have to worry; she didn't have time to chat with anyone but the buyer and seller of the good she carried. Everyone else was a distraction, and that suited Jen just fine.
The rush of humanity leaving their workplaces for dinner or trips home was a perfect place for her to blend in; the famed New York attitude meant that she didn't have to pay attention to others because they weren't paying attention to her. Still, her senses were alert for something out of the ordinary.
It was those senses that alerted her to something unusual. She moved out of the flow so as not to be run over by someone paying more attention to their phone than to where they were walking, and then she looked around, eyes narrowed and focused.
About fifteen yards away, a dark-haired woman was staring at her, mouth agape, a shocked look on her face. Jennifer's eyes narrowed even more as she turned and continued to walk. A glance over her shoulder showed that the strange woman was following, eyes laser-beam focused on her and her steps quick and purposeful, so Jennifer hastened her pace.
"Miss?" the dark-haired woman yelled, and like many of the pedestrians, Jennifer turned to see what the commotion was about. She started - the exotic, dark-haired woman was looking directly at her, confusion writ large on her face, but also determination, and she began to move more quickly through the crowd toward Jen. "Miss?" The call was more insistent.
Jennifer felt a stab of panic. The woman was looking at her, chasing her! With a start, she turned and began walking even more quickly, and then she began to trot, and finally to run. At least she wasn't carrying any gemstones at the moment, and she kept herself in very good shape, so she was confident that she'd outrun the shorter stalker, but when she looked over her shoulder, she saw that the young woman was keeping up with her. Rounding a corner that wasn't on her planned route home, she darted down a staircase into the subway system, quickly letting herself through the turnstile and catching a train. It would make her late, and her lover really didn't like to wait when they had a dinner date, but that was far safer than having a creepy stalker chasing her home.
Tuesday, September 13, 2016 - After Classes
History Department Office, Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy
"Doctor Barton?" Laura asked meekly as she knocked on the door of Jake's office.
The big man looked up, and his frustrated expression brightened. "Come in, Laura!" he invited. "Come in. Have a seat, won't you?" he gestured toward an empty chair opposite his own. "Please leave the door open."
For a moment, Laura was confused, and then she understood. It was probably school policy for teachers to leave their doors open when meeting, especially with female students, to avoid any 'misunderstandings'.
"Now," Dr. Barton continued after Laura sat down, "what things interest you? In general, I mean. You're on the technical track, correct?"
"Yes, sir," Laura replied formally.
"Good. And knock off the 'sir' stuff. Unless I misread you, I know you feel a need to be formal because I'm your teacher, and you see adults as intimidating authority figures." He paused, and could tell from the look in her eyes that he'd nailed it. "But have you considered that teaching you how to interact with adults as peers is part of your education?"
Laura goggled at him a moment. "No, s ...." She caught herself. "No. That never occurred to me."
"So, you're interested in technology. Any particular areas? Do you wonder how or when some things were invented and by whom?" the big teacher continued to gently quiz the girl. "If you're interested in space, for example, the history of space exploration, even dating back to the theories of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky or the rocketry of the Chinese, might interest you. Likewise, if you like bridges and buildings and such, you might be fascinated by the history of technology in the Roman Empire." He smiled pleasantly, practically seeing the gears turning in her mind as she considered things she hadn't before. That was one of the big draws of teaching - knowing that one opened a teenager's mind to new ideas and possibilities.
For about ten minutes, the two chatted amiably about Laura's interests, until a knock on the door interrupted them. Jake looked up, and he beamed at the visitor. "Come in, hon," he said warmly. "I was just talking with Laura - you remember Laura from the picnic?"
"Of course!" Vanessa Barton smiled as she piloted her powered chair into the office. Laura started when she realized that the furniture was laid out in a way to make it easy for Jake's wife to maneuver in his office. Her opinion of the couple went up significantly. "Laura and I had a nice get-to-know-you chat there," she said, smiling pleasantly. She turned to her husband. "I see you already caught one."
"Caught one?" Laura asked, baffled by her choice of words.
Vanessa pointed to one of the pictures on her husband's desk. "The Lakota girl? Pejuta? She was Jake's first history-phile, and she's the reason he decided to teach after we retired. We talked some about her at the picnic, remember? It looks like you're following in her footsteps, that you're his newest 'project' student."
"You make it sound like I'm an evil mad scientist or something," Jake protested, but there was so much conviviality in his tone that it was obvious that the two were teasing each other.
"Face it, dear," Vanessa laughed with a delightfully cheery laugh, "you think your mission in life is to create more historians." She turned her head towards Laura. "Warn your friends. Tell them to run - run fast, run far!" she chuckled in mock horror. "But I'm afraid that it's too late for you. You're already half-assimilated!"
"We are the Borg. Resistance is futile," Jake intoned in a monotone. Laura couldn't help but giggle when Vanessa did.
"Anyway, I stopped by to tell you that Dr. Morris called again. He wants you to keynote the conference in Austin," Vanessa reported. "He asked me to have you call him as soon as possible."
"I already told him - and you - I'm not going," Jake replied a little defiantly.
"Jake, darling," she turned on the charm, "I told you, you have to go. It's important for you professionally! It's a huge honor to keynote the conference!"
"I need to be here to help ...."
"You need to keep your professional career on track," she interrupted, chiding him. "I can get by just fine. Lanie's right next door ...."
"With her hands full with kids and her duties in the shop," Jake countered.
"... and Imp is always eager to help ...," Vanessa continued.
"And she always leaves traps and tricks around the house for me! She's a bad influence."
"There's Donna, and Maria ...." The woman was not going to be deterred.
"It's my responsibility!" Jake shot back with a frown. "I'm the one who promised 'for better or for worse' ...."
Vanessa sighed, giving up the indirect approach. Instead, she opened her purse and handed him an envelope. "Your tickets and reservations. You're going."
The expression on the former hero's face was pained as he accepted the inevitable. His wife had spoken - end of discussion. "You know I worry about you. What if ...."
Something inside Laura just clicked. "Um, Dr. Barton?" she asked meekly.
Jake sighed at the futility of trying to argue with Vanessa, then turned to Laura. "What is it?"
"Um," she said uncertainly, "if you want someone to, um, keep your wife company, and to help out, um, I ... I helped my mom a lot around the house, and after it was just me and mom and my sister ...." She paused when she saw the big man goggling at her. "I mean, after classes - on Thursday and Friday," she continued. "I'd just go to the lab or something. And I'm not doing anything Saturday, so ...."
Jake nodded, smiling thinly. "That's very generous of you, Laura," he said with sad tone, "but since you're my student, I can't accept your help. Some people might think that you're doing this to try to get a better grade." When the girl gawked at him, slack-jawed, he realized that she hadn't thought of that. "Sorry, but it's policy."
"But I can hire her to help," Vanessa said with the type of victorious, semi-smug grin that all-but-announced that she knew she'd won the argument. "Now since that's all settled, you're going to Austin and you're going to enjoy yourself and wow them with your brilliance." She turned to Laura. "If you're free tomorrow after classes, maybe you can walk home with me and I can show you around, introduce you to our neighbors, the Codys, and their little hellions, so if, or rather when, Lanie stops by to check on us, you won't be overwhelmed."
Tuesday, September 13, 2016 - Afternoon
New York City
The dark-haired woman stood on the corner, looking around frantically and garnering no small amount of strange looks, for even in New York City, it wasn't common to be standing on a street corner yelling as one looked around frantically.
The woman's two companions caught up with her, flanking her. "What is it honey?" the blonde practically demanded.
"I ... I saw her!" the dark-haired young woman sobbed. "I ... I felt her presence! It was her!" She looked back and forth between the two. "I know it was her!"
"Are you sure?" the blonde asked warily. "You've 'seen' her many times before." She exchanged a worried glance with the tall redhead making the third part of the trio.
"I know this is very hard for you," the redhead said softly, taking her arm gently. "But you have to face the fact that she's gone!"
"Honey," the blonde said soothingly, wrapping her arms around her love and looking her eye-to-eye. "You're getting worse, not better. I know this is stressful for you, but she's gone." She hugged her tighter. "I know we've talked about it before, but I'm going to get you an appointment with a counselor. You need some professional help."
The other woman nodded, speaking softly. "She's right. We're worried about you. You ... you've got to accept that she's gone!"
"No!" the dark-haired woman wailed. "She can't be!"
"You can't feel her spirit. You've never found her in your dream-walks. Your spirit can't find her spirit."
"I felt her!" the dark-haired repeated, weeping openly. "I know it was her." She leaned back from her lover's shoulder looking at her pleadingly. "It couldn't have been anyone else!"
"Did she have the right hairstyle? Was she dressed like you know she liked to dress?"
"Well," the distraught woman bit her lip, hesitating, "no, not exactly. She had short dark hair." Her explanation was mumbled, as if she was trying to convince herself as much as the others. "And ... and she ..." She let her face collapse into her hands as the others' logic slowly sank in, like it always did.
"Why don't you take her home?" the redhead suggested. "We can go out to dinner tomorrow night. Right now, I think she needs some serious comforting."
Tuesday, September 13, 2016 - Dinnertime
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
Morgana at least waited until the small group was seated at the table before she turned to her blue friend and fellow Poesie, who seemed to be bouncing with enthusiasm at that particular moment. "Okay," she snorted, "spill. What's got you bouncing around like a ping-pong ball on speed?"
Laura paused, her jaw dropping momentarily, before she recovered from the redhead's blunt and semi-accusatory statement. "I'm not bouncing ...." she started to say.
"Excited, you are," Kenshin spoke in his yet-to-significantly-improve English. Laura was sure that, given time, he'd get the hang of the language and sound less like Yoda. "Very excited. Like ..." He wrinkled his brow as he thought. <Like a little girl at her first Cherry Blossom Festival,> he finally said in Japanese, looking to his Japanese compatriot Hikaru for translation.
The enigmatic girl with long, silky dark hair, attired in red and gold as she usually was when not in her Whateley uniform, chuckled softly. <Yes,> she replied to Kenshin with a smirk, <that is an accurate description.> She turned back to her coffee and took a sip, studiously not looking at the others, until she looked up and feigned surprise that they were all gawking at her.
"Are you going to share the joke with us?" Bianca demanded sternly.
"He said you're bouncing around like a little girl at her first Cherry Blossom Festival," Hikaru said, shrugging as if the translation had been only too obvious, but she couldn't hold back a slight smile.
"Yeah," Bailey, Laura's roommate chimed in. "What she said. Now what gives?"
"I stopped by to talk to Dr. Barton after classes today," Laura reported, struggling to contain her enthusiasm. "Because history is so interesting, and I wanted to ask him if there were any good books he'd recommend. But I'm not sure what area I want to start with. I mean, ancient Greece and Rome are the cradles of western civilization, but Chinese and Japanese history is ...."
"Spill it!" Morgana interrupted with a heavy sigh and a roll of her eyes.
"Oh. Yeah," Laura seemed more than slightly distracted. "Anyway, his wife came by, and she was trying to force him to go to present a paper at some history conference. But he didn't want to go because it'd mean leaving her alone, which he doesn't want to do because of her disability, but she told him she'd be fine, and they argued a little bit ..."
"Is she ever going to get to the good part?" Jimmy asked Kenshin with a pained groan.
Laura paused at the interruption and stuck her tongue out at the grinning boy. "I am at the good part. He didn't want to leave her alone, so after I volunteered to help out ...."
"Wait," Tia interrupted. "That's going to look like you're helping them out in exchange for grades or something. I think there are policies against that."
"Well, duh!" Laura shot back. "He said almost those exact words. So then Mrs. Barton offered to hire me to help her out while he's gone. You know, cooking, laundry, cleaning. Stuff that might be a little harder for her with her injury. And since she hired me, and I'm being paid, it's all good with the rules and policies and stuff."
Jimmy goggled at her. "You say that like it's a good thing to do housework!"
"Well, yeah," Laura said, dumbfounded at his surprise. "They're really neat, and I used to do housework a lot, and ... and she's going to pay me!"
"Oooh," Vic said mockingly, "someone's crushing on her teacher!" The looks that Vic got from the Poesies, followed by snickers to outright laughter, were rather puzzling, causing him to wonder what he'd said that amused them all so.
"It's not like that," Laura shot back. "I would have volunteered anyway. They're cool, and he's a good history teacher, and I like history. And I really like Mrs. Barton. She's super nice."
"Speaking of getting paid ...," Tia interrupted, "have you thought about my offer? You are kind of gushing about doing housework, and ...."
The interruption to her train of thought was almost visible on Laura's features and posture. "Um," she turned to her rabbit-eared friend. "Yeah, I suppose," she replied. "Unless you're really slobs, in which case I reserve the right to quit or demand a raise!"
"A week trial, then?" Hikaru counter-proposed. "And while I can't speak for Tia, I will have you know that I am most definitely not a slob!" she added, sounding a bit annoyed at the implication.
"Sure. We can try that." Laura turned back to the group-at-large. "I'm going over there tomorrow night to meet their neighbors and talk about what I'll be doing. Although, unless she cooks a lot, I've got a couple of recipes that I used to cook for mom and sis, and I think Vanessa - er, Mrs. Barton - she insisted that I call her Vanessa," she added almost apologetic for being too familiar, "I think she'll like them."
"Do you think you should go alone?" Tanya asked, interjecting herself into the conversation for the first time. "After what happened with Morgana, I mean. It would be safer, I think."
Laura started at the suggestion, and then she considered it. "I suppose," she said hesitantly. "You're right, but I don't think anyone ...."
"Remember that odd disappearing note you got," Morgana reminded her. "That's how I got lured to the fight I had."
"Maybe you're right," Laura said after a moment's thought. "We can go straight to the Village from here tomorrow night then, if you're free."
Tuesday, September 13, 2016 - After Dinner
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy
Without losing contact with the phone pressed against her ear, Laura flopped to her front-side on her bed, propped up on her elbows with her ankles crossed above her bum in what had to be a stereotypical pose of a teenager talking on the phone. "Okay, I gotta get back to my homework, Mom," the girl spoke into her phone.
"I will, Mom. The classes are mostly a lot of fun, and it's wonderful to not have to hide," she said with a grin. "Except on red flag days, but ..." There was a pause. "It's ... well, I guess you'll see when you get here for Parents' Day." Another pause. "I can't wait, either. Oooh - I got a ... well, a housesitting job this weekend! My history teacher is giving a paper in Austin, and his wife is disabled, and, well, I kind of volunteered to help her out ...." She stopped abruptly. "Give Julie a hug for me," she added. "Thanks for calling. Love you, Mom. Bye"
As she put away her cell phone, Laura watched her roommate Bailey across the room visibly tense, her shoulders stiffening in frustration or anger or something else that was an equally unpleasant emotion. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," Bailey replied curtly without turning toward her roommate.
Laura cringed; she had noticed Bailey's mood, and this wasn't the first time. "Are you sure? It seems like whenever Mom calls, or I call her, you get ...."
"Just drop it, okay?" the other girl snapped.
Laura swiveled her chair toward her roommate. "Bailey," she tried to sound sympathetic and calm, "we need to talk! If it upsets you every time I talk to Mom ...." A few facts marshalled themselves into a tentative conclusion. "Have you talked to your mom since we got here?"
"That's ... that's beside the point," her roommate tried to dodge. "I'm busy with homework, okay?"
"It is important if every time I talk to my mom, it makes you angry or upset or depressed or something," Laura countered, trying to be firm but also supportive. Inwardly, she realized that she'd hit one of her roommate's hot buttons - she couldn't recall Bailey ever talking to her mom since they'd settled in to their room. "I mean, if it bugs you, I can always go somewhere else to talk to Mom and Julie."
"Can we please just drop the subject?" Bailey stood and stalked out of the room, frowning deeply as she slammed the door.
Behind her, staring in surprise after her upset roommate, Laura puzzled over the emotional display. Clearly, something about her family was bothering Bailey, but she had no idea how to talk about the subject if Bailey wouldn't respond, or how to be a friend and roommate and teammate to someone who became unhappy whenever Laura talked to her own family.
Maybe, she thought, she should talk to Flower. Or Mrs. Horton. She knew she had to do something, or the tension between her and her roommate was going to keep increasing, especially if calls to or from home were an irritant, because Laura loved those calls with her mom.
Tuesday, September 13, 2016 - Evening
Melville Cottage, Whateley Academy
Walking across the lobby of Melville Cottage was slightly intimidating to Laura for two reasons. First, with marble-tiled floors, rich wood trim, and other rather brazen displays of opulence, the cottage was an in-your-face display of class distinctions, strongly suggesting truth in the rumors in other cottages that the Melvillains, as the residents were nicknamed, were a stuffy, upper crust lot. Second, as a non-resident of the luxurious cottage, her imagination had her on the receiving end of a lot of questioning or even hostile looks that someone in her social class would dare intrude on the domain of the privileged.
Her first impressions were shattered when a boy very obviously detoured toward her. "May Ah help you?" he asked in a friendly tone with a decidedly Southern accent. When Laura started at his question, the boy chuckled. "Ah can tell you're not a resident by the way you're lookin' around." He was a decent-looking boy, rather nattily attired, as if he'd just come from a golf club or something. "Gerard Cox, at your service," he added chivalrously, tilting his head slightly toward the blue girl as he smiled warmly.
"I'm supposed to meet a friend, Hikaru Myoujin," Laura replied cautiously. "But I don't know where her room is."
"Ah, Okami," the upperclassman said with a smile. "She's the RA for the freshmen girls. The elevators are over there," he pointed to a pair of elevators. "Third floor, left when you exit. Room 300. The corridor is oval, so if you find yourself going the wrong way, keep walking and you'll eventually get there."
"Thank you," With a polite smile, Laura turned toward the indicated elevators. The directions were quite accurate; she found the room with no difficulties.
As she raised her hand to knock, the door to the adjacent room opened and a girl came out. "Oh, hi Laura!" Tia said delightedly, darting to give the blue girl a hug. "What brings you to our neck of the woods?"
"I came over to talk with Hikaru about the job," Laura replied, raising her hand to knock again.
"Shoes," Tia said simply, then she pointed at the cubby by the door. "She's Japanese, remember?"
Laura dutifully took off her shoes, placing them in the cubby, and was a little surprised when Tia did the same. "Anything else I need to know?" she asked meekly, wondering what kinds of cultural behaviors would be expected of her.
"Just that the 'Abandon all hope, ye who enter' warning sign is in the shop!" Tia giggled. She rapped on the door while her friend goggled at the witticism, wondering whether Tia was pulling her leg or not.
"Just a sec," Hikaru called from inside, and a moment later, the door opened. "Tia," she acknowledged before her eyes turned toward Laura.
"I bring you ... a minion!" Tia guffawed, gesturing toward Laura.
"I am not a minion!" Laura said in an exasperated sigh while shaking her head.
"You came about the cleaning job, right?" Tia laughed as they followed the Japanese girl into the room. When Laura nodded, Tia grinned, "Then you're a minion!"
Laura ignored her and looked around. "Exactly what do you want me to do?"
"Mostly laundry," Hikaru replied, and then she gestured to a few machines in charging stations at the base of one wall. "Although someone needs to monitor these 'bots to make sure they do their job ... right." She glared at the bangle. "I don't quite trust their programmer."
In a flash, the virtual assistant appeared as a holographic projection above Hikaru's wrist. <I assure you that I am quite competent to program simple mechanoids.> The little apparition turned to Laura. "Excuse me," she said, formally bowing. "I did not mean to be rude. Someone," she glanced over her shoulder, "needed to be reminded that my skill at programming is level four."
Laura gave the VI the stink-eye. "I tested at level four almost a year ago - and that's without much training!" She was tempted to stick her tongue out at the little hologram, but decided against it. Instead, she looked around some more. "Obviously you don't have a lot since your floor is ... mostly tidy."
"Not that I brought. There's a lot more ... in my apartment in Japan."
The floor was mostly clean - only a few bits from what she gathered was a calligraphy set on the desk that had managed to overflow that untidy heap to fall, but the desk itself was another matter. Besides the somewhat messy pile of writing gear, there were parts of a disassembled pistol on the desk, a disassembled flute, and some tools which Laura guessed were used to maintain the small bonsai tree on a stand near the window. The bed was covered in plushie toys, except for a few which had spilled onto the floor.
"Plushies?" Laura gawked at the vast array of stuffed toys. "I would have never ...."
"Her cousin Kako," Tia snickered. "She's trying to get Hikaru to lighten up some."
Laura's jaw dropped as she gazed at one wolf plushie that hung pinned to the wall with what looked like a crossbow bolt or a very heavy dart. Its fur was singed, and it looked like there were multiple holes in it. There were the remains of attractiveness about the toy, but as scruffy and scraggly and dirty as it was, it clearly needed some loving care. What ... what on earth did you do to that ... that poor wolf?!?" She spun on the Japanese energizer. "Isn't that the toy that Tia got for you in New York City?"
"No, that one's ...," Hikaru looked around, and then started. "How did it get on top of my headboard?"
"That was an innocent little plushie wolf! And so kyooot! He was, at least! What did you do to it?"
"My cousin Kako likes to joke, even when it offends Amaterasu. According to my spirit, being called a flea bitten bitch is only done by one idiot - who is used to getting solar flared."
A shudder ran up and down Laura's spine. Her treatment of her wolf plushie, and the relish with which she stated that fact, were a little reminiscent of The Addams Family and all their oddness. She turned her attention back to the room. "I presume the bathroom is on the cleaning list?"
"Once a week is sufficient," Hikaru said. "I don't expect hotel-level maid service, you know. Just ... straighten up. The bots should keep the fixtures clean."
"And if she didn't have those," Kurenai said with a chuckle, "she'd forget to do any cleaning!"
The blue girl pretended not to notice the glare that Hikaru shot the hard-light projection, and she studiously ignored the VI so she wouldn't laugh and offend Hikaru. "Where are the paintings, wall scrolls, you know - stuff like that?" Laura asked, changing the subject. "I thought that was all traditional ..."
"You haven't seen her apartment in Japan," Kurenai snorted.
"Hush, you!" Hikaru snapped at the VI system.
"She asked a question that you weren't going to answer," the VI shot back to Hikaru.
"You're just trying to suck up because Laura's a gadgeteer, aren't you?" the Japanese girl said angrily to the VI.
"Oh really?" The VI grinned, then bowed formally to Laura. "Pleased to make your acquaintance, Laura-chan. I will assist you in any way I can as you attend to my mistress."
The blue girl goggled a the VI, then glanced to where Tia was laughing so hard that she couldn't stand, but had instead curled up, doubled with laughter, on Hikaru's bed. "How much laundry?" Laura ignored the little VI. "You aren't one of those girls who changes into five or six outfits a day, are you? Because doing ten to twelve loads of laundry every week will really cut into my personal time and my studies."
"No," Hikaru replied nonchalantly. "I would imagine not more than two, perhaps three loads a week."
Laura continued to survey the room for other tasks that she might be responsible for. "No textbooks?" Her eye lit on a small stack of books next to the door. "Those?"
"My textbooks are in Kurenai," the Japanese girl replied, holding up her arm with the bangle around the wrist. "More efficient." Hikaru’s eyes followed Laura’s, and added. "Those are a gift for certain people on campus. As well as you, if you want." She noticed that Laura was examining the cover of one of the books, her curiosity piqued by the offer. "You are interested in history, correct? I could help tutor you ... in Eastern Asian history, if you'd like."
The books were some type of textbook on the subject of Asian history, written by someone named Daniel Moate, who Laura figured was a history professor or expert. Since Hikaru had a pile of the books, she either had connections to the author, or considered his work important enough on the subject to have many copies of his book as gifts to people. "I'd like to read that, thank you," Laura said, making a mental note to take a book when she went back to Poe. She continued to gaze about the room. A teapot sat on a stand that looked a little unconventional, catching Laura's eye. "You don't have a microwave or kettle?" she observed.
"Don't need one," Hikaru said with a shrug. After focusing for a moment, a soft glow emerged around her and a laser shot out to the kettle, which absorbed and dispersed the heat into the ceramic pot's contents. Almost instantly, steam was venting from the lid. "See?"
"That has got to be the most frivolous use of energizer powers that I've ever seen!" Laura mouthed softly. "Especially when coffee makers and electric teapots are so cheap!" She continued her room survey. Prominently against one wall was a very fancy armoire, or at least that's what Laura assumed it was. The front of the armoire was adorned with some type of traditional Japanese ornamentation - two heavy vertical posts, with two high, heavy cross-beams and some adornment, all in red with some gold inlay and figures that made it look like some type of Japanese shrine. "I presume your clothes hang in there?"
"Yes." Hikaru leaned back against her chair.
"Why does it look like ... like that?"
"What do you think it looks like?" Hikaru retorted with a bemused smile.
"Like ... like some kind of Japanese temple or something."
Hikaru gave a soft half-chuckle. "Good guess. It's modeled after a torii, or gate. Every shrine has one. For some reason, the builder of this cabinet decided it should look like a shrine, too." She snorted, shaking her head. "Probably Kako's idea."
"Cousin. I'd rather not talk about that little troll right now." She forced a smile back on her face after shuddering at her cousin's name because of too many pranks. "Well? Interested?" She wrote a number on a piece of paper and handed it to Laura.
The blue girl's eyes bugged out and her jaw dropped. "Are you kidding?" When Hikaru shook her head, Laura nodded, "Yeah. I guess I can give it a try. Assuming you don't have any other ... surprises."
"When can you start?"
"How about now?" Laura asked. "I haven't got any homework to do tonight, so I can get laundry done. And I'm going to be tied up for a few days helping Mrs. Barton."
"And then we'll talk about cleaning my room?" Tia asked hopefully.
Laura gasped when she opened the armoire, one hand full of hangers of Hikaru's freshly-laundered uniforms and casual outfits. "What the ...?" She gawked at the Japanese girl. "This is ...," she stammered, having difficulty finding the right words and voicing them through her total surprise. "What is this? A dimensional portal? A gateway?"
"What? It's just a wardrobe, right?" Tia asked, having followed Laura back into Hikaru's room when the blue girl returned with a basket full of clean clothes.
"This is ... huge!" Laura stammered. "And ... racks of clothes? Not one, but rack and racks - as far as I can see? And ... lots of boxes? No wonder your room is so clean!" She had a sudden thought. "Your home in Japan must have piles and piles of boxes!" Laura exclaimed softly.
Hikaru rose from her desk, where she'd been practicing her calligraphy, and tried to look innocent, while her VI Kurenai doubled over laughing. "You're exaggerating a bit. The cabinet was a gift from a fashion designer. She wants me to wear her designs, so she had her brother make it for me so there's a large space inside where I can store all her dresses." She shrugged. "Though I never got why Miya-chan laughed so hard when she told me about it."
"May I?" Laura asked, nodding toward the cabinet. When Hikaru nodded, Laura stepped in. "This is bigger than most living rooms, let alone walk-in closets!" she exclaimed softly. "It's got to be ... what ... fifteen by twenty meters? I know of warehouses that are smaller!"
"It's not that big!" Hikaru rebutted. "And the stuff I wear frequently is on the left, close to the door. You can just ignore everything else."
"There are ... there have to be hundreds of boxes in here!" Laura declared. "And ..." she walked toward a rack of lovely kimonos. "Wow! These are gorgeous!"
"Eh," Hikaru said dismissively. "Not my colors."
"How many dresses do you OWN?" Tia gasped in shock as she peered into the dimensionally-folded armoire.
"I don't know," Hikaru replied. "I quit counting."
"How are they organized?" Laura asked, looking at the clothes she was holding and trying to discern some pattern on the racks.
"Organized?" Hikaru seemed baffled by the question. "The stuff I wear goes in front. The stuff I don't wear - in back!"
"That's so ... illogical!" Laura exclaimed in disbelief. "Colors? Type of dresses? Seasons? It's ... it's ... aaarghh!"
"You want to organize it?"
"A dimensionally shifted warehouse? You think I want to organize this?" Laura shook her head vehemently. "No way! I wouldn't have enough time even if I worked on it full-time!"
"Then ... just hang up the clean stuff closest to the door."
"Okay." As she started to move the clothes, Laura stopped, gawking at an Army dress uniform hanging neatly at the near end of the clothes rack - where Hikaru said she kept the clothes she wore most. The blue dress jacket was professionally pressed, as if it had never been worn, but it was adorned with all the insignia one would expect on an active-duty uniform. From her grandfather's tales and tutelage, Laura knew a little bit about ranks. Why a uniform in Hikaru's closet with the nametag reading Myoujin, would have the silver oak leaves of a Lieutenant Colonel was beyond her. The red arrowhead with the sword centered in it over the right breast wasn't familiar, and Laura didn't understand what the deep green of the shoulder boards indicated, nor the meaning of the crossed arrows on the collar, but she recognized a couple of the ribbons on the 'fruit salad' over the left breast. And that was a mystery, too. Why would Hikaru have a ribbon for a Purple Heart with four little oak leaf clusters? Or what she was certain was the ribbon of a Bronze Star, again with a few oak leaves? If Laura remembered her grandfather's descriptions correctly, the uniform had to belong to a high-ranking veteran officer who'd seen a lot of action. Which was surprising, in that it was a woman's uniform. And Laura didn't think it was common for a woman to have a bunch of pins and devices indicating airborne qualification or a combat infantryman badge with a couple of stars on it. Or a green beret instead of the regular female officer's hat. Hell, the decorations and devices and insignia alone probably outweighed Hikaru!
"Is this your mother's?" Laura asked, stepping aside a bit and gesturing to the uniform.
A frown creased Hikaru's brow as she quickly crossed the room to the armoire. "Just leave that uniform alone," she ordered sharply.
"Okay," Laura said, puzzlement in her voice at the sudden sternness in the Japanese girl's voice. "Maybe you should get a sturdier garment bag to keep it in," she added. "That'd help keep it clean and tidy."
"That's a good idea," Hikaru said. "I'll pick one up."
"And ... I'm sorry if I stirred up bad memories or something," the blue girl apologized quickly, worried from the Japanese girl's reaction that she'd offended Hikaru somehow.
"That's okay. You didn't know," Hikaru replied. "And please don't tell anyone about it," the she added tersely, her gaze alternating between Tia and Laura.
"I promise," Laura said.
"Me, too," Tia agreed solemnly when Hikaru's stare fell upon her.
"Thank you," Hikaru said.
Careful to not disturb the uniform, Laura pushed a group of hangers down the rack to make space, and a couple of kimonos at the far end fell off. "Eep!" she winced. Quickly, she hung up the clean clothing and then picked up the fallen garments. A glance at the rack told her that there was no longer room on the rack it had been on. "Where should I put this?" It was obviously very expensive silk, with a gorgeous pattern of shaded blue and white with silver stars and such, and a deep blue obi around the waist. She let her hand linger on the luxurious fabric.
Hikaru stuck her head back into the strange armoire. "Oh that? Whatever. It's not my color. I won't wear it."
"Oh." Laura sounded a little disappointed that the Japanese girl could be so dismissive of such an elegant garment. "It's so pretty!"
"You like it?"
"It's yours then," Hikaru stated flatly.
"What?" the blue girl asked in open-mouthed astonishment.
"Keep it. I've got too many, and I'll never wear that one." She wrinkled her nose. "Ammy wouldn't be caught dead in blue or green!"
"Just don't ogle the red and gold ones," Tia whispered to Laura. Seeing her confusion, she explained, "Those are Amaterasu's colors. She's quite possessive of them. I made the mistake of asking to borrow a red dress once." She shook her head, a look of mock fear on her face. "Never again!"
"Finally got RID of that one," Hikaru muttered to herself as she turned to leave the armoire.
Tia caught her arm. "Hikaru, you can NOT use Laura to re-gift!"
"She wants it!" Hikaru countered. She turned to the blue girl. "Keep it. I insist. It’s more your colors anyways, not mine, and this way it’ll be worn and appreciated." She smiled. "Consider it a tip."
Tuesday, September 13, 2016 - Late
Near Whitman Cottage, Whateley Academy
The girl frowned as the boy approached her without watching around himself, not taking any visible precautions against being followed. "How is it going," she practically demanded, her tone making it quite clear that she didn't approve of his lack of discretion.
"Not bad," the boy said, stopping and leaning against a tree. "You're too uptight," he observed.
"Never mind. I just thought you'd like to know that I spoke with Medina earlier today."
"Oh?" The girl's suspicious tone disappeared instantly.
"Yeah. I'm about ninety-five percent convinced she took my bait."
"Oh, that our second subject is the daughter of Spinel."
"What?" The girl's jaw dropped. "The villain?"
"Spinel's kind of a petty thief, if I remember, isn't she?" the girl asked, frowning. "Not enough to get the Squirrels stirred up."
"Where are the Squirrels going to follow up on Spinel?" the boy asked with a knowing smile.
"Hero Watch?" the girl speculated. "No ... the Capes database!"
"The Capes never really verify where their information about villains comes from, so it was easy to ... insert ... a little bit more info about Spinel."
"How? You're not a cyberpath or computer geek. Neither am I," the girl frowned again.
"No, but Operator is. She put in a little additional info about Spinel." He took out his cell phone and fiddled until the data he wanted appeared on the screen. "This is what I told her to add."
The girl took the phone and read, and the more she read, the lower her jaw dropped. "Known dealer in stolen bio-weapons and chemical weapons? Rumored to be involved in a deal to supply unconventional weapons for a Southeast Asian terrorist group?" With a shake of her head, she handed the phone back to the boy. "That's piling on a little thick, don't you think?"
The boy shrugged. "Maybe. But it'll tweak their egos if they think they can play a big part in taking down a major villain through her daughter." He chuckled. "And it gets us off the hook."
"But ...." The girl obviously had doubts.
"They won't do anything to her. Neutrality, remember? And if she's their only link to cracking a big case, they sure as hell aren't going to let her out of their sight."
"I dunno," the girl said skeptically. "I think you should have started a little smaller. If they don't take the bait here ...."
"Maybe. But they already have," the boy said. "Medina was very, very interested."
The girl slowly smiled. "Nice work."
The boy smiled smugly. "I do my homework. Also, Swarm was snooping around the subject's table before dinner. I expect he got a bug planted."
"What good does that do us?"
"He's ours." Seeing the puzzled look on the girl's face, the boy smiled, a wicked, evil expression. "There are a few things that he'd really rather not become public knowledge."
The boy shook his head. "Oh, no, no, no! Nothing so crude. I just ... strongly hinted that we could help keep those things secret if he would help us monitor the two. As long as we get copies of anything the Squirrels get."
Wednesday, September 14, 2016 - After Dinner
The Village, Whateley Academy
As the pair of girls strode down the main street of 'The Village', Laura couldn't help but feel a little nervous. This was the faculty's and staff's home, their refuge from the problems of classes and teens, and she and Tanya were intruding.
The community was laid out like the small town that it was - one main street ran the length of the village, with smaller cross-streets leading to blocks of two-story apartments and small houses. A horseshoe-shaped road for vehicular traffic circled most of the perimeter; the 'streets' were primarily pedestrian areas, although there were a couple of golf carts and several bicycles. No doubt Mrs. Barton had a golf cart to get around, Laura figured.
The entire thing was a re-creation of small-town Americana - with a tiny post office that seemed to be also kind of mini city-hall, a small grocery store, and a small park, but the dominant feature on main street was the building housing the Flying Blue Squirrel Pub and the Brown Moose Café, no doubt very popular places for the staff after hours.
As the girls passed the café, a mountain of a man, wearing a flannel plaid shirt and jeans, happened to come out, and he fell in beside Laura. "You know the staff residential area is off limits to students, don't you girls?" he asked. Though his tone was friendly, the question and his size made the situation rather intimidating.
"I was invited by Dr. Barton," Laura replied, her voice quavering a bit from nerves. "I'm going to help Mrs. Barton while Dr. Barton is at a conference this weekend." She halted and dug in her purse and pulled out a note, basically a 'hall pass' to the Village. "See?" She shoved the paper at the big man.
"Okay," the man said with a shrug, ignoring the proffered paper. If the girls were lying, they'd be found out quite quickly, and punished appropriately. "I'm Dr. Wyatt Cody. You two must be freshmen."
"How ...?" Laura started to ask.
"Simple. I don't recognize you from last year, and I know every student - one way or another."
"Evening, Wyatt," a woman said as her path crossed by the small group. The girls' eyes were drawn to the horns on the beautiful woman's head and the tail swishing behind her like a snake-charmer's cobra. "Don't you remember - the last time you brought home strays, Elaine got rather upset," she added with a laugh.
"Not mine, Christine," Wyatt chuckled. "This one," he nodded toward Laura, "is apparently going to help Vanessa this weekend while Jake is at a conference. That makes them hers."
"I'm Laura," the blue girl interjected since introductions hadn't yet been done. "Laura Samuels."
"Tanya Wright," the other girl said. "I came along to help make sure Laura is safe."
"And I," the woman said with a sweeping bow, "am the Fabulous Imp, art teacher extraordinaire." She frowned. "You aren't in any of my art classes. How come?"
"Um," Laura cringed a little bit, "I'm ... busy with labs and stuff."
A grin formed on the Imp's face. "Just kidding," she chuckled. "But you should really think about it. Art inspires creativity, and creativity is something all you technical types should develop and exercise. Like Da Vinci."
"You just want to torture more students," Wyatt laughed.
"I guess I could think about it," Laura replied, a thoughtful expression on her face. She hadn't considered that art might help her gadgeteering.
"And learning to draw is a valuable skill for making legible schematics and diagrams," Imp added. Clearly, she was selling her classes, and discussion of how art helped tech types was piquing Laura's interest.
"I better get them over to Vanessa, before she sends out a search party."
"It was nice to meet you," Laura said to the Imp, shaking her hand. Tanya did likewise, and then the woman strode toward the store with a happy bounce in her step, and her tail swishing in time to the music of her whistling some tune that seemed oddly familiar to Laura.
"Did Vanessa give you directions, or are you about to ask me how to find their apartment?"
"She did," Laura replied with a frown, "but ... the street numbers don't make sense, so I'm not sure how to get there."
"Well, since the Bartons are my neighbors, how about I lead you there?"
The apartment buildings in the village were one and two stories units, each with not more than six or eight apartments. Not surprisingly, the Barton's apartment was on the first floor. In response to Wyatt's knock, they heard a woman call out, "I got it," and moments later, the door opened, revealing Vanessa in her chair.
"I found a couple of strays wandering around, and I thought you and Jake could take care of them," Wyatt joked.
"Oh, good," Vanessa grinned. "I was afraid you were going to tell me you were taking my help to babysit your herd!"
"Hey, that's not a bad idea!" Wyatt shot back. "Girls, Lanie and I need ...."
"Don't you dare try to poach my help, Wyatt Cody," Vanessa snapped at him. "Or I'll tell your wife you're misbehaving again!"
With a goofy grin, Wyatt put up his hands. "Okay, okay. I give up."
"Now shoo! I hear your wife calling!" Vanessa said, grinning.
"Okay, okay." The big man started to turn. "Oh, by the way, Lanie said to ask you when you want to do another girls' night out?"
"I'll get back to her." With that, Wyatt turned and loped easily away. "Come in, come in," Vanessa invited the girls, backing her chair away from the door to make a passage. "Hi, Tanya. I didn't expect you, too."
"I hope it's not an imposition," Laura said, flinching a tiny bit. "Tanya insisted on coming along to make sure I'm safe walking home."
Mrs. Barton nodded. "Smart girls," she said approvingly.
Jake came into the room, and his smile broadened when he saw the girls. "Laura, Tanya," he greeted them, before turning to Vanessa. "Tanya is one of my advisees and in my class, too," he explained.
"I'm going to show Laura around," Vanessa stated. "So she knows what she's getting herself into."
"Okay," Jake replied. He gestured to a chair. "Have a seat, Tanya. It looks like I'm responsible for entertaining you while Laura gets the grand tour."
A little later, Vanessa and Laura came back. "You wouldn't believe how many history books he's got!" Laura gushed excitedly. "Including a couple he wrote!"
Jake shrugged. "I like books, what can I say?"
The group visited for a while longer, until Laura noted the time. "I've got some homework I need to get done," she said. "And I don't want to impose on you."
"Then I'll see you tomorrow after classes?" Vanessa prompted.
"I'll come by your office," Laura responded. The girls bade them goodnight and strolled back through the Village to the main campus. Laura was excited about the history books, but she sensed something different about Tanya's reaction. Tanya had obviously enjoyed the visit, but as she spent nearly the whole time talking to Dr. Barton, the blue girl couldn't help but wonder, given Tanya' background with the River City Wardens, if her friend had a little case of hero-worship for the retired hero. After all, he had once gone by Tractor and had been a member of the Sioux Falls League. She wondered if she should tell Tanya about his book, "Heroes on the Prairie - The History of the Sioux Falls League" or not. Laura had noticed it on a special place in his bookshelf, and when she asked, Mrs. Barton had shrugged it off. Dr. Barton hadn't said anything about it either, so it might have been, to her, a reminder of what had happened to her. But Laura couldn't help but be curious - the cover picture was the same one that Dr. Barton had on his desk, and she wondered if there was more information about the two girls she'd noticed, the ones that Mrs. Barton had said were more than just friends.
Thursday, September 15, 2016 - After Classes
Kirby Hall, Whateley Academy
A knock sounded on the door casing outside Vanessa Barton's office. She looked up from the pile of papers she was grading - introductory magic was almost never fun to teach, and many of the students' answers were worse than wrong, tainted as they were by popular fiction such as the Harry Potter books. Like most of the Magic Arts department, she'd grown to truly detest those books.
"Hi, Mrs. Barton," Laura said softly through the open door. "I came as soon as I got done tidying up my lab space."
Vanessa smiled. "As you can see," she said, gesturing to the pile of papers, "I wasn't getting bored waiting." She put the papers and a couple of books into a soft-sided briefcase. "I can finish grading these at home." She noted the backpack Laura was carrying. "Good. You brought your homework. Jake would never let me hear the end of it if your grades slipped because of this."
"No, ma'am," Laura replied. "I wouldn't like that either."
"Good. And I've got a rule - once we're off the quad, there will be no more 'ma'am', got it?" Her words were stern, but delivered with a smile, letting Laura know that she was serious.
"Yes, ma ...." Laura blushed as she almost said it again out of habit. "Yes."
"Good. Now, let's go by the lake on the way home. It's a beautiful day, and I feel like enjoying some of it."
It was a gorgeous autumn day - blue skies with only a few clouds, warm but not hot, with a cool, gentle breeze that gave hints of winter winds to come, but for the time being, it felt heavenly. For quite a while, the two sat by the edge of the lake, enjoying the lingering good weather while they could, and just chatting. Mrs. Barton was curious about Tanya and her other friends, what she thought of Whateley so far, how her classes were going - normal small talk, but that faded as the older woman sat, quite obviously contemplating something.
"I like sitting here," Vanessa said suddenly, breaking a long silence and surprising Laura.
Laura didn't know what to say, so she just walked beside Vanessa's chair, along a pathway of pavers and into the Village. Vanessa waved cheerfully and said 'hi' to many teachers, staff, and family members, and then the duo got to the apartment.
"Okay," Laura said cheerfully as Vanessa settled herself into a wing chair, "what first?"
"You're sure a go-getter, aren't you?" Vanessa chuckled.
"You're paying me to help, so I'm going to help. Last night, I saw the laundry basket is full, so I'll start a load." Without waiting for Vanessa to say anything, she strode to the apartment's little laundry nook. "I'll get this started, then I'll get something started for dinner," she called out as she sorted the dirty clothing.
"I'll order pizza from the Brown Moose," Vanessa countered.
"It's better made fresh," Laura shot right back. "Have you got fresh veggies?"
"No." Vanessa levered herself back into her chair and piloted it to where the blue girl was working. "Jake and I don't cook much."
Laura smiled at her. "A good reason for me to cook something fresh and healthy, then. Do they have veggies at the store? After I get this load going, I can run over and get a few things if you want."
"No, they don't. But ... can you drive?"
"Nope." Laura kind of blushed. "Not old enough for a license yet. I know I could drive if I had to or if someone would let me, but ...."
"Then I'll drive. If you're going to insist on cooking, then I insist we run into town and get what you need." Then she winced. "But ...." She was reluctant to say what she was thinking.
Laura knew instantly. "After New York and with the flags, I always carry a bit of makeup."
After putting on her makeup and then checking the pantry, Laura made a shopping list that she figured would satisfy meals through the weekend, and then the two drove to Berlin in Vanessa's car - modified so that she could operate it with only hand controls.
Laura frowned when she had to get Vanessa's chair into the back seat of her car, since the woman could barely manage that task by herself. In that sense, she was almost helpless, and the gadgeteer girl naturally started thinking about what she could do to help. Perhaps a remote control on the chair, or a limited AI system to get the chair to and from its storage location? And it needed to fold or something to better fit behind the drivers' seat. Halfway to Berlin, she got a piece of paper and pen from her purse and began to draw. Vanessa noticed that Laura had suddenly become silent, and then had started to doodle. She smiled knowingly; when a gadgeteer or devisor got an idea, it was best to not interrupt them.
In the store, Laura happily assisted Vanessa, who didn't seem too excited about grocery shopping, but was slowly getting into the mood just from the girl's infectious enthusiasm. As Laura picked over tomatoes - after all, if she was going to make sauce, it might as well be homemade - a grandmotherly woman maneuvered her shopping cart past Vanessa, pausing to smile at what she saw. "You're lucky," the older woman said to Vanessa, "you have such a helpful daughter."
The former hero goggled at the woman, who fortunately was looking approvingly at Laura. "Um, yeah," she managed to stammer.
"I had three sons," the woman said, smiling back at Vanessa. "They wouldn't have been caught dead helping me shop if I were in your situation." As Vanessa struggled to think of something to say, the woman took a step over and put her hand gently on Laura's. "It's so good to see the younger generation hasn't totally forgotten manners. Your mom raised a good daughter."
"Um, yes," Laura stammered, not quite realizing what the woman was thinking. "Yes, and I'm lucky to have a mother like her."
The woman sauntered off with her cart, leaving a puzzled Laura and an uneasy former superhero by the tomatoes. When she saw the look on Vanessa's face, Laura suddenly realized what the woman had been thinking - that she was Vanessa's daughter - and her eyebrows shot up. "Um," she started to say, thinking she had to say something but not quite sure what.
"Innocent mistake," Vanessa replied. "Let's just finish our shopping and go home, okay?" After they had paid for the groceries, the two drove back toward The Village, the conversation awkward and bouncing around to 'safe' subjects. Finally, Vanessa knew she had to say something. "I'm sorry," she apologized. "That was probably pretty awkward for you. Back in the store, I mean."
"No, you don't have to apologize," Laura shot right back, trying to sound calm despite her rapid heartbeat. "I ... I'm sure it wasn't ... she probably ... what she said probably was a reminder, and ...."
Vanessa nodded. "Yeah, it stung," she admitted. "But ... it kind of felt nice, too. Like ... like it would be ... would have been ... if we, um, if Jake and I had ...." Her voice cracked, and an awkward silence ensued for another couple of miles. "How about if we just forget about it?" she suggested to break the melancholy and somber mood.
"Okay," Laura practically fainted with relief. At the picnic, Mrs. Barton had told her that the same accident that crippled her had left her unable to have children, and that accidental encounter in the store must have been a very painful reminder for Vanessa.
"So what are you going to make - besides pizza?" Vanessa changed the subject.
"Cookies." Laura smiled smugly when the older woman gawked at her. "You can't cook without baking some cookies, too! It's one of my mom's rules! I used to cook with mom a lot. That was always fun." Her smile cracked a bit. "Except ... my dad and brothers."
"Let me guess - you enjoyed cooking, and your dad and brothers made fun of you or bullied you because of that, right?"
"They were ... assholes!" Laura spat angrily, her eyes misting at the bad memories.
"I think you're very glad you changed, right? And got out from under their thumbs?"
The teen stared at the older woman for a moment. "Yeah," she finally said, a smile dawning on her features. "I am."
Thursday, September 15, 2016 - Dinnertime
The Village, Whateley Academy
Vanessa Barton looked up from the book she'd been reading, listening to the girl singing to herself in the kitchen. The cooking aromas were something she hadn't smelled in a long time; while she used to like to cook, since her injury, cooking was more of a chore since countertops and the range were too high for her to use her chair. She'd tried the newer elevating chair that was supposed to lift her to a more upright position, but it was so disorientating and quite clumsy to her that she just gave up on that idea.
"What do you want on the pizza?" Laura asked. "We've picked up enough that I can do almost anything."
"The works?" Vanessa asked. "Pepperoni, olives, onions, peppers, mushrooms - if we got it, put it on. It's been a long time since I've had a home-made pizza, so we might as well go all out."
"I hope you like it."
"It'll be fine," Vanessa interrupted the girl. "You're making something else, though, aren't you? That's a lot of pans and activity for just pizza."
"Oh, yeah," Laura blushed a pretty shade of lavender. "I've got cookies in the oven, and I'm also making chocolate-chili pots de crème, which is kind of custard. My mom adores it, but Julie - that's my little sister - she thinks I use too much chili. She likes the maple version, and I've made it with mint and chocolate before, but that didn't come out quite like I hoped, but Mom said it was good anyway. It's one of my favorite desserts, so I hope you like it."
"Laura, it'll be fine. Calm down a little, okay?" Vanessa gave a half chuckle. "You're darting about here like a busy bee, and I'm getting tired just watching you."
"I just ... I enjoy cooking and stuff," Laura protested weakly, "and ... and you're paying me to help, so I want to make sure you feel like you're getting your money's worth!" A buzzer sounded down the hall. "Oops - I have to go get the laundry in the dryer. If the timer goes off for the cookies, can you take them out of the oven for me?"
Laura needn't have fretted so much - the cookies came out perfectly, the pizza was a hit with Mrs. Barton, the dessert was in the refrigerator chilling, and another load of laundry was in the dryer.
"Can you help me strap into my 'rack'?" Vanessa said after Laura cleaned up plates from the table. Seeing the girl's confused look, Vanessa smiled. "It's something Elaine developed for me. I strap into it, and the computer system stimulates my muscles so they don't atrophy."
Laura's eyebrow cocked, quizzically. "Why don't you just use a power walking frame?"
Vanessa sighed wearily. "We tried. Elaine and Dr. Tenent explained it to me, but I didn't understand most of it. Basically, walking and running require tens or hundreds of thousands of feedback signals every second to help maintain balance." She rolled into a room that had been converted into an exercise room for both of them - with a large table dominating one wall next to a large rack of electronics.
"So if the feedback is messed up ...?" Laura began to speculate.
"It won't work. It has something to do with contamination in my neurons and spinal fluid that messes up with any signals below the injury, and if they try to stimulate those nerves, like a conventional walker or power frame does, it causes a lot of neural cross-talk and problems. The last time I tried something like that, the messed-up feedback ended up causing severe convulsions that actually broke my leg. So ...." She levered herself out of her chair onto the low table, where she began to put on a huge assortment of straps with electrical leads coming from them.
"So you have this little franken-machine to stimulate your muscles directly," Laura posed. "But ... since there's no feedback in the spinal column, it doesn't hurt you?"
"Yeah. And stimulating muscles that way, without feedback, is too rough and clumsy for something that requires fine control, like walking." She forced a light chuckle. "If ...." her eyes clouded for a moment, and she swallowed hard, "when ... when Kayda finds a way to cure this ... this mess," she continued softly, "I want to walk out of the hospital. I don't want to be so weak, with bones that are so fragile and brittle that it takes me months and months to get strong enough." She forced the smile to reappear. "And it's supposed to be much healthier for me."
After getting the older woman situated in what truly appeared to be a machine designed by Torquemada for the Inquisition, Laura retrieved the load of laundry from the dryer and brought it to the exercise room. While she folded and hung the clothes, she had a wonderful conversation with Mrs. Barton, while the older woman's lower body muscles were twitched and exercised by the very complex electronic gizmo.
"When I was driving to Berlin, what were you working on?" Vanessa asked as the machine exercised her body to the point that her heart-rate and respiration were elevated, as if she was out running instead of being strapped to a table.
"What?" Laura jerked her head up from the book she was studying, startled by the interruption. "Oh," she had to think back a bit. "I was just thinking."
"About what?" Vanessa smiled. "I've seen the 'gadgeteer gaze' before, you know. I can tell you got some idea about something, just like Don used to get in the League."
"Well, I thought," Laura said shyly, "that, if your car's doors opened like in older cars, like an old T-bird with suicide doors, you know - without the B-pillar, and hinging the rear door at the C-pillar, there'd be enough room to make the driver's seat pivot and extend out and down, so it'd be easier for you to get in and out."
Vanessa's eyebrows shot up. Of all the things that had been suggested to her, no-one had looked at modifying her car. All the vehicular suggestions revolved around a van with a ramp, the more conventional way to allow handicapped persons to drive or ride. "Interesting."
"And I'd have to study it some more, but maybe the same kind of extension frame could be installed to load and unload your chair. Maybe even automatically."
Try as she might, Vanessa couldn't quite picture what Laura was talking about. "I'm not sure I understand."
"Okay," Laura cringed a bit; she wasn't good at explaining her concepts - yet. "So ... the doors both open by power drives, like this," she held her hands up, fingertips together, and then swung them open like a pair of doors. "You'd back your chair up to dock in a mechanism beside the rear seat, while the driver's seat would come out and down." She continued to explain slowly, sometimes struggling to verbalize a concept that was so clear in her head, sometimes using hand motions to show how things would move, but eventually, Vanessa understood.
"Why don't you talk to Lanie about that?" Vanessa suggested. "Like all of the advanced technology staff and faculty, I'm sure she'd love to help you figure out how to make it work. And she's really, really good with cars, too."
The clothes dryer's buzzer interrupted the line of conversation, so Laura excused herself to tend to the laundry. When Vanessa finished and rolled back out of the exercise room, she was pleasantly surprised to see the girl changing the bed linens. Also, the bath towels were changed.
After a shower to clean up - the exercise machine had really gotten her sweating, which was the goal - Vanessa joined Laura in the kitchen to eat the dessert which the girl had made. Laura felt like she could have stayed all night, but around nine-forty-five, Vanessa made her call Poe so one of her friends could come, so she'd get home safely and before curfew.
Thursday, September 15, 2016 - Late
Between the Village and Poe Cottage
"Psst," the girl called out into the wooded area. She was dressed in all black, with a black ski mask, to better blend in with the shadows. "Apple Dumplings," she hissed to nothing in particular, giving the code phrase of the day so her partner would know it was her. When there was no response, she sighed. "Ed, I know you're there. Knock it off! We're on a job!"
From nothingness, at least to her eye, a boy materialized, similarly attired but his outfit accessorized with an umbrella and black top-hat. "You're late," he admonished the girl. In point of fact, he hadn't been invisible, but had projected a telepathic field that effectively blinded any inside the sphere of influence to his presence. "And that's a stupid pass phrase."
"Don’t DO that!" Kim Hashida - Perfume - squawked at him, her odor changing instantly from a high-end perfume to something a little more noxious that hinted of skunk spray before she calmed herself and regained control.
"It's what I do," Ed Temple, the boy, replied with a smug smile. "Anything?"
"No, she's just ... wait! Someone's coming out." She raised a special binocular camera to her eyes. The gadget could magnify an image far beyond the capabilities of a simple pair of optical binoculars, and could switch between regular, infra-red, or low-light enhancement modes, which was what she was using. "It's our target. And one of her friends." She handed the imager to her compatriot. "This doesn't make sense. The Bartons are retired heroes. Why would the daughter of Spinel spend time with them?"
"I dunno," Ed Temple - Mister Blank - replied, wrinkling his brow at the puzzle. "Throwing people off her trail?"
Kim fiddled with her smart phone, bypassing the normal web browser and starting an app that tunneled directly to the Hero Watch secure database. It had taken her a lot of time and she'd had to curry a lot of favor to get that link. "According to this," she reported after reading up on the rumors, "the Bartons may have been involved with a hero group that used an abandoned military installation as their headquarters."
Ed's eyebrows shot up. "Leftover weapons, maybe?"
"Or," Kim gulped as her imagination ran wild, "some old, communication bunker with inactive connections to NORAD - and possibly missile launch grid."
"Nuclear blackmail?" Ed's eyes were wide as saucers. "Or ... Spinel could deactivate some of the security monitoring so a team could hit one of the missile silos and steal the warheads."
Kim nodded grimly. "Or coopt the launch systems and program them to splash the unarmed warheads so her customers would be waiting to recover them." Her imagination was racing as she considered the many possibilities of someone hijacking an old military command base with weapons and communications gear and links.
"This is way over our heads," Ed noted nervously. "We should tell someone ...."
"Who?" Kim demanded angrily. "Mazarin? He's Syndicate! He's probably turning a blind eye to all this!" She shook her head as the pair began moving through the shadows, pacing their target. "We need to get iron-clad proof, and then we contact someone like the Empire City Guard, someone we know will act on this information."
Thursday, September 15, 2016 - Late
Ground Floor Common Room, Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy
Brita Baumann sat in a comfy wing chair, but comfort was far from her mind. She was watching the main doors. She'd accidentally overheard Mrs. Horton talking to Laura about the girl's evening activities; for some reason, that nettlesome girl had gotten permission to spend time in the teachers' housing area, and there was a very good chance that she would be late, and thus in violation of curfew. And as an RA, Brita was supposed to report curfew violations. That little tramp would get in serious trouble - and all through her own fault, while Brita got the pleasure of ensuring a curfew violation was filed and seeing the little tramp punished.
Brita glanced at her watch once more; it seemed the time was dragging on too slowly. Finally, a grin broke across her face - it was after ten, and the blue, fake girl was late. Still, no sign of her. The German girl was squirming with eager anticipation at getting to figuratively drop the hammer on Laura.
Finally, at twelve minutes after ten, the door opened and Laura walked briskly into the cottage. Brita stood and moved to block her path.
"You're in violation of curfew," Brita snarled at the girl. "Come with me to see Mrs. Horton."
"I have a pass," Laura protested, but the German girl had clamped her hand around Laura's wrist like a vise, and the blue girl was half-dragged to the house-mother's apartment. Brita's fist boomed on the door to announce her presence to Mrs. Horton.
"Just a minute," the housemother called from inside. About fifteen seconds later, the door opened to the girls. "Yes?"
"Curfew violation," Brita said simply, thrusting Laura forward. "She was almost fifteen minutes late."
"I have a pass," Laura protested against being railroaded by Stahlfaust, who she knew disliked her. She held out the paper to Mrs. Horton.
"Oh, no need to worry about a piece of paper," Mrs. Horton said with a reassuring and comforting smile. "Vanessa, er, Mrs. Barton, called when you left her apartment and told me you might be a bit late. She said she kept you a bit later than planned. She said your friend came to make sure you got back okay - does she need a pass or something?"
Laura sighed with relief. "Tanya's in Whitman; she said she has a pass from her house-mother. And ... I ... it was kind of my fault we're late. While we were waiting for the chocolate pots de crème to chill, I kind of lost track of time finishing laundry and changing the bed linens."
"She told me how helpful you were," Mrs. Horton said with a smile before turning to Brita. "I appreciate your diligence in your duties, but perhaps if you had checked the RA app on your phone, you would have seen that I posted Laura's status," she lightly admonished the RA.
"Yes, ma'am," Brita said, trying to sound contrite, but the evil glare she shot Laura's way rattled the blue girl. If Brita had disliked her before, her hatred was sure to increase after this little dressing down.
"You may go," the housemother said to the RA. "Chocolate pots de crème, eh?" Mrs. Horton said, turning her attention back to Laura and raising an eyebrow. "Perhaps we should trade recipes and techniques some weekend when you have free time. I personally like a bit of espresso to liven up the chocolate flavor."
"If you like spicy food," Laura began. She knew that she and Mrs. Horton were no doubt going to have a bit of discussion about recipes and cooking, and that suited her just fine.
Friday, September 15, 2016 - Afternoon
Los Angeles, CA
Hearing the click of heels coming toward her, the secretary looked up, and she started when she recognized the woman. Very professionally attired, she had an aura of power about her, as if she was very used to being listened to. "May I help you ...?" the secretary asked politely, not in the least intimidated by the status of the businesswoman standing before her, as her boss was a mover and shaker in the halls of financial power and she routinely saw very important people come through her office.
"Financier," the woman replied quickly, cutting off mention of her true name. "Simply call me Financier. I believe you will find that Mr. Butler expects me."
"Yes, you're on his schedule." Had she not been an exemplar herself, the secretary might have been jealous of the appearance of the woman - very attractive with an extremely fit body under her conservative suit. Financier's jacket was tailored to be attractive and professional without showing off her underlying curves - of which there seemed to be plenty. "Would you care for some coffee while you wait?" She read the businesswoman's hesitant look. "Mr. Butler thought we should try a special Columbian gourmet coffee blend this morning. I think you'll find it quite good."
"That would be very good, thank you. Two creams, one sugar."
As the secretary prepared the coffee, a door to the side of her desk opened and a large, portly, balding, white-haired man in a blue suit stepped out, his eyes sparkling with energy that matched the smile on his face. No doubt, if he grew a beard and moustache, he'd have made a perfect Santa Claus figure. "Ah, Financier!" he said warmly as he stepped toward the woman, his hand outstretched to clasp the hand of the woman who hadn't yet sat down. "A cup for me, too, Miss Hartnett," he said to his secretary.
Miss Hartnett quickly complied, having almost completed Financier's order, and she poured a cup of black coffee for her boss, following the two into the office and setting the coffee on a small table in the center of the informal leather-upholstered conversation group, as Mr. Butler had eschewed the formal seats at his desk and at his small conference table.
After taking a sip of her coffee, the businesswoman's eyebrow raised. "Are you trying to bribe me with my favorite coffee blend?" she asked with a wry smile.
"I like my ... guests ... to feel comfortable as we discuss business," Mr. Butler replied casually.
The woman smiled. "It's rumored widely in business circles that you're a precog or a psi, since you very consistently outperform even Warren Buffet with your investments."
"Rumors frequently start out of jealousy," Mr. Butler replied with a grin. "How is your SO doing? It doesn't sound like her delivery was easy."
"No, it was a rather difficult delivery, but we had the best obstetrician in New York attending, so it was low risk." The businesswoman smiled. "Has your mother recovered from her hip surgery? I would hope she finds it much more restful to convalesce in the Hamptons as opposed to some stuffy hospital."
"Shall we stop the little demonstration of what we know of each other?" Hugo Butler suggested with a wry grin. "It's very obvious that you've taken as much time to learn about me as I have about you, and I seriously doubt that someone with your reputation is going to be intimidated in this little game."
"Touche!" The businesswoman smiled. "I like to know who I'm dealing with." She glanced around. "I presume you keep your office clean?"
"Swept every morning, noon, and evening," Hugo answered confidently. "And I have wards placed by highly trusted individuals to prevent magic scrying." A knowing smile appeared. "I'm sure you know how important it is to keep confidences when doing business."
"No doubt," the woman said, pulling a small cube from her purse. "Do you mind?"
"One can never be too careful. Jammer?"
The woman smiled. "And more. If by chance someone does find a way to penetrate your security, when I activate the device, all they'll overhear is standard business discussions - which I assume is definitely not on the agenda."
"Clever!" The man smiled. "So you know my role in Evolution Rocks?"
"I know your public role," she acknowledged, "but playing money manager for a vocal, pacifist group staging sit-ins and marches for mutant rights and harmony seems a little beneath you, given your skills." Although your ... success ... at hiding your own mutation gives you a perfect front as a supposed baseline with the organization."
Mr. Butler's eyebrows shot up. "That's ... a wild speculation," he said cautiously, suddenly and visibly uncomfortable. "Where would ...?"
"I get such a notion?" the woman asked with a smile. "Through my alma mater, I have access to some of the world's best scientists who study mutations. A little visit to a lab to surreptitiously obtain a blood sample, some lab work with experts in genetic sequencing, and analysis by experts in mutation genetics, and it's quite evident that you have an active meta-gene complex." She read the man's concern. "Oh, don't worry. It was very, very difficult to find out, the four independent teams who did the work, each on a different facet of the investigation, have no knowledge of the other pieces of the puzzle, and since I'm a mutant, too, I have zero incentive to out you."
"It seems you are every bit as formidable as your reputation says," Mr. Butler complimented her with a smile and a nod of his head. "Very well, shall we lay our cards on the table? I belong to a ... subgroup ... of Evolution Rocks - a Vanguard of a new order, if you will. Our goal ... my goal ... is to use the levers of power, behind the scenes, to reduce friction between the mutant and baseline communities."
"Ah, the Bilderberg and Trilateralist ploys?"
"Precisely. Relations were improving," he noted grimly, "until Fullerton."
"That was a most ... unfortunate ... event."
"Can you imagine how much worse it would have been if everyone there had been killed? It was bad enough that some were, and that many of the victims were psychically implanted with memories and illusions that still cause them nightmares - and resulted in many of them being permanently institutionalized. Some say that those who died were the lucky ones."
"A whole town - abandoned like Chernobyl," the Financier said knowingly.
"Fear in the baseline population is growing, sparked by a few incidents, stoked by jealousy of powers and looks, and fanned by knowledge that there are powered villains loose in the world."
"Ah, so by working to gain fiscal control behind the scenes," the Financier speculated, "you'll ... distract them? With bread and circuses, no doubt?"
"Note the growth in so-called reality shows, and gossip TV. Look at the growth in sports."
"As I said," the Financier smiled, "Bread and circuses. And behind the scenes, money goes to elect pro-mutant candidates, and to lobby for pro-mutant-rights laws?"
"And you're talking to me about these things for what reason?" the woman asked, more curious than suspicious, although a hint of the latter came through in her tone.
"I need a partner in my organization. Someone who knows business, who knows intimately how the levers of power are worked, and who knows the mutant community, which I've mostly hidden from, much better than I. Someone whose reputation in the business world is stellar."
"You want me to be a public face for Ev Rocks?"
Hugo shook his head. "Oh, no, no, no. We have that. Besides, as you well noted, the organization is ... inept. No, I want you to join me in Vanguard, where we can work without the interference of Mutant Justice Warriors and bickering wannabes."
"Color me intrigued," the woman said. "It sounds ... much more promising than the hapless plans of the other organizations and groups." She smiled. "Let's talk about your plan, how I fit in, and some ideas I've had over the years for this very goal."
Friday, September 16, 2016 - After Classes
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy
"Look," Laura had her arm around her roommate, who was more than slightly sad, "being homesick is normal. That's why we have friends."
"But ... I'm not homesick!" Bailey stammered, her voice nearly cracking. "It's just ... you have a home!"
"A long ways away," Laura added, feeling a twinge of sadness. "Your mom is only a few minutes away. You can see her ...."
"But ... Mom and Aunt Matilda - they ... they lied to me!"
Laura recoiled from her roommate's vehemence. "What?"
"Mom never told me ... that she's a mutant! So is Aunt Matilda." Bailey looked down, shaking her head sadly and sniffling. "And ... and ... Mom ... she's ... she's a changeling, too!"
Laura goggled at her roommate's revelation. "So ... you're saying your life would have been better if you had known?" Bailey started, and stared at the blue girl. "Would it have made things easier? Or would it have been more confusing and more difficult?"
"A lie of omission is still a lie," Bailey said defensively.
Laura smiled. "Mom once told me that she sometimes hadn't always told me all the details of something, because she knew I wasn't ready to hear or understand them." A knock at her door interrupted her.
"Come in," Laura called out. "It's open."
Flower poked her head in. "Laura, Mrs. Barton is here to pick you up."
"Tell her I'll be right down," Laura replied, practically springing form the bed and starting to gather her books.
"Oh, don't rush, Laura," Mrs. Barton's voice sang out from the doorway. Startled, Laura turned, having not expected that the teacher would come up to her room but rather that she'd meet the older woman in the lobby. She glanced around, smiling. "It's been years and years since I've seen the inside of one of the cottages, so I got curious what they're like now. Huge change from when I was a student, I'll tell you that!"
"Were you a Poesie, then?" Flower asked a little uneasily, not quite certain how to handle this somewhat enthusiastic guest on her wing.
"Oh, no," Vanessa replied. "I was in Dickinson, back before they did the total remodel and added the room wings. The rooms are bigger," she observed, "and you've got much nicer furniture. I hope for your sakes that they aren't as drafty as when I was in school." She turned to the RA hovering nearby. "And I know why Poe is unique," she said with a smile. "Some of my best friends - and one of my former teammates - were Poesies, so ... yeah. I know why the secret is so important, so you don't have to worry, dear," she reassured Flower.
Laura threw some books and her laptop in a backpack, then slung one strap over a shoulder. "Okay. I'm ready."
"If you don't mind," Mrs. Barton said half to Laura and half to Flower, "I'd like to look around a bit - to satisfy my curiosity of how spoiled you kids today are."
"Compared to the old days, when you had to rough it, I suppose?" Flower replied with a chuckle. "Cast-iron kettles over wood-burning fireplaces, wind blowing snow through the poorly-fit windows. Huddling together under one big quilt to stave of the cold?" As she spoke, she fiddled with her smart-phone a bit, and after a few seconds, a tiny light set into the top of the door-case, like on the casing of every single door in the cottage, turned green.
"You forgot having to trudge to the stream once a week to beat our laundry on the rocks," Vanessa grinned.
To hear Vanessa talk, the old cottages were tiny, cramped, drafty, and had none of the amenities that were found in Poe. No hot tubs, no saunas, no lap pools, only one small gym in the basement, and a tiny library. Most of all, no elevators, which given her handicap, would have been a huge issue in her day. Partway through the tour, Mrs. Horton, the housemother, met them, and Vanessa heard some tales about her former team-mate Debra Matson and Deb's partner and soul-mate Kayda.
"You were awfully quiet when Mrs. Horton was talking about her old students," Vanessa observed as the two wended their way from the core of campus toward The Village.
"They're the same two that are in the picture ... on Dr. Barton's desk?" Laura asked. "And on the cover of his book?"
"I don't know. I guess ... just curious."
"Laura," Mrs. Barton said, stopping her chair and turning toward the girl, "I've known Kayda and Deb for years. Their relationship - it's no different from mine and Jake's. They've had their ups and downs, they have their arguments." She smiled and held Laura's hand. "Just like I'm sure you want to have someday. The one girl you introduced me to - Antonia? She's your ... special girl? At least for now?"
"Is it that obvious?" Laura's cheeks turned lavender.
"No," Vanessa smiled. "But I learned to recognize a few things from Deb and Kayda."
"But I know how high-school romances almost never work out," Laura interjected. "So ...."
"Have you ever looked at the stats for mutants?" Vanessa asked with a wry smile, surprising Laura. "I don't know if it's because of being minorities, or common ties or situations, or what, but Whateley alums seem to have much higher odds of romances actually lasting." She turned her chair, but paused to look up at the girl. "If it's meant to be, it'll be. If not, it won't. You're young. Don't rush things."
Friday, September 16, 2016 - After Classes
The Bartons' Apartment, The Village, Whateley Academy
"No, really," Laura countered, "it's no trouble! It'll only take a few minutes, and there's plenty of chicken!"
"Ah didn't mean to cause you more trouble," the redhead drawled in her Georgia accent. "We were just checking up on Vanessa, since Jake is out of town."
"And I told you, I'm okay," Vanessa countered. "You don't have to put yourself to any trouble!" She grinned at Vanessa. "I hired a minion to do that for me this weekend."
Laura's jaw dropped. "I am not a minion!" she protested. "Why does everyone keep calling me a minion?"
"Yeah!" Wyatt Junior retorted boldly from one door to the kitchen. "Everyone knows minions aren't blue! They're yellow!"
Laura nodded firmly to the young boy, then she saw something out of the corner of her eye. "Hey!" she turned toward the boy's red-headed twin sister. "Hands off the cookies!" As she chased the girl away from the table, Lanie and Vanessa laughed lightly.
"Constance, hands off! You'll spoil your appetite!" Lanie rebuked her daughter through her chuckles.
While everyone's attention was on the little redheaded girl, a scruffy head popped up from the side of the table that the adults and Laura weren't watching. With a wicked grin, he took the whole plate of cookies, leftovers from the night before, and slipped back down, low-crawling out of the kitchen.
Steven, third of the kids and about three, slipped off his mother's lap and toddled over to Laura, tugging on her arm. "Wyatt took all the cookies," he tattled when she looked down at him, staring up at her with adoring puppy-dog eyes.
Laura turned away from where Constance had tried to make a get-away, and saw the boy's fawning look. She winked at him. "I know," she whispered, squatting down beside him. "Watch this." She straightened up, looking in the direction that Wyatt Junior had probably gone. "I guess if they're going to spoil their appetites with cookies, there's no need for me to make really delicious caramel custard for dessert. I'm sorry, Mrs. Barton. I suppose I'll make it some other time." Very deliberately, Laura turned her back on the table deliberately and fussed over the stove, where she was making potatoes.
A couple of moments later, a small girl appeared and tugged at Laura's sleeve. "Um, Miss Laura?" she asked sweetly.
"Yes, Constance?" Laura asked, bending down to the little redhead and shooting a sideways glance and wink at the two adults.
"Um, are you going to make caramel custard?"
"Well, if nobody has room for dessert, then there's no reason to cook it, is there?" Laura posed to the girl, then she turned back to the potatoes.
"Is it good?"
Laura paused and slowly looked back at the little girl, smiling sweetly. "I think so. My mom and sister really like it. But I guess we won't know if you like it, will we?"
"But nobody took any cookies!" Constance protested, pointing to the table, where the plate of cookies had mysteriously reappeared.
Little Steven tugged the other sleeve. "Wyatt put them back!" he tattled again. "She's trying to fool you."
"Well," Laura said to Constance, managing somehow to keep a straight face, "since nobody took any cookies, I guess everyone will have room for dessert, won't we?" She glanced at the adults, who were both smirking and trying not to laugh at how she was handling the kids. "Do you want to help me make it?"
* * *
"That was really good!" Vanessa said as she put down her napkin. "But you didn't have to go to any trouble!"
"It wasn't any trouble," Laura said with a shrug of modesty.
"Last night, she made pizza," Vanessa informed her guests, causing Laura to blush a bit. "Including home-made sauce."
"And you seem to be pretty good with kids," Lanie smiled at the girl. "You're hired."
"Hired? For what?" Laura was a bit perplexed.
"Babysitting, of course," Wyatt replied immediately.
"Hey, you aren't going to poach my help away from me!" Vanessa shot right back. "Find your own minion!"
"Not a minion, remember?" Laura protested, and despite her slightly annoyed tone, she was practically grinning - being with these adults reminded her of the good times with her mom and her little sister Julie.
Little Steven tugged at Laura's sleeve. "The pudding is really good," he said with a somewhat shy smile.
"Thank you," Laura smiled back at the young lad.
"It's called custard, not pudding," Lanie gently corrected her younger son.
"Custer?" Wyatt Junior perked up. "He's the guy Uncle Jake said got scalped fighting Indians!" He turned to Laura. "Aunt Kayda thinks that he was an idiot!"
Constance tugged at Laura's other sleeve. "Aunt Kayda is an Indian, you know," she pronounced with all the solemnity of a state secret. "She's really nice."
Little Steven looked up at Laura, tears forming in his eyes. "I don't want to eat Custer!"
Laura patted the young boy's hand, while the adults guffawed. "Don't worry, sweetie," she reassured the boy. "It's a dessert called 'custard', not the person your Aunt Kayda says is an idiot. There's no idiot in there," she pointed at his empty custard cup. "Promise!" She moved her finger in an X over her heart to let the boy know she was serious.
"Since you did the cookin'," Lanie offered with a smile, "Ah'll help Vanessa clean up. That way we can visit."
"Why don't you go put a movie in," Vanessa prompted her hired help, to ensure Laura didn't feel torn as to what to do, "and watch the kids for a bit while we talk?"
* * *
"Thank you for watching the kids," Vanessa said to Laura. The two were sitting on the sofa, watching 'The Great Race', which was one of Vanessa's favorite movies. "It was nice to visit without them underfoot."
"They're kind of a handful," Laura replied with a shrug, "but I had practice watching my little sister, so they weren't too bad."
"I think Lanie wants to hire you to babysit."
"I could do that," Laura replied with a smile. "After I'm done helping you, of course," she added hastily so that Vanessa wouldn't think she wanted to bail on her commitment.
"You've had a busy evening - cleaning, cooking, watching the kids, helping me exercise. You must be exhausted!"
"No," Laura protested. "I'm fine."
Five minutes later, Vanessa's prediction was proven true; she looked at the blue-haired girl and saw that she was fast asleep on the sofa. "Laura?" she asked hesitantly, not wanting to startle the girl. When there was no response, she lightly touched the girl's arm. "Laura?" she repeated. Again, there was no response.
Vanessa pulled herself into her chair, and then, piloting it beside the sofa, used her arm strength to move the girl to a more prone, less contorted position. It was easy to get a sheet and blanket from her linen closet, where they were kept within the woman's reach, and then she gently covered the girl and eased a pillow under Laura's head.
After locking the door and turning out the living room lights, Vanessa went to her bedroom and got herself ready for bed, then picked up her phone. "Bella?" she spoke when the other party picked up. "Vanessa Barton."
"Laura Samuels is with you, right? She hasn't come back ...."
"Yes, that's why I'm calling," Vanessa replied. "She worked very hard this evening, and she fell asleep on the sofa while we were watching a movie. As tired as she is, I think it might be better if she stays here tonight instead of trying to walk back to Poe this late."
"I tend to agree," Bella Horton replied. "Is there anything I can do?"
Vanessa started to say no, but then she thought of something. "Can you have her roommate pack some toiletries and clean clothes for her, and have Security run them over?"
"I'll go talk to Bailey and get something put together."
"How is she doing?" Bella asked, a little curious how her charge was managing.
"Can I keep her?" Vanessa chuckled. "She's a good cook, and she really, really did well with the Cody kids when Lanie and Wyatt popped in to see how I was doing. She's a natural with them."
"'Fraid not. Rules, you know," Mrs. Horton chuckled, inwardly pleased at how her charge had so obviously impressed Mrs. Barton. "If you need anything, don't hesitate to call. I'll let her RA and her roommate know."
"Thanks, Bella. Good night." She hung up the phone and then drove her chair back out to check one last time on the blue girl. She paused, looking down on Laura, seeing her sleeping so soundly, looking so sweet and innocent. She thought how nice it was to take care of Laura, of how their time so far had been kind of like mother-daughter - and of how she'd never experience the full experience of having a child. The last thought brought a tear of regret to her eye.
"Sleep well," she said before kissing her fingertips and touching them gently to Laura's forehead.
Friday, September 16, 2016 - Late
Near Whitman Cottage, Whateley Academy
The girl glanced around herself one last time to ensure there were no prying ears before she pulled out her phone and dialing a number that she had long since memorized. "Silverplate," she said simply.
"Ja?" came the curt response to the phone ringing.
"You left a message to call?" the girl asked.
"Ja," the woman on the other end answered. "I need to get blood samples from the two. After the last ... experiment ... I want to confirm that their DNA and cell structure are stable."
The girl gasped. "I ... we ... just got the Secret Squirrels tailing her. How am I supposed to get a blood sample?"
"Do they not have medical testing?" the woman asked in a thick German accent.
"Yes, but the lab security is very tight because of the mages here," the girl responded gruffly. "You should know that!"
"Enough!" the woman snapped. "I don't care how you do it. You are being paid for results, not excuses. Get me the blood samples!"
"Jawohl," the girl answered reluctantly. She clicked off the phone and sighed heavily. Now they'd done it. If the direction from Tante Hilde had come only two days earlier, the task would be easy, but now that they had tricked the Squirrels into watching one target, it was going to be doubly-difficult to get the sample without arousing suspicion. "Verdammt!" she swore angrily.
Saturday, September 17, 2016 - Morning
The Village, Whateley Academy
In the middle of the night, the girl had been awakened on the couch by Vanessa's screams. Almost by instinct, she bolted into the bedroom, where she held the older woman while she finished awakening from her nightmare and then calming down. She'd sat with Mrs. Barton for a while to reassure her.
Some time later, Laura woke up, half-seated, half-reclined on the bed, still keeping Vanessa company. When she found a clock, she was surprised that it was almost seven in the morning, so she very softly rose, careful not to disturb Vanessa, and after going to the bathroom, she went into the kitchen, and after a short search, found supplies and started a pot of coffee. After that was brewing, she fixed some breakfast for the two of them.
Neither of them spoke as they ate, and then after getting ready for the day, they walked to the lake, where they sat as the sun climbed higher in the sky. "It's so peaceful. Not like ...." Vanessa's voice faded, and she quickly wiped at a tear, which Laura noticed. She bit her lip, and turned away so Laura wouldn't see how she was trembling. Laura didn't know what to say or do, so she just sat.
"I still have nightmares," the woman blurted out to her companion.
"What happened?" Laura asked very hesitantly, not sure if it was wise to seek more details of an event that apparently still caused nightmares.
Vanessa stared out over the lake for a long time. "It was ...," she finally began, "it was the stuff of nightmares. A monstrous Lakota demon - a snake-thing ... about twenty yards long and seven or eight feet thick, big enough to eat a person whole," she shuddered at the recollections, "with a mouth full of nasty, sharp teeth, and two clawed ... arms ... with," her entire body convulsed at the memory, "very sharp claws. Class X - ultra-nasty."
Laura put her hand on Vanessa's, to reassure the older woman, since it seemed that just talking about whatever had happened was causing severe emotional distress.
"Dave - Ping Pong - never had a chance," she said softly. "John - Farm Boy - he pushed me and Val out of the way. He ... one of its claws ...." She shook her head sadly and wiped at tears which were trying to leak out of her eyes. "He sacrificed himself. In the end, it didn't do much good for either Val or me - I'm ... like this," she said, surprisingly without bitterness, "and Val - her mind got wiped by the demon. And that's ...." She wiped her cheeks again. "That was the last mission for the League," she added very softly. "Walt was the first to decide to end heroing. Kayda talked Deb into retiring. And Jake and I?" She shook her head. "I was done anyway, and .... and Jake couldn't go on in that business without me."
The older woman turned to look at the girl beside her. "I can't talk to Jake about it, you know. He still blames himself for everything." She looked back across the lake again, and silence descended again on the otherwise tranquil scene. "He ... he really wanted a family," the older woman blurted out. "So did I. But ...."
Laura sat silently, totally at a loss for words. She didn't understand why Mrs. Barton trusted her, or if it was simply that she had to speak to someone to unburden after the previous night's bad dreams. Surely she'd talk to her friend, Mrs. Cody .... Laura's thought froze as she realized that talking to the redhead might aggravate Vanessa's pain because of the Cody kids. It slowly dawned on the blue girl that her hostess was talking to her because she had no-one else at that moment. Feeling responsibility for helping the older woman felt like a weight that was going to crush her.
"Thank you," Mrs. Barton said after a silent couple of minutes. "For listening."
Laura nodded. "You're welcome," she said softly.
Finally, Vanessa turned her chair. "Let's go back to the apartment."
No sooner were they back in the apartment than the doorbell rang. Laura dashed out of the kitchen, where she'd been emptying the dishwasher, before Vanessa could roll to the door. "Hi, Mrs. Cody!" Laura said enthusiastically the moment she recognized the redhead. "Hi, Wyatt, Constance, Steven!" she added to the kids behind the tall, busty lab teacher.
"Are you spying on me again?" Vanessa said with obvious mock consternation.
"Of course!" the redhead replied with a grin. "That and Ah figured we could chat for a while."
"Well, come on in." She saw the kids, and Laura didn't miss the slight shudder and big gulp from Vanessa; no doubt the presence of the kids would exacerbate those painful memories and feelings.
"Maybe," the girl volunteered, "I could take the kids to the park, so they don't get underfoot and distracting and noisy?"
It took only a moment for Mrs. Cody to realize why Laura had suddenly volunteered to babysit. "Ah think that'd be fine," she said, shooting a cautious glance at Vanessa. "Kids," she said, turning to her little pack, "Miss Laura is going to take you to the park to play for a while." Over the cheers of the trio, the redhead leaned closer to Laura. "You sure you can handle them? The twins can be a handful sometimes."
"I think so," Laura replied softly. "But ... is there something about the twins? I mean, it's like ... last night I would have sworn that they know what the other is thinking! More than any twins I've ever known."
"They're twins," Mrs. Cody replied. "What can Ah say?" There was something in the look she gave Laura that hinted that there was more to the story, but it was also evident that the older woman wasn't going to be forthcoming with that information. She rummaged in her purse for a moment, then handed some money to Laura. "If you want and if they behave, there's a nice soda fountain in the Brown Moose Cafe."
* * *
The unhappiness in the Barton apartment was palpable the moment Laura led the kids through the door. Her eyebrows shot up at the slightly sad countenance of Mrs. Barton.
"The MCO got a little horsey with Jake on his return flight," Mrs. Cody explained before the blue girl could ask. "He won't get in to Berlin until the evening flight."
"I can stay and help until he's back," Laura volunteered immediately and enthusiastically. "I brought my books so I could study, and my only project is a lab I can do after class on Monday."
"Lab?" Mrs. Cody's eyes lit up, figuratively speaking. "Are you, by chance, on the tech track?"
"Yes, ma'am," Laura replied quickly. "They aren't sure if I'm a devisor or a gadgeteer, so I'll find out more when I do my testing, but back home, after I manifested, I started making all kinds of electronic gadgets and such. Right after I manifested, I put radio control in my sister's Barbie car, and wired up her Barbie playhouse, and ...."
"Take a breath!" Mrs. Cody chuckled, interrupting the excited girl. "Ah'll be seeing quite a bit of you, then. Ah teach in the advanced technology department."
"Oh, really?" Laura looked quite pleased.
"You aren't a gearhead, too, are you?" the redhead continued. "Ah was known as quite a gearhead when Ah was a student here. Ah still like tinkerin' with mah car."
"And you were known for a lot of other things, too," Vanessa laughed. "I think you have the record for patents by one student."
Mrs. Cody scowled at her fellow teacher. "Ah'm not even close to Gizmatic's record!"
"Laura, you are in the presence of the Lab Legend, the Gadgeteer Goddess, the Mechanism Maestra, the Gizmo Queen ...."
"Stop it!" the redhead protested.
"Have you heard tales yet about a student called Loophole?" Vanessa continued.
Laura's eyes bulged forth and her jaw dropped. "You're ... Loophole?" she stammered. "Everyone talks about you ... you're a ... a legend!"
Mrs. Cody looked more than slightly embarrassed by the names and status as a legend. "Ah always hated that code-name! And Ah was just a student," she said humbly, "nothing special. Ah just came back to teach."
"If her drawings and ideas are any clue, Laura might run competition for your record," Vanessa chuckled. "Laura, show her the drawings you made the other night."
"Can Ah see them, please?" Mrs. Cody asked politely.
Reluctantly and with great hesitation, Laura took out her sketches, and almost instantly, she and Mrs. Cody got into serious technical discussions of Laura's idea for Mrs. Barton's car. Over an hour later, as they still talked about technical details, little Steven tugged on his mom's sleeve. "I'm hungry!" he announced.
Elaine Cody looked up sharply, then smiled. "Ah didn't realize it was almost one," she said. "How about if we got to the Brown Moose? Mah treat?"
"You don't need to do that," Laura protested. "Mrs. Barton is paying me to help, so I can make something for lunch!"
"Laura, dear," Mrs. Barton lightly touched the blue girl's arm to get her attention, "one thing you'll learn - when Elaine gets her mind made up, it's no use arguing."
"No arguing," Mrs. Barton repeated with a smile. "Grab your purse, and let's go."
Saturday, September 17, 2016 - Early Evening
The Village, Whateley Academy
"Where is everyone?" The call from Mrs. Barton sounded through the door to their apartment. The three adults - Mrs. Barton, Mrs. Cody, and Dr. Cody, had gone to Berlin to pick up Dr. Barton, leaving Laura babysitting the Cody kids.
"We're in the kitchen," Laura shouted back. At the sound of the voices entering, three eager kids dashed from the kitchen toward the door, swarming over their father the moment he appeared. "I'm just getting something out of the oven; I'll be right there."
"Smells good," Dr. Barton said, dropping his bags inside the door and following his nose to the kitchen. "What are you baking?"
"Caramel-pecan rolls," Laura replied, peeking into the oven.
"You expect me to believe that mah kids were entertained for several hours helping you make rolls?" Mrs. Cody asked incredulously. "That doesn't sound like mah brood!"
"Miss Laura made caramel corn and we watched a movie," Steven said, tugging on Elaine's sleeve. "She makes good caramel corn!"
"Did you have a good dinner?" Laura asked, trying to dodge 'the look' that she was getting from Mrs. Cody.
"Yes," Vanessa replied with a smile. "It was sweet of you to watch them so we could have dinner in Berlin, too, but it wasn't necessary."
"What Ah want to know is how you managed to get them to behave all day," Mrs. Cody said. "Ah've never had a babysitter from on campus that could handle them."
Laura winced. "I ... kind of cheated," she confessed, taking a device that looked like a hand-held Star Trek Original Series phaser from her pocket.
"Cheated - how?" Lanie demanded, a bit alarmed.
Laura handed her the device. "I didn't shoot them or anything," Laura said quickly in her defense. "This is a neural dampener. When the twins got a little too ... conspiratorial, I ... kind of guessed it was because of some level of telepathic connection. So I set the neural dampener to generate a broad very low-level field."
"And it ... kind of stopped their ... psychic communication. Or whatever. So they couldn't be so sneaky. Well, not more than any normal kids their age, anyway," Laura explained.
Mrs. Cody was examining the device, while her husband came up behind her, grinning. "A girl after your own heart, m'dear," he said, wrapping his arms around the redhead from behind.
"Can I borrow this?" Mrs. Cody asked suddenly, giving the twins a rather wicked look, which caused them to flinch. She then winked at her husband. "Just kidding. Ah think. Maybe."
"I could make one for you pretty easily, Mrs. Cody," Laura volunteered. Before she could say more, however, the timer sounded, and she turned her attention to back to the oven. The chime also got the attention of the kids, who swarmed around her as she opened the oven, to the point that Mrs. Cody had to help her shoo them away so they wouldn't be burned by the hot pan.
A while later, after serving rolls to everyone, Dr. and Mrs. Cody took their brood home, and Mrs. Barton gave Laura a check, which Laura thought was way too much. However, Mrs. Barton insisted, so Laura decided not to offend her. Then she went to the garage with Dr. Barton, who insisted on driving her home.
"You're pretty amazing," Dr. Barton said as he put his car in gear.
"Why do you say that?"
"Lanie thinks you're a genius, a super-sitter, for how you keep her kids under control. And at dinner, Vanessa couldn't stop gushing about how much help you'd been for her."
"She's super-nice," Laura said with a big smile. "She reminds me of my mom in some ways."
Dr. Barton's hands stiffened on the steering wheel, and he clenched his jaw for a moment. "We ... we wanted to be parents," he finally said very softly. "Before ...." He sank back into silence for a bit. "Did she have a nightmare again?" he asked.
"I ...." Laura started to stammer out an excuse.
"She told me you fell asleep helping her last night. So ... you would have known if she had."
Laura winced. She wasn't sure she wanted to know, and yet, she couldn't help but have normal teenage curiosity. "Yeah," she finally admitted. "It ... it was pretty bad."
"Thank you for being there for her," Dr. Barton replied simply.
"Was it as bad as she said?" Laura couldn’t help asking.
The car pulled up near Poe, on a service-road away from the main walkways. "Please don't ever ask Vanessa about it," he implored the girl. "Please?" he added when it looked like she was going to ask why not. "Not unless she talks about it first."
"Okay," Laura agreed, her curiosity about the mysterious event now greatly magnified. "Please tell Mrs. Barton that I had fun, and if she ever needs help again ...."
"I think you can count on some occasional odd-jobs," the big man said with a smile. "Plus, I bet you get asked to babysit the Cody kids again. Maybe frequently."
Saturday, September 17, 2016 - Late Evening
Near Whitman Cottage, Whateley Academy
Latonya Mullens glanced warily about herself as she stepped off the paver pathway into the woods near her cottage. She was sure she hadn't been seen, but she paused, concealed from the path, and watched for nearly a minute. One couldn't be too careful, especially when she was a member of the Masterminds.
Satisfied that she wasn't being followed, she strode deeper into the woods, until she came to a particular oak tree with a huge gash where high winds had torn a branch from the trunk. Leaning against the tree, she whistled softly.
"Evening, Latonya," a girl said, detaching herself from a shadowy trunk of another nearby tree and striding casually to the tall senior.
"What's on your mind? You didn't say much in your text." Latonya cut right to the chase.
"We've got a problem ...," the girl began
"By 'we', I'm assuming you're talking about yourself and your 'comrades'," Latonya added air quotes for emphasis, "and not you and me."
"I need to find someone who can get me a blood sample of a couple of ... targets ... that my sponsor is interested in," the girl said simply. "Naturally, since you seem sympathetic to our cause, I thought of you and your compatriots."
"So, are we talking about a quid pro quo?" the African-American senior asked, one eyebrow hitched up her forehead.
"With a gesture of goodwill on your part," the girl said, being very careful of her words, "I can put you in touch with the ... committee. It would be a good opportunity for you for post-graduation."
"Okay, color me interested. What do you need?" She seemed a little eager; Latonya had been sympathetic to the campus Evolution Rocks group for a long time, although she hadn't joined because she disagreed with the pacifist tactics of the parent organization.
"My sponsor wants ... no, she needs blood samples to follow up on her ... treatments. We had the two subjects under investigation, but it was taxing our resources, so we got the Squirrels to do the monitoring for us." The girl could almost hear the gears turning in the senior's mind. "We've got a contact inside the Squirrels to give us any data they collect."
"Ah, so with the Squirrels ...."
The girl nodded. "Precisely. We can't get samples directly, and we can't think of any way to get the Squirrels to get samples for us."
"And you want me to do what?"
"Simple. You project an image to whoever is monitoring, so they follow you. That'll open the targets up to us to get the samples."
"Sounds quite doable," the senior girl said. "It'll have to be late in the evening, so the target and the tail are alone and easy to isolate."
"I'll text you with the times."
Sunday, September 18th, 2016
Apartment of Jennifer Kelly and Sarah Williams, New York, NY
It was a lazy kind of Sunday morning.
Jennifer lay on her stomach in her pajamas idly reading through the film reviews while her dark-skinned lover enjoyed a rare weekend off for a doctor and was curled up in a chair with the crossword. She reached for her cup of coffee from the low table beside the couch and managed to drink a sip without sitting up, or spilling it on the couch. "You want to go see Sully?" she asked her lover after a moment of reading the review.
"Isn't that self-indulgent?" Sarah asked around the end of the pencil she was chewing. "Living in New York, watching movies about New York?"
Jennifer chuckled at the woman's sense of humor. "You're so jaded," she complimented with a smile.
"I just have standards," Sarah shot back. "What's a sixteen letter phrase for torrents of rain? That fits a theme of 'sack time?'"
"Coming down in sheets," Jennifer replied instantly.
"How do you do that?" the doctor demanded, exasperated.
Jennifer shrugged as she turned the page and propped up her chin. "Exemplar," she said as if that would explain everything.
"What does 'exemplar' have to do with you instantly knowing the clue to a crossword?" Sarah asked peevishly.
Jennifer shifted a bit to better see the page she was reading. "There are a great many mysteries in the universe, my Nubian Princess, secrets of things Men (And Lesbians) Were Not Meant To Know, and while I am having enormous fun yanking your chain about it, despite my amnesia you have forgotten as you always do, that I have an eidetic memory and you, my love are doing last week's cross word." Sarah looked at the date on the top of the page and growled in mock disgust and blew a rather substantial raspberry at her lover from her full bee stung lips. Chuckling, Jennifer continued in an offhand manner, "Same way my mysterious extra sensory perception allowed me to pick up on that weirdo who was following me Wednesday." The crossword was set down as Sarah stood and came over to sit down on the floor to be eye to eye with her lover. Jennifer looked at her, her intense green eyes only a little annoyed as she rolled them at Sarah's concern. "It was nothing, baby. I'm a gem courier, sometimes I'm going to get followed. Fine, it was some short, brown-skinned girl, I'd guess she was in her early twenties. She started yelling out and chasing me. I lost her in the subway."
"Young and brown skinned?" Williams asked archly. "Should I be jealous?"
Jennifer snorted. "I like my women like my coffee, sweet and African!" The two kissed as Sarah's fears were quieted. She was over thirty now and it was beginning to bother her.
"Sweet heart," Sarah said softly, reaching up to gently run her hand through her lover's soft dark hair, never understanding her need to dye it from the magnificent red she was naturally. "Do ... do you think maybe you and I ... we ... together we could adopt maybe ... or ...."
Jennifer snorted and took another sip of coffee. "Baby, you are not that old ...."
"I ... we ... it's not about age!" she told her lover primly. "Don't you want to have a child?"
"Why would I want more ... kids ...," Jennifer said slowly, her eyes going wide as she realized a she had just had a flash of memory from before her amnesia.
"You're a mother?" Sarah whispered.
Jennifer turned her back on her in the sofa. "No," she declared flatly. "I'm not!"
"Jenny...!" Sarah chided. "That was a memory, wasn't it?"
"No!" she snapped. "I'm not her, Sarah! I am not the villain on that MID! I ...."
The dark skinned doctor would have none of it. She stood and headed to their bed room. "Get dressed!" she called over her shoulder. "You are having a full OB/GYN checkup, and high time most likely."
"Sarah!" she called after her. "Baby ...."
"Now, my Irish Rose!" she commanded.
Sunday, September 18th, 2016
Womens Health Pavilion, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York
Jennifer pulled her jeans back on, glad to be off the table and its humiliating stirrups. There had to be a better way to have essential health care than to be put on display like a piece of meat. Sarah gave her a reassuring smile as she got the belt fastened just as the soft knock heralded the return of Doctor Vincent. "Ladies?" he asked softly and Jennifer smiled, touched by the older doctor's respect for her modesty.
"Come in, Doctor Vincent," she called as she sat in the other chair to get her sneakers on.
Maurice Vincent was north of the age most folks liked to retire, but the head of Obstetrics genuinely enjoyed his craft and still kept the same schedule rotation he asked of his subordinates and did a weekend once a month. "Doctor Williams," he greeted with a smile. "We have to stop meeting like this! People will talk."
Sarah smiled and made a dismissive gesture. "How will I live down the gossip of my torrid affair?" she asked the happily married man of half a century with a good dozen children and grandchildren and even a pair of great-grandchildren.
He chuckled as he sat the papers down on the table and shuffled through them. "Miss Kelly, you are in depressingly good health! I was hoping for some rare disease I could make a headline with curing!"
Jennifer rolled her eyes and played along. "You're much more photogenic than Greg House, Doctor Vincent."
"For all the good it will do me. Your cervix is in remarkable shape for a woman your age, young lamb you still are, but the pap smear is perfectly fine, all the blood work is absolutely perfect the only surprise is this." He put a transparency on the light board and both women gazed at it.
"What?" Jennifer asked.
Vincent arched an eyebrow. "Doctor Williams?" he asked, unable to resist being a teacher.
Sarah stood and pointed to a pair of very faint lines in the tissue. "This is your cervix, baby," she told her lover. "See how it's elongated? A woman's cervix is a dot, a pinpoint..."
"Until she's given birth," Dr. Vincent finished. "You are a mother, my dear. At least once, although from the size of the dilation, I would hazard a guess of twice." He took the film down and put it in the file. "Now, I understand you are an exemplar which means you have an MID?"
"Yes ...," she replied guardedly. "Why?"
"Unless my mind has gone wandering, I recall that Doctor Williams stated you suffer from amnesia? That MID is linked in the national database ...."
"No," she declared flatly.
The doctor blinked. "Excuse me?"
"I said, 'No,' Doctor Vincent. My MID is a red band, that means a villain, who's done time. Whoever she was, I am not her, not anymore and I have no desire to know anything about her." She sighed and gave her lover an annoyed glance. "I wanted to go see Sully!"
Monday, September 19, 2016 - Lunchtime
Devisor Labs, beneath Kane Hall, Whateley Academy
With a perplexed expression, Laura wandered hesitantly into the vehicle labs. Not being a gearhead - yet - she had no business in the lab, but she knew of it. The Gearheads were a well-known club, and every gadgeteer was, at some point, approached about interest in cars.
"Ah, hi, Laura," a familiar voice called from the office.
Startled, Laura turned to the voice, and any unease she'd felt vanished when she recognized Ms. Cody. "Hi," she replied. "You ... you startled me."
"Sorry. Ah didn't mean to." The redhead's smile was warm and affectionate.
"You asked me to come down?" Laura got right to the point.
"Yes," Elaine smiled. "Ah want to surprise mah husband with a movie date, so Ah was wondering if you were free to babysit."
"I ... I think I could do that, yeah," Laura replied cautiously. "I can bring my books so I can work on homework once I get them settled down to a movie or something."
"That'll be wonderful, thank you," Mrs. Cody said. "We're going to go with the Bartons, Vanessa and Ah are going to surprise our men, so if you see Dr. Barton or Wyatt, please don't say anything," she added.
"You can count on me to keep my lips shut," Laura replied with a smile. "Oh," she suddenly got worried. "What time are you planning to leave?"
"I'm ... doing some tidying and laundry for a couple of Melville girls ... on our training team," she added by way of explanation. "I told Hikaru I'd straighten up her room and do a load of laundry this afternoon."
"We won't leave until after dinner, about six-thirty. Will that work?"
"Yeah. I can spend extra time in the lab tomorrow afternoon, so I can be in the Village around six tonight."
"Good. If you've got a moment, we can run over to Kane Hall, so security can code your ID card to allow you to come and go to The Village without causing security or the staff to worry," Elaine Cody said. Seeing Laura goggle at that statement, the redhead chuckled. "Ah found a good babysitter, and Vanessa likes your company and your help. Ah suspect you'll be over at The Village more than just tonight."
Monday, September 19, 2016 - After Dinner
The Village, Whateley Academy
"If you don't have a lot of homework," Dr. Barton said to Laura when she'd noted that she didn't have a lot to keep her occupied during the evening, "you can always grab a history book to read."
"You're making a history junkie out of her, aren't you, dear?" Vanessa scolded her husband, but with a knowing smile.
"No, it's okay, Mrs. Barton," Laura didn't see their exchanged winks and thought she might be upset. "I like history, and ...."
"That was a joke, dear," Vanessa chuckled.
"Oh, I'm sorry," Laura apologized. "I ... I don't want you to be mad."
"Go grab a history book," Dr. Barton suggested as he pulled on a casual jacket, "and we'll go next door to 'mayhem central'."
"Okay." Laura went into the couple's study, and as she looked over the books, one kept pulling her attention back to it. Not having been prohibited, she shrugged and took the book, her curiosity getting the better of her.
* * *
Laura looked up from the book at the sound of a key in the lock. She was in a recliner, and the three kids were sprawled out sleeping - two on the sofa and little Steven clutching a teddy bear curled up on the carpet, his head resting on a pillow Laura had slipped beneath him.
"Shhh," she said softly but insistently as she padded quickly to the door. "The kids are sleeping."
"Ah have to learn what your secret is," Mrs. Cody chuckled. "You didn't ... you know, zap them to sleep with your neural neutralizer?" Reading the look of horror on the blue girl's face, she grinned. "Just kidding. Ah don't honestly think you'd do something like that." After fiddling in her purse, she got some money which she pressed into the girl's hands.
"That's ... that's too much!" Laura objected in shock, trying to hand the money back to Mrs. Cody. "I can't take that for just babysitting!"
"Laura, a friend of mine once said that whenever someone provides you with good service, you pay them well so they're happy and will eagerly help you again." She pressed the bills back into Laura's hands. "Ah appreciate you babysitting on such short notice, and you're good with mah kids. That's worth a lot to me, and Ah'm going to pay you appropriately. Okay?"
Laura struggled mentally for a moment before she accepted the money and slipped it into her pocket. "I like your kids," she admitted. "They're fun to babysit."
After a few more minutes of pleasantries, Laura said good night and excused herself. As she started to walk away from the apartments, she realized with a start that she still had Dr. Barton's history book. Glancing at her watch, she turned around and went back to the Barton's apartment and knocked.
"Hi, Laura," Dr. Barton greeted her. "Can I help you?"
"I borrowed a book, like you suggested, and I forgot to give it back to you," Laura said, sliding her backpack off her shoulder.
"You could have brought it to class tomorrow," the big man replied.
"Yeah, but I figured it was a special book," Laura answered, "and I didn't want to take a chance on anything happening to it."
"Wait a sec," Dr. Barton interrupted as she rummaged through the backpack. "Is that ... a book by Daniel Moate?" he asked.
Laura looked up, startled. "Yeah," she picked up the book to which he referred and handed it to him. "Hikaru gave it to me the other day. It's pretty interesting."
The big man sighed. "Damned shame he died. He was a good man. Mrs. Carson and Eldritch were trying to get him here, and I had hopes of getting him into the History Department if they succeeded." He smiled wistfully. "I heard some of his conference presentations, and I've read his stuff. He was a good historian."
"Oh. I didn't know that." Laura took the book back, then handed the one she'd borrowed to her teacher. "Here. I'm ...." She stopped abruptly when she saw the look of shock on his face. "If that was a special book, I'm sorry," she apologized profusely, "but ... but I didn't know, and ...."
Dr. Barton glanced over his shoulder, then sighed toward the girl. "It's ... special, but not for the reasons you might think."
"I'm sorry," she apologized again. "I was ... curious, and ..."
"Come in for a moment," Dr. Barton said softly, opening the door wider. After closing it, he led her to his study. "Vanessa is on her exercise rack," he practically whispered, "so ... I want you to promise you'll never ever tell her about what I'm going to say, okay?"
Laura gulped nervously as she nodded. "I promise."
The big man stepped to a bookcase and after releasing some kind of catch, he swung the whole thing away from the wall. Laura goggled - this was a secret room, just like in the movies. He turned on a light, and the girl gasped. Hanging on one end of the oversized closet were super-suits, two of them smaller and in white, pink, and purple - obviously Vanessa's. The other two were shades of green, a bit blocky, making Laura immediately think of machinery.
On the back wall were two display cases, each containing a medal on a wide blue-and-yellow ribbon. Laura couldn't stop herself from stepping forward and looking at them, and then she turned questioningly toward Dr. Barton.
"I was known as Tractor - and you can probably guess why." That much was quite obvious; the man was built like a piece of heavy machinery. "Vanessa went by the code-name Vanity Girl, a nickname she picked up at Whateley because she spent a lot of time at her vanity putting on and fiddling with her makeup so it was always perfect."
"These ... these are the medals that you mentioned in the book?" Laura asked, gazing at the diamond-studded clasp on the gold-colored medal. "You're ... why do you hide them?" she continued to question. "You're a hero!"
Dr. Barton shook his head sadly, and pointed to a picture, the same one that was on his desk, only this one was much larger, and carried autographs of those in it. "No," he said, his voice almost cracking, "they're the heroes. Farm Boy. My best friend. Ping Pong. Card Trick." He shook his head sadly. "They're the heroes. I'm ... just a survivor. They weren't so lucky."
"And Vanessa? She's a hero, isn't she?" the girl asked timidly.
"Yeah," the big man said. "She's my hero. Compared to what they all gave battling that ... thing, I'm ... I'm nothing." He gestured toward another couple of cases, which displayed newspaper articles about the heroes. Then, for some reason, he took one of the pink and purple suits down, displaying it to Laura.
The garment had blood stains on it that had never been washed clean, and there was a jagged, bloody hole in the center of the back. Laura gasped when she realized that it must be the suit Vanessa had worn in that terrible battle that still gave her nightmares. "She told me about the fight, a little," Laura confessed. "The other day, when you were at the conference and she'd had a nightmare."
As her teacher lovingly and carefully hung the suit back up, Laura noticed that one of the green suits was torn pretty badly - no doubt from the same battle.
Dr. Barton softly closed the bookcase behind them after shutting off the light. "Why?" Laura asked as the teacher and pupil stood back at the apartment door. "Why are you telling me?"
"Because Vanessa needed you the other night, and you were there for her. She ... she needs someone like you. Someone younger, caring, supportive, non-judgmental. Someone who doesn't remind her of ... of things."
"But ... Mrs. Cody ...?"
"... was at the battle, too," Jake Barton said sadly. "And because of that, Vanessa can't really talk to her about it if or when she has nightmares or reminders or bad memories." He closed his eyes a moment. "If you can, I'd like very much if you could keep visiting. It's good for her. You're good for her. In some ways, you're like the daughter she wishes we'd have had. More than that, you're a sweet girl who's untainted by that ... that thing. You're the kind of friend she needs."
Laura gulped uneasily. She was being asked to be a friend to Vanessa? An older teacher and retired hero? "I'd ... like that, too," she found herself saying without conscious thought. "She's fun to spend time with." She realized that it was true - she was already starting to think of the older retired heroine as a kind of second mother.
Monday, September 19, 2016 - Late
Woods near The Village, Whateley Academy
"There she is," the boy dressed in black whispered to himself. Now he had to wait, watching for the girl's tail, the Secret Squirrel. Right on schedule, the member of the Intelligence Corps of Cadets showed up, trying to stealthily follow and observe the target.
Suddenly, it seemed that the girl vanished, and another took her place a few meters away, and then the apparition stepped more quickly back toward the main campus. Sure enough, the Squirrel tailing her followed the one that had appeared, ignoring the real girl.
The boy shook his head - telepathic mind-games always left him momentarily disorientated, and he'd been close enough to where the Secret Squirrel had been tailing his target that he got caught up in the psychic backwash. That cleared quickly, though, and he began to tail the real target once more.
He chose the ambush point well. The girl was about halfway between The Village and her cottage, and there were trees in abundance. He picked one, and as the girl passed near it, he shot a special dart at that tree. As soon as it hit, the dart released its payload of invisible knockout gas. The girl collapsed in a motionless heap at the base of the tree.
Taking out his other tools, including a respirator, the boy moved quickly and silently to the girl. Rolling up her sleeve, he wrapped a cord around her upper arm, then swabbed off the inside of the girl's elbow. He clicked on a headlamp so he could see what he was doing, and then took a test tube partially full of something and attached a needle.
Moments later, the boy had a small vial of the girl's blood. A quick spray of something caused the puncture wound to clot very quickly, and then he rolled the girl's sleeve back down. Taking the vial, he backed away, to a convenient point of concealment, where he could observe the target to ensure nothing happened to her before she recovered. When she did recover from the gas, she'd be a little disorientated, feeling like she'd had a headrush or something, and then she'd go about her way, none the wiser. And for his operation - elapsed time under two minutes. He grinned - these types of stealthy ops were extremely satisfying, a reward for the hours and hours of practice in the Masterminds' secret lair. He felt a bit like a ninja.
Monday, September 19, 2016 - Late
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy
"Are you okay, dear?" Mrs. Horton rushed to the door to greet Laura the moment she entered Poe.
Raising a quizzical eyebrow, Laura shrugged. "Yeah. Why?"
"Dr. Barton called about fifteen minutes ago to see if you were okay. He was worried that something might have happened to you, because you hadn't called," the housemother answered.
Confusion showed on the girl's blue features. "I ... I came straight here," she replied, more than a bit puzzled. "Nothing happened that I know of."
Mrs. Horton frowned. "That doesn't make sense." She looked over her charge. "You sure you're okay?"
"I'm fine," Laura answered. "I just had a long evening with three kids is all."
"Okay, if you're sure ...." Mrs. Horton put on a smile. "Have a good evening." She turned back toward her apartment.
Still baffled by the apparent time confusion and by having felt kind of woozy for a moment while walking home, Laura took out her cell phone as she climbed the stairs to the second floor and reported in to Dr. Barton so he wouldn't worry
"You're in a happy mood," Bailey said, looking up from her studies as Laura entered.
"I had a good evening," Laura responded. "I had fun babysitting the kids." No sooner had she spoken than her phone rang. Raising an eyebrow and glancing at her roommate, Laura answered, "Laura Samuels."
"Laura, Wyatt Cody," came the reply.
"Hi, Dr. Cody. I just told Dr. Barton that I'm home safely."
"Good, but that wasn't why I called," Wyatt replied. "I was wondering if you would be free to watch the kids Sunday morning, so we can go to brunch with the Bartons."
"I don't have anything planned, so yeah, I can watch them."
"Okay, good. If anything comes up, let me know; otherwise, we'll see you Sunday morning."
"Okay. Bye." Laura clicked off her phone, then turned to her roommate, who was chuckling. "What?"
"You should answer it, 'Laura's Babysitting Service'," Bailey shot back.
"If you're not careful, the Cody's are going to adopt you to help with their kids! Or from what you said, the Bartons might try to beat them to the punch so you can help Mrs. Barton!" Bailey chuckled.
Laura responded in a dignified manner, by giving her roommate a raspberry.
"You love it, and you know it," Bailey laughed.
Laura paused a moment, then she smiled. "Yeah, I guess I do."
As she took off her shirt, Laura frowned. "What the ....?" Her gaze was alternating between one sleeve and her arm.
"What?" Bailey asked, concerned at the sudden change.
In response, Laura held out her arm. "Look at my arm ... it's bruised!" Indeed, on the inside of her elbow, a noticeable dark bruise was forming. More ominously, there was a small spot of dried blood on the shirtsleeve, over where the new bruise. They added to the mystery of seemingly having lost time and having felt kind of unsteady. "And ... I don't think I did anything to it!"
Monday, September 19, 2016 - Late
Near Whitman Cottage, Whateley Academy
"Hello," the girl spoke into her phone, glancing around herself to double-check that her conversation would be private.
"Hello. What do you have to report?" came the stern woman's voice in reply.
"I've got one of the samples. I'll get it sent first thing in the morning."
"Good. I received the sample from the boy."
"We got lucky with him," the girl replied. "One of my operatives was in the medical center when he came in with an injury."
"It wasn't serious, was it?" The woman sounded very concerned suddenly.
"No, but it gave us access, so my operative just took some of their bloodwork."
"I'll text you the address to send the new sample," the woman commanded.
"Things around Kansas City were getting ... difficult. I'm going to be in the Los Angeles area for a couple of months. I can get test subjects there while things calm down in the Midwest."
"Okay. I'll get it out in the morning. Bye." The girl hung up her phone, smiling to herself. Things were going well.