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He was awake. Awake and hungry. But he just didn't want to be. Hungry. Awake. Here. Him anymore. There. That was it. He didn't want to be him anymore. No more Kiddy Skool classes. No more Tea Parties with the other little kids. No more worrying if the one of the Big Kids were going to be a bully or a killer (he'd heard stories). No more wondering if his parents missed him. He just wanted to go to sleep and stay there.
If asked the right questions, she might admit to 'overhearing' someone grumping about how immature Rookie Boy could be. She'd also have to have been dumb as a box of rocks to have missed how he and his little brother got on. Some ways the goof was a lot like her big sister. It was kind of funny how he nearly beaned himself when she decided to wake him up. Something to file for later paybacks.
"So... you say Taz just let you borrow his family pictures?"
"He wouldn't get out of bed to stop me, and Cait always said 'possession is nine-tenths of the law'"
"Heh. Ten-tenths if you pick the right judges."
"Duly noted. Louis says you're being a bad influence on impressionable minors."
"Tell Plushie Cthulhu I wuv him too."
"Let me paw through my gear. Meet you topside in five, nah, make it ten. I keep forgetting foundation is more of a pain these days."
"Why would you need foundation?"
"Gotta have something to build on!"
'Owowow. Someone doesn't play nice at all. Or fair.'
'No. No he doesn't. He did warn you about working on your shields.'
'I bet no one's done that to him!'
'My dear, I wish you could win that bet.'
He vaguely remembered trying to resist being made to get up. For a brief moment he hoped he hadn't bit or hurt Mrs. Cantrel. She was nice most of the time. But maybe they'd leave him alone then. That would suit him.
Then again, if it was Mrs Cantrel or Caitlin, he wouldn't be feeling all boy now either. A faint tickle in the back of his head gave away Miranda's poking. There was something else but he couldn't place it. Maybe if he stayed really quiet and still they'd all just leave him alone and he could just sink back into the darkness.
"Nice try, bucko. I can see that you're awake, and your sympathetic shifting should be picking up on this morning's coffee in 3, 2, 1 ..."
No getting out of it. He tried hard to just open his eyes enough to see who was bothering him in his (They promised!) room. There was no getting past the sight of a teenaged version of what he would have looked like if it weren't for the mutation thing that destroyed his life and sent him away from everyone and everything he'd ever known.
"Na, na, na. Is that any way to be greeting a person?"
"Who ARE you?"
"Well, just for today, let's just say I'm yer older brother Matt."
"I don't have an older brother!"
"That doesn't mean you don't need one from time to time, now does it?"
That made a peculiar sort of sense.
It sure felt like a day he could need an older brother. Or a younger brother. Or anybody who even loved him at all. Even a fake would be better than everything he was missing surrounded by girls (who were fun, but he didn't want to be a girl all the time!) And, and ...
He eventually noticed that the phantom hadn't disappeared and he was being held in two warm arms for the first time in forever. Lucky it was a flannel shirt that wouldn't show how much of a baby he was being. No one let babies get this lonely he'd bet.
"There, there. S'okay. Whenever you feel ready, we can get you cleaned up and get some breakfast. Just me and you, okay?"
"Why is that?"
"As soon as we go out there'll be other kids ev'rywhere and I'll change and you'll have to go back wherever."
"Time out, Taz."
'Oh crap. The weirdo in the tank downstairs was one of the only kids who used that nickname. Him and Jimmy T and both of them could look like *anyone*'
"None of that, now. I mean it. Take your time and we are going to get some food in you so you don't get sick. I'll admit I can't shut down your shifting. But stick with me, and I think you won't mind it so much."
"Says me. And I'm nova-hot with trick-the-eye mojo when I want to be. Check your mirror."
"Afraid to look?"
"Hell, No! See? That's ... me?"
"Close enough. Everyone changes day to day, you just do it a lot more. But today I think we can make sure no one really notices, and just sees you. There's a downside to that: you're... not very intimidating as a fourth-grader without the teeth and fangs."
"I can handle that."
"We'll see." 'Matt' tossed a towel at Morgan. "Go get showered up, stinky."
He was still a little creeped out that 'Matt' was still there when he got back. No easy escape. Then he remembered something the other kids said.
"Wait! No way I'm taking off this towel with you in here!"
"Morgan, I showered and got dressed with lots of other boys at the Academy. You don't have anything I haven't seen a million times before until the newbies figured out how to change without flashing everybody."
"Really, really. You can't go around with boy parts and use your towel like the girls. Unless you want to be very embarrassed. Okay, very, very embarrassed."
There had to be a story behind that, especially if he liked guys... oh!
Breakfast turned out to be not that bad when everyone around wasn't rushing about. Matt even let him get an extra cinnamon roll from the last bits that would have been tossed out! The guy played a strange game or two of solitaire while they ate and talked about nothing much. As the cafeteria cleared he felt a bit sad. Even if Matt wasn't his real brother, he didn't want to see him go off to class. Now that he wasn't hungry his traitor stomach wasn't as keen on going back to bed and hiding till they disappeared. Maybe it took more than a couple of sick days for people to stop poking in. That just sucked more.
"Aren't you going to class?"
"Nope. You're thinking of someone else."
"Yeah. The someone else whose ID card you're using."
"Sucks to be him then, doesn't it? What's it to be then? Fishing? Hiking? Leaving nearly perfectly clear, low-reflectance marbles and jacks at the Melville entrances? On an overcast fall day like this, those could be really hard to see."
"Then your classes."
Morgan rolled his eyes.
"... if I were sixteen, and I am, it might be that my classes would be in Dunwich, not here."
"I think I'd rather go fishing. Something normal."
"School's pretty normal."
"Not like that."
"Then you're in luck. I just happen to know someone who owns a fishing pole and tackle she doesn't get to use!"
"You just happen to know someone, huh?"
"It's in the Big Brothers Manual that big brothers need to know people who know things."
"Whose stuff we stealing?"
They were going to die. Morgan realized he wouldn't ever get to eat another big birthday cake or even figure out if he liked girls or not, because they were going to die. The fishing pole and tackle box were even where 'Matt' said he'd find them.
After a couple of unseasonably warm hours of fishing, Matt showed Morgan how to cheat at fishing. At least they didn't have to worry about being 'too sweaty' (the girls always complained about stupid stuff like that) when they dropped off the equipment with Tennyo's scary roommate, Generator. She looked entirely too happy for an eleven-year-old girl to be getting a cooler with the uneaten fish (they might have had a puncture mark or two) on ice. Morgan resolved not to put ice in his drinks for the next couple of days. Not that fish tasted bad on the tongue, but ick! with other things.
It was almost too unreal when Matt snuck Morgan onto an afternoon bus headed into Dunwich. This was really skipping school and playing hooky!
Some church was sponsoring a hokey "Novemberfest Carnival". He was pretty sure that it had to do with Octoberfest, whatever that was, but as long as he didn't have to spend time in the spooky old church he was fine with whatever they called it.
He was also fine with cotton candy, and giggling at Matt having trouble figuring out change. You'd've thought he never handled real money before!
For safety reasons, he decided that Matt could ride next to him on the carousel, in case it got stopped and Matt got scared of the heights. Because that could happen, according to the other kids at school.
Of course, some of the local kids figured it was okay to pick on the stranger's kids they didn't recognize. That's when he realized that being seen turning into a scratching, bitey, kicking ball of fury was more impressive than just being another fourth-grader. Lucky for the other brats, the moment the insults escalated to a shove, Matt was right there to break it all up.
It did seem odd that Matt physically kept Morgan in front of them as the next booth they went to was one of those crooked "shoot the targets for a prize" booths. The first couple of shots went wide, but after that it was like watching the Grunts out at the Ranges! Some of the nearby crowd thinned out after that.
"You boys might want to be cashing in those tickets you just won. It's getting a might bit late."
Crap. That was a Sheriff's Deputy! Since when did they hire one-eyed deputies? Maybe it was a rural thing?
"You might be right about that officer. A little bird, or two, say that the carnival was shutting down early?"
"Very funny, son. I don't suppose you'd care to identify the other little birds in the flock?"
"I could, but they all went home to roost for some reason."
"Yeah. Funny how that works out. Morgan, why don't you cash these out while we wait here where we can see you."
There were enough tickets for a couple of big candy bars and large sodas!
Then they had to walk out with the deputy, cause of course the school had to call the police on them. Sure, they didn't look exactly like the kids in the pictures, and he said they weren't in trouble, he was only offering a courtesy ride but still...
When Matt went to get in the back seat with Morgan, the deputy grabbed the boy's arm. "No. I still remember that night a few months back. No matter what you think of me, no one gets used to that."
But Mads could be weird too. Morgan really missed seeing 'Matt' when the other boy dropped the illusions in front of Schuster Hall. Being escorted in to see Mrs. Carson meant they really were in trouble after all!
"Of all the irresponsible things I've had to deal with lately, THIS takes the cake!"
Oh boy were they in trouble!
"Mister Jensen. Do you have ANY idea how dangerous running around off this campus could be?"
"Other than the--"
"That was a rhetorical question young man."
"Miz Carson," the deputy drawled, "I suspect this young cub knows better than most how dangerous it can be. Then again, seeing as how I'm the one who had to cart him the last way here with a knife in his gut, I could be biased."
Morgan felt a little sick, and not from the sugar, realizing where he'd just been sitting during the ride back.
"Be that as it may, both of these young men skipped a full day of classes to do God knows what before ending up off-campus out in public at a carnival."
"We went fishing?"
Mrs. Carson did not look pleased at all to hear that, even if it sounded innocuous to him.
Deputy Wednesday smiled, "His half-brother did warn me about that habit."
If law enforcement could be given detention, that looked like it would have done the job.
"Either way, as the only time that Morgan was outside my supervision was in the shower or the head, ALL responsibility up until the point that the Deputy here stepped in to give us a courtesy ride logically rests with me."
"This isn't about logic, it's about following rules put in place for your well-being, including how far off your meal plan you logically must have gone!"
"That would be something to discuss with my medical teams, both allopathic and psychiatric."
"As I recall, someone gave her word to me that these boys weren't in trouble. Was that not what was said?" Somehow the deputy looked a bit older and meaner than he had.
"That is true. I see that I should be more careful with my discussions with lawgivers."
"That is a wise course." The deputy stood up. He really was kind of tall. "Seeing that both are safe, well, and where they should be, I think I should be going back on patrol."
"Stay safe. I think I can say that. Val's... He's going to need time."
"I hope he can get that time." On that note, the deputy left, leaving the condemned to their fate.
Val? Oh. Valravn. Morgan wondered how he'd know the cop, but Dunwich was a small place.
"Boys. My hands may be tied this time, but don't think you can just up and take off whenever you feel like it!"
"Ma'am, that almost sounds like a challenge."
"Would either of your mothers agree?"
"Let's... not test that just now."
"Very well. I believe you can see your way out."
Outside, walking back to Hawthorne, it was all code names and stuff. That was usually cool, but not so much this time.
"How did the sheriff's deputy find us? No one else saw through your illusions all day."
"I sent a text to dispatch when it looked like our 'welcoming party' decided to up the aggro."
"Look, Shifty. Morgan. Whether it's for a day or for a lifetime, no one, ever threatens my little brother. That includes me putting him in danger by screwing up the threat estimate."
"C'mon, let's get ready for dinner. I want to see what Generator comes up with! I just hope she doesn't waste the fresh fish."
Right. Maybe Tennyo won't kill them after all.
Because for the first time in a while that didn't feel so tempting.
Must've been all the cotton candy.
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"I still cannot get used to Dad as Jerk-face's adopted son. Wait, did they just?"
"Yep. Hela Odhinnsdottir, kind of has a ring to it."
"I know where you sleep. Excuse me? There is no way that Mjolnir can shatter like that. Boys, don't even think about trying. Again, if I know you delinquents."
"No. That? Just, no."
"I think she loves the headdress."
"I think you better sleep with one eye open."
"The paranoid git does that anyway."
"Do I even want to know where all the cutlery is coming from?"
"Limited-duration manifestation, capped with a bit of siderokinesis through a centered area of effect ... but not hard to mimic with ectoplasm and a touch of suggestion."
"Translation: not really, no."
"Valkyrie, huh? Why couldn't WE have had valkyior like that?"
"You've done worse for daughters-in-law to bring home."
"Mother? I didn't need to know that."
"You gotta admit that she is nova-hot with the chain guns and all."
"Lars, dear, you can always hire the munitions without sleeping with the control systems."
"Toe to toe with the Hulk. Who da Big Dogg now?"
"Okay. Dad really would screw over the entire plane for Asgard and his favorite nephew, right before running into a Bigger Fricking Spaceship With Guns."
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November 2007, various locations, Whateley Academy
Miss Walcutt, I have a simple job that I've been assured is well within the capabilities of yourself and your talent pool. Enclosed is a short description of the task and expected initial outlay. If there is sufficient interest, let us meet at ... ]
< In case you think no one's noticed where and when you've pointed those Zeiss optics, you are mistaken. Attached is a set of specifications. Whatever matching stock you have should be forwarded to the enclosed depot URL. Further details to follow. > ]
Miss Mouser, I have a simple job that I've been assured is well within the capabilities of yourself and your associates. Enclosed is a short description of the task and the expected initial outlay. If there is sufficient interest, let us meet at ... ]
< Please rotate your public keys more often. Yes, I do understand what the word means. furrfu! Check your supposedly-empty video archive for stills and clips that match the attached specs. There's cash for quality, so include an escrow account with your hits. > ]
"There. I have cast mine bread upon the waters. Let us see which chummers come to feed upon the bounty."
"Finally found someone you couldn't surveil your own damned self?"
"Yeah. Life sucks and then it spits up."
"That was a mental image I didn't need."
"Greasy, Greasy, Greasy. I'm torn between congratulating you on your timeliness and expertise, and ripping your lungs out over the complete disregard for the privacy rights of legal minors and their property rights regarding likenesses. Any preferences?"
"I haven't done anything wrong!"
"Since September anyway..."
"Three words: model. release. permission."
"But these were for personal use!"
"And now they are not. But today's a lucky day for ye of negotiable virtue."
"Emily, if you're going to 'borrow' design ideas from Techno-Devil, I'd recommend at least disabling his steganographic signing code."
"That sneaky little..."
"Riiight. If I know you, you're just going to go back to your workbench and implement the same damn thing into your next generation of projects."
"It worked, didn't it?"
"Well enough for what it was intended. But I was thinking: wouldn't more complex encrypted signature implemented more subtly throughout the entire frame might be useful for other purposes."
"Talk. What does it do and what's it going to cost me?"
A discrete dining location, beneath Whateley Academy
The meeting stirred up mixed feelings and associations from the start. The location chosen pointed to involvement with She-Beast, Phase, or both. The timing couldn't have been better chosen to preclude bringing in any other club members for a better display of their talent pool, but being greeted by Jade - of all people - firmly tilted the balance toward Phase's involvement. Tansy chalked up the discomfort to more ongoing penance. Considering what she'd done last year, it was nearly a miracle that Hawthorn residents didn't make the sign of the cross as she walked by.
Nonetheless, her host stood up to welcome her to the table. Perhaps not wearing his usual illusions made enough of a point for him? "Miss Walcutt, I'm glad you could make it. I believe that you and Miss Mouser are acquainted?"
"Yes, we are. And Mister Jensen, please, call me Tansy. If I'd known in advance that you were seeking competing bids, I would have asked the club advisor to come along as well. I think he would have enjoyed the opportunity."
The young man gestured to himself, "Mads. As to bringing in backup, that should hardly be necessary. Teri and I have already placed our drink orders but our server should be back soon to prepare tea. Please, do make yourself comfortable. If that should require additional representation be present, I'm prepared to take that into account."
"Hm. Would you mind if I take advantage of the time to freshen up?"
"To your left, back, and then to the right."
"Mads, I think I'd like to do the same. If you'll excuse us?"
"First there was one, now there are none? If it were anyone else, I'd say that sempai is losing his touch!"
Mads smiled at Jade's observation, "It's a talent, or so I'm told."
"You're letting them call in back-up."
"A cousin of mine once told me it's best to let someone else make the first mistake."
"How'd that turn out?"
"At first? ...Fewer casualties than I would have thought. Overall? Neither of us are certain how else events could have unfolded."
From behind Metro, an amused soprano voice spoke out, "It sounds like there is a story to be told behind that." He spared Jade an I'll get you back for that look before replying, "Merely the sins of my youth, and no charges came of the affair."
Tansy considered how much of the statement was probably a lie. "A pity. Sometimes the court drama is the best part of those stories."
Teri tagged in, "Jadis would have enjoyed that. You don't mind, do you? She said she'd only need a few minutes to get here."
"Something about how she'd love to see how you and Ayla had fixed the place up for this meeting." Tansy said, before taking a sip of the mineral water that had been set at her place at the table. So far, there were no surprises to be tasted, but there so many chemicals even an exemplar tongue might miss.
Turning back to Jade, who'd stepped out of arm's reach, Metro announced, "I believe that we'll be seating four, then." She bowed and headed toward the kitchen area. That settled, Metro handed menus to the two young women present. As to be expected, no prices were noted, only the dishes available for this evening. That left one of the usual targets out of range for prime sniping, had either woman been inclined.
After noting a couple of selections from the menu that might be of interest, Tansy reopened the conversation with "I must admit surprise that you'd gone with a Japanese theme. Not that I mind, it's just that," she paused to see who would charge into the gap.
Mads merely raised his eyebrows in query as to what she wanted to say. But 'Good cop, bad cop, with Jadis to round up the strays' would be closer to what he was thinking at the moment.
"... some might find it a bit cliché."
Teri opined, "If this were an anime, I'd almost expect a couple of Yakuza enforcers hiding behind the screen behind your chair."
"I try not to make a habit of interfering with men, or women, of chivalry."
"Um. Me neither."
Mads smiled at a private joke, "I had considered requesting a reproduction of Popeye's, but for some reason our caterer turned a peculiar shade of green at the thought."
Tansy murmured, "I'm sorry that I missed that."
"Would you believe that you're the sixth person, so far, to say that?"
Tansy said "Even in his youth Ayla had a discriminating palate," slightly emphasizing the pronoun.
"Ah. His loss, as far as I can tell."
Tansy: 'The pronoun shift didn't faze him at all. Interesting.'
"So why the Japanese theme, and why does it seem so familiar?" Teri asked, curious as to both.
"The backdrop scenery and menu are based on a rather famous Kyoto restaurant, one similar in many ways to one that I enjoyed eating at some time ago. Given your interest in Japanese popular culture, and Tansy being as much from Hawaii as anywhere else, the choice seemed to be a happy medium."
"Mads, why would you think that I was 'as much from Hawaii as anywhere else', if I may ask?"
"I believe that the answer to that must perchance wait until later, as our final guest is arriving and I am sure that Jade is waiting for us to adjourn to the next room."
Mads stood up to greet Jadis Diabliku, chosen by the other two to be his opposite number, nearly as expected.
As the food and beverages had been arranged by Ayla Goodkind with the assistance of an off-duty Whateley chef or two, among others, even Mads' taste for sashimi was appeased. Judging by a couple of cues that Jade and Jadis let slip, it seemed that Ayla and Tansy's feud had cooled to 'budget-breaking one-upmanship', down from 'my seconds will meet yours in the alleyway'.
Eventually, over a very good pot of green tea, their host allowed his guests to broach the business aspects of the matters at hand. Or rather, he chosen then to blindside them.
"Jadis, I take it you've had sufficient time to review what I'm asking for?"
"I have. First, though, I think that an apology is called for."
"As much as I hate to admit it we were both wrong about Tansy."
"Ah. Yes. That."
"What?" It had been such a pleasant meal, and Tansy had thought that she and Jadis had begun to put the worst parts of their past behind them. The disappointment tasted like ashes in her mouth. "I know my reputation is dirt around here, but I had hoped it wouldn't be held against the club I'm representing!"
"It isn't," Mads said. "It was my reputation that is working against your club's prospects. Or, rather, my quote-unquote powers."
Jadis turned to speak to her former friend, "Metro constantly produces a pheromone that badly provokes most air-breathing species to the point that it carries over to the avatars of those species. Some students, Aquerna and Miasma for example, cannot stand to be in the same part of the cafeteria with him."
"And the two of you thought I'd? You actually thought that I'd have so little self-control that I'd run away or attack based on the reactions of a couple of low-level avatars?"
"I wouldn't exactly call Pejuta or Kodiak 'low-level avatars'. Tatanka hates me. As to Kodiak, well, I've heard that Wildman has recovered the ability to count to ten. Your reputation is that you probably could maintain control... but to be perfectly clear about it, you haven't had any more trouble doing that tonight than Bloodwolf does."
Tansy could hear Sukawakan's snickering at the stupidity of present company explode into outright laughter.
'He doesn't know!'
'Should he? It sounds like he hasn't had much experience with avatars or animals. I'm not so sure about people.'
'But I am Mustang, not some mere barnyard animal!'
'Not helping. Bloodwolf is a mangy werewolf avatar, used to chasing chickens and sheep.'
'Check the hems of his trousers!'
Figuring her spirit was taking the piss just as much as the two magic users here, Tansy sighed to herself and looked around the low table. The black trousers of Metro's school uniform didn't give much away. The floor and cushions they were in contact with ... oh, no, that's not embarrassing at all!
'Horse. There IS a difference. The species may be related but I'm better.'
"Mads, why are your pants wet?"
"Hunh? Oh! Right. It seems these days that whenever I suppress my glamour - which tends to also drive people away - for any length of time, I end up tracking in water or snow. Or something. It's one of the reasons I wear boots with the school uniform whenever I can: no matter what I do the hems always end up wet."
Technically he was telling A truth.
Jadis got it, and somewhat wished she didn't.
Teri kept her mouth shut, just in case she was right.
"Carrying on, then. Should I take it that the lower figures reflect Lifeline, Pejuta, Fey, and Loophole sitting out the sessions?"
"If Lifeline's there, I won't be. Non-negotiable. Nikki and I get along well enough, but the school prefers that Valravn and I not rub shoulders too much with the Sidhe students."
Tansy: "Loophole's one of our best photographers, and Freeze Frame isn't always available."
Jadis: "However, with Chemtrail involved, Greasy might be willing to work on the project, and Adam's one of Ethereal Beauties' preferred photographers." Tansy nodded, confirming She-Beast's deduction.
"Does that mean that you won't be needing any of our other talent?" Teri asked. She hoped that the GSD client didn't have a thing against her more exotic models. Pot? Kettle's on the line. Something about being black?
"No. I need 'back at school' as well as staged shots, both in and out of illusion. We can't afford to blow the school's cover, but if everyone but me looks as though they could safely pose in front of H1, or walk down a Milan runway, that will not go over very well. Also, I'd like to give Jello a chance to work on her photography portfolio: she's enough of a shapeshifter to work a wide variety of camera angles without changing her equipment setup. If she follows through afterward, the chances are good that Ethereal Beauties would be able to represent her hard work."
Tansy mused, "Gwen might be happy to hear that."
Mads smiled. "She's the one who told me about her friend's candid shots. I'm buying the rights on some of the Parents Day photos on my own behalf. Any further questions for me, or Jadis, since it looks like she'll be legaling the agreements for you?"
late November 2007, Whateley Academy
The plans for today's outing had started as well as could be expected. Doctor Bellows had approved of her plans in general, before warning Tansy that Metro had a lingering unease if not fear of 'human-appearing' women and been given suggestions as to what to watch out for if he began to dissociate. Teri had jumped at the chance for a joint location shoot. How and why she'd finagled Tisiphone to agree, on the other hand, was both a mystery and a shrewd choice for helping to get their camera-shy client to relax. Par for the course, the day had dawned cloudy, overcast, and misty. Maybe half an hour before everyone was to meet at the stables, the yellow flag went up - as if an observer wouldn't need their own powers to get a clear view of a GSD student out on the campus. Tink? Not a chance.
Greasy was there early, checking out his camera gear. Now that it wasn't getting destroyed every other day, what he had on-hand was rather impressive. Knowing better than to try to get a conversation out of her boyfriend while he was with his equipment, Prue took the time to discuss the Venus Inc. side of the afternoon's plans with Tansy.
Tansy was somewhat surprised to see that the next to arrive was Tisiphone, wrapped in a voluminous hooded cloak. Given that Alexis - no, Tissy - was from South Carolina and that her wings weren't feathered, that was a smart move, yellow flag or none.
Bringing up the rear were Metro and Tink. Or rather, Metro with Tink, as she was currently perched on one of the boy's antlers. The sight was incongruous enough that Tansy barely noticed Tissy walking up beside her.
"In case you were wondering why I hurried to get here? Teri fancies herself a gymnast." That wasn't an image Tansy really needed so soon after lunch. Not that Teri was bad-looking in any way. It was just...
'What? The girl clearly enjoys life, though you might be more comfortable riding his horn than she should be.'
'Word is that he prefers men.'
'He's male. ALL males appreciate a warm'
'NOT having THAT discussion now!'
'... welcome, is all.'
Tissy continued, "Metro isn't running, so they must have missed Pucelle."
"Does anyone miss that bitch?"
Tissy started to respond with something caustic but caught herself. Her shoulders slumped. "I wouldn't wish what happened to me even on Phase, but that girl..."
Tansy let a smirk cross her face, "So the answer is a resounding 'No'."
The day hadn't given up all of its surprises. It wasn't until Tango was lead out that Metro finally ventured more than a couple of feet into the barn. Then, the way he ran up to him nearly spooked the horse, but it was what went on after that that spooked the people present. At first, Metro started talking to the horse in a language that hardly anyone understood.
Mustang to Tansy:
'He's asking in Anishinaabemowin what the hell happened. Give him a minute to realize the patient doesn't understand him in that language.'
'I'm still missing something here.'
'You would call it Ojibway. I'm not limited to understanding English and Lakota, you know.'
'That's not it. I thought that most animals hated him?
'Horses aren't mere animals! We may not have associated with humans as long as dogs have, but this one is different.'
Sure enough, the freshman boy switched to an even more foreign-sounding language, though one that seemed comprehensible to those around him. Perhaps it was just his intent coming through?
< Right. I am called Little Whiskey Horse. > The horse whickered in response. < Among other things, yeah. Makwa thought it was hilarious too. What I'd like to do is start with your foreleg as it is hurt, but I'll need to check out your spine and the shoulder and leg joints. Yeah, yeah. You can tell your human that you aren't favoring the leg, but I'm not having that. Do I have your consent to continue? >
The horse nodded, as she'd known humans do when agreeing.
'I don't know what language the words are in, but it's an old magic. Remember this so we can ask about it later.'
Tisiphone asked Tansy, "What's he doing?" Anywhere but Whateley it might have been strange to see a young woman who appeared to be a red-skinned and -scaled, winged demoness asking out of concern for the horse's safety and her own peace of mind.
"Tango was injured ... in an accident, a few weeks ago. I'm surprised that he noticed it right off."
"Then I hope he can do something to help. The poor girl must hate not being able to run like she used to."
Tisiphone would know about that, wouldn't she?
"We used to play competition polo, so yes, it would be like an athlete being benched wouldn't it?"
Both winced as Mads walked behind the horse, barely keeping one hand on her tail bone. However, Tango chose not to kick him through the nearest wall, knowing by touch and other senses where the magician was and what he was doing as he softly explained it. Finally, he stepped up to whisper a few things for Tango alone to here. He also just happened to palm a sweet piece of carrot over to her to eat.
The boy walked over to Tansy, the waiting models and company.
"She'll be feeling much better in a few weeks. You may be able to trust the stable hands to walk her sufficiently, but come January she'll be needing more activity," he explained. "I'll drop by when I can, but I'm not as familiar with equine muscles and bone as human."
"Thank you. Tango is as close, if not closer than, family to me."
Mads shrugged, and smiled a bit goofily, "It goes with being a horse. She'd be happy to walk a bit and pose for some pictures. Just, try not to catch her eyes with the flash when she's looking your way, Greasy. She doesn't like that."
Adam gulped nervously, suddenly aware that he was in the presence of a young woman who'd nearly killed him once, another who - if he upset her at all - there'd be no 'nearly' about it, a third who was friendly but certifiably insane, and a freshman mage who'd managed to crawl on to the Ultra-Violent list before attending his first classes at Whateley. "Got it."
Juvenile jokes about 'scaring the horses' aside, after being saddled up Tango even let Tisiphone ride out to a few places that looked promising. Between the lead-gray clouds and the mix of dark green conifers and bare, water-darkened softwoods, nature was providing near-perfect framing for photos of the two more heavily-GSD students.
"Um, Tisiphone, can you spread your wings under the cloak, just a bit? Good! I just wish we had more contrast here."
Mads asked Adam, "What color do you have in mind? I think a muted green might work on a day like this."
"Bear with me." The young man walked over to the horse and rider. He brushed his hand across a corner of Tisiphone's cloak, which suddenly changed color. "How about this?"
"That ... Okay, we can go with that. Why didn't you say you could do that?"
"No one asked. I could make it a permanent change, if Tissy likes it."
"Comes with the wiz job."
Whether it was a signal that Metro was starting to relax around the others, aside from the horse, or the day had warmed up, eventually he did take off his jacket and even roll up his sleeves. At first glance, Tansy and Tissy both had to work at not commenting, even if he could cover up the idiosyncrasies with illusion: suspenders? A second glance revealed that he was wearing a vertical shoulder holster with an off-side tie-down. AND suspenders. If he ditched the holster, he would have been one broad-brimmed hat short of a stereotype. A couple of shots taken during one break, with Mads leaning back, eyes closed, against Tango's neck and shoulder turned out adorable.
Apparently the boy also forgot about cell phone cameras in the hands of three professional and one semi-professional model while he and Adam where going over a campus map looking for the next couple of places to try out. Within a few weeks, "Rudolph the Helpful Field Guide" would become almost as popular as "Rudolph the Danish Drill Sarge".
Several costume changes later, someone remembered, "We don't have any shots of Mads riding Tango."
Mads took a small shuffle-step back. "I, um, that's okay."
"What's the matter? I think we've established that Tango isn't going to hurt you."
"Errr. The truth is I've never ridden in a saddle."
Tango blew through her lips as if to say 'What an idiot.'
"Fine. We'll take it off and you can ride her bareback back to the barn."
"But nothing, nearly any one of us can carry the saddle without breaking a sweat. Speaking of which..."
"Huh? Horses are supposed to smell like horses!"
"She's not the only one!"
'Well played, dear. His glamour is breaking back through, so this could be interesting.'
'...? Never mind, we'll see.'
Quietly, Tansy said to Adam, "Be sure to get the audio as well as the video. I have a hunch about this."
Somehow, Metro had little trouble getting onto Tango's back. Once settled, he leaned forward and it looked like he might be explaining the remaining plans for the afternoon. At least that seemed to be the plan, until the wind picked up and something broke the mage's concentration. When he straightened up, he looked as if he were wearing a leather jerkin, trousers, boots, and gloves, all in a dark pattern that should have been antique and should have faded into the woodland background, but managed not to. He was soon back to his 'normal' clothes, but Tansy resolved to run the clip past one or two of the mystic arts teachers before turning that in for review and edit. That was what they were there for, wasn't it?
December 2007, various locations, Whateley Academy
Adam Lambert trudged back into his room after one of the more grueling finals he'd lived through. It felt as if some of the Engineering departments were taking up a rivalry with the Phys. Ed. department in some subjects. Still, his life now was a lot better than it had been at the start of the term, or the hell that was last year altogether.
He was still pulling his class notes together for the next two finals up when one of the freshmen knocked and poked his head into the room.
"Greasy! Your middle name's really 'Winfred'?"
"It's a family name! What about it?"
The boy took that as an invite to walk in and hand Adam a book-sized package. One with a lot of stamps! "This came for you in the mail. Thuban's already had it checked for explosives and toxins, since, well, you don't get a lot of mail."
"Um, thanks, I guess?"
Who could be sending a package from... Denmark? Oh, crap. If this is some prank from Hamper and Damper, no wonder Thuban had it checked out.
Dear Mr. Lambert,
Recently our editorial office received a photography portfolio forwarded on your behalf ...
... have enclosed a cheque for US$2,000 ... look forward to further submissions ...
He was getting paid?
He was getting paid!
Adam risked some of his own spending money on an overseas call to prove to himself that this wasn't a prank after all.
Three telephone calls later, including a very embarrassing "What do you mean you didn't know?" or two (including one "I am going to wring that boy's neck when he gets here!"), and a very scary "How are you with children?" the young inventor and (now, apparently) professional photographer allowed himself time for a good, old-fashioned faint.
Emily Anne Quenton, "Kew" to most people, smiled at the increment to her accounts and went back to working on her latest drone project. Maybe she could afford to incorporate a miniaturized steady-cam in some of her designs after all?
4. Januar 2008, Trondheim Airport, Værnes
"Hej, Kris! You look like you've seen a ghost!"
"I wouldn't know, Mads, having never seen one myself."
"What's this? A joke?"
"It's your fault anyway."
"What have I done now? Just in case I need to testify later."
"Someone came up to me and asked me to sign her magazine."
"Got to be careful signing those strange magazines. 9mm or larger-calibre?"
"There was a picture of the two of us, at school, with a caption along the lines of 'Lunch at school never looked so good'! It was bad enough with Reach's stalker friends..."
"Heh. Funny you should mention that."
"If it's the one I'm thinking of, that was Kew's work."
"Cool your jets! That's what you get for laughing about 'Sergeant Rudolf' and me having to pose for pictures."
"This is different!"
"Maybe? Are you daft? I've pretty much given up asking about your sanity..."
"Hardly. You're an exemplar. I'm not. Which of us do YOU think the ladies are paying attention to?"
"If you're referring to the ladies over there, I distinctly overheard 'greven' and 'tryllekunstner'."
"Would you look at the time! Let's go find our departing gate!"
4. Januar 2008, somewhere over the North Sea, en route to Amsterdam
"I still can't believe you went and impersonated my mother!"
"Kris, if we left you to your own devices, you wouldn't have gotten out of that airport without a marriage date. Consider it a favor."
"You two didn't have to make it sound like I was dating Elle's brother! Does she even have a brother?"
"Interested? You could just ask her."
"That is not what I meant, Mads, and you know it."
"Kris, we've got to get you more comfortable talking with pretty girls. Luckily for you, I have a cunning plan."
January 18, 2008, Venus Inc. Club House, Dunn Hall, Whateley Academy
"I would like to welcome everyone back from the winter break, and trust that everyone is ready for a busy Winter and Spring Term! The first order of business is to let you all know that Venus Inc. not only has picked up some new clients, but we will also be working with and representing some new portfolios as well: some of which may come as a surprise."
Tansy looked across the meeting table, pleased to see genuine smiles from Heartbreaker and Chemtrail. They may have been tinged with a little bit of vindictive glee, as her own, but she'd learned from Poise that the nature of the business called for a little schadenfreude from time to time.
"The first among those surprises is that we will have two new photographers working with us from time to time. As much as we love Elaine and Naomi, their schedules haven't been getting any lighter. So, for the rest of the year, and hopefully until their own graduations in 2009 and 2010, Venus Inc. will be also representing Jello and Greasy."
One of this year's newer members spoke up, "I'm sorry, but for a minute there I thought you said 'Greasy'."
Chemtrail purred, "Adam has much more potential than most people realize."
Fey had to chuckle a little at that, but then added "He does have a flair for action shots."
Taking advantage of the shock most of the models seemed to be feeling, Tansy pressed on. "As a matter of fact, I-, the club actually, had to pull strings to get him, as his work with Ethereal Beauties is also quite popular. Jello is less well known," 'But not for long, in certain lucrative circles.' "... but the candid shots she submitted for one of our clients last semester were also well-received. It doesn't hurt that she can vary her height, but her eye for character shots was what really came through." Tansy nodded discretely to Heartbreaker, both knowing that Jello's sponsors were very happy with the girl's developing portfolio of skills, including surveillance photography.
"Second, a few of you may know that Mrs. Ryan is advising a student with a certain flair for clothing. Expect to hear some complaints from the Gearheads that we're poaching another of their prized mechanics on those assignments which call for Ribbon's talents."
"Ribbon. Isn't that that goth brat in Poe?"
"The one that knows Detroit steel like the back of her hand? Yeah, that's Alyss." Loophole was already set to complain of the poaching. "Among other things, she's a manifestor. Her manifested cloth only lasts for 24 hours, but it's hella strong while it lasts."
Tansy stepped back in as if that were a cue. "Alyss will be dividing her time between us and E.B. Let's use it wisely. For set designs, we may be able to pry Thorn loose from the Theater Dept."
As much as she'd worked on being a better person, one-upping entire groups of The Beautiful People was still fun.
"When he's not engaged in prank wars with Beltane, Generator, or Absinthe - yes, that Thorn - Robert Rose is still a talented and powerful manifestor. It's not a question of what props he can whip up out of nothing, but what can't he come up with. Also, Security and Administration are at wit's end trying to keep him occupied otherwise. We also may be inviting Metro,"
"That's the ratbag that runs around pretending he's with Security?"
'Fey knows better? Tansy wondered to herself. 'He did say they got along, but there has got to be a story behind that!'
"Technically speaking, he is a Security Auxiliary." Fey turned to the club president, "I take it that he'll be asked to help with functional, ah, 'alterations'?"
'There is definitely a story there, and Fey's dying to tell someone. Some days I love this job!' Tansy thought.
"Yes. Another heads-up: for the prom season shoots, while I'm still counting on Nikki to persuade Lancer to model, I will also be trying to get Metro involved in front of the camera."
"What on earth for? If you want some unknown guy, go for whoever it was that Gwen was dancing with at the holiday formal. At least he knew the dance steps."
Heartbreaker broke out one of her 'fuck you and the bitch-ass horse you rode in on' smiles, "I'd call dibs on that action," and paused for the other boot to fall.
Tansy picked up the ball and set it rolling downhill.
"As I recall, that was originally for the press portfolio nearly everyone bailed out on. In Clue terms, ladies, that was Metro, on the dance floor, with his own tuxedo. His boyfriend also aced Ballroom Dancing, by the way."
Nikki gleefully hammered the point home. "The way Billie put it, they aced their dance class."
"Just my friend Tennyo. She was also at the holiday formal, and Valravn was the flier who was keeping up with her. At least, he was up until Jericho had his green-eyed meltdown. But if you ladies aren't interested, I guess that Gwen and I will just have to carry on without you. Just be sure to bring extra shoes if Hank isn't available for the shoots."
Tansy let the implications sink in before moving on, "Let's table further discussion until after our other officers report. I believe we still have some old business as well."
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After Powers Lab, some September morning, Arena 77
"Valravn! Is there any chance I can get you away from your - what is it called? - 'ball and chain' for a while this weekend?"
"What for? Not that I necessarily mind leaving him to his own devices."
"Well, the Powers Testing experts are sure that I can use my powers for flight, but..."
"But what goes up must come down?"
"Yes. The problem is that I can't afford to get hurt doing it."
"You might get a few bruises, but that shouldn't be too bad."
"No. You don't understand. I, my body, it, it doesn't heal like most folks."
"From what I've seen, most mutants heal better. Most."
"Except for the ones who don't? You've seen it happen then."
"Back at the Crazy Bin"
"I thought the term was Loony Bin?"
"I'm Canadian. No complaining about the loonies."
"I'm going to have to look that up, aren't I?"
"Worth the effort. Anyhow, Murphy's living next door to me. Thanks to some ... human garbage ... whenever she's hurt she heals back up looking different."
"In my case, I don't just look different. Damaged muscle or tendon regrows as bone. It's not as bad as before I manifested, but the risk is still there. If you can recall, I didn't have these arm-blades when I arrived here."
"Ah. So you need a flyer to spot you as you practice."
"I think so."
"Can't hurt to try, I guess. Meet me after lunch Saturday, and we'll go find a place. Sound good?"
"Yes. I do hope so."
Saturday afternoon, between Poe and Hawthorne Cottages, Whateley Academy
After a few minutes walk south from the Crystal Hall, Valravn led Elve to an open grassy area.
"Not too many of the more popular kids like to even be seen in this part of campus, and we'll be staying low to start with, so that should reduce the risk of being seen by others."
"You haven't put much thought into this since class, have you?" Elve asked, teasingly.
"Metro likes to ride a hoverboard. Not exactly a red flag-compatible activity."
"Doesn't he reside in Hawthorne Cottage? He could be watching us."
"No, he's working a double shift today and hoping his doctor doesn't find out."
"Does that work?"
"I see. How do you think we should go about this? I assume it took a lot of practice for you to learn flying."
"Not as much as you'd think. It comes natural to me. Less natural to Mads though."
"Do you think you can help me?"
"Let's give it a shot. How well does accelerated walking go for you? I've seen that in class, but didn't get a good explanation."
"It's still difficult, as I have to take short jaunts and aim partly up. It's like I'm jumping on one foot, landing on the other, and then repeating it from that foot. To turn, I had to learn to aim myself to one side or the other."
Thomas smiled and began to quote:
But you're always falling
With each step, you fall forward slightly
And then catch yourself from falling
Over and over, you're falling
And then catching yourself from falling
And this is how you can be walking and falling
At the same time.
"That's how it feels! Where did you come up with that?"
"From an avid music snob who hates all the 'old pop stuff' put out. The artist is someone named 'Laurie Anderson', if that helps. I think I'd like to start with you stepping forward and landing, and gradually shift to more up than down. Are you with me so far?"
Elve took a few minutes to visualize that the boy had described, "I think I'd end up bouncing in place. How does that help?"
"Once you are used to that, you can try 'bouncing' back up before you hit the ground. Just like flapping your wings."
"Bouncing up and down in the air, until the wind blows me into a tree."
"Huh. I hadn't thought of that. We'll have to practice staying in one place with a crosswind. That's trickier than it looks."
"How many baby birds have you seen pull that off the first dozen times? Especially chickens. They're a little stupid, and clumsy."
"I'm certain I'm going to break an ankle doing this."
"Nah. If you're worried I can borrow some mats from the basement. You should practice falling so you don't hurt yourself anyway. Humans do that a lot."
"... That won't get you in trouble, will it?"
"Not unless I pull it out from under someone."
"That's not a very comforting thought."
"Welcome to my world."
Another Saturday afternoon, between Poe and Hawthorne Cottages, Whateley Academy
After a few more sessions, this afternoon it looked like Elve was bringing someone new to the practice. Thomas wasn't sure he could keep track of two fledglings; he hoped the other wouldn't be too disappointed.
"Elve! Glad you could make it! Who's this?"
"Valravn, meet Smithy, my roommate."
"Smithy? You don't have first period Chem I do you?"
"Oh, yes. I'm partnered with this Danish guy - I think it's more to do with having the same advisor - lives in Hawthorne over there. Smart guy, quiet, but I always have the feeling he's taking the class so he can learn how to make explosives. Oh! Call me Abelyn or Abbie, either one."
"You can call me Thomas. By the way, I pronounce my last name 'Jensen', not 'Yensen'"
"You know the guy?"
"You could say that. Right! So are you here to practice flying?"
"Goodness, no. That's what airplanes are for!"
"You can have them, too. "
"Nothing! I'm just not fond of mechanized flight."
"Okay. You might want to talk to a professional about that. Anyway, I just need to get out and feel a little sunlight before the weather turns cold."
"There's benches and tables there and there." Thomas pointed out Fey's least favor lawn furnishings. "Unless you prefer grass."
Abbie smirked at the comment, "Moo!"
"Fine! Off with you! No live stock on the landing strip!"
"How about dead stock?"
"Only if they're really, really dead. And barbecued. Someone got me hooked on Kansas City style a while back."
Elve said, "I'm surprised your other half isn't watching today."
"He's pouting. He'll get over it though."
That was less than convincing, but the young woman was willing to let it ride for now.
"What's on the docket then?"
"Let's start with slowly going up to a hover altitude. Then we'll work on maneuverability. I've flagged a number of trees around her as a course..."
"... what was that?"
"What? Just now? It's one of the moves taught in Survival that's used for changing course in free running."
"Ooookay. Give me a minute to think about that, while you practice hovering in place."
- - -
"How about you show me some of these moves. I'm wondering if we can't work that into your maneuvering."
"Why? With my power it shouldn't be needed, right?"
"In that case, I shouldn't need ... these!"
Elve fell nearly the full three hundred feet, surprised at the sudden appearance of Valravn's wings. That was probably Abbie screaming, but that could wait. He dropped into a stoop to catch up with her and then powered his flight further to pull out above the ground and not in it. The girl was further shocked by her first direct exposure to NASCAR qualifying speeds without a car.
"Remember what Rule 1 was?"
"Always remember: keep on flying."
"Because the alternative can be painful. Let's land so you can catch your breath and think about this."
"You have wings? I thought you were a magician, not a shifter?"
"Who says I can't be a bit of both? This is one of the forms I can do."
"Why the wings if you can fly without them?"
"Gliding. Catching thermals. They make maneuvering much easier. Also, I'm told they feel nice and soft, although the commenter is notably biased."
Thomas rolled his eyes. "He sleeps on a bed of rocks. Not a very high standard for comparison."
A Sunday afternoon in November, Perimeter Road, Whateley Academy
"Alright. So. I've tagged a line through the woods off to the side here, back to the road, around past Holbrook and then cutting back across campus. That gives us tight obstacles, some open sky, and a little bit more getting back. Ready to walk it?"
"You sure you're good with all of it?"
"I've been practicing while you were wherever you were that you chuckleheads won't talk about."
"Practicing English as well!"
"Kristian's roommate is a tin-plated jerk. Someone had to rescue the puppy. Come on: less talking, more doing!"
Saturday afternoon, mid-November, Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
Thomas looked up at the approaching (very odd) trio, and asked Abbie and Elve "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
Abelyn scowled. "That is definitely his 'This is going to land me in the hospital!' face."
"Hej, guys! Me and Thrasher are taking Murphy out to teach her how to ride! Wanna come with? Kris and Jo are hiding, again."
"Why don't you ask Vamp? I hear she's been bored lately."
Alex didn't speak to Thomas again for a full week.
Sunday afternoon, late November, Outcast Corner table, Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
This time, it was Metro and Smithy looking far too pleased with themselves and with something looking disturbingly like the unholy union of a Goblin Glider crossed against a longboard and a hexarotor drone.
"Guys? Could we borrow Murphy? We need a test pilot who can skate, and teleport out of trouble, and high regen might come in handy."
Razorback signed 'Only if you promise to bring her back before 10. It's a school night.'
Murphy saluted his school night with both hands.
Jericho cleared his throat for attention, "I don't suppose you have any sort of adult supervision, do you?"
"Nah. We're just going to tag in on Valravn and Vaapat Taivas' flight line. They won't mind, much."
"Go with god my children!"
Sandra finished not-choking on her lunch to remind her friend and partner-in-crime, "You do know she knows where you sleep, right?"
Sunday evening, Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
"What happened to the green deathmobile you guys had earlier?"
"Let's just say the last we heard from Murphy was the word *Mine!* and some mad cackling." "It was all good."
"Was this before or after Pucelle was almost run over by a low-flying UFO?"
"We can neither confirm nor deny the possibility."
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Afternoon, October 11, 2007, Hawthorne Cottage, Whateley Academy
Away from few students gathered in the Common Room it was quiet. Perhaps a bit too quiet.
"Louis, dear, are you free?"
"No. It is with great sadness I report that I'm still confined to my accustomed tank, below."
Mrs. Cantrel chuckled at the joke, and soldiered on.
"At least one of us is where they were thought to be. Some of the other mischief-makers? Not so much."
"I do know that some of the more, erm, weather-resistant Kimbas are visiting. I'd rather not dwell on what weather would have to prevail to stop Phase, Tennyo, or Generator in their tracks."
"Let's start with Generator's location."
"She and Tennyo, along with Smithy, are keeping Compiler, Eldritch, Fire Forge, Metro, Pahelee, and Roulette from blowing up the building in the process of refurbishing the old boiler system to use a closed-loop for the working fluid, and ducting the heat exchanger and final-stage condenser to the forced-air systems. I'd be remiss to omit the capability of a boiler to use a number of different feedstocks."
"Why do I get the impression that some of the heat will be diverted to distillation?"
"That was the primary consideration."
"The original topic was that it was a shame that all the rain and snow collected by the roof is just dumped into the storm drains. Then it was observed that melting the snow required heat, and there had to be much more efficient ways to melt the snow than using steam that is no longer being supplied."
"Louis. What are the kids using for fuel?"
"Let's just say that this is an efficient way to keep one of our charges from heading into the Grove with a, quote: honking big tank of defoliant, unquote, while also dealing with the logical consequences of not allowing prescribed burns."
"How much wood is that?"
"Whatever it takes to keep our miscegenated psychotic half-breed happy?"
"I'm told there's more snow accumulating than even the Grove can handle. Come summer we'll be dealing with wildfires throughout the area from downed trees and limbs."
"And where's the feedwater coming from? Even with the new wings, the roof intercepts maybe a tenth of the volume of your tank in a year. Or is this something else I don't want to know about?"
"Caitlin might have said something about humping a water elemental."
"I am going to pretend I didn't hear you say that."
"Technically, you didn't."
"Fine. Be that way. Where is it all being stored?"
"The raw influx goes to our miscegenated half-breed's backup reservoir..."
"I didn't know he had one."
"Neither did anybody else."
"The distilled, deionized, de-aerated, and essence-depleted output goes to my backup reservoir. If necessary, we can pump excess from there into the school's potable water system, or refilter it for Ricou's sterile saline supply."
"Who's hauling the wood?"
"Jimmy and Valravn for now. There aren't many students who can work outside in these temperatures for any length of time and be willing to be seen near the Freak House without detention involved."
"What about Tennyo?"
"The Grove likes to lead Billie and Mads through as much poison oak as it can find. Hence the honking big tank of defoliant comment."
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Hall of Aesthetic Contemplation, Emerald Palace of the Revived Western Court
Her steps echoed a regal tattoo on fine green-seamed marble paving a hall wainscoted with planks of the rarest of greenwoods and hung with a nation's ransom of art. Some days, she was of a mind to remember the nation ransomed. Others, even she marvelled that the gilt frames didn't run red with blood yet unpaid.
Alone - for who would dare molest her here, in her place of power? - the Queen Regnant continued on to her private offices. Secure behind diamant windows cut from single-crystal slabs she could look out toward a coast by miles closer than it had been in her youth, if she chose. She didn't. No point in dwelling on the physical, emotional, or political gulfs between her and her former cousin. The Emerald Isles would make their own way, forever apart from the Western Court and its paramount Queen.
“So, are you guys, like, going to Whateley Academy?”
She turned swiftly, ready to confront anyone so craven as to intrude on her thoughts. But it was only a dark-skinned teenaged girl - one graced with amber eyes, a "killer bod", and an infectious devil-may-care attitude. How bright her candle had burned! It had been a joy to see her whenever she stopped by after graduation. But the visits became less frequent. They'd both assumed that friendship and time would go on forever, when only time could.
“Me Too! Kewl! My name’s Toni Chandler! And you are?”
“Hank. Hank Declan.”
Gods... Hank. His had been the calm, steady hand on the wheel of Team Kimba's ship through good times and through bad times. The Queen to Come had been responsible for too many of those bad times. Before they'd really, truly recognized that it really could happen to them, a pair of flag-draped coffins had served notice that it was too late to apologize to either him or Lily.
“My story isn’t as action packed as Hank’s or Nikki’s story. But here we go anyway. I was born Trevor James Goodkind...”
By the time the grouchy financier was finished, the world would know AJG Consolidated as the money behind the Nalley monopole drive, Bio-Regenetics' early forays into transgenic engineering, Earth's orbital ring, Phobos Station... Goodkinds fix things - including his family's greatest mistakes - and he would have loved to have seen Gaea's children inheriting the stars because of his efforts. Keeping the name and legacy going had been the least they could do for him and his younger sister after his remains had been interred in ARC's deepest, blackest hole.
Nikki wondered if Billie had ever found a measure of peace out among the stars after the series of dreadful events which had made her little sister, Jade, whole for a short time before her life had run out. Probably not. By now the Scourge of the Isokist was safely entombed somewhere out in the galaxy - with little care for the fragile soul that had come to accompany it.
“Hi, Nikki! My name’s Bunny Cormick. I’m from Las Vegas.”
Dear sweet Bugs. Nikki had never deserved the inventor's love and attention. Had she looked beyond her own needs and plans maybe they could have made things work? Maybe not. Maybe it was just another case of not recognizing the good things in life until she'd pushed them away?
“Hi, I’m Sara. Sara Waite.”
For the Sidhe and for Others, blood truly could be thicker than water. Maybe the better metaphor was that they still mixed like oil and vinegar, right up until the day that the reviving planetary magicks made it too difficult to safely reach across the Veil to the Kellith. Nikki idly wondered how many times Sara had evolved and redefined her self, while she herself only grew into an unchanging destiny.
“Hey, what are friends for?”
“Welcome to Whateley, Chou.”
How many times had Chou looked out for her friends, even when she was ready to collapse under the strain of being Handmaiden of the Tao? How had that been reciprocated? Nikki searched her long memory and could not remember hearing about her (Or him? Had they ever managed to return to being Alexander Farshine?) slipping away from notice as quietly as they had appeared at Whateley Academy one autumn day.
"Now that I have your attention, I suppose you're all wondering why I called you here today"
In theory, an Artificer can live indefinitely, even forever. In practice, the volatile, irreverent, acerbic, cantankerous former U.S. Marine, could never do that. Her adopted family had gone, one by one, until only she was left. To just carry on, for the sake of carrying on? As if. Some still say that one's status in Hell is measured by the honor guard you take down with you. Caitlin would know whether that was true.
“Hey! Why are you crying?”
“Umm, because I’m dead?”
Dear, sweet, indispensable, Bree. In many ways she had been a sister to Nikki and Sara, bridging the gaps between them. Their last discussion, talk, argument, had been about a novel technology being brought on-line that could allow uploading of a person's brain to digital storage and simulation. She'd been dismissive of the idea, practically forbidding her sister to even think of it. It was all she thought of for days when they found a reverse-engineered prototype in Bree's home, and a letter addressed to her. She'd never known that the woman's nanite systems were failing - a lingering consequence of the shadow wars against the likes of the Palm and other enemies of humanity.
Programmed lighting came on to interrupt the unaging Sidhe Queen's reverie. It was getting late, and evening drew close.
"Hey, Nikster, ready to go?"
That wasn't a memory, though the voice belonged in the past.
Nichole Susanne Reilly, née Nicholas Reilly, Jr. (also called 'Nikki', 'Fey', and an entire litany of more pompous or foul terms, depending on the history being written), composed herself. It wouldn't do to show a weakness at this late date! She stood up to greet her uninvited guest. His body looked as young as when they'd met, but his red-green eyes were old. His suit was a thousand years out of date if it were a day. Nonetheless, the icy lavender cravate and red poppy lapel flower went well with the black tuxedo tailcoat and gloves.
In keeping with the past hours, she addressed him in the pre-Swarm English of their youth: "Count."
"Na, na. Don't be starting up with that at this late date!" He chided her as if he were the elder here. How long ago had it been since the sea had swept København away? Even the return of the World Trees and replanting of the great forests had been insufficient to undo the damage wrought in the 20th and 21st centuries.
"Then tell me, what are you here for?"
"It's more like like 'who am I here for'. I think you know the answer to that."
"But you... Why?"
The blond kid shrugged at that.
"You could say my luck ran out in the Second Battle for the Eris Gate, so I'm working one of my backup gigs. Shall we? I believe that your friends have been waiting to see you."
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February 3, 2008,
Kane Hall, Whateley Academy
One would think that after a career with the U.S. Navy SEALs, being bonded with an experimental hive of nanites as the result of industrial espionage, having his body rebuilt to an identical copy of his deceased daughter, and working a year in Whateley Academy's Security Department, Samantha Everheart would be used to the various problems dropped at her desk. So much for a normal retirement.
Sitting across from her was the latest such offering: someone had managed to drive a clunker of a van - one for which even Melvin Donner wouldn't hold out much hope - directly onto campus. A Second Platoon patrol had intercepted her arrival and managed to convince her that a night in detention would be better for all concerned than one spent in a parking lot in February. The van's driver turned out to be a young woman who appeared only a couple of years older than Sam's apparent age and had a strong predilection for stars and stripes in red, white, and blue. Where Sam was physically lithe and blonde, this America Chavez was a tall, rather statuesque brunette - one with a chip on her shoulder large enough to compete with the star-spangled banner theme. Then again, Sam had been young, dumb, nigh indestructable, and ready for the world to fall at his feet at that age too.
"... So. Let me be sure I have this correct. You punched your way into this dimension?"
"Close enough. Being a Starling, I create a star-shaped interdimensional portal. The last step is to breach the remaining wall between here and there. It just works better when I punch or kick that last piece out. Or run it over with something."
"In this case with your van: I'm reminded of a few of our more enthusiastic drivers. Luckily for all of us, that does sound more secure than opening a portal that large and wide open at both ends during the transit."
"Madre de Dios! Do you know what could be out there waiting between realities to get in with a free pass like that?"
"Fortunately I don't."
Seeing the young woman's eyebrows scrunch up in annoyance, Sam decided to clarify that last.
"We know that there are things, entities?, that can break the human mind on sight. If you end up staying here for your field work, you'll be briefed on what we've learned about such hazards..."
"MY mind's not that easily broken, linda."
"If you say so." She omitted 'Princess' from the line. "Next, how did you choose to come to this place?"
Sam raised a cooling mug of coffee - NOT that board-etching and de-scaling brew served down in the Devisor Tunnels - to drink. If the girl in front of her needed time to gather her thoughts and explain, she'd know she had it.
"When creating the star portal to here I demanded the universe take me to a parallel in which Loki..."
Hive had to interrupt several nerve impulses on Sam's behalf to avoid her choking on the coffee. At least the girl wasn't actively searching for Coyote or Sun Wukong or Raven or The Puck.
"... and the revolutionary energies he possesses are active... "
Even with all the cognitive augmentations granted by Hive's advanced nanotech, it was difficult to reconcile that name with that word. Revolutionary?
"... but are as far separated from each other as possible. Are you all right Ms. Everheart?"
"I'm fine! It's not necessary that you encounter Loki himself, is it?"
"Only if I'm the one punching ese culo."
"So, like I said earlier, that's how I come to be here for the internship that my advisor Prof. Douglas, arranged as part of the Intergalactic Revolutionaries curriculum."
"As headmistress of the school, the final decision would be up to Mrs. Carson. However, I can say that it would have been helpful if Security had been informed."
"That wouldn't be very revolutionary, now would it?"
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Before dawn, Wednesday, October 10th, 2007,
near Whateley Academy (kind of, technically)
Two hikers nearly stumbled over a deer, frozen stiff where it had fallen. In the world they were familiar with this, would have been somewhere between a vernal entity known as The Grove and Whateley Academy. Both locations posed their own risks, but Thomas 'Valravn' Jensen preferred this approach. Since he was leading the way– his partner's own skills at this type of travel being highly suspect– this was the inbound route they took.
"Any chance third time's the charm?" Mads 'Metro' Jensen asked.
"No. The manastorm seems to be centered on our destination. We're lucky to get this close, because expending essence at or in it just makes it worse. Pick up any radio chatter?"
"Some commercial transmissions, satnav. Nothing close. How bad do you think it is there?"
"That's not too bad with fur."
"... unless it's a visit from Ithaqua."
"And that's not funny."
"We'd lose our gear for sure."
"We could cache everything in a secure location."
"How do you expect to get in afterward, past locked doors, without opposable thumbs?"
"We could pray for help."
Thomas started looking up and around nervously as he backed away from the blasphemer.
"I don't want to be standing next to you when the lightning strikes."
"You're immune to electricity."
"No one's immune to that kind of divine retribution."
"Besides, usually the answer is just 'no'."
"A category which includes the 'Fuck you and the horse you rode in on: NO!' answers, typically accompanied by lightning, brimstone, and lots and lots of salt."
"We could check the library first, if there is one here. Would that would make you feel better?"
From what buildings remained, one could determine that something like the school had once existed before being ransacked and torched. An occasional doubled crunching underfoot suggested that snow wasn't the only thing left lying on the grounds they crossed.
Like the rest of the place, the library had been badly damaged by fire, smoke, and years of neglect, barely standing as a mute witness to an attack. The two young men took note of a failed barricade that had been brushed aside, but gave it enough berth to avoid molesting whatever remained behind and under the scorched cabinets. They explored deeper into the building. If things were sufficiently similar to what they were used to, and for all the owners' sins, the special collections were likely to have remained intact.
Morning, October 10th, 2007,
The Endless Graveyard Of The Astral Realm
The old bone-field quieted once the sorceress Grimes departed, taking with her her personal fabric of symbols. Fear of death yields in its turn to grief and resignation. Foreboding tendrils of fog froze into hoarfrost. Stars wheeled and the moon shrank to a reddish disk limned only on one edge. A human figure approached the corvid apparition by foot over pavement of cinder and ash; its plumage - black cloth over pale skin in lieu of feathers or fur - was broken only by a lavender cravate and a single calla lily tinted in shades of murder pinned to a lapel. A bird circled overhead. Whether it guarded the intruder or hoped to guard against it remained to be seen.
The newcomer stopped at a gravestone close by the Grimes stone perch. He leaned back against it, facing away from Raven. However long it had been since Harbinger and Attendant last met, the elder spirit could still bide his time. Graveyards have no shortage of stolen time.
"You'll no doubt be pleased to hear that your student returned safely."
"Is that disappointment I hear, or jealousy?"
"She's wearing her big girl panties."
A soft chuckle. "Fair enough."
"I prefer my protégés respect their own limits over barriers put in place or ignored by others."
The youth raised up a tumbler of amber fluid in a skeletal grip before saying, "Neither snow nor rain nor essence engine in the night..." taking a full swallow of the drink.
The spirit snapped its beak in laughter. "Going postal?"
The drink must have burned as much coming up as it had going down. The misfortunate spluttered, his eyes watering, "Have a little faith in me!" He scowled back at the treasonous brew. He tapped a bony finger against the glass, as if he were noticing something odd for the first time. The smaller raven landed on his shoulder, looked down at the glass, and then pecked the idiot on the side of his head.
"Ow! What did I do?"
It may have been a mistake to ask a loud bird perched next to one's ear such an open-ended question. Raven listened closely and was sorely tempted to give a translation. He did keep a few choice phrases in mind for the next poker night with the mutt.
"Mead was bought for gallows meat."
The youth stared long into the poisonous glass, pointedly avoiding the pair of black eyes to one side and the blue eyes to the other. His voice was rough as he said, "He, I, (We? Does it even matter?) never meant for those things to happen. Any of it."
"That is a matter better left to your own mentor."
"Spring 2008, then. What I see is people unknowingly drawing lots and not all the red in the air is dye. Afterward, the student population becomes less than it is now, and will have always been so."
Raven bobbed his head and ruffled the feathers over his shoulders as if he were shrugging, "The Enemy of Life has agents in or about that place. There are opposing forces, and there are forces that work to thwart those."
"Not counting the opportunists and scavengers."
"And if the designated heroes don't work out?"
"You do have an earned reputation for mayhem."
The young man raised his glass in a mock salute to the Raven before chugging the remainder of its contents. The smaller raven that had accompanied him took startled flight.
"Well then, let's not keep the hanged man waiting. Adieu, et bon matin."
'It would be poor form to watch the two leave', thought Raven. He instead watched the tumbler left behind by the magician. Remnant fumes began to etch the inside from bottom to top. The outside, where the grass had been held first cracked from the strain of condensing a fine dry ice, then flared incandescent momentarily. In moments, only vitreous rivulets remained on the headstone.
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Saturday, June 14, 2008,
Biffen Nordkraft movie theater, Aalborg
"What a difference a year makes." thought Kristian Holm. School was out again, at least it was for Whateley Academy. And once again, his parents had required him to bring his little sister along with him to see a movie when he'd hoped to spend time with friends. Most of his long-time friends from before he manifested were busy with finals or had other plans to take their minds off finals. It hurt to think that maybe they had only been Emilie's friends and that Kristian was no longer anything like her or them. Only a couple of jerks had been rude about the mutation, and they had been jerks before that. However, thanks to a quirk of genetics he knew that most of the rest who would speak to him were uncomfortable around him and didn't seem to know what to say. Ten months in the States had not been enough for him to pick up the casual way that North Americans would strike up a conversation with complete strangers. Even if it came off as 'fake' friendliness here (not that it wasn't usually just that), even a tenuous connection to others might be better than the disconnectedness he felt.
Mads Jensen (who Kristian knew from the academy), with his mother and his younger brother had come to visit today. Not that he didn't appreciate the gesture, he did, but it was also a sure sign that his parents had noticed his not-moping-at-all, given the time and expense of rail tickets from Sjælland. It was some comfort that Mads had had to bring his brother along to the movie as well, so the parents could compare notes or whatever parents did when they talked behind their progeny's backs.
"So... I'm not sure what they're showing tonight, but the Pussykat Club on Vesterbro sounds like fun."
"Bror, I don't think Kris wants to take his sister there. Aalborg Teater is close to the place; you could drop Frida and me off there."
I'm missing something here.
That doesn't sound bad. Something cultural based on Copeland?
Frida was being suspiciously too quietly amused, and the Pussykat Club sounded familiar for some reason. Hadn't Thomas said something about not letting Mads pick the club or the entertainment? Kris looked up the club first. Oh, no. What about the play? "Spring Awakening" was not exactly "Appalachian Spring" either.
"No. The only girls on film that we are going to watch are the kind who are paid to act."
"That IS acting. You did know that, right?"
If I don't ask, maybe I won't have to find out how he knows such things.
"Frida is too young. No. Forget I said that. WE are all too young."
"Did bror ever tell you about the Players Ball in Detroit?"
That does not sound good.
"How did you hear about that?"
No denial, whatsoever.
"The news. Explosions, improvised lethal weapons, general chaos and panic, and I've met some of the people you used to run with."
"Aaaand on that note, whatever that is or was, we are not having that conversation in front of my sister either!"
There were days when Kristian was thankful he didn't know much more about the hell-hole that had spawned Mads and Lars than he'd been briefed on. This might be one of them.
At the theater box office, Kristian was glad to see no interest in "The Happening". How could anyone have thought a movie about pollen-driven suicides was a good idea? Among the rest, including a war story and a spy flick, the new Spielberg film looked like the most child-friendly of the lot. Kristian made sure to have Frida sit next to him, just in case it got scary. Seating Mads on his other side, and Lars at Frida's, everything was suitably managed. If only it could stay managed. Just this once? Some time close to the library scene, Kristian realized that taking an action junky with limited self-preservation instincts and his devil-may-care little brother to see "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" - and sitting between them - might not have been the brightest idea an empath could have come up with.
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