With a sigh Hank once again sat down on his bed. Subdued he picked up the DVD cover and carefully returned Bride & Prejudice to it, before slowly closing the case and passing it to Lily, gratefully accepting her absent-minded hug in return. His arm around Lily's shoulders, Hank breathed in her pleasant floral scent as he leant back against the wall, smiling as he watched Lily fastidiously insert Bride & Prejudice into the stack of DVDs she had made, meticulously ordered in some scheme only she knew.
"Do you want to watch another?" Hank offered softly, watching her slowly flick through the DVDs.
Lily glanced at Hank, then with a shake of her head placed the stack of DVDs neatly into Hank's 'Hannah' box. Lily delicately picked up the two Barbie dolls, until then regally surveying the room from on top of Hank's pillows, and placed them reverently into the box as well. With a final pat for the dolls, Lily returned to the pillows, pausing before she gathered up the teddy bear laying there. Lily cuddled the toy in her arms, a frown of contemplating on her face as she mused, staring down at the teddy.
With a sly smile Lily leaned back, deliberately not returning the bear to the box, instead continuing to cuddle it to her heart as she snuggled into the welcoming arms of Hank. "I wouldn't mind talking to you some more," Lily suggested instead, peeking up at Hank, checking his response to her request.
Hank tried not to, but couldn't help it as his expression became slightly guarded. "What would you like to talk about?" he tried to ask as calmly as he could, determinedly trying not to shut Lily out again.
After a cautious glance, noting Hank's guarded expression, Lily realised he was not quite ready to share any more deep secrets tonight. In an attempt to keep it light she thought quickly, and smiled as she remembered something she had witnessed Team Kimba so often teasing Hank about. With her best wheedling tone, Lily pressed herself up against Hank, "Tell me about the noodle incident?" she breathed, delighting in his surprised response. "The Kimba's are always teasing you about it, but every time I ask the girls they just laugh themselves silly and say I need to ask you." Pressing herself even closer to Hank she stared up at him, widening her eyes, unleashing 'big sad puppy dog eyes' on him. Though nowhere near as devastating as those Jade wielded, Lily was delighted to see that her's worked where it mattered.
Bright red, Hank turned away, as secretly Lily smiled in joy at his reaction. To Lily's delight, Hank turned back to her with a resigned grin. "The Noodle Incident," he sighed, before, with a quick laugh, he settling down to begin the tale. "Pretty much all you've come to expect of Jade," he started with a smile. "Totally unexpected, and deeply embarrassing for the one she inflicted it on, in this case me."
Lily stared up at Hank in awe, touched and a little excited that he was going to share such an embarrassing story with her. Lily gave Hank a bright smile and shifted slightly, getting comfortable in his arms, turned so that she could give Hank her full attention.
"Of course it all started with Ayla," Hank continued, also shifting slightly to get comfortable. "We had all just been involved in our first real fights, and Ayla was starting to get serious about his holdouts. On this particular day he was telling us about his strategies for defeating a PK Shield …"
Neatly sliding his tray onto the table Ayla sat down, claiming Team Kimba's usual meal table in Crystal Hall. After a quick glance around, Ayla turned to Hank as he sat opposite him and continued the lecture he had been giving Hank all the way from the checkouts, "Sure you can just overpower a PK shield. Eventually with the right amount of concentrated force any PK shield breaches. Put enough tons of force over a vital organ, like the head, and anyone goes down. But there are more elegant options," he suggested.
"What? My head splattered over the countryside is too messy for you?" Hank commented wryly.
"Well that and overpower breaching methods are inherently dangerous," Ayla stated. "Not just to the intended target, but anyone else nearby as well. Even the instigator, if the opponent knows what they're doing." Ayla shrugged, "There's not much point having an anti-PK weapon if it's too dangerous to use. If my offence against a PK superman is, say, a Goodkind one-shot anti-tank RPG, even if I have the means of carrying it around, it's rather obvious when I pull it out and aim it. Any reasonably intelligent brick is going to either get so close to me the shock from the explosion will kill me too, or grab someone else and hold them close so I won't dare fire because I'll kill the hostage."
"So what weapons are you planning to use instead, Ayles?" Chaka asked sitting down beside Hank, across the table from Ayla. Jade and Jinn arrived too, both casually sitting down on the other side of Hank from Toni, Jade taking her dinner plate and cutlery off her tray before sliding the now-empty tray in front of Jinn and beginning to eat.
"Well, instead of just overpowering the shield," Ayla continued, now including both Chaka and the two Sinclair 'sisters' in the discussion, "I was planning on using other weaknesses to get through PK shields." Turning to Toni he nodded, "Like you have been discovering with Diz, all useful PK shields have to let beneficial things through."
"What, like food? You going to throw candies at them and poison them?" Chaka asked smiling delightedly at Ayla's very brief pause in confusion as he contemplated her suggestion.
"Well no," Ayla continued fastidiously. "True, in theory, poisoned food should work, but I don't think anybody is going to eat something I throw at them during a fight," Ayla pointed out reasonably to Toni. "I was thinking more immediately necessary things, like air, water, light and sound, those sorts of things," he continued turning back to Hank.
"And food!" Jade yelled to interrupt Ayla, who manfully ignored her.
"So what, poison gases?" Hank asked also ignoring the suggestions of Toni and Jade.
"And possibly liquid aerosols, lasers, things like that." Ayla agreed.
"And food!" Jade happily yelled again, throwing her arms up in the air and … Ayla blinked. Was that spaghetti? Dancing in the air above Jade? Looking down Ayla winced. Jade's plate was a wasteland of red sauce-like substance, almost just a reddish water. Weak, wobbly, over-boiled noodle imitation, and … no, Ayla refused to even contemplate identifying the 'meat' portion of what was on Jade's plate.
Eyes wide Ayla ducked then went light and sighed as the dancing spaghetti above Jade exploded and started raining down. Once the falling food had stopped, Ayla resumed normal weight and looked around, pleasantly surprised to see that the spaghetti rain had been confined to a narrow area of the table around where Jade was sitting.
Resolutely Ayla turned back to Hank. "So I was investigating tear gas, possibly an aerosol sleeping agent or knockout gas of some sort as well. I was also thinking of maybe some blinding / distracting weapons, such as flash bangs. The sonic and light portions should go through nearly any PK shield, unlike concussion grenades, where the pressure waves are almost certainly going to be blocked by most shields."
"And poisoned pasties!" interrupted Jade as soon as she heard Ayla pause to invite Hank's opinion, causing Ayla's face to go completely expressionless, almost a scream of psychic pain to his teammates who knew him so well.
Involuntarily Hank smiled, causing Toni to get into the act too, "Vomitus Vo-Vos," she cried.
"Sleeping Snickers!" Jade responded excitedly.
"Noodle noose!" exclaimed Toni, standing up, arm raised in salute.
Turning to give Toni a look of amazement, Hank repeated incredulously, "Noodle noose?"
"Yeah, like if I Ki charged a noodle and garrotted you!" Toni answered happily sitting back down again.
Pickling up a limp, overcooked specimen of spaghetti from the table between himself and Jade, Hank waved it at Toni. "You're going to garrotte me? With this?" he replied with extreme scepticism, shaking the spaghetti for emphasis. "You couldn't garrotte a suicidal chicken with this!" Hank mocked, "Let alone take out a PK superman!"
Derisively dropping his demonstration piece of spaghetti back to the table, Hank stared in shock when instead of falling down, it stayed wiggling in the air in front of him. Mouth opened in stunned disbelief, Hank's eyes bulged as wriggling joyfully the piece of spaghetti dove through the air and straight down his open mouth.
Desperately Hank's searching hand clasped a glass of water. Forcing himself upright Hank frantically tried to drink, but the water just poured back out of his mouth. Just arriving at the table Billie and Nikki rushed up, quickly sliding their trays onto the table as they ran to help Hank, Billie pounding on Hank's back in an attempt to dislodge the obstruction. Nikki frantically started reciting spell after spell, all the time trying to look down Hank's mouth and see what the problem was.
Hank thrashed and pushed himself away from the table, hands darting to his mouth, as weaving, stumbling, red-faced and panicking he tried to swallow, tried to cough, tried to breath!
Not getting any results from pounding Hank's back, Billie stepped behind Hank and wrapped her arms around his stomach. She quickly pulled up and back, hoping to force air out of Hank's lungs to expel the obstruction.
Turning redder, but otherwise unaffected by Billie's actions, Hank collapsed to his knees as Billie released him. Redder and redder, one hand desperately clawing at his throat, Hank fell forward, barely holding himself off the ground with his other arm. Billie and Nikki also fell to their knees beside him, still trying frantically to help, as now Ayla and Toni stood, starting to move towards their stricken friend.
With eyes bulging out, eyelids starting to flutter, still desperately trying to breath, Hank collapsed onto his side, hands clawing for his throat.
A great gulping breath.
Sprawled on his back, Hank breathed deep, panicked breaths, tears streaming from his eyes. Gasping, he stared up into the wide-open, frightened eyes of Nikki, mid spell cast, relief and amazement starting to appear in her expression.
"Wow, the insides of someone's lungs are just weird. And icky!" Jade innocently commented reaching for her milk and swallowing a mouthful.
"Jade!" practically the entire population of that side of Crystal Hall yelled at her in fury and disbelief.
Lily tried to contain her laughter, but it came out anyway. She'd tried to muffle the great guffaws, but an unwise glance at Hank, his expression half-embarrassed, half-rueful amusement, sent her over the top. Luckily, Hank chuckled along with her.
"Yeah, it is pretty funny, now," Hank said wryly, "and no, I'm still not sure if Jade knew what she was going to do when she started, or if it was all just one big off-the-cuff joke. All I know is she was unrepentant then, and she's still unrepentant now."
Lily finally stopped laughing, looked thoughtfully up at Hank through her smile. "Considering some of the things she's done since, it seems pretty innocuous," Lily said still with a grin, before pausing, turning her head to look thoughtfully out into the room. After a moment she turned back to Hank. "Effective though," she murmured. "Has Jade tried using it again?" Lily looked enquiringly up at Hank.
Hank shrugged and smiled down at the girl pressed up to his side. "Who knows the mind of Jade?" he asked ruefully. "It could all have been innocent pranking, forgotten by her almost before she finished, or it could have been a test run for her new supper weapon, one of a range of foods all carefully catalogued for future need."
Lily giggled at Hank's wry expression and bad pun. "Maybe she just flips a coin and lets fate decide," she suggested wickedly to Hank, who looked down at her amused. With a raised eyebrow Lily demanded Hank come clean.
"You do know that's how Jade decides if she's going to wear her Ultra-Violent or Pacifist armband each morning?" Hank smirked.
Lily smiled, leaning up to give Hank a playful kiss, "I was right there when she explained it to us all, you know," she reminded him with a smile, causing another flush of embarrassment to infuse Hank's face. "I did wonder though, if it was her insistence on alternating between her Ultra-Violent and Pacifist armbands that originally made Gunny and Sam so upset at her?" Lily asked curiously.
Hank snorted. "No, though it's from about that time. Remember Team Tactics Class?" he asked her suggestively.
Lily grimaced, "How could I forget?" she shuddered in remembrance. "The shoulder Angels?" Lily guessed.
Hank snorted, "Well, yes, but only partly; there were other things. Remember the nuclear launch scenario?" Hank gave Lily a questioning look.
Lilly groaned, "I remember only Team Kimba got a win on it, the rest of us got crushed like bugs," she moaned.
"Well eventually, but not on our first try," Hank said with a grimace. "The first time Caitlin stomped on us, hard. Missiles, gunfire, just overwhelming everything. We went down so fast we needed a team after action review just to work out what happened!" Looking down at Lily he exchanged a rueful smile with her. "Ayla got pissed - at our woeful performance, not the defeat. He talked Sam into running the sim again for us a week later, then he, Jade and Bunny dreamt up 'Radioactive Condor Girl'." Hank grinned in remembrance, "Let's just say Sam really didn't like the surprise Shroud and Jade sneaked into our return sim match."
Even though it was only just five am, Jade was outside Bunny's door bouncing excitedly.
Bunny opened the door and scowled down at Jade. "Double-oh one there sent my sniffer into hysterics," she growled repressively at the over-excited girl.
"I was only checking to see if you were awake," Jade replied petulantly. Then in a confused voice she asked, "Double-oh one?"
"I'm assuming it was 'Jamie Anne, Super Spy. 001 On Her Majesties Secret Service, Licensed to Annoy' who crawled under my door at five ah em?" Bunny drawled, emphasising the time unhappily.
"You're awake and do you have it? Do you? Is it ready?" Jade started bouncing excitedly again, unleashing her deadly puppy dog eyes on the scowling older girl.
"She's still asleep and you are not waking her up," Bunny replied firmly. She once again failed to fend off Jade's most deadly weapon, but was determined to hold onto some semblance of her righteous indignation anyway.
"It's OK, Ayla wants it kept secret anyway," Jade said, dismissed Bunny's concern. "Can we take it to Nikki's room? Ayla asked her to find somewhere we can test it." Bouncing excitedly Jade grabbed Bunny's arm, attempting to lead the older girl back into her room.
Bunny refused to budge. "It's still five AM!"
"You're awake, and it's Nikki's room, and we get to test it!" Jade pleaded, obviously readying her greatest weapon again.
Bunny sighed, handing Jade the backpack she'd stepped out of her room with. Turning back to the door Bunny carefully reopened it. Reaching through, Bunny silently retrieved another backup and closed the door quietly. This backpack was not quite zipped up, and Jade could see it was full of electronics. Standing straight, Bunny shouldered the backpack, then turning she gestured with her head to Jade, and followed the dancing girl along the hall to Nikki's room.
On entering her girlfriend's room, Bunny wasn't surprised to see that in addition to Nikki and her roommate Chaka, Jade's roommate Billie as well as Ayla were there too. Looking up as Jade and Bunny entered, Ayla was all business. "Is it ready? The extra safeties are installed? It's all been tested?" Ayla double-checked with Bunny.
"It's ready," Bunny confirmed. "We have a thirty minute supply of oxygen, and I modified your old mask for Jade, since you now have that new one."
Ayla nodded and turned to Nikki, "And we have somewhere we can test it?"
"We'll use the Grove." Nikki replied. "Even security can't get in there, so they can't monitor what we're doing. As long as Billie and Jade don't go too high, there shouldn't be any problems." Ayla looked a little unsure about the use of the Grove, but trusted Nikki to see to their safety.
Crouching down beside Bunny, Jade cast Jinn into the backpack she'd been given. Seeing the contents rise in the air, Bunny started explaining what everything was.
"OK, first we have the suit. I modelled it on a wing suit, but modified so it gives the 'condor' profile you wanted," Bunny explained as Jinn helpfully displayed the suit to them.
"What's with the funny shaped pole?" Jade inquired frowning down at a metal tube rotating in the air.
"Well, that's to give you the 'neck' of your condor. We're hiding you in the 'wings' and the body. It also gives us a little extra length for the antennas." Helpfully, Jinn moved the pole to the proper position on the suit.
"Where's the battery for the radio? I can only find a tiny one in Ayla's headpiece; surely that's not enough?" Jade asked Bunny confused.
"We're not using batteries for the radio signals," Bunny explained, getting a shocked look from Jade. "We don't need a 'clean' signal for this, in fact the dirtier the signal the better because a dirty signal will jam more frequencies for us. What I did was carefully calculate the size of the antenna built into the suit, then I made you a hand cranked generator with multiple carefully designed coils in it, one to produce each frequency we're going to jam. When Jann cranks the generator as fast as she can, the different coils spinning inside the generator's magnetic field will produce currents with multiple different oscillating frequencies, a different one for each coil, each designed to drown out a specific satellite channel. I then just routed that raw current into the specially designed antennas, and you get 'white noise' at the required frequencies for as long as Jann keeps cranking the generator, no batteries or special circuitry required." Bunny smiled at Jade who stared up at her with an amazed 'O' of understanding, before laughing in delight Jade reached up and hugged the blond bombshell tightly in her little girl arms.
Smiling down at the happy Jade, Bunny turned to Ayla, "Even better there is nothing 'special' to tip off security or the sim technicians. It's just a wing suit with metal sewn into it, almost like decoration. The generator is also nothing special; you can find similar things in all sorts of 'survival' equipment, like those windup radios or lamps people get in hurricane- and tornado-prone areas. Even better, you could get the suit entered into the sim for Generator, and the wind-up generator entered in for Shroud, and no one would be the wiser until you combine them in the sim."
Ayla took a moment to consider, "Will a hand-cranked generator give us enough power to jam the signal from one mile up? That's how high up Jade needs to be flying to be effectively out of sniper range for anyone on the ground with a gun."
"Easily," Bunny assured him. "We don't have to overpower the ground based system, we just need to be generating a signal that is louder than the satellite, so the ground station can't 'hear' the satellite anymore." Bunny smiled happily. "The satellite is in orbit, getting its signal power from solar panels, solar panels that also have to power the whole satellite. The signal from a satellite isn't actually that loud; the smarts are all in the ground based receivers with their parabolic directional antennas, signal filtering and boosting circuits." Bunny smiled. "Jade will only be a mile up, the satellite is in orbit. Radio signals degrade inversely squared to the distance from the source. Since Jade is going to be a lot closer to the ground station than the satellite, she doesn't have to be that 'loud' at all in order to drown out its signal at the ground station." By now Bunny was bouncing with an ear to ear grin, her trademark pig-tails flapping around almost as excitedly as Jade.
"What about nuclear powered satellites? Can we beat them?" Billie asked curiously.
"They don't use nuclear powered satellites in orbit," Ayla explained to Billie. "Orbiting satellites have to come back down to earth after they've exceeded their design life, and not even Australia's gonna be happy at a nuclear satellite breaking up and crashing into their backyard. Besides, all the commercial satellites are solar powered; a nuclear one would stick out like a sore thumb and be easy for enemies to track, because it's different. You want your spy satellites to be stealthy, not orbiting around screaming 'I'm something unusual, track me!'"
Turning to Bunny again Ayla asked, "Why are we sending Jade up in a wing suit? Why not just have a proper condor model being controlled by Jinn?"
"Two reasons. First you needed it fast and I didn't have the feathers to make a proper condor model. Second this is a really quick-and-dirty jerry-rigged suit. There is nothing dangerous about it, but we need to hand crank a generator, micro-manage the aiming of the suits antennas, dodge any missiles or bullets coming at them, all while maintaining air position, monitoring the satellite's signal, and flying at the same time. Jade and I thought it would be too much for one person to do." Bunny shrugged, "With Jade in the suit she can be as many people as she needs to be in order to pull it off."
Ayla still looked concerned, but had to concede that Jade knew her limitations best. If she had decided she was needed, then that was that. "What do we need to test today?" he asked Bunny.
"Well, not test, more practice," Bunny said, bending down to open the second backpack. "I designed the wings so that Jinn can lock them, and then make minute movements to 'focus' the signal." Pulling an item out of the backpack she held it out for Ayla to see. "This is a receiver and a meter so we can monitor the signal from the suit. We'll set this up and get Jinn to practice taking Jade a mile up and focusing her signal onto it. Then I want to see how 'off-beam' we can be to the receiver and still drown out the satellite. If we can get this to work sufficiently 'off beam,' Billie can take Jade a mile up at the start of the sim and she can jam the signal from there, that would be a major tactical advantage for you."
"Sounds good," Ayla agreed, satisfied with the answer and the suit. Turning to Nikki he enquired, "Are we ready to go?"
With Nikki's nod, they all trooped out, Jade carrying her backpack and skipping along in front of everyone. As soon as they were outside and unlikely to disturb anyone, Jade started singing the theme song from the "Condorman" movie.
Jade had been looking forward to this sim ever since Bunny delivered her suit. Once Billie dropped her off one mile up, Jade spread her arms and legs wide like they had practiced, and Jann locked her limbs so that she wouldn't involuntary twitch and spoil the signal.
While Jinn started winding the generator, Jann concentrated on focusing the parabolic antennas to keep them aligned on the base's satellite dish and Jade monitored the satellite's transmission as it scrolled across the display Bunny had built into Ayla's old headpiece. Bunny had explained that they didn't need to crack the encryption on the satellites communications; once the satellite lost its earth-link signal it would start trying to handshake again, a repeating signal across multiple bands that should be easy to identify … there! Over and over the satellite was transmitting the same signal sequentially on each of the control channels Ayla had told them the satellite would use, it had lost command control!
<Generator: Satellite uplink is down. Satellite uplink is down! Go Go Go!> Happily carolling the news, Jade smiled down at Team Kimba far below her.
Just as the final targeting information was about to be loaded into the missiles, the computers lost contact with the satellite, losing access to its tracking data. Instead of loading tracking and targeting data from the satellites, the base computers were instead forced to switch the missiles to use onboard IR targeting and their inbuilt control circuits. Missile circuits and sensors designed to look for thousands of degrees hot jet engine exhausts, were instead now tasked to find mere body temperature 'hot' flying children. Predictably, it didn't go well.
Billie heard "… Go Go Go!" and quickly fired plasma bolts across the noses of all the incoming missiles targeting her and her friends. The plasma blast across the noses of the missiles was relatively hot, much more like the jet engines the missile sensors were designed to find than any of Team Kimba were. Veering off to follow the plasma blasts, the missiles completely ignored the Team Kimba members continuing on through the now useless missile barrage, onwards towards the base the missiles had been fired from.
Billie grabbed Ayla and threw him directly at the ground station, aiming for the communications sheds visible thanks to the large radio antennas sticking up out of the hill the base was dug into. Billie's throw had Ayla travelling at more than one hundred miles an hour, Ayla streaked across the sky, going light to increase his speed, allowing him to cross the distance to the base in mere seconds.
While Billie had been concentrating on aiming and throwing Ayla, Fey conjured her spherical force field around the remaining Team Kimba members. Inside Fey's Magical Bubble Ride, Billy dragged the remaining Kimbas to the base to begin their own assault.
Sam watched in frustration as the missiles uselessly exploded nowhere near Team Kimba. Turning to face the technician she demanded, "What happened to the missiles?!"
"Satellite uplink went down, and they fell back to onboard IR guidance," the desperately busy tech answered in disbelief as he attempted to regain communications with the satellite.
"Well, what happened to my satellite?" Sam demanded.
"Interference. If it wasn't impossible, I'd say from the bird," he replied, reaching forward to flick switches and wiggle dials without apparent effect.
"Then shoot down the bird," Sam snapped, turning back to her screens and urging another subordinate to action.
"It's out of range of guns," he replied immediately. "With the satellite uplink down, we can't target the missiles for biologicals. The on-board electronics of the SAM missiles aren't capable of it."
"Then take out the lock!" Sam instructed, turning to glare at him.
"It's not a lock, it's a hardware limitation!" he snapped back. "The IR sensors are designed to see very hot aircraft exhausts. They can't differentiate 98 degrees fahrenheit body heat from ambient air temperature, it's the satellites that do that. And that 'bird' is flying too high to be shot with a gun!"
With a growl Sam turned back to the original tech. "Well, block the birds signal! Get me my satellites and my missiles!" she ordered.
"It's not a signal, it's just white noise in the right frequency bands. It's just yelling so loudly into our antennas we can't hear the signal from the satellite anymore. Anything we do to block the yelling is going to block the signal from the satellite too!" the tech complained.
"Swap frequencies then!" Sam snapped sharply, clenched fists white in suppressed rage.
"We can't!" The tech growled. "It requires two-way communication to do that, and we don't have it! There's jamming on all our frequencies; we can't hear when the satellite is trying to talk to us, so we can respond to it. The bird is yelling on all our control frequencies at once!"
Just then the outside video feeds turned to static. Turning quickly, search the surviving feeds, Sam growled as she saw Phase briefly come out of the end of the communications shed, before turning around and walking back in, obviously using his phasing ability to destroy all the sensitive electronics racked inside. With the flick of a switch, Sam bought up the inside camera and swore as it briefly showed sparks exploding from racked electronics, before that camera too snowed out.
Sam scowled; even without the bird jamming the signal, it was too late now. Phase had destroyed her communications array and she no longer had the ability to communicate with the satellite. Without the satellite she lost most of her abilities to target small 'biological' fliers and, more importantly, the ability to command the nuclear strike!
Icy calm, and very deliberately, Sam sat back down and concentrated fiercely on the displays, watching as Team Kimba systematically dismantled her base. All the base's automatic weapons used combustion engine heat seeking IR, or large object radar. It was the satellite communications to the shells and missiles that allowed alternative targeting, allowed single 'human' sized and 'hot' objects to be found and engaged. Without the satellites, the missiles and automatic defences were effectively useless.
Sam glared at the displays as she watched Team Kimba, already resigned to the defeat. Without the satellite uplink she couldn't launch a nuclear strike anyway. She couldn't fulfil the 'win' conditions of the scenario. Team Kimba had beaten her "unwinnable" scenario with a single high tech trick. Absently, she wondered how they had managed to smuggled a radio jammer past the techs and into her sim without her knowing. A small part of her started itemising everything in Team Kimba's equipment list, paying particular attention to anything that had been added since the last time they faced this simulation.
Impotently, Sam stared up at one of the few displays left to her, showing the upwardly pointed external camera as it focused on the slowly circling 'bird' getting closer and closer. Finally seeing it for what it was, Sam swore. Generator in a bird suit, just the silhouette of a condor to fool them from a distance. Swearing violently, she growled, "that is so banned!"
"You got a radio jammer into a sim match!" Lily goggled at Hank.
Hank nodded, a large grin covering his face. "Why do you think Gunny and Sam go ballistic every time Jade suggests 'Radioactive' this or 'Condor Girl' that?" he asked with a chuckle. "Radio communications are the Achilles heel of most smart munitions when used against mutants. There just aren't sensors capable enough to pick out small, humanoid shaped and heated bodies moving at high speeds that can also be fitted into missiles. All of them rely of some sort of radio communications to pass targeting information to the missiles during flight." Hank sighed, "Sam and Gunny make sure to nix anything that even looks like it can be a jammer from our gear. They don't want any more 'I win' buttons spoiling their expensive lessons." Hank grimaced, "I suppose they have a point; just because nothing at the moment can get us, doesn't mean something won't be available by the time we graduate. Ayla's already let on that Goodkind Defence Industries has something in development."
Lily grimaced in sympathy, absently looking at her watch and sighing. Looking over her shoulder at the watch Hank sighed too, reflexively hugging Lily to him, leaning down to kiss her. "You have to go?" he asked despondently.
"Yes," Lily replied simply, standing and turning to kiss him again. "You know Mrs. Horton; she'll be in soon to chase me out and up to my room," Lily stated after she broke the kiss, smiling as Hank stood to pull her close, hugging her tight and just standing there tearfully, silently contemplating the empty bed across the room.
"Thank you," he said simply, trying to express all his gratitude for her being there for him over the last few days, and especially for her being there this night, keeping him company, distracting him, however briefly, from the reality of the empty bed, the reoccurring remembrance that Jamie was no longer here, that he had been murdered.
"Will you be all right tonight? Here? By yourself?" Lily asked concerned. She too sneaked a look towards the empty side of the room, tears coming to her eyes.
Smiling bravely Hank nodded. "I'll be OK. I'll have to face it eventually, and what better time than now? After you've so ably fortified me?"
Scowling Lily frowned at Hank, who just smiled at her, an almost normal smile, and hugged her. "I'll be fine," he promised, walking her to the door, stealing one last lingering kiss from her before gently guiding her out. He watched as she made her way down the corridor and up the stairs, pausing silently to look back and study him at the stairs. With a silent wave and a sigh, she took the stairs, disappearing up them on the way to her room one floor above.
Closing the door, Hank leaned against it, eyes closed, breathing heavily, attempting to prepare himself before, with a deep breath, he turned, eyes averted from the empty side of the room, and made his way back to his own bed.
Leaning down, Hank gathered up his 'Hannah' box, cradling it protectively to his chest. Hank carried it slowly to his wardrobe, returning it reverently to the top shelf. Slowly Hank shucked off his clothes, folding them neatly on his chair, climbed into his pajamas, turned off the light, and crossed quickly back to his bed.
Hank stared down at the teddy bear, carefully placed on his pillow where Lily had left it, almost defiantly, for him to find. Touched at her gesture, Hank smiled forlornly down at the teddy bear before finally he reached down, picked up the bear and cradling it to his chest crawled into his bed, smiling as he thought of Lily.
Eyes closed, Hank lay on his bed in the dark, the bear hugged tight to his chest, as he listened to the almost silent room, nothing to hear except the noises he himself was making. Finally Hank could take it no more and called out to the silent room, a catch in his voice, "Goodnight Jamie," Hank sniffed back tears before finishing with a whispered, "and goodbye."
Tears flowing freely Hank convulsively clutch Teddy tight, turned over to face the wall and buried himself in his blankets. Slow at first, but with increasing regularity, the shakes came as Hank tried desperately to muffle the sounds of his sobs with a pillow.
After a night with far less sleep then he would have liked, Hank stumbled to the bathroom and worked his way through the morning shower-and-shave ritual almost like a zombie. A small cut to his chin that bled profusely for a few minutes did far more to wake him then a slightly cold shower had been able to.
With a sigh, Hank went back to his room to dress, cursing himself for the tears that spilled as soon as he saw Jamie's empty bed. Roughly wiping the back of his hand across his cheeks, Hank quickly dressed in whatever clothes came to hand the fastest and hurriedly snatched open the door to leave, only to walk right into the arms of Lily awaiting him in the hall, arms already outstretched to embraced him.
After a single look at his face Lily pushed Hank back into his room, pulling the door closed behind them. "Let it out Hank, don't bottle it up!" she scolded him, stepping close again and continuing her hug.
"I miss him!" Hank almost bawled into her shoulder while Lily held him tight, "I want him to be here."
"And there's nothing wrong with that," Lily murmured, waiting as once again her boyfriend cried himself out. "Feeling better?" she asked him when he finished.
"No," Hank truthfully replied.
"Remember what Dr. Markham said? It's going to take time - lots and lots of time. All we can ask is that today is better than yesterday. Is today better than yesterday?" Lily asked Hank.
"Yes. They have Jamie's killer and Kayda is free." Hank growled, to Lily's frown. Deciding that was as close to his true feelings as Hank was going to reveal, Lily took a tissue from her purse and wiped the tears from Hank's cheeks, absently kissing him when she finished.
"Come on, let's get some breakfast," she said with a smile. "Don't forget to get passes excusing us from class so we can see Dr. Markham; you know she wants to see us after breakfast again."
With a nod, Hank opened the door and stood aside in a proper gentlemanly fashion to let Lily out first. Once in the hall, Lily squirmed under his arm, and with her arm around his waist hugging him tightly they set off down the corridor. Thoughtfully Hank looked down at Lily as they walked along. He couldn't help but wonder what would he be like now if she wasn't here for him? Would he even be here? Hank shuddered as he remembered the aborted sim match and what he had done to Accelerator. Giving Lily a tight squeeze, Hank determined he was going to do something special to make sure he let Lily know how much he appreciated her being here for him.
Hank was deep in thought, absently playing with the food on his plate, when Lily turned, saw him and sharply scolded him to eat properly. Hank smiled; from the deeply concerned look in her eyes as she scolded him, it was obvious how much she cared. Spearing an entire sausage from his plate, Hank shoved it into his mouth whole, chewing on it open-mouthed with a twinkle in his eye as he challenged her to comment.
Almost laughing out loud, Hank watched Lily's internal struggle between her concern he wasn't eating properly and her iron belief in proper manners. Watching her finally smile in genuine relief at his playing with her, Hank couldn't help it, he just reached out and hugged her to him, finding himself breaking down and crying. What had he done to deserve her?
Looking up at the crying boy desperately clutching her, Lily sighed and hugged him back, waiting for the tears to stop while the rest of Team Kimba looked on in sympathy, hurriedly looking away as Hank dried his eyes so he wouldn't be embarrassed that they'd seen him break down in public. "We need to go see Dr. Markham now," was all Lily murmured when Hank had pulled himself back together.
With a silent nod, Hank reached across and gathered Lily's tray as well as his own. As he stood, he was stopped by Ayla, "When will you be finished this morning?" Ayla gently enquired.
Hank shrugged, "Dr. Markham said as long as it takes. She set aside two hours this morning for us."
"We'll be there after second period," Ayla promised, to firm nods of acknowledgement from the rest of the table. Hank contemplated Ayla's stern expression, then eyes sweeping the table, he took in the sympathetic gazes from the rest of those seated there. His eyes lingered on Nikki's concerned, expressive ones for a long silent moment, before he turning back to Ayla. Hank gave a small, sharp nod to Ayla, before, tears in his eyes, Hank abruptly stood, turned from the table and juggling the two trays all but ran for the escalators.
Catching Hank as he returned their trays, angrily wiping tears away with the back of his hand, Lily once again placed her arm around his waist, hugging herself to him. With an unhappy smile to Lily, mindful of the concern of his Team Kimba teammates, Hank sighed and realised it wasn't just Lily he needed to apologise to. Thinking of Nikki's sorrowing, expressive eyes he remembered the change rooms, and the same sorrowing eyes as Nikki had come to help him and he'd rejected her. On the way to Doyle Hank resolved as soon as possible to apologise to Nikki, and Ayla, for that scene. And Foobs and Gunny. And Accelerator. Hank sighed, there was so many people he needed to apologise to for his actions.
At his sigh, Lily tightened her hug, looking up to him in concern. Hank turned to Lily and smiled. There were so many he needed to apologise to, but first things first. He needed to find some way to properly show Lily how much he appreciated her.
As he exited Dr. Markham's room, Hank gratefully accepted the hugs of his teammates, with Jade and Nikki in particular taking the time for long silent hugs of comfort. Smiling around at his friends, Hank was quite surprised when Dr. Markham spoke from behind him, "Excellent, you're all here. The grounds staff has something they need Hank's help with, and you can all help support Hank as he does it. Come along." Quickly she strode down the hall, with Team Kimba, Hank and Lily following close behind, bewildered.
"Excuse me Dr. Markham, but where are we going?" Ayla asked politely.
"The greenhouse, Ms. Goodkind. I'm aware you have classes, but this is important for Hank and he'll need your support." Refusing to say any more, she led them out of the building and across the grounds, until they came to a greenhouse where a middle-aged oriental man awaited them. "This is Mr. Miyamoto," Dr. Markham introduced him. "He's the school's landscape artist. Mr. Miyamoto, this is the notorious Team Kimba, with Hank Declan," she finished, gesturing to Hank.
Mr. Miyamoto gave them all a friendly smile, and then turned to Hank with a look of sympathy. "Please, come inside," he invited, holding open the door to the greenhouse for them.
It was a medium sized greenhouse, and a glance around the interior revealed that it was obviously dedicated to roses, with rows of rosebushes in pots on tables extending the full length of the greenhouse. With a gesture Mr. Miyamoto invited Hank over to a table at the front of the greenhouse where he explained, "As you know, we have a rose garden of remembrance for those we've lost at this school." Mr. Miyamoto looked to Hank with sympathy, "To remember Jamie, we'd like your help selecting a special rosebush to plant."
"What about Ms. Guzman?" Hank interrupted, stunned and puzzled.
"She specially instructed us to consult you," Mr. Miyomoto explained, once more waving Hank to the table. "Not all the bushes are in flower at the moment, so I have a selection of flowers here for you to choose from," he finished.
Numbly Hank approached the table, looking down at the roses, cut, lying there, dead. Like Jamie, cut down and lifeless. Flinching away, arms wrapped tight around himself, Hank turned pleading eyes to Mr. Miyamoto. "Can... can I chose from the rosebushes instead?" Hank stumbled out his request.
With sympathy for the distressed boy, Mr. Miyomoto just waved him further into the greenhouse, watching in concern as Hank ran from the table, not slowing or looking at the rosebushes until he was at least half way down the greenhouse. Glancing to Dr. Markham, Mr. Miyamoto waited for her silent signal before following after Hank, with the rest of the teens at his heels led by Lily, her eyes focused on Hank.
Not knowing why, Hank wandered further into the greenhouse, through the line of rosebushes being cultivated there to a corner where Jamie's smiling face leaned down to tenderly smell the flowers of a particular bush. A bush covered in multi-coloured roses, ranging from nearly all white with a sprinkling of red spots to almost all red, with small white patches, including everything in between. Big, bold, aggressive flowers, with a scent that couldn't be ignored. Smiling down at the bush, Hank knew he had found his friend's memorial. He turned and indicated the bush to Mr. Miyamoto.
Behind him, Team Kimba looked down on the rosebush with smiles, commenting on how much like Jamie it was. Once more, Lily wedged herself under Hank's arm, hugging him close.
One of the team, though, did not approach - Nikki. With tears in her eyes, Nikki held back, her arms wrapped around herself as she gazed around at the rosebushes in tears. Slowly Mr. Miyamoto approached the girl. Quietly he murmured, "You are missing your Spirit?" Nikki looked up at the kindly man, and after hesitating for a second, just nodded, tears streaming down her cheeks. Mr. Miyamoto studied her for a moment, then waved to the roses arrayed around them, "All these are grown for just one purpose - to mourn those we've loved that are now gone to us. Sitting in a greenhouse, their purpose is unfulfilled; only planted in a rose garden can they achieve what they were grown to do. Please, help one of them fulfil its purpose?" Mr. Miyamoto entreated the crying girl.
Staring up at the kindly man in shock, Nikki instinctively rushed up and grabbed him, her face begging that his offer was real. With a resolute nod, Mr. Miyamoto again gestured to the roses, and face glowing with gratitude, Nikki quickly embraced him, before she turned and strode off among the roses with purpose. Nikki wandered the aisles slowly, reaching out to caress a flower here, bending to smell another there. Slowly she moved along, a peculiar expression on her face, both grief and concentration. Sadness and determination.
Seeing Nikki wandering the isles, Hank glanced to Mr. Miyamoto and saw the pleased expression there. Quickly deducing what it was Nikki was doing, Hank saw a chance. Glancing around his eye was immediately caught by a perfect red rose, standing tall by itself, high above the other roses here. He knew immediately which rosebush Nikki would choose, and with a thankful smile down at Lily, he gestured for her and his other friends to wait for him.
Hank made his way slowly to the rosebush, timing it so that Nikki would have some time to contemplate the rose and make her decision before he arrived.
"I'm sorry." Startled, Nikki turned from the rose that seemed so like Aunghadhail, so tall and alone, so red and vibrant, seemingly perfect, raised up high on its pedestal. An unachievable, uncrossable remoteness to it, but still desired. Looking up, Nikki frowned at Hank in puzzlement. "I'm sorry for your loss," Hank continued, "and I'm sorry for the way I've been treating you," Hank offered his apologies urgently, deep agitation on his face. "Especially when you came to help me in … after I went … in the change rooms, after …"
With a smile for the stumbling Hank, Nikki simply stepped forward and hugged him tight. A tension she hadn't even been aware she'd been under released as she sighed, truly feeling comfort from hugging her friend again, an experience she hadn't been aware she had been missing until it was returned to her. For the first time in days, Nikki unashamedly cried into her friends shoulder, drinking in his strong presence and companionship. Eventually, in tandem, they both shifted their embrace, automatically turning to look down on the rose before them - two friends holding each other in comfort as they stared down at the perfect, delicate red flower remembering together. Grieving.
With a slight smile, Hank watched as Jade and Bunny both pressed themselves tight up against Nikki's side, reaching out to caress her back and shoulders frequently as they had all through lunch. Nikki had not eaten much; she'd come back from the greenhouses with a single, long-stemmed red rose Jade had retrieved for her from the display Mr. Miyomoto had prepare for Hank. Nikki had stared at the delicate flower all through lunch, occasionally leaning on Bunny's shoulder to cry.
Turning, Hank smirked as Lily fastidiously finished eating, wiped her mouth on a napkin, and properly returned her cutlery to her plate just so to show that she was finished. With a smile, he took her plate and stacked it with his. Grabbing the two trays, he stood just as Ayla gathered his tray and did the same. Companionably, side-by-side, Hank walked with Ayla towards the tray return, where with a small nod, Ayla excused himself and walked towards the kitchen door, intent on talking to one of the Chefs waiting for him there. Ayla even nodded a wary greeting to Tee-Kay, Nitro, Truck, and the Furies as he passed them.
Staring after TNT and the Furies as they left the hall, each arm-in-arm with their significant other, Hank frowned, and then suddenly smiled. With a glance back to Ayla talking to his friends from the kitchen, Hank nodded firmly, and turned to Lily, put an arm around her and escorted her from Crystal Hall. He knew exactly what it was he could do to show Lily his appreciation, and whom to ask to help him arrange it.
Nervously, Hank waited outside Ayla's door holding the box with Ayla's projector cradled in his arms. Vamp had left with X-O already, and Ayla normally made his way back to his room about now to allow plenty of time to get ready for dinner. When Hank saw Ayla coming down the corridor he straightened, wiped his sweaty hands on his pants, and with a nervous swallow stood straight and gave the approaching Ayla an attempted smile.
"Hank, how are you?" Ayla asked quietly, stepping close to keep their conversation personal and private.
Looking Ayla in the eyes, Hank took a deep breath, "I'm sorry for the way I yelled at you, and how I treated you," Hank blurted out softly, unable to stop himself looking down at the floor as he apologised and held out the box.
Ayla sighed. "Hank?" he spoke firmly, waiting for Hank to once more meet his eyes as he took the box. "You don't need to apologised to me, to us! We're your friends. We understand what you're feeling, and we want to help…"
"Just because you're my friends doesn't mean I can get away with treating you like that," Hank interrupted forcibly. With another deep breath he repeated, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry that I yelled at you. I'm sorry that I made you spend all that money on Trin and Macintyre, and I'm sorry that the only time I've come near you lately is when I've wanted something from you, even now," Hank half whispered, his gaze again falling to the floor in embarrassment.
Ayla smiled at Hank, stepping past him to open the door to his room. "Do you want to come in?" Ayla offered, gesturing into his room.
Nodding thankfully, Hank hurried inside. Ayla calmly followed him in, shutting the door behind them. Putting the box on his desk, Ayla sat down on his bed and gestured to his desk chair, which Hank gratefully sank into. "Hank, we're your friends. We know you're hurting. We just want to help. Please, just tell me how?"
Cheeks flushed red, Hank looked up, "Lily. Lily's been very nice to me, helping me, a, a lot," Hank blurted out.
Ayla gave a wry smile, teasing Hank slightly he commented, "I'd say much more than just 'a lot'."
Gratefully, Hank smiled up at Ayla and nodded his agreement. "I'd ... I'd really like to say thank you. To do something special for her. To let her know how much I really appreciate it. How much I appreciate her." Earnestly Hank looked up at Ayla to see if he understood.
"And you'd like me to help organise something?" Ayla guessed. "What would you like? A trip to Berlin? Boston?" Reaching for his b-phone Ayla looked up at Hank enthusiastically, "Limo to the Airport, private jet and a suite at the Seaport Hotel for the weekend?" he suggested, already starting to search.
Hank gawked wide-eyed as Ayla's offers flowed out, and finally he found the voice to cry out desperately, "No!" Puzzled, Ayla look up at Hank who took a deep breath. "I. I was just hoping for a special meal, in one of the rooms, like you have organised for others?" Hank looked hopefully towards Ayla. "Just me, Lily and some food from the cafeteria. Some time for me to thank her privately," Hank explained shakily. "I didn't mean for you spend more money on me, especially not after I made you waste so much already!"
"Hank," Ayla said calmly. "The money for Trin and Macintyre was not a waste! In fact, it gave them an important head start in trying to track down Speakeasy."
"You still having them searching?" Hank asked amazed.
Ayla nodded. "And I'm not the only one. Trin and Macintyre informed me that Ms. Guzman had approached them too…"
"I may have told her you had them looking into Jamie's murder," Hank apologised.
"I assumed so," Ayla confirmed. "In fact, I authorised Trin and Macintyre to share everything with her and to take their lead from her if she wishes to retain their services on this issue." Hank stared at Ayla in surprise. "I'm confined to this school, Hank," Ayla explained patiently. "Ms. Guzman is not. Further, as you so eloquently put it, we have no idea how to run a murder investigation, nor how to lead a manhunt. Ms. Guzman has access to all the resources I do, plus many more from all her contacts in political and power circles, circles she has been active in for a considerable time, and that I have yet to start participating in. Finally," Ayla said sombrely, "Ms. Guzman has a personal drive to follow this to the finish. She won't ever stop looking, no matter the cost, no matter how long, no matter what hole Speakeasy finds to crawl into and try to hide."
A pained expression on his face, Hank nodded his understanding. Both of them remembering the fleeting loss of control Ms. Guzman had shown during Kayda's hearing, when the photo of the mutilated corpse of Jamie had been flashed on the screen for all to see. The depth of feeling that loss of control had revealed about Ms. Guzman, and consequently how she had viewed Jamie, made it all too easy to understand why Ayla was doing this.
After watching Hank sombrely for a while, Ayla tried to return the conversation to its original topic. "You'd like me to organise the chefs to make you a special meal?" he asked Hank carefully.
With a small smile of thanks Hank looked up at Ayla. "Please. Nothing too fancy. Just a meal for me and Lily to enjoy in private," Hank clarified. "Just stuff from the normal school buffet will be fine, I. I just want to eat it in a private room with her is all. Just the two of us."
Ayla sat there and considered Hank's request, a slight scowl appearing. Hank had never shown much interest in haute cuisine, in fact, as often as not, Hank had actively disliked the taste when Ayla had shared it with him. Thinking back, Ayla couldn't remember a time Lily had tried out some delicacy prepared for him by the chefs, but it would be difficult to see how a meal Hank disliked could lead to a successful night, no matter how much Lily might or might not like it.
"Perhaps I could get Jana to prepare something a little better quality?" Ayla suggested. "Still the same food, but done with all the skill and care and personal attention of a great chef? You do want it special right?"
Carefully studying Ayla, Hank nodded slowly, "Just the normal stuff though," he conceded.
"Just the normal stuff," Ayla promised him with a smile.
Ayla approached the serving tables, looking around hopefully, and smiled when he spotted Chef Peter leaving the kitchen with a plate in his hand and a smile for him. Sliding up to the serving area, Ayla returned the smile to Chef Peter as one of his favourite chefs slid a plate of specially prepared perfection onto his tray. "Merci!" Ayla enthused as he examined the contents of the plate in delight.
"Ah, a smile," Chef Peter replied with a delighted one of his own. "I was beginning to wonder when I would see that expression from you again," Chef Peter said with sympathy. That got a surprised look from Ayla. "Your friends?" Chef Peter asked kindly, "They are feeling better? The girl who was accused? The boy whose roommate it was?" Chef Peter delicately gestured.
"Kayda and Hank?" Ayla confirmed in surprise. "They are … not as bad," Ayla suggested sighing. "They are coping much better now anyway." He sounded less than convincing.
"Terrible business. I wish that I could cook something and take the pain away; alas, that it not how the grieving works. Time. Time it is that is the only thing that works. Time and friendship," Chef Peter said, giving Ayla a knowing look.
"We know," Ayla said, "but for those in the midst of grief, time seems to pass much too slowly, and it must seem that healing will never happen." He then looked thoughtfully at the chef.
"What is this look? You have an idea, perhaps?" Chef Peter asked, curious as to the cause of the quizzical look.
"Perhaps, " Ayla equivocated. "Can I borrow Jana?" Ayla asked with a slight blush.
Chef Peter laughed. "It is not enough you are trying to tempt her for summer to LA so that she can cook for you? You must also try and steal her here?"
"I'm sorry," Ayla apologized, red-faced. "I didn't realise you'd offered her an opportunity over the summer. I just thought that I could get her into a culinary course in LA, offer her a place to stay, and a group of my friends and family to test out her talent on!"
"You would pay for her to study at a cooking school in Los Angeles? Any of them?" Chef Peter asked surprised.
"Any that would take her, of course!"
"Hmm, maybe we can discuss that more …" Chef Peter said, staring thoughtfully at the ceiling.
"Chef?" Ayla asked when he lingered in thought.
"Hmm? What? Oh sorry Ayla, I was thinking what programs in Los Angeles might be suitable for Jana." Waving his hand dismissively, he turned back to Ayla, "Something to think about and to discuss with my colleagues. What is it you want Jana to do?"
"Would it be possible for Jana to prepare a special meal for a friend…?"
"Jana?" Chef Peter asked in surprise.
"Yes, it's for my friend whose roommate … it's for Hank," Chef Peter gave Ayla a sympathetic look, and waited for him to continue. "Hank's girlfriend, Lily, Wallflower - you might have seen her, she helps with security sometimes?" Chef Peter nodded, acknowledging he knew who she was. "Well, Lily has been extremely important in helping Hank, well, cope. Hank wants to say thank you to her with a special meal?"
"OK," Chef Peter replied carefully. "But why Jana in particular?" he asked curiously.
"Um, Hank's taste in food leans toward home-style cooking. He's not fond of the taste of more ... refined cuisine. I was hoping that Jana could cook chef-prepared versions of the dishes he likes from the buffet? Better quality ingredients, ideal proportions prepared, much more care and attention in the preparation and cooking, that sort of thing? Proper restaurant versions of some of their favourite dishes?" Ayla carefully watched Chef Peter's face to make sure his suggestions were not received as criticisms.
Chef Peter smiled. "I understand, and I am not upset. Cooking in bulk, and cooking personally, they are two different skills, no? One is, shall we say, more congruent with better taste? Yes, more congruent. We shall prepare some meals that are, as they say, 'like mother made them' to improve the mood of your unhappy friend?" Smiling in relief Ayla nodded. "You know his favourites?" Chef Peter asked. At Ayla's nod he continued, "Is there anything else?"
"Ah," Ayla struggled how to phrase this delicately, "Hank is a PK superman, and Lily is an energiser," he explained blushing slightly.
Laughing, Chef Peter waved away the concern. "Not to worry. We'll prepare hearty proportions for your friend, and extra proportions for his lovely lady. They will be happy, we shall make sure of it," he said with a smile. "Will they need service?" he inquired.
Ayla thought for a moment, and then shook his head. From Hank's bearing as he'd asked for the meal, it was obvious he had some intensely private things he wanted to discuss with Lily. "I'll use Jade or Jinn if we need someone," he explained to Chef Peter before thanking him.
Mary walked into her room and was startled to hear humming. Surprised, she stared at Lily, who seemed unusually happy as she primped and examined herself in the mirror, dressed in her little black dress and a pair of pumps rather than her normal super uniform and boots. Walking up behind her smiling roommate, Mary whistled.
"You got a hot date? Who's the lucky girl?" she asked wickedly.
Blushing at Mary's tone, Lily turned to look over her shoulder at her roommate, "Hank said he had something special planned for dinner tonight, so I thought I'd dress up a little. You don't think it's too much?" she asked apprehensively.
With a sisterly kiss to the top of Lily's head, Mary walked up behind and hugged Lily carefully as she studied her in the mirror before them. "No dear, I'd say it's just right," she smiled finally. "You're gonna make all the boys in Crystal Hall jealous, and once again break all the hearts of the girls here in Poe. When are you going to give up that smart, considerate, gentlemanly hunk you've found yourself, and come be with the sisterhood like all our hormones demand?" Mary teased Lily with a smile.
Lily wheeled around and playfully punched Angel's arm, and then leaned up and gave her a kiss on the check. "Thank you Mary," she said with feeling. "You always know just how to settle my nerves."
"Now, now," Mary smiled at Lily. "I already have a girlfriend, and you've dressed up in promise to your boy too!" Laughing, Lily hugged her roommate, and after picking up her purse, gave Mary a quick wave, and then made her way downstairs to her waiting boyfriend.
"Are you sure you wouldn't like Jinn to serve for you?" Jade pleaded with the smartly-dressed Hank as he waited in the Poe foyer for Lily. "We're really good! Even Ayla says so. I could just be a pair of gloves, no bother and very inconspicuous?" she wheedled. "You wouldn't need to pay us or anything; we'd do it for free for you and Lily!" Jade stared up at Hank, her big, sad, puppy dog eyes shimmering in the light.
"It's not like that at all Jade," Hank tried to explain to the pouting Jade, knees all but melting from the hurt look she was giving him. "I'd be happy to pay you, you know I would, but it's just … I want it to be just Lily and me. Private. Only the two of us, nobody else there at all…" Hank fumbled pathetically.
Jade opened her mouth to reply when a long drawn out whistle, and a sudden cessation of sound, caused them both to turn around and stare up the stairs. Blushing slightly at the whistle, Lily carefully descended the stairs, elegant in her heels and form-fitting little black dress.
"Oh," Jade exclaimed, gazing up in awe at Lily. "That kind of private! You could have just told me," she whispered fiercely to the stunned Hank standing beside her.
Delighted at the reaction she'd caused, Lily descended the stairs, drinking in the awed expression on Hank’s face. Whimsically, oblivious to those watching, Lily floated up to Hank and leaned up for a kiss. When they finished she placed her head on his chest, an arm around his waist, and grabbed his hand with hers, "Dance with me," she whispered, leaning slightly to get Hank to move. Looking down in astonishment, Hank obediently complied, following where Lily guided him as she closed her eyes in bliss, head resting against his chest.
"The sun, the moon, and the stars on a silvery chain…" Ayla whispered in awe from the doorway where Team Kimba stood together watching.
"What's that Ayles?" Toni demanded.
"What Lily could demand right now, and Hank would get for her," Ayla explained with a smile.
Toni smirked at Ayla. "As it should be!"
Together they watched as Lily's impromptu dance came to an end amongst a smattering of applause, with Hank lifting Lily's hand up to kiss the back of it, causing Lily to blush a rosy pink as her breath caught. "Oh, nice move Hankster," Fey whispered in admiration.
Watching Hank tuck Lily's arm through his and lead her down the stairs to the tunnels, Ayla smiled and turned around, stopping in shock at the accusing stares fixed on him by Fey, Toni and Tennyo, even Jade was giving him a strange look. "Err…" he stuttered confused.
"This dinner," Fey began, stepping close and fiddling with his shirt in a most distracting way. "It's special isn't it?" she finished giving him a penetrating stare from disconcertingly close.
"Special, right?" Tennyo repeated, getting right up in Ayla’s personal space to ask her question.
"Only Jade here," Toni said also leaning in close, "tells us that Hank believes Jana will be getting some food for them from the buffet." Toni fixed Ayla with a glare, "And you know, I'm not sure that's good enough for our Hankster on such a special date," she accused him.
"Now you're asking this?" Ayla gasped, desperately backing into the wall behind, disconcerted as his accusers stepped forward to close the gap again.
"It is special though, isn't it?" Fey wheedled, once again seemingly innocently playing with his shirt.
"Yes!" Ayla snapped, going light and stepping sideways through the wall to get away from Fey's distracting playing. Stopping he took a deep breath and faced them. "It's a special meal. Chef Peter is working with Jana to make sure, and it's not just from the buffet," Ayla glared at Toni. "It's Hank's and Lily's favourite dishes cooked personally for them, by a chef, with the best of ingredients and the best of care and skills. Admittedly it's more 'home cooked' than I would serve, but that's because that's the way Hank likes his meals, you know that! He specifically asked for that!" Ayla glared at them, daring them to contradict him.
Fey let out a silvery laugh and leaned forward to pat Ayla's shoulder, "I knew we had nothing to worry about, Ayla. You'll make sure everything goes perfectly for Hank and Lily." Ayla just sighed and strode away quickly so as to check the arrangements once again, automatically looking to make sure there was a green flag before pushing off into flight so he could arrive before Hank and Lily.
In delight, Hank sampled his meal and smiled at Lily sitting next to him, who was flushed in delight herself. Hank almost understood Ayla's obsession with food; this meal was not the common Crystal Hall buffet fair he'd expected. The colour, presentation, and taste had all had been enhanced. More than a few times while dishing up, the smells alone had reminded Hank of better days. Of meals with his family when they had been all together, father as well as Mom. Times he remembered going to a restaurant to celebrate a promotion of father's, vague memories of visiting Mom's mother from when he had been very young, of Mom cooking all weekend when father was coming home. Special times, happy times.
Looking towards Lily Hank smiled. He moved closer to Lily, sliding an arm around her shoulders to hug her to him. "What would you like?" he asked her, eyes half closed in pleasure as she leaned back into his hug, smiling in joy.
"Talk," she replied simply, eyes turned up and pleading with him.
Hank smiled at her, "About anything in particular?" he asked, casually taking a bite of the delicious food.
Lily looked up at Hank and smiled a secret smile, "Well, I've told you how I came to be at Whateley. Is there anyone you've told your story to?" she asked curiously. "Jamie?"
Hank sighed and frowned at Lily, then put down his fork. "No, I. I don't like to talk about it. I told my friends, well, something, but not the truth, not all of it. Just something exciting, something to make it sound like I fitted in."
"But not what happened?" Lily asked concerned, reaching to rub Hank's back and shoulders.
"Well, sort off," Hank replied uncomfortably.
"Your brother didn't call out the marines on you?" Lily not-quite demanded.
Hank sighed. "Not the marines, it was the Airborne, and he didn't call them out; that was the MPs. It's … complicated."
"I thought he went all H1! on you or something?" Lily asked, confused.
"My brother doesn't like me, but he isn't H1!, or even anti-mutant. It was personal, family stuff, you know - sibling rivalry that he acted up on and then it went bad and got way out of hand …" Taking a deep breath, Hank steadied himself, then looked towards Lily, studied her guarded expression, and sighed. "It started way before that with my father. His unit was beginning a rotation in Iraq. Jay, my brother - Jay really didn't take it well …"
"Because it's your sister's turn in the front, that's why," Hannah's mother replied wearily. Hannah had tried to ignore her brother Jay's complaining, but since he'd been going on about the seating arrangements from before they'd even gotten in the car, it was getting hard.
"But Mom!" Jay whined loudly from the back seat. "Hannah got shotgun on the way to the store. I only got to sit there on the way back! She had a longer turn 'cause you stopped to speak to Mrs. Clark on the way, and you drove straight home when I was in the front! I should be in the front now!"
"Jay! You know I don't like you keeping time like that!" their mother sighed, exasperated. "You know your father and I give you and Hannah exactly the same attention. There is no difference between the time we spend with you and the time we spend with Hannah, and I don't like you measuring it minute by minute like you do!" she growled at him, glaring at him in the rear view mirror.
Hannah sighed. Mom was scrupulously careful to make sure she spent exactly the same amount of time with each of them. Dad on the other hand - well, Dad wasn't here. And that was the whole problem.
Last time Dad deployed to Iraq, Jay had been a little too young to know what that meant. Sure, he knew Dad wasn't going to be there for a while, but Iraq was just a name of a place a long way away. This time he understood. Iraq wasn't just a long way away, Iraq was dangerous. Dad wasn't just going away, Dad might not be coming back. So this time Jay had gotten clingy, and unfortunately the way he had done so was to do this carefully measurement of all the ways he perceived Mom, and before he'd left Dad, was favouring Hannah over himself.
Ever since Dad had gotten his movement orders nearly two years ago, Jay had all but taken to using a stopwatch to measure the time each of their parents had spent with Hannah. Dad and Mom, especially since Dad deployed for Iraq, had become very careful to make sure that everything they did was fairly split between Jay and her, even down to making sure Jay and Hannah did exactly the same things so that they spent exactly the same time everywhere, which had meant for the last eighteen months Hannah had been going to JROTC with Jay, rather than just about anything else, which would have been Hannah's preference.
Hannah had tried to speak up, to say she didn't want to do JROTC when her father had suggested that Hannah, as well as Jay, enroll in it before he left, a frowning glance from her mother had silenced her protests. Hannah knew how much her mother was going to miss her father, and Hannah hadn't wanted to make things more difficult. So once again Hannah and Jay were getting driven to a JROTC weekend deployment early on a Saturday morning. Sighing Hannah looked out the window and wistfully watched the other girls getting dropped off at the sporting fields across the road for softball, while she was dressed in battle fatigues and about to be dropped off with her brother to his all male JROTC platoon.
As the car pulled up Hannah got compliantly out, moving to the rear and pulling out two duffle bags from the trunk when her mother popped the lid from the driver's seat. Placing the duffles neatly on the sidewalk, Hannah turned back to the car, closing the trunk as her younger brother all but burst from the back seat in excitement. At twelve, Jay was starting to catch up in height to Hannah, who, though almost fourteen, had still yet to hit her puberty growth spurt, seeing as puberty still hadn't arrived for her. Flat-chested and narrow-hipped, Hannah was more often mistaken for Jay's twin brother then his two years older sister. Especially when, like now, they were both dressed in battle fatigues, Hannah's long hair tied neatly in a braid and then placed in a bun at the back of her neck. Standing side-by-side the resemblance was striking, yet another reason for Jay to demand from their parents equal treatment with Hannah.
Standing on the footpath, Hannah turned and waved forlornly to her mother, a mother too busy to respond as she navigating the darting traffic, full of other mothers and fathers as they attempted to also pull up and drop off their own offspring, either here to the Fort Bragg JROTC for the weekend deployment, or across the road to the sporting fields for the Saturday morning games.
"Don't tell me you're gonna cry again cause Mommy's gone to get her nails done without you?" Jay cried in a sing-song voice. Closing her eyes and determinedly stopping the tears, Hannah took a moment to make sure none had fallen, then turning she gave her brother a single glare. Picking up her duffle bag, she stormed off up the path, making for quarters to unpack her gear.
"Dude," Ritter, Jay's best friend, came up to stand beside him. "For someone so hell bent on beating his sister, you sure do have a way to make sure she's determined to crush you," Ritter laughed at his best friend's discomfort, clipping him on the shoulder in greeting.
"Like tomboy there has any wish to be with Mom," Jay muttered before turning to Ritter. "She can't wait till Dad gets back so she can fawn over him with all her JROTC commendations," Jay snarled, turning back to glare at his sister's back, watching as she angrily made her way through the swirling boys, the only girl on this side of the street, not coincidentally also the only one in combat fatigues. All the other girls out this early on a Saturday morning were sporting cheerleader uniforms or sporting gear, and making their way into the sporting fields across the road.
"You really have zero empathy for her don't you?" Ritter marvelled, shouldering his duffle bag and making his way through the crowd following Hannah's path.
"She is the enemy, I will crush her!" Jay declared. Angrily he grabbed his duffle from the footpath beside him, shouldering it as he quickly took off after Ritter. "There will be no remorse, no leniency, no deviation from the course of right!" he growled out as he stepped up beside Ritter.
"Dude, even in the military, that's not right for family," Ritter said giving Jay a worried glance.
"What are you on about Ritter?" Jay snapped. "She's only here to rub in her superiority. She could be off with the cheerleaders or something, but no; 'Let's put Hannah in the JROTC, it'll be easier on your Mom when I'm not here if she only has to take you both one place'," he mocked.
"Dude, you're that down on your sister and she didn't even want to be here?" Ritter stopped to stare at Jay in disbelief. "That's harsh man. I think you need to harden up a little about this, she's your sister!"
"Dude yourself! You want to play with the barbie doll? Be my guest, just don't talk to me about it OK?" Stomping off Jay left Ritter staring after him in shock. Ritter had known that Jay had quite the sibling rivalry going with his sister, especially since their father's deployment to Iraq, he'd even noticed Jay in particular had become quite intense about it lately, still Jay's latest statements indicated a new level of intensity had been reached, and Ritter wondered what had happened to set it off this time.
Shrugging Ritter decided to add it to the list of things to ask Jay sometime when he wasn't so obsessed with his sister, and strode off, following Jay to the Cadet billets for the weekend.
"Hey Jay?" He called out as he again closed up to walk beside his friend. "Guess what? My brother finally broke down and told me where the sniper hide is."
"Really?" Jay asked a huge smile on his face. "How'd you get him to tell you that? I thought he insisted you'd needed to grow a beard before he'd reveal that to you?"
"I believe my brother called it 'blackmail'," Jay just looked at Ritter in confusion, as Ritter just grinned superiorly. "Well, when I heard my brother and his mates talking about it from their time in JROTC, they were talking about all the times they spied on the cheerleaders using it. The other day Kelly, my brother's girlfriend, who he's real serious about, started talking about her days as a cheerleader. When I piped up to ask if this was at the same time as Mark was in JROTC, big brother marched me quick smart out of the room, offering to share the location of the hide in return for me never revealing the existence of the hide, or what they had done in it, to any of the girls." Ritter smiled, bathing in the radiance of Jay's stunned amazement.
"So you know where it is? We can go look?" Jay demanded excitedly.
Ritter winced. "If we hurry. It's not as easy to access as when my brother was here," Jay looked puzzled. "There was no females then, there is now. We need to go through the female locker room to get into the roof and then to the hide. For my brother that just meant using an unused room, for us we need to negotiate around Corporal Bryne and your sister, make sure they don't catch us crawling into the roof space."
Face thunderous, Jay growled at the reminder of his sister's presence.
Hannah stomped into the bland three story building, and unlike the joking boys who jostled and pushed as they turned left, Hannah turned right, straight into 'Officer' territory. Sighing again as her 'uniqueness' came to the fore. Hannah strode for the first, and smallest, of the 'officer' billets. Small rooms designed to hold a bed, a desk and minimal other necessities for the JROTC staff's use. As the only 'girl' in this Cadet company, provisions had been made to turn the smallest room into the 'female cadet billet' by removing a couple of bunk beds from the boys barracks, and squeezing them into this small room, allowing it to nominally hold four cadets. 'Nominally' because in the nearly two years Hannah had been coming here no other female Cadets had joined, certainly there'd never been any before her father had signed her up either, so Hannah was the only occupant of the room, with Corporal Bryne, the female 'staff sergeant' for the JROTC platoon, designated to be Hannah's 'platoon sergeant' as well.
Sighing again, Hannah squeezed through the door that no longer opened fully, thanks to the bunk bed blocking the door's path. As Hannah dumped her duffle onto a bottom bunk she looked around and grimaced. It had been a couple of months since the last weekend deployment, which meant the 'barracks' were a mess, dust and dirt all over the place. Unlike the boys, who could trade off amongst themselves and work together to clean their barrack, Hannah alone needed to clean this room, top to bottom, including the beds and lockers she herself wasn't using. No matter what the tasks needed were, and how much Hannah might hate to do them, it was all her problem since there was no one else, Hannah had to do the lot.
Absently rubbing her stomach, which for some reason felt like eels were swimming through her intestines, Hannah turned and stepped from the room. Sighing she made her way down to the janitor's closet further down the corridor, with the buckets, mops and brooms that she would need to clean the billet to military standard before inspection, that military ritual of punishment and humiliation that always started weekend deployments.
Finishing tucking in the blankets, Hannah grimaced at the gut wrenching pain from her abdomen. All through cleaning, washing and preparing the room, her stomach had tied itself in knots. Glad to finish Hannah grabbed the bag of PT gear and toiletries sitting on the unused bottom bunk. Taking the time to do one last check, Hannah exited the room and made her way down the corridor to the stairs, making for the 'women's locker room' on the floor above, which she shared with Corporal Bryne, and only other female member of this Corp.
Grimacing at a particularly sharp pain, accompanied by a rumble from her stomach, Hannah forced herself into a stumbling trot, hurrying up the stairs to the only latrine she as a female Cadet was allowed to use. Pushing her way into the Locker room Hannah dumped her bag in her locker, hardly pausing as she ran past making her way straight for the latrine. Absently she dodged around the step ladder in the middle of the room, not caring why it was there as the rumbling in her stomach had her bolting for the stall and slamming the door shut. Sitting down, hugging her stomach and fighting back nausea, Hannah let nature take its course and groaned her unhappiness.
Sitting there, feeling the relief in her stomach, Hannah was astonished to hear the voices of her brother and his best friend Ritter coming from what sounded like the locker room. Petrified they'd hear her moaning in the toilet, Hannah held her breath and prayed for them to leave. Ears straining for the slightest clue, as soon as Hannah heard the closing of the locker room door, she jumped up, wiped and snatched up her pants, hurrying from the stall to the wash taps where she cleaned her hands, blushing fiercely even though there was no way that either of them could have heard her making use of the facilities.
Hannah was still standing at the taps when a frowning Corporal Byrne walked in and pointedly glared at her dust smeared face. Blushing again, Hannah quickly left to retrieve her towel and soap, coming back she cleaned her face while Corporal Bryne fastidiously fixed her make-up, before turning to Hannah and giving her an impromptu uniform inspection. Pointing out a few missed dust smears, which Hannah hastily corrected, Corporal Byrne nodded her happiness and dismissed Hannah to the official parade to start the deployment, indicating with her eyes a position a step behind and to the side of her as she escorted Hannah through the building and to the parade ground, firmly indicating with a glance when Hannah was to peel off and join the other cadets lining up. Sighing Hannah took up her position, standing beside her brother and Ritter in the front row, silently withstanding Jay's glare as she marched across the open ground to take up her position.
It wasn't until parade had finished, and the entire morning had been wasted with quarters and gear inspections, that Hannah had the chance to wonder what her brother and Ritter had been doing. Corporal Bryne, an OCD bitch as far as Hannah was concerned, had noticed immediately when they entered the women's locker room together to get changed into PT gear, that the ladder was out of place. She'd ordered Hannah to return it to its proper position, and then to clean the whole women's locker room, showers and latrines as well, when PT finished, to emphasise the point that misplaced equipment caused deaths and injuries in a military unit. Equipment had to be where it was needed, when it was needing, in proper working condition or lives would be lost!
Sighing, taking the almost complete loss of her lunch time stoically, as opposed to giving up her brother and his friend as the culprits and the much worse punishment of being in a restricted area, males in the woman's locker rooms without proper cause, Hannah said the appropriate things and changed into her PT gear and jogged back to the parade ground for platoon exercise.
Wincing only occasionally from the strange sensations in her stomach, Hannah ran as soon as PT finished to the mess hall, grabbed whatever it was they were dishing out, and wolfed it down in unladylike haste. Before most of the rest of the boys even dragged themselves into the mess hall, Hannah was racking her tray and running from it, high-tailing it back to the janitor's cupboard, and all the brooms, mops, buckets and cleaning fluids she could stand, for another session as unpaid janitoring that seemed to be most everything they ever did in JROTC.
Surprising herself at how quickly she finished, though in hindsight it was obvious 'Corporal OCD' must have arrived early this morning and cleaned the locker rooms as Hannah had done little more then add an extra layer of shine to the locker room's cleanliness, Hannah glanced at the offending step ladder, then absently at where it had been when her brother had been using it. Looking up in puzzlement she noticed the entry into the roof crawl-space and frowned.
Checking the time, Hannah considered the hole for a moment before her curiosity got the better of her, and dragging out the step ladder she placed it in position and climbed up, popping the hatch to the roof and climbed through to look around.
Once in the roof it was obvious where they had been, the dust was thick in all except one direction, a path leading straight to a vent in the gable side of the roof. Quickly sliding over Hannah looked down in surprise at the 'sniper's nest'. Wooden slats laid over the ceiling beams, a camouflage blanket on top and the snipper's scope mounted for easy access to the vent.
Curiously Hannah looked through the scope and sighed in envy. The sight gave full view of the sports fields across the road, everything from the girls playing softball, to the bleachers where the younger sisters sat watching their older siblings practice their cheerleading. In particular Hannah felt a surge of jealousy as she watch Susan Stepplings with her best friend, Debbie Carter, practice those same cheers under the tutelage of her older sister and some of her cheerleader friends. Both Susan and Debbie had no need to wait for puberty, already they were half way towards the outstanding curvy figures of their sisters. While still young, the same age as Hannah herself, there was no way either of them were getting mistaken for twins of their younger brothers.
Hannah had no idea how long she sat there gazing longingly across the road to the fields she would have preferred to be at, daydreaming of being with Susan and Debbie learning the school's cheers, when the slamming of the mess halls doors as excited boys poured out reminded her that Corporal Bitch would be here to inspect her soon, and no way did she want the stepladder out of place for a second time when she did so. Quickly scooting back, Hannah carefully climbed out of the roof, making sure not to spill any dust into her clean room, and returned the stepladder to its proper place. Taking one more quick look around to confirm the cleanliness of the locker room, Hannah gathered her battledress and her toiletries and made her way into the showers to clean up herself and get changed from her PT gear, hanging it up to dry for tomorrow's exercise.
"You were a girly-girl!" Lily exclaimed giggling. "Barbie dolls and dreams of being a cheerleader!"
"I was a tomboy!" Hank stated with dignity. "I was doing JROTC and combat training!"
"Yeah, but not because you wanted to! You just admitted you wanted to be with the cheerleaders!" Lily couldn't help giggling.
Hank didn't reply, abruptly stopping Lily's laughter. Lily looked up at Hank in concern, terrified that her teasing might had hurt him, but Hank wasn't upset, more … reflective? "I wanted to be friends with someone, like Susan and Debbie were," Hank finally said slowly, staring off into the distance rather than looking towards Lily. "To have someone that knew all my secrets, and I knew all theirs. I was an army brat, bouncing from base to base every time Dad got a promotion or a new unit. I really, really envied that they were together for everything, and that they could do whatever they wanted, not whatever made Mom and Dad's life easier," Hank explained with a sigh.
"Was that who Jamie was for you?" Lily asked softly.
Slowly Hank nodded, tears once more in his eyes. "And Team Kimba." Turning finally he looked at Lily, "And you." Leaning sideways he hugged her before taking a deep breath and sitting straight again, slowly wiping away the tears. "Anyway, the next day was the day everything changed, the pains in my stomach got worse, and I found out eventually what it was while we were doing hand to hand training…"
Facing Hannah, Ritter sighed at her angry glare and intense stance. Jay had certainly got under her skin and now, as usual, Ritter was about to suffer for it. Hannah was perhaps the best Cadet in their group at hand-to-hand, despite being female, and as the next best Ritter nearly always found himself sparring against her. Since she was now obviously pissed, and being a girl in no mood to hold back against the supposedly 'superior' boys, Ritter winced and prepared his stance as best he could for the beating about to rain down on him.
As expected, Ritter barely even registered Sergeant Lennox's call to begin before Hannah exploded towards him, punches and elbows flying for his face. Desperately dodging and blocking, Ritter stepped forward and body blocked Hannah, hip into her groin, hoping to slow the onslaught. In disbelief he stared as Hannah screeched out in pain, going down immediately, folded over her stomach as soon as his hip touched her.
"Halt!" Screamed Sergeant Lennox as he marched towards Ritter face like thunder. "Exactly what did you do to Cadet Declan?" he demanded of the bewildered Ritter.
Knees pressed together, Hannah crouched, hands crossed over her stomach as pain like she had never felt before made her stomach heave, her bladder revolt. Concentrating hard on not throwing up, not peeing herself, Hannah vaguely heard Ritter protest he'd barely touched her.
"Well, her reactions say different," Sergeant Lennox growled, helping Hannah move to a bench, where she sat, head almost to her knees, arms hugging herself tight. "Cadet Declan? Hannah? What happened?" Sergeant Lennox asked kindly, tilting Hannah's face up to look at him.
Glassy-eyed, face palest white, sweat dripping from her hair, Hannah blindly stared ahead of her, too distracted by the pain to notice more than the vague feeling of two people crouched in front of her.
"I don't think that's from a hit," one of them, female, stated concerned. "Are you having your period Hannah?" the same voice demanded of her, a face swimming into her view. Weakly Hannah shook her head in denial, too hurt even to wince at the familiar pain that, though nearly fourteen, puberty had still not arrived for her.
Standing up Corporal Bryne turned to Sergeant Lennox. "I think this is serious. We should call her mother and get her to a doctor. The only time I've ever seen someone react like that was when they had appendicitis. If that is the case, even the smallest of knocks may have ruptured it."
With a frown Sergeant Lennox turned to Ritter, "Get her brother. Have him go to the office and call his mother. Tell her we're taking Hannah and him to the base hospital." Saluting Ritter ran off, a worried glance at the still white Hannah, glassy-eyed and panting, doubled-up, folded over her stomach.
"Your appendicitis triggered your mutation?" Lily gasped.
"No, I've never had appendicitis," Hank denied.
"But, what was it?" Lily asked confused.
"They didn't know. None of the scans at the base hospital showed anything abnormal, and the pain settled down to a dull ache again, so they suggested that Mom take me to a paediatrics specialist. So Sunday afternoon I was checked out of the base hospital, and on Tuesday Mom took me for an appointment to see a paediatrician at the big city hospital, and the rest of the week was even more scans and stuff. Eventually they worked out something was wrong with my reproductive system, and the whole next week was more appointments and tests, culminating with a DNA test as they thought I might have some genetic disorder, and that's when they found it."
"Found what?" Lily demanded.
"Found that I was a mutant, and joy of joys, my 'discomfort' was my sexual organs swapping from girl to boy," Hank barked a humourless laugh. "All those years of wanting puberty, jealously watching girl after girl in my class getting visited by the booby fairly and shooting up into womanhood, and when I finally get it, I get boy parts!" Tears falling down his cheeks Hank sniffed. "And it wasn't even as if I got spared periods either, they came too and I got hair, and blood, and everything, hiding all holidays while my body changed day by day, little by little."
"Hiding?" Lily pressed softly, tentatively reaching out to touch Hank.
"Mom called Dad as soon as they told us." Hank said woodenly, staring blindly ahead. "Dad was almost due back, and there was only a few more weeks of school. I'd missed two weeks already while we bounced from doctor to doctor and they did all the tests. Dad said he'd try for a new position, something in the Pentagon, so he could be with us. I'd stay home from school for the last few weeks, then over summer break I'd change enough and we'd move to a new base, and then the next year I'd go to a new school, and the Declan's would be a family of two adults and two boys. Simple."
Though Hank spoke without emotion in his voice, tears had streamed down his face the whole time. Trying to comfort him Lily pushed herself against him and rubbed his back. "Oh Hank! What happened?"
"I hid, all summer," Hank said softly. "Staying in the house, seeing nobody except my Mom and Jay, changing, changing, little by little. And Jay, he was always upset. So jealous all the time. Of trips, just me and Mom. To doctors and hospitals for tests. Of calls, so many calls, between Dad and Mom trying to organise what to do. Questions about what school I should go to, what house we should live in, all the worry of Dad's new promotion to Colonel. No matter what he did, how he was praised, all Jay saw was that Mom and Dad spent all summer talking about me. And it all came to a head. My stupid body, one last hurrah from my female reproductive system, Jay's jealousy, unthinkingly seeing a chance to get back at me for the whole summer, and it just all went … wrong." Already crying Lily pressed herself up against Hank as he continued …
Tears streaming down her face, Hannah curled up on her bed and cried, devastated by the look of exasperation her mother had given her before leaving, "Jay, I am leaving the two of you alone for a few hours, surely you two boys can find something to do together for such a short time? Watch a video, play some games? You don't need me to be with you all the time!" then with disappointment her mother had glanced at Hannah and her defiantly worn skirt before turning and leaving for her monthly night out with her own friends.
Turning to Hannah, Jay had growled out as soon as their mother had left, "I'm not spending a second with you! Do you know how stupid that far too small pink skirt looks on a boy with a beard?" As Jay had stormed into the family room and claimed the TV for himself, Hannah turned white and flew to her own room, standing in front of her mirror and examining herself, before falling weeping onto her bed.
"I'm a girl! I can wear a skirt when I want!" Hannah declared with a sob into her pillow, eventually sitting up and wiping her eyes. Avoiding looking at the mirror, and the clear evidence of fluffy hair growing on her face, making her look more like a boy in a skirt then a girl. Hannah sat up and allowed her eyes to roam her room, eventually stopping on the open wardrobe, and the dance dress her and her mother had bought, hanging there still unworn. Due to her 'illness' she'd been forbidden from attending the dance celebrating the end of middle school, as well as any other activities over the summer.
Tears flowing, Hannah remembered the day she and her mother had bought the dress, before her cursed body decided to wreck her life. It had been her most happy day since Dad had left for Iraq. Jay had gone to a friend's party and her mother had decided that while Jay was out it was the perfect time for her to take Hannah to get a dress for the end of middle school dance. For the first time since Jay had become so sensitive about any time their parents spent with her rather then him, Hannah was both alone with her mother, and not doing something Jay wanted to do, in fact she was getting to spend time with her mother being a girl!
Hannah had spent the afternoon going from store to store with her mother, delighting in talking about normal things, what colors she wanted, what style of dresses she liked, what her mother felt looked good on her. Hannah had missed all this for the last year and a half as Jay had jealously insisted on both accompanying their mother whenever she shopped, no matter what for, then also had become easily bored and made Hannah miserable if she'd lingered in any female clothing store.
The afternoon had done much for Hannah's heart, especially right before they had left the mall. Hannah had been standing staring into a jewellery store, when her mother had come up behind her and complimented the small earring studs Hannah had been admiring. "Those would go well with your dress Hannah," her mother had said absently as she looked in the window over her daughter's shoulders, "I suppose it's past time I got you your ears pierced, how about the weekend before the dance while Jay is at David's party? You and I come back and get them pierced, and we can see about you getting a bit of makeup to wear at the dance too?"
Crying anew Hannah sobbed at the memory, instead of another trip shopping as promised, just her and her mother, when the day had arrived Hannah had been banished to her room. Instead of pierced ears, Hannah's mother had stood her in the kitchen and given her a haircut, reducing her lovely long hair to a short almost crewcut, the same style as her brother's.
On that day, after her mother dropped Jay over at David's, her mother had returned and ordered Hannah to her room so she could call up Hannah's father on the computer, and the two of them had talked for hours, debated and planned what to do about Hannah, all with Hannah banished from the conversation, listening in from the hall outside the door. At the end Hannah had been allowed in to say a quick goodbye to her father, before her mother had laid down the law.
No more would Hannah be attending school. No more would she be going to the dance or anything else, all Hannah's activities for the summer were cancelled and everyone would be told Hannah was 'ill'. In fact no more would she be Hannah. Her father had decided she would be called 'Hank' after his father, and to help her adjust to her new life her family would, from now on, only call her 'Hank'.
Taking Hannah into the kitchen her mother had given Hannah the hated haircut, ignoring her crying and pleading, sternly telling her that she needed to come to terms with what was happening to her body. In one of the worse days of her life Hannah had fled from the kitchen, spending the rest of the day and most of the night cuddling Teddy and weeping into her pillow, eyes closed, refusing to look at or touch her new short hair.
Crying in remembrance, Hannah stood and walked to the dress hanging in the closet. Reaching out Hannah carefully pulled it to her, rubbing her face against the silky smooth fabric, smelling it and closing her eyes, remembering the shop and her mother's delighted smile when she had first seen Hannah standing there, looking at her in the dress. Tears running freely Hannah growled and grabbed the dress from the hanger, "I am a girl!" she declared angrily, taking the dress to her bed where she laid it out carefully.
Quickly Hannah took off her skirt and blouse, and smilingly stepped into the dress, pulling up the zipper and spinning in wonder as she stroked the silky fabric with her hands. Smiling in delight Hannah ran to her mirror to examine herself and frowned. While the dress looked fine, her face was starting to show the first fluffy wisps of hair. Staring at them in hate, Hannah growled and furiously turning she marched from her room, across the hall and into her parents room, to the ensuite bathroom it contained.
Looking through the drawers Hannah smiled in delight to find a disposable razor and shaving cream, left behind by her father after his last leave. Determinedly Hannah lathered up and carefully removed all the fuzz from her face, then ran into her mother's room to examine herself anew in her mother's vanity mirror. Looking carefully at her face Hannah was still upset that she didn't look like the pretty girl she wanted to. Starting to cry again she spied her mother's makeup and grabbed it, sitting down eagerly to apply it as she had watched her mother do so often.
After fifteen minutes Hannah was weeping uncontrollably. Nothing she did with the makeup made her look anything better than a clown. Rushing back to her parent's ensuite she snatched some face wipes from the sink and ruthlessly scrubbed the makeup off her face. Coming out of the bathroom she flung herself onto her mother's bed, curled up and wept. Weeping so long she cried herself to sleep.
Crying Lily hugged Hank tight, "You don't have to go on!" she half pleaded with him.
Trying to smile through the tears, Hank reached down and tenderly held Lily's hand, "It's OK Lily, please. I. I want to tell you. I. You've helped me so much, I couldn't, wouldn't have survived the last few days without you. You. You deserve to know who I am. Fully who I am." Studying Lily carefully Hank tried to see if he was making sense.
"Hank …" Lily began when Hank softly interrupted her.
"Please Lily, let me tell you? I. I want to tell the story, and I would like it to be you who hears it?" At Lily's reluctant nod Hank gave her a squeeze of thanks and after a deep breath continued.
"I awoke to pain …"
Pain. Pain equally as intense as any she had felt before wracked her stomach, pulling Hannah from her exhausted sleep, crying out her distress. Curling up around her stomach Hannah wept again, this time enduring pain so intense she could do little more than grit her teeth and clutch her stomach as the pain stabbed through her nether regions. Moaning as the pain intensified, Hannah wept until finally, mercifully, it abated to a dull ache, leaving Hannah lying whimpering, not even noticing the slick wetness running all down her legs. Eventually the wetness of her legs and stomach penetrated her consciousness, and rolling over Hannah stared down in shock at the slick redness all over the bed where she had been laying, covering her dress from her chest all the way down to where it touched her knees, the redness continuing down her bare legs from there.
Jumping up, Hannah looked down and screamed at the running red wetness covering her and the bed where she had been laying. In panic Hannah reached down, and stared in disbelief as the dress tore like tissue in her hands. Raising her hands in shock, still holding the dress, Hannah cried out as her dress was ripped from her shoulders with no effort at all. Staring down, Hannah saw her blood soaked panties, and screeching in distress grabbed at them, watching as they too disintegrated in her fumbling hands. Finding herself naked, covered in blood from the waist down, Hannah screamed and dived for her parents ensuite and the shower within, to cower whimpering under the water, as hot as she could stand, scouring over and over again her skin, long after the red slickness had disappeared down the drain.
It was not until she heard screaming coming from her mother's bedroom that Hannah broke her almost frenzied trance of cleaning, staggering from the shower and to the ensuite door, ignorant of her nakedness, just in time to see her brother turning from the room, running screaming down the hall. Absently gathering a towel hanging on the door Hannah wrapped it around her as she ran off after him.
Coming into the kitchen, Hannah was just in time to hear Jay babbling down the phone, shaking in fear. "Sergeant, Sergeant it was red everywhere, blood all over Mom's bed, Hannah's dress ripped all over the floor … home sir, I'm at home! … No Mom is out, it's just me and Han mmph!"
Moving quickly Hannah covered Jays mouth to prevent him blurting out something he shouldn't. Snatching the phone from him she bleated down the line, "I'm sorry sir, my period came while I was sleeping, and Jay barged in while I was still in the shower and before I had a chance to clean up! He just got a shock sir!"
Dangerously quiet, Hannah listened as harsh, heavy breathing echoed down the phone. "Who is this?" finally was growled out angrily by a voice she recognised as Sergeant Lennox from JROTC.
"It's me! Hannah Declan sir!" Hannah blurted, hurt and shocked that Sergeant Lennox hadn't recognised her.
Again, a long silence. "Put Jay back on," was the calm order. Silently Hannah held out the phone to Jay.
"No sir, not Hannah, Hank sir." Mouth agape Hannah stared at Jay in shock as he smirked back at her. "No sir, he's been staying with us, likes to wear women's clothes. No sir, Mom doesn't like it either, she gets mad and yells at him every time she catches him …"
"Jay! Tell him the truth!" Hannah screeched.
With a huge grin Jay just made a point of reply back into the phone, "I am Hank! Exactly what Mom and Dad told me to say! Every word of it!" As Hannah screeched and dived for him, Jay twisted, shielding the phone from her with his body as he finished the conversation, "Yes sir! I'll wait right here for the MPs to arrive!" Slamming the phone down, Jay turned to laugh and taunt Hannah.
Screeching in fury Hannah dived for her brother again, only to stop short as her towel slipped off, leaving her naked. Remembering the MPs on the way, Hannah screamed her fury at the running Jay, before grabbing her towel and running for her room, desperately trying to dry herself as she ran along.
Sliding into her room, Hannah dived for her drawers, desperately grabbing some new panties and slipping them on as she turned for her closet. Just about to slip into another skirt, Hannah remembered her brothers 'dresses in girls clothes' barb, and not wanting to exacerbate the issue grabbed the next best thing, her JROTC combat fatigues.
Just finishing trying the shoes and standing up to find and deal with Jay, Hannah was surprised to hear the front door slam open. Hoping it was her mother, and running to tell her what happened before Jay could spread more stories, Hannah ran for the front room, arriving just in time to hear her brother calling out, "It's me, I'm Jay! He's in there, he's in there, he said he was gonna kill me!"
Screeching in fury Hannah ran for the door, slamming it open only to yelp and dive for cover as bullets started slamming into the door above her head.
"Don't shoot! I'm Hannah! Don't shoot!" Hannah called out desperately, only to hear "no it's not! That's Hank!" called by her brother in return, and more bullets slam into the door.
Crying out in fear, Hannah crawled away from the door. As soon as she got around the corner she rose into a crouch and sprinted, hunched over, for the back door, where she ran fearfully from the house. Finding it almost fully dark outside, the last vestiges of twilight clinging on, Hannah ran for the end of the yard where she stopped, desperately looking around at the large hedge screening the end of the yard from the long drop down the steep slope into the small stream running along the back of the houses in this section of the base.
Hearing noises she turned. Men, MPs, where streaming along the sides of the house into the backyard. Hannah looked around desperately when suddenly lights, bright lights, hand-held torches shone right in her eyes. Hannah froze shocked and bewildered.
"Don't move!" Startled, raising her hands in surrender Hannah cried out in terror as she heard gunshots ring out again. With a screech Hannah jumped backwards, away for the shots, letting go another scream of terror as she fell through the backyard's protective hedge, feeling herself starting to roll down the steep slope at the back of her house. Coming to a rest at the bottom Hannah cried in fear as she splashed to a stop into the small stream there, too stunned to notice she was unhurt.
Head shaking, Hannah scrambled to her feet, the sound of gunshots still ringing out again and again, as bullets impacted the ground and water around her. Terrified Hannah looked up to see a line of MPs taken position along the hedge, shooting down what must have been blindly into the dark gully she lay in. Quickly Hannah scrambled up, making her way across the stream, glancing back in disbelief at the sight of MPs standing high on the bank above her widely shooting, their pistols flashing almost in sequence in the dark night.
Eyes streaming tears, Hannah turned forward and ran, zigging from side to side, thankful that the murky darkness under the trees robbed the MPs of any skill they might have had with their pistols. Slipping into the scrubby bushes on the other side of the stream Hannah disappeared from sight, turning randomly she ran as fast as she could through the darkness, away from the shouting and stabbing lights of torches starting to pierce the shadows behind her.
Lily frowned at Hank. "So they just thought, what? That you had …?"
"They entered Mom's room and found the bloody bed, ripped bloody panties and a shredded dress covered in blood with no me," Hank shrugged. "What do you think they thought?"
"So they were after you for murder?"
"That and being a mutant," Hank murmured softly.
"Jay told them that?" Lily asked stunned.
"He didn't need to …"
"Sergeant?" Looking at the vacant staring face of Sergeant Lennox, Smith waved his fingers in front of the Sergeant's face a few times.
"Cut that out Smith," Sergeant Lennox growled swiping the hand away. With a puzzled look on his face, he absently removed the spent clip from his gun, and replaced it with a fresh one. Pausing to confirm the safety was on, Sergeant Lennox returned his pistol to its holster. Pulling his flashlight from his belt, Sergeant Lennox flicked it on, making his way purposely towards the end of the yard. "I know I had him plumb," he mumbled, playing the flashlight over the ground in front of him as he walked forwards. Suddenly the light darted back, focussing on the place Hannah had been standing. Quickening his pace Sergeant Lennox crouched down and picked up an object, raising it so that he could examine it closely in the light of his torch.
Coming to look over the Sergeant's shoulder, Smith glanced puzzled at the pristine bullet held in his Sergeant's fingers. Standing up Sergeant Lennox growled out. "You know what this means Smith?" he asked bouncing the bullet in the palm of his hand. Mutely Smith shook his head. "It means we aren't dealing with a man at all. Only one thing stops bullets and leaves them pristine on the ground like this. PK Shields. And if we have a PK shield, it means we have a mutant on our hands, and nothing we have can stop a mutant," Sergeant Lennox growled.
Wide-eyed Smith stared as, expression firm, Sergeant Lennox unlimbered his radio and started reporting in, suggesting that now was a good time to call out the Ready Reaction Team, also passing the word to the rest of the MPs that they faced not a man, but a mutant, moreover a mutant protected by a PK Shield more than powerful enough to stop bullets, a mutant that had already killed a girl. Smith stared in disbelief as Sergeant Lennox enabled the base's imminent threat protocols and ordered the heavy squad to arm up and meet him at the MPs humvee pool.
Running through the woods, Hannah desperately tried to think where to go. Her Mom was in town with her friends, and Hannah had no friends, not after a summer of her mother refusing to let her see or speak to anyone! Trying to remember what was out this way as she dodged through the trees, Hannah looked around to get her bearings. She was running along the woods, on the other side of the stream from the line of houses her house was in, a line of officer family housing. If she kept running this way she'd come to the road, just near the MP compound, right before the beginning of the manoeuvre fields, with the live-fire ranges over the hills on the other side of the fields.
Wait! The MPs compound! If she could get there and give herself up, they'd have to call Mom and Mom would sort it all out! Crying in relief, Hannah scrambled through the fields, making for the MP compound and the spot in the wall that the JROTC cadets had always used as a shortcut when doing their PT run through the woods, to get back onto the road for the last mile-long run to the JROTC compound.
Climbing the wall Hannah dropped down behind the humvee parked there with a smile, then started to go around the humvee, making for the crowd of MPs gathering at the back door to the MP station. A smile on her face, Hannah was raising her hand to wave and callout when a fearful cry of "That's him!" rang out, and suddenly the crowd turned to her, raising rifles, machines guns and rocket launchers!
Hannah froze, staring in disbelief, but at the sight of flashes starting to come out some of the guns. Hannah turned, running away in panic. Tripping she caught herself on the humvee before pushing off desperately and running for the wall, jumping for the top, not even noticing in her panic as she sailed over the six foot stone wall easily. Hannah came down in the woods again, and setting her sights on the darkest section of the trees in front of her, ran panicking for it, not even noticing the cries of "Don't follow! Don't follow!" being yelled behind her.
Staring in shock at the wrecked humvee before them, the MPs turned to study Sergeant Lennox as he carefully examined the crumpled side where the mutant had almost casually crushed the roof of the humvee, pressing it down almost to the ground, the two almost horizontal wheels on that side of the humvee mute evidence of the broken axels and complete write-off off that the vehicle was.
Turning back to the men, gravely Sergeant Lennox murmured, "OK, there is two or three tons of force there, and we all saw him leaping the wall like it was nothing. None of our weapons are going to so much as scratch him, and our humvees are useless. Luckily he seems more interested in running than fighting, let's keep it that way. I want a cordon around the fields, you might as well use the perimeter fences and the roads. I want patrols, lots of lights, lots of noise. Keep him running, but don't chase him! The last thing I want is for him to get cornered and turn and fight, and in doing so realise we have nothing that can stop him. Let's concentrate on keeping him contained and out in the fields away from people, I'll get on the blower to upstairs, let them start assembling a force that actually has a hope of taking him out."
Grim faced Sergeant Lennox strode for the building as the men sorted themselves out and made for the remaining undamaged humvees.
Hannah ran, crouched over. Running from cover to cover beside the road, trying to see a way through the flashing lights and calling men patrolling the fence line everywhere she looked. Running through a bare stretch of ground, Hannah's heart almost stopped as, on the road behind her, sounds of an engine could be heard coming her way.
Desperately Hannah looked around, almost crying in relief at the deep ditch beside the road near her. Running Hannah all but dived into the ditch, breathing hard, so exhausted she just collapsed to her side and lay there listening to the shouted instructions, watching the weaving lights, thankful it was still just the MPs searching for her and not the reaction force.
Hannah knew it was the MPs still, because it would become silent and dark once the reaction force arrived, they would make use of their tacnet to communicate, not all of this shouting like the MPs were doing. Also the reaction force would be fully kitted up, they would be in their full battle gear, including night vision goggles. They'd send the flashlight wielding MPs back to their stations, both to get the bumbling idiots out of their way, but also so that their night vision wouldn't be ruined by all the MPs flashlights, stabbing through the darkness all over the place, making just as many shadows as they did places of light.
Levering herself back onto hands and knees, Hannah searched desperately with her eyes, sighing in relief at the opening of a drain ahead of her in the ditch, a large circular one, looking like it ran under the road to the brook Hannah could hear bubbling along on the other side of the road.
Carefully creeping forwards, Hannah arrived at the opening. Lying down she carefully looked in. The drain was a large one, easily high enough for her to crawl through, she could even sit up in it if she wished to. Sliding inside Hannah begun crawling through the drain, slowing and carefully listening as she approached the other side. Screened by weeds grown tall enough to cover the opening totally, the opening was suddenly surrounded in light. Frozen, heart beating loudly in her chest, Hannah crouched where she was. Not even daring to breath, terrified as the humvee she'd heard earlier pulled up to a stop right above her.
Silently crying in fear, Hannah cowered listening as doors opened and boots crunched on gravel. "Andrews," she heard called. "You stay here. Keep an eye on the brook, its crossable just here. The mutant might try and sneak out through here."
"The reaction force is on their way to take over the search, when the trucks finish dropping them off they'll come back and pick you up, don't use your light, and if you see anything radio it in! Don't try and be a hero."
"Sir. No fear. I've got a pistol, guys were saying it shrugged of machine gun fire, no way I'm gonna chase after it."
Slamming door, engine revving, Hannah listened as the Humvee drove off. Eyes still closed, head pressed firmly into the crook of her arm, Hannah waited, listened and prayed. Listened for the sounds of the MP above her. Prayed that he wouldn't find her hidden in the drain right below his feet.
Hannah cursed her luck. Thinking desperately Hannah tried to imagine a way out. Unfortunately by now the adrenaline had well and truly run out. Lying in the dark, eyes closed, faced pressed into the crook of her arm to hide the telltale whites of her face and eyes, Hannah became dangerously comfortable, without noticing she fell into an exhausted sleep, right under the feet of the patrolling MP.
The roar of a diesel and the screech of breaks woke Hannah, thankfully also covering her yelp of shock from the noise. Blinking, looking wildly about, it took Hannah almost a minute to remember where she was and why. As a door opened and slammed above her, she crouched down, again putting her face in the crook of her arm.
The loud roar of an engine as it moved off caused Hannah to shiver. Remaining still, petrified, it took Hannah a while to realise there was no sounds of anyone above her. Remembering the conversation as the MP had been dropped off, Hannah whimpered as the meaning of the silence penetrated. The MPs were being recalled. The reaction force had arrived.
Hannah sat up and cried. She didn't know how long she'd slept, but the pick up of the MP above meant that the reaction force had deployed and taken over. She didn't know if the Airborne or the Rangers were on this month, but she now faced real soldiers. Soldiers with proper networked communications, platoons, leaders, a command and control infrastructure. She no longer faced the base MPs her and the other JROTC students had played pranks on for years, she faced a nightmare made real, soldiers, trained and practiced at working together and achieving outcomes. The MPs had pistols and night sticks, these guys would have automatic rifles, Tactical Networks, night vision goggles, and when that didn't work, heavy machine guns, helicopters, searchlights, hell they could call on tanks if they wanted to.
Whimpering in fear Hannah hugged her knees to her chest and just rocked back and forth crying into them, terrified by the knowledge of how greatly outmatched she now was. In desperation Hannah tried to think of a strategy, any strategy. She couldn't take them on, and running around hiding was right out. They could sit there a mile away watching her heat source on their night vision screens, lining up the snipers to take her down. Despondently Hannah decided the only thing she could do was keep to her original plan. To leave the base and hike towards one of the towns nearby, hopefully she could then call her Mom to come pick her up and explain what had happened.
Hannah had been forced through the green belts, along the brooks, by all the MPs and their constant patrolling of the roads. She had been walking the boundaries without finding any way past the MPs patrolling the fence line. Hopefully the Reaction Force would instead try and hunt her, leaving the boundaries unpatrolled. Hannah decided to once again follow a stream and hopefully this time she'd find an unguarded way off base.
Resolutely Hannah released her knees and turned to the exit. Making her way through the weeds, Hannah walked down the incline to the brook. Instead of moving across the crossing, she stopped, looking at the slow moving water in the ankle high brook thoughtfully. If she had the Rangers after her, they had trackers. This brook led into town, she could use it to try and lose any trackers and also to try and leave the base away from the roads and the gates the MPs were guarding. Still exhausted, even after her short nap, that was the best Hannah could think of right now. Petrified, desperate to get out before the Reaction Team cornered her, Hannah almost ran down into the brook, turning she began making for the perimeter of the base, crouching low and keeping a lookout for MPs.
A tank? Here? Hannah barely had time to register the shock before the machine in front of her rotated its turret and lined her up. Desperately, falling over in her haste, Hannah scrambled back along the brook and around the corner, when with a loud bang she found herself flying through the air. Shocked, disorientated by the light and sound, it took Hannah a while to realise she wasn't hurt. Numbly, patting herself down she realised that she hadn't suffered any injuries. Dazzled she rolled over and watched the ground still flowing along below her as she tried to make sense of things.
Lily giggled. "Looks like I'm not the only one who's shield is tank proof," she murmured.
"Not quite," Hank answered with a grimace.
"The tank got you?" Lily demanded horrified.
Hank shook his head. "It wasn't a tank, afterwards they explained it was a Bradley M3 Recon Vehicle, and all that hit me was some 25 millimetre cannon and the blast wave of a near miss from its anti-tank missile."
Lily just glared up at him. "It has tracks and armour and a gun! It has missiles to kill other tanks. Hank, that's a tank!" Hank just looked down at her and shrugged, causing Lily to sigh. "How many times did you get cornered like that? I heard you dodged them through the woods for a week?" she asked reaching up to touch his shoulder.
Hank blushed, and looked away. "Um, not quite. I ah," turning back to Lily he swallowed nervously and almost whispered, "I hid."
Had the tank fired at her? What had it fired? Why hadn't it hurt her?
Looking down at the ground sailing past Hannah's addled mind tried to sort out what had happened. Absently she noticed the JROTC billet coming up, looking towards the open window of the private locker room she shared with Corporal Bryne, Hannah thought longingly of a nice hot shower and the spare uniform she had left in her locker all those weeks ago. It wasn't until she was climbing through the window, two floors above the ground, that what had happened penetrated. She could fly! A tank had shot her and she could fly!
Stunned, Hannah turned and gaped out the window, confirming she'd somehow flown across the whole of the parade ground and the woods from the perimeter of the base, up to the second floor window of the women's locker room, and climbed in the window three floors up a sheer wall. Knees trembling, Hannah turned and, leaning on the wall, stumbled to her locker. She pulled out the battle dress she'd left here after changing into her PT uniform all those many weeks ago, before this whole nightmare had started, and gathering her toiletries bag stumbled for the shower. Maybe she was dreaming. Maybe a nice hot shower would wake her up. At the very least, a shower and clean clothes would stop the shivers and shakes currently making it so hard for her legs to hold her up.
Sitting in the corner of the stall, the warm water cascading down, Hannah slowly stopped shivering, and as the adrenaline left her and her heart stopped running a mile a minute, her panic lessened. Now that she was not being chased, Hannah slowly stopped crying, and again tried to think, to plan.
She'd been lucky just now, no way they where expecting her to fly, let alone survive being shot by a tank!, but she couldn't do that again. The simplest of observation posts on the hill equipped with IR scopes would spot her immediately if she flew anywhere, and warn wherever she was going. All the roads were being patrolled, and the exits, and they had put a cordon around the perimeter and between the fields and the housing. Hannah was trapped, and she knew she couldn't take on professional soldiers. Come daylight they would start quartering the countryside until they pinned her down, and who knew what they'd shot her with then, eventually they'd find something that worked.
Starting to shiver again at the thought of being hunted and cornered and shot like a rabid animal, Hannah felt the tears falling before she ruthlessly forced them down yet again and took a deep breath. Basics. Got to concentrate on the basics. The soldiers aren't here yet.
Standing up she turned off the water, dried herself and slowly got dressed. Stepping out of the shower stall, Hannah picked up her discarded clothes, absently wringing out the water from where they had lain in the bottom of the shower stall getting soaked. Looking at the wet pile of clothes Hannah sighed. With absent minded neatness, Hannah stepped across to her locker and hung them up inside to dry, absently returning her toiletries to the top shelf before she closed the door, leaning with her head against it as she unsuccessfully tried to stop the tears. Sliding down the locker, Hannah wrapped her arms tightly around her legs, pulling them tight to her chest as she sobbed into them.
Finally sighing, Hannah stood, scrubbing the tears away from her face as she turned and looked around the room, vaguely hopping for … stepladder. Eyes darting to the roof access Hannah stared up and remembered the sniper’s hide, with its scope and blanket. The JROTC had just finished their latest weekend deployment, one of the reasons Jay had been so upset with Mom going out, because Hannah had spent the last weekend alone with her while he had been here. Nobody would be back here until Friday!
Running to the window, Hannah carefully looked out. Not immediately seeing anyone she leant out and looked around, leaning right out so she could see the carpark, no cars! No Humvees, no anything! Smiling Hannah closed the window again and turned and stared up at the access with a smile, before turning to get the stepladder.
It was only as she had positioned the ladder under the access that she remembered something. Standing at the base of the ladder, looking up she frowned, and then looked down at her feet. She had flown right? Curiously she frowned and imagined herself floating, and with wide-eyed delight watched as her feet left the floor easily. Eagerly she turned her face upwards, towards the access above her, and with her hands slowly reaching out, moved the access gently aside as she floated effortlessly up to it. Hugging herself tight, Hannah giggled in delight as she effortlessly tumbled and spun through the roof of the JROTC block, dodging through the trusses with ease, before a bright light sweeping through the roof space caused her to squeal in surprise and flatten herself against the roof, heart beating loudly in her chest as she looked wildly about, breath held in terror.
Seeing there was nobody about, and realising the light must have come through the slots near the hide, Hannah cautiously floated towards the slots and timidly looked out. Tail lights. Hannah let out a breath she'd forgotten she was holding. The headlights of a humvee had flashed through the slots as it went past on the road, one of the endless patrols of the MPs. Looking out Hannah frowned, she could still see the headlights of the humvees as they patrolled the roads, obviously they were still looking for her. Turning to the east she saw that the first traces of light were appearing, they had chased her all through the night. Slumping to the floor, leaning against the slats Hannah gave in to the tears. Daylight was here, the Airborne was here. They would hunt her down and she had no chance.
Hannah didn't know how long she cried, but when she stopped, wiped her eyes and looked back out the window, the pre-dawn glow was covering the sky. She could see across the fields herself, and the patrolling humvees had switched off their headlights. No way, even flying, was she going to make it back into the woods without being seen. Looking back the way she had come Hannah frowned that there were no patrols of soldiers visible. Curious, she went to the scope and, slowly scanning it along the woods line, found a patrol and watched them. They were looking back into the woods. Holding her breath Hannah watched them walk over the path from the woods to the compound and then just keep going, following the woods line on the other side.
Hannah sat back in puzzlement. How could they have not seen her tracks?
Oh! Hannah smiled. Because she had been flying! They didn't know she had left the woods! They didn't know she was here. Wait. They didn't know she was here! Nobody would be here to Friday, and there were no signs she was here. Unless for some reason they started searching all the buildings they'd never find her here!
Hannah hugged herself in relief. She could hide! She could go down to the mess and grab some food and just hide up here! Once they gave up she could then sneak back home and tell Mom what had happened and Mom would sort it out!
Crying her relief Hannah floated off for the access hole, she needed to gather some supplies from the mess and then put the stepladder back and make sure to clean up and return everything to normal so they would not find her.
"So you just hid? Waited them out and came home?" Lily demanded.
"Not quite," Hank replied with a slight blush.
"They started searching the buildings and caught you? Not good enough to outsmart the Rangers?" Lily laughingly teased.
"No," Hank wiggled uncomfortably red all the way to his neck. "They didn't give up, nor did they start searching the buildings."
"Then what happened?" Lily pressed confused.
"My Cadet company caught me," Hank finally acknowledged, head hung in shame.
Hannah hummed happily as she finished making herself a late lunch in the mess, washing the pot and racking it before sitting down to eat. Daydreaming of how she'd get even with Jay once the search for her stopped and she could get back home, Hannah froze in horror at the sound of a slamming door. Dropping her knife and fork she dived for the window, staring in disbelief at the car parked outside she hadn't even noticed arrive, too busy fantasising to pay attention to what she must have been hearing.
Just then another car came into the parking lot and Hannah stared in horror. Friday! It was Friday! The JROTC corps where assembling, and as it was summer break they assembled early to make full use of the daylight for exercises!
Running from the mess Hannah fled for the third floor, and the woman's locker room, her access to the roof-space and safety. Running down the corridor Hannah looked up and stopped in shock, the door to the locker room was open! Slowly creeping up, Hannah heard noises from the room, and pressing herself up against the wall of the corridor desperately tried to think of another place to hide. Looking around, she spied the janitor's closet, and almost dived for it, before she remembered Corporal OCD, almost the first thing she'd do when she arrived would be to clean the heads.
Looking around desperately for another place to hide, Hannah spied the stairs and smiled. On the floor below was another janitor's closet, and that one only she ever used, it had the stocks for cleaning the 'girl's barracks'. As silently as possible she creeped along the corridor, before turning and running down the stairs for the safety of the janitor's closet.
Finishing mopping the floor, Corporal Bryne emptied the bucket and glanced out the window, sighing as she saw all the milling boys. With Sergeant Lennox caught up still chasing the intruder that murdered Hannah, she was running the JROTC this week. Gathering up the mop and bucket, she carried them back to the janitor's closet, putting them away tidy before making her way downstairs to the mess and the second of the two main tasks she did each week before JROTC, cleaning the kitchen so that the mothers who came in to help could fix the boys a snack to eat before leaving.
Opening the door and making her way over to the kitchen, it was only an absent glance that had her noticing the knocked over chair. Looking at it she automatically glanced up at the table that the chair was supposed to be at, noticing the meal on the table and frowned. Making her way over she was shocked to see the meal was still warm! Staring at the meal she sighed, picking up the chair she placed it neatly under the table, then gathering the plate and cutlery carried them to the cleaning bay, leaving them on the bench neatly as she left the mess and made her way for the office.
"Yes, it was a meal, obviously some homeless person using the mess again. No, still warm, they probably ran off when they heard me arrive. Yes. OK, if you organise an MP patrol to search outside, I'll get the JROTC boys to search the building and make sure he left. No, there is no need, they have done it before, they know what to do. We use it as an exercise in 'urban search'.
Hanging up Corporal Bryne strode for the parade ground where the boy's were gathering.
Carefully, creeping along the corridor with rifle ready, Ritter paused at the door to the second floor janitor's closet. Swallowing he nodded to Stevenson who just as nervously nodded back. Reaching forward Stevenson carefully grabbed the handle, before he quickly turned it and jumped back, pulling the door open. Jumping forward, rifle leading, Ritter charged the closet, turning at a startled yelp, pointing the rifle at the turned back of a battle dressed figure, crouched with arms over their head, in the corner of the closet. Adrenaline pumping, eyes wide in fear, Ritter almost squeezed the trigger before a patch on the shoulder caught the light and his attention. Staring in disbelief at the patch Ritter demanded incredulously. "Hannah?"
Slowly turning to face the rifle, arms still protectively above her head, tears streaming down her face Hannah nodded slowly.
"Why do you look like a boy?" Ritter demanded lowering his rifle, as Stevenson crowded the doorway, trying to look over Ritter's shoulder.
"I am a boy." Hannah sniffed unhappily.
"Was it something the mutant did to you?" Ritter demanded terrified, backing up hastily into the corridor with Stevenson.
"I am the mutant, and now a boy too." Sinking back into the corner of the closet, Hannah pulled her knees to her chest, crossed arms over her knees, sank her head to her arms and just wept dejectedly into her crossed arms.
Staring at the weeping Hannah, Ritter froze. Numbly he lowered his rifle, not having been aware he'd even trained it on Hannah as he'd backed away from her. Exchanging looks with Stevenson, Ritter looked back and forth between the weeping Hannah and the empty corridor. Finally he turned from the closest, starting down the corridor he built up speed till he was pelting down the corridor, not even pausing as he screamed at the top of his lungs. "Corporal! We've found Hannah! Corporal!"
Hannah lay sobbing on the bed in the base hospital, pillow clutched tight to her chest. After a nurse had checked her out and declared her fine, some men had escorted her to the base gymnasium, where men she had never seen before, men in white coats with other men in high ranking military blues supervised them, had run her through a gruelling series of tests. Other than ordering Hannah to perform certain tasks, nobody would talk to her. When she had demanded her mother they had ignored her.
Once finished, still without any explanation, Hannah was escorted back to the hospital, where they had moved her into her own room, with the door shut and an MP guarding it. Hannah hadn't missed the way the MP convulsively clutched his sidearm at seeing her, nor the guarded and ready way he had stood as she walked past him and into the room. Nor that the MP had escorted the nurse into the room, standing in the corner by the door all the time the nurse had settled her in.
While he had not drawn his sidearm, Hannah watched as the MP had kept his hand on the pistol's grip the whole time he was in the room, also he'd stepped carefully back and forth as the nurse settled Hannah, making sure to keep a clear shooting solution on Hannah at all times. Hannah may no longer be hiding in the roof from armed soldiers, but it was obvious to her she'd swapped hunted freedom, for guarded captivity. Either way, they were still treating her like a wild beast. As soon as the nurse had left, the door had been shut and locked, sealing Hannah into a room with no windows and only a single exit. Hannah collapsed onto the bed and wept.
"Through here sir." At the sound of the door opening, Hannah convulsively turned over, staring at it wearily. "I was just off to fetch a meal," the nurse continued.
"That won't be necessary," a deep voice ordered.
"Daddy!" Hannah gasped, sitting up in surprised delight, face turning towards the door yearningly.
Stepping into the room, dressed in his new, imposing Army Colonel's uniform, Hannah's dad paused to study her before nodding and turning back to the nurse, "If you'll excuse us?" he said, phrasing his order as a question. "And when my wife arrives, have her escorted here too please," he finished with absent-minded politeness as the nurse left, closing the door behind her.
Staring up at her father, Hannah's heart leaped with joy. Daddy was here! Everything was going to be fine! Smiling up at her father as he strode across the room, Hannah's arms automatically started rising as she leaned forward eagerly to hug him.
"Well now, that was an interesting few days wasn't it son?" her Dad said smiling as he lent down and patted her shoulder, gripping it tightly before letting go and standing back up.
Son? Hannah stared up at her father in stunned disbelief, her arms still raised for the hug that wasn't coming.
"Your mother and I have talked," Hannah's father continued, standing at parade rest before her. "And it is pretty obvious we'll need to get you off base as soon as possible," he continued as Hannah stared up at him desperately, finally dropping her arms to her side again. "It's nearly time for you to start your new school anyway, and after the last few days we've contacted a special school, they've suggested you start there this weekend."
"You're still sending me away?" Hannah protested. "But everybody knows now! Can't I stay?" Silently Hannah pleaded with her father to make it better, to fix it all and allow her to stay.
With a disappointed glance towards Hannah her father sighed. "Yes, everyone knows, but that's not a good thing. You stood up to a Bradley!" he gave a small laugh. "How do you think the other parents feel about a boy who did that in school with their kids? I'm sorry, but it's out of the question you attending school here, luckily there is a school where you'll fit right in, Whateley Academy."
Since her father stopped talking and looked expectantly at her, Hannah swallowed and asked the question she believed he wanted her to ask. "Whateley Academy?" she enquired softly.
"Yes, Whateley Academy. It is one of the JROTC scholarship schools, only Whateley is a special school for mutants, to help train them how to use their powers safely. As I said, with what happened over the last week, they are anxious to get you there for Sunday, so as soon as your Mom gets here we'll take you and get you packed up and on a train tonight."
"You're shipping me out tonight!" Hannah demanded in disbelief.
"My assistant is booking the trains now, you'll probably need to spend a night in Washington, and another in Boston, but that's something we'll sort when the tickets arrive, for now, when your mother arrives we'll bust you out of here and back home." Smiling he stepped forward, patted her shoulder again and nodded, before turning and making for the door.
"Daddy!" Hannah moaned softly in wounded loss, staring at the door, closing behind her father, here! But it was all still wrong!
Tears pouring down, once more lying dejectedly on the bed, pillow clutched tight, Hannah sobbed her heartbreak to the empty room.
Sitting on her bed in her room at home, Hannah looked around the room carefully. By the door were the garbage bags, waiting to be drop off at the charity bins, filled with remnants of her discarded life. Dresses, skirts, blouses, toys, even panties, all ruthlessly thrown away to remove the 'girl', leaving behind only the 'boy'. The only clothes Hannah didn't throw away were the boots, socks and pants of her battle dress, not even her shirts had been kept, thrown away with their patches and commendations to 'Hannah'. New ones, boys ones, with the buttons on the 'proper' side and patches for 'Hank', had been delivered by her mother soon after Hannah stepped back into her room.
Ruthlessly, but with a gentleness at odds with her bleak expression, Hannah stood and gathered up Teddy, Princess and Tanya from the shelf where they had presided over her room since she arrived at Fort Bragg. Coming back to the bed she sat next to the box. Tenderly Hannah added the teddy bear and her two barbie dolls to the stack of DVDs and books already carefully packed in the box.
Tears in her eyes Hannah closed the lid. Crying freely she took masking tape and sealed the box tight. Standing she carried it across the room to the closet, opening the door to carefully slide the box onto the top shelf. Standing, leaning with her head resting on her crossed arms against the closet door she wept away all her dreams and desires, mercilessly erasing 'Hannah' from her future.
Standing tall, Hank sniffed a few more times, then strode to the cleared off dressing table, still in pride of place against the wall of the room. He pulled some tissues from the tissue box, the only thing still disturbing the pristine emptiness of its surface. Blowing his nose he leaned forward to stare into the mirror, absently folding the used tissues and throwing them into the bin below. Seeing his tear-stained face, Hank reached over and snatched a few more tissues from the box, savagely drying his eyes and wiping his face. Staring directly into the mirror Hank attempted to perfect his emotionless facade. Satisfied eventually, Hank threw away the tear-stained tissues and turned his back on the dressing table, marching stiff-backed to the bed.
Hank bent down, picked up the army duffle bag lying there, and slinging the strap over his shoulder stood back up. After a final glassy-eyed glare around the room, Hank strode out of the door, attempting to erase 'Hannah' from his mind, determined to 'embrace' his new life as his mother wanted him to. To succeed in his studies, excel at JROTC. Make his father proud.
"So you just pushed down Hannah, became only Hank?" Lily asked aghast. Hank nodded slowly, eyes still red from the tears he had shed telling Lily his story. "Pushed away everything you thought of as 'girly'?" Hank nodded again. "Repressed it for everyone but Jamie?" Lily pressed.
"Jamie. Jamie was different," Hank mumbled, squeezing his fists tight at the memory. Taking a deep breath Hank slowly, deliberately, calmed himself before turning back to Lily. "Jamie. Jamie had it so rough when she arrived. In Doyle his first day, all his family dead, everything he said coming out wrong and backwards, and he really, really hated his body." Hank had to pause and close his eyes, forcing back the tears that threatened again. "Everything that was happening to her, all the spirits that changed her. So, so I told him. Told him of how I too had changed. That I understood how he felt, at least a little. Showed him my Hannah box to prove it. Then. Then he wanted to watch a movie, one she remembered from when she was happy. I. I couldn't say no, she looked so lost and lonely. So we did. And. And it made me happy to remember too, and …" By now the tears were flowing again. Hank, unable to continue, just stared forlornly at Lily.
"Jamie. Jamie became the friend you always wanted?" Lily whispered softly.
Crying silently Hank nodded, "I. I had someone, someone like me. Someone I could share secrets with…" Turning Hank buried his head into Lily's open shoulder and just wept, shoulders shaking with his grief, as Lily hugged him tight and did her best to comfort him. Eventually Hank cried himself out, then finally, with a silent hug of thanks, Hank pushed himself off Lily's shoulder and turned to give her a tearful smile. "Thank you," he whispered, drying his eyes on his sleeve and sitting back up. With a final shaky smile to Lily, Hank picked up his knife and fork and slowly returned to eating his dinner.
After a hard stare of disbelief, Lily too slowly picked up her knife and fork, and with many a worried glance towards Hank, she too returned to finishing her meal.
With a final forkful, Hank chewed and swallowed, returning his knife and fork neatly to his plate. Finished, Hank turned and watched Lily as she fastidiously cut and chewed her food, taking her time and doing it right, even though as an energiser she ate way more then he did. Moving till he could place an arm around her shoulders, Hank leaned over and gave Lily a hug, smiling timidly as Lily turned to face him and smiled her joy up at him.
"Are you finished?" Hank asked quietly as Lily eventually put down her fork and used a napkin to wipe her face. At her concerned nod Hank stood. "Come," he requested, gently pulling her up after him.
"Where are we going?" Lily asked warily as she rose, gathering her purse and securing it over her shoulder by its long strap.
"To see some statues," Hank offered with a shy smile. Eyes wide in delight at his remembrance of their first date, Lily eagerly pressed herself up against his side, feet moving almost in dance steps as she followed along, her happiness for all to see in her eyes and posture.