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Parents' Day

A round-robin by the Whateley authors

Edited by Diane, who didn't run as fast as everyone else


November 11, 2006
New Hampshire, USA

Each fall, Pickman Tours ran buses throughout New Hampshire for tourists who wanted to view the fabled 'turning of the leaves' in New England. Pickman was particularly popular with budget tourists who wanted to see the colors and other sites (such as the famous covered bridges) without shelling out the prices that the typical New England inns charged.

This particular bus was different. Like many others, it traveled the back roads of New Hampshire – northern, inland New Hampshire, in this case. As it traveled the main highway, it passed through a set of passive and undetectable scans. The more intensive scans would come later.

The road turned through a gentle curve. Trees, gentle hills and strategically placed vegetation cut off the view from the road ahead and the road behind. During the sixty seconds that it was out of sight of the traffic ahead and behind, a panel van parked alongside the road accelerated back onto the highway. At the same time, the bus turned suddenly and departed the highway on what appeared to be a rough gravel road.

The panel van flickered and an image came into being around it, 'rezzing up' in a sparkle of photons – the image of a Pickman Tours bus. An image identical to the bus that had just departed the highway, complete to duplicating the license plates, registration numbers and the appearances of the passengers on board. The false bus would continue on to Concord where it would pull into an abandoned warehouse before dropping the illusion.

Every year, the bus and the panel van took different routes and performed their little exchange at different locations. This was only one of the precautions taken to ensure that the passengers on board would not be traced to their destination. There would be many more checks to come and equally stringent procedures would be taken on the way back.

The true bus continued on, rolling smoothly across the "gravel" road. An hour later, it rolled through the final and most thorough gauntlet of identification and scans then continued on to proceed through the gates of Whateley Academy. The bus finally rolled up in front of Shuster Hall, where a knot of eager students was waiting for it. Instead of camera-toting tourists, the bus let off small groups of two, three or four obviously related people or even the odd single parent.

A comparatively large group of seven African Americans stepped off the bus. There were two pre-teens, two teenagers, a pair of adults that were rather obviously their parents, and an older woman who looked to be either in her late fifties or well-kept sixties. The children were obviously in their Sunday-go-to-Church clothes, despite the fact that the eldest boy had his tie deliberately askew and was wearing his coat half off his shoulders in an attempt to preserve his rebel credentials. The couple was comfortable in their chic expensive professionals' suits. The elder woman was also well dressed and trim, evidently an attractive woman who was determined to age gracefully. She acknowledged her age by blending her iron-gray streaks into highlights for her elegant hairstyle. The group looked into the eclectic horde of students all calling for their loved ones, clearly trying to figure out what they were supposed to do.

Then there was a figure hopping up at the back, waving a hand wildly. "YOO-HOO!" Chaka ruthlessly elbowed her way through the knot of students. When she finally got to her family, she blurted out, "Grammy!" and gave the elder woman a fierce hug.

Evadne Chandler pulled the teenager from her and goggled. "Tony? Is that YOU?"

Toni grinned widely and giggled, "Yeah, Grammy, it's me." She stepped back and gave a spin, showing off her Whateley school uniform, which really did make the best of her gazelle slenderness. "What do you think?"

"You look GREAT!" Lucy enthused.

"Yeah, yer the perfect li'l Oreo." Vince sneered. Toni just answered him by sticking out her tongue and ignoring him.

What's this? Tony's not letting Vince push him- er, HER, around? Evadne wondered. She favored Toni with a wide warm smile and said in a voice of unconditional grand-parental love and approval that Phylicia Rashad would have envied, "You look absolutely lovely, dear." Then she enveloped her new granddaughter in another hug.

Toni proceeded to pass around hugs to her mother and, with a minor hesitation on his part, her father. Vince was glowering at her and Cindy was giving her the cold shoulder so Toni passed on them. She warmly greeted her little sister and brother with big hugs, over Matt's loud protests. When she put Matt down, she turned to her assembled family and chirped, "So! Let's get started with the tour!"

As they started climbing the stairs of Shuster Hall, Toni said, "Okay, first of all, around here, I'm not Toni. Okay, so I sort of am, but only to my friends. When you refer to me, call me 'Chaka'."

"Chaka?" Valerie and Evadne said as one.

"Yep, it's my code name. For security purposes and all that."

"Y'mean, like a superhero?" Matt piped up.

"Yep!" As they stepped through the regal oaken front doors of Shuster Hall, Toni continued, "As a matter of fact, that's why we're starting the tour here."

The Homer Gallery was open, and small groups of students and their parents were filtering through. Matt gawped in wonder at the wax figure of Champion, especially when he was told that the outfit was actually one that Champion had worn in many battles. Vince was in silent awe of the metric ton pile of gold ingots that Gabriella Guzman had donated. Even Cindy was impressed by the line of costumes that all had been worn by a superheroine called 'Blue Comet'. Apparently, the Blue Comet was something of a clothes horse. But Evadne stopped cold and glared with a gorgon's gaze at one exhibit. "What's that?"

Mrs. Linford came over. "Oh, that? That's a helmet that used to belong to the White Knight."

Evadne's face set like stone. "Which of the White Knights?"

"The one that operated the Deep South, in the Nineteen Fifties and Sixties."

"The Klansman?" Evadne set a dead flat voice.

"Yes."

"HE was a student here?"

"Oh No! He was WELL before Whateley's time. And," Linford said in an 'African-American to African-American' way, "he didn't exactly donate it, either. No, this was the helmet that he was wearing when Black Lion beat the crap out of him in Richmond, back in '66. The White Knight was arrested and Black Lion took his helmet as a trophy."

"Black Lion was a part of Whateley?" Evadne asked, in a much different tone of voice.

"No, but when the word about Whateley started making the rounds, Black Lion sent this trophy, as a show of his approval."

"Ah." Evadne said with much satisfaction. She looked at the helmet with a gleam in her eye. "Good."

"You, ah, knew, the White Knight?" Linford asked, delicately.

"We... met... rather dramatically... during the march from Selma. I and two of my best girl-friends spent over a week in the hospital, because of him." She looked at the helmet with a smile of displaced revenge. "I hear that he died in prison."

Joel Chandler looked at his mother. "I didn't know that you were in the Selma March, Momma."

Evadne just tossed her head. "Yes, I was. So were a hundred thousand other black folks."

"Why did you march from Selma, Grammy?" Matt asked, looking up at her. "Didn't you like her?"

Evadne looked down at her youngest grandchild and smiled. "It's a long story. I'll tell you all about it on the trip back."

Linford nodded respectfully. "Well then. There's an exhibit that you should see." Linford led them from the Homer Gallery to a trophy case in the main hall. She pointed to one shelf where was displayed a photograph, a black Japanese sword in its sheath and an odd glass pendant that dangled from the hilt of the sword. "We're not the only school for mutants. There's a school in Japan called the Yama Dojo. Only they focus on training ninjas with special powers, not producing healthy, well-rounded individuals. Every so often, they send in a team of ninjas to steal something from us, just to prove that they can. Mind you, there's nothing really malicious about it, it's sort of like West Point cadets stealing the Navy goat, just before the Army-Navy game. Well, the last team that they sent in tried to steal the bust of Edgar Allan Poe. Oh, let me explain - each of the cottages here is named after a great American author and each cottage has a bust of that author in its entry hall as a sort of 'mascot'. As I said, the Yama Dojo sent in a team to steal the bust of Poe, and well, Toni and her friends caught them at it. Nobody at Whateley ever even so much as saw one of the Yama Dojo teams before. But, not only did Team Kimba catch-"

"Team Kimba?" Joel asked.

"That's my team's name: Team Kimba." Toni explained.

"They not only caught the ninjas in the act but they beat them in combat!" Linford pointed at the glass pendant. "Toni faced off against the leader of the ninjas in single combat and beat him with one of his own ninja tricks, which she'd never seen before. And, she did it before he could break that pendant." Linford explained that the glass pendant was the sigil of a Yama Dojo team leader; it was made of glass so as to be broken if they were captured, to prevent any proof of the Yama Dojo's involvement. "The Yama Dojo ransomed the masks and most of the swords that we captured with the ninjas. But we've kept that one ninja-to and the pendant. Just to... prove a point."

"You fought ninjas?" Valerie Chandler asked her daughter.

"Yeah, I mentioned it in my postcard home, remember?"

"You did?"

"Yes, I remember exactly - I wrote: I arrived, am settling in, and have had my first fight with Ninjas."

"Oh, that. I thought that you were kidding."

"So, I s'poze you think you're hot shit now, huh?" Vince asked belligerently. His mother, grandmother and eldest sister all slapped him into silence.

"You'll have to excuse my eldest male grandchild, Mrs. Linford," Evadne offered, "I assure you, my other grandchildren are much better behaved." She shot the kids a look that told them that they'd best not make a liar of her.

Arm in arm, Toni lead Evadne out of Shuster Hall, back out onto the campus grounds, with the rest of the family trailing afterwards. Evadne tried not to goggle as a young girl who looked like a teenaged 'funny animal' horse walked by. "Toni, is it ALWAYS like this?"

"Nope, Grammy, t'day's a 'Green Flag Day'. Y'see, we gotta keep a low profile most of the time." She explained about the 'Flag' system. "BUT, this is Parent's Day! This is like THE Green Flag Day! Everyone's trotting out their weird for the parents to see!"

As if on cue, there was a loud, high-pitched whoop of excitement. They looked up to see a lithe dark-haired, olive-skinned girl who appeared to be riding a small cloud through the air. She did a few loops and barrel rolls with it. Then she saw the Chandlers. "CHAKA!" She swooped down and hopped off the cloud. The mists cleared, revealing a small disk-shaped platform with strange flanges on the undercarriage. The girl tucked the disk under her arm, ran up to Toni and gave her a savage hug.

"Rip! What's this?"

"Oh, This? It's new, Bunny's been working on it for me for a while now, and it doesn't even need gas or batteries or anything, I just use my wave power and it FLIES, and it is SO KEWL!"

"Rip, calm down! Grammy, Folks, this is Riptide. She has a real name but we just call her 'Rip'. She lives just down the hallway from me, at Poe Cottage, and she's like one of my best buds. Rip, this is my Grammy Evadne. My Mom and Dad and the rest of the kids."

Rip burbled that she was happy to see them and went on from there. Toni cut her off. "So, showing off for your folks?"

"Naw, the 'rents won't be here until, like, One or Two, and I just got this and I hadda get in some practice time before they got here and it's been like FOREVER since the last Green Flag day! Oh, Toni, you GOTTA let me take you up for a ride, it is just so utterly-"

Rip's plea was cut off when they heard someone else calling Chaka's name. A tall boy with straw-colored hair trotted up. His Whateley uniform did little to hide his promising athletic build. He beamed at the assembled Chandlers, "Hey, Toni! Is this your family?"

Toni disengaged her arm from Evadne's and snuggled up to Scott. "Yep! Everyone, this is Thunderbird, or Scott when he's not on duty." She slipped her arm possessively through his. "He's sorta my official boyfriend. Scotty, this is my Grammy Evadne. My Mom and Dad. My sisters, Cindy and Lucy. The little one's Matt. And that one over there is Vince. Don't pay him any mind." As Toni introduced each one, Scott smiled at them in turn and offered his hand to shake. Joel paused very so slightly but shook the young man's hand. Cindy was a little more... measuring... when she shook T-Bird's hand and Vince tried the old crushing grip bit. He pulled back his hand, massaged his aching fingers and gave T-Bird a look of new respect.

"So, Scotty! Are your parents here?" Toni asked.

"Nope, I'm a sophomore and Parent's Day is mostly for freshmen. People wanna see what their kids are up to and all like that. M'Dad's real busy this year and Mom won't come without him."

"So, ah, what do you do?" Joel asked, rapidly wrapping his head around the fact that his former second eldest son was not only now his second eldest daughter, but had a boyfriend, and a white boyfriend at that.

"Oh, my dad runs a business that maintains and repairs farm equipment and my mom-"

"No, no, I mean- what do YOU do. Y'know... your mutant..."

"What's my power?" Scott replied amiably. "Not to worry, Mr. Chandler, it's a stock question around here. Well, to be honest, I do it all! I'm what's called a 'Mimic'. I'm a Shifter, which means that I can control the shape of my body and other stuff. But unlike, say, my brother S- er, 'Jigsaw', who was also a shifter and was able to do stuff like turn his hand into a crab's claw or give himself bat-ears, what I do is copy the biological patterns of other mutants. I'm not as good at it as they are, and it's usually not as powerful, but there you are. I do have one power that's on all the time."

Scott raised a finger and stepped back. He spread his arms out and a figure of a great bird of prey made of electricity formed around him. The 'bird' spread its wings and Scott lifted off the ground. He flew up, did a somersault in midair and landed.

"Whoooaaa..." breathed Matt reverently.

"Sooo... you're one of those Energizers that I read about in the brochure?" Joel asked.

"No, I'm a faux-Avatar. Don't let it bug you, Mr. Chandler, it's complicated and most people don't get it. Heck, it drove the R & D guys here bats for months 'til they figured it out. Thunderbird isn't just my code name, it's the spirit that I've bonded with. We're still not sure exactly how that works but Sparky, the spirit that's inside me, channels magical power through me."

"So, you're possessed?" Evadne asked.

Scott waggled his hand in a 'sorta yes, sorta no' gesture. "Sparky's there but we get along okay; every so often he sorta gives me a nudge- or a whap upside the head- when he thinks that I ought'a be doin' something, but that's only so often."

Valerie looked like she was about to open up her bag of interrogation tricks on Toni's first boyfriend when another woman walked up. "Excuse me, but are you 'Chaka' and did I hear you say that that boy is your boyfriend?"

That definitely stopped the conversation. "Yeah, I'm Chaka- and you are?"

The woman set a hand on her hip. "My handle's 'Lightwave' and I'm Dredz' mother." She was tall, athletic and dark skinned from what showed through her half-mask. She was wearing a skintight black leotard that showed off every inch of her impressive physique. There was a golden sunburst on her left shoulder and the rest of the body stocking was somehow iridescent so that 'sunbeams' seemed to shine out from the sunburst across her body. What of her face as showed through the half-mask was classically African and her hair streamed down in long dreadlocks to just past her shoulder. All in all, a quite formidable package.

"Who's 'Dreads'?" Joel asked, clearly out of his depth.

Toni gave a martyred grunt, "Aaahhh... he's this guy who thinks that I'm his girlfriend."

Lightwave fixed Toni with a lioness glower and folded her arms across her impressive chest, "Exactly. When my husband and I came up here, all that Dredz could talk about was this great girl that he'd met and how they were an item. I decided to find out what all the fuss was about and asked a few questions. And I didn't much like what I heard. And now, when I finally find you, I find you introducing THIS boy to your family as your boyfriend! Okay, what's up?"

"What is UP, Ma'am," blared a loud strident male voice, "is that that girl has TURNED HER BACK ON HER OWN!"

"Oh, crud," Toni groaned, "the hits just keep on coming."

Lightwave turned to face five young black people, four of them standing in supportive rows behind their leader, a tall burly African American boy with a shaven head wearing a red Chinese martial arts tunic. "Okay, and who are YOU and what business is this of yours?"

"*I* am N'Dizi, leader of the Tiger Martial Arts club here at Whateley. Our mission here at Whateley is to give African American mutants the focus and discipline of the Martial Arts and a sense of their own African identity-"

"In other words," Chaka said in a flat weary voice, "they're the local version of the Soul Patrol."

"We have watched as that child has continuously forsaken her own kind to consort with the White Oppressor-" N'Dizi continued on, getting into his spiel, "even to the point of prostituting herself with that pasty-faced piece of white bread over there."

Thunderbird stiffened at N'Dizi summing up his relationship with Chaka as 'prostitution' but let Toni handle it. "In other words," Chaka continued 'translating', "I insist on hanging out with people that I actually LIKE, instead of associating with idiots, based on their color."

N'Dizi stiffened and started his next charge but he was cut off when three people hurried up. "Man, you are popular!" Matt said.

The parents of the threesome were unremarkable. The father was stocky and square-faced and the mother was reasonably attractive, if maternal. The child was remarkable chiefly because she was trotting along awkwardly in a full-body brace. Other than that, she was a rather average looking eleven-year old girl of Hispanic origins. "Excuse me, but are you Chaka?" the father asked eagerly.

"Yeah, that's me," Toni answered. "Hey, Diz! Are these your folks?"

"Yes," agreed the mother, "Dr. Cho, Desidera's doctor-"

"Desidera? Is that your real name, Diz?"

Diz nodded eagerly. "Anyway, Dr. Cho told us that you can touch Desi," Diz's mother continued, "Is this for real?"

"Ah, yeah, I figured a way of getting past Di- Desi's force field. Once I did that, she learned how to recognize me and let me past her force field."

"She has super powers?" Matt asked. "Howcum she gets super powers and I don't?"

Toni ignored her younger brother, "So, you want me to help you get past her force field?"

Diz's mother nodded eagerly.

"Excuse me," Evadne cut in, "but WHY doesn't this poor child just let the force field fall?"

"Well, Grammy, that's a lot more easily said than done," Chaka explained. "Y'see, Desi here has a force field. It's so powerful that she can lift eight tons with it."

"Coooolll..." Matt breathed.

"Sorry, Mutt, but NOT cool. Y'see, it's ALWAYS on, at full blast. It ALWAYS deflects everything smaller than a dust mite with eight tons of force. When she touches something- ANYTHING- she always hits it with enough power to knock a train off its tracks. She can't NOT hit everything with everything she's got."

"Can TOO!" Diz blared indignantly. "I can hold back a whole 150 pounds!"

"Y'see, little bro, Diz here is only just getting control of her super powers. She's wearing that harness because it's the only way that she can go out without ripping everything apart. And worst of all," Toni looked up at Diz's parents, "It had been eight months since she touched anyone. And you want to be able to touch her, don't you, ma'am?"

Diz's mother nodded, her eyes bright with painful hope.

Chaka laid her left hand against Diz's cheek but stopped maybe an inch or so from the skin. Then her hand slowly sank toward the cheek until it touched skin. Chaka then took Diz's mother's hand and set it against the force field just over her hand and laid her right hand over that. Diz's mother's hand sank slowly past the field until it lay atop Chaka's hand. Then Toni pulled her left hand from Diz's cheek and pushed with her right hand. Diz's mother's hand sank and finally, after months, she was able to touch her daughter.

Chaka guided the other hand through the field in the same manner and then unbuckled the harness so that Diz's mother could hold her. "Remember, Diz, let her hug YOU. I know that you want to hug her right back but she's delicate. Give yourself time. Let your force field learn who she is."

Diz's mother pulled her daughter to her chest in a fierce hug. She pulled back a bit and slowly pushed her face towards Diz's and kissed her daughter. Diz twitched every so often, obviously wanting to return the hug and kiss but Chaka's hands were there, reminding her.

Toni repeated this with Diz's father. He squeezed her tightly and then reluctantly let go of her so that she could climb back into her protective (for them) framework. The two parents thanked Chaka profusely and then went off after Diz, who trotted off as quickly as her frame would allow her to show them something else.

"Y'See?" N'Dizi demanded furiously as soon as Diz and her parents were out of earshot. "She has all the time in the world to wipe the bottom of some Spic brat but when it comes to her OWN KIND, she's always has better things t'do!"

Lightwave started to say something but Valerie beat her to the punch. "Is THAT what you think just happened?" She asked in a dangerously level voice.

"Hey, that's what we all just SAW!" N'Dizi said, folding his arms across his chest.

"Really?" Valerie continued, "Because what *I* just saw was a beautiful thing. I just saw my daughter help a mother touch her own daughter, something that she hasn't been able to do for months, it seems. I saw her reach out in kindness to a stranger in need. I saw her using her God-given gift to ease the suffering of others. I saw something beautiful. The fact that you didn't, says a lot more about YOU than it does about HER."

N'Dizi sneered. "Yeah, you would see it that way. A bunch of uptight, upscale sellouts, who bought their way into some la-de-dah white bread suburb by kissing The Man's ass and turning your back on your own. I can SEE where she gets it- you only learn that kind'a self-hating buuulll-shit at yer mother's tit!"

Valerie and Lightwave were both about to say something when Evadne stepped in, "You think that you're something new, don't you?" she asked serenely. "Idiots like you always do. You always think that you're the very FIRST ONES to rage against what's wrong in the world. You always think that all your elders were Uncle Toms and Aunt Jemimas who said 'Yassuh, Boss' to everything. But you're nothing new. Even back before Emancipation, there were punks like you, backbiting the whites even while they were grinning and shucking and jiving them to their faces. You're always so loud and so proud - when it's safe. You're always so angry and defiant - when there's no chance of things getting nasty. But you're always the first to cut and run when the cops show up. You're always so fervent and rebellious - that is, unless it comes to doing something like marching with Dr. King. No, that's no fun. And it's dangerous. Not your scene at all. You always bitch and moan about how The Man won't let you get ahead. But God forbid you should actually put any real WORK into getting ahead. No getting a real JOB and putting in long hard hours for you! No, that would be selling out to The Man! And of course, you despise those of us who DO manage to get ahead on our own. After all, the ONLY WAY for black folks to get ahead is to sell out to The Man! It's not like we can actually succeed all on our own, now, is it?" Evadne paused and gave N'Dizi a withering glare. "No, you're nothing new. Same tired old song, just a new singer. Hell, I've even heard it sung better."

N'Dizi screwed up his face and tensed. Chaka drawled evenly, "Go ahead, Bowlin' Ball - HIT someone's grandmother. On Parent's Day. You might even survive to eat lunch - through a straw."

Joel Chandler stepped between them. "Young man, a friendly word of advice. Success is mostly a matter of picking and choosing your battles. Speaking as a man who's spent most of his life with these women," he spared Toni, Valerie and Evadne a fond glance, "there is no way in HELL that you are gonna win here. Just cut your losses and walk away with what dignity you can."

N'Dizi turned to Lightwave and started to open his mouth but Lightwave beat him to the punch. "Don't look at me," she said with a satisfied smirk. "I was gonna rip you a new one, punk, but the lady beat me to it."

N'Dizi was just politician enough to know that this wasn't his time and his place. He turned and said to his followers. "Nothing here for us. Let's go." And with that, he stalked away, wrapped in what tattered dignity he had.

"Go, Grammy!" Chaka said as she kissed Evadne's cheek.

Joel stepped over to Thunderbird. He leaned over and said quietly, "Just so that you know what you're getting yourself in for."

Lightwave cleared her throat loudly. "Now that the Huey Newton Fan Club has left the stage, what's this about this young man being your boyfriend?"

Scott stepped forward. "Missuz- ha, 'Lightwave', this is the absolute FIRST that I've heard of anything like this."

With a brief glance at Rip, Chaka said, "Let me handle this, Scotty." She looked Lightwave squarely in the eye. "Look, Lightwave... Have you ever tried to talk Dredz out of something, no matter HOW idiotic it was, once he got it into his head?" Even through the mask, you could see Lightwave react to that one. "Honest, I have TRIED to TELL him that I'm involved, but all that gets me is a chuck on the chin and a big grin, and he just keeps talking that idiot faux-ghetto jive!"

Vince cut in, "Hey, just cause you can't HANDLE the message of young black MEN speakin' their minds-"

"Speaking their MIND?" Chaka shot back, "You mean those yutzes have MINDS? 'Cause all I hear offa those things that you keep draggin' into the house is how big and bad they are, and how much bling they drag around, and how cool it is to go shooting other guys up and how you gotta keep the bitches in line with a heavy hand!"

"Hey, Rap is about a LOT more than that!"

"Oh, yeah, it's about livin' large, and doin' all sorts of dope and riding around givin' people attitude."

"EXCUSE ME?" Lightwave cut off what was obviously a running argument, "What does this have to do with you two-timing MY SON?"

"I never ONE-timed him!" Chaka moaned, "When Lily and Dredz showed up at Whateley, I was already seeing T-Bird here!"

"And what's the matter with my son?" Lightwave said glacially.

"Nothing!" Toni replied chipperly. "But check this out!" She pulled T-Bird closer to her. "I already HAVE a bee-eff! See? He's cute, he's smart, he's sweet, kind, and brave, and he actually LISTENS to me when we talk, and best of all, he isn't some suburban Gangsta wannabe." Lightwave raised an eyebrow.

"Oh, and you're some big expert on the ghetto?"

"Oh, HELL no! I admit it; I wouldn't know a legitimate ghetto hardass when I saw one. BUT, I can spot an affluent young African American from a loving and supportive home, looking for his 'Inner Black Man' on 'Yo! MTV raps' from a mile away!" Toni glared at Vince, who glowered back at her.

Lightwave folded her arms across her chest. "You, ah, have something against Gangsta rap?"

"Now that you mention it, YES!" Chaka snapped, getting into a favorite topic, "It's freaking INSULTING! Gangsta Rap and Thug Culture is a freaking blight on the Black experience! What, we don't have enough problems, we gotta MAKE our own? Black thugs have been leeching off of honest African-Americans since before the Civil War! Forget racist laws and the Ku Klux Klan, every time that we try to get anything going within the Black Community, we got these idiot THUGS coming along and crapping all over it! More than a freaking CENTURY after the end of slavery, and we're FINALLY dragging our collective asses out of the gutter, and along comes Gangsta Rap, telling us that we shouldn't bother!"

"Hey, that is NOT what Gangsta Rap is about!" Vince yelled again. "It's about PRIDE!"

Lightwave watched as Toni and Vince set off on a heated argument. Vince was saying that Rap was about Blacks living life on their own terms. But Toni insisted that it glorified Thug Culture, and told African Americans that they shouldn't even bother trying to work their way out of the bottom of the American system, as being a REAL Black person was about being crude, ignorant, dishonest, violent and promiscuous.

Vince started to start another volley of argument but Toni just waved him silent. She returned her attention to Lightwave. "Look, I'm sorry, I'm sure that Dredz - or whatever his real name is - is a real nice guy. But I'm from a nice, stable, affluent, loving, functional - for the most part -" she spared Vince a glare, "- family. The whole Gangsta rap thing says that I should be ashamed of that. I'm not, and I'll be damned if I say that I am."

Lightwave looked at Valerie. "Is she always this opinionated?"

Valerie had been looking rather awestruck at Toni through all of this. "As a matter of fact, NO. To tell the truth, Tony's always been the quiet one of the family."

"She's starting to take after her mother," Joel said in an amused tone, "God help us all!"

Toni brought the conversation back on track- or at least, HER track- with a testy *ahem!* "As I was SAYING, Dredz is a nice guy, but I was already dating Sco-er, Thunderbird here," she pulled T-Bird close, "well before Dredz and Lily came to Whateley. I mean, c'mon! Good boyfriends are hard to find! I found one'a the really good ones - I mean, look at him! He's cute, sweet, smart, honest, and best of all, he speaks normal ENGLISH, not that babble that comes out of Dredz mouth." Toni paused. "Does Dredz even know what he's saying?"

"If he does," Lightwave sighed, "it'll be the first time." Her face went hard. "So, where did he get the idea that you two were an item?"

Toni sighed and slumped. "He thinks I'm cute and he decided that I'm girlfriend material. I told him that I was involved but he just won't listen."

"Well, I can't really blame him for the first part," T-bird said. Toni melted against his arm as Rip made a disgusted face. "Honest, Mrs. Za- er, Lightwave, I've tried to talk to Dredz about it, and he just makes out like - well, to be honest, I'm not really sure WHAT he says, he just talks at me. I've talked to his buddy Psymod and Mark says that it's no good talking to him when he gets an idea like that into his head." Thunderbird gave a helpless shrug.

Lightwave gave an aggravated groan and massaged her brow through her mask. Then she gave Chaka a measuring look and a wry smile came to her lips. "It would be something like that. Don't worry, hon. I'll talk to Dredz about this." With that, she lifted off and flew over the roof of Shuster Hall.

Evadne watched the superheroine fly off, "Well! I guess that it's nice to see that superheroes have family problems, just like everyone else." She turned to T-bird, "So, young man, what are your plans?"

"Well, I was thinking that I might help Toni show you all around the place."

"That's very nice, ah, Thunderbird, is it?" Evadne smiled. "I meant, do you plan to become a superhero, like the lady who just left?"

"Well, as a matter of fact, I do!" Scott said brightly. "There's a lot of pressure here to be all cool and say that you don't HAVE to be a superhero, just because you're a mutant. But me? I figure that if life hands you an opportunity to do some real good, you gotta take it. Too many bad things happen just because people say, 'I'll let someone else take care of it'."

Evadne nodded. "Very commendable. Still," she shifted her gaze briefly over to Toni, "I think that it would be best that we keep this tour in the family. We're going to be talking family matters, and well, you know how that gets."

Scott scratched the back of his head with a rueful grin. "All too well, Mrs. Chandler." He gave Chaka a hug and said, "See you after?"

"Sure!" Toni gave him a kiss on the cheek.

Rip gave a deep sigh. "Oh yeah, 'family matters'. Well, I know a cue when I hear one so..." she hefted her 'cloud-board' under her arm and started to walk off.

"Just a sec, Rip! Gimme a sec, guys!" Toni walked off with Rip. "Rip, I'm sorry about how all that went down and I'm real thankful that you didn't get all weird with it."

"There you go again - wishful thinking."

"I'll make it up to you."

"Damn STRAIGHT - or whatever - you will!" Rip let out a melodramatic sigh. "Serves me right for getting involved with a bi chick." Then she grabbed Chaka by a lapel. "But if I hear that you've done the nasty with vanilla-boy before you do it with ME..."

"I don't deserve you, Rip."

"Damn straight, you don't!" With that, Rip climbed on her board and flew off into the sky with a whoop.

"Does that happen all the time here?" Cindy asked.

"Not really. I don't think that Rip has a pilot's license and if she isn't careful, she's gonna get busted."

"No, not that!" Cindy complained, "What I mean is, you've only been a girl - or whatever it is that you are - for a few months and already, you got a hot boyfriend like that? How did that happen?"

Toni gave Cindy a voluptuous half-grin, "Oh, it didn't just happen."

Valerie gave her new daughter a long look, "And here I was, worried that you'd have trouble fitting in."

"And when did you get interested in BOYS?" Cindy didn't let the matter go.

Vince just made a disgusted noise, "Oh please! What, you didn't know that little Tony was light in the loafers? Hey, I always KNEW that he was a little sissy!"

"Y'know, bro," Toni said in a cold flat voice, "I think that you're confusing 'sissy' and 'wimp' here."

"Hey, I'm just sayin'," Vince breezed on, "that it's no big SHOCK that Tony's into dresses and lookin' at guys - what worries ME is that you're chasin' after WHITE guys!"

"Oh, THIS again?" Toni groaned.

"Hey, I'm just sayin' that I got PRIDE!" Vince kept going, "I have too much SELF-RESPECT to go droolin' at white chicks the way that SOME people in this family..."

Vince was still going on along this vein when another group of people came walking towards them. "Toni!" Nikki Reilly called out from her position with an arm through the arm of each of her parents. Nikki's brother Troy was trudging along after them in a 'I gotta be here but I don't havta like it' way. Vince had the bad timing to turn around to face them just as Nikki was close enough that he caught the full force of her Faerie glamour at its full effect. "So! Is this your family?" she sparkled.

"Yep! Hey Mister Reilly! Nikki, this is my Grammy Evadne, my Mom and Dad. This one over here is my big sister, Cindy, that's Lucy, the little one's Matt. Oh, and the big one is..." Toni paused. "Vince. Vince! Close your mouth, you're drooling!"

Vince was indeed staring dumbfounded at the vision of ethereal beauty that had sudden appeared before him, as men have done since time immemorial at the beauty of the Sidhe. His eyes were all but popping out, his mouth was slack and, while he may not have been openly drooling, it was only a matter of time. Nikki pulled her arm from the crook of her father's arm, reached over and gently but firmly shut his mouth before he drooled on his good suit.

Toni cleared her throat. *ahem!* "ANYWAY, folks, this is my roommate, Nikki, or Fey- don't ask, it's her code name, just deal with it. She's good people."

Vince started and snapped to his senses. "Roommate?" he blurted, "You mean, SHE'S your ROOMMATE?"

An evil grin spread across Toni's face. "Yep! And she's my best bud! We do EVERYTHING together - try on clothes, take showers-"

Evadne slapped Chaka on the arm. "Toni! Don't torture your brother like that!"

Rolling her vivid violet eyes with a laugh that held the kind of music the great composers touched on at times when really inspired, Nikki gave Vince a sunny smile then turned that to the rest of Toni's family.

"It's okay, folks. This kind of thing happens to me all the time. I've learned how to handle it."

"Yeah." Toni added with a grin specifically for Vince. "Man, you should have seen her before she learned to turn her glamour off! I mean the magical kind, not the obvious physical things. Wow! She literally had guys walking into walls and falling down stairs all the time there for a while!"

Vince was quite obviously having problems doing much of anything other than watching the elfin girl with a look a starving man would give a full course dinner. "Uh..."

Nikki simply ignored his stares as she turned to the rest of the Chandlers again. "I'm very happy to meet you all, Toni has been bouncing off walls – literally - for the past week, she's been so excited about all you coming."

"Mrs. Chandler, Mr. Chandler, Cindy, Matt, Vince, especially you, ma'am." Giving smiles to each one as she said their names, Nikki gave Evadne a wider one. "I've heard so much about you all but especially you, ma'am."

"These are my parents." Nikki proudly stood between the pair and hugged them both. "Nicholas and Lucy Reilly."

"This." She moved to the teenaged boy who had been trying to stay in the background and setting a hand lightly on his shoulder, "is my little brother Troy."

Troy, already around 5'7" and showing the muscle that came from working out, began to scowl and pull away but stopped both at a warning glance from his parents.

Nikki gave his shoulder a little pat before moving away, "Troy is still getting used to the new me; considering how long it took me I can understand that."

"She has a boyfriend, Vince." Toni stage whispered to her still gaping brother with a swat to his shoulder. "Now quit drooling and staring, okay? Having my roomie ogled, undressed and licked by your eyes is embarrassing."

"Where are your manners, Vincent?" Evadne added with a frown before turning to Nikki and her parents with a wide smile, "Mr. and Mrs. Reilly, you have a lovely and engaging daughter. It's a pleasure to meet all of you."

"Yes, it is." Mr. Chandler agreed, pulling his own attention away from Nikki and holding out his hand to Nicholas. "I'm very glad to meet the family of my daughter's roommate."

"She's really talented, too!" Toni enthusiastically put in. "Man! You should see her in action."

Nikki rolled her eyes and shrugged, a gesture that again drew Vince's attention, along with that of a lot of the males in the vicinity, "I hope you mean with my magic, Toni."

"Well, Duh!" Toni nodded and rolled her own eyes. "Of course I mean with your magic and Tai-Chi and with that sword..."

"Sword?" Nicholas questioned with a slight lift of an eyebrow.

"It's a scimitar, actually." Nikki answered while glaring at her roomie, "And it's no big deal. My mentors just want me to learn how to defend myself without using magic."

"I can see I'm going need to have a long discussion with Wade and Susannah." Nicholas kept watching his daughter with one of those 'and with you' looks parents are so good at giving their children.

"Magic, swords and martial arts." Valerie Chandler shook her head and chuckled. "Interesting curriculums you children have here."

"Very." Lucy Reilly responded with a small grimace, then sighed. "At least I know Nikki's education is well rounded, in a manner of speaking."

"Oh, you can say that again!" Toni grinned. "Man, you should have seen her flying through the air like the wrath of some goddess, that night those ninjas tried to steal Poe's bust! She kept them all from escaping with her magic. It was sooo cool! And those chattering teeth! Great stuff!"

"Toni!" Nikki made a quick shushing motion with her hands then looked to her parents. Nicholas didn't even flinch, but Lucy gave both him and her daughter something that would come close to qualifying as 'the evil eye of truth'.

"Ninjas? You, fighting real ninjas?" Lucy questioned slowly, carefully enunciating each word as she shifted her gaze between her daughter and husband. "Young lady, you and I are going to have a talk later."

"Aww, don't worry, Mrs. R." Toni soothed. "They were students, too, from another school."

"I'll explain later, Mom," Nikki sighed.

"I've heard this part before," Joel Chandler chuckled. "I can see that you folks have a lot to catch up on, too. With that in mind, I think we'll say our goodbyes for now. It was good meeting all of you."

"And you." Nicholas shook Joel's hand again then whispered. "Was it as much of a shock to you finding you had a rather unusual daughter instead of a son as it was for me?"

"Hell yeah." Joel laughed. "But to tell you the truth, the new version of my kid has a lot more spunk than the original."

"Mine, too." Nick admitted with a grin. "Maybe we'll see each other at dinner tonight. We could trade war stories, if you know what I mean."

"A couple of beers, some good food..." Joel grinned back. "Knowing Toni, I'm sure we'll be seeing each other again soon."

Once the two family groups had separated, things almost got quiet for a whole minute until a tall, well muscled young man approached them with a "Hey! Nikki!"

"Hi, Paul." Nikki smiled at the boy and didn't resist when he put an arm lightly around her shoulders. "These are my parents, Nicholas and Lucinda Reilly, and this is my brother Troy."

"This is Stalwart." She went on with a little grin. "My boyfriend."

"Pleased to meet you all." Paul responded in a light southern drawl that managed to sound courtly.

"Mr. Reilly." The boy shook hands with Nick, who was giving him a looking over that spoke of familiarity. "I'm so glad to meet you."

"I can't help but think I've met, or at least seen you before." Nick responded with a widening of his eyes, "No! You're the guy Nikki almost threw across the campus the first time I was here to see her!"

"That I am, sir." Paul nodded while coloring with something that may have been embarrassment. "Sorry about that, really."

Nick looked first at Paul then at Nikki and shook his head at the memory of an armored buffoon who had fastened himself to Nikki's hand like some kind of leech while spouting very bad (and accented) Arthurian prose about undying love, "How you two decided to get together is a story I know I have GOT to hear. But later."

"He got some sense beat into him." Nikki shrugged, then blushed. "NOT by me, either. I'll tell you later, Dad."

"This one I'll look forward to hearing." Nick answered then nodded to Paul. "Well, this meeting does seem to be going better than the last time I saw you, I do have to admit that."

"It does indeed, sir," Paul agreed.

"Mrs. Reilly." Turning to Lucy, Paul took her hand and almost reverently placed a light kiss on the back of it, "Nikki has told me a lot about you, especially how you helped her so much when she started to manifest. It is a pleasure and honor to meet you."

"My little girl has a boyfriend." Lucy smiled at the boy, then gave Nikki a sidelong glance. "A year ago, I would have never thought that would be even a remote possibility."

"Mom!" Nikki blushed then giggled.

"Troy." Paul grinned as he took the younger boy's hand and pumped it. "I hear that you like to work out. Maybe we could get together and go down to the gym later, if that's okay with your folks."

"Really?" Troy actually looked enthusiastic about something for the first time since he'd arrived at Whateley and grinned at Nikki, "Hey, your boyfriend is all right, sis!"

The pair started talking about weights, strengthening curves, protein, carbs... and Nikki let out a sigh. "Great. My little brother likes my boyfriend and now, all I'll hear is Troy this, Troy should try that..."

"Men do that, dear." Lucy told her quietly though the twinkle in her green eyes belied the exasperated sigh she let out, "Let them get started on sports of any kind and you may as well find yourself a good book to read or go shopping."

"Well, at least he isn't glowering at me and trying to avoid looking like he's with us." Nikki admitted with a little sigh.

"He'll come around, honey." Her mother assured her. "After all, this is the first time he's seen you since... Well, since you changed."

"I know, I know." Nikki nodded while watching her brother and Paul still talking animatedly with each other. "At least they don't hate each other, which is good."

Two figures, a man and woman, emerged from the milling mass of parents and students, and Nikki let out a little groan when she saw them.

"Nicole, how are you today?" Westmont greeted Nikki with a fond smile then turned to her father. "Nick, good to see you again. How goes the good fight at DARPA these days?"

"About what you'd expect, Sir Wallace." Nicholas Reilly answered while taking the offered hand and shaking it. "It's good to see you again, and you, Susannah."

Susannah Hagarty nodded pleasantly. "As always, Nicholas, it's a pleasure. I hope you're well?"

"Well enough." Nick responded with a grin while glancing towards Nikki. "Once I got over a shock we all know and love."

Nikki colored a bit and protested, "Daaaaaad."

"The lovely lady with my daughter is my wife Lucinda." Nick pulled his wife and, by extension, Nikki forward. "Lucy, this is Sir Wallace Westmont, and Susannah Hagarty, Nikki's special tutors here at Whateley."

"Special tutors?" Lucy looked at both newcomers and gave them a smile. "I'm happy to meet you both but I hadn't realized Nikki required so much special attention."

"The pleasure is mine, dear lady." Sir Wallace replied then looked at Nikki. "Your daughter is something rather special, you know. Aside from her lovely personality. I'm teaching her how to control the stranger abilities she possesses."

"The magic, you mean." Lucy Reilly nodded and chuckled. "I'd heard she'd gotten a 'Mentor' for that, yes. I had no idea it was someone with your list of accomplishments, sir."

"Ahh well, once your husband contacted me about finding her a tutor, I thought about who would be qualified to handle what he'd told me and couldn't resist coming myself. She's doing quite well most of the time with what I teach her, and the little 'accidents', we are able to contain."

"He means I haven't managed to burn the building down yet." Nikki grumbled quietly. "Or caused any other major disasters by accident."

"Exactly so, dear." Westmont nodded then returned his attention to the parents, "Nikki is learning to consider consequences before acting with her magic and doing quite well with that, given her age and experience."

"Yeah, consequences like how security HATES chasing down my hobgoblins." The girl sighed.

"Oh, far more than that, dear girl." Westmont chuckled then became serious, "Nikki is learning quite quickly that things she does with her magic can affect other things, places and people adversely if she isn't careful. She is a good pupil, even with the grumbling."

In the background, Troy's incredulous voice rose in response to something Paul had said, "Thunderstorms IN the dorm?"

Wincing at hearing that, Nikki looked at her mother and blushed. "It was my first experience with PMS, Mom. I'm better with it now, really."

"Your father mentioned something about that." Lucy nodded then hugged her daughter, "That kind of thing is never easy to deal with, dear. But you do have it under control now?"

"More or less." Nikki quietly answered. "Well - there are a few rumbles of thunder off and on, but no lightning or rain these days."

"Nikki is getting much better at controlling her temper these days." Susannah Hagarty entered the conversation with a hint of fond amusement. "I'm teaching her how to defend herself without using magic, by the way."

"Yes, Nick has told me a little about you, Ms. Hagarty." Lucy answered, then questioned, "Just what are you teaching her? Not that I'm averse to her knowing about physical self defense but, even as she used to be, she wasn't really very good with things like that."

"She means I was a klutz, Sensei." Nikki muttered just loud enough to be heard.

"Oh, your daughter is no longer a klutz, Mrs. Reilly." Susannah grinned. "She is really quite graceful, fast, and has amazing reaction times now that she's learning to handle herself in the martial arts. She's learning Tai-Chi, the martial forms as well as the pure exercises, and has an affinity for the scimitar and archery that is almost instinctive. So your little girl won't be a pushover in pure physical confrontations at all now, and should become quite formidable with another few semesters of teaching."

"Really?" Lucy gave Nikki a long look then nodded, "Good, I've been more than a bit worried about that kind of thing and please, call me Lucy."

"All right, Lucy. In that case, do call me Susannah." Hagarty nodded then handed the other woman a business card, "If you ever feel the need to talk with me about your daughter's progress, call or e-mail me and I'll be happy to fill you in."

"I will, thank you."

"Well, Wade and I will be in our offices or otherwise available over the next several days for consultations with you and Nicholas. Feel free to drop in anytime. I'm sure Nikki can give you directions to my office."

"I'll do that." Lucy smiled.

"Well, I'd better go rescue your husband from Wade and let you all continue your reunion here." Susannah waved while moving to where Nicholas and Westmont were deep in discussion, took her companion's arm and gently pulled him away from Nikki's father.

"We'll look forward to seeing you all later!" Westmont called as he allowed himself to be steered away.

"Well, how about continuing our tour, Nikki?" Her father asked while watching the pair of Mentors his daughter had picked up with a thoughtful expression on his face.

"Okay." Nikki nodded, wondering who else would show up to embarrass her in the next few minutes. "If you can pry Troy away from Paul, that is."

Her mother got her brother, mostly by having Paul come along with them. Nikki sighed, feeling the potential problems that this could cause. Maybe she could find someone who wouldn't embarrass her any more than she already was?

Up ahead, she saw Chou walking slowly with three adults. She knew that Chou's family was dead, so were these some of the Immortals? Maybe. Maybe Chou would be a good diversion for her folks? It was worth a shot. "Hey, Chou! Mom, Dad, you have to meet my friend Chou. She's been helping me with my Tai Chi."

Chou turned as did the three others with her. Chou smiled as Nikki hustled up, "Chou, this is my mom and my brother Troy. And this is my father."

Chou nodded. "Hi. This is..."

Caihe stepped forward. He was looking more masculine than he had before. "Hi, I am Caihe Lee and this is my wife, Xiangu. And this is her Uncle Yu."

"Pleased to meet you." Handshakes were exchanged. Troy seemed to be a bit distracted in his conversation with Paul as he was staring at Chou. Nikki chuckled about this. She was glad they had all decided not to warn any male siblings about what everyone looked like. It was funny watching them drool all over when looking at their friends.

Chou, for her part, hadn't noticed Troy's interest in her and would have been deeply disturbed if she had known. "So, Nikki, where you taking your parents?'

Nikki smiled, "The Crystal Hall."

Chou nodded, "We're off to meet Sensei Ito and Sifu Fitzgibbons. Catch you later."

The two groups separated and headed off. Chou led the Immortals off with her, feeling a little awkward. "Thank you again for coming. The idea of spending today alone really didn't make me feel very good."

Xiangu hugged Chou as she replied, "We told you that we would take care of you. That always means more than money."

Chou blushed. "I know, but I really hadn't expected you all to come here for Parents' Day."

Caihe frowned, "I understand, Chou. But may we work as passable parents in lieu of your own?"

Chou started to tear up. Not trusting herself to speak, she nodded. Xiangu and Caihe both hugged her tight. Chou couldn't imagine anything like this happening. Maybe she wasn't as alone as she thought. Guan Yu sighed loudly, "Is there really any reason for such a display?"

Xiangu smiled up at the War God, "It's a human thing. Maybe you have been a God too long to understand."

He glowered down at her, which only made the Immortal smile broader.

Xiangu let Chou out of her embrace. "So... shall we meet your Martial Arts instructors?"

"Sure. I am a bit worried though. Some of the things Sifu Fitzgibbons has been teaching me seem to go against the scrolls I have. It's getting me all confused and, when I try to get his help figuring out some of the moves out, he says that whatever form I have been using is wrong," explained Chou as they walked towards Laird Hall.

Caihe and Xiangu looked at each other and shrugged. Guan Yu, however, growled, "This is an outrage. To have the Handmaid be taught be someone who does not value the sacred Book of Forms is a grave injustice."

Caihe smiled at this, knowing all about the War God's moods. "Easy, old friend, let's meet the man first before judgment is handed out."

They chatted over various odd things and Chou felt warm and accepted. They did care for her and that helped. While they were not her parents, they did share their love with her, which was nice. It didn't erase her pain over her father, but it helped.

They entered the building and headed first to the main Dojo. Sensei Ito was there with Sensei Tolman, talking with other parents. As the group neared, they both looked up from their conversations and watched the small group approach. Chou smiled, Sensei Ito was one of her favorite teachers as he never believed that you had to wield great power to succeed at anything. She was definitely taking that lesson to heart as the Tao only rarely touched her movements. The power came as needed and not to her call. She was just a normal girl, for the most part, with a great deal of imparted training.

Tolman and Ito bowed formally as the group arrived. Ito spoke up, "It is so nice to meet the Guardians of this one. She is a wonderful student and works hard."

Caihe smiled, "You have our thanks for helping to guide her. She does show signs of having increased in skill."

With another set of bows, the tone of things changed. Guan Yu took charge now, his deep voice rumbling in his massive chest. He looked like some sort of Chinese exemplar extreme, which he had been in his youth, before the Three Kingdoms events. "We have heard troubling reports about the one teaching her sword. Where may we find him?"

Ito and Tolman shared a worried look. Sensei Tolman voiced their concerns, "Is there a problem?"

Guan Yu stroked his thin beard, the hair flowing from his chin and the edges of his mouth, "That is something yet to be determined. Chou is special and requires a special teacher for her."

Sensei Tolman swallowed nervously, as the power rolling off this individual was humbling. Maybe it would be best to let the Laird Fitzgibbons deal with this. They would make it up to him later. "All right... his classroom is up ahead."

The group bowed, with Chou joining in a half second behind. She was still getting used to the intricate Asian formality customs. As they walked off, Ito and Tolman shared a worried look. They nodded and Sensei Tolman excused herself to get to the office so she could call the Headmistress.

As the small group headed through the building, they spotted Wong Ah Lam, the Wing Chun instructor. Chou had worked with her briefly but their two styles were too divergent and the woman did not use the jian as her weapon of choice. The woman blanched a little as she saw the group and began muttering in Cantonese. Xiangu came up to her and the two began talking rapidly. They were far enough away that the others couldn't hear the intensely whispered conversation. All the rest of them registered was 'goodbye' as Xiangu rejoined the rest of them. "She's really nice. We can see if she can help you in any of your classes."

Chou blushed, embarrassed by everything the Immortals were doing. Maybe going to see Sifu Fitzgibbons was a bad idea. The man was a bit pompous and she didn't like working with him either. What were the Immortals going to do? She was somewhat worried. Actually she was almost terrified about what could happen.

They reached the training hall the Sifu Fitzgibbons used. He was in, of course, and Chou introduced the three, with Caihe and Xiangu as her parents. He nodded his head briefly and smiled his noble British smile.

Before anyone else could talk, Guan Yu stepped forward and asked gruffly, "I have heard that you have not been training my niece properly. Your training style, can you speak of it? I would also like to examine your sword if I may?"

Caihe and Xiangu shook their heads and took a step back from the scene. Chou wisely followed. This was exactly what she had been worried about.

"There is nothing wrong with my training style. I have taught hundreds of students, all of whom learned what I had to teach. I have been working with her and she has been a bit resistant to my teaching method is all." replied Fitzgibbons calmly.

"I see. May I see your sword?"

Fitzgibbons couldn't easily think of a reason not to so he went to the rack and lifted out his sword. Guan Yu reached down and drew the blade slowly, examining it like a master craftsman. Fitzgibbons was proud of his sword, and he took great care of it. It was one of his pride and joys.

The God of War took the blade and looked at the metal closely, examining impact marks and microscopic notches in the blade. He did this with both edges and both sides of the blade. He then nodded and handed the blade back with a short bow.

Fitzgibbons took it and bowed as well. As he took the sheathed blade Guan Yu said, "It is an adequate jian. It speaks heavily of your training and fighting style. You seem to be more focused on force on force applications than any other style. The notches in the edge and side speak of a lack of subtlety in your fighting. They seem to be weapons marks you would more often see with someone who used a dao."

Sifu Fitzgibbons looked up at the large Asian man and said, "Excuse me?"

"Also it seems as if your chi does not flow evenly through the metal. There are some impact stress fractures here and there where your chi was not protecting the blade. Perhaps your focus was broken?" The voice sounded polite but felt anything but.

Chou pulled on the shoulders of the Immortals and asked worriedly, "What's going on? What should we do? Is Guan Yu purposely trying to start a fight?"

Xiangu smiled mischievously, "This is important to the flow of things. And besides, it was Guan Yu's idea."

Chou was not comforted by this. Fitzgibbons was hard enough to take in classes and after this he would be unbearable.

"My focus does not break."

"My mistake. You aren't teaching such things to my niece are you?"

"I am trying to teach your niece what works and she is having difficulty learning it." The tension in their voices was growing. Chou moaned unhappily to herself. Why her? Why did these things have to happen to her?

Guan Yu stroked his beard thoughtfully. "And so you are blaming the girl and not yourself? Interesting."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Sifu Fitzgibbons face was growing red and his accent was growing deeper. Chou knew those for danger signs and wanted to hide behind Caihe and Xiangu.

"Just an observation." replied Guan Yu with a mocking smile.

"If you think you can do better, then you show me how to fight?" Fitzgibbons hand rested on the hilt of his blade.

The two men stood there, one glaring at the other as their chi began filling the room. As that pressure grew, Chou noticed that Fitzgibbons' muscles in his arm were clenching. The energy seemed to be growing and calling out for a fight. Chou swallowed heavily, this would end in fire.

Fitzgibbons drew first. Chou could have sworn that Guan Yu smiled at that. The first swing was casually avoided, as if nothing were there. Guan Yu kept smiling patiently at Fitzgibbons as the man missed time and time again. Energy began to crackle around the blade as the teacher pulled on his power. A wave of energy left the blade with the next swing. Then the god's weapon appeared.

The weapon was called the Blue Moon Dragon and it was an enormous halberd. There was a massive ringing sound as the weapon slammed into the energy. The fight raged, with sections of the walls creaking under the stress. Chou and the others stood there, watching Fitzgibbons going up against the God of War. He didn't seem to be doing too badly against the more experienced opponent.

The building trembled with the force of their attacks and cracks began to show in the outer wall. Chou stood and watched, mouth agape, at the speed and grace both men were showing in the attacks they had unleashed on each other. Sifu Fitzgibbons had never moved so well. There were notches in the ceiling where the weapons had grazed the surface. There was a sudden crack, and a hole in the wall to the outside appeared and the air was filled with the dust of the rubble.

Suddenly, Mrs. Carson appeared at the hole in the wall, clearly as Lady Astarte. At that moment, Guan Yu bellowed out, "Howl, Blue Moon Dragon!" and unleashed a fury of attacks that moved with blinding speed. Fitzgibbons tried to counter the attack but was disarmed, flipped into the air and smacked into the ground with the flat of the blade. He lay on the floor stunned, unable to rise after those strikes.

"What is the meaning of this?" yelled Lady Astarte, glaring right at Guan Yu.

Guan Yu smiled slightly, stroked his beard and said, "We had a disagreement over teaching pedagogy. It got rather heated."

Lady Astarte seemed ready to attack and turned her eyes to the three standing amidst the rubble. Chou was easy to spot, cowering from the headmistress. "Chou Lee. Come here."

Chou nervously walked over. She stood in front of Lady Astarte, trembling. The power rolling off of her almost made her want to fall to her knees. She didn't but it was close.

"I take it that these... individuals are your... guardians?" One eyebrow cocked up at the last word.

"Yes, ma'am."

"I see." With that, she turned to Guan Yu. "You will pay for the reconstruction as well as something in compensation for your actions against Lord Fitzgibbons."

Guan Yu's weapon vanished and he stroked his beard, considering what the headmistress was saying. Finally, he said, "That is fair. I give you this to take care of this debt to you."

She took the large leather bag that was being offered. It was certainly heavy. She looked in briefly and sighed, "This will do. Miss Lee."

Chou gulped, "Yes, ma'am?"

"Kindly escort your... guardians from the campus. I think they have... seen... enough."

Chou nodded. "Yes, ma'am."

Lady Astarte shook her head and flew out the hole. The others stood there watching Chou. Guan Yu came up and said, "This all has a purpose, Handmaid. If you will touch the flow, you can tell."

Guan Yu went over and helped Sifu Fitzgibbons to his feet. "You fight well. You may want to work on avoidance training as the jian can not really stop such larger and heavier weapons. But it was a good match and you are definitely skilled. Good day to you and thank you for the enjoyable match."

Chou and the group of them headed down the stairs. After their exit amid the awkward silence waiting to greet them, Chou headed towards the parking lot, "Why does this always happen to me?"

Elizabeth Carson was thinking almost the same thing as she dismissed the scrying spell focused through the clear bowl of water. These things always happen at the most irritating times.

Amelia Hartford held out a blazer, mouth pursed, "Headmistress, your jacket? I soothed

Devilmaster and his wife after you were called away, there should be no difficulties there. The Karedonian envoy wanted a moment of your time so it might be simpler to remain in uniform, however. Other than that, a brief chat with S.T.A.R. League might be helpful to ensure everything is in order due to reports of a minor confrontation between Lightwave and a few members of the Tigers."

The young-seeming blonde considered for a second and shook her head, enacting a brief cantrip to return her heroic costume to its mystic reservoir. The elegant and understated clothing of a successful businesswoman returned to existence in its place as she extended the fingers of her right hand by habit, checking for chipped nail polish.

Chuckling, she accepted the garment and slipped it on her shoulder, "No fight, this time. Good, Amelia, thank you. Walk with me?"

The younger blonde merely nodded as she primly adjusted the set of the glasses upon her nose, briskly brushing at the shoulder of her own blazer, as if any dust would be so foolish as to mar her appearance.

The two women exited the office and paused to watch the bustle in Administration for a moment as they continued to arrange the Headmistress' schedule, "Since he is taken care of... ask the Karedonian ambassador and Jobe to meet me in the Workshop, I will meet Falcon and his team for lunch in Crystal Hall at 1pm and have, let me think... ask Desideria Lopez and her parents if they would like to chat in my office at 2:30. That will be all unless there is another emergency. Oh, and have someone from Security come by to retrieve that bag. Have Franklin suggest someone reliable, and ensure they sign for it. It is not included in the wards. I am off."

Hartford stopped once the instructions were complete, looking around at the office. Even the child was busy, fetching files or beverages behind the barricading counter keeping the parents and students out of her hair. She moved back to her desk as she palmed her Blackberry to begin arranging the Headmistress' schedule.

The child in question jerked his head towards Ms. Claire even as she and the man she was speaking with across the counter turned to look at him. His ears had not deceived him, he had indeed heard his name.

Tensing unconsciously, he approached the two, moving gracefully out of the way of old Mrs. Hawkins as he muted the iPod at his waist, "Uhhh... are you sure you have the right name, sir? James Bourne?"

The man on the other side of the barrier was not at all impressive, looking more like a weary accountant or law clerk than a happy parent. His suit was at odds with his appearance, the dark blue pinstripes highlighting the faded and worn collar of his shirt and the bags beneath his eyes. He was gazing at the boy with an assessing gaze and finally stated, "I thought you were bigger. But yes, it is the right name. I am Charles Godwin, your..."

Eyes widening at the name, James quickly raised a hand as he shook his head. Elaine Claire was taken aback at the glare the small boy leveled at the man. James was normally so unassuming, so polite that she just watched in amazement as he snapped, "Stop. Ms. Claire, I need to talk to Mr. Godwin for a moment. I will keep it brief."

A number of other people were also a bit surprised to see the child jab a finger at the conference room that had so recently hosted the mercenary mage Devilmaster before turning towards the cubicles.

Even more surprisingly, Godwin followed the gesture and began moving slowly along the counter in that direction even as he stated with a slight frown, "Young man, I..."

Whatever he was going to say was quelled as James turned back and glared again as he just gestured to the room once more before turning away and heading to the cubicle and disconnecting the cables to one of the laptops laid out on the otherwise uncluttered surface.

Amelia Hartford watched the boy curiously as she finished speaking to Dr. and Mrs. Fellows, trying to reconcile her prior impression with this demonstration. More information definitely seemed to be in order. Unfortunately, the lights adjacent to the doorjamb leading in to the conference room shifted from green to red after James opened the door for the man and followed him in, closing it softly behind him. The security protections had been set on the room.

"What are you doing here?"

The man frowned at James and looked for a moment as if he might protest this continued rudeness but that impulse died quickly as the boy stepped toward him. He stepped back and, almost stumbling against a chair, sat down abruptly. "Young man, this rudeness..."

Again, the crystal-dimmed hazel eyes bored into him, "Our arrangement permits me a little rudeness, I believe... especially when you break the primary restriction!"

Godwin continued to feel uneasy as James stood closely by, crowding the chair. In order to stand back up, the man would almost need to push him back. "James..."

"Mr. Bourne will suffice."

"...Mr. Bourne, I received an invitation, specifically as your legal guardian. Since I had never been able to inspect the campus despite signing my name for previous children here, I thought it would be interesting. I did not violate our agreement."

"...very well. I am afraid I will need to amend that agreement, however. We will not meet again and you should stay away from this Academy."

"Young man, you can not speak to me like that!"

"Yes. I can. You do not seem to realize the position you have placed yourself in."

"What position is that? If you cause too much trouble, I can see about having your bank account discovered and removed from your control."

"Do you think I am that stupid? The bank account you are so concerned with, the one you are thinking of controlling, is out of reach for you. It is not in my name. In fact, it might be discovered that it belongs to a friend of my family who contacted you, as my guardian."

"Wait a minute, you said no one would know!"

James shook his head and softened his voice, trying to soothe the overwhelmingly obvious panic, "No one does know, Mr. Godwin, and no one will know... unless you make it necessary. I said your acceptance would be protected, did I not? This 'family friend' would certainly like to treat my guardian well and all records will corroborate that, unless you cause trouble. I... it... Records might also show suggestive emails from an AOL account, Godwin20052, screen name NHwinter, implying Whateley Academy might not be the best environment without additional financial support along with related voice recordings that would certainly hint at coercion by a civil servant."

Godwin paled a bit as the quiet and systematic layout from the child before him showed a pair of paths and invited him to choose. Along one, he would select the slim chance of a black mark for accepting gifts, no mention of a certain Banco BCN Grand Cayman account receiving deposits of $7,500 quarterly and a document dated the 21st of December, 2009 transferring total control of said account to one Charles Godwin. Along the other, he would instead enjoy a series of investigations culminating in the discovery of a number of incriminating documents and recordings as well as the existence of an almost identical bank account. The only two differences were that the FirstCaribbean International Bank (Cayman) Ltd. account had been opened with the name and identification of one Charles Godwin.

"I... I am really sorry about this, sir. It would have been... easier... if you had never needed to know of this safety arrangement. I do not want to do this but I will if you cause any more trouble or return to Dunwich or this Academy. Just... stay with the occasional email or phone call, alright?"

It took no time at all for the man to choose the status quo over the loss of income and possible jail time. He rose shakily after James stepped back, nodding, "I accept, of course." He eagerly looked forward to the expected contact requesting transfer of custody and guardianship. The little mutants rarely stayed with him more than a semester and, in this case, that could not come soon enough.

The boy escorted Godwin back to the front counter, saying quietly to the auburn-haired woman who watched them return with obvious curiousity, "Sorry, Ms. Claire. I was just... surprised. I had not expected..."

He trailed off but the man straightened the expensive suit he was wearing nervously, still looking a bit pale as he stated, "Thank you, Miss. And thank your 'friend' for the suit, Mr... young man. Quite nice. I will call."

Elaine quirked an eyebrow at James as Godwin slipped through the family groups that had thinned a bit during the brief discussion, "James... look up. What was that all about?"

He glanced up briefly before shrugging, "Just... my legal guardian. They sent out an invitation."

She smiled warmly and said, still a bit uneasy over the odd initial encounter, "Oh! Did you want to spend some time with him, you..."

James looked up with widened eyes, shaking his head instantly, "No! I mean... no, ma'am. He just... we do not talk much but it was necessary, so I could come here."

Ms. Claire was not sure what to make of this. The boy was obviously concealing something again. She slowly nodded, "Okay.... please go get some coffee for Amelia and Mrs. Linford then. Alright?"

He bobbed his head and moved away from the crowd, stopping by the occupied desks to retrieve mugs before heading to the rear of the office.

Amelia Hartford finished texting confirmations of the meetings with S.T.A.R. League and the Lopez family as the child retrieved her mug and took a bit of time to look from him to the woman at the counter. She nodded briefly to herself and turned back to her computer, beginning to type rapidly.

Elaine Claire turned back to the waiting families and called out, "I can help anyone who is waiting now."

A girl of about fourteen - one who was quite pretty, even if she had apparently cut her jet-black hair into some sort of short, spiky new-wave style - stepped forward ruthlessly.

Ms. Claire smiled slightly, "Phase, what can I do for you?"

The girl gave Elaine an acid smile and said, "Please hand this to Ms. Hartford as soon as possible. I know she's dying to get it."

Ms. Claire took the signed form and said, "Not a problem, dear."

Phase turned and marched out of the Admin area. She waited until she had reasonable privacy before she whipped out her cell phone and pressed three keys. The phone was answered almost at once. "Hi Mrs. Cantrel, it's Phase... No, you were right, she had someone drop a last-minute form into my mailbox just to mess us up... No, it wasn't a problem, Jody was keeping an eye on the mailbox for me, and she called me to let me know. Mrs. Horton had it all taken care of and signed before I got back to Poe... No, I just turned it in to Ms. Claire, so we're all set. We'll see you after my sister gets here and we walk around a bit. Foob will know when we're on our way. As always."

Phase clicked the phone closed and slipped it into a pants pocket. (She'd found out the hard way that if she put her cell phone in a utility belt pocket, it got zero reception.) She was about the only girl on campus allowed to wear the school uniform with pants instead of a skirt right now. Once the weather got really bad, that restriction would be lifted, and lots of campus girls would be in school uniforms with pants. But that lone exception had been made in deference to Phase's little problem: she wasn't really female, and she didn't want to be female either. She just wanted to gag at the thought of having to wear skirts all year round. These stupid bras were bad enough.

She checked her wristwatch. Good. She still had plenty of time. She grabbed a to-go lunch and ate on her way over to the parking lot. The caff was crowded enough that finding a quiet place to eat would have been a huge hassle, anyway. And if she had stopped to eat lunch with any of her friends, she probably would have been late to meet Gracie and Janet.

She did stop long enough to enjoy the sight of The Don and Hekate having to sit far from their usual place of importance, since a number of parents had usurped the central tables where the Alphas usually ruled. Judging by the Exemplar looks of said parents, those adults had probably been Alphas or Alpha wannabes in their day.

Once she had finished her arugula and rosemary-roasted chicken wrap, she strolled out to the parking lot beside Shuster Hall, to wait with the other students who had arriving family. One of the points that Headmistress Carson had stressed was that it could be really dangerous not to meet your family at the bus. No one wanted their family to be accidentally run over by Sizemax, or to get accidentally kicked into the next state by Bronco, or to be hauled off by Security for wandering around without proper authority.

Granted, the other students at the parking area were also freshmen, but still Ayla felt somehow reassured at the number of people whom she knew.

She started out by walking over to Igneous, who was talking with an amphibian-looking kid she didn't know. "Hi Igneous!" She turned to the green-skinned lizard-boy and said, "Hi. I'm Phase. Igneous knows me because he has to put up with me in Costume Shop."

"I'm Newt." He frowned, "Phase? Aren't you the..."

She tried to cut him off. "What? The evil mutant-hating Goodkind? The freak who's half-girl and half-boy?"

"Uhh, no, the girl who beat up a whole Alpha hit squad."

She grinned in embarrassment. "Yeah, that's me too."

"Hey Phase! Hey!" A girl's voice was calling from the other side of the crowd.

Phase smiled, "Uh-oh, got to go. See you."

Phase cut over to the cheerful voice, to find Britomart standing with Adamantine. "Hi there. What's up?" Britomart looked like the proverbial girl next door: blonde and cute and freckled.

Britomart smiled excitedly, "Mom and Pop said they were going to drive up to Berlin in the RV, so they're gonna be bringing everyone! All my little brothers and sisters. This'll be so great! I miss 'em all so much!"

Adamantine added with a grin, "She's used to being the 'deputy mom' at home. You can tell. She scoots us all around like we're her little ducklings or something."

Britomart blushed, "I'm not that bad."

Adamantine teased her, "I'll just have to talk to your little brothers and see what they have to say about that..."

Phase said hello to maybe half a dozen other kids, while she tried to tamp down her anxiety. She really wanted to see Gracie and Janet again, but it really bothered her that she felt so dependent. And she was worrying about her plans with Mrs. Cantrel too.

Before she got back over to Igneous and Newt, a pair of large tour buses rolled up. She didn't need to see the large 'Pickman Tours' signs on the sides to know who was in them. She knew that anyone else wouldn't have gotten past all the subtle security that was set up for the day.

Everyone crowded forward toward the two buses. Phase realized that being one of the shortest kids in the crowd had some drawbacks. She couldn't even tell which bus was bearing Gracie and Janet. So she moved to a spot in between the open bus doors and went light.

She drifted upward about three feet, so she had a perfect view of both bus doors. She watched as a freckled, blond mother and father with a crowd of freckled blond kids in tow made a beeline for Britomart. She watched as a middle-aged man hobbled down the bus steps using two canes, only to be scooped up and hugged carefully by Igneous. She watched until...

"Gracie! Janet! Over here!" She yelled as soon as she spotted Gracie's (dyed) blonde hair.

Gracie spotted her. After all, who else was hovering over the crowd of kids? She and Janet wove their way through the crowd toward Phase.

Phase sank to the ground and went normal as Gracie and Janet hugged her.

Janet chided her, "Ayla! What on earth were you doing flying like that in front of all these people?"

Phase grinned, "Relax, it's a 'green flag' day. That means we can use our powers, and..." She didn't finish her sentence, as a pretty Hispanic girl with a red stripe down the middle of her dark hair zoomed over the crowd on what appeared to be a small white cloud.

As Janet and Gracie watched open-mouthed, the girl on the cloud did a series of barrel rolls and then zoomed around the corner of the building.

Ayla smirked, "Oh, that's just Riptide. Bugs built that for her, and she's showing off."

Janet was still staring at the side of the building where she had last seen the cloud-girl. "Uhh, okay. I guess floating in the air isn't much around here."

Ayla laughed, "Yeah, it takes a little while to get used to the insanity." She added, "Speaking of which, you need to use my codename today, instead of my real name."

Janet asked, "Are you really using 'Phase'?"

"Sure! It's a great name. There are plenty of people around here with really lame codenames. After all, if you have super-strength and flight and invulnerability and polar breath, you can't call yourself Champion, you know."

Gracie teased, "What, they don't just call themselves Superboy and Wonder Woman?"

Ayla groaned, "Oh God no! Whateley has to clamp down on that every year. Marvel Comics and DC Comics are utter bastards about intellectual properties, and most of the other major comic book groups are almost as bad."

Gracie explained to Janet, "It's the way trademarks and copyrights are covered under U.S. Law. You have to defend yourself against every encroachment, or else other people can contest the trademarks in court by claiming that you're not fulfilling your role as the trademark holder."

Ayla agreed, "And as a result, there are a lot of copyrighted names that people here can't use. Marvel and DC together have thousands and thousands of names locked up, and they enforce their copyrights on anything they might be able to make money from in future. You could probably get away with calling yourself by the name of some lame supervillain who got killed off twenty years ago. But if you tried calling yourself Batman or Lady Lightning or the Human Torch, or any name that one of the majors is planning to use in upcoming movies, you'd get a 'cease and desist' order so fast it would make your head spin."

Janet asked, "So, we need to call you Phase in public today?"

Ayla shrugged, "At least try to. Most of the campus knows my real name, or at least that I'm a Goodkind. Everyone around here knows that Solange is Tansy Walcutt, and Jobe Wilkins..."

"Wilkins? As in the supervillain who runs Karedonia?"

"Yeah, Gizmatic's son goes here. Jobe Wilkins. He doesn't even have a codename. He just goes by Jobe. Not that he has any family to protect. If someone goes after his dad, they deserve just what they'd get. Gizmatic has an entire robot army on that stupid island."

Gracie asked, "What about Dr. Diabolik's kids? They're your age."

"How'd you know about them?" Phase wondered.

Gracie explained, "You were nearly finished with third grade, I think. I remember when, because it was just before I left the estate. Someone tipped off the New York Post and the New York Times that Dr. Diabolik had kids in third and fourth grade at your Montessori school. When it hit the papers and Father found out, he went postal on the school board."

"So who ratted 'em out?" asked Janet.

Gracie shrugged, "Dunno. But it wasn't a Goodkind, or we would have known well before it came out in the papers. Father was really angry about it. I mean we own a huge chunk of the Times' parent company, and the publishers couldn't even bother to give him an early heads-up."

Phase grumbled, "Well it was a shitty thing to do to two innocent kids, no matter what you want to say about their father, or freedom of information, or whatever."

"Oh yeah, they were your buddies, weren't they?" Gracie recalled. "Father didn't know who sent that 'anonymous' tip to Jack Prewitt at the Times, but whoever did it knew enough about those kids to put together such a complete package that Prewitt didn't have to do more than verify what he got. I think it was probably the Walcutts, but Father thought it was probably one of the Armstrongs or the Duvaliers."

Phase said, "Yeah, they're here too."

Gracie wondered, "Both mutants? So what are their names? Diabolik Junior and Miss Diabolik?"

Phase admitted, "Techno-Devil and She-Beast."

Janet winced, "Oh God. Well, at least you don't have to wonder whether they're following in daddy's footsteps. With names like that..."

Phase conspicuously changed the subject, "So. Since you're here, let me show you some of the stuff I can show you, and then I'll just hint about some of the stuff that's off limits."

They moved off toward an intersection of brick paths. Just then, a chubby black kid with dark glasses and a white cane came rushing down one brick path and past them, laughing maniacally the entire time. They stopped as he ran past. About twenty seconds later, a man-like velociraptor came loping down the same path, growling in angry chirps. It looked like someone had thrown a bucket of purple paint onto his muzzle and front.

"Oh my fucking God..." Janet froze and grabbed Gracie's arm in panic.

The velociraptor-man creature came to a halt at the intersection of paths, and sniffed suspiciously.

Phase stepped forward. "Hey Razorback! That a way!" She pointed down the path the black kid had taken.

The velociraptor-thing turned, revealing that a small boy was perched on its back, happily kicking the creature to get going. The boy looked no more than five, and was also splattered with purple paint.

The child giggled excitedly and crowed in an unmistakable Aussie accent, "Go git 'im, Jack!" The creature nodded and chirped, then it took off again.

As it trotted down the path, they could hear the child making up a sing-song rhyme, "Jack, Jack, Wayzowback! Jack, Jack, Wayzowback!"

They stared in shock for several more seconds before Janet gulped, "W-w-was that a d-dinosaur?"

Phase explained, "Actually, that's one of the sophomores. Razorback. He's from Australia, so I guess his family's flown in to visit him. That must be his little brother. The blind kid? That's Jericho. They're roommates."

"Roommates?" gasped Gracie.

"Oh yeah. Jericho's got a wicked rep as a prankster though. My guess is he just pranked Razorback over something. Don't worry. Razorback's pretty dangerous, but he's not going to hurt his best friend. Maybe prank him back, but that's it."

"You're sure?"

"Of course I'm sure, or I'd never tell him which way Jericho went," Phase insisted. "They're like Romulus and Remus. The classical lit ones, not the two Goth dorks here on campus who use the name... Never mind. They eat together every meal, and Phobos told me they spend all their off hours playing rock music together too."

"Phobos?" asked Janet. "Isn't that an asteroid or something?"

"It's a moon of Mars," supplied Gracie.

"I knew Miss Trivial Pursuit would know," said Janet as she rolled her eyes.

Phase added, "Phobos and her sister Deimos are near-twins. But they look.. frightening, and they both generate a 'fear aura' that scares people. And if that's not bad enough, they're both receptive empaths, which means they sense the feelings of the people around them, so they have to endure people being terrified around them because they can't turn off their fear aura."

"Man, that stinks," said Gracie.

"Fu... Well yeah," agreed Janet. "Between them and that dinosaur-boy, kind of makes getting halfway turned into a girl seem like you got off pretty easy."

Phase nodded, "Yeah. There are a lot of kids here who have it a lot worse than I do. That's why I'm taking you over to see Melissa later. No one ever comes to see her."

Janet checked again, "So you say she's hooked up to machinery like a person in The Matrix, and her blood is green and poisonous?"

Phase nodded, "That's why her codename is Puppet."

"Yuck."

Phase stopped walking. "Yeah. It's extremely yucky. But if you can't hold it together long enough to visit her, I'll leave you with the house parent while Gracie and I go up."

"I can do it," Janet insisted. "It's just kind of awful."

Gracie asked, "And this is really little Missy? Aunt Lissa's daughter? I mean, I know her dad did the same screening for the meta-gene complex that Mother and Father did. There shouldn't be any way that little Missy could've manifested as a mutant."

Phase snorted in disgust. "Just as there was no way that I could have, right?"

"Oh. Good point."

Janet checked, "And this is really worse than you've been telling us?"

Phase nodded reluctantly, "Yeah. Her heart and her lymphatic system and some other systems have totally shut down. She can't live for more than a few seconds without the pump system. Her blood is hideously toxic. She can't leave her room."

Gracie asked, "I know her father was taking the Goodkind party line, back before I left. Is her family...?"

"Yeah," Phase growled. "Her mother calls her a couple times a week, but the rest of the family wrote her off when she changed."

Janet snapped, "That's just fucking... That's not fair."

Phase gave Janet an odd look. "Cleaning up your language all of a sudden?"

Janet shrugged, "Well, Gracie asked me to watch the swear words while we're visiting the fancy-pants prep school full of impressionable teenagers."

Gracie grinned evilly, "It's costing her a penalty every time she curses."

Phase looked at Janet's expression and said, "Something tells me it's not putting a quarter into a jar."

Janet said, "I'd tell you what it is, but I'd have to say another swearword to do it, and then I'd get another penalty. I'll just say this. Your sister's a fu... A pervert."

Gracie just snickered.

Phase rolled her eyes. "I don't want to know, okay? I don't even want to think about it."

As they walked south of campus, Phase pointed out the sights. "See that?"

"Good G.. umm, good grief. Is that a hotel?" Janet wondered.

"Naah," Phase explained, "That's Melville cottage. They've had some rich daddies pour in construction funds to make it the nicest dorm on campus. Almost all the A-listers live there, and it's Alpha Central."

Gracie asked, "Does that mean you're not allowed into the Alphas?"

Phase snorted in disgust. "As if. The current crop of Alphas is somewhere between Bullies 'R' Us and The Legion of Doom. They're evil with a capital 'E'. In neon. It turns out that the people running the Alphas this year got that spot by scaring the crap out of everyone else. They're going to be supervillains in another couple years. My group has tussled with them a couple times."

Gracie said, "It sounds like your group – or someone like them – needs to depose these creeps. Politics 101, you know."

Phase blithely said, "It'll happen. Right now, we're just froshes, and we'd need more backing from around campus. I figure these losers will self-destruct in a year, and then we'll see if the next set of Alphas fixes things or not. Apparently, a lot of the time, the Alphas are supposed to be run by superhero types, and they're a force for good. We just happen to have Lex Luthor and Sinestro running that clique right now."

Janet asked, "So the rich kids are bad guys here?"

Phase shook her head, "No, the rich kids are a separate clique. We're called the Golden Kids. Actually a couple of the rich kids who could be in the Golden Kids are too busy being Alpha creeps. That includes Tansy Walcutt."

As they walked further down the path and past Poe cottage, Phase took the time to point out a couple teenagers who were flying around campus. One of them was apparently giving a younger sibling a ride.

Phase pointed off to the left, "And that's my dorm. Poe. I'll show you around on our way back from Hawthorne, okay?"

"It doesn't look as nice as Melville," Gracie pointed out.

"It's not. But that doesn't mean we're not allowed to fix up our own rooms, or pay to get a little assistance here and there."

Janet frowned, "That almost sounds like you're talking about a maid and a valet, or something."

Phase shrugged lightly. "Well, it's more like someone who makes a little money cleaning my room and doing my laundry for me once a week. I paid someone to paint my room too. And I've got a few things no one else on the floor has. A microwave, and a really good coffee maker, and I'm thinking about buying a tea set for my roomie for Christmas."

Gracie asked, "You have a roommate now?"

"Sure," Phase said. "I had roommates all the time at Chilton. Chou's a great roommate. She's quiet, and considerate, and really nice. We drafted her into Team Kimba too. And she's really cute."

Janet smirked, "Well, that's one good thing about looking the way you do."

"Yeah..." Phase decided not to tell them about getting to shower in a bathroom full of incredibly hot babes.

Gracie said, "Wow, it sure is a long way between cottages."

Phase nodded, "Yeah, that's deliberate. The farthest cottages have tunnels so they can get to main campus when the weather's bad. But the outer cottages also have the kids who are least likely to be able to pass as normals if it's a 'red flag' day or if someone out of the loop is walking around. So they can use the tunnels to stay out of sight also. But some of these cottages - especially Hawthorne - have people who can't control their powers. Then there are people who go rager, and there are dorks who get into superpowered fights, and so on. So sometimes there's massive property damage around here. It pays to separate the buildings enough to make sure that only one building gets wrecked at a time."

Janet and Gracie quietly absorbed that tidbit as they walked the rest of the way to Hawthorne.

They walked into the front hall of the dorm, to be greeted by an elderly black woman in a flying 'wheelchair' that had no wheels. The woman was huge. Not giant-sized, but almost as big as the three of them put together. She smiled, "Hi there. I'm Mrs. Cantrel, the house mother. You must be Gracie and Janet. Phase has been talking about you. We're all really pleased you would drop by and see Puppet. Poor girl, she doesn't get many visitors even under the best of times."

"And I'm Louis Geintz," said a voice from behind them.

"Jeez!" jumped Janet, who knew fucking well that there wasn't anyone behind them a second ago.

They turned to see.. just an ordinary-looking man in a tweed blazer. He smiled, "I live here in Hawthorne, but I'm one of the senior instructors in the Psychic Arts Department."

Phase saw the looks on Gracie and Janet's faces, and said, "We're all worried that seeing Puppet for the first time might be.. pretty shocking.

Mrs. Cantrel said, "Poor girl, she's a sweetheart, but I can't deny it's a shock the first time you see her. And it would be cruel to take you up to see her, only to have you treat her like some kind of monster. Melissa's been through enough of that in the last couple years."

The man in the tweed blazer said, "So we talked it over with the headmistress, and we decided to give you an extra option. I can psychically show you ahead of time what Puppet looks like, so you'll be prepared. And, if you really want, I can give you a little boost so you can handle her appearance a bit better. I'd rather not do that, though."

Phase watched as Gracie paled a little at the idea of that sort of psychic intrusion. Gracie might be her own woman now, but it was obvious to Phase - and certainly to Fubar too - that Gracie was still carrying some of that Goodkind training.

Janet said, "Yeah, I think it would be a really good idea if you prepared us before we visited Melissa."

Gracie gulped and forced herself to agree, "Yeah. Let's do it."

Mrs. Cantrel led them over to a massively oversized couch in the next room.

Phase looked over at her and asked, "Where is everybody?"

Mrs. Cantrel knew exactly what Phase meant. Normally, there were anywhere from three to ten Hawthorne kids clustered around the big-screen television. She said, "We talked it over with everyone in the cottage, and we decided to stay out of here while your family's visiting Puppet. Everyone thought it would be hard enough as it was. Oh, and Spoof's mother drove all the way up here to see him, and she's off seeing the campus with him and a couple other kids right now."

Gracie sat down and said, "All right, Mr. Geintz, sock it to us."

He nodded, "Just close your eyes and think of an empty white room..."

In a couple seconds, both women on the couch sat up straight, with a look of horror on their faces.

"Christ!" Gracie swore.

"Oh my fucking God," gasped Janet.

Mr. Geintz calmly asked, "Was that too much of a shock?"

Janet swallowed and said, "N-no. Just a big shock. That poor kid!"

Gracie added, "Maybe you could show me that again, so I'll be ready when we go up."

He nodded and obliged. Phase knew what he was showing them. Not just the way Puppet looked, but everything about her. The way her body lurched as the pumps kept her circulatory system working. The toxic green 'blood' that coursed through her body. All of it. Phase was counting on this working, because she didn't want anyone to react badly when they went up to visit Puppet.

Gracie opened her eyes and said, "That was better."

Janet agreed, "At least I felt better about it."

Mr. Geintz nodded, "And you felt much more receptive. I think you're both ready to see Puppet. I'm glad. I don't like psychic intrusion, even when people are requesting it. And it sets a bad example for the students here with psychic powers."

Phase grumbled, "Because some of them are already abusing their abilities every second they think they can get away with it."

Mrs. Cantrel escorted them up to Puppet's room, floating up the stairs ahead of them while Mr. Geintz stayed behind.

Janet asked, "Isn't Mr. Geintz going to come too?"

"Fubar? No, he can monitor us from his room," Phase said.

"FUBAR? You can't tell me his name is really Fubar!" Gracie fussed.

"Actually, yes," Phase insisted. "What you saw? It's a psychic projection. His real body? Let me put it this way. He's on record as the worst case of Gross Structural Dystrophy that actually survived. The first time I saw his real shape, it was all I could do not to scream and bolt for the door."

Janet's eyes grew as big as saucers. No one said anything else for the rest of the walk up to Puppet's room.

When they reached the room, Phase stopped with her hand on the door to a closet across the hall. "Now when we usually visit, we have to wear full chemical warfare gear. But for you two, Fubar is going to put up a psychic barrier between us and Puppet. That way, if anything goes wrong, like one of her tubes starts leaking, we'll be pretty well protected. But just as a safety measure, we're going to put on overboots and we'll take the gasmasks they keep in this closet. If anything goes wrong, just slap the gasmask on and get out of the room. Okay?"

Janet muttered, "Phase, you're making me even more nervous."

Phase sighed, "I know. I wish things weren't like this. But I need you two to be safe."

She opened the closet door, revealing that the entire closet was filled with MOPP suits and other CBW gear. She handed out overboots and gasmasks, then checked that the two women understood how to put on the gasmasks properly.

Mrs. Cantrel gave them a reassuring smile. "Now I'll be right out here, so everything will be okay. You three have a nice little chat with Melissa."

She then spun the floating chair about and knocked on the door. "Melissa!" she sang out. "Visitors!"

Phase stepped in first. Puppet smiled, "Ayla! I thought your sister and her SO were coming today. I didn't expect to see you."

Phase grinned, "Surprise! I brought Gracie and Janet up to see you."

Puppet's face fell. She knew what happened when people first saw her, and she hated it.

Phase hurried, "It's not gonna be like that. I promise. I cleared all this first, and the Foob made sure they're fine with you." She called out, "Come on in!"

Gracie and Janet tentatively stepped into the bare, sterile-looking room. Gracie smiled, "Missy? I guess we've all changed a lot since I last saw you."

Puppet stared for a couple seconds. "Cousin Gre... Gracie? Wow. Ayla told me about the drugs and the surgery and stuff, but you look great!"

Gracie grinned. "I'm a lot happier this way too."

Puppet grinned, "So... Tell me all about what you've been up to since I last saw you."

"Whoa. That must've been seven years ago! Let me see..."


Mrs. Cantrel opened the door just in time to hear a roomful of laughter as Ayla finished some story.

"...And that's why we named it the 'noodle incident'!"

The rest of the room broke up in hysterics.

It had been so long since she'd heard Puppet laugh. Suddenly she was so choked up she couldn't speak. She needed to wait a few seconds before she was ready. She carefully cleared her throat and said, "Ladies? I hate to interrupt, but I have Melissa's mother on the phone, and I'm sure she'd like to take this call."

"Oh, sure. Okay, bye Missy. I mean, Melissa."

"I'll drop by and see you some time tomorrow, Puppet."

"Okay Ayla, have fun."

"It was great meeting you, Melissa. We'll have to see if they'll let us come back next year."

"That would be great! Thanks so much, for.. just everything."

Phase tromped out into the hall, the somewhat oversized overboots making her walk oddly. Janet and Gracie followed her.

While Phase showed her family where to put the overboots and gasmasks, Mrs. Cantrel thanked them for coming. Then she floated down the stairs in her wheelchair, leading them back down to the lobby area of Hawthorne.

Fubar was standing by the front door, looking much the same as before. Ayla noted that his tweed blazer now had patches on the elbows, and he had a pipe in his hand. She smirked, "You're looking very professorial now."

He grinned back, "Well, we do have to try to impress the families, so they'll keep funding us."

Ayla waved her family out the door. She checked her watch and said, "Now let's go over to the Crystal Hall for a little snack. We'll do more sightseeing around main campus while we're there, and then I'll show you my room in Poe. And I want to introduce you to my team, so we'll keep an eye out for them while we're looking around."

As they walked, Janet whispered, "Mr. Geintz looks so normal. He really doesn't look like that?"

Ayla sighed, "I think that's just what he figures he ought to look like now. He ran into something demonic, over twenty years ago, and it changed him into.. what he looks like now. He can't even breathe air. He lives in a big tank in the basement."

"Fuck!" Janet swore.

Ayla admitted, "It's even worse than that. Have you ever read H.P. Lovecraft?"

Janet nodded. "Gracie made me read some of that. I had nightmares for like a week."

"Do you remember the Star Spawn?" asked Ayla.

"No..." she stalled.

Gracie interjected, "I do. Huge things, claws, bat wings, giant head with tentacles instead of a mouth... Oh shit, you can't tell me that he really looks like that?"

Ayla nodded slowly. "It's awful. And he's been like that for decades. I don't know how he does it. I'm not doing that great putting up with this stupid body, and I've only been like this for a few months. And I'm still hoping I can fix things."

Gracie snorted and quoted one of the family mottos. "Goodkinds don't complain. They fix things."

Ayla admitted, "Right. And if there's anybody in the world who can fix me, they're probably right here, or else they know someone who's right here."

Janet said, "Well, we're really hoping things work out for you."

"Thanks. I appreciate it."

They walked back toward main campus in relative quiet, each thinking about someone whose body had betrayed them.

As they approached the Quad, Ayla looked up and spotted the crowd.

Gracie looked over when she heard Ayla muttering, "Son of a seacook, I bet I know what that is."  That was when Gracie looked at the crowd of people and the teenager facing them from what looked like a mobile, high-tech podium.

Ayla took Gracie and Janet by the hands and detoured them, saying, "We're going to circle around that mess.  I have a good idea what it is, and it'll only spoil my appetite.  There's some tarte tatin in the caff that's calling my name."

On the other side of the Quad, Toni was desperately trying to pull her family to the left. But Vince figured out the maneuver, and was suddenly curious.

"You seem mighty eager to keep us from getting anywhere near that crowd over there. What's up?" He gave his 'sister' an unpleasant leer. "Some threat that the little freak can't handle?"

Before Grandma could swat Vince across the back of his head (again), Toni surrendered. "Okay, hotshot. I give up. I figured I could protect from yourself, but you know what? Maybe it's not worth it."

Vince, correctly identifying the dare, headed straight for the crowd, the family following as quickly as they could.

"...be the only ones with super powers? Don't you, the brothers and sisters, the mothers and fathers, don't YOU deserve amazing powers as well? Because I am here to answer your prayers, to solve your problems, and to make your wildest dreams come true!"

The speaker was a short boy, obviously a freshman. He wasn't just white, he was the fish-belly pale that comes to those geeks who almost never venture out into the light of day. His physique wasn't aided by his lack of chin or slumped shoulders – the entire effect was reminiscent of a weasel in a white lab coat. That or a used-car salesman. He was standing on a small stage, with brochures and hand-outs on a table in front of him.

"But that's not all I'm offering! Lifetime employment! They said it was a myth? My friends, they lied to you, as they lie about so many things. I am talking about a career, a lifetime of comfort living on an island that is paradise on earth! However, I must caution you that such opportunities are not limitless. There are only a few, a precious very few spots open. Who will be the first to claim their ticket to paradise?"

The boy clicked a device in his hand, and a pair of larger-than-life holographic images appeared in the air on each side of him. The first was a scrawny white kid, pimply faced, weak, and submissive looking. The second was a figure that stood more than a head taller, broad of shoulder, with arms like a weightlifter and a physique to match. The figure had a powerful brow and a strong face.. and a faint, exotic tinge of green to the skin.

"Of course, this is just the artist's conception. But after receiving our genetically engineered retro-viral upgrade, the following benefits have been seen in over 98% of cases: Strength, good gods, do you want to talk about strength? You'll be able to lift a car! Skin that can turn a knife. Health and vigor enough to stand up to heat, cold, and the harshest conditions. Never again will you suffer from the indignities of the common cold – that is for lesser beings!"

"Who is that little con artist?" Grandma Evadne asked.

Toni gave a weary sigh. "Jobe Wilkins."

"Pretty unusual codename," Toni's father commented.

"He doesn't bother with a codename," Toni said. "He's public. His dad is the Emperor of Karedonia."

Grandma Evadne bit off a curse. "That Wilkins! And he's allowed to operate openly here? Isn't someone going to come arrest that boy?"

Toni really hadn't wanted to emphasize this aspect of Whateley. "He's not hurting anybody, and he's not wanted by the law. The school is open to all sides, so long as they behave themselves. Besides, Whateley tries to make sure that every side has a voice. Watch."

Standing a few feet to the left of the stage was a tall and rugged-looking Native American. The junior had the kind of looks that would have made him a movie star instantly. He seemed to simultaneously embody a pantheon of ideals: strong, manly, caring, intelligent, concerned, dedicated. And when he spoke, his rich voice required no amplification. It rolled over the crowd like a professional orator.

"I wouldn't rush to sign that slavery contract," the junior said.

"And who is THAT?" Grandma Evadne demanded. You could almost see the hearts wafting up from her.

"Stormwolf," Toni muttered. "He's as straight as they come, true-blue, heart of gold, and all that."

"Is that a note of resentment I hear coming from my little, uh, girl?" her father asked.

"Adam kind of gave us the good guy / bad guy talk a few weeks back," Toni revealed. "You wouldn't know it from hearing him today, but the guy can lay it on a bit thick."

Near the platform, Adam was continuing. "Before you rush to sign anything, you should know that this is Jobe Wilkins, son of the infamous villain Gizmatic, who now styles himself 'Emperor of Karedonia.' This lifetime employment that he's offering is actually a commitment to serve as a slave on their island for the rest of your life."

"Just the sort of argument I'd expect, from someone who exists only to prop up the current system of favoritism and racism and oppression!"

Stormwolf looked stunned. He turned to face Wilkins. "You, the rich little white boy, are accusing ME of racism and oppression?"

"You're just sucking up to The Man. If you support the current system of oppression, then YES! Karedonia has a magnificent record when it comes to race relations. More support for native peoples and practices than any other nation in the Caribbean!"

"Why don't you tell them WHY they'll have lifetime employment? Why don't you tell them what they'll be DOING? Better yet, folks, look it up for yourselves. It was covered last year by '60 Minutes', in a piece they called 'The Orc Mines of Karedonia'. No wonder your native population does so well, you import outsiders as slaves!"

Wilkins shot back angrily, "That piece was completely discredited! My father filed protests with the network, and international agencies-"

"I think I've heard enough," Joel Chandler said. He pushed into the crowd and quickly came back out, dragging his eldest son.

"But Dad!" Vince was protesting, "Didn't you see? Didn't you hear? At least let me pick up a brochure!"

Vince wrenched his arm out of his father's clutch hard enough to jerk himself off balance. The laws of physics, though often strained at Whateley, capriciously decided to take their natural course and sent the young man hurtling face first into an extremely muscular chest.

Looking up, Vince found himself staring into the eyes of a seven foot tall androgynous figure that he might have mistaken for a woman.. if he hadn't just slammed into its iron hard chest. He had black hair pulled back into a tight ponytail that was long enough to tickle his toes and wore a tailored suit mostly composed of black silk. "Well, hello there," it smiled warmly, smooth hands coming to rest on the boy's shoulders.

Something inside Vince froze when he looked into the stranger's eyes, an instinctive fear that defied his rational mind. Nothing about the man, besides his unusual height (which was almost normal compared to some of the mutants that surrounded them), could be considered particularly frightening.

Joel Chandler felt it too, and quickly stepped forward to deflect the man's attention from his son. "I'm very sorry for my son, mister..."

"Antonio Marques Dominguez," he introduced himself with a slight bow, allowing Vince to step back.

"Joel Chandler. And this is my son, Vince. Vince, apologize, right now."

Blinking, Vince shivered slightly. "Uh, sorry, sir."

"No problem, really," Antonio accepted graciously.

"Making new friends, daddy?"

Vince's jaw dropped when he saw the newcomer. She was petite, curvy, pale, goth, graceful and wearing very little. Even the claws, fangs and cat-like red eyes weren't enough to stop him from staring at her. She ignored him, however, and took her father's arm, the other hand preoccupied with a cage packed with kittens.

"Yes," Antonio answered, his daughter provoking an even warmer smile, "this is Joel and Vince Chandler. This is my daughter, Sara."

"Oh, you're Chaka's family!" Sara concluded. "Pleasure to meet you both."

"Likewise," Vince breathed.

His father elbowed him in the ribs hard enough to stop him from staring.

"Hey, dad," Chaka called as she squeezed through the crowd, "what's taking so lo-woah! Sara..."

Chaka paused, at a loss for words as she took in the scene, Sara's hand on Antonio's arm in particular. "I... uh... well... um... this is your... Dad?"

"Long time no see," Antonio grinned, smoothly taking Chaka's hand and kissing it before she realized what was going on.

"You've... met Antonio before, Chaka?" Joel moved quickly to his daughter's side, suddenly feeling a keen lack of firearms on his person. Glancing at his daughter, he amended that in his head to high explosives.

"Yeah," Chaka answered, quickly removing her hand from Antonio's, blushing profusely, "only last time he looked a little... different."

With everyone else distracted, Sara took the opportunity to wink at Vince flirtatiously. Vince immediately flashed her a wide grin and come-hither look as if he were the King of Charm. "Hey, babe," he whispered low enough so that his father wouldn't hear, glancing down at the cage in her hand, "I see we have something in common."

"Oh?" Sara urged him to continue.

"We both got a lot of pussy."

Sara laughed. Are all boys this pathetic, daddy?

I've heard better pick-up lines. Gothmog admitted mentally with a certain sarcastic tone. Chaka's watching you. You think she cares enough about her brother to intervene?

I'm tempted to push it and find out.

Demon.

Sara blew him a mental raspberry. "I'll tell you what," she whispered out loud to Vince, "come back and try again once you grow some pubes."

"Oh," Vince winced, "that's cold, girl. But I know what'll warm you up."

Smirking, Sara gently put the cage down to lift her free hand up in a fist, palm forward, in front of his face. Spreading her fingers, she revealed a small face on her palm. "Talk to the hand," it snarled, glaring evilly.

Vince jumped back several feet and emitted a loud, shrill squeak.

"Vince," Joel chided while Chaka tried very hard to stifle a giggle.

"Did you see that!" Vince pointed at Sara.

Sara put on a mask of pure innocence. "What?"

"We better go," Joel grabbed his son's arm and pulled the now compliant boy back toward their own family, "nice meeting you, Antonio."

"A pleasure," Antonio replied, "say hello to your grandmother for me, Chaka."

Chaka gave him a strange look before following her father, the three melting into the crowd.

"How do you know Chaka's grandmother?" Sara asked. I'm not discussing this, father, she added telepathically.

"She was a real looker when she was twenty-one." Sara, you have to accept that there are some things in this universe that you cannot change.

Sara glared at him poignantly. There's no such thing as fate, father. Every law is mutable. And I have a lock of red hair to prove it.

"What?" he asked innocently. Maybe, but sometimes you have to do the wrong thing in order to do good in this world.

After a moment of apoplexy, a slow smile spread across Sara's face. "You never even touched her." My father, Gothmog, Prince of Lust and demonic Dirty Harry.

"How do you know that?" If you don't accept it, Sara, someone else will. And, quite frankly, you are the only being in the universe I trust with the burden, or the responsibility. Or the power.

"If you had, you'd brag about it instead of being mysterious." Daddy, grandmother hasn't had a High Priest since T'yog. I fail to see why she suddenly needs someone to fill the position.

He grinned, "Had you going for a moment there, though. We did cross paths once; remind me to tell you the story sometime." Sara, even I have to admit that mother is not evil. Evil is reserved for beings that have choice, a luxury that the Outer Gods do not enjoy. If you want to complain to anyone about being chained to Fate, complain to them.

They started walking again as the telepathic debate raged.

I won't, father. I won't become like HIM.

No, you won't. The humans say on this planet that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It's nonsense. Some of the so-called 'Superheroes' prove it to be true. That Stormwolf character in particular, even if he does set my teeth on edge. His heart may be in the right place but I think he might discover the pitfalls. Hopefully, he'll survive and be a wiser man for it.

Don't try to play that way; you're forgetting who you're talking to. I know what the Outer Gods do to lesser beings.

Gothmog sighed out loud before continuing. I didn't want to resort to this. Sara, if you don't accept mother's blessing then she might try to force you.

I saw her off once, I can do it again.

Don't be so proud. You deflected a mere pseudopod, a light probe into your thoughts. And that light touch almost destroyed you.

Mifruzli almost destroyed me, daddy; whose High Priest was he again?

I've already apologized for that, I had no idea he was anywhere near Whateley, in fact I told him to stay away like the rest of my cult. I didn't think he was stupid enough to try anything with you.

I don't know how you could have chosen him.

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. I never liked Mifruzli, but at least as my High Priest I could keep an eye on him. And before you can snipe at me again, I came as soon as I realized he was gone. But don't think for a moment that you've managed to change the subject.

Why me? Why does it have to be me? You're her son, you should take the job.

I'd do it just to spare you but I can't have any more children. What kind of avatar of life is sterile?

Why not another member of the Circle then?

They're reluctant for the same reason as you.

So I got 'volunteered', did I?

Yes and no. Mother chose you. We all may have breathed a sigh of relief, but we didn't put you in harm's way on purpose.

Oh, that makes me feel so much better.

Sara, you're forgetting. Mother may not be able to do much if you refuse to accept your rightful place. But then, she doesn't have to come herself.

Sara stopped walking. What do you mean?

If you refuse, she'll send the Crawling Chaos to make you. What are you willing to sacrifice to retain your freedom, Sara? Whateley? Your friends? North America? The planet?

Gothmog pulled his daughter into his embrace and Sara let him, careful to keep her emotional turmoil concealed behind an affectionate smile.

I'm sorry, Gothmog apologized, if I could spare you this... I mean it.

Looking around his arm, Sara saw Ecto-Tek glancing toward them. He'd been following them all morning, dragging his parents along for the ride while he pretended to give them a tour. Something tells me that they wouldn't understand.

That's because they're stupid. Gothmog chuckled. They don't think for themselves. Someone drilled 'the truth' into their heads so hard that they can't tell the difference between truth and fact. They want to impose their order on everyone because difference and change frightens them. What they want, deep down, is safety. For that safety, they're willing to turn their backs on a greater level of good and do evil to those who don't deserve it. Crusaders. So busy trying to fix things that they break them.

Sara closed her eyes and rested her head on her father's chest. Thank you, dad.

What for?

You always know what to say to make me feel better.

Gothmog gently stroked his daughter's hair.

What are you thinking? Sara asked.

Nothing. Nothing to worry about. I love you.

I love you too.

A look of curiosity flickered across his face for a moment and he looked off towards another part of the campus. Sara looked up.

What is it?

That friend of yours. The interesting girl known as Tennyo. She's approaching with her parents.

What about her?

You always liked a bit of thrill, that feeling of danger, in your relationships don't you. It was a comment, not a question.

She'd never hurt me.

You're sure? You haven't tried to get closer to her have you?

I remember your warning. And I don't get the same feeling from her as I do the others. But one thing I'm certain of is she isn't out to hurt us.

She's dangerous.

You idiot! We ALL have swords!

For a moment he was confused. Then he laughed.

Too true. Still, I've made some investigations. Are you aware of the disappearance of a second tier demon not too long ago? Rumor has it he was dealing with someone from here. Then he just vanished. There's no trace of him anywhere.

You think...?

We don't have any proof. But there is some concern in certain circles. I even checked with some who don't relate to time like we do and they say there is evidence of him right up to the point he disappeared. After that, nothing.

Nothing?

Nothing. Not a trace. On any plane. To be able to make that happen...

She shivered briefly. The others?

He shrugged. Don't have the interest or the brains to put things together. But if it got out and there was strong evidence to connect what happened, who knows?

If they just leave her alone there won't be any problems. I'm sure of that.

I agree, but the information we do have on her indicates she's changed from what she was.

Changed?

Maybe evolved would be a better word. Much like yourself.

So what now?

We wait and see. Keep an eye on her. You mentioned before that she has somehow marked and bonded the young girl to her. But she doesn't seem to be aware she's done it?

Clueless. I'd laugh but every now and then something happens to make me wonder what else she's going to do or what she really knows. I'd like to get more information on what that second tier demon was doing here. There might be some important clues there. At least enough to find out if the two are connected in some way.

We could always ask her. She sees us now.

The group of Wilsons had come closer as they discussed the strange girl.

I'd rather spend more time with you if you don't mind and I want to investigate what happened before I go digging for more.

I find myself wishing the same.

Tennyo started to wave but apparently got the message, as did the rest of the people with her, and the group moved on towards the Crystal hall.

They looked after the group and Gothmog spoke first. An interesting family. Except for the old one tagging along. A bureaucrat if I'm any judge. Slimy creatures, but useful at times. And definitely not of the family.

I agree. I'll ask Tennyo about him later. Now tell me a bit more about the family. I'm kind of out of the loop around here and I'd like to know more about what's going on. I'm getting some odd feelings and I'd like to get your ideas about what is happening now.

Very well. But I warn you it gets boring quickly.

That's what you always say.

The two figures moved off, strangely ignored by anyone around them.

A small but diverse group was walking toward the Crystal Hall. In the center of it was a good looking, conservatively-dressed couple. To their left were two young men. One was a good-looking guy in his late teens and the other was a younger boy. They were both dressed like the couple, and looked enough like them to obviously be family. Trailing behind them was a weasel-like older man who seemed to be nonchalantly trying to see and remember everything around him. When he seemed to think no one was watching, he'd pull out a small camera and take pictures. To the couple's right were two young girls dressed in Whateley uniforms. One of these appeared to be in her late teens, but she had a face that was a little different in the distance and got more so as you moved closer. There was something different in the cast of her face, and the amber/yellow cat-slit eyes didn't quite fit human norms. If that wasn't enough, her bluish-grey, unruly head of hair - with bangs that fell to her breasts and swept back to her lower back - was also not so normal-looking. Beside her was a childish looking Japanese girl of maybe ten or eleven.

The couple were obviously positioned between the four children on purpose. Both the adults seemed somewhat amused as the blue-haired girl and the younger man tried to argue through them.

The girl whined. "Mommm! Let me hit him. Just once. I promise not to kill him."

The young man just sneered. "That's just like you Billie. Always trying to solve your problems with brute force. If you just used your brains a bit you wouldn't be in all the trouble you get into."

She snarled back and he actually flinched, though he tried to hide the reaction and kept his sneer on his face.

The woman, who had to be the mother, got more stern and both children shut up for a moment while continuing to glare at each other. "That's enough, you two. No fighting. This has been the first chance we've had to get together in months, and I don't want either of you spoiling it. Especially now that it's almost time for us to leave. I want to try out the food here. I understand it's very good."

The young man waved his hands in a no-problem gesture. "Don't worry about me Mom. It's the disaster over there you have to worry about."

"Hey Twerp! I know what I'm doing around here. And I'm not the one breaking the giant robot."

He put on a righteous pose. "I didn't break it. Anyone with sense could see it wouldn't work."

"So you just had to tell that to the whole Lab Rat crew. You should've known better than to do that with them."

"I just pointed out a few flaws in their design. How was I to know they'd actually try to get it to move?"

"They're Gadgeteers and Devisers you moron! Everyone knows they don't have an ounce of common sense!"

The young girl coughed and the older girl managed to look embarrassed for a moment. "Sorry Jade. I didn't mean you. But even you have to admit most of 'em don't have the sense of a wet dog biscuit."

The young girl shrugged and then looked over at the younger man. "It did manage to take three steps before it went down though. You have to admit that's pretty impressive."

"Three steps. Riiiight." The sneer in his voice couldn't be mistaken for anything else.

Now it was the young girl's chance to be angry. "Humph! Shows what you know about it! I'd like to see you do better!"

"Any day of the week." His young teen bravado only made the older people roll their eyes.

Then the father spoke. "Do you think they'll have enough food? I don't know about the rest of you but I'm pretty hungry."

The young girl giggled. "They can feed Oneesan here. If they can do that, they can feed anyone!"

The older girl managed to look embarrassed while the rest looked at the two girls. The older boy spoke for them all.

"Oneesan?"

The older girl continued to blush but put her arm around the smaller girl's shoulders. "Yes. Oneesan. She's my little sister as far as I'm concerned."

"Sist.." The younger boy's remark never had a chance to be spoken as the mother interrupted. "I don't have any problem with it. Do you, dear?"

The father smiled and nodded. "Not me. But how will Jade's family feel about it?"

The little girl looked down, and the older girl hugged her. "Jade's mother died a few years back and her family... Well, let's just say they weren't too happy about it when Jade started to show powers."

"You know. There's a signing bonus if.." The weasel-like man had perked up and had a truly acquisitive look on his face.

"Shut up, Uncle Bob!"

The simultaneous statement and glare from all five of the Wilsons shut him up very quickly. Then Mrs. Wilson stepped over to the small girl, knelt and hugged her.

"It's okay Jade. I think Billie will make a wonderful big sister to you. Anytime you need a place to go we'll be more than willing to take you in. Okay?" The father stepped up and put his hand on her head with a smile, and the older boy simply smiled and nodded. The younger boy tried to act appalled, but a glare from his mother nipped that in the bud. He didn't join in the family gathering, but he didn't say anything either.

Jade seemed stunned by the attention she was getting. Billie just smiled.. and when no one was looking stuck her tongue out at Thad, who pretended to ignore such trivial things. Then Billie hugged Jade again.

"See! I told you my family would love you! After all, you're one of the cutest girls in the world!"

Mrs. Wilson stood up. "Yes Jade. Welcome to our happy little family. Now Billie..." The tone of Mrs. Wilson's voice had changed, and everyone's attention was riveted on her. "You're going to be a GOOD big sister and keep Jade here out of trouble. Right? We've been hearing some very interesting things about what you and your friends have been doing since you came here. It doesn't look like you've managed to collect any scars from them, and I want you to keep it that way."

Jade perked up. "You don't have to worry about scars, Mrs. Wilson. Billie heals too fast and she can beat up just about anyone in a fight."

Mrs. Wilson's reply was directed at Billie. "That's what we're afraid of. You listen to me dear. Keep her out of trouble."

"Yes Ma'am!"

"Good. Now let's get along. I'm getting hungry."

Mr. Wilson laughed. "You're always getting hungry dear."

She smiled and curled an arm through his. "You know how us Energizers are. Always trying to keep up with demands."

He nodded. "Well at least we don't have to keep trying to hide it from the kids anymore."

Thad snorted. "We knew about Mom having to eat a lot more a long time ago Dad."

Billie snorted back. "Well, I didn't know."

Thad's sneer was back. "Wow! What a surprise! Billie couldn't see what was going on right in front of hi... Uhh. Her."

"Why you..."

"That's enough you two. I'm starving and I'm not going to let you get going or we won't ever get to eat. Now move along."

"Yes Maaaam."

The two continued to glare at each other, but the group continued to move toward Crystal Hall. As they walked Larry, pointed to a crowd off to the side. A student seemed to be addressing the crowd from a small podium.

"What's that there?"

Billie looked over and shrugged. "Looks like Jobe's up to trying to scam some of the people into buying something from him."

"Jobe? Jobe Wilkins?" The two older Wilsons had stopped and were looking at the crowd with an intensity any of the others had rarely seen. Both had echoed the other. Then they exchanged a knowing look. Mr. Wilson pointed to a path that would take the group on a more round-about way to Crystal Hall. One with some trees and other cover that obviously wouldn't be seen easily from where Jobe was addressing the crowd.

"Let's go this way. We wouldn't want to get too close to that crowd."

Billie was curious enough to ask the question the others were eager to hear also.

"Why? It's much shorter that way and we can move around the crowd easily enough."

Mrs. Wilson smiled and started to shoo everyone in the direction her husband had pointed out. "Don't let it worry you Dear. But let's just say the Wilsons and the Wilkins aren't on the best of terms. Especially after what happened at Marakesh."

Mr. Wilson, leading by example and heading towards the covered walkway in a relaxed but faster pace chuckled. "Yeah. I can't imagine Ol' Gizmatic being too happy about that. I hear he's still embarrassed when it comes up."

Billie looked intrigued. "I never heard about it. But I don't think Jobe knows we're related and besides, no one's allowed to start anything around here. Especially with me."

Mr. Wilson shook his head. "We just don't want to take any chances. As long as Gizzy doesn't know about our connection with you there shouldn't be a problem, and he knows better than to try anything with us. What's done is done and he'd lose face if he tried. But Jobe is sure to be filming anyone who shows any interest in his little display and that will be sent on to his father to see if there's any chance of following up on that interest. If he sees us with you I'm sure he'll figure it out, and I wouldn't put it past him to try something to make life here harder for you just out of spite."

"Whateley wouldn't allow him to."

With a shrug Mr. Wilson continued towards the path. "No point in taking chances. Gizzy's got a long memory and I'd just as soon not push our luck where he's concerned."

Uncle Bob spoke up. "You should listen to him girl. You don't know it but you've got a lot of enemies out there. Just waiting for a chance to get even for some of the things your parents have done. You might want to seriously consider..."

"Consider not recruiting outside of designated areas Mr. Fri... Uh, Uncle Bob is it?"

The group turned towards the large man who'd approached while they'd been talking. Uncle Bob grumbled.

"Delarose."

Chief Delarose gave Uncle Bob a large insincere smile. "Uncle Bob! How nice of you to come and visit us. I'll expect you to check that camera of yours at Security before you go. Anything that might endanger our students or campus will be carefully removed and you can have anything else back."

Uncle Bob tried to look innocent. A hopeless effort which only managed to make him look comical. "I don't know what you're talking about Delarose. Everyone knows how careful you in Security are about protecting the students here. Why do you think I'd have a camera.. or anything I took a picture of could endanger them?"

Delarose continued to meet Uncle Bob's eyes until Uncle Bob dropped his gaze. Then he shrugged. "Have it your way then."

The Chief reached up and pushed a button on the small earphone attached to his right ear. "Hear that Brian? Good. You know what to do."

For a moment nothing more happened. Then Uncle Bob yelped and started swatting at his coat pocket, where smoke and sparks suddenly appeared. As he danced around, Uncle Bob's face got red and he started to yell at Delarose. "Damn you! This is expensive government property! I'll have your..."

Uncle Bob's dancing and yelling stopped under the glare Delarose was giving him.

"If I have to report that SOMEONE tried to break Security regulations on this very important day, I'm sure your superiors would be glad to take the value of that little gimmick right out of your hide. Now. Do you have anything else to add?"

Uncle Bob said nothing. He just glared as he carefully lifted a smoking piece of equipment out of his pocket and dropped it on the ground.

"I don't know what you're talking about Delarose. But be sure someone will hear about this."

"I'm sure they will. Now, my reason to come this way. Billie?"

"Yes Sir?"

"Consider this your check-in and have a good time with your family."

"Uh, oh. Thank you!"

"Don't mention it."

Mrs. Wilson spoke up. "Check in?"

Delarose smiled. "It's not anything to worry about. But any of our students who wear a UV band are required to check with us every day. It's just a precaution to keep them out of trouble."

"UV band?"

"Your daughter hasn't told you?"

Billie quickly broke into the discussion. "It's okay Mom. It's just this band on my sleeve. It just lets the other kids know I'm not to be messed with. Because my powers are dangerous and all."

Jade put in a perky. "Yeah! All the Ultraviolent kids have to wear them."

As her eyebrows rose in response to Jade's answer, Mrs. Wilson turned a piercing eye on her daughter. "Ultraviolent?"

Delarose fielded the question before Billie could stop stuttering.

"It's okay, Mr. and Mrs. Wilson. While the bands are used to designate those students who might be too violent if provoked, they are also used to designate those students who through no fault of their own can be considered a danger to themselves, others, and the campus in general. Your daughter has been a model student most of the time and we're merely protecting her and others who don't know her and what she's capable of. She really has done some amazing things in the time she's been here, and we don't want her getting into trouble just because someone didn't know to avoid provoking her. I hope you understand why we're doing this?"

For a moment there was silence as the parents considered what he had said. Then Mrs. Wilson nodded. "If you say so, Mr. Delarose. But if our daughter gets out of hand we expect to be notified immediately. As for you, young woman, I expect a full report on your activities to date and any in the future. Somehow some of the details of what you've told us about in your all too infrequent messages home haven't all come through."

Billie stood there trying to look small and complacent. "Yes, Mom."

The silence went on a little longer, then the Chief bent over and picked up the wrecked camera.

"I'll have some of our people look at this and see if they can't fix it. If they can I'll have it sent to you. Will that be okay?"

Uncle Bob groused. "Do whatever you want with it."

"I could have Amelia send you an updated entry packet if you really want some pictures of the campus. I can assure you they're of the highest quality, and show the campus at it's best in all four seasons."

"No thank you. You've done enough already."

"Well then. I have to be off. It's been good meeting you all. I'll let Tennyo here continue to give you the tour. Have a good day!"

He waved and moved rapidly off, talking into his headset as he did. Everyone except Uncle Bob waved, and then the group started towards Crystal Hall.

A little farther down the path and off to the side stood Sara and a large handsome man. The two off them seemed to draw attention for some reason, and Billie started to raise a hand as if to call to them, but there was the sudden impression that the two were having a private conversation. Tennyo dropped her hand and continued down the path.

Mrs. Wilson caught Billie's eye. "Someone you know?"

Billie nodded. "Yeah. That's Sara, and I guess the guy with her is her father. I heard he was coming by."

"They seem a little.. odd."

She shrugged. "I guess you could say that. Sara's really a pretty nice person but she's got a few problems. Stop staring, Larry. Seems she's a demon goddess, and it seems a lot of the supernatural types have it in for her. Not to mention Reverend England, who doesn't seem to like any of us, especially Sara and me."

"You're having problems with her or your teachers?"

"No. I'm getting along fine with all of them. But England for some reason has it in for us. I haven't figured it out yet. You and Dad didn't...?"

She shook her head. "No. I don't recall any Mr. Englands in our sordid past. But point him out if you see him. Maybe he's changed his name?"

Billie shrugged again. "He doesn't seem like the kind who would change his name, and he's been around for a while. Mr. Lodgeman thinks he's just overreacting. Especially since Fey, one of my friends and teammates, looks a lot like someone he and Mr. England knew in the past."

Larry couldn't seem to take his eyes off the girl until they'd gotten out of sight, and even then he looked back several times. He asked Billie a question. "A demon goddess?"

Billie grinned. "Yeah. She's a demon goddess of lust. Not really your type. She's got several lovers already. And some of them might get jealous if you tried."

Larry gave her an odd look. "You...?"

Billie blushed as everyone stared at her. "No! Not me. I don't have time for that kind of stuff. Most everyone else seems to be attracted to her but me. Well... All that happens to me is I just get real hungry when she's around a lot. It's pretty distracting if you know what I mean."

"I know exactly what you mean. Let's pick up the pace shall we?" Mrs. Wilson led by example, and started to stride more determinedly towards the crystal dome before anything more could be said.

At dinner Billie was able to introduce her family to several more of her friends and their families. Fey seemed to steal most of the show during that time, but one activity did draw even the men away for a while. Tennyo and her mother faced off, each with large platters of food next to them. Chaka set them both eating with a signal and stepped back.

Mr. Wilson, Mr. Chandler, and Mr. Reilly had formed a group of their own as they shared some of their experiences of being fathers who suddenly found themselves with daughters when they'd gotten used to having sons. All three were watching as an area was cleared around the two eaters so everyone could witness what was happening.

Joel asked the question that was on their minds. "Who do you think will win?"

Larry Sr. grinned. "Cher can out eat anyone I know. Even people several times bigger than her, hands down. Our daughter will really have to be something else to beat her."

Nick chuckled, "I don't know about you guys but my daughter says no one stands a chance against Tennyo, so my money's on her."

Joel nodded. "Hmmmm. My daughter said something similar. Though I think it was along the lines that even sharks know to run when they see that girl coming. I think I'd put money on the girl too."

Larry went into deep thought for a moment, then shrugged. "I'm not certain myself after hearing some of the rumors. Though since they're both family I'm probably better off not betting on either of them."

"Ahem!"

The three men turned to see a fairly tall, thin girl in a Whateley uniform behind them. See appeared at first glance to be very unremarkable. The large round glasses and plain brown hair pulled up into a severe bun actually seemed to draw attention away from her bright blue and very aware eyes. In fact all three men wondered just how she managed to look so unremarkable when something about her should be remarkable.

Nick took the lead. "Yes young lady?"

"I'm sorry to bother you, but I couldn't help but overhear you say something about betting on the outcome of the eating contest. Some of the students were doing the same, and I wondered if you'd want to join in?"

The three men exchanged glances and Nick continued. "Interesting. And you are?"

"Oh! Forgive me for being so rude. I go by Memo. One of my unofficial duties is helping the students keep track of their wagers and the like."

"Memo?"

"Yes. I can reproduce exactly most written and vocal forms of communication."

"That's an interesting ability you have there. Anyone trying to hire you yet?"

"I've had several offers. But I still have two more years to decide."

"Why aren't I surprised. Well, don't undersell yourself or your ability and go with just anything because it sounds good."

"I won't. I intend to get my MBA before too long. It's amazing what you can do on the internet these days. I'm only looking for a job that can supply me with a good income and security. A girl's got to look after herself these days. So, are any of you interested? In making a bet I mean." All the men chuckled at her discomfort as she blushed.

Larry shook his head. "I'm sorry, but as I'm related to both parties and these gentlemen are fathers of some of my daughter's closest friends, it probably wouldn't be diplomatic of us to bet on the outcome. But feel free to contact us through our children if you're ever truly interested in using those skills of yours. I know several good places to work that could really use your talents."

Nick nodded. "As do I. I think we'll leave it at that for now, so we can't be accused of recruiting. I understand Security takes a dim view of unmonitored attempts."

Memo smiled, "Yes sir. But it doesn't stop them from trying. I appreciate your honestness and will certainly keep you in mind as I make my decision. I'd better be moving on. I still have several people to check with and the contest is just beginning."

"Thank you young lady. Best of luck on your job search."

"Thank you, sirs. Have a good day."

Memo rapidly disappeared into the crowd, obviously with a goal in mind. The three men exchanged another glance and then turned back to watch the show as the contest continued.

At first it was very unclear who would win. After two platters of food neither showed any signs of slowing down. By the time they were each on the sixth platter with no signs of either stopping, many of the spectators actually went back to their own meals. It wasn't until the eleventh platter that Cher started to show signs of slowing down. But she didn't officially stop until the twentieth was done in.

Nick and Joel were practically in shock. Nick was the first to speak. "My God! How do you feed them?"

Larry shrugged. "It can be a challenge. Though to be honest they usually don't eat so much. They only ate this much because of the contest. I think they could've eaten more, but I suspect my wife is throwing the match. I've seen her eat more. And Billie just came into her powers. Before that she ate like any other growing b.. uh.. kid."

The others nodded and chuckled at his slip.

Cher pushed herself away from the table and laughed, "Well, it looks like the family has a new champion. Like mother like daughter, I guess. Boy! I haven't had a meal like that in ages. My compliments to the chefs!"

The last statement brought a spontaneous cheer from the crowd which then rapidly broke up. The three men noticed Memo making her rounds. Some of the people seemed happy to see her, others not so happy. But no one seemed willing to avoid her either. The men wondered between themselves just how organized the betting had to be.

Soon afterward, the families went their separate ways. Tennyo and her family made their way back to where a bus was waiting.

Except for Thad and Uncle Bob, the family drew together. Jade was included as well but seemed somewhat overwhelmed and quiet as Billie and her parents hugged, only reluctantly separating after several moments. Quiet goodbyes were exchanged and tears quietly hid behind tight smiles. Jade squeaked when Larry Jr. gave her a spontaneous hug.

"You'll be coming for Christmas won't you Li'l Sis?"

"Uhhh.."

Tennyo spoke up quickly with authority. "Sure she will! Right Jade?"

Starring around at the smiling faces Jade suddenly broke into a bright smile herself and nodded. "I.. I'd be most honored. It's more than I'd ever hoped."

Billie hugged her around her shoulders and gave her a gentle shake. "Lighten up kid. And just say yes."

"Uh. Yes!"

"Good! Now that's settled.  I... I guess this is it then."

Mrs. Wilson gave her daughter another hug. "Don't fret, dear. We'll have two full weeks at Christmas and New Year's. Mrs. Reilly assures me that it will be a perfect time to get used to each other and the changes. I'm really looking forward to it."

"Me too, Mom. You're sure there won't be any problems with me going back now?"

"No. We've cleared it up. You won't have to worry. I'm still not certain if or how we'll be able to let your friends know what's going on though."

"They'll be fine Mom. It'll be just like the comics. I'm sure we'll be fine."

Thad subvocalized. "Yeah. The comics where the poor hero gets turned into a girl. You guys used to read those ALL the time I'm sure."

"Shut up Thad. I'll just explain I'm the victim of the evil little brother. That'll explain everything."

Mrs. Wilson put her foot down. "That's enough you two! No more of this. Life's complicated enough without you two sniping at each other all the time. It's over and done with. Right?"

The two glared at each other for a moment and then Billie broke the stare and looked at her mother. "It's okay Mom. I'm really not as angry about it as I used to be. I mean really. It's kind of cool when you think about it."

"I'm glad you're taking it so well, dear. Does that mean you'll stop tormenting your brother?"

Billie grinned, "Pleeaasse! Of course not. He's still my little brother. It would fly in the face of tradition to not give him as much grief as possible. I couldn't do that."

Mrs. Wilson sighed and tried to hide a grin of her own. "I guess it would be too much to hope for a bit of peace and quiet."

Thad spoke up then. "Does this mean you'll let me off being grounded now?"

The look his mother turned on him actually made him step back. "Young man! What you did was totally stupid and nearly unforgivable. You nearly killed your bro.. sister. And beyond that you totally wrecked the kitchen and a good part of the house. You'll be grounded and glad of it until we think you've learned your lesson and not a moment sooner. I will say that if you can behave yourself until Christmas we might actually consider ungrounding you. But you'll still owe us for the repairs. Now shut up before we decide letting Billie hit you might actually be a good idea after all."

Larry Jr. whapped Thad on the back of the head. "Don't say a thing, bro. Last time we had this conversation you weren't going to be ungrounded until you'd left for college. Things are looking up. Don't open your mouth and ruin it."

With this encouragement, Thad actually shut up.

A few final goodbyes including a startling hug by Jade and Billie to Thad, and soon the bus pulled away. The two girls stood there watching and waving until it drove out of sight. Finally the two headed back towards Poe.

"You're really lucky Billie."

"Oh?"

"You have a wonderful family. They love you."

Billie pulled the smaller girl in close. "Then you're lucky too. They're your family too now."

Jade looked down. "You don't mean that."

Billie stopped and pulled the young girl around to face her. "Listen to me Jade. Mom said it. Mom doesn't joke about these things. Dad backed her up. He doesn't joke about this either. Just accept it. You're part of the family now, whether you like it or not. You're part of us."

"But.."

Billie couldn't keep a catch out of her voice. "No buts. Just accept it. And until Christmas you're the only family I have. I'm gonna need your support 'til then, okay?"

Looking up, Jade saw a tear track down Billie's cheek. A look of comprehension appeared on Jade's face and she pulled Billie into a hug. "Don't worry Oneesan. I'm here. I know you miss them, but it's only until Christmas. Then we'll all be together again."

"Thanks Jade. You don't know how much that means. I guess it's hitting me harder than I thought."

"You keep too much to yourself, Oneesan. Now. Let's get back to our room. I'll treat you to some tea."

Billie laughed. "You've been treating me to tea ever since you found you could heat water in our room. But I appreciate the gesture and your tea is good too. Let's go."

The two continued toward Poe. The setting sun sent rays slanting across the campus. A short way from Poe the two spotted a familiar figure sitting on a small hill, looking towards the horizon and silhouetted by the sun. Jade nodded toward her.

"That's Chou. Is she okay?"

Billie stopped and looked more closely. "I don't know. Do you think anyone came to visit her?"

"I don't know. Should we leave her alone like that?"

Billie thought about it for a moment. "Y'know, I think we should talk to her. Trying to do this all by yourself isn't the best way don't you think?"

"What if she doesn't want to be bothered?"

"Then she'll politely tell us to go to Hell like she always does. You with me?"

"Right behind you, boss."

"I feel so supported. I trust if things get dicey you'll be right there to watch my back?"

"I'll watch your back anytime. But I hope you don't mind if I do it from back here until it's safe."

Billie couldn't keep a straight face and chuckled. "I'll let you know when it's safe then. Until then shall we go and ask silly questions we might already know the answers to?"

"Lead on McDuff!"

The two quietly approached the seated figure. Chou was seated tailor-style with her sheathed sword laid across her lap. When they were close, Chou turned her head towards them to show she knew they were there.

Billie cleared her throat. "Uh. You okay Chou? Didn't anyone show up to visit you?"

Chou didn't look around as she answered. "Three of my guardians came."

"Oh. They left already huh?"

"One of them, Guan Yu, had a disagreement with Sifu Fitzgibbons. I'm afraid it came to blows."

Billie and Jade sat down on each side of Chou and took up similar sitting positions on either side, Billie to the left and Jade to the right.

Billie continued. "Is everyone alright?"

"Sifu Fitzgibbons needed some help afterwards. My guardians were asked to leave."

"Oh. Sorry to hear that. But that leads us back to my original question. Are you okay?"

"I guess that depends on what you consider okay. My family has been destroyed. I've been turned into a girl and tied to a destiny I'm not certain I want. I've got gods and goddesses complicating my life even as they say they're trying to help me. Why wouldn't I be okay?"

"Hmmm. I guess we don't have anything to compare to all that. I've been turned into something I don't understand yet but I do still have a family that loves me. Jade's family has abandoned her but her problem is she HASN'T turned into a girl. Maybe you two ought to get together and see about trading places?"

"Thanks for the love." Chou's reply didn't sound thankful.

"Anytime. But I'll have to charge for it if I have to use it too much."

"Don't strain yourself."

"Okay. I won't. Still, if you want to talk about it I'm sure we'll be able to listen."

"I can handle it."

"Sure, sure. It's that inscrutable Asian mystique. It makes you invulnerable to mere human feelings."

"I'm not Asian."

"Neither am I. But for some strange reason most of the strangers I meet seem to think I'm from Japan. Do you think the look does the job or do you have to be born Asian to reap the benefits?"

"Are YOU immune to these problems?"

"Hmmm. Nope. Guess the look doesn't do it for you. But you just admitted to not being Asian yourself. So, are you okay?"

"Are you making fun of me?"

"Nope. I'm making fun of me. If you've found an answer to some of these problems I'd be more than happy to hear about them."

"Okay. So I'm not the only one with problems. What makes you think you can understand where I'm coming from?"

"I can't. Not exactly. But I can understand how hard it can be to try and adapt to a situation you didn't ask for. I can understand what it's like to be taken from your family. Even if in my case it isn't a permanent separation. And I think most of us in Team Kimba have a pretty good idea how difficult it is to adjust to a totally new life. Life can be worse you know, even if it doesn't feel like it now."

"Worse than being a tool of some destiny or fate?"

"Yeah." Tennyo answered with conviction and without hesitation.

That answer got Chou's attention. She turned to look at the strange-haired girl.

"How!?"

Billie looked Chou in the eyes but her troubled thoughts were obviously much further away for a few moments. "Being a tool who doesn't have feelings or choice. Doing things just because it's the plan. You think what you have is bad? I think I know what worse is. At least we have a choice to make, and if nothing else we can at least feel bad about what happens. If you think being a tool is bad what do you think about being a tool that doesn't care? Or is THAT what you're afraid of?"

The silence continued for several minutes. Finally Chou asked quietly. "How do you know?"

Billie was silent for a few moments. Then she sighed. "My dreams. I... I'm afraid they're not dreams."

"Are they bad?"

"Horrible. Everything's just a plan and everything that happens is part of it. You just have to push the right buttons at the right time. Set someone up for a fall and then kill them because it makes the point to the right people at the right time. All because it will get the job done. And everyone else thinks it's just the way things work out. They don't have a clue that they're just being used. And the worst thing is that I don't care. Not even a little bit. At least while I'm dreaming. It all comes back afterward though. Makes me sick to my stomach."

"But you'd never do something like that?" It should have been a statement of reassurance, but it came out more like a question.

Billie closed her eyes as if blocking a vision she didn't want to see. "I don't know. I hear... The doctors studying me don't realize I can hear what they're saying about me. Or they don't think I understand what they're talking about. They keep forgetting I was studying Advanced Genetics even before I changed."

"What are they saying?"

"I'm not human. Not anymore."

"You're different, but.."

"When I first came here my change wasn't complete yet. There was still some residue of my old body. They even managed to collect a little. Now there isn't even a trace. They can't take samples anymore. If my hair comes out, if I cry, bleed, even if I try to pee and poop. Nothing. I feel like I am, but nothing gets more than a little away from my body before it vanishes to who-knows-where."

"It's a little weird I admit. But I don't see how that makes you inhuman."

Billie glanced at Chou. "Think it through. Everything I do is an appearance of normality. But it's all fake. I eat and drink but nothing ever really comes out. I have tears and cry but the doctors say my eyes don't really need the tears. Everything, The doctors think there's only one real reason that would be the case."

"Oh?"

"I'm a construct. A machine. Designed to fool everyone into thinking I'm alive but I'm really not. I don't need to breath and they're really not certain I need to eat or drink. And when I have those dreams, I can almost see what it's all for. I feel like a lie."

"But you have feelings now. Unless that's a clever fiction also?"

"No."

The two older looking girls started a bit as that word came from Jade. They turned to look at her. Both taken back a bit by the determination in her gaze.

"No. Oneesan isn't like that monster she talks about at all. She cares. I don't know how I know this, but I can feel it too. She really cares about us. She'd never hurt us. How many times has she let others hurt her when she didn't have to? But if she stomped them we'd all be hurt because of it. You know about the radiation she puts out when she gets going. Oneesan doesn't like getting hurt, but she will allow herself to be hurt as long as it doesn't hurt us. Billie's not a machine!"

The three were quiet for a while after that. The silence was finally broken by Chou.

"Thank you."

Billie giggled. "For what? Letting me cry on your shoulder?"

"For not just walking away. Sitting here and talking. I don't think we answered any of the questions, but at least I feel like there's someone asking with me. Not just telling me to suck it up and deal."

Bilie giggled again and the other two looked at her.

"I was just thinking what it must look like to anyone seeing us right now. Those inscrutable Asian girls meditating in the sunset. I sometimes think everyone thinks we don't have the same problems as everyone else."

"The others do. They have problems of their own."

"Yeah. You're right. Our team does and some of our friends. But beyond them? What do they see? The sexy confident martial artist? The talented and bright gadgeteer with ghost sidekick? The incredibly beautiful and powerful space girl?"

Chou nodded. "I see where you get the martial artist and the gadgeteer, but who'd mistake cranky old you for the beautiful space girl?"

Billie put on her best scowl. "Watch it bub! I resemble that remark."

"Ooohh! I think I'll have nightmares. Not!"

Nobody could keep a strait face anymore, and nobody could say anymore without another fit of giggles starting. Finally Billie got a bit more serious.

"Say! Why don't you come up to our room? Jade was going to make some tea."

"Why does everyone think I want tea?"

Billie shrugged. "It's that inscrutable Asian influence. You're Asian, or look like you are, and you have to have tea. Although my real reason is Jade actually makes really good tea. Try some. I think you'll find it's pretty nice to just sit and appreciate a good tea. It's calming really. And coming from me that should mean a lot!"

Chou snorted quietly. "Calming? Could've fooled me."

"That's because you never knew me before I started drinking tea with Jade."

"I'd hate to see what you were like before then."

"You and everyone else. I bet if Jade didn't offer me tea on a regular basis, Security would be after her all the time just to get her to do it." Billie cast a deep and obviously fake glare at her roommate who was quite successfully looking small and innocent.

"I'm glad you like my tea Oneesan. My mother was much better than me. You would've liked hers more.'

Shaking her head Billie smiled. "I doubt that.. There's something to be said about something made for you by someone who cares about you. It's always special."

Jade could do nothing but blush after that. Chou shook her head. "C'mon you two. I think I'll take you up on that offer. I'm not getting anything done just sitting here and there's just too many interruptions to get any good meditation in."

With that, Chou stood gracefully and slung the sword over her back in the same movement. Many others would've been left behind, but Billie simply floated after her friend until her feet caught up and Jade bounced up, all the while giving Chou an animated description of how Billie's younger brother managed to wreck the giant robot. As the setting sun vanished behind the hills the three girls entered the now lighted entry and disappeared inside.

Behind them and back down the hill, a bouncy young black girl was hugged by all of her family - except one older brother who seemed determined to keep his tie untied.  She ushered them onto the bus and waved goodbye long after the bus had rounded a curve and vanished from sight.

The bus driver checked his rearview mirror and made sure everyone in the bus was sitting down. He patted the Uzi hidden in his bag and gave a small, silent sigh of relief. Driving back was always less risky than driving into Whateley Academy in the first place. He touched a small knob on his dashboard, signaling that he was leaving Whateley.  He headed off for a picturesque covered bridge that was only thirty minutes away by state highway.  The bridge was on a narrow, winding road so heavily overgrown with trees that you couldn't see one side of the road from the other side of the bridge.

One of the panel vans would rez up its holographic systems and drive into the covered bridge only a few minutes ahead of the tour bus. Then it would wait in the bridge for the bus to pass it, creating a seamless effect.  To an outside observer, it would merely look as if the bus had stopped under the covered bridge for a couple minutes while the tourists onboard took pictures. It was just one more precaution for the best protected, and yet the most dangerous school on the planet.

 

The middle-aged oriental gentleman leaned back against the bus seat and smiled at his 'wife'.  In a few seconds, they would be safely off Whateley Academy grounds, in a perfect position. Their masquerade had gone perfectly. No one in their organization had ever managed to infiltrate Whateley Academy before. But finally they had a teenaged member enrolled as a student at Whateley. Their 'student' had been the perfect mole, and had provided the ideal cover for a 'parental visit'. They still didn't know who the girl Chaka was, but they were now on a bus with the girl's relatives, and they would arrange for the relatives to be followed all the way to their home. As a bonus, they had been able to spot the Wilson girl and verify that her parents were indeed the infamous Flashlight and Weasel: there was a very large open contract from the Syndicate for tracking the Wilsons.

However, their main focus was Chaka, the martial artist. Even if Whateley Security could not be breached directly, there were other ways to get around it.  And if one happened to know where Chaka's loved ones lived, then there were ways to 'persuade' her to cooperate in their plans...

THE END?