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Diane Castle / Ayla / Ayla and the Birthday Brawl / Part 2

Ayla and the Birthday Brawl

by Diane Castle (and the usual troublemakers)

CHAPTER 2 - The Legend of Sir Guyon

Saturday, January 20, 2007
New England Federal Paranormal Detention Facility
Roxbury, Massachusetts

MIMEO

“Hey!  Mimeo!  Come on!  Get yer ass over in yer security chair!”

He cooperated.  He didn’t get fed if he didn’t, and his lunch was already pretty fucking late.  No one was dumb enough to come into his cell if he wasn’t locked up in the security chair.  And they didn’t dare bring in any superpowered jailers just to find out whether they were tough enough to deal with him.  Especially when no one was tough enough to deal with him.  So they went with the traditional approach: lock him in a massive titanium alloy chair for long enough to get in and get back out.

He sat down in the uncomfortable metal chair mounted on the back wall, and put his limbs in the slots.  The security camera up in the corner followed his movements.  Once he was seated properly, the massive shackles pneumatically closed about his calves and forearms and waist, locking in place.  He knew those shackles alone weren’t enough to keep him in place for long.  But so did his jailers.  The guards at Roxbury - the Federal Paranormal Detention Facility for the area - were too well trained.  In the two years he’d been stuck in this hole, no one had screwed up around him.  Yet.

The cell door opened, and in walked…  Oh fuck.  It was Pat Delahanty.  The Delahantys - Eddie, his cousins Pat and Tim, and Eddie’s brothers-in-law Mike Dooley and Chris O’Malley - along with their pals, were the local Grip.  Mimeo had plenty of money, but not any that he’d let those bastards know about.  He’d trust a slimy backstabber like Cobrafire before he trusted these weasels.  Pat Delahanty just swaggered in, knowing he was safe from a bigtime mutant like Mimeo.  As long as Mimeo was locked in that chair, and Pat didn’t stay in the room for more than a few seconds.

About a month ago, the Delahantys had gotten word from some ratfink that Mimeo had hidden assets.  Hell, he had a good three or four million hidden away under a couple other names, not that he was ever going to admit it.  But Pat Delahanty had been pressuring him to cough up some of that money to get some jailhouse perks out of it.  Meaning, the Delahantys wanted huge chunks of his money, and he’d get a few hundred bucks worth of crap out of the deal.  Not happening.  He knew how this game was played, and he’d rather kick the bucket than let asswipes like the Delahantys get any bennies out of his hard work.

Well, it was hard work.  It had taken him years to work up his system.

Okay, it was fun.  He loved using his powers and fighting the toughest superteams he could find.  And he loved what he could do afterward.

In his lifetime, he’d figured out how to deal with armed killers.  How to deal with the Mafia.  How to deal with superpowered foes.  How to deal with entire super-teams.  Now he just had to figure out how to deal with the Delahantys.  Maybe he could get one of them to get a little too greedy.

“I been thinkin’,” he said, trying to sound stupid enough to fall for one of their cons.  “Maybe I could git this chick I know ta get some of the money I got stashed.  But it’s buried on a farm up in New Hampshire, an’ I don’t know if I can trust her if I tell her where it is…”

Delahanty set the meal down carefully, instead of ‘accidentally’ dropping it on the floor as he had probably been about to do.  “Okay, maybe one of my brothers can help us out here.  He’s a cop, but the kind of cop you can trust to do a job like this.”

Mimeo pretended to think it over.  “Maybe…”  But he knew there was no way the Delahantys would ever turn the money over to him.  Just as he knew what would happen to any girl who tried to retrieve a pile of cash with one of the Delahantys along for the ride.  No, he was going to try stringing these screws along, and see if one of them wanted the money so badly that he’d fuck over his family for a grab at the gold ring.

 

Saturday, January 20, 2007
Whateley Academy, Dunn Hall

AYLA

I bussed my tray and tried not to think about the tribulations of schools.  Back before I went to Montessori school, I never thought about things like having to take your own plates over to the kitchen, or having to stand in a line to pick out less-than-appetizing foods out of a long row of lesser options.  Before I went to Chilton, I didn’t even think about the gruesome fact that things might be a lot worse elsewhere.  And then, being shipped off to Gracie’s was a hell of a shock, even after experiencing the food and the dorms at Chilton.  I didn’t want to think about the lives that some of my fellow students led, if food like this was the ‘good stuff’.

Okay, I did want to think about the lives of a number of my fellow students.  I worried a lot about what summer would be like for some of the kids here.  I already knew that Nikki and Toni and Vanessa had families to go home to, but not everyone was so lucky.  Did I need to start planning some sort of summer work-study program that would let kids like Chou and Jade and Sandra have somewhere to go?  Did I need to find out if Whateley had special placement services for kids who didn’t really have a home to go to, or only had angry mutant-hating jerks awaiting them?

Of course I needed to.  I just had to figure out how to do it without stepping on anyone’s toes, or making anyone feel like I was rubbing my money in their faces.  Why did everyone act like I was trapping them in a life of slavery while they worked to repay me, when I was just spending some pocket money on them?  Okay, I knew I wouldn’t want to be the recipient of charitable contributions, so I could understand how plenty of other people felt the same way.  But it wasn’t charity if it was doing a minuscule favor for a friend, was it?

I headed out into the hallway.  Now that I knew how the tunnels under Dunn Hall were laid out in relation to the cafeteria, I didn’t have to wait on that slow elevator if I didn’t feel like it.  So I just went light and flew down into the tunnels.

It didn’t take any time at all to reach the deviser dungeons, and Möbius was even in his lab.  Even better, he wasn’t crawling into one of his projects and exposing the kind of buttcrack that should be sealed up from prying eyes like a Class X site.

I knocked on his lab door, even though it was half open.  “Hey Möbius, do you have a second?”

He looked up and grinned.  “Sure, Phase.  What can I do for you?”

I figured I’d bring up the subject of more room in the utility belts at some other time.  I went straight to the main point, “It’s my birthday next week, and I’m taking some people to Boston for lunch next Saturday.  Wanna come?”

He looked confused.  “Me?  Your birthday party?  Aren’t you gonna have a ton of people already?”

I shrugged, “Yeah, but I’ve got lots of room.”

“But you’ve got like all the Kimbas and stuff.  Why are you asking me?”

I told him the truth.  “The same reason I’m asking Jericho and Bugs and Automa-tech and Triaxial and Loophole and a couple other inventors.  You’re working with me.  I want you to come.”

He heard some pieces of that.  “Bugs?  Loophole?  And me?  Are you sure?”

“Why?” I asked.  “Are you going to lapse into AWS?”

He grinned, even as he tried not to stare at my chest.  He looked surprised that I knew enough geek-speak to have heard of Attractive Woman Syndrome.  He managed, “Umm, not around Bugs and Loophole, ‘cause they’re devisers too, and I can talk tech.  But maybe around Fey.”

I waved that off.  “Everyone has that reaction around Fey.  It’s part of what makes her Fey.  Just keep it under control, and I won’t get Jericho to stand in front of you and show you his clothes.”

He didn’t quite wince at that.  He said, “Just don’t make me look at Jericho’s clothing after I eat.”

I grinned, “What?  And have to clean up when you hurl?  Not likely.”

After Möbius agreed, I went looking for a few other of my inventors.  Automa-tech and Triaxial weren’t in their labs, so I wandered on back to Poe.  I floated up past Damnation Alley to the fourth floor, and tried Zenith and Shrike’s room.

A few seconds after I knocked, there were footsteps, and Sahar opened the door.  She didn’t have her shirt buttoned all the way closed.  Zenith was trying to tuck her t-shirt back into her jeans.  I didn’t say anything, though.

Sahar smiled, “Why yes, that is pretty much all we do in here.”

“I didn’t say that,” I insisted.

Zoe rolled her eyes.  “It’s all anyone asks, unless they’re up here to get something from the dorm fixer.”

Sahar smiled wickedly, “And most of them ask it too.”

Zenith added, “The ones that don’t ask are still thinking about it.”

I just said, “Well, fewer people might ask it if you were fully dressed when they knocked.  Not that I’m complaining or anything.”

Sahar smiled again.  “You do have quite the little reputation in the girls’ showers.”

I just looked her in the eye.  “Are you telling me you wouldn’t look if Fey were standing wet and naked in front of you?  Or Vox, or Bugs, or Chaka, or Tennyo, or most of the rest of my floor?

“I didn’t say that,” she answered coyly.

“Sure she’d be looking,” supplied Zenith.  “She’d just be more subtle than you are.”

I pointed out, “Who isn’t?  It’s just that I have an alarm system that alerts everyone else in the bathroom when I get really interested.”

Sahar started to say, “Why would y-”

But Zenith broke out in giggles.  Sahar stared at her.  Zenith stared back.  Man, they were so amazingly subtle when they were doing their psychic communication thing.

Sahar broke out in a grin.  “Oh, right.”

“Yeah,” I agreed.  “I know everyone else looks too.  Except Jade, and maybe Billie.  I’m just the one who can be easily spotted.”

Zenith grinned, “But you didn’t come up here to talk about your dick.  Even if you are a guy.”

I didn’t play the ‘discriminating against guys’ card, since Zoe was still more guy inside than a lot of Poe residents.  I went straight to the point.  “I’m taking some friends to Boston next Saturday for lunch.  It’s my birthday party.  Want to come?”

They looked at each other for long seconds, doing their ‘Betazoid communication’ act, before they simultaneously turned to look at me.  I told them, “Okay, the psychic mindreader bit is fine, since you’re not putting your fingertips on each other’s forehead or anything.  But that simultaneous movement stuff is getting up into the ‘Creepshow’ domain.”

Zenith admitted, “Yeah, Shrike was complaining about it too.  We’ll watch out for that.”

Sahar said, “We thought that maybe Shrike was just complaining.  She does that.”

I got back to the issue.  “So.  Trip next Saturday?”

Zenith frowned, “Next Saturday’s the only day we can get away for some personal time.  We’ve got permission from Admin to go into Berlin for the day.”

“And evening,” Sahar emphasized.

Zenith added, “And it’s not like Hartford is going to let us change it.  She just about had a coronary when she found out about it and then found she couldn’t cancel it.  Neither of us is exactly on her Happy List.”

Yeah, like anyone I knew (outside the core Alphas) was on any kind of Hartford list, other than the Official Hartford Shit List.  Which probably encompassed roughly 600 students, half the faculty, and a pretty big chunk of Security.

Sahar smiled, “I would like to do something for your birthday.  I’m really looking forward to the IPO.  If we can’t go, can we still get you something?”

“Nope,” I shook my head.  “No presents.  Not even donations to charities I favor.”

Zenith pointed out, “You are probably the hardest person to shop for in the whole school.”

“Even Solange would let someone buy her a dress or a pair of shoes,” Sahar said.  “The cost of something she would want might be a problem, but she likes shoes.”

Zenith said, “The only clothes that fit you well are things you don’t want to wear.  And you already have Cecilia Rogers on speed-dial.”

I didn’t.  But I certainly had the phone number for her boutique, as well as the number of her cell phone.  So I didn’t bother to protest.  And the rest of it was true.  I really didn’t like that boy clothes didn’t fit me.  Instead, I asked, “Do you know if Shrike has anything planned for next Saturday?”

Zenith thought for a second and said, “As far as I know, her calendar is open, although she tends to wing it when it comes to her schedule.  I’ll let her know you’re looking for her too.”

I told her thanks and headed back downstairs.  I figured I would ask a few more people from my floor, some more of my inventors, and some of the people around campus who had befriended me back when I was The Threat To All Mutantdom.  But I had plenty of time.

I floated down through the stairwell and went to check on a couple floormates.  Jody was busy trying to settle some problem between Gabriel and Michelangelo, so I didn’t disturb her.  I figured those two were disturbing enough.

I was going to check with Jay Jay next, but Jade came up the stairs holding a manila envelope and looking awful.  Tennyo immediately flew over and asked, “What’s the matter?”

Jade showed her the envelope.  “It’s special delivery, registered mail.  To me.  I had to sign for it and everything.  And it’s from Marvel, like Marvel Comics.  What if…”

Tennyo looked back my way and bellowed, “AYLA!”

Damn.  This was going so well already.  I waved them both toward my room and said, “It’s from Marvel Entertainment Incorporated, I’m pretty sure.”  Jade just looked more worried.  I tried again, “Open it up.  This’ll be great.  Trust me.”  That made her look even more worried.

Man, I really need to work on my sales and marketing skills.

I ushered Jade and Tennyo into my room.  Chou was lying on the bed, still looking exhausted and frazzled.  And she was still pretty shaky, not to mention sore.  Molly had told us all what had happened, which was way beyond the ‘oh we’re just going to check on something’ routine they gave me at breakfast.

But Chou waved us in anyway.  Naturally, Toni had to know what was up, and she dragged Fey along.  Lancer spotted the crowd in my doorway, and he came over too.  Pretty soon, everyone was crowded into my room, while Jade worked up the courage to find out what horrible news was about to hit her.  Fortunately, my room was set up to handle a crowd, even if Chou was lying on the lower bunk bed.  Hank dove into his favorite beanbag chair, Nikki and Toni jumped up into the hammocks, and Billie floated halfway to the ceiling.

Jade nervously opened the seal and pulled out a letter.

Tennyo pushed, “Come on, what’s in it?”

Fey asked, “Are you in trouble?”

Chaka rolled her eyes, “What’d Ayla do this time?”

“Toni!” Chou immediately complained from her bed.

Jade started reading out loud.  “Dear Ms. Sinclair, blah blah blah… from Marvel Comics and Marvel Studios and their parent corporation Marvel Entertainment… some more blah blah… in exchange for considerations already given, you are hereby granted the exclusive right to use the codename ‘Shroud’, with the reservation that at any time Marvel could announce that a Shroud movie or sequel was going to be made, and in such case your costume would need to be something other than primarily black until five years after said movie had moved into syndication on network television….”

Lancer wondered, “You can keep Shroud as your codename?  For real?”

Tennyo growled suspiciously, “Considerations already given?  What the hell does that mean?”

Fey wondered aloud, “How on earth did you get Marvel to let you have the name?”

Chaka glared at me.  “Ayles!”

“What?”  I tried the innocent look, but it obviously wasn’t working.

“Spill it, girl!  What’d you do?”

I sighed, “Okay, you already know about my putting together a consortium to buy out Marvel Comics and Marvel Studios and the other Marvel pieces, and create Marvel Entertainment Corporation, right?”

Everyone nodded.  Several people rolled their eyes or groaned.  Okay, maybe I had been too big a pain in the butt about this when I was trying to make money for everyone back in the fall.

Fey muttered, “I’m still pissed at my mom for not telling me she was investing all that money, when she was on my case for not telling her everything.  I mean, I pretty much told her the whole deal about the thing in the Syndicate hardsite, and she totally didn’t tell me about investing with you.”

I went on, “So we only bought out 78% of Marvel, but we got every one of the individual companies and LLC’s rolled into the conglomerate.  Technically, we only needed 51%, but the extra percentage is likely to be important at board meetings some day in the future.  The IPO’s going to be big on the stock market when it opens Monday morning.  And now the new Marvel movies won’t be getting screwed up by ‘executive meddling’ and bad screenplays.  I hope.”

Chaka thought about that for a second and then shrieked, “Iron Fist!  I want an Iron Fist movie!”

I rolled my eyes.  “I am so shocked to hear that.”

She demonstrated her superior maturity by sticking her tongue out at me.

Jade cut in, “How about a ‘Sabrina the Teenage Witch’ movie?”  I think every person in the room groaned.  Even Billie.  Jade defended her choice, “But she’s so pretty!  And she’s helping the good guys take over from the bad people running the head council of the witches now!  It would be great!”

I refrained from burying my face in my hands.  “Jade, have I mentioned that your tastes in reading leave a lot to be desired?”

Lancer muttered, “Says the girl who actually read a thousand pages of weirdness by that Pound guy.”

“I heard that,” I said.

Fey smiled wickedly, “You were supposed to.  I did a small spell to make his voice louder, as soon as I felt him get ready to say something snarky.”

I added, “Besides, Marvel doesn’t own Archie Comics.  Separate company.”

Chou said, “Perhaps these are thoughts that need to be shared anyway.  If we cannot say these things to each other, how are we to remain a team?”

Billie frowned, “Yeah.  I think I need to hear what everyone on the team thinks about me.”

I said, “You already know.  None of us are exactly Discretion Man.”

“CAPTAIN DISCRETION!” boomed Toni.  “Protector of secrets!  Guardian of that news about you and your ex-wife’s massage instructor!  Oops…”

Nikki tried not to giggle before she added, “I have to agree with Phase.  And you know she’s not going to keep quiet if she thinks she needs to bring something up.”

Toni helpfully reminded everyone, “Yeah, remember the thing about ordering the pizzas?”

“Hey,” I protested, “Just because I was lobbying for something a little more upscale doesn’t mean I won’t eat pizza.  Well, good pizza.”

Jade pouted, “Chuck E. Cheese is good pizza!”

I insisted, “Only if you think burnt cardboard with artificial cheese food on top is ‘pizza’.”

Toni intervened, “See what I mean?  Anyway, there isn’t a Chuck E. Cheese in Dunwich, and the one in Berlin won’t deliver out this far.”

“Saved by a technicality,” I gasped.

Jade pouted again, “I like Chuck E. Cheese.”

“I come for the games, but I stay for the burnt pizza smell!” added Hank.

Nikki glared at him, “You stole that from ‘Kim Possible’, didn’t you?”

He shrugged, “Hey, us guys overshadowed by action chicks have to stick together.”

Jade giggled, “Hey, at least you don’t get your pants ripped off all the time.”

I had no idea what she was talking about, but it was obvious most of the room did.  I was going to have to look that one up on the internet as soon as I had the room to myself.  ‘Kim Possible’ plus ‘pants ripped off’.  Surely a Disney show couldn’t have Kim getting her pants ripped off.  Man, maybe I did need to spend more time catching up on pop culture. I’d watched part of one episode of Kim Possible when Molly and Chou had it on my television, and I had to admit Shego was pretty hot for a Disney cartoon character.  Maybe it was just the Nicole Sullivan voiceover.

Billie said, “Hey, the pizza place in Dunwich is really pretty good.”

Chou chipped in, “Their Veggie Monster pizza was great.”

I shrugged.  I thought the Dunwich pizza place was somewhere between ‘mediocre’ and ‘adequate’, but everyone else thought it was terrific.  Probably, no one else in the group had ever had really top-quality handmade pizzas.  If they had only experienced Pizza Hut and Domino’s Pizza and the other usual pizza franchises, then it wasn’t surprising the Dunwich pizza place was considered to be great.  I let it drop.  For now, anyway.

Hank went back to the main topic.  “So you could get pretty much anybody the codename they wanted?”

Nikki teased, “Why?  Are you thinking of switching to Power Man?”

“No, I like Lancer, but I was just wondering.  Sort of.”

I smirked, “Well, Marvel and DC together do happen to have trademarks on roughly 279,000 characters, along with registered copyrights on several thousand of the most important character storylines.  They’ve really been insane about this ever since that dork back in the 70’s who wanted to call himself Superboy.  You’ll be totally shocked by this, but it turns out he was a frosh or sophomore at Whateley at the time he started the whole thing.”  Chaka rolled her eyes in complete non-surprise.  I admitted, “I was sort of thinking about harassing a couple of my enemies by sicking trademark lawyers on them with ‘cease and desist’ orders about their codenames or their uniforms.  But I decided a better use would be a present for Jade.”

Jade threw her arms around me and shrieked, “Oh thank you thank you thank you!”

I grinned, “You’re welcome.”  Then I looked over at Hank.  “I think I could get you ‘Power Man’ as a legit codename, if you really want it.”

Fey perked up.  “So you could get me ‘the Scarlet Witch’ or one of the other big codenames?”

I rolled my eyes.  “That would be an extreme ‘no’.  There are three different development deals under wraps on the Avengers, and that includes all the characters in the Avengers.  I can maybe work loose a codename like ‘Power Man’ because there are no development deals or anything involving the Luke Cage character.  Same for Shroud.”  I paused for a moment and added, “Now, if you wanted to act in an Avengers movie and play the Scarlet Witch, I could probably help you.”

I just knew Toni was dying to make a couple ‘casting couch’ jokes, but she stopped when Billie tentatively asked, “So…  Could you get ‘em to do a Starjammers movie?”

I just grinned and slowly shook my head no.  “If you wrote a really excellent screenplay on it, I could flog that around.  But I’m not going to push pet ideas on the creative people.  The last thing I want to be is another Sam Goldwyn.  Or another Jon Peters.”

“Jon Peters?”

“Yeah, the Hollywood producer?  He’s famous in the biz for having this weird obsession about giant robot spiders.  The stupid giant spider in the Will Smith Wild Wild West movie?  His fault.  There’s actually a list of movies where the director or writers had to tell him ‘no giant mechanical spider!’  That even includes a Kevin Smith screenplay.”

Hank stared at the ceiling wistfully, “I still think an Iron Man movie would be really cool.”

“Maybe,” I said carefully, “but who could you get to play Tony Stark?  Think about it.  You’d need someone handsome enough to play the lead, but not too handsome.  They’d have to be a really good actor.  They’d have to carry the film-“

“That rules out Ben Affleck,” snarked Toni.

“I agree.  But as I was saying, they’d have to show all the flaws of Tony Stark without making him look like a worthless drunk.  They’d have to be able to sell the whole ‘arms maker who decides to make a superhero suit instead of selling the tech to the military’ routine.  Which frankly, I never bought.  I thought that was even more unrealistic than the technology.”

Fey said, “You would focus on that, Business Babe.”

Chaka snorted, “Business Babe?  Nah.  I think Ayla ought to be Finance Femme.”

“GNP Girl?” suggested Hank.

“Military-Industrial Complex Woman,” Billie tossed in.

“Super Banker,” said Jade.

Chou got a wicked grin on her face.

I just looked at her and asked, “Et tu, Brute?

She said, “Patent Leather.”

“Ouch.”

Burn!”  Chaka laughed and shook her hand like she’d just touched a hot stove.

It took about three minutes for some people – who will remain nameless – to stop their bursts of intermittent giggling.

I thought about using the warming drawer as an excuse to get away from all the giggling, but I wasn’t going to give in that easily.  Instead, I ignored the snickers and laid out in front of the team what I wanted Jade to do for the Golden Kids party.  I made sure everyone else had their maid’s uniforms ready to go, and I explained what I wanted them to do.  Then I talked Fey into walking upstairs and giving the same explanation to Delta and Megs.  I knew there was no way I was going to talk Toni or Billie into it if they didn’t want to.  I still wasn’t sure Billie was going to go through with the waitressing gig in the first place.

As everyone except Chou trekked out of my room, I stopped Billie.  Jade stopped short at once.  I quietly said, “Look Billie, if you don’t feel up to it, that’s okay.  You can back out at any time.”

“Even once I get there and try on the uniform and start?”

“Even then,” I reassured her.  “And if you’ve already started waitressing, and you feel overwhelmed, you can come to me and just stop right then.”

“I…  I just don’t know,” she muttered.

“It’ll be fun!” insisted Jade.

“Plus, you get to play ‘secret agent’ for a night,” I added.

She did smile at that.  “You know Ayla, there are probably entire government spy agencies who don’t have as much sneakiness in them as you do.”

I smiled back.  “Why, thank you!”  Then I got serious.  “I know this seems like a bit much, but it’s the way the game is played.  You don’t think Thuban gets all his intel from Security, do you?  Most of it is probably from all the Faction 3 types and their connections who just walk around in plain sight, doing jobs like cafeteria worker and gardener and such.  Nothing’s more invisible than someone who’s doing menial work in plain sight.”

Jade frowned, “Ayla, have I ever mentioned that sometimes you’re really scary?”

I grinned, “No, but I really appreciate the remark.  I get so tired of being considered unintimidating, just because I hang around with Fey and your roomie.”

Tennyo winced, “Why on earth would you want to be intimidating?  I hate having people be afraid of me, and knowing I could hurt someone really bad without even trying…”

I tried to explain, “Billie, you’re a really nice person, and you’ve shown you can take on anyone.  Even major threats are going to leave you alone.  Me?  I’ve been a target since before I was born.  My family’s had to teach each of us how to deal with other people, and how to watch out when we’re in public, and how to be on the lookout for conmen, and gold-diggers, and kidnappers, and stalkers, and everything else you can imagine.  Plus, all the protection infrastructure the rest of my family depend on, like bodyguards and Goodkind Security forces and corporate counter-intelligence?  I don’t have any of that anymore.  On top of that, I have most of the school looking to punch me in the face for being a Goodkind, or for being a shemale freakazoid, or for beating up someone else who already attacked me.  I need the appearance of threat potential.”

Billie uncomfortably said, “I kinda thought ripping Peril’s dick off in front of half the school would do that for you.”

Jade added, “Yeah, nobody knows you faked it, except us.  Right?”

I nodded.  “And Peril.  And Mindbird, who probably told all of the Betas.  And Delarose and Carson.  And some medical people over in the hospital.  So eventually, word’s going to get out to the whole school that I faked it.”

Jade enthusiastically said, “But until then, everyone thinks you’re scarier than heck!  Even Stephen doesn’t know, ‘cause he was being real subtle, trying to get me to tell him if you’d done stuff like that to anyone else.”

Tennyo sadly said, “But once people think you’re the kind of threat who’ll rip a guy’s nads off just for insulting you, they’re never gonna want to be your friend.  And if they think maybe you just might do it, they still don’t wanna be your friend.”

The way she said it made me worry that there were people around campus who didn’t want to be her friend, because of the rumors swirling around her abilities.  Which was really not fair.  I figured it had to be a lot worse for Sara.  I told her, “Look, you have us.  We know you’re not like that.  And you have most of the floor, too.  And you have people like Belle, because you know there’s no way she’d risk pranking you if she thought you were like that.  And you have Harry.  Even if he’s not your boyfriend, he’s still your friend.  I mean, he’s punched guys in the face for badmouthing you.  And you have most of Hawthorne.  You have a ton of friends.  But they’re the people who have met you… and spent time with you.  Just give it time.  As more and more people around campus find out what you’re really like, word will get around, and people will come around.  Think about it.  The Thornies were all out for your blood, back when they thought you hated them.  But now they know you, and now they’re your buds.  It took you a couple days to win them over, but you did it.”

She gave me a bonecrushing hug - which I accepted because I went heavy as soon as I saw her opening her arms - and whispered a teary “Thanks” in my ear.  Then she flew out, with Jade hollering “Hey!  Wait for me!” in her wake.

I felt like smiling.  And I’d cleared everyone out of my room, except Chou, who was going to be lying on her bed for a while.  I took a few seconds to unlock my computer and do a fast search.  And there it was.  The thing with the pants was even in the ‘Kim Possible’ opening!  I’d have known this if I had sat with Chou and Molly and watched the start of that one episode.  I so had to spend more time being a teenager.

Chou stretched out on her bed, and with a groan, asked what I was doing.  So I told her, and got her to tell me more details about what had happened to her.  At which point I had to refrain from kicking her ass and yelling at her for not calling the Kimba big guns to help her.  Frigging ‘Handmaid of the Tao’ bullshit.  That didn’t mean she had to tackle everything all by herself when she had all of us only a short distance away.  But Delarose had chewed her out but good on that one already, so I let it slide.

I closed up my computer and decided it was a good time to go get that warming drawer from the chefs.  I would cool off faster if I was busy with something… and not looking at all her injuries.  I flew down to the Hawthorne tunnel, humming a little Brass Monkey when I wasn’t cutting through solid objects.  It didn’t take any time at all to get to the Dunn Hall cafeteria, since I cut through the floors rather than waiting around for that freight elevator.  The door into the cafeteria was locked, so I walked through it.

I could hear the clatter and splash of hard work back in the kitchen area.  So, as I walked toward the kitchen, I called out, “Hello?  Jana?  Anyone?  It’s Phase.  I’m supposed to pick up one of the warming drawers.”

Someone stuck her hairnet-clad head out and ducked back into the kitchen.  I just walked over to the food lines and waited.  After a few seconds, out came one of the workers I didn’t know.  She was hauling out a warming drawer.  I could see it had a note taped on the side: “FOR PHASE - PICKUP BY 5”.  Since it was signed by Marcel, I figured no one was going to fuss too much about the arrangement.

I thanked the woman and let her get back to work.  The warming drawers were all about two feet on a side, and about a foot deep.  That left plenty of space inside, along with more than enough room for the heating elements and temperature controls and moisture controls.  The dials for temperature and time and moisture setting were all on the front, with an electrical cord wound around four hooks on the back side.  I checked that the cord was in place, since the thing would be useless without power.

Then I headed back to Poe.  The warming drawer had two strong handles on top, so a baseline could fill it with hot food and lug it around.  Jade hadn’t had any trouble casting Jinn into it and making it zoom back and forth from the Crystal Hall to Tennyo’s stomach.  Although, since I had planned those trips in advance, the warming drawers were already heated before Jinn picked any of them up.

I walked out of the cafeteria, making sure the door locked behind me.  Then I took the elevator down.  I didn’t dare try taking this light with me.  If I missed even one corner going light, I’d ruin the entire thing.  Plus, it was about four cubic feet, and that was definitely larger than anything I’d managed to take light with me.  The most I had managed so far was my own clothes, plus a gymbag I could press against my chest so it only stuck out a couple inches from my body.  There was no way I could manage something that would stick out two feet from my body.  I just told myself that with practice, I would eventually be able to do better.  I doubted I’d ever get to something that big, but I’d at least know my limitations more precisely.

When I got back to the Poe cutoff, I stayed in the basement for a minute.  There were several smaller rooms down there, and one of them was fairly nice.  I’d already made sure it had been cleaned recently, and I had reserved it with Mrs. Horton.  I put the warming drawer in there, off to one side.  Then I set up the two-person table and put a nice tablecloth on it.  I went into the storage room and opened one of my trunks.  I had purchased some things just for a moment like this.  I had eight complete settings of Royal Daulton china, in a simple pattern I liked.  I fished out two of the settings and moved them into my ‘dining room’.  I also had a set of eight complete servings of Goodkind-Revere sterling silverware in a tarnish-resistant container, and a set of twelve cut crystal glasses and goblets from Waterford.  I got out two sets of each.

I set the table and took care of the other little details.  I put the warming drawer on a side table and plugged it in, then checked that it was working and carefully set the controls.  I had already pulled half a case of the non-alcoholic Prosecco for the Golden Kids soiree and stored that in a cool corner of the Poe basement storage room.  I retrieved one of those bottles.  It went into the champagne bucket with enough ice to cool it down.  I made a mental note that we needed a nicer champagne bucket.  That black plastic insulated cylinder did work, but it was so prosaic.  Still, everyone would get on my case if I bought a decent silver champagne bucket with stand for the dorm.

I went back into the storage room and cracked open the wooden crate that had been delivered the week before.  It was four feet on a side, and a foot thick, because it was heavily padded on the inside.  I just went heavy and pulled.  The wood came apart with the screech of unhappy nails.  Then I took out the contents and put it in my ‘dining room’ to surprise Vanessa.

I checked the fridge around the corner, in the party room.  I had a half gallon of a good mineral water in there, and up in the freezer compartment I had some good ice trays with more of the mineral water in them.  You have to either keep your freezer immaculate, or else get ice trays that can be sealed shut against the off-tastes in the freezer and the consequences of defrost cycles.  I hadn’t cleaned the freezer out, so I had gone with option number two.  High-density plastic ice cube systems, made of a plastic that wouldn’t taint the ice.  They were simple.  You poured the water (or whatever) into the bottles up to the fill line.  Then you screwed on the lid and laid the bottles flat, so the water settled in the hemispheres on one side and froze into nice little ice hemispheres that could be dumped out easily.  The only downside was that these systems made relatively few ice cubes per bottle, and the ice cubes comprised very little of the volume of the bottles.  I had four of them set in the freezer, and I knew that would be plenty of ice for a dinner for two, particularly when there was Prosecco to drink.

Still, I was looking into better ways of making clean, high-quality ice cubes.  I still thought the best option was a new, high-end refrigerator, but Mrs. Horton had told me ‘no’ already.  I figured it would take more effort on my part to convince her, but I had three and a half years to work on it.

The ice was ready, so I walked back upstairs.  I decided it was time to go pick out my clothes for dinner and the soirée.  I managed to catch Bugs and Riptide on the way to my room, so I checked that they had already been invited to Boston.  Riptide was ready to go, especially now that she knew she was invited and Thunderbird wasn’t.

Bugs said, “I’m looking forward to it, but I don’t want to get into another fight with supervillains.”

I pointed out, “You weren’t in the October one either.  And we’re not going to, unless we have to.”

Bugs pouted prettily, “But you guys are deputized now.  It could happen.”

Rip said, “And this time, I’m not layin’ around on the sidelines, I’m gonna get in there and get some wave power in there!”

Bugs glared at her roommate, then said to me, “See what I mean?”

I just said, “There’s no keeping the cowboys from riding off into the nearest gunfight.  And we all know who I’m talking about.  But that happens around here all the time already.  We have way more people gunning for us on campus than off.”

She shrugged, “Well, I don’t have to like it.”

I agreed, “I don’t like it either.  I would just as soon never have another fight again.  But as long as people are targeting me, I prefer to be ready to fight back.  And really, what’s the worst that can happen?  Boston S.W.A.T. calls us up and we send Tennyo and Lancer over to bust up a bank robbery while everyone else stays and enjoys their luncheon?”

Rip muttered, “Chaka won’t stay put if we get a call like that.”

“Well, maybe you could sit on her,” I suggested.  “Or kiss her until she can’t stand up.”

They giggled as they walked off to their room.  Then I went and checked in my closet.  I looked over my options and decided on a simple suit and tie for dinner, and the usual Whateley uniform for the get-together.  I got dressed, and then headed over to Jade’s room, to tell her what Jinn needed to know about dinner.

Yes, I know, that doesn’t sound right.  They really do need their own domain of pronouns.

Jade wasn’t in, but Billie was.  I told Billie that I’d explain everything to Jinn when she got to the ‘dining’ room downstairs.  Then I checked with Vox, who wasn’t ready yet, as I’d figured.  That meant I had enough time to meet the courier and get the food situated.

I walked out of Poe and stepped just outside where Mrs. Horton had told me the wards would be.  And I waited.  I was actually expecting a bit of a wait, but the courier popped into place at six.  And I mean thirty seconds after my bPhone said it was exactly six o’clock.  He must have dealt with restaurants before.  In fact, he probably picked up the food so it was handed ti him right at six, and then he instantly teleported to me.  I thanked him, signed his little PDA, gave him a tip big enough that his eyes bulged, and hurried back into the dorm.

Mrs. Horton was waiting for me when I walked into the dorm atrium.  She smiled. “I like your compromise, Ayla.  I think this is fairly workable.”

I told her, “Well, if it had been blizzard conditions out there, it wouldn’t have been.  Or a downpour.  There will be times when I just can’t go out past the wards and wait for my courier to show up.  Or even stand out there and complete a reasonable transaction.”

She nodded.  “All right.  But if we have weather like that, and you need to have a courier come in, just come tell me first.”

“I can do that,” I said.

She sniffed a couple time and said, “Ooh, that smells delicious.  You’d better get it downstairs for your little tete á tete.”

I smiled, “I’m on it.”

Just then, Jinn’s voice behind me said, “I’ll help!”

I turned around and found… six white cloth gloves and a speaker disk.  Well, that wasn’t nearly as bad as I had expected.  I tried to keep it at a deadpan as I said, “What?  You could only find six matching gloves?”  I held out the four boxes, and let four of the gloves take them.  Then I said, “Come on down, and I’ll show you everything.”

We walked downstairs.  Okay, I floated down the stairs, and half a dozen hands drifted behind me.  I explained, “All right, this box is the dessert.  It needs to go in the refrigerator to thaw a little bit before it’s time to eat it.  There ought to be two tiny sherbet cups in there too.  They go in the freezer.”  The hands whisked the box around the corner, and then came back.

I pointed out, “The mineral water and the ice cubes for it are in the fridge too.  Five ice cubes in each glass, and fill the glass three-quarters full.  After the first course, take the wine over there, pull the cork, and pour it into the goblets.”

“Real wine?  You’re not old enough to drink!” the gloves fussed at me.

“No, it’s a non-alcoholic Prosecco.  That’s a lot like a champagne, except it’s Italian, and not quite as dry as a good brut champagne.”

“How can champagne be dry?  It’s wet!”  You wouldn’t think a handful of gloves could look flummoxed, but they did.

“Sorry,” I explained.  “It’s jargon.  ‘Dry’ means it’s not sweet.  ‘Brut’ means it’s extra dry.”

“Brut?  Like the cologne?”

“Yeah,” I nodded.  “The cologne guys swiped the word from the French, and completely misused it.”  I moved to the big box.  “This is the third and fourth courses.  They get served together.  See how there’s two plates on the table, one on top of another?  And one plate to the right, and one plate closer to the center of the table?”

“Uh-huh.”

I explained as I opened the boxes, “Okay, this is the first course.  It’s fresh-baked bread and a spread for it.  The bread goes on the little plate to the side, and the spread goes on the table where we can both reach it.  This is the second course.  It goes on the top plate.  When we’re done, you pull both plates, serve the sherbet-like stuff in these little silver cups with these spoons here, then load the bottom plate with the third course, and serve it.  After we finish that, you serve the dessert on the dessert plate.  I already put all the silverware down.  And I want you to save a little of each course for Jade and Billie to sample.  Okay?”

“Okay.”

“Good.  Don’t worry about getting stuff on the wrong plate, or all the special rules, like ‘serve from the left, clear from the right’.  This’ll all work out.”

“I think I got it,” the gloves said.

“Great,” I replied.  “Go ahead and fill the water glasses and get out the bread and spread.  I’m going to get Vox now.”

“Okey-dokey,” said the gloves.

Only at Whateley.  I went up and checked with Vox, who was ready for me and…

Oh my God.  She was so incredibly gorgeous.  She was wearing the cocktail dress she had gotten as a Christmas present.  Well, I had paid Cecilia for any dress of Vanessa’s choice, but I hadn’t seen it.  It was an asymmetrical red dress with one shoulder that led to a skintight long sleeve, while the other shoulder was bare and the other arm was sleeveless.  The décolletage was a diagonal from her left shoulder to under her right armpit, revealing just enough of her luscious breasts to make it suddenly difficult for me to walk normally.  The dress fit snugly about her waist and curved out over her hips to drape down to her ankles.  She had her hair up in an elegant style, and subtle eye makeup to go with her bright red lips.  It was a wonder I managed to make my mouth work.

“You look gorgeous,” I managed to get out.  “Just unbelievably gorgeous in that dress.”

She smiled, enjoying the effect her outfit had on me.  I managed to offer my elbow and escort her down to the basement.  We walked into the ‘dining room’.

This time, she was the one who was nearly speechless.  “Oh my GAWD!  Is that real silver?  Where on earth did you get all this stuff?”  Then she noticed what I had pulled out from my crate and hung on the wall.  “I’ve seen that before…  In an art book…  Jesus fuckin’ Christ, Ayla!  That’s out of a museum!”

“Monet’s ‘The Water-Lily Pond’,” I said.

She stared at me in horror.  “Are you INSANE?  That’s gotta be worth a billion dollars!  You can’t keep that in the dorm basement!”

I smiled, “It’s a copy.  I paid someone to make a copy of it, since it’s on display in the Goodkind Gallery in London.  And it’s one of my favorite Monets.”

“A copy?” she checked.  “Who the hell makes copies that good?  And how much do they charge?”

I shrugged, “He’s a very nice man who used to be an extraordinarily gifted art forger.  He’s served his time, and now he sells his talents in a legitimate manner.  When he heard my last name, he only charged me $35,000 for this copy.”

“ONLY?!?!”

I added, “Besides, he likes Impressionism too.”  She just shook her head at me.

I ushered her to her seat, and six white gloves slid her chair forward once she sat down.  She broke into a wicked smile.  “Jinn, right?”  I nodded.  “I heard fancy waiters are supposed to be pretty much invisible, but don’t you think that’s going a little too far?”

I rolled my eyes.  “It’s their idea of a joke.  I asked for something like Jinn in the skin pours.”

“Well, it is pretty funny,” she said.

I replied, “I have to admit, it looks like the service is going to be fast and unobtrusive.  By Whateley standards, anyway.”

The bread and spread was already out, so I said, “This is the antipasto.  It’s a fresh-baked Italian-style artisan bread, and the spread is one of their specialties.  It’s a warm spread of pureed cannelini beans and roasted garlic.”

Vanessa took a knifeful of spread and slid it over a piece of her bread.  “Ooh, it slides on like warm butter.”  She took a bite.  Her eyes fluttered closed and she murmured, “Mmm, this is great.  Do we need anything else for dinner?”

I had to admit.  It was excellent.  The bread was crisp on the outside and still warm from the oven, with a rich, yeasty aroma and a marvelous texture.  The spread was the perfect accompaniment.  The garlic and sea salt and fresh pepper really brought out the creamy richness of the cannelini beans.  I could have eaten five or ten slices of it, only then I wouldn’t have had any room for the rest of the dinner.

I warned her, “Don’t get too carried away.  We’re having a five-course meal.”

“Five courses?” she gasped.  “There’s no way I can eat five whole courses!”

I smiled, “Trust me.  It’ll work out.  Just don’t eat too much bread.”

“Okay.  Then I’m done.”  She put the bread down.  “After this bite.”  She put the bread down again.  “Well, maybe just one more.”  She put the bread down again.  “You’re really enjoying my complete lack of self-control, aren’t you?”  She took a smaller bite and put the bread down again.

I smiled wickedly, “I always enjoy it when you lose control.”

“You’re a very naughty boy,” she purred.

“What?  I don’t get it!” fussed the gloves.

Vanessa cracked up, her rich laughter filling the room like a dozen sopranos chortling together in an oratorio.

The gloves slid closer to me, and the speaker disk whispered in my ear, “What do I do now?”

I murmured, “Leave the bread for now.  Take the top plates and put some of the ravioli on each one.  Not too much.  Remember, leave some for Jade and Billie.”

“Gotcha.”

The gloves slid across the table and scooped up the indicated plates, then slid off to the warming drawer.

Vanessa grinned, “I thought it was ‘serve from the left, clear from the right’, not ‘leap across the table and grab the plate’.  Learn something new every day.”

I smiled, but said, “Don’t give Jinn too hard a time.  She’s new at this.”

The plates slid onto the larger plates from the left, and Jinn managed to do it simultaneously.  We had beautiful servings of ravioli waiting for us.  She carefully popped the cork on the Prosecco and poured goblets of bubbly for us.

I murmured, “Nicely done, Jinn.”  Then I explained, “This is the primo…”

Vanessa’s eyes grew larger.  “Wait, you mean this is the first course?  We have four more after this one?  I’ll explode!”

I smiled, “Okay, the primo is the second course.  And the next two courses, the secondo and the contorno, get served together.  Then a little dessert.”

“I still think I’m going to explode.”

“We don’t have to eat every single bite, you know,” I pointed out.

She just rolled her eyes.  “You must be kidding.  I couldn’t stop eating just the bread!”

The ravioli looked gorgeous.  I took a bite and savored it.  It was rich, and marvelously prepared.  And the Prosecco was excellent.  It was crisp, and almost dry, with rich hints of melon and pear, and a smooth aftertaste.  I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to spend some time finding out what this vintner’s regular wines tasted like.

Vanessa took a small bite and chewed.  Then she smiled, “Man!  This is really good!  I mean, we have tons of real Italian restaurants all over Philly, especially over in the Italian neighborhoods, but this is... well… different.”

I told her, “It’s not classic Italian.  It’s Pacific Rim fusion.”

She took another bite and purred, “Mmm.  What’s in the ravioli?”

“Sure you want to know?”

She frowned a little, “Ayla…”

I told her.  “Okay.  Pumpkin-stuffed ravioli with sage butter is actually a classic Italian dish, but this is butternut squash, with garlic and sage and a really good blue cheese.  Maybe Gorgonzola, but it could be an Oregon blue cheese instead.”

She just gaped at me.  “Jeez, how can you tell all that?”

I sighed, “Vanessa, it’s not like this is magic.  It’s years and years of practice, eating fine food and thinking about what’s in it.  You can do this, just by savoring what we eat and thinking about what makes it good or not.”

She shook her head a little, “I dunno.  I don’t want to get like you and need the best food around, day in and day out.  It’s gonna be years before I get out of MBA school and start making a decent living.  I can’t be livin’ on Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and havin’ a jones all the time for food like this.”  She finished chewing another bite of ravioli and pointed her fork at me.  “Y’know, I feel really odd about having a fancy dinner wit’ you right now, and knowing I’m gonna be putting on a silly French maid outfit to serve cocktails to snobs in another hour.”

I shrugged, “Don’t think about it that way.  Think about it as ‘undercover work’.  You’re Sidney Bristow, only with superpowers.  And much better boobs.”

She snorted with laughter.  “Okay.  As long as I don’t have to wear one of those stupid wigs too.  You’d think after a couple years, someone would learn.  'Hey, it's a hot, slinky white chick with a wig in some wack color, and it’s the straight hair and bangs bit.  Probably the Bristow girl again.’  But no, they never spot it.”

I grinned.  “Well, you have to go with the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ in tv shows.  Otherwise, you’d have the castaways lock Gilligan in a cave so they could finally get off that stupid island.  Or you’d have Buffy standing around idly in Sunnydale, while every vampire on earth ran for any place other than the hometown of the Slayer.”

She giggled.  “And maybe the Power Rangers would just cut to the big robot bit first, stomp the bad guys flat, and go get a pizza.”

I suggested, “Or Wilma and Betty would just get divorces from those two fat losers, and find out if Mister Bedrock has a good-looking son in the wings.”

“Or Batman would just pay Harley Quinn a couple million to take ‘Mistah J’ on an around-the-world cruise for a couple years.”

I grinned, “It would have to be a pretty insane boat to keep the Joker interested for that long.”

She giggled.  Then she broke into a really good impersonation of an unctuous male lounge singer and did her own version of the ‘Love Boat’ theme song, complete with what sounded like her own cheesy piano accompaniment behind her.  “Nuts…  Exciting and new…  Stay aboard…  ‘Cause we’re crazy too!  The ‘Nut Boat’…”

I laughed hard, so then she did the Frank Sinatra swing-style cover of ‘The Nut Boat’, and then the Billie Holiday jazz-style cover of it, complete with a small jazz band.  By the time she finally stopped, I was laughing so hard I had to run to the bathroom before I wet my pants.

After we finished the ravioli, the gloves came back.  “Would you like some more?  There’s plenty left.”

I said, “I think we’re good.  How about the palate cleanser next?”

She whisked the top plates away, and came back a moment later with two silver goblets, and a small spoon for each.

Vanessa just gave me a raised eyebrow, so I explained, “It’s a palate cleanser.  A light ice to make sure you have the ravioli taste out of your mouth before you get to the secondo.”

She shook her head slightly.  “I’ve never had anything like this in my life.  You rich kids are so…”

“Weird?” I suggested with a smile.

“Different.”  She took a small bite and stopped.  “That’s really… not what I was expecting.”

I took a bite and savored the bright green ice as it slid across my tongue.  It was a sharp mango and green tea blend.  Each serving was a small sphere about an inch across, so it wasn’t filling, just tangy and refreshing.

Jinn gave us a minute to have a few bites and finish.  Then she whisked away the silver goblets and served us the next courses.  She arranged the secondo on one side of the plate, with the contorno in sort of a crescent that framed it.

I whispered, “Nice job.  And you say you haven’t gotten the cooking part down yet.”

She whispered back, “I can serve it, but I sure can’t make something like this.”

I was going to have to figure out a way Jade and Jinn could go through a useful cooking class.  They’d have to do it as a team.  Jinn could do all the sous-chef work, like preparing the meat or the vegetables, or pulling together all the spices, but there was no way she could ‘season to taste’ or judge doneness of a pie by eye.

The secondo was perfectly-done veal medallions, topped with prosciutto and provolone.  They were decorated and surrounded with a marsala wine sauce that went really well with the veal.  Then the contorno was a vegetable dish of roasted sliced eggplant, crimini mushrooms, roma tomatoes, and fresh asparagus.  Real fresh asparagus, not the nasty stuff out of a can.  It was carefully seasoned to go with the veal, too.

“Mmmm!” Vanessa purred over the veal.

It really was good.  And I was glad she liked it.  I was glad she liked it even though I told her what it was.  I would have felt rotten if she’d suddenly revealed that she didn’t eat veal.  Plenty of people have strong feelings about it.  I was used to more expensive free-raised veal with hand-fed supplements, which avoids the ‘inhumane treatment’ route to achieve excellent cuts of meat.  But some people have sworn off veal no matter what.

I cleaned my plate, but Vanessa stopped about two-thirds of the way through.  She smiled, “This is so good it’s just sick not to finish it, but there’s no way I can eat all of this, especially wit’ another whole course to go.”

I turned to Jinn and said, “Can you box up the lady’s veal and eggplant, and put it in the fridge for her?”  I turned back and said, “I’ll hide it in my fridge up in my room.  You can heat it up in my microwave tomorrow.”

“You spoil me rotten,” she smiled.

“Maybe I think you deserve it,” I replied.

“Dessert?” whispered the glove by my ear.  I nodded.  Jinn swept all the plates off the table and left only the dessert forks.  Then she came back a few moments later with the slices of dessert on the dessert plates.

I said, “And for our final course, the dolce is an ice cream torta that’s a specialty of the house.  You won’t find this ice cream flavor anywhere else.”

Jinn whispered, “There’s more left.”

I turned and said, “Save it for Jade and Billie.  Just don’t put it in the warming drawer.”

“Right, that would be messy,” Jinn thought out loud.  “Can I put it in your freezer?”

“Sure,” I told her.  Meanwhile, Vanessa and I had already started on the torta.  The thick layer of ice cream in the middle was a homemade specialty ice cream: rich dark chocolate with a swirl of marionberry puree and a scattering of chopped, toasted hazelnuts.

Vanessa mumbled around a mouthful of torta, “This ice cream is great!  Can we get more of it?”

I told her, “Not regularly.  You can’t get it in the stores, because the marionberry and the hazelnuts cost a lot more than the usual ingredients, and the toasted hazelnuts don’t keep as well as other nuts, so that creates a packaging and storage problem.”  She just looked at me.  I admitted, “Okay, I’ve had this ice cream from them before, and I really liked it, so I talked to one of our subsidiaries about making it as one of their flavors.  They said it wasn’t feasible until they licked a couple production problems.”

She finally put her fork down and groaned, “Oh God, if I eat all of this too, I’ll never fit into my clothes!”

I looked her over.  I thought she looked perfect.  And, since she was an Exemplar, I really doubted she was going to have the usual weight issues of girls who had her curves.  I shrugged, “No problem.  We’ll save your torta in the freezer too, and you can eat the rest tomorrow after your veal.”

She watched me eat and asked, “How can you eat it all?”

I admitted, “I didn’t have much lunch, and I’ve been fretting about the party all day, so I was pretty hungry.  Plus, it’s just too good not to eat, and we really did have some careful portion control for the whole meal.”

Vanessa said, “That was incredibly good, but now I feel like I need to do something major to burn off all those calories.  And not just standing around in a naughty waitress costume.”

“Well, you’re going to look gorgeous.  I could chase you all over the room for a couple hours, if you think that would help…”

“Ayla, you’re a dirty old man in a young body.  You know that?” she said.

I told her, “If you think I’m a dirty old - young - man, you obviously don’t get out much.  Besides Peeper and Greasy-”

“Ugh.  Okay, I know about them.”

“-there’s Dynamaxx, who’s going to be at the party tonight, Imperious, Fantastico, Kodiak, Farrago, Powerhouse…”

“And Risk and Flux too,” she pointed out.  “When they’re not ogling the other guys, they’re ogling the girls pretty damn hard.”

I shrugged.  “Hey, if you have to be a bisexual guy, you might as well live with a bunch of hot gay and bisexual guys with whom you get to shower, and then live around the corner from a collection of the hottest women you’re ever going to find, starting with you and Fey and Bugs.  Hell, the only women on the floor I wouldn’t ever consider asking out are Sharisha and Jade, and that’s because Sharisha hates the Kimbas, and Jade’s too much like a ten-year-old.”

I’m fourteen!” a voice hissed in my ear.

Vox smiled, “Even Punch?  Or Jody?”

I shrugged.  “Sure.  They’re both cute.  They’re both nice, and friendly, and good people.  Neither one’s ever going to be mistaken for Kate Moss, but that doesn’t mean they’re not date-able.  They just happen to be two fairly average-to-cute women on a floor full of incredibly exceptional babes.  Which has to really suck.  Once they’re away from Whateley, they’ll suddenly be ‘prettier than average’, and they’ll be able to find Ms. Right.  But around here, they’re buried underneath scores of Exemplar hotties.  That has to be brutal.  My big sister Heather spent years sweating about her every pore and every ounce on her frame, and she’s a freaking supermodel, so I can’t imagine what it’s like for Punch and Plas.”

Vanessa frowned, “It’s the same for Risha.  She’d like to be one of the hot chicks who get all the attention, and she just feels fat and ugly and lonely.  It’s not fair.  But how are regular girls supposed to compete with people like Fey and Poise and Solange and Mindbird and all the rest?”

“You do know that includes you, right?” I checked.

She smiled at me.  “Some people make me feel prettier than others.  But this school is awful damn whitebread, and there aren’t a lot of whiteys who wanna cross that color line.”

I admitted, “I don’t know if I would have, if I hadn’t sat next to you on that shuttle the first day and had a chance to just talk with you.  That whole bit about wanting to be a businesswoman and help people.  That really made a big impression on me.”

She smirked, “Oh.  And here I thought it was all the bouncing my boobs did while we were on that bus.”

“That didn’t hurt a bit,” I leered.  “But there are tons of pretty girls around here.  Pretty girls who have a brain, and want to use it?  Not so common.”

She gave me a huge smile, and then told me, “You totally do not play fair.”

I shrugged.  I didn’t know what else to do, because I really wasn’t sure what the heck she meant.  I wasn’t allowed to compliment her after I take her to a fancy dinner?  I didn’t sigh, but I sure thought about doing it.  I might look like a girl, but I really didn’t understand girls.  I was pretty sure Jinn knew exactly what Vanessa meant, and precisely what I could say to get whatever reaction I wanted at that moment.  I had to wing it.

I ended up helping Jinn clear the table and get the food up to the rooms.  Vanessa’s leftovers went into my fridge, the torta went into the freezer compartment, and the warming drawer went into Jade’s room.  By the time I got back downstairs, Jinn was nearly finished washing and drying everything.  It’s faster to wash and dry things if you have two hands for washing, a hand for rinsing, and three hands for drying.  I packed everything away in my trunk, while Jinn tidied up.

I turned around to find the gloves and speaker disk floating in a mid-air stack.  Jinn said, “Can you take this stuff back to my room?  I want to get going on helping Jade.”

I nodded, “Sure, I-”

But the gloves dropped limply into my hand and the speaker disk fell to the floor.  Jinn was already gone.

I figured I’d better get going too.  I took the gloves and speaker disk up to the J-Team’s room, and laid the gloves out on the floor in front of the laundry basket.  Most of them were wet, and I figured I needed to let them dry out – although what I knew about laundry would probably fit in an ant’s navel.  Then I hustled to my room and changed into my Whateley uniform.  I checked my hair and my tie, and I dove down to the tunnel.

It only took a minute to fly through the tunnels to the entrance of the Golden Kids’ party room.  Green and Trews already had it open, and two Oriental girls were hard at work inside.  I assumed that since I’d had Jinn as a waiter, I was looking at Jade and Jann.  But sometimes it was pretty damned hard to tell.  Especially when Jade had some really idiosyncratic naming conventions, and some of the time the J-Team did their Jade impersonations a little too well.  One of these days, they were going to pull a Triplicate Girl routine, with Jade flashing a ‘devise’ and seeming to split into three identical Jades.

Hey, I ought to tell Jade that idea.  She would probably come up with something bizarrely wacky to go with it.

As I walked over, ‘Jade’ held up a little disk covered with blinking pastel lights, and slapped it on the side of the vacuum cleaner.  It started up and began cleaning the rug.  Okay, that made it the real Jade.  She was the only one who could cast more of the J-Team into objects.  The other one, presumably Jann, was pulling out stacks of tables and chairs, getting them ready for the next ‘devise’.

So I walked up and said, “Hi Jade.  Hi Jann.”

The taller one turned and smiled, “I’m Jinn.”

How could this one be Jinn?  Didn’t I have Jinn over in Poe?  I checked, “I thought Jinn was my waiter for dinner.”

Jinn (or whoever it really was) said, “No, you had Jasmine.  Jade was preparing some gear for the set-up with me and Jann.”  She pointed at the vacuum cleaner.  “That’s Jann now.”

“Oh.  Of course.  It’s so obvious,” I said dryly.

Jade walked over with another of her blinking faux-devises.  I asked her, “If I had Jasmine as my waiter, why did she pretend she was Jinn?  I called her Jinn a couple times, I’m pretty sure.  And she never corrected me once.”

Jade just said, “Because you were with someone outside the Kimbas.  Remember?  You guys all agreed not to blow our cover?”

Ugh.  Why do I even try to keep up with the J-Team?  On the other hand, that made more sense than most of the things the J-Team did.

I watched as the vacuum cleaner started checking the upholstered armchairs.  Man, it really looked like it had been turned into a robot.  Jann really had the jerky movements down pat.  I watched, and I figured out why it looked so robotic, instead of organic.  She was deliberately moving one part at a time, instead of smoothly moving an entire set of components.  So the hose didn’t curve out and check the armchair like an arm.  It moved like it was half a dozen segments, with only one segment moving at a time.  That was really clever: it made the thing look like it was controlled by an artificial intelligence, instead of looking like it was alive.  Sometimes Jade acted like a ditzy ten-year-old, but sometimes she showed a really impressive set of smarts.  I figured that probably made her a normal high schooler.

Jinn had prepared two stacks of upholstered chairs.  Each stack was on a wheeled platform.  Jade slapped her little blinking disks on both of them, and they suddenly skittered around the room distributing chairs.  Once they were empty of chairs, they both rolled back to stop beside her like lapdogs.  She pulled out her universal remote, pressed a couple buttons to the tune of boops and beeps, and the platforms wheeled themselves back into the closet.  Jinn took the disks off the things, and returned them to Jade.

Green and Trews stepped over to talk to me.  I could tell they were really impressed with Jade’s ‘devises’.  Green goggled, “Geez.  Usually the devisers spend all their time inventing things you couldn’t use in a million years.  Giant flying robot attack turtles or something.  This is really useful!”

I smiled, “Yeah, they’re really cool.  But they’re devises, and they don’t seem to work for anyone but her.”

Trews caught up with the conversation, “What else can her gizmos do?”

I shrugged carelessly.  “Pretty much anything she’s decided to build.  She’s got a forcefield robot…”

“Yeah, we saw that one back in December.  Pretty impressive.  It’s in her Security file now.”

I went on, “…and a spinning hovering attack blade that’s like a lawnmower without the motor and guards.”

Green swore, “Shit!  That sounds pretty nasty.”

I nodded, “Oh yeah, don’t be in front of that sucker unless you’re in full-body power armor.  Let’s see.  A devise that overrides some of your power armor if she slaps it on the armor.  Something that she can slap on a secure door and make it unlock without having to bust it down…”

Trews muttered, “Whoa.  That would be pretty useful for Security around here once in a while.”

Green disagreed with a grin, “More like a couple times a week.”

I told them, “She is on salary with Stan and Morrie, and she’s cleared for hazardous jobs.  She even did the Class X site with them last fall.  So maybe you guys ought to talk to Delarose about getting her cleared to help out Security now and then.  She’d be good at it.”

Trews wondered, “But she’s so tiny.  What if she gets hurt?”

“Regen five,” I explained.  “Shoot a hole through her the size of a quarter?  She’ll be completely healed from it in hours.”

“Damn!” Green gaped.

They watched her walk over to a rolling cart of round tables.  Jinn set a stack of folded tablecloths on top of the cart.  Jade slapped another blinking ‘devise’ on the cart, and the cart proceeded to move about the room, setting up tables with tablecloths as it went.

Trews muttered, “She’s like Super-Caterer or something.”

I nodded, “That’s why she’s going by Generator.  She generates these devises, and then she generates these effects with her devises.”

Once that cart was back in the storage closet, Jinn wheeled out a cart with folded rectangular tables.  I stepped over and told them, “These are for the chefs.  Would you set them up over by the kitchen area, over there?”

“Oh sure.  No problem,” Jinn said.  Jade just gave me a smug little grin.  She slapped a flashing disk on the cart, and it rolled off to set up the tables.

A minute or two later, Green ‘casually’ sidled over to me, “Umm Phase, don’t over-react, but the taller of the two doesn’t register as human.”

I grimaced, “Oh, sorry, I should have warned you.  That’s not a human.  That’s Shroud, in one of Generator’s devises.”

He waved a metal-and-plastic wand at her and checked over the readouts from the attached handheld computer.  “Okay.  That comes up all right.”

I smiled, “Thanks for being diligent.”

He grinned a little, “Well, you don’t think we want to lose a cushy gig like this one, do you?”

Yeah, I was so convinced they were being this thorough for purely mercenary reasons.  Okay, they were mercenary, and I was pretty sure they were occasionally doing some things around campus that could get them thrown in prison under other circumstances.  But that didn’t mean they weren’t conscientious about their work.  And frankly, in my opinion, Security officers who had to deal with crap like Bloodwolf and Olympia every day - not to mention the occasional big stuff like Halloween and those damned voodoo-wolves - deserved a lot more money than Whateley Academy was paying.  I figured that after I graduated, I’d talk to Carson about paying the Security officers more, with invested funds placed into escrow so that they needed to stay clean in order to collect a big payoff after they retired from the school.  That might even be enough to get guys like Buxton and Trout to stay clean in exchange for a big pot at the end of the rainbow.  And if not, then they’d lose out on more money than they were making running their various cons, betting, and other improprieties.

While I was chatting with Trews and Green about the security arrangements, the doors opened, and Chef Marcel wheeled in a five-foot-tall metal frame that had large rectangular trays set in racks for easy transport.  Chef André was right behind him with another frame, and Chef Peter followed behind them with a shorter frame.

I walked over to meet them.  Jade spotted me and followed.  I figured that would be handy.

Marcel grinned, “Ahh, Phase!  I believe that you will be most pleased with what we have put together for tonight’s fete.”

I told him, “Of course.  I know whatever you three fix is going to be excellent.”

Jade murmured, “Boy, it sure smells good!”  Then she gave me a little tug on my blazer and whispered, “Do we get to try any of this stuff?”

I smiled, “You get to try all of it.  Just do the taste testing in the kitchen instead of while you’re walking around holding the tray.  And that way, if anyone asks what you’re serving, you can tell them, and give them a review, like ‘ooh, these are my favorite!’ so the guests can have an idea of what to try.”

She giggled, “Maybe I’ll tell Billie she has to wait until the thing’s over.”

I grinned back.  “Good idea.  We’d like to have something left to serve people.”

Jade pressed one of her faux devises against Marcel’s cart, and it began rolling along on its own.  She pulled out her universal remote, pressed a few buttons, and turned back to him.  “It’ll roll right into the kitchen area now, okay?”

Jinn came over with another blinking disk.  Jade pressed it to the second cart, and Jinn took the third one.

The three chefs exchanged looks, and Peter said, “Have to hand it to you, Phase, that’s the kind of gadget we’re always looking out for.”

I smiled, “It’s a devise.  It’s really useful, but it only works for Generator.  And if you think this is good, watch it when it gets to the kitchen.”

And sure enough, as it rolled into the kitchen area, trays rapidly slid out of the racks and onto the tables the J-Team had already set up.  All three chefs stared in astonishment.

André said, “But we do not need all of the trays unloaded as yet.  The first cart, and the top third of the second cart.  The third cart is for later, when the desserts come out.”

Jade said, “Okay, can do!”  She pulled out her universal remote again, pressed buttons until there was a short atonal concerto of boops and beeps, and said, “All done.”  The third cart rolled over against the wall, the second cart unloaded the top third of the trays, and the first cart rolled over against the wall.

“Man!” muttered Peter.

Merde!” whispered Marcel.

Jade gave them a big grin and went to retrieve her blinky-disks.

André checked, “Are you sure we cannot get her to make any of those for us?”

I shook my head no.  “They only work for her.  The Workshop guys don’t know why.  But you can always hire her and get the devises along with her.  She’s on scholarship already.”

“Who does she work for?” asked Peter.

I couldn’t help grinning.  “Stan and Morrie.”

“The plumbers?” gaped Marcel.  “But the Whateley sewer system…  We know what has happened when it has backed up.  That’s why there are the grates and guard systems under the sinks.  And she…”

I said, “Yeah, she goes down into the sewer system with Stan and Morrie, and deals with the stuff down there.  She’s a lot tougher than she looks.”

“Anybody home?” called out a lovely voice from the atrium.  I immediately recognized Fey’s dulcet tones.

“Come on in,” I called out.  “We’re all set up, and ready for you.”

Fey strolled in, with Chaka and Tennyo and Vox right behind her.  Trailing the four of them was a line of plastic bags, floating along apparently under their own power.  Fey was in her school uniform and Tennyo was in one of her sailor-suit dresses, but Chaka was in jeans and a t-shirt, while Vox had changed from her dress into a sweatshirt and sweatpants.

Jade popped her head out of the kitchen area and asked, “You got our stuff too?”

“I didn’t forget,” Nikki said.

At the same time, Toni looked right at me and said, “Of course!”  Even Billie grinned.

I just pretended I hadn’t heard.  I said to Nikki, “I’ve got a room back by the kitchen where you can change clothes, and you can leave your stuff in there.”

Jinn walked over and asked me, “And it’s okay that Jade and I are both waitressing?”

I looked over at Toni and deliberately said, “Of course.”  I thought it was a good idea.  It was double the hours, and all the Kimbas knew the J-Team could use the cash.  And it wasn’t like this was a big surprise for me.  Cecilia Rogers had called me to make sure it was okay, back when Jade and Jinn had both shown up to get fitted.  It wasn’t like they were the same size.  Jinn was about ten inches taller, for starters.

Fey turned to the rest of the group and announced, “And I’ve got a small charm for each of us.  Just wear it somewhere on the outfit, and no one will be able to take a picture of you.  I mean, anyone can try, but it won’t work.”

I nodded, “Good thing, too.  Because everyone’s got a camera in their cellphone, even if they don’t bring their digital camera.”

Fey smirked wickedly, “If anyone tries to take a photo of one of us, it’ll blur.  And if they keep trying, it’ll eventually fry their camera.”

I shrugged, “Hey, everyone here can afford to buy a new one.”

While I was showing the gang to the small changing room I had picked out for them, more people came in through the atrium.  Megs and Delta strolled in with their uniforms in big plastic bags.  Unsurprisingly, Megs was in her supersuit, and Delta was in one of her “look at me, I’m a bimbo” outfits.  This one was a bizarre cross between ‘adult naughty Catholic schoolgirl’ and ‘the Playboy Channel presents: Sailor Moon’.  She had the high-heeled plastic boots and the Sailor Moon super-short fuku-style skirt, but her top was a cropped schoolgirl blouse with ultra-short tie.  I wondered if it was possible she just reached into her closet blindfolded and dressed in whatever she pulled out.

Megs bubbled, “Oh hi!  Where can we change?”

I pointed them back to the changing room and said, “Knock first.  Everyone else is changing in there, and they may have the door locked.”  Although actually I was thinking that someone inside might over-react if people just barged in.  And I really didn’t want Marty and Elaine getting hammered with a Chaka Chaka Bang Bang or a mystic fireball.  Or something worse.

They still just opened the door and ducked inside.  You’d think they hadn’t lived on the Whateley campus for a year and a half.

A few minutes later, waitresses started drifting out.  Jinn was first, but she undoubtedly cheated.  I had a feeling Jade just cast Jinn into the skinpours and the outfit all at once, so Jinn actually ‘dressed’ about as fast as she could fill out the skinpours.  Still, she looked really good.

Vox came out with Chaka, the two of them making comments about me.  “And then he says I should think of it as undercover work like being a spy!”

“Yeah, that’s our Ayla.”  Chaka looked over at me and said, “Hey M!  Got Q all ready downstairs with our secret gadgets?”

I figured I might as well sidetrack the discussion.  “What I want to know is why Q doesn’t just tell Bond what’s going on ahead of time.”

“Huh?” Toni wondered.

“Well he has to be a precog,” I insisted.  “He knows exactly what gadgets Bond is going to need.  And in every movie, Bond uses every gadget, and then doesn’t need anything else.  So if he’s such a great precog, why doesn’t he just tell Bond who the villain is, and what the plan is, and where to find the guy?”

“Job security,” Toni instantly suggested.  “The pay scale for ‘genius inventor’ is way higher than for ‘creepy precog’.”

“And the British MCO are complete assholes about mutants working for MI-whatever,” grinned Vanessa.

“How do I look?” called out Megs from behind me.

I turned around, and Megs was walking out of the changing room with Fey.  Megs was giving plenty of extra sway to her walk, so the short skirt of her French maid costume was swishing from side to side like she was in a burlesque review.

Fey said, “I think you’re gonna want one of these charms, so everyone isn’t taking pictures of you.”

Megs twirled about, getting her skirt to swirl up even higher, so her long legs were completely on display.  I could tell she was cheating a little because her high heels weren’t completely touching the carpet all the time.  She smiled, “Well, what if we don’t mind if someone takes a photo?”

Chaka ruthlessly pointed out, “Megs, it’s likely to end up in Peeper’s hands, sooner or later.  Ya just know it’s true.”

She grimaced, “Ick.  Okay, gimme one of those charms too.”

Jade and Billie finally came out, right behind Elaine.  I had been wondering if Billie might decide to back out at the last second.  Which was fine with me.  I really didn’t want to pressure her unfairly, only a week after what might have been the worst day of her life.

I looked around at my ‘waitresses’ for the evening.  I had to admit, most of these women in these outfits looked somewhere between Playboy Playmate Of The Year and, well, Queen of the Sidhe.  Even Jade and Jinn looked pretty sexy.  Not anywhere in the league of the ‘big’ girls, but still pretty sexy.  The rest of the group were just heartstoppingly gorgeous, and Nikki and Vanessa were just insanely hot.

Okay, maybe I was biased when it came to Vanessa.  A little.

I walked over to Vox and Chaka, who were still making up stuff about us Goodkinds trying to get black girls into skimpy maid outfits.  I looked over Vox’s outfit, and she looked even hotter than she had in that red cocktail dress.  From her black high heels and sheer black nylons, up past her short little skirt and curvy waist, all the way up past her jutting breasts, she was one gorgeous woman.  I gasped, “Wow, Nessa you are incredibly hot like that.”

She looked around the room.  “Okay, you got Fey, Chaka, Mega-Girl, Delta Spike, and Tennyo here, and you’re focusing on me.  I’ll give you big points for that.  Just don’t ask me to do this again.”

I smirked naughtily, “Not even in my room with the door locked?”  She grinned and hit me on the arm.

I grinned back, “Okay, now your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to venture into the hostile country of Glitch-land.  If you are caught or killed, the secretary will disavow all knowledge of your actions.”

She rolled her eyes, “C’mon, you know I’m not comfortable with voicing other people.  Ligeia’s been showing me some helpful stuff, but…”

I nodded, “I understand.  Just remember.  Keep it to a normal statement, so there’s no risk of being spotted as a Siren.”

“Got it, Mister Hunt.”

I grinned back.  “Okay, seriously, if Glitch or anyone seems to be wising up, just bring me over.  I’ll handle everything.  If worse comes to worst, I’ll just admit that I got you to do it, and explain why.  Glitch will be pissed, but he’ll be pissed at me.”

She sighed, “Okay, I’ll give it a try.  The things I do for you…”

Marcel and André just barely had time to explain what the snacks were, and set up serving trays for my waitresses, before someone lurched into the room.  Sure enough, it was Glitch.  He already had his own bottle of champagne.  Probably Krystal, which seemed to be his favorite.  I let Jinn pour Prosecco into a dozen goblets, and Vanessa took a tray over to Glitch.

I could hear her from across the room.  “Why don’t you try this delicious sparkling beverage, sir?”

It worked.  It actually worked.  Glitch put his bottle down and took a goblet.  I snagged a goblet and walked over to see him.  He took a sip as he stared at Vanessa’s backside.

Okay, in that short skirt and high heels, she had a hell of a rear view.  Maybe Glitch would have tried the Prosecco if Vanessa had merely smiled at him.

He looked at me and said, “Hey Phase, this is really good!  It’s not champagne, is it?”

“No, it’s Prosecco.  Charmer’s dad got us some cases.  I’m glad you like it.”

“Prosecco, huh?  Italian?” he asked.

I nodded.  “Yeah.  Just like French wines, there’s a huge variation in quality, so you need someone who really knows the varietals and the vintners.  This is a fairly new label, so I doubt I would have found it on my own.”

He asked, “And how did Charmer’s dad know?”

I explained, “He’s Mister Villabianca.”  The last name was all that someone like Glitch needed to hear.

He gaped, “Charmer’s dad is Villabianca Exports?  Shit.  I need to look her up and be nice to her.”

I told him, “Well, she’s probably going to be here tonight, and I’ll introduce you.”

“Thanks!”

“Just be nice, and tell her how great the Prosecco is,” I said.

“Sure I will!  The last thing I want is to get blackballed by somebody like Villabianca Exports!” he insisted.

Yeah, I could see that.  He was probably counting on all kinds of connections through Charmer.  More wine, more champagne, more varietals, more vintners…

I casually strolled back to the set-up tables and asked the J-Team to make sure Glitch had all the Prosecco he could drink.  And maybe, one time Jade could take the Prosecco over, casually touch Glitch’s champagne bottle with her foot, and cast into it so it could sneak off of its own accord.

Everyone looked ready.  The food looked incredible.  I had foolishly stuffed myself with gorgeous cuisine at dinner, so I didn’t have room for the foie gras diamonds, or the spicy little empanadas, or the…  Well, everything looked delicious, and I knew it would taste delicious.  I figured that in a few hours I would have room for a jicama stick and a miniature empanada.

I moved closer to the atrium as people started strolling in.  Tidewater and Premier came in with their girlfriends, and smiled as they looked around.  Tidewater tilted his head slightly, and I strolled closer.  He asked, “You got Fey to waitress?  In that teeny costume?”

I smiled wickedly, “Didn’t I ever mention that I live in Poe?  Fey and Chaka live next door to me.  I just asked a few women on my floor.”

He was obviously fantasizing about living next door to Fey, while trying really hard not to be too obvious about it.  But his girlfriend Pearlescent gave him ‘the look’, so we both knew he hadn’t done a good enough job of hiding his thoughts.

I gave her a smile.  “Come on, you know guys can’t stop staring at Fey.  She has a glamour.  She tries to keep it toned down all the time, but she can’t get it turned off.  She really had a miserable time over Christmas.  She couldn’t go anywhere without drawing a crowd.”

Pearlescent finally gave Tidewater a roll of the eyes, which was probably as good as he was going to get right then.  And since she could turn on her shimmering, nacreous PK skinfield and squish him like a grape if she decided to, we all knew who was going to be listening to whom.

As I moved on to the next group of party-goers, it occurred to me that Pearlescent was probably only different from Mirror in that she could turn her field off.  When she turned her PK field on, a shimmering, opalescent color covered her and her clothing, giving her an instant costume change along with some limited PK supergirl powers.  From what I had seen of her in the junior/senior combat finals, she couldn’t fly, but she could lift two and a half or three tons.  That meant she wasn’t even in Golden Girl’s class, much less Bombshell or Lancer.  Still, two and a half tons with a PK field was enough power for most people.

Dynamaxx came in with Unicorn and Automa-tech.  He smiled when he saw me, but his eyes quickly leapt past me to the serving girls.  “Ach du heilige Scheisse!”

Unicorn and Automa-tech both rolled their eyes.  Unicorn said, “Phase, do you have to outdo everyone on everything?”

Automa-tech smiled, “If only you had some really handsome men serving in tiny outfits too.”

Unicorn added, “At least the food’ll be good.  You can always count on a Goodkind to do that right.  Back before I manifested, before my folks got kicked off the guest lists, they always said your father’s parties had the best food anywhere.”

I just looked right at her.  “It’s not like I’m ever going to get to taste that food again either, you know.”

Dynamaxx tapped me on the shoulder without taking his eyes off the serving girls.  “Fey and Chaka and Generator are on your team, but how did you get Mega-Girl and Delta Spike?  Is that Vox?  And…  Tennyo?  You persuaded Tennyo to waitress here?”

I shrugged carelessly.  “I just asked some friends.  They all said yes.  And Tennyo’s really nice.  She just has that reputation.”

Unicorn said, “I noticed she dances extremely well.  I know how much ballroom dance I’ve had, so she must’ve worked pretty diligently at it for some time.”

Automa-tech said, “Oh!  That was Tennyo at the dance in that white cocktail dress.  Very graceful.  Wasn’t that Supervisor Lodgeman who was dancing with her?”

I answered, “Yes.  It turns out she’s better connected than she thought.  Some old family friends are best buddies with Charlie Lodgeman.  On the downside, some of the problems she’s had this year are because Amelia Hartford has it in for Lodgeman, and she’s been sabotaging every kid in whom Lodgeman takes a personal interest.”

Dynamaxx said, “Any enemy of the Hartford is a friend of mine.”

Unicorn smiled ruthlessly, “Yeah.  The enemy of my enemy is my bestest bud.”

I said to her, “I know why Hartford hates me: I think my big sister Heather treated Hartford’s nieces like shit in private school.  So why’s she giving you grief?”

She frowned, “Apparently my cousin Carl dated her once in junior high before she manifested and was a complete dickhead to her.”

I complained, “You’d think people wouldn’t have to torture other kids, but that seems to be the main purpose of junior high in this country.  It would be great if people like my sister Heather and your cousin Carl got their comeuppance, but it seems like all these former-victim Exemplars like Hartford and Solange go and take it out on the next generation of victims instead.  Can’t they see they’re just perpetrating a vicious cycle?”

“I doubt Solange can see past her breasts,” snarked Unicorn.

Dynamaxx chipped in, “Her boyfriends certainly can’t.”

Macrobiotic strolled up behind Automa-tech and said, “I don’t like what Solange has been doing, but I don’t see that badmouthing her is really helping anything.”

Unicorn turned to her and said, “Oh come on, you can’t tell me you don’t want to kick her ass but good, now and then.  She’s caused as much pain around here as Bloodwolf!  It’s just that she likes the mental torment instead of the physical damage.  It doesn’t show as readily, and it causes that nasty, permanent scarring.”

I pointed out, “Look at Montana.  He wouldn’t be nearly the problem he is if Tansy hadn’t gone out of her way to torture and humiliate him, just so she could get into the Alphas.”

Macrobiotic insisted, “Look, I’m not saying she’s a saint.  Or even someone I want to invite over for dinner.  But treating her like this doesn’t exactly give her any incentive to change for the better.”

Dynamaxx leered, “Oh come now, Sophia.  Wouldn’t you rather invite me over for dinner?”

She just said, “Max, you know perfectly well that I’m not interested in boys who can’t restrict themselves to monogamy.”

He smiled wickedly, “Then you may have quite the wait, liebchen.”

She pursed her lips, “The women in my family have learned the hard way that picking Mister Right is important, and it still doesn’t guarantee happiness.”

He said, “Does that mean that daddy doesn’t live with mommy anymore?”

She gave him a look so cold that it should have turned his suit into an icicle.  “It means that daddy was blown into little tiny pieces all over our living room by Deathmaiden about fifteen years ago, when mommy and grand-mommy were trying to come up with a vaccine to stop the crazy bitch from killing every human being in central Africa, and Deathmaiden tried to wipe out our entire family with a letterbomb to stop them from saving everyone.”

Dynamaxx wasn’t usually stopped speechless, but that one got him.  He went nearly white.  “I am…  I apologize most sincerely.  I… did not know.”  He turned and moved off toward the far side of the room.

Macrobiotic sighed, “I’m sorry to dump that on everyone.  I’m just the life of the party, aren’t I?”  She suddenly looked as if she might burst into tears.

“It’s okay,” I told her as I patted her on the shoulder.  “A lot of us have something like that somewhere in our family trees.”

“But it’s not something I should bring up at a social gathering,” she said firmly.  “I…  It’s just that sometimes Dynamaxx just won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

I changed the subject.  “You’re a vegetarian, right?”

“Right.”

“Well, the diamonds of brioche have foie gras on them, and-”

“Ooh, I love that!” gasped Automa-tech.

“-the empanadas have cheese in them.  But the jicama sticks and other veggie appetizers are strictly vegan.  So there’s something for everyone to try,” I finished.

Jinn came up to use with a tray of goblets.  “Would anyone care for some Prosecco?”

I held up my goblet and said, “I recommend it.  Charmer’s pere got it for us.”

Unicorn took a goblet and asked, “Prosecco?  We’re not allowed to serve alcohol here.”

Macrobiotic said, “Oh, Ayla wouldn’t do that.”  She took a sip and cooed, “Oh, this is so good!  We need you hosting more often!”

I explained, “It’s non-alcoholic.”

Automa-tech sipped carefully and swished a little around in her mouth.  “Ohh.  That really is nice.  Melon…  Pear…  A smooth aftertaste…  I wish we could have had this at the last half dozen parties.”

“Thank you,” I smiled.

“I’m not a wine connoisseur like some people, but I know what I like,” agreed Unicorn.

I told them, “Then you’ll definitely have to try the appetizers the chefs have for us tonight.”

Unicorn grinned, “If they’re as good as this wine, I’m gonna gain about ten pounds tonight.”

Automa-tech groaned, “Exemplars.  I hate you.  You’re never going to get fat.  I’ll be struggling to get my skirt zipped tomorrow, and you’ll be… how do you say it… flitting about like a bird?”

Unicorn said, “Close enough. I’ll shut up about weight gain.”

Automa-tech smiled evilly.  “Maybe you could make it up to me?  An extra three visits with your shower system?”

“Two.”

“Good enough,” Automa-tech smiled.  It was almost a purr.  I managed to suppress a smile.

I moved on to another group of people who were just walking in.  One very expensively-dressed fellow looked rather like he ought to be trying out for the part of Elrond if there was ever another “Lord of the Rings” movie.  It was Thuban, in his ‘human’ form.  I had heard he looked like this, but I hadn’t seen a picture.  No wonder Jade thought he was sexy.

Okay, Jade seemed to have a really disturbing attraction to Thuban’s normal, more reptilian form.  Complete with way too much discussion of stuff like how soft his scales were when she was kissing him.  Yuck.  I wasn’t going to say that she needed to stop seeing him, but she certainly needed to learn to use a little discretion when telling everyone else about their more private moments.  I was really not looking forward to the detailed babbling I was going to have to hear when the two of them finally consummated their relationship.

Thuban was chatting with Hatamoto, and apparently the subject was me.  Hatamoto was saying, “…and the IPO is Monday.  It ought to have a synergistic effect on Sony stock, since there’s a major Spiderman motion picture deal that was left hanging out there, sucking up cash while it falls apart.  And since Phase worked the deal through our family, we’ve been able to acquire some additional company stock as father persuaded someone to take early retirement from the board, and…  Oh Phase!  I was just telling Thuban about the Marvel IPO.”

I shook their hands and said to Thuban, “It’s not too late to make a profit on this.  Buy as soon as the stock market opens Monday morning, and then sit back while the stock skyrockets.”

He raised one eyebrow in a Spock-like manner.  “Do you really think the stock will jump like that?”

“Actually, I do,” I told him.  “We have a few little announcements planned, and I think you'll see some major market activity within minutes of each one.”

He mentioned, “Sahar was trying to talk Gypsy into giving her a reading on it.”

I sighed, “I’m so surprised.  She’s been antsy about this for weeks.  She doesn’t sweat about playing risky games with dangerous mutants, but she’s not so calm about playing the stock market with real money.”

Hatamoto wondered, “Does she have any money?”

I smiled, “She will after Monday.”

 

THE GOLDEN KIDS

Hatamoto strolled away with Thuban.  He didn’t know why Thuban had decided to come to this party, when he hadn’t been to one in perhaps a year.  He was sure it had something to do with Phase, but he didn’t know what.  Probably not the Marvel merger, since Thuban seemed uninformed about a lot of the important details.  Still, Thuban was a power on campus, so getting the guy to attend was a coup for Phase.  Hatamoto subtly probed, “I wish I had been able to pull together this merger and run the IPO.  Do you have any idea how much money Phase is going to make off of this?”

Thuban said, “My sources tell me she spent over two hundred million so far, although I couldn’t find out an upper limit, so it will have to be a substantial IPO for Phase to make that much of a profit.”

Hatamoto disagreed, “I think not.  Phase’s money is all in the preferred stocks instead of the common stocks, and in the company assets.  I expect Phase will make a decent profit even if the stock only rises by, say, twenty percent over a long time.”

Thuban asked, “And do you think it will do that?”

Hatamoto smirked, “Phase’s team has Perelman on it.  Do you really think Perelman would play for a small, long-term profit?”

Thuban reluctantly said, “Good point.”

Hatamoto went on, “Let me give you a little advice.  Buy the stock as early as you possibly can, and also expect the Sony stocks to jump.  You probably know why Sony Entertainment pulled down the rest of the corporation the last two quarters.”

Thuban nodded.  “The Spiderman 3 fiasco.  The director and the leads all walked, when the studio pressed Raimi to add more into the scripts.”

Hatamoto said, “Right.  Raimi wanted a sweeping multi-movie saga, with classic Spiderman foes for movies three, four, and five.  Some baka yaro insisted he scrap that and cram all the villains for all the movies into one picture.  Which would never work.  Raimi had the power to stop all the production, and he did just that.  Perelman’s team got that fixed.  They’ll announce it shortly after the market opens Monday.  Then Sam Raimi is scheduled to give a press conference and announce he’s agreed to come back and do the full three-picture deal for movies three, four, and five, as in his original vision.  And then, later in the day, the actors will give their own press conference and announce they are back on board as well.  Sony and Marvel stocks are going to explode next week.”

Thuban smiled.  “And what will all of this information cost me?”

Hatamoto broke into a wide grin.  “You’ll be forced to come out of your lair and mingle with the rest of us for a couple hours…  Oh wait, you’re doing that already!”

Thuban just smiled in return.  He knew perfectly well that the more people who bought large chunks of the stocks, the more the stock price would leap, making that much more money for Phase and Hatamoto.  So it was a win-win proposition.  For the people in this room, at any rate.  He decided to return the favor now, instead of owing Hatamoto.  “You wondered why I was here?  Phase talked my girlfriend into being one of the waitresses.”

“Which one?”

Thuban looked around.  The room was growing more crowded, but he still spotted Jade.  “Her,” he pointed.  “Generator.”

Hatamoto looked over.  He had seen Generator’s combat final.  He made an effort to get video of every Oriental student’s performance, since he was nominally the information officer for the Pan-Asia sim team.  And she had looked much better than her rating had suggested.  Not that the ratings made any sense, given that the bullies who picked on the raters got higher ratings, and the helpless-looking girls were always undervalued.  The ratings on all of Team Kimba were excellent examples of that.  Seriously, how could anyone not put Tennyo at the top of underclassmen?  Still, he was under the impression that Generator was perhaps eleven or twelve.  That girl in that silky French maid’s dress was definitely not eleven.  Petite, yes.  Undeveloped?  Apparently not.  He murmured, “Very attractive.  Is she really Japanese?”

Thuban paused for a second and then answered, “In part.  Her mother was Japanese.  She’s a true Midwestern American.”

“She certainly looks like she’s enjoying herself,” Hatamoto mentioned.

Thuban forced himself not to frown or snarl.  Jade was enjoying herself almost too much.  She was smiling, and looking radiant.  More radiant than usual.  She was practically bouncing with glee in that scandalously short skirt, and what looked like four-inch heels.  For that matter, where on earth did she get all that cleavage?  She looked like she was a very solid B cup, and bulging up out of her dress.  For someone her size, a B cup looked… extremely sexy.  He knew perfectly well she was barely an A cup, as of this afternoon.  Knowing Jade, it could be anything.  He couldn’t help recalling the Faction Three party where Jinn had suddenly become the most buxom girl in the state, for all of twenty seconds.  Come to think of it, that might even be Jinn, posing as Jade… except that she seemed too ebullient to be anyone but Jade.

He told himself that he was not jealous.  That she had a right to do as she pleased.  That he had no claim on her, other than as her boyfriend.

If anyone made a pass at her or groped her, he was going to commit murder.

He casually unclenched his fists and took a deep, cleansing breath.  He was not jealous.  He was not possessive.  He was not ‘a big poopyhead control freak’, as someone had said to him just today.  He turned to Hatamoto and smiled, “Jade always enjoys herself.  Her joie de vivre is one of her most attractive features.”

Hatamoto asked, “Did Phase ask her, in a gambit to squeeze you into attending?”

Thuban admitted, “No, Phase asked her because they’re friends, and she knew Jade would say yes.”  Then he added the distraction, “Phase asked friends on her floor and the floor above, and they all said yes.  Even Fey and Chaka and Tennyo.”  He expected Hatamoto to be interested in Fey, as most of the campus boys were.

Hatamoto’s eyebrows leapt skyward.  “Tennyo?  The Ryoko clone?  In a tiny French maid’s outfit?  This I have to see.”

Thuban watched as Hatamoto moved through the growing throng.  He looked over again at Jade, who was once again loading a tray at the serving tables.  Jinn was there too, looking more mature and more human than usual.  He felt a sudden urge to rush over and protect her as well.  He resolved to stay away from both.

For at least ten more minutes.  He was sure he could last ten minutes.

 

“I can’t believe Phase is taking a crowd to Boston for her birthday.  Typical Goodkind.”

“I can imagine.  Did you see what the Hiltons did for Nikki’s last birthday party?”

“Or what Heather Goodkind threw for herself last year?  Although Tahiti really does provide more privacy from the press than you can normally get.”

“So yeah, why didn’t you take me to New York for my birthday in October?”

“I thought you’d be happy with the catered surprise party I threw for you.  Phase always has to raise the bar for everyone else.  Those Goodkinds…”

“Could be worse.  Did you see the baby shower her mother threw for Melinda Gates?  Rented out Bloomie’s, and the entire city block it’s in, and paid the city to have all the streets around it blocked off for the guests.  Screwed up downtown traffic for four hours!”

“I hear Phase is getting a chartered 767, with limos at each end, and she’s going to rent out the Boston Garden for the day.”

“Well, why shouldn’t she?  It is the GB Garden now, you know.  If Goodkind Banking owns the thing, she can probably get a huge discount on the rental cost.”

“Hell, she can probably get the Celtics to come out and play a pick-up game against her friends.”

“Easy loss for the Celts.  Fey walks onto the court, turns up that glamour of hers, and the entire team loses the ability to walk.”

“Yeah, they’d just dribble!”

“You guys are so awful!  I ought to bring Fey over here right now and tell her what you said!”

 

“So it looks like Phase got pretty much everybody who’s anybody to come.  Even Thuban’s here.”

“Well, all I have to say is thank God she didn’t get that slut Solange or the Kenner twins.  Ugh.”

“It looks like Kodiak is consolidating power in the Alphas, and is gonna dump the hit squad bullies.  That’ll leave the Kenners out in the cold.”

“With Icer?”

“Heh.  Yep.  Just what they deserve for dumping us to play bullyboy for a creep like The Don.”

“Well, the Donner girls aren’t here tonight.”

“Who?”

“The Donners.  Jo and Paige.  Twin girls, I think.  Nieces of Willard Jennings.”

“Well I heard they told Phase to kiss their ass and there was no way they were coming tonight.”

“Oh yeah, like I want a frigging werewolf thing coming to Golden Kids meets.”

“What, one of them is a real werewolf?  Like Bloodwolf?”

“Worse.  Like a real werewolf that can bite you and turn you into a werewolf too.”

“No way!”

“Oh yeah, that’s why she’s locked in a room in the basement of Hawthorne.”

“Christ!  Hawthorne’s bad enough, but being stuck in the basement with the demon-chick who eats babies and the creepy monster in the pool?  That would really suck.”

“What monster in what pool?”

“You didn’t know?  There’s a guy in the basement there who looks like a monster and lives underwater, and he’s got a face like Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean, and a creepy fish-man body, and he’s been stuck there for like ten years.”

“No way.  This school is freaky, but… just… no way.”

“Oh yeah.  I heard he’s got a lawsuit going against Disney for using his likeness in the second Pirates movie.”

“That’s just really… groty.”

 

“Well, Traduce is at it again.”

“Oh God, what is it this time?”

“This time, she’s saying Phase made all the waitresses do sex acts on her to get the jobs.”

“That is so gross.  Like anyone would believe that.”

“Like anyone would be dumb enough to order Tennyo to give you a blow job!”

“Jesus, after her combat final, you’d think Phase would be paying Tennyo to just stay the hell away from her.”

“Are you kidding?  They’re on the same team.”

“You mean that Team Kimba thing is Tennyo and Phase?  The Section 33 and the Goodkind?  Crap.”

“Oh, it’s way worse than that.  Half the waitresses in the room are on that team.  Fey, Tennyo, Chaka, Generator, and I think that other Japanese girl is really Shroud in disguise.  All they’re missing is Bladedancer and Lancer.”

“Ooh, Lancer.  I wouldn’t mind him in a teeny little outfit serving me something scrumptious.”

“Pretty tough line-up for a bunch of froshes.  About all they’re missing is a high-end PDP and a speedster.  Usually, the training teams don’t get serious about team match-ups until junior year.”

“They’re doing the Team Tactics course this term.  Grapple’s roommate says he’s been bitching about ‘em for a couple weeks.  There was a sim where a team had to get past a bunch of terrorists armed with shit like plasma cannons, and rescue two hostages somewhere in a building.  The Kimbas tried it and won first try.  They saved the hostages, none of them got hurt, none of the terrorist watchers spotted them, and they pretty much blew up the entire building in one shot.”

“Yeah, I could see Tennyo doing that.”

“I’m looking forward to spring term.  The Kimbas think they’re pretty hot shit, but they’ve never run the sims against the ‘big kids’.  They’ll get their asses handed to ‘em as soon as they run up against the Grunts, or the Capes, or the Betas, or Premier League, or Pan-Asia, or the Monster Squad, or…  Or a bunch of the older teams.”

“Yeah, the Grunts vs. the Kimbas.  That ought to be worth a few wagers.”

“My money’s on the Grunts.  Nobody’s beaten ‘em yet.  Can’t get past Mule, and can’t stop a sniper like Deadeye, and can’t stop Bomber from blasting you.  Then there’s Bunker’s Psi attack and Slapdash’s devises.  And if all that fails, they beat you up with military stuff.  They’re all armed like Rambo.”

“Good point…”

 

“Look, I say we need to mount an attack on the Alphas now.  Hekate’s on the run from the MCO.  The Don’s out of commission for weeks.  Cavalier and Skybolt are off to a rubber room for Christ knows how long.  Kodiak’s gotten rid of their hit squads.  Solange is useless.  If we can take Kodiak and Aries, that’s the whole ball game.  We win.”

“Oh, sure.  That’s what you said last year about Freya’s crowd.”

“I’ll say.  Besides, Kodiak pulled in more heavy hitters.  Powerhouse likes splitting his time between the Alphas and the Capes, and so now the Capes aren’t a threat to ‘em.  Imminent’s pretty much impossible to sneak attack.  Pyrrhic?  Not taking him on.  They still have Conjure and Spellbinder, too.”

“Hey!  Premiere!  C’mere a sec!”

“Oh shit, not him!  Man, you’re Judas’ing me at the pre-planning stage!”

“Okay, I’m here.  What is it now?”

“Look, Uproar’s mapping out his new big plan to take down the Alphas and put a bunch of Golds in as the new Alphas.”

“Asshole.  I was just laying out a Request For Proposals.”

“No way, Uproar.  We’ve got a deal in place with Kodiak, and we’re not breaking it as long as they stick to their side of the deal.  It’s got everything we were trying to get out of Freya last year, and everything The Don pretty much tried to shove up our asses with a hot poker.  So we’re good.  Those losers can be King Of The Hill in a 600-person high school.  Big deal.  We don’t want to waste our time on that.  We have immunity now, so we can get real work done.  And speaking of ‘real work’, do you have any Sony stock?”

“Why?”

“Have you heard what Phase and Hatamoto are pulling off?  It starts Monday morning…”

 

“So now they stuck me with this new roommate who’s a complete nutcase!  First day, I can hardly even understand what he’s saying, because he had to get about ten broken teeth fixed and he can’t handle the mouthguard things the clinic used to put his teeth back together.  Then I wake up the next morning, and he’s gone gay on me!  He’s in a girl’s four-poster bed, in a pink dress, with a wig on his head, and he’s acting like it isn’t his fault!”

“Oh come on, Glitch.”

“Overload!”

“Come on, Ren.  Everyone knows the Alphas did it to him when they thought Reach was still in your room!”

“It took all day to get that crap out of my room!  And he’s got these two jerkface ‘friends’.  All they do is talk about beating people up, and complain about people who didn’t want to get beaten up, and bitch about all the detentions they’re getting for getting caught beating people up!  And they really hate that squirrel-girl.  I have no idea why.  It’s not like she could beat anyone up.”

“Christ, Ren’s even more annoying when he’s sober!  Next party, someone just trank him, okay?”

“Holy shit, here comes Fey!”

“Hubba hubba!”

“Knock it off, jerkwad.”

Dynamaxx turned as one of the waitresses walked their way.  Not just one of the waitresses.  The waitress.  Fey was wearing a skimpy black satin French maid’s dress with enough stiff white petticoating underneath to show off all of those unbelievable legs.  Plus three-inch heels and sheer black nylons.  Plus a jiggling cleavage that movie starlets would kill for.  All underneath that incredible face and gorgeous red hair.  Every guy in the group stopped talking and waited for her to walk up to them.  Even Glitch shut up.

“Good evening,” she purred in a voice of pure silk.  “Would any of you like one of these delicious empanadas?”

“Yes!”

“Whatever you have.”

“Guh.  I mean… uhh…”

“He wants one too.”

Dynamaxx waited until everyone had a serving, and then he stepped forward.  “Are your legs tired?”

Fey started to say, “No, I’m actually cutting gravi-”

“Because you were running through my dreams all last night, gorgeous,” he finished.

She gave him a look that would have crushed a lesser man.  He wasn’t bothered.  He’d had hundreds of women give him looks like that before.  She said, “Knock it off, Maxx, or I’ll tell everyone how Phase stomped your butt in the sims today.”

“That was not my fault,” he insisted.

She flounced off, every guy in the group silently admiring her long legs and bouncing hair and sashaying hips.

“Man, what I wouldn’t do to get my hand on those empanadas…”

Dynamaxx quickly pulled out his phone and took a picture.  It came out horribly blurred.  Even worse than the ones he had tried to take of Mega-Girl and Delta Spike and Chaka and Tennyo and Vox.  He tried again.  And again.  The fifth time, his phone made a hideous whining noise and began to smoke from the seams.  “Glitch!”

“I didn’t do it!” Overload insisted.  “I swear!  Look around.  I haven’t even busted a lightbulb tonight!”

“Then how do you explain what just happened to my phone?” Dynamaxx growled.

“I dunno,” Glitch shrugged.  “Magic?”

Dynamaxx was about to give Glitch a blistering retort.  But there was a tug on his sleeve.  He looked to that side.

“You did just piss off the most powerful mage in the whole school, Maxx.”

Dynamaxx looked at his ruined phone and sighed.

 

Phase watched as Thuban finally succumbed.  The boy sidled over to Jade and fumed, “Jade!  How did you get that…”

Jade saw where he was staring.  She gave him a huge smile and a tiny skip.  “My cleavage?  You can say it out loud, Stephen.  It’s a Wonderbra.”  Then she admitted in a whisper, “And a little gel padding from Cecilia Rogers.”

Thuban blinked, and tried again.  “And you didn’t tell me that skirt was going to be that short!”

Jade did a little pirouette that was Jann-assisted so she didn’t have to worry about falling in her super-high heels.  The twirl showed off her sleek legs and frilly petticoats.  “Oh, you like it?”

Thuban gulped.  “I…  I…  I think you look extremely attractive, but… it’s not decent!”

Jade slid a couple inches closer, and dropped her voice to a throaty purr.  “Oh.  Then would you like it better if I wore it just for you?  In your room?”

Thuban actually gulped.  It took several seconds before he could say anything else, and by then, Jade had sashayed over to a group and was inviting them to try the diamonds of foie gras, which she thought were really tasty.

Phase took pity on the guy and gave him an out.  “So, Stephen.  I really appreciate your coming tonight.  Was there anyone in particular you wanted to meet?”

Thuban cleared his throat and re-set his expression.  He smoothly said, “As a matter of fact, there is.  Are you responsible for the sparkling wine, or is there someone else I should thank?  I heard the beverages sank to a new low when Traduce was hosting in the fall.”

I smiled, “Let me introduce you to Charmer.  Her father is Villabianca pere.”

“The wine exporter?”

Phase nodded, “Right.  She put me in contact with him for a little personal conferencing, and voila!  A non-alcoholic Prosecco I wouldn’t be embarrassed to serve to Robert Parker.  I think I saw her chatting with Tabby over that way, a little while ago…”

 

Fey fumed, “I can’t believe Dynamaxx hit on me like that!”

Chaka gave her the trademark leopard grin.  “Did he use the ‘are you bruised from that fall’ line?  That’s what he gave me.”

Fey rolled her eyes.  “No, he used the ‘are your legs tired’ bit.”

Delta Spike leaned over and said, “He gave me the ‘if I said you had a fabulous rack would you hold it against me’ routine.”

Megs said, “He did the ‘bruised from the fall’ line on me.  I didn’t even know what he meant until he said the ‘an angel like you must have fallen all the way from heaven’ part.  I mean, just ewww.  And it’s not like he’s even that good-looking so he could get away with it.”

Vox said, “I wanna know how a German guy like him got so many cheesy American pick-up lines.  And I think he was the one who pinched my butt.  I swear, if I was sure it was him, I would’ve voiced him.”

Chaka smirked, “I understand lamp enemas are all the rage these days.”

Delta grinned, “Yeah.  You could voice him and tell him to go sit on a champagne bottle.”

“Ouch.”

Tennyo floated up and asked, “Whatcha talking about over here?”

Chaka smiled, “Oh, Dynamaxx and his cheap pick-up lines.”

Tennyo’s eyes grew wide.  “You too?  I figured he was just being a jerk when he asked me if it was true what they say about anime girls.  I told him, ‘yeah, we pull a giant hammer out of thin air and smash rude boys into the ground all the time’.  Everyone laughed, and he grinned, so I thought it was okay.”

Fey glowered, “Better than I did.  I just fried his phone when he tried to take pictures of my ass.  And I don’t even think I got the credit for it, because he started arguing with Glitch.”

“Pictures of your ass?” wondered Jinn as she walked up to the table.  “Who was that?  Dynamaxx, or the horny guy with the little flowers pinned to his lapel?”

“Maxx,” Fey told her.  “I haven’t seen the guy with the flowers pinned to his lapel.  But they’re all horny.”

Megs grinned naughtily, “Well, isn’t that the whole idea with these outfits?  I actually got asked out on a date!”

Pretty much everyone rolled their eyes at that.

 

“But if Carson is willing to let the Kimbas go to Boston after what they did back in the fall, maybe she’s reducing some of the restrictions, and we could get her to go back on her stance about us throwing a casino night for the campus to raise money for charities.”

“Oh, no way!  After we suggested it last year and she stepped on us, I did some research.  Do you know how many probability warpers we have on campus right this second?”

“Umm, two?  Kismet does some sort of probability warp thing, right?  And Hazard’s probably one too.”

“Bzzzt!  Wrong!  But thanks for playing our game.  Don Pardo, tell him what he’s won!”

“Oh stop being such a snot.”

“Okay, the correct answer is at least six.  Kismet and Hazard, Risk over in Poe, this new kid Murphy, one of the junior high urchins, and one of the Thornies.  Plus maybe some more.  Can you imagine what would happen in a casino night with half a dozen odds manglers wandering around?  I asked one of the school brains, and she said we also have to worry about all the precogs, and the PDPs who can do precog, plus all the wizards, plus most of the clairvoyants and psychometrists, and the people like Gypsy, and any inventors who have stuff that can alter probabilities or rig games like blackjack.  And probably Peeper too.”

“Peeper?  What’s that weasel got to do with anything?”

“It looks like maybe his power is some sort of psychic short-range x-ray vision.”

“Oh my God, you mean when he’s staring at girls’ clothes he’s really looking right through ‘em and staring at their breasts?  And privates?”

“I am so gonna kill that little freak the next time he comes near me.”

 

“Hey Charmer, I just wanted to say thanks for the wine.”

“I did not really do anything.  Phase got me to call my father.  She did all the work.  And it really is a very good Prosecco.  The Goodkind businesses are one of father’s major clients, so he made a substantial effort on this.  I suspect he is hoping to garner even more business from them.”

“Well with a Prosecco like this, he’s got my business.  I’m going to tell my dad about this when I talk to him next.”

“Oh really?  Here, let me give you a business card.”

“Great.”

“Hey, I hear Traduce is walking around looking really pissed, and saying pretty nasty stuff about you.  She must really hate getting shown up this bad.”

Charmer gave her most Gallic shrug.  “It is not as if I did this to irritate anyone.  I only let Phase speak directly with my father.”

Corrosive smiled in what she apparently thought was a winning, innocent look.  “Oh come on, Charmer.  Don’t sell yourself short.  You did great.  This stuff is really good.  Now did you hear about how awful the last wine was?  Just grim, right?”

Charmer noticed that Traduce was standing right behind them and getting redder by the second.  She carefully said, “Since I have not been coming, I have no idea how good the other beverages have been.”

“So why haven’t you been coming?” asked a boy she didn’t know.

She said, “Oh, I do not know, it did not seem like a good use of my time before…”

Automa-tech stepped into the group.  She smiled wickedly, “The real reason is that Dynamaxx gave her the ‘hard sell’ I believe it is called.  It is not at all surprising that attractive young women often choose to avoid Maxx when he is being his most obnoxious.”

“Actually, I heard Coreolis took him up on his offer of dinner.  I figure she’s in it for what she can get out of him.”

“Serves him right.”

“Serves her right, if you ask me.”

 

Phase walked over to Tabby, who was chatting with Macrobiotic.

Macrobiotic was insisting, “Sure, I’m a vegetarian, but I don’t feel the need to go vegan.  There’s a big difference between eating an egg that’s never going to hatch, and killing a chicken just to get some fried food.  So I eat eggs and drink milk and eat cheese.  Even though it leaves a slightly smaller footprint on the earth if I stick to soy and tempeh.  But it’s so rude to refuse to eat things that someone made such a huge effort to fix for you.  Now I didn’t eat the brioche diamonds because of the foie gras, which I think is cruel to animals, but the empanadas were really good.  And the jicama sticks were good too.  I’ve got to get the recipe for those.”

Phase said, “You could have skipped the empanadas too.  I made sure there were vegan options.  You’re not the only non-carnivore around here.”

Macrobiotic smiled, “Thanks.  But I try to eat what’s served, just to be polite.  I mean, my eating habits are a personal ethical choice, not a mandatory requirement.  I don’t force them on other people.  Which is why I’m not marching around with a big picket sign about your foie gras.”

Phase nodded.  “I did think you wouldn’t want to eat that, which is why I warned you about it.”

Tabby took another bite and said, “But it is really, awfully good.”

Phase said, “And it’s possible to get high-quality foie gras these days that isn’t technically foie gras by the French legal definition, since the geese aren’t force-fed via gavage.  It’s more expensive, and usually seasonal.  This is ethical foie gras from Patería de Sousa in Spain.  They use a devise on Toulouse geese to trick the birds into thinking it’s time to migrate, and let the geese chow down on their own.  They’ve had really good quality results in their limited-production barns, and so-so results from their main production barns.  The limited production foie gras is a lot more expensive than true French foie gras made the traditional way.”

“I didn’t know about that,” admitted Macrobiotic.

“How on earth did you know?” wondered Tabby.

Phase shrugged carelessly.  “I did some research when I decided I wanted this particular appetizer for the party.”

Tabby smiled, “You know, you’re really putting a lot of pressure on me to come up with a great party now.”

Phase said, “No prob.  I’ll introduce you to the chefs, and tell them to pull out all the stops for you.  And I’ll introduce you to my set-up-clean-up crew of one.”

“One?” Tabby checked.  “You’ve got one person doing all the set-up and all the clean-up?  Premier said they usually had a catering crew of three to five.”

Phase said, “One.  Generator.  She has a set of devises that work really well for this sort of thing.”

Macrobiotic asked, “Does she do the cleaning for you back at Poe?”

“No, I have someone else,” Phase said.  “But you ought to be aware that her devises are pretty fragile.  They don’t seem to work for anyone else.  The powers testing guys don’t know why.”

Tabby said, “Hey, if I’m hiring her, that’s not a problem, is it?”

“No, it isn’t,” Phase replied.  “Then you just have to get four or five students to play waiter.  I know Generator and Shroud would do it for you, and you could always check with some of the other waitresses around tonight.”

“If Dynamaxx didn’t chase them all off,” muttered another student darkly.

“There is that.”

 

“So what was that thing Fey was saying about Phase beating the shit out of you in the sims?”

Dynamaxx scowled, “She didn’t just beat me up.  She beat up the entire Vindicators team.  In perhaps thirty seconds.  Some days I don’t know why I bother to participate.”

“Phase?  Laid the big smackdown on your entire team?  By herself?” asked Glitch.  “I didn’t know she had it in her.”

“Hell, you saw her combat final, didn’t you?  She swatted Fat-boy like a fly.”

“Oh, this sounds juicy.  Lay it on me, Maxx.”

“If you insist.  We were doing this training sim in Team Tactics.  Invading the evil lair.  The traps weren’t all that hard.  I thought perhaps we were just performing closer to our potential.  After all, if Alvin is not losing his marbles, he can be quite the opponent, and Donner has a lot of potential that most people do not see.  But Lemure and Sizemax do not want to have Kismet as our leader, and Kiz conveniently ignores her own weaknesses.  So we all made it to the final chamber and faced the supervillain.  Which was a hologram up on a stage.  I thought we were ready.  Alvin was on point, but he was backing up because Phase was playing the ‘Carmina Burana’ and creeping out most of the team.  Alvin nearly backed up into the main group.  I was playing backstop, and when everyone stopped, I stopped.  Kiz was preparing a massive spell.  Sizemax was at her largest.  I thought most of us were ready.”

“Sounds good so far.”

“Except Captain Canada.”

Maxx glowered.  “But then they let Phase cheat.  Suddenly something comes up through the floor right behind Size, and picks her up like she was weightless.”

“Phase.”

Ja.  She uses Sizemax like a ten-ton club and beats the rest of us senseless.  And there is no way Phase can pick up someone the weight of Sizemax.”

“Phase is pretty tough, but that sounds suspicious.”

“Sizemax is a Warper giant, right?  Not a Shifter giant?”

Maxx frowned, “Yes.  And your point is…?”

“This is getting to be like Phase’s signature move, Maxx.  She’s done this before.  They’re both Warpers.  Phase has the money to buy pretty much any devise that’s out there.  She must’ve taken over Sizemax’s warp displacement field and used it against her.”

Maxx grumbled, “I still think somebody was cheating.”  He thought it over.  Maybe it wasn’t Phase who was cheating.  Maybe it was Bardue and that hottie Everheart…

 

Traduce insisted, “Everyone knows Phase is part girl and part boy.  I heard she made all the maids go down on her male part to get this job!”

“Oh come on, Traduce, you don’t really expect us to believe that, do you?”

Traduce pushed, “Everyone knows what that redheaded freak Fey is like, and I’m sure sh…”  Suddenly Traduce was moving her lips but making no sounds.  She grabbed her throat and silently struggled to get out another word.

“Would anyone like one of these delicious empanadas?” Fey asked from behind the group.  She gave Traduce a malevolent smile.

Traduce just stared at Fey in dawning horror.

 

Phase said to Tidewater, “Are you sure you won’t come to Boston?”

Tidewater’s girlfriend just quietly sang ‘Please Come to Boston’ and grinned.

Tidewater shook his head no.  “I appreciate the thought, Phase.  But you know the rules.  Seniors can’t go to frosh parties without looking spectacularly lame.  When we’re out in the real world, please ask me again.”

“And she said, hey ramblin' boy, why don't you settle down, Boston ain't your kind of town…”

“Honey, you can stop now.”

“Oh, but I like that song, and it fits so nice, and…  What the hell is Traduce doing?”

Phase turned and looked.  Traduce was grabbing a handful of napkins and storming toward them.  He groaned, “Oh God, I think we’re going to find out, in about five seconds.”

Traduce pulled out a pen and wrote angrily on one of the napkins.  She shoved it at Phase.

“that little bitch fey did this to me!!!!” Phase read aloud.  “You need to capitalize the first word of the sentence, as well as the proper name Fey.  Also, you have too many exclamation marks.”  He watched as Traduce’s whole face turn a furious red.

Phase took the next note and read it aloud too.  “I don’t need grammar lessons.  I need you to make her fix my throat!”  He looked up and asked, “Are you sure it was Fey?”

She just stared at him like he was stupid.

Phase said, “Just checking.  All right, I’ll go talk to her.  But if you keep making her mad, she might just teleport away, and leave you like that.  For weeks.”

Traduce suddenly looked like she was going to burst a blood vessel.

Tidewater helpfully said, “If you don’t calm down, you’re gonna hurt yourself.  Why don’t you have a glass of Prosecco and do some deep breathing?”

Traduce grabbed another napkin and began writing so frantically it was ripping the napkin apart.  She opened her mouth in a horrible silent scream and started over again…

 

“Hey, a trip to Boston with friends isn’t really such a big deal.  Remember when Valiant flew forty of us to Fort Lauderdale for that party?”

“Yeah, but he was busting his ass to impress everyone, and it turned out he didn’t have permission from his dad to blow that much cash.”

“Whew!  That would’ve been funny if it hadn’t blown up while we were still down there.”

“Still, Phase is just doing it as a birthday party.  It’s a family thing.  I mean, you know Heather and Connie are doing it too.”

“Hells yeah.  Heather’s big party was all over the entertainment news.”

“Entertainment news?  Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?”

 

“Shit!  There goes my phone!”

“That’s what, the third piece of gear you fried?”

“Yeah.  First my mini video camera, then my pocket digital camera, and now my freaking phone.  If I didn’t know Glitch was way on the other side of the room, I’d think it was him.”

“Must be something.  The pics I tried to get of Megs and Delta just blurred, and I couldn’t even get a decent view of Fey through the viewfinder.”

“Maybe Fey whipped up a spell on us so we couldn’t do this stuff.”

“Ya think?”

“Oh what the hell, lemme get my laptop out of the alcove and see if I can get a picture with the webcam on it.”

“It’s your funeral…”

 

“So I don’t know who else she asked, but I heard she asked Charmer and Tabby just tonight.”

“I bet all the Kimbas are going.”

“Man!  What I wouldn’t give to be along with that crew of hotties.  Fey?  Vox?  Charmer and Tabby?  Tennyo and Chaka and Bladedancer, and God only knows who else…”

“Yeah, that Lancer is one lucky bastard.”

 

“So then she whirls Sizemax around like an Olympic hammer and throws her into me!  You ever watch ten tons of unconscious teammate come flying at you at a hundred miles an hour and there’s no place to run?”

“Ouch.”

“Well, wasn’t that what Phase was supposed to do?”

Dynamaxx fumed, “Yes.  But she didn’t have to be so…”

“Effective?”

Maxx nodded angrily, “Something like that.  She made us look like amateurs.”

“Well, aren’t we all amateurs?  I mean, even the Capes and the Betas aren’t pros, no matter how much they pretend.  We’re just supposed to be learning the ropes here.  And getting your ass kicked is one of the ways you learn.”

“And how would you know?  You don’t do any of that stuff.”

“I hear stuff.  They ran a ‘monster invasion’ sim last fall that the Capes were talking about for days.  Imagine trying to catch the monster but it turns out to be worse than ‘Aliens’.  Glorianna said she had nightmares about it for a week.  And she said the sim munched them, and also the Betas, and also the Grunts.”

“Whoa.  The Grunts lost in the same sim?  What the hell was it?”

“Imagine the worst ‘Aliens’ sitch you can.  Now, instead of the Alien, it’s Carmilla.  At her nastiest.”

“SHIT!”

 

“Chickenshit!”

“Okay, okay, I confess.  I chickened out.  All right?  Are you happy now?”

“Aw hell, I wouldn’t have had the balls to ask Tennyo out on a date either.”

“Oh yeah, no kidding.  She’s gorgeous.  In an anime otaku way, but still gorgeous.  But ask her out?  What if she got mad at you?  She nearly killed Hippolyta with one punch!”

“Say no to you?  Hell, what if she said yes?  How do you impress a chick like her?  And what about the goodnight kiss?  No one wants their face torn off for just kissing a girl goodnight.”

“And what if you don’t call her afterward?  Does she go postal on you and disintegrate your room?”

“Crap, what if she wants to make out?  And she breaks you in half?  She smashed a Syndicate dropship with her bare hands!  Be worse than dating Poise.”

“Be worse than dating Compiler!”

“Gotta go with that one.  No thanks on the Ryoko girl.  I like my body all in one piece.”

 

“Hey Fey, are you ever going to lift that spell on Traduce?” Phase asked with an evil smirk.

“I’m thinking about it.  I believe the year 2107 might be a good time to do it,” she grinned.

“Heh.  I know she deserved it.  I’ve heard some of the stuff she’s been saying too.  Corrosive can’t wait to tell everyone in the nastiest way possible.  But I don’t want her having a coronary,” Phase said.

Fey pursed her lips in thought.  “Okay, I’ll keep an eye on her.  If she really looks like she’s gonna lose it, I’ll rescue her.  Otherwise, the spell will lift when she leaves the room.”

Phase patted her on the shoulder.  “Works for me.”  He stopped and grinned, “Everyone else might prefer it if you left the spell on her for the rest of the school year, but Carson might get on our case about it.”

 

“Oh man, have you tried these little éclair things?”

“Are you kidding?  I’m not gonna be able to fit in my dress tomorrow as it is!  Those empanadas were to die for!”

“Phase is such a…  Doesn’t she know I’m on a diet?”

“Hey, you look great.”

Because I’m on a diet, dummy!”

“Well, take one of those miniature chocolate éclairs and one of those ones with the caramel topping, and save ‘em for tomorrow.  They’re both killer.”

“Gotta admit it, this is the best food we’ve had all year long.”

“Better than anything last year, either, if you ask me.”

“Well, anything’d be better than what Traduce served.”

“Oh my GAWD, those were AWFUL!  Did she like get ‘em out of a dumpster or somethin’?”

“And sushi?  Ick.”

“Okay, I thought the sushi and stuff was pretty good.”

“Fish?  On cloggy rice?  Blech.”

“Y’know, Phase turned out a great party.  Even if she is pretty damn freaky between the legs.”

“You mean it’s true?  She has a weiner?”

“Oh yeah.  It isn’t like she hides it that much, either.  She’s got a big old boy-package down there.”

“Ewww.  No wonder she never has a date.  Because you know most of the guys on campus would totally hit on a billionaire heiress who looks that hot.”

“So how did Phase get Charmer to come?”

“Yeah, she’s a hottie.  But I wanna know how Phase got Thuban to come.  He never comes to these things, and he’s supposed to be on the Golden Kids steering committee or something.”

 

AYLA

At the end of the party, I shook hands and thanked everyone for coming.  Everyone was gracious, telling me how good the food was, or how much they enjoyed the wine, or how much they enjoyed the ‘smoking hot babes in sexy maid outfits’, quote unquote.

Everyone except Traduce, of course.  She slapped a napkin into my hand.  It read, “YOU BETTER GET THIS GODDAMN CURSE OFF ME OR I’M SUING!!!”

I said, “I talked to Fey.  Your voice will come back as soon as you leave.  But don’t say anything bad about Fey, or it might happen again.  I don’t know how she worded the curse.”  I looked at someone slipping past us.  “Oh, Corrosive?  That goes for you too.  Try not to call down the wrath of the Fae anytime soon, would you?”

Traduce opened her mouth and screeched at me, but no sound came out.  I had to admit it; I did like her better this way.  She stormed out.  I heard her screeching in the hall a few moments later, so I knew her voice was back.  And just maybe, she’d worry about bad-mouthing Fey anytime soon.

I escorted the last of the crowd out through the atrium, and then I stepped back into the party room.  Green and Trews were gathering up their assorted monitoring widgets and protective charms, presumably to put into some sort of trustworthy storage until the next meeting.  Tabby was introducing herself to the chefs, who were gathering up empty trays and sliding them back into the metal carts they had brought with them.  I noticed they were leaving all the food behind.  I had a feeling it wouldn’t last long, given that Tennyo hadn’t been attacking the food while she was serving.

Thuban was holding Jade, and the two of them were smiling at each other.  Jade was cheating, of course.  Even in four-inch heels she was far shorter than he was, so she was floating half a foot above the carpet.  I gave them some privacy.  Well, as much privacy as they could have when they were standing out in the room where everyone could see them.  Instead, I walked over to where Tabby was chatting with My Three Chefs.

“…and you made the date puree yourself?  It was a really excellent accompaniment,” Tabby finished.

I interrupted, “Hi.  I see you met Tabby.  I’d take it as a personal favor if you guys helped her out with the party next month.”

“Oh, sure,” Chef Peter said.

Naturellement,” Chef Marcel agreed.

Tabby said, “I was watching ‘Iron Chef America’, and I was thinking about a theme for next month’s party.”

“As long as it is not radishes,” Chef André said.  “The main dishes and desserts that night were horrific.”

Chef Peter groaned, “Could be worse.  Remember that cod roe ice cream?”  The three chefs gave a collective cringe.

“I was thinking chocolate,” suggested Tabby.

“Ahh, the secret chocoholic comes out,” I grinned.

“Hmm, perhaps miniature tiramisu with spiced pear,” André thought out loud.

“Choux pastry filled with a bittersweet chocolate ganache, perhaps with a little green tea for zing,” suggested Marcel.

“That sounds really good.  Maybe dark chocolate cheescake bites,” said Peter.

I suggested, “What about some of those incredible empanadas, but with a bite of chicken in molé?”

“Yes!  That would be worth trying,” said Peter.  “Maybe a dash of the canela too…”

“Chocolate dipped strawberries and raspberries, perhaps…” murmured Marcel.

I smiled at Tabby, “It sounds like you’re going to have an entire menu by Monday.  And if you’re really lucky, they’ll have taste-testing for you to go through.”

She shook her head slightly, “I still have to come up with something to drink.”

“No you don’t,” I told her.  “I bought six cases of the Prosecco.  There’s plenty left in the wine cellar back in the kitchen.  You’re set for next month.”

She nodded.  “Maybe mochas to go with the desserts?  What do you think?”

“I think your chocoholic side is going to have a great time planning this thing,” I told her.  I glanced over.  Stephen had finished kissing Jade good night, and was walking out.  “Come on over, and I’ll introduce you to Jade.”

Jade was still smiling and staring after Thuban when we walked up to her.  She blinked and focused on something other than Thuban’s butt.  “Oh, hi Ayla!  Who’s your friend?”

“Generator?  This is Tabby.  Abby?  This is Jade Sinclair.  Even though she doesn’t look it, she’s a great deviser.”

“Tabby?  I love your codename,” Jade grinned.  “Let me show you what Phase means.  Okay?”  She slapped a blinking disk on an empty holder for the chair stacks, and it ran after Jinn, scooting chairs into a nice, neat stack as Jinn picked them up and put them on the stack.

I said, “It’s a lot more impressive when she does the set-up.  Her devise unloaded the chairs and tables all by itself.”

Jade slapped another disk on the vacuum cleaner, and it began cleaning the carpet all by itself.

I pointed out, “It’ll do the upholstery too.”

Once Jinn was done stacking the chairs onto the rack, the entire rack came zipping back and stood itself up in the storage area.  Jade walked in, reclaimed the disk, and stuck it on the side of the carrier for the round tables.  We watched as it followed Jinn around, accepting and arranging tables as Jinn folded up their legs, turned them on their sides, and rolled them onto the carrier.  The tablecloths she tossed at the carrier all collected together in one corner.  Jade sent out another holder for chairs once Jinn was done with the tables.

Tabby murmured, “Impressive.”  She turned to Jade and said, “I’ll pay you whatever Phase set for the set-up and break-down at the next party.  Okay?”

Sure!” Jade grinned.

“And I’m going to be looking for waitresses, although I doubt I’ll go with uniforms this… umm…”

“Politically incorrect?” I offered.

“Bimbo City?” Jade grinned.

“Let’s say ‘sexy’ and let it go at that,” Tabby agreed.  “I still don’t know how you got all of them to wear these things.”

The girls were trickling out of the changing room by then.  Tennyo strolled over in her regular clothes and said, “I thought I’d stick around and keep an eye on Jade and Jinn.  Is that okay?”

“Of course,” I told her.

She said, “You just cost me a buck, you know?  Toni bet me you’d say that.”

I casually said, “Sorry to be so predictable.  Look at it this way.  At least it wasn’t a bet with Risk.  You know he wouldn’t let it go for just a dollar.”

She groaned, “Yeah, there’s no such thing as ‘just a bet’ with that guy.  It’s got to be for more money, and he’s got to set the odds, and he’s got to write it down in his little book.”

I grinned evilly.  “It’s not always for more money.”

Tabby laughed, “Oh, I heard about that!  At the Montana-Chaka fight, you made a bet so big they wouldn’t take it.  Serves ‘em right, the greedy little shits.”

Fey, Vox, and Chaka strolled past, with all the waitress costumes following Fey like levitating sheep.  Fey said to Tennyo, “Hey Billie, we’re going to go ahead and take the uniforms back to Poe.  See ya.”

Tennyo smiled, her fangs poking out at the sides.  “Hey, thanks.  I appreciate it.”

Vox gave me a smile and said, “See you back at the dorm.”

Delta Spike and Mega-Girl walked past us, right behind them.  Marty smiled, “Hey, thanks for the deal.  I don’t wanna be a pain, but when can you pay us?  ‘Cause the Victoria’s Secret special ends at the end of the month, and I really need some new bras and stuff.”

“Do you have a credit card?” I asked.

“I got a debit card, but it’s pretty much on zero right now,” she pouted.

I told her, “Leave the information for it on my desk, and I’ll transfer the money tonight when I get home.”

“Really?  Thanks!  That’s so great!” she bubbled.

Once everyone walked out, Tabby quietly asked me, “Is Mega-Girl really that strapped for cash?”

“Yeah,” I told her.  “You know what she looks like now, so you know she doesn’t have any old clothes that fit, and her dad’s not exactly okay with the ‘mutant bombshell’ thing, so she really doesn’t have much in the way of clothes that fit her.  That’s one of the reasons she wears her super-suit all the time.”  Okay, that was mostly true.

“You think she’d do the waitress bit for me next month?” Tabby asked.

“Oh, I think so.  Particularly when she also got a dinner date out of this one.”

Tabby just grinned.  After she finished negotiating to see if Jade and Jinn would like to waitress for her in February, she headed out.

Jade took the tablecloths and cast one of the J-Team into them.  Then she went over to the stack of plates and cast someone else into them.  The dishes started washing and drying themselves.  The tablecloths grabbed some detergent and spotted the stains on themselves before cramming themselves into the washing machine on the back wall.

Jade suddenly sighed, “Whew.  Glad Jasmine’s back.  Five charges pretty much wipes me out.”  She walked over and started the washing machine.

Jinn drifted in and said, “Okay, we got all the chairs and tables put back, but Jann’s still doing the vacuuming.  What’s left?”

Jade said, “Jayna’s got the dishes mostly done already, so just the vacuuming and the tablecloths.”

I didn’t shake my head, but I did wonder how the heck the J-Team kept track of everyone’s name.  I still hadn’t figured out the pattern they were using after Jinn and Jann.

Jinn floated over to help Jayna, and Jade walked back to check the washing machine.  Billie took the opportunity to come over to me.  I noticed that she had half a dozen of the empanadas in her hands.  She nervously said, “Umm, Ayla, Hatamoto asked me out to dinner.  I, umm, said no.  That’s okay, isn’t it?”

I managed not to roll my eyes.  “Of course it’s okay, Billie!  This is just a waitressing gig, helping me out.  You don’t have to do anything you don’t want.  And I mean anything.  If you didn’t want to play ‘French maid’, I was good with that too.”

She looked down at the floor and blushed, “It was… kind of fun, actually.  I mean, I felt like a girl.  Like a pretty girl.  Guys smiled at me, and told me I looked hot, and stuff.  Dynamaxx was a little annoying, but not anything serious.”

I looked her in the eye and told her, “Look Billie, you are a pretty girl.  I wouldn’t have asked you to play waitress if you weren’t.  Most guys just don’t have the cojones to ask you out and then deal with a girlfriend who can kick their ass in a dozen different ways.  I heard half a dozen guys who wanted to ask you out but chickened out when they thought about it.”

“Yeah, right,” she doubted.

I insisted, “No really!  I’m not making this up.  You’re pretty, but you intimidate the crap out of a lot of people.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t guys out there who are right for you.  You’ll find one.  Just take your time.”

She stared at the floor for a few seconds.  “I’m not really sure I want to find the right guy.  I mean, I’m pretty sure I’m not interested in girls anymore, which is kind of freaky all by itself, but I’m not sure I’m interested in boys either.  Some of the time, I am, and some of the time I just don’t know.  It’s just so darn confusing.”

I grinned, “Welcome to the teen years, Billie.  It’s supposed to be like that for everybody.”

She gave me a little smile and gulped down the food left in her hand.  She went back to hover over the remaining food and keep an eye on the J-Team, as Jinn put dishes away in the closet.

A few minutes later, Jade came over, smiling and teary-eyed, and gave me a huge hug.  “Thanks.  Just thanks so much!”

“For what?” I asked.

She beamed, “It’s just – this whole school year, it’s been like a dream come true.  Being a girl, dressing like a girl.  Getting boobs!  Wearing stuff like this really naughty maid outfit.  I was out there walking around with all those honest-to-God real girls.  And people were looking at me, too.  Maybe not the same way they were looking at Fey, but… you know.  Stephen thought I looked really hot.  Me!  And it was just like I dreamed it would be.”

I pointed out, “You’re forgetting something.  Almost everyone we had out there is TG.  Well, not Vox.  But everyone else.  So you’re in good company.”

She hugged me again.  “Well, this is still great.”

I pointed out, “I’m sure the fourteen hundred bucks on top of the hundred for waitressing at dinner doesn’t hurt either.”

She gave me a big grin that had me grinning in return.  No wonder she had Thuban wrapped around her finger.

It took almost an hour to wash and dry the tablecloths, and then fold them and put them away.  She was finished with the vacuum cleaner long before then.  And there wasn’t a crumb of food left by then, thanks to Billie.  When the J-Team was all done, I sent Jade and Jinn off with Tennyo in tow, while my security guys closed up.

I said goodnight to Trews and Green, and I walked off down the now-deserted corridor.  I looked down at myself and managed not to cringe.  Jade and Marty and Elaine were so damned happy with how they looked.  And I looked like a freak.  The best I could manage - the very best - was passing as a girl and hiding my privates in one of Cecilia’s little devices.  But I wasn’t a girl.  Maybe ninety percent of my body was girl-tastic.  But my brain and my crotch weren’t.  I knew exactly how Chou felt.  Well, at least people weren’t coming after her to punch her in the face for being an intersexed freakshow.  On the other hand, she was sure taking her periods a lot harder than most of the girls.  I knew from all these months in the girls’ bathroom that not all periods were equal, but Chou certainly was more upset about having periods than anyone else I knew.  Not counting someone who had such a tantrum that we had that thunderstorm in the hallway.

I moped all the way home, and went straight into the bathroom when I got there.  Once I was sure I had a little privacy, I checked my legs and arms and face.  REALLY thoroughly.  Why hadn’t any of my body hair or facial hair grown back?  The hair on top of my head had grown enough that I was going to have to get another trim soon.  But, I mean, not even my eyebrows had grown back.  And I’d been measuring them, just to be sure.

Was my body slowly regenerating into a more feminine form so that I’d never get my hair back?  Damn!  But maybe Thuban’s BIT-slicer would fix that.  If it didn’t, I still had other options.  But I didn’t like where things were taking me.  What if I eventually went through a girl’s puberty and these damned boobs got bigger?  Crap!

Maybe if I hadn’t been such an enormous Goodkind asshole about mutants, and if I hadn’t followed father’s party line about transsexuals, I wouldn’t be stuck looking like this.  Or maybe I was now betraying everything I had ever learned just because it was convenient.  Was this perspective, or self-serving spin-doctoring?  If I had turned into a blood-sucking vampire, would I just conveniently decide vampires were fine and people were nothing but ‘Happy Meals on legs’?  Was I that much of a moral relativist?  Or was that amoral instead of moral?  If I had stayed baseline, and Jonathan was the one who manifested, would I have treated him the way Emil Hammond had treated me?  Or even worse?

I really needed to know.

I was afraid to find out.

I was upset about my body, but sometimes I was just as upset about my beliefs.

Comments   

0 # DocSavage 2016-08-03 00:11
The more I re-read this, the more I begin to believe Glitch is the missing Dionysius from the Olympians.
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0 # PhaineOfCatz 2016-09-29 21:33
Nah, Glitch is way too grumpy even when drunk. Dionysus was the god of wine, madness, and ecstasy.
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