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Diane Castle / Ayla / Ayla and the Birthday Brawl / Part 11

Ayla and the Birthday Brawl

by Diane Castle (and the usual troublemakers)

CHAPTER 11 – The Legend of Florimell, or of Wittiness

Tennyo.  Why did it have to be Tennyo?  Okay, Indiana Jones was probably tired of my ripping off his best lines.  I was going to have to think of something new.

I kept my face impassive, but I was definitely thinking some really uncomplimentary thoughts about Ito.  Mainly, details about his lack of height, his lack of scruples, his inherent evilness, his parentage, his ancestral tree, some ethnic slurs, and four or five other topics.  I also slid my right hand behind my back, slid out my brand new personal forcefield generator, and slid it out of its pocket.  I tried to clip it onto the outside of my utility belt as unobtrusively as possible.  I figured I was going to need it and everything else I had in my utility belt to spar against Billie.

Tennyo stepped into the sparring circle and took up her position.  Ito told her, “Tennyo, please refrain from using your energy sword or energy blasts.  You may use your bokken as you wish, and anything else you would like.”

Damn, I felt a lot better knowing that she couldn’t use that lightsaber or any of her energy attacks.  That was a huge help.  But I was still overmatched, and everyone in the class had to know it.

Tennyo took up her bokken and carefully bowed to Ito.  “Hai.”

Ito turned to me and said, “Phase, you may try anything you wish.”

I pulled out my tactical baton, even though I kept it retracted, and I simply said, “Hai.”  Then I went fully heavy.  Tennyo’s eyes flickered down to the dent I was making in the mat, and I realized I wasn’t being very subtle about my power use.  An intelligent opponent was always a bigger problem than a stupid one.  I should have gone heavy before I took up my position, so there wouldn’t be an obvious change in the depth of my footprints.

As soon as Ito started us, Tennyo moved.  She slid forward in a smooth aikido glide that was part martial arts skill I didn’t have, and part gravity-defying flying – which I didn’t have either, as long as I was heavy.  I popped my tactical baton and held it in ready position behind my back.  She struck, swinging her bokken in a quick strike at the side of my neck.

I parried.  Hard.  Her bokken bounced off my tactical baton as she quickly changed her target and struck again.  I managed to get my baton in the way just enough that her bokken slid down it and toward the mat.  I really wanted to retract the baton and make it heavy again, but she wasn’t giving me any quarter.  I just barely managed to block the next two strikes as well, without getting any chance to strike back.

She retreated a few feet and regrouped.  I realized that she was terrifically strong, but not as strong as Hank.  And she couldn’t apply her maximum strength at a single point, either.  It didn’t hurt that I was heavy enough to withstand her attacks.  So far.  But she wasn’t going to keep her sparring to something simple that I could handle.  She was eventually going to up her efforts.  I needed to do something different if I was going to win.

Okay, I know.  I’m insane.  I was actually trying to figure out how to beat Tennyo.  Even without her big powers, she still had powers out the wazoo, while I was still a one-trick pony.  Even without using our Warper powers, she was still stronger than I was, and she was years ahead of me on martial arts.  My only advantage was that as an Exemplar-3, I was quicker than she was, and that wasn’t enough to overcome her martial arts training.

She went on the attack once again, sliding in and swinging her bokken in a quick feint at my stomach, followed by a slice to my neck.

I went light.  I leapt right through her, and before she could turn around, I struck.  I went heavy as I popped out my baton and let her have it.  I got her in the back of the knee and the kidney, before she wheeled around and parried my strike to the back of her neck.

Of course, striking the back of the knee on a regenerating flier is just a big, fat waste of time.  I should have known that it wouldn’t work.  She didn’t go down.  She just stopped standing on the mat.  Or she stopped pretending to stand on the mat.  One of the two.

Also, I knew that I could only cut through her as long as she wasn’t pissed off or deliberately generating her anti-matter, unless I wanted to get fried to a crisp.  That severely limited the number of times I could pull this trick on her.  Not to mention that Ito had not told her she couldn’t use her warp shield, even if that might be somewhat destructive.  It was one of the powers she tried not to use, for fear of going Chernobyl on the surroundings.  Which might mean I could use my PFG while she would still refrain from using her own shield.  Maybe.  Maybe not.

We were facing each other, only we had reversed positions.  Since there wasn’t any usable terrain feature on the mat, I didn’t see an advantage to that.  Once again, I retracted my baton and moved it to the ready position behind my back.  Then, while I had my hand behind me, I flipped on the PFG.  I felt the energy building around me.  I waited for her next move.

She moved quickly, launching an entire kata of strikes at me.  I didn’t bother to block them.  She blinked when she realized I had a forcefield up, and she took a slide-step backward.

Which was when I flicked off the forcefield and launched my own attack.  I got one strike in, catching her right in the lower ribs, but she blocked my second strike.  But my baton was still heavy, and we were both swinging as hard as we could.  Her bokken shattered into a thousand tiny splinters.  She clenched her jaws, and I slid back a step, quickly switching on my forcefield again.

Which was just stupid, since I was facing Billie.  She came at me barehanded, and punched the forcefield.  Her fist went through it like she was punching a big soap bubble.  The forcefield generator on my belt exploded from the feedback, just about the time her fist connected with my face.

If I hadn’t been heavy at the time, I would have really been hurt.  But I was fully heavy, and my gi was heavy with me.  Her punch staggered me and made me take a step back, but it didn’t break my nose.  The explosion probably ruined part of the gi.  I’d check later, when I didn’t have an attacking Tennyo on my hands.

She moved for me.  Since I was heavy, I jumped up while heavy and went light, so I Phase-leapt nearly straight up.  Then I quickly went heavy before I got to the rafters, and I tried to drop on top of her.  She suddenly flew off at an inertia-breaking angle, and I just missed her.  I hit the mat with a loud crash, and she wheeled in mid-air to face me.

I figured it was time to unleash the heavy artillery.  I whipped an ice egg out of my utility belt and threw it at her.  I caught her right in the stomach.  The egg exploded in a cloud of white vapor, pulling the room humidity into an ice shell that covered her from the top of her hair down to her shins.  I Phase-leapt up and grabbed the ice, going heavy and pulling her down to the mat.

But there was only an inch or two of ice all over her, and she shattered the ice covering her arms and legs before I could toss her out of the sparring ring.  The really scary part of it was that she didn’t bother to get the ice off her face.  She didn’t need to breathe, and obviously she didn’t even think about breathing all that much.  Okay, I already knew she didn’t need to breathe.  Otherwise, I never would have risked hitting her with an ice egg that might suffocate her.  The whole team learned that lesson about her the first time we went to Boston, and Hank still griped about it once in a while.  Not that I was blaming him.

She then proceeded to show me that I had made a serious tactical error.  She used the ice that covered her head and torso like armor, and she flew right at me in an attempt to grapple me into submission.  Shit!

She went for a nice, ice-hard headbutt.  I went light and leapt through her, planning on whacking her a few times with my baton.  It didn’t work that way.  Instead, I felt a furious burning sensation everywhere I passed through her, and I ended up needing a second afterward to get myself back together.  Luckily, Tennyo hadn’t really cranked herself up into a fury, or I would have been roasted.  As it was, I just hurt all over, but I didn’t seem to be really injured.

I must have instinctively turned heavy, because I didn’t actually remember doing it on purpose.  It was just as well, because Tennyo used my moment of inattention to throw me over her shoulder and out of the sparring ring.  If I hadn’t been heavy, I probably would have landed somewhere in Dunwich.  As it was, I landed halfway out of the ring.

Ito awarded the point to Tennyo, and we resumed our positions.  She took the time to smash the ice out of her hair, after which her hair looked… exactly the same as always.  Ito let her get a new bokken before he started us.

We started.  I tried Phase-leaping just past her without cutting through her, so I could attack her from behind.  She leapt straight up and spun in mid-air to face me.  Her feet were about seven feet above the mat, so I couldn’t effectively attack her without going light in some way.  And going light was a serious risk now that she was worked up, because she only had to pass an arm or leg through me to hurt me.  A lot.  And I already knew my disruption-light capability was useless on her.

I pulled out a blast egg and threw it hard.  She tried to dodge it, but it still hit her in the leg.  I threw it hard enough that it exploded on contact.  It was one of the small blast eggs, so all it did was blow a hole in her gi and hurt her enough to distract her.  I Phase-leapt.

I went heavy just before I hit the ceiling, and I pushed off, aiming for her back.  If I had caught her, I would have been able to push her down to the mat, and at the angle I was going, I would have landed on top of her, just outside the ring.

It didn’t work.  She dodged at the last minute, and I missed her.  I got in a shot with my tactical baton in passing, and she managed to parry some of that with her bokken.  The rest of the impact she took off her upper arm.  Even worse, she abruptly changed direction and followed me down.

I hit the mat and rolled to my right.  She whacked the spot where I’d just been, and veered off sharply in my direction.  I Phase-leapt right at her.  She reacted.

But this time, I had enough sense not to try to jump through her while I was light.  I went heavy right before I hit her, and we crashed to the mat with her underneath.  Before she could flip me off of her and toss me halfway to Schuster Hall, I pushed off of her and Phase-leapt to the side.  As soon as I went heavy, I threw another egg, as hard as I could.  She was still on her back, but she saw it coming and swatted it out of the air.

Which was basically the best case scenario for me, because this time I wasn’t throwing an egg.  I was throwing a tangleweb load for a Cobra linear induction pistol.  A nice little sphere that was easy to mistake for one of Bunny’s eggs.  It exploded on impact with her hand.

I went light as soon as I threw it, which turned to be a good thing, because I was still within its blast radius.  Sticky webbing exploded all over Tennyo, all over the mat, and partly through me.  I just stayed light until all the webbing fell to the mat, gluing Tennyo in place – temporarily, of course.

I whipped out my baton in readiness, because I wasn’t even sure the webbing would stick to her.  We all knew that her hair was more or less impervious to anything you could think of.  She couldn’t even get concentrated dyes to affect the strands.  So there was no way the tangleweb chemicals would stick to her hair.  Actually, I was figuring that the webbing would stick to her gi and the mat, but not anything else.  But I figured that would be enough to pin her to the mat and give me a point.

She didn’t see it that way.  Her eyes flared angrily, and her antimatter lightsaber flashed into being between her hands.  She quickly sliced through the webbing along her side, wrecking her gi and incidentally swinging a little too close to me.

Okay, I was a little too close to her.  I automatically blocked with my baton, but her lightsaber slashed through my adamantium weapon like it was made out of the finest Wisconsin butter.

Ito immediately called the match.  “Tennyo!  You were directed to avoid using your sword!”

She ducked her head, even though she was still on her back.  “Sorry, sensei.”  Then she looked at me and quietly swore, “Dammit Phase, do you know how hard it is to get this junk off clothes?”

I just stared in disgust at the remains of my baton.  “Shit.”  I was holding the bottom two thirds of it, and a spring was sticking limply out of the severed casing in a blatant effort at a metaphor.  This wasn’t good.

Tennyo stared at my baton and gulped, “Oh damn.  I’m really sorry!”

I sighed, “Oh hell, Harry can make me another one.”

She winced, “Maybe he could fix this one?”

I looked carefully at my baton.  Her sword had sliced right through the spot where two casings interlocked.  So Harry only needed to make two new casings and rebuild the spring mechanisms inside it.  Assuming he had the time.  Oh hell.  I’d contact him after class, and see how his schedule looked.

She struggled to get free of the webbing, and finally ripped her gi apart to free herself.  Which left her in a sports bra and a pair of panties, so the male section of the class got quite the view.  And, as I had expected, the webbing didn’t stick to her skin or hair.  At all.

I muttered, “I do have solvent for the webbing, you know.”

“Oh, like I want to wait while you fly back to Poe, and then fly back here?” she frowned.

I admitted, “I’ve got a half gallon of solvent stashed here in the dojo.”

She rolled her eyes.  “Like where?  Jody’s locker?”  When I didn’t say anything, she glared at me.  “It is in Jody’s locker!  Crap, Ayla!  How could you?”

Sensei Ito stepped over to me and sternly asked, “And just how did you propose to clean this mat of this mess, Phase?”

I confessed, “I’ve got blast eggs and fire eggs and ice eggs and these eggs, and several other destructive little weapons I try not to use.  So I’ve been expecting something like this might happen in a serious fight.  I have solvent and scrubbing devises for the mat, and I bought a couple spare mats, which I had shipped to Annex storage.  Which do you want me to do?”

Beaumont stepped over and said, “I would like to see the ‘scrubbing devises’.”

Tolman agreed, “At least that way, we can use the mats for two sparring matches for the rest of class.”

“Very well,” Ito nodded slightly.  “Phase, you will clean the mat.  If we are not satisfied with the result, you will replace the mat.”

Hai, sensei,” I said.

<(Phase) Gen, I need you to go to Jody’s locker and charge the J-Team into the two hand-held scrubbers I showed you.  Then use the solvent to get the webbing off the mat.>

<(Generator) Same pay you said last week?>

<(Phase) Double.>

<(Generator) All right!>  Jade jumped up from her position and sprinted into the locker room.

When sensei Ito raised one eyebrow at Jade’s antics, I said, “She’ll get the scrubbers and send them out here.”  But I figured Ito knew a bit too much about Jade’s powers.  His eyebrow crept up a bit higher.  He waited several seconds for me to wilt, which I refused to do.  He finally said, “Very well.  Let us see how well your devises do at cleaning up this mess.”

In a few seconds, Jade was back in her place, and two battery-powered hand-scrubbers were sailing across the dojo to begin cleaning up the mess I had made.

<(Lancer) I can’t believe you’ve got Plas holding your stuff and Gen doing the clean-up.>

<(Chaka) Oh, I totally believe it.  Totally Phase.>

<(Phase) Well, how am I supposed to learn how to spar with weapons like web eggs and blast eggs?>

<(Lancer) That’s not a response.>

<(Chaka) Yeah.  If I hadda scrub the mat, you oughta have to, too!>

<(Lancer) Come on, it’s not like Phase got up in Ito’s face and sassed him, like some people we know.>

<(Chaka) Hey, I did not get up in his grill!  He was just… a little touchy that day.>

While Chaka defended herself, I moved over to the web-covered mat.  I carefully slid my hand through the webbing with my light-heavy-light-heavy flicker, and I disintegrated swaths of the stuff, leaving only a thin film atop the mat that my scrubbers could clean off.

While Ito and Tolman refereed two more sparring matches, Beaumont decided to loom over me and see what I was doing.  She asked, “If you can disintegrate matter like that, then why didn’t you fight Tennyo by removing her arms?  She is a Regen-7.”

Oh my God.  My stomach lurched at the thought.  I stopped cleaning and said, “First, ick.  I have enough trouble just making myself hit people.  I don’t think I could do that.  And second, she’s my friend.  There’s just… no way.”  I thought about it for a second and added, “Third, she regens fast enough that it probably wouldn’t be an effective weapon, anyway.”

Slicing off someone’s arms with my powers, or stealing their heart out of their chest.  Yuck.  I didn’t even want to think about some of the other gross things my powers could do.  No wonder Tinsnip was such an effective assassin.

No wonder ordinary baselines were afraid of mutants.  Of mutants like me.

With my powers taking care of the gross clean-up and the solvent easily handling the fine details, I had the entire mat area cleaned up before the last sparring match.

Ito inspected my work and finally said, “It is clean enough.  You and your ‘devises’ may stop now.”

“Thank you, sensei,” I said.

I stood up, and Ito said to me, “When I said that you may try anything, I did not intend for you to destroy the dojo in your efforts.”

I sighed, “I seem to have that problem.  When I sparred against Hank last term, I destroyed a mat and a chunk of the flooring, didn’t I?”

He nodded.  “And the sub-flooring, and the support beams underneath, and some concrete under that.”

I winced inwardly, even though I tried not to show it.  “I did pay for that, sensei.  Out of my own pocket.”

“Yes, you did,” he agreed.  “And the repaired area is at least as strong as the original flooring.  Was that when you decided to purchase the additional mats?”

Hai, sensei.”

“And it wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that some of your teammates have been known to do a great deal of damage on their own?”

I smiled slightly.  “That could have had something to do with it.”

“Go sit.  And next time you spar, I will be far more specific about which of your holdouts you may or may not use.”

I scooped up the two scrubbers and sat seiza with the other students.  Then I stoically ignored Toni’s comments over the Spots.  And I didn’t laugh out loud even once.

Although she nearly got me with her crack about Billie’s eating habits and my tendency to throw weaponized eggs all over the place.  I definitely heard Jade giggling at that one.

At the end of class, I gathered up the sad remains of my once-powerful tactical baton – Toni had also made some sly jokes about Billie busting my baton, if you know what I mean – and walked off to the women instructors’ showers.

Sensei Tolman saw me trudging along and stopped me.  “Phase, aren’t you making too much out of this?  It’s only a tactical baton.”

I sighed, “Sensei, it’s a $230,000 adamantium baton that’s going to take a lot of money and a couple weeks of work by a specialized artisan gadgeteer to repair.”

Her jaw dropped open.  “That’s a quarter of a million dollars there?”

I just nodded.  Looking at her, I could just see the words ‘Fucking Goodkinds’ running through her cerebrum.  On a giant neon billboard all around her Circle of Willis.

I felt like whining some more about my broken toy, but instead I rushed through my shower so I wouldn’t have to worry about Tolman and Beaumont getting fed up with me and deciding to break something else of mine.  Like my chops.

Then I dressed while Beaumont stripped naked and strolled over to the showers.  As usual, Tolman waited more or less patiently for me to leave the room.

As I walked out into the dojo, I called Spark again.  “Hello Spark?  This is Phase.  Is your second PFG ready?”

She answered in French, “Why yes, I finished it about an hour ago.”

I smiled to myself.  “Can I pick it up, say, right after dinner?”

She asked, “Does your teammate need it this quickly?

I admitted, “No, I need it.  I wrecked the one you gave me.”

Already?”  She moved the phone away from her mouth and cursed a little in French.  “What did you do?

I confessed, “It turns out Tennyo’s a bit tougher on forcefields than I expected.”

She exploded, “You were fighting Tennyo?  You will be expelled!”

I tried to explain, “No, I was sparring with her in martial arts class.”

“How in the name of God do you ruin a forcefield generator while sparring?” she fussed.

“It was sparring with weaponry and powers.  She used some of her powers.”  I managed not to shrug.

Spark muttered several uncomplimentary phrases in French, and then told me she would have the second PFG ready as soon as we all finished dinner, and I could pick it up in her lab, like the last time.  I agreed, and then I strolled out to see who else was dressed.

Toni was already gone, which was unusual, to say the least.  Normally, she didn’t sprint through her shower, and normally she hung around to talk martial arts with everyone. 

Chou came over to me and said, “Chaka rushed through her shower and said she had a task to do for Fey.  I wonder…”

“Yeah,” I agreed.  “It may have something to do with that pentagram.  Do you think they’re both under mind control?”

“I do not know.  We will have to depend on Circe for that.”

We hurried back to Poe.  I made sure to drag Billie and Jade along, just so we could fill them in on the weirdness going on in Nikki’s room.  Of course, given that this is Team Kimba I’m talking about, the big reaction to the potential crisis in Nikki’s room was…

“So were you really gonna buy me a new gi?” Billie checked.

“Of course!” I insisted.  “I even have your size.  And I really think you ought to switch to UnderArmor or bike shorts instead of panties, if you’re going to be ripping your clothes off in the middle of sparring.”

“I didn’t just rip my clothes off for nothing!” Billie fussed.

“I thought it was cool,” Jade supplied.  “Kinda like She-Hulk.”

“You did kind of have that ‘Hulk smash’ vibe going for you right then,” I added unhelpfully.

Chou mentioned, “It was sort of embarrassing.  Most of the guys in the class… stared.”

Billie buried her face in her hands.  “Oh God, that’s all I need.  Another rumor goin’ around about what a psycho I am.  ‘And she ripped her clothes off in the middle of class, right in front of the teachers!’  Ugh.  Can I take classes from my room for the rest of the year?”

“It’ll be fine!” Jade encouraged her.  And, just as Billie looked up, Jade finished, “And you looked really sexy like that.  Bikini cut panties look great on you.”  Billie winced.

Jade turned my way.  “So, when are you gonna get Billie a new gi?  ‘Cause she needs it by Monday, ya know.”

“That depends,” I replied.

“On what?” she wondered.

I looked at Billie.  “Well, it depends on whether Billie wants an ordinary gi, like she’s been wearing, or if she wants something more high-end, from Cecilia Rogers.”

Billie groaned, “Oh no, it’s bad enough I need an entire new gi, I don’t want you buying a ten thousand dollar super-gi with Kevlar and God only knows what else in it.”

I shrugged, “I wasn’t going to spend ten K on it.”

Chou butted in, “She would probably spend twice that, as long as she thought she could get away with it.”

“You really do need a tougher gi,” I said, in a probably-hopeless attempt to change the subject.  “You need really durable underthings too.  And some holdouts, so you have some options between ‘able to beat up Ayla’ and ‘accidentally destroyed the whole town’.”

“Billie hasn’t destroyed one single town yet!” Jade insisted, in defense of her onee-sama.  “Well, not an entire town…”

“Jade?  Really not helping here,” Billie complained quietly.

I decided not to mention all the times when she got dangerously close to wiping out a town.  Or two.  Or ten.  Like that NORAD C deal at Christmas.  Or the side of Range Four, which took nearly two weeks to decontaminate, and was still being re-built.  Or the damage she nearly did in her combat final.

Billie finally said, “I think I’ll just buy my own gi later.  They’re not that bad, and mom and dad’ll understand I can wreck a gi in a class with martial arts and weapons.”

I tried not to frown.  “You sure?”  She nodded.  “Because it really was my fault for using that attack in the first place.”

Chou said, “I believe it is sensei’s fault.  I am sure he knows what holdouts you have listed with the holo sims.  And he did tell you to use anything.”

I pursed my lips.  “Well, I’ve got a couple fireball eggs, but I’m not using them except on ice manifesters or Magneto-style Energizers.”

Jade asked, “Okay, the ice guys totally makes sense, but what about the magnetic Energizers?”

“The high temperatures disrupt the magnetic fields.  Known weakness for certain Energizers, and forcefields which are primarily electromagnetic.”

“And how do you know that, Mister Know-It-All?” Billie asked.

“Goodkind Research reports from the MCO,” I admitted.

“I really didn’t want to hear that,” Billie winced.

“Me either,” Jade chipped in.

“I thought that might be it, but I have to agree with them.  I didn’t really want to know that,” Chou added.

I shrugged, pretending their reactions didn’t hurt.  “You have to know I used to read Goodkind Research reports all the time, back before I manifested.  I’ve cited some of them before.  And the MCO has files detailing known weaknesses of certain types of mutants and Imbueds.  Because it would be stupid not to distribute to all your field teams crucial intel that they might need in order to save their lives at any moment.”

“What other big weaknesses do you know about?” Billie checked.

“Not really anything that applies to us, other than the really obvious, that we’re all vulnerable to surprise devises.  Even you,” I told her.  “They generally treat Wizards as ‘squishy’, and Nikki’s already busting out of that category.  PK bricks usually think they’re invulnerable, and they just stand there and let you hit them with something big enough to overload their field.”

“We saw that a couple weeks ago on Range Four,” Chou muttered.

I went on, “PDPs can only use one trait at a time, so you overload them physically enough that they can’t hit you with something that might be more dangerous, like their Psi or Esper attacks.  Psis are usually vulnerable to magic.  Same for Warpers.  Speedsters are usually vulnerable to everything, you just have to hit them, so you want to restrict their angles of attack so they run right into your lines of fire.  Power armor jockeys usually have limited energy reserves, so make them exhaust themselves quickly.  Power mimics usually have demarcated upper limits, so if you hit them with a strong enough super you can usually take them out.  PK manifesters are usually vulnerable to PK and psychic and magical attacks.”

“Ooh, I hate that,” muttered Jade.

I went on, “Ice throwers are usually vulnerable to heat.  Fire throwers are usually weak to ice and water.  Water throwers are usually vulnerable to heat.  You know, that whole ‘circle of life’ stuff Dyffud’s been teaching you guys.”

“It is not called the ‘circle of life’,” Chou corrected me.  “That’s the Lion King.”

“Uh-oh,” I teased.  “Better warn Dyffud to watch out for lawsuits from Disney.”  Chou gave me a little poke in the ribs.

I said, “The whole list is pretty obvious.  Really.  But it’s got huge flaws in it.  If you’re running off that list and you have a speedster like Aries who isn’t squishy, you’re in trouble.  If you have a PK manifester you think is a deviser, you’re in trouble.  If you have a power mimic who doesn’t have any known upper limit, throwing a high-end super at him just makes things worse.  If you have a power armor jockey who’s an Energizer and powers his own armor, your tactics are going to get you killed.”

Jade finally said, “Okay, I knew about most of those from Powers Theory class, but not the Magneto thing.”

“So how come the X-Men never use fire or heat against Magneto?” Billie asked.

I guessed, “Bad writing.  Guys who write comic books probably don’t have a lot of physics classes on their resumes.  Plus, if you ever give a supervillain an easily exploited weakness, then you’re hosed.  You have to find a reason to never use it again, or else you look like a complete idiot to the readers, or else you lose the supervillain as a credible badguy.”

Chou said, “Ooh!  Like the Green Lantern story Larry Niven wrote years ago!”

I just looked at her.  “Okay, I have no idea where you’re going with this one.”

Chou smiled smugly, since she didn’t get a lot of opportunities to show she had read something I hadn’t.  “Niven came up with a way to shift the color of Green Lantern’s light, to beat up the bad guy.  They never used it again, as far as I know, because it worked too well.”

Billie nodded, “Yeah, I think I read that one too.  GL flew at nearly lightspeed and that shifted the color of the energy out of his ring.”

I hadn’t ever heard about it.  But that was fine with me.  I wasn’t interested in spending a year reading every comic ever printed, just to find gaping holes in the plots and the story arcs.  I wasn’t even going to spend time reading Marvel Comics plots and micro-managing the company.  That was what editors and the editor-in-chief and the publisher were supposed to do.  I had better things to do with my time.

Jade frowned, “But what’s the point?  If you can fly at the speed of light, how’s anybody ever gonna hit you with anything they fire at you?”

Chou drifted into another segment of the conversation.  “Anyway, I think Ayla is right.  You need holdouts.  And who’s going to expect you to have holdouts?”

I said, “Even Pyrs carries holdouts.”

Billie rolled her eyes.  “So I need to talk mom into buying me a ten thousand dollar utility belt and a couple thousand more dollars for holdouts?”

I shook my head no.  “You could do what Chou and Toni do.  Just have a belt or something you can hide inside your gi or in your uniform, so you have some gear on hand.”

Chou said, “You do not need to go full-out Ayla.”

Jade burst into giggles, while Billie grinned.  I kept my face impassive and said nothing.

Jade said, “Bunny can get you some really cool eggs, and there are some guys who have rayguns, and you can get a Cobra pistol with some really cool loads if you want to.”

Billie grimaced.  “Okay.  I’ll think about it.”  She got a sneaky look on her face and added, “Anything so I don’t get beat by Ayla anymore.”

I pointed out, “You only lost on a technicality.”

She shook her head no.  “Unh-uh.  There was no way I was gonna keep fighting you when I was already down to my underwear.  One more web egg or fire egg, and I’d be fighting you in the buff, in front of the whole class.”

I insisted, “In a holo sim, where you didn’t have to worry about really killing me, you could have creamed me.”

She frowned, “I don’t like to think about that.  I already killed so many people it’s sickening.”

Jade gave her a big Jann-assisted floating hug.

I just said, “You need to keep telling yourself that wasn’t you.  It was something from whom you picked up some powers, that’s all.”

She frowned even more.  “But I killed all those guys in NORAD C.  And Killbot, even if he was trying to kill me back, or something even worse.  That wasn’t the Star Stalker.  That was plain old me.”

“You’re not plain,” Jade insisted.

I told her, “I supported the MCO and the Knights of Purity since I was old enough to understand how to use a bank account.  I’m probably responsible for twenty times as many deaths as that.”

“That doesn’t count!” Jade fussed.

“How old is old enough to understand about a bank account?” Chou wondered.

“Umm, in my case, four.  Father didn’t give Heather a bank account until she was eight.  She was so pissed at me for getting one earlier than she did.”

“Four?  You had your own bank account when you were four?” Jade choked.  “I still don’t have one!”

Billie said to her, “Relax.  I mean, how much money does a four year old get?”

Chou asked, “Ayla?  How much does a four year old get?”

I sighed.  “In my case?”  She nodded patiently.  “Five million dollars.”

Chou was so shocked she dropped her gymbag.  The J-Team was so shocked that Jann dropped Jade.

I hastily added, “But I was responsible with it!”  That didn’t help any.  “It wasn’t like I spent it all on candy and toys!”

Billie asked, “What did you spend it on?”

I admitted, “I had to clear all expenses with one of my parents first, so mainly I spent it on charitable donations.  And some stock purchases…  And some expensive toys.”

When we got back to Poe, Beltane was standing in the entryway, trying to get what looked like five pounds of pink bubblegum out of her hair.

“Belle, what happened?” I asked.  Okay, I had a feeling I already knew the answer.

“A little problem.  Nothing major.  It’s just ectoplasm.  But as long as it feels like bubblegum, it’s hard for me to dispel it.  I’ll have it in a minute.”

“Thorn?” I checked.

“Yeah.  Thorn,” she said.  “But I got him a good one.”

Before Beltane could launch into a full recounting of the latest scrimmage in her ongoing War Of The Ectoplasmers, Chou asked, “Has Chaka come by in the last few minutes?”

Beltane said no, and went back to working on her hair.

Chou hustled me up to our room and said, “We can watch for Chaka, but it will be difficult because of her ability to sense when someone’s focus is on her.”

I asked, “Can you do that without me?  I mean, use your Ki skills to block hers?”

“Possibly.  I will try,” she said.  “I’ll go to where I can watch for her.  Will you check again on Fey’s pentagram?  If it has gotten more complicated, then she might not be finished yet.”

“Sure.”  I watched her take off, and I put my ear to the wall.  But I couldn’t hear anything coming from Nikki’s room.  Oh well…

I carefully went light and stuck my face through the wall.  There was Nikki, with her back to me, working on the far wall with a brush that was magically casting symbols onto the wall.  And I realized what she was doing.

The symbols were capital letters in a fancy script.  H-A-P-P-Y-B-I-R…

I’d just ruined my own surprise birthday party.

“Oh crap.”

Fey whirled around.  “Ayla!”

Koehnes popped up from where she was working on something at floor-level.  “Aagh!  An intruder!”  She threw a pot at me.  It went through my face and smashed against the wall.

I jerked my head back into my room, just in time to have an angry Sidhe storm in through the door.  “What’s wrong with you?  Why can’t you just let things be, once in a while?”

“I’m sorry, Nikki.  I’m really, really sorry!” I pled.  A stormcloud began to form on Nikki’s left shoulder, which was a really bad sign.

Chou said to Molly, “Maybe Jody needs to handle this one.”

Chou led Nikki off to Jody’s room, while Molly dragged me along afterward.  I really didn’t want to go, since I had just screwed up all the planning Nikki had done.  And Toni.  I remembered a look that Nikki and Jade had passed when I had announced the Boston trip, so I induced that Jade was in on it too, and she’d be mad at me as well.  Just great.  I didn’t want to go along to Jody’s room.  But that only meant it was my responsibility to my friends to go, and then apologize profusely.  I had a feeling that groveling was going to be in there somewhere, too.

Molly and I reached Jody’s room and the door was closed.  Jody swung the door open and said, “I guess you’d better come in.”  All I could see was a miserable-looking Nikki sitting in one of Jody’s chairs.

I stepped in, and the illusion broke.

Twenty people blew party horns and screamed, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!”

Then Chou and Molly and Nikki and Toni were hugging me and laughing, “Surprise!”

“We SO got you!”

“Oh man, your expression!”

I had this urge to frown at them and say something like “We are not amused.”  I didn’t.  I admitted, “You totally got me.  I had no idea.”

Nikki giggled, “I got Belle and Diamondback to help me plan it all out.”

I nodded.  “And Chou and Molly were in on it.”

“But not Dorjee,” said Molly.  “He’s lousy at this.”

Chou smiled, “He does not believe in fibbing.”

Molly nudged her girlfriend, “You’re not so good at it either.  You nearly slipped up a couple times.”

Toni laughed, “And you thought you had the last laugh, Miss English Grammar Magazine!”

I merely said, “Obviously not.”  But I decided that I was going to let Toni have the last laugh.  This time, anyway.  If only because it was starting to escalate dangerously if they were bringing in hired guns for the planning stages, the sneaky stinkers.  And after all, if their big prank was a surprise party for me, it wasn’t as if there were really anything about which I should be complaining.

Jody grinned, “We have cake too!”

I smiled, “Great.”  I didn’t say what I was thinking, which was that most of the ‘birthday cakes’ I had seen – outside my own home – tended to be rather ordinary cake buried under tons of disgusting frosting.  But they had gone to a huge amount of trouble to do this for me, and they all wanted to do this.  So I was going to eat some of the cake, even if it tasted like chocolate-flavored lard on styrofoam.

They had a rectangular cake frosted in chocolate icing, with fifteen candles clustered in a compact ‘A’.  In green icing across the surface were script letters spelling out ‘Happy Birthday Ayla’, with the candles forming the capital ‘A’.

Jay Jay giggled, “Blow out the candles!  Make a wish already!”

Toni snarked, “And don’t use one of your ice eggs.”

Bunny asked, “What?  Did she use one already?  How’d it work?”

Billie admitted, “It worked great.  And she used it on me in sparring.  It buried me in a couple inches of ice.  If I needed to breathe, it would’ve taken me out.”

Toni wondered aloud, “You mean ‘stopped you cold’ maybe?”

Rip groaned, “Ugh!  I can’t believe you said that!”

I helped out, “Yeah, your jokes aren’t usually that lame.”

Toni laughed and stuck her tongue out at me.

I blew out the candles and everyone sang ‘Happy Birthday’.  Jade had to sing the ‘zoo’ version again, even after Billie gave her a subtle nudge with her elbow.

Then Jody started slicing the cake.  “Okay, the birthday girl has to go first.”

I tried, “Can I have a piece from the middle?  One with less frosting?”

“Oh sure,” Jody nodded.  “But then you have to hand out pieces.”

I smiled, “I can do that.”  I looked around the room.  “Who wants lots of frosting?”

Jade immediately waved her hand in the air.  “Me!”  Bunny wanted a piece with lots of frosting too, as did Pilar and Billie and Jay Jay and a couple others.  I was somewhat surprised that Flux was one of the frosting junkies, but it probably went along with his Energizer calorie requirements.

Toni said, “I’ll take one of ‘em too.”

Nikki instantly stepped between Toni and me, and said, “No, she won’t.”  She turned back to Toni and sternly said, “There’s no way I’m putting up with you bouncing off the walls for the next hour after you chow down on all that sugar.  You can take one of the center pieces.”

“You sure get grumpy about a little running up the walls,” Toni pouted.  Okay, it was really a pretense of a pout, because Toni isn’t really much of a pouter.

“And across the ceiling, and over the beds, and on top of the desks, and-”

“Okay, okay, ya don’t have to spill all my secrets,” Toni said.

“They’re not secrets!” said Rip.  “Everyone on the whole floor can hear you going crazy, and when you run up the walls and stuff, they can hear you upstairs.”

“Yeah, but you love me like that.”  Toni gave her one of her leopard grins.

Rip grinned right back.  “Well, I love you more when you get enough chocolate in you.”

Toni looked at the cake and slapped herself in the forehead.  “Chocolate!  How could I forget?”

Jody looked up from her cake-slicing.  “We got carrot cake with cream cheese frosting too, Toni.”

Toni looked at Nikki, then at Rip, and gave a loud, unconvincing sigh.  “I’ll take the carrot cake.”

“Me too,” said Chou.

Toni said, “It is totally not fair that I can’t eat as much chocolate as I like.”  She glanced my way and added, “And I proclaim it to be true!”

I smirked, “Oh, go quaff your milk.”

Pilar came by and shyly said, “Happy birthday, Ayla.  I wanted to get you something, but… I couldn’t afford anything you would want, so I helped Bunny with something.”

“That’s great,” I told her.  “But you don’t have to get me anything.  Really.”

Bunny held out one hand to reveal an egg.  This one was a nasty-looking red color.  She said, “Happy birthday!  It’s a poison egg.  It explodes in a cloud that’s a colloidal suspension of this compound Verdant made for you.  It causes confusion in a couple seconds if they inhale it, then gross motor difficulties a few seconds after that, then loss of balance, and then after they keel over, they pass out less than a minute later.  But that’s it.  Unconsciousness.”

I cradled it and admired the paint job.  “Thanks, you two.  I mean… thanks.  This is great.  But you shouldn’t have.”

Bunny smiled, “I know.  But just because it’s pretty much impossible to shop for you doesn’t mean we can’t find you cool stuff.”

I warmly told her, “And you do make the coolest stuff.  I’m using your bPhone all the time.”

She gave me a hug.  “The bPhone?  That’s cute.  But I still like calling it the BunnyPhone better.”

Then Pilar gave me a hug and a kiss.  She blushed furiously, which was mostly red this time, and went off to find a piece of cake.

Vanessa came over, juice in hand.  “What is it wit’ all these girls who wanna kiss you?” she smiled.

I teased her, “Maybe they’re worried you’re not kissing me enough.”

She rolled her eyes.  “Do you know how many girls stopped me to check we used protection yesterday?  I think every girl in the whole damn dorm knows you’re gettin’ way too much kissing.  And everything else.”

I frowned a little.  “I’m sorry.  About your reputation, I mean.”

She frowned, “Well, it’s not like half the girls in the frickin’ dorm aren’t doin’ the humpty dance, ya know.  And more than that for the guys.  It’s just…  I didn’t want to be that girl.”

I insisted, “You’re not.  And you need more sugar and chocolate to cheer you up.”

“True dat,” she muttered as she headed for the cake.  “Especially the chocolate.  Maybe they got chocolate ice cream too.”

You know, when Vanessa says ‘true dat’, she sounds like she was born to say things like that.  When Hank said it, he sounded like a dorky white boy.  There was no way I could even attempt it without sounding analogous to Reach trying to speak French… although I had a feeling that in a couple years, Spark would have Reach sounding like a real Parisienne.  I was never going to be one of those people who sounded right when speaking the patois of the streets.  Come to think of it, I had never even cared about that until several months ago.

Jody brought me a piece of cake that was from the middle, so it had less frosting than the edges.  She said, “I thought you’d like this one the best.  You’re not mad about the surprise party, are you?”

I smiled and shook my head.  “No.  I was pretty grouchy about the present they gave me last night, but I got even already.”

She rolled her eyes.  “I heard about those magazines.  Jade’s pretty upset about that.  Especially when somebody pointed out she’d be getting a magazine just like that every month for a year.”

I smiled more broadly.  “Pranksters who can’t take a joke should reconsider their role in life.”

She thought for a second.  “So is that what you’re doing?  Showing ‘em that you can take a prank too?”

I admitted, “Not really.  They all know I’m a grouch about things like that.  Mostly, I’m enjoying just getting a birthday party.  And I’m enjoying not having to worry about bringing Tennyo and Lancer and Bladedancer in to fight Fey and Chaka to the death, or until they were released from their mind control and they stopped defending that circle of evil on Nikki’s floor.”

Jody sighed, “Yeah, I thought there was a chance this could go really wrong.  Like you smashing through their door and ripping the floor apart and knocking them out and squashing Koehnes and calling in Security on them.  It took a while before Belle and Diamondback talked me into going along.  Seems like a lot of people know you well enough to know you’d be Miss Rational Consideration on something like this.  There’s plenty of kids around the school who’d instantly turn into the Flying Bulldozer.”

“Or Captain Bravo,” I added.  It struck me that being that predictable was probably a bad thing, particularly when it came to subjects like Team Tactics or Combat Finals.  I needed to think that over.

Gah!  That was exactly the point!  I thought everything over, in excruciating detail, until I had worried the edges off all the available facts.  Not that I really wanted to turn into Cowboy Toni, but perhaps I ought to listen more to the spontaneous part of myself.

Assuming I had a spontaneous part.

I took the cake from Jody and tentatively took a bite.  I was pleasantly surprised.  The cake was actually pretty okay.  Not exquisite, but far better than I had expected.  The chocolate cake was well-prepared.  There was a rich cherry filling in the middle that wasn’t too sweet and contrasted nicely with the cake.  The frosting was a semi-sweet chocolate buttercream frosting, instead of the overly-sweet chocolate-contaminated lard I was secretly expecting.

“Mmm,” I said politely.  “Where’d you get the cake?”

She said, “I asked Nikki and Toni if I could get the cake for you, but they already had someone making it for you.  I think it’s from the Dunwich bakery.  The safe one, not the old one on the backside of the magic shop that has that lady baker who looks like a ninety year old witch.”

Nikki interjected from behind me, “She looks like that because she’s a hundred and fifty year old witch.  And you really don’t want to try her gingerbread.  I think she got the recipe from Grimm’s Fairy Tales.”

“Ugh,” I muttered.

“Eww,” choked Jody.

I turned slightly to talk to Nikki too.  “So Jody was worried about me barging in on you and Toni and beating the two of you up.  See anything wrong with that picture?”

Nikki thought it over for a second.  “Not really.  You make a big deal about not being able to take out lots of other Whateleyites, but Toni told me about your spar with her.”  I started to say something, and she cut me off with a raised hand.  “No, I mean she told me all about it.  In agonizing detail.  With dramatic reenactments.  And she said you beat Billie on a technicality.  How many people in this state could beat Billie, even on a technicality?  You totally underrate yourself on this stuff.  You’re faster than me, and you’ve got a hundred pounds of inventions and weapons in that belt you’ve got on right this second.  If you planned out an attack, like you know you would, you could probably take both of us out before Toni even knew you were flying in at superspeed from the other side of one of the walls.”

I frowned at her.  There was no way I was good enough to take out Fey and Chaka and Koehnes all at the same time, plus dealing with whatever enchantments were probably strewn about their room.  On the other hand, a fast enough sneak attack from well outside the room…

Toni came up and asked, “What’s she thinkin’ so hard about?”

Nikki grinned, “How to launch a sneak attack on the two of us and take us both out so she could save us from mind control or something.”

Toni just grinned.  She said to me, “Maybe we could try some of those out in the holos.  You can try ‘em out, and we can work on being ready for surprise attacks.”

“Who’s attacking who?” piped up Jade.

Toni teased her, “Oh, Ayla’s plotting to attack all of us in our sleep to get even.”  Then she strolled off, leaving me to perform damage control.

Jade staunchly said to Toni’s back, “Well, she can’t really beat Billie, even if she’s asleep!”

I snickered, “Toni’s just yanking your chain.  We were talking about possibly running some sims.”

“Oh.  Okay,” she sort of agreed.  “Billie said she’s really sorry she busted your baton.”

“Oh!  Is that what you’re calling it now?” chortled a masculine voice from behind me.  I recognized Risk at once.  And if Risk was enjoying the conversation, it was only a matter of time before…

Flux joined in, “Aren’t you kind of pushing your luck, doing the nasty with Vox and then letting Tennyo ‘break your baton’ right after?”

I calmly turned to face them.  “You do know we’re talking about martial arts, right?”

“Ahh, the marital arts,” Flux said to Risk.

“Around here, you have to reinforce that marital bed too,” Risk replied.

“Not if the marital arts include ‘paired flying’,” Flux insisted.

“You guys are really naughty,” Jade insisted.

“Naturally,” Risk said loftily.  “That’s what we do.”

“And we do it so well!” Flux added.  They grinned at each other and high-fived.

I said, “You guys high-five like a pair of dorky white boys.  You totally need to take lessons on that from Vox and Chaka.”

“That’s not what we wanna take lessons from Chaka on,” leered Risk.

Flux smirked, “Yeah, we heard Chaka does a massage that’s as good as sex.  You think she could teach us how to do that?”

Risk looked at his partner in crime and grinned at me, “You think you could put in a good word for us?  Maybe get us some lessons?  And a few dozen trial runs to make sure we got it down right?”

I just stared intently at Toni while apparently listening to Frick and Frack do their little comedy routine.  It took her about two seconds to notice that someone was focusing on her, and she turned around to see who was doing what.  I rolled my eyes in the direction of Rowan and Martin, and she let her head sag backward in resignation.

I waited until she was nearly on top of the conversation before I checked, “And just what do you want me to do to get Toni to teach you these sexually-oriented Ki moves?”

Risk started, “Well, maybe you could guilt her into it, and-”

“And what?” Toni said bluntly from a spot about a foot and a half behind him and Flux.  Both of them jumped as though she had just given them a Ki-assisted rectal exam.

Flux tried to weasel his way out.  “Oh, nothing serious, just talking about stuff, you know…”

But simultaneously, Risk was pushing his luck.  “You know, that Ki-assisted massage thing you did to Rip, and we were thinking you could probably teach a guy to do some Ki-assisted horizontal lambada, if you know what I mean.”

“How could anyone not know what you mean?” I complained.

“Even I know what you mean!” Jade snapped.  “Even Clover would know what you mean.”

“Even Clover’s dog would know what you mean,” I added, just to add some insult to the injury.

“There is no way in hell I’m teaching you guys stuff like that,” Toni insisted.  “You guys are about as responsible on sex things as Peeper and Powerhouse put together.”

“Powerhouse?  Hey, you don’t have to get insulting,” Flux replied.

Risk laughed at that and gave his tag-team partner a handslap.

Belle sauntered over with a piece of cake in one hand and a cup of juice in the other.  “So what are Fry and Laurie here trying to con you out of?”

Toni grinned at her.  “Oh, the usual, teach us the great secrets of martial arts and Ki mastery… so we can go do perverted shit with it.”

Belle glared at the two of them and said, “So.  Same as always?”  Then she threw her square of cake.  In mid-air it expanded into two large circular chocolate cakes, and the cakes suddenly took on their own flightpaths.  Risk tried to duck, but his cake caught him right in the face.  Flux tried to zap the other cake, but it dodged his attack and smashed itself on top of his head.

I noticed that there wasn’t any sign of a real square of cake ending up anywhere.  I asked, “Is the juice ectoplasm too?”

She responded by tossing it in my face.  Halfway to my head, it expanded into a half gallon of orange liquid.  But I had been dealing with Belle for months now, so I was already light.  The ‘juice’ went right through me and then dissipated.  I noticed the ‘cup’ wasn’t around anymore, either.  And I was smart enough not to tell her she was getting predictable: that would just lead her to spend way too much time thinking up insane new things to do.  To me.

She smirked, “Happy birthday, Ayla.  Just so you know, your friends think you’re sneaky enough that they called in the big guns for planning your surprise party.  To whit, myself.”

I said, “They could have just said ‘it’s supposed to be a surprise party, so act surprised’.  What would be so hard about that?”

Rip must have walked up from behind me, because she answered, “That wouldn’t be any fun!”

“For whom?” I wondered.

“For Toni, natch!” she said.  “And Nikki and Jade too.  They’ve been tryin’ to plan a birthday party for you for like two weeks, and then you had to go and wreck everything with your Boston thing, and so they had to do something to get their own party for you in there, and it would’ve been way easier if you weren’t doing the whole ‘no presents’ thing.”

Jay Jay suddenly appeared at Rip’s side and agreed in her usual manner.  “Yeah!  Because I totally wanted to get you a present everybody oughta get a present on their birthday even if it’s Stoner and he’s being a huge dickhead again but it’s his birthday and you can’t just not give him a present because then he doesn’t get a present all year long and he’s not a dickhead all the time just some of the time and this is a great party even if I couldn’t think of anything good to get for you and I’m really crappy at making nice stuff so my mom’s really good at it but I just don’t have the patience for it, so happy birthday anyway and the cake is really good and I like the fruit juice too!  See ya later!”  And she was gone again.

Rip slowly shook her head.  “Sometimes Bunny’s a pain, but I’m really glad she’s my roommate.

Chou stepped over, with Molly alongside her.  “What is this about roommates?”

I explained haughtily, “Oh, the usual.  Someone pointing out that not everyone has as great a roomie as you do.”

She and Molly looked at each other and giggled.  Chou carefully agreed, “Of course.”  That made Molly giggle some more.  She added, “And vice versa.”

“Of course,” I agreed.  I looked at Molly and added, “That includes you too.  Of course.”

“Of course what?” asked Stoner.  He was wolfing down a huge piece of cake, so it was sort of an assumption that those were his exact words.  He was looking slightly less gangsta-ish than usual, even if he was wearing his usual heavy knit cap.  However, now that I knew why he always wore that cap, I was content to let the matter drop.

“Nothing interesting, Gerald,” I said to him.  “Just a little in-joke.”

“I like ‘Stoner’,” he insisted.  “Never liked ‘Gerald’.  Not even ‘Gerry’.  Even Michelangelo’s better than Gerald.”  He stopped chewing for a minute and said, “Anyways, I just came over to say ‘great cake’.  You guys oughta have more parties if you’re gonna bring the good food.”

“You’re welcome,” I replied vaguely as he wandered off in search of more junk to stuff in his face.

Delta and Megs wandered over, juice in hand.  Megs was in her usual superhero uniform, while Delta was in a ‘naughty adult schoolgirl’ version of the Whateley uniform, including a micro-miniskirt version of the official skirt.  I wondered how she managed to get the skirt tailored like that.  I had a feeling Cecilia Rogers wouldn’t want to do it.  Delta had the official blouse, but it was completely unbuttoned and then tied in a knot just under her breasts so her entire stomach was on display.  She even had high-heeled shoes with stockings that came halfway up her thighs.

Okay, I looked.  So sue me.  She’s a faux-Exemplar built using the Barbie doll model, and when she’s not in the labs she usually dresses like she’s a hooker Ken brought over to Barbie’s Dream House for a three-way.  I think it’s pretty clear what Dr. Pygmalion’s dream girl looks like.

Megs asked, “So Ayla, how many parties are you having anyway?”

“I’m only having one,” I replied.

Delta checked, “But what about this one?  And the one Saturday evening?  And I heard you guys had a present-giving thing last night in your room.  And then I heard you got a special food present at dinner last night.”

I shrugged, “The Golden Kids meeting doesn’t count.  And the other things?  I think my friends are trying to tell me I’m really hard to shop for.”

Billie swallowed a huge piece of cake and said, “Yeah, and you’re really hard to do parties for, too.”

Billie had two pieces of cake.  The first piece just barely fit on the round plate.  The second piece just barely fit on top of the first piece.  I glanced over at the table, and sure enough, Billie was eating the last two pieces of cake.  Well, it was good that someone was finishing it all off.  I figured that much cake only counted as an appetizer for her.  Or for the Energizers and heavy PK users.

I wondered about Jody, because I never saw her wolfing down the food the way some of my friends did, but she was a Shifter and probably had a high-calorie regimen to fuel her powers.  Still, she always looked like she was… umm… pleasantly plump.  Okay, Jody was a little chubby.  I wondered if she could fake curves like Delta Spike’s, and if she could, why she didn’t do it more often.  Even if she only did it around Poe, it might help her get more dates.

I smiled at Billie and said, “You guys put up with me all the time.  I think that ought to count as a pretty substantial present right there.”

She groaned through a mouthful of cake.  She swallowed and then argued, “No way.  You guys have to put up with me.  And let’s face it, the J-Team can drive anybody crazy.  And Toni running up and down the walls, Nikki and her periods, you name it.  We’re all pretty crazy.”

“Well, you are in Poe,” Delta smirked.

I refrained from pointing out that most of the Workshop thought she was a bigger menace than Harvey.

Billie swallowed another bushel of cake and said to me, “Oh, and please, don’t be too mean to Jade and Jinn, okay?”

“About what?” I asked.  “I already got them back for the romance book.  And this is a great party.”

She muttered, “I told ‘em the book was a bad idea, but they were too excited about finding you something really unique that you couldn’t buy yourself.”

I was pretty sure the ‘they’ in that sentence was Jade and Jinn and Jann, rather than Jade and Nikki and Toni.  But Jade might as well change her codename to Pronoun Obfuscation Girl.

I made the rounds, thanking everyone for coming to a party for me, and in some cases, thanking people for making the effort to plan the party.  Then, once Flux chugged the rest of the juice with Risk urging him on, Jody shooed us out so she could clean up.

Of course, no one let her do that.  Jay Jay sprinted around the room picking up everything that wasn’t already in a trashcan.  I had to admit, she was getting pretty darn good at high-speed direction changes.  Jade turned a roll of paper towels and a spray bottle into a cleaning demon.  Pilar put her hand on several spots on the floor and left small piles of cleaning foam in her wake.  Jade’s cleaning system scooped all of Pilar’s foampiles up once the foam softened the mess on the floor.  And Billie held Stoner upside down until the paper towels swooped over and cleaned the cake off the bottom of his shoe so he wouldn’t continue to track cake all over the floor.

Gerald glared at Billie, “You coulda just asked me to take my shoe off, ya know!”  At least he didn’t take his knit hat off.

Flux teased him, “What’s the prob?  You finally got a hot chick to hold you, and now you’re bitching she didn’t do it right?”

“Shut yer cakehole, Flux.”

Risk added, “I could ask her to try again.  But there’s no telling what she’d hold you up by…”

“Shut up, Risk.”

The three of them walked off toward Boys Town, with Abbott and Costello still giving Stoner grief.  I could tell, because there were periodic cries of “Shut yer hole!” echoing back our way.

When Jody’s room was immaculate once more, we strolled off toward my room.  I made a call while I was thinking about it.

“Hi.  Harry, it’s Ayla.”

Techwolf asked, “And what may I do for you today?”

I groaned, “I hate to tell you this, but I need your baton to be repaired.”

“Oh shit!” he yelped.  “Did it fail somewhere?  Did I screw up the adamantium fusion?”

“Hang on, hang on,” I tried to reassure him.  “It’s completely my fault.  I was sparring with Billie, and she pulled out her lightsaber, and I brought the baton up to block, and… it didn’t.  Her lightsaber cut right through the thing.  I need two new casings and a reconstruction on the interior components.”

“Well, as long as it wasn’t my fault…”

I said, “It definitely wasn’t your fault.  Your baton stood up to Nikki’s mithril scimitar, and it stood up to Hank’s PK swords.  So it’s terrific.  I just need to keep it away from Chou’s sword and Billie’s lightsaber.  I also don’t want to find out if Kali and Gotterdammerung can trash it.”

No, on second thought, I did want to know that.  I decided that I would take the damaged adamantium segments and see if a few other kids around school could destroy adamantium.  Maybe Render would be willing to give it a try, if I got Jadis to ask him nicely.  If I was going to pay this kind of money for a weapon, I wanted to know when not to pull it out.

I added, “I’m going down to see Spark after dinner.  Can I drop off the wreckage in your lab and let you work on it?  There’s no rush.  Just get it repaired when you have time.”

He growled under his breath as he thought things over.  “I’m really busy next week, ‘cause of classes, but I think I can get it done the week after.  I’ve already got the molds to use for the casings.  I just need to buy more ingredients and get some time on the high-temp manufacturing systems.”

“Okay, but I expect you to bill me the same way as before.  No skimping on your hourly rate,” I insisted.

“Ayla!” he complained.  “I already made enough off the thing to put a couple of my sisters all the way through college!”

I said, “That doesn’t change the value of your skillset.  Your success rate on this is an order of magnitude higher than most topnotch metalworkers could achieve.  You have to price your work accordingly.”

I could almost hear him frown.  “But what if I price myself out of a career?”

I explained, “Harry, that isn’t going to happen.  This is adamantium we’re talking about.  Right now, you have to be one of the two or three top adamantium craftsmen on the planet.  The only thing you have to worry about is vetting the requests, so you don’t accidentally build an adamantium power suit for Gizmatic or the Necromancer.”

He laughed, “Hey, don’t say ‘vet’ around us furballs.”

I was glad he had a sense of humor about his issues.  I wondered if he was doing better than I was.  I wrapped up the call, “Okay, I’ll see you after dinner.”

“Okey-dokey.”

I put my phone in my pocket as Chou and Molly were ushering the gang into our room.  And just as I got to the threshold, my phone rang.  I wondered if Harry had suddenly remembered a pressing engagement.

I pulled out my bPhone and glanced at the Caller ID.  It was Zenith.  Hmm.  I wondered which of two or three possible issues this could be…  “Hi, Zoe!” I said, as cheerfully as I could manage.

Zenith said, “Hi, Ayla.  Have you checked the stock market today?”

“Not since this morning,” I admitted.  “I’ve been busy.”

She said, “Marvel stock is back up to 92 ¼ at the close of the trading day.”

I did a little bit of math in my head and said, “So it’s gone up more than 9X just since Monday morning.  That’s actually above my high-side estimates.”

“Right,” she agreed.  “But will it stay that way?”  Before I could venture an educated guess, she asked, “Can you come up and talk to a couple nervous investors, before they sweat all over my bedspread?”

“I thought you liked it when one of them sweated all over your bedspread,” I snarked.

“Ha.  Ha.  You know, I get enough of that from Shrike.”

“You’re lucky,” I claimed.  “You should hear what I get for dating Vanessa.”

“Anyway…” she dragged the conversation back on topic.

“Okay, I’ll be right up,” I yielded.  I looked at the crowd in my room and opened my mouth…

“Go on up,” Nikki said.

“We owe Zenith a ton, anyway,” Billie contributed.

“And her and Semi are a really cute couple,” Jade added.

“Yeah,” said Molly.

“Besides, this’ll give us a chance ta talk about you behind your back!” Toni snarked.

I stepped into the hallway and flew straight up.  Then I went normal and walked down the hall to Zoe’s room.  As soon as I knocked, the door flew open.  Zoe waved me in, while pinning two nervous girls in place with a stern glance.

Normally, Shrike was all snark and ‘tood.  Right then, she looked like a nine year old girl who had just been told that her priceless ticket to see Hannah Montana might be a forgery.  Sahar looked somewhat better.  She looked more like the owner of a $50,000 Jaguar who had just been told her car was going to spend the next two weeks in the shop, and the new drive train alone was going to cost perhaps a tenth the original price of the car to install.

Shrike jumped up.  “Do we need to sell all the stock now?  Is it one of those bubble things?”

Sahar stared intently at me, and I immediately started focusing on Brass Monkey tunes.  She frowned and concentrated harder.  I tried to visualize Brass Monkey singing one of their four-part songs in concert.  Sahar frowned further and closed her eyes in concentration.

“Semi, stop it.”  Zenith finally intervened.  “And Ayla, stop being such a pill.  She’s worried about this.”

I said, “First off, you need to relax.  All stocks have volatility.  Even Goodkind International or Berkshire Hathaway or IBM.  And this stock is going to have ups and downs over the next couple months.  Every time there’s news about one of the upcoming Marvel movies, either good or bad, someone’s going to over-react, and the stock price will show it.  This isn’t bad.  It’s normal.  You just have to take a deep breath and look at the bigger picture.”

Sahar nodded.  “I see.  A little.  So the natural fluctuations will even out over time, and the important part is the underlying trend?”

“Exactly,” I told her.  “You saw how popular this stock is right now.  That isn’t going to change anytime soon.  The fundamental core of the enterprise is the properties licensed out of Marvel Comics.  But the money makers that will drive the stock price are really the movies and the movie-making process.  No one’s going to care if the comic books kill off a character.  Everyone will care if the next three major motion pictures tank at the box office.  And with Sam Raimi and the cast all happy about ‘Spiderman’, we’re in good shape for next year.  I really have my doubts about this summer’s movies, but the worst that will happen is the stock drops a little and people say ‘it is a desperately good thing these new people took over because Ghost Rider and Fantastic Four 2 were lame’.”

Shrike asked, “So you think the stock’ll go down this summer?”

I nodded.  “But not before it continues to climb, with attending fluctuations, at least up until ‘Ghost Rider’ comes out.  I’m not a big fan of Nic Cage, and I haven’t pulled any weight to get a look at the pre-production footage.  So I have no idea if this is going to be a big success or not.  Either way, we’ll weather the storm and plan for next summer.  And we’re definitely not going to let Ang Lee direct the reboot of the Hulk.  The last one was bad enough.  We’re also not going to let grade B producers crank out Marvel titles that pull the whole franchise down, like the last Punisher movie.”

Sahar asked, “So… if we think a movie is going to stink, can we use stock market options to bet that the stock will go down?”

I said, “I wouldn’t recommend it.  Using powers to help you predict stocks is illegal, and if you use derivatives to profit on something like that when you already own a chunk of preferred stock, you’d probably get investigated by the SEC.  And then you’d be in massive trouble, because you have psychic powers, and you have the ability to learn new psychic powers, and you have talked to people about predicting the stock performance, so no one would believe you if you said you didn’t use psychic powers this time.  Even worse, someone might contend that you were using insider information, and then that would let the SEC start investigating me, and a bunch of your friends, and everyone else involved in the IPO at our end.  No, we need to be very careful about this, and avoid not only any possible malfeasance, but even the appearance of malfeasance.”

“Oh-kay…” Semi said in the tone of voice that suggested that she was perfectly willing to go along with me, right up until she figured out a way of getting around the regulations in such a way that I couldn’t prove she had done it, and the SEC couldn’t track things back to her in any way.  Not that I’m the suspicious type, mind you.

I reminded her, “And we’re not going to sell off any of your stock to repay your Mezzanine debt until the day before we would start having to pay interest on your loan.  Then we’ll sell off just enough to pay off the loan in its entirety, and you get to keep everything else.  I expect the stock will generally continue to increase over the next couple months, although the rate will slow down considerably.  Probably by Wednesday.”

“Why Wednesday?” Shrike asked suspiciously.  “That wouldn’t be some of that insider information you’re not supposed to be using, would it?”

I had to grin.  “No, it’s based on the assumption that news programs have nothing of interest to pull in ratings, except disasters, cute animals, and attractive celebrities.  Kirsten Dunst and Toby Maguire count heavily in the last category.  I’m anticipating that they’ll get extra coverage on the news and entertainment programs this weekend, which could get some people to buy more stock early next week.  And if no one seems to be giving them extra coverage, I’m going to get Ron Perelman to push a few buttons and get someone to give them some extra coverage.”

Zenith looked at me and asked, “So buying stock in Marvel is essentially letting fanboys own a little piece of their favorite characters?  And you’re expecting that’ll die down now that most of them have had a chance to invest their beer money for the week?”

I agreed, “More or less.  But in the entertainment industry, growing the enterprise means successful development deals.  If we can put out two or three successful movies each summer, the stock will keep performing well.”

Sahar admitted, “It would be a lot easier to relax about this if I could just have a copy of your financial skills all the time.”

Zenith frowned at her.  I said, “Look, if that’s what you want, then start taking business classes.  If you have the economic background, I can teach you the rest.”

Zenith said to her, “Remember what Vox said about Phase as a teaching assistant?”

“What?  That dating the TA to get a good grade was never so much fun?” Shrike snarked.

Zoe and I both gave her the death glare.  Zoe said, “No.  She said Ayla knew more about the real-world parts of accounting than the teacher, and even the teacher said so.”

Before I could make a wicked rejoinder, my phone went off again.  I glanced at the Caller ID and answered, “Hi, Chou.  What’s up?”

“Dinner,” she replied.  “The gang’s in the hallway right now, and we’re on our way to Dunn.”

“Okay, I’ll catch up with you in a few.”  I hung up and said, “I think we’re all set.  I’m off to dinner.  If you need to talk about this some more, feel free to drop by my room.  I even have hammocks and refreshments.”

“Hammocks?” asked Shrike suspiciously.

“Hammocks,” Zenith affirmed.

“Silk hammocks,” I added.  “And a couple bean bag chairs.  Plus snacks.”

“Snacks?” she checked.

“Snacks,” Zoe affirmed.  “Ayla keeps popcorn for Lancer and Tennyo, fresh fruit for Fey and Bladedancer, cookies…”

“Several kinds of cookies,” I said as I left.  “Jody has a weakness for Lorna Doones, Jade prefers Oreos, Molly likes Milanos, and Jay Jay will eat anything that has enough sugar in it.  Although I still refuse to put in a stock of Twinkies for her.  I have to draw the line somewhere, and Twinkies do not count as food.  I think they actually count as construction materials.”

I stepped into the hallway and sank down to my floor.  The slavering pack of starving teenagers had already left.  So I flew through my room and over to the brick path to central campus, where I caught up to them in no time.

Toni was saying, “…so get this.  Sahar’s not afraid to take on Freya head-to-head, but she’s peein’ herself over these stock prices.  I just hope my dad’s not runnin’ around, all on the freak, like that back home.”

I swooped in and then said, “I’m sure your dad’s used to making hard financial decisions.”

“Jeez!  Don’t sneak up on us like that” yelped Hank.

”Dang!  I didn’t hear you comin’,” complained Billie.

“Hi Ayla, how was the chat?” asked Toni calmly.

“Your flying’s getting better,” said Jade.

“But you’re still leaking emotions,” added Nikki.

Well, that was one of the many problems with hanging around Team Kimba.  I knew Toni would spot my Ki, and Nikki would sense my emotions, and the J-Team would see me coming.  Plus Chou probably spotted me coming, just like Toni, and Billie was likely to hear me if I landed first.  Surprising Hank wasn’t worth much, since he always had his PK field up.  Unfortunately, I was the one who was easy to catch by surprise, and also easy to catch in a sneak attack.

Billie said, “So, didja get Sahar all calmed down and everything?”  I nodded.  “You know, it wasn’t as much fun teasing my dad about the Marvel stock thing as I thought it’d be.  He just said he was happy with the retirement packages he and mom have, and we don’t need it.”

Jade gleefully ratted her out.  “And when she hung up, she called him a big poopyhead!”  Several people snickered at the image.

“Okay, I was thinking something worse, but Jody and Bunny came by!” Billie grumpily defended herself.

“Wow, what were you gonna call him?  A big ol’ weewee?  A didey full of grunty?” Toni jibed.

We teased Billie about cleaning up her filthy language most of the way to Dunn Hall.  In return, she made sure to call us all kinds of really childish insults, like ‘weewee-pants’ and ‘dideyheads’.

We joined the food line and found about what I expected.  It looked like steaks and burgers.  ‘Looked like’ was probably the operative portion of the sentence.  Since we were standing in line, I could see other kids at tables within a few feet of us, sawing away on the steaks or else cramming chunks of burger into their maws.  As far as I could tell from the amount of effort involved in carving out a piece of steak using the available cutlery, these were steaks that no self-respecting Ruth’s Chris would dream of serving.

And, if the steaks weren’t too discouraging a sight, it was apparently ‘make your own burger’ night.  Apparently, you had to make them out of ordinary household implements, like spatulas and tile grout.  Of course, the acres of hamburger patties, many of them topped with molten cheese-like substances, were enough of a guide for the crowd.

In addition to a disgusting number of hamburger and cheeseburger patties, there were also turkey burgers and veggie burgers.  Assuming that such things could be described using the noun ‘burger’.  Then there were a vast array of burger-making ingredients, from a choice of buns to a hillock of plain iceberg lettuce; from a massive tray of sliced tomatoes to a couple gallons of sliced pickles; from ketchup and plain yellow mustard to pickle relish, barbeque sauce, and a white goo that purported to be mayonnaise.  Bleah.

If I even had the merest idea of making my own burger, it was chased away with its tail between its legs when Billie fixed her dinner.  She took a tray, arranged twenty hamburger bun bases in a four-by-five rectangle, then piled on the meat.  Each bun got three cheeseburgers, a pile of bacon strips, enough lettuce and tomato to choke a horse, and several ladles of ketchup and mustard.  Plus a phenomenal amount of pickle relish.  Then the tops of the buns were slapped in place, and she moved on to the steaks.  She just dropped a large plate on top of the burgers and stacked five or six steaks on it.

I couldn’t watch.  Okay, I was watching, I just wasn’t enjoying it.  I looked away and caught Jana’s eye.  Or vice versa.  I hurried over there.  She had something that looked far more appetizing.  When she handed it to me, I realized that it smelled far more appetizing as well.  I inhaled slowly, savoring the aromas.  Then I guessed, “Mmm, I think grilled Portobello mushroom, with roasted Vidalia onions?”

She grinned, “Some kind of sweet onion, but I don’t know if they’re Vidalias.  These may be Walla Wallas or Oso Sweets.  And there’s a fresh tomato and cucumber chutney on it, with a homemade bun.”

“It sounds delicious,” I drooled.  “Thank everybody for me.”

She gave me a smile and rushed off.  I rushed off too.  I grabbed a glass of whole milk and some decent-looking fresh fruit, and then I headed off to the unofficial Kimba table.

I took a careful bite of my burger and savored the flavors.  The rich, meaty Portobello mushroom was grilled perfectly, and the earthiness of the mushroom was set off by the piquant, sweet tang of the grilled Vidalia onions.  The chutney was sweet and tangy, but also had complex herb flavors and spiciness, along with hints of sour.  The bun was still warm from the oven, and had a firm, flaky crust that added to the ensemble.

“Hey, what’s Ayla got?  She’s foodgasming again!” Toni said as she took a seat.

Nikki sniffed and said, “It smells really good.”

I took my time chewing before I swallowed.  Then I replied, “It’s Portobello mushroom instead of a hamburger patty.”

Billie sat down and said, “You could’ve had a cheeseburger, and you’re eatin’ a mushroom?  Yuck.”

Nikki blithely commented, “The rich are different from you and I.  They eat weird freak stuff.”

Toni jumped in with a song parody.  “Dontcha wish your burger was hot like me… dontcha wish your burger was a freak like me… dontcha…”  She even did a couple hip-hop moves with her arms and shoulders, while staying in her chair.

It was a good thing I had finished swallowing and I hadn’t put more food in my mouth, because I cracked up.  So did most of the table.  And when Toni gets an appreciative audience, she’s likely to up the ante, so I suppose we were lucky she didn’t jump up on the table and do her own version of the Pussycat Dolls dance routines.  It would have been extremely sexy, but we draw too much attention to ourselves as things are.

I cut Nikki a small wedge of the burger, even though she was making cracks about it.  She was sitting there with a horrible-looking vegetarian ‘patty’ that looked as if it had been made from fine gravel, Play-Dough, and maybe papier-mâché.  She needed something that tasted good.

Billie didn’t need any help at all, except in finding room at the table for all her food.  She had added another plate – this one of some sort of vegetable mélange – on top of her burgers, and I was wondering how stable her tower of foodstuffs really was.  She moved the plate of steaks and the plate of veggies off the burgers, and started on the tray.  I still don’t think triple cheeseburgers are supposed to be shoved whole into your mouth, but she was giving it her best shot.  Even Hank looked impressed, and he had more meat on his tray than I eat in a week.

Nikki worked away on her veggie burger, while my contribution sat untouched on the side of her tray.  After we listened to Chou and Molly carefully not saying what news they had on the Tong issue, and I tried not to watch Billie rip though her steaks like a chainsaw through a phonebook, I finally asked, “What’s the matter, Nik?  You don’t like it?”

She glanced down at the mushroom burger and looked up at me.  “It’s not that.  It’s just that, well, I’ve found out the hard way I really need to eat all my regular food before I get to the super-delicious treat, otherwise it ruins the rest of my meal.”

“Except for the poison salads,” contributed Toni.  “You gotta eat them first, so you have time to get the taste out of your mouth.”

Molly interjected, “It wasn’t bad, it was just too spicy for me.  Chou thought it was great.”

Toni pretended to scowl.  “You didn’t get served the poison salad.  That was so bitter I couldn’t get the taste out of my mouth!”

Let me just add that Toni really doesn’t feign a scowl very well.  It’s slightly better than her ‘sad pout’, but she’s really not cut out for the entire ‘boo-hoo’ repertoire.  She would make a great comedienne, but she’ll never be playing
in Greek tragedies.

I crossed my arms and said, “Exactly as planned.”  Jade burst into giggles.  Billie laughed so hard she nearly spit a mouthful of cheeseburger across the table.

Toni smiled, “I thought you said you weren’t watching those anime shows with the J-Team.”

I smiled back.  “I’m not.  It’s all cultural accretion.”

“Huh?”

“I learned it from listening to Billie,” I admitted.

It took a couple more minutes before Fey got around to the slice of mushroom burger.  I was a little concerned that it wouldn’t taste nearly as good cold as it did hot.  Granted, the chutney would probably be delicious on a cold mushroom pâté, but I wasn’t sure how this combination would fare at room temperature.

She finally took a big bite and purred, “Mmm, this is so good!  And it’s just a big mushroom?”

“A Portobello mushroom,” I explained.  “You can buy them in any decent grocery store.  Then you grill it like a steak.  I assume.”

“Remember, Ayla’s definition of a ‘decent’ grocery store probably isn’t the same as anyone else’s,” Molly pointed out.

I sighed inwardly, because I was worried that she was right.  The ‘normal’ grocery store I had seen in Los Angeles was so awful that the word ‘appalling’ simply wasn’t strong enough.  But I was sure that Portobello mushrooms were available in stores.  In some places.  It wasn’t as if I were suggesting she try to find live baby octopus, or sheep eyeballs.

Nikki wolfed down her wedge of mushroom treat and said, “I’ve got to get mom to try and find some of these the next time I’m home.  Mom will love ‘em.  Even Troy might like ‘em.”

I didn’t say anything, but I doubted that last part.  Troy, in his brief visit to Whateley Academy, had struck me as the typical American teenaged boy whose idea of fine dining is remembering not to wipe your mouth on your shirt.  I had a feeling that he only tried new foods if he was starving, and some foul fiend had just consumed all the regular foods he trusted.  On the other hand, Billie or Hank would be very good in the role of the ‘regular food consumption fiend’, if need be.

Once dinner wrapped up, I gave everyone a heads-up on my plans, and headed off to the deviser tunnels.

It didn’t take any time at all to get to Harry’s lab.  It was nice and close to the vehicle maintenance buildings.  Harry was waiting, with a lugubrious expression at the abuse his creation had been dealt.  He muttered, “I can’t believe you let Billie take a whack at this with an anti-matter sword.”

I pursed my lips.  “I didn’t let her do it.  She wasn’t supposed to pull out the sword at all.  When she did, I just instinctively blocked.  I should have leapt to the far side of the dojo instead.  Or maybe the far side of the campus.”

Harry insisted, “Billie’s not dangerous.”

I said, “When people are sparring hard, there are a lot of kids around here who are dangerous.”

“I’ll give you that one,” he admitted.  “I try to avoid the whole thing.”

After I left Harry’s lab, I headed to Spark’s lab.  I called her and warned her that I was on the way, just so she could have Reach there for her ‘security blanket’ if she wanted.  I really didn’t like the way a lot of people around Whateley reacted to my last name, but there was no avoiding it in the long run.  Sure, I could call myself something else, but anyone with whom I wanted to work or be friends would find out sooner or later, and then my lying to them would make everything a lot worse.  I wondered what all the Germans named Hitler did after World War II.

By the time I reached Spark’s lab, Reach was already there.  And in her Spy Kidz outfit that looked like a shiny, skintight, rubber Catwoman suit, minus the headpiece, but with her visor added.  I had to make a conscious effort not to stare, because Reach is a gorgeous girl, and that outfit really accentuated the positives.  But I knew how I felt about people ogling my female attributes, so I assumed that Reach might feel the same way.  Not every mutant guy who ‘went girl’ was another Chaka or Delta Spike who was getting their innermost desire; no, some of us were just as disgusted about it as guys who were turning into rocks and turtles.

“Hey Reach!” I called out.  “I didn’t realize you were on duty this evening.”

Reach glanced down at her outfit and shrugged.  She said in her cornpone accent, “Ace has us on call.  He thinks the Masterminds are up to something.  Again.  You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”

I was assuming that the Spy Kidz and several other interested groups had induced that I had caught the Masterminds exactly where I wanted them.  I figured that a lot of people on campus would automatically assume that a Goodkind would just take over the Masterminds like some sort of Lex Luthor-styled corporate raider.  So I said, “Actually, no.  But if I do hear anything, I’ll give the heads-up to you.”

“And why would you do that?” she wondered suspiciously.

“Because I like you better than Ace and A-Plus, and my roomie is still kind of peeved at them.  Also, I want to stay on your good side, because I really am interested in getting Spark to become one of my inventors.”

For some people, the truth is a way of disarming them.  It looked like Reach wasn’t one of them.  She stared at me through her visor as if she could use it to figure out exactly what I was really planning.  On the other hand, if you tell people the truth and they refuse to believe it, you can sometimes use that as an effective tool too.  Also, if you tell people the truth and give them enough time and information so that at some time in the future they can realize that you were being honest back when you spoke, you can use that in multiple ways.

Not that I spend all my time plotting out gambits like that.  No matter what Toni thinks.  But I have received a lot of informal training in business and politics.

Reach spoke into a mike in her suit, probably alerting Spark to my presence.  I made a mental note that Team Kimba was a lot better at not tipping off our comm use, but we could certainly work on improvements.

A few seconds later, Spark came out of her lab.  I made an effort not to stare.  She was in the same shiny, skintight rubber-looking outfit as Reach, right down to the visor.  She just had a white labcoat loosely draped over her shoulders.  And she had a sexy faux-Exemplar shape that deserved an outfit like that just to showcase how hot she really was.

Reach saw me looking at her honey and said, “Spark’s going to… umm… go on patrol with me tonight and… umm… monitor some of the new performance measurement sensors she put in the suit.”

Spark looked at Reach in confusion.  “Huh?”  Then it dawned on her that Reach was being subtle.  “Oh!  Mais oui.  Yes, that is exactly what we are going to do.  It has nothing to do with how Reach looks in her suit, or anything like that.”  At which point, she realized what she had said, and she blushed a vibrant red.

Reach put a gentle hand on Spark’s shoulder and said, “Very smooth.”

I smiled at Reach and said, “I got my girlfriend to wear a French maid costume Saturday night, so I’m not commenting.”

Reach said, “We heard about that.  A-Plus was wondering if you were expecting a major battle, since you had Tennyo and Fey both in disguise there.”

“And Chaka.  And Mega-Girl and Delta Spike.  Plus Shroud and Generator,” I elucidated.  “It wasn’t preparation for a fight.  I just asked some friends if they would help out.  And I asked Vox, because Glitch has a drinking problem, and I wanted to see if she could voice him into drinking non-alcoholic beverages for the party.  It worked for a while, but it’s not a long-term solution.”

Reach frowned.  In her heavy accent she admitted, “Ah didn’t get along with Overload, but Ah’m kind of worried about that thing.  Ah tried to get him to talk to a shrink, but he wouldn’t.  He said he got enough of that bullhockey at home.”

I was pretty sure Glitch hadn’t used the word ‘bullhockey’.  I sighed, “Yeah, he has problems with his parents.  As he probably told you a few thousand times.”

Spark retrieved the PFG while Reach and I talked about Glitch.  I didn’t know how long this one would hold up, so I asked her for four more, at a twenty percent increase in price.  After she goggled at that much money, she guessed that she could build me about one a week, unless she had a heavy workload in a given week.  Maybe two or three a month, on average.

I nodded, “That sounds fine.  I think I need some spares, just in case.”  And it wouldn’t hurt if I equipped several of my teammates the next time we had a threat on the horizon.

Reach and Spark hurried off together, giggling at each other.  I had a feeling someone’s bed was going to get a serious workout tonight.  I headed off through the tunnels for the corridor off to Hawthorne and Poe.

“Phase!  Hey!  Phase!  Hold up!”  It was Harvey.

“Harvey!  Hi.  What are you up to?” I wondered.

He grinned, “I was just gonna go home and call you tomorrow some time, like around dinner, when you’re all back.  But this is pretty much perfect!  I just got one of my forcefield busters working.  Lemme go get it for you, okay?”

I gave him a smile. “I’ll come along.  You don’t need to fetch it.”

He headed off toward his private lab.  “No, it’s okay.  You can stay here.”

I followed anyway.  I asked, “Have you thought any more about coming to the Boston party?”

He said, “Yeah.  Lots.  But there’s no way I’m going to risk ruining your party.  You know how many friends I have outside the Workshop?”  I didn’t interrupt.  I just looked at him expectantly.  He went on, “You.  Okay, you and maybe three or four other guys around here that I haven’t driven off by ‘dricking out on ‘em too much.  There’s no way I’m risking that for a couple hours in Boston.”  Then he sort of blushed.  “And anyway, I asked, and Admin said ‘no way José’ on that, so I couldn’t go even if I wanted to.”

He ushered me into his lab, even though he looked really embarrassed about letting me see it.  I could see why he had wanted to fetch the devise and bring it to me.  The lab looked like…  Well, it looked like someone had ‘dricked out inside it several times in the past week… and dozens of times over the past year.  There were two small lab tables that had been set back up, although they looked like they had also been damaged.  One of them looked like a molten fireaxe had put a few high-temperature slices into the center.  The equipment was damaged.  The walls were all damaged.  The floor and ceiling were damaged.  The only thing that wasn’t damaged was a shiny new devise about the size of a wristwatch without a wristband, sitting in the middle of one of the tables with several weird-looking tools arrayed in front of it.

Harvey blushed, “I would’ve put my tools away, but all my tool holders and workbins are all…”

It was obvious what they were.  They were smashed into kindling.  Although a few of them were melted into puddles or burnt to a crisp.  One looked like it had been put in a giant blender set to ‘reality warp’.

I hesitated, but I still asked, “Harvey, do you need any help buying new equipment or anything?”

“Oh no, I’m okay,” he winced.  “Mom and dad are way more understanding than most of the parents around here.  I mean, how would you feel if the teachers told you your little boy was a raving maniac and ought to be voted ‘most likely to grow up to be that mad scientist who rants insanely on teevee before blowing up Phoenix’?  Mom grew up pretty poor before marrying into the family, so she understands what it’s like a lot more than grampa and gramma.  So she has a deal with me.  I just take a pic of the damage with my phone and send it to her, and she takes my word for it that I ‘dricked out and wrecked it.”

“Well, I’m glad someone around here has understanding parents,” I said.

“Oh!”  He suddenly remembered about my family, and he looked really uncomfortable.  “Sorry.”

I shrugged, “It’s okay.  It’s not as bad as it was before Christmas, and maybe things will get better in future.”

He grimaced.  “Yeah, that’s what I keep telling myself.  The class me and Olympia and some others are playing guinea pig in?  Pretty good, so far.  No one’s said ‘hey let’s try some unauthorized experiments on Harvey!’ yet.”  He grinned to show he was kidding around.  “I think a couple of the bio-devisers could have something worth testing in a few years.  Delta keeps having trouble with galvanomorphs for some reason, but I think she might have some ideas on correcting brain chemistry through biomorphology.  Hazmat’s working with me in another Workshop class, and he volunteered to help anybody who has a good idea that might help out in the long run, and needs some chem help.  He’s a good guy.  And he’s only a sophomore, so I haven’t pissed him off too many times.  Yet.”

I wanted to cheer him up about that, but I didn’t know what to say.  It wasn’t as if I could reassure him that everything would work out some time in the future.  I took the devise and tucked it into a pocket of my utility belt.  I said, “Don’t forget.  I’ll take more of these, at the same price.  It worked great at the Weapons Fair.”  I didn’t say so, but I was thinking about martial arts class.  If Ito threw Judicator at me on Monday, I was going to find out how these devises worked on PK ‘shielding’.

I didn’t even get halfway back to Poe before my bPhone was ringing again.  I really needed to get a personal assistant.  A staunchly reliable personal assistant whom I could trust absolutely, and who would be safe if – no, make that when – I was attacked by superpowered enemies, and who was self-motivating…  Oh hell, there was no way the people I wanted for that job would actually accept a job like that from a fifteen year old, intersexed, mutant Goodkind freakjob.

I checked my phone and broke into a grin.  It was Paul.

I answered in my perkiest voice, “AJG Consolidated, sound fiscal development and rational financial management, how may I help you?”

He laughed.  “Hi, Ayla.  It sounds like you’re doing okay.  I was kind of… worried.  I didn’t hear from you after Wednesday.  Did the devise work?  Are you okay?  When I didn’t hear back right away, I figured it wasn’t a rousing success.  But I didn’t know how discouraged you were.  I gave you a little space, but I still didn’t hear back, and…”

I apologized, “Sorry, but things got hectic around here.  Starting with the devise.  It didn’t do anything for me, but it melted down and I found myself in the middle of a rescue operation.”

“Rescuer or rescuee?” he wondered.

“RescuER,” I insisted.

“You know, it’s just incredibly hard – after all our lives knowing mutants are so dangerous – finding out my little brother is one too.  I was really counting on you as my CFO, after Father moves up to Chairman of the Board and Uncle Herb retires.  David’s really good on the sales and marketing side, but he’s not one of the detail-oriented financial brains in the family.”

“Yeah, try it from my side,” I muttered.  “I still have those ‘mutants are dangerous’ thoughts, and I’m surrounded by over six hundred of them.  And the more I find out about my powers, the more I realize we’re right.  Mutants are dangerous.  The only thing is… everyone around here also knows that mutants aren’t the only dangerous threats around.  Goodkinds are even more dangerous than mutants.”

“Well, I have to agree.  Have you ever thought what GKI would be like if Father and Uncle Herb were more like Lex Luthor and Obadiah Stane?”

I grimaced.  “Yeah.  You know the Goodkinds running things in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s used the same rulebook as the ‘robber barons’ of the era.  Strikebreakers, Pinkertons, night riders, the whole deal.”

I could almost see Paul nod in agreement.  “Well, it’s a good thing they did.  Imagine what America would be like today if the Goodkinds had let the Astors and Vanderbilts and Rockefellers and the rest roll right over them back then.”

We chatted about the underbelly of American history as I strolled back to Poe.  Then Paul wished me luck on my bio-devisor efforts, and we wrapped up.

When I got back to my room, Molly and Chou and Dorjee were all sitting in beanbag chairs, more or less talking.  Okay, they had two beanbag chairs wedged together with Chou in the middle, and they had obviously been doing a lot more than just talking before I walked into the room.

I checked, “Do I need to come back later?  I can go make some phone calls or something.”

All three of them blushed.  Molly’s blush was the most vivid, but a large part of that was probably her pale skin.

Chou said, “Oh, no, that will not be necessary.  And anyway, we had some news for the team.”

“About the Tong?” I asked.

Chou frowned.  Dorjee nodded.  Molly glanced at her partners to see their reactions.

I could see that this threesome thing was going to get complicated.  I tried a relaxed smile.  “Dorjee.  I’m glad you feel comfortable enough to come up here.  After all, this supposed to be the school nuthouse.  After you meet all of us, you may decide to drop the ‘supposed to be’ part.”

Dorjee gave me his usual smile, but not a big grin.  I was suddenly reminded of my first conversation with Chou, who was far more American than Dorjee.  I tried again.  “Did Chou and Molly tell you that you could get into the snacks in the fridge and the pantry here?  I keep a bunch on hand for the whole gang, and that includes you now.”

He didn’t lose the smile, but underneath he looked somewhat uncomfortable.  “They both said it would be all right to eat anything that didn’t have a name written on it already, but I was… not so sure that was fair to you.”

I looked over at Chou and Molly.  “Wow.  You found a polite one.  That’s going to be a refreshing change from most of us.”

Chou whispered, “Ayla is teasing you.”

Molly said, “Well, she’s sort of right.  Toni can be kind of… direct.  And when it comes to food, well, don’t be between Billie or Hank and the buffet table.”

I pointed out, “Not to mention that the whole J-Team is wacky, Nikki is eccentric, and I’m unbearably pushy.  Then, once you’ve barely regained your balance, we’ll surprise you with the rest of the floor.”

Molly looked at me.  “Dorjee is an Energizer, so he does need to eat a lot.  Not like Billie or anything, but a lot.  We just have to convince him it’s not stealing or violating your hospitality or anything.”

I told him, “And don’t forget the key point.  If there’s something you want that’s not in the pantry, just ask.  I get fruits and special crackers for Chou, some special cookies for Molly, some treats for Jody…  The list goes on and on.  I didn’t decorate the room with hammocks and beanbag chairs for me.  I did it so my friends would feel comfortable dropping by.”

Molly added, “And you have to come for the Sunday tea ceremony.  It’s so cool.”

“Are you coming to Boston tomorrow?” I asked.

Dorjee looked hesitantly at the two women on his right.  “I was not going to attend, but they… convinced me I should come.”

“Well, you should come,” I insisted.  “You ought to spend more time with us, since you’re now one of Chou’s Significant Others.”

“And this is okay with you?” he wondered.

“Of course,” I said.

“I told you she’d say that,” Molly said smugly.

Dorjee looked at Chou.  He opened his mouth to say something, but Chou must have known what he was about to do.  She cut him off, “And Phase also speaks Chinese surprisingly well for an American.”  He blushed suddenly.

I asked, “So, would you like something to eat?”

“No, no, I’m fine,” he smiled.

Chou promptly got up, stalked over to the pantry, and tossed two apples at him.  He snagged them both out of the air, one with each hand.  Chou gave him a look and said, “Eat.”

“Yes ma’am,” he said patiently.  Molly giggled.

I suggested, “I have some pecans that would go well with the apples, and a couple kinds of cheese.  A nice Gruyere and a white cheddar.”

He thought it over and said, “I think I am fine with the apples,  but thank you.”

I pretended to shrug.  “Okay, but you’re going to have to learn to be more demonstrative than that if you hang around with us.”

He just smiled back.  “I am fine as is.”

I told him, “Okay.  But there’s lots of vegetarian snacks in the fridge and the pantry.  You and Chou aren’t the only non-carnivores around here.”

Molly rolled her eyes.  She said to Dorjee, “I warned you.  Ayla’ll keep pushing until she’s satisfied you’re taking care of yourself properly and doing the stuff you ought to be doing.”

Dorjee grinned, “So the worst part about rooming with Phase is she wants you to eat right and be happy?”

Chou teased, “And she also wants you to get her English Literature references.”

I grinned at that.  “Yes.  It is a far, far better thing I do than I have done since Monday.”

Molly sat up.  “Wait, that’s a ref.  I know that one.  We had to read it last year.  It’s… umm…”  She pursed her lips in concentration.  “Oh!  ‘A Tale of Two Cities’.  It’s Charles Dickens.”  She burst into a big smile.

“You see, I’ll have you picking up Shakespeare and Spenser in no time,” I kidded.

She shook her head a little.  “I think I need to spend a lot more time working on my powers than doing college lit courses.”

Chou admitted, “I’m just hoping Ayla can teach me to write papers really well before I graduate.”

I nodded, “It’s a valuable life skill.  Not just for college or grad school or for business.  These days, everyone needs to be able to compose a short memo, even if it’s just on a website.”

Dorjee smiled, “Not everyone leads a life like that.  Some of us prefer a life of quiet contemplation and meditation, leading one toward-”

“Don’t tell me it’s snack time already!” Toni burst out as the door flew open.

Billie headed for the popcorn.  “I’m just a growing girl.  I have to keep my strength up.”

“Yeah!” insisted Jade.  “And it’s not like she went back for an extra twenty burgers.”

“This time,” Hank contributed.

“Hey!” complained the aforementioned gourmand as she shoved an extra-large popcorn bag into the microwave.

“Hi, Dorjee,” Nikki said.

Dorjee opened his mouth to reply, and froze.  Molly waved her hand in front of his face.  He blinked.  Chou poked him in the ribs.  He managed to shake his head enough to restore most of his faculties.

He turned to Chou and Molly.  “Sorry, I don’t know what came over me…”

“Sorry,” Nikki apologized to Team Chou.

Chou murmured, “She has a faerie glamour that does that.  You will get used to it.”

Molly whispered, “She did it to me, and I don’t even like girls.”  She looked at Chou and blushed, “Except one girl.”  She turned back to Dorjee and said, “Cytherea has a lust aura thing, but it’s nothing like Fey’s.”

I helpfully mentioned, “Don’t worry.  You’ll adapt to it in, oh, a couple hundred exposures.”

Exposures?” Nikki glared at me.

“Makes her sound like she’s radioactive or somethin’ there,” Toni added.

“Umm, that would be me,” insisted Billie.

“Which reminds me,” I interrupted, “How’s your new costume coming, Radioactive Condor Girl?”

“You guys…”

“Because I could give Cecilia a call and see if she can whip something up for you…” I suggested.

Billie stuck her tongue out at me.  Jade checked, “Can you?  Really?  Because I’ve got some sketches for the costume, and some ideas on the feathers and-”

“Jade!” Billie yelped.

“Yes, onee-sama?” Jade asked sweetly.

“How many times do I have to say it?  No giant chicken suit, okay?”  Billie tried.

“But it’s not a chicken suit, it’s a condor suit, and-”

“No.”

Jade pouted, but Billie’s got a much higher resistance to the Big Sad Puppy Dog Eyes than I do.

Dorjee glanced at Chou and Molly in a ‘they can’t be serious can they’ look.

Chou almost laughed out loud.  “I have to tell you what happened in Team Tactics class this morning.  But it will wait until after we talk about the Tong.”

Toni instantly picked up on that.  She stopped with a low-sugar lemon zest cookie halfway to her mouth and said, “Yeah, what’s up with the Tong of the B. M.?  We’ve been waitin’ a couple days for the downlow on that.”

I contributed, “I have some news on that, too.”

Nikki tried the ‘sweet but prim teacher’ voice.  “Yes Miss Lee, do you have something to share with the room?”

Chou said, “How about if Ayla goes first?”

I shrugged.  “Fine here.  My news isn’t all that exciting.  The Trin and MacIntyre agents I put in place to guard Toni and Molly’s homes got caught by Carson’s people.  They were told to work surveillance and not intervene directly, except in an emergency.  So they followed the Tong dorks that Sun and Dyffud didn’t turn into chop suey.  That led to a couple safe houses that the Tong was using mainly for drug distribution.  They relayed the intel to the DEA, who busted those dumps and recovered a couple huge drug shipments.”

“DEA?” Dorjee whispered.

“U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency,” Molly explained quietly.

“Okay, definitely not as excitin’ as I was hoping for,” Toni jibed.

“Did you forget to use your new action verbs there?” I snarked.

She gave me one of her leopard grins.  “I proclaim that your story is extraordinarily lame.”

“Much better,” I nodded.  “As a reward, you may have a cookie.”

“I already got a cookie,” she pointed out as she took a bite.  “Mmm!  Oh man, these are good.  You promise these are lo-cal?”

“I affirm it to be the case.”

“Hey, ‘affirm’ wasn’t on my list either.  I gotta make a note of that one.”

“Ayla, you are really not helping here,” Hank pointed out.  He turned to Chou, “Maybe you could add some details that would keep Chaka interested.”

Chou nodded.  “Mrs. Carson has been working through the Whateley alumni.  Dyffud said the Tong members he fought were not well trained, and the ones that escaped were all tailed.”  She glanced at me.  “Now I know what he meant.”

Molly added, “And my folks said Dyffud promised to send them some pictures he took when he was in Greece, and they might go there next year for vacation.  Apparently, he stuck around after the fight and helped them clean up, and they chatted for a bunch, and mom fixed him a big snack before he left.  Now dad’s talking about learning a martial art.  He says there’s a nice wado ryu studio just a mile or so down toward the mall, and he wants mom to take lessons too.”

“Because their lives aren’t strange enough already,” I muttered.

Toni said, “My folks thought Princess Sun was just cute as a button, and Warrior Sun was pretty awesome.  Uncle Carl’s still pissed about gettin’ his favorite chair smushed.”  She looked over my way.  “And it’s great the school’s handling all this, but I sure felt a hell of a lot better knowin’ someone hired a whole team of special agents to guard my whole fam.  Thanks.”

I shrugged.  “It’s not like you wouldn’t do something similar for me.”

“Anything else?” Hank asked Chou.

She nodded.  “Mrs. Carson asked us to keep this quiet, but the Syndicate is trying to make things up to Carson by pounding the crap out of a series of important Tong temples and ‘business’ sites.”

I interrupted, “So they score brownie points with Lady Astarte, make the hero community think they’re trying to affirm their position on school neutrality, and also get a chance to move into the Far East to increase their narcotics trafficking business.  A win-win for them.”

“Cynical much?” Nikki asked.

“More like realistic, if you ask me,” muttered Hank.

Chou said, “It sounded like Mrs. Carson got several major supervillains with kids here now to step in and smash Tong operations here and there.  She didn’t want to get too specific on that.”  She glanced over at Dorjee.

He continued, “And it appears that The Fierce Wind has become very active in a host of Tong locations.  They’re a splinter sect of the Tong that has long been opposed to certain Tong activities.  So they’re using this as an opportunity to make sure that the rest of the Tong are not only punished, but literally wiped off the face of the earth.  Only the two private temples of The Fierce Wind have not been completely destroyed, or at least desecrated and damaged beyond repair.  So it’s over.  The Tong is destroyed.  The splinter group will not continue the Tong’s war against the Handmaid.  Your families are safe.”

“Can I just sorta forget to tell Uncle Carl that last part?” Toni wondered mischievously.

“TO-ni!” Nikki glared.

“Just kidding!” Toni said.

I frowned, “So this splinter group says they’re going to leave Chou alone.  But they get a chance to take over what they can of the larger Tong activities, which apparently includes plenty of illegal drug running.  They get the rest of the Tong off their backs permanently, and they are now the ‘true’ Tong of the Black Madonna.  So we have a more efficient, smarter, less well understood Tong that could be up to anything, including plans to bring the Black Madonna to Earth, no matter how horrific that might be.  And we still don’t know how anybody knew about Toni and Molly’s families, or whether the new Tong is going to use this against us some time in the future, or whether the new Tong even possesses this intel anymore.  I don’t see this as a victory.”

“And thank you for that summary, Captain Bringdown,” Nikki added.

“I hate to say it, but I think she’s right,” Hank pointed out.

“And we didn’t get to punch anybody,” Toni complained.

“Uncle Carl’s still hanging around your house,” I snarked.

“Aww, I can’t punch him.  He’s family!” she said.  “Anyway, mom and grammy would rip me a new one if I did.”

I suggested, “Then wait until Jolt gets control over his powers, and have him come by some during one of the breaks.  He can thank everyone for helping him out, and ‘accidentally’ give Uncle Carl the old ‘joy buzzer’ routine.  Followed by insincere apologies.”

“That’s pretty creative… and evil, Ayla,” said Nikki.  She turned to Jade and said, “See?  That’s why you don’t want to get into another prank war with Ayla.”

Jade pouted, “And I’m real tired of having my underwear getting stolen!  If it’s not Sun robbing my whole drawer, it’s Phase stealing ‘em one at a time.”

I pointed out, “I’ve only done it as retaliatory strikes immediately after something you did to me.  I don’t start these on my own.”

Chou interjected, “Dyffud says that these kinds of activities move us away from our center, and make it harder to find our inner balance.”

Dorjee nodded in agreement.  Oddly enough, Molly looked kind of uncomfortable.  I wondered what she had been up to.  After all, it wasn’t as if anyone had stuffed my underwear in my freezer, or something like that.  And I rather doubted she was the type to prank her roommate, particularly when said roommate was Dragonrider.

“And Dyffud is an extremely cool fighter,” Toni put in.

“Isn’t he a baseline?” Hank asked.

Chou said, “Yeah.  But he’s been training since he was young, and he’s got a special knack for these things.”

I pointed out, “So he could be a baseline, or he could be a mutant who’s misclassified.  Somehow.”  I gave Chou a pointed look.

Billie wondered, “So if he’s not a mutant…”  She looked at me and added, “…officially anyway, would the MCO try to recruit him to fight mutants?”

Chou scowled, “Yeah.  All the time, from what he says.  He keeps telling them ‘no’, but they just keep trying.”

“Is that what you’re gonna do?” Jade wondered.

Chou shrugged.  “I don’t know.  The MCO officer was sure interested in me when I got my MID and I ended up getting listed as a baseline.  I have been thinking about it.  If the Tao wants me to join the MCO, there would have to be a really good reason.  And if the Tao does not want me to join, I won’t.”

“But the Tao likes being inscrutable and obfuscatory,” I mentioned.

“Ob-what?”

I looked at Toni.  “It’s a perfectly good word.  Obfuscate.  To confuse or make unclear.”

Nikki snarked, “Is there a picture of you in the dictionary next to the definition?”

Jade looked at Chou and said, “I don’t think I’d feel good about you joining the MCO.”

Billie agreed, “Yeah.  Me too.  Ick.”

Toni asked, “So, if they find a mutant with a DFA, they just think they can call you in so you can slice ‘em in half?”

Chou said, “You know I would not do that.”

But we all knew the Tao had led Chou to do some pretty nasty things already, and it seemed to be preparing her for something even worse.

Dorjee looked at Chou and asked, “Dee Eff Ay?”

Chou said, “DFA.  Deadly Force Authorized.  Some high-level mutants have it on their MIDs.  Including some of us.”

Hank snarked, “Yeah.  It's like the organ donor dot on your driver's license.”

“Only a little more proactive,” added Toni.

Billie looked over my way.  “Ayla, do you know anything special about this stuff?”

I tried not to sigh.  “Yeah, I know about it.  It’s part of the 2003 re-negotiation of the MCO charter under the Justice Department guidelines on terrorism.  The Department of Justice pushed for inclusion of DFAs on the MIDs, and walked all over the Department of Paranormal Affairs to get it.  The Fool’s Fight, and the Pacific Rim attack by Cataclysm, and Jihad’s attack on New York City, and The Revenger’s attack on Washington D.C., and several other major mutant supervillain assaults on the US made it pretty much a mandate within the DoJ.”

Chaka growled, “You mean our government made the MCO add this crap?”

I admitted, “Yeah.  Although plenty of MCO officers were probably pretty happy to get it.”

Lancer fumed, “Ayla!  Fey and Tennyo have DFAs on their MIDs!  They could be killed for… for jaywalking!  Or parking violations!”

I argued back, “In theory… if we lived in Bizarro World.  But not in practice.  Just as - in theory - YOU could be grabbed as a terrorist and shipped off to Guantanamo for wrecking a tank and three jeeps and putting half a dozen soldiers in the hospital.  And that has nothing to do with the mutancy issue.  The DoJ guidelines on terrorism make all of this legal.  Currently.  None of this has been thoroughly tested in the court system yet.”

Toni snapped, “Well yeah!  Because of your freaking family!”

I winced, “Well, yes.  That’s true.  In large part.  There have been four legal challenges to the DFAs on the MIDs.  That I know of.  The Goodkinds and a lot of other pro-baseline-”

“You mean anti-mutant,” Billie pointed out.

I nodded unhappily.  “Okay.  Anti-mutant groups have provided lots of monetary and legal support to oppose the challengers, so none of the cases have gotten all the way through the court system.  Yet.  And since three of the four challenges are from well-known supervillains, their cases aren’t very popular.”

Billie growled, “Goddamn Goodkinds.”  I couldn’t help wincing.  “Sorry, Ayla.”

Hank tried to play peacemaker.  He asked, “Look Ayla, how would you feel if they slapped a DFA on your MID?”

I sighed unhappily, “I wish they had one on it already.”

Nikki gasped, “Are you NUTS?”

I rubbed the back of my neck uncomfortably.  “I hope not.  But I’ve seen what I can do.  I know about Tinsnip, so I know what I could become if I went off the deep end…”

“Not gonna happen, Ayles.”

I frowned, “Thanks, Toni.  I mean that.  But just last month, I went through high-end MCO power armor like it was kleenex.  Bullets bounce off me when I’m heavy, and they can’t hurt me when I’m light.  You’ve seen me disintegrate stuff just by sticking my arm in it.  What chance would even a Knights of Purity team have against me?  If I went on an insane rampage, how many people would die in the first ten minutes, before response teams could arrive?  How many people would die before paranormal support could get there to stop me?  And if they didn’t have my MID intel, how would they stop me?”

“Goddess, you’re just a barrel of laughs today,” muttered Nikki.

Hank pointed out, “You know, that stuff goes for about half the people in this room.”

I ignored Hank and turned toward Nikki.  “Do you know how many mutants have gone insane or gone on a rampage from trying to get their BIT or their GSD fixed?  Way too many.  Do you want to know how many people died when Mujer Fuerte went ‘Dark Phoenix’ on her teammates and a big chunk of Brazil?  You wanna know what happened?  She was trying to fix exactly the same thing with her body that I’m trying to fix.  How do you think that makes me feel, knowing about that?”

“How do you feel about it?” Jade asked quietly.

“Worried…  Okay, really, really scared,” I admitted.  “I could turn out to be the very thing my parents think I am already.  I could actually become the thing that gives the Goodkinds enough ammunition to totally fuck you guys over.”  For some reason, my eyes were burning.  It must have been something in the heating vents.  Or an allergy.

Nobody said anything.  But suddenly I was getting a hug from Jade.  And a second later Jinn was behind me, hugging me too.  I hugged Jade back and whispered, “Thanks.  I needed that.”

Toni pushed, “Look Ayla, just ‘cause you’re worried about turning into some kind of monster doesn’t mean you deserve a DFA on your MID.  This is America!  Nobody deserves one!  We’re the good guys!  Even terrorists deserve a proper arrest, and a real trial, and not being tortured horribly, and everything else in the Constitution.”

I looked over Jade’s head and said, “Okay, I agree with you on that.  Being scared about external threats doesn’t give us the right to ignore the Bill of Rights in how we deal with terrorism.  It was wrong during World War II, and it’s wrong now.  My family’s put some serious funding into lobbying efforts to get that fixed.”

Lancer snorted, “I would’ve figured the Goodkinds would be pushing for more torture.”

Thanks,” I said as sarcastically as I could manage.  I insisted, “You just don’t know us very well.  Just because my family’s anti-mutant doesn’t mean they’re anti-American, or anti-personal freedoms.”

The Goodkinds have a long history of being pretty solidly Republican, but for economic reasons.  We’re certainly fiscally conservative and extremely pro-business.  We’re strongly religious, but not fundamentalist; and of course that’s ignoring the younger girls of the Maine branch of the Goodkinds, Harley and Sarai, who are trying hard to make everyone forget Tara Reid and Lindsay Lohan by being extra slutty and crazy.  We’re also strongly supportive of individual rights, because that’s what makes America strong.  But the team didn’t need a fifty-minute lecture on The Goodkind Way.  Like Toni would have sat still for more than fifteen seconds of it, anyway.

Nikki pointed out, “You don’t have to defend them anymore, you know.  Not after what they did to you.”

I’d told myself the same thing, plenty of times.  Not that it seemed to make much difference.

Billie said, “You can take the boy out of the Goodkinds, but you can’t take the Goodkind out of the boy.”

God, that was so damned true that it hurt.  I was still a Goodkind inside, even if I had an ‘outside’ that no Goodkind would ever accept.

In the midst of the deadly silence, a Tibetan accent piped up.  “Not to change the subject, but what is this Radioactive Condor Girl thing you were talking about?”

“Thank you, Dorjee,” I muttered.

Actually, I think most of the room said ‘thank you’, in one way or another.  I think we’re going to benefit from having a monk wannabe hanging around.

Chou explained, “It was Jade’s idea for Tennyo, to beat the Team Tactics sim that got half of us killed.”

Jade insisted, “Hey!  Just because it sounds crazy doesn’t mean we can’t make it work!

I added, “Absolutely.  I mean, that’s what they said about screen doors for submarines.”

“That wouldn’t work!” Jade instantly realized.  I just gave her a smirk.  “Ooh, you poopyhead!”

“Ya know,” Hank slowly considered, “It might just work.  Especially if we put Shroud in the condor outfit and hid Tennyo with a spell or a devise…”

“Whoa.”  Nikki stopped in mid-gesture.  “I think I could do that.  For a minute or two, anyway, before the spell collapsed.”

I pointed out, “We only need two minutes and twenty-four seconds to get Billie all the way to the castle.  Then she can blast away.”

“Two minutes, twenty-four seconds…  Hmm…  I’d have to do a lot of prep work, but it might be manageable…”  Nikki slowly tapped her lower lip as she thought it over.

Toni smirked, “Hey, it sure put the fear of Jade into Bardue, so there’s got to be something in the sim Bardue knows about that we don’t…”

I couldn’t believe it, but we actually spent the next quarter of an hour working out how we could throw the ‘Radioactive Condor Girl’ threat at that sim, and utterly freak out Bardue and Everheart in the process.  Not to mention that Billie ate all my microwave popcorn while we did it.

The group cleared out when Dorjee and Molly were ready to go home.  Chou walked them out of Poe and most of the way home, or else spent a lot of time necking with them outside in the dark, because she wasn’t back for well over half an hour.  By then, I had already done my bedtime regimen and skimmed over another chapter of one of the accounting texts.

After Chou came back and got in bed, I kept reading.  I was too worried to go to sleep right away.  I worried for hours.  What was the right answer about the DFAs?  Was I still too locked into the Goodkind mindset?  After all, ‘the child is father to the man’, as Gerard Manley Hopkins pointed out.  As did Ted Hughes.  And William Wordsworth, using very similar phrasing… and dozens of other people.  It was a popular concept.

For that matter, was the Goodkind mindset wrong?  Were both mindsets wrong, with the best answer being some other structure?  What was the right way to protect regular citizens from paranormal threats?  And did I piss off my friends so much that they wouldn’t go to my party tomorrow?  How could people like them put up with a freaking Goodkind anyway?  I tried to go to sleep, even though I was so upset and conflicted.

I strolled through the Berlin airport in my nicely-pressed suit.  I stepped off to the left to show my MID, wondering how long this would take.  I knew something was wrong, even if I couldn’t put my finger on it.

As soon as I handed my MID to the TSA agent, he pointed at me and yelled, “DFA!  She’s got a DFA on her card!”  He pulled out his handgun and opened fire on me.

As soon as he reached for his gun, I went heavy.  He fired, and the bullets just deflected off me.  The entire area began screaming in panic.  The TSA guard clutched at his arm and began screaming, “I’m hit!  I’m hit!”

I stepped forward to help, and he panicked even more.  He screamed into his microphone, “I’m under attack!  I’m under attack!”

Suddenly the side doorway slid up, and three MCO power armor suits stepped out in unison.  All three opened up on me, completely ignoring the screaming crowd behind me.  “Stop!  Are you insane?” I yelled.  Bullets bounced painfully off my hide, deflecting God only knew where.  A lightning blaster hit me, jolting me hard.

I ran.  I leapt over the security barrier and ran for the windows.  “Look out!  She’s killing the bystanders!” someone yelled.  What the hell was wrong with these people?  I was about to Phase-leap through the windows, when a woman I was passing suddenly screamed.  A hail of large-caliber bullets shredded her, sending blood and gore everywhere…

Oh God.  I woke up panting in horror.  I absolutely didn’t want to think about that nightmare.  Especially when I realized that it could happen to me some day even if there was no such thing as a DFA on an MID card.  I could be a threat to the well-being of dozens of ordinary people, just by existing.  It took me a while to fall back asleep after that.

I was stamping through the streets of New York City.  I couldn’t make it stop.  Everything was wrong.  I looked across the street at a reflective window and saw myself.  I screamed.

It wasn’t me.  I wasn’t me.  I was a horrific melding of Trevor and Ayla and a dozen other Goodkinds, and I looked like something Jobe had put together out of the Fury Twins and Igneous and Montana.  I grabbed a car in my six arms and threw it through the window to make the reflection go away.

Two Knights of Purity teams came barreling down the street right at me.  Loudhailers ordered me to lay down and stop.  I didn’t.  I Phase-leapt right through them before they could fire on me.  Then I went heavy and threw the paralyzed armor at the flyers overhead, knocking out the last of the Knights teams.

An energy beam caught me in the back, and I roared in pain.  I whirled around to find a team of MCO agents in body armor advancing on me, back by MCO power armor units.  I tore them to shreds too.  It was so easy.  And it was the only thing that made my pain stop, even for a second.  I couldn’t stop tearing things apart.

“Phase!  Stand down!” a voice yelled.

I looked up.  It was Breaker, with Slapdash and Bunker on either side of him.  I hurled an MCO power armor suit at him.  He used his ‘explosion’ ability to knock it to the side at the last second.  He hollered, “Bunker!  Fog of War!”

Something awful grabbed at my mind and made everything worse.  The pain was worse.  The confusion.  I screamed and scrambled for anything I could get my hands on.

The same voice yelled, “Bomber!  Take her out!”

And a searing agony washed over me, washing away everything else, finally giving me peace…

I woke up in a sweat.  Jesus.  Getting turned into an insane monstrosity and going Mujer Fuerte on a city of helpless people.  Just what I needed, to add to my already-substantial list of insecurities.

I floated out of my bed and peeked to see if I had woken up Chou.  She was either still asleep, or else doing a good job of faking it so I wouldn’t feel so damned guilty about waking her up as well.

I flew down the hall into the bathroom, and took my time washing my face with cold water.  Man, maybe I should just not go back to bed if my nightmares were going to get any creepier than that one.  I could more or less handle a nightmare where people were trying to kill me.  It wasn’t like that hadn’t happened in real life.  More than once.  But I wasn’t ready for the villain to be me.  That was just too much.

It was too much like everything I had ever learned about mutants before the day I manifested.

I managed to fall asleep again, although it took a long stretch of tossing and turning and fretting…