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A Whateley Academy Adventure

The Best Days of Our Lives

by ElrodW

Part 3

It's a winding road
It's a long way home

So don't wait for someone to tell you it's too late
Cuz these are the best days
There's always something tomorrow
So I say let's make the best of it
So don't wait cuz no-one can tell you it's too late
Cuz these are the best days

There's always something tomorrow
So I say let's make the best of tonight
Yeah let's make the best of tonight
We'll make the best of tonight
Here comes the rest of our lives

Best Days
- Graham Colton

Sunday, July 1, 2007 - Early Afternoon
Chicago O'Hare Airport

I couldn't help but look around as we rode the little intra-airport train from Terminal 3 where we'd arrived on an American Airlines flight to Terminal 5, where we'd meet Ayla for our flight on Air France. I didn't say it, but I was worried about Ayla getting there because in the past, the MCO had screwed with his flights, and it wouldn't be unlike them to mess up his flight from LA to Chicago this time, too. When we landed, though, Addy had a text message - actually several - from Ayla; he was in the Air France lounge waiting for us.

Our chaperone, Twinkletoes - Walt Reynolds - sat a few seats down from us on the train, watching us without being obvious that he was watching us. Across the little car from Alicia, Addy, and me were three boys - probably around seventeen or eighteen - who were trying to look cool, to impress us no doubt. One - probably the leader, judging by his pose and clothing and the deference the other two seemed to give him, was openly staring at me. We were doing our best to ignore the creeps, but their suggestive comments and gawking were getting unnerving.

I couldn't deny that our boots - the calf-tight, sexy, snakey-hide boots - were attracting their attention, and thanks to Mom's nagging, we were all dressed quite nicely. She would not let "her girls" travel looking like bums. As a result, we looked a lot sexier than almost every other girl in the terminal - and yes, I had to admit that I probably looked sexy.

I'll give the leader credit for being cool; he smiled and slid his sunglasses up on his forehead in an obvious smooth 'move'. "You look kinda foreign, kinda exotic, like a model," he said smoothly.

"You're the foreign one, paleface," I shot back very sarcastically.

The guy ignored my comment, or took it as joking or flirting. "I'm tryin' to figure out where you're from." A confident, slightly smug smile crept over his features. "You can tell me all about yourself over lunch when we get to the terminal."

"In your dreams," I snorted derisively. He was clearly trying to isolate me - an obvious move for pick-up artists.

"Frank's so well known here that he can get some really good food that isn't even on the menu," one of his buddies chimed in. "And we'll entertain your two friends," he leered at Addy and Alicia, "while you and Frank have lunch." It was a very amateurish attempt at being a wing-man for the self-confident ass.

I suppose this guy might have a way with some girls, given his 'bad boy' aura. For a baseline, he probably wasn't bad looking, but I immediately knew his game - come on to a girl while at the same time appearing stand-offish, like he was doing the girl a favor by merely talking to her. It worked a lot more than one would think it should; the slightly arrogant, alpha-male, bad-boy attitude was like a magnet for a lot of girls. Unfortunately for these clowns, Alicia, Addy, and I weren't among them.

A couple of months ago, I'd have had a panic attack. Now, though, I was just annoyed. "Not interested," I replied disdainfully.

Give the leader credit, he was obviously a skilled pick-up artist and wasn't deterred by a simple no. "How long until your connecting flight?" he continued smoothly.

"We are not interested," Addy said firmly, her cute, pert little Gallic nose turned up snootily. "Or is understanding that too great a task for your feeble little brains?"

Glaring at us, the leader and his buddies moved down the car, visibly unhappy at our unwillingness to play their game and Addy's pretty blunt insult. I wasn't worried; I hastily did a small incantation to put a temporary shield around the three of us.

When I glanced at Twinkletoes, he smiled, acknowledging approval at how we'd handled the goofballs. It got me to think that maybe he wouldn't be such a bad chaperone after all!

The boys stayed far away from us for the rest of the ride, and they continued to stare at us with anger at the way we'd shot them down, and at the same time, the lust in their eyes was plain to see. Laughing among ourselves, we collected our luggage and strode confidently into the terminal, following signs to the Air France lounge.

Sure enough, when we got to the lounge, Ayla stood by the door, his smile lingering a few extra moments on Addy. Much as he hated the fact that he looked one hundred percent female - except when naked, Ayla was attired as befit a very important businesswoman. Obviously designer suit, probably with Kevra lining and plentiful pockets for holdouts, hair-styled a little more professionally than the usually spiky semi-punk look, and a professional amount of makeup - a totally businesslike look that wouldn't have been out of place in a corporate boardroom - ignoring of course that Ayla looked fourteen and wouldn't be in a normal corporate boardroom. And - surprising us all - Ayla was wearing the snakey-skin boots.

I could easily see that Addy was dying to hug Ayla, and vice-versa, so when Addy approached, Ayla gave her the kind of embrace that women and girls would normally exchange, which then required that he hugged Alicia and me, too, so as to not even give a hint in public of an inter-personal thing between him and Addy. Though I could see that Addy really, really wanted to hold Ayla's hand, she forced herself to show restraint.

I groaned and rolled my eyes when we got into the lounge, not so much at the state of the lounge - I'd been in better - or the other people therein, but at the sight of a ten-year-old girl sitting at a table working studiously at a laptop while dressed almost as professionally as Ayla. And also the calf boots. This was either a strange coincidence or Addy had arranged this behind my back.

I expected that when she saw us, she'd bound over with her characteristic manic energy; instead, she turned, lowered her reading glasses - really? Reading glasses on a ten-year-old? - and smiled politely. "I'm glad you ladies could join us," she said formally as we sat down at the table with her.

Twinkletoes did a double-take at her, and then excused himself to find a quiet corner to call Mage Astre. Ayla led Addy to a very isolated corner, leaving Alicia and me with the madcap mistress of mayhem. "Jade," I said politely. "I didn't realize you were coming."

"Ayla needs an executive assistant," she said, her eyes twinkling in a mischievous way that was quite unsettling. "And Jinn is a very good bodyguard."

Alicia wrinkled her nose and looked around, curious. "Where is Jinn?"

"She's around." She couldn't stop a grin from spreading. "This is gonna be so cool! I mean, it's France! Paris, Notre Dame Cathedral, Versailles!" She suddenly wrinkled her nose. "But I am not going to eat snails!"

I groaned again, inwardly. I just knew something was going to happen. If misadventure touched my life from time to time, it dwelled with Jade.

"So, I take it from the cafeteria mayhem that you guys got things patched up?" Alicia asked hesitantly.

"Yeah, mostly," Jade said, and for a brief second, there was a hint of sadness in her big sad puppy-dog eyes. Everyone on campus knew how badly that disastrous combat final had affected not only Wondercute, but also Star League Junior. There was a rumor that one member of Star League Junior had quit, and that Lindsay had been kicked off Wondercute. Another rumor held that some members of both teams had been confined to Doyle under psychological observation for a few days because Dr. Bellows and the counseling staff thought they were depressed to the point of possibly being suicidal. I had a hard time thinking that Anna would be one of those who'd take it that seriously, but she'd been very morose for a few days, just like the others.

"That was so funny!" I couldn't help but chuckle. Wondercute had announced their return in a typical insane, over-the-top way in Crystal Hall during dinner; no-one on campus could doubt that they were back, and if anything, the final and its aftermath had only made Jade more determined than ever to use unconventional means in an all-out war against the enemies of cute. Everyone, staff and faculty included, had been highly amused by the gag, but I doubted that the victims were quite as enthralled by their antics. What was surprising was that Star League Junior seemed to have gotten a big morale boost from Wondercute's recovery.

Jade nodded. "It's ... Dr. Bellows said it was just what we needed." She looked wistful for another brief interlude. "I wish they could have all come along, because he said that we need time together."

"France is so not ready for Wondercute!" I exclaimed in horror at the thought. Jade was going to be bad enough, I feared.

Jade scowled. "That's what Ayla said, too! Sometimes he's such a meanie!"

I shuddered at the look in her eyes; no doubt one of the 'prankster pair of Poe' was already plotting some kind of gag to retaliate at Ayla for having said such a thing. I decided to change the subject. "Have they got food service in here?" I already knew the answer - I could smell food - but it was an attempt to distract Jade.

"Yeah," she said easily; I think she was as glad to change the subject as we were. "Over there." She pointed toward one end of the room. "Ayla says the food isn't very good, but I thought it was delish."

"Of course Ayla would say that," I chuckled. This was going to be a challenging trip if he was fussy about food everywhere we went. Alicia and I went to the buffet, and from the serving line, we could just see the little nook where Addy and Ayla were getting their 'I missed you' kissing out of the way.

Compared to the few special meals I'd had at Whateley, the food wasn't great, even though it was a cut above an average American meal. If this was representative of the food in France, I was going to be sorely disappointed. We'd barely had any when Ayla and Addy came back.

After finishing the smooching session with Addy, as he sat down, Ayla saw me hesitate while taking a bite. "It's not that good, is it?" he asked as if it was obvious to everyone.

"Oh, God," I said with a feigned look of horror on my face, "I've spent so much time around Ayla that I'm turning into a food snob!"

Addy giggled, and I saw her affectionately squeeze Ayla's hand beneath the table. "We'll 'ave excellent food when we get 'ome and Daphne is cooking."

As the three of us chuckled as we related our misadventures so far on this grand world-tour vacation, Jade sat in her chair, computer open in front of her, studying whatever it was she was studying, which puzzled me greatly. She should have been interested in at least some of our adventures, but she sat calmly, totally absorbed in her 'work'. As our wait dragged on, I couldn't help but frown; had the Wondercute sim affected her so much that she was now acting - perish the thought - normal? Where was the extremely talkative little ball of energy with her Hello Kitty purse and her obsession with cute? Where was the Prankster Princess of Poe, with all her insane, novel pranks to make people crazy? I kept waiting for something, but when I looked at her, she just wore her cherubic smile, even though I was certain I could see her fiendish mind racing to devise new methods of insanity.

We boarded the flight, traveling in a 747 in Air France's first class, which was definitely two or more cuts above any flight I'd ever been on! Of course, being a farm kid from rural South Dakota, my flight experience was quite limited. The seats were grouped in pairs so that we had to split up a bit; naturally, Addy sat with Ayla, Jade took a seat in front of Ayla next to Walt - no doubt so she could be close-by to fill her role as 'executive assistant' or bodyguard if needed, leaving Alicia and me to a pair of side-by-side seats.

It was a late flight, like most flights to Europe, so we'd arrive in Paris at their local morning; each seat had a movie screen in the armrest and also reclined nearly flat for sleeping. The meal service was pretty good, even better than the Air France lounge buffet food, and it surprised me when they served some wine to Addy when she asked.

Seeing my bewildered look, she leaned toward me across the aisle. "This is France, Kayda," she said with a smug smile. "It is no big deal to serve a little wine with a meal."

"To a minor?"

She grinned. "In France, it is not such a big deal." Walt, hearing our exchange, turned and looked with 'the gaze' at Addy, letting her know in a parental way that he didn't approve of her having some wine, even if it was 'not such a big deal' to Air France.

"And I suppose they'll show some really 'artsy' black-and-white film-noir movie for us during the flight, too?" I asked with a giggle.

"Hmmph!" Addy feigned indignation. "You're getting as bad as Alicia! I can tell you've been 'anging out with 'er too long!"

"At least we can pray that it's not a Jerry Lewis movie!" I kidded her.

"My Papa says that 'e is a comedic genius," she said with a snort, leaning back on Ayla's shoulder. When I giggled, she stuck her tongue out at me, and then, unable to sustain her fake anger, she giggled too.

After we had our in-flight meal, we settled in to rest; I had a movie on, and it really wasn't too bad. Alicia conked right out, and across the aisle, Addy lay half-snuggled on Ayla's shoulder, while Ayla worked diligently on whatever he was using his laptop for. I glanced at the next row; Jade, too, had her laptop open, and instead of an anime or 'cute' movie, she looked to be working, too. I had an uneasy feeling that she was up to something. When she realized I was staring, she turned and shot me another innocent little smile. That convinced me even more that she was planning some mad scheme.

I didn't sleep too well for the rest of the flight.

Monday, July 2, 2007 - Afternoon
Bordeaux, France

After landing in Paris, I expected us to take a flight to Bordeaux, but instead, after retrieving our luggage and processing through immigration and customs, Ayla got a limo to take us to the Gare Montparnasse train station, one of six major train stations in Paris, where we boarded a Train à Grande Vitesse, or TGV train as they're otherwise known, for our journey to Bordeaux - in first-class seats, of course. I was glad that Ayla was familiar with Paris; I would have never guessed that there were multiple train stations, and we would have probably ended up in Switzerland. Or Denmark.

I was rather surprised that we were taking the train, but when pressed, Ayla said that the relaxing train ride would give our bodies more time to adapt to the time change; in reality, I think Addy had convinced him that train rides were more romantic, and it would give them more time together before we got to Addy's house and her father's close observation.

Once we got to Bordeaux, Walt was anxious to disembark from the train, which surprised me momentarily until I remembered that he was planning to see his old flame Mage Astre, whom he'd let know that he was coming so she could meet us at the station.

I expected a group of superheroes based on how Addy had described the Heroes Glorieux de Bordeaux, but there were no such flamboyantly-costumed groups waiting. In a way, it was disappointing to not have a noted group greeting us like we were VIPs.

"Walt?" a very feminine voice called out hesitantly as we followed Twinkletoes onto the platform. "Walt Reynolds?"

Looking around, my gaze settled on a group of people standing on the platform, with one - a brunette-haired, absolutely gorgeous woman, standing in front of them. Her pert little Gallic nose and her stylish French hairstyle added to the charm of the tight little red dress she was wearing, which clung to her practically perfect figure and was quite out of place among the travelers but would have fit right in at a nightclub or other social event.

Walt looked her way, and he gulped nervously as he nodded. "Brigitte?" he asked hesitantly.

The ice was more than broken; the woman practically leaped at Walt, arms outstretched for the hug she so obviously wanted to give him and that he wanted to reciprocate. Without a moment's hesitation, their lips sought those of the other, and the two one-time lovers kissed as if they'd never parted.

"Addy!" another woman called out as she swept Adalie into a warm sisterly embrace. She was obviously another exemplar, blonde instead of brunette and a couple inches taller, but with similarly classic Gallic features.

The others in the group took turns hugging Addy; there was a large man, who from Addy's stories had to be the hero team's brick - Dix Tonnes, a slender, long-haired eastern-Asian woman called Orchidee Quantique, or Quantum Orchid - which fit her description as a warper, a slight, somewhat non-descript man with a belt-load of hardware who was most likely the devisor Addy had called Fabricateur, and a second man, who even I found somewhat attractive in appearance, who was probably the energizer Flamme Bleu. And the woman hugging Addy had to be Soeur Justice, or Sister Justice. Addy had nothing but good to say whenever she spoke of Soeur Justice; no doubt she thought of the hero in the same way she'd have felt about an older sister.

"Monique," Addy said as she eased herself from the embrace, "I'd like you all to meet my friends from Whateley. Ayla is ... my very special friend," she said, blushing slightly, and when Soeur Justice's eyebrows lifted, Addy leaned close and whispered something to her. That caused the hero's eyebrows to arch even more, and then she nodded in understanding.

"Ayla Goodkind," Ayles said cautiously, knowing that the heroes were probably going to become quite protective since they very obviously looked upon Addy as their little sister. "It's ... complicated," Ayla continued in impeccable French, "and rather personal. The short version is that no, I'm not one of those mutant-hating Goodkinds." It was sort of a lie, but I understood why Ayla was being circumspect; the run-in with the Goodkind-funded MCO had no doubt left the Heroes Glorieux de Bordeaux with a bad impression of Goodkinds. His words had the effect he desired; the heroes relaxed visibly.

Addy continued in English - no doubt for the benefit of Jade. "My roommate and best friend Alicia Thacker, from Louisiana."

Alicia lit up with delight as Soeur Justice embraced her. "It's an honor to meet you," she gushed in French that much tutoring had refined from the ... unique ... Cajun-accented pronunciation she'd had when she first met Addy. "Addy has told me so much about you"

Soeur Justice arched her eyebrow again, and then she smiled. "And our Charge has told me so much about you! I didn't realize that you spoke French so well!" Alicia simultaneously blushed and beamed at that compliment.

"And my teammate and friend Kayda Franks."

I got my embrace in turn.

"And this is Ayla's executive assistant, Jade," Addy finished.

"Executive assistant?" Orchidee Quantique asked in astonishment. "But you are ..."

"Don't make the mistake of underestimating Jade," I cautioned the group with a smile. "She is several years older than she appears, and extremely ... clever. There's also a very good reason that she's known as the Prankster Princess of Poe, and many students and teams at Whateley have seriously underestimated her."

The brick looked at her studiously, and then he grinned. "You? You are the small girl from the arena?" he asked with certainty. Jade glanced warily at Ayla, not knowing how to react because she wasn't in costume. "It 'as to be you! You are the right size, and to be known as a prankster! Surely it was you we saw in the final, non?"

"Like I said," I broke the awkward situation with a laugh, in which Jade was glancing warily at Dix Tonnes while looking to Ayla for advice, "don't underestimate her." My grin and Addy's nod satisfied their curiosity, at least for a public locale.

Walt turned back toward us, an arm firmly around Mage Astre, and she clung to his waist and leaned her head on his shoulder. If there had been any doubts about them rekindling their romance, they'd been firmly answered. "Kayda, Alicia, Ayla, Jade," he said, "this is my very close friend Brigitte Marquet."

"Looks like more than a friend," Jade snorted softly, but still loud enough that Soeur Justice and Orchidee Quantique overheard, causing them to smirk.

"We were in the same class at Whateley, and I interned in the Paris hero group at the same time as Brigitte did," Walt continued.

"So what's your plan?" Soeur Justice asked Addy, changing the subject because Brigitte was blushing a little bit.

"Alicia and Kayda will be here for just over a week," Addy explained. "Ayla 'as to go do some business with the Villabianca family, and then we'll all go back to Paris for a couple of days shopping."

"I think she means right now," Orchidee Quantique corrected her with a light laugh.

"Oh!" Addy blushed a bit at her misunderstanding. "We 'ave a little time before our train to Saintes," Addy answered.

"Perfect!" Mage Astre beamed. "There's a little café up the street that's wonderful! We can all sit and you can tell us about your adventures this last term!"

"But ... we've got luggage," I protested weakly.

"We'll put it in a locker," Dix Tonnes replied, hefting one of my bags and Addy's largest suitcase for us.

I shot a wicked, eyebrow-waggling glance Addy's way; if they wanted to talk about adventures, I had a lot of stories that involved Addy, and I intended to share a lot of them. I wondered how far I could push things before she got upset, although I suspected that with Ayla present, it would take quite a bit.

Monday, July 2, 2007 - Early Evening
Saintes, France

I wondered how Adalie's papa was going to manage things in Saintes, but I needn't have worried. Ayla had gotten three rooms in the best hotel in the small city, which I suspected was below his usual 'presidential suite' level, but Saintes wasn't large and didn't have the class of hotels to which Ayla was accustomed. Not surprisingly, Mage Astre decided to take some vacation time and she stayed with Twinkletoes; somehow, I didn't think his mind was going to be on chaperoning. Alicia and I would stay at the Vitesse family home - Alicia would be with Addy, and I'd sleep in her little sister Amelie's room.

Addy was a bit unhappy, though, that her papa wasn't at the train station to meet us. Instead, we piled into a limo that Ayla had hired for the week and drove the short distance to Chaniers, and after passing through the little hamlet, to the Vitesse estate.

No sooner had we pulled into the drive than a door opened in the house and several people spilled out. Addy, likewise, barely waited for the limo to stop before she was out the door, dashing toward her family.

"Oh, Papa!" Addy was nearly in tears as she flung herself into her papa's arms, "I missed you! I'm so glad to be home!"

"What about me?" the younger of the two girls - probably five or six - demanded impatiently. "Did you miss me, too?"

Addy slipped from her father's embrace and swept up the little girl in a hug, spinning playfully as she held fast to her little sister. "Of course I missed you, Tessa!" she cried; glints of light from the porch reflected off the moisture on her cheeks as tears of happiness seeped from her eyes. "I missed you all," she said, shifting Tessa to a one-armed hold so she could wrap her other arm around the middle child. "I missed you, Amelie. I brought you some things from South Dakota and from Whateley!" she announced to the delight of the girls.

"What?" Tessa demanded, gleefully clapping her hands in anticipation. "What did you get? Show me!"

"You'll have to wait until I unpack," Addy replied with a grin. The grin faded when she turned to the fourth person in the group. "Nicole," she said, her voice devoid of emotion and her posture clear that she wasn't about to hug her father's lover.

Nicole winced visibly for only the briefest moment before she pasted her smile back on her face. "Aren't you going to introduce your friends?" she asked.

Seeing that Addy was hesitating in taking direction from Nicole, I decided to intervene. "I'm Kayda Franks," I said, stepping briskly to Papa Vitesse and clasping his hand.

After a polite moment, Nicole spoke up warmly. "I'm Nicole Beaulieu," she said, stepping forward to give a greeting hug. "I've 'eard so much about you." She looked around. "About all of you! I feel as if I know you already!"

Addy decided to take control of the situation, and still holding Tessa in one arm, she clutched Alicia's hand. "This is Alicia Thacker, my roommate and best friend!" Alicia went through the handshake and hug routine, after which she introduced Ayla.

"Ah, my little Addy's special friend, n'est c'pas?" the elder Vitesse said to Ayla. His words could have been cold and judgmental, but he'd infused them instead with warmth and friendliness.

"I'm Ayla Goodkind," Ayla replied. I honestly expected him to blush, given the choice of wording that Monsieur Vitesse had used. Alas, as usual, Ayla kept an impeccably-straight face. "And yes, Addy is very, very special to me."

"You are the one who has been helping Addy with the project?" Monsieur Vitesse said, eyes gleaming.

"Oui, Monsieur," Ayla replied. "But she did most of the work; all I did was to offer her some advice. She is a very intelligent girl!"

Even in the twilight, we could all see that Addy was blushing. "This," she indicated the diminutive prank princess, "is Jade, Ayla's executive assistant."

"She's younger than me!" Amelie exclaimed indignantly in French. The rapid-fire switching of languages was making my head spin. "How did she get to be an executive assistant?"

Addy was about to speak, but Ayla got the words out first. "Jade is much older than she looks," he explained, "and she is very, very capable as both an assistant and as a bodyguard." He accurately read the glance that Monsieur Vitesse and Nicole exchanged as they surveyed the large group of guests. "Jade, Walt, Brigitte, and I are staying at the Hotel Souvenirs de Familles here in Saintes, so hopefully we won't inconvenience you too much for accommodations. I have the limo hired for the duration of our stay so transportation shouldn't be a problem either."

"Kayda's mom insisted that we have a chaperone, so we brought a friend of the family and an acquaintance of Brigitte Marquet, who we know from my little mess last summer," Addy explained.

"I'm Walt Reynolds," our chaperone introduced himself. "I know Brigitte from Whateley, a few years past." Since his arm was about her waist, it was easy to see that 'friend' was an understatement.

Alicia stared at Nicole for a few seconds. "How far along are you?" she finally asked, avoiding any roundabout or circumspect euphemisms.

Nicole's eyebrows arched and she glanced at Monsieur Vitesse. "I didn't think it showed," she said hesitantly. "I'm a little over five months." Her eyes narrowed. "How ...?"

"You're starting to show," Alicia explained, and I nodded in agreement. It wasn't much, but I could see the beginnings of a 'baby bump' as well. "And I was with Addy when she got the news," she added with a little grin.

Suddenly, I had a strange thought, and, chuckling, I shook as I peered at Alicia. "What?" she asked, perplexed.

"My mom is pregnant, Nicole is pregnant. Maybe there's something going on with our families!"

Addy chuckled. "Oui! Per'aps your mama is expecting as well? So it's all three of our families?"

Alicia's jaw dropped, and then she face-palmed. "No!" she said emphatically. "I would have noticed! Or they would have told me!"

We all got a good chuckle from her reaction - even Jade giggled some, breaking her façade of 'the perfect, stoic executive assistant', if only for a moment.

"Daphne should 'ave dinner ready soon, so we shouldn't dawdle. She does tend to get upset if we are late to the table," Nicole announced, interrupting so that we could go have our repast.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007 - Morning
The Vitesse Home, Chaniers, France

"Have you got a spell for jet lag?" Alicia complained, looking and sounding as groggy as I was.

"I wish," I replied. "Even with the train trip, my body clock is still set for South Dakota."

"Well, mah body and mah brain think it's just after midnight!"

"Ayla said we'd get used to it pretty quickly," I replied, stifling a yawn. "I had a hard time falling asleep last night 'cause of the time difference."

Alicia tilted her head down slightly, scowling at me as she gazed sort-of upward at me with one arched eyebrow - a look perfected by my mom for just such moments. "Yeah, that's what Amelie said this morning," she grumbled. "Y'all didn't have a private room, y'know."

"Well, breakfast should help," I shot back. "I hope."

"It smells good enough. Probably better than the caf at Whateley."

"It is good," a voice interjected from behind the sofa on which we sat. We both almost got whiplash turning our heads. "Daphne is a very good cook," Tessa, Addy's little sister, added with a smile.

"How long have you been listening?" I asked, raising an eyebrow quizzically.

Little Tessa giggled, kneeling on the floor where she'd been listening in on our conversation. "You two are funny!"

"Why do you say that?" I shot back at her.

"The funny stories you make up, like the ones you told us last night!"

"All of those things really did happen," Alicia corrected her. I think she was enjoying practicing the native language of La Belle France, and after a term rooming with Addy, she'd lost most of the Cajun accent in her French and was not-so-secretly delighted at sounding more worldly and sophisticated.

"You're teasing me!" Tessa said with a frown of disbelief. "My school has rules against fighting, like Addy's old school! No school makes you fight!"

The previous evening when we'd arrived, between the Whateley contingent and the adults, Tessa and Amelie hadn't had much opportunity to speak. It seemed there was so much that Monsieur Vitesse wanted to catch up on, and he and Nicole - and to a lesser extent Mage Astre and Twinkletoes - were very interested in the happenings on campus. Despite her curiosity, though, Nicole seemed to be directing her questions at me and Alicia rather than Addy. It didn't speak well for the relationship between the two of them, punctuated by the fact that she and Addy sat on opposite sides of the room and Addy barely looked at her, let alone spoke to her. The mistrust and hostility were still there on Addy's part.

"Would you like to see my fight?" Alicia asked with a knowing smile. "I'm pretty sure Addy has the videos loaded on her laptop."

"Did Adalie really fight?" When Alicia nodded, Tessa began the little-girl-whiny-begging we somewhat expected. "I want to see it! I want to see it!" She ran around the sofa and began tugging on Alicia's arm. "Show me! I want to see it!"

"After we eat, per'aps," Nicole interrupted from the doorway to the dining room. "Breakfast is ready."

It wasn't hard to see that Tessa enjoyed meals; she seemingly forgot all about Alicia and me and dashed to the table. Ayla and the others hadn't come to the house yet; they were most likely enjoying whatever gourmet repast the hotel served, so the table was only slightly crowded.

As much as Mom and Dad treated my friends like they were family, Monsieur Vitesse did the same for Alicia and me. In fact, that attitude clearly extended to Daphne, who was treated better than some families treated their own. If only Addy could get over her dislike of Nicole ....

Addy had gotten up early to help with breakfast - she claimed that she had 'that awful term of bad Scandinavian cooking' to get out of her system. Alicia and I both suspected that Addy just loved working in the kitchen with Daphne. The results were nothing short of amazing; we had a baked dish of peaches and French toast, a broulee of yogurt and strawberries, and brioche. And coffee - which I passed on but which Alicia gushed praise about. When we sat down to eat, Addy was visibly disappointed that Ayla wasn't present to enjoy her cooking, but Ayla, Twinkletoes, Mage Astre, and Jade arrived shortly after we started eating, and there was a bit of a mad scramble to find seats for everyone.

Monsieur Vitesse leaned back from the table with a contented look on his face. "Unless you 'ave other plans, I would like to show you my 'umble little business." He looked around the table at all of us, but his eyes lingered on Ayla; as a good businessman, he clearly knew who he had to impress most.

"That would be fun, Papa!" Addy gushed enthusiastically, clutching Ayla's hand under the table. She knew that Ayla would be taking notes about the business, and she no doubt had confidence that her Papa would make a good impression. She turned to us. "You'll enjoy meeting Monsieur Leclerc, our chief distiller! 'E's very nice, and 'e always 'as some special treat for us!"

"Oooh!" Tessa and Amelie squealed with delight. "Can we come, too?"

"After you do the dishes," Nicole directed, which elicited a glare of disapproval from Addy. "And assuming that Adalie and 'er friends don't mind."

"It's okay with me," Alicia replied with a shrug. I nodded, as did Ayla and Jade.

"Fine," Addy said resignedly before turning to Ayla with a beaming smile. "I want to show you my special place," she said eagerly, tugging Ayla's hand and pulling him toward the back door.

Alicia and Jade automatically started to follow, but Nicole put her hand on Jade's shoulder to stop her. Once Addy and Ayla were out the door, Nicole explained to the three of us. "It is Adalie's very special spot," she said. "Where she and 'er mama spent time together when she was younger." We watched out a back window as Addy, clutching Ayla's hand, sat down on a small hillock under a large, spreading oak tree, and then leaned back into a soft, green blanket of grass, disappearing from our view.

Nicole shooed the two younger Vitesse girls into the kitchen and then sat down, sighing heavily. "Ayla is very good to her, non?"

"Oui," Alicia and I spoke at the same time. Surprisingly to us, Jade echoed our sentiments.

"She is very 'urt by the loss of 'er mother," Nicole said sadly. "She thinks that I am trying to take 'er mother's place." She shook her head. "I'm so glad you're 'ere with 'er, because this is going to be a 'ard week for Addy, I'm afraid." Seeing our surprised expressions, she continued. "This week ... would 'ave been 'er mother's birthday."

"Oh, damn!" I swore softly. "That is going to be tough."

Tuesday, July 3, 2007 - Morning
Vitesse Cognac Distillery, Chaniers, France

"Interesting that you don't use a pump," Ayla observed as we walked slowly through the underground warrens, tunnel after tunnel holding uncountable oaken casks of aging cognac. No doubt Monsieur Vitesse knew exactly how many of the oaken barrels of the precious amber fluid were in each of the side tunnels and branches of the maze, and no doubt he knew precisely when each batch had been fermented and started the aging process.

"Ah, but the 'arsh mechanical pump would ... bruise ... the cognac," Monsieur Vitesse countered gently, like a master tutoring a pupil, which he no doubt saw his children - and possibly Ayla - as. "And using the siphon to transfer removes less of the lees from a barrel," he added, "so the old-fashioned way, the way all these youngsters think is, how do you say ... fuddy duddy? It is actually more efficient in the long run. The cognac has better, more refined flavor, and it will fetch a better price, non?"

Addy smiled at the graceful way her papa was answering Ayla's - and to a lesser extent, our - questions in a way that was both instructive and demonstrative of his vast knowledge of his business. No doubt she was extremely proud of her papa; it showed in her expression.

"A wise business choice," Ayla acknowledged with a faint smile. "A good businessman knows those aspects of his trade which set him apart from his competition."

"A choice which some of the lower quality brands make that results in an ... inferior ... cognac," Addy said with a smug smile, indicating quite clearly to us all that she both knew quite a bit about the business and was proud of her father's business and product.

As we walked past one area, several men moving barrels stopped, gawking at us. I noticed that they looked warily at Addy, but became something between fawning adoration and idol worship when they were looking at me, Alicia, or Ayla. I couldn't help but snerk when I thought of the shock that would befall them if they knew Ayla's secret.

"What?" Alicia whispered to me.

"I'll tell you later," I whispered back. The worker's expressions became almost fatherly when they saw little Tessa; no doubt the men had a somewhat paternalistic admiration for the cute little girl, and the way she greeted some of them, running up and giving them quick, happy hugs, showed that the familial atmosphere which I'd seen displayed in the household obviously extended to the entire enterprise. There was a gleam of approval in Ayla's eyes.

"Paul and Pierre are preparing the room with new barrels so we may transfer some cognac starting this afternoon," Papa Vitesse explained for Ayla's benefit. "Of course you are welcome to come watch the operation if you like."

"Non, Papa," Addy replied for the group. "This afternoon, we are going to town to visit Madame Rousseau. She is most eager to meet my friends."

"Ah, tres bien," Monsieur Vitesse replied with a warm smile. No doubt after the reception Addy had gotten from the town last time she'd been home, he was pleased that she had at least one good mentor/friend in town and several friends with her. "Per'aps we should stop next to talk with Monsieur Leclerc in the distillery so you will 'ave time to enjoy the afternoon, then. But I was looking forward to showing you my fields," he added as we resumed walking through the tunnels toward the distillery, his voice tinged with regret that we weren't going to look at his grapes.

"Oh, Papa," Addy chided him in a loving, friendly manner, "we don't need to visit the fields! After all, grapes are grapes!" She shot a wink to Ayla just to show that she was teasing her papa.

"Grapes are grapes?" Papa Vitesse replied in an overly melodramatic tone. "Mon dieu! All these years, I try to teach you about growing fine grapes, and you dismiss it with 'grapes are grapes'? Oh, I am 'urt!" From their performance, I gathered that it was a long-standing joke between father and daughter.

"Actually," Ayla countered, "grapes are not just grapes. Even slight variations in temperature, humidity, rainfall, sun exposure, and especially soil composition can change the taste of the resulting wine in significant ways."

Papa Vitesse recoiled in surprise, and then beamed at Ayla. "You should listen to your friend, Adalie. She knows what is important about being a good vintner!"

"You have to excuse Ayla," I interjected with a wink at Addy and a grin to Monsieur Vitesse. "She is a food snob, with an overly sophisticated palate, and a walking encyclopedia of useless trivia."

"Quite true," Addy added, wrapping her arm around Ayla's waist and pulling her close, "and I think it's adorable."

For a moment, I was quite stunned by her overt display of affection, but then I remembered how Deb and I were freely affectionate at my home, where my parents weren't judgmental. No doubt Addy felt the same way. Either that or, as she'd insisted, France was a lot less hung up on sexuality than the US. If that were the case, then perhaps Deb and I should spend some vacation time in France where we could be open about our love.

The massive oaken doors between the tunnels and the distillery creaked slightly as they opened, and beyond was the large, timber-framed building that was the main distillation room. The smell of cognac which had dominated the aging tunnels intensified by an order of magnitude, mixed with the smell of grapes and wine, attesting to the main purpose of the room even if the stills hadn't given it away. Dwarfed by the enormous copper distilling pots, two men were discussing something, just a bit too far away for us to hear, but it was clear that the shorter, slightly rotund, slightly-balding man was in charge just from his dominant body posture and gestures. Both men turned at the sound of the doors creaking and our footsteps on the old wooden flooring, and the shorter man's face took on a huge, friendly grin that made him look somewhat cherubic.

"Ah, Monsieur Vitesse!" His eyes swept over all of us, pausing on Adalie, and his grin broadened to the point it nearly split his face. "Ah, mon petit fille is home at last!" He practically skipped across the distance separating us, sweeping Addy into a warm embrace and then kissing both her cheeks. "Are you home for the summer, or is this only a short visit?" He looked around at us. "And these must be the friends I've heard so much about!" He released Addy from his embrace, and it looked like we were all in danger of being smothered with his affectionate hugs.

"Monsieur Leclerc," Addy began, "permit me to introduce my friends. My roommate Alicia. My friend Kayda." Sensing his curiosity at my darker skin and Lakota features, she explained, "Kayda is Native American. You know - cowboys and Indians and wild west and all that?"

I couldn't help but grimace at the stereotype, even if it did clarify my ethnicity to the older man. "I'm not that kind of Indian," I interjected quickly. "That's just a Hollywood stereotype." I could tell he didn't quite believe me from the way his gaze fixated on my ever-present tomahawk.

"Don't let her fool you," Alicia teased, grinning. "She rides a pony, shoots a bow, and fights with tomahawks!"

Chuckling, Addy continued. "My friend Ayla Goodkind, who is very smart with business. She's the chief executive of the company that will be importing our cognac to America," she added.

"Ah, so she is the one we must impress!" Monsieur Leclerc said with a smile.

Addy ignored his comment. "This is Jade, Ayla's executive assistant."

Leclerc gaped at Jade's title. "Mon dieu!" he exclaimed softly. "The ones running businesses get younger and younger every year!" Then he looked a little more closely at Ayla. "Goodkind, you say? That explains much about your knowledge of business. Perhaps we can teach you something about the cognac business while you're here?"

Ayla could have taken his comments as insulting, but he chose to be graceful and diplomatic instead. "I've been raised around business all my life, so I have significantly more experience than many college graduates."

"And Ayla has a very refined palate," I added with a giggle. "She's quite hard to please at the table."

Addy interrupted the jibes we were directing at Ayla and introduced Walt and Brigitte. "Walt is an alumnus of our school and a friend of Kayda, and Brigitte is an old friend of Walt's from when she went to Whateley as well."

"My mom insisted we have an adult travel with us," I interjected quickly to clarify. "And since he and Brigitte dated when they were in school ...."

Monsieur Vitesse led us to a side room where we sat at a massive, darkened oak table that ran nearly the length of the room. "Pierre," he directed his master distiller, "could you please find a bottle of XO? And perhaps our guests would like to sample a Pineau as well?"

"I don't want to put you to any trouble," Ayla said hesitantly, not wanting to offend the elder Vitesse. "I've had some of Adalie's cooking with your cognac, and the flavor was excellent." I suspected that he probably had sampled very little in the way of alcoholic beverages in his life.

"Oh, but it is no trouble at all!" In very short order, Monsieur Leclerc returned with two bottles while the elder Vitesse retrieved some glasses from a large sideboard, setting two of them before each of us. When the bottles were open, he poured small samples of each into the glasses - more for himself and the adults, and at Addy's unspoken protest, a little more for her.

After taking a sip, Alicia smiled. "Ah could get used t' this," she declared, switching to English; speaking nothing but French was getting a bit tiring. "It's a whole lot better'n the sippin' whiskey Pa keeps around the house!"

I wasn't as impressed. I'd had whiskey and other liquor before - after all, high-school kids in rural South Dakota had nothing else to do on weekends besides starting a party, and many a liquor cabinet was raided to fuel the party, but in all those weekend bashes, I'd never quite gotten a taste for whiskey. Even though, compared to my friends, I was a lightweight drinker, as my little road trip with Lanie and Tansy had shown me. A couple of sips of the cognac were plenty unless I wanted to get lightly drunk. Wine I was okay with, though, and I found the Pineau quite acceptable - but again, I had only a little bit so I didn't get too buzzed or sleepy.

Naturally, Ayla dove into business talk with Addy's father, so while he and Jade and the adults stayed to discuss business, Addy, Alicia, and I sneaked off - ending up, interestingly enough, back in the house, where we helped Daphne prepare lunch and bake some things for dinner that evening. I understood why Addy was fond of Daphne - not only was she an outstanding cook, but she was very personable and fun to work with, to the point that cooking and baking seemed less like a chore and more like a hobby.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007 - Early Afternoon
Chaniers, France

Despite Ayla's offer of calling the limo, Addy insisted that we walk to Chaniers, and I understood almost immediately why. It was a warm summer day - some might even say hot - but not overly humid, and with a gentle breeze, it wasn't uncomfortable. The area was lush - fields covered mostly with row upon row of grapes, neat, orderly rows of what were most likely fruit trees in small orchards, and stands of trees in the less arable land. Houses punctuated the landscape - white with red tiled roofs that had a bit of a Mediterranean feel. Brigitte and Walt had remained at the Vitesse home, and despite protestations against it, Nicole had insisted that we bring Amelie with us.

As we neared town, I noticed Addy glancing nervously toward one house in particular. Ayla and I exchanged a quick look of concern; Addy had told me - and no doubt Ayla, too - about her rejection by the townsfolk after she manifested, and we knew that there was a story behind her worry, but I figured now was not the time to ask questions about whatever it was. The cause of her worry, though, was soon behind us, and as we strolled into town, numerous people paused in their comings and goings to look at us. Despite my pride in my heritage, I was beginning to regret my decision to wear one of my shirts ornamented with Lakota beading and various Lakota- themed objects of jewelry because I stood out and was attracting more than my share of attention.

Presently, we came to a large, two-story apartment building, and Addy went directly to the main door, pressing a button beside it. "Oui?" a woman's voice answered after a few seconds.

"Madame Rousseaux? It's me, Adalie."

"Ah, Adalie dear!" came the enthusiastic response. "I'm glad you made it! Come in, come in!" A metallic click sounded at the doorframe as she remotely released a lock.

We followed Addy in and upstairs to a door, but before she could even knock, the door was flung open and an older woman swept Addy into her arms. "It's so good to see you, ma cherie," the woman said. From the way Addy reciprocated the embrace, it was obvious that she felt the same way.

"Do come in, please," the woman said eagerly to us all when she let Addy out of her embrace, standing to one side of her open door. No doubt Addy had told her about us, and she switched to English graciously, although all of us but Jade were getting quite good with French.

"I brought you something," Addy said a little shyly, producing a bottle of her papa's Pineau.

"Oh, cherie," Madam Rousseaux chided her gently as she took the wine from Addy, "you didn't have to!" A grin crept onto her face. "But I won't be so ungracious as to turn down a gift, especially when it's your papa's excellent wine."

Dutifully, we followed her into her small apartment, sitting as she gestured us to, while she took the wine into her small kitchen. "I'll put the teakettle on, and just this morning I baked some pastries." She returned and sat in an overstuffed chair which Addy had made sure we left unoccupied for her. Another round of introductions followed, and the older woman seemed to pay particular attention to me, making me feel like I was under a microscope.

"Are you the one who's been teaching Adalie how to defend herself?" she finally asked.

I couldn't help but blush. "No, Madame," I tried to deflect the question, "my tutor and Sensei Ito have been doing the instructing. Alicia and I just provided a little motivation."

"Well, she's improving a lot," the woman said. "And please call me Yvette. Madame Rousseaux sounds too old." She looked back at Adalie. "I heard about your combat final this term. Your performance was impressive I'm given to understand." Adalie was blushing a bit. "In my younger days, I found it very important to know how to fight, and just as important, when not to fight."

Alicia's, my, and Amelie's jaws dropped at the implication, which elicited a chuckle from the older woman. "Yes, in my younger days, after Whateley, I spent a few years playing the superhero, saving France from villainy and all that." She smiled. "Eventually, I tired of the game and became an interior architect and designer."

I was impressed; I'd heard Adalie talking about Madame Rousseaux's talent as an architect, but she'd never told me that she'd been a hero. Judging from the look on her face, she hadn't told Amelie either, but Ayla had a curious partial smile that seemed to indicate that he knew. Perhaps a little pillow-talk?

Tuesday, July 3, 2007 - Mid-Afternoon
Chaniers, France

I don't understand how anyone coming around the corner could have missed our loud, somewhat boisterous conversation and not nearly run into us. Alas, the music playing in the boy's ear buds was loud enough that he didn't hear the warnings until Alicia and I nearly collided with him.

While his music was definitely the major factor in the near accident, I have to admit that Alicia and I were partly at fault because we were looking around, sharing jokes and comments, and other such actions of distracted walking that we were both taken by surprise.

"I'm terribly sorr ....." The boy's words cut off when he looked at us, his jaw slowly dropping open slightly. A moment later, recognition dawned as his gaze swept over Addy. "Adalie?" he asked, sounding somewhat dumbfounded.

"Hello, Jean-Michel," Addy replied somewhat coolly.

"You ... you are home? For the summer?" he stammered. There was obviously still something there, a tiny spark of what had once been a flame.

"Oui," she answered. "I have family here that I want to spend time with."

"You are ... more beautiful than when I saw you last!" he said, eyes wide in appreciation of her appearance.

"Thank you," Addy blushed. "Are you still going with Lorraine?" She was anxious to change the subject, especially right in front of Ayla.

"Oui," he answered somewhat hesitantly. "After you left ...."

"After I was run out of town, you mean," Addy shot back, but instantly, she regretted her harsh words. "I'm glad you are dating her," she replied diplomatically. "In the time I was at school in New Hampshire, I too found someone special to date."

"I understand." His words sounded forced, and with some effort, he looked around the group - perhaps to introduce himself or give Addy a visual clue that she should introduce us. At least he started looking around at all of us. As soon as he met my curious but disinterested gaze, his eyes locked on me, obviously enchanted by my 'exotic' looks. It was rather creepy, but not as badly as it would have seemed to me a couple of months earlier. "Who are your friends?" he managed to ask, still staring at me.

"These are my friends from school," Addy replied calmly. No doubt any torch she'd once carried for the boy, and Alicia and I had heard many if not all of the stories, had long been extinguished. "Alicia is my roommate and amie." She turned her head toward me. "Ma amie Kayda," Addy introduced me.

Give him credit, he was slick. Without batting an eye, he took my hand, catching me completely by surprise, and lifted it, kissing the back of my hand. "Enchante, mademoiselle," he said smoothly. Despite my very strong preference for girls, I couldn't help but feel a thrill at being treated so gallantly; his light kiss was almost electric. I was going to have to learn that and use it on Debra; the results would probably be fantastic!

"Ma amie Ayla," Adalie continued without hesitation, keeping a wary eye on me in case I had a panic attack. "Her assistant Jade," she added. "They're visiting ...."

Adalie's response was interrupted by a girl nearby shouting. "Jean-Michel! There you are!" She was trying to sound sultry, but was a little out of breath, probably from trotting to meet the boy. The girl was pretty, in a baseline sort of way, but she couldn't hold a candle next to Addy. Alicia had her outclassed, but only slightly, and even Ayla, with his messed-up BIT, was far more attractive than the girl. "I was waiting ...." Her voice cut off abruptly, and the fawning look she'd been directing toward the boy turned to an icy, angry glare. "Adalie," she snapped. "What are you doing here?" If looks could kill, the intensity of the look she was giving Addy would have smitten my friend on the spot.

"Hello, Lorraine," Addy replied sweetly, taking the high road.

Lorraine, too, had been listening to music, and she snatched the miniature speaker buds from her ear and fiddled with the pocket radio and music player. "What ...?" she exclaimed, tapping the device. She fiddled with the controls, then turned back to Addy, rage writ large on her features. "What did you do to my radio?" she demanded.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Amelie cringe and duck behind her sister, a guilty expression on her face. Addy saw her move, too, and after a quick glance at the apparently defunct device in Lorraine's hand, she pasted on a friendly smile. "How have you been?"

Lorraine grabbed ahold of Jean-Michel's hand. "I'm surprised you have the courage to show your mutant face around here after what you did last time!" she said in a totally snarky voice.

I wasn't going to let my friend be insulted and I felt the need to deflect attention from Addy and Amelia, who was still trying to look innocuous behind Addy, so I took a half step forward. "You must be Lorraine Poirier," I said smoothly in passable French, for which I was grateful to Addy for the tutoring the past term. This confused her, as I'd intended.

"Oui," she replied uncertainly. "How could you have heard of me?"

"Addy told us stories of her old ecole," I responded with what I hoped was a friendly smile. "The stories included a rival whose appearance is just slightly above-average, and from her descriptions, it has to be you."

If the others in our group had been drinking, they'd have blown liquid out of their noses. Jean-Michel even smiled a bit, but Lorraine's reaction was anything but friendly. One could practically see veins bulging on her neck and steam pouring from her ears, and she was stupefied at such an impertinent response that she could do little more than stutter incoherently.

"It must be difficult being in the company of exemplars," I continued to pile on the barely- disguised insults. "It's hardly fair for baselines to compete, but your attempts are ... noteworthy."

"Who the hell do you think you are, talking to me like that?" she finally sputtered angrily, her face beet red with anger. She wheeled on Addy, and for a moment, I thought she was going to attack my friend. If she had, she'd have been in for a hell of a surprise. "Your kind isn't wanted around here!" she fairly screamed. "Get out of here! Go back where they don't mind having your kind around! You'll be sorry you came home!" She stomped off angrily, glancing occasionally back at us with a mixture of fear and loathing, her eyes shooting daggers especially at Addy.

Jean-Michel winced at the display his supposed girlfriend was putting on; in front of a group of American visitors, she wasn't improving the reputation of French girls in the least. He looked nervous, as if realizing for the first time that he was in the company of more than one mutant and he found the situation uncomfortable. "Are you all ... mutants?" he asked hesitantly.

Alicia stepped forward a half-step and cleared her throat. "Do you have a problem with that?" she asked bluntly.

Confronted by several drop-dead-gorgeous girls, all of whom were much friendlier than Lorraine had been, he gulped and shook his head. "Um, no," he managed to squeak. He glanced at the smaller girl hiding behind Addy. "Even your ... your little sister?"

Addy frowned, shaking her head. "No, of course not! Don't be silly!"

Alicia took control of the situation, stepping beside Addy, facing Jean-Michel with a sweet, innocent school-girl look. "Adalie was showing us around her charming home town," she practically purred, quite obviously to distract the boy from Amelie and Adalie. "We wouldn't mind your company if you cared to join us."

I had to keep from laughing at her routine; even not being an exemplar, Alicia was a fair sight cuter than Lorraine, and being a boy, poor Jean-Michel couldn't resist her come-hither look and sex-kitten voice.

"Um, no," he stammered, having lost his cool, "that is, I'm not busy, and ... yeah, I can show you around."

Tuesday, July 3, 2007 - Mid Afternoon
Bordeaux, France

"Boss, we just had a report of a possible mutant called in," the officer said urgently, sticking his head in his boss' office.

"So, send a team to investigate," the office chief said, frustrated that his underling couldn't handle a simple task.

"I think you'll want to handle this one yourself," the assistant said.

Delacroix's head snapped up, eyes alert. "What?" he asked, unhappy at the interruption to his daily routine.

"Here's the report," the aide, Favager, said as he handed his boss a paper.

After reading, a wicked grin crept onto Delacroix's face. "We're not letting this mutant slip through our fingers! Assemble a team so we can plan this!" An angry look formed on his face. "I'm not letting those assholes at HGB mess this one up!"

Favager nodded, but a knot formed in his stomach. They'd only just managed to keep their jobs the last time; if Delacroix and his MCO office crossed swords with the Heroes Glorieux de Bordeaux or the Tribunal des Mineurs again, they probably wouldn't be so lucky, and he had a very bad feeling about this case.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007 - Mid-Afternoon
Chaniers, France

After seeing the sights of Chaniers - which took an hour by foot - we went back to Addy's home for a promised mid-afternoon culinary treat that Daphne had promised, and she sure knew how to make good on a promise. Daphne had made crème puffs, and with a little Pineau - of which I had only a couple of sips because I was such a lightweight - it was a fabulous treat. When I complimented her, Daphne no doubt took it as proof of my interest in French cooking and pastry making, and she responded by telling me she'd teach Alicia and me how to make puff pastry the next morning. It sounded a lot like a polite request from Mrs. Carson - in other words, she made an offer we couldn't refuse. And when Addy smirked - in a friendly way - that she already knew how, Daphne drafted her to make dinner, and judging by the look on Addy's face when Daphne told her the menu, it was obviously going to be a challenging dish for her.

About four-thirty, Addy decided we should all take a little walk; I think she was very frustrated by how Nicole seemed to always be wherever Addy was, and it grated on my friend's nerves. Walt and Brigitte were bound and determined to accompany us, but a lot of pleading and promising to avoid trouble finally convinced them that we could handle a little walk.

Addy insisted on holding Ayla's hand as they walked ahead of Jade, Alicia and me. She really had to be confident that her hometown would be less judgmental than all the anti-gay bigots back home. So far, to be honest, I hadn't seen anything that lent credence to her belief.

Approaching one house, Addy picked up the pace considerably, causing us momentary confusion. Ayla was the first to deduce her concern. "I take it this is your former friend's house?"

Addy winced. "Non. It is the home of ... a family I used to babysit for. They ... when I manifested ... when Henri ... I smelled the smoke of a fire, and rescued the two children who had been napping upstairs while their mother tended her garden unaware. But ... she was very hateful, even though I thought she was my friend. Everyone in the fire brigade and the police treated me like a criminal." She wiped at tears caused by the memories, while Ayla, slowly learning how to deal with girls, squeezed her hand supportively.

"It's not fair," Alicia said bitterly. "You saved the children."

"Oui, I know. But the people in town, they are very ... suspicious of mutants." Addy's words were brimming with sadness.

"Tell me about it," I said, fighting my own bitterness. "My classmates ...."

It was Alicia's turn to offer comfort to me, wrapping her arm around my shoulders.

"I guess we've all had bad experiences," Jade commented, at which Alicia flinched uneasily because her manifestation wasn't even remotely traumatic as the rest of ours had been.

"Despite all of the ... events," I mused, "I kind of miss being at Whateley."

"I know what you mean," Addy replied. "You don't have to worry ...." Her words cut off abruptly and she stiffened when she recognized the figure coming toward us. The girl crossed the narrow road, either to give us room to pass or to keep as much distance between herself and Addy.

"Collette," Addy said woodenly, not quite sure how to greet her former friend after the way Collette had rejected and insulted her.

The girl barely slowed. "Adalie," she replied in just as awkward a tone.

There was something that didn't quite seem right. Alicia and I had heard of the girl's angry reaction to realizing that Addy was a mutant, but her face didn't show anger at all. It was more ... sadness? And something more, perhaps? I noticed that her eyes kept darting to Ayla and Addy holding hands.

I don't know about Alicia, but I had my shield spell ready in case it was necessary to defend my friends. And my hand reflexively slipped down to the handle of my sacred knife.

And then we were past, and it was unlikely that Collette was going to do anything.

"Adalie?" The plaintive cry from behind us startled all of us, perhaps Addy most of all. Almost as one, we turned, my fingers wrapping around my knife handle. But that wasn't necessary.

Collette stood in the road, having turned to watch us walking away. "Adalie?" she asked again, her voice trembling and threatening to crack completely.

"Oui, Collette?" Addy replied hesitantly.

"I ... that is ... um ...," Collette struggled for words. "Um, can we talk? Please?"

Addy glanced nervously at Ayla, seeking reassurance, which Ayla gave with a silent nod. "Oui," she answered.

"I ... I heard you were coming home for the summer," Collette was trying to force small talk, but it was clearly an effort to avoid saying something that she wasn't sure about saying.

"I miss my papa," Addy answered. "And Amelie and Tessa."

"Oh." Collette's crestfallen expression gave away her feelings; she'd perhaps been hoping that Addy still felt something for her, too - despite the vehement words Collette had last had for Adalie. She looked down at the ground. "I ... I kind of hoped ... that ... you might have missed me, too. Despite how much I ... hurt you."

"I ... I was hoping," Adalie said softly, "that perhaps some people wouldn't be so angry just because I'm a mutant. But I knew better than to count on it. Some people will never accept me again."

"I ... I guess ... I can," Collette mumbled in a voice that was barely audible. "But ... I see you've ... you've moved on and ...." She let her voice trail off.

Addy gave Ayla another glance of uncertainty, and then stepped forward toward her old friend. "I ... forgive you," she said to the girl, startling her as evidenced by the shocked expression on Collette's face. "It's what friends do."

Collette's eyes had been misting; now they let loose the water works as she practically collapsed into Addy's arms. "I'm so sorry," she blubbered over and over. "I was so stupid to believe all the nasty things people said about mutants. And when I found out, I ... I didn't think of you saving my life, but all those ...."

"Shhh," Addy reassured her, hugging her tightly. "I ... I did miss you. You were my friend. That's why it hurt so much - because it felt like such a betrayal."

I cringed involuntarily and probably visibly at that; I understood personal betrayal only too well. When I was reminded of Grandma Little Doe in any way, I ended up in the midst of a tangled knot of emotions - profound sadness at her death and simultaneously anger at what she'd done. And that was to say nothing of my feelings when I remembered what my former friends had done to me. I think I understood how Collette's betrayal of Addy must have felt to my friend.

Addy didn't notice, involved as she was in the discussion with Collette, but Ayla gave me a curious look that seemed to indicate he knew why I'd reacted the way I had, and Alicia took my hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. It was enough to drag me out of my emotional trap. It also reminded me that I hadn't dream-walked with Mom the previous night, which left me feeling a little guilty at my oversight.

Collette looked again at Ayla, then around at the rest of us. "Are your friends ... from that school they sent you to?"

Addy reached behind her and without looking, took Ayla's hand, tugging him to her side. "Oui," she answered. "My roommate and best friend from school, Alicia," she began the introductions, switching once more to English. I was getting language whiplash. "My friend Kayda, whose tutor has been helping me learn to defend myself." She glanced at the pint-sized Whateley girl. "Jade is Ayla's assistant and is ... quite ... interesting. And Ayla ... Ayla is ... my special friend, who I've been dating for a couple of months."

Ayla graciously extended his hand toward Collette. "Ayla Goodkind," he said. "I'm glad the circumstances of our meeting aren't unpleasant." Ayla had recognized Collette's jealousy and was trying to diplomatically not exacerbate the delicate situation.

Collette nodded in acknowledgement of Ayla and of the romantic relationship she saw between Addy and Ayla. She was quite visibly trying to find something to say, but words failed her. Addy solved that; she took Collette's hand and led her a few paces away.

"I wonder what they're saying," Alicia mused as we watched the two talk. At least it appeared that their conversation was friendly, or at least cordial, because there were no red faces, no shouting, no wildly gesticulating hands and arms. After a few moments, they rejoined the group.

"I have asked Collette to dine with us tonight," she said, taking Ayla's hand in her own to ensure there was no miscommunication, "to celebrate our renewed friendship."

"And perhaps later this week," Collette said, trying to ignore that Addy was strongly signaling her attachment to Ayla, "you can come to my house and we can go riding?"

"That'd be fun," Alicia said, grinning. "Kayda's a really good rider. I bet she can show you some interesting tricks."

Great. Now Alicia was putting me on the spot.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007 - Morning
Chaniers, France

Just as I took a bite of a brioche for my breakfast, Addy's father interrupted the quiet of breakfast. "My little Adalie has shown me your proposed business arrangement and terms," he said to Ayla.

Addy nearly spewed coffee. "Papa, this is breakfast!" she protested. "It's not time for doing business!"

"Ma petite," Papa Vitesse replied, "I like discussing business while breaking bread. It is efficient, non? And it shows congeniality, fraternité, non?"

"A great deal of business is done over meals," Ayla agreed, "but it's usually lunch, not breakfast, and my experience is that it's usually at a restaurant, not in a person's dining room."

"We must be adaptable to changing circumstances, non?" Papa Vitesse said with a wry smile. "It is the hallmark of a good businessman, and a good vintner as well."

"Very well, Papa," Addy grumbled. We had been planning on hiking around the area a bit and taking a picnic lunch, but now, obviously, her father had upset those plans.

Ayla didn't seem to notice our looks of discontent at our plans being upset; after all, he was here to do business. Jade was as well, and she scrambled from the table, returning a few moments later with her laptop which she set on the table and opened it so she could dutifully take notes and otherwise do the things that an 'executive assistant' was required to do.

Alicia looked at me and shrugged. "Well, Ah guess we'll find somethin' t' do."

Noticing our resigned sighs, Amelie piped up, "We can go to watch Monsieur Leclerc!"

Addy overheard her suggestion. "Go ahead," she said, turning to us. "Knowing Papa and Ayla, we will be here, or in the distillery, for quite a while. As passionate as Papa is about his cognac, and as enthusiastic as Ayla is about business, no doubt they will have a long and very cordial discussion filled with many anecdotes and stories. I would expect Ayla to go into great detail on marketing plans, and Papa will naturally want discuss the history of our distillery and the many awards he has won."

"Now, now, ma petite fille," Monsieur Vitesse said with a smile, "I know you have done much work on this plan, and you, too, have a penchant to talk a great deal at times."

With an enthusiastic Amelie leading, we took our plates to the kitchen, and while she assisted Nicole in cleaning the dishes, Alicia and I helped clear the rest of the table. Noticing that Monsieur Vitesse's cup was empty, Alicia poured him a fresh cup, then served Addy and Ayla as well.

"If you wouldn't mind," Daphne said to me over her shoulder as she attended to rolling out pastry dough, "there are more hot brioches in the warming oven. If you could take them out to Monsieur Vitesse ...?"

I took the tray, and getting some fresh butter, served the four at the table discussing business. The look on Addy's face was priceless - she was both proud of her Papa and of Ayla, and at the same time a bit frustrated that she was now stuck in the middle of business transactions.

"I noticed when we were touring the cellars that you have some very old barrels and bonbonnes," Ayla commented.

"Oui," Monsieur Vitesse said, obviously impressed at Ayla's memory. "Starting with my great grandfather, we try to reserve thirty to forty barrels every year for higher grade cognac. We sell about half of those at fifteen to twenty years age. We have about four hundred barrels that are at least thirty years of age. In a few years' time," his enthusiasm was on display, "we shall be selling only XO cognac."

I scurried back to the kitchen before my curiosity compelled me to listen more; being that inquisitive was sometimes a problem. "They're getting very quickly involved in their discussions," I chuckled to Alicia. "Knowing Ayla, they'll still be there at lunchtime." Drawing a slow breath, I shrugged. "What are we going to do?"

"Perhaps you girls would like to come with me to the market in Saintes," Nicole suggested, having overheard my comment.

Little Tessa, who was hanging around the kitchen pretending to help Daphne, squealed with delight. "And me!"

"Mais oui," Nicole said with a warm smile. I was glad that Addy didn't see that interaction; no doubt she'd be incensed at Nicole - again. "I will have to tidy up a bit and then get a shopping list, so we will leave around ten."

"Good!" Amelie said gleefully. "Let's go talk to Monsieur Leclerc!" She took my hand and practically pulled me and Alicia from the kitchen; neither Alicia nor I were protesting.

Addy's younger sister was perhaps overly curious, because she was spewing a non-stop torrent of questions about Whateley, about us, about our families, and especially about the ostracism we'd faced. Finally, I could take no more. "Why don't you ask Adalie?" I blurted.

The corners of Amelie's mouth turned down slightly, giving lie to her otherwise poker face. "I ... just want to hear your stories," she answered. "To compare with what happened to Adalie," she added a little too quickly. "Um, because I was told that it is far worse in America."

I stopped and took her arm, so her momentum turned her toward me. "Amelie, please tell me the truth. Why do you want to know how hard it can be for mutants?"

I should have caught on quicker, but not being a coffee drinker, I hadn't had a jolt of caffeine to wake me up, unlike Alicia, who figured out almost immediately why Amelia was asking.

"Do you think you're going to manifest?" Alicia asked the French girl.

"Oh, non!" Amelie blurted out her answer, but her expression was almost panicked, as if she wasn't telling us the truth.

"Amelie!" Alicia scolded her, suspecting that her answer wasn't quite the truth.

"Tessa," she said quickly, "why don't you run ahead and see if Monsieur LeClerc is busy."

"Okay." Skipping as she hummed a pleasant tune, Tessa raced off toward the large distillery building.

When she was a dozen meters from us, Amelia tried to look us eye-to-eye, but she failed and let her gaze fall to the ground. "I'm sure I'm not going to manifest as a mutant," she said with certainty, but the pause after her statement and the way she was fidgeting and shuffling her feet wasn't convincing. "Because I already have," she added softly.

"What?" I practically screamed. "You ... manifested? Are you sure? Does Addy know?"

The girl nodded. "Sometimes," she admitted softly, "when I'm startled or frightened, the television or the car or my cell phone will stop working. When I walk away, or calm down, they work again."

"Lorraine's iPod!" I mouthed softly. "That was you?"

Amelie nodded, looking down again. "Oui. I ...can't control it," she added. "Papa is worried about me in a car, because if I am frightened or startled, the car might stop while we are moving down the road, and we would crash."

"Does anyone else know?"

Amelie nodded. "Nicole and Papa know. And some people in town might have noticed that strange things happen to electronic devices when I'm around. I'm afraid that someone will figure out that I'm a mutant, like Addy." She looked up at us plaintively. "I'm frightened! What if people hate me? What if they try to hurt me? What if the Bureau de la Commission Mutant français comes after me like they tried to kidnap Adalie?"

I grimaced; I had no answers for the panic stricken girl. But then a thought occurred to me. "Alicia, do you remember anything about energizers from power theory? I'm drawing a blank."

"Only that they're real hard t' fight," the Louisiana girl replied. "Too bad we can't talk to Dr. Quintain. I bet he'd have an answer."

"That's it!" the words burst from my mouth as my mind raced. "Let's see - at Whateley it's about ... two in the morning," I finished glumly. "Mrs. Carson would kill me if I called now. But we can call later this afternoon. Maybe she can get Dr. Q to give us some exercises so you can get more control over your ... effect."

Amelie looked hopeful. "Do you think so?"

"I'm sure they have something useful," I reassured her. "In the meantime, let's go catch up to Tessa before she causes some trouble."

We needn't have worried; two workmen were in the distillery with Monsieur Leclerc, and they were obviously enjoying a little distraction entertaining Tessa; with her bubbly energy and charm and infectious smile, it was easy to see why they liked having her around.

We walked back to the house a bit before ten - after Monsieur Leclerc offered us a sample of a different year of cognac; it wasn't wasted, because we took the bottle back to Daphne for cooking use. I had only a bit; I was perhaps developing a taste for cognac, but I really couldn't drink like I had before I manifested. Then I'd found some whiskeys and bourbons to be quite enjoyable and not too strong. Now, though, it was a different story.

Nicole gathered up her handbag and stuck her head in the dining room, where Ayla, Jade, Addy, and her father were still discussing the proposed deal. Monsieur Vitesse was explaining something about how many barrels of cognac he distilled every year and how much more he could produce. "We're going into Saintes," she explained. From her body language, she'd no doubt gotten a very disapproving look from Addy. "Do you need anything?"

"Non, mon coeur," he replied affectionately, perhaps automatically, because it no doubt became very icy in the dining room as Addy reacted to his term of endearment for Nicole. It was almost palpable, like a blast of arctic air rolled past Nicole and into the kitchen where we were. "Have a pleasant drive."

"I'm taking Tessa and Amelie," Nicole added, "And Kayda and Alicia." There was a little hesitance when she mentioned Amelie, and now Alicia and I understood why.

The drive was uneventful, and as we ambled about the town, Nicole hung back a little bit from the two younger Vitesse girls and Alicia. When they paused, she smiled and told them to go on ahead. When they were out of earshot, Nicole sighed. "Has Adalie spoken any to you about ... the difficulty she has with me?" she asked sadly.

I nodded. "Some. The one you should ask is Alicia, her roommate. They're a lot closer."

"Oui, I know," Nicole said, and then she hesitated. I got a bad feeling about the direction the conversation was going. "I ... heard about your grandmother. I'm so sorry for that." She winced. "I ... I really 'ate to bring that up, but ... I think that you understand much better than Alicia 'ow to deal with losing someone. Adalie ... 'as never properly dealt with it, I think. I ... don't know what it's like to lose someone close, so I 'ave no idea 'ow to 'elp 'er. I ... need some ideas on 'ow to help her so that I don't come between her and Jacques. I wish I knew 'ow to convince Adalie that I'm not trying to replace her mama."

Shit. Nicole was asking me to play shaman again, and I really wasn't in the mood, especially after the painful reminder of Grandma Little Doe and how I both missed and hated her.

Nicole read my body language. "I'm so sorry," she apologized. "I ... I shouldn't 'ave said that."

"No," I replied with a heavy, sad sigh, "I ... I guess that's part of what I need to deal with myself. I can't expect everyone to know that it's a very sensitive subject for me." I looked away so Nicole wouldn't see me wipe tears from my eyes. "I have to hold tight to my happy memories of Grandma, or I'd be bitter about the bad things she did."

"I suppose that's what Adalie is trying to do," Nicole mused.

"Mom ... made a little, I guess you could call it a remembrance corner, of some of the crafts I'd done with grandma, of some of the happy pictures, so we could focus on the good." I was really fighting tears at that point. "And even that doesn't help all the time." I sighed again. "I'm sorry, but I don't have anything that can help."

Nicole smiled warmly. "Actually, you did! You gave me an idea."

Wednesday, July 4, 2007 - Early-Afternoon
Chaniers, France

"C'mon, Addy," Alicia said cheerfully, "Ayla will be back in a couple of days!"

Slumped in the sofa, Addy flopped to her side away from Alicia. She'd been pouting since Ayla and Jade had left for Bordeaux, from whence they'd catch a short flight to Nice and then get a limo to Monaco where they'd spend the night. In the morning, Ayla was meeting with Charmer's father, the head of Villabianca Wines, for the sensitive negotiations by which AJG Distributors, Ayla's newly formed fine beverage importation and distribution company, would take Villabianca Wines as a client as soon as Goodkind Imports ended their contract. Ayla had a good poker face, but we'd all noticed small signs that he was concerned about the upcoming talks, like a very slight downturn on the corners of his lips, and one eyebrow that was canted a millimeter or two higher than the other.

"Ayla will be back tomorrow evening," I corrected Alicia. "Granted it'll be a bit late, but he'll be back."

"I should have gone with them," Addy fussed.

Alicia decided she was going to put an end to Addy's funk, one way or another. "Ah thought we were goin' t' go ridin' with your friend," she said. "Ah haven't been horseback ridin' since Ah was a little girl." She snorted softly and shook her head. "And that don't count, either. This time it'll be better, and lot more fun."

There was some story behind that. "Why doesn't it count?"

"It wasn't even a horse!" Alicia pouted. "And the damned thing was evil!"

"What happened?" Addy piped up, turning toward the two of us, her eyes lit up with curiosity. Seeing Alicia's reluctance to talk, Addy stepped up the pressure. "Out with it!"

"Yeah," I agreed. "Spill."

Alicia glowered at the two of us. "Ah was only seven, and it wasn't even mah fault," she fussed. "Ah couldn't help it if they gave me the most vicious pony of the bunch!"

"A ... pony?" I chuckled, then burst out laughing. "You had problem riding a pony?"

"Ah was only seven!" Alicia repeated. "And Shetland ponies are evil!" She sighed, realizing that the two of us were going to hound her until she told us the tale. "Ma and Pa took us t' a farm where they had ponies for kids t' ride," she began sullenly. "Ah could tell from the way the pony looked at me that it was evil and it hated me!"

"And?"

"And it decided to jump suddenly and dump me off'n its back, right onto a rock in a small creek!" Alicia said angrily. "Busted mah tailbone and hurt like hell!"

Addy and I couldn't talk for several long seconds, laughing as hard as we were, so hard, in fact, that tears came to our eyes.

"Ah knew Ah shouldn't have said anything," Alicia grumbled as she pouted, which caused fresh paroxysms of laughter from the two of us.

I let that outburst quiet, then as I wiped the tears from my eyes, I forced myself to quit chuckling. "I'm sorry," I apologized through giggles, "but ... it's funny!"

"Ah suppose so," Alicia admitted reluctantly, "but it sure wasn't at the time! Mah butt hurt for weeks!"

"You should have said something when we were at Whateley," I said. "Or on our farm! We could have gone riding!"

"Ah don't know if Ah could stay on a horse without a saddle," Alicia noted, "and Ah thought it'd be kinda presumptuous to ask if you'd let me ride Summer."

It wasn't far to walk to Collette's house; that was one thing I liked about the part of France Addy lived in - everything was reasonably close and walking somewhere wasn't out of the question like it was in South Dakota. We'd brought along Amelie because she was getting bored, and also because Addy was certain that she would be at Whateley next fall and we needed to get used to having her around.

Just as we were about to walk off the main road, someone called out to Addy. "Bon jour, Adalie!" We turned, a bit startled, to see Jean-Michel, Monsieur Leclerc's grandson and Lorraine, Addy's old rival, pedaling their bikes down the road our way. "Are you going to visit Collette, too?" Jean-Michel asked. Even though it seemed a little too coincidental, knowing the history between Addy and Lorraine, I really doubted Jean-Michel was so stupid as to intentionally arrange to meet us with Lorraine present.

"Oui," Adalie replied nonchalantly. I knew that at one time, she'd really carried a torch for Jean-Michel, but no longer, and she had no need to try to appear eager or hard-to-get. "We are going riding." Lorraine's expression was harsh, but softened slightly as she realized that Addy had zero interest in 'her' Jean-Michel. Not completely, though, because the two had been bitter rivals over more than just one boy.

Alicia, however, was interested, and her fawning gaze was unmistakable. "It'd be nice if you could go riding with us," she practically begged him to come along. "If'n it's okay with Addy and her friend, Ah mean." Even in France, that southern drawl, which she exaggerated to the point she sounded like an Atlanta belle, got guys' attention. Jean-Michel was looking appreciatively at her.

"That would be fun," Jean-Michel replied eagerly, which drew a look from Lorraine that was both angry and disappointed.

"Perhaps you have time for riding," she said to him in a snooty, snarky voice, her nose slightly upturned disdainfully, "but I have to help my grandma with her baking, remember? The pastries that you were going to taste-test for me?"

Jean-Michel shrugged off her protest, not realizing perhaps how angry she was likely to become. Once we were gone, she could make his life a living hell. "You bake very often," he said dismissively, "and you're quite talented at it, but ... it'd be quite rude to turn down an invitation from these Americain guests, non?"

With a huff, Lorraine turned and pedaled away, anger writ large on her face.

Collette was waiting for us, and before we'd even turned off the street, she burst through the doors, greeting us happily and hugging Addy enthusiastically. Then realizing what she'd done, she hugged each of us girls in turn to try to make up for her more-than-friendly embrace of Adalie.

We went straight to the horse barn, where Addy and Collette began to saddle horses for our little group. "Which horse will I ride?" I asked.

Collette pointed to a two- or three-year-old gray mare, which looked quite fit and healthy, and had a bit of a spirited look in her eyes. "Adalie told me that you're a skilled rider," she said, "so you can ride Margot."

Calmly, I walked up to the somewhat skittish horse, my hand outstretched toward the side of her face. "Margot," I said softly, "you and I are going to have a fun ride together, aren't we?" She didn't flinch from my touch, and as I stroked her cheek, she calmed down. "We will show them a thing or two about riding as a team, okay?" Inwardly, I felt her spirit, the relative of Sukawakan, and she started slightly. "Yes, Margot," I said softly, smiling, "I understand you like I understand my own horse. You have nothing to fear, okay?"

"Would you like me to saddle her for you?" Collette asked, having finished saddling a horse for Alicia.

"Kayda doesn't ride with a saddle," Alicia replied with a grin. "Only a blanket and a halter."

"What? Impossible!" Collette retorted in total disbelief, looking at Alicia like she was pulling her leg. "Margot can be a little difficult at times ..."

"Like Alicia said, I don't ride with a saddle," I replied with a smile. Addy simply nodded when Collette looked at her questioningly.

I helped saddle a horse for Amelie while Addy put a saddle on a horse for Jean-Michel, and Collette got a saddle-blanket and halter for me. When we were all ready, Collette led us out of the barn into a wooded field; Addy winced visibly, and Collette too when she caught a glimpse of Addy's discomfort. No doubt that was where they'd been riding when Addy had saved Collette and had been rewarded by Collette's anger and fear.

As soon as we stopped to mount the horses, I leapt nimbly onto Margot's back, startling the horse a bit, but with a few gentle words and my hand on her neck, she calmed right down. The others stopped, at least Amelie, Collette, and Jean-Michel, and gawked when I began to walk Margot around a bit, guiding her only with pressure from my hands on her neck or my knees. Once horse and rider had a feel for each other, I turned back to the others. "Shall we go?"

"How ... how do you do that?" Jean-Michel asked, staring open-mouthed at my short display.

"I'm Lakota. We ride horses bareback," I explained simply. When I saw his and Collette's looks of confusion, I chuckled. "Native American. You know, Indian?"

Lorraine Poirier frowned angrily as she watched the horses riding into the field with her Jean- Michel fawning over those ... Americain girls! And with Adalie in their midst - a known, dangerous mutant, like all mutants were! Slowly, she fumed and steamed as one girl, the dusky-skinned one with the long, straight black hair in two ponytails, showed off riding her horse without saddle or bridle! And she leaped so easily onto the horse's back. It didn't seem possible.

At least, she mused, she knew where that other troublesome Vitesse girl, Amelie, was. Peddling a bit down the road away from the Sartre home, she stopped and took out her cell phone. Glancing uneasily up and down the street, she dialed a number which had only recently been added to her phone book.

"Hello?" she spoke in a hushed, conspiratorial tone into the phone. "I need to speak to Monsieur F! He told me to tell you that I'm L. P., and that you'd put me in touch with him immediately!"

She paused a bit as the phone call was routed around the office she'd called. Finally, someone whose voice she recognized answered. "Monsieur F? It's me - LP. I have more information about the girl."

After a pause, she spoke again. "Oui, I ran into her a couple of times in the past two days, and I had my cell phone and iPod with me. As you suggested, I checked them when I was near her, and both times they momentarily malfunctioned."

"Oui, it's her. I know that for sure. And there's something more. The family has guests from America, and I suspect one of them is also a mutant."

"How? She jumped so easily up onto a large horse, higher than any normal girl I've ever seen jump. And she's controlling the horse she's riding ... I think with telepathy. She has no bridle, and she doesn't touch the horse, but it seems to go exactly where she wishes."

"Her name? I ... I think it's Kayla, or something like that. I only met her once."

"Non, I'm not sure how long they'll be riding," Lorraine said with a frown. "But I heard them say they are going to Bordeaux sightseeing and shopping Friday!"

Thursday, July 5, 2007 - Early Morning
Chaniers, France

I knew something was up after breakfast; Nicole chased the lot of us out of the house, urging us to go sightseeing in Saintes, even taking Amelie and Tessa with us. Since Ayla had left us the use of the limo, Walt and Brigitte - Twinkletoes and Mage Astre - escorted us five girls into town. As we drove, with Walt nervously watching the rest of us, I had an amusing thought and leaned closer to Addy.

"If those two ever get serious, I think we're giving them a dose of what it'd be like if they had a family," I chuckled.

Alicia leaned in with the two of us. "What?" she asked curiously, so I repeated my comment. "Just from lookin' at the two of them," she said, "Ah don't think Twinkletoes has ever dealt with teenage girls before."

"Nor has Brigitte," Addy giggled with certainty. As we laughed, both sets of eyes narrowed, wondering, no doubt, what we were conspiring about.

"Let's give them a full dose, then," Alicia practically chortled in a tone and inflection that would have done a supervillain proud, or gotten her an A in Monologuing.

Seeing our little huddle and hearing our giggles, Walt frowned deeply. Maybe he had experienced teenage girls before, perhaps with a little sister? In any event, he was right to be worried. Brigitte, with her hand in his and her head on his shoulder, scowled at us, perhaps intending to silence us with her stern, parental look of authority. If so, she failed miserably.

At first, we behaved ourselves pretty well. Saintes was an old town dating to the time of the Roman Empire, and we started doing the tourist thing at an old Roman amphitheater on a hill to the west of the city center. Unlike the Coliseum in Rome, Saintes' amphitheater was carved into a large bowl-like depression, so it had no massive walls; instead, as in so many Greek theaters, the seats were carved into the slopes surrounding the arena floor. It was really quite impressive, and I knew that I'd ask Tractor about it when I got home, even though I knew it'd result in a 'homework' assignment in Roman history. I couldn't help it; he'd gotten me addicted to history. Well, him and my vivid imagination which liked to look at ruins and fill in a visual image of what something looked like in its heyday.

According to the tourist information, the arena was the site of spectacles and fights just like its bigger cousin in Rome; after combat finals, I no longer had difficulty imagining gladiatorial combats on the floor of the arena. I couldn't help but laugh aloud as I thought of it.

"What's so funny?" Addy and Alicia asked me.

"Just this place," I said. "After this last year and combat finals, I have no problem imagining the sights and sounds of gladiators doing battle on the arena floor."

Alicia started. "Ya know," she mused, "Ah think you're right."

That got my attention - had I really changed my outlook that much? After all, in the arena at Whateley, or on the training fields, we were modern gladiators, mutant training in the art of battle and putting our skills to the test against one another.

"Oui," Addy agreed, probably thinking exactly as I was. "But after combat finals, perhaps we'd find a gladiator combat rather ... boring?"

Near the arena, we toured the church of Saint Eutrope which seemed rather redundant because a little later, we saw the Cathedral Saint Pierre. There was a large stone arch by a bridge, and a nice public park that had once apparently been a military parade ground. Then we got to the city center, which was mostly a pedestrian area and had lots and lots of shops.

That's where the fun began. When Brigitte and Walt were distracted by Tessa and Amelie, Addy, Alicia, and I ducked around a corner, then scampered to another cross-street, getting out of immediate view of our two chaperones. Laughing, skipping, giggling, we were having a ball visiting shops of all kinds, although we were so boisterous that I was afraid shopkeepers were going to lock their doors before we could get to their shops.

Our glee, coupled with a trail of upset storeowners, led Walt and Brigitte straight to us like a trail of breadcrumbs, and they took the opportunity to express their displeasure that we'd ditched them. And then we all had a nice lunch at a quaint little café and all was mostly forgiven.

After lunch, we saw the baths of St. Saloine and a former convent, the Abbaye aux Dames with an impressive little abbey church. Since we'd passed yet another very old church on the way to the abbey, Alicia winced.

"Ah'm sorry about gettin' upset with you in Boston," Alicia said contritely to Addy.

The French girl smiled. "It's nothing." Seeing my puzzled look, she explained, "When we were in Boston, Alicia was a bit upset about my ... lack of interest in the historical sites. She ... got a little cross with me, even after I explained how we deal with historical sites that are over a millennium and a half old."

"Yeah, and seein' all these churches and the arena that were hundreds and hundreds of years old before Boston was even started ... Ah can see why our history might seem boring." She chuckled. "And this is just one little city!"

"Yeah, I can see that." I sighed heavily. "I bet Tractor would love to hear me say something like that."

I hadn't realized that our chaperones were paying attention, although after our little stunt in the city center, I should have figured that they'd watch us a little more closely. "Maybe I should tell him when we get home," Walt said. He had a wicked smile on his face, which caused me to gulp nervously. I knew he would tell Tractor, and that'd cause Tractor to push me harder in his history tutoring.

After the abbey, we all figured we'd go back to Addy's house, but the limo turned north instead, puzzling us. "Where are we going?" Addy asked of Brigitte. In response, she simply shrugged with a look that announced that she had no idea either.

We ended up touring an absolutely stunning chateau at La Roche Courbon; it had a curious mix of medieval fortress and post-medieval palace architectures, with a large, gorgeous garden laid out neatly in a regular geometric pattern that Addy told us was common in formal French, and indeed most European, palaces. The interior décor was, as expected, ostentatious in a way that made me think of pre-French-revolution upper-crust nobility, or 'Lifestyles of the Richer-than-Rich'. Alicia, Addy, and I started joking around like we were uber-rich snobbish girls ordering around servants and such. Other tourists and visitors probably thought we were nuts.

As we walked from the limo into the chateau grounds, I noticed something that seemed quite out-of-place, so I sidled over to Walt and Brigitte. "What's up?" Walt asked, noting my expression.

"Don't be obvious about it," I said, feeling suddenly conspiratorial, "but the car behind the limo - I'm pretty sure that I've seen that blue car several times today."

Walt nodded without looking. "Yup, we noticed," he affirmed. "And when we've been on foot ...."

"The same two guys, dressed in casual business attire," I finished his sentence. "Are we being followed?"

"Very likely Bureau de la Commission Mutant français," Brigitte answered. "I think I recognize the one guy."

"So what do we do?" I was nervous about MCO, be it US or French.

"We go about our business and don't worry," Brigitte replied, surprising me but not Walt. No doubt the two of them had discussed our tail. "We are prepared in case they cause trouble."

"But under no circumstances," Walt warned, "should you separate from us again like you did this morning."

I nodded, gulping nervously. The two men shadowing us changed the game and deflated my enthusiasm like popping a balloon. But following Walt's and Brigitte's advice, I didn't tell the others. No need to worry them if they hadn't noticed because our chaperones were alert and ready. Fortunately, the rest of the afternoon passed uneventfully, but I couldn't help wondering why they were following us. Were they after Addy again, hoping to separate her from us so they could take her into custody again? I kept close to her in case I needed a shield or ghost-walking spell.

Thursday, July 5, 2007 - Evening
Chaniers, France

"After all the walking we did today," I said, sated with a truly magnificent meal, "that hit the spot." Once we'd gotten back the house, my worry flux diminished significantly, and I realized just how stressful it might be for heroes in situations where they had to be on their guard.

"Yeah," Alicia agreed. "Although Ah would have preferred a smidge of tabasco sauce on the meat."

"I've warned you about that sauce, so if you try, I will not be responsible for any harm which Daphne chooses to inflict on you!" Addy said in a feigned stern manner.

"What now? Watch the movie you bought?" I asked. It was late, because we'd spent far more time doing touristy stuff than any of the three of us had really wanted. Poor little Tessa was about worn out; I was honestly worried that she was going to fall asleep at the table and face-plant into her dessert. Ayla and Jade weren't back from Monaco yet; we'd made arrangements to meet them in Bordeaux in the morning.

"Non," Nicole insisted, cutting off any response from Addy or Alicia and surprising all of us with the urgency in her voice. "First, there is a surprise for you." She looked around at Tessa and Amelie. "For all you girls."

I was curious, as I suspect Alicia was, too, but Addy just rolled her eyes disdainfully.

"Come, ma petite," Addy's papa said, "let's go to the living room."

The mystery deepened; one corner of the room was hidden by a sheet. Following Papa Vitesse's direction, the three girls sat on a sofa, getting more and more curious by the second, while Alicia and I stood unobtrusively. I don't think Addy noticed, but her papa's voice quavered a bit, and at one point, he turned briefly away from the girls as they were sitting, one hand lifting to his face; I saw him wiping his eyes quickly.

"Girls," Nicole said hesitantly, "I don't know if you know what today is."

Addy gasped sharply, and then she started visibly trembling. Amelie took a few seconds longer to realize what Nicole was talking about, but little Tessa just looked confused.

"When I was talking with Kayda the other night," Nicole continued, "she gave me an idea, so ...." Biting her lip, she took three large books from behind the improvised curtain, giving one to each of the girls. To my eyes, they looked like scrapbooks or photo albums.

Very hesitantly, Addy took the book from Nicole, and with her hands shaking, she cautiously opened the cover. Almost instantly, tears started flowing down her cheeks, and despite them, she slowly turned the pages. Finally, she looked up, moisture glistening on her face. "I ... I don't understand."

"Adalie," Nicole said to the crying girl, "I want you ... no, I need you to believe me when I tell you that I am not trying to take your mama's place. You girls have memories of her that I can never replace, and I don't want you to forget them." With that, she pulled down the sheet, revealing a large portrait of Adalie's mom on one wall, and on the other wall of the corner was an assortment of framed photos of their mom, alone or with the girls or Jacques, or all of them. Intermingled were the usual mother's treasures - drawings from school, small crafts, and other things that the girls had made to show her how much they loved her. On a corner table was a small statue surrounded by what I guessed were silk flowers in a wide assortment of colors and types.

"Saint Therese of Lisieux?" Alicia guessed aloud, to which Addy just nodded, her gaze fixed on the corner. The Cajun girl leaned closer to me and whispered, "I bet that Addy's mom was named for St. Therese."

Jacques was standing near us, now not even trying to hide his tears. "Oui," he acknowledged, having heard Alicia's guess. "And today would be ... is ... her birthday."

Adalie slowly, hesitantly, set her book to one side, and then as we all watched, uncertain of how she was going to react, she stood and took a step toward Nicole, then another, and then her arms were wrapped around Nicole and Addy was bawling on her shoulder as she blubbered her thanks over and over, while Nicole likewise wept, happy that she'd finally gotten through to Jacques' eldest daughter.

Jacques took my hand unexpectedly. "Thank you," he said. Seeing my confusion, he smiled. "Thank you for giving Nicole the idea of how to make today special for Adalie and Amelie." Dropping my hand, he joined Addy and Nicole in a family embrace which soon added Amelie and then Tessa.

Friday, July 6, 2007 - Early Morning
Chaniers, France

The rest of us were quite refreshed, but Addy was exhausted in the morning, and Daphne had to pack breakfast and snacks for her. Alicia and I had gone to bed at a reasonable hour - reasonable for teenage girls, anyway, but Addy and Nicole had stayed up very, very late. The last we saw them, Nicole was asking Addy about each picture and memory in the scrapbook Nicole had made for her. It was good for Addy to lose some of her hostility and suspicion toward Nicole; carrying around that kind of burden of resentment and hostility couldn't be good. And Wakan Tanka had lectured me many times about the burden of hate.

Not surprisingly, she napped in the limo while we drove to Bordeaux, but Amelie, who had come along, woke her as we neared the airport, and Addy ravenously ate the food Daphne had sent while she tried to hastily fix her hair and apply makeup before we got to the airport. It was a bit silly; there was no doubt in my mind that Ayla had seen Adalie without her makeup on a few 'mornings after', but in the past few months, I'd learned why girls felt it important to look their best.

Addy ran inside to wait by the security exit, while the rest of us in the limo waited outside the terminal. After a few minutes, I started to fidget; the French MCO had a presence in the airport; what if they recognized Addy and were causing her trouble? Based on their expressions, I'm sure the same worry had occurred to Brigitte and Walt, because Walt started to climb to the door. Brigitte stopped him, though; because she was a registered hero, she had a little more pull with the MCO and could get away with providing help to Addy if it came to that; as a foreigner, Walt would probably get into serious trouble if he had to help.

We needn't have worried; Addy emerged from the terminal with Ayla and Jade, the latter two carrying briefcases, while a porter behind them wheeled their luggage on a cart, and Addy clung tightly to Ayla's free hand. The limo driver raced to the rear to open the trunk, and the porter loaded their bags, being rewarded for his efforts by what was no doubt a suitably generous tip from Ayla.

No sooner had Ayla settled into the limo than Addy snuggled up beside him and began to aggressively kiss him. After a bit, they separated and Addy rested her head on his shoulder.

"Not that I'm complaining," Ayla said with a smile, "but what was that for?"

"I missed you," Addy replied, and then kissed him again.

"Oh, get a room!" Alicia said sarcastically.

Ayla disentangled himself from Addy's arms and lips for a moment. "Jade?"

"Our reservations are confirmed at the Yndo hotel. Two suites, two rooms," the pint-sized assistant recited instantly. She was being very diligent about her job, and that made me worry. Seeing or sensing my unease, she shot me another of her sweet-and-innocent smiles, which only convinced me more that she was up to something.

"If you'd like," Brigitte offered, "perhaps Monique and I can show you the best sights in Bordeaux?"

Jade piped up again; it was eerie how she seemed to be reading Ayla's mind. "I've compiled a list of the top dozen sights and attractions, as well as the top shops. There are several cathedrals and basilicas,"

Alicia and I simultaneously groaned, while Amelie and Addy chuckled. Historic churches and cathedrals seemed as common as dirt.

Jade ran down the list she'd compiled, and the results were judged by a combination of how Brigitte talked of the site and how much we either questioned or turned up our noses. Walt just sat beside Brigitte and chuckled, entertained by our running commentary. Since our trip to Paris was early Sunday morning, we decided to take a day trip to visit a chateau nearby that more closely resembled a medieval castle than the palace-like residences that many people thought of. No-one wanted to visit many museums, with the notable exception of the Wine and Trade museum. There was a lot more interest in shopping; the two primary interests were clothing and designer shops in the couture quarter and on the cours de l'Intendance.

With a plan, we checked in at the hotel, and then went to the museum. After a nice lunch at a relatively fancy restaurant - nobody expected Ayla to eat 'common' food - we started our shopping expeditions. Alicia and I enjoyed looking at expensive designer dresses and fancy evening wear. I think Addy was expecting the same based on how surprised she was when Ayla bought her a couple of very nice - and expensive - outfits. At least they were expensive to Jade, Alicia, and me.

Jewelry, fine perfumes, chocolates - we looked at all of them, and despite his looking bored half out of his skull, Walt was a good sport, no doubt because Brigitte was enjoying window-shopping, too. About mid-afternoon, Monique and the other woman from the Heroes Glorieux de Bordeaux, Angelique Zhi Liu, joined us. Poor Walt was terribly outnumbered, but he was being remarkably patient waiting in shops, holding our purses, and so on - mostly because first, he was a chaperone and was serious about that role, and second, putting up with us meant spending time with Brigitte. I couldn't help but wonder if maybe he was also using us girls to test-drive the concept of being a father. Given how he seemed glued to Brigitte's side, that wouldn't have surprised me.

Naturally, Ayla had everything delivered to the hotel, except the dresses that he got for Addy, which would be altered and delivered before we left for Paris.

Friday, July 6, 2007 - Early Evening
Bordeaux, France

We all went to a dance club for some evening entertainment; it was a little awkward because we were under eighteen, and Jade and Amelie looked far younger than most of the patrons. Without asking him, I couldn't prove that Ayla greased someone's palm to get us in but it seemed pretty obvious that he did, and asking would have been rude, so I just let it go, because it might have been a little embarrassing to Ayla, and Brigitte might have felt obligated to officially note what he'd done.

The club was pretty crowded because it was a Friday night, and though the music was good, it was a little loud. Somehow, Ayla got us a table on the second floor, so it was a little less noisy, and after getting drinks - soft drinks for all of us teenagers and wine for Brigitte, Monique, and Walt, Ayla and Addy went dancing. Since I was used to attitudes in the US, I was quite nervous watching the two walk hand-in-hand, but nobody seemed to care, even when they danced close and were practically making out on the dance floor to a slow dance.

"You're thinking of Debra, aren't you?" Walt asked rhetorically.

"Debra?" Brigitte asked him, curious.

"Kayda's girlfriend. She's one of my teammates back in South Dakota, and an alumna of Whateley."

"Ah!"

"Yeah," I admitted with a sigh. "It'd be nice to dance like that," I tilted my head toward Addy and Ayla on the floor, "without worrying about bigots."

Brigitte and Walt took a turn on the dance floor, leaving Alicia, Jade, Amelie, and me at the table. Monique and Angelique had gone home by then, begging off with the excuse that they had work and errands in the morning. After they left, it took almost no time for guys to come by the table to offer Alicia and me drinks or ask us to dance. After turning down a few guys, Alicia finally shrugged and went to dance, leaving the three of us alone. I looked again at Amelie, who was struggling desperately to stay awake, but she was younger than the rest of us, it had been a long day, and she wasn't used to being up this late.

"Maybe we should take Amelie to the hotel?" I suggested to Jade.

"Non!" Amelie protested, but her voice was strained, echoing her fatigued state. "I don't want to go back."

"Go back where?" Addy asked from behind me, having just come off the dance floor.

"Jade and I were just talking about taking Amelie back to the hotel," I replied, much to Amelie's frustration.

"I'll go get Walt and Brigitte," Addy said.

"No, no," Jade and I said simultaneously. "You guys are having fun." Jade and I exchanged glances.

"It's no big deal," I assured the two of them. "It's only a few blocks to the hotel." Ayla struggled with the idea, and Addy didn't look too keen, but I reassured them, "I've got my protection spells if we need them. We'll be okay. You two enjoy yourselves."

The two were torn, so I forced the issue by picking up my purse. "We'll be at the hotel," I said confidently. With Jade and Amelie, we strode confidently from the club.

In retrospect, it wasn't exactly a bright move on our part, but I was confident and a little weary myself. Besides, between Jade and I, we knew we could handle almost anything the city might throw at us.

Favager sat unhappily in his car, watching the club entrance. Eventually, he knew, the girls would have to come out, and they'd be able to get the whole bunch - the troublesome Vitesse girl and her mutant little sister and the Americain girl who was reputedly a mutant. Delacroix had checked, and a few mutants had entered France a few days earlier, so he was confident, especially with the anonymous tip from Chaniers, and thus assigned Favager to bring the girls in..

He perked up a bit, as did the agent in the passenger seat of the blue Citroen sedan. "I see ... two of them," he reported into the radio after grabbing the mic. "It's ... it looks like the Americain girl and the younger Vitesse girl."

"Just the two of them?" Delacroix's voice came through the speaker.

"Non," Favager answered immediately. "There's a third girl - about ten or eleven."

"She's too young to be a mutant," Delacroix made a snap decision. "Have the teams move in. When you have the Vitesse girl, I'll move into the club to offer a deal to the older one."

"Oui." Favager released the handheld mic and thumbed a button on his lapel. "All units, prepare to apprehend the two older girls." He made a quick assessment of the situation. "Let's wait until they're two blocks from the club, in case the older one follows, then we'll apprehend them."

"Jade," I said, suddenly apprehensive, "I think we're being followed."

"Same guys from earlier today?" she asked.

"How ...?" I mouthed, then sighed. Of course she would have paid attention. "I can't tell. It's too dark and they're too far away."

Jade nodded grimly, and Amelie looked between the two of us, a bit frightened by our sudden serious demeanor.

"Excuse me, miss?" The voice came from the street, from a man who'd gotten out of a car that had stopped suddenly very close to us. The man was looking directly at me.

"Stay close," I hissed over my shoulder to Jade and Amelie as I put up my shield. Showing a calm demeanor, I turned to the man. "Yes, can I help you?" I reached in my pocket and pushed a panic button built into the cell phone that Walt had insisted I bring on the trip. If I held it for ten seconds, it would immediately alert him that there was trouble. When he'd given us the phones, both Alicia and I thought it was foolish; now, it seemed quite prescient.

There should have been a soft beep when I pressed the button, but there was no sound. Still watching the man, I slipped the phone out of my pocket. To my great dismay, it wasn't working. My touching the button should have illuminated the screen, but it was black. I had a sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach, and I shot a quick glance at Amelie.

"I'm sorry!" she said fearfully, staring at my phone. "I can't help it!"

"Mademoiselle," the man was within a couple of meters, "you are from America, non?"

"Oui. Is there a problem?"

"Perhaps," the man said, still approaching. There were footsteps coming from behind us. "There have been some ... Americains ... who entered France without the proper M-visa," he said, "and there are reports of trouble."

"An M-visa?"

"You have been staying in Chaniers, oui?" When I nodded, he glanced to the side. "Can I please see your identification?"

Jade stiffened for some reason. "There are two men on foot following us. It looks like two more around the corner, and a couple of people at a table at the cafe on the next block who are paying very close attention."

"I have the proper visa," I said confidently, but inside, I was a little less sure of myself since I was in a foreign country, dealing with what appeared to be the French MCO. Based on Addy's tales of that agency, I expected that they played a little rougher than the American MCO.

"May I see them please?" The two who had been following him closed our escape route back the way we'd come, and two more closed from the café. In addition, the other man had gotten out of the car. He moved toward me, but bounced off my shield, surprising him greatly.

"Mutants or mages!" he barked as he scrambled to retain his balance. The other men drew weapons of some type.

I grabbed Amelie's and Jade's hands, and then incanted the invisibility spell. The silver outlines appeared, and the men stopped, puzzled. Then they fired energy weapons at my shield. I don't know if it showed flares on it as the energy dissipated; if it did, the invisibility portion was useless because they'd see the outline of my shield.

"Can you open a hole in the top?" Jade whispered to me. Feeling the magic, I tugged until there was a small hole in the top of my shield; I had no idea what that was doing to the visibility, but Jade launched her Kitty Compact up through the hole.

The men saw the disk appear, and they naturally looked at it just as it exploded in a dizzying torrent of colored, strobe-like flashes, dazzling and temporarily blinding them. "Let's get out of here!" Jade insisted as soon as the lightshow started. She didn't have to ask twice. Still holding Amelie's hand, we used my shield to bulldoze a path through the stunned men.

"To the hotel?" Jade asked simply.

"Yeah." We dashed down the street, pausing when we got around a corner so I could drop the awkward shield spell and cast the normal invisibility spell. Running down a street surrounded by a large, hemispherical force bubble was difficult; we bumped many pedestrians and ricocheted the edge of the shield off many cars, buildings, and other obstacles.

"Whoa!" Jade stopped suddenly, holding Amelie's hand so she was stopped as well. "Power armor!"

She wasn't kidding; there were two power armor suits near the hotel and two more suits moving down the street toward us. We had no idea if they had any detectors which would be able to find us, and we couldn't afford to take a chance. "Damn," I cursed mildly, venting my frustration, "I wish you had better control of your power!"

"I'm sorry!" Amelie cried, practically bawling. "I'm trying!"

Jade pulled us down a small alleyway off the street.

"I know," I apologized quickly. "It's not your fault. I'm just ... frustrated." I squeezed her hand reassuringly and forced a smile to try to let her know I wasn't blaming her. It seemed to be effective; the water-works stopped. We ran a little further, then I halted suddenly, staring from the alley across a street at a large park. "Hide there?"

"Yeah." Jade agreed. She glanced back over her shoulder. "Damn! How are they still following us? Infrared detectors?"

I grimaced. "No, probably magic-sensitive crystals."

"We gotta dump the spells off, then."

"But then we'll be visible to conventional heat detectors." I noted as we dashed through a gap in traffic into the park. "We'll stick out like sore thumbs against the foliage."

We darted through the park, sticking to the paths and avoiding people. Suddenly Jade stopped, grabbing my arm to stop me. "Over there!" she said, pointing.

"The building? Is that some kind of museum?"

"There are enough trees and bushes that you can drop the spells, then we can sneak into the museum to hide. Once things calm down, we can call Ayla and Twinkletoes for help." Amelie winced; she knew that Jade meant that when she calmed down, her electro-magnetic interference field would stop.

We ducked behind some trees where there weren't as many people, and I cancelled the spells. A couple of pedestrians started at our sudden appearance, but a couple making out on a park bench probably wouldn't have noticed if we were wearing pink tutus and clown noses.

"I'm going to send for the cavalry," Jade said enigmatically as we walked quickly toward the side of the museum building. One suit of power armor was flying over the alley we'd been in, and agents were closing in on the park. "Let's get inside - quickly." She led us to the front door.

"What? How are we going to get in ....?" I gawked at her when she touched the handle and the door popped open. She was a devisor, so she had some trick, but I'll be damned if I could see it.

"Isn't there ...?"

"I disabled the alarm when I opened the door," she said with an enigmatic smile. She pointed at a plaque on a wall by the door. "Challenge accepted!" she said almost gleefully.

I looked; the expansion of the Musee de Histoire Naturelle de Bordeaux had been funded by the Helen Goodkind Charitable Trust for the Sciences and Arts. I suddenly had a bad feeling about this.

Ayla led Addy back to their table after a dance, sitting just as Walt brought a fresh round of sodas for the group. As Ayla took his, the surface suddenly erupted in a rather violent motion. "What ...?" Ayla and Addy said almost in unison.

Ayla set his soda down, thinking that it was just overly-carbonated. Almost immediately, the violent motion in the drink stopped for a few seconds, and then it resumed. "What's going on?" Addy asked, quite confused.

Ayla shook his head. "I don't know." As he spoke, the drink frothed again, and then stopped. "Something ... unusual." He frowned and dug in his purse, pulling out his cell phone, fingers dancing across the keypad as he unlocked it and dialed a number. The others watched anxiously, wondering what he was up to. "Not good," he grimaced. "Jade's phone is reported off-line."

"Bad coverage?" Alicia asked, growing more concerned.

"Impossible!" Brigitte answered.

"Kayda isn't answering her phone, either," Walt said, frowning as he put it back in his pocket.

"Amelie's power ... interferes with electronics!" Addy suddenly exclaimed. "But ... it's mostly when she gets anxious or frightened or nervous. At least that's what she said!"

"They could be anywhere, too!" Brigitte said, yanking out her phone. "I'm calling the Heroes."

As she dialed, a salt shaker on the table suddenly tipped, then the group saw something small smacking into the salt shaker, tipping it again. A third time, it fell over, spilling salt on the table. As they watched, a large grain of sand began scratching a line in the spilled salt.

"Of course!" Ayla exclaimed, grabbing the salt shaker and sprinkling more salt on the table until it was coated with a thin layer. Even before he finished, letters began to appear in the salt. "M C O chasing."

"What the hell ...?" Walt started to say.

"Don't ask," Ayla cut him off; Jade's secrets were going to stay that way. "We've got to find them. Let's go." He stood, offering a hand to Addy to help her up."

"It's likely the MCO knows where we're staying," Brigitte commented as the group headed down the stairs from the second floor. "They've been following us all day. I'll have Soeur Justice go to the regional MCO headquarters to see if they're moving somewhere. If they are, we'll follow them."

"This is kind of creepy," I commented as we crept through the museum's main entrance hall. The entrance wall was almost entirely glass, and from the dim light filtering in from all the lights in the park, it was tinted to keep out the heat and glare. The net effect was unearthly illumination of the exhibits and columns, casting shadows of dinosaur skeletons and mammoth bodies against the far wall. Amelie clung tightly to my hand; she was trembling a bit, and I couldn't blame her in the least. It wasn't every day that someone was chased by the French MCO and hid in a spooky museum at night.

We were faced with a number of galleries leading off the main hall, both on the first floor and on the second floor from a wide balcony around three sides of the entrance hall, accessed by two broad flights of stairs up, one to either side.

"We probably should get out of the main hall," I suggested. "If someone looks in ...."

"But which way?" Amelie's voice was hesitant and timid, echoing her emotions. We HAD to get her calmed down so our electronics would work.

"This way," Jade said with certainty, setting off with determination down a hall. If there was any logic to why she chose that particular gallery, it escaped me. With a glance at Amelie and a shrug, I set off after Jade, with Amelie still clutching my hand desperately.

Favager looked at the crystal with disgust. "Nothing!" he practically spat. "They must have quit using their magic."

"Are you sure they're using magic and not some technology?" Delacroix asked skeptically.

"Oui," Favager said emphatically. "They were using magic earlier to hide! I pulled the records of the Americains who entered France with the Vitesse girl, to know what we might be up against. One is able to use magic; her description matches the one I approached a few moments ago."

"They could be using magic from those pesky HGB heroes!"

"Monsieur!" one of the MCO agents called out suddenly from the glass front of the museum.

"What is it, Olivier?" Delacroix asked impatiently. He had almost a dozen agents fanned out searching the park, plus another dozen agents covering the routes from the park to the hotel where they were known to be staying. On top of that, there were four power suits flying overhead cover to make sure they didn't escape.

"The door - it is slightly open!"

Delacroix and Favager perked up. "They are hiding inside," Delacroix said with certainty.

"It might be a ruse," Favager protested.

"Non," Delacroix decided firmly. "If they were outside, you'd detect them with your magic crystal," he said, distastefully spitting the word magic as if it were toxic, "and if they're not using magic, our night-vision goggles would pick up their body heat." He scowled, his features set with determination. "Non, they are inside." He looked at the agent. "Get six agents to come with me to search the museum. Post a pair at each exit in case they flee."

"We'll be very spread out," Favager noted dutifully.

"Get another dozen agents, then! I want that building cordoned off." His scowl deepened to an expression of absolute hatred. "They are not going to get away from me this time!"

"They're coming in!" Amelie cried softly. So much for getting her calmed down; with the MCO following us in the museum, her anxiety had spiked again, and with it, her power which dampened our electronics.

Jade paused in the doorway of a corridor, extracting a few things from a pocket. "What?" I asked.

She grinned wickedly. "A few surprises. In case they follow us." She couldn't have been doing much; it only took her a few seconds, which was obviously not enough time to set up an ambush or booby-trap. I wondered what she was up to.

A pair of agents crept nervously down the corridor, flashlights darting around the hall, looking at shadowed areas, watching for an ambush. Mutants, they knew, were dangerous, and the two had their weapons at the ready, in case they were attacked. So far, they'd seen nothing unusual, but the shadows cast by the lights in their unsteady hands were not helping calm them; if anything, they were getting more uneasy the longer they searched.

"There!" One agent shone his light to the side, to where he thought he'd heard a noise.

"It's just your imagination," the other agent laughed, but his amusement was cut short when he suddenly sprawled forward, having caught his feet on something unseen. His light clattered to the floor and skittered out of his reach, and before he could give his partner a warning, the other man, too, was on the ground.

"They ..." he started to shout, even as his feet were encircled and some kind of thin, invisible cord wrapped him and pulled him tightly against his partner. Alas, he no more than opened his mouth than a sock, tied to the end of the cord, practically leaped into his mouth, and a couple of twists of very fine wire left him trussed up like a Christmas turkey. At least his partner, lashed tightly to him and squirming against the bindings, hadn't been spared the indignity, so he couldn't be made fun of for his circumstances.

"Do you have any idea where we are?" I asked Jade, looking around in near total darkness. If it hadn't been for the magic detection ability the agents had exhibited earlier, I would have cast a night-vision spell on the trio of us. Now, though, it'd be a beacon to the agents pursuing us.

"An Asian exhibit, I think," Jade said, looking around. "Here - let's hide behind these display cases!"

"They're close!" I hissed insistently to the pint-sized terror.

Jade wasn't paying attention, but in the very faint security lighting, I saw that she was staring intently at a display case. Even as a pair of men cautiously walked into the gallery where we were hiding, their flashlights dancing around the room as they searched for us.

Wincing, I began an incantation under my breath, but Jade's hand on my arm stilled me. Curiously, I stared at her; I was going to need to use magic to get out of this one.

Instead, Jade reached up to the display case, laying her hand on the lock, which seconds later sprang open. Gingerly opening the glass, she reached in and did something to the figure contained therein.

The agents must have heard the faint noise, because two cones of light swung our way; I was ready once more to cast a spell to protect us. But before I could, there was a very Asian-sounding cry, and to my utter amazement, the samurai armor hanging on a mannequin leaped off and took human shape, sword in hand, facing the two startled MCO agents.

The agent on the left recovered first; he shot his stun weapon at the armor. I wish I could have seen beyond the bright light to see his face; his expression had to be precious when he realized that his weapon had no effect. He shot a second time, again to no effect, and in the light of his flashlight, we saw the samurai's blade slash through the air.

A shower of sparks erupted from the dismembered device in the agent's hands, and another flash caused a similar reaction in the second agent's weapon. From the sudden odor, he'd probably wet himself; startled, he was slow to reach for his pistol. In the meantime, the samurai slashed again, expertly slicing the belt of one agent.

Both men, one hobbling and trying to hold up his pants, turned and fled in absolute terror, and the ghostly samurai warrior gave chase, making appropriate Bruce Lee-like noises as it moved without touching the floor.

"That's going to attract attention," I grimaced. "Let's get out of here." As quietly as we could, we fled down deeper into the museum.

One of the agents, following the soft noises, padded softly through a connection between the two wings, his flashlight off and his pistol at the ready. Tiptoeing, he skirted the edge of a display, carefully navigating through a cordon of velvet ropes.

Without warning, the ropes leaped up and attacked him, quickly encircling him and tying him fast. He had no time to call out before, bound and gagged, he collapsed to the floor.

Friday, July 6, 2007 - Midnight
MCO Headquarters, Bordeaux, France

Soeur Justice sat on her perch overlooking the MCO building, night-vision binoculars in hand. There was some kind of activity going on - suddenly the building had been lit up and a mad dash of people poured in. "What are you doing?" she whispered to herself rhetorically.

A garage door was flung open, and two MCO vans charged forth, driving madly through the light midnight Bordeaux traffic.

"Ah!" she said to herself as she lifted into the air to give chase, "now let's see where you're flying to!" She thumbed a microphone on her comm gear. "They're moving!" she said urgently.

"Any idea where?" came Orchidee Quantique's voice in her earpiece.

"Not yet, but it looks like they're heading toward the city center."

"The hotel?" Dix Tonne's voice interrupted.

"Possibly," Soeur Justice answered.

"Non," another voice called out, Flamme Bleu. "The hotel is calm; the agents have it staked out, but they're not moving and they don't look agitated."

"I'll keep on their tail, then." Soeur Justice focused on the vans. She released the mic button. "Come on, fledglings," she urged softly. "Fly to your mama."

Friday, July 6, 2007 - Midnight
Musee de Histoire Naturelle, Bordeaux, France

Delacroix, at an improvised command post at the reception desk of the museum, saw a light go off on a panel indicating that an emergency exit door had been opened. "Someone has exited the east doors!" he called into the microphone attached to his lapel.

"It's Le Roux and Huet!" one of the agents stationed outside responded.

"What?!?"

"They are both screaming something about a ghost samurai," the agent reported, sounding more than a trifle skeptical. "They said it was chasing them."

"Have they had too much wine with their dinners?" Delacroix spat in disgust.

"Non, Monsieur," the agent reported. "And ... their equipment belts and clothing has been cut very precisely, even though they have no injuries!"

"What the hell is going on here?" Delacroix angrily muttered to himself after releasing the push- to-talk button.

"That's five down," Jade said cheerfully as we crept through a passage into another gallery.

I pointed to the stairs. "Up? They're not looking there."

"Yet," Jade said, throwing a little cold water on my idea.

"How do you know there are five down?" I asked. Even as I spoke, I wasn't sure that I wanted to hear the answer, even if she was forthcoming. "Never mind."

"Have you got anything that'll knock them out and keep them out for a few hours?" Jade asked.

I nodded. "But I need water and a non-metallic cup."

"There's a water fountain," Amelie reported. I don't know if she was amused or still frightened, but at least she was doing more than just following us.

"I've got a small bottle in my holdouts," Jade added.

I didn't want to know why. There was too much about her that was, frankly, disturbing. Nodding, I put some water into the small vial, then put in herbs and mouthed the proper incantation. "That'll do it," I said. "A tiny bit should knock a man out for six or seven hours."

"How are you going to get them to drink it?" Jade asked with a puzzled frown.

"I won't," I replied, pulling out a small shard of a porcupine quill from my pouch. "A drop on this, and a little poke, and they'll be out."

Jade got another of her patented wickedly evil grins. "I'll take care of that," she said, reaching out for the bottle and the quill. Curious, I gave them to her, and almost instantly, the two flew off, leaving me curious. "A little trick," she said with a smug little smile.

We started into another gallery, but were both astounded when we heard agents rumbling through the gallery we were headed into, and as we turned to duck back out, there was noise down the staircase, indicating we were trapped between the pairs in a gallery of a huge assortment of preserved, mounted wildlife.

Jade got a determined look in her eyes, but I had a sudden idea. "You cover the back entrance," I whispered. I let myself slip momentarily into dream space, and when I came out, I was grinning. "This is going to be fun!" I managed to keep from chortling.

The two agents already on the floor were coming into the room, flashlights dancing around as usual. Hearing a loud snort from one side, both beams turned to the displays, dancing over the various animals.

From within a display of large, European Bison, a shadowy white figure materialized, solidifying as it charged toward the agents. For the briefest of moments, they stared at the apparition, then one pulled his weapon and fired his stunner while the other ducked and rolled to one side, choosing self-preservation over the other agent's display of heroics.

Just before the white bison got to the brave agent, it vanished into thin air, leaving him shaking and gawking at the empty air. Shaking badly, his flashlight played around the room; if not for a small display which we were crouched behind, he'd have most certainly spotted us.

The other man rejoined his partner on his feet, looking around more. "What ... what was that?" one asked his voice cracking with nerves.

"I ... I don't know!" the other man hissed, his voice quavering uneasily.

There was a snorting noise behind the pair, and they turned, totally startled, their lights swinging onto the huge white bison that was pawing the floor a few feet from them, snorting. The flashlights which had been bobbling shook furiously, and as Tatanka lowered his head and took a couple of charging steps, the two dropped their lights and ran, screaming, down the hall.

"That was cool," Jade said with a grin.

"Yeah, but someone heard. There'll be more coming."

"Like the two coming up the stairs?" Jade asked. "Let's get out of here." She paused by one stuffed animal as we exited, and then we quick-timed it out of that gallery, ahead of the pursuing agents by a few seconds.

The abandoned flashlights were still lit, and the pair of agents frowned. Something had happened. One tapped the mic on his lapel. "Lefevre here," he reported. "Something happened up here. It sounded like a fight, and we found standard-issue equipment abandoned."

Delacroix's voice was unpleasant in the earpiece. "Can't you guys apprehend three little girls?" he demanded impatiently.

Lefevre winced, while his partner shrugged. "They had to have gone this way," the partner said. "There's no other way out."

As they strode to the entrance of the animal display gallery, a throaty roar exploded in the air above them, startling them both. Before they could react, a huge stuffed polar bear, fixed in a towering standing pose, toppled forward, growling, reaching for the agents.

Frozen with fright, Lefevre was slow to move, and the polar bear crashed upon him, pinning him between its outstretched arms as if it was going to eat him. He did what anyone in that position would have done - he fainted.

Unseen to the second agent who was running for dear life, a small quill slipped between the stuffed bear and the inert man and then poked a spot of exposed skin of the MCO agent. In moments, he was snoring loudly.

"He's chasing us!" I hissed to Jade.

"Not on purpose," Jade whispered back. "I think he's running for his life." She stopped suddenly, then ducked into a gift shop. A moment later, she was out and we ducked into a side gallery to hide from the fleeing agent.

We'd no sooner gotten ourselves out of sight than the man ran by. Jade was grinning, and I wondered why, but then a huge number of plushy stuffed animals flew out of the gift shop and swarmed over the man, tackling him and holding him down. One stuffed mastodon shoved its trunk into the guy's mouth, gagging him, and after a moment, he was still. The plushy toys fell away from him into an inert pile on the floor. I knew without doubt that Jade and the quill were going to take care of that agent, too. And as we watched, a permanent marker pen flew from inside the gift shop and began to draw; as we walked by, I couldn't help but snicker at the bad curled moustache and stupid goatee which had been drawn on his face. Jade just grinned wickedly, convincing me even more that I never, ever wanted to do combat with her in the sims or the arenas.

Friday, July 6, 2007 - Midnight
Bordeaux, France

Soeur Justice saw the vans stop and as agents spewed out of the vehicles, she tapped her mic. "They're stopping and surrounding the Jardin Public and the Jardin Botanique," she reported. "It looks like they're concentrating on the Musee de Histoire Naturelle."

Dix Tonnes' voice clicked on. "Copy. That's where the fliers seem to be circling."

Mage Astre chimed in. "Walt is guarding the others at the hotel; I opened a gate to teleport them there. Let's gather at the Cours de Verdun near the Esplanade. It's close to the hotel and we can plan our course of action."

"Oui." "Okay." "Good idea."

Friday, July 6, 2007 - Midnight
Musee de Histoire Naturelle, Bordeaux, France

We paused in a gallery of history, where there were many, many historical dioramas. I paused at one; it seemed to show a vast Roman army encampment and a nearby Gallic village. What was peculiar, and what caught my attention, was the figures in the village - one was short, with a long, moustache and a winged helmet, standing beside a very large (fat) figure with blue-and-white striped pants and carrying what appeared to be a miniature obelisk. The third noteworthy one was tall and thin, with a beard trailing nearly to the ground and carrying a sickle of some kind. They seemed familiar somehow.

Hearing agents nearby, Jade fiddled with the display case, popping it open. If she ever decided to be a cat-burglar, she'd be awesome; I hadn't seen any lock or security device defeat her so far. "Okay, let's go," she said urgently as she turned from the display.

The soft background noises - shrieks, deep moans, chains, haunting wind sound - were unnerving to the agents as they strolled through a history display, sounds that had no place in a museum of natural history but which would have been perfectly at home in any decent haunted house. With the other news that had come over their earpieces and the sounds of other disturbances in the museum, the two were understandably uneasy.

A soft creak caught their attention, their flashlights shakily turning toward the offending noise. "Someone left a case open," the first agent said as the light highlighted the display. Curiously, he walked over, his light dancing on the case. "Hey, come look!" he urged his comrade. "Someone has a sense of humor!" He bent forward to more closely examine the little figures.

Without warning, the odd little figure with the winged helmet turned and leaped up, poking him in the nose with the tiny plastic short-sword in the figure's hands. He started to react, just as all of the little figurines flew from the case, their plastic swords and spears poking into the two agents like a swarm of angry bees to the accompaniment of blaring Roman trumpets. The two men tried to run as they swatted and batted at their miniature antagonists which were doing little damage but quite effectively neutralizing them.

Agent Bouchet gritted his teeth as he sneaked into a gallery of Middle Eastern and Persian art. So far, all he'd heard on his comm system was total chaos, and he was tired of it. He was not going to let a couple of little girls make a monkey out of him as they apparently had with some of the other agents.

Something went swish ahead of him, and he played his flashlight - just in time to see a massive dark thing swoop through the air at him. He ducked, spinning on a heel, his flashlight searching for the offending item as his other hand reached for his sidearm. He was met by a huge, soft mass of fabric which smacked into him, knocking him back off his feet. As he scrambled to regain his footing, the flying thing came at him again, this time low at his feet, and with the proper nudges, he pitched forward onto whatever it was.

He was prepared for pain, but he gasped when he landed on something soft. And then it was moving - fast. He tried to roll off, but the carpet - and it was now clear to him that it was a carpet - did something to roll him back into the middle. It hurtled down the corridors, ducking and weaving, and Bouchet clawed his way to the front, hanging onto the leading edge and trying to make out what was ahead of them.

The carpet wove in and out of displays, then flew out of the gallery and over the railing of the second floor balcony. He looked down, seeing the floor six or seven meters below, and he reacted by screaming like a frightened child.

The carpet ignored him, swooping at high speeds around the huge entrance hall, buzzing Delacroix, and scaring Bouchet to the point he knew he was going to die. Once more, the carpet flew high, speeding into a different gallery, dodging display items, until it suddenly halted mid-air, pitching Bouchet unceremoniously into a wall; he landed with a loud 'oof' and then crumpled into an ungainly heap on the floor.

Agent Devaux heard a noise over by the wall - kind of an unearthly wail; his light shone onto the wall, where it landed on a historical painting of Joan of Arc. For some reason, the figure looked pale, even though he'd never been in this museum and hadn't seen this particular painting, but like every Frenchman, he knew the image of Saint Joan d' Arc. As he pondered the painting, the whitish outline seemed to emerge from the image, forming a ghostly but very beautiful image of the beloved saint in three dimensions.

DeVaux stood, riveted in place as he beheld the lovely specter, fascinated more than he was frightened.

Then the apparition changed, the face withering away to a hideous skeletal form, with fangs on the teeth and hollow eyes. It darted from the painting toward him, freezing him momentarily with terror, and then he turned to run for his life.

He'd been so enraptured with the image that he'd never noticed the tiny capuchin monkey creep up behind him and carefully, silently, tie his shoelaces together. DeVaux tripped and pitched face-first to the floor, knocking himself out in the process. A quill poked him in the ass, administering a bit of potion just to make sure he stayed out.

Delacroix stood in the entry hall, rage having overcome him. Agents had fled, or were no longer reporting in, and all because of three little girls! He stormed into one gallery where agents had gone but had not come out; he found the two trussed up with some kind of fine cable, gagged and bound and helpless. Nearly screaming in fury, he started further into the museum, only to halt and turn suddenly when he heard some clattering behind him.

With a quick turn, Delacroix leveled his gun at the noise. But a cloud of glitter blinded him momentarily, and when he got out of it, he gaped at a modest-sized dinosaur skeleton stalking him. Leveling his gun, he pulled the trigger - and nothing happened. Frantically, he racked the gun and pulled the trigger again. Still, nothing happened.

With a terrifying roar, the dinosaur charged at him.

Delacroix turned and ran, speeding like a scared rabbit out of the gallery, through the next one, and out the door, never once looking back.

After Delacroix had run, terrified, out of the museum, the three of us, giggling, did high-fives, while beside us, the animated dinosaur skeleton did a little victory Irish jig. Amelie giggled and gawked, clearly confused but also quite amused by the extraordinarily-bizarre spectacle. At least to her; to Jade and I, it seemed like a normal Whateley day.

Once the moment passed, I pulled out my cell phone. "We're back in business." I dialed Addy immediately.

"Hello, Addy?" I asked, having switched the phone to speaker mode.

"Kayda? What's going on?" She sounded more than a little frantic.

"We decided to visit the museum," Jade called out with a giggle.

"What?"

"Long story," I said with a chuckle. "Amelie, Jade, and I are okay."

"Good! The Heroes Glorieux de Bordeaux are looking for you."

"Well, you can tell them where we are now. We'll stay put so they can find us,"

Soeur Justice and Orchidee Quantique charged into the museum, expecting the girls to be distraught or in danger, or both. The two heroes pulled up short when they beheld the three girls sitting on the floor beside a dinosaur skeleton amidst total carnage, calmly playing cards as if nothing had happened. The most amazing thing to the women was that the dinosaur was kneeling down and playing an active hand in the card game. Soeur Justice circled behind the reception desk and found an electrical panel; with a few snaps, the lights came on.

"Good God!" Orchidee Quantique mouthed in amazement at the mess, which included skeletons, armor, hundreds of tiny plastic figurines, and a variety of other artifacts, all in a state of total disarray. "What happened here?"

"The MCO guys were a little rude, and they made a bit of a mess," Jade said innocently. At the shocked looks on Soeur Justice's and Orchidee Quantique's faces Jade hopped up. "Oops," she said quickly, reaching into the dinosaur. "I should have turned this one off, too." She pulled a device from the skeleton, and as the bones collapsed into a heap, the little gizmo she'd extracted whined, "But we haven't finished the game..." as the voice faded away.

Saturday, July 7, 2007 - Early Morning
Bordeaux, France

"Halt!" a voice called sternly as we strode out of the hotel to get into the limo to go to breakfast.

We turned, and Addy paled. "Monsieur Delacroix!" she mouthed in shock. Without a second thought, I had a shield spell up around us.

Delacroix, holding a nasty-looking weapon of some form, turned his gaze to me. "And you - Mademoiselle Franks? You will both come with me to the MCO office to investigate your violation of regulations regarding mutant activity." The look in his eyes was wild, like he had been pushed past his breaking point. I winced; people that fatigued or crazy were dangerous.

Brigitte was in her hero costume in the blink of an eye, and she stepped forward. "Monsieur Delacroix," she said evenly, "you have no authority to detain these girls."

"She," he pointed at me, "entered France under a false MID, in violation of international treaties!" He turned his maddened gaze to Adalie. "And she is complicit in crimes dating to last summer!"

"Monsieur Delacroix," Brigitte, Mage Astre, said calmly, "please put down your weapon. Right now, you are the one in violation of French law. You know that you cannot detain any minor without authorization from the Juridictions pour Mineurs or the Ministry of Justice."

Delacroix didn't waver one iota. "They will come with me."

A van screeched up to a stop behind Delacroix, and a swarm of armed men emerged. Shit - how many reinforcements had he brought? Then I noticed that the men were all looking at Delacroix. One man who appeared to be in charge marched up to the MCO chief. "Monsieur Delacroix?"

"Oui," he answered. "You've come to help me detain these dangerous mutants, oui?"

"Non, monsieur," said the police chief or captain or whatever rank he was. "I am here to place you under arrest for attempted violation of civil rights of two French citizens and an Americain citizen lawfully in France, and for ordering actions which resulted in tens of thousands of Euros in damage to the Musee de Histoire Naturelle. We have security footage which shows you commanding a team in the museum attempting to make an unlawful apprehension."

Delacroix's eyes nearly bugged out. "But ... I have a responsibility to protect citizens of France from dangerous mutants!"

"Lower your weapon," the captain said sternly.

Agent Favager stepped forward, to the side of his boss. "Mon ami," he whispered gently, "The Bureau suggested that perhaps you are in need of some time off."

"Are they ... firing me?" Delacroix looked quite panicked and a little unstable.

"Non, non, non, mon ami," Favager replied quickly. "You and I - we have worked very hard, and I know that you have not had a vacation from the office for over two years. You need some time to rest. And then you can return to help me protect France, oui?"

"I am not being fired?"

"Non, mon ami," Favager assured his boss, gently pressing the barrel of his firearm down so it was no longer threatening the girls. "The Bureau wants you to take some rest, so that you can return refreshed, ready to fight the mutants that threaten our way of life." With minimal resistance, he took the firearm out of Delacroix's hands.

One of the gendarmes relieved Favager of the weapon, and the Gendarme Captain stepped forward. "Monsieur Favager?"

"Oui?"

"By order of the Aquitaine Juridictions pour Mineurs, you are to take charge of the Bordeaux regional office of the MCO until such time as an investigation is completed. You are to stand down all investigations on ALL mutant activities pending an investigation of the Inspectorate-General of the Ministry of Justice. Do you understand?"

Favager looked like he'd swallowed something particularly foul. "Oui, monsieur."

He turned back to Delacroix. "Monsieur, will you come peacefully?"

Delacroix wanted to protest, to fight for his job, but even his sleep-deprived and rage-addled mind knew that he had no chance given the size of the Gendarme squad deployed. With a heavy sigh, he nodded.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007 - Evening
Paris, France

"Go ahead and have fun dancing. I'm going back to the hotel," I said to Ayla and Addy as we exited a very fine restaurant. After a fun day on Saturday in Bordeaux, we'd taken the TGV to Paris, and since Sunday, we'd been visiting tourist sites and doing shopping; Addy and Alicia and I particularly enjoyed the shopping. Now it was our last night in France; in the morning we'd take a flight to Chicago, and then go our separate ways.

Naturally, Addy wanted to spend every possible moment with Ayla, and I quietly signaled to Alicia that we should let them have all the time together - alone - that they could. Walt insisted that Ayla's hired limo drop us off at the hotel, and then he and Brigitte accompanied Ayla and Addy out for a night of dancing.

"Are y'all goin' t' tell me the whole story behind the museum?" Alicia asked as we rode the elevator up to our rooms.

"Like I said," I explained again, "Jade is a pretty potent devisor."

"Yeah, but makin' a dinosaur skeleton dance?" Alicia asked, skeptically. "And some of the other stuff Amelie was talkin' about?"

"She's young," I chuckled, "and she was terrified. Of course she was going to exaggerate." Addy had been good enough to not ask questions, and she'd told Mage Astre to help suppress the security video. It could have been devastating to Jade's and my true powers. Fortunately, the HGB understood completely, and with a friendly judge, they got the video secured.

"Speaking of secrets," I said, opening the door into Alicia's and my room, "how did you two get Wihinape's sizes?"

Adalie chuckled. "Your buffalo has a wicked sense of humor."

"Yeah, I figured it was him, but how?" I flopped on my bed, wearied by another day of sightseeing and shopping.

"When you were showin' him off to the HGB," Alicia grinned, "Addy made sure you were distracted while I talked to him."

I sighed, not sure whether to laugh, cry, or be upset with my spirit. "Mom's going to have a cow!"

"Danny isn't going to be too happy, either!" Alicia laughed aloud. "Ah wish Ah was there t' see it when you show him."

"Was Ayla in on it, too?" It was a very fancy, very expensive, ultra-feminine lingerie set with bra, panties, garter belt, and stockings, all in Wihinape's size, that the girls had purchased without me noticing. I'd only noticed yesterday evening - too late to return it, which would have been impossible anyway since they'd conveniently 'lost' the receipt.

"What do you think?" Alicia asked bluntly.

"Yeah, I figured as much." I leaned back and grabbed the TV remote. "Well?"

"Well, what?"

"You wanna do this again next year?"

"Maybe," Alicia answered in an exaggerated drawl. "No snake demons?"

"Can't make promises."

"And y'all will take us along next time you haunt a museum?"

"Yeah." I couldn't help but laugh. "Jade is absolutely crazy."

"Everyone knows that."

"After that little adventure, I don't want to ever battle her, in the arena or the simulators."

Alicia chuckled. "That does seem to be the prevailing sentiment on campus."

After flipping through channels while we'd talked, I shut off the television with a disgusted grunt. "Nothing on." I rose from the bed. "I'm gonna get a soda. You want one?"

"Sure." She levered herself up from her bed. "Ah'll come with."

Wednesday, July 11, 2007 - Late afternoon
O'Hare Airport, Chicago, IL

I gave Ayla a warm hug. "Thanks," I said with feeling. "That was a fun trip." Alicia had already dashed to another gate to catch her connecting flight to New Orleans.

"From what I've heard," Ayla replied, "you three might have caught the 'Kimba Curse'."

"No thanks. You guys can keep it."

"Addy and I have talked about a trip to France over the winter break. Do you think you and Alicia would be interested?"

"Nah," I shook my head. "You two need special time together, and while I can't speak for Alicia, I know sometimes I feel like a third wheel."

"We have a while before Christmas," Ayla retorted. "Plenty of time to think about it. Have a good rest of your summer. We'll see you back at school."

"You, too." I gave him another quick hug, then watched him and Jade walk away from Twinkletoes and me. We'd arrived in terminal 5, the international terminal, and Walt and I were flying to Sioux Falls from terminal 1, while Ayla and Jade had flights from terminal 3.

"Well, that was fun," I said, falling in beside Walt to trudge to our gate.

"Yup," he said simply, a contented smile on his face.

"She's still nuts about you," I said after a bit of silence. "Just like you are about her."

"I know."

"What are you going to do?"

Walt shrugged. "I don't know. I guess I could try to persuade her to immigrate and join the League, or go to Bordeaux and join the Heroes." We walked a bit further without words; his mind was obviously still in Bordeaux with Brigitte. "You are going to tell Deb everything, aren't you?"

"Um," I hedged, "yeah."

"Including the museum? And Delacroix?"

I frowned. "I suppose you're going to tell her if I don't."

"She loves you and worries about you," he said simply. "She deserves to know."

"Yeah, I know." We walked a ways further. "Mom's coming down Friday morning, so we'll probably have Japanese food again."

"Deb'll love that."

Walt suddenly stopped and put his hand on my shoulder, causing me to turn to face him. "I had a fun trip. It's fun traveling with you and your friends. You're ... like a little sister to me," he stammered. "I don't have a sister, but ... I guess you're kind of filling that role."

"And you're like a big brother. All you guys are." I smiled. "Now, how about my appreciative, loving big brother buys us dinner? I'm starved!"

FIN

Comments   

+2 # ShockHawk 2016-07-12 04:45
The frustratingly miniscule mention of the fallout from "All The Kings Horses" has me very concerned... Which essentially guarantees I will be coming back for more. Well done. I'm no expert, but I give it a 9.5/10.
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+4 # elrodw 2016-07-12 13:30
I'm working on the followup to All The Kings Horses, so fear not - there is more to be said of that tale.
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+1 # Negation 2016-07-13 03:50
I thought Jade would be Queen of the Ultraviolents by now or is she... :o
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-1 # brudin 2016-07-13 08:44
Love the asterix et obelix reference :lol:

By the way, there is only 5 gare in paris not 6 ( gare du nord, gare de l'est, gare d'austerlitz, gare montparnasse et gare st lazare).
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0 # Observer 2016-07-13 11:08
Jade finally injected some much-needed *hustle* without too much time spent talking (the Gen 2 characters all seem to talk a lot). Also, there was an incredible amount of sugar.

Thank you for your hard work, and especially for that glimpse of Jade, which to me was the heart of this story.
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+2 # elrodw 2016-07-13 13:27
Quoting brudin:
Love the asterix et obelix reference :lol:

By the way, there is only 5 gare in paris not 6 ( gare du nord, gare de l'est, gare d'austerlitz, gare montparnasse et gare st lazare).


Hmm - the source I checked said six. Thanks for the correction - it's fixed.
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+2 # Naldru 2016-07-15 04:53
And then https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_railway_stations_in_Paris lists seven.

Gare d'Austerlitz
Gare de Bercy -- This is an Auto-Train terminal
Gare de l'Est
Gare de Lyon
Gare Montparnasse
Gare du Nord
Gare Saint-Lazare
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0 # essara 2016-07-13 16:14
Really good, Love the story.

Just a small question, do you have an editor or someone that speaks fluent french in your group?

Its mainly small stuff. I.E. "Ma amie" should be "Mon amie",
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-1 # Kristin Darken 2016-07-14 13:55
Essara, that assume that the person saying it is using proper, formal French. Alicia, for example, speaks French fairly well after a school year of it at Whateley, but the bulk of her experience with the language is from her Cajun childhood...

And then there's slang and variations depending on regional dialect and so on... are you 'sure' its wrong? :)
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0 # essara 2016-07-14 20:05
There are variation in dialect for sure but there are rules that don't get changed no matter the region. Cajun French, France french, quebec French (eastern canadian), manitoba French (central canadian). is just like British English, Australian English, Jersey english, texan english... All have different expressions but some rules are set all across regions.

In french, Some words are part of the male group (I.E. Un garçon ... a boy), some words are part the female group (I.E. une fille .. a girl). then there are words that can take either gender. They have the same base spelling but vary in end spelling depending on gender (I.E. un ami / une amie). And I could go on.....

Also, the "ma amie" was spoken by Adelie, a France native.

Just pointing out that saying "ma amie' instead of 'mon amie" is like saying "mine friend" instead of "my friend"
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+1 # Valentine 2016-07-16 23:19
At least is English that isn't true.

In the UK someone goes to University, Hospital, etc.
In the US someone goes to the University, the Hospital, etc.

Rules vary all over the world.

American English and UK English use the same words (mostly), but not the same rules.
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+1 # Naldru 2016-07-15 16:02
Quoting essara:
Really good, Love the story.

Just a small question, do you have an editor or someone that speaks fluent french in your group?

Its mainly small stuff. I.E. "Ma amie" should be "Mon amie",


Look at http://forum.wordreference.com/threads/fr-my-friend-female.1133330/. There are some rules concerning nouns starting with a vowel. However, I know that some of these rules may vary between Cajun French, Canadian French, Belgian French, and French French. (Don't know if this one has variants.)
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0 # essara 2016-07-15 17:30
i can say with near 100% certainty that Canadian French, Belgian French, and French French follow all the same rules, It is also surprising that Canadian French tries hard to keep its french and use less English-ized words. Example in France they would say "weekend" but in canada we would say "fin de semaine"

If you want to have some fun trying to read a "French" language, you should check out "Acadian French" also known as 'Chiac'. It is spoken in some Eastern Canadian maritime area. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiac

It is a mix of French, English and Native American.
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+1 # Kristin Darken 2016-07-15 23:14
Well... I can say that generally, authors prefer that if you're going to go OCD on typos and miss-spellings (and yes, I'd categorize the use of a special case mon instead of ma before amie because it starts with a vowel on the same level as a typo or a miss-spelling), that you do so with a PM... usually leading that PM off with "hey, I caught a typo/misspelling/grammar thing... do you want a note on it for fixing?"

Why? Because none of us are paid for this, we aren't using professional editors (or the few who are, I don't think are paying for them - and if THEY are, YOU aren't). And generally, once I post a story; I'm done with it. Even if there's all sorts of problems... I'm rarely going to go back and fix it unless its going to have an impact on other stories.

Why? Because I have a limited amount of time. I can spend that time fixing site problems, or correcting typos, or writing new content. When the time is used up, its used up. We'll all in the same boat... and we'd far rather work on more new stuff that go back and spend our time fixing problems that are only a problem for 3 readers out of the thousands who visit the site.

So... if this REALLY matters to you... PM the author. ASK if he wants the note. He might take it simply not to make the same mistake in the future. He might not. And its possible its not going to get fixed. But that's up to him.
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0 # Naldru 2016-07-16 02:23
I like your idea of saying that grammatical, idiomatic, or typographical errors in French (or Japanese or whatever other language is used) should be treated in the same way as the same type of errors in English. (A private message to the author.)

When it gets really bad, I suggest that people read the lyrics to the Mystery Theatre 3000 theme song: "It's only a show". Otherwise, we risk reenacting the famous scene at Gare Montparnasse (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montparnasse_derailment) and have a real train wreck.

Therefore, let me apologize to those who I have offended without knowing.
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0 # essara 2016-07-18 17:10
Im sorry if you took my comment as an OCD comment.

I simply asked if they had known someone that could help further. My comment was intended to help, NOT to nitpick.

But on the same subject, ElrodW did fix the part in his story about having 5 "gares" in Paris instead of 6 in a comment post earlier then my OP.

I know it can be hard to write in a language that you are not very familiar with. I was just trying to help out as French is my native language.

But hey, to each their own.

Like I said in my OP, good story and cant wait for the next stories in the story line ElrodW.
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+1 # elrodw 2016-07-20 14:15
I was going to send you a PM, but I didn't see your name in the user list, so I couldn't.

I ask that you please let me know things I'm doing wrong, but PM would be a preferred method. If not, please note that you found a few discrepancies and I'll give you my e-mail addy so we can discuss them. If people quit telling me about these things, I won't be able to fix them. All I ask is that comments be constructive in nature and not snarky, esp in public.

If you have expertise in a given area (say you're a Parisian and I'm going to write "The Further Adventures of Kayda, Addy, and Jade in Paris, or How Jade Trashes the L'Ouvre", you know things that could help the story "feel" more accurate, and I'd like to take advantage of that knowledge. Again, though, it would be by PM or e-mail )because I do want to keep plots and such rather hidden until debuting the story).
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+2 # Dpragan 2016-07-13 19:17
Jade mayhem at it's finest, this time with 30% fewer zombies!

I have to wonder if some mutants might begin declaring war on the MCO soon-ish.

I have to wonder if Jade has blown her cover to Kadya at least. Makes one wonder if we will see a Jade as a 9-tails in dream-space soon.


Edit: Or the dream-space gets overrun by the Jade Stooges aka the J-Team.
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+1 # annachie 2016-07-15 10:18
Quoting Dpragan:
Jade mayhem at it's finest, this time with 30% fewer zombies!

I have to wonder if some mutants might begin declaring war on the MCO soon-ish.

I have to wonder if Jade has blown her cover to Kadya at least. Makes one wonder if we will see a Jade as a 9-tails in dream-space soon.


Edit: Or the dream-space gets overrun by the Jade Stooges aka the J-Team.

Jade's cover was always blown with Kayda who could see the spiritual links between Jade and the rest of the J team.
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+2 # Mazaki 2016-07-15 07:51
Thank you for the Wondercute story with Jade, I can't get enough of her. I wish that I could have seen Jade's night at the museum as I am sure it was a blast, though there is a good chance that some MCO agents will never set foot within one again.
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0 # n3glv 2016-07-16 10:07
Quoting Mazaki:
Thank you for the Wondercute story with Jade, I can't get enough of her. I wish that I could have seen Jade's night at the museum as I am sure it was a blast, though there is a good chance that some MCO agents will never set foot within one again.

Seems to me the Monkey, Dinosaur and Diorama parts were
obvious homage to Night At The Museum.
Loved it, J-Team is always a trip!
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0 # Phoenix Spiritus 2016-08-12 18:19
Quoting n3glv:
Quoting Mazaki:
Thank you for the Wondercute story with Jade, I can't get enough of her. I wish that I could have seen Jade's night at the museum as I am sure it was a blast, though there is a good chance that some MCO agents will never set foot within one again.

Seems to me the Monkey, Dinosaur and Diorama parts were
obvious homage to Night At The Museum.
Loved it, J-Team is always a trip!


There is also homages to the classic "Bednobbs and Broomsticks" as well :D
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0 # Britt 2016-07-16 11:58
Highly enjoyable. The 3 figurines in the historical diorama was a nice touch. Just enough detail that is bugged me that they seemed slightly familiar as well. I just had the time to stop and google until I found it, compared to Kayda. :lol:
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0 # Kettlekorn 2016-07-18 22:41
This chapter was a blast, and the Nicole subplot was sweet. Glad to see it worked.
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