Friday Afternoon, August 31st 2007
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy
Nikki looked up at the new larger, renovated Poe cottage and took a deep breath. Dragging along the suitcase her mother had insisted on getting her, no matter how many times she'd explained she didn't need one, Nikki made for the new front lobby of Poe, unconsciously relaxing as the familiar wards of Poe welcomed her.
The renovated Poe was now 'H' shaped. Two new buildings, each as large as the previous Poe cottage, had been added to either end of the old Poe, the new works increasing Poe's size to over twice what it had been. Nikki had watched the renovations start at the beginning of summer, while she'd been staying at the guest cottages with her mother and brother, but this was the first time she'd seen the finished works. Well, almost finished, there was still scaffolding around one of the wings of the Cottage, indicating the final stages of the renovation were still ongoing.
Standing inside the new foyer Nikki took time to look around, noting the stairs leading up and down next to an open atrium, as well as the new elevators installed to the left and right. Nikki was curiously looking into the new open atrium, extending from the basement below to the floors above, when at a call she turned and smiled a greeting to the Poe Housemother.
"Welcome back my dear," Mrs. Horton welcomed Nikki with a hug, which Nikki happily returned. Leading Nikki over to the wall near the stairs, Mrs. Horton pointed to a room on the map attached there. "You've been given room 216 with Toni," she informed Nikki who smiled in delight. "Are you fine to find your own way to it, or would you like me to get someone to show you up?"
"No Mrs. Horton, I can find my own way," Nikki assured her.
"Good, I'll give Lanie, she's your new RA, a call. She'll have your room key and be able to code your door for you."
"Code the door?" Nikki asked puzzled.
Mrs. Horton smiled. "The door locks have been upgraded," she explained. "They're now fitted with fingerprint scanners and can be unlocked with just a touch of your thumb. Hopefully there'll be no more lost keys for me and the RAs to be constantly dealing with," she smiled encouragingly at Nikki, before giving her another hug and waving her over to the elevator.
Stepping out of the elevator, Nikki looked around the large refurbished common room and her eyes widened in delight. The room was much larger than it had been, with tables and chairs in the middle for group studying and two large flatscreen TVs on the walls at either end, with large comfy sofas in front of them. Nikki was still admiring the new common room when Lanie ran up, giving her a hug of greeting.
"Congrats on being a Resident Assistant," Nikki greeted her.
"Thank you," Lanie replied smugly. "For my sins I've been given the sophomore girls, so all you Team Kimba troublemakers are right this way," she smirked as she gestured Nikki to follow her. As they turned a corner, Lanie gestured to the first door on the left. "This is my room," she told Nikki. "You and Toni have the last room on this side, it's a corner room, so you have two windows instead of just one," she explained. Pointing to a door on the opposite side of the corridor as they passed it she commented. "Bathroom for this wing, fire stairs," she pointed to the 'exit' sign on the doors in the far corner of the wing. "Fine to travel between the floors, but it'll set off alarms if you open the outside doors on the ground floor, so please don't do that." She turned and pointed to the door opposite the stairs. "And here's you!" she exclaimed happily, handing Nikki a key. "Just put your thumb here until the light goes green," she instructed as she fiddled with a control panel.
Nikki complied and Lanie smiled as the door chimed. "Now the other thumb ... and that's that!" Lanie waved to her door. "Your door will now unlock at your thumbprint!"
Nikki frowned and held up the key she had been given. "If it's all thumbprint enabled, what's the key for?" she asked.
Lanie laughed. "That's for if we lose power or the computer goes haywire, or something else knocks out the thumbprint sensors, you'll still be able to manually unlock your doors and get in," she explained. "No 'my door is jammed and I can't open it!' excuses to stop you getting to class on time!"
Nikki laughed with Lanie and nodded her thanks, opening the door and whistling in surprise. While the room was only about the same size as the one she'd shared with Toni last year, it was impressively better decorated then their old room had been. The first thing she'd noticed was the brand new wardrobe, desk and beds along either side of the room. So new they shined, without a scratch or ding anywhere to mar the surfaces. Also, they were of noticeably better construction then the cheap workmanlike furniture from last year, not a piece of particleboard or pine to be seen. These pieces looked like solid wood bespoke furniture, custom made to fit the spaces they were in. The wardrobe, desk and bed perfectly fitting the exact length of the wall, no wasted space between them at all. Also the carpet was new, thick and without bald patches, the paint on the wall fresh and tasteful, no longer patched and scratched.
The next thing she noticed was the climate control panel beside the door, with both the Whateley 'flag' lights, and the larger Poe warning lights above them, clearly labeled. There were also phones on each of the desks and large flatscreen monitors on the walls above their desks to plug their Whateley laptops into.
Nikki had just put her suitcase on her bed, bending down to start unpacking, when the sound of the door crashing opened caused her to jump, letting out a surprised squeal.
"What's the matter girlfriend?" Nikki turned and laughingly hugged her roommate, Toni, as she came into the room. "Glad you could make it back!" Toni finished greeting her.
"Glad to be back," Nikki replied.
"So, what do you think of the new Poe?" Toni asked excitedly.
Nikki laughed. "I literally just walked in Toni! All I've seen is the foyer, the elevator and this room!"
"Well come on then! Let me show you around!" Toni grabbed Nikki's hand and started dragging her from the room. "You've got to see the bathrooms!" Toni gushed as she pulled her friend along behind her. "We thought Ayla did up the freshmen girl's bathrooms neat last year? You ain't seen nothing yet!" she enthused.
"Well, Ayla did say they'd gotten Hydroflux to consult on them."
"Hydroflux?" Toni's eyes widened in delight. "Really? Well, that explains the speakers then!" Toni stated with a laugh as she pulled Nikki into the new, much larger bathroom. "First thing, there's a bathroom in each of the four wings of the floor, and apparently each of the RA rooms and the attic rooms have en suites as well," Toni enthused, watching as Nikki looked around the beautifully appointed bathroom, noticing each of the shower stalls now had a solid door, no longer just a curtain.
Toni pulled her up to one of the shower stalls and opened it, waving to a small bench and hooks they could use to hang clothes and towels as they washed, and then to the immaculately clean and shiny shower stall, with its large shower head hanging from the ceiling, and a plethora of smaller jets around the hexagonal walls.
"Look Nikki," she enthused placing her hand on an outlined spot on the wall, awaking a display built into it. "Digital temperature controls, multiple spray settings, all the way from gentle mist to multiple jet torrents! It even has the ability to do hot and cold massages! And look!" Toni flicked the menu. "You can save your preferred settings so they start up the shower with a single hand print!"
Nikki played with the menus a bit, honestly impressed by the options, noticing in passing they even included one for a warm air-dry.
She turned off the monitor and Toni dragged her to the corner of the room, a huge smile on her face as she opened another door with a flourish. "Ta da! The crowning achievement!" she proclaimed waving Nikki in. Curious Nikki looked in, letting out a delighted gasp of her own. "A full length bath with water jets!" Toni exclaimed, dancing in excitement.
"A spa-bath!" Nikki exclaimed excitedly. "How many?" Nikki demanded as Toni deflated a little.
"Just the one," Toni admitted. "Mornings will still be showers for all, and we'll need to take it in turns to use the bath, but someone thought of that too!" Toni put her hand on another outlined spot on the wall, and again a display appeared. This time it gave options to book the bath, Toni excitedly pointing to the hour she'd booked it for tonight and without hesitation Nikki took the opportunity to book an hour for herself as well.
"So," Nikki drawled. "Other than the new digital showers, a spa-bath, totally renovated corridors and public spaces, elevators, the climate controlled air conditioning throughout and the all new furniture and carpets, what else have they done?" Nikki asked facetiously.
Toni's smile grew wide, till it covered her whole face. "You haven't seen the basement yet have you?" she smirked. Nikki shook her head mutely. "You think the bathroom's good?" Toni enquired. "It's nothing to what's in the basement." She shivered sensuously. "Boys and girls saunas and hot tubs, even a jacuzzi!" she moaned. "Then there are two gyms, again boys and girls, no more Hank and Hippy fighting over the weight machines, two mini-theatres, a martial arts room and even a Dance Hall! It's our own little slice of heaven! A proper little resort in the mountains for all for us!" She danced excitedly. "I can't wait for the Poe mixer! We're gonna christen the Dance Hall, saunas and jacuzzis tonight!" she proclaimed excitedly.
"Wow," Nikki murmured. "If they did this much to Poe, I wonder what they did for Hawthorne?"
Toni stopped dancing and stared wide-eyed at Nikki. "You haven't seen Hawthorne?" she asked amazed. At Nikki's denial Toni grabbed her hand and started dragging her again. "You've got to see Hawthorne!" she exclaimed starting to run down the stairs.
Bemused Nikki allowed Toni to drag her along behind her, not getting her composure back until Toni started dragging her across the Poe foyer. "But the tunnels are ..."
"Not the tunnels," Toni corrected, exiting Poe and breathing in deeply the mountain air with a smile. "You've got to see it this way," she excitedly encouraged, starting to jog as she dragged Nikki down the path to Hawthorne.
Following Toni along the path, Nikki smiled at her friend's cheerful greetings to those they passed, as well as her energetic hops and skips as they went along. Soon Toni dragged Nikki over the crest of the hill separating Poe from Hawthorne and Nikki gasped at what she saw.
"It's even better then Poe!" she exclaimed in amazement.
"Wait till you see inside!" Toni smirked. "Those on detention are gonna die of envy when they clean the bathrooms! Hydroflux showers all throughout! Special ones, designed to handle the biggest cleaning jobs, while standing up to the strongest, most out of control mutants imaginable. Ayla went all out in Hawthorne, even more then he did for Poe!"
"Really?" Nikki murmured as Toni danced up the steps to Hawthorne and rang the doorbell, smiling at Mrs. Cantrel in her powered chair who opened the door to them.
"Back so soon, Miss Chandler? I thought you'd thoroughly examined all of Hawthorne's new facilities?"
"Hi Mrs. Cantrel, Nikki's just got here and we'd like to say hi to Puppet?"
The Hawthorne Housemother smiled at the two girls and beckoned them in. "Of course you may, go right up."
Smiling her thanks, Toni led Nikki to Puppet's new room, touching a screen on the door that caused a chime to sound. Immediately Puppet's smiling face appeared waving from the screen. "Hi Toni!" she called out.
"Hi Melissa, Nikki's just arrived and she'd like to say hello?"
"Come right in!" Puppet squealed excitedly as the screen turned off and the door made a clicking sound.
As Toni reached for the door, Nikki reached out and caught her hand. "Toni! The MOPP suits!"
"Not needed anymore," Toni assured her with a smile, opening the door to a room that caused Nikki to gasp in wonder. "It's a bit 'Silence of the Lambs'," Toni commented as she waved to Puppet on the other side of the glass wall, who started making slurping noises before giggling and waving enthusiastically to the two of them and pointing to a couple of chairs at a table that was positioned to mirror the table Puppet sat at on the other side of the glass.
"What is it?" Nikki asked in awe.
"My own highly infectious diseases lab!" Melissa answered with a squeal of delight.
Toni smiled and knocked on the glass wall. "Triple glazed, high impact glass, sealed with the very best seals known to man and devisor. Dual independent air circulation, top of the line everything, including faraday shielding, all allowing Melissa to have visitors without needing them to be suited up anymore!"
"It's great!" Melissa enthused. "My own little fishbowl! Even Clair can visit me again now! Mrs. Cantrel's even said she'd allow for some of my classes to be taught here too! I'll get to be in the same room as my classmates and teachers again!" Nikki felt herself almost crying at the enthusiasm from Melissa for such a simple experience.
Toni walked along beside the pensive Nikki as they made their way back to their room in Poe. "Nikki ...?" she asked concerned. All through the tour of Hawthorne after visiting Puppet, it had been as though Nikki was on auto-pilot.
Nikki shook herself and turned and smiled at her friend. "I'm all right, just a bit tired I guess. All the traveling today taking it out of me. I'm going to go and check out the Grove for a bit, til it's my turn for the bath. I'll have a good soak, let the muscles relax before the Poe mixer tonight."
Toni nodded slowly, but watched with a frown as Nikki waved and turned off the track for Poe, down another path. For first day back, especially into the massively improved Poe, Nikki sure was looking glum, she'd not even checked to see if her girlfriend Bunny was in yet, and Toni knew that Nikki hadn't seen her all summer. All attempts Toni had made to talk about their friends had been replied to half-heartedly at best on Nikki's part. Nikki had only shown any real emotion at the mention of Ayla, but that hadn't exactly reassured Toni. Nikki had all but cried and become, if anything, even more withdrawn.
With a frown Toni set off down the path to see who else had arrived while Nikki and she had been visiting Hawthorne.
Hank knocked on the door and entered at the call to 'come in'. With a smile he caught the excited Lily as she rushed into his arms, eagerly seeking the kiss he was happy to give her. "How was your team? Any problems for them on the train down?" he asked when they separated for air.
"Good. Mom and Mrs. Strum escorted them this time, apparently Mrs. Strum was all tears as Ashley lead Peggy off to Melville. What about you? Any tears at your departure?" Lily asked, with a peculiarly intense look.
Hank blushed a little. "Mom cried a little on the platform," he admitted.
"Good!" Lily gave Hank a quick hug as he looked around a bit embarrassed
"Still no roommate?" Hank asked, noticing the empty bed and desk on the other side of the room when they separated.
Lily shrugged. "Angel got recruited to be an RA this year, she's down on your floor, I think she's looking after the freshmen girls, and all the other girls are already paired up or in singles in the attic," she smiled at Hank. "How's your roommate again?"
"You mean Danny? Or Danica?" Hank smirked.
"So cute!" Lily smiled before giving Hank a hard stare. "As a Kitty-Boy!"
Hank sighed. "You've got to let that go, he's a boy where it matters, I have no interest in him! It took him forever to finally get unpacked! I think he was embarrassed, he'd not do anything if I was there. I think he was hiding his Danica stuff, Ayla told me about some very risqué lingerie Kayda and the girls bought him in Paris as a joke."
"Ohh, Paris. When are you going to buy me risqué lingerie from Paris?" Lily cuddled up to him.
"When we go to Paris?" Hank replied giving her a kiss. "I think I'll need to get a bit more than a summer job before I can afford that," he apologised. "Or the lingerie," he rolled his eyes. "Though, if you want to go to Victoria's Secret some time and model some for me, I'm all eyes!"
"HANK!" Lily exclaimed, giving him a slap to the shoulder.
"Hey! You're the one who bought up buying risqué underwear!" Hank protested with a laugh, giving Lily another kiss. "So," Hank said looking around the immaculate room. "I see you're all finished unpacking finally," he smirked.
"Yep! These new wardrobes are huge compared to the old ones we had, and all working drawers and hangers and things! Everything fitted in like a dream!"
Hank glanced at the wardrobe, confirmed it was the same size as his, then glanced back at his girlfriend in her ubiquitous super suit. "Uh huh," he grunted. "I bet you're the only girl in Poe saying that, and I'm including Jade and Billie in the list."
"Jade needs three sets of outfits for her and her sister, and got to go to Paris with Ayla and his credit card ..."
"Not to mention her 'winnings' from her Combat Final," Hank murmured.
"And I hear Billie's mother spent a whole lot of time with her over summer in proper shopping malls and packed Billie's bags too for her return to Whateley, so neither of those count!"
Hank blinked. "How did you hear that?" he asked astonished.
"Well, Toni keeps tabs on all of you, and tells it all to her Mom, who stays in touch with Dredz's Mom, because of that thing Dredz still has about Toni, who chats about it all to my Mom while they work out in the gym, which is most of what superheroes do when not patrolling after all, and then Mom and I chat about it a lot when she's with me, because it can't be about me and my boyfriend all the time!"
"Your Mom networks Team Kimba?" Hank blurted.
"No, my Mom networks my boyfriend and his friends," Lily corrected slightly guiltily with a blush, before hurriedly changing the subject. "What about you? You all unpacked?"
Hank shrugged. "Not much to unpack, my duffle's been emptied and my bed's made."
"Hank! You know what I mean! Is that box unpacked?" she demanded as Hank's eyes widened and Lily glared at him, before grabbing his hand and dragging him to the door. "Oh no, not this year! That box is getting unpacked and your friends can just deal with it! We're not having this again!"
Lily stomped down the corridor dragging a white faced Hank behind her, ignoring the pleading noises he was making.
Hank sat blushing on his bed as his girlfriend cuddled his teddybear and purred next to him. Barely had Lily finished unpacking his 'Hannah' box into the bookshelf above his desk than Toni had walked in and discovered his DVD collection. Her screech of excitement had bought in Ayla from next door and Jade who had been going past.
"I can't believe you hid all these from us last year!" Toni berated Hank as Jade squealed excitedly and grabbed a DVD to read its cover. "You and Jamie watched these and you didn't invite us?" she demanded pouting towards Hank.
"Um ..." he mumbled, blushing brighter as Lily giggled beside him. Desperately Hank looked across the room to Ayla who was seated in Danny's desk chair watching in amusement.
Taking pity on Hank, Ayla changed the subject. "So where are Nikki and Billie? I heard they'd arrived," Ayla asked Toni and Jade.
Toni gave Ayla a concerned look, then sat down on the bed next to Hank and Lily. "I took Nikki to see Puppet and check out the new Hawthorne, then she went to the Grove."
"Ah," Ayla nodded knowingly, looking around to make sure all the others understood what Nikki would be checking on in the Grove. "I suppose that makes sense," he murmured. "She hasn't seen it since summer started."
Toni gave Ayla a glare. "Ayles, do you really think Nikki doesn't have a way of checking up on her 'special project' anytime she wishes?" she asked archly, before becoming thoughtful. "She was, I don't know...not happy?" Toni mused. "She didn't even ask about anyone else, not even Bunny, and she's only had her b-phone calls with Bunny all summer." Toni fixed Ayla with a glare. "I think she's still upset about the Solicitor thing. When I mentioned you, she became very quiet and almost cried."
Ayla looked down uneasily, and even Jade stopped looking through Hank's DVD collection to sit down on Hank's bed and face Ayla. "Ayla?" Jade began softly. "Now that we all know, can you please tell us what happened? Did Mrs. Carson threaten to expel you and not renovate Poe and Hawthorne or something?"
Ayla sighed and shook his head. "No, that's not it. Mrs. Carson came to me and asked my help. She explained that Nikki's parents and teachers were worried about her making, well an Oath, a magical one. One that due to her nature she'd be required to honour."
"A magical Oath? Like a spell?" Toni asked.
Ayla winced. "Ah, more like a voluntary compulsion," Ayla clarified. "Because of Nikki's nature, if she makes an Oath backed by her power, it would, umm, it would be unbreakable. No matter what, no matter how it changed her, she'd have had to fulfil the wording of the Oath."
"OK, but why were they afraid she'd do that?" Toni asked confused.
"Aunghadhail," Hank murmured. "They were afraid Nikki would accidentally Oath herself to fulfil Aunghadhail's Legacy."
"And?" Toni still looked confused.
"Aunghadhail's Legacy would lead to the rebuilding of the Five-Fold Courts, to Nikki becoming Queen of the Sidhe again, and that would lead to a racial war," Hank murmured. "To raise up a new Sidhe nation, she'd need to fight and subjugate us humans, fight the existing nations of the world."
"Nikki wouldn't do that!" Jade squeaked.
"That's why they were afraid of the Oath," Ayla explained. "If she made the Oath, and it came down to giving up on Aunghadhail's legacy or war between humans and Sidhe, the Oath would give Nikki no choice."
"But Nikki wouldn't do that!" Jade repeated.
"Nikki is magic Jade," Ayla explained softly. "She's especially susceptible to magical influences, that's why she has so many magical protections around her. If she'd Oathed herself, she wouldn't have been Nikki anymore, she'd have become whatever the Oath needed her to become. A Queen of the Sidhe."
"And the Sidhe were never nice to humans," Lily murmured.
"But elves are nice!" Jade cried.
"Nikki's not an elf Jade," Lily put Hank's teddybear down and got up to sit next to Jade and hug her instead. "Nikki is a Sidhe, a creature from Celtic and Norse legend, and none of those legends are bedtime stories. Sidhe are the boogeyman of those storie. The Old Ones who steal children away to enslave them forever, the Good Neighbours who hunt humans as we'd hunt foxes or rabbits, chasing them and killing them for the excitement of it."
"But Nikki's not like that! She's our friend!" Jade wailed.
"Yes she is," Ayla leaned forward, reaching out to tenderly lift Jade's face til her eyes meet his. "But she's also a Sidhe Queen, with all the power and terror that means. We must be ever vigilant to make sure that our friend Nikki remains in control, and not the magic she contains. Because if the Magic of a Sidhe Queen overcomes her, it would be very bad, for everyone."
"Way to go Ayles! Scare her why don't you?" Toni snarked, reaching out to hug Jade to her side. "So Nikki didn't Oath! She's still our friend and she's upset. What do we do now?" Toni demanded of Ayla.
"I apologised. I said I was sorry. I ..." Ayla slumped. "I don't know how to make it up to her. How to ..."
Toni rolled her eyes "You did it because she was your friend right?" Ayla nodded miserably. "You did it to protect her, not because you were threatened?" Ayla nodded again. "Have you tried telling her this?" Toni demanded, rolling her eyes again as Ayla stared at her stunned. "Nikki thinks you betrayed her because Mrs. Carson forced you to, and she's trying to be understanding, but in her heart, it still feels like a betrayal. Tell her you didn't betray her!" Toni snapped at Ayla. "Set her heart to rest! Talk to her and explain to her what truly happened!" Toni instructed the boy in the catwalk model's body.
Friday Early Evening, August 31st 2007
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy
Ayla had retreated to his room, sitting deep in thought when a perky voice interrupted him.
"What's in the baskets?" Ayla blinked and turned to see Toni smelling the baskets on his desk.
"Bath salts, potpourri, soaps and cleansers," Ayla stood and pointed to the various products. "They're to make bathing more pleasurable, for use with the new spa bath, enough baskets for everyone."
"Ah!' Toni smiled. "Is one for Nikki?"
"Yes, this one with the all natural ingredients." Ayla picked up a basket to show Toni.
"Excellent, you can give it to her now!" Toni enthused grabbing his arm and dragging him from his room. "She's just finishing her bath now and will be in the perfect mood for you to apologise to her." Toni pushed Ayla into her room and closed the door shutting him inside. Humming to herself she walked back down the corridor.
"Ah, Toni?" Hank ask cautiously as she passed his room. "Do you think it's such a good idea to force Ayla to apologise to Nikki like this?"
"Would you prefer it to fester, with Nikki being unhappy like she is? What about when she gets her menses? Do you want storms in the corridors again?"
"Now Toni, Nikki's not ..."
"Yes Hank, Nikki is that upset!" Toni replied forcefully. "She cares a great deal for Ayla and respects Mrs. Carson, and she thinks one of them forced the other to betray her!"
Hank sighed and reluctantly acknowledged Toni's point.
Ayla looked around Toni and Nikki's room, then carefully sat down on Toni's bed, nervously playing with the basket in his lap. Toni was sure that telling Nikki what really happen would help Nikki's mood, but he wasn't so sure it was a good idea. Painstakingly he rehearsed various apologies he could give to Nikki, trying to find the right mix of words to convey his sorrow, without causing Nikki more pain.
Nikki sighed and stretched. The good long soak in a hot bath was so what she had needed. She had been happy to be returning to Whateley after the long summer break, but looking at the changes made to Poe and Hawthorne by Ayla, especially for his cousin Melissa, had hurt. She hadn't expected the pain, and it had taken her a long period of meditation in the Grove before she had been able to centre herself and enter the proper state of mind to commune, and it had been a much more draining communion then she'd previously experience because of that.
Nikki had stopped at the campus store of the way back to Poe, seeking out an item she'd noticed before they stocked and been unsure why. Buying the twin pack of potpourri bath salts in the shape of balls, she'd returned to Poe just in time to retreat to the new full length spa bath for her hour of personal time.
Acknowledging the soft chime and the quiet announcement that her time with the bath was almost over, Nikki stopped the water jets and climbed out of the scented bath, letting the water out. She wrapped her hair in a towel and then dried herself with another towel before she used a touch of magic to dry her hair and dressed. Gathering up her things she opened the door and nodded a greeting to Riptide who was waiting her turn to use the bath. Nikki smiled and passed her the second of the pair of scented bath balls she'd bought at the campus store when she noticed Rip didn't have anything like it herself.
Humming her pleasure, Nikki made her way back to her room, opening the door before stopping in surprise to find someone sitting on Toni's bed, waiting for her. Slowly Nikki entered her room, putting her things away in her wardrobe and hanging the towels up to dry on the racks provided. Finally she turned to where Ayla was now standing nervously waiting for her.
Ayla swallowed, once again almost paralysed by Nikki's aura. A combination of her glamour and beauty. A summer away from it meant he was having to reaccustom himself to her presence again, almost from scratch.
"I thought you might like these?" Ayla offered holding out the basket to her.
Nikki came close and couldn't help smiling at the expensive basket of bath scents and soaps Ayla had bought her. All natural ingredients she couldn't help noticing as she took it from him.
"Thank you," she murmured, taking the basket and sitting it on her desk before seating herself on her bed and waving Ayla to sit himself.
Ayla watched the effortlessly graceful moves of Nikki. The stately seating, the formal wave of invitation, the way her body automatically settled into the perfectly beautiful and commanding position on her bed.
Staying standing Ayla cleared his throat, he still wasn't convinced this was a good idea. "I, ah. I have something to discuss with you, but if now's not the time ..." Ayla studied Nikki, looking for a sign to guide him.
Nikki was surprised by the unusual openness of Ayla's expression. His normal 'business face' was absent, and the everyday vulnerable Ayla was peeking out, pleading to her through his eyes.
"Now's the perfect time!" Startled, Nikki turned to the door where Toni had interrupted them. Flashing them both a high wattage smile, Toni pulled the door shut firmly, leaving Nikki and Ayla alone in the room.
Blinking Nikki turned back to Ayla and again gestured for him to be seated, forestalling him as he finally retook his position on Toni's bed. "If it's about Solicitor, I know Mrs. Carson forced you into ..."
"No she didn't." Ayla spoke firmly, interrupting Nikki and causing her to jerk in surprise.
At Nikki's words Ayla realised Toni was right, Nikki didn't know the full story. Ayla took a breath and tried to infuse his words with truth, to make sure Nikki knew that he really was telling her everything. "Mrs. Carson came to me and asked me to help you, well really to not help you," he explained looking Nikki in the eye. "Your parents and teachers were worried that you might make an Oath to fulfil Aunghadhail's legacy, and they had a plan, and they wanted me to not spoil it by helping you like I should have."
Nikki blinked. "I know Ayla, Mrs. Carson threaten you ..."
"No she didn't Nikki," Ayla interrupted her again. "She just explained what was going to happen. She never made any threats or anything like that. I ..." Ayla swallowed and took another deep breath. "It was all me Nikki. Nobody forced me to do anything. I ... I went along with their plan because I agreed to help them with it. I ... I hoped it would help you, help you stay Nikki Reilly ..."
"She didn't threaten you?" Nikki asked softly.
"No Nikki," Ayla confirmed. "Nobody did."
Nikki broke down and started weeping. "Why would you do that to me? I thought you'd abandoned me, that everyone had abandoned me! My parents! My teachers! My friends! Nobody was listening to me anymore!"
As Nikki broke down and sobbed, Ayla watched her stricken. He wanted to comfort her. To reach out and hug her as he always had before, but he had betrayed her, hurt her.
Unable to stand it anymore, Ayla got up. Cautiously he crossed the room, alert for any signs of rejection from Nikki. Carefully he sat beside her and put an arm around her shoulders, ready to pull away at the slightest hint he was hurting her more.
Unexpectedly, rather than push him away, Nikki turned into his arms and sobbed heartbrokenly, holding Ayla tight as he tried to comfort her. Finally the tears stopped and Nikki wiped her face with the hankie Ayla offered her. "Why?" Nikki begged, her red rimmed eyes looking up at him sorrowfully.
Nikki looked up at Ayla, she needed to know why. Why had her parents, her teachers, her friend's all turned on her like that? Why had they stopped talking to her? Why had they been so mean to her? What had it been all about? Why were they so afraid of Aunghadhail?
"Did Aunghadhail ever explain a Sidhe Oath to you?" Ayla asked softly.
Nikki nodded, remembering many warnings Aunghadhail had given her. "She warned me never to allow anybody to trick me into swearing to anything. To never make Oaths or promises by magic. She explained that no matter how it was done, or how it was obtained, I'd never be able to go back on an Oath once I made it."
Ayla nodded. "Did she ever warn you about making Oaths to yourself?"
"Oaths to myself?" Nikki asked puzzled. Aunghadhail's had never talked to her about personal Oaths.
"About you Oathing yourself to do something?" Nikki shook her head puzzled. "Nikki, it doesn't matter how it happens. Whether someone tricks you. Whether someone forces you. Whether you do it yourself. All Sidhe Oaths are the same, they cannot be broken. Your magic will force you to uphold the letter of any Oath you make, no matter what!"
Nikki's mouth dropped open. She could force an Oath on herself? Her magic would do that to her? "So I could have ...?"
"Yes Nikki," Ayla nodded sombrely. "You really could have. That's why everyone was so worried about you. Worried you'd Oath yourself to a course of action you couldn't get yourself out of afterwards."
"What didn't anyone tell me!" Nikki screeched horrified. Why hadn't they explained that to her? Why hadn't Aunghadhail?
Ayla sighed. "Nikki? Were you listening? What happened when Hank tried to tell you?"
Nikki stared at Ayla in horror, clearly remembering how she had yelled and cursed at Hank as they stood in the Homer Gallery. The remorse and regret of what she had done to Hank, what she'd seen Hank become in Washington, overcame her. Blindly she reached out, seeking the arms of her friend as she cried out her sorrow.
"Well?" Toni demanded as Ayla gently shut the door to Nikki's room behind him.
"She cried a lot," Ayla admitted.
Toni rolled her eyes. "I know that!" she snapped. "That's why I had Bunny run in as soon as you opened the door! I meant how did it go?"
"Ahh, she cried a lot?" Ayla repeated warily.
"I mean 'did you tell her!'" Toni enunciated clearly as though to an imbecile.
"Of course! That's when she started crying!"
"You told her it was your idea?" Toni demanded.
"Yes," Ayla confirmed.
"You told her you did it for her?" Toni continued.
"Yes," Ayla replied, slightly hurt at Toni's line of questioning.
"You told her why you did it?" Toni pressed.
"Yes! And then she started crying all over me!" Ayla repeated angrily.
"Oh thank God!" Toni cried in relief, before giving Ayla a quick hug and darting into her room, firmly closing the door behind her, but not before Jade also pushed her way through.
Ayla exchange looks with Billie and Hank, who both shook their heads showing themselves to be equally at a loss as to what Toni was doing. "Umm, have showers and get ready for the Poe mixer?" Billie suggested over the sounds of renewed weeping from Nikki's room.
Hank, Billie and Ayla exchanged worried glances, before everyone reluctantly nodded agreement.
Hank stood fiddling with his good dress shirt, checking himself in the long mirror attached to the inside of his wardrobe's door when a knock on his door interrupted him. Closing his wardrobe, Hank opened the room's door to stare at the vision presented.
In her little black dress that made him blush, Lily step into his room with a smile, arms outstretched for a hug and a kiss. "I thought I was coming to your room to escort you?" Hank murmured as they finished.
Lily smiled mischievously and straightened Hank's shirt. "Oh, I thought since your room was on the way, I'd come here instead," she replied, turning back around to open Hank's door, preparing to set off down stairs to the new Dance Hall in the basement for the Poe beginning of the year mixer. Hank turned to Lily who blushed slightly, before giving him a mysterious smile and linking arms with him, pulling slightly to get Hank to move.
"What was that about?" Hank murmured to Lily.
"Oh, 'girl things'," Lily replied airily, having the grace to blush and apologise when Hank gave her a dark glare. "How are Nikki and Ayla?" Lily asked quickly to change the subject.
Hank sighed and shrugged his shoulders. "Ayla apologised again, told Nikki why it all happened ..."
"And then?" Lily prompted.
"Nikki cried on Ayla's shoulder for a while, until Toni sent in Bunny to take over. Toni and Jade got Nikki dressed for the party and Nikki and Bunny went down earlier so that she and Bunny could have a quiet dance together before the froshies turn up and start going ga-ga over Nikki."
"She really cried on Ayla's shoulder?" Lily asked, before releasing an almost breathed 'thank God' at Hank's nod of confirmation.
"Lily?" Hank enquired.
Lily turned and smiled at him. "She cried on his shoulder, she didn't push him away or yell at him," Hank shook his head and Lily smiled up at him. "That's great news!"
"She's still upset, still very sad," Hank murmured.
Lily shrugged. "She's still lost Aunghadhail and had a miserable last term, of course she's sad when she remembers that."
Hank blinked. "So why does it matter ...?"
"Because she's crying on his shoulder Hank!" Lily explained. "She no longer trying to avoid him. She's no longer blaming him and angry with him. She's still sad, but she's allowing Ayla to comfort her! Nikki left too fast from Washington, Ayla barely had time to apologise, and then Kayda whipped her away! She had weeks here for Mrs. Carson and her parents to apologies, and then all summer for her to repair things with her family, but Ayla hasn't seen her since Washington!"
Hank stared at Lily with a bemused expression, "Lily, where did you ..."
"You weren't the only one whose parents forced them to see a professional over the holidays!" Lily snapped, then blushed, peeking back at Hank in apology.
Hank raised an eyebrow. "You too?" he asked amused.
Lily nodded. "Dad was still worried about the Wondercute combat final, and then there was you in Washington. He and Mom forced me to see someone with Ashley and Peggy. Actually, we were able to come here a few times, have sessions with the therapists at Doyle."
"Lucky you," Hank murmured. "I got stuck with Army doctors and a few father / son trips with Dad."
"Father / son trips?" Lily asked curiously. "How did they go?" Hank smiled happily at Lily and she squealed in excitement, hugging Hank tight as they reached the basement, turning left towards the music streaming out of the new Poe Dance Hall.
Entering the wide open double doors to the Dance Hall, Lily and Hank stopped and took a moment to admire the room. The Dance Hall took up nearly all of the basement of one of the wings of the new Poe 'H', from the cross-corridor between the wings, to the stairwell at the end of the building.
To the right, in the corner of the hall nearest the door, refreshment and buffet tables were set up, next to a counter and a door leading to what looked like a mini-kitchen off the hall back towards the elevators. Down both sides of the Hall, large round tables surrounded by chairs had been placed, where groups were congregating, eating and chatting.
The middle of the room had been left empty, the hardwood floors polished and thrumming to the thronging dancers, jumping and gyrating to the beat pumping through the sound system, cheering the flashing show of lights and lasers at the front of the room. There was even a large disco ball spinning high above from which lights and lasers were reflecting all over the Hall. The sound and light show was being controlled from a booth at the front right of the Hall, next to the stairs, into which every divisor, gadgeteer and want-to-be musician in Poe seemed to be trying to cram from the crush visible through the huge glass window.
"Wow!" Hank exclaimed. "I'm surprised the Melvillians didn't try and kick us out to take over this place for themselves!" he smiled looking at the dancing throng.
"Not a chance," Lily laughed. "Melville has a full sized Ballroom that wouldn't look out of place in Louis the fourteenth's palace in France! A simple Dance Hall like this is way to low-brow for them to care about."
"Where are all the adults?" Hank asked curiously after looking around for a bit.
Lily blushed. "Probably in the opposite wing," she pointed to the opposite side of the Poe H shaped basement. "Making sure the saunas and the jacuzzis stay somewhat decent and don't get out of hand. Policing that nothing heavier than a bit of innocent kissing happens over there."
"Well, that explained why Ros seems to be the RA in charge of the refreshments," Hank smirked, pointing towards the mini-kitchen as Lily giggled agreement. Ros' 'kisses' were something of a Poe legend.
Just then two plastic cups flew up from the refreshment table and made their way over the heads of the crowd to Lily and Hank, where they hovered till Lily and Hank accepted them. "We've got the table at the front next to the stairs," the cups hummed at them with Jade's voice. "Just tell me what you'd like and I'll gather up some food for you, we've got everything from Hank's favourites to Ayla's cuisine, Crystal Hall has been sending food to all the Cottages tonight for their beginning of year mixers."
Lily and Hank laughed, giving the invisible J-team waitress their orders before they carefully made their way around the edge of the crowd and to the front of the hall, where Billie, Jade and her 'sister' Jinn had staked out a table.
"Not dancing?" Hank asked Billie after staring at her costume. Unusually Billie was sitting down, and she flushed and shook her head at Hank's comment, nervously pulling down on the skin-tight, faux leather, extremely short 'mini-skirt' she was wearing, before her arms returned to covering her bare midriff again.
"Onee-San is beautiful! She'll be the bell of the ball once she starts dancing!" Jade wheedled, but Billie just glared at her and blushed, trying to sink further into her chair.
"Ah Billie," Lily settled into the chair next to blue-haired Ryōko look-a-like. "Have you considered adding some tights to your attire?" she suggested, giving the door to the staircase near them a significant glance.
With a grateful look, Billie flew out of her chair and through the door, followed by the child-seeming Jade crying "Onee-San!" Just after Billie and Jade left, plates of food started arriving at the table, settling before Hank and Lily and the recently vacated places.
"Where did Onee-San go?" Hank's cup vibrated to him.
"Billie went to put on some tights, she was way too uncomfortable in that skirt without them," Lily explained, curiously looking through the plates of food that had been placed before her and Hank, before grabbing one and a knife and fork.
"Ah," Lily's cup vibrated. "I should have given them to her to begin with, but I get way to excited when dressing Onee-San. She's so beautiful! I want to show the whole world how sexy she is!"
"Oh, I'm sure Hank will agree that tights can still be sexy," Lily murmured, rubbing her own stocking leg against Hank's, causing him to jump and blush as Lily smiled possessively.
"Down girl! The night is young, and you haven't even started dancing yet!" Toni smirked as she reached past Lily to grab a drink from the table, Rip pressed tight against her side.
"Who says I haven't?" Lily replied wickedly, blowing a kiss towards Hank that had all the girls laughing at him, as he busied himself eating to hide his blushes.
"So, where's Billie and Jade?" Toni asked sitting down, accepting a plate of food that floated her way.
"Adding tights to Billie's ensemble," Lily replied, also starting to dig into her food.
"Aww! I wanted to see Billie dancing on the ceiling in her club gear!" Bunny pouted as she pulled a smiling Nikki up to the table and onto a bench against the wall with her. "That outfit Jade got her rocked!"
"I should have known," Lily laughed. "I knew Billie's Mom had been helping her with clothes over the summer, but that outfit was way too risqué for Billie."
"But Nikki and Jade worked so hard on finding that outfit!"
"Oh no! Don't blame me!" Nikki spluttered. "All I did was give Jade fashion advice! I had no idea she'd be doing that to Billie!"
Toni laughed. "Who'd you think she'd be using the advice for? It's club wear! There's no way little Miss 'barely there' A-cups is getting into a club!"
"Ah, Jinn?" Nikki pointed to the endowed 'ghost' girl across the table, as even Hank snorted at that idea.
"Anyhow, new subject, serious business," Toni waved away Nikki's naivety over Jade. "What are we gonna do about Ayla?"
"Huh?" Hank grunted in surprise as all the others stared at Toni.
"Well, he's gonna be down soon, and he did pay for the Poe renovation! So, what are we gonna do?"
"You mean do we out him as the donor to the whole cottage, or do we keep it a secret?" Lily asked.
Toni blew a raspberry and laughed. "What secret? The whole cottage knows little Miss billionaire fixed her school digs up to the standard she demands! No, the question is if we're going to let him bask in the glory of it all, or immediately show him his place?"
"That's even a question?" Nikki demanded.
"What's a question?" Jade asked as she returned with a much less nervous Billie who floated over the table to grab a large plate of food which she started eating while she floated above them.
"Toni feels there's some confusion about whether we're going to tease Ayla right off the bat about the Poe renovations."
"Don't forget the Hawthorne renovations!" Jade declared.
"And that 'restaurant', Le Bistro, he built below Crystal Hall for romantic dinners," Billie added.
"Or the mini one he had hidden near the tunnel entrances from Poe for more clandestine romantic meals," Jade added.
"He didn't!" Lily gasped.
"Oh yes he did!" Toni confirmed. "Every bit as nice as the restaurant under Crystal Hall, but for couples in Poe who are little more circumspect with their relationships, so they too can have nice romantic dinners together. Rip and I are already planning our first trip to 'Truffles'," Toni finished, cuddling up to Rip tightly.
"Where is Ayla?" Hank asked curiously.
"Fashionably late," Toni dismissed Hank's concern with a wave.
"Probably trying to decide which piece of silky erotic lingerie from Paris he wants to wear," Nikki sniggered as Jade and Jinn exchanged glances then burst out laughing. "What?" Nikki demanded.
Jade smiled at Nikki. "You have no idea how right you are," she giggled. "Addy couldn't wait to tell me all the sexy things she'd convinced Ayla to buy in Paris."
"Ohh!" Toni gushed wide eyed. "What do you think he'll come down in? A sexy black dress? Long slinky and backless?"
"A black business pants suit, over a white blouse with Doc Martin boots."
Toni blinked at Hank's flat delivery, before turning to follow Hank's gaze, spotting the curvy Ayla once again failing to hide his catwalk model female good looks in a severe business suit as he entered the Dance Hall through the double doors. "Well, that's disappointing," she murmured.
Jade grinned manically as she stood up to go fetch their teammate. "Don't feel bad Toni," she consoled her friend. "After all, I'm sure we can convince Addy to get Ayla to wear that dress, I know she convinced him to buy it!" Humming happily to herself Jade started floating above the crowd towards Ayla.
As Ayla and Jade made their way back towards them, stopping here and there so Ayla could say hello to people, Nikki and Toni shared a grin before blanking their faces and turning towards Ayla. Nikki gave Ayla a nervous frown, taking a deep breath she calmed herself and faced her friend.
"So Ayles," Toni greeted the teen-tycoon. "Why'd you have them make the Hall so small?" she asked, causing Ayla to stop dead and stare at her. "Melville has a full Ballroom so they can fit all their students, not a tiny thing like this!"
"And just look at that mini-kitchenette thing you gave us!" Nikki pointed. "Ros barely fits in there, and she's been having to juggle the warmer trays all night! Where's the huge fully kitted out kitchen like you gave Hawthorne?" she demanded with only the slightest tremor in her voice.
Ayla looked back and forth between the two girls before calmly he sat down, accepted a cup and a plate that floated down before him and took a sip. Finally he raised a single eyebrow at the two of them. "All day, and that's the best you could come up with?" he calmly asked. "You look all over Poe and Hawthorne's renovations, and that's the best sass you can give me?" Shaking his head sadly, Ayla carefully cut into the delight before him and curiously examined its texture before passing the thinnest sliver to his mouth for further examination.
Lily laughed at the outraged expressions of Nikki and Toni as Jade arrived with a tray of drinks. "What'd I miss?" Jade asked looking around as she started handing out the refills to everyone.
"Ayla scoring first points for the year," Hank filled her in with a laugh, as Jade turned outraged towards Nikki and Toni.
"Ayla?!" Jade demanded of the two girls. "How could you do that!" she demanded, hands on her hips.
"Well you have to admit Jade," Billie waved to include the room and Poe as a whole. "Ayla did pretty good."
"Onee-San!" Jade whined. "We all agreed we weren't gonna tell Ayla that! We all agreed it was our job to keep his excessive ego grounded! We promised!"
Hank and Lily burst out laughing as Jade stamped her foot like a petulant child and Ayla rolled his eyes, even Billie grinned at Jade's performance. With everyone seated again, Nikki reached into her purse, pulling out her gem and holding it up enquiringly. At Ayla's nod Nikki activated it and placed it in the centre of the table.
"I hope you updated the templates," Hank sighed looking around warily. "I'm getting a bit tired of trying to defend our 'conversations' to the Grunts."
"Oh yeah!" Nikki waved away Hank's concerns. "I had all summer to go through Mom's magazines and update for the new season's styles," she assured them as both Hank and Ayla face-palmed to the delight of Lily and Toni.
"I'd say that was a solid point for Nikki!" Bunny crowed giving her girlfriend a squeeze as she looked to Billie for confirmation.
"What? Is Billie the arbitrator of points this year?" Hank demanded.
"Onee-San would be great at it!" Jade loyal defended her. "And Jinn thinks so too!" Jade finished as Shroud nodded enthusiastically beside her.
"Oh no! One vote only for the J-team!" Hank firmly stated. "There will be none of that madness again this year!"
"Living, breathing people only Jade!" Toni backed Hank up.
"I breath!" Jinn stated indignantly as she stood, arms on her hips and chest thrust out, firmly gluing the eyes of Ayla and Hank to her 'assets'.
"Ha ... how?" Hank managed to stammer.
"Push up bra!" Jinn declared happily. "It was built into the corset Jade got me in Paris, see?" Shroud lifted up her shirt to show everyone as both Ayla's and Hank's eyes widened.
Laughing delightedly Bunny pushed Jinn's shirt back down. "Save it for Stephen," Bunny advised as Jinn retook her seat.
"Stephen ..." Jade and Jinn sighed in concert. "He was sooo nice to us today," Jade continued happily. "He let us show some of the special pieces we got from Paris to him without once hurrying us up or complaining, even though he was in the middle of organising the Twain mixer for tonight."
"I bet he didn't!" Hank murmured slightly too loudly, receiving a swat from Lily for the comment.
"Why are we magicking our conversation again?" Bunny asked confused, pointing at Nikki's gem in the centre of the table. "I mean, isn't that supposed to make it sound like we're discussing clothes and things, but, we are discussing clothes and things?" she blinked back and forth between Nikki and Ayla.
"We're supposed to be discussing the new arrivals, that's why," Ayla explained, pointedly looking towards Jade. "Some people are just easily sidetracked."
"Oh, shall we have Jinn show off her push-up bra again and remind us who it was exactly that became sidetracked?" Toni asked pointedly.
"So!" Hank hurriedly interrupted before Ayla could reply. "Which of the new Posies should we be in particular keeping an eye out for?" he indicated the members of Team Kimba.
"Well there's Peacock," Toni pointed towards a girl with blue, green and purple hair, seated at the table where a few of the new Poe students had gathered. "Lina Samhurst, she's an Avatar with a Peacock spirit, not a Peahen one. Its given her a little something extra in the skirt, Ayla style, if you know what I mean. She could probably do with a nice bit of mentoring from our resident 'no fun guy' here," she pointed to Ayla who nodded acknowledgement.
"We know about Danny there, the Kitty-boy." Ayla took over from Toni indicating a boy sitting at the same table as Lina, Angel practically draping herself over him and doting on him.
"That's a boy!?" Bunny demanded. "How is Angel doing that! She's allergic to boys!"
"Yes, he's Kayda's brother," Ayla explained. "He's an Avatar with a female Lakota spirit, and something about that lets Angel touch him." Ayla shrugged his ignorance. "He's Hank's roommate though, so he's in good hands."
"So cute!" Jade gushed at the furry haired, cat-eared boy most of the girls at his table were pressing up close to and petting. "I wish he'd have worn his 'Hello Kitty' hoodie, though!" she sighed as the rest of the table gawked at her.
"You're kidding!" Riptide demanded in disbelief. "Tell me you're kidding?" she asked desperately looking around while Ayla, Fey, and Hank face-palmed at the thought of another 'Hello Kitty' fan to egg Jade on.
"Roulette," Toni pulled the group back on track, indicating one of the girls next to Danny. "Amy Maguire. Fully changed already. She has some weird power swapping mutation, seems to have a different set of powers each day."
"I thought she was moved to Hawthorne?" Lily asked confused. "At least, that's what Angel told me?"
"She has been," Ayla confirmed. "Apparently she has burnouts, lots of them. They moved her to Hawthorne yesterday as it has better medical monitoring and support." Everyone sombrely considered the girl as they silently remembered the burnout last year that had cost Phobos her life. "Mrs. Horton insisted she attend the Poe mixer tonight so she continues her contact with her fellow changelings, and can be introduced to us older changelings. Mrs. Horton called Mrs. Cantrel and had Amy escorted over by Caitlin." Everyone nodded their understanding, silently agreeing to make sure they introduced themselves to Amy before she returned to Hawthorne.
"Ribbon," Ayla indicated what looked like a little girl in a gothic Lolita frilly dress sitting next to Amy. "Alyss Morgan, also fully changed. In addition to a high exemplar rating, she age regressed. She's nowhere near as young as she seems."
"She's perfect!" Jade squealed, excitedly looking towards the firmly nodding Bunny. "I can't wait to introduce her to Molly and Misty and Lindsey and Anna!" Ayla rolled his eyes, sharing martyred looks with Hank and Nikki.
"Knockoff," Toni continued, ignoring Jade's antics and indicating the next girl around the table. "Martina Hughes. She had an accident while hiking with her mother, and her mother's blood was the only available compatible blood they could give her to save her. Unfortunately, her mother is a high regen Mutant, the blood turned her into a regen clone of her mother, so 'he' became 'she', an identical twin of her mother, and hence the codename 'Knockoff'."
"She's really lucky then." Seeing the puzzled looks from Jade and Billie, Hank explained. "Very, very few regen clones survive. Less than one in twenty, mostly they just get regen cancer." Jade and Billie weren't the only ones around the table to shudder at that reminder.
"Martina's mother is Setup, an 'asset'," Ayla murmured thoughtfully turning back to watch the girl.
"What's an 'asset'?" Jade asked curiously.
"It means she does contract work for intelligence agencies, but isn't actually employed by them," Billie explained.
"So, white hat?" Hank queried.
"More gray hat," Ayla clarified. "Besides doing jobs for various intelligence agencies, she does a lot of private contract work that's on the wrong side of the law. She's not too hung up on who exactly she works for. It's suspected that just before coming here, Martina was involved in one of Setup's operations. Reports are that both of them died in a car crash." Ayla sounded like he was reading a dossier, which he'd probably gotten from Trin and McIntyre.
"Bad Seed?" Hank suggested, studying the girl himself.
"She seems pretty comfortable with her change," Nikki noted also studying the girl. "Her aura is quite calm and content, unlike some of the others."
"In my opinion, she bears watching," Ayla finished his report.
"Which means you've already outed her to your other girlfriend in the Bad Seeds," Toni accused him.
"If I can find this information, Jadis would already have it," Ayla replied primly. "And Jadis is not my girlfriend!"
"So busted!" Jade and Billie sniggered.
"If it's real Bad Seeds you're interested in Hank," Ayla continued ignoring Jade and Billie and nodding to two girls just entering the Dance Hall. "Envy and Scapegrace. Envy is Seraphina Sophia Valocco, Fina for short, or as you might better know her, the daughter of the supervillain 'Ia Strega Nera', The Black Strega." Everyone looked at Ayla blankly. "The supervillian who held all of Paris hostage because her daughter had been kidnaped? That daughter. Our new cottage mate!"
Everyone stared wide-eyed at the girl. "Talk about an over-protective mother!" Nikki whispered.
"Yeah Jade," Toni drawled. "No pranking the new girl, or it could be all of Boston sealed in glass when her mother hears of it!" Jade glared at Toni as Billie and Lily sniggered into their hands.
"And Scapegrace?" Hank asked Ayla, nodding to the other girl.
"She doesn't look that graceless," Toni murmured. "In fact, for a changeling, she looks quite stunning. She's wearing a slinky dress and heels!"
"Scapegrace, not lack grace," Ayla corrected her. "It means mischievous or wayward."
"Now that we have her codename sorted," Hank gave Ayla a pointed look.
Ayla frowned. "Jessie Harrow, daughter to a multigenerational supervillain family. Also, she has an astonishingly large amount of magical artefacts secreted about her body."
"How do you know that?" Lily asked amazed.
"Well, now we know what information you traded Knockoff for with your girlfriend," Toni smirked.
"I did not 'trade' information about a fellow Possie with Jadis, and for the last time, Jadis is not my girlfriend!" Ayla growled.
"Does Addy know you're two-timing her?" Nikki interjected, waggling her eyebrows suggestively.
"Jadis is a friend, who happens to be a girl. She is not my girlfriend!" Ayla repeated, the forced calmness in his voice as plain as the cute nose on his face.
"No, she's just someone you like to exchange continental 'hellos' with," Toni smirked.
"One might even say, Parisian style hellos," Nikki murmured wickedly.
Ayla glared at Nikki and Toni. "I only kissed Jadis once, and that was on her cheek!" Ayla defended himself.
"And we all know how that turned out," Billie murmured, glancing towards Ayla's ex-girlfriend, Vox, who still wasn't talking to either Ayla or any other member of Team Kimba, no matter how many times they had tried to reach out to her.
"We know Ayles, you'd never willing give up a fellow Posie," Toni assured their friend.
"It's just, your brain turns to mush whenever a certain white haired, cutely horned devil, who also happens to be daughter to a supervillain, glowers in your direction," Nikki interjected. "Then your tongue falls over itself spilling everything you know into her coolly professional ears," Nikki finished wickedly, turning to hi-five Toni as Ayla spluttered indignantly and the rest of the table burst into laughter at his predicament.
"So seriously Ayla," Lily asked with a smile. "How do you know that Scapegrace has so many magical artefacts?"
Ayla scowled for a second, before turning and raising an eyebrow to Nikki and Jade, both of whom turned and studied the girl minutely before turning back to Ayla, nodding their agreement. Nikki explained to Lily. "They're hidden, well hidden in fact, but Ayla, Jade and I are ... sensitive to magic." She shrugged her inability to explain it better.
Ayla politely waited for Nikki, and at her negligent wave continued. "Erin and Victory," he pointed to the final two students at the froshie table. "The 'Ayla and Toni' proxies for this year. Erin, like me, has boy parts, girl looks and is a very unhappy about it, and Victory is this year's winner of the 'all I dreamed of forever!' lottery, having been changed into the girl of her dreams."
"Okay ... still some issues there Ayla. When's your next scheduled appointment at Doyle again?" Lily asked concerned, earning a not quite glare from Ayla.
"That explains the 'boy clothes' and 'club wear' respectively," Nikki commented studying Erin and Victory.
"Such a pity, she'd look stunning in a dress," Toni mused also studying Erin. "And this year's token other way changeling," Toni noted of an effeminate boy just entering the Hall. "Shawn Grace or 'Teke'. Actually he's very happy about the change and can't wait for it to be complete," she finished, glancing Hank's way and breathing a sigh of relief as Hank expressionlessly studied his fellow female-to-male changeling.
"And the last of our special cases came in last year and we all know about her," Ayla indicated Crimson Comet.
"I bet Chou's so happy not to be rooming with CC anymore," Toni laughed. "Although with the trouble that Kayda seems to attract, Chou might end up wishing she had CC back as a roommate before long!"
"Where is Chou?" Hank asked curiously.
"Toni here finally left the martial arts practice room, so Chou's getting some practice in herself right now," Rip replied with a smirk.
"Hey! That's not mixing!" Jade protested outraged.
"Of course it is!" Toni defended Chou. "There are probably as many students in the jacuzzis and saunas as there are dancing here. Once Chou's had her practice, she'll steam in the sauna a bit, rest up in the jacuzzi and be all fresh for when Molly arrives to dine and dance the night away with her."
"Molly's coming here?" Bunny asked excitedly. "Shouldn't she be at her own mixer?" she checked worriedly.
"I'm sure she is, right now," Toni waved away the concern. "Doesn't mean people are not going to drop out and come to ours too, does it Ayla?" Toni turned toward the mogul. "Speaking of SOs, where's your little French tart, Ayles?" Toni grinned at her prim and proper friend.
This time Ayla refused to be embarrassed by their teasing, giving not a hint of emotion on his face. "She said she'd be here later. Mrs. Horton 'read her in' to the Poe secret this afternoon, so she can spend more time with us."
"With you, you mean," Billie joked, waggling her eyebrows suggestively.
"Surprised you aren't meeting her somewhere else," Hank chuckled, "where there aren't as many chaperones and you two can study your ... French," Hank teased Ayla, managing to put layers of meaning into the one word.
Jade carefully studied the almost fiercely expressionless face of Ayla. "No points Hank, Ayla didn't blush," she declared finally, turning to poke her tongue out at Hank.
"Better luck next time," Lily commiserated Hank with a pat on his back.
"Anything else we need to know?" Billie asked Ayla who was giving a dirty look towards Jade. Ayla turned to Toni then Nikki, both of whom shook their heads, a quick glance around confirmed nobody else had anything.
"So that's it? We're done?" Jade demanded.
Ayla paused thoughtfully, then turned to Nikki. "Elle Ruud," he stated.
"Oooh, the new Sidhe in Dickinson?" Toni exclaimed, turning to Nikki excitedly.
Nikki frowned. "Nordic looking? Kinda blue?" she asked to Ayla's nod. "I caught a glimpse of her, there's ... something," Nikki murmured thoughtfully looking off into space.
"But definitely Sidhe?" Toni pressed eagerly.
Shrugging Nikki focused on her friend's again. "I'd have to get closer to be sure, I only saw her from across the quad. It's not like it was with Anomaly, it was just ... something."
"Anomaly?" Ayla inquired surprised.
Nikki looked around, trying to spot the six-armed gravity warper. "I see Anomaly's already vanished into the Ether," she noted, then sighed. "Aung had a very quiet shit-fit when she first saw Anomaly, and I dunno why," Nikki explained quietly.
"You'd think she would be more sociable, given she's a changeling too," Hank commented also checking for Anomaly, then looking at Nikki curiously. "Why would Aung care about Outcast's Warper? Never understood that."
"That's one of the things she never told me," Nikki shook her head. "Might have to drop Rythax on her to see if he recognises her."
"Just look for the Fashion Abomination. She's almost never too far away from her buddies." Toni grinned.
Jade looked back and forth between Nikki and Ayla. "So, are we finished now?" she whined. At Ayla's reluctant nod, Jade cried out "Cool!" and with her sister, Jinn, lifted off from their seats, grabbing Billie as they flew past. "Came on Onee-San, you promised me a dance!" Pulling Billie behind them, Jade and Jinn flew to the middle of the dancing throng, where they inverted themselves and literally started dancing on the ceiling to the amusement of all.
"Low visibility this year!" Ayla growled. "No following the crazy ones!" he quickly instructed, glaring towards Nikki who's fingers were already twitching to put a spell on herself and Bunny.
"You really are 'no-fun guy' aren't you?" Lily moaned from where she stood, already having started to pull Hank up with her.
"Just dance on the floor!" Ayla ordered unamused.
"Yes Mr. No-Fun Guy!" everyone chorused as Ayla rolled his eyes. Laughing all the couples made for the dancing throng, with the business out of the way they were ready to enjoy the night.
Saturday Morning, September 1st 2007
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy
"What's wrong with you this morning?" Lily asked the frowning Hank as they set off across campus for the Crystal Hall and breakfast. They were both dressed in their Whateley Academy uniforms as Mrs. Carson's welcome assembly was this morning.
"Weird dreams," Hank murmured.
"Oh really? Were they about me?" Lily wheedled.
"Ah, kind of," Hank winced. "Mostly they were, well, just weird. They kept starting off with Jamie, and then somehow changing to you, or Mom, or Nikki, or Dad. It was ... just weird. Every time something sad happened, it just chopped to this memory of a happy thing ... it was so confusing."
"Have you had other dreams like this?" Lily asked worriedly. When Hank didn't answer, Lily stopped them and turned Hank towards her. "Hank?" she growled glaring at him.
Hank sighed and nodded. "All summer actually. These dreams that start out sad, then just turn weird as all these happy memories bombard me." Lily stood there looking concerned. "Lily?" This time it was Hank's turn to growl.
Lily looked around, confirming they were alone. "I think you need to tell Nikki this," Lily finally replied.
"What?" Hank blinked in surprise.
"Ah, in Washington ... ah Nikki and I 'shared consciousness' with you, and ah, she was a little bit concerned about something, then she got called away and, well, you seemed fine after that ..." Lily gave Hank a forced smile.
"But?" Hank pressed.
"Well ... it was pretty weird what we saw," Lily admitted. "I just think you should tell Nikki about the dreams and see what she says."
Hank stared at Lily for a while then sighed. "OK Lily, if your concerned I'll tell her once she arrives for breakfast," he promised.
With a grateful hug Lily linked arms with Hank and together they set off for the Crystal Hall again.
"So Nikki, Lily thinks I should tell you about these weird dreams I've been having," Hank commented as Nikki looked towards him in surprise. It was only Nikki, Ayla, Hank, Lily and Toni at the Team Kimba table for breakfast this morning. Jade and Jinn where at the Wondercute table discussing recruiting new members, Danny Franks and Alyss Morgan top of their list. Billie was off making sure the Ballroom dancing classes would have enough attendees this year, and the Team Kimba SOs were all off renewing friendships with their friends from outside of Poe.
"What sort of weird dreams?" Nikki asked curiously.
"Weird dreams that have been happening all summer," Lily forcefully interrupted. "Ever since the hospital."
Nikki's eyes widened and she turned to Hank concerned. "What sort of 'weird dreams'?" This time she demanded it of Hank.
With a scowl at Lily, Hank shrugged. "Just weird dreams," he replied as Lily glared at him.
"How weird?" Nikki refused to let Hank off the hook, watching as Lily elbowed Hank, nodding her head forcefully towards Nikki.
"Ow, OK Lily!" Hank complained, before turning back to Nikki with a sigh. "It's these weird dreams that start out sad, then I get bombarded with happy memories, that's all."
Nikki blinked and frowned. "Dreams? Multiple? How often has this been happening Hank?" Nikki demanded really concerned now.
"Not often, just when I ... " Nikki raised an eyebrow, and Hank blushed. "Just when I think about Jamie or ... other things." Hank glanced at Nikki then quickly looked away. Nikki too looked away, her eyes misting.
"Every time?" Ayla asked.
"What?" Hank blinked.
"Every time you go to sleep thinking of Jamie or," Ayla glanced at Nikki. "Ah, other things?"
Hank frowned at Ayla. "Yes ..." he drawled. "Come to think of it, ever since the hospital it's been that way."
"What about before the hospital?" Nikki quickly asked.
"It was the opposite ..." Hank replied slowly.
"The opposite?" Lily pressed concerned.
"Every time I started a good dream, I'd get memories of J Jamie or, or ... things," Hank stuttered, starting to tear up at the memories.
As Lily quickly enfolded Hank in her arms, Ayla and Nikki exchanged wide eyed looks of concern.
"Nikki?" Ayla pressed quietly.
"I don't know!" Nikki whispered back to Ayla.
"But it's not good right?" Ayla pressed glancing at Hank. "It's not normal? Could it have something to do with what you did with Lily?"
"I don't know!" Nikki moaned.
"Well, who would?" Ayla pressed.
Nikki turned to snap at Ayla when movement behind him caught her eye and she stared as Wyatt made his way past with Lanie, who waved in greeting to the Kimba table. Turning back to Ayla Nikki smiled. "I may not know, but I think I know someone who might!" she smiled pointing to Wyatt.
"Wyatt Cody?" Ayla asked confused after having turned to see who Nikki was pointing at.
"No!" Nikki laughed. "Kodiak!" she exclaimed, naming Wyatt Cody's Avatar Spirit. "The Healer from before the sundering! If anyone has experience with Sidhe spells going bad, it's Kodiak!"
Ayla turned and stared after Wyatt Cody, a thoughtful expression on his face, before with a nod he stood and made his way over to the Alpha table where Wyatt and Lanie had just sat.
Saturday Evening, September 1st 2007
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy
Lanie led Wyatt into Hank's room where Nikki, Ayla, Lily and Hank were already waiting. With the headmistress' assembly, then the all of school mixer Wyatt had organised with the Alphas, this was the first time Wyatt had been available to see them since Ayla had asked at breakfast.
"What seems to be the problem?" Wyatt asked looking around.
"Hank has been having ... weird dreams," Lily started. "Ever since Nikki and I ... shared consciousnesses with him."
Wyatt raised an eyebrow. "You shared consciousnesses with him? When?"
Nikki blushed slightly. "At the beginning of the summer break," she admitted. "While he was in a comma in hospital. It's ... how we woke him up."
Wyatt blinked at Nikki in surprise.
"That's why we wanted you," Lily continued. "Kodiak has the most experience with Sidhe magic. We wanted to know, could he check to see if something ... happened?"
"How did you ... share consciousnesses?" Wyatt asked slowly.
"I'm ... not sure I can explain it. I ... I could show you?" Nikki offered.
Wyatt frowned, communicating silently with his spirit and then nodded. "Yes. Kodiak wants you to do exactly what you did before. We'll follow you and see what we can see."
Nikki nodded, turning to Hank and gesturing him to lay down. "I'm going to put you to sleep," she explained to him. "Then Lily and I'll join you." When Hank nodded and closed his eyes, Nikki murmured a spell. Putting her hand on Hank's chest she smiled. Reaching out she took Lily's hand in hers. "He's sleeping fine," she assured Lily, before with a deep breath she stretched out and touched Hank's chest again, this time with the joined hands of Lily and herself.
Nikki looked around while Lily rushed to hug Hank as he sat on his rock staring down at Poe. "Hey! Time to update! Where's the new improved Poe?" Lily teased. Looking down the hill Nikki smiled. The old rectangular Poe in all its aged glory shone below them. Hank shrugged ruefully and hugged Lily to him.
Nikki looked behind them and frowned. Rather than the expected backside of the Poe hill, a strangely familiar lake was behind them, with a picnic table near the edge of the water, screened by trees. Seeing Nikki's gaze caught, Lily turned towards where Nikki was looking before squealing in delight.
"Our lake!" she cried, urging Hank up and pulling him to the picnic table, which she lovingly caressed before sitting and dragging Hank down beside her so that she could cuddle tight to him.
"It seems familiar," Nikki murmured as she followed them.
Lily sniggered. "It should," she snorted. "It's the duck lake in the park behind Hank's family's house in Washington D.C." she explained. "The one you came to, to show Hank and I the World Tree Seed." With a silent 'O' of understanding, Nikki smiled and sat down opposite them, as she had on that night. "Hank and I used to sneak away a lot while I was in Washington, coming here to have picnics together." Lily smiled in happy remembrance as Hank and her snuggled.
"Among other things?" Nikki asked with a raised eyebrow and a smirk.
"Among other things," Lily agreed smiling possessively towards Hank.
"Wasn't Wyatt or Kodiak supposed to be meeting us?" Hank asked blushing.
Suddenly a rift appeared next to them and a snarling Kodiak bear almost ripped its way through it, followed by a sweating Wyatt. "Maybe if someone's dreamspace wasn't as twisty as a Sidhe's honour I'd be able to find you without the beacon of you all thinking of me!" Kodiak snarled as he and Wyatt stood there panting. "Why on earth are you fighting so hard to keep us from finding you?" Kodiak demanded of Hank.
"Err, I wasn't?" Hank answered, genuinely confused. He turned to Nikki who shrugged her own confusion.
"Lily and I came right here," Nikki commented. "We appeared right beside Hank immediately with no issues."
"Well Cody and I appeared in the middle of a featureless desert," Kodiak snarled "With a sandstorm blowing in our faces and sliding dunes tripping and trying to bury us. Until the three of you thought about me all at the same time, I couldn't feel any of you!"
Nikki stared at the angry bear. "I can assure you, it wasn't Hank doing it," she repeated firmly.
Kodiak snorted. "Well then, it seems Hank here has a boarder of some type, and that boarder is not welcoming of others entering Hank's mind."
"Some others," Lily pointed out thoughtfully. "Nikki had no trouble bringing herself and me here."
Kodiak looked thoughtful and grunted, squeezing down onto the picnic table next to Nikki as Wyatt sat opposite him. "That's true," he murmured before fixing Hank with a stare. "When exactly did you start having these strange dreams. Was it only after Nikki and Lily 'shared consciousness' with you?"
Hank shook his head. "They started before, while I was still at school."
"Anything in particular seem to set them off?" Kodiak asked.
Hank blushed, glancing at Nikki. "Ah, I think it was just after ... ah." Hank glanced at Nikki again, who gasped.
"After me?" she exclaimed distressed. Hank looked down and nodded sorrowfully.
Kodiak looked back and forth between the two off them frowning, before finally releasing a huge sigh. "I think I'm going to need to see exactly what happened between you and Nikki Hank," he said sorrowfully.
"See?" Hank turned to Kodiak puzzled.
"We're in your dreamspace," Kodiak explained. "If you dig into your memories, relive the event, we will too. We'll see everything as it is remembered by you."
"What event?" Hank asked confused.
"The time you and Nikki fought Hank, after the remembrance ceremony. Unless there is some more traumatic event between the two of you?" Kodiak queried looking back and forth between Nikki and Hank.
Hank looked to Nikki and they both shook their heads before Hank reluctantly turned back to Kodiak. "You just want me to remember it?" Hank checked carefully.
"No Hank," Kodiak corrected him. "I want you to relive it!"
Swallowing hard, furtively glancing at Nikki, Hank finally nodded his head reluctantly.
Hank stared down at the newly planted rosebush and sighed. Gently he pulled a flower to his face, breathing in its sweet scent. With a sad smile he released the flower and reached down to gently tap the dirt around the rosebush's base once more, confirming it was properly planted. Hank pushed the wooden stake that would guide its growth a little firmer into the ground and gave one last pat to the rosebush, planted in Jamie's memory, before he arose, turned and smiled his thanks to his friends.
Only team Kimba had stayed to watch Nikki and him plant their rosebushes of remembrance. Team Kimba and Lily. Even Mr. Miyamoto and his groundskeepers had withdrawn to their vehicles, leaving the students to their moment of shared remembrance and grief. Hank had been touched by the turnout for the ceremony, not just amongst the students and teachers, but also from off campus, but he was also very appreciative of this quiet time alone to plant the rosebush and remember Jamie in solitude.
Hank turned and was pleased to see that Nikki had finished planting Aunghadhail's rosebush too, but frowned when he saw her angry stance and fuming countenance as she stared down angrily at Aunghadhail's remembrance. Hank let out a sigh and turned to Lily and his friends. He exchanged hugs with them all, before, with a brief nod in Nikki's direction, he silently pleaded for some time alone with Nikki.
With barely a quick glance at Nikki, Lily nodded and left. Hank and Nikki's teammates, however, were slower to leave. Ayla in particular giving Nikki a long anguished stare before he too nodded to Hank and reluctantly retreated.
Turning to the silently fuming Nikki, so caught up in her own world she hadn't even noticed her friend's departures, Hank stepped close and waited. Ever since Mrs. Carson delivered the news to Nikki, both that Solicitor was suing her and that, far from fighting the suit, the school's response would be to give him her modelling earnings, Nikki had been upset. Particularly upsetting were people trying to convince her that Aunghadhail's death was a good thing!
Unfortunately, a chance comment overheard by Nikki earlier had stirred her volatile emotions over Aunghadhail's death again to anger, and all through the ceremony, Nikki had silently fumed at Mrs. Carson, treating every imagined slight in her speech as a personal affront to Aunghadhail and herself.
Hank decided that Nikki had been left alone to her thoughts long enough, and without waiting for invitation he stepped up and hugged her. "Let it go Nikki, it's only money,” he advised.
Fiercely Nikki shook Hank off, rounding on him to scream, "He wanted to enslave me! Now they force me to pay him for nothing?!”
Silently Hank stepped back up to Nikki, enfolded her in his arms again. "Nikki," he whispered, "you deformed him, turned his face into a horrifying monstrosity that cost him his livelihood. Don't you think he deserves something?"
"He was enslaving me! He deserved what he got!" Nikki screeched, but this time she held tight to Hank, crying it into his shoulder.
"You don't mean that," Hank murmured, letting Nikki sob out her unhappiness.
"I do!" Nikki cried, again pushing herself away from Hank. "He deserved everything he got! The spell only returned what was done to me!" Nikki cried fiercely, turning an angry face towards Hank, glaring at him.
"It was a punishment spell Nikki," Hank chided softly. "And I know you. I saw your face when you described to us what happened to him." Staring back calmly, Hank waited for Nikki's glare to abate, sighing when it did not. "Nikki, you don't have the right to judge and punish people ..." he started, when Nikki interrupted him fiercely.
Nikki pushed herself up, standing tall, her glamour surrounding her like a cloak. "I am the rebirth of Aunghadhail! Daughter of the Burning Oak, Paramount Queen of the West and the Five-Fold Court!" Nikki declared, eyes-blazing.
"The Five Fold Court no longer exists!" Hank snapped. "It was destroyed millennia ago!"
"As did I, so will it! It will return, I will build it up again in Aunghadhail's honour!" Nikki fiercely declared, eyes daring Hank to dispute it.
Hank sighed and gave Nikki a pained look, a question he'd been pondering ever since Aunghadhail's death finally breaking loose. "Who are you?" Hank begged of her. "Are you really just the Queen of the Sidhe? Daughter of the Burning Oak? Paramount Queen of the West and leader of the Sidhe people? Is that truly who you want to be?" Hank cried as Nikki continued to glare at him. Tears in his eyes, Hank almost whispered, "Are you not still Nikki Reilly? Daughter of Nicholas and Lucinda Reilly, student of Whateley Academy, member of Team Kimba and my friend?"
"I'm both!” Nikki wailed, glaring at Hank in anger at the accusation.
Hank gave Nikki an agonised stare, before hesitantly he gestured to Nikki, inviting her to follow him. "Please?" he begged. "I have something I want to show you." Hank watched Nikki warily, worried that in the mood she was in, she'd not come with him. Hank had watched as Mr. Miyamoto brought out the rosebush for Nikki to plant in Aunghadhail’s memory. He had seen her facade crumble, genuine warmth in her thanks for his compassion. Hank had hoped that Nikki might now be able to accept some truths being told to her. From his own experiences grieving for Jamie, he knew how hard it was to hear that those you grieved for were not the most important people, that the living mattered more.
With a sigh of relief, Hank welcomed Nikki's abrupt, angry nod of acceptance. Hank turned, and with a glance back to confirm Nikki was following, he led her out of the rose garden, and off through the Whateley Campus.
Hank guided Nikki to the Homer Gallery, up to a dusty pile of metal bars. Hank stopped, staring down sadly at the piled gold bars. "It's only money Nikki,” he repeated softly. “Yes, it's your money, but still." Turning he looked to Nikki, glassy-eyed as he gestured. "Look here, see this pile of gold? How much more do you think Ms. Guzman would add for just one day, one hour, a single minute more with Jamie? To tell Jamie of her love? To say her goodbyes?" Tears streaming down his cheeks, Hank forced away the heartbreak of his own remorse at never having said farewell to Jamie.
"Look at this gold Nikki and understand!" he pleaded. "The world has decided we are to grow up, and it's all through asking. Right here, right now, it's demanding that you choose." Stepping close, Hank reached out to touch her shoulder, trying to get Nikki to meet his eyes. "Are you the Daughter of the Burning Oak?" Hank whispered. "Queen of a Realm that disappeared into dust and memories millennia ago?" he questioned. "Or are you Nikki Reilly, the daughter of Nicholas and Lucinda Reilly, who are still here? Who still love you?" he demanded of her.
"Why can't I be both?" Nikki cried, hugging her arms tight to her chest, tears streaming down her face.
"You will always be of both heritages," Hank offered earnestly. "But only one future allows you to be yourself!" he pleaded. "Only one way will you get to choose and dictate your own path," he coaxed. "The other is a path of other people's expectations, other people's desires, other people's destinies." Hank paused, silently contemplated Nikki. "Eventually, other people's wars," he whispered, desperately seeking signs Nikki was listening to him, hearing what he was trying to tell her.
"I want ... no, I need to honour Aunghadhail!" Nikki declared, staring just as desperately back at Hank. "I need to lead her people!" she begged him to understand.
"I'm human Nikki," Hank whispered. "Your friends are all human. Your family is all human! What happens to us in Aunghadhail's world of race against race? If you choose to raise up one race, the Sidhe. Stand with them against humanity, against your friends, against your family? Nikki if you choose to raise up the Sidhe as a separate people, can't you see it will lead to conflict? That it must lead to war?" Almost weeping, Hank tried to make Nikki understand, "Nikki, you're talking of a race war, Sidhe's against humans!"
"It doesn't have to be that way!" Nikki exclaimed fiercely.
"No Nikki, it doesn’t,” Hank wept. “But we are not the ones who make that choice for you," he begged her, pleading that she see what was at stake.
"But you're forcing me to make a choice!" Nikki wailed in distress. "You're asking me to choose between my family and Aunghadhail!"
"Please Nikki!" Hank begged, stepping close and wrapping her in his arms. "Choose us, choose your friends, chose your family."
Inarticulate in rage, Nikki screamed, wretched herself from Hank and turned tearful eyes back on him. "You too?" she wept. "You too want me to spurn Aunghadhail?"
When Hank again made to step forward, to wrap her in his arms, Nikki stepped back instead. Raising her hand, she screamed in fury, power radiating from her palm, reaching out and throwing Hank back, till he lay stunned, sprawled on the ground.
"Friends!? You ... you ... Human!" she screeched at the shocked Hank. "Do you think I don't know that that disgusting turncoat is helping them? That Ayla decided I deserve this and is going around behind my back telling people not to help me, and now you too?! You were my friends, my soul, my heart! And you do this to me?! I never want to see you again!" she screeched full voice, turning and weeping as she ran from Homer Gallery.
The picnic table came back and Nikki and Kodiak stared at each other in horror. "I cursed him!" Nikki gasped, before breaking down and weeping.
"What happened?" Ayla demanded as Hank sat up groggily. "You all went still a statues for about five minutes, then Nikki started weeping hysterically!"
Looking over, Hank saw Nikki indeed weeping, being held by Toni and Lanie as they sat on Danny's bed.
"It was me! I did it! I cursed Hank!" Nikki cried out as she continued weeping into her hands. "In the Homer gallery, I cursed Hank!"
"You what?" Ayla demanded shocked.
Wyatt sighed, and nodded his head. "Kodiak agrees. Nikki threw a spell at Hank when she got mad at him before school ended."
"What sort of spell?" Ayla demanded in disbelief.
Wyatt frowned a bit and suddenly Kodiak was there, causing all of them to pull back a bit in shock. "I will need to study it. Study Hank," Kodiak rumbled. "In the meantime, leave, especially Nikki. She is distraught and her magic is unstable." Lanie helped Nikki rise, clasping the distraught girl too her as she guided her from the room. As Lily stood to follow, Kodiak waved her back beside Hank. "Not you, you calm Hank, make it easier to read him." Turning Kodiak shooed the rest of them out of the room, even Wyatt, before forcefully shutting the door behind them.
Ayla followed Lanie, Nikki and Wyatt into Lanie's RA room across the way, while Toni ducked down the corridor, running for Bunny's room. As Lanie settled Nikki on her bed, seating herself beside her and clasping her to her bosom, Ayla cornered Wyatt and demanded to know what had happened.
Wyatt sighed and waved Ayla closer. "Kodiak got Hank to relive the argument he and Nikki had after the remembrance ceremony," he explained softly. "And when they got to the end, the part where Nikki got mad at Hank and screamed at him, something happened. Both Nikki and Kodiak saw something." Wyatt sighed. "It appears in her anger Nikki threw some spell at Hank, and now Kodiak is trying to find out what."
"She can't have meant to do it!" Ayla exclaimed.
"Obviously!" Wyatt grunted. "Otherwise it wouldn't have been such a shock to her that it had been done."
"So what do we do now?" Ayla asked just as Bunny ran through the door and dived onto the bed to hug Nikki, Toni following not far behind followed by the concerned Jade and Billie.
Wyatt shrugged. "Not much we can do until Kodiak works out what was done."
"It's a Leanen Sidhe," Kodiak stated to the group, once more gathered in Hank's room after Kodiak had called them back.
Still distraught by what she had done, Nikki quietly sobbed on Danny's bed clasped in Bunny's arms. Toni was also helping comfort Nikki as Lanie hovered anxiously nearby. Lily was cuddling up to her boyfriend on his bed while Wyatt and Ayla sat at either desk. Jade and Billie had also squeezed in, anxious to help Hank in anyway they could.
"A what?" Billie exclaimed.
"A Leanen Sidhe," Kodiak repeated as Lily gasped.
"Fairy Lover!" Lily whispered. "The Irish muse who rides her lovers to madness and death!" Lily pulled Hank tighter to herself and stared at Kodiak in dread.
"I don't feel mad?" Hank joked as everyone turned to him.
"What about back at the beginning of summer?" Ayla asked pointedly as Hank grimaced.
"Hearthwife," Kodiak grunted.
"The closest translation is 'Hearthwife', not 'Fairy Lover'." Kodiak clarified. "'Fairy Lover' is a corruption, not a translation."
"What sort of curse is called a 'Hearthwife'?" Hank demanded puzzled.
"It was not a curse, well, not originally." Kodiak murmured. As everyone turned to stare at him, Kodiak explained. "It was the bonding of a brownie to a warrior to look after its 'hearth', the warrior's kit, food and weapons, so that the warrior would always be ready for war."
"How is that a curse? Well except for the poor brownie," Toni asked bewildered.
Kodiak sighed. "Like a lot of things, during the war The Enemy got its hands on the bond and corrupted it, the bonding of a Leanne Sidhe was twisted, turned. Became a burden rather than a benefit."
"Nikki put a creature of The Enemy in Hank!" Toni demanded hysterically. "How do we get it out?"
Kodiak sighed. "A Leanen Sidhe is made from the Body and Soul of the warrior it is bonded to. It ... will not be possible to 'get it out'."
Everyone stared at Kodiak in disbelief. "You mean we have to just watch as it consumes Hank?" Ayla demanded. "Returns him to how we found him in Washington?"
Kodiak held up a paw, forestalling further outbursts. "Maybe not. As I said, the Leanen Sidhe was created from Hank, Body and Soul. At creation it is Hank, there is a chance we can stop it being consumed by The Enemy's taint."
"How?!" Hank demanded.
Kodiak turned to him and sighed. "You must do what no human has ever done before, complete the bond with the Leanen Sidhe," Kodiak explained. "Take command of it, make it become what it was originally meant to be."
"Oh is that all?" Hank laughed. "Just do something never before done in human history? Why didn't you say so? Piece of cake!" Hank giggled hysterically as Lily once again pulled him tight to her.
Wyatt stood and moved over to Hank, reaching out to put a hand on his shoulder. "You have something no human has had before, Hank," he quietly reminded the scared boy. "You have the help of a Sidhe Queen and a Galactic Healer to guide you in your task. And remember, this Leanen Sidhe was created from your mind, your body. All you need to do, Hank, is seal the rift within yourself to complete this bonding."
Hank stared desperately up at Wyatt before with a sigh he slowly nodded. "OK, when so we do this?" Hank asked looking around.
"No time like now," Kodiak rumbled, indicating Nikki and himself. "We have all we need now to complete the ritual."
"Ritual?" Hank screeched.
Kodiak nodded. "I will instruct our Sidhe Queen in the spells necessary to complete the binding, and then Hank will do battle with the Leanen Sidhe for control of that binding. It will be a battle as much in the mind as the spirit, so Hank, please lay down comfortably on your bed. Nikki and I will need to share consciousness again with you to aid you in your task."
Wide eyed Hank allowed Lily to help him lay on his bed, his head cradled in her lap as Kodiak whispered instructions to Nikki. Nikki nodded her understanding and the two of them crossed to Hank's bed where he lay terrified looking up at them.
"Be not concerned," Kodiak rumbled. "I and you friend will guide you. Remember, the true purpose of this spell is to bind a helpful brownie to yourself, there is little to fear."
"Little?" Hank yelped as Lily kissed his forehead and Nikki begun chanting.
Hank found himself in a desert, great dunes of sand around him which the wind whipped into his eyes.
"It appears this time nobody is being passed by the Leanen Sidhe."
Looking around desperately at the rumbling comment, Hank saw Kodiak beside him, along with Nikki and Wyatt. Turning to him, Kodiak fixed him with a stern eye. "It is up to you, Hank. Somewhere within you is the bond that links you to the Leanen Sidhe. You must find this bond, and when you get there command it. Force your Leanen Sidhe to become the Hearthwife it should be. To imagine it as it will be, a fey servant of yourself. A brownie Hearthwife!"
Swallowing his amusement at the almost unconscious mental image of a 'fey wife', Hank nodded his understanding, looking around desperately into the blowing sand.
"Close your eyes," Kodiak suggested. "Look not with them, but search within yourself. This is your mind. Feel the link! Pull us towards it!"
"Right," Hank muttered inaudible. "Let's feel my mind, what a wonderful image." Sighing he closed his eyes and tried to imagine what a 'link' would feel like.
"Blank your mind Hank," Nikki suggested as she put a hand on his shoulder. "The Leanen Sidhe is scared, it doesn't want us near it. You should be able to feel that emotion pouring out at us through the link, just walk us towards where it is coming from."
Grateful, Hank nodded his understanding and stood still, trying to think of nothing. Turning his face left and right, Hank searched till he felt ... something. Walking forwards, Hank kept his eyes closed and his face pointed towards the something, slowly feeling it become more as he approached it.
As he walked, Hank was examining the something, trying to tease out what it was, what it felt like. He could feel it more and more the closer he got to it, and it was tantalisingly almost there when suddenly Hank knew exactly what it was and cried out in pain, dropping to his knees.
Suffering, sadness, hurt. Memories assailed Hank. Crying out he feel forward onto his elbows and knees, cradling his head and crying in pain as images, fleeting words, sounds, emotions, memories bombarded him. Too fast to process, overwhelming numbers, a new one assaulting him even before he could begin to understand the one before it. All jumbled and echoing around his head.
"Hank! Hank! Concentrate! Block it out! It's the Leanne Sidhe! You've found it and it's using your link to force you away from it!"
"You have to control the link Hank! You must force the Leanen Sidhe to conform to your image of it Hank!"
"Hearthwife. Servant. Hearthwife. Servant." Hank muttered, forcing the words through the tears of pain.
"That's right Hank! Hearthwife and servant. Concentrate on your image of the Leanne Sidhe."
Hank chanted. Repeating over and over the words. Hearthwife. Servant. And slowly the pain went away. He could still feel the images being pushed at him, but the more he concentrated on the two words, the more he could escape them, let them flow through him.
Suddenly the pain stopped, the images and sounds no longer forcing themselves into Hank's brain and he sobbed his relief into his hands.
Gaining control of himself again, Hank wiped his eyes on his sleeve, and was raising his head when a new memory was forced into him.
In shock and horror, Hank stared at Jamie's last moments, flashed before him without warning, before turning to glare at the smug, smarmy bastard smirking like he'd pulled off a coup. "I’ll kill him!" Hank barely breathed the words, his anger incandescent.
"Hank no!" Ayla whispered, afraid that Hank wasn’t kidding. Moving fast, he crouched in front of Hank as Lily dived to enfold him tight from behind, holding him seated in his chair. "Let it go Hank!" Ayla pleaded. "Give them a chance Hank. Let the system work."
"He doesn’t care for Jamie! Jamie’s not an object, some trump card played for shock value and points!" Hank snarled through clenched teeth.
Hank gasped, dragging huge lungfuls of air in. Sightlessly staring, eyes wide in shock.
When Hank again made to step forward, to wrap her in his arms, Nikki stepped back instead. Raising her hand, she screamed in fury, power radiating from her palm, reaching out and throwing Hank back, till he lay stunned, sprawled on the ground.
"Friends!? You ... you ... Human!" she screeched at the shocked Hank. "Do you think I don't know that that disgusting turncoat is helping them? That Ayla decided I deserve this and is going around behind my back telling people not to help me, and now you too?! You were my friends, my soul, my heart! And you do this to me?! I never want to see you again!" she screeched full voice, turning and weeping as she ran from Homer Gallery.
Flinching from his touch, shrinking further into herself, Lily seemed to retreat further into the corner of the booth and away from him. Heart skipping, Hank froze, still outreached to comfort her. "Lily?" he squeaked, desperate to know what was happening.
Taking a deep breath, Lily finally looked up at Hank, and he saw that she had indeed been crying. Too scared to breathe, let alone try and comfort her again, Hank just pleaded with his eyes.
Swallowing, new tears falling, finally Lily spoke. "I'm sorry Hank," she almost whispered. "Mom and Dad called me. They. They told me you cou, couldn't spend the summer holidays with us, that you need to go home to your own family and ..."
Shocked beyond words, Hank sat, stunned motionless, unable to comprehend. Go back? To Jay? Dad? Mom?
Frozen, unable to understand, Hank just sat there, too stunned even to reach out and comfort the now weeping Lily. Finally, unable to take it anymore, Lily stood and dashed from the booth.
"No! Please stop!"
Hank stood staring at the photo on the mantel piece. A Christmas portrait of a Mother, Father and son smiling for the cameras as they sat stiffly for the portrait. His mother. His father. Jay. A family of three, happily-smiling from the large framed portrait dominating this, the 'public' room of the house. Not that it mattered. Even in the private rooms of the house there were no hints that the family that lived here consisted of not three, but four people.
Hank had wandered through the whole house, searching. From the trophies in the family room, to the walls of his father's den, to his mother's photo frames on all the walls and mantels. Nowhere was there anything that was either Hank's or Hanna's. Not even in the background of a single photo had he been able to find an image of himself.
"Oh Hank, it's your family!"
"Well it sure isn't feeling like it."
Hank sighed at the sound of static, then the beeps of a lost connection.
"Father," Hank repeated louder. "Colonel Declan is my father not my uncle, and that's my mother and little brother over there."
"Hello! You have reached the phone of Lily Turner. Please leave a message"
Hank saw his mother standing with her arm around Jay's shoulder as his dad smiled and took their picture with his phone. Turning away, Hank stared down at the water and tried not to cry as he remembered the picture-perfect house, family photos on all the mantel pieces and hanging from the walls, with not a single photo of him.
"Reached the phone of Lily Turner."
Not a single photo of him.
Lily Turner. Please leave.
Hank sobbed, crouching down, trying to force away the memories assaulting him.
Hank stared at Jamie's last moments.
You were my friends, my soul, my heart!
Hank bent down, picked up the army duffle bag lying there, and slinging the strap over his shoulder stood back up. After a final glassy-eyed glare around the room, Hank strode out of the door.
Hank cried and tried to close his mind, to force away the pain.
"Hank! You're the stronger one! Take control! Be the one who's in charge!"
Hank tried remembering other things, good things, holding them up agains the onslaught.
His friends in Team Kimba!
Laughing in the sims.
The craziness of Jade!
Hank cried and cried as he desperately pulled memories towards him, tried to defend against the onslaught.
"All you need do, Hank, is seal the rift within yourself to complete this bonding."
The words of Wyatt echoed through his mind. Suddenly calm, Hank studied these words, turned them round and round in his mind.
"... heal the rift within yourself ..."
"... within yourself ..."
"... heal the rift ..."
"... heal ..."
"Hannah" Hank breathed, and at that word the memories assailing him increased their rate, pushing, pushing at him, desperately trying to force him to despair, but this time Hank easily replaced the memories with new ones.
Crouching in a closet, hiding from his searching fellow cadets ...
A shower, crying as blood poured for the first time from a slit she would not long more have ...
A dress, the smile on her mother's face as she twirled and twirled in it ...
The same dress, shredded and bloody, all over her mother's bed ...
A lost girl, standing in BDUs in a cramped room with bunks on either side of her ...
Not even realising as it happened, the memories assaulting Hank slowed, finally stopping and Hank reached out not in sadness, but in love to embrace the memories of Hannah still flowing through his mind.
"Hank? Hank? Wake up please? Hank?"
Hank smiled as the voice called him. The happy voice. The lovely voice.
"Look he's waking!" another excited voice cried out.
"Hank? Please wake up," cajoled the happy voice. Hank smiled and opened his eyes, blinking to the sight of Lily looking down at him with a relieved smile.
Suddenly a new face intruded, smirking at him. "Someone told you to imagine your 'perfect fey wife' didn't they?" Toni asked with a peculiar bubble in his voice.
"What?" Hank asked puzzled.
Fighting laughter, Toni just pointed. Turning cautiously, Hank looked to where his teddy-bear had been sitting on his bed. Eyes widening in shock, Hank stared at the perfect little replica of Nikki now kneeling there in its place, looking down at him with open adoration in her eyes.
"Nikki's looks, Lily's clothes, totally worshiping you." Toni broke down, howling in glee. "Oh you're in so much trouble now!" Toni cried, bent over laughing so hard tears streamed down her cheeks.