Into Danger Again
By Red Cloud
Greg stared at Locksley dubiously. “Couldn’t I-”
“No,” Locksley said firmly.
“But if we-”
Greg bit his lips. “Waffles are good.”
“Under no circumstance...” Locksley broke off and glared at him, eyes twinkling. “Now you’ve made me commit blasphemy.”
Greg grinned. “Mastermind, huh? Trapped by your own kid?”
Locksley snorted. “Damn straight, means I raised you right.”
The father/son thing had been slowly creeping up on him for the last three weeks before school. Partly, it was necessity. Locksley had drilled him on his false backstory for days and then pop quizzed him a few times past that, so that he wouldn’t slip and word accidentally get out to his enemies on the outside of who and where he was. Partly, it was genuine affection. Locksely had taken to the role of Dad with a will, joking that he should have adopted a stray sooner a few times.
And frankly, he was a great Dad. Greg enjoyed hanging out with him, they’d cautiously gone a few cool places, his room now had a game system and a computer, and while they were both hopeless at cooking, they shared similar enough taste in fast food and easy meals to enjoy themselves there as well. He was lenient when he could be, and only firm when he had to be.
Annoyingly, this was one of those times.
Locksley ruffled his hair. “But seriously, the answer is no, kiddo.”
Greg gritted his teeth. Locksley had called in a marker and was having Greg teleported to school via warper. He’d argued that he would stand out, that this wouldn’t help things, that he didn’t want to place his life in the hands of someone he’d never met that might react badly to him, on and on and on. He rubbed his face, and looked sideways at Locksley.
“I...would like those reasons,” he ground out.
After the revelation that Locksley was a mastermind, and a handful of snafus between them, they’d agreed that Locksley would not hit him with the entire master plan and sources everytime they had a disagreement, allowing Greg to come to it or not on his own. Unless he asked.
Locksley had been willing to let it go that Greg absolutely would not disclose his sexuality to the school for all these exact reasons, and Greg was frustrated at finding what seemed to be a similar problem not falling before similar answers.
Locksley tapped his chin. “You sure?”
“Yeah. I don’t see it, I don’t get it, and you’re not budging. That usually means I’m wrong, but don’t have what I need to know why, or you are, and I haven’t been engaging,” Greg said. The second one was rare, only a couple times, but still…
Locksley nodded. “Ok. Basically: you can’t travel safely without the ability to control your powers. You can travel legally to school once without an MID, but you’re being targeted by the MCO, and they won’t be respecting that. Taking you overland, by car, is a significant time investment that involves continuously exposing you to risks of your powers setting off civilians, heroes, and so no, not to mention that I have my own enemies that might jump me and target you into the bargain.”
Greg blew out a breath and rubbed his face. “I...yeah. That’s...fair. Just…”
“No, I know. Mutant you don’t know, powers that you have to rely on, it’s a thing.” He grinned. “I absolutely promise you have nothing to worry about with Popover.”
“That’s what you said about Calcigore,” Greg muttered.
Locksley coughed. “In my defence, Cal wasn’t the problem, his bodyguard was.”
Greg eyed the floor. “Point,” he admitted. He sighed. “I’m going to stand out, though.”
“Yep. But your power is standing out, kid. Nothing’s gonna change that, and this way, at least we minimize the time spent exposed.”
Greg flopped down on a chair, and folded his arms grumpily. “Yeah, I...I concede. You’ve got that one figured, and I’m...not happy, but not correct.”
Locksley sat on the arm of the chair and put a hand on his shoulder. “You got me to commit blasphemy, though.”
Greg grinned, and then jumped as a loud pop filled the room. Literally a pop, like a wet, bright sound. He’d seen at least one teleport in person before, and a handful on TV, and he’d always thought the sound of air displacing, the crack, was the sound all warpers made when porting.
Standing before him was a tiny woman, shorter than he was. Clearly an adult, just a very, very short one. She had pixie cut purple hair, russet skin, and a pair of goggles that she flipped up. She was chewing gum, and she blew a bubble, eyeing them casually.
Greg grinned, standing up. “Uh, hi, I’m-”
Popover glanced at him, and then back at Locksley. “Six or better is a surcharge.”
Locksley shrugged. “Understood, add it to the bill.”
“Cool.” Popover looked back at Greg, and he realized her eyes were almost bored. “Any luggage?”
Greg blinked and pointed at the little footlocker that held his clothes, a game system, and not much else.
Popover nudged it with her toe, nodding. “Well underweight,” she said, nodding, then looked at Greg. “Clock’s running, you ready?”
Greg licked his lips and looked at Locksley. “Um.”
The man smiled. “You’re gonna be fine. I promise.”
Greg nodded and then, impulsively, hugged him. Locksley shivered and pulled him close, squeezing him gently. It was the first time they’d hugged, and Greg shivered in turn, then stepped back. He managed a smile.
“See you for Christmas,” he said.
Locksley smiled. “Love ya, kiddo. Be safe.”
Greg shivered. “Love you too, Dad,” he admitted, startled to realize it was true, at least on his end. And he suspected Locksley hadn’t just been holding cover, either.
Popover was staring at her nails as Greg stepped up to her. “Kay. Please stand perfectly straight up and down, do not put your hands, feet, or any extraneous limbs outside the bubble, do not flail, do not initiate any active powers, do not attack me, do not break physical contact with me. Failure to comply can result in loss of sphincter control, maiming, brain damage, severe bodily injury, death, temporary or permanent insanity, and/or unique factors that I cannot be held liable for despite lack of explicit warning. Got that?”
Greg nodded, swallowing. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Cool.” She flipped her goggles down and put a foot on his luggage. “For your comfort, please take seven deep breaths and hold the seventh.”
He stepped next to her, breathing deeply and quickly, and on the sixth, she touched his shoulder. On the seventh, as he sucked in deep, the room was replaced by a bright pink iridescent wall around him, curving tightly in a ball. He almost lost it as a giggle welled up when canned muzak filled the air around him, coming from a little speaker on her chest. He looked at her, but she was staring blankly behind her goggles at the bubble, mouth casually smacking and chewing her gum.
His lungs were just starting to ache when the bubble burst, with that same popping sound, and he was staring up at a tall building.
“Thanks for riding Air Popover, your destination is directly ahead of you,” she said, stepping back.
Greg hesitated. “Um, can I ask-”
She paused, flipping up her goggles. “Complaints should be filed using the complaints system, where they will be addressed only if I care enough.”
Greg rolled his eyes. “No, just...why holding my breath?”
“Oh. Air in the bubble smells like rotten fruit, can’t figure out why.”
Greg grinned. “Fair.”
Popover nodded. “Ta.”
The bubble appeared for a half second, and then it was gone, this time with the crack he’d expected the first time. He turned around, and shivered as several kids eyed him suspiciously. Perhaps fortunately, a tall man stepped out with a smile.
Greg nodded. Locksley had a dozen different aliases, but for this, he’d simply decided to create papers for Greg with his actual name, reasoning both that passing Greg off as his son would be a lot easier that way, and that using an alias would muddy the cover story and make his real identity easier to detect. As Greg Baxter, anyone looking into him would run into Locksley’s careful cover. As anyone else, there was a small chance that someone would miss the cover story and hit his real history.
“Yes, sir, that’s me.”
The man held out a hand. “Mr. Dunne. I’m one of the house parents. Welcome to Emerson Cottage.”
Greg smiled slightly. “Um, good to be here.”
“Good, good.” Mr. Dunne waved for him to follow and Greg grabbed his trunk, rolling it in after him.
“Now, you’re in room 107, that’s up the stairs to the first floor. House rules are in the handbook, which you will have read,” the side eye he gave Greg indicated that was not optional, “and class starts Monday. You’ll need to make an appointment with your counselor, whose name will be in the welcome packet, as will be the meal schedule, class list, and so on.”
Mr. Dunne paused next to a door, and and Greg blinked when he opened it, sliding aside like a french door to reveal an elevator. “One rule that isn’t explicitly spelled out, please keep the elevator clear for students that need it, as a courtesy. No camping in it, absolutely no fighting in it, do not do the trick of hitting all the buttons.”
“Last, there are two tours for incoming freshmen. The first is going now, the second is in one hour. Tours are mandatory, you will need to be out front precisely at 2 pm.”
Greg stepped onto the elevator, hauling his luggage. “Yes, sir.”
Mr. Dunne smiled slightly. “Finally, I knew your father back in his school days, and I’m sure you’ve heard stories.”
Greg grinned a little. Locksley had, in fact, told him a lot of stories that sounded like the kind of thing you said with three drinks in you while trying to impress a pretty boy or girl. “Yes, sir.”
Mr. Dunne nodded. “Oscar doesn’t exaggerate, so they’re true.” He leaned in to Greg’s startled face. “Let’s not have that much excitement, hmm?”
Greg nodded firmly. “I’ll do my best, sir.”
Mr. Dunne smiled and closed the door, and Greg blew out a breath and tapped the button marked 1. As the elevator hummed upward, he shivered. Locksley...no, Dad, he needed to get his head on that. Dad’s stories of his high school exploits were high energy, lots of ‘capers,’ and later jobs, and a whole bunch of wrangling back and forth with other masterminds, villain wannabes, hero wannabes, and a whole bunch of other cliques, clubs, and problems.
He’d assumed they were meant to be funny, exaggerated high school drama to ease his mind. In hindsight, Dad hadn’t ever told him anything untrue, practicing radical honesty up to and including simply telling him when he wouldn’t tell him something.
And if that was the way this school really went, he might need to revise his plans…
He hopped off the elevator after it binged, hauling his luggage out. He swallowed as the hallway bustled around him. Literally around him. The moment he stepped off the elevators, students started reacting to his powers. He saw a bunch of careful looks, and the other boys swirled past him, giving him a wide berth. Greg sighed inwardly and looked around for his room.
It was in the middle of the left hand hallway, and he opened the door, poking his head in. Two beds, two desks, two cabinets for clothes. And a massive pile of luggage stacked around the center and to one side of the room. Three trunks, two suitcases, a handful of miscellaneous tote bags, and two big cardboard boxes.
There was a sharp thunk and a yelp. Greg opened the door a little more to find a boy sitting up and rubbing his head. He was dressed in a Hawaiian style shirt with a pattern of black and grey microscopes and beakers, and a pair of cargo shorts with pockets that bulged. He was taller than Greg’s slight frame, and chunkier too, with acid green hair that seemed to be natural, if his eyebrows and the little wisps on his forearms and legs were anything to judge by.
“Who-” The boy adjusted his glasses, thick rimmed specs that would have screamed ‘nerd’ even if they hadn’t been oddly streamlined and plastic, with tiny blinking lights and what looked like a black touch control surface on one side. He paled and swallowed hard. “I-I-I-I-”
Greg suppressed a grimace and leaned on the doorway. “Hi. I was told I room in 107?”
The boy was easing slowly back into his things, scooting on his ass. “M-Me t-too, i-it’s d-doubles, b-but I c-can le-leave o-or-”
Greg winced. “No, you’re fine,” he said softly, walking in and setting his trunk at the foot of his bed. He plopped down on the bed, eyeing the other kid. “So, I’m Greg. You?”
The boy shuddered. “G-Gander.”
Greg blinked “That’s an interesting - oh, a codename, right?”
Gander nodded shakily.
Greg kicked his heels a moment as Gander finished scooting into his pile of luggage, getting as far from him as possible. He swallowed, looking around the room. “So, you uh, packed a lot, huh?”
Gander squeaked and started grabbing at tote bags. “I-I’ll p-put it away, it-it won’t h-happen a-again, I p-promise!”
Greg winced and rubbed his face. “Right. Um, Gander?”
The other boy was scrabbling at his clothes cabinet, stuffing totes into it as fast as he could, without taking his eyes off Greg.
“Look, my powers are kinda...what you’re feeling, ok? They make me look scary to other people.”
Gander shuddered. “N-No! Y-You’re f-fine!” His eyes widened. “U-unless y-you w-want to b-be scary, th-then you’re r-really sc-scary, and-”
Greg gritted his teeth. “I’m not dangerous, Gander. I’m not going to hurt you.”
Gander swallowed, struggling to pick up a box. “I-I, uh, y-yeah, I-I f-feel y-you, I w-won’t b-be an-any t-trouble at-at all.”
Not for the first time, Greg wondered what people who were susceptible to his powers heard when he talked. Lock...Dad had tried to explain it a few times, but Greg wasn’t sure how his tone could be that different from what he was saying, from what he was expressing, or how it could override everything about him so totally. Further attempts by Dad to explain that everything about him was going right along with it still confused Greg, but staring at the first truly susceptible person he’d seen in a couple of months, Greg had to admit that he hadn’t missed this in the slightest.
“Yeah, that’s...yeah.” He rubbed his head. “Look, I’m just uh-” his eyes fell on his welcome packet and he picked it up. “I’m gonna go see about a counselor, ok? You take your time, unpack how you like. I don’t have much stuff, so…”
He left Gander nodding frantically and babbling and walked down to the stairs, a small wave of depression coming over him. Was this gonna be the whole thing? Students terrified to come near him? He shook his head, blowing out a breath as he stepped out of the stairwell, consulting the map. Forty-five minutes til the tour, time enough to at least get to Schuster, make an appointment, and get back.
Greg stepped out of the building, orienting on the map and looking around. He blinked at the sight of the massive crystal ball thing and a dubious glance at his map told him that, no, that’s where he was going in fact. He shrugged and set off across the grounds. The place was green, park like lawns and little stone features and flower plots, and Greg mused that it looked pretty much exactly like what he’d expect a high end, boring school for rich kids to look like.
He was about halfway to the dome when a pair of people slammed into the ground in front of him. He stepped back half a step, eyeing them. They were bigger, and looked a little older than he was. Both were spandexed to the gills, the guy on the right in a bright blue catsuit with a brilliant yellow cape that was tied on chlamys style, matching yellow boots and and gloves that hit him mid calf and mid forearm, and yellow piping around the edges. His collar was a short military style that had some spurious pips on it, some kind of rank system, and the cape was held in place by a large, gold pin with an intricate design, a knot that looked Celtic etched onto it around a stylized letter W. He had a mask on, blue instead of yellow, but it had lenses over his eyes that obscured them with yellow panes. His blonde hair was swept into an elegant style, and as he struck a pose, he looked moderately intimidating. The deep footprints on the ground indicating the speed and intensity that he’d hit with added significantly to it.
The lady with him was wearing a bright red leotard and a matching miniskirt with a gentle ruffle. Red combat boots and wrist gloves went with that, and unlike her counterpart, she was wearing a thick belt, studded with pouches and a few esoteric devices. She wore what looked like ski goggles, but they had no strap holding them on, the ruby lens across them hiding her eyes. Her dark hair was up in a French twist, and she managed to look just as intimidating, despite the outfit.
Both had a little pin, a shield in American flag colors, backed by an eagle clutching arrows and an olive branch, with FSA across the top of the shield. His on his bicep, hers on her collar.
“Baxter,” The boy ground out, his voice low and menacing.
Greg swallowed. “Yeah, that would be me. And you?”
The woman smiled thinly. “I’m Red Angel. This is Warden.”
“Nice to meet you,” Greg said, eyeing them carefully.
Warden’s eyes narrowed, and Greg was startled that his mask was articulated enough to show it. “I’m sure,” he said, his voice heavily sarcastic. “We’re with the Future Superheros of America.”
That pinged something in Greg’s memory. “Cape Squad.”
Red Angel’s mouth turned down. “Yes. And we’re watching you.”
Greg blinked. “Why?”
“Don’t think we’re fools, Baxter. We know who your father is, and I can see you’re going to be a chip off the block.” Warden’s hands were flexing, and he leaned forward. “You don’t scare me, Baxter. And if you so much as put a toe out of line, I will-”
Greg felt something in him snap. “What? Beat me? Murder me?” He felt his temper rising and he leaned forward as Warden hastily backed up, trying to look like he was just straightening. “Many, many people have been trying that for a while now. Or were you gonna say something stupid, like expelled? Or detention?”
Red Angel swallowed. “We’ll see that justice is done.”
Greg’s mouth tightened. “No, you won’t.”
Red Angel’s hand dropped to her belt and he saw Warden tense, energy limning his fists.
Greg pushed forward, stepping closer. “See, Cape Squad is, at best, security’s little helpers, according to Dad. So either you’re threatening me in the capacity of school personnel, in which case I would very much like to speak to your superiors, or you’re bullying me, which is against the rules last I checked. Which is it? Cause I can head to Kane just as easily as Schuster, and either way, I’m more than happy to continue this conversation in front of a teacher.”
The capes stared at him for a long, long moment and Warden swallowed slightly. Greg smiled. “Well?”
“We’re watching you,” Warden said flatly, but the rally was short lived since they both jumped into the air immediately after.
Greg sighed and rubbed his face. “This is an improvement,” he muttered. “I have to remember that. No one’s tried to kill me in nearly half an hour. This is better.”
He ran over that for a moment or two, and then gave up and sulked the rest of the way to Schuster. Students continued dodging him, not that he could blame them with his face screwed up in a pout. He knew it was a pout, he’d been teased for it for years, but apparently with his powers behind it, it was the scariest thing ever.
As he stepped into Schuster, he modulated his face, calming himself down. He needed to work with a counselor, and while Mr. Dunne hadn’t seemed to be scared of him (which made him wonder what, or who, the man had been in his life), he didn’t want to take the risk of sending his academic counselor panicking before he could even get his schedule in place.
He spotted a secretary and walked over, wincing as the students hanging around scattered slightly as he approached. They tried to recover, most of them halting and milling like they’d meant to just take a few steps, while a couple just planted and tried to watch him without looking directly at him. A few got a good look at him and decided they were urgently needed elsewhere.
Greg sighed slightly as he stepped up to the secretary, who was typing rapidly. The slight hunch of her shoulders and tightness of his face told him she was also not immune, but making a damn good effort not to be rattled.
“Excuse me,” he said, pitching his voice low.
She startled slightly, fingers rattling the keys, and looked up. “Can I help you?”
“I was told I needed to set up an appointment with my counselor.”
She twitched. “Name?”
She gave him a slightly odd look, which he assumed would be due to his lack of codename. Dad had tried to help him pick one, but Greg had insisted that he didn’t need a super name, since he was going to be doing his damndest to show people he was just an ordinary kid with a weird aura.
“Ah, yes, one moment…” she tapped keys and nodded, blowing out a breath. “Ms. Hollister says she is available now. Down the hall, fourth on your left.”
Greg nodded. “Thank you.”
He headed for the office, trying not to roll his eyes as students surreptitiously got the hell out of his way. He knocked, and a calm voice called, “Come in.”
He poked his head in to find a woman who was...utterly startling. She looked to be almost seven feet tall, and as broad as most olympic weightlifters across the shoulders. Her sleeveless blouse showed off biceps thicker than his head and her hands could have dribbled his face like a basket ball. She wore a touch of jewelry, a ring, pendant, bracelet, and earrings that were a delicate matched set with emeralds or something like them as the jewels. Her long strawberry blond hair hung to her waist in a ponytail, and she smiled slightly as he stepped in.
“Mr. Baxter, welcome. Please have a seat.”
He blew out a breath and nodded, stepping in and sitting down. She seemed at ease, and that helped a lot. A hand came across the desk and after a second, he shook it, his own small hand engulfed.
“Tara Hollister, I’ll be your academic advisor.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Ms. Hollister.”
Her mouth quirked. “Mm, I see I’m not the only one kept in the dark. Your dad didn’t mention me, huh?”
Greg coughed. “No, I’m sorry.”
She laughed softly. “Don’t feel bad, the jobs we worked aren’t exactly bedtime stories.” She winked. “And he didn’t exactly mention you to me, either. Smart, just like him to hide a potential target.”
“I thought going after families was forbidden?”
Ms. Hollister shrugged. “Oh, it is. But if you’ll recall, so is working with loose cannons. And loose cannons, well...we wouldn’t need rules if people didn’t break them.” She chuckled at the look on his face. “Beyond that thought, you know your Dad. I’m sure he did it at least half so he could see the looks on peoples faces when he called us up to send you here.”
Greg grinned a little. “The registrar about had a stroke,” he said, giggling. “And Dad recorded it so he could watch and laugh a whole bunch later.”
She snorted. “And that’s our Oscar. Smart, dangerous, and the sense of humor of a twelve year old.” Her smile faded. “But, enough about your Dad. Let’s get you sorted, hmm?”
Greg nodded. “Yeah. So, like. I did some pretests, I think I’m probably gonna need some English and algebra to get caught up.”
“Agreed,” she said, tapping away at her keyboard. She glanced at him. “Os was a little vague about why you’re behind. If you don’t mind me asking-”
“I manifested while I was in school, and Dad couldn’t extract me before it all went sideways. We spent a while playing tag as I tried to link up to him, he tried to find me, and everybody else tried to kill me,” he said, his cover story close enough to the truth that no-one would question it if they dug into him. His old name would be assumed to be an alias, and since his parents had been wiped from his records, no one would be able to get further back than his forced incarceration with the MCO foster system. Another reason he was using his “real” name.
Sometimes his ‘Dad’ made his head hurt.
Ms. Hollister winced. “Ouch.” She glanced at her notes. “Your dad said that you have, what, some kind of fear field?”
He cocked his head. “Um, people who are, uh, on Dad’s side of the board seem to be less affected, but yeah.”
She chuckled. “Oh, no, you definitely seem absolutely lethal, but he warned me. And frankly” she said, grinning slightly, “if you’ve ever seen your Dad pissed off, you’d know why most people that know him can handle you. At least you seem openly dangerous.”
Greg grinned. “He hasn’t really lost it in front of me that I know of, so.”
“Fair point. Powers Theory is a strong recommendation, give you more to work with in practical and theory to learn your powers,” she said, tapping her screen.
“Sold.” he licked his lips. “Um, I’d also like Survival, please.”
Ms. Hollister hummed. “You seem to have that down, are you sure? Basic Martial Arts would be a better choice, I think. You can survive, but it’s when you have to fight that you have issues, your Dad said.”
Greg winced. “I don’t want to fight.”
Ms. Hollister hesitated. “That’s sorta the problem. I know, from what your Dad says, that you don’t have offensive power, but looking at you I can’t tell that. So you need something to actually fall back on when someone decides to go for you.”
“I…” he blew out a breath. “Can I do both?”
She blinked. “You want, just to check that I have this, to do double PE?”
Greg shrugged. “I survived barely. I need to know how to be better at that. But…” he sighed and rubbed his hair. “I do need to know how to shut someone down long enough to run if I have to, or fight my way out of a corner to keep running.”
She hummed and shrugged. “The classes normally overlap, but there’s a weekend intensive for Survival. Murders three hours of your Friday and Saturday, but…”
“I’ll take it.”
“Ok. That’s technically a full courseload by hours, but you have some free slots in the week. Anything else jump out at you?”
“Intro to Psi?”
“Oh, yeah, that’s a good point. See if you can get that scare field under control,” she murmured, tapping it in. “Ok, you’re set.”
She printed his schedule and handed it to him, then glanced at the clock. “Emerson...done your tour yet?”
She grinned. “Better hurry, it starts in about 15 minutes.”
He yelped and hopped up, grabbing the papers. He paused in the doorway. “Um. Thank you, Ms. Hollister.”
She grinned. “Good to meet you, Greg. Tell your Did hi for me. Now, scoot.”
He nodded and took off, hustling back to Emerson to link up with his tour.
“Got something to do, Baxter?”
He glanced over as a kid melted out of the shadows. She was dressed like a Man in Black, except for being a woman, a tailored black suit, narrow tie, hair pulled back in a military style. If she hadn’t looked about his age, he might have pegged her for one of the intelligence recruiters Dad had told him tended to pop out of the bushes at odd times.
As it was…
“Hiya, secret squirrel,” he called, continuing to hurry.
Her face twisted as she started jogging to try and get ahead of him, moving ot block his path. “Cadet Intelligence Co-”
He danced around her and kept moving. “Yes, very smart, you’re watching me so well that you jumped out of the bushes the moment I started walking fast. Top marks, I’m late for my tour, consider me warned that you have my number, blah blah.”
She fell back, looking deeply offended, and he smiled a little as she simply turned and stalked away.
Greg stepped up in front of Emerson just as students were starting to gather. He hung back against the building, and the students hung away from him, pointedly being social or isolated, all ignoring him. He spotted Gander in the crowd, and knew that Gander spotted him when the other boy carefully walked to the other side of the crowd.
An older boy gathered them up, and Greg took in the sights. His map, and Dad’s information, had given him a jump on this, though the Homer Gallery was still fun. He eyed some of the doodads, trying to spot people Dad had mentioned as allies or enemies, but no-one stood out but Lord Paramount, whom Dad had referenced as “a surprisingly decent sort, good employer, but distant.”
The tour ended and Greg shrugged as he headed for the Crystal Hall, intent on grabbing some food and finding something to do with himself until classes started. Maybe the library…
Greg woke up to the sound of the door opening, and glanced around. Gander had avoided him any time they were in their room, and Greg had made it a point to be out of it as much as possible on the grounds that his roommate couldn’t or wouldn’t be in here with him, and from all the stuff, had far more use for it than he did.
He blew out a breath and sat up, grabbing a towel and some clothes. He’d seen the group showers, and while he was a touch nervous about how his powers would play out in there, he was also a very gay young man, surrounded by some very handsome young men, and group nudity was enticing. He just hoped he didn’t get hard and touch off a riot of people trying to murder him in some weird combination of gay bashing and his aura.
Fortunately, the aura took care of that too. As he pulled off his shorts and shirt, the students in the shower with him, who were very, very attractive to his eyes, seemed to get far, far quieter. He watched as several cleared out at speed, and the rest seemed to be trying to stand their ground and not flee. Well, a couple seemed to be studiously ignoring him, but for the most part, the students were clearly not going to acknowledge him while naked and vulnerable.
He took a few surreptitious looks, but the environment was so chill and unwelcoming that he ended up just scrubbing as fast as possible and getting out. He wrapped himself in a towel and stalked to his room, checking that Gander was out. He stepped in and closed the door, letting the towel fall and staring at himself.
Still pale, and something told him he was never going to take a tan again. The scars of his time on the street were like a road map across his body, standing out in a combination of glossy white and angry red depending on the scars. He was still small in stature and slight of frame, but his formerly athletic body was both hardened by the time he’d spent running, and softened by the malnutrition. It gave him an oddly angular appearance, one that he wasn’t sure how he felt about.
He blew out a breath and grabbed a light weight long sleeve shirt in red and a pair of jeans, then stepped into the only concession he made to his powers, simple boots that would give him a strong running edge on most terrain. After a second of dithering, he sighed and stuffed his phone into his pocket, and went out to get breakfast and meet the day.
Waffles on the breakfast line made him smile, and he eyed the coffee longingly. But no boy under 5 feet at 14 years of age could risk downing a growth suppressant, and while he’d tried and liked it on occasion, he’d made the decision that until he got to at least 5’7, he wasn’t touching it.
He sat down in a corner by himself, careful not to approach any students, and tucked into his meal, flicking through his preset news search for any of the things that indicated his presence in a news story, then a second one meant to check up on Dad. He was flicking over to his web comics when someone dropped a folded piece of paper next to him. He didn’t bother to look around, and seriously considered ignoring the note.
After a second, he sighed and used his fork to open it, wary of touching anything someone just threw down near him.
It had some kind of symbol on it, and a simple hand scrawled note.
We’re watching you.
He stared at the symbol for a long moment, and then snapped a picture and texted it to Locksley. A minute later, he got back a bunch of laughing emojis.
That’s the Goobers. They think they’re Buffy and Co.
Greg paused, staring at the phone in disbelief. I don’t have magic! You don’t have magic! There is no possible connection to anything!?
More laughing emojis.
Yeah, looks like they’ve just decided you look scary and want to put their oars in.
Thanks, I’ll be sure and not summon any demons or whatever.
More laughing emojis. Greg covered his face and used his fork to flick the note down the table. “Lovely.”
It was a very long weekend. He spent the rest of Saturday in the library as much as possible, then in the reading room of Emerson until Mr. Dunne politely told him to fuck off to bed. Sunday was a repeat, waking up to Gander slipping out early in the morning, a rapid shower to get away from the deeply uncomfortable students as fast as possible, breakfast, library, lunch, library, dinner, Emerson, bed.
On the bright side, he had only spotted a handful of secret squirrels now and again (he made a point of waving to them), and the Goobers, or at least he assumed the Camo Goths he was seeing walking around festooned with weird shit were Goobers, were openly sitting within sight of him at the library at all times, but hadn’t done anything besides stare at him. He’d been tempted, more than once, to locate innocuous books on magic or Satanism or whatever and leave them where the Goobers could see them, just to see what would happen. But pulling their legs seemed unwise considering that sharpened wooden stakes were something they all carried, and while he knew nothing about real vampires, a stake through the heart would absolutely kill a Greg just fine.
The capes were noxious, and he was starting to really, really dislike them. The squirrel gang at least tried to be discreet, and were amusing to tease. The Goobers observed, but in the way of someone watching a tennis match. Just...watching.
The capes, on the other hand, were flying by over his head, sparring where he could see them with the occasional pointed look, and posting up near him in the library and loudly discussing what horrors befell evil doers. He didn’t mind being watched, not really. But the blatant intimidation from the “heros” was starting to really, really grate on his nerves. After lunch on Sunday, he stopped by the student store and picked up a really good pair of earbuds. While he wanted to be able to hear when he moved from building to building, sitting directly in sight of the circulation desk with his back to the wall should be safe enough. With the earbuds in and cranked, the cape squad could be as loud and vicious as they liked.
He collapsed into bed Sunday night, glancing over at Gander’s sleeping form. He was tired enough to just pass out, but he stared at the other boy for a long minute, thoughts chasing themselves in circles. On the bright side, enforced silence and nothing to do but read meant that, as much as he could be, he was ahead on his schoolwork. He envied the students that got better memories out of the deal, but at least he could use his solitude to improve his grades.
This did, in fact, appear to be his high school experience. Avoided, threatened, watched, and outcast. He barely spoke to anyone, and doubted he would be speaking to anyone any time soon that wasn’t a teacher or staff. He’d gone two months after manifesting without talking to anyone, so he should be used to it, but...while he’d been living with Locksley, he’d met any number of people that were, but most rights, monsters. And they’d been the nicest, most relaxed people he’d talked to since manifesting.
A tired smile drifted onto his face at the realization that he missed the company of murderers and thieves, and he slipped into sleep.
Greg stalked towards the library, face a mask. First day. Not bad, mostly syllabus shit, class rules, chatting about what the class entailed. Powers Theory was taught by a very dry man who’d launched straight in, but other than that, a pretty standard-ish day. Tomorrow was his martial arts class and Psi class, but he’d cross that bridge when he came to it.
Now, he was just planning to pull his normal library trick until they’d kicked him out. He was trying to console himself with the promise of tucking into a new novel, since on seeing the syllabi, he was almost two weeks ahead on reading.
He almost didn’t notice the wrongness in the bushes, but at the last second, the clangor of alarms in his head got through the fog. He stopped short and eyed the patches of color showing out of place. Secret Squirrels these guys were not.
Three boys stepped out. Capes, because of course they were. He hadn’t seen these, but they were all wearing FSA pins. One in black, white geometric shapes that really did nothing for him. One in a full body suit, like a zentai suit, with boots, in a glaring red and green combination that made his eyes twitch. And one in something like military gear, camo pants, battle dress jacket, but riding style boots, bike gloves, and a bandana mask that covered his head with holes for his eyes.
Greg eyed them, half frustrated, half caught off guard by their ridiculous costumes. “What.”
Shapes-for-days stepped forward, voice pitched soft in what he must have thought was a menacing rasp, but to Greg’s ears sounded like he needed a lozenge.
“You think you’ve got this all figured out, don’t you Baxter?”
Greg sighed. “What?”
The cape cocked his head. “Just lie low, hope everybody forgets you, so you can work in secret.”
“Ah, yes, you’ve discovered my nefarious plan to get through highschool by hard work and studying,” Greg said flatly.
Christmas Colors stepped sideways, and Greg fought not to back away as he realized they were moving to surround him. “Don’t bullshit us, Baxter. Your Dad is a mastermind, and while we don’t know what your powers are, I know a threat when I see one. And I’m not gonna let you just run unchecked.”
Greg swallowed as movement flickered in his other eye and Army Surplus was moving to flank as well. He braced himself to run, cursing inwardly that he hadn’t just turned around and gone back to the Crystal Hall the moment he’d seen them.
“Last I checked, Whateley was neutral territory,” he said quietly, trying to watch them all at once. It was still daylight, and there should be students around, teachers around, security. But he walked this path in particular to avoid contact with people, and now that was going to bite him in the ass, it seemed.
His best bet was for them to be absolutely stupid and come in all at once, letting him dodge between two of them. If they came in coordinated waves, or had distance powers, they could pick at him, or drive him towards the other two, or have the flanks close if he tried to dive past. The last time he’d been in this spot had involved Knights and big guns, and he’d only gotten out by sheer desperation, a lucky stumble that he managed to turn into a roll, and taking a bullet to the neck.
“Yeah, there’s lots of shitty little villain wannabe’s here,” Army Surplus called, voice filled with bravado. “But they’ll get theirs. And it starts with nailing down you, so the rest of them know what’s coming to them.”
Greg shuddered as the boys closed in slowly, mind spinning. He’d seen this before, he’d lived this before. Nothing he said was going to penetrate the paranoid fantasies his powers had spun for them. As he had so often before, he really, really wished he could make people paranoid about things other than him. Like puppies. Or the dark. Or cancer. Or literally anything that didn’t make people desperate to smash his face in. He had to do something, but...
Lean into it, he heard Locksley saying in his head. If they won’t back down, be a cat. Puff up, make noise. You’re scary. Scare them.
He swallowed as he watched the boys work closer, circling as they tightened in.
“I mean, if you really think you’re harder than a a mixed team of MCO and SWAT mutant hunters, sure, this might be interesting.”
He saw Shapes-For-Days trip slightly, but the boys kept moving. Not coming closer, though. “I mean, those guys, I basically just went through them. Lots of screaming, but then, there was a lot of them and it took me a minute to clear the lot out.”
Army Surplus circled a little wider, and as the other two came around, they were walking slower, the trap circling more loosely.
Greg scratched his head. “The Knights were more of a challenge, honestly, I can see why the MCO calls those guys in, but it’s not like they could take me on, really.”
Christmas Colors voice was a little uncertain as he said, “Knights?”
The boys slowed more, and Greg smiled brightly. Locksley said when he smiled, purely happy, it was somehow worse, and he needed worse. Sure enough, he saw them start shaking a little. “Oh, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve gone head to head with a troop of Knights of Purity.”
He glanced around casually. “Used about this tactic too.” He reached up and pulled down his collar. “Bout the best they managed was a nice little bullet graze before I put a stop to that.”
The boys were still now, and Greg shrugged. “But hey, maybe you’re scarier, bigger, and badder than the knights. They’re just heavily trained killers in power armor, after all. You’re super heros.”
He smiled wider, locking eyes with the only eyes he could see, Army Surplus. “Then again, Herodotia’s a super hero too. PK 4, I think, EX 3, loads of power.”
Army Surplus shuddered.
“Course, I wasn’t really feeling that hot, I’d been on the run a while, but she still noticed the building when she hit hard enough to take down most of the front wall.”
He heard Christmas Colors make a noise in his throat.
Greg shrugged. “I’m not into fighting a bunch of kids, but if you think you’ve got what it takes to bring me down when professional mutant hunters, Knights, and super heros have failed, I’d be interested in seeing how long you last, at least.”
Christmas Colors and Army Surplus had backed off now, standing behind Shapes-For-Days.
Shapes was staring at him. “You...you’re lying.” He swallowed and looked at the other two. “He’s lying, he’s just a load of hot air!”
Greg fought down the urge to scream that of course he was. This was the bluff he was standing on, and his best bet of walking away was to push it. He cocked his head, carefully letting his backpack slide off his shoulders onto the ground.
“Ok, that’s cool .We can dance a little. Say, do you regenerate?”
Shapes stared at him. “What?”
“Regen, do you has it?”
“I...I’m not telling you my powers!”
Greg shrugged. “Eh, fair. I’ll assume you do, just in case.” He forced himself to stay steady as he started walking towards him, keeping his pace as relaxed and easy as he could manage with his knees knocking.
Shapes took a half step backward. “W-Why?”
“Oh, if you don’t, breaking the long bones is a great way to end a fight. Regen, you gotta do skull damage or trash major organs. But hey, you probably have regen, so no worries, right?” He smiled brightly and flexed his hands. The damage he’d done to them while running from various people, and the quick and dirty healing that had saved their function in the long term, meant that as a party trick, his knuckles popped loudly if he clenched them too hard. “Your brains’ll probably grow-”
The knuckle pop seemed to be the kicker. They broke and ran, and he stood there for a long moment, fighting to keep his breathing even. Mind blank, shaking all over, and trying not to think of what almost just happened, he retrieved his backpack. He turned around, and marched a hundred feet to the sidewalk where everyone else was walking, and then to the library. He sat down in his usual spot, cranked his music, and tried not to shake too hard as he stared blindly at the novel he’d planned to enjoy.
So, he could bluff. His aura had actually, positively, scared someone away from him instead of making them beat his face in. And now, he just had to hope that they passed the word and no-one else tried that. Cause he really, really doubted he could keep bluffing on the exact same hand for very long. And he didn’t have another hand to play.
He swallowed as he stared at the book. He’d been trying, really hard, to push the harmless narrative, and it seemed to have just wound them tighter. For all he knew, it would only wind them tighter. Maybe, if he was lucky, that one bluff would put them off. They could look into his history, see that he’d not technically lied, and if his powers did what they always did, draw conclusions from there about how bad an idea it was to fight him.
Yeah. And maybe he’d wake up tomorrow to a Nobel Peace Prize presented by his six favorite gay porn models totally nude while the Pope offered him ice cream to eat off them.
He managed to push that aside and focus on the book, settling in and relaxing at least marginally.
The hours passed and he headed for the Crystal Hall for dinner, feeling a little more settled after a good long sit and read. It would be fine. He’d be ok. Dad had warned him that students flexed on other students, this happened. He just had to keep looking harmless and avoid being in situations that he could get jumped.
He was telling himself that right up until he walked out of the Hall to head to the Library for his after dinner time. He spotted three students loitering, not capes, but...they looked right at him and they moved, ever so slightly, adjusting position to orient on him. He felt the weight of the students behind him, and shuddered. If anyone was behind him, following him out, walking forward would take him right into a trap. And going any direction but forward would take him into one of those lovely out of the way spots he’d just decided to avoid like the plague.
His heart hammering, he almost decided to walk back into the hall, when a handful of seniors he recognized, Emerson boys, walked past him. He made a snap decision and fell in, not quite behind them, but close enough that to get to him, they’d have to catch the attention of his older housemates.
It worked, and he ignored the baleful looks from the trio as he tailed the older boys back to his cottage.
For once, he went straight to his room. Gander was out, thankfully, and he was free to drop into bed.
Ok. Avoid ambushes. Don’t engage. Look harmless. Don’t go anywhere that people can’t see him.
Greg covered his face and hoped to God that at some point this started working, cause if it didn’t, he was going to be in a lot of trouble.
Greg swallowed as he stepped out onto the mat. Basic Martial Arts. Day one. If this didn’t confirm, once and for all, that he was absolutely harmless, he wasn’t sure what was going to. Granted, he’d been harmless all along and been chased across three cities by the KoP, MCO, cops, and who knows what else, but…
He smiled as he joined the students, grateful that he’d grabbed a gi from the student store. He could move fine in his jeans, but it had seemed appropriate for a Martial Arts class to have marital arts gear. About half the students had them, and Tolman Sensei, the instructor, flatly told the rest of them to get one, or show up in costume.
Then she proceeded to summon the most annoying asshole with the biggest powers and put him on the ground hard. It was startling watching her take down a PK 3 from the air and put him damn near through the mat, particularly since as near as he could tell, she didn’t have any physical powers, and didn’t use powers to do that. She’d demonstrated her powers earlier, switching a student’s brain off and just knocking them out cold from a distance. She didn’t psionically bean the kid she fought, just slammed him around through superior skill.
He said a private thanks to Ms. Hollister internally for suggesting this class. If he could learn that, it would save him so, so much trouble in the long run. It would take him a while to learn it, of course, but he had four years, right? Even if he could just get good enough to hold someone off long enough to run, as he’d intended, he’d be delighted.
Next, it was time for all of them to show what they know, which for him, amounted to not a damn thing. Greg grunted and kept his peace as his opponent, a larger, better trained kid, slammed his face into the mat half a dozen times (a little harder than Greg thought was strictly necessary, honestly) before Tolman took pity on him and moved him over to a group of absolute beginners to start learning forms. He ignored the aches, having had worse, and spent the rest of the class trying to copy the student aide’s movements.
After, he stepped into the shower. He hated showers at this point, but it wouldn’t be any better walking back to Emerson in a sweaty gi, and the showers there wouldn't be any more comfortable regardless. He ignored the startled, frightened looks his scars got and worked to get clean as fast and efficiently as possible.
“-xter kid is-”
Greg blinked and carefully turned the water down a touch and stepped back, straining his ears.
“-ow, right? I’m fucked when we go powers on.”
He turned his head slightly, and saw the boy that had pounded him into the mats, and not in the fun way, talking to another boy, who was carefully trying not to look at all Greg’s scars.
“Come on, dude. He’s not gonna like, do something stupid in class.”
“You didn’t see his eyes, man,” the other boy said softly. “He would have killed me if he could. I’m not walking home alone, I’m telling you that. And if I have to take him with powers in class? I’m going all out.”
“No, look at him!” The other boy hissed. “He got those scars taking on Knights of Purity and superheroes. I don’t wanna find out what he can do to me. I get in a ring with him, I’m stomping and praying.”
Greg shuddered and stepped back under the spray, rinsing fast. He managed to get dressed and get out before the showers really emptied, and took the most populous path back to Emerson.
He was dead if he kept this up. This had been, by far, the stupidest thing he’d ever tried, up to and including punching out a window with his hand wrapped in a t-shirt.
This wasn’t gonna work. It was never going to work. If Knights of freaking Purity saw him bleeding and malnourished and thought he was a threat, these kids, faced with him healthy and whole and with way, way less ability to spot a real threat in the first place, were never going to catch on that he wasn’t dangerous. And unfortunately, there were way more of them, they were dangerous, and he didn’t have the ability to run a few hundred miles away from them and try again.
He stalked into his room, Gander fumbling whatever he was working on.
Greg swallowed. Screw it. “I need the room.”
Gander was gone so fast that he almost left afterimages.
Greg closed and locked the door, and then did something he hadn’t done yet. He opened his trunk, popped out the little false spot, and retrieved the little box hidden there. About the size of a double pack of chewing gum, it had one button and one light. He pressed and held it, and the light flashed yellow, then pulsed red in a slow, measured beat.
He glanced at Gander’s toys, and licked his lips. Here’s hoping none of those were active recorders, cause that light was supposed to mean he was bugged. And then it went steady red, and he watched Gander’s stuff like a hawk. None of it fizzled or seemed to stop doing whatever it did, which was both relaxing, since it meant that he hadn’t accidentally trashed his roommates shit, and concerning that there seemed to have been a bug in here.
It went yellow again, pulsing red, and then turned green. He nodded and set it on the desk and sat down. That was about the best he could hope for, no bugs, and the little field around it would distort sound so he wouldn’t be overheard. He pulled out his phone and tapped at it, waiting. A second later, the call came through, and he answered it with a sigh of relief.
“Hey, kiddo,” Locksley said, eyeing him. He was dressed for work and Greg felt a twinge.
“Is this a bad time?”
“Not if you’re calling without texting first, it isn’t. What’s wrong?”
Greg flushed and put his chin on his hand, eyes tired. “You were right. I was wrong. They’re going to kill me if I try to coast through and look harmless.”
Locksley blew out a breath. “Start from the top.”
Greg ran through everything that had happened in the last five days, and when he finished, Locksley sighed softly.
“Kiddo, I hate to say I told you so-”
Greg grinned a little. “Bull. You love to say ‘I told you so.’ It’s your favorite phrase, right after ‘paid in full,’ and ‘who wants waffles?’”
Locksley laughed. “I mean, you’re not wrong.”
Greg’s smile faded and he rubbed his temples. “Dad, I need an edge.”
“You really do. Devise? We can hit Syn, find something you can handle ok?”
“After all the stories you’ve told me about those, no thanks. I don’t need something that might or might not work when I need it, which leaves guns, and I am not registering a gun and taking the range class. Everyone would know I have it, what it is, and what it can do.”
Locksley nodded. “That also rules out magical doodads and most conventional weapons. You’d need training to work them, and using them reliably would be a pain.”
Greg sighed and covered his face. “And I could have been practicing for two months already. Why didn’t I listen to you in the first place?”
“Kid, if every son listened to his father in the first place, we wouldn’t need parents at all. You’d all be ready to go the moment you could walk and reach the stove.”
Geg smiled a little. “Yeah. So...what the hell do I do?’
Locksley hummed, thinking. “Well...what can you do already?”
“Run like fuck.”
“Ok, good, you’re fast. What else?”
Greg blinked. “Um. I can throw pretty well. Track and field and a couple of years pitching little league baseball.”
“Throwing is good, you can throw a lot of things that can do some good. What else?”
Greg rubbed his face. “I don’t know, card tricks?”
Locksley stared at him. “You can?”
Greg frowned. “Yeah? Not like...I mean, I wasn’t like, stage ready or anything, I was just dicking around with it off and on for a while. And I haven’t done one since my hands got fucked up, but I mean...I doubt that finding the queen of hearts in a deck of cards is going to keep anyone from beating the shit out of me.”
Locksley leaned into the screen. “You got cards there?”
Greg sighed and went to his trunk. He’d been trying to get up the nerve to try again with them, and brought them along for something to do. It had been over a year since he’d tried anything, long before this had all happened, anyway.
“Yeah, I got cards.”
Greg licked his lips, but at this point, he wasn’t going to argue with his adoptive father, not when he was actively seeking help from a professional villainous mastermind. He pulled the cards out and took a deep breath, starting to shuffle them, doing the warm-ups he used to do. The cards moved slowly at first, and then he started to get a bit more loose. He moved them over his hands, between them, doing the basic weird shuffles and splits that looked cool.
Then he took a deep breath and held up a card, and flicked it, making it ‘disappear.’ He reappeared it, then disappeared it again. He knew like, four actual sleights and he did them all a few times, in different orders, making the card seem to jump from hand to hand, disappear and reappear, and multiplying the cards until he was pulling three at a time out of the air and vanishing them again.
Locksley nodded slowly. “That could work.”
Greg set the cards aside. “Dad, if you don’t start making sense, I’m going to call Popover, have her teleport me to you on your dime, and slap you.”
Locksley snorted with laughter. “Bluffing, kiddo. You have the knack for sleight of hand, misdirection. I know those tricks, and you’re smooth enough that I only saw what you were doing cause your hands twitch and I could follow the motions.”
Greg stared at him, eyes narrowed. “Great. I’ll start practicing card tricks immediately. That will definitely get the jackasses off my back. Dazzle them by pulling cards from thin air. After that I can do shows in kindergartens and when the children run screaming, I’ll fight off the police with the stuffed rabbit I will pull from my ass.”
“You know, that mouth of yours is gonna get you in trouble one of these days,” Locksley said, laughing. He grinned. “But seriously, kiddo, think stage magic. Think fire from your hands, smoke from your fingers, flashes of light, making shit appear out of thin air.”
Greg froze. “My power is looking scary” he said softly. “I can just...fake it. Make myself look even scarier. Act it out, and back it up with tricks, literal tricks…”
Locksley grinned. “Yep. It something you can do, almost immediately, with things you can get on campus, to hold them off long enough to actually get something figured out.”
Greg blew out a breath and nodded. “I...I need to figure out like, a character. A look. Themes and stuff.”
Locksley grinned and then glanced off camera. “I am down, but can you get that yourself? I’m happy to help, but-”
“No, right, working. Sorry, Dad. I’ll keep you updated.”
“Good. Talk later, kiddo. Love you.”
Greg blushed. “Love you too, Dad.”
Locksley clicked off, and Greg sat back. Almost absently, he switched off the anti-eavesdropping device and returned it to his trunk, hiding it away.
A character. A theme. And a bag of tricks. He eyed the card Locksley had given him, his “allowance” of a few hundred dollars a month on it. He was gonna blow through a lot of it, but first…
He needed a plan.