Story: Drinks at the Blue Parrot (all chapters)
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Title: Chapter 1: Novus Ordo Mundi
[Author's notes: This chapter is pretty tame - my friend said it was creepy, but I thought it was cute. She also said it was a little "info-dumpy" and that I was a huge comic-geek for writing this chapter - I took that as a compliment. ^_^ Enjoy.]
Drinks at the Blue Parrot
A Tale of Earth-46
Several Years Later...
"So did you hear she's gone back to calling herself 'Wraith'?"
"Well at least it's better than her last call-sign."
"I don't know – I think keeping it would be a really nice tribute to Jillian's memory. Here's to Jillian," Omega raised her glass.
"To Jillian," they said in unison, all three raising their glasses.
All three drank.
"So where's she stationed now, still on the Island?" Attica smacked her lips for emphasis as she regarded her glass. "This is surprisingly good – I had almost given up on American beers."
"Yeah, Rick and Jesse turned me onto it – Guy and Tora put the stuff out under the Warrior label." Omega swirled the last bit of her glass about. "And, uh, no; 3rd Squadron is somewhere in... Europe-proper now – under the JLE, I think."
"Goddess, I miss Paris..." She swirled the last of her beer in the bottom of her glass. She preferred wine to beer, but beer was traditional for these sorts of occasions. "Speaking of Paris: what's this I hear about Damian and Mar'i? That can't be good..."
"Well, Mar'i's parents aren't happy about it – obviously – so much so they're even talking to each other again," Attica shrugged and tipped her third bottle.
"I can't imagine anything so horrible my parents would speak to each other again, or me... for that matter..." Omega trailed off.
"Well, unless maybe if you were to get back together with 'you-know-who' and her money."
"Please! Don't bring her up... I'm libel to vomit," Attica growled.
"I can't believe you two were ever together" the third woman persisted. "I never pinned you as the masochistic type... or quite that gullible."
"Uh, no, it..." Omega struggled for the right words. "You didn't know her back then – She was... different ... less hardened."
Attica drew breath to say something, but thought better of it, consulted her drink on the subject.
"Still," Omega held up her glass. "To simpler times."
"To simpler times," her two friends drank.
"And to Novus Ordo Mundi," Omega drank as well.
Novus Ordo Mundi
In which Carrie and Joni make two new friends and have lunch...
(Fifteen Years Prior...)
Caroline Keene Kelley was up early. Out of the shower, towelled off, wiped the fog off her glasses and the mirror and saw to her hair, brushed her teeth, applied astringent – the stinging sensation waking her more than the hot shower had. Clothes... pull up, situate, one strap, then the other; matching panties; same boring blue/green plaid skirt; white tank-top, still smelling of dryer sheets; white blouse, the dull insinuation of honey-mustard dressing on the front, even after several washes – tuck; dark blue sweater-vest with the school logo over the left breast; blue blazer, one sleeve, then the other; navy-blue knee-socks; slightly scuffed black shoes; her camera bag, made sure there was enough memory; her backpack, packed the night before...
Ready... wait... chapstick... keys... it took longer to find these than she had liked. It was already past 6:45 in the morning.
In early twilight, the sun having not yet truly risen, the downstairs of the house was bathed in shadow, and Carrie held onto the banister to avoid tripping in the darkness. A glass of water from the kitchen sink, two oranges from a bowl dropped into her bag, out the door.
The air outside was brisk – Gateway City was the northernmost urban centre in California, close to the Oregon boarder and along the coast, well behind the Redwood Curtain. The combination of the latitude, the late season, the early hour – and the proximity to the frigid north Pacific – made for a foggy, cold and bluish morning. Breathing in the clean morning air, letting it back out again as vapour, Carrie finally felt fully awake. Then she heard the bus. Eyes wide, she turned to her left, saw the bus rapidly approaching, looked at her watch and took off to her right, toward the bus-stop at the other end of the street.
Barely catching it, she flashed her pass at the driver and held onto the overheads as she moved to the back, taking an empty window seat in an area of empty seats. She caught her breath. She felt the armer air completely fill her lungs... let it out slowly, the rumbling of the bus making her sleeping again for some reason.
She opened her bag and took out her most recent HEROTAB magazine. On the cover was an artist's rendition of the new Catwoman (an inch and a half shorter than the previous Catwoman according to expert Cat-watchers on the internet, though this was fervently disputed by Lucas Carr, the JLA spokesperson), leaping from the top of a Gotham skyscraper with a catty smile and a stolen diamond necklace in her fist. In a small box by the lower left hand corner was a fuzzy black and white security photo of the same Catwoman. The story heading read "CAT RETURNS FROM EUROPE?" A second box photo above the Catwoman security shot was of Starfire in a sparkly purple/silver evening gown, her stomach slightly distended in the pose she was striking as she waved from the red carpet. The story line above the photo read: "STARFIRE EXPECTING?"
She had already torn out page five and six and stashed them in the second drawer of her nightstand. On page fifteen she found her place and continued reading the article on the latest development in the Wonder Woman trial in Los Angeles. There was a huge, full page glossy photo of Wonder Woman, in full uniform, including her fur cloak over one shoulder, walking out of a café with her lawyer, Kate Spencer, in the background, dressed considerably less ostentatiously in a grey pinstripe pantsuit. A few pages on, the photo caption said, there was a bio on Ms. Spencer, though Carrie already knew the stories about her trials involving Copperhead, Doctor Psycho, Shadow-Thief, etc., had already read the speculation about her as a suspected mole in the Federal Government for the Justice League, and therefore the United Nations – rumours that had led to her resigning from the Department of Justice as a Federal Prosecutor four months ago...
Reading the trial highlights until it got into speculation over Kate Spencer's involvement in the case, Carrie flipped forward, past a full two page Booster Gold advertisement for cola and a single page movie advertisement for the Blackhawk Squadron documentary in IMAX, chiefly comprised of low shot of Lady Blackhawk standing arms akimbo (booted feet well apart) on the deck of an aircraft carrier, her pleated black microskirt flapping with the engine wash of a number of aircraft roaring overhead, ranging from their World War II propeller driven Sky-Rockets, to modern ground-to-space interceptors. Carrie wished she had a larger poster of the ad, and wondered if her friend Eris could snag a movie poster for her from the theatre where she worked.
Onward further, an exposé on government run schools for "delinquent metahuman youth" as being nothing more than secret human-weapons development and indoctrination centres, training a whole new generation of government controlled super-humans. She'd already been following the story on-line, and so flipped past it.
"This seat taken?"
Carrie shook her head and pulled her bag off the seat next to her, set it on the floor between her feet.
"Thanks." Out of the corner of her eye, Carrie could see that the girl sitting beside her also wore the St. Elias school uniform. Turning her eyes from her magazine, she saw that she wasn't wearing the blazer – common enough, but not on such a cold morning... Letting her eye stray down the girl's arm, she saw that the cuff of the sleeve was rolled back, and she wore steel bracers around her wrists. When this concept, meandering around in her pre-caffeinated brain crashed headlong into another concept, the resulting realization nearly made her drop her magazine and cry out in surprise. As it was, she managed the restraint it to a startled jolt. She was sitting next to an Amazon.
St. Elias School for Girls was first known as a respectable, conservative private school on the outskirts of Gateway City. Next it became famous as the school of one Suzanne "Cissie" King-Jones, one of the youngest American Olympic Gold Medalists in the history of the games. She had taken home the Gold in Archery during the 2004 Summer Games, and later went on to compete against the Amazon's champion markswoman, Artemis of the Bana-Mighdall, to a draw in a televised charity event. The publicity, and subsequent deluge of enrolment applications, gave the school's board of directors an opportunity to raise enrolment fees.
Next, the school became famous for another student, Cassandra Elizabeth Sandsmark, better known in the press as Wonder Girl, the supposed daughter of Zeus, a vocal practitioner of Greco-Roman Paganism, and current leader of the Teen Titans out of San Francisco. With the establishment of the a West Coast Themyscrian Consulate in Gateway City, and the passing of St. Elias School into new hands and new management, there were now a reported forty-three Amazons attending St. Elias, the majority of which were American-born Bana Amazons, though there were at least five Themyscrians that Carrie knew of.
The girl who had sat next to Carrie wore grey bracers, duller, less lustrous than Wonder Woman's silver bracers, but of the same style. The Bana girls, who chose to broadcast their heritage openly, wore leather bracers with bronze coloured arm-guards and tended to keep their sleeves rolled up to the elbows to show these off. Before Starrware Industries had acquired the school such accessories would probably not have been allowed on school grounds.
"Hey, Kres, is that for me?" Carrie said as she dropped her bag on the blanket, sat herself down by her friend with the binoculars.
"Hey, Carrie. Yeah, no cream, no sugar. Boring and hot... You're a bit late, aren't you?"
Carrie took the coffee gratefully, sipped at it to test the temperature. "Lay off, I'm not good at this early riser shtick." Carrie took another, longer pull of her coffee.
"Right... no wonder your parents wouldn't let you join ROTC."
Carrie ignored this. "I ran into one of the new girls on the bus this morning, though."
"New girls?" Kressida turned away from her binoculars to regard her friend.
"Yeah, you know," she pointed to the back of her wrist. "The new girls."
"Oh! Bana or Thema?"
"Themyscrian. She looked like a senior, but... you know, with how tall they are, how can you tell, really?"
"Was she really... you know?"
"'I know...' what?"
"How tall was she?" Kressida took the opportunity to take a pull of her own coffee before returning to her vigil through the binoculars.
"I don't – how should I know without measuring? Five foot eight, maybe nine?" Carrie made an exasperated shrug that was more arm flailing and wrist turning than shoulder heaving – a gesture she had picked up from her mother. "Any joy yet?" Carrie said as she pulled out her camera and telephoto lens.
Kressida checked the underside of her wrist for her watch. "It's still a little early yet."
"People leave early, sometimes. And she doesn't go out partying every Thursday."
"Did you hear Alissa was uploading these pics to her FriendFace page?"
"And how badly did Zinda kick her ass?"
"She made her take them down, yeah, but I think Zee let her off with a warning."
"Well, so long as no one else from school found out... oh, I think... yep, there she is..."
Kressida put her binoculars away and quickly, pulled out her camera, an old honest-to-goodness, automatic shutter film camera. The girls' perch was overlooking an ally between two square, blockish apartment buildings. In one of the second-storey windows a pair of black, square heeled shoes, followed by a pair of toned, smooth legs were protruding from the interior, followed by a pair of hips surrounded by a St. Elias tartan skirt and a pair of hands gripping the sides of the window frame. The owner, a blonde girl of impressive height, came into view and settled herself on the window sill, slipping her arms through the straps of her backpack. A moment more spent chugging a glass of orange juice, which she then set down on the sill beside her, and she pushed off into the open air. She began to fly, slowly, at first, as she pulled her mid-length flaxen hair back and fixed it with a patriotically coloured scrunchie, but then faster as she put her arm out and soared in the direction of St. Elias School for Girls.
Kressida and Carrie's cameras were capturing every frame of the scene, of course, and only stopped a second or two after the blonde girl was out of sight. "Some good ones, today, I think," Kressida said.
"I sort of wish she would look in our direction, though. At least once."
"Yeah, great thinking there, Carrie, and have one superman-strong, probably hung-over, Amazon pissed off at us before she's fully awake – great idea."
"Oh, come on, she wouldn't kill us, she's not psychotic. You just have to think of this more as bird-watching than spying."
"Right, with birds that could break concrete."
Joni closed her locker. "I thought all Amazons were as strong as Superman?"
"Not all of them." Eris interrupted before Carrie could go on a meta-groupie tirade, leaned her head to her left, indicating the two girls who had just turned the corner, laughing and speaking to each other in what was, to most of the student body of St. Elias School for Girls, an incomprehensibly foreign language. They were both wearing the same uniform as everyone else, except that they wore leather bracers with large, gold, metal armguards covering the upper sides of their forearms. To most of the student body, an Amazon was just that – Wonder Woman's people, an entire race of metahuman women from the island nation of Themyscira (not that the majority of the student body could, if asked, locate it on a map). To a meta-groupie like Carrie, though, the bracers did not simply mark the freshman girls as Amazons, but as being of the Bana-Mighdall tribe, Themyscria's underclass.
"Those two," Eris continued, "I saw bump into one of those blonde Amazon juniors, one of the two in our calc class who wear those silver manacle bracelet things? I thought these two here would pee themselves! Fell to the floor and started apologising like they had just run over her cat or something. Then all these other girls with those silver bracelets start coming out of nowhere and surround the two of them – I thought they were gonna get killed..."
"And you just stood there and watched?" Carrie said.
"Girl, I've seen these Amazon bitches bend rebar around their bikes to lock them to the bike rack – hell no I didn't start anything, and if that Sandsmark girl hadn't shown up I would have started running in the other direction as soon as I got my legs to stop shaking."
"Sandsmark? You mean Cassandra Sandsmark?" Joni asked
"Yeah, Wonder Girl, or whatever."
Cassandra Sandsmark was known as the school's top Amazon – of the forty-two Amazons in attendance at St. Elias School for Girls, Cassandra was one of only two that could fly, and, for some reason, all of the other Amazons showed her deference, like royalty. Joni had read that she was supposedly even the daughter of Zeus...
"Speak of the motherfuckin' devil," Eris was saying, pointing with her chin at who was walking down the hall from the other direction. Flanked on either side by her entourage – Anita Fite (president, and founder, of the campus's martial arts club), Greta Hayes (who had taken St. Elias's Mathlete team to victory at last year's Mathematical Olympiad), and Cissie King-Jones (an Olympic Gold Medallist in archery at age fifteen, and currently captain of the campus archery team) – Cassandra Elizabeth Sandsmark, Wonder Girl, supposed daughter of Zeus and, as far as Carrie or her friends knew, Themyscrian royalty. For all anyone knew, the books Greta, the only freshmen amongst the four, was carrying were Cassandra's, it probably being below her to carry her own books between classes.
The three watched as Cassandra and co. walked past, engrossed in their own conversation; those they passed would cease whatever it was they were doing, whatever it was they were talking about, and turn all eyes toward the VIP's among them. As they passed the two Bana girls, the two freshmen clasped their hands before them, and bowed at the waist, speaking in unison in their own language. Cassandra, who was speaking English with her friends, held up a hand to Anita and turned toward the two shorter Amazons, gave them a magnanimous nod and said a single foreign sounding word to them. At their princess's word, they both raised their heads and smiled. Cassandra turned back to Anita. "Yeah, sorry, what were you saying?" And they walked on as if nothing had happened.
"I swear to god, this school is getting weirder by the day," Eris whispered at a dull roar. "Did you hear? There's going to be a new girl this week with blue skin!"
"So, what? Gateway city has a consulate with smurf land now too?"
"No," Carrie slammed her locker. "Haven't you guys been watching the news? The school was just sued for racial discrimination because they weren't going to let her enrol. She's a Coluan."
"What the fuck is a... no, sorry: don't answer that, Carrie, I don't want to listen to one of your superhero rants." Eris held up a finger. Carrie frowned, tried to respond. "No no! Tsh-tsh-tsh! Shh! No! I don't want to hear it, Ms. Kelley! This isn't GBS and you're not Cat Grant."
Carrie frowned at Eris. Joni wasn't paying attention to either of them. "I'm gonna go talk to them."
"Say what now?" Eris swivelled her neck like a bird, recoiling at her friend's words. "With who?"
"With the Amazons." She started moving through the small clusters of people, just now beginning to resume their conversations, now that Sandsmark was out of sight.
Carrie and Eris stood, stunned, unable to move. Not only was Joni not one to simply walk up and start talking to total strangers, but being seen talking with Amazons in public – on purpose? Total social suicide. Please place your tray tables and seatbacks in the locked, upright positions, we are beginning our decent into madness and ruin... Carrie and Eris both, simultaneously, bolted into the crowd Joni was making her way through, each grabbed one of Joni's arms and pulled her back with them.
"Hey! Let go of me!" Joni spun around, yanking free of her friends' grasp. "What the hell is the matter with you two?"
"Joni, are you feeling okay? You haven't hit your head recently? Been exposed to any mind altering fumes?" Eris was whispering furiously. "Are you trying to get killed?!"
"Oh, don't be such a drama queen. Come on, Carrie, I know you want to talk to them more than I do."
Carrie looked up at Eris, shrugged, followed Joni toward the two just now closing their lockers, again engrossed in conversation.
"Hello. You're new here, right? I'm Sophia."
"Hi," was all Carrie managed.
"This is Caroline, but everyone just calls her Carrie."
"Um... hi. Yeah, we've only been here about a week. My mother just got a job at the Consulate downtown. I'm Hope."
Joni extended a hand to the shorter of the two, who took it and, hesitantly, shook once.
"I'm... uh... I'm Iris. Iris Constance Choi."
"Sophia Mulholland-Jjones, but you can call me Joni."
"It's nice to meet you, Joni," Iris was saying, smiling.
"I'm sorry... did you say Iris 'Choi?' As in Grace Choi? The Grace Choi? As in, of the Outsiders Grace Choi?"
"Yes," Iris said, laughing once at Carrie's wide-eyed expression. "She's my mother."
"But..." Joni said, confused. "I thought Grace Choi was...? What I mean is..."
"We're Amazons," Iris said, shaking her head at the obvious. "She's one of my mothers."
"Oh. My. God! I have a huge poster of your mother on my wall! She is so badass! I have her Behind the Mask GNN special on my DVR, and..."
"Okay, uh, yeah, that's... um... very weird," Iris was saying, though she was smiling, in spite of herself.
"Don't mind Carrie – total superhero groupie," Joni apologised. "You wanna grab lunch with us? We were just heading to the cafeteria."
"Sure," Hope shrugged. "But, mind if I ask... why? You're not just talking to us because of a bet or something, are you?" Hope looked off through the crowed.
Joni followed Hope's gaze and saw Eris glaring at them from down the hall. "What? No, uh, don't mind her, she's... got issues... But she did tell me she saw you two having a hard time of it lately. I used to move around a lot too – it sucks being the new girl, yeah?"
"True enough," Iris conceded. She conferred with Hope for a moment in Banyha – a few short, curt exchanged between the two, unintelligible to their new acquaintances.
Hope gave the two others a blatantly reassuring smile. "Okay, let's."
The four started in the direction of the cafeteria.
"You know, you're the first non-Bana girls who have said two words to us since we moved here?" Hope admitted.
"I'm sorry, 'Bana'?" Joni said, falling into step with Hope as Carrie continued to embarrass and delight Iris with questions and praise regarding her famous mother, the two walking behind Hope and Joni.
Hope tapped the bracer she wore over her forearm. "Bana-Mighdall is the name of my tribe, and of our home city. Destroyed now," she made a sweeping gesture with her hand, gave a little shrug.
"I'm sorry," Joni said.
"Meh. I never saw it. I was born here in the States. In Gotham. Though I grew up in LA."
"Cool. I didn't think there were any American Amazons."
"Lady Cassandra's American. I think she was born in New York or Metropolis or somewhere back east."
"So Cassandra is, like, the daughter of your queen or something?"
"No, but I supposed you could call her royalty and not be too far off. Princess Diana – Wonder Woman? – she's Queen Hypolita's daughter."
"I thought Donna Troy was Wonder Woman now?" Carrie said.
"Well... ugh," Hope made a slightly exasperated sound. "See, this is why we call them Princess Diana and Lady Donna. Less confusing."
"Right," Joni said, cutting Carrie off. "So, are you two in any clubs or sports yet?"
"Uh..." The four of them were in the lunch line now.
Carrie caught Joni's eye and pointed. Joni nodded at Carrie, who headed off toward the salad bar. "She's a vegetarian," Joni explained when Hope looked at her inquiringly.
"Right. Well, we're both in archery and mountain biking, of course, and Tuesdays we do training and religious studies at the consulate temple, and..."
"And I was thinking about the astronomy club. You guys?" Iris pushed ahead of the other two and took a tray, began loading up.
"Well, Carrie is in astronomy and N-O-M..."
"What's that?" Hope was piling chicken and wrapped roast beef sandwiches onto her tray, a very large helping of mashed potatoes.
"Novus Ordo Mundi – it's basically a superhero fan club."
"Sounds cool," Hope admitted as they took their seats at an empty table. "But, um, your friend, Carrie..." Hope began poking her chicken with her fork as she thought of the right words.
"She's not... an Amazon fetishist, is she? I mean, you're not just talking to us to...?"
"What...? OH! No, no-no-no, no. Nothing like that. I mean, not that I'm not okay with... I mean, um..." Joni stopped talking for a minute, took a breath. "We're down with the whole Amazonian lifestyle, but we're not just talking to you trying to seduce you."
Iris smiled. "I like that: 'not just trying to seduce' us. Well, at least you have other things on the agenda – I hope buying us dinner is on the list."
"Stop it, Rissa," Hope punched Iris in the shoulder, making a muffled meat-packing sound that made Joni clench. "She's just teasing."
"Bitch!" Iris laughed, rubbed her arm. "I think you bent my snake!"
"Do you guys get a lot of 'Amazon fetishists' coming up to you in the halls?"
"Well, we said you were the first non-Bana girls who've talked to us. When we're at the mall or on the street, we're always getting guys coming up to us and..." Hope trailed off.
"Coming up to us and start spewing their ignorance regarding Amazon culture, sexuality, sexual proclivity, religion – ugh! If I get one more shabbily dressed emo kid coming up to me and asking me about Satan worship or whatever it is these Christians think we do, I am going to shove his head up his ass so far, just..." she made an angry gesticulation. "So! Far!!"
"Is that just a colourful euphemism for an ass kicking or something you think you could actually accomplish?" Joni teased.
"Accomplish what?" Carrie said, coming back to the table with a tray full of salad, fruit and onion rings.
"Bend an emo boy over backwards and shove his head up his own ass."
"Well, A) eew, and B) who wants to waste brain cells thinking that hard about emo kids in the first place?"
"We could always go downtown and run an experiment," Iris offered.
"No," Hope dismissed the notion, "if you're going to be touching emo boys you'd either need a hazmat suit or a whole flurry of inoculations – both of which, very uncomfortable."
Carrie had three plastic tubs of three different types of salad dressing, was dipping forkfuls of lettuce, tomato, onion and spinach into different dressings for each mouthful. "So, do you two have boyfriends, girlfriends...?"
"So much for 'other things' on that agenda, eh?" Iris teased Joni, got her shoulder slapped by Hope, who whispered coarsely to her in Banyha, putting her fingertips to her own temples and miming her head exploding as she scolded her friend.
Iris made a few flippant, dismissive comments in Banyha, waving Hope away with one hand and started unwrapping her sandwich. "Nope, we're single. Though Hope is still lusting after her ex back on the Island – OW!" Iris started laughing after the shock of the kick she got under the table from Hope.
Hope made a short, threatening remark in Banyha to Iris, who apologised insincerely into her sandwich, rolled her eyes at Carrie and Joni, chewing. "What about you two?" she said with her mouth full. "You two in the dating scene or are you," she directed her words in Carrie's direction, "saving yourselves for your favourite member of the Teen Titans – they have to have, like, fifty members right now, yeah?"
"We're both single too," Joni managed to get in before Carrie pounced on the opportunity talk meta with someone.
"Eleven permanent members right now," Carrie managed to break in anyway. "If you don't count the reserves, and if you consider Zatara and Imako Hoshi as permanent members, even considering how much time they spend away on tour, the line up right now is: Lady Cassandra, Robin, Blue Beetle, Miss Martian, Bombshell, Kid Devil... (though I think he's lost his powers recently, I read he's still staying with the team), Zatara, Bunny, Offspring, Kid Eternity and Aquagirl. Though there are conflicting reports about whether Ravager, Static and Fever are members of the team right now."
"Wow," Iris said, changed the subject. "I'm going to go get some tea, do you all want any?"
"No thanks," Joni said. "I still can't get used to drinking hot drinks with lunch. I miss me my soda."
"Yes, please," Carrie said.
"Just green is good with me."
Hope said something in Banyha to Iris, ended it with stern words and finger wagging.
Iris responded by curtseying in a mocking, sultry fashion, exaggerating and drawing out apparent words of subservience, sarcastically, before turning toward the free drink tables.
"Also," Hope said, had to stop, realizing her mouthful of beef and bread and mayonnaise was too large to swallow with her mouth open. Pounded her chest just below her neck to make sure it went down. Joni reflected that it was a thing of frightening and terrible beauty watching Amazons eat – probably enough to make an owner of an all-you-can-eat diner cry. Though they had been sitting down for all of five minutes, Iris was already on her third sandwich, and Hope had almost cleared her plate of its thicket of green-bean-casserole, a small mountain of mashed potatoes, enough poultry to probably reconstruct one and a half chickens, and four slabs of Salisbury steak with gravy and mushrooms. She was just now finishing her first of three roast beef sandwiches, though. She cleared her throat. "Excuse me. Anyway: Fever isn't on the Teen Titans."
"How do...?" Carrie's confusion turned instantly to a beaming look of awe. "Did Wonder – I mean – Lady Cassandra tell you that? Ohmygod! – are you and she friends? Can you introduce me?"
"Uh, in order: yes, I wish, and maybe. Fever isn't on the team, and I don't think anyone really knows where Ravager and Static are right now, but I'm sure they'll show up eventually."
"I have all three of her Doom Patrol action figures – of Fever that is, including the special limited-series resin..."
"Geek!" Joni accused her friend. "I can't take you anywhere!"
"Sorry! Jeeze," Carrie said, popping a forkful of salad (honey-mustard dressing) into her mouth, chewed, swallowed, stabbed into her plate again. "So, you're from Los Angeles, then? Manhunter country."
"Ah, now," Iris said, returning to the table with a lunch tray holding four hot beverage cups. "I'll give anyone ten to one odds that the new Manhunter woman is Bana. Plain green tea," she set the cup down in front of Carrie.
"Thanks. You really think so? I thought she was an alien."
"Doubt it. If she was really a Dark Star ranger-thingy then she wouldn't last long with Princess Diana living in LA now – I heard she (that is, Manhunter) just killed a Dark Star and took her suit – here, try this Joni, trust me, and if you don't like it, I'll drink it. And, your hibiscus, Ma'am – boring, without lemon or cinnamon."
"Damn right," Hope puckered her lips in an air-kiss to Iris, who closed her eyes briefly, moving her head a fraction to the side, as if she were, pleasantly, hit in the face by a flying kiss, sat down at the table with her own cup of tea.
"You really didn't have to, like I said, I was a soda drinker before they took out all the machines."
"Doesn't mean you can't try new things – I mean, look at you, you crossed the whole racial line thing, talking to social pariahs, balking at a little hot water and dried leaves now?"
"Fair enough," Joni shrugged, still didn't pick up the cup. "So, Iris, you said you were thinking of joining the Astronomy club?"
"Really?" Carrie perked up.
"Yeah, two of the girls we live with are in the club – they say good things about it."
"I didn't think any of the girls in the club were Amazons?"
"Well... I guess you could say, technically they're not. You know Aleea Strange and Anelle Rann?"
"Of course! I thought you said you haven't made any new friends since you moved here?"
"We haven't. We knew Aleea and Anella... well, since way back... uh..." Iris asked Hope a question in Banyha, had a brief exchange. Hope mostly gave mono- or disyllabic responses to Iris's long questions. "Yeah, we met them on Themyscria, actually. They spent some time at the embassy there."
"That's cool. Their moms worked for the government?"
"Oh, they're not American," Iris said, but suddenly made a face as if she had discovered a red hot coal in her pants. Hope said something disparaging in Banyha. "Oh, I probably shouldn't have said that. Their situations are... complicated. I really shouldn't be talking about them behind their backs like this, sorry," she apologised, as much to Hope as anyone.
"My lips are sealed," Carrie made a zipper gesture over her mouth.
"Let's see how long that lasts..." Joni muttered, sniffing the cup of what appeared to be orange spice tea. "Oh, and, ditto for me – what she said."
"I like Aleea and Anella," Carrie said.
"And: three seconds, a new record, maybe?" Joni chided.
"Shut up," Carrie said offhandedly. "They may be lacking in social skills and... well, frankly, common sense most of the time, but they are crazy smart. I know who my lifelines would be if I ever ended up on a game show."
"Is that show even still on the air?" Joni asked, removing the plastic safety lid to the tea, sniffing it.
"I have no idea," Hope said, balling up the wrapper to her last sandwich. "I've really never watched much television. Iris? Seconds?"
"You know it. Could you watch our stuff?" Both Iris and Hope got up with their trays and headed again to the main cafeteria line. Joni and Carrie watched them go, their blue and green plaid skirts swishing around toned, powerful thighs, below narrow waists.
"Where do they put it all?" Joni whispered.
"I know; they just ate enough to choke a mammoth. Their metabolisms must be off the charts."
"Yet another reason the BMI scale is now bullcrap..." Joni bemoaned.
"Awfully trusting, aren't they? Just met us and already trusting us not to run off with their bags?" Carrie observed.
"Well, I give off a trustworthy vibe and you come off as too stupid to be devious."
"Har har har, Sophia," Carrie used Joni's first name as if it were a slap to the face.
Joni, who normally would retort with a "Caroline" comment, sat perfectly still, turning her eyes from one side to the other, without turning her head. "Don't look around right away, or too quickly, but there are people staring at us right now."
Carrie raised her eyebrows and looked at Joni, turning her head to the side. "What?"
"Table of Bana Amazons by the door, and table of the other kind to the back, and a few tables over where Hope and Iris just passed."
Carrie went back to work on her salad, stole subtle glances for, and then at, the tables Joni had mentioned. Sure enough, there was a table of about six Bana girls by the front door, they were each wearing, like Hope and Iris, gold bracers on their arms and, unlike Hope and Iris, wore their hair up in a high, elaborate ponytails of braids, nearly on the top of their heads. Carrie caught them stealing glances at them as well as their two new Bana friends who were making their way through the lunch line for seconds.
The Themyscrians seemed less concerned, but Carrie did see two of them staring at the Bana girls' backs, whispering to each other and making animated hand gestures below chest level, close to the vest. "What the hell?" Carrie offered.
Joni shrugged. "Racism is alive and well, it would seem. You notice those Bana by the door look different from Hope and Iris? I don't think they were born here."
"Neither were... oh, you mean America."
"See what I mean? Too stupid to be untrustworthy."
"You are such a bitch, you know that?"
"You should see this one when she's in a bad mood," Iris said, regarding Hope, as the two returned and sat.
"What'd we miss?" Hope said, already unwrapping another roast beef sandwich.
"Um..." Carrie stuttered, eyes wide.
"Do you know those girls? The ones with the ponytails?" Joni was saying.
"Which ones?" Iris craned her neck in the wrong direction.
"Um, incoming," Carrie said, pointed. All three looked in the direction, made similar faces as Carrie. The two Bana girls stood up.
"Hi," said Cassandra Sandsmark.
Hope and Iris clasped their hands again and bowed, as they had in the hallway, said deferent words in Balyha.
Cassandra smiled and smothered a laugh though her nose. "I told you, you don't have to do that every time you see me. And call me Cassie."
"Yes, Cassie," Iris said, in a tone more sober than either Carrie or Joni had heard her speak in either language as of yet.
"I just wanted to thank you both for offering to host next week – it means a lot to us to have safe and venue that isn't behind the consulate walls. Can you convey my thanks to your mother for me, Hope? I'm not going to get a chance to see her in person until Monday, I'm afraid."
"Of course, Cassie."
Cassandra's smile was... Joni felt the need to stand or have her stomach detach from her and fly away. "Hi, I'm Joni," she said, holding her hand out to Cassandra across the table. Iris's eyes went a little wide as she watched Joni make the gesture, but did not otherwise regard it.
"Cassie," she said, shaking Joni's hand. "Nice to meet you. Hi," she said, looked straight at Carrie. "I'm Cassandra Sandsmark, and you are?"
Carrie stared dumbly, staring at the blonde Amazon who, this morning, she had been taking secret pictures of with a telephoto lens.
"This one's Caroline Kelley. I call her Carrie. You'll have to forgive her, she has magazine covers with your picture on them framed in her bedroom, so," Joni made a "you know" face. "I think she's a bit in shock right now."
"I see. Well, for when she comes to..." Cassie took an unused napkin off the table, a sharpie marker from her backpack, and autographed the napkin, making it out to Carrie, kissed it, leaving a lipstick mark, put it on the table and waved goodbye, bid the two Bana girls farewell in their own language, received reciprocations in kind.
After Cassandra walked away, Joni started poking Carrie in the side of the head with her index finger. Iris waved a hand in front of the catatonic girl's face.
"Yep," Joni said. "She's broken."
There were two student organizations that almost the entire Amazon student body were members of. The first was the archery club – Cissie King-Jones had won the gold in the 2004 summer Olympics at age fifteen and competed against Themyscria's champion, Artemis, to a draw two years later. After that, she had gotten her own line of sporting goods, jobs training television- and movie-stars how to use a bow or crossbow on screen and was well known to be friends with Wonder Girl. All of the Amazon mothers at Gateway City's Themyscrian Consulate wanted their daughters to be taught how to shoot a shaft or a bolt by Suzanne "Cissie" King-Jones, the captain of the St. Elias Archery Society.
The other club, surprisingly enough, was the mountain biking club – Amazons from Bana-Mighdall had, for centuries been known as the finest horse riders of the middle-east and Eurasia, and the Themyscrians had, for millennia, for sport, hunting or battle, ridden horses and griffins and pegasusi. All Amazons were sat upon a horse (winged or not) before they could walk, it was simply the way it had always been. Bicycles, now, were new. On the Jack Ryder Show, in an interview with the first commander of the US Embassy on Themyscria, Lieutenant Commander Nyissa L. Butler, she had reported that bicycles had become the most sought commodity by expectant mothers on the island, and the most asked for gift by young girls approaching their attainment ceremonies.
For those Bana girls born and raised in the United States, the peer pressure to be seen as "normal" Amazons by their Themyscrian peers was great enough to fuel their own enthusiasm for the trend. Hope and Iris already had mountain bikes before they began attending St. Elais's, and, as far as any of their new Bana friends were concerned, they had been riding simply forever, and in Hope's case it was almost true.
Hope's mother had lived in the United States almost her entire life, and been to Themyscria three times, briefly, but, mostly, had lived in Metropolis, Gotham, and, since Hope was seven, Washington DC. By the time she was offered a job at the Gateway City Themyscrian Consulate she was ready, and had taught her daughter how to ride off-road, on both downhill and freeride tracks, had questioned her co-workers on how their daughters decorated and, as it turned out was the convention, named their bikes, and even what was popular to wear while riding. Hope's mother had put together a dossier of photos and reports and taught her daughter and, during the two months before their move west, her daughter's new best friend, Iris, everything she had learned. Hope's mother was nothing if not meticulous, and, ever since she had quit her original Washington job, had been an ever attentive and doting, if somewhat strict and demanding, single mother, "making up for lost time."
"So what do you think of them?"
"You know who, Opey." Iris lifted her bike up with one hand as she took the front steps three at a time.
Hope similarly lifted her bike over her head with her left hand, took the steps one at a time. "I think they're nice. I like Carries hair a lot."
"You always say that about redheads."
"I have a thing for redheads. And I like that Jjones girl's attitude. She has guts, coming over to talk to us like she did. I like her."
"What do you think I think of them?" Iris was balancing her bike on the index and middle finger of her right hand, holding onto her right wrist with her other hand for support, making a show of not letting the bike tip too far in any one direction.
Hope simply put her bike down next to the wicker bench, sat on the stained wooden swing seat. "I'm sure I couldn't guess."
"Of course you can. That's why you never ask me what I think about anything. You read people like books. Well, most people. I'm not sure a level-A psychic could get a read on your mom – whoops!" Iris managed to catch her bike before it fell down the stairs.
"Please stop that... Alright: I think you like them enough to want to associate with them, to hang out and do things, but I think you just want to play with Carrie and, as far as Joni is concerned, you want to test the limits of what you can get away with."
"Aw, you're no fun. I like them, they're nice."
"You mean you sense a sexual attraction and you want to exploit it for your own amusement."
Iris set her bike down and sat on the wicker bench, clenching her fists and rubbing her wrists on her knees. "You're mean."
"I'm sorry, Rissa." Hope got up and sat herself down next to Iris on the bench. "You asked what I thought about your intentions."
"I did, didn't I?" Iris sighed, leaning her head on Hope's shoulder.
Hope rested her cheek against the top of Iris's head. "Do you want to know what else I think?"
"Not now, not really. Not if it's going to be more psychoanalysis."
"Alright." Hope didn't press the issue, merely sat and provided a solid, warm, breathing body for Iris to lean on, listened to Iris breathe for a while.
"Okay..." Iris said after several minutes. "I'm curious – what else do you think?"
"I think you want to invite them to the Lady Cassandra's party, because you want to prove to me (and yourself) that you're not really as manipulative as you think I think you are."
"Hm..." Iris was quiet for about two minutes. "Do you want to know what I think? About what you think, that is?"
"Of course." Hope rubbed her cheek against Iris's soft, dark brown hair.
"I think you've manipulated this entire conversation so you can claim it was me who wanted to invite them to the party, and not you."
"Well..." Hope moved her hand up to Iris's head, gently combed her fingertips through her hair. "I have to say I'm flattered, that you think I'm as well thought out as all that. To be honest I mostly just play things off the cuff."
"Says the girl who beat the snot out of the Deep Blue computer at age six – you wanted to invite them and have been waiting for me to ask 'what do you think' all day. I could tell you were holding back on being the one to bring them up."
"You are such a smartass." Hope said. "Making me hold my tongue like that until we got home." Hope kissed the top of Iris's head. "And you're sweet to go along with my little farce like you did."
"I know," Iris beamed, put her arms around Hope's middle and buried one side of her face against the side of Hope's breast. "So, do you want to invite Carrie or Joni?"
"No, I think you should get to pick which one you want – I'm sorry I called you manipulative."
"Okay then, you can have Carrie the redhead. Call it a gift. For some reason I seem to have a thing for blondes, myself, anyway." Iris reached one arm up Hope's back to the back of her head and ran her fingers through Hope's short cut, bleached blond hair. "Even fake ones."
"Hm..." Hope closed her eyes in feigned consideration. "I'm pretty sure Joni's a natural blonde. And thank you," Hope opened one eye and smiled down at her friend.
Iris gave Hope a little squeeze, closed her eyes and sighed happily. "I love you, Opey."
"I love you too, Rissa."
A moment later, a loud grumbling sound came from Iris's stomach, making her eyes open up wide. "Uh..." her cheeks began reddening.
"Oh! And I think your tummy wants to say it'll love us both forever, too. If, that is, we give it borscht and burritos and omelettes."
"Ya-ay! Early supper!" Iris threw both first into the air in excitement, put both hands on the bench and stood up on it, stood and did a forward flip toward the front door, landed (a little shakily) just an inch from crashing into the screen door. "Ta-da!"
Hope clapped as Iris put her hand over her stomach and did a little bow to her side. Iris opened the door and held the screen for Hope. "And by the by – I see you went red and lacy today, after all," Hope teased, taking the screen door's handle from Iris.
"You would look," Iris said, stuck her tongue out at Hope. The two Amazons went inside to begin their raid on the kitchen.
[End notes: I've actually been sitting on this story for a while, and have a few more chapters after it, but was worried that it was too... fan-girlish? Is that a word? Anyway, let me know what you think. If you want I'll upload some more chapters as I work on completing it.]
Title: Chapter 2: Friday Evening
... In Which Joni Indulges in Extracurricular Activities and Carrie Has a Nerdgasm
The Blue Parrot Bar, Gateway City
Several Years Later... (2022)
The Blue Parrot had started its life as a dressmaker's shop, and had, in its lifetime before it was a bar, been a haberdashery, a pawnshop, an antique shop, a music store and a café. Around the turn of the 21st century it had become a Sun-Dollar Coffee shop, a corporate chain of coffee-shops that had started in Coast City and found its way to every mall and busy street corner in America by 2003, pushing out the Metropolis based YesCoffee! completely by 2005. In 2008, because of investors' perspective of the company as having overextended themselves, the company began a reorganization of its "less valuable assets" and the corner shop stood abandoned for two weeks before being purchased by Amanda Joan White and reopened as a bar two months later.
Amanda Joan White had served as a member of the K-Brigade before being discharged for injuries sustained during the first few months of the War. Upon opening, she pinned the pictures of her fallen comrades to the wall over the bar, as per the advice of a patron and acquaintance in the Black Hawk Corps. Since then, it had become something of a tradition for the metahuman and enhanced-abilities community of Gateway City.
"Cowgirl!" the three patrons said in almost-unison as the woman in the Black Hawks uniform entered the bar, heralded by the jingling over the door. Several other patrons, mostly older men and women, took notice of the dark navy-blue Blackhawk uniform.
"It's 'Wraith' now, actually," she said, taking her seat and putting her combination cap in her lap.
"We were just talking about that, actually."
"Yeah, well... now that I'm in Jillian's old squadron it just felt wrong... to keep using her old call."
"Fair enough – do you have the picture?"
"Right here." Wraith pulled the black-and-white photo out of her inner coat pocket.
"What do you say we put it up by Jillian's picture, there's a space between her and Charger."
"I was thinking we put her up there over Brannon," Wraith said, passing the picture to Omega.
"It's your call, sister," Attica said, washing her hands of the decision.
"Oh, I love this picture," said Omega, passing the picture to Attica. "It's a cropped photo from the 2007 Wayne Foundation Charity Ball – I've this in one of my old scrapbooks. Why'd you cut yourself out of it?"
"Just superstitious, I guess," Wraith shrugged. "Don't want my picture up on that wall till my number comes up – besides, that horrible purple dress, gods, I'd purge the world of that picture of me if I could."
Gateway City, Friday
(15 years prior...)
"Yeah, well at least I'm making an attempt to deal with reality here!" Joni shouted.
"And what the fuck is that supposed to mean? You gonna drink the kool-aid and sign up with Carrie's geek patrol too? You gonna start going to stupid conventions in costumes now too? Is that what constitutes 'reality' for you now, because...!"
"This has nothing to do with...!"
"Bull-shit it doesn't! You...!"
Carrie was weighing the pros and cons of sticking around and watching Eris and Joni argue, or continue on home without them. They were a block or two away from the point where they usually split up anyway... But that would mean she would be home with her parents all that much faster. Carrie stood her ground and rummaged about in her bag for something to read while waiting for one of them to get totally exasperated and storm off.
The tinkling of a bell roused Carrie's attention and she saw two people exiting the Sun-Dollar Coffee Shop on the corner. Looking back at her friends... she went into the coffee shop.
"Can I have... a medium mint tea, please?"
"Spearmint or peppermint?"
"You got it, that'll be $2.97... Thank you, out of five... $2.03 is your change... Miss?"
"Huh? Oh! Thanks." She took her change and receipt, turned her eyes back to the far end of the shop. "Well... if Joni can do it..." she muttered to herself.
"Sorry, what was that, Miss?"
"Oh, nothing," Carrie smiled at the barista. "Thanks." She took her tea.
The girl sitting alone at the corner booth was reading last week's HEROTAB. She was wearing a puffy black jacket and an emerald-green hairband holding back long black bangs. The hairband was the same colour as the girl's vividly green skin.
"Hi..." Carrie trailed off, timidly.
The girl looked up from her magazine.
"Hi," Carrie reaffirmed. "You must be Adara. I'm Carrie." She put her hand out.
"Why?" the other said, blinked, cocked her head to the side.
"Why am I Carrie?"
"Why must I be Adara? You said 'must,' indicating a lack of all other options – I'm curious to know what your criteria were for this deduction."
"Oh... um... Page thirty-seven."
"Page thirty-seven of the HEROTAB you're reading."
The girl kept eye contact with Carrie as she turned the pages, glanced down quickly before looking back up, holding Carrie's gaze until she looked down a second time, turned one more page. Studied what she saw. "It's not a very good picture of me... small as well. How do you know I'm not some other Coluan? Do you know the individual morphologies that differentiate members of my species?" She locked her eyes on Carrie again, unblinking now, her eyes wide and her expression, though not stern, was eerily commanding.
"Well... I hadn't heard of any other Coluans besides Indigo, and she's comatose in STAR Labs Metropolis right now, and... any others here without United Nations Approval would be violating the Sovereign Earth Act, so... I doubt they would be casually reading in a coffee shop in northern California this close to the Themyscrian Consulate. Their main mandate, well, one of them I guess, is to defend the western seaboard against alien invasion. So... I made an informed assumption...?"
Adara released Carrie from eye-contact. "Pretty good. I'm not sure I would have left it at that, and I don't necessarily agree with all of your assertions, but, as it happens, I am Adara Rice."
"Okay... well... I'm a student at St. Elias."
"Oh, yeah, um, well, congratulations on your admission. Maybe I'll see you around the school sometime?"
"Thank you." Her smile was subdued and deliberate, her voice slow and unassuming. "That is a likely scenario."
Carrie nodded. She patted her own thigh absently with her free hand. Adara blinked.
"Well... see you around."
"Bye." Adara kept smiling. "And have a pleasant day." She turned back to her magazine.
Carrie opened the door to the street and nearly collided with Joni. "There you are," Joni said, sounding exasperated. "Come on, let's go."
Carrie didn't ask what had happened to Eris.
"Her head is just so far up her ass...!" Joni was explaining anyway. "ERRRGH!" She gesticulated angrily. "Amazons and Aquatics aren't out-of-sight/out-of-mind out in the middle of the ocean any more – San Diego is under water and full of Aquatics, Amazons are stationed in every major city to protect us from New Kryptonian terrorists – freakin' alien terrorists! Earth's meta-forces are taking part in interstellar civil wars for God's sake! It's the world we live in now! And people – like Eris! – want to stick their heads in the sand and pretend these people don't exist! Or that they somehow are so bizarre that they're not even real or worth considering!"
"You don't have to preach to..."
"It's like people who deny the Moon Landing ever happened! Or who – who keep up this endless mental masturbation to the Zapruder Film, or – god help us! – keep insisting that the Batman is some sort of mass hysteria or media hoax! It's..."
"Joni – just SHUT UP!" Carrie screamed.
Joni turned and looked at her friend as if she was surprised to see her, furrowed her brow and studied the other quizzically.
"Just shut the hell up... I hate it when you go off on these... whatevers..." Carrie pushed past her friend and continued towards her parents' apartment. "Just go to work and calm down, call me when you don't feel like raving anymore."
"Carrie!" Joni caught up in about three strides. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, Eris just..."
"And what's gotten into you this afternoon? – Lunch, what was that about? You've never shown an interest in this sort of thing before?"
"Honestly? I just... I don't know – bored?"
"You are a horrible liar, you know that? But fine, fine, you've got my number when you want to talk – though if it's more trouble with your parents I'm swamped with issues of my own, so, I'm afraid I'll be no help there..."
"No, my folks are..." Joni shrugged.
"Well, whatever, I've got to go walk in on another awkward moment in their run up to inevitable divorce – have fun at work."
"Ha," Joni said, turning the corner left while Carrie crossed the street to the right. "Right, fun..."
It was Friday. Joni had a stock job at a hardware store on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays after school. On Thursdays and Fridays and Saturdays, if any of her friends came looking for her there Mr. Clifford, the store's owner, or Justin or Rajeev, her fellow employees, told them that she was working in the back and couldn't be bothered, though this rarely happened. Not for the first time she wondered just how much Carrie actually knew about her home life – it would only take about a quarter of an hour on Google for anyone to figure out her entire life story. Either Carrie genuinely had no idea who her parents were or she was being nice and pretending not to notice out of respect for Joni's privacy. Still, to keep up appearances she kept the job at Clifford's and refused to take a limo to and from school.
She waved through the store window of Clifford's Hardware at Rajeev as she passed the store. He waved back, smiled, assuming she was off to something fun and illicit, probably with an older man, or whatever other salacious improprieties he might have come up with to explain her strange behaviour to his satisfaction. She took the alley that ran alongside the store until it came out along Howard Street, followed it to Wade, which ran along the very edge of the commercial district, stores on the one side and trees on the other. She walked along the side with trees until the sidewalk ended. Then she walked along the street, in the bike lane until that ended as well and the street became a road, bordered with a dirt path, twisting and turning, trees on both sides.
Like the other two large cities in California, Los Angeles and San Francisco, Gateway City was its own county. But, also like Los Angeles, Gateway City was by no means homogenous – there were neighbourhoods and burrows and sections that were miniature cities unto themselves. Trevorsville was a historical region that no longer appeared in print on any map, but was known by the locals as the extreme southeast corner of the city that bordered the forested area Joni walked through after school along Old Wade Highway, a road which had originally be laid to connect Trevorsville with the logging mill which had once been where the shopping district now stood. Joni turned off onto an unnamed side road after about a ten's minutes walk. It took about another fifteen to reach her destination. The tree line ended about fifteen yards from the main gate where she entered her pass-code. The iron gate made a buzzing clang and swung open. About ten seconds after she entered, it closed behind her with a screech and another buzz-clang.
She walked along the path – on the interior of the gate, there were several trees and a considerable amount of undergrowth, barely contrained by the gate. As she walked, she, for some reason, smelled the distinct suggestion of cinnamon on the breeze as she approached the main house and slipped one arm out of her backpack's shoulder-strap, carried its weight entirely on her right shoulder. With her left hand she fiddled with something in the pocket of her school blazer.
The item in her pocket was making heavy metallic clicks as she played with it, accompanied by the sound of the fingernail of her left index finger tapping along the side of it, occasionally digging into the divot of a screw.
"Hello, Ginger," Joni said as she knelt and took her left hand out of her pocket to pet the lemon coloured cat that ran up to her out of the bushes. The cat smelled of wet leaves and dust and of sour tobacco smoke that clung to the heavy drapes Ginger habitually clawed at. "You certainly know what day it is, don't you?" Joni crooned to the cat as it rubbed up against her leg and purred ecstatically, barely containing its excitement.
Joni pulled the bag off of her right shoulder with her right hand and extracted a tin of sardines from a zippered outer pocket, opened it for the animal as it pressed its face against her hand and the top of the tin, ate greedily as Joni scratched the back of its head. "Enjoy," Joni whispered as she continued on toward the house.
It was big – fifteen bedrooms and almost as many bathrooms, a pool and a pool house, a greenhouse that would have filled a quarter of a football field, lawns that sported a veritable army of statues and topiaries and, classically, a two story fountain wreathed by a round in the road before the main steps of the house.
Joni abandoned this road and kept to the grass toward the north side of the property, toward the greenhouse and the various sheds that supported the efforts of the gardeners. "Hey, Douglas."
"Hello, Sophia – how was school?"
"Boring. How's the raccoon traps coming?"
"Not a bloody racoon yet – caught lots of opossums, and that skunk that's been bothering the dogs. But they're still too smart for their own good."
"I say we just let Layla shoot the damn things, if they're that much of a problem." Joni sat on an ancient, felled log, her bag beside her. Opening the main compartment she shifted her math book, a small first aid kit and a compass-and-pencil, pulled out a warm, half-drunk water bottom. She finished it as she rested a moment from her walk – about two and a half miles as the crow flew.
Douglas, the groundskeeper, didn't respond, though he did shake his head as he continued to tinker with the wire and sheet metal trap. Joni stood up and picked up a modestly clean shovel and stuck the business end straight down into the ground, hung her blazer on the top of it. She then removed her blouse, re-buttoned it, folded it and put it in the secondary partition of her bag. In her sports-bra and tank-top she walked over to the axe and pulled it out of the stump by the handle, set up one of the foot-long, nine-inch-thick logs beside the rude gash in the stump's surface – lined up her swing...
Swoop-thwack, the two half logs fell, one into the dirt and one on its side on the stump. Joni set this latter up on its end, lined up her swing... swoop-thwack! She picked up the fourths and threw them into the pile, set up the first half log and gave it similar treatment. Swoop-thwack, clunk-clunk...
A new log. Swoop-thwack! Clunk, clunk... Tap... Swoop-thwack! clunk-clunk... tap... Swoop-thwack! Clunk-clunk... Tap. Twelve more logs given the similar treatment.
"Got the axe stuck yet?"
Joni turned to see Layla, smiled in her direction as she set up the next log. "Not yet." She lined up her swing... swoop-smack! "Well, there you go, you jinxed me..." Joni levered the axe handle downward to free the blade, set up her next swing... Swoop-thwack! Clunk.
"You do know there becomes a point where this becomes playing and no longer a true workout, right?"
"Would that be the point where it starts to become easy?" Joni wiped a droplet of sweat from behind her ear.
"About. Did you want to try out the pneumatics again?"
"I thought you said I needed to work on the basics before we go back to the hardware?"
"You've been making progress recently... I thought..."
"You're not coming back with us this time, are you?"
"We've been called up."
Joni hugged the taller woman, felt the cool metal dogtag chain at the back of her neck with her red hot palm, felt some of the sweat at the back of her jaw and side of her neck smear across Layla's cheek and jaw.
"Probably just another milk-run with Brannon and the Blackhawks. Long time since Metropolis."
"Some might say that means we're due..." Joni inhaled sharply through her nose. "Sorry, I didn't mean it... like that... I mean – sorry for being the voice of doom and gloom."
"No, no, speak your mind. Everybody else is thinking it."
"Come on, I've got the dummies set up on the other side of the greenhouse."
The "dummies" were solid marble lawn statues. Joni threw her first punch at the head of a statue of Apollo – replacing the face with a jagged crater and raining shards across the hard packed earth of the training field.
"I want to see severed heads, soldier!" taunted Layla.
"Yes, Ma'am," Joni intoned, returning to her fighting stance. She took another swing at the Olympian's head. It came away in chunks that fell to the ground about ten feet away.
Joni's pneumatic armour hissed and whined as the compressors recharged their reservoirs.
"Arms!" Layla cried.
Joni gave a one-two punch to the statues arms, breaking them at the shoulders and causing them to fall to the ground.
Joni made a slide into her next "opponent," the impact pistons in her gauntlet forming a crater in the gut of a statue of Alexander. Her legs gathering underneath her, she swung a hook with her other arm that sent the great Macedonian's head flying to the right in, mostly, one piece.
"Good! Backflip, switch up!"
Joni jumped up and kicked off of the headless statue's chest-plate, landed in front of a nymph statue and smashed half the face away with an upward elbow thrust.
"Careful! Those couters don't have impacters!"
While Layla spoke Joni had already spun around and landed a good momentum hit on the other side of the nymph's head with her vambrace, probably a little too close to her wrist for Layla's liking, Kevlar ailette notwithstanding. An uppercut sent the remainder of the head flying up into the air.
It went on in like fashion for the better part of a half hour, until Joni's tanktop was soaked all the way through, and the interior padding of her pneumatic arms were hot, sticky and itchy.
"Take a break!" Layla called out.
Pneumatic armour did a lot of the work, but it didn't do everything. Joni collapsed to her knees, her arms hanging at her side like six-hundred and fifty pound weights. Her shoulders, her thighs and triceps and biceps were screaming and her hands felt like they were swollen to ten times what they should have been. Her heart was beating so fast and so hard it felt like it shook her upper body with each beat, a deep rumbling from her chest. What's more, all the heavy impacts going up her arms had really given her a massive headache...
This one always surprised Joni, no matter how many times Aunt Layla did it. At least now she knew better than to let her surprise paralyse her. She caught the water bottle with a sore hand at the end of a sore arm and struggled to work her numb fingers at the twist cap. "Damn..."
"No, Miss... damn...!"
"Here, let me."
The pneumatic armour over Joni's arms and shoulders enhanced all the movements of her arms and there were pistons on the knuckles designed to trigger when she smashed them against something solid – but they did nothing for the strength of her fingers. For all her protests Layla snatched the bottle from her hands easily, threw the cap to the ground and tipped about a half cup of water over Joni's right arm.
Steam and a substantial hissing sound accompanied the water as it poured over the metal components of the armour. "These things still have trouble with overheating, if you ask me... how do they feel?"
"Not... well, it is better, anyway. Either the insulation or the heat distribution is doing a better job than the last set... lower cannons still feel like they're buckling a bit on lateral impact..."
"They are called 'vambraces,' Soldier, not 'cannons' – cannons are something you shoot, not something that fits over your arm."
"Yes, Miss. Sorry, Miss."
"You're forgiven. Here, drink."
"Yes, Miss. Thank you, Miss." She drank.
Layla knelt down and deactivated the impacters on Joni's arms. "You think you can give me one hundred full ones, Soldier?"
"Of course, Miss." Joni put her knuckles on the ground and began to get into position for push-ups.
"Attagirl." Layla kissed the top of Joni's head. "Keep a loud count of it, it helps."
"Yes, Miss. One...! Two...! Three...! Four...!"
Layla walked away from her student, but not out of earshot, surveying the marble carnage around them, picked up a head or two and considered them briefly before discarding them. When she walked back over to Joni she placed her palm on the girl's back once, not to correct her form, but to keep her honest and to let her know she was still watching.
"Ninety-seven... ninety... eight... ninety-nine... one... hundred..." Joni stopped in the up position and waited.
Joni collapsed onto her tummy, rolled over onto her side, and then flopped down onto her back, panting, choosing to flex her fingers at the dirt at her sides rather than curl her arms into a foetal position.
"This, Soldier," Layla crooned, picking up the closest head and showing it to her student. "Is the head of Gnaeus Julius Agricola – the Roman general who oversaw the invasion and conquest of Britain. And you knocked his head off."
"He had a... stupid haircut... for a general," Joni said between panting breaths, smiling.
"I'm not sure that excuse would hold up in court, but... okay, next question. What do you think a hit like this would do to a human skull?"
"I... don't know, Miss."
"The word salsa comes to mind – chunky style."
This earned a giggle out of Joni, but only a little before she bit her lower lip.
"Yeah, that is a little funny," Layla admitted. "Have you ever seen a dead body, Soldier?"
"No, Miss." Joni turned her head and looked up into Layla's eyes.
"Do you know what the Batman rule is, Soldier?"
"Recite it for me, Soldier."
After a moment's pause, to assess what Layla really wanted from her, Joni spoke calmly and clearly, as if reciting from a textbook. "No lethal force, not even in self defence. No exceptions, no second chances."
"And who abides by this rule?"
"The Justice League of America, the Justice Society of America and their subsidiaries, Miss."
"Because..." Joni paused to consider whether Layla was asking for a legal or ethical answer. She decided to go legal. "Because, even though the JSA operates at the pleasure of the President of the United States..."
"Since when and why?" Layla interrupted.
"Since Executive Order X of 1942, Miss, which granted legal authority to all of America's masked vigilantes to defend the homeland under extreme circumstances."
"Even though the JSA operates at the pleasure of the President and the JLA operates under the auspices of the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, they are, unless a state of war or global emergency is declared, a civilian organization given extraordinary authority – therefore, they must be held to an extraordinarily higher standard and provide their own oversight."
"Correct. I would also have accepted 'because killing people is wrong.'"
"Yeah, that too... Miss."
Layla smiled down at her student and reached out a hand. Joni took it and Layla helped her to her feet. Joni managed to keep the painful groaning to a minimum. "I sense you had another 'talk' with my parents?"
"Yes. I did."
"And the result?"
"They want me to introduce you to Jay Garrick."
"No!" Joni made an exasperated sound. "No. I'm going to join up! They can't talk me out of it – when I'm eighteen I'm enlisting."
"And what if you don't get into the special forces, what then? The Black Hawks only take Americans from the Marines and Navy special forces."
"Then there's the open tryouts in Prague every May Day..."
"Your father won't let Ferris Aircraft sponsor your entry, sweety."
Joni opened her mouth to speak, closed it, did it again, like a fish. "He told you that?" she managed, finally.
"You're father's boss..."
"Carol Ferris or my mother?"
"Both – it's... I guess you would call it an 'Old Girl's Network,' just like Waller, Olivia Reynolds, Cathy Cobert – your mother and your Auntie Carol – all thick as thieves since the 80's. You're mother asked Carol not to sponsor you, a trade in for a personal favour I might tell you about when you grow up..." that didn't get the laugh Layla hoped it would. "She justified it as wanting to avoid the appearance of nepotism."
Joni sat down on the grass at the edge of the practice-ground, drew her knees up and rested her chin on her folded arms, feeling the warm metal under her chin, thinking, fuming, frowning. "I don't want to be stuck in some parochial, national agency – the JSA can't even go into Canada without the JLA's say-so!"
"If you want to see the world, why not join the peace corps?" Layla glowered down at her student.
Joni frowned back up at Layla.
"I'm serious. This isn't about the scope of jurisdiction – this is about service. At least that's what I thought I was training you for. I won't bother with you any more if all you want to do is fulfil some romantic fantasy about going off to war!"
"I'm sorry... I just... really wanted to..."
"I know. Come here." Layla helped Joni to her feet again. "You just have to remember, it doesn't really matter, in the long run, which group you sign up with, you're parents just want you to finish collage before you..."
"Essentially." Layla's smile was disarming enough to coax one out of Joni. "You have to remember that once you've established yourself, however that is, if it's a student in the Society's school in upstate New York or if it's getting coffee for someone at the Power Company headquarters in San Francisco – once you're in, in whatever capacity, you're in for life. You get invited to the JLA/JSA Thanksgiving parties and the Teen Titan Spring Break getaways and you're, basically, signed up for the Article-X draft and on and on and on... it's a small community, and you can't minimize any way into it. The industry is intense and we're intensely protective of our own."
"So..." they were at the expansive row of glass doors and windows that bordered the banquet patio. Layla had her arms around Joni's shoulder and back, her other hand on Joni's closest shoulder, but Joni could feel neither of these directly, only as the welcome, if distant, pressure of contact through the quarter inch of armour and plating. "It's back to some sort of Pierce agreement, then?"
"Something like that, yeah."
"And after I get my degree?"
"Whatever you want, after that. As far as your mother has said, anyway."
They entered through the door to the kitchen. There were a few cooks at the far end getting ready for the servant's dinner, but the Jjones would be flying out to Gotham before the usual dinner hour – it was a virtual skeleton staff. They headed through a servants' corridor toward the training room.
"So, will Sasha be there this year?" Joni probed.
Layla gave Joni a sidelong look, her eyebrow raised cagily. "Somewhere, I'm sure, working security. Her and the GCPD."
"Lots of masked heroes this year?" Joni persisted.
"Of course – Kara Zor-El will be there representing Starware Industries, Jesse Chambers will be representing Quickstart Industries and the JSA – Zinda Blake will be there representing Blackhawk Airways and as a special guest of the Mayor..."
"I'm not just talking about the public heroes, Miss," Joni grinned to herself.
"You've been reading too much in that Fairchild woman's book again – it's all just wild speculation."
"Still, it makes a lot of sense when you think about it – Batman uses a lot of high tech toys – they have to get their funding from somewhere."
"There's that 'they' again. Batman was... is one man as far as anyone knows."
"So why does his description change so much? Does he wear a blue and grey outfit, or an all black one? His height keeps changing from year to year – there have been at least five Robins and Batgirls..."
"Okay, okay. Enough. Either I don't know the answers you want or, if I did – which I don't – I couldn't talk about it as a matter of course. Where's your paper?"
Having reached the training room, Joni set her backpack down on a workbench and pulled out a folder containing thirty one sheets of unstapled paper, her weekly research assignment printed on the front and back of each page. The cover sheet read "Superheroes and Society: A Refutation of the Chambers Hypothesis."
"Bold title – I take it that this means you read 'Impact of Superheroes on Society' and Why the World Needs Superman?"
"And Dr. Barbara Gordon's Treatise on Administrative Justice."
This caught Layla by surprise. "Did you now?" She began flipped idly through the pages. "And what made you choose that particular work?"
"What indeed?" Joni nudged, grinning.
"Cheeky. Okay then," Layla said, setting the folder down. "Your next and final academic assignment from me – if you think there are going to be non-public superheroes at this party in their civvies, you try to pick them out, who isn't wearing what mask and let me know after the party."
"Will you tell me if I'm right or wrong on each?"
Layla snorted a brief laugh. "Hell no. I'll tell you if you're way wrong or mostly on the ball overall, but I won't confirm or deny specific cases. Bones or Waller would nail my ass to the wall if I did, Soldier."
"One of these days you're going to have to tell me who this mysterious 'Bones' and 'Waller' are."
"I don't have to do anything," Layla retorted. "Here now, you want to have a go at the simulator before we head to the airport? My friend at Edwards sent me a great new program I think you're going to enjoy..."
177 13th Street East Apt. 307, Gateway City CA 95535 – Kelley Residence,
Caroline Keen Kelley had been the first to get home. Her parents were still at work, no doubt avoiding each other on a conscious or subconscious level – Carrie didn't really factor into those sorts of plans. She tossed her keys in the bowl sitting on the hallway table and slammed her bedroom door. She tossed her backpack onto the floor next to her bed and belly-flopped onto the mattress. She focussed on the positive events of the day. Cassandra, Hope, Iris – she had been resisting the urge to call Kressida and gush about it all day since lunch. It had gotten to the point where she had physically removed her cell phone's battery so as to better avoid the temptation.
Fishing it out of her bag she reconnected it, waited for it to power up. No missed calls from her parents, no voicemail. She shoved her phone under her pillow, pulled off her glasses with her other hand, buried her face in her pillow, smothering her unbidden grin. She reached down toward her bag again, half-sitting up to look over and down at it, pulled out her geometry book. Pressed between the pages, between two other clean napkins, she pulled out the autograph that Cassandra Elizabeth Sandsmark, Wonder Girl, daughter of Zeus, had addressed to her, had kissed for her – "To Carol, From Cassie" kiss. No one had called her "Carol" since she was little, but she had no complaints, considering the source. The napkin which had been pressed on top of the autographed napkin, to preserve it and stop it from getting print from her book all over it, had taken on a pale outline of the very light impression of Cassie's red-orange lipstick. She held the napkin with this lighter impression over her face, imagined she could smell Cassandra's breath, the smell of her skin off of it, pressed it to her own lips...
She held it over her mouth and nose with her whole hand, breathing through it... Above her bed, on the wall above the headboard, was a huge poster of Wonder Girl, flying midair, taken in San Francisco, both Alcatraz and Titan's islands in the background. She was wearing her trademark silver bracers with red stars embossed into the metal, skin-tight, flared jeans, 4-inch square-heeled boots and a red and gold skin-tight top with the double-W's across her breasts, just a bit of exposed mid-rift, a gold-eagle (the symbol of her father) on her belt-buckle. She was pulling tightly on her war lariat – a gift from her half-brother Aries – her blue eyes alive with the lightning of the Gods, her golden hair caught in a mid-California breeze, or perhaps the winds of battle, her porcelain white teeth clenched and bared like a mother wolf's...
On the wall along the side of her bed she had a poster of 13-year old Cassandra, before her secret identity had been revealed by the media – she had worn glasses and a black wig, matching black t-shirt and bicycle shorts, a WWG on her shirt, denim jacket and aviator goggles in her hair. Next to that was a poster of her at 15: red denim pants with white stars on the outsides of her thighs, black crop-top, her natural blonde hair in pigtails and her aviation goggles pulled up to her hairline. On the ceiling above her bed, age 16: red, skin tight spandex pants, black knee-high boots, red crop-top with metal WW's across the chest, red hair-band, casually reclining against a giant green tiger, her war-lariat held loosely, languidly in her right hand, her left hand on her shin, drawing her leg closer to her body, smiling at the camera – her Optitron Corporation publicity photo from when Optitron was the major sponsor of the Teen Titans.
Some months ago, Cassandra had needed to single-handedly contain a jail break at Alcatraz's Hyper-Max Metahuman Prison – one very lucky photographer with the associated press, with a telephoto lens on the deck of an SF-Bay ferry, had captured a photograph of Cassandra, hovering midair above the scene at Alcatraz, wearing a red tank-top (gold-eagle's wings across her chest, a diamond studded WW belt-buckle, silver war-bracers covering her lower arms, red-star earrings and blue jeans, calling down thunder on the escaping inmates, gold hair swirling, her eyes blazing with the red light of Hades, her war-lariat coiled around her fists and bracers, yellow lightning arcing off of the entire length of the rope in every direction. After the photo hit the internet news stations there was no longer any question as to her demigoddess status, nor whether she was qualified to run the Teen Titans after Robin's departure. The new question was why the Titan's had had Robin in charge in the first place when they had an Olympian with the strength and powers of Superman and Livewire combined in their midst? A colour printout of this photo was taped to Carrie's bedroom wall, next to her pillow.
Carrie stared up and around at the posters and photos and recalled the images to mind of Cassandra flying or walking, the movement of powerful muscles beneath silken, rosy skin, the fall of her hair, her strong shoulders, the slope of her thighs and bum under her jeans or beneath a teasingly short plaid skirt...
Carrie's free hand found its way to her thigh, her inner thigh...
Carrie inhaled sharply through her nose and pulled the napkin away from her face, put it back on top of the autographed napkin and set them on her nightstand, got up and stretched her arms over her head, her fingers interlocked. She shouldn't lie down in her full uniform. She put her blazer on a hanger, removed her shoes, put both blazer and shoes in the closet, removed her skirt and shirt, changed her socks, crashed back onto her bed, opened the second drawer in her nightstand and flipped through the folded photo-paper pages that nearly filled the shallow drawer. The new HEROTAB page-five was a reprint of a poolside photo shoot with Rebecca Carstairs and Zatanna Zatara. Carstairs (Witchfire) was lying on her stomach on a deck-chair, sunning herself, topless, wearing a dark burgundy g-string, grinning at the camera, while Zatanna stood, hands on hips, in a two-piece white bikini, white high heels and white bowtie, her raven hair caught by the wind, also smiling at the camera. The page's floating caption read "The Magic of Summer." Not really the best type of picture for September...
She folded the page and put it back in the drawer. Last issue's picture of Rita Farr had been more provocative – she was expanded to near her full height, around twelve stories tall, sitting naked leaning against a building, an arm and thigh strategically placed, the floating caption reading "Big is Beautiful."
When all else failed, there was always the issue of Meta-Monthly with the Manhunter spread – tasteful nudes besides Manhunter keeping her mask and gauntlets and boots on, of course, along with an interview with LA's favourite, and only, superhero since Infinity Inc. closed down in the 90's. She was... amazing in her tanned skin, more-so with those red and grey alien boots and metal claws, the long black ponytail and red mask... that tiny freckle shaped birthmark on her bum...
For some reason she was thinking of Wonder Woman again, wearing her fur-lined cloak, walking out of that café in Los Angeles – and then wearing only that cloak, wrapping them both in that cloak as she pulled Carrie against her in the warm Southern California sun... Carrie's breath coming slower, deeper, through her nose as she pressed her head back into her pillows, her waistband of her panties pressing against the back of her hand, the coarse thatch of red hair tickling her palm, lips warm, pliable, welcoming... Wearing a short, blue wrap dress on the beaches of Themyscria, Lara Kal-El and Cassandra Sandsmark laying down on either side of her on the sand after an exhaustive aerial workout, stripping off their costumes – shouting into the setting sun at the liberty they felt doing so – Lara's long, flowing black ponytail draped over her shoulder, so black it gave off an iridescent blue sheen, hanging between her breasts as she stroked her hair smooth, her skin wet with sweat and shining with orange light, looking as a Kryptonian's skin naturally should, as it had evolved to look, bathed in red sunlight, radiant in the native sun of Earth. Cassandra's hair is long but wavy and blonde, bunching at her shoulder and the back of her neck as she lay on the sand with her arms above her head, one knee up, kicking a bare foot at the sky in the unadulterated freedom of Paradise Island. They were both stripped down only to their metal wristbands, and teased and prodded Carrie in the thigh to remove her dress as well, both snuggling up to her and helping her undress, unpinning the broach that held her Greek dress together, giggling as they nuzzled their heads up against the side of her head and Cassandra rubbed Carrie's tummy, Lara rubbed the small of her back...
"Aaaaaagh...!" Carrie moaned, opening her eyes to see Cassandra's face looking down at her from the poster on her ceiling, lounging against her Green tiger, watching her, smiling down at her, encouraging her with her bemused little grin, the love in her eyes.
A green tiger-skin rug beneath them, both of them bejewelled in Egyptian gold and copper finery, Cassandra is on top of her, looking into her eyes and she is holding Carrie's calf in her hand, lifting it up, making her gold anklets jingle, her hot, Amazonian breath on Carrie's chin, her other hand massaging and exploring and coaxing Carrie, her hands gripping the same green, ever-so-soft fur of the rug that cushions her bum and her upper back, her lower back arched, sticking out her stomach to meet Cassandra's own...
"Oh... Gods... I.. I love you, Cassie...!"
Cassandra grins with her eyes and kisses the line of Carrie's jaw, nibbles on it, her thumb rubbing her centre, her other hand bending Carrie's leg farther toward her shoulder, and Carrie wraps her other leg around Cassandra's impossibly firm body, the amazing strength underlining the amazing gentleness the super woman is taking with her frail human lover... "Aaaaaahhh... Ooh...!"
"Caroline? I'm home!"
There was a jingle of keys going into the bowl in the hallway, followed in short order by a knocking on Carrie's door. Carrie's hands were trapped between her tightly clenched thighs and she was on her side, though her door was locked. Her stomach was a solid peace of mahogany, tight, held in perpetual anticipation and it was hard to breath – it took her a minute to be able to confidently reply without panting. "I'm changing!" She called to her mother.
"Okay!" She called back. "I don't have anything planned for dinner, you want to order out? Pizza fine?"
"Sure!" Carrie called, trying to sound nonchalant, swallowing hard breaths, unable to stop herself from continuing silently.
"Alright, I'll get the usual, I'll let you know!"
"Fine! Thank you!" she tried not to sound angry.
Carrie rolled over, looking at the small internet printout of Cassandra in her full Olympian glory over the San Francisco Bay, and breathed a staggered sigh in silent prayer to the Demigoddess as she stroked the digitally printed face with a single hot, red, slightly moist finger, caressingly... gently... "Oh, Cassie, I love you..."
Hope's life before Gateway City was complicated. When Hope was eleven, she had gone back to living with a member of her mother's former street-gang, Miranda, over Miranda's auto-garage. Miranda had a daughter of her own, Faith, and it was, by Hope's recollection, alright for a few years. Hope's mother made frequent visits in those days, would ask questions about her life, the precautions she was taking, how Miranda was treating her, if she was eating properly, if she was keeping up with her prayers and supplications to Athena and Sekhmet, quiz her on Amazonian history, both Thema and Bana versions of it, whether or not Miranda was teaching her to speak Banyha, and would quiz her on her vocabulary. She would always give Miranda money to buy Hope things she wanted her daughter to have, but said that for security purposes money was the only tangible thing she could give her daughter – it wasn't safe, otherwise, but giving money to Miranda could be interpreted as bribe money to keep her quiet about her work.
More than anything, though, Hope's mother tried to instil in her daughter a deep and all-permeating fear of Hope's father, and would often tell stories about the horrors he had visited upon his other children, those that were still alive and those that were dead. Her mother, on her semi-frequent visits, would also ask Hope to try to strike her in the face, in order to test her fighting skills. Only twice had Hope's mother given her broken limbs, as by age twelve her bones had already begun to harden past the strength of quartz, her muscles to firm and thicken to the consistency of fibrous mahogany, but still – her mother was always stronger. "Broken bones are always harder after they heal," her mother had said.
Only once had Hope managed to land a blow on her mother, surprising her enough to land a punch to her mother's stomach. Hope had fractured seven individual bones in her right hand with that one blow, and had earned a broken tooth when her mother backhanded her. "I said try to strike my face, not my body. We'll try again next month."
And then, as was customary, Hope, once she had regained control of her voice and managed to struggle to her feet again, had thanked her mother for the lesson and waited for Miranda to finish her work before taking Hope to the Thompkins Clinic to have her hand and tooth looked to.
By fourteen Hope had joined her first street-gang, having run away from Miranda with Faith into the societal sink-trap neighbourhood of Tricorner. She had also had her first encounter with a masked hero. Cassandra Wayne, then Cassandra Cain, (Batgirl) had tried, and succeeded, in stopping her gang, the Lost Girls, from controlling of the Gotham drug trade – but not before Hope, Faith and their street sisters had pummelled and drugged her, taken her mask and saw her true face. With reinforcements swooping in, however, there was no hope of salvaging the situation, and Hope had been registered into the system as a juvenile metahuman offender – transferred to a maximum security "orphanage" in upstate New York under the jurisdiction of the Department of Extranormal Operations as a ward of the Department of Metahuman Affairs.
"What is this crap?" Hope said tossing a balled up wad of paper at the TV screen.
"T-the M-Miss Universe Pageant..." Lucia stammered.
"If it's the Miss Universe Pageant why do I only see human women on the screen?"
"All Ariadna women too," Iris offered, though she did not look up from her book.
Hope tore out and balled up another page from her notebook, chucked it at Iris's head. "Mother doesn't want us using that word, Rissa."
"Sorry, Opey," Iris intoned insincerely.
"Seriously, though," Hope said, turning back toward the metahuman girl on the sofa, repositioning herself on the armchair with her legs over one armrest. "Haven't you had enough of beauty pageants to last you a lifetime? Isn't there a point where this ceases to be a hobby and becomes an unhealthy obsession?"
"Stockholm-syndrome," Iris muttered.
Hope cleared her throat furiously. "I didn't say it but there is that as well," Hope said to Lucia.
"I'll t-turn it off... i-if you want."
"Well, no, I mean – yes. But I'm just trying to understand what your..."
"Hello, sexy bitches!" came the grating, squeaky voice of PopRocket. She had a towel over her shoulders and was carrying her water bottle. She jumped over the couch, feet on the coffee table, grabbing the remote away from Lucia. Hestia House had a basement gym where PopRocket could be found at least four hours out of each day.
"Hi... J-Jane..." Lucia said, haltingly.
"What's this crap?" Poppy said regarding the screen.
"That's what we were trying to figure out," Iris said.
"Don't make me jump over this chair and spank you," Hope threatened.
"Don't be such a tease, Opey." Iris turned the page in her book.
"Seriously, Lucia, you are one sick kitty." Poppy flipped the channel a few times. "You'd think after what your pervert-ass stage-Dad put you through..."
"DON'T!" Lucia shouted, invisible claws cutting gashes across the upholstery, cushion-stuffing popping out through the rips. "Don't talk about Daddy like that!" There were three red claw marks across Lucia's own face, dripping red, and blood was becoming visible as it seeped into her shirt and sleeves from the gashes hidden beneath.
"Whatever..." Poppy said, unconcerned.
"DON'T!" Lucia shouted again, this time the gashes were larger, farther apart and in PopRocket's direction.
One second PopRocket was there, the next she was across the room, a red blur her only visible movement. "Okay! Stop clawing up the furniture! Bad kitty!"
Craning her neck, Hope saw that PopRocket was in her fighting stance, and Iris had put her book down on the ground and put her fingers in her ears, already curled up into a little ball behind Hope's armchair. Hope threw a tissue-box at the panic button on the wall. It was a large, round, red button, the sort of thing which begged to be pressed. Hope hit it squarely, of course, and followed Iris by covering her own ears as the piercing alarm sounded.
PopRocket was a speedster – at least partially. Most speedsters had not only speed, but possessed a frictionless aura that stopped them from burning up when they moved faster than sound. PopRocket was incredibly durable, but when she moved too fast the air burned, and, hypothetically, she could run herself to death if she wasn't careful. She used her speed for quick bursts and stopping power, running her fists into people with the force of a shotgun – she had been the favourite on the underground arena circuit before the authorities, Jostice, Inc. particularly, shut them down and freed the combatants. The fight organizers had kept Poppy hopped up on enough chems to put an elephant to sleep most of the time, and hyped her up with enough Velocity-9 to send a normal person into orbit during fights, let alone a speedster. Hope had no way of knowing what she was like before the Darkside Club had gotten their hands on her, but she didn't like what they had turned her into.
Supersonic, in her black costume adored with purple spirals, was the speedster on call to deal with Poppy and the handful of other girls possessing super-speed at Hestia House. Supersonic was one of those speedsters at the Flash's level, able to, effectively, be in two places at once by running back and forth between the two places at close to, or beyond, the speed of light. All Hope knew was that Supersonic was one of Mother Superior's freaks, and that she was most likely one of the Orloff children all grown up. Supersonic must have caught Poppy halfway along her trajectory, because Hope could smell the smoke and ozone from Poppy's indelicate burst of speed. And now she was swearing and calling Supersonic a fascist and no better than Granny Goodness – her former keeper when she was a slave to the Darkside Club's decadence.
Lucia, on the other hand, was comatose, the small, unassuming girl standing over her muttering to the small glowing object she held in her upturned palm. Apparently Lucia had begun to manifest a sphere of invisible claws around herself in reflex against Poppy's surge. There were claw marks on the carpet in a circle around where she had fallen, and half of the coffee table was kindling and splinters. Misty, the small dark-haired girl standing over Lucia, was no more than thirteen at the outside, with long black hair and a black gothic tee-shirt and shorts and ripped fishnet gloves. The six-sided die in her hand was of particular interest to Hope, and she always tried to get a good look at it whenever Misty appeared – usually in a puff of smoke, smelling of cinnamon.
As Misty muttered to her magic playing die, the blood-stains on the carpet and Lucia's clothes began to slowly face, as did the open wounds on Lucia's skin.
When the siren shut off, and Hope could hear Yolisha's angry footsteps coming down the stairs, Hope waved to Misty to get her attention. "Hey, do you think you can do something about the couch?"
Misty looked up at Hope (surprised?) and then at the sofa where Hope was pointed. Looked back at Hope and nodded.
"What in the sweet name of... oh hell." Yolisha Pérez's English was perfect, except when she was angry, which was most of the time in Hope's opinion, when her accent showed through.
"They're both off their medication," Misty whispered to the tall Latina woman.
"I'm not taking any more pills! You're no better than Granny!"
"Misty, could you, please?"
Hope noted Yolisha seemed more exasperated today than angry. Hope's mother must have had Yolisha doing the paperwork while she was out of town.
Misty whispered something unintelligible to her toy and PopRocket fell limp in Supersonic's arms, like a puppet with its strings cut. Misty wandered over to PopRocket, looked as if she was asking questions of her die, paused as if listening to voices only she could hear. "Morpheus is always so kind to this one – curiouser and curiouser..."
"Right," Yolisha cut in. "Could you please tuck Miss Brown into bed?" She asked Supersonic. In another instant both Supersonic and PopRocket were simply gone.
"Hope...?" Yolisha asked, arms crossed.
"Poppy was telling it like it is about Lucia's dad – and then she started cutting up the place."
"Wonderful," Yolisha sighed. "Are you two okay? Iris, sweety?"
Iris was still huddled behind Hope's overstuffed armchair, and allowed Yolisha to stoke her hair apologetically, hamming up her "traumatized little girl" act for the extra attention it gleaned from Yolisha – who in reality, her past as the supposed super villain, "Scorcher," notwithstanding, was a big softy. Then Iris's cell phone went off. "Hi, Mom!" Iris said into her phone, beaming from ear to ear. She jumped up, around Yolisha, and into the next room, happy as could be.
Hope rolled her eyes and transferred herself to the side of the sofa where Poppy had dropped the remote control to the TV.
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