Chapter 7: "Emotion Detector"
In a secret underground training complex known only to a select few, the four remaining senior members of the Hellions were hard at work honing their powers.
That was the theory, at least.
What had started as a serious effort had become something of a game for Haroun Al-Rashid (Jetstream) and Sharon Smith (Catseye). The concept was a simple "Tag, you're it," but his flight powers and her shapeshifting kept things interesting.
To one side of the enormous white-walled training room, Marie-Ange Colbert (Tarot) pulled two cards from her latest deck. She reached first into the Page of Swords, and with a power even her headmistress Emma Frost didn't quite comprehend, pulled the hand-drawn image of a young swordsman from the surface of the card and gave it full substance. In a flash, the Page stood before her, sword in hand.
Jennifer Stavros (Roulette), leaning against the wall nearby, looked the apparition up and down. "Nice," she nodded. "I swear, these guys are getting cuter every time you draw them. Think you could conjure one for me sometime?"
"That depends," said Tarot, looking down at the second card, the Three of Swords. "How are you at swordfighting?"
"Never tried," Roulette shrugged. "Who knows, I might get lucky."
The Three of Swords was an unpleasant card at best: the image of three swords piercing a heart against a stormy sky. Foreboding or not, she had need for the weapons. With a second burst of her power, she conjured the three blades, handing one to the Page, who simply accepted it and smiled at her.
Holding one sword in each hand, Marie-Ange nodded to her conjuration, signaling for it to begin.
Her simulacrums, especially those of the Minor Arcana, tended to have just as much pertinent knowledge as she had herself. She had spent countless hours over the past three months reading about blade combat, studying the complex patterns of one-handed and two-handed styles in preparation for such training. Her creations were only as good as she was, but they seemed to be able to convert her knowledge and theory into practice on their own. By sparring with them, she was able to do the same, only much more slowly.
Roulette watched the fight, absently twirling a white good-luck disc on her finger. "You're getting good at that," she remarked at length.
"Merci," Tarot panted, bringing her left-hand sword around to block a downward slice which nearly jarred the weapon from her grasp. "This style is... very difficult."
"No, I mean the way you put these guys on auto-pilot. You'd almost swear they're alive- hey!"
Out of nowhere, Sharon bounded up in her cat-form, sprang up onto the Page from behind, and pushed herself off his shoulders with her hind legs, making a flying leap for the wall. "Beg pardon, redhair! Coming through!"
"Sharon!" Tarot cried, seeing that Catseye had missed one of the Page's blades by inches. "Stay back! Are you trying to... aah!"
Jetstream rocketed past, still in pursuit of Catseye. Tarot jammed her eyes shut against the wake of smoke-scented wind, and while she was distracted, the Page brought his right-hand sword around in a clean arc which hit her solidly in the side, just above the lowest rib.
"Hold!" she cried, dropping both weapons and clutching her side. The Page obediently stopped, pointing his swords to the ground.
Jennifer was at her side in seconds, with her typical rapid-fire concern. "Oh, geez, Angie, are you okay? Is it bleeding? Do you need to go to the infirmary?"
Tarot inhaled through clenched teeth and took her hands from her side. There was no blood, and no wound: only a small slit in her costume. "I'm alright; it just stings a little."
"Whoa," said Roulette, looking at the tear. "Not bad. Since when did you start goin' invulnerable on me?"
"Non, it's nothing; my cards can't hurt me. You know that. But these are still real swords. Sharon could have been skewered."
"Hmph," Jennifer snorted, following the mad chase with her eyes. "And they call that practice."
"No offense, mon amie," said Tarot, bending down to pick up one of her swords, "but you haven't been doing much of anything this morning."
"Yeah, without Emma here to crack the whip, I figured I'd relax."
Marie-Ange gave her a droll look. "'Crack the whip?'"
"Oh, you know her!" Jennifer kvetched. "She still thinks I've got some other power lurking in the back of my mind. She's not ready to accept that there's only so much you can do with good and bad luck."
"Perhaps she's right, though," Marie-Ange suggested. "Perhaps there is more to you than powers of fortune. Weren't you experimenting with that some time ago?"
"Yeah," Roulette huffed, sitting down with her back to the wall, watching her teammates' game. "The Dreaded Karma Power. Luck that gives you exactly what you've got coming to you. Nice in concept, but I don't think I ever got it to work. Usually it just ends up being bad luck anyway, probably."
"You have both sides of the balance, Jennifer. Shouldn't you also have the balance itself?"
"Yeah, cute theory, but lacks something in practice. This power's nowhere near as fun as it used to be. Still..."
She grinned, stood up again, and conjured a black bad-luck disc. Once she had it ready, she flipped the disc across the room, sending it spinning toward Catseye and Jetstream. Both saw it coming and swerved to avoid it, and it eventually impacted with the wall, just above the main doors.
Which promptly opened.
"I have a feeling we might be in for a genuine harbinger here," Roulette said, looking amused with herself.
An Academy Security guard poked his head in. "Excuse me, Mister Rashid?"
Jetstream touched down beside the man, his cybernetic jet-packs re-merging with the rest of his body. "Yes?"
The guard swallowed nervously. "Um, we picked up this guy at the gate, said he was an old friend of yours. Miss Frost said you were in charge of these sort'a things while she's gone..."
"Yes, I am. Spit it out, man."
"Well, anyway, we brought him in to see you. Uh, I guess we'll just let you take it from here?"
"Yes, yes," Jetstream sighed, impatiently. "Show him in."
Roulette looked at Tarot, her eyes getting huge. "Do you think it's Jimmy? Do you think he came back?!"
Tarot's own eyes widened as she recognized the figure escorted into the room by the Security guards. "Mon Dieu..."
"Huh! I guess it was a harbinger!" Roulette said with a small laugh.
Jetstream stared at the newcomer, just as surprised as the others. "Well, well..." he said, a slow smile spreading across his face. "Manuel Alfonso Rodrigo De la Rocha."
"Haroun ibn Sallah Al-Rashid," grinned the other. "Odd how we remember all of these names, no?"
"Welcome back!" Haroun cried, giving Manuel's hand a vigorous shake. "Hey, everybody, it's Empath!"
Catseye and Roulette hurried over to greet their long-absent teammate, but Tarot approached more slowly, hanging back away from them.
"My goodness, there aren't many of you left," said Manuel, looking at each of them in turn. "What has happened to Thunderbird? And where is Miss Frost? I must say I hadn't expected to brought here at gunpoint."
"James bugged out a while back," said Roulette. "Last we heard he was heading home to Arizona."
"Miss Frost is away with the rest of the teams," Jetstream continued.
Manuel gave him a surprised look. "Teams?"
"Yes, we're up to twenty-one members, now," Haroun grinned. "Didn't Miss Frost tell you anything over the last two years?"
"Ah, that explains it," Empath nodded, with a smile. "My contact with the Headmistress was infrequent at best. So many new students? Dios, it will be good to meet all of them!"
"Yes, they're due back from field-testing tomorrow. But never mind that! What have you been doing for two years? And where is Magma?"
Manuel's expression faltered a bit at her name. "We've been in Nova Roma for the most part," he explained. "My assignment there is finished now. She was going to come back with me, but... I suppose she wanted to stay with her family, so she remained behind."
"What a shame," said Tarot in a low, sarcastic voice.
Empath looked over. She stood at a slight distance, leaning forward, arms folded across the pommel of one of her swords, giving him a measured look from hard, hooded eyes. "Hello, Marie-Ange," he said, as nicely as he could.
"Two years, Manuel?" she continued, with an unpleasant smile. "She kept you hanging for two years, then left you?"
She pushed herself up straight and laughed once. "Quelle dommage. But very appropriate, n'est-ce pas? Now if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to my sparring partner."
With that, she flipped the sword up onto her shoulder, turned, and walked away, leaving the four to stare after her in disbelief.
University Towne Center, La Jolla CA 6:02 pm PDT
Douglas Ramsey sat hunched over his soda on one of the many benches scattered about the UTC mall. His ears were still buzzing from the first half of his shift at the arcade, but not nearly as much as his mind.
He liked the job for a number of reasons. It gave him the chance to hang around with co-worker Harris Finkelstein, one of his oldest friends, and talk about normal college things. It gave him the chance to play some new video games. It gave him five bucks an hour. Mostly, though, it kept him away from the house, and gave him a place where he didn't need to worry about being a mutant.
Several days had passed now since the arrival and subsequent departure of Empath, and Doug and his friends had not, as yet, managed to pick up all of the pieces. First of all, there was the matter of Rictor, who still hadn't returned from wherever he'd driven off to. After five days without a word from him, Doug was beginning to think he'd never come back. After all, if he did, he'd have to face Rahne...
And, of course, there was Rahne herself, who'd gone through the past days in a quiet theistic depression, convinced that she was damned once and for all, and yet refusing to talk to anyone about it. Everyone else in the house had been walking on eggshells around her, but it didn't seem to be helping any. Poor Amara, who'd only just arrived at the same time as Empath, was probably feeling none too welcome amongst the brooding lot they had become. Even Warlock was seeming less brisk than his usual self.
So for four hours a night, three nights a week, Doug now had his little refuge. It was a guilty escape, to be sure, and he knew it, but he found himself questioning how he could even try to help his friends. More than anything, they probably needed counseling, but what psychologist would believe what they'd lived through?
The simple truth was that even with this tiny form of escape, he could not shut out his concern for his friends and teammates. It stayed with him wherever he went, and hovered in the back of his mind.
It was this preoccupation that kept him from noticing as Amara took a seat beside him.
"Douglas?" she asked, leaning forward to try to look into his eyes.
He started, then relaxed as he recognized her. "Oh. Hi, Amara. What's up?"
She blinked and looked away. "I've... decided to return to Nova Roma after all."
Doug nodded slowly. This was no surprise, truth be told. "When?"
"My plane leaves in three hours," she replied, then held up both hands as he turned a surprised expression upon her. "I know it's sudden, but I had to act while the thought was fresh. There's a cab waiting to take me to the airport now, but... I had to come here first, to say goodbye. I've already told the others. I got the first flight I could to Rio. From there, I'll contact Roberto; he's promised me passage back into the jungle."
There was an awkward pause, and the two looked anywhere but at one another. "You're more than welcome to stay with us, Amara," Doug said, thickly. "I know we haven't been very welcome company for the past few days, but we still care about you."
"I know that, Douglas. And someday I might, but... Perhaps my betrothed isn't as horrible a man as I've been led to believe. My father may have made a good match after all."
"Are you sure Empath was... affecting you all that time?"
She looked off toward the setting sun, but not before Doug saw the pain in her expression. "It's possible. I... can't believe I brought him amidst all of you. I'm so sorry..."
"Amara," Doug said in such a tone that she had to meet his eyes, "none of this is your fault. Nothing that happened was your doing. You know that."
She shook her head. "I feel so foolish..." She trailed off, and this time Doug couldn't think of a reassuring thing to say. What could make up for such a betrayal as she'd experienced?
"I should go," she said at last, rising a bit shakily. "The driver's waiting on me." Doug stood with her, taking her hand in both of his.
"Let us know how it all turns out, okay?"
"Of course. And I promise to let you know if I'll be coming back."
"Alright. Take care, Amara."
"I'll be in touch."
She slipped her hand from his and walked away. After about ten steps, though, she stopped, looked back, then turned to him. He met her halfway in a crushing embrace, both holding as tightly as they could, and Doug realized that they were both crying.
Doug gave her a small kiss on the cheek before they broke. "I'll see you soon," he whispered, stressing the last word.
She stepped away again, smiling hesitantly. "It's... It was..." she stammered. "I'm... glad you're alive, Douglas."
"That makes two of us," he grinned. "Be good to yourself."
He watched her go. This time, she made it about thirty steps before turning back. "Douglas?" she called.
"Please... talk to Rahne. Or at least try. She needs it."
Doug shifted uncomfortably. "I will," he called back, wondering for a long, painful moment if he meant it.
Massachusetts Academy, 9:41 pm EDT
With Emma Frost's absence from the Academy, security in Dent Hall had been increased dramatically, particularly in the wing that housed the Hellions. Even with just the four Hellions currently in the dorm, though, things hadn't been made any easier for the poor stiffs who'd been given night-watch duty that evening. They were on constant alert, thanks to threats made on the life of Catseye. Frost wanted Dent Hall covered, and she was getting it, even if it meant all of Security putting in overtime.
Security Lieutenant Chapman yawned from his place behind the front desk, in the lobby of the dorm. He'd been given a few too many hours this week already, and drawing monitor duty at ground zero was not his idea of relaxing. Stifling a yawn, he waved to a cluster of students coming in through the main doors. They waved back before heading down the hall toward the "normal" wing, their bright, lively conversation fading as they went. The "normal" students of the Academy knew Chapman only as one of the friendly R.H. staff, of course, rather than the plainclothes agent he was.
"Good evening," came another voice from the doors. Chapman looked over to see a familiar woman stepping into the hall, carrying a steaming cup of coffee.
"Oh! Evening, Miss Tessa," Chapman nodded to Frost's assistant. What can I do for you?"
She set the coffee down on the counter. "I bring a gift of caffeine," she half-grinned, her tone properly dramatic. "Report, Lieutenant."
He was about to thank her for the coffee, but the next sentence caught him off-guard. "I'm sorry?"
"Your report, Michael," she repeated. "How's your shift been so far?"
Chapman shrugged. "I gave my last report to Chief DeCandido a while ago."
"And well you should have," Tessa nodded. "I'm just here to hear it for myself. Miss Frost asked me to keep an eye on the place."
"Ah," Chapman nodded. "Why didn't you just call?"
She gave him a coy smile. "I thought you'd appreciate the coffee," she shrugged.
"Oh! Well, thank you, Miss Tessa."
"Please, just Tessa. No need to be so formal all the time."
Chapman nodded carefully. He'd worked with Tessa for a while, seeing as she was more or less his boss, and sometimes (most of the time, really) he had a difficult time keeping their professional relationship separate from the very tentative off-time they'd spent together. She'd made it clear that he wasn't to call her anything but 'Miss Tessa' while on duty. "Well, nothing earth-shattering so far, though they've been keeping me busy," he reported. "We gave De la Rocha his old room back, and he's settling in just fine."
"Good," Tessa nodded. "Emma will want to have words with him when she returns. What else?"
"Well, Stavros and Rashid are off having their night on the town. I sent two bodyguards with them, so they shouldn't be in any danger."
"Yes, I'm sure they appreciate having them along," Tessa said with a humored smile. "When are they due back?"
"Stavros said they'd be back before eleven," Chapman shrugged, "but you know her. I'm guessing twelve to one, myself."
"Alright," Tessa nodded. "Any unusual activity?"
"None to report. According to the hall guards, Smith's sleeping, De la Rocha the same, and Colbert's awake, but staying in her quarters."
"Excellent," Tessa smiled. "I'll leave you to your work, then, Lieutenant." Chapman fancied there was a humored glitter in her eyes when she said this. "When's your next day off?"
Chapman snorted. "At this rate? Not for a few weeks."
"Well, call me when you have some time off," Tessa said, getting that coy expression back. "I'd like to see you out of uniform again."
There was a pause, then both Tessa and Chapman blushed. "In a manner of speaking, of course," Tessa hastily amended.
"Yeah, I'd... ah... like that. Great. Um, see you."
Looking perhaps just a bit embarrassed, Tessa exited the hall, pausing at the doors to wave before she went.
After taking a moment to review the conversation in his head, and then beat same against the desk, Chapman put on his headset and turned on the monitors to check in with the hall guards.
When he keyed in the second floor cameras, though, he saw, through the monitor display, that the guardpost was unoccupied. "Avery, come in," he transmitted. "Why aren't you at your post?"
There was no reply. With a feeling of sudden dread, Chapman checked on the third and fourth floors, and found that they were unoccupied as well. "Jones, Stewart!" he sent. "Where are you guys? Come in!"
Before Chapman could put a call through to his superior, though, he felt a sudden wave of exhaustion, as though the combined weariness of a week of double-shifts were suddenly hitting him all at once. Not even his panic could keep him awake, and he slumped out of his chair, asleep before he could even hit the floor.
A figure crept in through the front door, then, coming around behind the front desk and carefully dragging Chapman back into the unoccupied R.H. office, locking him inside.
McAudry House, 6:55 pm PDT
Danielle Moonstar wasn't sure whether she should regret her decision to take this Native American Studies course, or be glad for this chance to do some serious debunking. "I have never read such a load of crap in my life," she muttered to nobody.
The load of excrement in question was the textbook she was trying to read. She had a comfortable environment (sprawled on the couch in the whatever room), good background (a bizarre mix of John Denver, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Bad Company, Rush and Van Halen playing on "random shuffle" mode on the six-disc CD player), and the proper munchies at hand for a good study session (by her standards anyway), but she simply could not follow what the book was trying to tell her. "Bleargh," she said at length, closing the book and her eyes both.
"Dani," came a soft voice, "are ye busy?"
She looked up to see Rahne cautiously peeking in from the hallway. "C'mon in, kiddo," she smiled, sitting up on the couch.
"What're ye studyin'?" Rahne asked, sitting up on the arm of the couch.
"Oh, just some bonehead Anthro prof who makes us read all of his books," Dani grumped. "The guy's a typical Joe Hotshot Anthropologist pro. He spent a few months watching some Cheyenne on a reservation, and now he thinks he knows more about them than they do, themselves. The stuff in this book's total bunk, and he's gonna get an earful from me."
Rahne made a visible effort to smile. "Makin' things int'restin' for yuir professors?"
"Ah, they need a shock to the system," Dani waved. "I'm just the little injun to give it to 'em."
"Aye, I c'n imagine."
Dani gave her friend a searching look. "C'mon, Rahne, you didn't come in here to ask me about what I was studying. What's on your mind?"
With a sigh, Rahne seemed to deflate. As always, Dani had seen right through her and found her concerns. "I've been thinkin'," she said, quietly. "I was wond'rin'... d'ye think it was my fault that Amara decided t' leave?"
"Of course not."
This didn't seem to convince Rahne. "Are ye sure? I thought p'rhaps I was makin' her uncomfortable. I didnae even have the chance to tell her I was sorry before she went..."
"Sweetie, I don't think it was you at all," Dani explained. "Let's face it; she's been through a lot of turmoil in the last few days, and I think she just wanted to go home for a while. That's why I wasn't pushing to convince her to stay. I think she'll feel a lot better once she has a chance to go home and clear her head."
"D'ye think she'll come back?"
Dani shrugged. "Who knows? I'll be glad if she does, but I'll be just as glad if she's happy back in Nova Roma. She needs to do what's best for her this time."
I hope she does," Rahne sighed. "I feel so... guilty..."
"That's a new one," Dani nodded, deadpan. When Rahne gave her a confused look, the straight face dissolved into laughter. "Kiddo, there is far too much guilt floating around this house. Amara was carrying around nearly as much as you, you know. Why do you think she called for a cab, rather than ask me or Warlock for a ride to the airport?"
"I... I didnae think about it."
"It's because she didn't want to put us to any more trouble. She felt like she'd done enough already."
Rahne made a face. "That's silly."
"Yeah, but that's the way she is. She internalizes a lot of things, and... can't accept that anyone else might be at fault." Dani said this last part looking Rahne in the eye.
When Rahne did not answer, Dani sighed. "Talk to me, kiddo."
"I... I'm worried about Ric..."
"Surprise, surprise," Dani said, but her concerned expression belied her words.
They sat in silence for a while, listening to one of Eddie Van Halen's many guitar solos, and at last, Dani got up from the couch. "Hey, 'Lock!" she called out.
Warlock opened the door of his room and poked his head out. "Yes?"
"Me and Rahne are going out for a little while. Can you hold the fort while we're gone?"
"Affirmative, frienDani," Warlock nodded. "Query: destination?"
"Aye, I'm wond'rin' that m'self," Rahne added, giving Dani a confused look.
"Oh, no place in particular. Come on, Rahney, let's motor."
Massachusetts Academy, 10:08 pm EDT
<...It worries me, frankly. While Haroun and Jennifer seem to be happy to have him back, I cannot share in their enthusiasm. After all he's done to us in the past, how can we welcome him back as though nothing ever happened? It frightens me to think that he might be staying for good. If so, I may be looking to transfer to another school after all. I do not wish to leave the Academy, but nor do I wish to stay under the same roof as him.
<Perhaps I am being too hasty in my judgements, however. I shall allow him time, to see if he has changed since last we met. I shall keep you up to date on this, of course. I may even be asking you to send a catalog from your University, if your offer is still open.
<The hour is growing late, and I must return to my work. Write back soon! Best wishes to you all for continued success in your studies.>
Avec mon amour,
That would do for the letter. For a moment, she considered perfume: just a drop or two on the stationery to give it scent. Would it be appropriate?
Probably not. It had been enough of an internal dilemma just to be able to sign "With my love."
Marie-Ange sighed as she folded the letter and placed it in a matching envelope. How she had come to miss those Saturday afternoons at the cafe! How unfair it was to be subjected to Empath, with Douglas still so far away.
There was a click from her stereo as the Chopin disc ended, to be followed by Patricia Kaas, her favorite French vocalist.
Sealed With A Kiss? Equally inappropriate. She sealed the envelope, paused, kissed it anyway for good measure, then proceeded to write Douglas's address. She had already memorized it.
Enough pleasant diversions, she thought. She had about two dozen first-year Music Theory midterms to grade, and it was getting late.
A short while later, she looked up from her desk as she heard a knocking at her door. She set her pen down upon the exam she was in the process of correcting and padded barefoot across the room to answer. "Who is it?"
Empath. She stopped, her hand resting on the doorknob, and considered telling him to go away. "What do you want, Manuel?"
"I wanted to ask you something. Would you open the door, please?"
"Can't you ask me from there?"
"Please, Marie-Ange? I... want to apologize."
That stopped Tarot in her mental tracks. Empath? Apologize? Had he learned cordiality in his stay with the Nova Romani?
She cracked the door open an inch and looked out. His expression was something she'd never seen on that regal face before: shame, remorse, and regret, mixed with a deep frustration. "Very well," she said, opening the door the rest of the way. "Come in."
"Thank you," he whispered, stepping inside and closing the door behind him. He sat down in the practice chair next to her music stand, and looked across the room at her as she leaned back against the edge of her desk.
"What did you want to ask?" she said, evenly.
He didn't answer for a while. "Tarot, I've been gone for a long time. Don't you think, by now, that you could get over whatever grudge it is you bear against me?"
"The way you teased me over Amara this morning. You haven't changed, have you?"
"Do you expect me to believe you actually cared for her?" Marie-Ange replied, stiffly.
"Yes, I do," he said in a hard voice. "I know emotion much better than you ever shall."
So much for the apology. Manuel hadn't changed much either, Tarot realized. "You're wrong. You think you know emotion, but all you know is how to thrust it upon others. It's left you empty, Manuel, and the rest of us untrusting of what we feel."
"How can you say that?" he asked her. "You loved me, once."
"You forced me," she replied, very quietly. "Did you force her as well?"
"She rejected me, Marie-Ange!" he all but snarled. "Do you think I don't know emotion? Do you think I don't know pain?"
"She deserves better," Tarot said in a voice edged with diamonds.
At first, Manuel seemed angry at her retort, but then, his eyes slowly widened as he caught wind of her emotions. "You never liked her," he said, carefully. "Why do you protect her now? Why are your feelings so fierce, Marie-Ange?"
"Go away, Manuel," she said, though her voice was beginning to shake as emotion welled up inside her. The music, the romantic mood left by her letter to Douglas... Was he doing this to her, or was she doing it to herself?
He stood up and slowly crossed the room toward her. "You love her," he breathed. It was not the voice he used when commanding emotion, but an astounded, shocked whisper. "Don't you?"
"Go away, Manuel!"
"Don't you?!" he shouted, taking the last two steps in a flash and grabbing her by the arms.
"Yes, damn you!" she screamed at him, as tears formed in her eyes. "Why are you so surprised? You did it to me!"
He let go of her, and took a step back, shaking his head. "No."
"Does this ring any bells, Manuel?" she went on, venom dripping from each word. "All of those little games you played with my mind? 'Oh, Tarot, she's just an aristocrat, like me! You love her, don't you?' You made me love her, and then you took her away!"
"How? How could you? She was mine, girl!"
"Non! You never cared for her! You could play with my emotions, but you have none of your own! You're a shell!"
He continued shaking his head, and then stalked off, snarling with contempt. "I won't stand for this! She belongs to no other man, and certainly to no girl!"
As he was about to open the door, however, he pulled up short at the sound of her crying. He turned very slowly to see that she had collapsed back into her chair, closed her eyes shut against the tears, and was trembling with rage and sorrow.
The intensity of her raw emotion stirred something within him, and he let go of the door handle, carefully recrossing the room and standing beside her. He placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. "Marie-Ange..."
"Get out, Empath!" she growled at him between sobs. "Haven't you done enough?"
"I'm... sorry, Marie-Ange. You're right; I've done you great harm. It... must have been terrible."
At this, she looked back up at him and shook her head, tears still flowing freely. "Non. Any love is pleasing. Had you a heart, you would know that."
"But to have fallen in love with another girl... Weren't you frightened?"
She closed her eyes, thinking about this. "Perhaps," she whispered. "But more at the source than at the feelings themselves."
"I..." He took a deep breath. "I can help you."
"You've done more than enough, Manuel."
"Please, Marie-Ange. I've hurt you, and I want to make amends."
"By continuing to hurt me? I think not. Now, get out. Or would you rather I called Security?"
Nodding slowly, Manuel turned away from her, and slowly stepped toward the door. Again, though, as he was about to open it, he paused.
"Did you hear something?" he asked, quietly.
Mt. Soledad, San Diego, CA 7:21 pm PDT
As fortune would have it, no one else had chosen to visit the top of Mount Soledad that night. Usually, the monument atop the hill was a popular spot for drunks, sightseers, or couples making out in cars. Tonight, though, Dani's truck was the only vehicle to be seen.
Rahne hopped down from the cab, looking around the mountaintop monument. A blacktop road formed a ring around the very top of the mountain, where huge, circular steps made of brick led up to a gigantic cross, which would no doubt be visible for miles, had there been any illumination. The monument reminded Rahne of pictures she'd seen of Mayan ziggurats, except conical rather than pyramid-shaped.
"I didnae know this place was here," Rahne remarked, turning her eyes to the view.
"Come on!" Dani called, already climbing the steps up to the very top. "I heard the view's even better up here!" She stopped at the top step, at the base of the cross, and looked around. "And I heard right! Get up here!"
Rahne followed her to the top step, though more slowly; there was no light anywhere atop the mountain, and she didn't want to miss her step. Once she made it to the top beside Dani, though, she looked out and gasped at the view of the city. "Och, Dani," she said. "All the lights..." The sun was long gone, leaving only a brown smudge in the western sky, and the city lights were on in full force, competing with the stars, and the almost full moon above them.
"Doug told me about this," Dani remarked at length. "A nice, scenic place right in the middle of all this... city."
"Aye, 'tis nice," Rahne nodded. "Why are there no lights, though?"
Dani leaned against the bars that surrounded the base of the cross. "I've also been reading about this for a Religious Studies class, actually," she said. "In the last couple of years, some very small, but very vocal group started making noise about having this cross up here where everyone had to look at it. There's another one out on Mount Helix in La Mesa, too. Anyway, since this is public land, they raised a big stink about having to spend their hard-earned tax dollars on someone else's religious symbol, so they demanded that the crosses be taken down. They lost, but the city still doesn't light this one up at night anymore."
"Tha's horrible!" Rahne exclaimed.
"Well, some people get offended about this kind of thing," Dani shrugged. "For that matter, some people get offended by your race, or your language, or whether or not you're a mutant. Sad, but true."
Rahne looked up at the huge cross, wondering how it would look all lit up. "Dani?" she asked.
"Because, fuzzy, it looked like we were about to get into something pretty heavy, and it seemed like a mountaintop kind of conversation to have."
Rahne nodded. "Aye, p'rhaps."
"I miss him too, for what it's worth," Dani offered.
"It's not just missing him, it's..." Rahne sighed, almost angrily. "I have so much I need to say t' him. I should ha' told him before, when he was here, but now I've driven him away!"
"Spirits, you may take me now," Dani sighed, looking to the sky, her tone just short of exasperated. "What did I just tell you twenty minutes ago about internalizing things? What makes you think it was your fault?"
"Because it was!" Rahne cried. "Dani, he was trying to talk t'me the next mornin', but I wouldna' listen! I kept tellin' him t'go away, an' finally, he did!"
Dani crossed her arms, still leaning back against the bars. "Okay, this is a good start. Are you ready to talk about it now?"
"Alright, from the top, then. You had sex with him."
Rahne's jaw dropped at her blunt words. "Dani..?!"
"Kiddo, you can be straight with me. You did. I know."
After a long pause, Rahne nodded. "Aye, I... we did."
"And here's the big question: Why?"
Again, she could not answer for a while. "I... I was frightened."
"Of... losing him. I was so afraid tha' he wouldna' want to stay with me if I didna'... do this for him!"
"Did you ever stop to think that those fears might've been implanted? We had a powerful, sadistic projecting empath in the house, you know."
"So p'rhaps he did... give me those fears. I should ha' been strong."
Dani slid along the bars into a sitting position, and put her face in her hands. "Ohhhh, Rahne..."
"I know," Rahne insisted, sitting down beside her. "Believe me, I know it was wrong. No one's more aware than I of how wrong it was, alright?"
"Sweetie, never mind the act; you were doing it for all the wrong reasons. You shouldn't have to use sex to prove anything. Trust me, I've been there. It doesn't work out."
"I wanted to," Rahne said, shaking her head. "I wanted t' prove t' him that I loved him. All I proved was my own... insecurity."
There was a pause, and Dani started to shake. At first, Rahne thought she might be crying, but then she heard the soft laughter. "Oh, shit," she whispered.
"What?" Rahne asked. "Dani, what is it?"
"That sounds so familiar it's spooky."
They sat together for a long time, enjoying the silence. After a while, Rahne spoke again. "D'ye know the worst of it?"
"It... felt good."
Dani gave her an amazed look. "And that's a problem? It usually hurts like anything the first time."
"Aye, it did, for a while, but still... I felt... so in love with him all the while."
"I know. And this is a bad thing?"
"Aye," Rahne whispered, looking down. "Ye see... all night long, with all tha' we did, he... Dani, he ne'er once told me he loved me..."
At this, Dani almost melted. "Oh. Rahne, I'm sorry..."
"Me, too... 'Tis strange t' think about, and it shames me, but..."
When she paused, Dani prompted her to continue. "What is it?"
"Earlier this year, when... when Douglas came back, I was frightened. I didnae ever think I'd have t' choose between two men tha' I loved. And then I did. I... chose Rictor. I didnae want t' hurt Douglas, but it... was all I could do."
"I know," Dani nodded.
"Aye, but... Dani... I feel so awful for sayin' this, but... did I make the wrong choice?"
"Sweetie, I can't answer that. You know that."
Rahne nodded. "Aye. I... still hope he comes back soon, though, so we can... talk."
"I know, kiddo," Dani sighed, putting her arm across Rahne's shoulders and looking out at the lights. "Me too."
They shared another silence, and after a while, Rahne looked first up at the mostly full moon, then around the monument, to make sure there was nobody to see. After this, she looked over at Dani.
"Go ahead," Dani shrugged. "If it'll make you feel better."
Smiling hesitantly, Rahne let herself shift into her full-wolf form, raised her head to the moon, and howled. After a while, Dani howled with her, adding her voice to the sound. Maybe Ric would hear them, wherever he'd gone to.
Massachusetts Academy, 11:37 pm EDT
"Chief, we've got a break-in!"
Security Chief DeCandido all but leaped up out of his chair at this, quickly hustling across the room and looking over his assistant's shoulder at the main security console. "Talk to me, Mack," he said, keeping his voice even.
"The hangar," Mack reported. "I can't get a video feed for some reason. I think..." Upon bringing up a radar reading of the hangar complex hidden just off campus, one very particular blip of movement caught their attention. "Holy shit, Chief, someone's stealing one of the Hellflyers!"
"Get someone on the line, man!" DeCandido ordered. "And track the flyer!"
"I'm trying," Mack replied, frantically keying in commands at the console. "Something's wrong with the cameras out there; I can't get a picture." He then checked the radar again. "Looks like everyone's at their posts, but no one's answering the alert!"
"How many we got there?"
"Skeleton crew. We drafted most of the normal crew for perimeter watch."
"Put the rest of the campus on alert, Mack," DeCandido said, grimly. "And try to hail the flyer."
As Mack carried out these orders, DeCandido went back to his own console, and picked up his headset transmitter. "All stations, this is DeCandido. All available teams to the hangar, pronto! Acknowledge."
Each of the Lieutenants reported in from their stations then, stating their own status, and reporting how many they could send. DeCandido studied his own readouts for a moment, then realized that one of the stations hadn't called in: Chapman at Dent Hall.
"Chapman, come in," DeCandido called. "Repeat, come in."
There was no reply. "Christ, he's probably in the john again," he muttered. He checked another display, to see who else was available in the locale, and found that Avery, Jones and Stewart were out on perimeter. Chapman's beacon showed him as being in the R.H. office in the lobby. Four other beacons showed up on his schematic of the area, then, and after puzzling over the readings for a while, he realized that Stavros and Rashid were returning from their night out, along with their two bodyguards. He opened a channel to the latter two. "Brooks, Platt, this is DeCandido. Come in."
"You two are back just in time. We've got a break-in at the hangar. I need you two to wake up Chapman and have him call me. Stick to that dorm like glue, understood?"
"Understood, Chief," Brooks replied.
With that settled for now, DeCandido hurried back to Mack's station. "Anything yet?"
"Zip. They're not responding to our hailings."
DeCandido exhaled loudly through his teeth as he checked the monitors for himself. The Hellflyer was airborne, making a somewhat erratic flight south and slightly east. "Scan it. Find out who's aboard."
"Already tried, sir. I get no reading. What the..?!"
"What, man, what?"
"I- I don't know what's going on, Chief! It looks like it's lost control!"
The monitor displays now showed the missing flyer as weaving even more erratically than before, and losing altitude as it went. "Christ, who's flying that thing?" DeCandido muttered.
"Whoever it is won't be for much longer," Mack replied. "It's gonna crash!"
"Ah, hell. Track it as long as you can, Mack. I'll get a rescue team out there."
"Better hurry, Chief. Impact in five seconds... four... three..."
McAudry house, La Jolla CA 8:48 pm PDT
Doug parked his bicycle out front, as always. He didn't bother to lock it, as he reasoned that anyone who'd go to the trouble of climbing over the front gates and dragging it back over the eight-foot high fences was entitled to it.
He peeked into the garage to see that the Volkswagen was still gone. Even with his own relative hopelessness that Ric would ever come back, he felt obligated to check every time he came home, somehow.
Before unlocking the front door, he shut off the alarms via a keypad next to the doorbell, then reset the system once he was inside. The ring-shaped house was quiet, but just to be sure no one was up, he stepped softly around the circular hallway.
Dani and Warlock were still up in the whatever room, their soft-voiced discussion accompanied by a quiet soundtrack from the stereo. As Doug came in, Dani looked up at him and smiled. "Hey, you're just in time," she told him.
"I am?" Doug asked. "Dare I ask?" He sat down across from Warlock and gave his friend a high-five. "What's up, brah?"
"FrienDani and self were discussing humanentity Socrates," Warlock explained to him. "Self has been assigned readings of Plato for WesternCiv class, and self expresses confusion at said text."
"I've been trying to explain the Socratic Method," Dani shrugged. "It doesn't exactly come easy, all things considered. And I know you've been reading Plato for your Philosophy classes, so maybe you can give him a better perspective than I can. It's been years since I read any of his stuff."
Doug nodded, rubbing his face with his hands. "Can you give me a few minutes to decompress? I'm not feeling very philosophical right at the moment."
"Of course, frienDoug," Warlock grinned. "Self will continue self-reflection, as philosopher-entities suggest."
"Cool. Do you guys know where Rahne is?"
"Working on a rough for a paper, last she said," Dani shrugged.
"Thanks. I'll be right back, okay?"
"Okay," Dani nodded. "We'll save all the meaty questions for you."
"I'm obliged. Good luck, you two."
Their conversation resumed as he retreated from the living wing and went looking for Rahne. Maybe he was imagining it, but the atmosphere felt a touch less oppressive. Warlock was being no end of cheerful, and Dani seemed to be getting her sense of humor back. Maybe things were starting to pull back together.
He found Rahne in his father's old office, hard at work at the big mahogany desk, scribbling on a piece of notebook paper. She was oblivious to his presence: completely absorbed in her work.
For a while, he just looked at her: the contrast between her pale skin and fiery-red hair, the familiar features of her lovely face, the expression of concentration seeming out of place. At length, though, he shook himself mentally. "Rahne?"
At the sound of his voice, she quickly crumpled the sheet of paper she'd been writing on, then looked up at him, startled. "Douglas. Oh... did ye see Amara?"
"Yeah," Doug nodded.
"Oh. She... asked me to wait up for ye... to say goodbye for her in case she couldna' find ye."
"Thanks," he whispered.
They gazed into one another's eyes for a while. She broke eye contact first, looking down at the crumpled sheet in her hand. "Douglas?"
She took a deep, shaky breath, and went on, though she still couldn't look up at him. "Could you tell me something, please?"
"Tell me..." she started, then broke off. "Tell me... that everythin' is going t'be fine, and tha' we'll all be happy again. If you can believe it, I'll believe it too..." Tears gathered in her eyes, and slowly rolled down her cheeks. "Jus' tell me ye believe."
He took her in his arms and shushed her. "It's okay, Rahne, it's okay. Everything'll be fine, I promise."
Doug wanted so much to reassure her, but as before, he found that even his own sincerity was in doubt, and he hated himself for that. With her counting on him, how could he not believe? Sometimes it seemed like he needed to hope for all of them.
Thankfully, though, he was not alone.
Highway 1, north of Providence, RI 11:53 pm EDT
No more evening book signings, he promised himself. Never again. Even someplace as close as Providence was too far to drive this late at night. Right now, he wanted to be anywhere but on the road. Bad enough that they were ripping up I-95, forcing him to take a detour onto this smaller highway. The sooner he was back home with Ellen and the kids, the better.
At least he was away from the city. Highway 1 had its good points, and a few good, scenic stretches. Pity it was so dark, though. He had the window down, letting the cool air blow on his face and keep him awake.
Something caught his attention off to his right. A small pillar of smoke was rising up in the distance, lit up by the waxing moon. There seemed to be a small fire off at the source. It was out in the middle of nowhere, though, and he idly wondered what could have caused it.
Then someone jumped in front of his headlights.
He shouted something vague and swerved, hitting the brakes. He missed the person, but stalled out on the shoulder of the highway. For a moment, he just sat there, feeling his heart pounding in his throat.
Then, the person who'd presumably jumped in front of him stuck her face in through his open window. "Help us," she hissed.
He looked up into a face framed by a pouf of ragged, singed hair, that was streaked with some dark liquid... blood? The girl's eyes were wide, and even in the dimness, he could tell there was something fundamentally wrong with those eyes. She was carrying somebody else over her shoulders -- someone equally singed and bloodstained.
"Good Lord," he whispered. "Come around to the other side, I'll open the door!" He leaned across to the passenger's side, opening the locks on the front and back doors. He carefully swept his laptop computer into the floor of the passenger's side as the girl pulled open the rear door, laying her companion down. Looking back at the other, he found himself staring into a pair of sightless grey eyes, open and empty. The eyes belonged to another young woman, her long red hair tangled and scorched, her clothing in tatters. She did not appear to be moving.
He looked up at the other girl, as she clambered in through the other door. Here, he was able to get a better look at her. First of all, she was outrageously tall, but that wasn't her strangest feature. Her clothing was shredded, like the other's, and through several of the open rents, he saw fresh, bloody claw-wounds. Her hair seemed to be purple, and when she looked over at him, he saw that her eyes were the same color, and shaped like the eyes of a cat. It was a face that positively screamed "Mutant!" This was confirmed as she pulled a furry tail out of the way of the door, and slammed it shut behind her. She tossed a small, military-green duffel bag into the floor, then turned back to him. "Drive," she said, simply.
"Is- is she okay?" he asked the cat-girl, looking back at the redhead.
"No," she hissed. "Now turn car around and drive."
"What's going on here? What happened to you two?"
The cat-girl lunged across the seat and grabbed him by the front of his shirt. She brought her bizarre eyes within inches of his and spoke. "They're coming," she growled, very softly. "Take us away from here, or get out, and I will."
She let go of him, looking back in the direction of the fire. He looked down at his shirt; there had been blood on her hands. She'd gotten bloodstains on his favorite R.E.M. shirt.
Suddenly all too aware of what he could have unknowingly gotten himself into, he started the car, turned it around, and headed back the way he'd come. His only desire now was to get out of this alive.
"Don't you think we should take her to a hospital?" he ventured.
"She'll be fine," the cat-girl snapped. "Just drive."
"Okay. No problem. Where are you going?"
"Ah... anyplace more specific?"
She paused to consider this. "Don't know," she said at last, with a sigh. He looked over at her, and saw that her face, so full of danger and fury moments before, looked worried and distressed. He almost felt sorry for her. As mutant carjackers went, she didn't seem so bad, all of a sudden...
Massachusetts Academy, 11:43 pm EDT
Jennifer pulled her MR2-Turbo into the student lot across from Dent Hall, coming to a quick stop in the nearest space. Turning off the engine, she looked across at Haroun and smiled. "Did you have fun?" she asked, with perhaps just a twinge of sarcasm.
"Oh, yes," he nodded, catching on right away. "It's so good to be able to get away and be alone..."
"Yeah, right," she muttered, opening her door and stepping out into the night air. She stepped around to the back of the car and leaned against it, watching their bodyguards get out of their own car. "How about you guys?" she called. "Did you have fun?"
"Oh, plenty, Miss Stavros," one called back.
"Yeah, I'll bet," she said under her breath. Taking Haroun's hand, she set off for the hall, determined to ignore their presence.
None of the four said a word all the way up to Dent Hall, at least until they stepped into the open lobby. "Funny," Jennifer said, looking around the front room. "Should be locked this late. And where's Mikey?"
The more talkative of the bodyguards spoke up again. "You two go ahead up to your rooms," he told them. "We need to check on something."
"Oh, well, by all means," Jennifer shrugged. "Thanks for keeping... close all night, you guys."
"Just doing our job, Miss Stavros."
"And a fine job it was," Haroun smiled at them. His sarcasm was not as obvious as hers, and the two seemed to take it as a genuine compliment.
"Oh, come on," Jennifer sighed, exasperated, pulling Haroun down the hall toward the elevators. One opened up immediately as she pressed the "up" button, as though it had been waiting for them, and she pulled the both of them inside. Once the doors were closed, she turned around, stood on her toes, and kissed him full on the lips.
About fifteen seconds passed, and then they broke. Jennifer took a deep breath and smiled up at him. "Thanks. I feel much better now."
"Likewise," he smiled in reply.
"So," she said, coyly, "now that I've got you alone for the first time all night... what say you walk me up to my room?"
"Oh, of course," he answered, with a mock bow. "In fact, perhaps I should stay... close to you all night, now that our bodyguards seem to be otherwise occupied."
"Well, that's the best idea I've heard all night," she laughed, flashing him that sexy smile of hers that could melt titanium steel. She pressed the button for the third floor, then wrapped her arms around him again and continued the kiss they'd begun just before.
Presently, the doors opened with a merry ding on her floor. Still leading the way, she stepped out of the elevator and into the hall.
Apparently they weren't the only ones still awake. Sharon's door was open, and light shone out into the hall. Two doors down, Marie-Ange's was also open. Jennifer's room was, of course, right between the two. Jennifer put a finger to her lips and said "Ssssh."
Nodding, Haroun took the lead, treading lightly, taking exaggerated steps to show just how sneaky he was being. Jennifer burst out giggling, and quickly stifled it behind both hands.
As Haroun passed by Sharon's open door and peeked inside, though, the humor evaporated in an instant. "What in Allah's name..?!" he gasped, before darting into the room.
"What? What?" Jennifer called, hurrying after him. As soon as she got a good look inside Catseye's room, though, she stopped dead in her tracks, her eyes going wide with shock.
The room was demolished. All of the furniture had been knocked over, and Sharon's sparse possessions were scattered all over the floor. All of her posters were ripped down off the walls, and the mattress of her bed looked as though it had been shredded by claws. There were claw marks on the walls as well, and on the remnants of the posters. There was blood on the floor, splattered on the walls, and on the furniture. The door, which they had thought to be open, was in fact ripped off the hinges.
"Sound the alarm," Jetstream said, very quietly.
"Sharon..." Jennifer whispered.
"Sound the alarm!" he repeated.
She took a deep, shaky breath, and then, a look of new panic crossed her face. "Angie," she whispered.
"What?" he demanded, looking back at her.
"Angie!" she cried, louder this time. She took off down the hall at a dead run, toward the other open door. Haroun took only a moment to look around the room again before he followed.
Marie-Ange's room was even worse than Sharon's had been. All of her artwork was knocked down from the walls, and her occult devices were scattered everywhere, including her rune-stones, her scrying glass, and assorted tarot cards from any number of different decks. Here, too, the door had been knocked off the hinges, and blood was splattered on the floor, the bed, and the walls. Her chests of drawers had been rifled through, the contents scattered, and her closet had been left open, its contents likewise thrown around the room. Jennifer stood in the middle of it all, looking around with huge eyes, whispering "No" to herself again and again.
"What... happened?" Haroun asked, helplessly. He checked in the closet and in the bathroom, but there was nothing to be found. "Jennifer, we have to sound the alarm."
When she did not reply, Haroun looked back around to see her standing stock still, eyes huge, lips pulled back as though to scream, staring at something in the floor.
"Jennifer, what is it?" he asked, crossing the room and taking her by the arms. Her gaze did not waver, so he turned to see what she was looking at.
Manuel was lying in the floor between the bed and the wall, in a pool of his own blood. His eyes were open and dull, his face frozen in a look of shocked outrage. Most of the blood seemed to have come from the gaping hole where his throat had been. There was no doubt, even at first glance, that he was quite dead.
Jennifer opened her mouth, took a deep breath, and screamed.
Next: "Can't Find My Way Home"
Go West #7: "Emotion Detector"
by Jeremy Bottroff, 27 October 1993
This story (c) 1993, 1999 Jeremy Bottroff
"Emotion Detector" performed by Rush, lyrics by Neil Peart, music by Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee, (c) 1985, 1999 Core Music Publishing (CAPAC), from the album POWER WINDOWS
Haroun Al-Rashid (Jetstream), Amara Aquila (Magma), Marie-Ange Colbert (Tarot), Roberto DaCosta (Sunspot), Manuel De la Rocha (Empath), Emma Frost (White Queen), Danielle Moonstar (Mirage), James Proudstar (Thunderbird), Douglas Ramsey (Cypher), Rictor, Rahne Sinclair (Wolfsbane), Sharon Smith (Catseye), Jennifer Stavros (Roulette), Tessa, Warlock, Massachusetts Academy, Nova Roma, Snow Valley and Hellions (c) 1999 Marvel Entertainment Group
Dent Hall and Sentries Dennis Brooks and Gabriel Platt created by and (c) 1999 Jeremy Bottroff
Chief DeCandido, Lieutenant "Mack" McElhatton, Lieutenant Michael Chapman, and Sentries Avery, Jones and Stewart are further Tuckerizations, and began the tradition of naming members of the MassAc Security Dept. after people on GEnie. For legal purposes, these characters are (c) 1999 Jeremy Bottroff
Speaking of Tuckerizations, I'd like you all to give a big country howdy to John Terra and his wife Ellen. John was the writer of the always hilarious "Justice League GEnie," and you are all urged to look for his published works. Thanks for the sense of humor, WriterGuy.
Harris Finkelstein is an old hand at this Tuckerization thing, and is (c) himself.
Mount Helix, Mount Soledad and University Towne Center are real places in the San Diego area.
The author advises readers that doing a six-disc mix of John Denver, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Bad Company, Rush and Van Halen should only be undertaken by serious guitar aficionados. Danielle is a trained professional, kids. Please, don't try this at home.
"Bleargh" (pronounced BLEERG) is another word the author
picked up from Shazberto. Thanks, Shaz.