TGIF

You know what I love about Fridays? I love the fact that you can just put in some random video and fuck off, and no one thinks you’re failing to do your job, because the kids are more burned out than you are at this point in the week. Also, because now I can finally eat my cinnamon roll in peace, even though it’s fucking cold by now, because this is class time and no one’s going to bother me even if I don’t shut the door to my office.

I also really love that I can still watch the kids without having to hear the TV.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the programs, of course, if they were all that inaccurate I obviously wouldn’t play them, and the kids love them, yay, learning, whatever. I just don’t need any more science edutainment specials on where powers come from ever again, and also it’s really hard to quell the ‘yes but’ feeling which tends to only confuse the kids.

Here’s a thing you should never ever do with your history of extranormal studies degree: teach children. Any of them. Yes, I’m including university students (from a lot of my professors’ reactions, maybe especially them).

Actually, here’s what you should never do: teach children.

Like, right now, I can see Caffeine flicker every twenty seconds or so, and it is so obvious he’s randomly running around the building, probably bothering people. I hope I don’t get any complaints. No, wait, I hope one of the speedsters catches him and scolds him in superspeed. That. I can’t even reprimand him, because he’s not missing any of the video. He might even be paying attention.

Enigma Machine looks like he’s paying attention, because he’s sitting up straight and vaguely pointed forward, but he’s unaware of the fact that he’s borrowing agency property right now, and whatever he uses the suit for – he’s having a terrible time getting used to the regulation ones; I have no idea what his techie friend built for him – I can see on my computer. He’s playing some sort of MMO. I would venture it’s in beta, because a lot of the areas just sort of end, and the animations are all wonky. The lag might or might not be our fault. I’m actually kind of impressed he got the facial movement and blink controls down that quick. If only he could learn to walk around.

Jailbait’s literally asleep. I wonder how many times she’s seen this video.

Gatling is probably half-watching, but he’s also shooting what looks like flechettes at the wall. I mean, whatever, at least target practice is productive. And he refuses to do it when I tell him to do it, so I guess he may as well do it now, when I told him to do something else that I don’t even know if it benefits him, I mean, maybe he’s seen it in school, maybe he’s seen it at home, I don’t know what his life is like. Well, technically I have access to that information, but it’s not like I’m going to bother looking it up. Anyway, he’s not shooting or even throwing anything at his fellow students, so I’m not going to intervene. There’s a repair budget.

Psybeam’s pretending to take notes, mostly doodling in his notepad. I don’t think he’s used to his teachers having a bird’s eye view of what he writes down.

FiendPuncher is, by all accounts, watching the movie. I mean, I don’t know, it’s possible she’s never seen it before, it’s a couple years before her time (probably) and she’s still pretty young so I doubt it’s come up in school. She seems like the type to research on her own, though. Well. No one’s watched every series out there, have they? Or else she’s got some sort of unaccounted for power, like she’s having music beamed straight to her brain, or she’s an astral projector and she’s off playing lacrosse in the middle of a park somewhere, happily ignoring our existence. Or she’s high. Or planning.

Damn it, FiendPuncher, tell me what the hell you’re up to.

“Cheating,” Sensei Domino says, leaning against the wall just inside the door and goddamnit I could’ve sworn – I check the clock again. Fuck.

I mean, not that it’s not his office, too. Sort of.

I am so lucky Lisa has, like, I don’t know, extra classes or something, god, I’m a bad mentor, I should pay more attention to the poor intern. It’s not like I have that many.

“Who’s cheating?” I ask.

Sensei Domino just raises an eyebrow at me.

I wave a hand. “They’re tired, I’m tired, I’m giving everyone a break.”

“You’ve made them watch seven videos on the same subject,” he says.

“Yeah, well,” I say, “it’s their powers. They should learn more about them.”

“Uh-huh. And how much did you learn from videos like that?” he asks. “By the time you hit high school, really?”

“I’m pretty sure most of them go to public school,” I say.

Sensei Domino shakes his head. “I didn’t even go to high school, and they’d already stopped teaching me anything by that point.”

“You what?” I say.

He gives me a look. “You’ve read my file.”

“Did it mention this? I don’t remember it mentioning this,” I say, but lo and behold, yes, there it is, couched in terms like ‘specialty training’ and ‘independent study’. I try not to stare at him.

“I’ve got a GED, bruh,” he says, with like this condescending grin, honestly, what is his problem.

“Look, whatever,” I say, “they’re being brats today.”

He looks out the window, where the kids are mostly doing nothing. “Okay.”

“I don’t want to get into it,” I tell him, “but honestly once they started in on war-whooping I just couldn’t deal with them anymore.”

“You just left?” Sensei Domino asks me.

“The administration tends to frown on me screaming ‘you can all go to hell you racist little shits’ more than once in a row,” I tell him.

“Oh, well, as long as it’s only once,” he says.

“I might’ve told them to fuck off, actually,” I add.

He laughs at me. “So I take it I’m correcting forms the whole session today? Nothing fun.”

“Nothing fun,” I agree. “Also, if you could do that thing where you kind of frown and then look like you’re about to say something but you don’t, that would be great.”

“I do not do that,” he says.

“You do,” I say, “you do it every time they’re just off enough you want to correct it, but not off enough you want to hurt their self-esteem.”

“What,” he says, “no.”

“I can tell,” I add, “because when you do it to me, you always end up ultimately telling me how I fucked up, but them you just kind of, I don’t know, shrug it off.”

“Do they notice?” he asks.

“Hell yes,” I say, “they think you secretly hate them all and wonder what the fuck kind of profound mysterious sayings you’re holding back. Also, what powers you have.”

“I don’t have powers,” he says. “You did tell them I don’t have powers, didn’t you?”

“A, they wouldn’t believe me,” I say, “and B, no, of course not, where’s the fun in that?”

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Case File: Johnnie Doe – Missing, suspected extranormal involvement

Five miles before the bridge, the driver ran two red lights. Pictures clearly show a third passenger in the back seat whose body was not recovered. Choice of clothing and short hair indicate that the child, approximately 8-10 years old, is male, although the photos aren’t defined enough to be certain. (See age progression) Genetic analysis indicates that the Jane Does are mother and daughter; they’re presumably his mother and sister. It’s possible he’s related to the John Doe as well. Be on the lookout for a kid with dark blond or light brown hair and probably blue eyes.

The car is a 2003 Toyota Camry, silver. Addendum: Stolen, original owners identified, no relation, no involvement. (See interviews, appendix C) The kid didn’t know them and almost certainly would not have gone to them for help; they deny all knowledge of the kid and no one thinks they’re acting strange. Car’s a dead end. Also: the bracelet in the glovebox belonged to them, so no joy there.

There are clear signs on the vehicle of the door being forcefully opened (at human normal strength for an adult, possibly extranormal strength for a child), although unclear whether this was from the inside or outside. It’s conceivable that either he or his sister kicked the door open from the inside. It’s also possible someone else opened the door from the outside and bent the hinge that way. The seatbelt was cut off both rear seats intentionally at some point after the collision, although, obviously, only one passenger left/was removed.

Assuming no one else was involved, Johnnie presumably manifested powers. All three individuals in the car exhibit extranormal alleles, although no extranormal residue was recovered from the car (although, water), nor any other signs of power use. Jane Doe exhibits a complete A-Complex and C-Complex, and a partial B-Complex; Janie Doe exhibits complete versions of all three complexes. John Doe exhibits partial versions of all three complexes, although of such a composition that Johnnie Doe would have a good chance of having three activable complexes if John Doe is his father. (If he shares a father with Janie Doe, likelihood is even higher.)

Given analysis of Jane and Janie Doe, Johnnie Doe is most likely to have a powerset within either the temporal manipulation or light properties bands, although telekinetic and enhanced traits bands have a greater than average likelihood of manifestation. If John Doe is his father, Johnnie Doe’s chance of telekinetic band powers jumps to highest likelihood, and there’s a good chance of reality warping powers cropping up as secondaries. (Reality warping is lowest probability if Janie and Johnnie Doe share a father. It’s also possible that a third unknown is Johnnie’s father, potentially the kidnapper/rescuer.)

Most likely powers include some sort of water-based adaptation. Statistics suggest gills and/or webbed hands/feet accompanied by an internal compass. Also possible, but less likely, include cetacean-like adaptations (with respect to controlled breathing especially), extreme speed and/or strength, or a more complex set of standard or reasonably common abilities. (See adaptations by age group) However, it’s important not to discount the possibility that Johnnie developed a permanent or temporary amorphous/liquid form, or that he turned into some sort of fish or fish-like creature.

Amorphous forms by likelihood: delocalized speedster power group (see also: phase shifting), waveforms, energy beings (see also: slow teleportation), cohesive water entities

Creature manifestations by likelihood: hydra/medusa and other immortal-form sea creatures, phytoplankton entities (see also: single-cell aggregate intelligences), illusory shapeshifting, large sea creatures (by age group: especially sharks, alligators, dolphins, whales, possibly hippos)

Secondary powers probably include a heat adaptation, an ability to stay dry underwater or to dry off quickly, swimming ability or increased swimming capability, extranormal spatial awareness (up-down especially, but frequently also judging distances), and the ability to speak underwater. (If reality warping based, possibly also look for water tunneling, the ability to move through water as if on land/flying, alternate evolution mimicry, etc.) Possible but lower likelihood secondary powers include ability to communicate with underwater animals (or generalized), a generalized or specific technology sensing ability (boats or bridges likely; technopath possible although extremely unlikely), or cartographic/enhanced memory type abilities.

It’s possible the seatbelts were cut using an extranormal ability (either instead of a water adaptation, in addition to it, or by the Janie Doe). This could be an ability to manifest blades, sharpen them, turn other objects into them, or find/summon them (possibly straight TK). It’s also possible that it’s a directed ability that mimics the effects of a blade, or that a portion of Johnnie’s anatomy transformed, temporarily or permanently, into a blade (or blade-like claw). It’s also possible that either Johnnie or his kidnapper/rescuer was already carrying a blade, or that the other individual has a blade-based power.

Since both seatbelts were cut into, Johnnie probably did not develop any sort of teleportation power, the ability to pass through objects, or any kind of location-bending or primary reality-warping power. He also most likely still has a corporeal form. However, keep in mind his young age and state of mind under conditions this stressful; this may have been a reflexive or panicked action.

Although the fact that Janie Doe was left in the car despite an attempt to rescue her suggests that Johnnie escaped on his own, it’s also possible that there was outside intervention. Outside intervention is likely to be in the criminal range, given the abandonment of Janie Doe (possibly forcibly, if the kidnapper only wanted one child). Otherwise, Janie Doe may have already been dead; in this case, look for suspects with ESP or healing abilities who might have known this. Keep an eye on any villains, vigilantes, or freelancers training someone ~14 years of age exhibiting water-based abilities. Projections show the highest likelihood of apprentice training, followed by the expected outcomes for extranormal children. (See chart by age/powerset)

(See list of suspects)

(See chart of likely ranges of location based on powers manifested)

(See alternate age progression – Janie Doe)

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Coffee

“I mean, unless you count the squid,” I conclude.

Perry makes a face at me.

“I don’t know why there’s a squid,” I add, “it wasn’t, like, introduced in the narrative.”

“Oh, no, the squid’s a whole thing,” Perry says, “it’s some sort of poly pride symbol – not in the whole capefic community, just the Artemis fandom – I just don’t know why you were reading this.”

“I told you, Stranglehold and Kitty were just,” I wave a hand, “really creeped out.”

“Why?” she says, “you say it wasn’t anything too out there, not even spelling wise.”

“I mean, because it’s creepy reading about yourself, anyway,” I guess, “probably the decent writing just makes it harder to laugh at and you have to, I don’t know, care a little.”

“Okay,” she says, “I can see that. I’ll never be able to write about them again, thanks, but at least I can see it.”

“You want another coffee?” I ask her, getting up.

She shrugs. “I probably shouldn’t. Get me a chai latte.”

I relay her order to Tony, who sort of frowns at me. “Oh, and start on a hot chocolate for Priscilla, she should be here any minute. Hopefully.”

“Sure,” he says. “Are you okay?”

I’m wondering what’s made it through the grapevine all the way over here, but I just shrug, and fumble through my wallet, and mutter, “sure.”

“Okay,” he says. “Nobody’s been giving you any grief, have they?”

I laugh. “Why, are you going to kick some asses for me?”

He grins. “Hey, if you need me to. I’ve got pretty much no say outside my established domain, here, but I can throw a punch.”

I grin back. “Well, I’ll let you know if I could use the backup, then.”

He nods solemnly, and hands me my coffee.

I take a sip as I head back to the table. Why is Tony the only one who can make my coffee right? Aren’t these all, like, regular recipes? The door rings, but it isn’t Priscilla, so I drop back into the seat next to Perry and rest my head on her shoulder. She pats my hair.

“Hard day?” she asks.

“There are,” I say, “too many people.”

“Here?” she asks, “because we can move to the table in the corner.”

“At work,” I mutter. “Too many people, and several of them are assholes.”

“Babe, I work in the film industry,” she says. “You don’t have to tell me.”

“One of my kids decided to dig up my work history to fuck with me,” I say.

“One of my kids grabbed my ass, then said it was an accident,” she offers.

“How do you grab someone’s ass by accident?” I ask.

She takes a sip of my coffee. “I don’t know. Do you usually squeeze your hands several times and make sound effects when you trip and fall, or is that outlier behavior?”

“Nope,” I say, “from having watched my students, I’m pretty sure that is in fact how every boy under the age of eighteen trips and falls. It’s just, you know, reflex.”

“Well, thank god for birthdays, then,” she says.

“How old?” I ask.

“Nine?” she says, “ten? I can ask Pris when she gets here, but, no, far too young to be doing it for any other reason than his asshole dad encouraged it.”

“Stage parents?” I ask.

She snorts. “No idea, but from all the laughing, I don’t think he learned his lesson. Why, you think Gatling’s parents put him up to this?”

“What,” I say, “I never said it was Gatling.”

She just nods at me, condescendingly, and, okay, apparently I’m drinking chai now, that’s fine. I get up to get my drink(s).

“He didn’t say sorry,” I tell her, “but he did seem sorry.”

“He always seems sorry,” she says. “Little Nazi assholes shouldn’t even be allowed in class.”

“I don’t know if I’d call him a Nazi,” I tell her, “he does seem to pride himself on not being a white nationalist. I mean, it’s telling that he would specifically be proud of that, but.”

“Sorry,” Perry tells me, with a chuckle, “I may be projecting again.”

I grimace. “Tell me that project didn’t get greenlit.”

She shrugs at me, drinking the rest of my coffee. “Hey, are you actually –”

“And they can’t keep them off your set?” I ask.

“Can and will are two different things, Fox,” she says, “although we’ve put up a bunch of rainbows everywhere, and it seems to be keeping them at bay for now.”

“Well, as long as you tell them you’re making a documentary about the dangers of the gay agenda,” I offer.

“What,” she says, “like that the checklist gets too long?”

“Tell me about it,” I say, “I’m pretty sure we’re going to have to have yet another talk about, what, choosing our words, like, am I in charge of kindergarteners here?”

“I have an actual kindergartener,” Perry says. “She’s the sweetest thing. Please and thank you, always stays out of the way of people moving things, carries dog treats in her pocket.”

“That I can see,” I say, “most of the class likes dogs.”

“I’m about to start a petition to replace all the dudes in the entire movie with her,” Perry says. “You should get a dog to teach them.”

“What?” I say.

“A dog,” she repeats. “If they like dogs, get a dog to tell them not to be little assholes.”

“Like, a person in a dog costume, or an actual dog,” I say, “because dogs can’t talk, Perry.”

“I don’t know, wasn’t there that initiative?” she asks me.

“To,” I say, “make dogs talk?”

She flicks my arm. “To bring dogs in to, like, calm people down while you try to talk them out of being dicks. And they stare at the dog and, I don’t know, osmose tolerance or something.”

“This sounds marginally effective at best,” I tell her.

She shrugs. “Oh, well. I tried. Just tell them to shut the fuck up, then.”

“I see why Priscilla’s in charge of the kids,” I say.

Perry starts to respond, looks over my shoulder, and kind of widens her eyes. I wouldn’t fall for it, except I did here the door chime again, and I don’t want another accident enough to risk extending my field out behind me. Of course, Priscilla is actually there when I turn, so it works out okay.

She beams at us. “You will never guess who just got slapped in the face and lectured.”

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Subtexty

“Fox, you need to read through this,” Stranglehold says, basically shoving me into a chair.

“I, what?” I say, reflexively taking his tablet, which, no, that is too much like agreement.

“You need to read it through for us,” Sass says, poking at the screen.

Not actually touching it, because it’s already opened up to what I apparently have to read, but pretty forcefully pointing it out to me, which I hardly think is necessary, because I’m already looking right at it, I already agreed to do this thing apparently, so what’s her point?

“You have to read it,” she repeats, “I cannot.”

“No,” Stranglehold agrees, “all the no in the entire world.”

“Uh, okay,” I say, glancing at it, where it’s just, I don’t know, some words, on a screen, there aren’t even any pictures, it’s, like, describing the building (incorrectly).

“Just read it,” they repeat, in perfect unison.

“What,” I ask, “am I looking for?”

“Anything we need to look into,” Stranglehold says, less than helpfully, pinching the bridge of his nose and shaking his head and continuing to make kind of gagging noises.

“Proprietary information,” Sass says, slightly more helpfully, although she also has her hand clamped over her eyes, “or anything classified, anything people shouldn’t know, anything that makes us look particularly bad, although in this case, I don’t even know how you define that, things contrary to the goals or methodology of the agency but only if it implies we’re actually doing it, anything that indicates a sway in public opinion or areas people think we’re lacking in, stuff like that.”

“Okay,” I say, and start reading what seems to be a decently well-crafted, if a little trite, story about some new detective working with us on a case for the first time.

Of course, about three pages in, it devolves into tentacle sex, where I’m almost tempted to say it switched authors or something. It’s, like, the tiniest, tiniest red flag for reality warping (especially since this is not the kind I’d really be afraid of), and it’s not like people don’t adopt out their abandoned fic or let their friends write the sex scenes or any number of other things, but the tone changes. Just slightly. I mark it and send it to patterns, with a bolded apology.

Anyway, it mainly features Sunspot, Artemis, and Apollo in a threeway – although it’s carefully specified that it’s not incest in this version – but Sass and Stranglehold show up fairly prominently (and repeatedly), so I get why it was sent to them. And very much why they don’t want to read it. There’s nothing particularly sensitive in it (well, a lot of things are quite sensitive, but, well, nevermind), but it’s pretty long, so by the time I actually finish reading it, they seem to have relaxed, and Stranglehold doesn’t even look particularly green anymore.

“So?” he asks, refilling my coffee.

“Uh,” I say, “that was. Graphic.”

Sass cracks up.

“Like, I’ve read more graphic,” Stranglehold says, “but. Wow. Anyway.”

“I thought you guys liked it when people shipped you two.”

“I thought I did, too,” Sass mutters.

“I mean, sure, look at us, we’re adorable, we’re the best couple,” Stranglehold says, “the warnings on this brilliant piece of literature were not accurate.”

“Was there anything incriminating?” Sass asks.

“What, like do I think they’re actually into torture?” I ask, “no, or at least nothing to indicate they’re doing it to anyone. I mean, it wasn’t all that accurate, or not specific enough to be, anyway.”

“That’s a little TMI, Fox, thanks,” Stranglehold says, with a straight face.

“No,” Sass says, “well, yes, sure, but I meant about us.”

“Well, after,” I say, “after the part where I’m guessing you decided to conscript me for this, there’s, I think it’s an opium den? There’s a bit of non-specific drug use. And a lot of alcohol.”

“God, if we picked a fight with everyone who wrote about us getting high,” Stranglehold says, and rolls his eyes. “Oh, speaking of, random testing on Monday.”

“Uh-huh,” I say, “there was quite a lot of unprotected sex, though.”

“This is our problem, why?” Sass asks.

I shrug. “I didn’t think it was. I just thought it might be an opportunity for, I don’t know, you guys host writing workshops every now and then, don’t you?”

“Most of which are funded through public schools, so absolutely wouldn’t let us do sex ed, thanks,” Sass says, “and the community programs that are okay with it already have those, so.”

“What, do you want a page up on our site?” Stranglehold asks, “we could make a page probably, link it from the trademarks and defamation section.”

“Would it help?” I ask.

“Oh, shit, no,” Stranglehold says, “no one reads any of that.”

“Okay, it’s just,” I say, “that was, there was a lot of, there were very unsafe practices there.”

“You don’t read a lot of fic, do you?” Sass asks, shaking her head at me.

“Pretty much only what JCitySkiesbyNight recommends, and you know she has that whole thing about safer sex culture,” I say.

“I like her consent comics,” Stranglehold says, at the same time Sass says, “wait, you actually read this stuff for fun?”

“We’ve literally been friends since elementary school,” I tell her, “so I read a lot of her stuff, but I have made clear that I don’t want to read capefic, so, no, I don’t read this stuff.”

“Oh,” Sass says, sounding exaggeratedly disappointed. “I was going to ask who you ship.”

“You and Stranglehold, obviously,” I tell her, “I mean, just look at the two of you.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Arsenal says, dropping his bag on the table, “Stranglehold obviously belongs with Paragon, I mean, just look at their outfits. What are we talking about?”

“Really?” Stranglehold says, “no one ships me with Paragon.”

“Oh, I only ship rarepairs,” Arsenal says, “once everyone likes them there’s not even a point anymore. I can’t get behind the mainstream stuff. I can’t even read about you and Smoke anymore.”

“Gross,” Boomerang says, taking his own seat, “who was writing about him and Smoke?”

“Who do you ship, then?” Sass asks, shaking her head.

“Like, I don’t do any of that girly bullshit,” Boomerang says, “but people draw you with Princess Pom a lot. That’s pretty hot, so.”

Sass gives him a horrified look.

Boomerang sighs, and rolls his eyes, and says very slowly, “because of the whole cat-dog thing.”

“Are we talking about capeships?” Laces asks, far too excitedly.

“No, Laces, no,” Bartok says.

“So I have this headcanon about Hunch and Keller,” Laces says.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Laces, you literally have his file, you have met his family, you know who Hunch is in real life, stop making up secret identities for him,” Bartok says.

“But they do have about the same build, same height, similar hair color,” Arsenal considers.

“You have to admit, you never see them in the same room at the same time,” Laces says.

“Reason for that,” I mutter, but Bartok is busy chasing Laces to clap her hand over his mouth.

“Hunch is not secretly Keller and Keller isn’t even actually with Sid in the first place, so Hunch most assuredly is not secretly with Sid,” she begins, before Laces squirms away.

“That’s why it’s a secret,” Laces says, eyes alight. “You can’t tell anyone about Hunch and Sid –”

“Are we capeshipping?” Hunch says, plonking down a stack of files, “no capeshipping on the clock guys, not in an official meeting, and I’m not dating Sid, Laces.”

Laces laughs. “Yeah, but are you secretly –”

Anyway,” I say, “how much headway are we making with the ghost robberies?”

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Class Time

The kids aren’t looking particularly interested in anything I have to say, but they aren’t setting up any game boards, either, so things are looking up. They’re kind of milling around, not really talking to each other. Caffeine has a sandwich, but no one else has touched any of it, not even the junk food, not even the soda. It’s like the beginning of a commercial for some horrible chemical goop that didn’t work out as science intended and got rebranded as a toy.

“Hey,” I say, and they turn their heads towards me, slowly, even Caffeine.

I start doing jumping jacks, and they just fall into line. The shrinks are going to be pulling them out of class until they graduate, I swear, Jailbait even longer. I leave them jumping up and down and go to pull out yoga mats, setting them up in the middle of the room while the kids start to run laps, completely without prompting. I can’t tell if they’re giving me looks, or just looking back at me because I keeps shooting looks at them. It’s making me dizzy.

There’s a little grumbling as I count them through situps and pushups, but that’s about par for the course, and they settle down onto their respective mats – which they take a moment to rearrange, because they’ve not only claimed colors but staked out specific spots in a specific order – with about as much fuss as I expected. There’s some debate about two people – characters, I assume, because I don’t recognize them, and it’s not anyone here and I have no idea where else they all come in contact – and which of them is better.

Not better at anything. Not stronger or faster or ‘who would win in a fight’ better, not sexier or smarter or more talented at whatever thing would let me identify this, I don’t know, book, TV show, just better. I can’t even figure out what metrics they think they’re using. But at least they’re talking again.

I manage to run them through a couple of poses before they start just ignoring me and bickering at each other instead. I split them up to practice their individual skills for a few minutes, because I figure it’ll work off their energy better than trying to force them back into structured activity since they obviously don’t want to do that and will they just listen for a second I mean come on. Especially since they’re going straight back to structure as soon as Sensei Domino gets here. And he will not thank me if they argue over every word.

I tell Caffeine to set up an obstacle course for FiendPuncher. Not a real one, obviously, just safety cones on the ground, but enough to get her flying in patterns, avoiding stuff as it comes up. Probably intellectually stimulating enough, because if there’s one thing Caffeine is going to do, it’s try to trip up whoever he’s working ‘with’, so they make a good pair. She may also be attempting to pelt him with something or other but I’m sure it’s not intended to be harmful. She grins at me. Augh.

I finally got back that list of particular domains they definitely share, which is far too scientifically worded for a couple of high-schoolers, but at least helpfully annotated by Dr. Skye, so I manage to set up Jailbait and Psybeam with a couple of targets and let her play mentor for a while. Honestly, she’ll probably get more out of trying to teach it than he’ll get out of pretending to listen, but he’s the stare-off-into-space kind of student, not the run-around-and-break-stuff kind, so his boredom isn’t doing much to anyone. Half-heartedly practicing can really only help, with his kind of skills.

I set Enigma Machine up with a punching bag, because he looks ready to fight anything I let him at, and I’m sure as hell not pitting that against another student. He lets me help him put on his gloves before he goes for it, anyway. Probably a problem I’m supposed to ask him about, so we can have some sort of after school special heart to heart, and every ill in his life will be solved. Probably also something he’d refuse to acknowledge is wrong, even if I asked. So glad the therapists are getting involved.

“Gatling,” I call, fumbling with one of the marshmallow bots, “come here.”

“What if I don’t?” he calls back.

I pretty much just ignore him while I get the thing turned on and calibrated. I have to shoot it like seven times before it starts doing what it was designed to do, and then it seems to go into some sort of warmup sequence or a self-diagnostic or who knows what. Gatling eventually comes over.

I hold out one of the little foam pellets. “Here, make some of these.”

“Why?” he asks, folding his arms over his chest and refusing to take the thing.

“Because this is an expensive piece of equipment you’re not allowed to destroy,” I say, pointing at the hovering machine, “but you need to practice with it.”

“Why,” he says, again, like he’s got one over on me.

“Because it will help your aim and speed and precision and you know what Gatling,” I tell him, “just do what I say, okay?”

“Or what?” he says, and tilts his head, narrowing his eyes slightly, and grinning the beginning of that grin that means he thinks he’s won the conversation, “you’ll shoot me?”

I feel the fingers of one hand clench together while the other completely loses its grip on the gun, this tiny, harmless, foam dart shooting gun, this little thing that couldn’t hurt him even if I had been aiming at him, even if I had been aiming to hurt, and I just have to wonder how long he’s been holding out to use that little tidbit, where he found out about it or who he heard it from, and why now, why deploy it when there’s – god, even Gatling’s gone a little paler than normal, mouth scrunched up like he’s not sure he should apologize, staring at his feet or maybe the dart gun next to them. His hands are gripping onto his arms a little tighter than usual, like this time even he knows he crossed a line.

Sensei Domino mutters a couple things into my ear, and I nod and respond, and he walks me to the elevator. The doors whir shut and the metal is smooth and cool and smells like coins.

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Breakfast

I get to work late, trying to figure out why I feel so disoriented, because I was mostly on time when I left and the traffic wasn’t that bad and there’s no reason I should be so off-schedule right now, but I am. And there was something I was supposed to be doing, or something I figured out that I wanted to tell someone, but I can’t fucking remember what it was or what I was working on.

“Travis!” a familiar voice calls out, and no, no, I cannot deal with other people yet. I need some food and some more coffee and some time, time alone, to maybe stop having a migraine.

Instead, there are two picture-perfect faces beaming at me, with hands waving in that practiced not-quite-unison that makes it look natural instead of rehearsed. Or, hell, maybe it is natural and I’m just being paranoid because I’m upset about having to deal with people already.

“You look kind of tired,” Stranglehold tells me. “Have you been sleeping okay?”

I shoot a scathing glare at my new tablemates. “I sleep fine.”

“You know it’s not quite as convincing when you’re that touchy about it,” Sass says. “Also, because I’ve seen your medications.”

Stranglehold raises an eyebrow. “He needs sleeping pills? Wait, sorry, none of my business.”

“Coffee,” I say, walking towards it, instead of addressing the issue, because as much as I need for people not to be talking about my medical history, I need to be talking about talking about my medical history even less.

Stranglehold laughs. “You should try the sticky buns. They’re really good today.”

“Or there’s chowder, if you wanted lunch,” Sass adds.

I scowl at her. “Lunch. Do not talk to me about lunch.”

“Do brownies count as breakfast or lunch?” Sass asks.

“Neither, I don’t think,” I mutter, darkly. “Dessert is its own category, I’m pretty sure.”

I organize my tray as I sit back down, staring forlornly at my orange juice, because now I basically have to either down it before I start eating anything, or save it for later, and it’ll get warm and gross in the meantime. I should’ve just stuck with coffee. This is why coffee is the go-to drink, and not things with flavors, no matter how appealing the bottles might look while you’re waiting in line.

“What?” Stranglehold asks.

“You think I should save my juice or drink it first?” I ask.

Two sets of eyes turn to my juice. “Is this really this big a dilemma?”

“Fine, don’t give me any advice, some friends you are,” I say, deciding that I’m thirsty enough after all, so I may as well just drink all my juice. Ahh, taste that vitamin C.

Stranglehold nods sagely. “Well, at least that’s one problem solved.”

I flip him off.

“I don’t actually give good advice in this type of scenario,” Sass says. “I pretty much enjoy the fact that everything tastes tart or sour when accompanied by sugary foods.”

“You what?” I ask.

Sass grins at me. “Not everyone has as much of a sweet tooth as you.”

“I know that,” I mutter. “It’s just breakfast. I’ll eat real food in a minute. I eat real food all the rest of the time I don’t even know what the problem is.”

Stranglehold glances nervously at me, shares a look with Sass, and drums his fingers against the table. Apparently deciding to break the tension, he adds, “I mean, not me, I have a huge sweet tooth.”

“There you go,” I tell her. “What diverse and interesting lives we lead.”

She shakes her head. “I like sugar sometimes, anyway.”

I nod and try not to stare off into space while they’re still attempting to talk to me.

“Anyway, the brownies are really good,” she says, “Although, a bit rich, so you’d have even more of the same problem, trying to eat them with juice.”

“You seem to be done with your juice, though,” Stranglehold adds.

“There are blondies, too, if you’re in the mood for them,” Sass says, “but no cookies today. I guess they decided to go for various dessert squares entirely. And some sort of fudge.”

“I saw the fudge,” I say, “I can’t tell what flavor it is.”

She glances over at it, shrugging.

“Did you try the fudge,” I ask Stranglehold. “Can you answer this question.”

“They’re just fudge,” Stranglehold says. “It seems to be plain and mint, why?”

“Wait, what do you mean plain fudge,” Sass asks, crossing her arms, “that would be basically sugar dough, like, butter-flavor sugar candy. It’s at least chocolate.”

“Plain chocolate, right,” Stranglehold says, nodding his head.

“Plain like nothing in it, or plain but with chocolate chips?” I ask him.

He chuckles. “That would be double chocolate, I would venture.”

“Double chocolate,” I repeat.

Sass makes a face. “Is there even double chocolate fudge? I’m pretty sure it’s only for cookies. I mean, I have seen brownies labeled that way, but not fudge. I don’t think that’s correct.”

“I don’t think I have either,” I tell her. “No. Double chocolate can’t be for fudge.”

“I have,” Stranglehold says. “Not that often, but I’ve definitely seen that label before.”

“Well, you know what? Lots of people can be wrong,” Sass says, shrugging. “I’m sure more than one person can independently make that mistake. But it’s delicious, so I don’t hold it against them.”

“It’s alright,” Stranglehold says, “it’s not a very interesting flavor.”

“It’s still fudge,” Sass says. “Who doesn’t like fudge?”

“Weren’t we just talking about people without a sweet tooth?” I ask.

“Yeah, but even they like a little bit of fudge from time to time, don’t they?” Sass asks me back.

I shrug. “I’m sure there are people who don’t, but only if you’re not planning to get on my case about not caring strongly one way or the other. You aren’t, are you?”

“Some people hate sugar with a passion,” Stranglehold tells us.

We both stare at him.

“I had a friend in high school like that,” he says, “he would never eat any dessert. I mean, it wasn’t just him, his whole family was like that. His sister even hated fruit, but I didn’t know her so well.”

“That’s a shame,” I tell him, “because I would really like more explanation for that one.”

“I never could figure it out. She liked citrus fruits okay, I guess because they’re sour, but she hated mangoes with a passion, like, specifically mangoes,” he says.

I shake my head, grinning. “Even though that’s the perfect fruit.”

“Fruit bats love them,” Sass backs me up, “they just hang out in mango trees, all upside-down, nibbling on mangoes because they’re delicious.”

“I heard they were the most popular fruit in the whole world,” I say.

“For monkeys, too,” Stranglehold says, “apparently, they’ll just up and wander into your house, looking for fruit. And they love mangoes.”

“That settles that,” I say, “aside from this one person Stranglehold sort of knew in high school, everyone at least likes mangoes. Other sugar preferences may be more subjective.”

“Well, that one person and a lot of her family,” Sass says. “Maybe it’s some sort of familial curse. Maybe they tried to feed their children to the gods or something.”

“With sugar on top,” I say.

“That is a horrible explanation and a horrible idea,” Stranglehold says, exasperated.

“It was mildly funny,” Sass defends, “it was acceptably jocular and low-level humorous.”

I pick up my phone because that reminded me of something and if I can just figure it out – I mean, I think it was something I wanted to look up before….

“Oh my god,” she says, laughing, “wait, what if it’s the other way around, and they have this boon of not liking sugar, and the rest of us are just cursed and like, oh, yeah, this curse is awesome.”

“And we just don’t even know we’re cursed, and all the gods are just hanging around, just frustrated and lowkey pissed,” Stranglehold adds.

“And they can’t even use it as a punishment-reward system anymore, because now there’s ice cream and shit, so people just won’t have that,” I say.

Stranglehold considers that for a moment. “Okay, so we have, like, these gods hanging around, promising to reward people with, like, this cursed food.”

Sass grins. “Double chocolate fudge?”

I laugh.

“So, okay, we’ve figured out the sugar thing,” Sass says. “What’s the explanation for people who don’t like coffee?”

“Beats me,” I tell her, because I have had that discussion before, and no matter how many times I’m presented with the data, it just boggles the mind, it really does.

“There are people who don’t like coffee?” Stranglehold asks. “My god, where, and what do they look like, and how do I avoid them, is there some sort of amulet or something?”

“Yes,” Sass says, “it’s a necklace shaped like a bean, combined with talking nonstop about specific blends of coffee and nuances of minor differences in cultivation and roasting and brewing.”

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Case File: San Salvador WHC Imposter Incident (XXXIV) (ref)

Shapeshifting and illusory powers are important to watch out for, as well. Shapeshifting powers are usually limited in scope, and as such, will typically be used to impersonate someone of a similar height and weight to the imposter, possibly with similar facial features, etc. However, some shapeshifting powers may be extremely dramatic in presentation, especially those that allow someone to transform into e.g. animals, and can be grouped together with illusory powers, which typically have little limit with regards to a field the size of a human.

The easiest way to trap imposters in such scenarios is by asking for identification, keys and passes, etc. Although certain illusory powers may be able to mimic IDs even when out of the imposter’s grasp (and many will have access to manufacturers of fake IDs), they should fail to validate as genuine on standard equipment. (Reminder to run identification, verify passes, etc. under the screening ledge, as so many illusory powers work on line of sight. In case of suspicion, IDs may be rerun in a different room, to avoid proximity and other typical constraints of illusion.) Keys and passes would likewise not be identified as real. Asking security questions or mentioning any pieces of personal information are also effective ways to trip up imposters whose powers work in similar ways. Even when they have access to some personal information, it typically remains insufficient to answer targeted questions.

Many illusionists can see through illusion powers, as well as certain others with powers that reveal, etc. Many espers can recognize shapeshifted individuals, although they may not recognize illusions (depending on what senses the illusion covers). In the case that there is no corresponding extrasensory illusion, this will obviously be quite simple to spot, but in many other cases, multiple senses may not correspond as well as usual (this can sometimes be noted by those with no enhanced senses). Body language and other kinematic experts may be able to recognize either illusion or shapeshifting, as the observable body shape will likely not be one the imposter is overly familiar with. As typical, memetics, mirrors, acutes, and perceptives are likely to root them out.

Another common method is the use of telepathic or reality warping powers to give the impression that some individual should be there or always has been there. This can be used to mimic a specific person, but is more likely to be used to overwrite a new individual into the daily workings of the WHC. Depending on the strength or type of power, this may be very long-term (i.e. the person has been working in the building for years) or situated as more of a recent development (e.g. a new transfer). Telepathic powers are more likely to be limited in scope, and may have to be aimed specifically, but broad-spectrum telepathy is not unheard of, and may in any case be confused with reality warping, which also affects all targets within a given area. Some reality-warping is limited to a small area, touch-contact, etc. and may affect only a very limited subset of the agency.

If someone outside your department says this is happening, follow all protocols immediately. (If it turns out to be a prank, report them; it is probably not a prank.) Otherwise, suspicion of these imposters may be unlikely or difficult to come by, although entertaining the suspicions can itself be a helpful act, as it may take more energy for the imposter to maintain the altered version of events. With telepathy, artifacts are unlikely to be affected, so rosters, photographs, signatures on reports, etc. should reflect the nonexistence of the imposter, and when encountering such evidence, one should be careful not to write it off. With reality warping, this is more hit or miss, but inconsistencies of memory, such as gaps, conflicting memories, multiple memories of the same event, or memories inconsistent with factual data can indicate that something is going on. In all cases, be very aware of warnings or even simple confusion on the part of members of other agencies, other branches, or especially coworkers on vacation, sick, or working remotely. These may be your first or even only indicators.

Those with enhanced, especially perfect, recall will often be more aware of the possibility of reality warping, although may be uncertain if on the periphery of changed events. Telepaths and some other memetics are more likely to be immune to telepathic intrusion. Those with mental training may have some resistance to both types, and dogs and horses will generally respond negatively to the imposter (and may be available for a quick look – preferentially ask for the dogs). Give the benefit of the doubt to those individuals who are Earth-baseline grounded; they will almost always be unaffected by such events. Information can be double-checked with baseline grounded equipment. As typical, memetics, mirrors, acutes, and perceptives are likely to root them out. In this case, especially give the benefit of the doubt to any and all nulls.

A less likely, but possible, scenario, is that a telepath has somehow gained access to the mind of an actual agent or other member of staff. This may be through violence or intimidation, blackmail, etc., but not all telepaths reach their targets through their weaknesses or vices. The telepath may pose as a friend or even just an acquaintance, and slowly work their way into someone’s life. This may result in someone with enhanced knowledge of current cases and the inner workings of the WHC, using any of the typical infiltration methods. It may also result in someone modifying, putting pressure on, or controlling someone’s mind as they go about their work, in which case the correct person will be there, but behaving differently.

Someone mimicking a member of staff may have plenty of knowledge, including personal knowledge, but will likely be unskilled at applying it. They may be seen fumbling at or botching everyday tasks. They are also likely to display different personality traits than the person they mimic; report changes in behavior and activities to patterns. In the other cases, the staff member may be confused or disoriented, anxious, or distant. (Again: patterns.) Note that not all cases of stress are indicative of imposter incidents, but do watch out for sudden onset of stress, especially in individuals where it’s rarely present. Engaging individuals in critical thinking games is likely to help in most incidents.

Imposters can be picked out the same way as an imposter without access to personal information, although possibly not as effectively, as well as typically being quite obvious to telepaths in their mind/body mismatch (or multiple minds, etc.), but may be more apparent to those with close bonds to the persons being mimicked, as the imposter may well try to be overly friendly. Modified memories should be clear to anyone who shares the unmodified versions, as well as to anyone with memory- or thought-pooling abilities. Those having their minds influenced are likely to be noted by the psychological staff, or anyone familiar with symptoms of addiction (these can be distinguished easily, because the onset will typically be quite sudden in the case of telepathic manipulation). Those with meditation or coercion-neutralizing powers may be able to help in these cases. Mind control is likely to be noted by anyone with numerical or distance-measuring powers. As typical, memetics, mirrors, acutes, and perceptives are likely to root them out.

Keep in mind, technopaths are likely able to create false identities in ways beyond the scope of measure of the average false identity. Their paper trails may be vast and elaborate. However, the typical technopath has absolutely no ability to create false memories, and may well be remembered specifically and negatively, as spontaneous technopaths tend to be highly anti-social. They are virtually always incapable of the level of charm or even friendliness necessary to lay the groundwork for this type of event, and so don’t need to be seriously considered unless one is already under suspicion. If worried about a potential technopath, call their last post to verify employment history, and speak at length to their references, in person if at all possible. Technopaths looking to join the agency for the first time may be harder to vet, and as such, it’s recommended they be evaluated in more depth, although the application process does weed out most imposters. And, as typical, memetics, mirrors, acutes, and perceptives are likely to root them out.

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Team Meeting

I stick another fluorescent orange arrow on the page. It makes my eyes swim. Or maybe that’s because I’ve been combing through these for an hour trying to find any references to any hint of the Vivisection Killer’s methodology. Either way.

I close the file and crack my neck.

“You really shouldn’t do that, you know,” Stranglehold tells me, not even looking up from his tablet, “it’s bad for your neck.”

Sass mimics me, grinning at him the whole time.

Arsenal stealthily shifts his homework to the side, watching to see if this is going to turn into a thing. It doesn’t. Hunch does notice us all being distracted and not working, and brings us muffins, but it doesn’t turn into a thing. (He still gets to stop doing homework, though, I guess.)

I start picking apart a pistachio one.

“Are you eating that upside-down?” Bartok asks me, horrified.

“This is right-side up,” I say, picking a piece off, “you’re just confused because the military trained you to eat them wrong. Everyone eats them this way.”

“True facts,” Stranglehold agrees.

Sass nods. “The first time someone explained to me why Flight Crew all ate yours backwards, it blew my mind.”

“Yeah, you guys have never seen someone eat a muffin before?” Arsenal adds, flipping his over to peel the wrapper off, too.

Boomerang snickers. “Yeah, even in Montana we eat them that way, have you really never heard of it?”

Bartok glares at us. Laces scoots back from the table slightly, shifting his gaze between us.

Hunch tosses them each a muffin. “Eat it however you want.”

Laces eyes his muffin warily.

“Stand down, Laces, this is not a quarantine situation,” Hunch says, “look what you guys made him do, he’s about to go into Imposter Protocol.”

“I was not,” Laces grumps.

“I’m about to go into Kick Your Ass Protocol,” Bartok mumbles, around a bite of muffin she’s eating the right way thanks.

“Yeah, that’s scheduled tomorrow for Arsenal and Friday for Boomerang,” Hunch says.

“Flying!” Arsenal says, with a clap.

“No flying,” Bartok says, pointing, “eat your snack.”

Arsenal rolls his eyes.

“And eat it right-side up, or I won’t even let you play with the controls,” she adds.

Arsenal holds the muffin up, widening his eyes innocently. “But it is –”

“Say it and I’ll make you run laps the whole lesson,” Laces warns.

“They taste better,” I explain. “You don’t get to the sugar until the end.”

“Muffins aren’t even supposed to have sugar on them at all!” Bartok snaps. “Corn muffins never have sugar on them. You put sugar on cupcakes.”

“Muffins are just cupcakes with no frosting and more pieces of foodstuffs in them,” I tell them, through a mouthful of muffin, picking off a pistachio to show them.

“This is the last time I try to bring healthy snacks,” Hunch mutters at us.

“You do not get to talk,” Bartok points at me. “You put perfectly good maple sugar candies in our disgusting day-old office coffee.”

“If you flavor them with regular sugar they taste like day-old office coffee,” I tell her.

“It’s supposed to!” she snaps, “that’s how you know you’re at work!”

“He wastes those things on coffee?” Laces asks Arsenal.

I turn to him. (Laces, not Arsenal.) “Fuckin’ A, you want to take this outside?”

“Maybe I do,” Laces says, sort of rolling his muffin around in a way that I think is supposed to be intimidating, but kind of just looks like he’s waving a muffin at me.

“Fine,” I say.

“Fine,” he says.

“Children,” Hunch says, but he’s trying not to laugh, even as Laces and I roll our sleeves up.

“Ah, a round of good old fashioned fisticuffs,” Stranglehold says. “To ten seconds pinned or surrender, no holds barred, powers neutralized, winner take all.”

“All what?” Sass asks.

“The muffins, I was pretty sure,” Stranglehold says, pretending to consult his notes.

“What the hell is a sugar candy?” Boomerang asks.

“Maple sugar candy,” Arsenal corrects.

Boomerang flips him off. “I heard the first time. Aren’t all candies sugar?”

Sass shrugs at him. “I mean, depending on what you call sugar and what you call candy, sure. There are ‘sugar-free’ candies.”

“That’s gross,” Boomerang says.

“Yes,” Sass agrees.

“Maple sugar candies are candies made from maple sugar,” Hunch explains.

Boomerang looks nonplussed.

“Maple sugar is sugar from maple trees,” Hunch adds.

Boomerang shrugs.

“It’s like maple syrup,” Stranglehold says, handing over his tablet, presumably with information about maple trees or the syrup distillation process, or possibly birb memes or something, because whatever it is engrosses Boomerang pretty quickly.

“And Fox’s money is his to waste how he wants,” Hunch says, shaking his head at me.

“It makes the coffee taste good,” I protest.

“Buy better coffee,” Stranglehold and Sass say in unison, then hi-five.

“I did,” I tell them, “I used up the entire snack budget for my division.”

“Your division – you used the entire budget?” Bartok asks me. “That’s supposed to cover, like, ten teachers and almost a hundred kids.”

“Kids are covered under the class budget,” I tell her. “It falls under ‘goodwill’ or something, maybe just ‘catering’, and I don’t need much in the way of supplies, so.”

“So you ordered cheaper coffee for the kids, I take it,” Laces says.

“I don’t give the kids coffee,” I tell him. “I’m considering taking away their soda.”

“Aww, too amped up on sugar and not listening to you?” Arsenal says, “I remember those days well. So carbonated and carefree.”

“They just ignore me the whole time. Today they played Risk.” I sigh.

“I have an admiral’s kid going through retraining right now,” Bartok says, “thinks he’s hot shit even though he can barely use the scuba armor.”

“Keeps trying to correct her on how all the controls work,” Laces says. “And then afterwards he always winks at me. I don’t even know what he’s trying to convey. Like, is he hitting on me?”

“He’s not hitting on you,” Bartok says.

Laces snorts. “I wouldn’t say yes. If he says actually one more time….”

“He managed to get someone to sign a suit out to him and found a way to break it in ten minutes,” Bartok concludes.

“We have a new batch of local bigshots in for interview basics,” Sass says. “They keep throwing tantrums over their lighting and miccing.”

“They say they know how to answer questions,” Stranglehold says, “I mean, they answer them. They regret it after, but they answer them.”

“The guy who sits behind me in math and history keeps singing Beatles lyrics to himself,” Arsenal says. “Like, for the whole class.”

We all look at him.

“What?” he says, with a shrug. “I’m in high school. Bad students everywhere is all I’m saying.”

“Just keep them out of trouble,” Hunch says, “they’ll get back into the swing of lessons soon.”

“Yeah,” I agree.

“Hey,” Boomerang says, “hey, hey, did you guys know that trees can send, like, chemical messages to each other through their feet?”

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