“Hey, I’ve got a question.”
Stan resisted the urge to sigh. Not because he was irritated over being asked a question. He liked questions. But with the boy, it could be anything from why you use eggs in cookies to some weird physics thing, and Stan hated admitted that he didn’t know.
Back when he was their age, study hall would have been jammed full of people. The slightest of murmuring would have gotten a harsh hiss from a teacher. Not that he remembered it directly any more; it was more of information, remembering a memory. It had been a quarter of a century since he’d been in high school.
But this wasn’t study hall, this was a study period. Sure, there were a larger number of students than a normal classroom, ten of them sitting in front of him, but there was supposed to be two teachers as well, specializing in different fields. The kids were discouraged from talking about non-school matters, but they had free reign to discuss classes or ask the teachers questions. Unfortunately, one of them had called in sick today.
Stan did his best to smile patiently, silently praying this wasn’t a math question. “Yes, Tony?”
The lanky boy grinned for a moment before his face grew serious. “Okay, so. A boat’s cruising around, and this dude flies in out of nowhere. A gold-skinned dude, literally flying above the water like he was taking a walk. Then, afterwards, people start getting powers, right?”
Stan knew Tony already understood all of this. He didn’t teach Intro to Parahuman History, but he did know that Tony had passed it… barely. He nodded slowly, though, wishing the boy would get to the point.
“Okay, so. How the fu… How the heck did nobody put two and two together and figure out he was the source? And why did nobody even begin to think that he was an alien? I’m sorry, but I’m trying to wrap my mind around how people thought before powers, and that’s the point where things kinda fall apart for me, you know?”
“Yeah,” Cass said, looking up from her homework. “I’ve been curious about that, too.”
There were a few other people who muttered in agreement, and now he had plenty of kids focused on him. Had Miller skipped this or something? Stan would have to have words with him tomorrow.
“That’s a good question, and I wish that I had an easy answer.” Stan leaned back, keeping that smile in place. “Sure, especially in the beginning, people thought maybe Scion might have been the source of powers somehow. But how could the world at large know for sure? We had no way of telling, because Scion never stuck around. It’s also a hard theory to test.
“As for Scion being an alien, yes, some people believed that. After all, his appearance was unique and didn’t give any good indicator as to an ethnicity. Gold isn’t exactly a color we see naturally in people.” Someone giggled briefly, but he couldn’t catch who it was. It wasn’t even a vaguely amusing joke, so he hadn’t been watching for a reaction. “But often times, they were paired with conspiracy theorists who talked about world leaders being aliens, no matter if they deserved to be paired with such wackjobs or not.
“This was further complicated when Case 53s first started to appear. When you have someone with scales and tentacle arms, or someone with skin every color of the rainbow, something as simple as gold skin suddenly doesn’t seem so unbelievable.”
“Yeah,” Griffon said slowly. “But didn’t Cauldron know? And didn’t they make the Case 53s?”
Griffon wasn’t triggered, and hadn’t taken any parahuman studies courses. It was understandable why he might have less than stellar education on the subject. “They did make the Case 53s, creating them out of Scion’s mate, whom they had killed prior to his arrival. The Case 53s were created using the same unpredictable methods that also allowed them to create the parahumans they made. They very easily could have stepped forward to reveal the truth.
“However, they were working from the shadows, not daring to reveal both the truth about Scion or their experiments.”
It was a good question. “Well… That’s complicated. First of all, they would have had to confess where the Case 53s came from. Secondly, they were afraid. They believed that if people knew what Scion was, and that eventually he would turn against humanity, that someone would attack him. And then he would have turned sooner. There weren’t the weapons or parahumans necessary to take him on, so they felt it was best to keep it a secret.”
“Doesn’t seem right,” Tony said, matter-of-factly.
“I know,” Stan said sadly. “It wouldn’t feel right to most of you. You might understand why they felt that way, but you might not like it. But when people are scared, when there are stakes on the line far greater than just yourself, you sometimes have to make decisions that don’t feel like they’re the right thing to do, because you believe that they’re the necessary thing to do.”
“Here’s a question,” Cass asked. “If they could make parahumans, and wipe people’s memories like they did with the Case 53s, why didn’t they build an army? Or was that what the Protectorate was for? To be their army?”
Now this was interesting. Only Sam and Robert weren’t paying attention. Everybody else was eager to hear whatever he had to say on this matter. He couldn’t help but smile a little; these were the moments he lived for. It might not have anything to do with the classes he taught, but he was surrounded by students eager to learn.
“Because feeding, equipping, and training an army is a massive undertaking, especially if you’re trying to keep it a secret. For quite some time, Cauldron simply didn’t have the resources to do so, and by the time they did, they were already committed to other plans.
“As for the Protectorate and other various parahuman organizations, even though Cauldron often had a hand in their creation, they weren’t armies per se. They were organized places for parahumans to get training and a cause to fight, for the most part.
“The issue is that those with natural triggers, those who didn’t take one of Cauldron’s vials, tend not to work well in large groups. It’s why the Wardens today operate in the cellular structure that they do. The only real army of parahumans back then, China’s Yàngbǎn, used downright reprehensible tactics to keep their entire fighting force working together. Even then, recently discovered documents reveal that their unity wasn’t as great as they had lead the world to believe.
“We see this even today, in places in Earth Aleph, where the rate of triggers is highest. In cities with a high population of parahumans, there is near-constant conflict of some sort going on. Twain and New Fairfax are terrific examples of how they have to go to special lengths to keep the peace. Back then, it wasn’t so neatly understood.”
The class was quiet for a moment, absorbing the information. Thinking it over instead of relying purely on him for everything. Stan easily could have gotten jobs that some might have considered more vital towards rebuilding the world, but he was glad that he’d chosen to teach, especially during moments like these.
He’d been in his first year of grad school before Gold Morning, going for a major in Parahuman Studies and a minor in Ethics. He’d been something of a social crusader in his youth, wanting to join the Youth Guard to help protect the Wards. After Gold Morning had hit, that dream had died. So many teens had fought against Scion, and no longer wished to be protected.
The first year or so after Gold Morning, he’d been at a loss, doing manual labor to help rebuild. When he’d heard about the Orphanage’s call for teachers, he’d hoped he could at least offer something. They’d instead offered to help him finish his education, on the condition that he’d stay and help teach for at least a few years.
Those first few years were lackluster, but necessary. He’d seen the most heartbreaking of the Orphanage, with so many blanks, so many devastated children. If he hadn’t been interested in teaching before, he gained it afterwards.
Not that he wouldn’t go insane if he were to be in charge of administration. Teachers were known to come to blows over their preferred methods of teaching. Some gave no tests or homework, others, like himself, lived by it. Some did a bell curve, others traditional grading, still others just went pass/fail. Two different teachers teaching the same class might handle things in completely opposite manners.
But the classes were small; no less than three students, no more than eight. The smaller class size meant that each class he taught received more individual attention, but it also made it far more expensive for people outside of the Orphanage. No matter the cost, people still paid. Sometimes not in money, but they earned their keep no matter what. He was even familiar with a few students who were here simply because their communities had banded together to pay for it.
And honestly, he loved it. Students who were having trouble, like Tony, could have more individual attention placed on them. He could tailor each class to the students, and while they’d all learn certain bare minimums, he had more freedom as to how he could teach. Even the study periods like these were, in a way, a pure joy for him. Most of these kids didn’t have parents to teach them little things, and having an open forum to make sure that they could learn that stuff was important.
“Hey,” Cass said suddenly. “Speaking of Gold Morning, why do the older paras go by code names?”
Stan smiled a little, glad that they were keeping it within his field. “Good question!” Always praise the students for questions that helped them understand. “It’s actually kind of complicated.
“Back when communities were far larger and parahumans triggered less, it wasn’t as easy to identify if someone was a parahuman as it was today. As well, there was a game of cat and mouse of sorts between criminals and those who fought them.” It was infuriatingly hard, even after all these years, not to call them heroes and villains.
“With the ease that they had to hide their abilities, and the fact that there were still those who discriminated against triggered, it was far more common to hide who you were. For those who fought criminals, it kept them from having their families targeted. For criminals… Well, obviously, it helped to keep them from getting arrested. When a member of the Protectorate came to stop you, you didn’t want to have them waiting for you by the time you got home.”
Tony laughed from the gut, slapping his table. Surely he couldn’t find it that funny.
Stan ignored him, pushing on. “It wasn’t until later that we discovered the psychological effect of spending so much time using their so-called ‘cape name.’ Due in part to how being triggered changes a person, it became disturbingly easy to begin to think of themselves in those terms. This was far easier the younger one triggered. I’ve talked to Missy Biron, and while she introduces herself by that name, she still thinks of herself as Vista.
“There were, of course, ways to help deal with this. Those who had an active life outside of their codenames had their real names reinforced. Be it through family or friends, or even a day job, they had an easier time retaining their name.”
“So,” Lizzy said slowly. “Uh, if I were to take a code name, I might forget my real name because I’m triggered?”
He shifted in his seat a little. “No, not necessarially. You still have plenty of people reinforcing it. And I should point out that it isn’t just parahumans that this can happen to. If, say, Carlos were to be called Edgar every day, eventually he might start to think of himself as Edgar, despite not being triggered. Is it easier for parahumans? Yes, for reasons we don’t completely understand yet. But it can happen to anybody.”
That seemed to satisfy them for a period of time. Finally, however, Lizzy spoke up. “Mr. Simmons, real quick, can you help with my Geography homework?”
The bell rang, and students all jumped out of their chairs. He didn’t catch what Tony said, but it was enough that all the kids were laughing as they hurried out the door. At their age, they all had a few free hours before dinner, and everybody was bound and determined to enjoy it while they had the chance.
All of them, except for Tony. The boy stood up, then staggered, putting his hand on the wall for support. After a few moments of deep breathing, he collected his bag and moved slowly to the desk. “Hey,” he said with a bright smile despite his previous display. “We still on?”
Stan checked his bag, feeling the weight of the papers inside before nodding. “We are, but before we go, I wanted to have a quick talk.”
Tony winced, his arm twitching upwards and his eyes down. Almost immediately, he forced himself to focus on Stan again. No doubt, he was going to check his watch. “Okay.”
“The school year is just starting, and already you have two simple assignments that you haven’t turned in yet.” Tony’s face became a stone wall, but he didn’t say anything. Stan pushed onwards. “You’ve already taken my class once and failed for that very reason.
“Tony, I’ll be honest with you. If you do end up joining the Wardens, I have no doubt that you’ll do fine. You’ve got the right attitude, and your heart is in the right place. By your very instinct, you don’t need to take Parahuman Ethics.”
“Except the Wardens requires it,” the boy said slowly.
“Except the Wardens require it,” he corrected. “Yes. Now, I know that if you pass everything, you’ll have all the credits you need to join. Next year, you’ll be old enough to join, and you’ll be streamlined right into one of the training teams. And to be honest? I think that the time you’ll have to spend in a response team will be agony for you. Once you get past that, though, and finally get an assignment in a community, you’ll be a perfect fit.
“Your personality is right for dealing with civilians, and your power is dangerous enough to discourage situations where you’d have to use it. Any community would be happy to have you.”
Tony smiled broadly. “Thank you.”
“But I will fail you.” The boy’s smile dropped instantly. “If you don’t do your homework again, I will fail you without the slightest regret. I’m not doing it to be mean, but for the exact opposite reason. If you join the Wardens, you’ll have to make a report every time you do anything in an official capacity, or use your powers in a way that folks might take offense to. You have to do this, Mr. Welsh. There’s no getting around it. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself getting sued, or worse, kicked out of the Wardens. And if you won’t do your homework, I can’t trust you to do your paperwork.”
The boy lowered his head, but didn’t say anything. They both knew Stan was right. Good. He stood, slinging his bag over his shoulder. “That’s all I wanted to say. There’s no point in grinding you down with this. I’m sure that once you get in the habit, you’ll ace the class. So instead of standing around and making you feel bad, let’s get going.”
Tony’s bright smile came back instantly, like a switch. “Thanks Mr. Simmons.”
Stan put a hand on the boy’s shoulder before they both stepped into the hall. Hopefully, the kid was paying attention and would get his act together. He couldn’t really blame the boy — he had a lot on his shoulders, despite his carefree attitude.
Almost the moment that they stepped out the door, a girl slammed into Tony in a fierce hug. “Idiot!” she yelled happily. “Who’s your date for the dance?”
He pulled away from the girl, laughing. “Nice to see you too.” He seemed content to let it rest with that, but the girl leveled her gaze on him. This time, the laughter was sheepish. “Uh, nobody. I was gonna go stag. Sorry?”
“What?” Her expression went from disbelief to anger in no time flat. “It’s the first formal of the year! We’re supposed to get pictures together! How’m I gonna do that if you don’t have a date?”
“Uh, with just me?” Stan couldn’t see Tony’s face, but he knew the boy well enough to know he had a dopey grin on his face from stating the obvious. When the girl started smacking his shoulder repeatedly, he turned to look at Stan with a mock-pleading expression. “Teach, she’s killing me! Help!”
“I will be a pallbearer at your funeral,” Stan said dryly.
Tony gave a melodramatic sigh before turning back to the girl. “I’ll try, but I make no promises. Total strikeouts so far.”
“Well,” she said, putting a fist on her hip. “If you don’t have one before lunch tomorrow, I don’t care what else you’re doing, we’re getting you one. One way, or another.”
“No hooking me up with a corpse!”
“No promises.” She reached up to hook a finger in his collar and pulled him down. “Donk!” she cried out as she placed her forehead against his.
“Wubble wubble wubble,” he replied as he rubbed his head against hers. She let go, and before he could even straighten up, she was off like a rocket. He smiled back at Stan as if this happened every day before walking again.
The teacher couldn’t help but grin a little. “I take it she already has a date?”
“Yeah,” Tony said slowly. “Plus, she’s not into dudes, so even if she didn’t, you know?”
“Ah.” Yes, that would complicate things a little. “I see.”
Tony was content to walk in silence. He had a lazy gate to him, reminiscent of a sloth, but with his long legs he could make surprising time. He’d be a star at track if he actually bothered to try out for it.
It wasn’t until they got outside that the boy spoke up again. “Hey, teach, odd question.”
“Why are dudes into lesbians?” Stan nearly choked, but the teen continued on as if it was normal. To him, it might be a normal response to his questions. “I mean, I get part of it. Girl on girl, hawt and all that BS. I get that. But lesbians? I mean, they’re never gonna get in on that, they’re never gonna include you on the fun, so no matter what it’s just gonna end up with you jerking it like a typhoon. Bi girls, yeah, sure. There you’ve got a chance at joining in the festivities. But I really don’t get the big deal about, specifically, lesbians.”
Jesus, the kid asked weird questions. “Well, um, why are girls into, uh, into gay guys?” He’d almost said yaoi, but he doubted that Tony knew the word.
Instead, the boy looked at him like he’d grown a second head. “Dunno, but that’s fair, I guess. Gender equality and all that BS. Still, that’s why I asked you.”
Stan sighed softly. “I have no idea.”
“Nng.” Tony frowned a little before clasping his hands behind his neck. “I’ll try asking a psyche teacher tomorrow.”
Stan moved quickly so that he pulled up alongside the boy. Most people could accept it without hesitation, but the teen’s hand creeped him out terribly. It was sad, in a way, that everyone else accepted it so readily.
But at the same time, it was oddly beautiful. Here was this disfigured youth, who laughed and waved at people as if he didn’t have a care in the world. People waved back, their faces lighting up with joy at seeing him, occasionally yelling a greeting. He got the distinct impression that had he not been with the kid, they would have tried to snag the boy for a conversation or something.
It was enough to make him smile, and he wasn’t even doing anything.
That smile, though, fell as the entered their destination. The special needs children. Some of them had birth defects that required constant care. Some of them would never have a mentality above five years old, if that. Most of those had been abandoned outside the Orphanage. Some had just been abandoned by parents who couldn’t bring themselves to end their child’s suffering directly.
But even those paled in comparison to the blanks. Many of them weren’t even children anymore. People who were alive during Gold Morning whose minds couldn’t handle it. They had collapsed internally; some of them able to mill about without any personality, and others unable to even feed themselves. Every year, they got one or two new blanks in, knowing that those would never leave their care.
As they moved through the special needs wing, Tony’s easy smile didn’t falter for a moment. He greeted another teen with down’s syndrome, pausing just long enough for the girl to respond before moving on. Another greeting to a blank that was slowly shuffling down the halls, offering words of encouragement that the boy probably couldn’t even hear.
There was a part of Stan, a part that he’d never admit to aloud, that wished that the special needs wing were to be separate from the main housing.
But that thought made him realize something else. They were awfully close to the main housing now. “You brought us all the way through this area on purpose.”
“Yup!” Tony flashed him a wild-eyed smile that reminded him of John Astin somehow. “But if you’re clever enough to figure that out, you’re clever enough to figure out why.”
Before Stan had a chance to respond, though, the teen’s smile dropped, replaced instantly by a serious expression. “The rules. No touching from behind, no loud noises. As to why you’re here, tell both the truth and a lie. He’ll see through the lie, but he’ll appreciate it. The truth will keep the bitterness from rising. That’s bad to let happen, believe me. You’ll never know it, but it’ll make things worse for him in the long run — he punishes himself for negative thoughts.”
He was avoiding the subject, but Stan could take a hint. “I understand.” He didn’t, not really, but he’d volunteered, and now he had to go through with it.
Instantly, the smile came back. How much of the sudden change was real, and how much was an act? It was hard to say. “Right! Here we go!”
He turned suddenly, walking through a door they almost passed. “Oioi!” the teen said cheerfully. “We got company until dinner!”
Stan stepped inside, suddenly feeling an air of trepidation. The room was plenty big, though an unusual shape. It was more like an L than a normal room. A table sat by the window, one chair already occupied. Like many rooms inside the Orphanage, it had potted plants, pictures on the walls made by students, as well as bookshelves and other crafts made here. Given that it was still technically the special needs wing, though, he could see that there was nothing immediately dangerous in the room.
The briefings he’d been given, however, warned him that immediately dangerous didn’t mean anything. David suffered from chronic PTSD and bouts of paranoia, combined with a constant hyper-analysis that could wear him out easily. The first thing that he looked for when he entered a room were threats to his person, followed by ways out and possible weapons that he could use in his defense. And that he could list off creative uses for even a newspaper to kill someone in the same tone one would order a salad.
Not that they thought he would resort to violence as anything but a last resort. He froze up easily and tended to break down catastrophically. Even with the admittedly limited medication he was given and the constant therapy, it was generally assumed that he’d never be well. Fortunately, unless he had a reason for sticking around, his flight response was solid. When Stan had been warned that the room was on the third floor, he’d been told that David had chosen this room so that he could go out the window and survive.
Stan closed the door and crossed into the room. “Hello, David,” he said in a calm tone. “I’m Stan Simmons, Tony’s Parahuman Ethics instructor.”
There was a pause before the boy stood, and another before he offered his hand. He looked Stan directly in the eye, unblinking. It was hard to tell if the tiny smile made it more or less unnerving. “What brings you with him?”
Stan took the hand in a quick, gentle shake. They both were happy to have it done with as quickly as possible. “We know that your mother’s birthday is coming up, followed by your own. You tend to have more difficulties during that time, so they wanted someone to get you used to having people trail you again so that we can help if you need it.”
David’s smile grew a little wider, and he looked down a bit. “Yeah, it’s about the time of year that you all do that, isn’t it?”
Tony had said to lie, but the best lies were based in truth. “That and Tony is having trouble in a few classes, and has let us know that he’s finally accepting some tutoring from you. I was hoping to see you in action so that I could give you some tips. Other than, of course, getting him to do his homework.”
“Awww, teach.” Tony rolled his eyes as he began to dump his pack out on the table.
David was withdrawing, his show of normalcy fading fast. He reached up to brush the shaggy hair away from his face with a small, shy smile. Unfortunately, it made his sleeve lift, giving Stan a quick glimpse of the scars there. Who knew how many were actually self-inflicted and how many weren’t. “If we both harp on his about it, maybe he’ll get it done this year.”
“Hey.” Tony pointed at the two of them with his pinky and thumb. “You two are guys, so you can’t be harpies. It’s ride my ass about it, get it right.”
David smirked a little before hesitantly pointing to the corner of the L. Almost immediately, he was drawing his arm back close to his chest. “I, I set up a table over there for you. So that you can work and observe without worrying about us seeing you grade papers and stuff.”
Gauging by the marks on the floor, the table that Tony and David were using had been placed there originally. As Stan drew close, he could understand why. It had a small alcove, letting whomever sat in it be hidden from view unless you moved all the way in. Perfect for hiding and letting Tony be the focus of people’s attention.
It was a nice gesture, but Stan wasn’t sure if it would help the boy’s headspace when reminders of the pain he’d gone through drew close. He’d have to ask the shrinks later. Instead, he settled down in what he guessed was David’s spot so he could watch the two boys. “Thank you.”
Tony settled down next to David, giving Stan a clear view of both of them. Smart kid. “Whatcha workin’ on?”
“Brane cosmology and how it might interact with multiverse cosmology,” David said more confidently. Funny how he was, arguably, one of the five smartest people here in the Orphanage, and he wasn’t even triggered. “I’m focusing on how it might affect the energy requirements in order to pierce dimensional barriers.” He looked at Tony’s blank expression. “I’m trying to see if it’s even theoretically possible to understand the energy requirement to cross realities, and if so, if we can make the tinker gadgets need less energy.”
“Oooooh.” Tony nodded slowly. “I actually understood some of those words. Okay, tell you what, I gotta do some reading, you do that, then we’ll work on my homework, okay?”
“Rachel…. uh… Rachel… Quast?”
“Lindt,” David corrected.
They’d been at this sort of thing for over an hour now, and despite all evidence of the contrary, they were making excellent progress. David seemed to know just where Tony would have problems, and forced him to address them.
“Right, right. Now runs the Sons of Bitch.” Tony paused to snicker a little at the name. “And last but definately not least Skitter, AKA Taylor Hebert. Control over bugs and related creatures. When she stopped being the chief criminal overlord of Brockton Bay, she became the hero Weaver for the Chicago Wards. Mostly so she could build a larger force to take on the Slaughterhouse 9. After Scion’s betrayal… That’s a stupid name for it. He wasn’t human, he was never actually on the side of humanity, so why is it called a betrayal?”
David frowned a little. “Because he had helped humanity to try and overcome his listlessness after losing his partner. Focus.”
Tony sighed. “Right, right. After Scion’s betrayal, she had her brain jimmied by Pancea, which was kinda dumb all things considered, but she had it jimmied to improve her powers to the point where she could control humans, at the cost of her sanity and a bunch of other junk. We call her Khepri, so not to insult the sacrifices she made. Anyway, if I remember right, that’s the last of the Undersiders.”
David nodded. “Okay, that’s all of the important gangs of Brockton Bay and their prominent members. We’ll do it again tomorrow, and if you can keep it up, you should be good for the history test. Now let’s touch on geography.”
Tony had sprawled out on the table a half hour ago, but now he let his arm dangle off of it limply. “Oh, come on! The US government was destroyed, and only a handful of places still hold onto it. Faded glory and all that shit. Why do I gotta learn all that?”
The sound of the doorknob echoed throughout the room. Before Stan heard the hinges squeak, Tony was already off the desk and sitting in his chair, feet on the table as if he were relaxing. David tensed and ducked his head, but didn’t have any other outward signs.
“Oh,” a girl’s voice said. “S-sorry, I-”
“You’re good,” Tony said cheerfully. “Come on in, come on in! Pull up a chair! Please, I insist.” Stan could see him mouth the words Save me.
A moment later, the door closed and the source of the voice came into view. A few years younger than the boys, dark hair, and too heavy of clothes for this time of year in Gimmel. Either she was a newcomer, a new student, or someone who clung to the past too much. Stan wished he could see her face to see if he could place her, but from his angle he could only see her from behind as she slowly approached the desk.
“I don’t wanna…” She trailed off, words failing her.
“You aren’t interrupting anything,” the boy reassured her. “Just some studying and fooling about. Honest.”
David rose to his feet suddenly, arms close to his chest. “I’ll get us some sodas.”
Stan opened his mouth, but Tony flashed him a negative gesture without looking. “Black cherry, if we have any left. What would you like, hon?”
“Uh…” The girl paused a moment, unsure of how to respond. “Root beer?”
David nodded wordlessly before heading to the door. Tony subtly waved his hand at Stan again. What was he, or both of them, up to?
There was a long silence after the door closed before Tony spoke up again. “So, what brings you to our little hideaway?”
“Oh.” The girl shifted a little in the seat she had taken. “I, uh… It’s quiet here.”
“Mmm.” Tony nodded, his feet still on the table. “Yeah. Just a heads up, though, you’re in the area of the building for people with, you know, problems, yeah? So, uh… Probably best not to go too deep in. They tell me it gets depressing.” He rolled his eyes dramatically.
“I didn’t know.”
“Hey, it’s cool.” He leaned forward to tap the table with a finger. “If nobody told ya, how’re you supposed to know, yeah?” He spread his arms and grinned as he leaned back. “No stress.”
“Thanks,” she murmured. There was a long pause before she spoke again. “Um, can… can I ask you a question?”
“Sure! Think of me as the world’s lazies welcoming committee! I’ll answer whatever ya got!”
She seemed to relax, but only a little. “How did, uh… What happened to you?”
“Oh, this?” He lifted his right hand, forcing both her and Stan to look at it. It looked like a normal hand, if one ignored the red color and slightly odd shape of it. “Yeah, I’m triggered. Anyway, a wildling decided to take my hand, so I turned a wildling into a new one for myself. I wish I could do it for others, you know, guys with physical disabilities and stuff, but it doesn’t work so good. I couldn’t get the color or shape right, either, but meh. It happens. I’m just glad that it taps into my nervous system and blood stream so it works pretty much like my old one.”
“Okay.” She nodded a little. “But, um… I meant, how you came here?”
“Oh,” Tony said slowly, waving his hand as if it was nothing. Stan had to admit, the teen was doing a damn good job at keeping her at ease with his attitude.
“Just a fair warning, some folks don’t like to be reminded of that. They’re trying to push ahead with their lives, but I’m cool, at peace with it. Still hurts sometimes, but I gotta keep living, you know?”
“I’m sorry,” the girl said quickly. “I didn’t mean to-”
“Bah, quit worryin’ girl! It’s like I said, I’m cool with it. Anyway, I’m here because I coughed.”
Though he couldn’t see it, Stan could easily imagine that the girl’s expression matched his own: complete confusion.
Tony just grinned. “I get that look a lot.” He sobered again. “Nah, see, my folks, they were homesteaders on Earth Bet, out in… I think it’s the Carolinas? I dunno, geography ain’t my thing. Anyway, we had a farm. One summer, they both got hella sick. I was… Six, seven? Time isn’t my thing, either. Anyway, they were bedridden, and I was doing the best I could for them, but I was just a kid, right? When they can’t even cook, there isn’t a lot that a seven year old can do.
“So, they knew that if they didn’t get better, their time was short. But they weren’t getting better. Real sick like. And then, one day, I got this cough.” He shrugged, as if it was nothing. “My dad, he didn’t want me to starve to death, so he decided to use his powers to, you know, make sure that I didn’t suffer. The moment his hand started to glow, he had to charge up, you know? But the moment his hand started to glow, I guess I figured out what was happening and triggered.
“Next thing I know, he’s gone and I’m wearing some funky armor.”
“What happened to him?” she asked.
“I triggered,” Tony repeated. After a moment, he clarified. “The same way I made my hand. I used my power on him and killed him to make armor.”
Her eyes went wide. “That’s terrible!”
“It is,” he said solemnly. “And somehow, I kinda knew what I’d done. But my mom… She looked at me and said it was alright. Between coughs, she told me that she loved me, and that I should do it to her too, then find someone to give me medicine. Her thinker power musta told her a bit about how my power worked. I didn’t want to do it, but… Well, I guess I’d known she was dying for a while.
“I think my power must have filtered out whatever made me cough, though, because by the time I finally made my way to town, never was good at orienteering and took the wrong road, but I was fine. Starving, but fine. And so…” He smiled brightly. “Here I am!”
She was silent for a moment. “I’m sorry.”
“Thank you,” Tony said with a strange sincerity to his voice. “It’s something that I had to live with, and something that I’ve come to peace with. A good parent will die for their children, and I had at least one excellent parent, I guess.”
He tilted his head a little. “Do you want to talk about how you came here?” he asked tenderly.
There was a pause before she shook her head, her long black hair flowing. “No. I’m good.”
As if on cue, Stan heard the door open. David had apparently returned. This was… kind of frightening. Did they have this planned out? That if this sort of situation came up, they’d do this? The timing was too perfect to be coincidence. But at the same time… David might be a genius, but Tony was only fourteen, almost fifteen. How?
Tony let out a joyful keening noise, causing the girl to keep focused on him. David took the opportunity to slip Stan a glass bottle of cream soda before walking back around to the table with three root beers. “Sorry it took me so long, but I ran into Mandy and had to play it cool to hide from her what I was doing. She asked about you, though. If you had a date for the dance.”
Tony groaned. “She’s probably going with Jeff Dickinson. What a dick. Though it’s getting a little annoying that everybody’s asking me if I’m going, though.”
“Dance?” the girl asked.
“The school year’s just starting,” David said quietly. “We have four formal dances throughout the school year, six non-formal dances, and then three of each during the summer break. You don’t need a date to go, but-”
“Oh my god,” Tony interrupted. He quickly placed his hands over his mouth, suddenly squirming with glee. “Oh my god oh my god oh my god! David! Oh my god! We can get her a fancy dress!”
Now David’s eyes lit up a little. “Can I help pick it out?”
Both boys made a gesture that could only be described as silent glee. David had an interest in fashion? Stan… never would have seen that coming.
“Uh,” the girl started, but Tony cut her off quick.
“No, no. Tomorrow, we’re hunting you down, and you’re getting a dress ASAP. Or something fancy and nice looking. It’s free, since we’re orphans. We’re gonna make you look awesome, even if you don’t go to the dance. It’s gonna be glorious!”
David was snickering at his friend’s excitement. Quickly, he laid a gentle hand on Tony’s arm. “Um, sorry to interrupt, but I’m pretty sure Mandy has a date.”
“What?” Tony scrunched up his face before adjusting his glasses. “Bullshit. I know Jeff has eyes on her, and she’d be a fuckin’ idjit for not going with him. He’d give her, like, five orgasms before he talked her out of the dress.”
David’s face fell flat. “Tony. Buddy? Please think for a moment.” When Tony just fixed him with a blank stare, dropping his feet from the table, the shorter boy sighed. “She’s single. Has been since the trip. She talked you into taking pre-calc with her. She’s constantly asking me about you.”
When Tony still didn’t respond, he shook his head. “Dude, she’s hoping you’ll ask her out. Go, please, while she’s still in the quad.”
It took a moment for Tony to respond, rising to his feet slowly and handing David his unopened root beer. “Excuse me,” he said in a strangely detached voice. “I hope none of you mind, but I need to go make a spectacular fool of myself. Please lift your drink.”
As soon as the girl did, the gangly boy literally vaulted the table and scrambled for the door, a litany of swear words escaping him. He slammed it hard enough to make David wince and stay tensed up for a moment. It didn’t last, thankfully. By the time that the girl looked back to him, David was already looking directly at Stan, gesturing towards the door. “And he’s the social one. Do you see what I have to work with here?”
As Stan began to chuckle, the girl slowly turned to look at him, finally noticing him for the first time. The deep blush that came to her cheeks only made him laugh all the harder.
Everything was a little bit better when kids were finally acting like kids and the world was making sense again.