Masks 13: Chapter Twenty-One
Not surprisingly, the whole campus we still in a slowly diminishing uproar hours later. Those who had actually been at the scene of the fight were especially affected by the excitement. Though one of them for reasons not immediately obvious.
"This is so weird," said Vic, a bit frightened, as she sat on her bed, rocking back and forth a bit. "Standing there, with Cosmic Ray, talking to him, I was feeling all those girly things from the romances. I even felt my heart flutter."
"Well, he's tall, handsome and a hero," said Alex, laughing. "What's not to love?"
"He's dating someone who can juggle anvils."
"Point," said Alex, deliberately imitating Vic. "Listen, I know this is upsetting to you, but so much of sex is biological that you feeling attracted to guys may be inevitable. Unless you want to lock yourself away and be a hermit."
She saw that Vic wasn't at all comforted by this. She moved over to sit beside her roommate, putting an arm around her shoulder.
"Listen, you think there haven't been times I wished I wasn't queer? Biology isn't destiny but it sure as Hell has a strong influence."
"You're not helping," said Vic.
"Okay, okay. Let's take a mental step back and try to be objective, here. What, exactly, were you feeling towards Cosmic Ray? For that matter, what are you feeling towards Boyd?"
"Uhm, Cosmic Ray. He's close to my age but enough older to have made a name for himself. He's, yes, handsome and in very good shape. He's a hero, like you said. He treated me like a person... Like a valuable person. Complimented me even while he was criticizing me. He..."
"You know what I'm hearing?" said Alex, as Vic paused to think. "Nothing sexual. I think you just have a case of hero worship."
"Buh?" said Vic, startled.
"He's certainly an admirable person, but you're describing him a lot like I would. Not like someone who was in lust with him."
"You... think so?" said Vic, not quite convinced but getting there.
"What about Boyd?"
"Uh," said Vic, shifting mental gears. "He's... really nice to me. He's a good listener. He's funny, he's smart, he likes a lot of the things I do. He... makes me feel... comfortable."
"Again, I'm not hearing anything sexual," said Alex, thoughtfully. She looked at Vic. "You know what I think? You've really been through the wringer the past few months. You've handled it very, very well, but that doesn't mean you can't use some comforting every now and then. I think what you're feeling towards Boyd is - if you'll pardon the expression - girly affection towards a sympathetic ear."
"I... that... but..."
"I think you have a variation on medical student's disease," said Alex, with a smirk. "You're so worried that you'll start liking guys that you're interpreting other - though admittedly related - sensations as that."
"You think so?" said Vic, startled.
"Listen, if he wants to fuck you, give it a try, at least once," said Alex, with a shrug. "I mean, if you think you want to; I'm not saying you should force yourself. Do it if the mood seems right. You're both adults, and as long as you use protection there's no harm, right? If you like it, keep doing it. If you don't.."
"Try to break it to him gently."
"That is very good advice," said Vic. She laughed. "I'd feel better about it if it came from someone else."
* * *
At about the same time, Doro and Cosmic Ray were waiting at the hospital for word of how the injured team members were doing. Doro was idly leafing through magazines, while Ray passed the time working on his palmtop, searching for information about Vic.
"You know who she reminds me of?" said Ray, finally putting his little computer away. "The way she moves, almost like she's dancing through the fight. As well as her sense of responsibility."
"Champion," said Doro, nodding. She glanced at Ray. "You think that's a coincidence?"
"I don't know what to think. According to her history, she was transformed and got her powers several weeks after the keep was destroyed. We know that let something lose which grabbed Paul. I'm wondering what else was released then. They're still finding mysterious stuff, there."
"Yeah, and keeping the details of what they're finding to themselves," said Doro, scowling. She shrugged. "What can we do? Yeah, we're federal agents, but that's UN business."
"It's UN business being handled by supers," said Ray, sourly. "You'd think there'd be more info through the grapevine."
"After what happened, and with the Shilmek maybe invading soon, you can't blame them for keeping things quiet."
"Sure I can," said Ray, with a grin. That faded, and he sighed. "Well, I don't, actually. I'm just worried."
"You know what I think?" said Doro. "We need to get a copy of that gal's DNA data."
"Good idea. In fact, I'll call right now and ask legal to get started on acquiring it. If our supervisor asks, we're thinking about recruiting her."
"We should do that regardless," said Doro, firmly. She shook her head and gave a rueful laugh. "That girl has a lot of potential. You saw what she can do, at her age with just a few years training. She's potentially a very valuable resource. Also, if she did get something from that keep..."
"She needs watching," said Ray, nodding.
* * *
Others were also working late that evening, over the same matters.
"I hate this," said Rokuro, snarling as he paced back and forth behind his huge desk. The lights of the city could be seen through the even wider, panoramic window in the office wall beyond him. "Why must the unexpected be so unpredictable?!"
Pacing was a good sign. That meant he was actually trying to work things out. Something his immediate subordinates knew, and which one of them occasionally took advantage of.
"Quantum mechanics," said Sam, absently. "Wait, was that a rhetorical question?"
"Some day your sense of humor will get you in serious trouble," said Rokuro, giving him a glare. "Well, at least this gives us more data on her capabilities. Frankly, considering her poor performance at that accident I was ready to forget her. After this, though..."
"Move her up a step?" said Banpresto.
"Two steps," said Rokuro, thoughtfully. "Also, prepare for an active evaluation, Class Three. Hold off on it, though, for now. The feds are still paying too much attention to the college. Damned bigots..."
The others nodded and started to leave. Rokuro stopped them.
"Vince, I want you to find out who instigated this, and make sure they are never able to do so again. In fact, I want all members of whatever groups were involved to be put in positions where it will be a long time before any of them can cause trouble, for supers or anyone else. Feel free to be creative, as well as arranging for law enforcement to feel accomplished afterwards, if feasible. No reason to present them with a reason for further investigation."
"On it, boss," said Banpresto, with a nasty smile.
* * *
Vic entered the gym for the usual pre-class preparation, but knew this was not a usual situation as soon as she saw Trujillo's face.
"What's up?" said Vic, frowning, as she walked to her instructor.
"Vic... I have a suspicion," said Trujillo. He cleared his throat uneasily. "I suspect part of the reason for your enthusiasm to jump in and save those hostages is that you're enjoying the mood lift you get from these situations."
"I won't deny it," said Vic, unconcerned. "My primary motivation was helping the hostages, though. I could see they were hurt. I could tell the bad guys didn't know I was there. I planned my first couple of moves ahead of time, and then just let my training take over."
"You still jumped into a dangerous situation without considering whether you actually should have," said Trujillo, sternly. "Fortunately, this time things worked out well."
"It's..." She frowned. "It's odd, but it was if I could see how everything would work out."
"Was that a power at work, acute tactical awareness, or simply overconfidence?"
"I hadn't thought about that," said Vic, startled. "That it might be a power, I mean. Dr. Feldman did say he saw signs of either heightened senses of some sort or an actual perception power."
"I didn't know that," said Trujillo. "Even if it's true, that doesn't change my concern."
"Uh, which is?"
"That you might become an action junkie. That you would seek the adrenalin rush to help lift your mood."
"I don't think that's what I'm doing," said Vic, obviously uncomfortable.
"Listen. This is just a suggestion, but one I want you to take seriously. This school offers free counseling services to students."
"Ugh," said Vic, with a shudder. "Sorry. I know they do good work, and all, but my whole family really doesn't like psychologists, psychiatrists and counselors."
"Wait... Are you saying you haven't had any sort of professional counseling since your change?!"
"Well, no," said Vic, suddenly feeling vaguely embarrassed.
Trujillo's face and posture went through an interesting series of changes. Finally settling on determination.
"Okay. I'm not going to judge. I'm not going to preach. I am going to strongly recommend. See a counselor."
"I don't..." said Vic, trying to pass the advice off.
"See a counselor. Now, let's get ready for class."
"So, you think she's a potential recruit for the Bureau?" said Brade, after Doro and Ray made their report.
They were in her office, in the administration building where the agency was based, out in the wilds of southwestern Maryland.
"Oh, yeah," said Ray, nodding. "She has both the ability and the attitude."
"That's what worries me. I don't know if you're aware of how much development the human brain goes through from about twelve to about twenty-five. Simply put, most people aren't fully mature until their mid-twenties."
"Well, she is pretty impulsive," said Doro, with a laugh. "However, as she gets older... Oh."
"Huh?" said Ray. Then he got it. "Oh, right. She's a regenerator. She's actually a bit younger physiologically now than before her powers activated."
"There are times I'm very glad my own regeneration keeps me in my late twenties," said Brade, nodding. "However, regeneration is tricky. I remember the experts saying that some folks who have it continue to develop neurologically, even when their overall physiologies remain teenage or even juvenile. Meanwhile, others continually refresh their brains to a pre-maturity state."
"Can they tell this ahead of time," said Doro, frowning in thought, "or will we have to wait five or ten years to find out if her brain is maturing?"
"I'll check into that," said Brade, nodding. She grinned. "I mean, I'll have someone check into it. Gotta keep reminding myself I'm the boss, now. However, the main problem with a teenage brain is not that it makes kids oblivious to danger, but that it causes them to give more emphasis to the benefits than the dangers of risk. Also, people mature in different ways, at different rates even within each way. So even if her brain remains sixteen, we might still use her."
* * *
"Hold on," said Alex, later. "I thought your sister was a psych major."
"She still hasn't made up her mind what to major in," said Vic, rolling her eyes.
"So what's this about your family not liking psychologists?!"
"Uh, well, we are all kind'a uncomfortable about using them," said Vic, uneasily.
"Yet your sister is studying psychology," said Alex, persistently.
"Okay, yeah, I kind'a exaggerated," Vic admitted.
"You mean you lied to a teacher. A teacher you like."
"What do you want from me?" said Vic, almost whining.
"First, tell Mr. Trujillo what you just admitted to me," said Alex, firmly, pointing a stern finger at her roommate. "Second, make an appointment with a school counselor."
The younger, smaller girl folded her arms across her chest and glared at Vic. Who swallowed nervously.
"All right," she said, finally, lowering her gaze.
* * *
On top of everything else, then, Vic soon found herself seeing a school psychologist twice a week. She didn't mention this to her parents, but did write her sister about it. Joline was carefully optimistic, and very supportive. She actually seemed to be embracing psychology as her own field of study.
While Vic - somewhat grudgingly - soon admitted that the therapy was helping, she actually found the less emotionally draining examinations performed by Dr. Feldman to be more rewarding and more intriguing.
"We definitely have signs of some sort of extra-sensory perception," he said, less than a week after the fight in the old parking lot. "Unfortunately, this is nothing as clear cut as remote viewing or telepathy."
He rested his elbows on his desk and his chin on the overlapped backs of his hands, considering Vic and her situation.
"Vicky, I remember you mentioning something about your family being lucky."
"Yes," said Vic, nodding. "The Foley family luck... That's my Mother's maiden name. Before we knew I had active powers that's what my sister attributed my survival of the wreck to."
"As I have noted before, probability manipulation often expresses itself as luck. In the tests we ran you showed no effect on probability in straight, non-reward, non-penalty tests. However, when we paid you for each success - even a trivial amount - there was a small but distinct shift in your favor."
"Yeah," said Vic, smiling and nodding. "That was fun. Though I'm still not going to let Don test that by backing me in a poker game."
Dr. Feldman sat back in his chair, nodding to Vic.
"Good for you. Don has the sorts of blind spots typical of many gadgeteers and masterminds. Anyway, besides that luck - which is both pretty minor and relatively straightforward - there also seems to be something else going on. The tests don't really give any clear results, but combined with what you've told me about other events in your life it seems familiar. However, I've only heard of it as a magical talent before."
"Magical?" said Vic, startled.
"Well, in the cases with which I'm familiar it was caused by magic, but the ability itself isn't magical. Therefore, it could also easily be psionic or the result of a previously unknown form of probability manipulation."
"Why is everything about my powers unheard of, unknown, or a mystery?" said Vic, in a stage mutter.
"Well, that I couldn't say," said Dr. Feldman, with a grin. "The ability I am referring to is known by several names. My preferred term is 'Special Talent.' It simply means someone has a talent for something above and beyond what simple intelligence and training could provide. Like Bobby Fischer had for chess, or Einstein and Tesla for visualizing physics."
"Now it sounds like you're trying to flatter me."
"You think that's flattering? Your particular application may also be what Alexander the Great had. As well as Francis Augereau - better known as Le Rapière Rouge - had."
"Wow," said Vic, startled.
"In your case, I think - as do most of the staff, after long and sometimes heated discussion - that your Special Talent is combat."
* * *
"Now that is interesting," said Rokuro, thoughtfully stroking his chin, after receiving the report. "Something very much worth cultivating and applying."
"She doesn't seem like she'd go the mercenary route," said Sam. "Too idealistic, too moral."
"True. She has shown great resistance to any sort of substantial shift in her psyche or her world view. However, I can easily see her being interested in certain fields of law enforcement."
"Oh, yeah," said Banpresto, nodding. "Her willingness to jump in to help people in trouble definitely supports that."
"Well, scout fees aren't a major source of income," said Rokuro, with a shrug. "At least for legal institutions. However, the brownie points we'd earn by recruiting her for - as one example - the Bureau of Special Resources have a value all their own."
"You still want to run that encounter test?" said Sam.
"Yes. Not yet, though. Soon."
* * *
"Why are you making such a fuss?" said Vic, as she watched Candy primp in her room's mirror. "It's just a party."
"You never see Guardsman with a single hair out of place," said Candy, fussing at the mirror.
"He wears a cowl," said Vic, rolling her eyes. "You can't even see his hair."
"Exactly! Since you can see my hair, it has to be perfect!"
"Give up, Vic," said Melanie, laughing. "Fashion logic has rules all its own. Like angels dancing on the head of a pin."
"Aren't you going?" said Candy, who was either finally satisfied or had decided her time would be better spent focusing on some other aspect of her appearance.
"I'm... not really sure," said Vic.
"Oh, come on!" said Melanie, who halted her own preparations to look at Vic. "You told Boyd you'd be there!"
"That's what has me uneasy," said Vic, admitting aloud what she was worried about. "Something tells me he's going to make his play tonight."
"If you don't want to have sex with him, just say no," said Candy, as if reciting something.
"Leaving him hanging is just plain bad manners," said Melanie, firmly. "Either call right now and tell him you're not going, or go. Don't stand him up."
"You're right," said Vic. With sudden determination, she nodded and stood. Then wavered. "Oh, God... what am I going to wear?!"
Both the other girls broke out laughing.
"No, seriously. I've never... I don't even have..."
"Look, it's casual," said Candy. "I'm just dressing up because I like dressing up. Though you should definitely wear something better than those clothes you're bumming around in now."
The party was held in one of the smaller function rooms in the main classroom building. Tom Sievers - a Sophomore several of them knew - was celebrating his girlfriend's birthday by throwing her a party. Both had invited several of their friends, enough that the room was actually a bit crowded. That didn't stop half those in there from stopping and staring when Vic entered.
Seeing that reaction, Vic hesitated... froze, actually. She almost bolted. However, Alex overcame her astonishment quickly, and hurried over to drag Vic into the room.
"Where did you get that dress?!" she whispered, as she guided Vic over to where Boyd was standing, staring, at the punchbowl.
"In the replacement care package my Mother sent," said Vic.
It wasn't a spectacular dress. In fact, it was a simple, flower print dress which revealed only the barest hint of cleavage. Vic definitely wasn't the best-dressed girl at the ball. However, for those who knew her, seeing Vic in a dress of any kind - much less also wearing a modest amount of makeup - was startling.
"Wow," said Boyd, when Vic stopped to pose for him. "You look... stunning."
His reaction seemed both honest and flattering.
"Thanks," said Vic, blushing. She moved in close to him. Not to flirt, but for comfort. "I feel very exposed just now."
"Relax," said Boyd, quietly, as he put an arm over her shoulder. "You'll get used to it soon. Now, would you like some punch?"
"Only if you can guarantee it hasn't been spiked," said Vic, fervently.
"What do you think this is?" said Boyd, grinning. "High school?"
Boyd was right. The other attendees - whether through short attention span or good manners - quickly turned their attentions elsewhere. After sipping her punch for a while, Vic allowed Boyd to persuade her to dance. Vic had never been much for dancing, but her martial arts training helped her move smoothly even when she didn't know exactly what she was doing. However, she soon began feeling increasingly uncomfortable.
"Do you mind if we sneak out early?" she said, quietly, into Boyd's ear, between dances.
"Yeah. Let's go for a walk."
They left both the party and the building, walking among the lights and shadows of the center of the campus at night. As Vic had predicted, Boyd began putting this hands in places he hadn't before. She found herself... stimulated. As well as confused about exactly what she was experiencing. Was her arousal due simply to the physical contact? Or was being with Boyd actually turning her on? She decided to push things further. She had to know.
"Over here," she said, quietly, guiding them off the path and into deep shadows.
Boyd was obviously excited... as was Vic. She turned to face him, and was not in the least surprised when he kissed her. Nor was she surprised when she kissed him back.
They kissed again. Soon, they were doing a lot more than kissing.
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