Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Rivalries: Chapter Nineteen: Part Two

 Notes: Hey darlins! More Rivalries for you, yay! A boom we've all been waiting to drop has, well, dropped. What will come of it? We'll find out soon!

Title: Rivalries: Chapter Nineteen, Part Two


Chapter Nineteen, Part Two


Charlie was almost to the gymnasium when Principal Cross came out from a side hall to block his path, standing her ground like a human-shaped icicle and wearing a small smirk on her face. “I was hoping to catch you before you went in,” she said in as close to a pleasant tone as she could probably manage.


Her smile deepened. “I thought you might like to know that Colonel Applegate has filed a formal request for a demonstration duel with you.”

And there it is.

That had happened faster than Charlie thought it would, and of course today was the perfect day to lay it on him, when he was already irritated to hell at her for what she’d helped that Patterson woman get away with this morning.

Principal Cross continued, “Knowing how strongly you feel about following proper channels for this sort of thing, I sent the request on to the superintendent, who agreed that it would be an excellent teachable moment for all the students at this school.”

AKA, I already went so far up the chain of command you can’t work around me. Check.

“So it will be held outside in the baseball field next week,” she finished. “That way everyone can watch.”

Wait…everyone? “You’re talking about turning the colonel and I out for your students like this is some kind of Roman circus?”

“Not at all,” she replied. “I’m trying to solve a problem that you made for me, Mr. Verlaine. A problem of equality. Euryale students want to see what you can do; this is the perfect opportunity for them to do just that. Colonel Applegate has been very agreeable about the whole thing; he’s a charming man, and seems very interested in…testing your skills.”

I’ll bet he does. Charlie frowned. Principal Cross was clearly expecting him to take a pounding, thereby demonstrating to her students—and possibly to their agitated parents—that there was nothing for them to be envious of. And Charlie knew guys like Applegate; he wouldn’t be so cocky if he didn’t have the skills to back it up, unlike some of his students. It was entirely possible that Charlie would get his ass handed to him.

Technically though, the principal couldn’t make him do this due to his medical status. If he wanted to, he could turn this situation on its head by bringing up the fact that he was, in fact, not prepared for a standard duel due to his continued rehabilitation. He could remind her that if she tried to force or intimidate him into doing it, he could sue her for not complying with the ADA. Fuck getting a doctor’s note—he might be able to get the damn general staff on his side for this kind of disrespect, and the idea was compelling. But…

She’ll go after John. Charlie knew she would, knew it like he could see right into that vindictive, viperish head of hers. She was already inclined to make trouble for John thanks to his involvement with Roland, and Charlie didn’t want to give her any more reason to speed things up.

“So?” Principal Cross prodded him after the silence began to stretch. “Can I inform the Colonel that you’ll be accepting the duel for next week, or should I let him know that you’re simply not equal to the task?”

Charlie wasn’t about to let her see him as anything less than perfectly confident. He smiled, sharp and toothy. “Sounds like fun. You’d better rustle up a few more Shields to protect the stands, though.”

She raised one eyebrow. “Oh? You have doubts about your control?”

Charlie laughed. “Wow, you don’t know much about formal duels like this.”

Principal Cross’s smile faded completely away. “I don’t know what you’re referring to, but I assure you I’ve seen plenty of demonstration duels.”

“Not between physical knacks, I assume.” I know. “It’s a legal requirement to have Shields, or some other mechanism, in place to protect observers. And they need to be certified, so I hope you’ve got extra money in the budget to pay them. The best ones require you to cover all travel expenses in addition to their hourly rate.”

Now she actually looked a little worried. “There must be some around here who would volunteer their services…retired military personnel, or—”

“That’s your problem,” Charlie interrupted. “But without them in place, I’m not dueling. Speaking of which, I’m running late for my club now, so…” He moved to walk around her and she didn’t stop him, although the daggers in her eyes were almost sharp enough to cut.

Fuck his life, but he would take his entertainment where he could get it.

John was at dueling club, but he was in the stands talking fervently to a downcast Roland, and Charlie didn’t think now was the right time to interfere. Besides, he really did have a bunch of kids waiting on him, as well as Debra, who’d already separated them into groups.

Club went well—no one was injured, a few kids pulled some neat tricks off with their knacks, and Charlie was successfully able to put the incident with Principal Cross out of his mind for two solid hours before they called it quits. Once the kids had filed out, though—well, except for Roland—there was no point in putting off letting them know.

Charlie helped Debra put their equipment away, but asked her to wait as she moved toward the door. Roland’s foster mom had just picked him up, so it was only him and Debra and John in the cavernous room now.

“Is this about Roland?” John asked the second they were all in talking distance of one another. “Because I swear to god, I’m two seconds away from calling his caseworker and getting another meeting with the judge. If that woman thinks she can—”

“It’s not. I mean, we should talk about that,” Charlie added, “but no. This is about the fact that I’ve been roped into doing a demonstration duel with the other club’s teacher next week. Outside. For all the students to watch. Maybe their parents too.”

Debra and John both looked stunned. John got his breath back first.

“What the ever-fucking fuck?

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Rivalries: Chapter Nineteen, Part One

 Notes: We're back in Charlie's POV, out of that very nasty situation in the lab and into a very nasty situation at school. Damn, it's all nasty.

Title: Rivalries: Chapter Nineteen, Part One


Chapter Nineteen, Part One


Charlie was no stranger to early morning wakeup calls, but he didn’t like seeing John dragged into something he clearly didn’t like. It wasn’t Charlie’s place to tell him what to do about it, though—certainly wasn’t his place to say “Tell that horrible person to shove it where the sun don’t shine and come back to bed,” especially when he might get information that could help Ari.

Ari, who was leaving texts and occasional messages during the day now, strictly against his mother’s orders, but he sounded so miserable that Charlie didn’t say anything about it. Hell, maybe she knew. Maybe both of them ignoring it and giving her child this poor but better-than-nothing outlet for his affliction was all that was keeping the two of them sane.

They were going to make a trip out soon, within the next few weeks—ostensibly so Huda could start looking for homes in the area, but really so that Ari and Charlie could have some in-person time. That had helped before, given the boy the strength to go on even though he always looked like his heart was breaking when he left.

Ari had actually slipped up and called Charlie “Dad” last time. His mother had been mortified. It had to hurt, seeing her son fixate on a person who had no connection to them other than the fact that he’d been in the right place at the right time.

Charlie had saved Ari’s life, that was true. He’d been part of a team of people to do that, though, and his mother had orchestrated it, kicked up such a fuss that the State Department had insisted they get operational support from the best the army had to offer.

He’d just been a well-armed cog in the military machine, and now—hell, he thought, glancing at his right side as he made coffee—he wasn’t even all that “armed” any more. Hardly a healthy person for any kid to fixate on, much less one who belonged to an almost total stranger.

You’re being too hard on yourself. The voice of Charlie’s shoulder angel sounded a hell of a lot like John. Naturally. You were there when he needed you. You’re doing your best. We both are. We’ll figure it out. John was off doing that right now, working with those researchers on something dark and twisted and promising answers for Ari. The least Charlie could do was get to school on time.

He was actually a little bit late, which was the only reason he saw what he did as he pulled into the parking lot. There was Roland, one hand holding onto the strap of his backpack, the other pressed against the car behind him like if he pushed hard enough, it would open up and let him through. And in front of him was…

“Oh, hell no!” Charlie stopped John’s car in the middle of the lot, to a chorus of honks that he gave exactly zero fucks about, and ran over to Roland’s side as fast as he could get there. When the woman cornering the boy noticed Charlie coming, she withdrew a little bit. Roland moved behind Charlie’s back as soon as he could.

“Oh,” Mrs. Patterson said, her face a perfect, faintly smiling mask of upper-middle class, bland respectability. “You must be one of Roland’s new teachers.”

“I am,” or close enough, “and I know that you’re not allowed contact with him,” Charlie said through gritted teeth.

Her smile didn’t waver. “I haven’t touched him.”

“Speaking to him is contact.” It was all he could do not to shout. “What are you doing here anyway? You don’t have children, after all.”

The mask slipped a little bit. “I’m here to speak to a friend,” Mrs. Patterson said coolly. “I happened to see Roland and merely came over to ask how he was doing. I’m sure he’s had a number of big adjustments lately.”

“You would know, being the cause of most of them.” Charlie shook his head. “We’re done here. I’m reporting you to the principal, too. You can’t—”

“Oh, come now,” the voice that made Charlie’s blood pressure surge said from behind him. Roland made a soft, pained sound as Principal Cross stepped in front of them. She looked oddly satisfied. “This is hardly the sort of incident that merits tattling to me, Mr. Verlaine. Linda is a friend of mine and was simply coming by here to talk to me, as she already said.”

“You need to clarify to your friend how to avoid breaking the law,” Charlie insisted. “The ‘no contact’ rule includes random chats in parking lots.” His eyes shot daggers at Mrs. Patterson. “I wonder what the judge in charge of the case would have to say about this.”

“And how do you know so much about what should be a sealed file?” Principal Cross challenged, putting her hands on her hips. “Perhaps your counselor friend has been spilling secrets. Maybe I should have him brought up on an ethics charge.”

Charlie thought fast. “I was notified of these details by Roland’s case worker when his new foster parents decided to let him observe my after-school club while he waits for a pickup.” It was technically—very technically—true. The case worker had included Charlie in her discussion with Debra, but he doubted she even remembered it.

“Really? Shall I call her and ask about that?”

Gauntlet thrown. They were at an impasse. “I thing there are better ways for you to spend your time,” Charlie said at last.

“And you’re already late for class. I suggest you hurry up.” She glanced in the direction of his car. “And move that immediately.”

Charlie turned to look at Roland, who was glassy eyed. “Can you make it to class by yourself?” he asked quietly.

“I—I think I—” He finally nodded, but it wasn’t very believable. Welp, time to disobey an order from his principal. Hopefully the line of cars behind him wouldn’t get too long before—

“I’ll walk with him.”

All four of them turned around to look in surprise at Nanda, the girl with the weather knack. She had a pugnacious expression on her face, and the air around her head seemed oddly charged.

Principal Cross found her voice first. “You should be in class—”

“First period is study hall for me. Come on.” Nanda held out a hand to Roland, who took it eagerly. They walked away without a second glance.

Charlie wished he could do the same. He made do with ignoring the women he’d been on the verge of a shouting match with and going to move John’s car.

They were going to have a lot to talk about when John got in.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Rivalries: Chapter Eighteen, Part Two

 Notes: More Rivalries for you! Meet Katherine, she's a card.

Title: Rivalries: Chapter Eighteen, Part Two


Chapter Eighteen, Part Two


It was not a good day for John. It was an even worse day for the man on the operating table in front of him, barely held together with clips, ties, stitches, and tubes. His head was lightly covered, to provide more of a sense of anonymity, but it was a surface-level comfort only.

John grimaced. He was going to know way more than he wanted to about this man in a minute.

“No time to waste!” Katherine chirped, then took a long sip of the hot caramel macchiato John had brought her. “Mmm, so good,” she said with a beatific expression on her heart-shaped face. “Thank you, you’re the best. Now!” She set the drink down and pulled on a pair of nitrile gloves. “We’re going to need a full-on Flay for this one, I’m thinking.”

“Who is he?” John shook his head. “Wait, no, I mean—what did he do?”

“Well, he’s in this state because he was running from the cops, except when I say running I mean in a helicopter, and when I say cops I mean the DEA.” She sighed. “He’s implicated in a lot of illicit behavior, but the worst of it is human trafficking. The DEA agent who requested our assistance is working on a pretty tight timetable when it comes to locating a group of girls, and—”

“Oh my god.” Shit, this person was a modern-day slaver. John became simultaneously more determined to use the uncomfortable knack that was coming his way, and more reluctant to experience anything that was inside this guy’s head.

“Right, lord, such a messy business.” Katherine shook her head. “Now, as I was saying. Flay ought to bring out the details in layers, from newest to oldest. You shouldn’t have to go deeper than thirty-six hours to get the location the DEA is interested in. Anything else you pick up is, well…”

“Inadmissible in court.” Flay was one of the most invasive knacks out there, a mental ability that went beyond looking inside someone’s head, even beyond controlling them. Flay literally took a person’s memories apart, hour by hour, deconstructing and consuming them. Once they were gone, they were completely gone. Flayers were some of the most feared knacks in black ops, which was basically the only place the talent was ever used.

“But finding the girls will be a real feather in the cap of the DEA agent in charge of this operation, and it’s always nice to have people in high places owe you a favor,” Katherine went on, completely oblivious to being a fucking creep, as usual. “So. Thirty six hours, approximately one hour per minute. I’ll time you and bring you out of it if you don’t wake yourself up by then. Sound good? Here.” She pulled over a thousand-dollar ergonomic chair, just the thing for preventing back pain while you ripped someone’s mind apart.

John sat, and did his best to clear his mind. He hated using Flay; it felt like taking his own memories apart and replacing them with someone else’s, but that feeling didn’t last. He told himself that again and again as he brought the dark knack to the fore. It didn’t last. He was going to be all right.

Unlike this fucker.

John took the man’s hand, closed his eyes, and…

…going down…seatbelt, where’s the goddamn—

“—out of here! They’re coming in guns fucking blazing, man, we have to—”

--long drive back from the warehouse, but he likes to settle them in personally. It’s only a layover, they’ll be gone by Monday morning, but he enjoys watching them cry, seeing the—

Slap! She’s so young, and she takes his strike so well. Her cheek is already swelling, and the sound she makes as she tries to turn her face away is—

John forcibly pushed the knack out of his mind, throwing himself away from the table so hard he almost tipped the ergonomic chair over. “Jesus Christ,” he breathed, then coughed. His throat was so dry…

“Here you go!” A cup appeared in front of him, held out with a French-manicured hand. John drained the water, then handed it back to Katherine, who set it next to her coffee cup on the nearby desk. She looked at him expectantly. “So, that was a little faster than I thought it would be. Did you get anything useful?”

“A warehouse,” John croaked. “On…” Where was it again? “Eighty-Seventh and Pine, some sort of manufacturing district? I’m not sure what city…”

“That’s already very useful. What else?”

“Call about it now,” John snapped. “Right now, seriously. They’re going to be moved this morning, so if the DEA guy wants to find these girls before it’s too late, he’s got to get going.”

“All right, all right.” Katherine pulled a phone out of her lab coat pocket, and John took the time she spent talking to breathe and remember who he really was. Not a drug-running, human-trafficking rapist who enjoyed too many sick perversions to put names to. No, he was a counselor. A normal guy.

A normal guy with more knacks than most people know exist, so how normal does that really make you?

Shut up, brain.

“Good timing!” Katherine trilled as she ended the call. “It might not be too late! The agent was very grateful.” She glanced at the man on the table. “Now we can dispense with all of the life-saving efforts, I suppose.”

Part of John thought he should argue against that. That any life was precious, even when it belonged to a man like this. Most of him, though, wanted to grab the chair he was sitting in and smash it over this guy’s head until one of them broke, the chair or the head. Maybe that was this fucker’s influence talking, but John wasn’t willing to bet on it.

“So!” Katherine took John’s arm and led him into another, more familiar testing room as white-garbed orderlies began to tend to the…body. “What was the knack you wanted to ask me about?”

“Oh…right.” John took a deep breath. “Right, it’s something like a Devotion knack, only instead of making people devoted to you, you become devoted to one person in particular.”

“Hmm.” Katherine tapped her index finger against the face of her fancy watch. “Interesting. That seems counterintuitive, unless there’s a similar knack effecting the person one becomes devoted too.”

“That didn’t happen in this case.”

“And are you sure that the person with this knack actually has a knack that’s causing this, and not some other source of trauma?”

“As sure as I can be,” John said honestly. “He’s been tested by…I mean, numerous specialists have done tests. It’s a knack.”

Katherine laughed. “Boy, it’s a good thing we’ve never play poker,” she said. “I’d take you for all you’re worth. All right, hmm…not Devotion, not Siren…perhaps an inversion, brought on by extenuating circumstances. I assume there are extenuating circumstances?”

From what Charlie had told him… “Very.”

“Good, good. And a family history of knacks, perhaps?”

“Not as far as I know.”

She sighed. “Pity. One case study does not a body of knowledge make. Hmm…” She clasped her hands together. “I’ve got some thoughts. Let me do a little research and get back to you, all right? Within, say, a week’s time?”

“That would work. Thank you,” John added, because he didn’t really like Katherine but he didn’t hate her either, and she was helping him out. If he could get answers for Ari, then Charlie would have one less weight pressing down on him all the time, and he needed as much help in that department as he could get right now.

“No no, thank you! I do so enjoy watching Flay at work.” She flexed her fingers. “It’s the twitching, I think. Never the same twitch twice, you know?”

Aaand I’m out of here.