Isaac was walking home, alone. His first session had left him feeling raw, like every bit of his soul was exposed, but also clean. It wasn’t a good description but it was the best he could come up with. He knew that this hadn’t fixed anything, that feeling of frustrated rage and black hate was still there, but it felt like a good start. Therapy wasn’t mandatory, not for him, but he’d be coming back next weekend. He wondered if Jenny would be there again.
It was strange. She always seemed so happy, full of energy and life. Then again, if someone didn’t know about his incident during combat ranking, Isaac probably seemed perfectly normal. Self-controlled, maybe a little intense sometimes, but normal. Isaac didn’t know for a fact that she’d been in the medical area for the same reason as him, but it seemed likely. His thoughts were interrupted by an enormous bird landing in front of him, a bird whose body blurred and flowed, turning into a tiny blonde girl with pigtails.
“Where the Hell do you get off!? You’re not my father; you don’t get to have opinions about the way I live my life!”
What the hell? She was vaguely familiar, the shapeshifter that had had such a bad reaction during their first combat class. Why- wait, shapeshifter? Oh shit.
“K- Kelly?” he asked.
“That’s Trainee Protean to you, you jerk.” There were tears in her eyes.
“No, oh no, I’m so sorry Kelly.” His mind raced back over everything he’d said, everything Hector or Jason had said. It seemed so obvious now. “Kelly, I didn’t know!” he pleaded.
“You- what?” her face was flushed, tears running down her face. What could he-?
“Kelly, think back. You never told me your power.” Please let her listen, he had to make this right.
“I… but Jason said… you said I was making the wrong choice.” Her voice quiet, broken with sobs. Oh God, he’d hurt her so bad.
“Just, just give me a minute to explain, okay?” Careful, this could go so wrong.
“Kelly, I never knew what you could do. I didn’t know your power. When you got here, you met Jason and Hector first, right?” She nodded, hurt and betrayal written across her face. “I bet when you met them, you explained everything, right?” She nodded again, a little calmer. “We didn’t meet till breakfast, that Monday. They never told me. I had no idea.”
“You didn’t? But then, what Jason said…”
“Kelly, I only ever saw you when you were a guy and I didn’t know what you could do. I told them I was worried because I thought you were skipping training sessions.”
“Skipping…? Isaac that doesn’t even make sense! This is the Citadel. They don’t take anyone but the best and everyone knows that!”
“Well, yeah. That’s why I was so worried about you. I thought you seemed like a good kid and I didn’t want you getting kicked out.”
“Oh.” The anger was gone but she hadn’t relaxed yet. Isaac watched as Kelly seemed to almost shrink in on herself. “So you really didn’t know. But… but now you do.” She looked up at him, and he could practically hear the part of that sentence she’d left unasked. Now that he knew, what did he think?
“Kelly, let me tell you a story. When I was a little older than you, I was in college. I think I mentioned that I used to be an accountant but I don’t remember if you were around then or not.” She shook her head. “Okay. Well, I was at WSU, studying for my CPA. That’s where I met Van-” No. He still couldn’t say her name, not even for this. “My wife. And I met her best friend Thea. I wouldn’t have met my wife if it wasn’t for her. Thea was on the same degree plan as me, we shared a few classes and she thought we’d get along. So Thea introduced me to the love of my life.
We stayed friends or more all through school. Thea was always more my wife’s friend than mine, they’d known each other practically forever, but I still liked her. I was so grateful I would have liked her no matter what.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because Thea’s parents named her Theo.” He gave it a moment but she didn’t react. “I never understood what my wife saw in her. I liked Thea well enough, and like I said, I was grateful. But I didn’t ever understand why they were so close.” He stopped speaking, closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “When we graduated, Thea and I went to work at the same company. This might be a bit of a surprise, but accountancy firms tend to be a bit conservative. So Thea couldn’t work there, but Theo could.” He felt the bitterness wash over him. It still felt the same, even though it didn’t matter anymore.
“Watching her at work, every day, it hurt. There was just so much misery in her eyes… Well, that was when I got it. I’d thought of Thea as bubbly and cheerful, even shallow. But knowing that she’d been hurt so badly because she couldn’t live the way she wanted… I don’t know. I got it. My wife didn’t love her because she was happy. She loved her because she’d been through so much but still had the strength to go looking for joy.” Isaac shook his head. “It’s a quality I wish I had a little more of these days.”
“What happened? To Thea, I mean.”
“I’m sorry. Thank you… Thank you for telling me all this.”
“It’s okay Kelly. Like I said, you’re a good kid.”
“You really don’t have a problem with me? I mean, with my-?”
“No. I don’t want you to ever ask me that again cause the answer won’t change.” She smiled. Thank God. “Although… I’ve always felt bad for not understanding Thea better. If you don’t mind, when we’re both in a better mood for it, I’d like to ask you some stuff.”
“Okay.” Kelly smiled at him. “About you being upset though, I mean, with me skipping classes?”
“Uh huh?” He started walking home. She reached up, taking his hand, then walked alongside him.
“I mean, I haven’t been, but if I was… I meant what I said.”
“You’re not my father. I’ve got a really good one and I don’t need another.”
“I know. I was just worried because I like you, that’s all.”
“Isaac? You’re not really my type.” she said with a teasing grin.
Maybe he should’ve phrased that better.
Instruction Area, Citadel Hub
It seemed unlikely, but Isaac had settled into a routine. His day started with a group breakfast, he and his roommates talking over Hector’s cooking. After that came Ethics, something he didn’t think anyone really enjoyed. Instructor Catherine Verres was very good at setting up no win situations and forcing her students to confront their, often poorly understood, motivations.
Physical Conditioning wasn’t too bad, not for him at least, but it was boring. That had improved on the third day. Coach Achala had started sending the trainees who wouldn’t benefit from the track over to the equipment room. Isaac had found a reinforced speed bag and weighted bag, enough to resume his long abandoned boxing training.
Combat was different. Coach Achala’s training exercise was effective, but it was also pure misery. Isaac didn’t like being on the receiving side, who would, but he could see the benefit. He had to restrain his power every time he took a hit. Being blind and helpless, naked even, didn’t make that any easier. At first, Isaac’s field had gone up after every blow. If his first partner, George, hadn’t been so tough, the younger man could’ve been badly hurt.
Hitting Isaac when his field was up was equivalent to a normal person punching a brick wall. Isaac was getting better, his power more under his control. During his last session as an imitation punching bag, he’d managed to go almost ten minutes without using it. Kind of a strange achievement, but Isaac felt a certain sense of pride anyway.
Class sessions where he was the striker were different. Attacking someone who was helpless, even knowing a Healer type was nearby to keep things from going too far, that was something no one could enjoy. Even so, he could see the benefit. Hurting someone, doing real damage to them and especially with your bare hands, that didn’t come easy to most people.
His boxing coach, back in college, had emphasized something similar. It didn’t matter how strong or fast you were, not if you hesitated and the other guy didn’t. This was obviously meant to get the trainees past that initial shock, to inure them to the sensation of hurting another human being. Good training, maybe, but it was an awful thing to go through.
“What is the greatest threat to the human race?” asked the day’s guest instructor, Eugene Sikes.
He was the very picture of a college professor, glasses, neatly trimmed grey beard, he even had the jacket with leather patches at the elbow. The only thing missing was a pipe. A few of the other trainees gave the most obvious answers.
“The Bugs! King in Winter! Tyrant!”
It actually seemed to enrage the little man.
“NO! The Hive States have never been linked to a single act of aggression towards a human being! Winter’s domain hasn’t spread since nineteen twenty six. The Tyrant controls the actions of every man, woman and child living in Europe but he’s also a hundred and twenty-five years old and lying in a hospital bed. If not for the constant attention of healing powers he would be long dead. You aren’t thinking about it, try harder!”
The man hadn’t even introduced himself, just walked in and begun speaking. Isaac only knew his name because of the changed schedule they’d received that morning. The next round of responses seemed less certain.
“Monster? The Battle Lords?”
“Bah! Monster is believed to have killed between two and three hundred people, personally. If you credit him with the indirect effects of his actions, that goes up to about two thousand. The Battle Grounds have spread, slowly, for the last forty years. People still live there! The Battle Lords are a threat to this nation, what’s left of it, but not the human race. Your Director told you the answer already. What. Is. The. Greatest. Threat. To. Our. Species!?”
The only voice that answered this time was Jenny’s.
“The next one.”
“Yes! Thank you young lady. Everything and everyone your peers mentioned is a known quantity. Yes, they are dangerous, yes they have cost many, many lives. But we know how to deal with them.” Instructor Eugene stopped speaking, looking over his class. “You people will be the next generation of our Citadel. It will be your job, your duty, to deal with the next generation of catastrophic Empowered.
“Instructor Catherine has doubtless spent the last week telling you that every mistake you make, every hesitation or lapse in judgment, will lead to a loss of life.” He paused again, waiting for the class’s murmured assent.
“Loss of life is not the worst case scenario. End of life is. Lt. Commander Byrd’s obsession with reaching the North Pole led to his Empowerment. At the time, he was a naval pilot and explorer. Now, he’s more commonly called the King in Winter. His very body is a heat sink of such power that everything within three thousand kilometers of him is frozen solid. Do you understand?
“Think about the effects that should have had. Weather, ocean level, the very temperature of the Earth itself should have changed. But! But we got lucky. Russia, Canada and Greenland all effectively ceased to exist as countries. Temperatures in that region dropped more than a hundred degrees in less than an hour. Worldwide panic, riots and desperate refugees…” Instructor Sikes’ voice broke off, resumed after he took a moment to visibly collect himself.
“That could have easily meant an end to human life on Earth. But we got lucky. Something about the nature of Byrd’s power restricted the effects. Once you get past that line, roughly three thousand kilometers away from Byrd himself, the effect ends. With the right equipment or powers, you can literally see the cities, frozen and dead, while you stand in the warm sunshine.
Imagine you’d been there. What if you were in the plane with him, realized what was happening. Would you have stopped it? Could you have? The life of one man, a good man, maybe even a hero, versus the lives of countless innocents… But what if it wasn’t a man? Make it worse. A twelve year old child, a frightened, newly Empowered innocent… what would you do then? She means no harm; she doesn’t understand her new power. Nevertheless, if she has the wrong power, an ability that can’t be controlled or shouldn’t exist…
That little girl… my daughter… she sterilized everyone within a mile of herself. It was her first period, she was scared and… My wife… pregnant women miscarried.” He stopped again, weeping softly.
“The effect was spreading. The operative stationed in our town realized what was happening but… he couldn’t do it.” There were tears on his face but the speaker’s voice grew hard. “He couldn’t do it. He told us, my wife and me, he told us what was happening but he didn’t do what was necessary. So I did.” There was hate in his eyes. Isaac knew that expression very well, saw it in the mirror.
“You want to be Citadel? You want to protect us? That’s what you have to do. Not what’s good or just. An operative does what’s necessary. That’s what you’re for.”
He turned and left the room, silence in his wake.
Kelly was worried about Samantha, Sam. She’d been the first friend Kelly made here, well, except for Hector. The girl was friendly and really nice. That counted for a lot in Kelly’s eyes, but her power was… well, it was kind of weak. What was worse, Sam knew it, too. She hadn’t even tried to put up a fight during her ranking match. Okay, that’d been against Kerry and she didn’t know what her friend could’ve done against the dragon girl, but still…
This was the Citadel. If that guy yesterday had gotten anything across to the trainees it was that failure just wasn’t acceptable. They must’ve had some reason for accepting Samantha for operative training, but Kelly was afraid that if she didn’t start showing some kind of potential, they might decide they didn’t want her anymore. She had to help her friend, she’d spent most of their first class in Procedure thinking about it instead of listening to the instructor, but she couldn’t figure out how.
“Hey Kelly.” Hector said. Well, one of him. She could see two more waiting by the track. He was still running in relays but he was also using fewer and fewer copies of himself to do it.
“Hi Hector. What’s up?” She’d gotten her running form pretty much perfect. She could keep this up all day now.
“Well, I saw you on the track and I was wondering…” They passed Drew. The guy still had maybe a little extra weight on him but the difference was incredible. “You mind if I ask you something about your power?”
“Um, well, I guess that’s okay.” He wasn’t gonna get all weird, like Isaac, was he? It was better than when she’d thought he hated her but the man just wouldn’t stop asking questions. Sometimes she was a girl, sometimes she was a boy, and a lot of her forms didn’t even have a… well, genitalia. When you could be anything, why not be everything?
“I’ve seen you flying, your two normal looks, this one and that big caveman looking thing you turned into. What’s your limit?” That was actually kind of a good question.
“I don’t really have one, not as far as I know.”
“So you could do a dragon, like Kerry?”
She laughed. “No. Well, maybe. Changing is…” Huh, she’d always just done it. “Okay, this is kind of hard to explain.” She stopped circling the track and headed over to the Hector’s that were waiting by the start. She was pretty sure Coach Achala wouldn’t mind. It was obvious she wasn’t getting anything out of this anymore and he was nothing if not practical. The bastard.
“I’m not really sure what my limits are. I mean, I can switch to anything I’ve been before without much effort but anything new is tricky.” She took a moment to consider the best way to explain. “Okay, take my running form.” She was nearly eight feet tall. Her skin was wrapped tight around muscle and bone, no fat at all. She had thickened veins, an expanded throat and rib cage and really long legs. The bones weren’t quite hollow but they were a lot thinner and lighter than normal. She’d totally gotten rid of the digestive system and a bunch of other stuff she didn’t need.
“I basically started out in my girl shape. Then I just sorta… tweaked it. I did one little change after another until I had something that barely counts as human.”
“Huh.” He rubbed his chin while he was thinking. All three of him. It was kinda cute. “So if you don’t have to be human, do you need to be something alive?”
“You mean could I be a chair or a table or something?” she asked him.
“I was thinking more like a rock, but yeah.”
“I totally could.” She switched back to her normal shape. “But not for long. If it’s not a shape that can… I guess last is the best way to put it. If it can’t last, anything without a brain and the ability to keep going on its own, I have to concentrate to keep it.” That sounded really weird when she said it out loud.
“So how long could you keep it up?”
“I don’t know. How long could you keep thinking of the color purple?” She laughed. “It’s not hard or anything, but as soon as I let it slip, I snap right back to the last shape that could keep itself going.”
“Kelly…” he looked really excited. “Kelly, that’s awesome!”
She heard Jenny and her group cheering from across the room.
“You basically just said you don’t need your brain to think! And you can make material that’s not alive, like wood and metal and stuff, right?”
“Um, yeah?” She didn’t see what the big deal was.
“Okay, so a dragon is too tough because it’s big and complicated and there’s no way a regular animal could be like that.”
“Right.” she agreed.
“So what’s stopping you from turning into something that looks like a dragon, just for a minute or two. You could use titanium or diamond for the scales and we can look up some gas you could breathe that’d catch fire!”
“Holy shit…” she kept thinking about it, trying to see why Hector was wrong. Her power couldn’t possibly… “Yeah. I think… I think I could.” Oh wow, Kerry was gonna freak. That George guy was always pissed at her because they had the same name, even though Kerry was way more of a dragon than him, but if Kelly could be one too…
“I mean, I’ve never done anything that big and I don’t know how to do titanium scales… maybe if I could find a sample…” Okay, she’d basically need to eat or absorb the titanium or a diamond and that was just kind of gross. But she’d only need to do that the first time.
“Thanks Hector. I think that might really work.” He smiled back at her, a big happy grin.
“No problem. I’ve been trying to figure out better ways to use my own power. It got me thinking, I bet there’s a lot of trainees that could be doing more with what they have.”
She told Coach Achala what she needed and he gave her permission to skip training for the rest of the day, as well as directions. She was halfway to the quartermaster’s office before she realized. This would make her stronger, maybe even as strong as Kerry, but it wouldn’t help Samantha at all.
Training Area, Citadel Hub
Hector stood against the wall and watched as half of his class of trainees pummeled the others. The victims were allowed to keep their heads uncovered now, and to dodge. This was one of the bad days. Hector held his mother’s hand while she twitched and trembled, unable to speak or take coherent action. Technically, he was using his power, still forbidden. However, he was careful not to watch himself fight and Coach Achala didn’t seem to have a problem with his extra self watching the others. Studying his classmates’ fighting styles was a useful way to spend some time, but that wasn’t the main reason he was here. He checked his mail. Permission for training, in each of the dozen unarmed combat styles he’d applied for, was ‘still pending.’ He split off a new self to do that, while he focused on the main reason he was there. Hector shook his head and Jason pulled back, restraining the stomp that would’ve broken some of Jenny’s ribs, maybe even punctured a lung.
For the others, taking off the hoods had made a major difference in the fight. Some attackers were having a difficult time hitting as hard as they had last week. Kicking a semi-anonymous opponent, when they couldn’t fight back, was one thing. Punching Greg or Kerry in the face was a different one. The cops hadn’t found any sign of a forced entry. No broken windows, damaged locks or the like. Of course, so was breaking Duncan’s nose. Hector could tell that some people were holding back out of fear of retaliation. Coach Achala would pull them aside, speak a few stern words, and their fights would be back on track. Usually, they showed a lot more energy, if not actual enthusiasm. Others held back out of compassion, not wanting to hurt someone they knew or liked. He held a damp cloth to her forehead. She wasn’t running a fever but it seemed to help, a little. It was different when you had to see the pain in their face. Achala’s words to those people were less stern, almost gentle, but they still found themselves forced to participate with the required… ferocity? Yes, that seemed to be what the coach was seeking.
Coach Achala hadn’t said a word to Jason. He’d been paired with Jenny Awesome. She was the fifth ranked combatant in their class and easily the most popular; no one had challenged her yet. Rick had decided that it must’ve been an inside job. Maybe it was because Hector was the one who’d arrived first, or maybe Rick just didn’t like him, but the manager seemed to have decided he was guilty. Hector didn’t think that was because people were scared of her. Most either liked her, and didn’t want to fight her, or realized that winning would cause a good third, or more, of the other trainees to hate their guts. He shook his head again and Jason refrained from punching her in the back of her neck. Hector watched as a healer intervened, fixing the knee that Jason had just disabled. This was why Hector was here.
He and Jason had talked about the issue more than once, since last week. Hector had already certified on small arms, extendable batons and unpowered body armor. Why was this the one area, maybe the most useful one, where he had to wait for approval? The other boy seemed to trust Hector’s opinion. He was willing to believe that he was going too far during the fight training. Jason just couldn’t seem to get where the line was. So, this was the compromise. Jason would go all out, the same as he had been before, and Hector would watch. He used a napkin to wipe the spittle from the corner of her mouth. The soup he’d made still sat on its tray, untouched. When he saw his strange friend about to go too far, he gave a signal and the other pulled back. Jason’s knee crashed into Jenny’s groin. She fell to the ground, screaming, and Hector shook his head, frantic. Jason pulled back without kicking her in the head.
It was a little surprising. Hector hadn’t realized a woman would be so sensitive to blows in that area. Next week’s schedule was posted. Not only were the best shifts gone, no opening or closing, but his hours had been cut almost in half. He thought of Kelly and wondered… Nah. Kind of weird though, Isaac had told him about their fight. Even without his power, the big guy was good. Irritated, he pulled up the list he’d made and moved on to the next options. He sent off applications for training with shock batons, pepper spray and restraint devices. Hector could see him with another Strong type, ducking, turning and generally moving so that the other’s blows either fell without full force or stuck him somewhere harmless. Once, Isaac even managed to catch his opponent’s fist with the top of his head. The trembling fit was done. His mother slept, exhausted.
Hector could hear the guy’s startled cry of pain. Yet, he said Jenny had made him look like a fool. Jumping between his arms, using his head and shoulders as a spring board… The acrobatics could have been her powers, some sort of enhanced agility or balance, but the timing of it? It wasn’t like he actually needed this job. It’d be easy to find a replacement. Hector was sure that it had been the unexpected nature of her action that had shocked Isaac out of the mental state he needed to use his force field. The minor injury he’d gotten, a split lip, had left him too confused to reenter it before she’d knocked him out. It was too neat to be a coincidence.
She didn’t show any of that prowess, now. Jason’s control and precision had improved over the last two weeks, but he was still a long way from skilled. He hated the days like this, when there was nothing he could do to really help her. Maybe there was something different he should try? Anyone who could outmaneuver Isaac so easily should have been able to do the same to him. Jenny’s attempts to dodge his blows were completely ineffectual. He just hated losing a job like this. Maybe there was something different he should try? Jason landed a kick to the back of her knee, sending her to the ground. Hector shook his head when he saw Jason put his foot on her throat. He stepped back without putting any weight on it. All of his remote applications for Citadel training in unarmed combat styles had been delayed. Maybe there was something different he should try? Not for the first time, Hector wondered what Jenny’s power was. Observation wasn’t telling him enough. Maybe there was something different he should try?
Coach Achala called an end to the training exercise. Jason helped Jennifer Awesome to stand, then moved to release her hands. She did not thank him, her expression was strangely flat. He was not close to her, not the way he was with Hector, but he appreciated the way her moods were normally so easy to decipher. She was one of the few trainees that he was able to understand on a regular basis. Usually, she was either happy, or a mixture of cheerful and determined. He noticed one of his friend’s bodies approaching, the one who had been signaling him during the training exercise, and remembered how he was supposed to end the session.
“I apologize if I was too rough, Jenny. I assure you it is nothing personal. Sometimes, I just get carried away during training.”
She did not respond, at first. When she did, it was quite surprising. She turned to face Hector, and shouted at him.
A few of the other trainees stopped what they were doing and turned to face her.
“No, no I’m fine.” she said to them, her volume slightly above normal. “I just… I wanted to talk to Jason, privately.”
Jason had little trouble recognizing Hector’s expression, ‘nervousness.’ He, and the others, respected Jenny’s request and moved further away, averting their faces. Having gotten what she apparently wanted, Jenny did not yell at him, cry or try to hit him. These had been the most common reactions from his training partners. Though, in fairness, the intensity had decreased since Hector had begun guiding him. She was just looking at him, staring. Her eyes were open more widely than usual. Other than that, she had resumed her flat expression.
Jason did not think it was hostile. He did not always understand their origin, but he had encountered enough hostile reactions that he felt reasonably sure of his ability to recognize them.
“Can I… can I ask you something?” she said, very quietly. He refrained from attempting humor, this seemed too serious for that, and simply nodded.
“Why don’t I feel anything from you?” Her voice maintained its low volume, but there was something in it that he recognized. A kind of hunger?
“I do not understand what you mean.”
“Okay… let me think.” she did not seem dissuaded. If anything, the hunger was stronger.
“What do you think people mean, when they call me awesome, or when I say it about myself?”
It was very rare for someone to ask him about an emotional response, especially so directly. Jenny was the third person to do so, since he had begun Citadel training. Jason decided that this had been a good decision, despite his mother’s warnings. He had a number of stock answers that he could use but, like he had with Hector, he decided to tell her the truth.
“I do not really know. Obviously, it is a combination of admiration or respect and excitement, but I do not have that response. I mean no insult, but I do not find you to be ‘awesome.'” He hoped that would not be offensive, but something about the way she had asked… it felt important, perhaps vital.
“You… you really don’t.” Jenny’s voice was still soft, the hunger replaced by something else, but her expression had changed again. It was strange, disbelief mixed with happiness? ‘Hope,’ maybe?
“Do you mind, can I ask two more? Then, I promise, then I’ll let you get back to your friend and you can plan your challenges for tomorrow or whatever.”
“How come you don’t use contractions?” Oh. Well, that was less dangerous than her last question, but still…
“I don’t?” he asked.
She laughed. “That’s the first time I’ve heard you do it.” Her voice was back to a normal volume, its tone as well. “Yeah, it’s kind of weird. Don’t get me wrong, I decided to change my last name to Awesome. I don’t have anything against weird. I was just wondering, that’s all.”
“Yes, I knew what you meant, but I have found that question works well as a lead in to a humorous statement.” She smiled at him. Her ‘happiness’ was as easy to recognize as ever, but it seemed subtly different. “It is an old habit, one my mother taught me. I… do not always think about things in the same way as others.” She nodded, showing no sign of surprise or judgment.
“By deliberately avoiding the use of contractions, I am forced to choose my words more carefully. I think about what I am going to say before I say it and I have an added opportunity to filter myself. It makes it less likely that I will make enemies or alienate those who might be friends.” Which was true, as far as it went, but there was more to it than that. Perhaps… no, he did not know her well enough to be quite that honest. Not yet.
“Okay. That was a little more than I was expecting but I think I get it.”
He wanted her to know that he was pleased by her acceptance of his differences. Jason smiled at her.
“I believe you said you had two questions, for me?”
“Yeah.” Her expression had changed. It was one he had not seen on her face before. “I’ve got an appointment tomorrow morning and I was about to go place a challenge, but I was wondering…” she paused before continuing, “Do you have any plans on Sunday?”
“Nothing more than some routine chores.”
“Okay, then… do you want to get together?” She stopped speaking, took a deep breath, then resumed speaking, very rapidly. “I mean, we can do whatever you want. That’s cool. I just, just wanted to spend some time alone together?”
He did not know the best way to respond to that. On the one hand, he had long since learned to avoid private social activities, even most of those that occurred in small groups. The lack of structure forced him to improvise and the results had often been… unsatisfactory. On the other hand, Hector had already helped him refine his social skills and could probably offer some useful advice for this occasion as well. Then, as his father would have said, there was the gripping hand. He liked Jenny. She had reacted in a more or less positive manner to some of his surface oddities. Perhaps, even if his behavior was not quite ideal, she would accept that as well?
“Very well. Please send me an email with the time and location. I will be pleased to join you.”
Her smile returned, as large as ever.
“Kay. See you then.” she replied, before moving rapidly towards the challenge board.
A group of the other trainees, none of whom had seemed to be paying much attention to each other before her arrival, quickly converged on her. They began discussing something with great animation.
Jason was rapidly beginning to feel disconcerted. What, exactly, had he agreed to? He would have to ask Hector.