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Freedom City University Campus

The North End, Freedom City, New Jersey

Friday March 20, 2020, 12:24 PM

 

The main quad of the FCU campus was more crowded that it had been in some months. But it was of little surprise that so many students had taken the opportunity to get outside for a bit in the middle of the day. The temperature had reached in the high-60s on this bright sunny day, though was supposed to drop overnight. 

 

Casey Blankenship was seated with several of her sorority sisters at a spot toward the center of the quad. Several of Casey's friends where chatting about how great that the weather would soon be getting warmer and discussing possible plans for renting a place somewhere along the Jersey Shore for Spring Break.

 

Elsewhere on the quad, Nicholas Starkey emerged from the Student Union Building, his lunch in hand as he began scanning the quad for an open spot to eat, or a friendly face to join for lunch.

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Nick sauntered down the sidewalk, shucking his jacket and letting the sun warm his arms.  He felt his body stir and respond as his skin did its peculiar magic.  He could go without lunch and rely solely upon the sun (or a good grow lamp) to keep his body energized, but eating was an important ritual.  It made him feel human still, especially during times when he wondered if he actually counted as a true human being.

 

He took a deep breath and shrugged off those thoughts.  There was his favorite sunning spot, right near an enormous purple lilac bush.  He looked around for a moment in appreciation of the warm day and the upbeat mood of the students passing by.  As he did so, he reached out in his mind - it was a lame way to think of it, but he didn't really know how he'd ever explain the feeling to someone else - and cajoled the soft bluegrass to grow in more thickly, giving him a more comfortable place to sit.  Criss-cross applesauce.  A good sandwich, a sunny day, and some people-watching: what better way to spend a lunch hour?   

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Three out of the four Pi girls were having a very serious discussion about Spring break, while Casey was scowling through her glasses down at her laptop as she read the news of the day. Most of them were wearing some sort of Greek gear, although as usual Stephanie Kowalski had her black peacoat, though it was currently across her lap 

 

"You've never lived until you've spent spring break on the Jersey Showah," said Lola Carbone in her best Snooki impression. "Sunny, hot girls as far as the eye can see, as well as hot guys, if you lean that way. Plus it's cheap; no airfare, just a rental car. No, a van!"

 

"Well, I'm already workin' on my daddy to get us a beach house on St. Bart's," offered Darlene Lampwick as she blew on her nails. "I'm this close to winnin' him over."

 

"Do you know how expensive everything is in St. Bart's," snorted Lola, shaking her head. "No, too rich for this Beantown girl."

 

"I'm not even sure I want to go anywhere near a beach," Steph said with a sigh as she wiped her glasses clean. "My parents have a cabin in the Catskills; it's actually really pretty there."

 

"That sounds cold and rainy," sniffed Darlene as she shuddered theatrically.

 

Finally taking notice of the conversation, Casey looked up from her laptop. "Uh, my grandparents have a condo in Miami Beach? We could probably stay there." 

 

The other three Pis all stopped and stared at her. "Your grandparents have a what now," asked Lolo, blinking in disbelief.

 

"A condo. It's like five blocks from the beach. They stay there all winter, but then they clear out before spring break. They hate the crowds."

 

"A whole condo to ourselves," Steph murmured softly.

 

"Five blocks from the beach? Like the real beach?" Darlene looked like she was going to have some sort of happy stroke.

 

"Yeah," said Casey with a nod. "If you want, I can call them up and see if it's okay."

 

There was a loud chorus of joyous squeals as Casey was mobbed by her sorority sisters; of course, she could easily shrug them all off with the barest of effort, but she was more than happy to let herself be overwhelmed by her friends.

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As Nick munched his sandwich, he sat back and tuned into the conversations nearby.  The number one topic was spring break, of course.   Nick was looking forward to it as well, but mostly because the university would largely clear out and he could be guaranteed of his favorite study carrel in the library.  The greenhouse would be quiet, too, and he needed the time to get caught up for the home stretch to summer.

A branch of the lilac bush grazed his back in the breeze.   The temptation was too much to resist.  Looking around carefully, Nick reached out to the sturdy plant and coaxed one small bud to form and swell just to the point of blossoming.  Simple pleasures, he thought, admiring the natural symmetry of the unfolding bud. 

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Posted (edited)

Eventually, Casey had enough of the compile, and with just a hint of effort, sat up from under her fellow Pi's.

 

"Jeez, I always forget how strong you are, Case," Lola said incredulously. "You're built like a Mack truck!"

 

"Well, they build us outdoorsy in Colorado," she said with a slight smile as she adjusted her glasses and checked her hair. As she did so, she caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye, and noticed her TA from her Urban Ecology class, enjoying his lunch. He seemed pretty cool, and whenever she was around him, her stomach got a little fluttery. "Hey, what do think of Nick Starkey," She asked her friends, her eyes not leaving him.

 

"The weird plant guy?" Darlene lowered her sunglasses and followed Casey's gaze, then shrugged. "I guess he's cute enough; why?"

 

Casey shrugged herself, uncertain of her own feelings. "I don't know, I kind of...I kind of like him."

 

"I like him, too," said Steph with a nod. "He doesn't come on too strong. Just look at how happy he is eating his sandwich!"

 

Lisa's eyes flicked between Casey and Nick, a smile slowly growing on her face. "You should go talk to him, Case; chat him up a bit."

 

The blonde heroine's cheeks went bright pink as she tried to hide behind her hand. "What, no! He's my professor's TA! That's like, violating ten school rules!"

 

"You don't have to talk about school, darlin'. Just...ask him about that sandwich he's eatin'."

 

After a bit more back and forth, Casey finally agreed to do it, just to get her sorority sisters off her back. Scooping up her daypack and lunch bag, she ambled across the quad until she reached Nick and his lilac bush, her stomach all a-flutter.

 

"Hi, Nick? It's, uh, Casey...Blankenship. From Professor Henderson's Urbany Ecology class? Mondays and Wednesdays." God, her mouth was dry! She pointed at the TA's sandwich and squinted a bit. "Uh, how's your lunch...today?"

 

Space debris never plummeted out of the sky and killed you when really wanted it to; why is that?

Edited by Heritage

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And just like that, a very pretty girl was talking to him. “Ermf,” he said, trying to talk and chew furiously at the same time. “Urm, Caythee, hi.” Nick scrambled to his feet, brushing crumbs off his shirt and holding a hand over his mouth.

She was a bit taller than he was, but Nick had gotten used to that in high school. He'd learned to shrug off the occasional ribbing from his friends, because he'd realized it didn't really matter. It certainly didn't matter in Casey's case: she seemed like one of those girls – one of those women, he corrected himself, briefly imagining his mother chastising him – who could be fun or kick your butt, depending on the circumstances.

 

And she's one of your students, Clyde. That was his father's voice, using the never-explained pet name he had for Nick.

 

He swallowed and coughed a bit. “Sorry, you caught me with my mouth full.” He looked at his half-eaten sandwich and its bee-wrap wrapper. “Yeah, it's kind of a caprese kind of thing, with my own basil. Surprise, surprise, right? I grow my own herbs.” Stunning repartee, Nick, he thought.

 

“So, um, what are you up to this fine, fine day?”

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"Uh, you know, eating lunch, hanging with my friends..." Casey looked over her shoulder, and God bless the girls of Alpha House, they were not staring, pointing or giggling! They were, in fact, doing the best impression of bored, disinterested girls she'd ever seen, which she knew must have been hard, especially for Lola and Daphne. 

 

Bless you, Pi's; I owe you all a beer!

 

Turning back to Nick, she brushed some loose hair behind her ear. "So, can I join you? All we're talking about is Spring Break plans, and believe it or not, that gets boring real quick!" She shook her head and rolled her eyes.

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Nick blinked a few times and willed a few words to come out while he took a deep breath. “Well, yes, absolutely,” he managed. “Um, if you're OK with sitting on the ground...?”

 

Complete sentences, Nick ol' boy, he thought.

 

“I know my break plans are boring... study, study, and lesson plans,” he shrugged with a rueful grin. “So... what's in your lunch box today?”

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"Oh, that's no problem," Casey said with a slight shake of her head as she hunkered down on the grass, spreading her light jacket down for a bit of protection. At the mention of her lunch choices, she grimaced a bit a she pulled open the drawstring of her small ditty bag.

 

"Well, here's the thing," she said with a sigh, as she began to produce a few reusable food containers...and a few more...and a Thermos and a few plastic bags... "I've got a...well, 'condition' isn't the right word. I've got a very high metabolism that requires a lot of calories and protein to keep me going." Indeed, it appeared as though Casey had packed a small picnic, for herself. "I'm kind of in charge of clearing out the leftovers at Pi Episilon Delta, so there's some deep dish pizza in here, some spaghetti...uh, a little tuna casserole..." The blonde student looked a bit uncomfortable now that her huge lunch was spread out for Nick to see.

Edited by Heritage

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Nick's eyes widened for a moment, and he couldn't suppress a grin at seeing the bountiful spread Casey laid out. “That is certainly impressive,” he chuckled. “Do you need that much, or is your body just inefficient at processing food?”

 

He took a bite of sandwich and suddenly realized that might have been kind of a personal question. Alarmed, he chewed quickly and washed down the bite with a gulp of water. “Sorry, I don't mean to pry,” he said hurriedly. “Sometimes my curiosity gets the better of my social skills. Forget I asked. Although... have you ever used algal protein? Dried algae is like 60% protein, and it's naturally in powder form, so you can really up the protein levels of a smoothie by just dumping it in there. Pretty good vitamin load, too. It's a food of the future.”

 

Ooookay Nick, he thought. Maybe ramp down the nerd talk...

 

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"It's, uh... it's hard to explain, " the young heroine said through a slight grimace. "I mean, I'm not sick or unhealthy or anything like that; in fact, I can't remember the last time I got sick. No, it's... it's actually a little personal, I guess; no offense." She popped open the container of pizza, which held three large pieces of deep dish, and began eating it like a champ.

 

At the mention of algal protein, Casey looked intrigued, and fished a small reporter's notebook and pen out of the side pocket of her daypack. "'Algal', like a-l-g-a-l? I'll have to look that up; I'm always trying to reduce my impact on the environment. I've been able to manage two meatless days a week,  and I'm hoping to cut that down even further." She savored her pizza for a few moments in silence, but then looked at Nick thoughtly as she dabbed at her mouth with a cloth napkin.

 

"So, judging by your accent, you're from the West Coast... probably Northwest, actually. Is that where you did your undergrad?"

Edited by Heritage

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"Oh, no offense taken," Nick replied, wincing inwardly.  "Healthy is as healthy does, right?"  He raised his sandwich as if toasting to her.  "I hope you'll forgive my nosiness."

 

Glad for the turn of subject, Nick brightened.  "Yeah, that's it.  There's only a handful of companies growing algae farms right now, but it's a start.  80% of the water they use is reclaimed and used again, which beats the heck out of traditional agriculture."

 

In between bites he added, "Mm. Really impressive you can go meatless, with your requirements and all.  I'm always impressed when an athlete goes the veggie route.  That's dedication."

 

He laughed when Casey pegged his accent.  "Spot on, Sherlock.  I went to Oregon State.  Funny, I never think of myself as having an accent.   I guess maybe nobody does?  So how about you?  Are you a native of this wacky city?"

 

 

 

 

 

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"West Coast and Southwest I can usually get; east of the Rockies.." Casey wrinkled her nose and wagged her hand from side to side. "I'm from Colorado Springs, actually; Air Force family. My dad's career military, my brother flies an A-10 Thunderbolt in the 74th Fighter Squadron. It's a beast of a plane, like a flying tank; I think I have a picture on my phone..." She pulled out her iPhone and flipped through her pictures until she found one. "Here it is; not much to look at, but totally badass! Oh, and here's Josh, next to his plane." It was easy to see the resemblance between Casey and the handsome young man.

 

Putting her phone away, she squinted at Nick through the sunlight. "So you're thing's botany, right? Do you plan on getting your doctorate, or stop at your Master's?" She flipped open a container of fried chicken.

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“Nice,” Nick nodded at the photo. “I can't imagine controlling a monster like that. I have a hard enough time driving,” he laughed. “Yeah, I'm a Pac-northwest guy. I'm a college brat. Even worse, I'm an only child.”

 

He chuckled around his last bite of sandwich. “But I decided it was time for a change, and once I knew what I really wanted to study, I came here.” Nick sat up straighter and steepled his fingers, something he unconsciously did when warming up to his favorite subject. “Definitely aiming for my doctorate long-term, but I have to get my master's thesis squared away. See, I'm studying plant mutations, particularly mutations caused by exposure to exotic energies. And frankly, what better place is there to study that than around Freedom City? I've started taking samples of plant life near places where supers have battled, and growing them in the greenhouse to see if they show any signs of mutagenic changes. Who knows? Maybe someday bull-thistle or mayweed will get altered by a blast from, I don't know, Thunderbolt or Deadealus, or anybody, and that could lead to a disease cure. And then there's the possibility of xenobotanical crossbreeds from stray seeds that – “

Nick rolled his eyes at himself and began folding up his beeswrap. “Sorry, I can get a little nerded up about these things. So what, um, what are you studying?

 

 

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At the mention of his thesis' topic, Casey's eyes got big, and she reached out to playfully slap Nick's leg, which hurt...a lot; Casey was strong. She quickly swallowed her food and finally spoke. "Dude! You should reach out to Fleur de Joie of the Freedom League! She's an awesome plant controller, and very cool. I mean, I'm sure she's super-busy, but it's worth a shot, right? Maybe yours is the one that reaches her desk, and bam- " (ow"You get a call out of the blue!"

 

And then, she couldn't help herself, even though it was cheesy as hell.

 

"I mean, you could meet a real-life superhero!"

 

Once her excitement wore off, she finally got around to registering his question. "Oh, sorry, Journalism! At FCU, it's a dual major; you have to basically pick a topic that reflects what you're interested in reporting." She sighed and shrugged as she poked at her spaghetti and meatballs with a fork. "I've gone back and forth between Environmental Studies and International Relations, because I'm super interested in both of them, buuut I'm pretty much sticking with IR, because you can't minor in it; at least I got to sneak in a lot of environmental stuff into my science and elective classes."

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"Awp," Nick said, strongly resisting the urge to rub his leg.  Holy crap, her volleyball spikes must be devastating, he thought.  Somehow he had decided that she must be a volleyball player; to Nick, she just, well, she looked like a volleyball player.

 

The mention of Fleur de Joie caught Nick up.  She was the ultimate plant controller, almost like a dryad or something.  "Man, it'd be great to pick her brain for an hour or three.  Is she really cool?  Have you met her?"

'Real life superhero,' he grinned to himself.

 

"With a major like that, it sounds like you plan to do some serious traveling."

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GM

 

As the two college students talked, Casey’s super hearing detected something from somewhere else on the Quad. "Hey, what happened to my purse?" Shouted some female student. Even as Casey was registering the surprised shout, it was almost instantly joined by another. "My backpack’s gone!" And then at least two more similar shouts or screams. Just as Casey started to turn towards the sounds, Nick heard a couple of the closets shouts of surprise as well.

 

As she turned in the direction of the growing sound cries, she spotted a three blurs of motion, moving among the gathered students leaving looks of bewilderment in their wake. The fast moving forms were moving in the general direction of her and Nick.

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Oh no, not right now! I'm in the middle of a thing!

 

Ugh, why'd it have to be evil speedsters? Realizing that crime waited for no man or woman, Casey sighed as she radically sped herself up, while doing her best to keep perfectly still, though even for her, it was damn near impossible. There was a slight humming noise and a disturbance in the air, almost as though a hummingbird was floating right in the middle of Casey and Nick's impromptu picnic.

 

Please don't notice please don't notice please don't notice...

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Nick looked around as he heard sounds of consternation from nearby.  What in the world? he thought.  Did someone disturb some ground bees or something?  Don't start yelling and flailing, you'll only upset them more...

 

"Casey, can you see what's going on over there?  Somebody get carried away with some water balloons or something?" 

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