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Wednesday, January 13, 2021

4:03

 

Unlike many private schools Claremont Academy did not bombard its alumni with requests for donations long after their tuition had been paid. It did, however, lean upon the spirit of community service it instilled in its students to ask for a bit of their time toward mentoring the next generation. Considering how many times her brother had agreed to host whole gaggles of teenagers at his dojo - even thought he never even went here - Ellie Espadas would have never heard the end of it had she declined.

 

Besides, the short briefing she'd gotten about Danica Holmes had piqued her interest from a medical standpoint alone. Hopefully she's not disappointed she didn't get a flashier mentor. Or one who's technically younger than her. She'd put together her best business casual, smart-and-successful outfit and done her homework before arriving at one of the Academy's public areas, sitting on a bench that circled around a large planter, to wait.

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Two minutes before the appointed time, Ellie heard walking steps, a faint whirring noise, and the sounds of girlish giggling. Just a little bit away on the path, a young teenager rode into the quad on a Segway scooter with two other girls walking beside her. They were having some sort of lively conversation, but it broke up as the two on foot headed for the dorms while the one on the scooter headed Ellie's way. Up close, it was easy to see the effects of Chelone's sponsoring deity in her green-tinted skin and what had looked like a backpack but was actually a black and gold shell. Despite the fact that it wasn't particularly cold for January, the girl had on matching pink mittens, hat, and scarf, plus puffy white boots. She was very little and almost stupidly cute, and if she was disappointed in her mentor, it was not at all evident from her cheerful smile. "Hi!" the girl called. "Are you Dr. Espadas?"

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"Yes, hi! You can just call me Ellie, though," she returned the greeting, getting up out of her chair and extending a hand. Hearing the honorific in front of her name was still taking a surprising about of getting used to, especially outside of the hospital. She'd also considered pulling out one of her varied aliases for the meeting - she'd technically been enrolled under one during her time at Claremont after all - but unless she was going to show up in a bandana mask she'd decided to trust the school's safeguards for confidentiality. Besides, it had seemed rude when she was supposed to be mentoring a girl who couldn't reasonably hide her metahuman nature.

 

Instead of a costume she'd opted for a fitted vest in a rich chocolatey brown over an ochre dress shirt, with an eclectic combination of bangle bracelets that clattered softly as she offered her hand to shake. Her black pants were loose and flared over the top of sensible boots for the weather, while he coat was draped over the back of her chair. "How were your classes today?"

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Danica tugged off her mittens and pushed them into the neckhole of her shell before shaking Ellie's hand enthusiastically. "It's so nice to meet you! Ms. Summers told me how lucky I am that you're available because you're so busy, so I really appreciate you coming here to meet me!" In the safety of the indoors, she tugged off her hat as well, leaving a chin-length bob of staticky brown hair. "My classes went pretty well today, this year is harder than last year because last year I was just repeating all the stuff from my first sophomore year, but it's so much more interesting to not do the same stuff over again, right?" She looked around the lobby area. "Um, I don't know exactly what to do with mentoring," she admitted. "Do you want to go to the snack bar?"

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"Do they really just have you doing the same classes twice every two years? That sounds... unbelievably boring," Ellie opined with a grimace. She caught herself and gave a little start as she tried to backpedal from what might have been an insulting comment. "Uh. Unless that works better for you? Obviously I want to do this mentor thing however you find you learn best. I know I always got a lot more out of choosing my own material to study on my own time." She'd had a couple of classes in pre-med where she'd ended up skipping the lectures and just showed up to pass the exam but that seemed like generally bad advice to give a teenager. Effective-teenager. "I guess... I don't really know exactly what to do with mentoring, either. Let's try this: what were you hoping to get out it?"

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"It is boring sometimes," Danica admitted, "but in my second year of a class I usually get a different teacher and different stuff to do, projects to go more in depth on what we're learning, or more books to read. Sometimes I tutor other students if they need it, but not usually." She shrugged with an embarrassed little grin. "It's kind of weird enough with other kids, you know, realizing that when they were little I was already halfway through school, and by the time I finish, most of them will have graduated. There's no reason to make it worse, right?"

 

She considered the other questions. "We should definitely go to the snack bar," she decided. "I've got a bunch of credits, we can get cocoa. Freedom City is so cold!" Nudging her Segway into an expert turn, Danica waited for Ellie before heading towards the elevator. "I guess what I'd really like is to talk to somebody else who mostly does, um, like, protecting people.  My powers are all about defense and trying to stop a fight before it starts, but the training we get is all about how to fight. I'm really bad at it," she admitted, almost in an undertone. "The team I've got this year is better because they like the fact that I can play defense, but nobody really can, you know, show me how to do it?"

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Ellie draped her coat over one arm and followed next to Danica on her scooter. "Ha, sure. Somehow stopping somebody from getting stabbed isn't as sexy as doing the stabbing." That wasn't something that bothered her much anymore, maybe because she'd had enough time to get well and truly sick of the attitudes of 'rockstar' doctors on the opposite side of the spectrum but she could absolutely understand the frustration for someone still dealing with high school social structures. "Well if anybody gives you a hard time about not being punchy enough, my expert opinion is screw 'em. But, more constructively, why don't you give me a rundown of what you can do and which parts feel like your strengths? They gave me a quick rundown ahead of time but I'd rather hear it from you."

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"Everybody is really nice about it," Danica assured Ellie as she rolled into the elevator, "or at least they try to be. But it's like, we do fight training and people are having to turn themselves inside out to not admit they think I'm a liability. I can't walk very fast, or do anything very fast," she admitted, "so half the time somebody else is picking me up and dragging me along like luggage if I can't use my scooter. Or they forget and run off without me. It's okay because hardly anything can hurt me so it's not like they're leaving me in danger, but it's just frustrating." The elevator rose up to the second floor and slid open with a ding to let them out into the student lounge and snackbar area.

 

Danica led the way towards the serving window where a student employee was deeply engrossed in their phone. "But that's one good thing about me, I'm really tough, and immune to a lot of stuff that would hurt other people. I can make my shell big enough to get other people into, and it has a dimensional pocket inside that will keep them safe. Um, I'm good at talking to people, most of the time. We got accidentally kidnapped to space a couple of months ago, and I was able to convince some alien pirates that we were just little kids, and then got another one to not turn us in by convincing him he didn't want a fight with superheroes of Earth. So he just walked away and let us go!" She gave the menu board a quick scan, then turned to Ellie. "What would you like?"

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Ellie started to insist that Danica didn't need to order her anything but caught herself. She could be a little gracious for once if it meant showing a little respect to a girl used to being treated as a liability. "Cocoa sounds like a plan." She tried to picture Danica's shell growing - Did it stay attached to her? How did it work with her clothing? - but decided that was something to revisit later. "My wife does a lot of work with dimensional pockets, I can ask her for some tips. I got accidentally kidnapped by space marines and a space princess once, that got pretty hairy. Sounds like your friends were lucky you were there. You're, like..." She gestured vaguely at Danica's person. "...magic, yeah?"

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"Uh-huh," Danica agreed before turning to the student worker. "Hey Carrie, could we get two large hot cocoas with extra whipped cream, please?" Carrie didn't seem particularly interested in putting down her phone, but she did eventually set it down and pull out two insulated cups. While they waited, Danica added "My mom was the most intense worshiper of a tortoise spirit in the entire world, and she didn't even know it! She just really loved studying tortoises a lot. So when the tortoise spirit decided to take on an incarnation, it chose her! My folks were pretty upset when it took me a year and a half to get born, but once they figured it all out, it was okay. I'm probably going to live a really long time, but growing up is kind of taking forever," she explained. "The master mage says that when I get older, I'll probably have more powers. Your wife sounds rad, does she work in Freedom City too?"

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"She is rad!" Whereas hearing herself referred to as 'Dr. Espadas' was still taking some getting used to being able to being able to call Mara her wife still came with a bit of a giddy rush. "She runs an engineering consulting company in the city. Magic is technically more my area but, well, it's complicated." She accepted the cocoa from the disaffected server with a nod of thanks and considered her own eclectic experience and how it applied to Danica's situation. "I know a few people with unusually long lifespans, too but I don't know if any of them actually had to deal with maturing more slowly, too. That seems like a tough go. Any chance we can give this tortoise spirit a ring and get some answers? Instructional manual? Or is this more of a deadbeat deal?" She wasn't inclined to be terribly generous with any being that dumped weird powers on a kid only to up and leave without explanation.

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"Oh, no, not really," Danica explained, making her way slowly to a table. "The tortoise spirit is me, I'm an incarnation of the spirit. I don't really understand it all," she admitted with a little shrug as she sat down, "but the master mage thought that I would probably "expand my consciousness" as I get older and more powerful, that it wouldn't be good for my poor developing brain to know everything a tortoise spirit knows. I guess I've got plenty of time, at least!" She laughed and slurped a bit of the whipped cream off her cocoa. "But I know that I was smart when I was the tortoise spirit, because I made sure that my parents wouldn't get old while I was growing up. They're still pretty much as old as they were when I was born, even though I'm thirty-five now. So what's the story about the marines and the space princess?"

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Ellie looked nonplused for a moment as she tried to work through the ramifications of slowing the aging of Danica's parents - Temporarily? Conditionally? - and ultimately decided to focus on the medical marvel in front of her for the time being. "That seems like... a lot." She took a seat across from the pseudo-teenager and cupped her hands around the insulated cup, leaving it untouched for the moment. "Oh, that was just sort of a mess. Mi hermano helped some space adventurers rescue Iana from some kidnappers when she was a kid so a few years later when her parents got kidnapped because I guess that happens a lot in space politics she came looking for his help. Except I was babysitting one of my nieces at the time and apparently using a genetic lock for a teleporter isn't an exact science or at least the guy operating it was in a rush so instead we got dumped into the middle of a firefight with a handful of friends who were nearby you can probably fill in the rest from there." She explained the whole situation in a clipped tone as though it were all very rote. "That sort of thing happens a lot when you hang out with our sort of people: teleporting, portals, summons. Always a good idea to keep a basic first aid kit on you, just in case."

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"Wow!" Danica exclaimed, obviously impressed. "I mean, I've gotten teleported a few times, mostly when kids got too rowdy on Nicholson field trips and we had to go home quick. Oh, and my friends and I got kidnapped to space a couple months ago but it was only to orbit and there were no princesses at all. I kind of thought that once I got out of super school it wouldn't happen so much."

 

She pulled one arm back into her shell and came out with a phone. "A first aid kit is a good idea! My mom made sure I always have a week's worth of food and water in my shell, extra warm clothes, a change of sheets and blankets for the bed, lots of batteries, stuff like that. But I only have like, maybe a box of bandaids because I never get hurt." Danica swiped open her phone and opened up a notes app. "What should I put in a first aid kit?"

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"It'll probably happen less if you don't decide to stay, uh, involved in the community. But in my experience there seems to be this sort of parabola thing where immortals or nigh-immortals get all wise and mature for a bit then get bored and start acting like teenagers again and that's why I have so many sobrinas y sobrinos." Ellie took a long drink from her cocoa rather than elaborate on that any further. She cleared her throat consciously and allowed the topic to change. "The obvious stuff is gauze in a few different sizes and shapes with adhesive tape 'cause you're always going to run out of one type of bandaid and have way too many of another and they only sell them in those combo packs. Antiseptic wipes, some roller bandages, scissors... actually, how much first aid have they taught you here? Where would you put your comfort level?"

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"We get some first aid here," Danica confirmed, "mostly the basics of triage and field medicine. How to tie a bandage, how to see if somebody's in shock and what to do about it, recovery positions, making splints, things like that." Danica liked to talk with her hands, but her oddly slow movements made it seem a little bit like interpretive dance. "I got to take it in both my freshman years, so the second time the teacher let me do some more advanced stuff. I can improvise a tourniquet!" she announced proudly. "Sobrinos are nieces and nephews, right?" Her forehead wrinkled in puzzlement. "Why would that be... oh!" Danica gave Ellie a scandalized look, then giggled.

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"Don't look at me, I don't know what they see in him," Ellie quipped breezily, giving Danica a sly wink. "But that sounds like a pretty good start. It won't help to pull somebody to safety if they just bleed out inside your shell." She stopped for a moment to consider that sentence and grimaced. "That came out a little grosser than it sounded in my head. Sorry." Leaning back in her chair she crossed one leg over the other and swung her foot back and forth idly. "So learning some more first aid skill would be a pretty good idea. I can help with that. Seems like you've got pretty steady hands, which doesn't hurt. I want to hear more about the giant spirit tortoise attack thing."

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Danica's grimace was nearly comical at that description. "Um, okay, but you're giving me way too much credit." She cupped her hands and concentrated, and after a moment a tortoise appeared on her palms. Its shell was the same vivid black and gold pattern as Danica's, though it was only about the size of a soup bowl, and the whole thing was gauzy and a little insubstantial, as though it were a hologram or a mental projection. She tossed it across the room, drawing one or two interested glances from other students as it flew weightlessly through the air and landed next to one of the old folding chairs by the window. It padded silently up to the nearest chair and opened its little mouth to chomp firmly into the metal leg. It made a "tink!" sound. A moment later the chair slid forward and tipped, the leg cleanly severed by the force of the bite.

 

"Ta-daaaa" Danica said weakly. "The only good part is that it works on basically anything. Nobody else can make a fake tortoise that bites ghosts," she quipped.

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Ellie blinked a few times, head slowly tilting to one side. "That definitely isn't what I was picturing from the write-up. I kinda thought it was going be more of a..." She stuck her arms out in front of herself to mime jaws, her fingers interlacing as the 'teeth' as she opened and closed them. "Big spirit tortoise jaws in front of you, not little separate guy walking around on his own. That was unbelievably cute. Less so if you're a chair, probably." She looked around the snack bar area to see if anyone was going to raise a fuss over destruction of school property before turning her attention back to Danica. "You don't sound super psyched about it, though."

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Danica slumped all over, all but disappearing into her shell. "Nobody else is cute when they fight!" she exclaimed, her voice echoing slightly. "They're impressive and flashy and sometimes even scary! The villains pay attention to them! Last time I faced off against some villains they put me in their daycare center!" The top of her head was still visible now, but not much else. "I know I could be useful in a fight if the villains tried to hit me instead of my teammates because I'm really hard to hurt, but they just ignore me!"

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"Hey, hey! Mary Shelley, look at me." Ellie uncrossed her legs and rose to her feet so that she could try to find an angle where she could meet Danica's eyes. "First of all, some of the most powerful people I know are cute when they fight. You know Fleur de Joie, on the Freedom League? Sweet enough to give you a toothache and she's in charge of a whole planet. But if you really want the bad guys to focus on you, that's easy. Practically the first thing you learn as an Interceptor." She folded her arms and took advantage of the elevated position to look down her nose slightly in her very best cool, collected and untouchable bad %!$@# pose. "Danica Holmes, we need to teach you to be an asshole."

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Danica's head lifted slowly from her shell, her face bright with scandalized fascination. "You can teach me that?" she asked, sounding hopeful and doubtful all at once. "I can't even say... you know." She flushed. "I mean I can, it's not like magic or anything, but using swear words feels so weird... I bet it would get some attention, though." Straightening fully in her seat. Danica laid her hands flat on the table. "I'm ready," she proclaimed. "Teach me to be a butt-" She took a deep breath. "Teach me to be an asshole." The last bit came out very quietly, but she looked proud of herself anyway.

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It was a herculean task on Ellie's part to neither laugh nor coo over Danica's little foray into profanity. "Swearing can be useful to throw a little gas on the fire but it shouldn't be your whole plan. If you don't think you can do it confidently, without hesitating, it'll work against you. You want to play to your strengths when you're needling someone else's weak spots, yeah?" Settling back down in her seat she interlaced her fingers around her cup and grew serious. "People will give you a lot of reasons for why they hurt other people but the ones you end up having to fight, the ones you can't talk down? Bottom line? It makes them feel good. They like feeling powerful and they'll take fear as a substitute for respect. That's weakness. You give someone expecting fear mockery instead? Nine times out of ten that'll knock 'em right on their ass. Or butt, if you like." She allowed herself a lopsided smirk at that and it wasn't hard to imagine how some might find that self-assurance infuriating.

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Danica nodded. "So I have to show them I'm not afraid of them. Or at least pretend I'm not afraid of them, even if I am." She took a thoughtful sip of cocoa as she pondered the psychology of villains. "Because if a little tortoise person isn't afraid of them, then maybe they're not very scary or powerful? Yeah, that makes sense. But what if they just get madder and try to hurt everybody to show how big and bad they are? How do you get them to focus right on you, especially once they see that it's hard to hurt you?" 

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"You ever see somebody empty a gun into a bulletproof meta then throw the gun at them? It's harder than you'd think to mentally switch gears from 'I'm in control' to 'I should rethink my life choices'," Ellie explained, spreading her hands wide. "The madder they are the harder it is to reevaluate the situation like that. So that's where you want to play to your strengths." She paused to consider Danica, looking her up and down. "At the risk of cliché, you're slow and steady, plus cheerful and honestly kind of a sweetheart. So you're on the right track about showing you're not afraid but you have to push it a little further. Me, I go for bone dry sarcasm, roll the eyes, real dismissive, remind them of the girl who never knew they existed in high school. But I think you play the pity card."

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