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11/3/2021 

Claremont Academy 


Sea Devil in her armor and Singularity with her shield, the two heroines sat together by Claremont's outdoor pool and waited patiently for their mentees to arrive. Aquaria was doing her best to avoid agitating Jessie, having done some pleading to get them both to volunteer for this very exciting occasion, so she was sitting legs folded up beneath her by her friend, her iridescent armor gleaming like a statue beneath the wan sun of a Freedom City autumn. 

 

"So all of the dogs in all of his pictures are playing poker," she croaked thoughtfully, thinking of Baxter nearby. She was not entirely sure she understood the subject of the man Jessie's thesis was about but she understood he was definitely an artist. "But dogs do not want to play poker, so I should not try and train Baxter." She shifted back and forth where she crouched and said, "I understand why you write about him. His work is a great mystery! What does it mean?

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The pool area was deserted, the pool itself covered with a sturdy winter tarp for the season and the chairs around it put away. Jessie wondered idly if it were a new addition, since it was something Erin had never spoken of. Being at Claremont was especially weird because it had so much of her double stamped on it in her mind. This was Erin's place, never hers, even despite the traces of memory that tried to make certain buildings and faces familiar. She'd already gotten a couple of weird looks from adults around the place, though at least it had been long enough that no students would remember Wander.

 

Even covered, the pool sent a trace of chlorine smell into the air that reminded her of summer and better times. Sitting on the wide concrete apron was not bad, especially with Baxter lounging next to her. The golden retriever appeared ready to chill out and let her pet him all day if necessary, which in turn was making Jessie feel a little bit less like sprinting home at the speed of sound. He didn't wear a vest or a bandana, but Baxter knew what his job was and he was good at it. "I think Baxter does enough things already," she offered thoughtfully. "And it's not so much a question of what it means as how it feels. Coolidge painted the dogs mostly to sell cigars, but it connected with people because we want to see ourselves in the animals we love most. Pretending that dogs can play card games or stay up late telling stories and drinking means that they really, truly understand us. It speaks to a really deep need in humans to not be alone in the world, back before we knew there was more than one world out there. Plus it's funny," she added. "Are you sure your kids are going to know where to find us?" 

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“Sure but I’m saying that you already train with your sword all the time - like arguably a concerning amount not that I’m judging - but fighting in armour? That’s the other side of the violence coin, right?” Ryder was still pitching his choice of mentor for the day to Utsuwa as they walked across the campus, his arm over his roommate’s shoulders. He wore an oversized cardigan knitted in a rainbow of pastel colours that reached halfway down his thighs open over a black tank top with a heavy metal band’s name across it and paint splattered jeans. His enthusiasm was more convincing than his reasoning but fortunately he caught sight of Sea Devil before Utsuwa could cross examine him.

 

“Haha, oh wow! It’s like if you asked somebody to reverse engineer Star Knight armour, wild!” He slipped away from Utsuwa to jog up to Aquaria and get a better look at her suit. Up close she could see a collection of brightly coloured robotic insects hanging off of the back of his cardigan. “Hi, sorry, I’m Ryder, this is Utsuwa, we were supposed to meet you?” The teen gave her a broad, dimpled smile before looking over to acknowledge the second woman and her furry companion. “Hi— oh! Say, do you know Mrs. Hunter-White, works over at the HAX building? You’re a dead ringer, is why!”

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Utsawa was too busy  trying to figure out what to do with is hands while Ryder had an arm slung over his shoulder to really offer much on the cross examination regardless.  Black work boots and slightly faded army surplus BDU's of the same shade were topped by a tightly fitted black tee clinging to his chest and leaving the intricate Phoenix and Oni Tattoos on full display as they crossed the quad.

 

Running a hand through his hair as he lengthened his stride to catch up to his roommate Utsawa offered each potential mentor a small bow at Ryders introduction.  He shifted his gaze from aquaria to Jesse and back as he tried to puzzle out the relation.  The one was clearly some kind of alien which made this hunter-white ringer a handler of some sort?  He watched her carefully from a step back behind Ryder his body language tense as he tried to read her movements.

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Sea Devil snapped open her helmet to reveal a face that could best be called froggy - wide across the beam and wide-mouthed, with big goggle black and gold eyes and pale green skin. "Hello!" Aquaria bellowed quietly (for her, anyway). "I am Aquaria and this is Jessie!" Her throat throbbed noticeably as Ryder mentioned Jessie's sister and so she decided to change the subject. "This is Baxter. He is our dog. I did not even know what a dog was for before I came to Freedom City. It was a good thing to learn. Just as we will learn from each other." She considered what to say next, then said, "I am glad to meet both of you. I have been here before but there was trouble. There will be no trouble this time!" she added firmly. "And it is true, this was Star Knight armor, before the wearer was killed by machines from space. Not by me!" she added. "Some people have said that but it was not right.

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Jessie scrambled to her feet when the teens approached, a graceless gesture that was nonetheless superhumanly fast. Her plan for an introduction was completely derailed by Ryder's opener, and the way Utsawa was staring didn't help. "She's my sister," she finally blurted out, long after the conversation had moved on. "Erin Hunter-White. I mean, she's not really my sister, we're dimensional doubles, but sort of. It's why we look alike." She crossed her arms and concentrated on the comforting feeling of Baxter pressing up against her legs. "We have most of the same powers, but she went to Claremont. She said it's nice here," she added, miserably hoping to move the topic along quickly. "Is it?" 

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"Some people are always going to assume the worst," Ryder nodded along to Aquaria in a commiserating tone, "but it's awesome that you were able to repurpose the armour and, like, put your own spin on it with the underwater vibe!" He'd done a little research ahead of time but hadn't managed to learn much about Deep Ones except to avoid asking Heroditus any follow-up questions. "And Baxter, what a good guy you are!" With a friendly cheer that matched the dog's own energy surprising well he knelt down to offer the back of his hand to sniff. "These guys are Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black!" As they were introduced the Robugs disengaged from their perches on Ryder's cardigan, the cricket bounding from one side of Aquaria to the other before landing on the teen's shoulder, the preying mantis scurrying excitedly up to Baxter's front paws before taking a queue from her creator and backing up to a respectful distance, the wasp buzzing nervously in the middle distance between Ryder and Utsuwa as if undecided on where to go and finally the beetle slowing walking over to the edge of the pool, apparently disinterested in the larger conversation.

 

Ryder himself looked up from Baxter at Jessie's rush of words and a flicker of surprise touched his expression before giving way to a broad, genuine smile. "See, Utsuwa, I told you we picked the coolest ones. Alternate dimensions, carving out a new life, that's total badass stuff! Claremont is pretty nice, to answer your question, Miss Jessie. I mean, look at the sort of people we get to meet here, ha!"

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"It is unfortunate when people judge on appearances alone."  Utsawa admitted though he spared only a small glance at the kappa as she revealed herself.  For all the obviously fantastical mystery in the armored frogs presence and origins something told Utsawa she was the less dangerous of the pair.

 

Jessies belated explanation did nothing to put Utsawa at ease though he settled somewhat into sullen assumption that he was sent to learn from another clone by some petty bureaucrat who could not be bothered to read their dossiers.  He slanted his roommate short glare, "Picked?"  he sighed heavily having assumed this was mandated and not an exercise his vivacious roomie thought would be entertaining.

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"Yes!" said Aquaria. "It is also full of water!" She opened a hatch on her left forelimb to demonstrate, producing an impressive gush of brackish water before she closed it again. "I also keep fish there." Glad that Jessie had weathered the difficult subject of her sister with aplomb, she was about to say something else when she saw the Robugs in action. "Ah-hah!Okay, they are made of metal, they are not food. Good to know! "They seem quite clever," she said, eying the preying mantis with one big goggle eye. 


"We had planned to take you on an adventure under the sea, but they said no, we should definitely not do that, because your guardians might be very angry. I forget sometimes that young males like you have guardians, because Deep Ones as big as you, oh, they can fend for themselves. Very tough!" she added jubilantly. She couldn't quite shake her head so she waved with her trident for emphasis, a twisting thing that looked like wrought-iron interspersed with greenish gold. "So I came up with a different idea. But first, I have to tell you something very important.

 

She looked from one to the other, turning her whole upper body to do it, and said, "Jail is a very bad place to be. You do not want to go there." She waved her trident again for emphasis. 

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"Um, yes, that's true," Jessie said awkwardly. "You should definitely try not to go to prison, it's not a place most people want to be. Not that we thought that was a possibility anyway," she added, her tone and look suggesting she was trying to remind Aquaria of that more than anybody. "You guys seem like you'll do great at, um, hero work or whatever you decide to do." Even as she was speaking she was trying to keep an eye on the two students, her roommate, the dog and all the robots all at the same time. It was enough to give her a headache. "Anyway, we thought you might like a trip off campus for the afternoon?" 

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"That is the point of jail," Ryder agreed amiably, apparently unbothered by Aquaria's abrupt shift in tone. He squinted for a moment in consideration before correcting himself, "Well, the point is really more of an antiquated tool of fear mongering designed to disproportionately disenfranchise specific racial and economic groups while generating massive profits for a select few with a side helping of security theatre and political clout. But that just makes what you said even more true, huh?" Meanwhile Magenta perked up at the compliment and scuttled over from in front of Baxter toward Aquaria, rubbing to top of her triangular head with the back of one curved forelimb as though shining herself.

 

Yellow seemed to recognize Jessie's quietly mounting stress and landed near her feet, bobbing her head in a sort of commiserating apology and trying to reduce the number of moving objects Jessie needed to track. "We're probably fine though, yeah! Well. Somebody did come back in time to try to kill me and called me the 'father of modern war crimes' so that definitely changed up the critical lens I apply to my own action, y'know? But hey, Utsuwa is... hmm." He looked over to his taciturn roommate and suppressed a small wince before turning back to their visitors with a broad grin. "Off campus sounds fun!"

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Deep One not alien.  And yet still the other woman struck him as the more dangerous of hte pair.  Perhaps the jovial frog woman's demeanor hid something more sinister, but none the less there was an all too familiar darkness to her companion.  Utsawa watched the interactions however with some interest, despite her lack of social grace Aquaria did seem to have wrought a friendship with Jesse.  He still wasn't entirely certain nor trusting of the administrations purposes in assigning them to this pair in particular, that was until jail was mentioned.

 

"Got it jail is bad."  He agreed taciturnly with Ryder frowning only slightly as his friend trailed off on his own reasons to perhaps be assigned to the scared straight mentorship, "There is family history that concerns some."  he explained quickly clearly disinterested in going in to further detail and changing the subject quickly.  "Off campus would be a welcome change of scenery." 

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Ryder has already thought a lot about jail. He must be very worried! thought Aquaria sympathetically. She had not asked what the boys had done to wind up picking the two of them as their mentors, knowing that such secrets were theirs to share when the time was right. Ah, that one has blood taint, and that one...is a time traveler? Oh no! You know how the young males are from the television. Better act like you understand him, or he will think you are 'old and busted!' 

 

"Yes! There is no chance any of us will wind up back in prison!" she bellowed ebulliently, eager to support her friend as much as their temporary charges. "It is cold, and dry, and the food is bad, with hardly any meat! Very unpleasant." This was one of several areas where she was reasonably sure that the Deep One approach was better than that used by Surfacers, but she was reasonably sure that no one wanted to hear that. They rarely did. 

 

"We are taking you to a place in Freedom City that has many interesting things to see and hear, and some," her croaking voice grew noticeably more excited here, "even to smell and taste. We are taking you to-

The Superhero Museum had been largely rebuilt in the wake of the last Terminus Invasion and was now a big, towering place like a mid-century railroad station, dominated by a huge silver statue of Atlas holding the world on his shoulders. The arrival of the bombastic Sea Devil and the subtle Singularity, not to mention their superheroic charges, attracted some attention even from the sparse crowd present outside on a weekday morning. Her helmet snapped down into armored anonymity, Sea Devil waved cheerily to the tourists, then bounded quadruped and lickety-split up the steps to where their guide was waiting for them. 

 

"Hello, everyone!" Gary Powers was the sort of chubby that sturdy men evolve into as they enter late middle age, his goatee and thinning hair mostly grey with just a few shades of red shot through. Welcome to the museum, my name is Gary Powers and I'll be your host this morning. Thanks to a very generous donation from the Hunter-White Foundation, our tour group will have the place all to ourselves for the next two hours!" His eyes lit up as he handed everyone a brochure, showing the kids how to download the museum's brand-new app on their phone for the audio tour. "This is going to be very exciting, because the four of you will be touring our brand-new exhibit floors we've just opened up for November. Right now our first floor is devoted to Champions of the Rising Sun: A Super History of Japan, and the second floor is Bugging Out: Insects and the Meta Community. You'll be the very first guests to see them!" 

 

This is perfect! thought Aquaria excitedly, hopping back and forth from one foot to the other. 

 

"Are there any questions?" 

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  • 3 weeks later...

Jessie stayed quiet through most of the trip, concentrating on driving the unremarkable sedan she'd borrowed to avoid having to bounce Baxter and the students all over town. Before she let him out of the car, she fit Baxter's service vest around his chest and clipped his harness into place. Baxter did not have a uniform, uniforms could make pets into targets, and that would be very bad. Jessie wasn't entirely sure what she would do if someone tried to hurt her dog, and she didn't want to find out. Fortunately, the trip into the museum was made without incident, and she could relax a little bit with no one else around. 

 

While Gary was messing with his own tablet to queue up some tour material, Jessie made her way over to Ryder. "You shouldn't worry too much about what people from the future say," she advised him quietly. "It happens a lot, and usually they aren't right. There are a lot of possible futures and they change all the time. My... um, you know Wander? She's gotten future visitors probably a dozen times and so far none of them have been proven right and some are definitely wrong. So, um, try not to let it bother you." 

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"That's probably a good attitude to take," Ryder agreed with Jessie, having already downloaded the museum's app on his phone on handed before their guide could ready himself. The Robugs had secreted themselves away in the high schooler's shoulder bag, the more excitable among them intermittently trying to sneak peeks from under the flap while their more reserved siblings pulled them back out of sight. Ryder himself sounded a little less exuberant as he mulled over Singularity's words. "It's weird though, right? Like, a future-me or alternate-me still has a bunch in common with me-me. So I start thinking about what intrinsically makes me a unique individual and if somebody already has all those elements what does that even mean? It's heavy."

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Once the supers museum was mentioned Utsawa clenched his jaw slightly as he leaned back in his seat focusing more on tuning out the unhinged ranting the institution brought from his least favorite relative.   He followed a few paces behind as they approached the famed edifice and grimaced at the headlining subject.  With a pause of concentration he silenced his grandfather at least for the moment and tuned back into his surrounding in time to catch the trailing parts of Jessie and Ryders conversation.

 

"Free will makes you unique."  He replied flatly, "Regardless of what destiny or future some one puts on you, or how matched to another you are you still get to choose, even if it is the same choices it's you making the choice."  the dour and usually taciturn teen expounded passionately.  He let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd held and shrugged awkwardly, "We live in a world of clones, dimensional doubles, time travelers, and who knows how many brands of copycats and shapeshifters,"  Utsawa continued more sedately, "Even if some spirit or psychic robs you of that you can fight it and in the fight know you are you no matter what else."

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Aquaria hopped over to join the others as they headed inside the museum. With her trident slung over her back, she was free to hold her three-fingered hands together in front of her as she considered what to say. She was dubious indeed of the idea that most Surfacers truly had free will, but she knew from long experience that was not the sort of thing they enjoyed discussing. Besides, she and Jessie were here to mentor these young males, not debate philosophy with them. Softly she croaked "There are many terrible things in the world. When I think about them, I remember that we are stronger, together. All of us." Bobbing in satisfaction, she hopped ahead to the opening display of the exhibit of Japanese super-history, depicting the brightly-colored members of a super-team in battle against a large snake creature. 

"Here we begin with the members of Squadron Supreme fighting Yashagorō on August 2, 1975," said Gary, shooting a glance at Sea Devil before he went on. "As the first post-war metahuman team in Japan, Squadron Supreme played much the same role in Japan that the Freedom League did, and to this day are honored in their homeland as its greatest defenders." 


"What about him?" croaked Aquaria, pointing at the skyscraper-sized snake, depicted coiled around an entire rocky island. 


"Oh, ah well, he was 'an ancient ninja who mastered serpent magic' and attacked the town of Seinarumori after being freed from captivity. He..." Gary hmmed, then said, "Well, as the exhibit explains in more detail, this was not the last time he would tangle with the Squadron Supreme! But before we talk about the Squadron, we need to go back further in Japanese history..." he went on as they walked into a room full of fantastic images of Japanese gods and monsters engaged in fierce battle, some of them contemporary holograms, others a mix of paintings and statuary. "This exhibit is on loan to us from the Super-Museum in Tokyo," he added. "Some of the artifacts here date back over a thousand years, to the days of Heian Japan..."  

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Jessie had been to the Super Museum several times, both as a tourist and to help clean up as a community service after various calamities, so she wasn't exactly riveted to the tour. "This one time," she told Ryder, "a whole bunch of my dimensional doubles started showing up here on Prime because an evil version of me was trying to kill us all off. I don't think we got an exact count but there were like thirty of us, maybe more? One of them kept committing crimes so I ended up going back to jail for awhile before things got straightened out. But even though we were all the same person genetically and most of us had pretty similar backgrounds up to a point, we were all different. Even small things that change in your life can make you a really different person. The copy of me who is native to this universe and Wander and I were all literally the same person before our timelines split when we were thirteen, and we all ended up totally different. Nobody else has everything that makes you you, I guess I'm saying." She shut her mouth, as though a little embarrassed to have said so much at once. 

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