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Veni, Vidi, Cutie

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A Whateley Academy Adventure

Veni, Vidi, Cutie

by Elrod


(Note - this story is a sequel to "All the King's Horses", which should be read before this story to fully understand what led up to Veni Vidi Cutie.)


Saturday, June 2, 2007 - Evening
Arena 99 Sim Suite, Whateley Academy

"You have to attend the debrief, Lindsay," Deputy Security Chief Samantha Everhart said firmly but gently to the distraught girl in one of the sim suites.

"I ... I can't," Lindsay mumbled, still sitting in her sim chair, her cheeks glistening as she stared dejectedly at the floor.

"Come on, Lindsay," Sam urged again, "every team faces a sim like this. It's part of life."

The girl sat motionless, sobbing softly and not responding, so Sam offered her hand. Like a zombie, Lindsay allowed herself to be pulled up from the sim chair and led down the hall toward the briefing room.

Inside the room, Lindsay barely glanced around, enough to note where her Wondercute teammates and the Star League Junior team members were sitting - and apparently only so she could sit apart from them - just like all the Wondercute members were. Of their opponents, Dredz sat somberly, frowning. If it hadn't been in the sim suites but in the arena, he'd have been very badly injured by Misty, and he knew it. Psymod seemed detached, an almost clinical expression on his face that was unreadable, and when he thought Lindsay was looking at him, he dropped his gaze instantly. Lily's head hung down, her expression grim and her own cheeks moist. And Ashley? Ashley was missing, gone who-knew-where. Lindsay envied her, wishing that she, too, could avoid what was sure to be a painful debrief.

Gunnery Sergeant Oscar Bardue, USMC ret., the heavy weapons range instructor and part of the combat finals supervisory team, made his entrance with his usual style - intimidating Drill Instructor - and he paused to gaze around the room. He started to wind up to deliver his post-mortem, but Sam shook her head firmly at him, stopping whatever sim dissection he was prepared to deliver. Gunny hadn't seen the looks of utter anguish and despair on the faces of both Star League Junior and Wondercute as they emerged from their ill-fated crash. It had been the plan of the staff to hit the Wondercute team hard, and Star League Jr had been selected as just the team do to it. Every group eventually had to hit a scenario that they couldn't win - a "Kobayashi Maru" - but until a few minutes ago, nothing the sim team had thrown at Wondercute had been able to defeat their peculiarly-insane tactics and methods. The team had such a 'larger than life' reputation that even the Grunts were reluctant to go against them.

Instead of his usual scathing analysis, after scanning the girls, Gunny just walked around the room, silently handing the evaluation forms to the sim participants. Even that seemed a bit much for many of them; of Wondercute, only Jade bothered to look at her paper, while Lindsay and Anna, weeping, just let them fall to the floor, still folded.

As Sam stepped forward to say something to the kids, a door opened and two of the staff quick-stepped into the room. "Dr. Markham, Dr. Hayes," she acknowledged.

"We got here as quickly as we could," Dr. Hayes said, a little out of breath.

"Thank you, Doctors," Sam replied. "How's Ashley?"

"We gave her something to calm her down," Dr. Markham reported softly to Sam and Gunny. "She's back in her cottage resting right now."

"Okay, let's talk about what happened in the sim," Sam began gently. "As you all probably guessed, this was a crash. But contrary to your thoughts, it was a crash against both teams."

Lily and Dredz looked up, startled, while the Wondercute members continued to stare at the floor to avoid each other's gazes. For all the difference it made, they could have been replaced by wax figures and they wouldn't have been any less responsive to the instructors.

"In the case of Wondercute," Gunny explained in his usual gruff voice, "you had such a reputation for using the most illogical, unorthodox means against serious odds that frankly scared normal teams, and your winning streak suggested to that other students and teams that there is such a thing as an unbeatable team, that there are no impossible situations. We have to show students that there's no such thing as an unbeatable team or scenario, because when a team or student starts thinking they're invincible, they make mistakes and get killed. You needed a little dose of reality yourselves, that ...."

Dr. Katherine Hayes stepped forward and put her arm on Gunny's, shaking her head sadly. "You're not getting through - at least not to Wondercute," she whispered.

Gunny Bardue stared at her for several seconds before nodding slowly. "Star League Junior - you have a reputation for trying to plan to the nth degree, but you're not good - as a team - at doing 'what ifs' or contingencies in your planning, and in situations that get out of control, you don't adapt as well as you should. That's another huge lesson for all of the students - planning only gets you so far."

"It's no use, Oscar," Sam said softly. "They're ... they're not listening."

With a wail of anguish, Lindsay suddenly bolted from her seat and out the door, catching the instructors by surprise at the suddenness of her action, but even that action by Lindsay didn't stir the other girls of Wondercute. Dr. Hayes winced; it was like the girls were emotionally catatonic. Gunny turned to give chase, but Sam caught the old marine's arm. "I'll alert security to watch for her," she said.

Dr. Hayes nodded her agreement. "It's probably best to take them over to Doyle; it's a ... friendlier environment."

"Okay," Sam and Gunny agreed grudgingly. "Star League Junior - dismissed," Gunny ordered. "Wondercute? Please go with Drs. Hayes and Markham."

Silently, lost in thought, Psymod and Dredz rose from their seats and walked stiffly from the briefing room. Zombie-like, herded by the two doctors, still not looking at each other, the girls of Wondercute also shuffled out of the room, but Lily stayed in her seat, mutely staring at the screen on which replays were normally shown.

"Wallflower?" Sam asked hesitantly. "You're dismissed."

"I ... I want to ... I have to ... see the replay," she stammered uncertainly.

"Okay," Sam gave in to the request. "Do you want me to go over it with you?"

Lily didn't speak, but just shook her head no.

Saturday, June 2, 2007 - Evening
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy

Though they were at the center of a large herd of friends - herd was the only word that fit the moving, amorphous blob of high school students - Jade and Bunny stayed distant from each other, ignoring the attempts at humor and frivolity that Team Kimba and a lot of the other Poesies were making. No matter what was said, it was as if there was a natural barrier between the two Wondercute team-mates, and neither let her gaze or attention go past the invisible line of demarcation.

"There's a party to celebrate the end of combat finals," Nikki purred to Bunny McCormick - Bugs - one arm wrapped around the normally-perky blonde's waist. "How about if we go dancing?"

Bunny Cormick sadly shook her head. "I ... I don't feel like it," she replied softly.

On the other side of the blob, nothing that Billie, Ayla, Hank, or Toni said or did made any impression on their sullen teammate. And when Jade morosely declined Ayla's offer to take her on a 'Hello, Kitty' shopping spree during their planned summer business trip, the other Kimbas cringed; except for Ayla's depression early in the school year and Billie's depression after the hit attempt on team Kimba in their sim, they'd never had a teammate so down, Jade hadn't been even remotely this blue in a very long time.

Mrs. Horton was waiting at the main doors to Poe; the group parted before her like the Red Sea parting before Moses, leaving the two dazed and unresponsive girls standing in front of their house mother. Wordlessly, she extended her arms and swept her two distraught charges into her arms, and the effect was perhaps everything the two needed - with the motherly hug, both began to cry openly, releasing their pent-up fears and doubts about the future of their friendships in Wondercute.

After allowing them to shed a lot of tears, Mrs. Horton turned them, still within her reassuring embrace, and steered them into the cottage and straight toward her apartment, from which emanated the tantalizing aroma of piping hot baked goods. "After a trying day like you've had," she reassured them, her words loud enough that all the friends following would hear and be themselves reassured that she'd somehow find a way to fix things, "I always find that fresh-baked cookies help."

Guiding them to a sofa where they sat at opposite ends with barely a glance at each other, Mrs. Horton flitted into her kitchen and returned with a plate of piping-hot cookies in one hand and two mugs of some fruity beverage clutched dexterously in the other; for the briefest of moments, Bunny had the mental image of Mrs. Horton in a dirndl cheerfully serving mugs of beer to patrons in a Bavarian bierstubbe, several liter-mugs clutched in each hand. That image brought only a momentary distraction from her woes, though, and the sad face and sniffles returned quickly.

After scooting a chair to face the sofa and the girls, Mrs. Horton sat down. "I talked to Dr. Markham," she began quite bluntly, not tiptoeing around the issue. "The staff is pretty worried about you girls ...."

"They weren't when they started this whole thing," Jade complained bitterly without looking up. Like Bugs, she hadn't touched either the cookies or the beverage.

"Jade," a voice interrupted from the doorway in a mild rebuke, "that's not fair, and you know it." Angel glided into the room and took a seat in another chair, facing the two distraught girls.

"They didn't like us," Bunny sniffled. "I know I heard Gunny and Sam say it a lot - they didn't like what we did in sims." She still hadn't looked at Jade, nor had Jade looked at her.

"What did Dr. Markham say?" Mrs. Horton prompted, trying to get the girls to talk about something other than the well-known, loudly-professed dislike the sim staff had for Wondercute's extremely unorthodox tactics. Such thoughts would only serve to reinforce their belief that the staff had intended to smack down Wondercute so hard that they broke the team.

"She talked a bunch," Jade muttered, studying the way her hands were folded in her lap.

"What did she talk about? Did she offer any helpful advice?" When Jade didn't answer, she turned to the blonde. "Bunny?"

"She just said a bunch of stuff," Bunny said sadly. "I ... I wasn't really listening."

"No, I suppose not," Mrs. Horton said sympathetically. "She told me that you girls were obviously still in shock over what had happened, and that she didn't think any of you heard what she was trying to tell you."

Angel cleared her throat, fidgeting uncomfortably in her chair, her expression one of guilt and sadness and profound remorse. "Um," she began hesitantly, "I ... kind of knew what was going to happen." Her voice was timid and apologetic, and she flinched visibly when Jade looked up at her, both grief and accusation in her eyes.

"I ... I couldn't help but know," Angel continued, feeling her eyes starting to water at Jade's accusatory look. "Rooming with Lily? I ... I heard a lot of their planning."

"Why ...?" Jade began, feeling betrayed by the older girl who she thought was her friend.

"You know why!" Angel retorted, her effort at controlling her tears becoming futile as the waterworks turned on. "It's part of the code of ethics! It'd be ... like helping someone cheat on a test! I ... I couldn't!" She wiped ineffectually at the liquid streaks on one cheek. "I ... I'm so sorry!" she blubbered. "I wanted to tell you, but ...."

If anything, Angel's admission caused even more anguish in Jade, evidenced by the sharp turn of her head away from Angel and the soft sobbing that emanated from the petite girl. It looked as if more friendships were casualties of the ill-fated sim.

Mrs. Horton noticed. "Angel, could you be a dear and walk Bunny upstairs? I know it's been a long day for them, and she'd probably like to shower and get some rest." Mrs. Horton rose and encircled the blonde in an almost-smothering motherly embrace. "Things will look brighter in the morning," she promised the girl. Over Bunny's shoulder, she mouthed to Angel, 'Talk to her.'

After Bunny and Angel left, Mrs. Horton moved to the sofa and sat beside Jade, wrapping her arm comfortingly around her charge. "Sam and Gunny both called me," she said as she gently stroked Jade's hair. "It was a crash against both teams," she explained, "not just against Wondercute." She felt rather than saw the girl look up at her, so she turned to her. "Yes, it's true. Gunny said he told you that in the debrief, but he wasn't sure you heard him. Anyway, I don't know all the details - you'd be better off asking Ayla - but someone wanted to teach Star League Junior a lesson about flexibility in planning their simulations. It was a crash against both of you."

Jade's big sad puppy-dog eyes were practically begging for reassurance, confirmation that what Mrs. Horton had said was true, but she just couldn't believe it - not after what had happened. "But ...."

Mrs. Horton clutched the angst-ridden girl tighter. "It was a simulation. You know how these things go. Do you remember when you all did Dark Phoenix simulations?" Jade nodded. "You didn't let that break up the team. And when Ayla wouldn't do Dark Phase?"

"Ayla said Gunny threatened to kick him off our team," Jade said morosely.

"Team Kimba survived all of that. Your friendships survived all of that, even though the simulations were really difficult for you, right? Things will be better - if you girls want them to be. You have to give yourself and your friends time to get over the shock."

"But ... but Lindsay ... and Misty ...!" Jade whimpered softly, shaking her head sadly and fighting back tears. "And Anna ..." she let her gaze drop. "Anna thinks it's all because I had a bad plan and wasn't a good leader."

"I thought you weren't talking to each other."

Jade started, glancing at Mrs. Horton with her mouth agape at the house-mother's logic, before looking down again. "Um, just ... the way ... the way she looked at me when, um, when Dr. Markham was trying to talk to us."

"Jade, dear," Mrs. Horton said soothingly, "I doubt Anna was thinking that. That doesn't sound like her at all, does it? Is it possible that she was just stunned like the rest of you? Maybe she just didn't know what to say? That she was upset and embarrassed at what she thought you thought of her?"

The short girl considered for a moment. "Maybe."

"If you asked her, maybe you'd find that she's upset with herself for having to stop Misty the way she did, and she's terrified that all of you think she's a terrible teammate because of that."

"I don't know," the pint-sized girl said forlornly. "She ... none of them ... want to talk to me," Jade wasn't ready to feel hopeful. Not after the expressions she'd seen in the brief glimpses the girls of Wondercute had given each other.

Saturday, June 2, 2007 - Evening
Dickinson Cottage, Whateley Academy

"Mrs. Nelson?" a small, half-frightened voice sounded from the house-mother's open apartment door. As much as she could, Aileen Nelson kept her door open so that her girls - and she thought of all her charges in Dickinson Cottage as her girls - wouldn't be afraid to talk to her.

Turning toward the door, Mrs. Nelson wasn't in the least bit surprised to see Lindsay Fellows, looking quite distraught to the point of being nearly in tears. She'd been notified by Dr. Markham's staff - and by Sam Everhart - of the sim and its aftermath, and even if they hadn't called her, she'd seen the sim. She made a habit of watching her charges in their combat finals, because over the years she'd learned that many girls every term were severely impacted or even devastated by their finals. She liked to know what had happened so she would know how to work with the girls.

"Come in, Lindsay," she said invitingly, rising to meet the girl, who she enveloped in a motherly hug. From the way the girl trembled, Mrs. Nelson knew that her instincts had been spot-on; Lindsay needed comforting. As she guided the girl to sit on the sofa in her living room, Mrs. Nelson continued, "Would you like a brownie or some lemonade? I made them fresh this afternoon."

"No thank you," Lindsay muttered, ignoring the wet lines down her cheeks. "I ... I don't feel hungry right now," she added.

Mrs. Nelson permitted herself a momentary bit of self-satisfaction; even as distraught as the psych staff at Doyle had reported, Lindsay hadn't forgotten her manners, just as Mrs. Nelson had tried to instill in all the girls. "What's on your mind, dear?"

"Can I ... may I ... sleep somewhere else?" Lindsay asked in a shy, almost pitiful voice. "For the rest of the term? It's only a few days," she added quickly.

Mrs. Nelson cringed inwardly; Dr. Markham had said that Lindsay might feel intense self-recrimination for the events in the sim, and might even interpret the other girls' reactions to mean that they blamed her and didn't want to be with her anymore. "Can you please tell me why?"

Sniffling, fighting tears, full of self-doubt, Lindsay stumbled and stammered her way through explaining the sim to Mrs. Nelson; as the older, more experienced woman expected, Lindsay's version was more than slightly tainted by the fact that she blamed herself for the debacle, and especially for what had happened to Misty.

"So you'd rather not face Molly tonight?" The girl's response was a silent shake of her head. With a sigh, Mrs. Nelson continued. "You're going to have to talk to her sooner or later."

Lindsay's head turned up to look at Mrs. Nelson as if the effort were herculean. Her plaintive look tugged at the house-mother's heartstrings, and despite knowing that it would be best for the two girls to smooth things out as quickly as possible, she couldn't discount Lindsay's feelings or the advice given her by Dr. Markham, which was to let the girls have a little time to rest and think.

"Please?" Lindsay almost begged.

"Okay," Mrs. Nelson reluctantly agreed. She didn't like Dr. Markham's advice; over the years, she'd found it much more helpful for her to mediate a reconciliation over cookies and soft drinks, but the girl was so plainly emotionally and physically exhausted that she was clearly not ready. "Three fifteen isn't occupied right now, so I can let you sleep there for a night or two."

Saturday, June 2, 2007 - Evening
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy

Chou's hand atop Molly's was reassuring; that Chou and Dorjee had come immediately to meet her was indicative of their unwavering support, which at a time like this, Molly really needed. "Lindsay ... moved out!" Molly cried in almost overwhelming distress.

Chou's jaw dropped, as did Dorjee's. "What?"

"She moved out!" the distraught girl repeated. "When I got to our room, her ... her bedding and books ... and some of her clothes ... were gone!" she managed to stutter between sobs. "She ... she even ... took her dragon posters, and ... and ...," Molly broke down and wept. "She doesn't want to be my friend anymore. She doesn't even want to be around me!"

Chou recovered from shock first. "I'm sure she's just upset," she tried to assure Molly. "She's afraid that you don't trust her, that you're going to think that she's a coward."

"No, she blames me for the whole mess," Molly cried unhappily. "She ... thinks ... it's all my fault!"

"Did she say that in your meeting with Dr. Markham?" Chou asked.

"No, she didn't say anything. Nobody did. Only Dr. Markham talked. She said we have to talk to each other and listen to each other," Molly reported unhappily. "She asked all of us to verbalize what we were feeling, but ... no-one said anything. No-one ... Lindsay ... she didn't even look at me!" Molly wept. "Dr. Markham said that as friends, we needed to look past the sim and think about how much we mean to each other, but they wouldn't even look at me!"

"Sounds like you should listen to the doctor's advice," Dorjee observed. The third in the polyamorous love triangle with Chou at the apex, he could have sounded mean or mocking, but instead, he sounded like a very concerned friend who was genuinely interested in helping Molly.

"And then I got to my room and found that Lindsay moved out! She didn't even talk to me; she was just gone!"

"She'll come back," Dorjee comforted Molly. "I'm sure, once she's had a little time to herself."

"But ... Mrs. Nelson wouldn't tell me where she went!" Molly wept bitterly. "Lindsay must have told her she doesn't want to see me, so ... so I can't. And if she wants to avoid me," Molly added, "it wouldn't be that hard."

"How about the others?" Chou tried changing the subject, probing a bit more for Molly's feelings and fears. "Do you think they blame Lindsay?"

"You know that she ... had to do what she did in the sim," Dorjee added his opinion. "That's part of being a training team - you have to think of the big picture."

"I know!" Molly said with a nod. "But ... the others ... nobody said anything. Nobody even looked at anyone!" She collapsed against Chou, who had slid her chair next to that of her soulmate and was now hugging Molly. "Everyone thinks that ... she ran from them! That she abandoned the team!"

"Is it possible that maybe, subconsciously, you do feel a little bit like her leaving the fight was kind of a betrayal?" Chou was picking her wording carefully to get Molly to think instead of react emotionally.

"Huh?" Molly started. "Of course not! I don't think ..." she started to say, but her certainty faltered. "I ... maybe. I don't know."

"How would you feel if you were in her shoes?" Chou continued gently asking questions to lead Molly to an understanding.

"I'd ... I'd be scared," Molly admitted while Chou wiped her cheeks. "I'd think that everyone was mad at me because they thought I'd run away like a coward and abandoned them. I'd ... worry that no-one trusts me anymore."

"Do you think that the other girls feel that way?" Chou asked softly.

Molly sat silently for a few moments; for a few seconds in the immediate aftermath of the sim, she had felt like Lindsay had run away. "Maybe."

"Or maybe they were so stunned by the sim that they don't know what to think?"

"I bet Jade understands," Dorjee said with certainty. "She's been in tough sims before."

Molly nodded her head sadly. "Maybe. But I bet not like this."

"Do you want to keep the team together?" Dorjee asked bluntly.

"It's not that easy. Nobody is talking," Molly replied disconsolately.

"Do you want to keep the team together?" the boy repeated.

Molly's head snapped toward him, and she stared for a few seconds, her mouth open to reply with the obvious answer, but words weren't quite ready to come forth. "Of course I do! But ...." she tried to answer, but she wasn't sure what answer to give. "I ..." She shook her head, looking back down at the table. "I can't make us get together again - not if the others don't want to."

"But you want to, right?" Chou asked rhetorically, knowing from her soul-mate's demeanor that keeping Wondercute together was extremely important to her.

The grief in Molly's heart was as strong as when Wondercute had left the sim debriefing room, and that hadn't been lessened any by the attempt at group counseling from Dr. Markham. "I don't know if all of us can get past this."

"If you want to keep the team," Dorjee said cautiously, "then you're going to have to lead by example. You're going to have to show the others that you don't blame anyone for what happened. That you are going to leave what happened in the sims in the sims."

"That's ... not ...." She cut off her reply. "I ... I don't even know where Lindsay is!" she cried. "How can I show her - and everyone else - that I don't blame her if she's avoiding me?"

Sunday, June 3, 2007 - Mid-Morning
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy

With a world-weary expression, Jade trudged from her room to the second floor communal girls bathroom. As the door opened with a slight squeak, because the hinges were naturally a little old, she started toward the stall but stopped abruptly. Jinn, who she thought was still in her room, was standing at a sink as if she was studying herself in the mirror, which was a most peculiar and unnecessary behavior for the spirit girl. Cocking an eyebrow in puzzlement, Jade nevertheless went to the stall to finish her business. When done, she went to the sink to wash her hands, Jinn inexplicably went into one of the bathroom stalls closing the door behind her. Shaking her head in puzzlement, Jade went into the hall; the sound of the door opening caught her attention and she looked down the hall, to her surprise Jinn emerged from Hank's room and half-floated, half-walked to the opposite end of the hall and descended the staircase to the ground floor.

Turning back towards her and Billie's room, Jade halted again when she saw Jinn going into Ayla's room. Now frowning, obviously not in the mood for whatever was going on, Jade marched into her room. Her jaw dropped as she froze staring at the impossible sight of three Jinns, all floating in different parts of the room and all studying from different books. And Billie sat at her desk, totally unperturbed, studying for her algebra final.

"Oneesan," Jade exclaimed, exasperation in her voice, "what's going on here?"

Billie lifted her head from her book and turned to look at Jade. "What are you talking about?" she asked innocently.

Jade rolled her eyes and sighed heavily. "There's only supposed to be one Jinn!"

"I hadn't noticed, but now that you mention it, it does seem a little odd to see three copies of Jinn floating around. And here I thought you were pulling a prank on me," Billie said, looking carefully at Jade, as if trying to discern Jade's inner thoughts and motivations from her expression; all of Team Kimba knew that was a futile effort. Jade was very skilled at playing innocent even with the most fiendish plots swirling about in her mind.

"Billie!" Jade griped. "Knock it off! I've got some serious studying to do!"

"It's not me!" Billie corrected her firmly. "Maybe it's Ayla. Why don't you go ask him? He probably knows what's going on."

"I'll do that," Jade said sternly, before she turned and stomped to the door and across the hall. It was less knocking and more banging that she did on Ayla's door. "Ayla!" Jade called loudly and sternly. "Open up!"

The door opened quickly, as if Ayla had been waiting for Jade to knock, which only made the petite girl more convinced that Ayla was behind whatever prank was going on. "Do you need something, Jade?" he asked innocently.

Jade frowned, her eyes narrowing, and she put her hands sternly on her hips to show how upset she was. "There's only supposed to be one Jinn!"

Ayla nodded. "Yes, I know." He turned his shoulder slightly, allowing Jade to see into the room, where to her surprise, she saw Jinn sitting in a beanbag chair reading a book. "She said she was taking a break from studying advanced algebra, and wanted to read something different."

"Then why is she in the bathroom?" Jade demanded. "And going upstairs, and going into Hank's room, while leaving three of herself for us to find in my room?"

Ayla shrugged, a neutral expression on his face. "I have no idea," he said simply. Then his eyes narrowed, and he carefully scrutinized Jade's expression. "Is this some kind of joke? Because if it is, it's a really inopportune time; I'm trying to study for my calculus final. From the way Kayda has been teaching, I suspect she's going to give me a rather difficult final."

Before Jade could respond, a door noisily opened about halfway down the hall, and Hank's head poked out. Looking up and down the hall, his gaze stopped and focused on the short girl. "Jade!" Hank bellowed. "Would you tell Jinn that I'm busy trying to study and do not want to spar with her right now?"

Ayla looked down the hall to Hank. "Jinn's in here," he said and then a frown crossed his face. "Unless Jade is trying to pull some goofy prank again...." He turned slowly back to the short girl, one eyebrow arched half-accusingly.

Jade goggled at Ayla momentarily and then she frowned. "I'm not doing whatever's happening," she denied defensively. Spinning on her heel, she marched back into her room. "Whoever is doing this, stop!"

The three Jinns in the room turned toward her, staring as if they didn't comprehend what she was talking about. Hands on hips, Jade glared at the trio. A moment later, another Jinn floated over her head into the room, heading straight for her desk and picking up a book, flipping it open as if to study. A nudge from behind pushed her slightly to one side and yet another Jinn came into the room.

"Jade!" Ayla called out, catching the small girl's attention.

Poe's pint-size Princess of pranks turned to see why Ayla wanted her attention. Following where Ayla was looking, she saw still another Jinn coming out of Hank's room, while a seventh glided down the stairs at the far end of the hall. She drew a deep breath and exhaled very slowly, clenching her jaw shut. "Beltane!" she yelled into the air. "Knock it off! I'm not in the mood for your pranks!"

Ayla followed Jade into the room, which by now was becoming rather crowded with what appeared to be copies of Jinn. "Well this is quite the gathering," Ayla observed in a neutral voice.

"Do you think Beltane is behind this?" Billie asked, her gaze flitting about the room and all the copies of Jade's manifested 'sister'. "I guess this means we're going to have another prank war," Billie said with a sigh.

Taking a deep breath, Jade turned to Ayla." Can you please go talk to Beltane and tell her I don't have time for this stuff?"

Hank was by now standing in the doorway listening in. "What?!?" He asked in shock. "You mean you're not going to prank her back?"

"No!" Jade practically screamed. "I just want to be left alone so I can study in peace!" The pint-sized terror turned and stomped out of the room, muttering as she did so, "I'm going to the library where I can study in peace." With that, she stomped down the hall and down the stairs.

In Jade's room, Hank sighed heavily. "Well, that didn't work."

"What now?" Billie asked, her voice thoroughly tinged with worry.

Ayla started to shake his head, but then stopped as an idea formed in his head, almost visibly showing on his features. "The problem is," he said, "none of the girls are interacting, not even talking. Maybe we need to spur them into action together, instead of each by themselves." He turned to Hank, his expression firm. "Come on, Hank," he said, marching with determination into the hall.

"Where are you going in such a hurry, Ayles?" Toni asked from the bathroom door as Ayla marched past her, with Hank right on his heels.

"The first plan didn't work," Ayla replied, "so now we try something different. And I've got just the idea."

Sunday, June 3, 2007 - Lunch
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

The Kimba table, normally a hotbed of chatter and excitement, was unusually morose. It didn't help Jade's mood that everyone seemed to be staring at her and the other Wondercute members - who were scattered throughout the cafeteria, not sitting together as they frequently did, but sitting individually with their own groups. Anna was at the Underdogs' table; from a distance, one could tell that she was unusually somber and quiet. The grief and agony in her subdued expression could be read from halfway across the cafeteria. Even Jerry, Anna's boyfriend seated beside her, seemed to be unable to get through her intense funk. Lindsay was with the Seeds. Misty was seated by herself, pressed into the corner of a booth. Molly wasn't even here, notably absent from the table with Dorjee and Chou, which was where she sat when she wasn't with Wondercute. And the Wondercute table sat empty amid the sea of students, a stark contrast to its former state as a hub of boisterous enthusiasm and overwhelming cuteness in doses that would induce diabetes in all but the strongest of heart, bearing silent testimony to the feeling of utter hopelessness felt by the once-fervent defenders of all things adorable.

Jade, with a profoundly sad expression on her face, slowly approached the Team Kimba table, noticing that most of her teammates were staring at her, concern writ large on their features. Bunny sat beside Fey, but was barely touching her food, instead staring despondently at her plate. Jade felt a chill; the only spot left open at the table was beside Bunny, between her and Billie; she had a momentary flare of anger as she tried to read Ayla's face, knowing that it had to have been his plan to force the two to sit together, but as usual, Ayla had schooled his expression carefully and betrayed nothing. On second thought, it could have been her oneesan Billie, who had been worrying over her in a way that would have made the average doting mother seem totally indifferent to her offspring.

With a sigh, Jade sat down between Bunny and Billie, and almost immediately, Jade's oneesan elbowed her in the side, then gave a head-tilt toward Bunny, indicating in no uncertain terms that Jade should at least be cordial with her blonde teammate, even though they'd both gone out of their way through their morning routines to not interact.

"Hi," Jade said very hesitantly, afraid of the reaction she was sure she was going to get. After all, it had been her improvised, hasty plan which had led to their downfall.

"Hi," Bunny said meekly.

For several awkward seconds, there was silence, and then the two girls both broke down, desperately fearful that their friendship was forever ruined. "I'm sorry!" they both blubbered before they turned and clutched each other tightly.

"I'm sorry I didn't have a better plan," Jade muttered through tears.

"You ... did the best you could," Bunny countered, shaking her head. "I ... I wasn't much help," Bunny apologized. "I didn't ... contribute much."

Unseen to Jade, Billie turned to Ayla and gave an approving nod.

The Bad Seeds Table, Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

Glancing around at the other Seeds seated at their table, Jadis sighed; as expected, Lindsay sat on the outskirts of the group, pointedly ignoring Mal and Nephandus and the others as they tried to engage her in conversation, a task which seemed to be totally in vain. Lindsay wasn't really eating, but was picking at her food to the point that what had once been perhaps an omelet was no longer recognizable as such.

"Hey, Jadis," Nephandus greeted her as she stopped at the table, standing and staring at the group.

"I heard you made out like a bandit with the bookies on the crash," Nacht observed with her usual droll tone, inviting a glare of disapproval from Jadis. "Why were you certain it was going to be a draw?"

Lindsay froze, then slowly lifted her head to look at Jadis, her moist eyes reflecting her sense of sadness and now a sense of betrayal. After meeting Jadis' gaze for a moment, her anger crumbled and she looked back down, wanting more than anything to be alone. She shifted her weight in a way that made it obvious she was going to leave.

Though she was far from the most senior of the Seeds, Jadis carried more than her share of influence, not only because of her demeanor and knowledge of practically everything that happened around Whateley, but also because she was the daughter of Dr. Diabolik. Scowling, she looked around the table and then, unseen by Lindsay, cocked her head toward the conveyor belts that carried dirty dishes to the kitchen, while she also put her hand on Lindsay's shoulder, firm enough to let the girl know Jadis wanted her to stay put.

The slower of the Seeds actually needed nudges from their buddies, but in very short order, they all left the table, leaving a spot for Jadis to sit beside Lindsay in relative privacy.

"You ... you knew!" Lindsay finally accused.

"Yeah," Jadis acknowledged softly, nodding. "I ... knew."

"Why ... why didn't you say anything?" Lindsay was hurt that her friend hadn't helped.

"Because ...," Jadis began, but then she glanced around, eyeing who was nearby. Satisfied, she turned back to Lindsay and sighed. "I almost failed my final for cheating, because it was obvious to Gunny that I knew some of the parameters of my sim." Jadis admitted in a very hushed voice.

Lindsay's eyes nearly bulged from their sockets. "So ... if you had told me ...."

Somberly, Jadis nodded. "If I had told you, and you girls did something that made it apparent that you knew what was coming, Gunny would have blamed me."

"And you'd have gotten in trouble."

"Or expelled."

Lindsay chewed on that data for a moment. "I'm sorry," she apologized. "I ... I guess I can't really blame you."

"That's okay," Jadis accepted the apology.

"So how ...?"

Jadis' expression tightened, and her eyes narrowed. "I don't want to talk about it."

Surprised by the reactions of the Diabolik girl, Lindsay flinched a bit. "Okay." She played a bit more with her food, and found that she actually wanted a bite of the chocolate croissant she'd put on her plate. "So what do you want to talk about?" she asked when she finished the buttery, chocolatey treat.

"Simple," Jadis said. "How to fix this mess."

Goggling at her friend for a moment, startled by Jadis' response, Lindsay glanced around at the other team member she could see, and then at the pitiful, forlorn expressions at the three students seated at the Star League Junior table. "I think it's too late for that," she said, shaking her head sadly. "I don't know how my ... teammates ... are going to forgive me for abandoning them."

"As long as you girls are alive, it's not too late," Jadis tried to assure the girl.

Outside Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

With a new swagger to their walk, Buster, Strongarm, Legbreaker, and Crunch strutted toward the cafeteria. Buster had a particularly evil grin; it was clear from his visage that he was up to no good, in keeping with his well-earned reputation as a bully. After what they'd witnessed yesterday in the last crash and heard about the aftermath, all of the bullies were eager to take advantage of the situation and get in a last bit of pushing around students before they went home for the summer. No better time to kick someone else than when they were down, and it was painfully obvious to everyone that the squirrel girl was down. In fact, rumors put the entirety of Wondercute, that obnoxious gang of cutesy girls, in Doyle for counseling and having totally split up.

Buster had a deep grudge with one particular member of that gang of wacky girls, and he wasn't going to pass up the chance to get even. He already had a plan, too - or at least the outline of the inklings of a plan - he'd start with a little gloating; he couldn't be accused of starting anything, but it would get to Aquerna. And if he really got her goat, then maybe he'd find an opening during the rest of the week to properly 'thank her' for the fall combat final in which she utterly humiliated him.

"Delarose, coming in fast," Crunch hissed to the group. Indeed, Chief Delarose and a full, heavily armed security squad were on an intercept course with the bullies. With them was one of the doctors from Doyle, a gray-haired fellow that looked overly stuffy and formal in his suit.

"Can I help you, Chief?" Buster turned to the incoming group, his expression turning instantly to one of warmth and friendliness, even though it was totally a transparent façade that Delarose could see through.

"Yes. Doctor Bellows?"

The suit stepped forward. "Under section 17 of the student handbook, you are prohibited from interacting with students under my medical care. These students are Generator, Dragonrider, Gateway, Aquerna, Bugs, Superchick, Wallflower, Phoenixfire, Psymod, and Dredz."

"Section 17?" Buster and the others didn't have to play dumb; they had no idea of the contents of the student handbook or its many rules. "And why pick on us?" he added, trying to sound aggrieved.

Delarose wasn't buying it. "Your reputation and record for bullying students is well known, and you have, on more than one occasion, picked Aquerna as a target for attack."

"But ...," Buster started to protest, "that wasn't me! I didn't ..."

"Don't play innocent with me," Bellows countered gruffly. "You're a bully and everyone knows it - even if you sometimes have your friends do the dirty work. And it's well-known that you're still carrying a grudge from your fall combat final," he added.

"Under Section 17, the students are under full-time medical care with close security protection. If you attempt to interact with them, you will be expelled from Whateley." Delarose glared at the boys. "Understood?"

Buster gulped nervously; he'd never been talked to like this. On the one hand, it made the girls bigger targets for him to want to bully. On the other hand, getting kicked out would land him in even more trouble back home. "Yes, sir," he stammered.

The security chief looked around at the other known thugs until they, too, nodded their understanding. "Good." Delarose stepped away from the doors into Crystal Hall, allowing the boys to pass. When they were inside and the doors were shut again, Delarose turned to Bellows. "Think that's going to work?"

"Very likely, yes," Bellows nodded. "Buster and his friends aren't smart enough to look in the handbook, or they'd know there's nothing related to bullying in Section 17. It'll buy us a couple of days." He and the chief turned away from the door, looking for other potential problem students. "Hopefully," he added somberly, "that'll be long enough."

"With a couple of security guards shadowing your patients randomly and periodically, the gossip mill will get the word out really fast." He paused. "Let's find TNT."

"Don't worry about them," Bellows snickered.

Delarose frowned. "Why not? They're well-known bullies."

"Not since they started dating the Furies."

"What? When did that start?" Delarose asked, perplexed. "And Tisiphone is borderline UV herself."

"Tisiphone and Nitro became an item sometime after the incident with Kayda and Loophole. And for some reason, she's very fond of Anna, which is extremely surprising, since Anna is also a good friend of Ayla."

"Tissy's mortal enemy."

"Precisely. I haven't been able to get her to tell me why she's fond of Anna, though."

"Are you sure? Those guys are habitual offenders. In fact, the Furies aren't exactly girl-scouts!"

"If Tisiphone likes Anna, she'll make sure the boys and her friends don't do anything to hurt her," Bellows explained.

Delarose mouth opened as if to ask a question, but then his jaw dropped and he googled as the doctor nodded knowingly. Delarose slowly closed his mouth. "That," he muttered unhappily, "is a mental image I could have done without."

Between Crystal Hall and Poe, Whateley Academy

Bunny glanced around the group nervously; it was plain to even the blind that something was really bugging Nikki, and she was visibly keeping her distance from Ayla. Despite walking side-by-side after an emotional reconciliation, neither Bugs nor Jade looked any too hopeful, and their expressions reflected that fact.

Because of some unknown serious tension underlying the group, Team Kimba walked wordlessly to Poe, and up to their floor. Hank continued to the third floor to find Lily, while the rest wandered down the hall to the 'changeling' end of the floor and their rooms. After shooting an indignant glare at Ayla, Nikki sulked into her room, punctuating her despondency by closing the door with more force than was necessary.

"Nikki's all stressed about something. I should go talk..." Bunny started, her gaze fixed on the door that had just slammed shut.

"No," Toni interrupted her firmly. "There's nothing you can do - Nikki's all wound up about the memorial this afternoon." She'd tried to deliver her verdict in a neutral tone, but like all the Poesies, she too was deeply affected by the losses in the spring term, and the customary service was a brutal reminder that had everyone in the cottage on edge.

Jade turned toward her room, but Billie's hand stopped her. "No, Jade," she said softly to her roommate. "You two need to talk."

The petite girl looked up uneasily at her roommate, then nodded slowly. "Okay, oneesan," she said, her voice barely audible. As the group dispersed in their own directions, Jade looked at the floor, fidgeting and scuffing her toe on the carpet. "Um," she said nervously, "what now?"

Bunny shook her head sadly. "I ... I don't know," she replied, her voice strained and a stricken expression on her visage. "Is ... is it ... is it the end?" she asked, and as she spoke, tears started trickling and then running freely from her eyes.

Jade had been controlling her emotions, but Bunny's anguished voice pushed the tiny girl to shed her own tears. "I ... don't know," she replied, suddenly flinging herself around Bunny in a desperate hug, as if her very existence depended on clinging to her friend.

"They ... wouldn't look at me this morning," Bunny lamented as she embraced Jade.

"I'm worried about Anna. Buster and his bully friends might try to take advantage, that without us to protect her, he might try and hurt her."

"What can we do if she won't even talk to us? When I went to the Underdog table this morning, she saw me coming and ... and she ran away. She ... wouldn't even give me a chance to talk to her!" the blonde wailed. "I ... I don't want Wondercute to end," she said, freeing a hand from the hug so she could wipe the moisture from one cheek, "but ... but with this, and summer, and ...."

"Yeah. I know." Jade replied. "But ... we probably would have ... you know ... split up over the summer anyway." Her words were a lie, and she knew it. Moreover, Bunny knew it; Jade was just trying to take some of the sting out of the split.

Sunday, June 3, 2007 - Early Afternoon
Arena 99 Control Room, Whateley Academy

Dr. Alfred Bellows wasn't a frequent visitor to the small conference room situated beside the simulation control room for Arena 99, but at the moment, he was wondering if he shouldn’t perhaps make himself more of a regular guest.

"Come in," Sam Everheart said as more of a directive than an invitation, "and have a seat." She was seated at the small conference table with Gunny Bardue, and from the looks on their faces, Dr. Bellows was reasonable sure he knew the topic. "Coffee?"

Dr. Bellows eased into one of the chairs, which was surprisingly comfortable for a conference room chair. He'd have to remember to ask about them after the meeting; it'd be good to get seats like that in Doyle's conference rooms. "Yes, that'd be good."

"The pot is in the control room," Gunny snorted. "It's self-serve."

"In that case," the doctor said with a shrug, "I'll pass, so I don't distract you too long from your busy schedules." He glanced back and forth between the two. "Wondercute?"

Sam nodded. "And Star League Junior."

"Two different problems," Dr. Bellows said confidently. Seeing their startled reactions, he continued. "Once they started to engage Star League Junior, the girls in Wondercute were taken down so neatly and quickly that it shocked them. They didn't have time to mentally process what was happening, and," he shrugged his shoulders, "it overwhelmed them."

"How do we fix it?" Gunny asked bluntly and gruffly.

Dr. Bellows started. "I ... I was given to understand that you didn't like Wondercute! At least that's what all the second-hand comments seem to indicate."

Sam spoke before Gunny could say something that could be misinterpreted. "They're a huge source of frustration to the sim crew," she admitted, "but ... the problem is that they seemed invincible. We had to show them that they're not. But at the same time, we need their insanity in the sims to keep other teams on their toes."

"I see," Dr. Bellows drew out the second word. "In my professional opinion, your scenario hit them so hard and fast that they're having what used to be called 'shell shock'."

Sam thoughtfully nodded. "And your opinion on Star League Junior?"

"They're a whole different set of issues. Guilt and self-recrimination about what they did to Wondercute. Shock that Phoenixfire lost her temper like she did. Doubt about their ability to plan and execute. Doubt about whether they're cut out to be superheroes. And Phoenixfire is about half-convinced that she's a rager," he added somberly.

"What do we do? Put them in the sim again and coach them through it to help them get their confidence back?" Gunny asked unhappily.

"Good God, no!" Bellows snapped. "That'd be the single worst thing you could do."

"So what, then?"

"If I knew all the answers," Bellows admitted unhappily, "I'd have already told you." He shook his head. "I'm afraid we're going to have to play this one by ear to figure out how to solve it. And quickly."

Sunday, June 3, 2007 - Early Afternoon
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy

"Lily," Falcon said softly to his daughter, "your mom and I both know how tough this business can be. You have to make tough decisions. People are going to get hurt." He shook his head. "You can't get away from that fact. And you can't let yourself feel guilty when someone else's actions cause them to get hurt."

"But ...," Lily sputtered, "we ... we were used! Gunny and Admiral Everheart had us plan and plot and scheme to ... to deliberately hurt Wondercute!"

Robert Turner shook his head, frowning. "No, you weren't used to hurt Wondercute. You were supposed to capture them, and according to Gunnery Sergeant Bardue, hopefully teach the girls to take the sims a little more seriously."

"But ... it's the same thing!" Lily protested unhappily. "They used us to smack them down, and it worked." She let her gaze drop to the coffee table in the lobby of Poe, which stood before a sofa on which she and her dad were sitting. "They ... they broke us up, too!" she added bitterly. To her dad's dismay, the minor protest receded, and Lily went back to sulking.

The main doors opened, and Tabitha Turner, Lily's mom, strolled in, her eyes scanning for and then fixing on her husband and daughter. Robert practically bolted from the sofa to intercept his wife.

"Any luck?" Tabitha 'Tabby Cat' asked.

Robert shook his head. "She feels guilty about a lot of stuff. Wondercute breaking up, Ashley's mental state. And she's afraid that Star League Junior is broken, too."


"Of the four of them, Charles is the only one who's not bitter about it. But Mark blames himself for his role in the mess," Robert reported. "Ashley is convinced she's a rager, and Lily thinks she's responsible for everything because she was the liaison between the sim staff and her team while they were planning this little fiasco."

Tabby Cat sighed. "Okay." She strolled over to the sofa and held out her hand towards Lily. "Let's go for a walk," she suggested. Or rather, she directed Lily while making it sound like a mere suggestion.

Silently, mother and daughter walked out of Poe, and to Lily's surprise, her mom turned away from the quad, onto a well-worn path. "Where ...?" Lily started to ask, curiosity getting the better of her.

"Whenever I wanted a little privacy," Tabby Cat said with a look that indicated she was waxing nostalgic, "I used to walk down to the lake." She chuckled softly. "You know, that's where I first met your father." Seeing that she had gotten Lily's attention, she continued, "He and a couple of his friends were fishing. They had a little 'outdoor club', and sometimes they'd get tents and gear and go hiking and backpacking and fishing. Outdoor stuff."

"Is that where you started doing outdoor stuff?" Lily asked.

"Oh, good heavens no!" Tabitha chuckled. "I thought they were fools, to be honest. It wasn't until much later that your father convinced me to try camping."

"I never knew that."

"There are a lot of things from our high school days that you don't know," Tabitha replied with a mischievous grin. "And you won't know until you're out of high school. Or college. And some - well, let's just say that children usually do not want to know some things about their parents."

Lily's face screwed up into an expression of shock and disgust at the thoughts rummaging around in her brain, most of which were mental images that were a little disturbing. "We ... we aren't going to have that kind of talk, are we?"

"No. I just thought a break from campus, down by the lake, would be refreshing and take your mind off things for a bit."

"We ... we ruined a lot of friendships," Lily said morosely, "in that stupid sim."

Tabitha shook her head. "You can't blame yourself. I'm sure your counselor told you the same thing."

"That doesn't make it feel any better. I still feel ... awful inside."

"I know what that feels like," Tabitha said, surprising Lily. Seeing her surprised look, Tabitha nodded. "It was when you were three. We got called to a hostage situation. It was a little personal," she added, "because the hostage was the wife of a co-worker and good friend of mine from when I was trying to not be a hero. Very good family friends." She sighed heavily. "His kids and you were playmates."

"I ... kind of remember," Lily said hesitantly. "Two ... two boys?"

"Yeah, but that's not important," her mom said. "At the scene, I found ... evidence that she was having an affair." The memories, despite being years old, were still unpleasant for Tabitha. "Multiple affairs, actually." She shook her head sadly. "Eventually, after a lot of anguish about what I should do, I told Jack."

"What happened?" Lily asked, curious.

"It ended their marriage," Tabitha replied. "And it ended our friendship."

"But ...."

Tabitha stopped and caught Lily's arm, turning the girl toward her. "I ... had to let him know!" she said. "I ... couldn't let it go. It wouldn't have been fair to him." She looked over Lily's shoulder, staring into the distance, fighting the renewed memories. "I ... I had to do it - before he got hurt even worse."

"But ... that was her fault, not yours," Lily protested.

"Yes, but I guess Jack blamed me because I was the one who gave him the evidence. He ... we've never spoken since. I was responsible for him finding out; I was partly responsible for his pain." She saw Lily's stunned look. "I know, I know," Tabitha chuckled dryly, shaking her head. "He'd have found out sooner or later, and then he wouldn't have blamed me. That doesn't make me feel any less guilty," Tabitha answered. "It's hard to feel responsible for something bad that happens. It hurts. But you have to do what's right."

"And live with knowing you hurt someone?" Lily asked cautiously.

Tabitha nodded. "For you, doing what's right means following your instructors' direction, which you did. And now, it means working to help your team."

"But ... what about Wondercute?"

"You'll have to do whatever you can to help them. If you can." She closed her eyes momentarily, letting past images flit through her mind. "You might not be able to do anything," she cautioned her daughter. "But you can't let yourself be paralyzed by what happened, either."

The two walked a little further, having turned back towards Poe. Lily wanted to be at the remembrance ceremony later that afternoon. Maybe being supportive for her boyfriend would help take her mind off the sim.

Sunday, June 3, 2007 - Mid-Afternoon
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy

"I'll get it," Billie said to Hank at the sound of a knock on his door. Hank was sitting on his bed, looking forlorn in his uniform as the cottage prepared for the annual remembrance ceremony, a formal and traditional gathering for the students, faculty, and staff to say goodbye and remember those who'd died during the year.

This year had been unkind to Poe - they'd lost Heyoka and Apathy, but other cottages were impacted as well since other students had perished in accidents, and the staff, including the security team members, who'd sacrificed themselves for the school. For Hank, it had been personally devastating to lose his friend and roommate Heyoka.

While Billie answered the door, Ayla put his hand on Hank's shoulders in a silent gesture of support. 'Were all years this brutal?' the young tycoon asked himself as he pondered the list. Heyoka. Apathy. Nobody. Folder. Bloodworm - although he had earned his fate by messing with Sara. Eric Mahren. Caitlin McQuinston. Matthews. Higgins. Hicks. The list seemed to go on and on, and as he thought of the number of incidents in which Team Kimba had been involved that had led to others' deaths, Ayla suddenly felt weary.

"Hi," Billie spoke softly. "Come in please." She stepped to one side of the door, allowing Bunny and Riptide to enter the room. They promptly went to Hank, and sitting on either side of him, gave him hugs of emotional support.

"Thanks," Hank said when the two girls released their python-like grasp of him.

"How are you doing?" Bunny asked.

Hank sighed. "I don't know. It's ... it's ...." He gave up trying to vocalize his feelings and simply shook his head. "It still hurts."

Scooting past Billie at the door, Jade came in and leaped onto Hank's lap, enveloping him immediately in her own embrace. Her alter-self Jann (or Jinn, or one of the other members of the J-team) - cast into Jade's toy stuffed lion - bounded up to make the hug a group affair.

Once Hank had disentangled himself from Jade and her lion, he glanced at his watch and then stood suddenly. "I've got to go meet Lily. I'll be back in a sec." He dashed out the door and down the hall, leaving the gathering members of Team Kimba and the Friends Of Team Kimba watching after him, concerned about their friend.

"Where's Hank going?" Chou asked, glancing over her shoulder down the hall as she led Molly and Dorjee into the room.

"To get Lily," Ayla replied. "He'll be right back."

"If it's not a good time, we can...." Molly's voice cut off abruptly when she saw Jade and Bunny. She stared warily at the two girls, starting to take a step backwards, but bumping into Billie and Dorjee, who'd circled behind her. "Um ... hi," she said, voice quavering with uncertainty.

"Hi," Jade and Bunny replied, their voices no less hesitant. Apart from the time to recognize each other, all three girls had averted their gaze, feeling the awkwardness of the moment and not quite willing to meet the others' gaze.

"How ... how are you?" Bunny asked hesitantly after a few uncomfortable seconds.

"Okay," Molly replied uneasily. "Um, we can come back ..." She bumped into Billie again, or was it Dorjee, who was behind her to keep her from leaving the room.

"No need to run off," Ayla said calmly. "Hank will be right back."

Molly turned her head slightly, and reading the expression on Chou's face, she glowered, realizing that this encounter had been a setup. Chou had insisted that they stop to say something to Hank before the ceremony, arguing that in the aftermath, there might be a lot of people talking to and comforting those who'd lost friends and family. But now she knew that had just been an excuse. As she turned back toward her former teammates, she carefully wiped her face of any hint of an expression.

With all three girls fidgeting nervously and staring at the floor, Ayla knew some intervention was necessary. "Are you ready for finals, Molly?" he tried to start a conversation.

Still looking down, Molly shook her head. "Dunno."

Chou took Molly's elbow, prompting a surprised look, and led her across the few steps separating Molly from Bugs and Jade on Hank's bed. "You guys need to talk," she said firmly but gently. When the unhappy girl didn't look up, Chou put her hand under Molly's chin and gently lifted her head so she was looking toward her two teammates. "Well?"

Tears started flowing down Molly's cheeks at the mere thought of talking to her distraught teammates. "Um," she fought to speak through her tears, "I'm ... I'm sorry," she mumbled.

Jade practically jumped from the bed and wrapped herself around Molly, her own eyes watering. "You ... you didn't do anything wrong!" Jade sputtered.

"But ... I'm the leader!" Molly protested. "I'm ... I'm supposed to stop things like this!"

"It was my bad plan!" Jade countered with a sob. "It's all my fault!"

"I didn't do anything to help," Bunny whimpered as she joined the group-hug. "I let everyone down!"

"I'm sorry!" the trio blubbered as they hugged and cried, upset that the sim had interrupted their friendships and also terrified inwardly that the other three members of Wondercute wouldn't be as easy to approach or as forgiving, or would be too buried in self-recrimination.

"Can ... can we still be ... friends?" Bunny asked the obvious question. "And ... can we still be a team?"

"I hope so," Molly answered. Unspoken were her fears - matching those of Jade and Bunny - that Lindsay, Anny, and Misty wouldn't be as easy to reconcile with.

In the doorway, Ayla nodded with a smile to Billie.

Sunday, June 3, 2007 - Mid-Afternoon
The Quad, Whateley Academy

The large delegation of students from Poe ambled amoeba-like past Schuster Hall toward the remembrance garden. At the core were the most affected students - Team Kimba surrounded Hank like a protective phalanx, a shield of emotional support for what promised to be a very difficult day for him. On one side was Ayla, teammate and friend, while Lily clung to him on the other side, her only thoughts on providing comfort to her distressed boyfriend. Behind them were the three girls of Wondercute, clinging to each other supportively, there as much for each other as for Hank. Fey walked stiffly as well; though Aunghadhail wasn't a student, Nikki was still mourning her loss, and Toni had suggested that the ceremony might help her with closure.

Within the outer ring of Poesies, another girl walked, lost in thought, as she contemplated the loss of Heyoka. Kayda walked with solemn dignity, seemingly glowing lightly - enough that her cottage-mates were giving her some buffer. They knew that, as a Lakota shaman, Kayda understood only too well Heyoka's importance to the Plains tribes, and she felt his loss acutely despite a clumsy attempt to frame her for his murder. She was given space because none of the Poesies knew how to deal with her when she manifested her spirit, Ptesanwi, the White Buffalo Calf Woman, in honor of her tribal compatriot.

As the group passed Melville Cottage, Ayla's girlfriend Adalie joined him, while Kayda's friend Alicia came to her side. Tugging on Kayda's arm, unafraid of her unusual manifestation, Alicia maneuvered Kayda so that she was between Alicia and Adalie. Other members of The Nations merged with the group to support their friend, until the amorphous mob more closely resembled a figure eight, with Hank at one center and Kayda at the other.

The blob of students moved past Schuster Hall toward Dickinson Cottage, and still more students joined the two circles. When Tansy Walcutt, one-time nemesis of Ayla Goodkind, moved into the circle, there was a very minute flicker of wariness on her and Ayla's features, but she moved past him to Kayda, whom she offered a hug before falling in with the others. Near Whitman, still more students joined the informal but solemn procession.

Without warning, the whole assemblage halted, and slowly, the front of the group parted as a tall, attractive redhead stepped toward the Native American girl. Ignoring looks of puzzlement and concern, she walked boldly to Kayda and encircled her in a caring embrace before joining the inner circle around her friend.

The large group of students turned off the walkway toward an already-assembled gathering of friends, family members, faculty, and staff. The silence was broken only by muted whispers; the solemnity of the upcoming ceremony was not lost on anyone, and none dared to speak aloud to show disrespect to those being honored and remembered.

Sunday, June 3, 2007 - Mid-Afternoon
Dickinson Cottage, Whateley Academy

"Hey, Anna!"

The girl sitting by her desk looking out the window turned at the voice sounding from the doorway. "Hey, Rhiannon," she replied half-heartedly. "What's up?"

"Not much. Just wondering if you're coming to the remembrance ceremony?"

Anna Parsons - Aquerna - sighed, then looked out her window, her attention caught by a large, moving mass of students. "I ...." She gasped in shock at the sight; from her second-floor window, she was looking down on the group, and inside one little cluster, three girls whom she knew very well, all walking closely together, hands held in a visible display of friendship and mutual support.

"Um, I ... I don't think so," Anna stammered, fighting a losing battle against the tears which trickled and then ran from her eyes. Standing suddenly, she bolted from the room. "I ... I need to take a break from studying," she sobbed as she ran down the hall.

Behind her, Rhiannon recovered from the shock of seeing Anna so suddenly distressed. Without being invited in, she walked to the window and looked down, shaking her head and sighing in understanding. Below, she could clearly see Jade, Bunny, and Molly together - three of the members of Wondercute who'd been so devastated by their combat final the day before.

Out the back of the cottage, opposite the walkway and the herd of mourners, Anna darted across the grass. A few girls were studying on a blanket in a sunny patch of grass, but Anna ignored them, running into the trees.

At a large tree, Anna scrambled up to a large branch, then leaped from that tree to another, all the while crying. After a bit, far from her cottage, she settled into a large fork in the tree, eyes streaming tears down her cheeks. It only took moments for a squirrel to dart and leap through the trees to her side, chittering away.

Almost reflexively, Anna reached into her pocket and pulled out some nuts. "Hi, Fluffytail," she said as she offered the snack to the squirrel. Within seconds, six or seven more squirrels appeared, and she gave each of them their own share of the snacks which she always kept for her little friends. "At least you guys don't hate me!" she sobbed.

Sunday, June 3, 2007 - Late-Afternoon
Woods East of Dickinson Cottage, Whateley Academy

"Anna?" The voice, though far off, was insistent in tone, almost urgent. There were other voices as well, calling out the same and more. "Anna? Where are you?" The voices - three or four in all, were getting closer.

Anna, seated in a three-way fork in a large oak tree, sniffled and thought. She didn't want to see anyone at that moment; maybe she should run through the trees, leaping like a squirrel - which was, after all, her primary power - faster than anyone could chase her. On the other hand, that would make noise, and they might hear where she'd gone.

She glanced around - the tree was huge and ancient, and most likely, her spot thirty feet off the ground would hide her from ground view - and then sank down into the fork, arms crossed on her knees and forehead on her arms, weeping softly as she'd been doing for quite some time.

"Big Squirrel scared?" one of her friends chittered at her.

Without looking up, she nodded faintly. "Yes, I'm scared." Anna didn't know if her little friends would properly understand

The little friend perked up at the sound of several people crashing noisily through the wooded area. "Big Squirrel run!" The other squirrels with her joined in. "Run, Big Squirrel, run!"

"No," she said, shaking her head sadly. "If I run, they'll hear me and follow." The voices were close; it was already too late to run, she figured. "I'll hide here." She forced herself to be still, even trying to slow and quiet her breathing, lest she give away her position. "Be quiet and hide!" she softly directed her friends.

"Trust Big Squirrel," Fluffytail said firmly. The others echoed that sentiment - "Trust Big Squirrel." Flinching at the outburst of squirrel chittering, she gestured for her friends to be quiet lest they attract unwanted attention.

"Anna?" There was no mistaking the voice; it was her roommate Skids, and she was sure she'd recognized Sue's and Jerry's voices in the earlier shouting and calling for her. It sounded like she was right below Anna's hiding place. She hunkered down a little lower and kept her mouth shut.

"Anna? I know you're up there! Answer me, please!" Skids sounded quite insistent and a little exasperated.

"Come down here so we can go to dinner!"

Anna felt a surge of panic. What was Lucille doing here? Anna considered her options - she could make a run for it, which would lead, no doubt, to a chase, or she could hunker down and refuse to come down. They couldn't very well come up and get her.

"Get down here now!" Lucille directed in a commanding, motherly tone, which was why so many of the Underdogs called her 'Mom'. "Don't make me get security!"

With a heavy sigh, Anna reluctantly pried herself out of her little 'nest' and began to slowly climb down the tree, not daring to look at her friends. "I ... just want some quiet time," she said softly, unconvincingly. "To think."

"Well, you can think after dinner," Sue and Jerry said together as they went to her sides.

Anna's stomach churned at the thought of going to Crystal Hall. "I'm not hungry," she made a feeble excuse.

"Doesn't matter," Skids said nonchalantly. "You're going with us to dinner." The quartet - Skids, Lucille, Sue, and Jerry, surrounded Anna - Skids in front, Sue and Jerry still at her sides, although Jerry had his arm around her shoulder to try to comfort her, and Lucille behind her.

"How ... how did ...?" Anna queried softly.

"How did we find you?" Lucille asked with a chuckle. "There's only one reason for a large gathering of squirrels, and they're not exactly quiet or subtle around you."

Anna looked down, in shame and embarrassment, as they approached the dining facility and the other students wending their way to dinner. Inside, she tried to ignore all the bedlam, keeping her gaze down as her friends moved to the serving line.

Skids didn't see Buster and his thuggish friends in the line until it was too late.

"Hey, Squirrel Girl!" Buster called loudly enough that half the first floor heard him. Sudden silence descended into Crystal Hall in anticipation of a nasty exchange.

"What the hell do you want, Buster?" Jerry said angrily, clutching Anna more closely to himself.

Buster leaned menacingly toward Jerry and sneered. "Watch it, wimp!" he hissed softly. "It'd be a shame if your ... things in your lab broke, now, wouldn't it?" Since he was significantly taller and beefier, he had a very intimidating presence, and Jerry couldn't help flinching visibly.

Buster grinned at having terrorized the shorter gadgeteer into silence. He straightened and put a big grin on his face, but even Buster could learn, and from the corner of his eye, he spotted two security guards headed his way. "I just wanted to tell you that I really enjoyed watching your combat final!" he said loudly to Anna, his eyes cold and hard, insulting her in the nastiest way he knew how. "I bet your teammates really loved it, too!"

Anna had been controlling her emotions, barely, but Buster's crowing reminder broke her self-control and she wailed as her face sank into her hands. Only Jerry and Sue catching her arms kept her from collapsing to her knees.

"Is there a problem here?" Sergeant Harris demanded as he pushed his way between Buster and Anna. Like Officer Randall, he was wearing full kit, with body armor and heavy weapons, and his demeanor was enough to daunt most students who had a brain.

"Um, no, sir!" Buster and his friends replied hastily. "Just ... congratulating some people on ... their combat finals."

"You've been warned about harassing certain students under medical care," Harris snarled in a low but intense way at the bully. "From her reaction, you were doing a little more than congratulating her."

"Honest," Buster stammered. "I wasn't harassing her."

Harris glared at the boy until he dropped his gaze. "Don't. Cross. The. Line!" Harris hissed in a very threatening tone. "We're watching you." He waited until the boy nodded, even though he was clenching his fists and jaw in anger. "Now move along."

"We're in line to ..."

"Move along!" Harris growled at the bullies. "I don't care if you have to go to the back of the line, but you will put some distance between yourself and Ms. Parsons. Clear?" His eyes were angry, narrow slits, and his hands clutched his weapon, finger near the trigger, almost as if he was begging the bullies to step out of line.

"Come on," Buster said to his little band, straightening and trying to save face. "There are other students I want to congratulate on their finals." Regaining their arrogance, they strode toward the back of the line as if it was their idea, not security's.

"I wanna go back to my room," Anna pled when the sergeant and his partner had moved away.

"Nope," Lucille said firmly. "You're gonna eat with us." Over the weak protestations of Anna, the group led her through the line, with Jerry carrying a tray for her while Sue and Lucille prompted Anna and dished food onto her plate. After checking out, the group went to the Underdogs' table, where the others took turns sitting with her and going back to get their own trays of food.

"Now eat," Lucille prompted when Anna sat down.

"Everyone's looking at me!" Anna wailed softly, her eyes leaking almost non-stop. "I'm ... I'm a traitor, and everyone knows it!"

Alarmed, Lucille clutched her tightly, letting Anna cry on her shoulder, wondering what it was going to take to get through to Anna.

Sunday, June 3, 2007 - Dinnertime
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

Sitting with her parents, Lily felt her stomach turn a few somersaults at the confrontation between Buster and Anna in the serving line, with Security having to intervene.

Tabitha Turner, Lily's mom, cringed at Lily's expression when the girl saw how distraught Anna was. "It's not your fault," she said, patting her daughter's hand as she sought to reassure the girl.

"No?" Lily asked, her eyes watering. "It sure feels like it is." She couldn't help glancing around. "Look - Misty isn't even here! And Lindsay," she glanced to the Bad Seeds table, where Lindsay sat forlornly on the fringe of the group, picking at her food with no enthusiasm, not joining the banter, barely acknowledging what appeared to be comments directed her way. "She ... she looks like someone shot her dog."

"Lily," her mom said firmly, holding the girl's hands, "you have to get it through your head - it was not your fault!"

Lily shook her head as she fought tears, not ready to believe her mom. "Yes, it is!" she cried. "It's because of what happened in the sim, and it's all our fault!" she gave in to her emotional distress.

"Lily," Tabby Cat said even more firmly, "what happens in the sims stays in the sims!"

Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

Anna noticed the grimace which flitted across Lucille's face, and she spun her head to see what had caused her to be upset. Her jaw dropped, and then tears gushed from her eyes; Molly, Jade, and Bugs were walking upstairs together. It served to confirm her worst fears - the team did blame her for betraying Misty, and they were getting back together - without her.

Gasps erupted around Crystal Hall as Jericho strode into the dining facility. More than one person turned away from the spectacle, fighting rising bile to keep their dinner down at the thoroughly disgusting and nauseating sight, and a few dashed to the restrooms to avoid vomiting in the cafeteria. Anyone asked later would have had a hard time describing the outfit precisely, at least not without a serious bout of PTSD. Photographs taken by those who were brave enough to risk recurrences of trauma were confiscated as 'clothing porn' and 'weapons of mass destruction'. The only thing people could recall - those who didn't mentally blank out the experience - was that it was a frighteningly hideous combination of insignia orange, fuchsia, hot purple, and day-glo lime green, with polka dots, stripes, with a little paisley as an accent. Or at least, possibly as an accent. Worse was the fact that Razorback had a custom-fitted shirt, vest, and tie, done up in a color scheme that was almost as revolting as that of his roommate Jericho.

"Oh, that's so wrong!" Toni, at the Team Kimba table, gasped as she turned quickly away; even a slight glimpse was more than the average person should or could endure.

The group looked around with smug grins, and then, walking with a bold, arrogant strut, they walked to the serving line. Unsurprisingly, the students cleared a path for them while averting their eyes.

After dishing up their food and checking out, Jericho stood proudly, looking around the semi-crowded Hall. "And we have triumphed over the evil forces of cuteness!"

Underdogs Table, Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

"Someone has to do something about that!" Lucille said, fighting to keep down what she'd already eaten.

"Yeah," Nate agreed. "That needs to be fixed."

"You could always go fart on them," Sharpie commented, but his observation was rewarded with a kick under the table from one of the group, while Rhiannon, seated next to him, elbowed him sharply. "Ow!" He turned to the one he knew had hit him to complain, but when he saw her expression and head-tilt toward Anna, his eyes widened and his jaw dropped a bit, then, when the light-bulb went on, he did a classic but silent "Oooohhh!"

Bad Seeds Table, Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

"Wow!" Cheese mouthed, looking away from the spectacle. "I bet that's illegal in forty-seven countries!" Most of the Seeds were also avoiding the sight of the extremely bad fashion.

Nacht shrugged. "It's too depressingly colorful, but I've seen worse."

"I do not want to hear that story!" Belphoebe exclaimed, wrinkling her cute little Drow nose.

"What do you think, Lindsay?" Render probed to get a reaction from their morose companion.

Lindsay ignored his comment and continued to poke at what looked like a pork chop. "Whatever," she muttered in an attempt to make the others shut up.

"Jobe, you got something that can destroy bad fashion? Maybe some kind of engineered bacteria?" Nephandus asked. He was rewarded by gawks and stares from most of the other Seeds, who were shocked that someone was actually requesting that Princess Jobe make some kind of destructive bio-organism. Then again, this was a sartorial emergency.

Princess Jobe, the other dark elfin Drow at the table, shrugged and looked thoughtful. "Perhaps an organism with a simple on/off bioswitch, linked with a master AI system with a database of acceptable fashion and colors .... Or code the database into a DNA chain ..." She drifted off into devisor-land for a few moments.

"Figures Jobe'd be the only one who can look at that monstrosity without hurling!" Cheese said acidly.

"And Nacht," Nephandus added.

"I'm tempted to get a takeout bag and go back to my room," Cheese finished his thought around Nephandus' interruption.

Jadis glanced at Jericho and his companions, fighting the urge to regurgitate her lunch, and then looked at Lindsay. "Is this a job for a bunch of wacky, cute girls?" she asked, hoping to stir some kind of reaction.

Instead of reacting to Jadis' prompt, though, the Wondercute girl sat silently, brooding or lamenting or pouting, but she wasn't in the slightest bit fazed by the comments of her table-mates. Jadis sighed heavily. If Jericho couldn't get a rise out of Wondercute, nothing could.

Beret Table, Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

Adalie Vitesse peered over the railing from her seat at the Beret table on the second level, her attention distracted from her boyfriend Ayla by the commotion. Almost immediately, wide-eyed with her hand covering her mouth in an obvious display of nausea, she turned back to the group. "That is a crime against fashion!" she cried to her tablemates.

"It's a crime against humanity!" Donza, one of the senior member of the Euro-promotional League, practically spat.

"Ja," Greta agreed. "Even the NKVD and KGB would never use such clothing to torture their prisoners!"

Vera Villabianca started to say something, but she stopped suddenly and turned toward Ayla, who was seated beside Adalie. "Ayla, you are unusually silent about this entire spectacle," she observed, more than a slight tinge of suspicion on her voice.

"Yeah, Ayla," Kismet and Nanette said simultaneously, also casting a skeptical eye toward the young tycoon. "What are you up to?" Nanette added.

Ayla looked around the table, his expression carefully schooled to betray no emotions. That was his normal modus operandi, since he'd been learning the intricacies of business from a very early age, including the importance of a 'poker face' in negotiations. The only one with whom he was a little more expressive was his girlfriend Adalie. "What?" he asked, feigning surprise as if he'd only just heard the last bit of the conversation.

"Must you punish all of us with whatever scheme you 'ave?" Vera demanded unhappily.

"Why would I be interested in fostering such an assault upon respectable apparel and fashion?" Ayla asked, arching one eyebrow.

The others gawked at him for a few moments, considering his quite logical question. "Per'aps you are trying to give incentive to your friend Jade and 'er Wondercute teammates?" Genevieve Etincelle speculated.

"Oui," Nanette nodded in agreement with her supposition. "It was Jericho's awful fashion sense that stirred them with their last ... demonstration ... in 'ere!"

"Would anyone else like some dessert?" Ayla changed the subject. "I asked Chef Marcel to make a few special dishes this week to celebrate the conclusion of the term and to wish us success for our summer breaks. I'm not sure if he made the Crepes Suzette or a raspberry soufflé for tonight's dessert, but he promised me he would make enough for us all."

"You didn't answer the question," Vera observed with a raised eyebrow. Hers, though, was the last vestige of curiosity that hadn't abruptly died at the mention of a savory dessert.

Sensing the change in mood, Ayla walked down to the kitchen entrance, where he met the chef. Carrying the tray back to the Beret table on the second level, Ayla studiously ignored the spectacle of Jericho and his companions, which was necessary to maintain some level of appetite for the gourmet dish.

After Ayla sat down, and the Berets were occupied scrambling for the crepes or eating the delectable dessert, Adalie leaned closer to Ayla. "You did 'ave something to do with this, didn't you?" she whispered knowingly. "To try to get the girls back together?"

Ayla looked calmly at her without batting an eye or making any other type of response.

"I thought so," Adalie said, nodding grimly.

Underdogs Table, Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

Looking around, her lip trembling, Anna saw Lindsay sitting at the Seeds table, looking quite as despondent as Anna felt. Her heart sinking, she twisted her head to look up at the third level, to where she could see part of the Team Kimba table.

Jade, Molly, and Bunny sat together, clinging to each other, all looking helplessly down at Jericho. On their faces was defeat. With a muffled sob, Anna practically leaped from the table, abandoning her tray of uneaten, picked-over food, and bolted from the cafeteria.

Stunned by her sudden action, Jerry and the other underdogs sat momentarily, before they, too, ran out of the cafeteria to catch and comfort their distressed friend.

Monday, June 4, 2007 - Breakfast
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

If dinner had been an assault on people's stylistic senses, breakfast was worse. Jericho's style wasn't quite as bad - merely hideously nauseating instead of debilitating, but somehow Gauntlet and Cagliostro - well-known bullies - had somehow been coerced or persuaded into joining the ill-clad pair and had found some clothing that, while not on par with Jericho's revolting outfit, was quite unsightly on its own right. Already in line to get food, Lindsay grimaced at the spectacle making a showy entrance, but she didn't lose her appetite like others did; given the events of the past two days, she didn't have much appetite to begin with.

Behind the visibly-depressed girl, Jadis urged her along. "Oooh - try a chocolate croissant," Jadis suggested, placing the pastry directly on Lindsay's plate. Seeing the dismayed look on the girl's face, Jadis smiled. "It's got everything - decadent, buttery pastry and chocolate!"

"I'm not hungry," Lindsay protested feebly, but not sufficiently to deter Jadis' efforts.

"Maybe not," Jadis replied, "but you are going to eat." With few further words, she shepherded Lindsay through the serving and checkout lines, and then up to the Bad Seeds table. As they climbed the stairs, Jadis took one more look over her shoulder at the repulsive exhibition of all that could be done wrong in fashion. "I understand why you might not feel too hungry after witnessing that repugnant entrance."

Lindsay shook her head sadly. "It's not just that," she replied. "It's ... everything! It's ..." she fought against tears, "Look! Hank isn't with his team!" she cried as she spotted the dejected boy at the ROTC - the Grunts - table. "And ... Ayla isn't either!"

"Ayla frequently eats with the Berets," Jadis countered, but she wasn't sure herself, and her voice betrayed that uncertainty. Ayla didn't exactly look happy; he kept glancing down at the entrance with an uncharacteristic worried expression. A quick glance at the third level made her wince; the Team Kimba table didn't look at all happy. Fey was missing. Chaka was worried, also something she didn't seem prone to do. And Generator - the diminutive girl looked like her world had been utterly shattered. Appearances seemed to confirm the rumors that Jadis had heard that morning, but she decided to say nothing to Lindsay, who would, in her current state, take it as evidence that the destruction of Wondercute had had wider ramifications.

Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

Lily's heart sank when Jericho and company entered, strutting like proud peacocks. "It's not bad enough that Gunny humiliated Wondercute in the sim; now the bullies are openly mocking them!" she said morosely to her parents, who were seated with her at a small out-of-the-way table. She fought the moisture welling up in her eyes.

"Maybe," Tabitha Turner said cautiously. "Or maybe they're trying to taunt them to responding, to get them past their shock and doubt."

"But ... it's all spreading!" Lily sobbed.

"What do you mean?" Robert Turner asked, wary of Lily's tone and general melancholy state.

"Ashley - she hadn't left her room, so they took her to Doyle again."

"Yes, we know," Tabitha Turner replied calmly. "I'm going to talk with her after breakfast."

"And ... and last night, Team Kimba had a huge fight!" Lily blubbered. "Nikki - the second-floor girl said she attacked Ayla and Hank! They're ... they might have be broken up, too! It's all our fault!"

Robert shot Tabitha a worried look. "No, it's not," the girl's mother said, putting her hand on Lily's arm to reassure her.

"But ... if they're trying to help Jade ...." Lily started to object, then let her face fall into her hands. "They ... they're getting ... all the fighting and tension is spreading."

"Honey," Robert tried to cut through Lily's woeful state, "if Team Kimba is having difficulties, it can't be related to your sim." He glanced at his wife. "Why don't you and Lily go see how Ashley is doing?

With a huge amount of information communicated between Robert and his wife in just a single look, Tabitha gently took Lily's arm. "Let's go visit Ashley," she said gently. "We'll cheer her up!"

"I'll get your trays," Robert volunteered, and as his wife and daughter left, he grimaced with a sense of foreboding; he'd been in the security offices talking with Admiral Everheart when security had gone to Poe, and as such, he knew a lot more than he was going to let Lily know. She had more than enough to worry about.

Monday, June 4, 2007 - Evening
Melville Cottage, Whateley Academy

A few doors opened a crack and heads popped out, taking a break from their studies to see who was pounding on a door. Lily flinched a bit at the sound of the doors opening a crack, self-conscious at interrupting the finals preparation of all the Melville students. She waved sheepishly at a couple of girls looking her way, then looked back at the door, where she knocked again, a bit less energetically this time. "Ashley?" she called again. "Can we talk?"

The sound of the lock turning was both relieving and unnerving, as Lily had no idea what kind of mood Ashley might be in, but instead of seeing her teammate, she was face-to-face with Icebreaker, Ashley's roommate. "What do you want?" she fairly demanded, showing her distaste for either Lily or the interruption, or both. Behind the tall, auburn-haired sophomore, Lily noted that Ashley wasn't studying, but was curled up in a fetal position on her bed, clutching a teddy bear to her chest, while on Icebreaker's desk was a pile of notes and books, evidencing that Lily had interrupted her studies.

"Ashley," Lily spoke past the taller girl. "Are you okay?"

Ashley said nothing, barely glancing at Lily, but Icebreaker couldn't resist a chance to be snarky. "At least she's being quiet and not interrupting other people's studying!"

Lily looked apologetically at Icebreaker. "Gunny told me to bring Ashley to the sim center," she excused her presence. With a disgusted snort, the tall girl went back to her desk and resumed her studies, while Lily slipped in the room, carefully and quietly easing the door shut behind herself. Sitting on the edge of Ashley's bed, she reached out and rubbed her teammate's shoulder. "Ash, we have to go meet with Gunny."

"I'm not going," Ashley muttered despondently.

"We have to go," Lily insisted, gently tugging her teammate to get her off her bed. Shrugging off a glare of disapproval from Icebreaker, she got Ashley sitting and then retrieved a pair of Ashley's shoes, some slip-on flats that didn't quite match what she was wearing but which were handy.

To Lily's surprise, Lieutenant Forsyth was waiting in the lobby of Melville for her and Ashley. "So - you're here to drag us over under arrest if necessary?" Ashley said very bitterly and sarcastically.

To his credit, Lt. Forsyth ignored her snarky tone. "More like the Admiral and Chief wanted to make sure that no-one tried to take advantage of you being so ... distracted."

"And to make sure we get there?" Lily queried.

"Well," Lt. Forsyth admitted sheepishly, "there is that, too."

Ten minutes later, the lieutenant stopped outside Arena 99's sim suite briefing room. "Gunny or the Admiral will give someone a call when you're finished."

With a questioning look at the officer, Lily guided a reluctant Ashley through the door. Unsurprisingly, Gunny and Sam were sitting at the front of the room, behind a teacher's table, with Gunny sipping on a cup of coffee. Surprisingly, though, there weren't any other people in the room.

Gunny read the puzzlement on the girls' faces. "Be seated. We'll debrief the other team members when their schedules permit. For now, we'll take care of your debriefing."

"We've ... got to study for finals," Lily gave an excuse.

"This is part of your grade, so it carries the same weight as a final," Sam countered. With great hesitation, Lily and Ashley sat at the first table, facing the two instructors.

Sam stood. "I'm going to start with a little history lesson. You girls are familiar with NASA, right?" With a confused glance at each other, Ashley and Lily nodded. "And Apollo 13?"

"Dad loves that movie," Ashley muttered. "But what ...?"

Sam cut off her response. "I'm talking about the real event. Let me show you a clip from a documentary that includes actual footage from the control center." She stood to one side and the front display lit up. After a brief clip, the video paused. "Now - looking at the faces, what did you see?"

"Um, they looked ... determined," Lily speculated.

"Correct. Do you see any panic? Any uncertainty? Any hesitation? Any fear?"

"No?" Ashley volunteered, half-questioningly.

"Correct. They are not panicking. Why not?" Sam paused for the girls to speculate, but both were hesitant to answer. "Because they trained really hard, in a lot of very bad scenarios, until there wasn't any panic left in them." The girls nodded; Sam's explanation made sense, given the way the simulations were run at Whateley. "Do you know that the problems were far worse than they'd ever trained for? That they had four major system failures, but they'd only ever trained for two failures because they didn't think what happened was actually possible?" That comment drew raised eyebrows from both girls, to which Sam nodded. "Their training was so rigorous, and the lessons so ingrained, that they could handle real-life situations that were more severe than their training. They trained the panic out of them."

"So ... are you saying that's what the simulations are all about?" Lily asked.

"That's what the whole PE program is about. Survival, martial arts, simulations - it's all to teach you to not panic."

"So ...?"

Gunny looked directly at Ashley, but the fire-breathing drill instructor look was absent. Instead, he looked almost compassionate. "You panicked," he said bluntly to Ashley. "You got an unexpected situation that wasn't going your way, and you lost control."

"I ... I went .... I'm a ... a rager," Ashley sobbed, her head tilting forward as she covered her face with her hands. "I ... I can't help it!"

Sam strode to the girl' side and squatted down to her level, her hand reassuringly on Ashley's shoulder. "You are not a rager, Ashley," she said firmly and soothingly. "The power testing team, the psychologists, your instructors - no-one thinks you are even close to being a rager."

"But ...?" Ashley looked at Sam, confusion writ large on her face as her eyes moistened.

"But nothing. You got a very unexpected, very tough situation, your plan was falling apart, and in your confusion and frustration, you lost your temper," Gunny explained simply. "I can't begin to count the number of students who've acted the same way - letting their frustration get the better of them."

Reading the girls' doubt, Sam smiled. "Lily, would you like to see the first sim where your mother lost her temper? Or your mother, Ashley?" She saw the girls both goggling, and nodded in confirmation.

"Or perhaps Captain Quantum? Or Lioness?" Gunny continued. "In fact, most students have gone through a scenario that made them lose their cool."

"The point, Ashley," Sam continued, "is that you need to believe us, learn from the experience, and get back on that horse - before you get paralyzed by fear."

"So go suit up. We'll review your performance in the simulator."

Lily looked at her panic-stricken teammate. "We'll both be in this, Ash," she said. "You can do it."

The door opening surprised Ashley and Lily, but based on their reactions, was not a surprise to Gunny and Sam. Falcon and Tabby Cat - Lily's parents', in sim suits - entered the briefing room. "Dr. Bellows thought it would be best if one of us were in the sim with you instead of Lily." Ashley's expression lightened considerably from dread bordering on panic to mere nervous anxiety.

"But ... both ...?" Lily was confused.

"I'll be in a sim with you," Falcon said reassuringly to his daughter.

Arena 99 Sim Suite, Whateley Academy

"I don't want to do this," Ashley's voice cracked over the comm channel. "I ... I can't do it!"

Tabby Cat, wearing a flight belt, hovered beside Ashley over the forest, the scene of the disastrous combat final with Wondercute. "You can do it, Phoenixfire. Let's go through it. Just remember - I'm right here with you."

"I can't ..."

"Start the sim from eighteen minutes, ten seconds," Tabby Cat said, not giving the girl time to back out.

"But ..." Ashley protested, but then she saw that Superchick was airborne and looking around. Almost immediately, she felt a wave of her opponent's gravity warping power that staggered her mid-flight. Gasping, an expression of pure panic, she turned and flew away from the scene as fast as she could.

"Stop the sim!" Tabby Cat called, her frustration evident, even though she was trying not to show it. "Reset." Instantly, Ashley was back by her side, and Misty was nowhere to be seen. "Okay, Phoenixfire," she forced herself to switch back to 'motherly' mode, "remember the briefing. As soon as you see Superchick, you take off to keep her distracted. Right?"

"Um," Phoenixfire sounded nervous. "Yeah."

"You can do this. Just like the plan. Okay?" When Ashley nodded, Tabby Cat called out, "Eighteen minutes, ten seconds. Mark that point A." She gave the sim control team few seconds to carry out her directions. "Start sim - point A."

Seconds after the sim restarted, Superchick rose above the trees. At first, she hadn't seen Phoenixfire, but she was scanning and would spot Ashley. "Go." Tabby Cat prompted gently, accompanied by a gentle shove to Ashley.

The second run was only marginally better than the first; Ashley's attack was half-hearted at best, and after batting Ashley around with her gravity warping, Superchick took off, moving toward the other Wondercute team members.

"Damn!" Tabby Cat muttered under her breath. "Reset to point A." The moment Ashley was back at her side, Tabby Cat spoke again. "As.... Phoenixfire," she winced; she'd almost blown the code name, and she knew better. "Phoenixfire, you need to be a little more aggressive. You need to keep her off balance, not the other way around."

"But ... but I was trying!" Ashley said, her voice straining with emotion.

"You know you weren't giving it your all. You were hesitant. She got away. You know you're supposed to fly a curving, unpredictable approach so you're not a target."

"I ... I can't!"

"Phoenixfire," Tabby Cat soothed the girl, "fly your approach. I'll stop the sim before you engage, okay?" Small steps. The girl swallowed hard, and nodded. "Start sim."

As soon as Superchick appeared, Tabby Cat nudged Phoenixfire forward; the girl was a little less nervous and it showed, because she flew a much better approach to the other girl.

"Stop sim and reset to A," Tabby Cat commanded. "Phoenixfire, that was much better. Not as good as you're capable of, but better." She put her hand on the girl's shoulder to calm her. "How are you feeling?"

"I'm ... I'm ... scared! I'm afraid I'll ... I'll lose it again!"

"I'm right here with you," Tabby Cat reassured the girl. "I won't let it get that far."

The next run, Ashley flew a better approach; this time, Superchick had only a fraction of a second to react, and Ashley dove toward her target, her flame-sword manifested along with her flame aura. But Ashley's attempt at an attack was feeble and half-hearted; Superchick had plenty of time to dodge and then batter Ashley with her gravity warping.

With a little reassurance, her next attack was better. Still not at one hundred percent, but it was better. Then she followed up that attack with a little maneuvering, attacking a second time in a way to keep Misty off balance. But when her third attack was hesitant, she was battered with a gravity warp again, and Tabby Cat halted the sim. "Remember, no pattern. Vary things up. You want to keep her busy."

The next run was still better; Ashley got four or five decent attacks before her hesitancy tripped her up once more. Over and over, Tabby Cat went through the sim with Ashley, staying by her side, encouraging her, supporting her, and gently urging her on. After a dozen and a half runs, Ashley was more confident, even if she still showed signs of hesitation.

On the next run, Ashley's frustration mounted again as Superchick thwarted a few attacks and Ashley barely dodged some gravity warps. Tired, exasperated by the ongoing chase, Phoenixfire's precision gave way. Perhaps it was because she subconsciously remembered that this was the point that she'd injured Misty.

"Stop!' The sim froze, and Tabby Cat hustled to Ashley's side. "Take a deep breath," she commanded the girl. "Calm yourself."

"I ... I told you - I can't do this!"

"Phoenixfire, you're doing just fine. You're herding her where the team wants her to go."

"She's ... this is hard!" Ashley complained, sounding like she was near tears.

"You can do it. Stay in control. Stay focused." Tabby Cat let the girl take a few calming breaths. "Okay, let's reset. You can do this, okay? Tell yourself that. You can do this. Stay calm, stay focused."

It took four more tries, but Phoenixfire finally got past the point where she'd lost control. Tabby Cat gave a big sigh of relief.

Then Dragonrider appeared out of nowhere and slammed into Phoenixfire, just like she had in the combat final. Phoenixfire panicked at the assault; immediately, she turned and fled the new attack. Taking a moment to calm the girl, Tabby Cat reset the sim to a much closer point, and then had Ashley resume.

Even though she knew Dragonrider was coming, the unfolding of the sim made her appear at a different time and from a different direction. Staggered, Ashley turned to flee, but then hesitated; it was clear she wanted to fight off Dragonrider, but she was terrified of losing control. The result was that Superchick bracketed her with gravity waves and pinned her in place.

After the fourth inadequate attack, Ashley lost her temper, screaming in rage after she was hit, and her fire manifestation grew significantly in intensity. Tabby Cat halted the sim.

"I can't do this!" Ashley screamed, crying.

"Yes, you can," Tabby Cat reassured her. "You're focusing on Superchick so much that you're leaving yourself wide open for Dragonrider to hit you."

"But ..."

"Keep moving. Always keep moving. Over the years, I've observed that the worst thing you can do as a flier is to keep a straight, level flight. That gives your opponent an easy target."

"But ... I don't know where or when Dragonrider is going to appear!" Ashley wailed.

"So keep moving. Don't give her a stationary target. Keep her off balance." She gave the girl a reassuring hug. "A pilot in combat has to keep looking around at all times. Otherwise, while he focuses on his target, an enemy is making a target out of him." She saw the confused look. "What would happen if Dragonrider wasn't in the sim? How would you react?"

"I could focus all my attention on Superchick," Ashley replied instantly.

"No, Phoenixfire. You have to always, always, assume that there are other threats. Don't focus on one target to the degree that you make yourself a target. Keep moving. Keep it varied."

The next run was better; though hesitant, Ashley managed to keep moving, enough that the hit from Dragonrider was merely a glancing blow. Still, it stunned her, and with her fatigue and frustration, Ashley screamed in anger, at which point Tabby Cat halted the sim again before Ashley did something that would deepen her thoughts that she was a rager.

"Keep your head in the game. Keep calm. It's almost zen-like - keep calm, breathe deeply, maintain your situational awareness."

"I'm tired," Ashley complained. "Can we quit?"

"No," Tabby Cat replied with the air of a stern teacher. "Dr. Bellows and Sam think you need to keep at it until you can get through the whole thing without panic. But I don't want you so tire that you start to make mistakes, so we'll try this a couple more times. Now, take a few deep breaths, focus yourself, and we'll get going again."

The final run started well before Misty rose from the trees; Phoenixfire had to fly top cover for almost a minute and a half before she spotted her quarry. She attacked, driving Superchick before her with relentless and wildly-varying assaults, herding her to where the team wanted her to be. Then Dragonrider came in, but once again, it was a glancing blow. "Keep your cool," Tabby Cat urged Phoenixfire over their comm link. She could see that it was a struggle for the teenager; fighting two fliers was hard, especially when the goal was not to injure them, but capture them. Tabby Cat halted the sim after Ashley had been on the defensive for almost a minute.

Arena 99 Briefing Room, Whateley Academy

When the briefing room door opened and Ashley half-staggered into the room, her hair matted and wet, fatigued and sweaty, Lily leaped from her chair and ran to hug her teammate. A moment later, Tabby Cat came from her sim suite, joining the debrief.

Almost in tears, Ashley turned and wrapped her arms around Lily's mother, grateful for the help she'd been given. "Thank you, Mrs. T," she said over and over, tears streaming down her cheeks.

"That's what friends are for," Tabby Cat replied, giving Ashley a comforting hug in return.

"And this is what sims are for," Sam said, startling Tabby Cat and the girls. "You learn to control your panic and fear here, so it won't stop you in the real world when it might count."

"You're learning to fight as a team," Gunny said, having appeared immediately behind Admiral Everheart. "And that means you need to train hard to learn about yourselves. How you react to stress, how you handle a bad scenario, how you adjust to changing conditions. You're just starting, so it's understandable that you make mistakes, but you're learning."

"Fighting is almost entirely mental," Sam agreed with a nod. "Whoever loses his or her head first is going to make mistakes, and that could be fatal. You did well today. Now, one of the counselors wants to talk to you before dinner."

"How about after your appointment," Robert Turner proposed, "we go to Dunwich and get pizza, and then maybe some ice cream for dessert?"

"But what about Dredz and Psymod?" Lily asked, having slipped beside Ashley and wrapping her arm around her teammate's waist to comfort and reassure her.

"We'll talk about that over dinner," Tabby Cat said with a smile. With an approving nod from Gunny, the quartet left the sim briefing room, heading for the locker rooms to change before they went with Ashley to her appointment in Doyle. She felt good - Ashley had made good progress. Tabby Cat had stopped the sims when it looked like Ashley was about to lose control, and the fact that she didn't let her temper get the better of her was the kind of reassurance that Ashley needed.

Arena 99 Briefing Room, Whateley Academy

"Well, doctor?" Sam asked Dr. Bellows, who'd come from Doyle to join them in the briefing room. "How is she doing?"

"She's got a ways to go to get all her confidence back, but having Mrs. Turner guide and help her in the same scenario that caused the difficulty was very good for Ashley."

Sam shot a quick glance at Gunny. "Do you suppose we could do the same for Wondercute?"

Dr. Bellows sadly shook his head. "Won't work. It's a different problem. Ashley lost her confidence in fighting. Wondercute isn't even talking to each other. There's no chance that they'll be able to do a sim together."

"Then what?" Sam asked. Before she could say more, the phone rang, and she answered it. "Sim Control."

"Ayla? What can I do for you?"

"Yeah, we were just talking about that." Gunny and Dr. Bellows were getting curious since they could only hear one side of the conversation. Noting that, Sam hit the speaker button.

"Jade, Bunny, and Molly are talking again, although the events of last night really hit Jade hard."

"Understandable," Dr. Bellows interjected his reassurance. "Anyone would be upset."

"Well," Ayla began, "I've been thinking, and I might have an idea that's worth trying."

Dr. Bellows smiled. "I guess it's convenient that I'm here with the admiral and Gunny, then."

"Yes, quite," Ayla agreed. "Anyway, let me explain what I was thinking."

Tuesday, June 5, 2007 - Morning
Arena 99 Sim Suite Briefing Room, Whateley Academy

Escorted by a security officer, Misty trudged into the briefing room, her sullen expression souring even more when she saw Sam Everheart and Gunny standing at the front of the briefing room. Wordlessly, she stood by the door as the officer nodded at Sam and then left, the door closing behind him.

"Please have a seat," Gunny gestured toward one of the tables. "We might have to wait a bit for the others to arrive."

Misty goggled at him. "The ... others?" she asked, the color draining from her face.

"It is a team debrief," Sam reminded the girl. "We have to do it with the other members of your team".

"But ... but I ... I can't ..." she stammered, appearing to be ready to bolt from the room or collapse in a nervous breakdown. "They ... they won't ...."

Sam sighed loudly, then turned to Gunny. "You know what Dr. Bellows said. We can't upset the girls after what they went through."

Gunny shook his head. "Rules are rules. They have to have a team debrief. We can't give them their grades without it. It's part of the grade."

Sam winced visibly as Misty stood by the door trembling and nearly in tears. "Maybe," Sam suggested after a moment, "maybe she could do this ... virtually."

"You mean ... use the sim suite to participate in a debrief?" Gunny asked, perplexed by Sam's suggestion.

"She can sit in a nice, tranquil setting, and we can pipe in the audio and our video. That should satisfy Dr. Bellows and make it easier, while still meeting the requirements." When Gunny finally nodded, Sam turned to the girl. "How about it, Misty? Will that be okay for you?"

Without saying a word, Misty nodded.

"Okay," Sam said, softening her voice even more. "Go suit up and we'll get you in a suite. Better hurry, though, so you don't bump into any of the other girls." She looked over her shoulder at Gunny. "The picnic area down by the lake?" she asked, to which the former Marine nodded.

Arena 99 Sim Suite Briefing Room, Whateley Academy

"Good morning," Gunny said, his voice devoid of warmth as usual.

"Why ... did Jadis bring me here?" Lindsay asked, puzzled by the strange request and more by Jadis taking time to walk her to the briefing room.

"Team debrief," Sam said. "It's part of the final grade. Take a seat while we wait for the others."

Lindsay gasped. "Team debrief?" Her lower lip trembled. "The ... whole team?"

"It is a requirement," Sam said, wincing slightly at the girl's terrified reaction. She scowled, wrinkling her nose. "Dr. Markham said that you might have a problem with this." Lindsay just nodded.

"Maybe," Gunny suggested, "we can let her participate virtually?"

"What do you mean?" Sam asked, eyebrows raising at the gunnery sergeant's idea.

"If she's in a sim suite, we can provide a calming setting, like Dr. Markham recommended, and she wouldn't have to feel nervous with her teammates. They wouldn't know that she's in a sim suite, so maybe ...."

Lindsay grasped the idea immediately and began to nod eagerly. "Yes, please!" she pleaded. "I can ... I think I can do that."

Sam thought a moment, then nodded. "Okay, let's get you in a sim suite then. You'll have to hurry to change into your suit." She winced at a sudden thought. "What if ... one of the others comes by or through the locker room?" The implication was clear; bumping into the others might be highly disturbing to Lindsay.

"How about this - you go to the instructor's locker room, and Sam can bring your gear. Will that work?"

After two minor bouts of panic, the solution was a Godsend to Lindsay, and she nodded. "Yeah, that'll work."

"Okay," Sam seemed satisfied. "You take Lindsay to the locker room, and I'll get her stuff."

Arena 99 Sim Suite Briefing Room, Whateley Academy

"You're a lousy actor," Sam said to Gunny as they waited in the briefing room.

Gunny chuckled and extracted a pouch of jelly beans from a pocket. "Me? You're not going to win any academy awards for your acting!"

"Just as long as it's good enough." Sam looked at her watch. "If Ayla's on time ...."

"Which he will be."

"... then he should be here with Anna any second now."

"Same drill - you take her to the women's restroom on the adult side, and I'll get her gear from my office."

"You know," the crusty Marine said, scratching his chin, "you have to give Ayla credit for a well-thought-out plan. Even getting all the other girls' gear out, so none of them see us fetching suits for their teammates?"

"Very practical. I wonder if we could talk him into a regular job helping plan some of our sims."

Gunny arched an eyebrow. "Are you sure you want to do that to the training teams?"

After a momentary thought, Sam shook her head. "On second thought, no. The few times we had Ayla do that in team tactics were more than enough for me!" She stopped at the sound of the door latch and turned to face the newcomer. "Have a seat, Anna," she said to the squirrel girl. "We have to wait for the others so we can do the team debrief."

Arena 99 Sim Suite 4, Whateley Academy

Anna sat on the ground, and almost instantly recognized her position - she was on the edge of the quad behind Schuster Hall, a couple of her squirrel friends chittering as they scampered and played around her. It was impossible to mistake the old building attached to the giant crystal dome of the cafeteria, and it was a sunny day, peaceful and relaxing - enough to make her almost forget about the passage of time or the upcoming team debrief which she was dreading. No doubt Mr. Bardue and Ms. Everheart had put her somewhere peaceful to rest and not stress out while she waited for the others. They were so nice sometimes.

Her peace was shattered by a nearby scream. Suddenly alert and sitting bolt-upright, Anna looked around for the source of the interruption. There was more noise around the corner, and it seemed to be close; as Anna stood and her squirrel friends scattered, she was almost run over by Molly, who was running helter-skelter, a terrified look on her face.

"Molly?" Anna couldn't help but call out, even as another figure, all in black and moving very silently, tore after Molly.

"He's ... he's going to kill me!" Molly screamed as she ran - but unfortunately for her, she inadvertently ran into the area between Crystal Hall and Schuster, and when she pried at a door into Crystal Hall and it didn't open, Molly panicked, realizing that she was trapped.

Anna sensed something behind her - aided by the frantic but unintelligible warning screams from her squirrel friends, and she leaped to one side just before she would have been hit by a figure in dark clothing. Startled, she stared at the figure, who looked through a ninja mask at her, only his eyes visible, but those eyes burned with rage. With a sneer at Anna, he turned back toward Molly.

In the little courtyard, Molly ran to another door, only to find the same thing - the door was inexplicably locked. With a quick glance over her shoulder at the approaching ninja, she banged on the window glass as she screamed for help, her face showing her terror as she realized that she was now quite thoroughly trapped.

"Now you're trapped," the figure said in a voice that made Anna's spine shiver. He was too cold, too detached - and she realized that he probably intended to kill Molly - and since she was present, he might decide to kill her, too.

"You're going to suffer before I let you die," the figure promised, flicking his wrist and lodging a shuriken in Molly's shoulder, eliciting a shriek of pain and disrupting her attempt to open a gateway, either to summon some help or an escape portal. "You're going to die so your girlfriend suffers. It's only fair after she humiliated me!"

"Nex!' Anna thought to herself, her chin dropping. Hadn't he been kicked out or something? Anna didn't think; she simply leaped at Nex's back.

The boy-ninja- assassin heard her leap; he turned, expecting to see Anna running away or calling for security. Instead, she landed with her feet kicking him hard in his shoulder, knocking him off balance. "Run, Molly!" Anna screamed.

Nex was good - Anna had to give him that. He rolled back to his feet, glancing to see Molly starting to work on another gateway, and his wrist flicked another shuriken at her, striking her in her thigh and once-more distracting her. Even before his secondary weapon hit Molly, he turned, drawing a wicked-looking sword, and leaped at Anna, sword held over his head to strike down at her. She leaped away toward Schuster, dodging what was clearly intended as a killing stroke, and scrambling up to a second-story window sill. With a growl toward her, Nex flipped another of his throwing stars toward Anna, and then turned his attention back to Molly.

Nicked by the star, not seriously but enough to cause blood and pain, Anna leaped back down, this time landing between Molly and Nex. She stood defiantly in a fighting stance; Sensei Ito would have been proud, she thought to herself.

Nex attacked again, this time feinting to get Anna to commit herself, and then slashing hard. Anna wasn't fooled; she'd spent too much time sparring in Advanced Martial Arts. Instead, she backed up a step, and when Nex committed to a real attack, she nimbly leapt aside and past him, halting again and sticking her tongue out, deliberately taunting him.

If she'd intended to get under his skin, she succeeded; with a howl of rage, Nex charged. Once more, Anna dodged, realizing that she couldn't just leap far away; if she did that, Nex would ignore her and attack Molly. In fact, she had to keep him distracted long enough for Molly to summon Rythax or something else, and given how pained she looked from the two shuriken which had hit her, that might take a bit for her to focus over her pain. With a grin, Anna realized that she was a squirrel distracting a cat - staying far enough away to not be in danger, but close enough to keep the cat (or dog) interested. Using moves she'd learned in Parkour, she darted about the courtyard, using the building ledges, steps, railings, benches, and anything else to deftly stay out of Nex's reach while also taunting him.

As Anna vaulted over a table, she heard a roar, and glancing over her shoulder as she ran, she smiled at what she saw and leaped up to the side of Crystal Hall, out of reach of Nex.

It didn't matter if Nex lost interest in Anna now; an extremely angry, huge, winged black cat charged at the would-be assassin, adroitly dodging his attacks and slapping him around with his massive, clawed front paws. Nex tried to fight back, but the vicious claws raked his arms and chest, leaving tattered cloth and rent flesh in their wake, bleeding and helplessly torn, unable to use his weapons. Before the boy could fully turn to run away, Rythax pounced on him, pinning the boy to the ground with his claws digging painfully into Nex's back, reminding the boy that further resistance was stupid.

Anna breathed a sigh of relief - and as she leaped down from Crystal Hall, the simulator went black.

Arena 99 Sim Suite 1, Whateley Academy

"What the heck?" Jade exclaimed as she and Bunny appeared in the simulation. "I thought we were doing a debrief."

"Where are we?" Bunny looked around; it was late evening, and in the dim moonlight, shapes and shadows moved among the trees as the branches rustled in the wind.

"I don't know," Jade replied, letting her Kitty Compact fly forth, while the part of the J-team she always cast into herself scanned around the pair for danger.

Bunny had pulled a pair of strange goggles from a belt-pouch and slipped them over her eyes. "We're on campus," she said as she looked around. "That's the library." She pointed off in the direction of a large rectangular dark shape, "and that must be Kirby Hall."

"Why ...?"

"Shhh!" Bunny hissed, trying to sound stern, but with her high-pitched voice and vocal mannerisms, she had a hard time sounding insistent and serious. Still, Jade knew something was up. "There's someone - over there." She pointed toward Dunn Hall, toward the rear. "It's - no, there are two people. It looks like one is pushing or hitting the other one!"

Jade simply nodded, and without her having to say a word, her garishly-pink Kitty Compact flew in the direction Bunny pointed. "Let's go."

"I'm not playing hero!" Bunny protested. "Let's call security." She pulled out her bPhone - only to find that it wasn't working. "Dang!"

"They dropped us in a scenario," Jade said sternly. "Figures." With a disgusted sigh, she started walking quickly toward the disturbance. "Do you see anything else around us?"

"No," Bunny replied a little nervously. Being honest with herself, she realized that being back in the simulator actually filled her with dread.

The unlikely pair crept closer, sticking to the shadows. Jade paused suddenly, then reached up and caught her compact. For the briefest of moments, she seemed lost in thought, then she launched the compact back into the air. "It's Lindsay," Jade said with certainty. "And Magni-Girl."

"What are they doing out here? It's ... it's probably after curfew, and ... where is security?" Bunny frowned. "What are they doing?"

"I'm not sure," Jade replied, "but it looks like Magni-Girl is pushing Lindsay around." The two crept closer.

"I know you hang out with Diabolik all the time," Magni-Girl hissed at Lindsay, who was backed up into a corner of the building. "Just tell me ..."

"She's not doing anything!" Lindsay protested, her voice quite distressed. "Don't ..." Her words were cut off when Magni-Girl punched her in the gut.

"You do know what she's up to!" Magni-Girl sounded a little unsettled, even unhinged. "Tell me! Or else!"

"I don't know anything!" Lindsay tried to fend off another punch, but Magni-Girl was larger, stronger, and better trained. "Let Pern go!"

"Maybe we should see what happens to your precious dragon if I collapse the magnetic bubble to nothing!" Magni-Girl hissed. "That might help persuade ..."

Her words were cut off when a small, girl-shaped projectile smashed into her side, knocking the wind out of her, but considering the relative sizes of Magni-Girl and Jade, it didn't do much more. Recovering almost instantly, Magni-Girl grabbed the pint-sized nuisance and slammed her into the wall. "This isn't your business!" she snarled at Jade.

"Run, Lindsay!" Jade yelled before turning her attention to Magni-Girl. "Yes it is," Jade hissed back angrily, "when you mess with my teammate and friend!". She struggled momentarily against Magni-Girl's strong grip, and finding that difficult, she reached up to her hair. An explosion of dizzying colors blasted the Cape squarely in the eyes, and she rocked back, dazzled to the point of feeling nauseated.

"She's got Pern!" Lindsay screamed desperately.

While Jade distracted Magni-Girl, Bunny gave up trying to tug Lindsay from the fracas and instead pulled out her smart-phone. Rather than place a call, though, she touched the screen a bit and then started waving it around.

"She's one of them!" Magni-Girl screeched as she recovered some of her balance which the nauseating colored strobes had disrupted. "She's a Seed! She knows what Diabolik is up to!" Undeterred by Jade's attack, she lurched toward Lindsay.

Jade leaped feet-first toward Magni-Girl, getting her legs between them, and tripping her, but instead of hitting the ground, Magni-Girl lurched upward, holding Jade's leg. "Don't interfere in Cape business!" Magni-Girl yelled at her. "I have to stop Diabolik's plot to take over the school!"

"And I thought it was villains who were bad at monologuing," Jade laughed, shaking her head.

On the ground, Bunny stopped her scan. "Got it!" she said with delight. "Magnetic anomaly ... there!" She pointed to a spot between two trees, in the air.

"I don't see anything!" Lindsay sounded desperate to find her dragon.

"It's ... strong enough to bend light around it," Bunny noted. "See - the edges are kind of shimmering?"

"I have to find out what Dragonrider knows - or I'll crush her pet in my magnetic bubble!"

Bunny half expected Magni-Girl to start some evil cackling.

"You know you won't get away with this," Jade explained patiently - at least as patiently as she could be when suspended by her leg thirty-feet in the air. "You'll be kicked out of the Capes, expelled from school ..."

"I'll be a hero!" She looked toward the so-called bubble. "Last chance! I'm starting to shrink it!" She glanced down at Jade. "And as for you ...." She unceremoniously dropped the girl.

Instead of falling, though, Jade floated back up beside Magni-Girl, the J-team member she'd cast into herself letting her levitate. "Surprise!" she announced with a girlish giggle, startling the would-be hero, only moments before a flashing, spinning Kitty-Compact-of-Death swooped by Magni-Girl's face, causing her to draw back more. Instinctively, Magni-Girl pushed a magnetic wave at the compact, expecting it to interfere with the devise's complex electronic circuitry, but apart from the lights going out, nothing happened. Jade grinned - all the metal inside Kitty Compact was a non-magnetic alloy, as Bunny had recommended.

While Magni-Girl's attention was on Kitty Compact, Jade extracted a spool of wire from a pouch at her waist, cast another J-team member into it, and by itself, it quickly encircled the distracted girl.

"Got it!" Bunny announced gleefully, looking over her phone at the spot where she claimed the bubble was. Not taking her eyes from the barely-visible, wavering ball of energy, she pulled something from her belt pouch. "This should do it!" she exclaimed with certainty as she pointed some type of rod, capped by a jewel-encrusted egg, at the energy apparition. For a few seconds, she fiddled with a couple of knobs on the rod, and then she grinned.

In the air between the trees, the nearly-invisible ball of energy suddenly began to swirl with colors, complete with some aurora-esque streamers of plasma dancing about the sphere from its poles, and slowly, as the rod shrieked with the sound of discharging energy and high-frequency electronics, a hole began to spread from the equator of the ball - small at first, but growing larger.

"You can't ..." Magni-Girl screamed, just as a spool of Jade's wire finished trussing her up. Helplessly ensnared, the girl could do nothing as Kitty Compact swooped in again. She felt a large sting in her rear-end, and within seconds, having been sedated by Kitty Compact, her eyes fell shut. Without control of her flight ability, she fell to the ground with a resounding 'thud'.

"Get her out of there!" Bunny said urgently to Lindsay. "Without Magni-Girl's control, the bubble is collapsing!" She needn't have said anything; it was obvious that the glowing, plasma-covered ball was shrinking quickly.

Lindsay needed no further urging. Focusing, she 'felt' Pern, and shrinking her to her smallest size, she had Pern dart out the hole. A moment later, Bunny's gizmo gave up the ghost, the egg on the tip of the rod shattering from a huge energy overload, while the bubble fizzled and collapsed on itself in what seemed, at least for a moment, to be a tiny black hole.

As soon as Pern landed on her shoulder, Lindsay grabbed her dragon and hugged her, weeping like she'd come back from the dead. A moment later, the simulator went black.

Arena 99 Sim Suite 8, Whateley Academy

"Not so hot without your Team Kimba or Wondercute friends, are you?" a booming voice caught Misty's attention the moment she landed in the simulation. Fearfully, almost panic-stricken, she looked around, terrified that someone was talking to her.

Misty started when she realized the voices weren't directed at her, but at someone who was closer to Team Kimba and Wondercute. Which meant either Jade or ... Anna! She darted toward the noise with a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.

Anna almost dodged a meaty paw swinging at her, but from her appearance - bruised and battered and bleeding, it was obvious that she was past running and jumping to get out of harm's way. Her legs were tangled up with bolas, and from the size of the weights, it was possible that they might have severely hurt the squirrel girl even as the straps ensnared her legs.

Buster, Legbreaker, and Crunch were clearly reveling in an opportunity to get back at Anna for the humiliating defeat she'd inflicted on Buster way back in the fall combat finals; his hatred of her was well-known, and he'd failed once to hurt her. Now, though, she was without friends and defenseless. And he had a few tricks up his sleeve.

"Leave her ... " Misty started to say, but the words caught in her throat.

"Oh, we've got another one!" Crunch grinned wickedly, looking menacingly at Misty. "One of those Wondercute bitches!"

"I'll keep her out of the way," Legbreaker said in a very intimidating growl, taking a threatening step toward Misty.

Fighting panic, Misty backed away, but the huge thug continued toward her, his fist grinding ominously in his other palm. Behind him, Misty saw Buster winding up to hit Anna again.

Misty backed into a wall - Laird Hall perhaps? - and realized that she was now cornered, too. Trembling, she prepared herself for a beating, while inside her, a tiny voice was screaming at her to fight back.

Before Legbreaker could hit her, Misty let loose with her gravity warping ability, hefting the bully a dozen and a half feet into the air and ten yards to one side, and then she let him fall. Hearing the sickening crunch of fist on body, she reached out with her gravity warp and gave Buster a huge shove to one side, then darted in to Anna.

Misty gasped at the sight of Anna; she was badly bruised, her lip split open, one eye blackened, and nose bleeding, and it looked like one arm was shattered. Fighting nausea at how badly the bullies had hurt Anna, Misty contemplated for a moment using her gravity warping to slam the bullies repeatedly against the building and ground to make them pay for what they'd done to Anna, but she pushed back against those thoughts, no matter how satisfying they seemed.

The roar of three angry bullies caught her attention; Legbreaker was back on his feet and furious, and Buster, too, was screaming with rage as they charged at her.

Fighting another wave of panic, Misty warped the three bullies up, depositing them high on the roof of the gym, and then she crouched down and wrapped her arms around Anna, eliciting cries of anguished pain and she tried to gently lift the girl, but ignoring Anna's pain, Misty pushed down against gravity and launched herself into the air, with Anna in her arms.

Buster leaped off the building at them, and Misty had to push herself and Anna to one side so he missed, and then they were high enough that the bullies couldn't catch them.

Tears in her eyes at the sight of the battered girl in her arms, Misty turned and sped toward Doyle, just as the simulated world faded away.

Arena 99 Sim Suite 3, Whateley Academy

With a jolt, Lindsay was outside Holbrook Arena, in a relatively open field, but before she could do more than recognize the massive building, a serious commotion behind her caught her attention. She turned, as anyone would, to see what was happening.

About fifty yards away, Bunny was in an argument with Belphegor, or to be more precise, she was chasing him, screaming, as he fled in his anti-grav chair, his corpulent body jiggling around the seat as he urged his chair away from the ranting girl.

"Give me back my variable-attenuation electromagnetic modulating crystal!" Bugs yelled at him as she ran after the floaty-chair.

"I don't have your crystal!" Belphegor yelled back. "You're just like all the others - envious of my utter genius and trying to hold me back!"

"It's mine, you dirty thief! Ms. Merenis knows it's mine!"

"You're trying to steal the design for my variable-frequency laser modulator!" Belphegor yelled wildly, trying to jink his chair around to throw off his pursuer.

"I can prove it's mine! You'd never use a pastel egg case to shield the control electronics!" Bunny countered. "And yours is the only lab with traces of machined Illudium Q-36 which I incorporated into the super-matrix!"

"You ... you dare to call me a thief?" Belphegor roared. He stabbed furiously at a button, and his floaty-chair began to change. Goggling at the transforming chair, Bunny pulled up short.

As Lindsay watched in astonishment, the amusing spectacle suddenly wasn't quite so funny. From the sides and bottom, shielding plate unfolded and wrapped around Belphegor, creating an angular, armored pod. The chair wheeled slowly, displaying Belphegor's unhinged expression. He was drooling, eyes wild, yelling insanely. "You dare to challenge the mighty Belphegor's skill and genius?"

Lindsay gulped. The chase had come within about twenty yards of her, and now it had taken a serious turn. "Bunny! Run!" she yelled to the cute blonde devisor girl. "He's Dricking out!"

The battle pod continued to unfold. What appeared to be projectile guns of some type pivoted from the rear power compartment, snapping on the sides and making the transformer-chair a dangerous weapon.

Bunny didn't need Lindsay's warning; after gawking at Belphegor's battle-pod for a moment, she turned and bolted away from the chair, running back toward Crystal Hall, but Belphegor, still audible with his incoherent ranting despite the armor encasing him, flew after Bunny.

Lindsay winced as the gun on the left pivoted, and then fired toward Bunny, but fortunately, she'd been zig-zagging and the shot missed. It exploded and showered her with dirt.

Without hesitation, Lindsay had Pern leap from her shoulder and grow to full-size, and then Lindsay leaped to her back. The pair took to the sky, Lindsay clinging to her dragon as her wings dug into the air, flapping noisily and creating great gusts of wind as Pern took chase after the unusual duel.

They were still a few wingbeats away from the fleeing girl when a shell exploded in front of Bunny, tripping her and causing her to tumble to the ground. Lindsay screamed - she was helpless against the armored battle pod piloted by the lunatic Belphegor. From her position, she could see the guns swinging around as the pod slowed, locking onto the blonde devisor for a final shot.

Instinctively, Lindsay pressed forward on Pern's neck, causing the dragon to dive sharply. Pern's heavy claws struck Belphegor's chair, and even though they didn't penetrate the armor, thanks to the added speed of the dive Belphegor's pod tumbled to the side. The guns still fired, but the explosive blasts harmlessly hit the ground well away from Bunny

"Get Bunny!" Lindsay commanded Pern, who turned and beat her wings toward Bunny. Bunny's eyes were wide with terror at the sight of a huge dragon flying toward her, and she remained rooted in place just long enough for Pern to clutch the blonde devisor in her claws.

A fraction of a second later, multiple shells exploded into the ground where Bunny had been standing. Belphegor, seeing the girl he perceived to be his oppressor escaping, screamed wildly, and he wheeled the anti-grav pod, the guns already tracking the dragon.

When a black puff exploded to the side of Pern, Lindsay gave a small cry of panic, but then she pressed her knee into the dragon's side to make her turn. Dodging, juking, flying all over the sky away from Belphegor, the dragon fled to the south, away from Holbrook and the pursuing Belphegor, delicately clutching a blonde devisor in her massive claws and with a petite girl clinging to her back,

More puffs of black, reminiscent of flak bursts in war movies, dotted the sky around the jinking dragon, but Pern quickly increased the distance from Belphegor, and after about ten minutes, Belphegor broke off his pursuit, either because his Drick episode had ended, or far more likely, his chair was getting low on power because of the demands the battle-pod mode had put on it. In any event, Pern circled back toward Poe at low altitude, with Lindsay carefully watching for signs of the insane invention thief.

Somehow, Pern slowed enough that she could release Bunny a foot or so above the ground with almost no forward momentum, and then flapped over her once, the wingbeat sending miniature whirlwinds in her face as the dragon twisted so Pern could alight without hitting Bunny. As Pern turned, the simulator went dark.

Arena 99 Sim Suite 11, Whateley Academy

Molly strode down the walkway, not quite sure why she'd been put on campus to wait for the debrief. It didn't make sense to her, but since it was a nice spring day, she figured walking around without having to worry about finals was pleasant enough.

Some laughter to the side, near the woods behind Dickinson, caught her attention, and she turned to look. At the edge of the trees, there was a group of six to eight students huddled around something, and between them, she could see a few girls moving about, wearing the colored cheerleader uniforms of the Whateley Martial Arts Cheerleading Squad. A knot formed in her stomach - Yellow Queen was about as big a bitch as you could find if you weren't part of her little clique, and from the way things seemed to be going, the cheerleaders were picking on someone.

She wanted to ignore it; messing with Patti was not something anyone did lightly, but she was also curious - why would she be in a simulation where Yellow Queen and her goons were picking on someone? Unless they'd just picked a random day on campus? But ... she frowned to herself ... Gunny never did something like that. Wincing at the trouble she knew was going to come her way, hand in the pouch at her belt touching her holdout spell slips and mentally preparing to quickly make a gateway if needed, Molly slowly marched toward the group.

"Come on," Patti's voice rose above the background jeering, "fight back! I know you want to!"

"Yeah. Show us how you fight!" That sounded like Gen, one of the unholy trio of the cheer squad, the hardcore alpha wannabes who were almost as nasty as the Don, although less subtle.

Molly pushed her way past two of the onlookers, to where the cheerleaders, in their flashy uniforms, were circled around a girl lying on the ground curled up in a fetal position. She gasped when she recognized Misty.

"Aren't you going to fight?" Stacy laughed, using her gravity warping power to pick up Misty a couple of feet and dropping her again? "You're just a coward, aren't you?"

Misty was in tears, holding her knees to her chest, softly muttering over and over to herself, "I won't go rager! I won't go rager!" while around her the cheerleaders and spectators laughed at her.

"Leave her alone!" Molly commanded angrily.

"Hey, we got another one!" Sandi chuckled when she saw Molly, and instantly, let loose her power, creating a dazzling, blinding array of light sparkles around Molly. Disorientated, she was ripe for further bullying, and Patti obliged with a foot sweep to knock Molly down. As the onlookers and cheerleaders laughed at her, Stacy gravity-waved Molly up, obviously intending to do to her what she'd just done to Misty.

Only Molly was ready. As soon as she was up in the air, she invoked the gateway she'd been preparing and disappeared, startling the cheerleaders. She appeared behind Kelly and slapped a spell-slip on her back. Instantly, Kelly was moving in slow-motion for a moment, as if time around her had radically slowed, and it threw off her reaction to Molly delivering a round-kick to the cheerleader.

Looking around for the Wondercute summoner, Patti frowned and launched herself at Molly, side-kicking her hard in retribution for daring to oppose the Cheerleaders. "Pyramid of Power!" she called out to the other girls, and instantly, they began to assemble their trademark battle formation.

It was what Molly was waiting for. With a grin, she pulled out a spell-slip while simultaneously creating a small gateway. The slip appeared suddenly at Tiffani's feet, and as essence flowed through the spell, the ground in a radius around it was suddenly covered with super-slippery, super-slimy goo. The incomplete pyramid collapsed, and the girls found themselves covered in yellowish-greenish glop which was so slippery that they couldn't even stand up.

As the cheerleaders scrambled to regain their footing, glaring viciously at Molly, she calmly opened a portal. From it stepped Rythax, large and black and intimidating. Glancing at Molly and Misty, he turned to the cheerleaders, and curling up lip enough to show his incisors, he growled throatily. The cheerleaders froze, terrified of the huge black cat, and the onlookers backed away.

Satisfied that she'd cowed the bullies, Molly turned to Misty, kneeling on the ground beside the panic-stricken girl. "You're okay, Misty," she said to her teammate, scooping her up into a hug. "You're not a rager. You're okay."

Sim Briefing Room, Arena 99, Whateley Academy

The six Wondercute girls had very deliberately scattered themselves around the briefing room, still somewhat shell-shocked from their sims, and still very doubtful about how their friends would react to them after the crash on Saturday. Gunny and Sam noticed, as did Dr. Bellows and Dr. Markham, who'd been called to the sim briefing room specifically for this debrief.

"Does anyone have anything to say?" Gunny asked, trying to soften his gruff, Marine ways, but he wasn't very successful. None of the girls answered him; only Jade and Bugs deigned to look his way before they lowered their gazes, just like the others.

"This is a very ... unusual debrief," Dr. Markham stepped forward. "It's also a counseling session of sorts." She looked around, observing the girls still dealing with self-recrimination about Saturday's crash. "We're going to watch the simulations you just completed," she continued. "And you must watch them. If you don't, we'll pause the playback until you're all watching them. Understood?"

Still not looking at each other, the girls looked up at her and nodded, most grim-faced at having to spend time in this tense and somewhat emotional situation.

Forty minutes later, there wasn't a dry eye among them. Instead, they were all in a huddle, hugging and bawling and apologizing and forgiving each other.

"Now," Dr. Markham spoke gently over the sobbing, reunited Wondercute team, "you all can see that you were worried over something that didn't come to pass. Misty," she looked at the girl, who peered at her with big eyes, "you are most definitely NOT a rager. Do you understand?"

Misty glanced at her teammates, uncertain about the answer, and then looked back at Dr. Markham questioningly.

Dr. Bellows continued the line of thought. "If you were a rager, Misty," he said soothingly, "it would have come out in your sim and in your power testing last fall. You didn't lose control, though. You tried everything you could think of to avoid fighting. Your solution was ... clever and as nonviolent as you could make it." He smiled softly at her. "Does that sound like a rager?"

Misty slowly shook her head a tiny amount, so little that the motion could have been missed if the two counselors weren't looking at her.

"You had a very traumatic event happen in the crash," Dr. Markham explained patiently. "You ... the technical psychology term is 'freaked out'." She smiled at the girl, who almost smiled at the joke. "You lost your temper due to stress. I doubt there are many people who wouldn't react like you did!"

Misty gawked at her, wanting desperately to believe her, but she just couldn't quite get there. She glanced, and saw Sam, stern-faced, nodding. Beside her, Gunny, too, was solemnly nodding. She opened her mouth to say something, perhaps to counter their words, but no sound came out. Finally, with Bunny and Molly hugging her, she nodded.

"Anna," Dr. Markham continued around the group, "why did Misty rescue you?"

The squirrel girl gawked at him, not quite understanding his question, or if she did, not quite sure how to answer. "Why?" she prompted for more information.

"If you were a traitor, as you seem to think, why did Misty rescue you?" the doctor continued. "Why didn't she just ... let you get beat up, like you think you deserve?"

Misty turned and hugged Anna. "You ... you did what you had to do," she said tearfully. "You had to stop me."

"But ...."

Bunny would have none of it. "You had to do that. It had to have been hard, but ... you were strong enough to stop Misty before she really got herself messed up."

"You mean more messed up," Misty tried to joke through her watery eyes.

"Anna," Molly said solemnly, causing everyone to wonder what she was going to say, "we all understand, or at least we're trying to. And we forgive you. It was hard, and you had to do it, and we aren't mad at you."

The doctors and sim instructors let the girls hug for a few moments, and then Dr. Bellows cleared his throat to continue. "Anna, when you saw Molly in trouble in your sim, you didn't hesitate to help even though the boy chasing her was very skilled."

"You mean Nex?"

Sam nodded. "How long did it take you to figure that out?"

Anna shrugged. "Not long. I mean, he's the only one who'd run around campus in a ninja suit, and he's so mean, like he really wants to kill people, and everyone knows that he hates Chou, but nobody hates Molly, except if they're really, really mad at Chou, so it had to be him, because he's the only one who'd do something like that."

Gunny smiled at her somewhat rambling, teen-age-girl explanation. "Were you scared?"

Anna gawked a moment, then nodded. "Well, yeah. I mean, he's like, really, really good, and he's mean, and he's got all kinds of ninja holdouts and stuff, and ...."

Dr. Bellows interrupted. "And yet, you still risked your life to save Molly. Why?"

"Well, because she's my friend," Anna answered as if the question was the epitome of foolishness. "I couldn't stand around and let her get hurt, because she's so nice to me and I wouldn't ever forgive myself if I let my friend get hurt because I was afraid ...."

"So you're not a traitor, right?"

"I ... I guess ...." She stopped and thought a moment. "No. Maybe not."

"No maybe about it," Gunny grunted. "You aren't going to turn your back on your team, or your friends, are you?"

"Anything you want to say about your sim, Molly or Bunny?" Dr. Markham asked.

"Um, I don't think so," Bunny replied meekly. "I mean, you showed us what you were trying to tell us, didn't you?"

Dr. Bellows permitted himself a smile. "Pretty perceptive. And finally, Lindsay, you are not a coward. Do you get that from your sim? Do you understand from the replays that your friends don't hold your actions in the crash against you?"

Jade enveloped Lindsay in a hug, or at least as much a hug as her short stature would permit. "You did what you had to do, just like Anna did," she reassured her friend. "Even if it was really, really hard - it was the only thing you could do!"

"Yeah," Molly added. "If it had been real, you were the only hope of saving us! You had to go get help!" The group hugged tightly again.

Dr. Markham and Dr. Bellows exchanged smiles. "I think you got the point. I think we can stop for the day so you can get to your finals. But we want to see you all this afternoon, and again tomorrow."

"Um, Dr. Bellows?" Lindsay asked cautiously.


"What about Jade's sim?"

The doctors and the sim instructors exchanged nervous glances, but Jade smiled. "I helped them with the sims," Jade replied.

"So this was your idea?" Anna asked, shocked.

"No," Jade admitted. "It was actually Ayla's."

Gunny nodded. "When Ayla had the idea to demonstrate what you girls weren't listening to, we asked Jade to help set up and run the sims for you all."

Jade sat nervously, with the instructors and psychologists watching the group carefully. Jade's role in the sim might have been too much for the girls to take.

They needn't have worried. The other Wondercute members clutched Jade tightly, thanking her for helping get them all back together.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007 - Evening
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy

"You do have finals tomorrow morning, girls," Mrs. Horton said, smiling as she looked around the common room full of sleeping bags, snacks, and soft drinks. "So don't stay up late. And if someone else is studying, keep it quiet."

"Yes, Mrs. Horton," Bunny said politely. "Thank you for letting us have a sleepover."

"I thought it was doctor's orders," Mrs. Horton chuckled before turning and walking back to her apartment.

"What should we watch first?" an excited Misty asked.

"Tenchi!" "Sailor Moon!" "Hello Kitty!"

"Or we can do something else," Jade piped up over the excited squeals of delight and giggles.


"We can do something we've never done after a sim," Jade explained patiently, "but maybe we should have."

"What? Have a party to celebrate?"

Verdant, Selkie, and Riptide came into the room, each toting an armload of books and notebooks, but they froze upon seeing the paragons of cute sprawled out in chairs and sofas in their cute PJs. Rip winced visibly. "On second thought," she said, grimacing at the spectacle, "let's go study on the third floor." Her eyes lingered on the table-full of sodas and snacks and chips.

"Ayla got us more than enough. There's probably enough for everyone on the floor," Bunny piped up, seeing Rip's curiosity, "so help yourself."

The trio exchanged glances, then nodded. "We'll be back for snacks after we put our books in the study room," Verdant said before the three girls left the room.

"Now," Molly wasn't about to forget Jade's unspoken suggestion. "What were you going to say?"

"I asked Ayla and Hank if they'd do a debrief of our performance," Jade replied with a smile. "They're both good, and it'll help us learn what not to do."

The girls exchanged glances, and then a universal shriek of delight arose. "Cool!"

"And then," Jade let things hang for a moment, "I think we should redo the sim just to show everyone that you don't mess with the power of cuteness!"

Wednesday, June 6, 2007 - Late Afternoon
Arena 99 Briefing Room, Whateley Academy

Gunny glared at the Wondercute girls, who were giggling merrily as they recounted the simulation. Across the room, the members of Star League Junior, Falcon, and Tabby Cat could only shake their heads in disbelief. Behind Gunny, Dr. Bellows and Dr. Markham smiled. Sam wasn't present, since she was supervising finals for the upperclassmen, but there was no doubt she was going to hear of or see the replays of Wondercute's latest sim.

"I do not want to know where the hell you found a pair of unicorns!" Gunny growled at the Wondercute girls. "Last time, I told you - no unicorns!"

"That was last time," Molly said innocently, though grinning. "You didn't say anything ...."

"I know what I did and didn't say!" Gunny shot back angrily.

"She's got you there," Dr. Bellows chuckled, evoking a glare directed at him from the sim instructor.

Shaking his head, Gunny paced back and forth across the front of the room a couple of times. "Okay," he finally said when he'd calmed himself slightly, "explain your tactics and gear."

Mark, Psymod, glared at the girls. "How did you do that?"

"The psychic thing?" Bunny asked, smiling. "It's pretty simple, really. It's based on the same principle in ..."

"You didn't block me!" Mark complained. "I ... I don't get it."

"Neither do I," Gunny echoed. "You didn't cheat, did you?"

Jade laughed. "You know Frank from Hawthorne?"

Lily nodded. "Uncontrolled projective empath. So?"

"His psychic-blocking helmet is huge and heavy and takes a lot of power," Bunny said. "So that wouldn't work. Instead, Anna came up with a good idea."

All eyes turned to Anna. "You know how it's sometimes hard to pick out a conversation in a big crowd because of all the noise?"

"Yeah?" Mark was as curious as Gunny and the others.

Bunny just smiled. "I ... can't give away our secrets," she said with an innocent grin. In fact, the trick was simple - to add background noise to mask the thoughts of a person - which in this case was done not with a psychic block, but a much smaller, low-power psychic mixer that each girl wore in a patch on the back of their neck. All their psychic signals were modulated and transmitted through a special version of Bunny's SPOT communicators, and then demodulated, amplified, and mixed together into a psychic jumble that was guaranteed to blow the mind of any psychic who attempted to read any of the girls wearing the device, or at least confuse them greatly - as it had to Mark.

"And ... I couldn't get close to you," Ashley complained to Misty. "You cheated!"

Misty grinned back. "I did not."

"Then how?"

"I warp gravity so it's kind of an anti-gravity force, right?" Misty proposed to the room.

"Yeah. So?" Ashley was confused.

"All mass has gravitational attraction, right?" Misty prompted. "At least that's what Ayla told me."


"And ...," Misty grinned. "Think about it. Maybe when you take physics." She wasn't going to let all the school know the idea that Ayla's suggestion, with Kayda's math to work out the details, had given her. All she had to do was to 'tune' to the gravitational attraction of an object or person, and then tune a gravity warp to counter that particular gravitational field, no matter how small. Once she'd tuned to Ashley and set up the warp, Ashley couldn't get within ten yards of her.

"My bubbles?" Lily scowled. "How ...?" She was curious how the girls had been able to defeat her signature EM bubbles.

Jade smiled. "We'll tell you in private," she said to the members of STAR League Junior. It wouldn't be fair for them to have found a way to beat their powers and leave them vulnerable, but it also wouldn't be fair to Wondercute to give away their secrets to everyone, since some students were known bullies and haters.

Saying they'd defeated STAR League Jr. was an understatement. Despite better planning and practice adapting on the part of SLJ, Wondercute had smeared them as badly as they had any team that had ever faced Wondercute. They paused to think before acting, and then they kicked ass. Knowing it was a trap, they still let Jade be ensnared by Lily, just as in the first sim. And then Jade broke out of the bubble just as chaos erupted around the rest of SLJ. Lindsay flew off on her search grid, as before, and Ashley charged at Misty to herd her, but this time, Ashley couldn't get close to Misty, and as Ashley became more and more frustrated, Lindsay, invisibly riding Pern, pounced on her, making a quick capture.

Mark tried to home in on the other girls, but his head was blasted by a nauseating, confused torrent of thoughts - including many about Hello Kitty and other cute things - and he absolutely couldn’t focus on any one girl. When he finally got a hint about where Anna was, and warped himself there, he found that Bugs was waiting with a tranquilizer, and he was out of the game.

While Lindsay hauled off Phoenixfire, Misty located Dredz and played ping-pong with him in a gravitational wave, bouncing him around until he was totally nauseated and out of commission. Bugs administered a little tranquilizer, and he was also out of action.

Lily was the tough nut to crack; using Bugs' scanner, Jinn located her bubble and attacked to distract Lily. Once Lily was effectively pinned in place, even though she was still maintaining the trap around Jade, Molly gated Lily from the middle of her bubble right into a small cluster of Wondercute girls. A light tap on the head with a truncheon rendered the coup de grace on Lily, which also released Jade from her trap.

And then, perhaps just to annoy Gunny, Molly summoned a pair of Unicorns, and Anna and Molly rode triumphantly into the camp of girl scouts; the unicorns drew the frightened girls like flies to honey, and Molly led the awestruck girls out of the forest. And in the control room, Gunny was practically screaming in frustration.

After the girls left, Gunny thumbed a comm panel. "Did you hear?"

Sam's voice came through the speaker. "Every word. And I watched the sim on one monitor. The unicorns were a cute touch."

"Aaarghh!" Gunny bellowed. "Unicorns? I don't ever want to see unicorns in my sims again!"

"Better write that in the rulebook then," Sam chuckled.

"Why do I get the sinking feeling that they're going to be worse?" Gunny asked. "They had Hank and Ayla do a formal debrief, so now they're not only going to pull 'cute' tricks, but they've got planning behind them."

Sam sighed. "We did say we needed an active spoiler team."

"Yeah, we did, didn't we." Gunny shook his head. "Do you think you can handle three more years of their insanity?"

"Do you?" Sam returned the question. "And consider this - they've applied to be a formal club, so we might have Wondercute as a permanent fixture on campus."

"I'm going to retire," Gunny shot back immediately. "I swear - if they become a permanent training team, I'm going to retire."

Wednesday, June 6, 2007 - Dinnertime
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

As Jade and Bunny came into the serving line - alone - the hall erupted with the buzz of a million comments. The very obvious separation of the girls and their forlorn expressions gave lie to the rumors that somehow, Wondercute had gotten back together.

Worse for all the normal students was the mad proliferation of awful attire; Jericho and Razorback's taunting had spread like wildfire, and truly awful sartorial dress seemed to be the thing among the bully crowd. Buster, Legbreaker, Crunch, Gauntlet, and Anvil were among the crowd who had found truly offensive clothing.

Warfist and Uproar entered in a dramatic fashion, causing an immediate wave of commentary. Not only were they dressed in hideous suits, but they carried a large, bloody Hello Kitty head on a pike-pole. "Cute is defeated for all time!" Warfist roared, while Uproar pulled a sword and stabbed the head.

People looked nervously around the dining hall; if anything was going to spur Wondercute to action, this would be it. And yet the girls sat, looking morosely at their plates, quite obviously defeated and dejected. Speculation and rumor rose in increasing volume. It seemed true - Wondercute was thoroughly defeated and disbanded.

"Wait for the uproar to die down," Molly prompted the other girls, using her nearly invisible SPOT, as she sat with Chou and Dorjee, looking down like the others.

"I'm ready," Bugs reported. The other girls checked in, too.

"And ... GO!" Molly said firmly as she leaped to her feet. The other five did as well, and simultaneously, they slapped carefully-prepared spell slips on themselves. In a flash of pink smoke with sparkles, the girls were suddenly attired in their themed pseudo-Sailor Moon costumes, standing atop their tables, hands on their hips in heroic poses. "Cuteness," they yelled together at the top of their lungs, "shall NEVER be defeated!"

A burst of confetti erupted from Jade, and like a swarm of angry bees, descended on the Hello Kitty head, obscuring it from view as it shredded the offending item. Bugs and Lindsay leaped on Gauntlet, smothering him in a swirl of pink ribbons until he was trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey, while Anna leaped from bully to bully, dancing out of their reach and slapping a spell-slip onto each of the fashion-challenged bullies. Molly gated herself to Outcast Corner, where the magic-user cast a spell on everyone there, while Misty warped gravity to suspend Buster, Legbreaker, and Crunch flailing about helplessly in mid-air.

Cagliostro grabbed at the spell slip on his forehead which was partially blinding him, and as soon as he touched it, more magic was released. A loud 'poof' and a cloud of pink smoke erupted, and when it dissipated, Cagliostro stood in a pink Sailor Moon outfit with pink high-heels, holding a pink, sparkly wand, with long blonde hair in pink ribbons, capped by a sparkling tiara.

He knew something was wrong, but not what, and as laughter erupted around him, he had a sinking feeling that the girls had done something really bad. It was only when he looked down, seeing the dress, and seeing braided, ribboned hair in his peripheral vision, that he realized the enormity of what Wondercute had done to him. He roared in outrage, and leaped toward Anna.

Rather, he would have leaped toward Anna, but the spell also froze him in place.

Anvil and Uproar, too, had tried to pull off the spell slips, and both stood, feet frozen to the floor, in outfits that matched Cagliostro's save that each was a different shade of very cute pastel color. Their mouths open in horror, several of the anti-cute bullies stopped themselves from touching the magic paper, but slowly, they began to fidget as another part of the spell-chain kicked in. At the spot the spell-slip was attached, a burning itch began. Eventually, they could stand the heated itching no more and they snatched the spell slips from their foreheads, and each succumbed to the magic that transformed their clothing into that of a 'cute' little-girl princess.

Rythax appeared, and swooped down to snag two more offenders in his claws and hoist them up toward the ceiling, where Jinn appeared, encircling the guys' legs with wire and then leaving them suspended upside-down from the ceiling.

In mere moments, it was all over. Every single anti-cute bully was in one way or another dealt with, and as they looked around, grinning triumphantly, the Wondercute team came together atop the Underdog table, each producing a wand that they raised together, like swords after a victory, as they shouted, "Cuteness!" From the upraised wands, another shower of glitter arose, swarming toward the ceiling, where it arranged itself in the shape of a giant 'Hello Kitty' head.

As soon as the short-term spell that bound the bullies to the floor wore off, most of them darted from the dining hall, running awkwardly in high heels that they couldn't seem to take off, humiliated by the syrupy-sweet cute dresses they were wearing. Slowly, cautiously at first, a few claps and cheers sounded, until the entire dining hall was nervously clapping at the mad antics of the reunited Wondercute, although for many, it was less about them having removed the fashion-bullies and more about not wanting to offend the zany girls.

After the uproar died down and some semblance of sanity returned, albeit under an unnervingly-large Hello Kitty stuck to the ceiling, Wondercute walked, grinning, to a table where STAR League Jr was dining with Lily's parents.

"We're sorry," Molly said, wincing, "that we, um, got so ... carried away in the sim this afternoon," she apologized. "We ... sometimes, we can't help ourselves," she added with a giggle, to which the other Wondercute girls joined.

"It's just ... fun!" Anna added. "But ... we didn't mean to make you feel bad."

Lily glanced around the table, noting particularly the expressions on her parents' faces. "That's okay," she replied, standing to take Molly's hand. "I guess we kind of deserved it after what we did in the crash."

Ashley nodded. "We've been in the sims a lot these past few days, learning how to be more adaptable and how to plan with more room for contingencies."

Psymod nodded. "Like they say, no plan survives past the start of a battle."

Lily's dad Falcon chuckled. "Actually, the correct quote is 'no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force'."

Beside him, Tabby Cat put her hand atop Falcon's. "And ... while you guys are getting better, your plan didn't break today; it was shattered. I don't know of many who could plan against such ... insanity!"

"We ... we didn't mean to hurt you in the crash," Ashley added quickly. "But ... they wanted us to capture you really quickly - to teach you guys to be more serious. I'm sorry it was so mean."

"That's okay," Bunny perked up. "As long as you guys are alright, too."

Lindsay smiled. "We're having a movie night in Poe," she said, her voice both inviting and cheerful. "I think after all you've been through, Dr. Bellows will write you guys an excuse to join us, just like he did for us!"

"We still have a ton of leftover snacks from last night," Jade added enthusiastically.

Lindsay noticed that someone was looking at her with a curious expression. "Excuse me a minute, please." She walked purposefully to the Bad Seeds table, where she sat down next to Jadis. They were conversing about something - Lindsay would tell them if she thought they should know - and then Jadis looked at the Wondercute gathering, an expression of pure horror emerging on her face as she vehemently shook her head. With a shrug, Lindsay stood and rejoined the group.

"Can you come to our movie night? Please?" Anna begged.

Lily glanced at her parents, who nodded firmly if uncertainly. After a moment, Ashley, too, nodded, but the two boys looked as horror-stricken as Jadis had been moments earlier.

"Great! We'll see you in a little while!" The Wondercute turned back toward their special 'table of cuteness', but Ashley's voice interrupted them.

"What are we watching?"

Bunny grinned. "Tenchi!" She joined the others moving excitedly and enthusiastically toward their table. Behind her, Ashley and Lily face-palmed, while Mark and Dredz smirked.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007 - Early Evening
Arena 99 Sim Control room, Whateley Academy

Dr. Bellows walked into the room where Sam and Gunny were poring over a stack of paperwork - grade slips for past sims and data for upcoming sims. "Well," he said, easing himself into a chair, "it looks like both teams got things patched up."

"Yeah," Sam agreed. "And I think we learned something, too." Seeing the curious expression on the psychiatrist, she continued, "We need to be a lot more careful in situations like this."

"You want a suggestion?" Bellows asked.


"When you do your simulation planning, include someone from the counseling staff. That way we might prevent something like this happening in the future."

"That's a good idea," Sam acknowledged. "And maybe we should have a counselor on hand during the sims, in case something goes wrong in one?"

"What's your prognosis for STAR League Junior and Wondercute?" Gunny asked.

"I saw the tape of their sim this afternoon," Dr. Bellows answered. "I think they're past the worst part. They'll still need counseling, especially if they have rough sims, but ..." He smiled. "I guess you didn't hear about what happened in Crystal Hall tonight?"

Gunny shook his head. "Been kind of busy with sims."

"Let's just say that Wondercute is back, and it's going to be a long time before bullies mess with them." Seeing their puzzled looks, he chuckled. "Look at the security tapes. I think you'll find it quite amusing. Or horrifying, depending on your perspective." He stood. "Well, I'm going to check in with the office. No telling what your sims have done to other students today."

After he left, Sam looked at Gunny warily. "Do you want to look at the tape of Crystal Hall like he suggested?"

Gunny shook his head vehemently. "No. And I can get away with not watching ... whatever they did. But since you're security ...."

"Thanks," Sam said sarcastically. "You know that somehow, I'm going to get you to watch it."

"I'll watch it only if you can get Mrs. Carson to watch as well - before we get into the graduation chaos," Gunny laughed.

"Tomorrow evening, then. I'll set it up on her schedule - and yours." She smiled sweetly at Gunny, who realized belatedly that Sam had thoroughly set him up. It wasn't bad enough that he had to watch Wondercute in his simulators; now he was being tortured to watch them elsewhere on campus. Life wasn't fair.


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