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DR: College Chaos

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October 12th, 2019

Donald leaned back on the couch, listening to the track running through his iPod. Hero, by Skillet. It seemed appropriate for these madcap past few weeks. After being released by the CDC, a limo was waiting for Donald at the door. Whisked away to the airport - a private jet taking him to Logan Airport. Mom, Grandpa and Grandma waiting for him at Logan Airport. The Wallaces managed to route away from pararazzi and journalists, but they had caught on and started appearing on the outskirts as Donald got into the limo.

Isaac sniffed at them as the limo left them behind. Some people might have gone along with their family's business in the camera eye. Isaac Wallace was not one of those people. He'd had to adjust enough business is dealing with the media's response to Donald being plastered across the nation battling zombies. Free now from the issue of public propriety, Deidre Kennedy... it wouldn't be quite right to say she hugged her son like he was 6 again and scraped his knee, but neither was it quite wrong.

Isaac and Maeve sought to remain far more composed in their concerns, but Donald could tell they had a profound sense of relief written all over them. Crazed Stormers did a number on Boston and the North End would be rebuilding for a long time. The University of Pennsylvania decided in light of Donald's quarantine and general fame to give him an indeterminate amount of time off. So Donald took advantage of the time to be with his family again, relax...

Well, within limits. There really was no way to get around the media, and Maeve guided Donald through a basic statement to send to the press. More or less it boiled down to: "I figured protecting others from the zombies was the right thing to do. Super-powers was just a welcome surprise. No further comment." Donald had been tempted to have at least one interview but Isaac sternly advised against it. In fact, his grandfather had politely inquired into what abilities Donald had gotten, listened and while not directly saying 'start thinking about your future,' had made sure his grandson remembered the names and numbers of the family's legal staff and not jump into anything without contacting them.

Donald loved Grandpa Isaac, but he came off like a buzzkill there. Well, that wasn't fair. Donald had begun starting to think about it, honestly. Being cooped up in the Wallace mansion didn't help though. So after several days, having insisted he didn't need therapy or anything like that, Donald chosen to return to college for now. Some tad of normalcy, if he could pretend.

Except you can't pretend when there had been student protests at the U of PA calling for Donald and "Ski-Mask Girl's" release. And counter-protests insisting they'd been released too early. Death threat emails from the Northflow Pentecoastal Whatever because he was the Antichrist's Midwife. Everyone on campus wanting to know everything about him. Thinking they were entitled to. Donald being dropped from the basketball team - because of fairness - though he'd only joined that year because it gave him something to do.

Mind you, there were perks. Donald brought girls back every night. Girls plural. When he went out, Donald could get free stuff from a ton of places and share the bounty with his buddies. But then there were moments like these when Donald wanted a break. Thankfully, Lucas and Aaron were the best bros and roommates ever, and went to bat helping keep unwanted callers at bay.

Donald just felt the need of... something. Then it settled on him. Someone to talk to.

Donald and Renata had traded Skype contacts before leaving, since they both were attending the same college and might want to talk later.

TheAmazingRacer wrote:
Hey, how's it going?

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For Renata, leaving quarantine was a hurried rush of people, then a car, then a quick stop to get into another car, then...home. There'd been a debriefing first of course, but she barely remembered it now. A man in a uniform telling her in a very serious tone that they believed there was no independent footage of her face. They had apparently gone over the phones of students there, and taken statements. None of them had reported recognizing her, and they had confiscated and deleted one video that included her unmasking, but didn't clearly show her face. It had been the closest thing to a breach though.

Then her dad came in the room, and for a minute she was ten again coming out of the hospital after getting her broken leg put in a cast and just hugging him while the man in uniform respectfully left them alone.

After a minute or so of that, then some pleasantries about being glad to see each other, Tom got down to business. "Now, are you sure about this, peanut? I know it seems a little intimidating, all that attention, but I've read the report. What you did, those kids you saved...you're a hero. Are you sure you want to walk away from that?"

Renata paused for a second, trying to think of how to sum her feelings up. "You read the report," she said, "but what you didn't see is how the officers looked at us. Me and that other guy at the party. When we were talking to them, telling them what happened. When we were getting moved to...wherever that quarantine place was. The scientists, the guards, everyone..."

Her father's eyes crinkled a little with real concern, "What happened? Did anyone do anything, say anything?"

"No. It was just..." She hesitated again. "...it was just a feeling. Like they were waiting to see if we'd blow up. Like we were human bombs. And I get it, you know? I do. We kind of ARE human bombs. No one knows why or how...and no one knows why some people went fu..."

Tom cleared his throat and gave her a reproachful look, with the perfect and uncanny anticipation of a father.

She grimaced, but changed course anyway. "Why they went crazy. So who knows, maybe some of us are just on a longer fuse. They didn't know. We don't know. And the thing is that even though that sort of eased off over time, it never went away. And I don't really want to live that way if I don't have to. Every class I go to, every time I go out to eat...hell even step out of the apartment. All eyes on me. Wondering when I'll explode."

Thomas rocked back in his seat a little, nodding at his daughter's words. "I think you might be selling yourself short, peanut. All those eyes on you might be watching in...gratitude? Wonderment?" He rapped his fingers over the table in a quick little staccato. "But I know you're a private person...and that's okay too. You already get attention what with...well, the rest of the family." He smiled at that. "The idea of getting more must feel a little overwhelming."

Renata shook her head, that wasn't it at all, but he was already moving on.

"On the other hand, it seems like your school already has someone looking after it, so I don't need to be so worried about your safety maybe." Tom set the roll of paper he'd had tucked under his right arm out on the table and unrolled it. University newspaper issue from a couple of months back, with an article about 'ski mask girl stops car theft.' On seeing it Renata couldn't help but flush red. Ugh.

"No one's been asking why you happened to have a mask on you for this," he went on, just as casually. "It's a minor detail in a story where the major ones are...well, obviously just overshadowing everything else. And of course, no one outside the government even knows to ask, including campus police."

"Dad..."

"I had good reasons to keep you..." he stopped himself, then backtracked, "...I had one good reason. The reason any father would have. I wanted to protect you. I know how dangerous it is, peanut, going out with a badge...it's like having a target painted on you. And I know you. You wouldn't pick some safe, peaceful little town to settle in. You want...you've always wanted...to protect people." His fingers drummed again.

Renata squirmed a little in her seat, feeling like a kid being scolded and hating how she couldn't act...adult with him. It felt as if a great weight were pushing down on her, slumping her shoulders, pushing her face down to look at the table. Lifting her head took complete focus, monumental effort. She did it though, slowly but surely, and looked him in the eye.

"There's nothing wrong with what I want. And...there's nothing wrong with you wanting to protect me, but there's everything wrong with how you did it. When I was a child, you making decisions for me was being a father. Now that I'm not, it's just...being a bully."

Tom met her gaze, even as pain at the word creased his forehead. "You having these powers won't make you safe. There was a guy in England who made a hurricane that went from Greenland to Europe. I sat in on a meeting with the Joint Chiefs briefing the Senate about that. One of the ladies you were in quarantine with? She put up some kind of weird...windmill things that scientists still can't figure out, all over Cleveland. And then that other one blew up a mountain? Did I hear that right?"

She winced a little. "He...was kind of mad. Towards the end of quarantine, with all the tests and the scientists weren't very...you know, communicative, and we were all on edge."

"Sure. And so he blew up a mountain. You see what I'm getting at?"

Renata rubbed her temple as anger kept bubbling up inside, held in check by the emotional pressure from outside pushing in. "Yeah. I get it. I'm weak. I'm fragile. I'm out of my league. Just like always."

Her father sighed and shook his head. "That's not what I'm saying..."

"No, they're not the words you're using, but it's absolutely what you're saying," Renata suddenly interrupted him. "Peanut, you have powers, but other people have more, so you can't try to put yourself up against them. Peanut, you want to...to protect people, but you'll just get yourself hurt. Peanut you think you know, but you don't. And while we're at it, lets throw a little Mom in. Hon, you think you know what you want, who you want, but you'll grow up and then you'll see how crazy it was."

The table shifted by itself, and the newspaper started drifting lazily into the air. Tom, to his credit, reached out and pushed it back down again...keeping his game face despite the sudden unease. Was she a bomb after all?

Meanwhile, Renata wasn't done. "I don't really know yet, how...how this will change anything for me. Maybe I can't have what I thought I wanted before anymore. But I know this much. I'm done letting you get in my way. If you want to protect me, help me! If you know something I don't, tell me! I don't want to ignore you, or...or work around you, but what else can I do?!"

Thomas leaned forward and put his hand over hers, as maddeningly calm in the face of her emotion as ever. "Okay. As of today, consider me out of your way."

Renata stared at him for a second. "Okay?"

He nodded. "Okay."

Closing her eyes, Renata turned her hand in his and gripped it tightly. "Thank you."

"You know you can only keep this secret for so long though. Especially if you want to...use these powers. For anything."

She nodded now. "I know."

"I know people who can help. Public relations...that kind of thing."

"I can't deal with that right now. Let me just...have this time when things are still normal."

Thomas grinned and squeezed back. "Okay. You let me know when normal's not all it's cracked up to be."

With a deep breath, Renata returned the smile.

Then it was back to school. Back the grind. And normal being not what it was cracked up to be happened fast. For the first...maybe two days, Renata tried to just put all the weirdness to one side. Concentrate on the important stuff. Day 1, change her major to Criminal Justice. Bam, done. Somehow doing that made her feel more powerful than throwing a dude across a room with her mind. It was too late in the semester to switch courses around, but that was all right. Her schedule right now was mostly just taking care of electives and core stuff.

Starting on Day 2 though, the itch started. Could she float her wadded up hamburger wrapper into the trash can and make it look like she'd just thrown it? Cleaning under the bed was a pain, maybe she could just flush everything out with her magic brain powers? Could she fly? Could she do more than one thing at the same time, like brush her teeth and pack her backpack? How did it WORK?

Renata didn't even make it one week without starting to poke and prod, experimenting with these abilities. Doing so was a risk, every time. She knew that. Even in the privacy of her own place, it was a risk.  The biggest risk of all was, she found out by the weekend, was just how addictive it was. By the end of the second week after quarantine, the little shit she could do in her apartment wasn't enough. She could pick herself up, yeah, but how FAST could she go? She could juggle, but could she juggle chainsaws? There was nothing in her apartment she couldn't lift, but the world was full of heavy objects to test herself on.

She needed a better place for this. Somewhere private enough to be safe, big enough to permit more extreme experiments, and...lets face it...sturdy enough for the inevitable mistakes.

It was a kind of torture, almost, having to go from schoolwork that felt increasingly boring and pointless, to practicing mind magic in a teeny tiny space that felt like she'd burst out of. And all the while, being boring old quiet old keeps to herself old Renata Hodges that no one, and ESPECIALLY not the insanely hot Psyche 101 TA, ever looked at twice. They didn't know who she really was. She was the girl in the ski mask that the school paper was literally fighting a war in its own pages between a columnist who thought she was rad, and the editor who kept putting in comments that the paper didn't condone acts of vigilantism and that anyone with information should go to the campus police, etc etc. She was that girl. She was the girl who'd fought off fucking zombies and smushed the face of the guy making them.

Would the TA see her if she knew that? Probably not, but you never knew. And never knowing was...fucking hard, Renata found.

Guarding as many secrets as she was made socializing pretty difficult. Who could she even talk to about this kind of shit? Without blowing her cover wide open? And then she'd have to go crawling back to dad and have fucking marketing people go over her entire life, telling her how to change, what to be, so that people would like her. Only not 'her,' but some carefully crafted image that she'd wear for the rest of her life.

UGH.

Getting a text was, therefore, a surprise. Who it was from was even more so.

She texted back, Great. Just fantastic. Please save me. You're a superhero right?

 

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Donald stifled a chuckle at her response. Sure. Still working on the costume and codename though. Ski Mask definitely isn't my thing. What peril shall I save you from, good citizen?

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Renata shook her head at that and chuckled. That really was the worst 'superhero' name ever.  Angry letters to the editor to follow...

It's complicated.

Then she thought a second longer and realized...he was legit though, a known 'Stormer.' Did he have some kind of training ground or something?

Okay it's not. I just got a ferrari and then found out there's nowhere I can actually DRIVE it. So Im tooling along to the grocery store at 30mph...in my FERRARi and it kinda sucks. You happen to know about a course I can bust these wheels out at and really push the pedal down?

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Donald took a moment before he realized Renata was referring to her superpowers. That was a tough question, especially since he couldn't get anywhere without being tracked by people. Something with plenty of space, so Renata could practice in peace, hopefully.

Good question. He typed back. Donald tried to remember the parks he had taken a run at. Maybe Fairmount Park? 2000+ acres of space. Plenty of wooded areas to practice in. Especially at the right time.

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Is there where you practice? was her response, this time coming quite quickly.

The truth was that she was only partly looking for a safe place...she was also hoping to have someone she could talk to about all this crazy shit. And Donald, unlike her, was already outed. He'd have a perspective on it. Maybe it wasn't so bad?

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No, haven't been free to practice. Peoples' eyes on me wherever I go. Donald replied. Now that he thought about it, having a nice place to practice in peace and being able to talk about this with someone would work well. But I like the idea. Maybe if I turned into a bird and flew over there?

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Renata rolled her eyes. This was getting dumb. She punched in the number and just called him up.

"Hey," she said shortly. "it's me. Can you meet me there or not?"

Still doing the mental math on how to get there, Donald made his decision. "Yeah, I can meet you. I'm thinking I can..."

She cut him off with a, "Cool. Tell me all about it when we're face to face. Give me like...fifteen minutes to get there."

"Right, okay. Where should we meet?" Donald asked, grabbing a pencil and an odd receipt to jot on the back of.

Renata scowled and closed her eyes, envisioning the park. It was pretty big. "How about...the Rose Garden? That white...house thing. The hut."

"Gazebo?"

"Yeah, the big one there."

"Okay, got it. See you there."

Renata hung up and went to get ready to go.

--

She was a little late getting to the gazebo at the Rose Garden, but at least at that time of day there weren't too many people around. She'd put on a plain blue baseball cap and her grey windbreaker...that plus her sunglasses made her a bit harder to recognize. It wasn't the disguise her mask was, but folks wandering around a public park with a ski mask on at this time of year would occasion comment. Especially with current events.

It occurred to her as she went over to the elegant white-slat structure that Donald might not look like himself, given what he'd told her of his powers. Hopefully he'd remember what she looked like well enough to say something.

 

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Donald had considered actually turning into a bird and flying over, but he decided that was much too complicated. Instead, he used his powers to turn into someone entirely else. It took a bit in front of the mirror before he settled on an appearance he liked. Black hair, frizzy. Eyes more of a light green. And clearing all the freckles spotting his skin. To think, the secret wasn't Clearasil, but super-powers.

The Stormer, satisfied with this new look, gathering his things and slipped out of his room, then the dorm. Nobody in around to connect him to the building, before Donald headed for the bus stop. Odds were, the media still had a watch on his car and his license plate committed to memory.

At Fairmount Park...

Renata saw a guy she didn't recognize come up to the gazebo, before looking over her with a grin. "No ski mask?" Donald asked, as an identifier rather than a genuine question.

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Renata lifted an eyebrow at Don's new face and cracked a smile.

"Yeah, turns out these days wearing a ski-mask is kind of the opposite of a disguise. It's the thing everyone recognizes now."

She glanced around, didn't see anyone paying them any mind or close enough to overhear them.

"So this is kinda messed up, right? We both got what we wanted, and immediately started having second thoughts." Renata turned to lean forward against the gazebo's railing, drumming the fingers on her left hand in unconscious imitation of something her dad did sometimes. "I was all...I didn't want it to get in the way of school. I figured it'd mess up my life. Then I get back to school and it all starts feeling...petty, you know? And I don't have a life to mess up."

Finally she looked at Donald. "So what's it like on the other side? What did I give up for this?"

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"Not saying I had second thoughts." Donald quickly disclaimed, so that Renata didn't make the wrong assumption. "Just that I wasn't fully prepared for some of the cons. Pros: plenty of company." The way he waggled his eyebrows said just what he meant to Renata. "People giving you a lot of free stuff wherever you go. Cons: People popping up wherever you go, wanting to know all about you. And apparently believing you have no right to privacy. Plus hate mail from people who decided they hate Stormers - but that's all crank stuff."

Donald looked back out across the city. "Sure, I could have gone into WitSec, but why? We both have super-powers. We're here because we definitely want to do something with them. I do. I just don't know what it is yet. I figured I could handle the celebrity spotlight while I did. But this goes beyond the level of say, Brangelina."

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Renata bursts into laughter at that and gives Donald a skeptical look.

"Brangelina?" she asks. "Really? You need a social media specialist to get you up to date, man. I was a toddler when that was a thing."

With a sigh she turned around to sort of sit standing up against the railing facing inward towards him.

"See, I already got a little of that, back when my dad was first running for office. I mean, national office. No one gives a shit about state offices." Renata shakes her head. "I didn't get followed or anything, but it felt like...I couldn't screw up, or suddenly everyone would be like, 'Senator Candidate Totally Fucked Up His Daughter, Photos Prove It.' Of course, that didn't come with any Pros, so...maybe I have a tilted view of things."

"Buuuut...you're right. It feels stupid to have these abilities and just sit on them. I always wanted to be a police officer, you know? It's what I'm in school for. I think this could be a real...I don't know. A thing. Bulletproof cop who can just hold people still with her mind. That sounds scary, but it's also a cop who doesn't have to use a gun. Most police, they have two options. Subdue by hand, or go for the gun. And once the gun's out...things get ugly fast."

She scratched her chin. "I wouldn't have that problem. I mean, I know for a fact that legally it would be stupidly open to lawsuits at first, and...you can't build a whole police force around it because...it's just me...but..."

Renata laughed at herself self-deprecatingly. "...anyway. You can tell I've put a lot of really detailed, well-researched thought into this. I don't know the answers...don't even know many of the questions. I don't know how or where to start, but I really feel like I can do something...and instead I'm just reading books and listening to lectures and kind of dying inside."

There was a moment of quiet after that where she realized she'd said waaaayy more than she'd meant to.

"But hey...celebrity," she said, awkwardly trying to shift the focus. "You get hate mail, huh? Lay it on me. What stands out? What's the anti-Stormer crowd dishing out of their asses this week?"

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Donald tactfully accepted the shift.

"This week? This group called the Northflow Pentecostal Church sent me a message saying I was going to be struck down because I was the Antichrist's Midwife."

Renata burst out laughing at that. "Midwife? Aren't those women?" Donald shrugged with amusement too painted on his face. "Religious nuts. It probably makes sense to them and nobody else. Other people left messages at the school saying I'm an inhuman monster who should be still locked up. And so on. Honestly, it's so much hot air."

Enough of this depressing and silly shit, Donald decided. "Why are we worrying about this? We came here to practice, so let's go find a good spot to practice."

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"Hell yes," is Renata's reply. She looked around, then at Donald. "I haven't been here before. You know a place in the park that'll be good?"

Without waiting for a response she strolled out of the gazebo and glanced back at her guide, then gestured with a sweep of her arm as if inviting him to join her.

"If not, then lets start walking and see if we can get well and truly lost."

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"Lost until we find Kukalima." Donald agreed, drawing a confused look from Renata. "From a Daniel Pinkwater book. Read it when I was 8 and for some reason it just occurred to me right now." With that, the two set out.

After some time the pair of Stormers found a wooded clearing well away from the river. They had not seen anyone in a bit, and Donald was trying to recall if they'd taken a left or a right at that crossroads. "Does this look good to you?"

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