Kate sat at her desk trying to finish her homework and failing miserably. She was distracted by two separate, but equally pressing, issues. Firstly, there was only a week or so left until the end of term, which meant heading back home to her family and the mixed reaction she knew was going to receive. She was looking forward to seeing her sisters again and catching up with them, and she knew that her father would be as supportive as ever. The problem, looming over everything like a black cloud, was her mother and some of her other relatives. Despite the results of the FBI investigation, the arrest of Jefferson and Nathan, the exposure of the wider network, the mass media coverage (which, luckily she was omitted from) and the complete and utter vindication of the fact that Kate was a blameless victim, that still was not enough in their eyes. Kate was there to be judged and blamed, a sinner who had to repent to be absolved.
Kate had always known that there were two sides to her faith - the compassionate, forgiving (sometimes, she realised, to a fault) faith that she subscribed too, and the fiery, condemning side that she secretly suspected were just one big bunch of hypocrites. A Christmas spent in their company - a time when they were all supposed to be coming together to celebrate both the birth of Christ and their time together as a family - was looking decidedly stressful and uninviting.
Secondly, and completely tied in with the issue of faith, was the ever increasingly confusing emotions she was going through - watching Max and Victoria together (who, she grudgingly had to admit to herself, wasn't as bad as she had always thought - she'd even seen glimpses of what Max presumably saw in her) just served to remind her of what she knew she wanted to be able to do - be open and proud, not having to hide or be ashamed any more of what she was. And if even Victoria could do it and be happy, then why shouldn't she be able to?
Thrown into this were the feelings she had for a certain someone which only seemed to grow the more time they spent with each other; someone who she didn't know if they even liked girls, let alone reciprocated the feelings she had. The fact that the relationship with Trevor seemed to be over had kindled the vaguest flame of hope in her heart; but the fear of rejection and discovery haunted her every waking hour. This turmoil was decidedly not helped by seeing Max roaming around Blackwell in her own sunny cloud; Kate felt envious of her happiness which she knew was a very un-Christian thing to be feeling, but she couldn't help it.
One thing she had started doing however was leaving her door ajar; a habit she had picked up from Dana to serve as a prompt for her (or anyone else, she always added hurriedly to herself) to enter for a chat – and a way of ensuring she was not going to isolate herself away from anyone else again. Kate had a constant desire to at least know that there were other people around – it was a comfort and helped reassure her that she was safe with her friends.
Right now though, she was decidedly reassessing that policy as it was not helping to alleviate her suffering as she suddenly heard Max's voice in the corridor, followed by her knocking loudly on the door of the adjacent room.
“Victoria, come on, I promise I'll behave.” Kate could just about make out the muffled reply from Victoria – the walls weren't thick at Blackwell, but they were thick enough to hide what she was saying – Kate wondered why on other nights they hadn't seem to hide the noises from next door, and reminded herself to get some earplugs. Max knocked again, her voice amongst pleading.
“Please, we'll be late otherwise. You said you were happy to go, so.. come on, don't make me beg.” Kate threw down her pen, stretched then stood up, deciding that work could wait another hour or two. She stuck her head outside the door and saw Max, smartly dressed and standing outside Victoria's room, looking a little lost.
“Max, everything OK?” she asked, leaning against the wall as she watched Max knock again.
“Victoria, please.. we need to go or we'll be late.” Max turned to face Kate, looking a little pouty. “I'm fine, Kate, it's just.. well, Victoria. She's being a BIG STUPID MEANIE!” Max said that last part back to the door, and Kate realised that whatever was going on, wasn't remotely serious – even she, with her limited experience of relationships, could see that.
“Where are you both off to?” she enquired politely, after a muffled 'Fuck off, Lamefield!' was heard from the other side of the door.
“We're supposed to go the movies in Portland, that's all,” shrugged Max, before turning back to the door. “But we are GOING TO BE LATE!” Kate heard what sounded like 'I don't care, you can just fix that anyway' through the door which left her feeling a little puzzled.
“What's up with her, then? Is there anything I can do to help?” Max smiled at her, then shook her head.
“No, but thank you Kate, that's very kind. Victoria is just in a mood because I made a little joke that I thought was funny-”
- 'It wasn't funny and you promised!' -
“- which was and still is funny, and now she's just in a mood.” Kate looked at Max and realised that while she was happy for her she still had to do her best to squash that feeling of envy that threatened to creep up on her.
“Well you could always go with someone else?” she said innocently, but loud enough for Victoria to hear behind her door. “I mean I’m busy tonight, but I'm sure there would be someone else willing to go.. like Warren maybe..” Kate swore she heard a thump against the door, but that was immediately replaced by a cackle from Max.
“Ha! You hear that Chase? Maybe I should go ask -” The door flew open, revealing a positively seething Victoria who glared first at Max then at Kate; who despite the virtual 180 degree change in their relationship still found herself wilting slightly under that fearsome gaze.
“You fucking ask that fucking stalker on another fucking date and I will fucking end you. Painfully.” Max didn't react but just bopped her on the nose.
“So we going then?” Victoria huffed then grabbed Max by the hand with feigned annoyance.
“Fine, let’s go see your stupid kids’ film then.”
“Yay!” Max waved at Kate as she was dragged down the corridor and Kate raised a hand in farewell back, watching until they disappeared through the doors at the end. She stood there for a minute watching the doors, before with a sigh levering herself off the wall and finding herself stepping past her door and onto the ever open and welcoming door of Dana's room, where she leaned against the door frame looking in. Dana was sitting cross legged on her bed reading a book, looking like she was already dressed for bed in shorts and a top, even though it was still early. Kate found herself just staring at her, eyes unconsciously travelling the length of her body until she realised what she was doing and looked away, embarrassed with herself.
“You can come in you know,” Dana said without looking up, and Kate wondered if she knew she had been looking at her – either way she didn't seem to indicate that she minded if she had. Kate went and sat on the bed, close but not too close to Dana, who marked a place in her book and then gave Kate a smile that seemed to go right through her like a hot lance.
“So what was all that noise about?”
“Oh, it was just Victoria and Max doing their thing, having a pretend argument. They're off to the movies.” Dana snorted and looked at the open door, as if trying to still see them.
“It’s still really weird that whole thing, isn't it? Those two together, I mean I'd have never thought that Max would ever be interested in someone like Victoria.” Kate hummed in agreement, joining Dana in her inspection of the corridor.
“Yeah I know what you mean. Victoria isn't the easiest, is she? I mean she's very beautiful, so I can see that bit, but.. she can be difficult.”
“Understatement of the year there, Kate,” Dana said drily. She turned her gaze on Kate, looking at her with a mischievous look. “So you think Victoria is beautiful, do you? Been looking much?” Kate coughed and went bright red, feeling the heat radiating off her cheeks.
“What? I mean, no, yes, well anyone can see, I mean,” she stammered, desperately trying to back-peddle and deny everything. “She is pretty, though of course not as much as you are, but I can see why Max would find her attractive because of that.” She gave Dana a quick smile to try and show that everything was normal and that she hadn't actually been looking at Victoria like that, but Dana was just looking at her with a strange expression. The silence between them began to stretch to a point where Kate began to feel a little uncomfortable, and she wondered if she had said something wrong - Dana looked as if she was turning something over in her mind. Just as she made up her mind to try and fill the silence Dana spoke.
“I never suspected that Victoria was gay though, did you?” Dana's voice was thoughtful, and Kate surmised that was what she had been thinking about.
“Me? No, of course not. But then I didn't know Max was either.” Dana raised her eyebrows and shifted position, extending her legs out across the bed. Kate tried not to notice the way her shorts were riding up, reminding herself that Dana was just a friend and she shouldn't think of things like that; especially, for example, not the way the tank top she was wearing seemed to be just a little bit too small for the things it was trying to contain.
Not that I'm looking, I mean I'm just noticing them because they are right next to me and-
“Max told me a few months ago,” Dana said, cutting through Kate's increasingly fevered thoughts. “She just casually dropped it into the conversation when we were talking about relationships.” Kate felt a little aggrieved that Max hadn't told her sooner, but then realised that Max may have been uncertain as to what her reaction would be, given her faith - something she was still struggling with herself, let alone in relation to anyone else.
“Oh. Well, good for her, I suppose.” Kate fiddled with her fingers, looking around Dana’s room as she did so. It had become almost like her second bedroom of late, what with their regular movie nights and general hanging out.
Not, of course, that I have ever spent the night here like I would have done in a proper bedroom, if I was -
“What about you?” asked Dana, interrupting her thoughts which suddenly skated away into terror as Kate realised what she had just been asked.
“What?” she squeaked. “I.. you.. what..”
“I mean I have had one or two relationships,” Dana continued, apparently oblivious to Kate's pounding heart. “Not all of them – actually no, most of them – being a complete mess. What about you?”
“Ohhhh,” Kate exhaled, relief flooding through her. She subconsciously wiped her palms on her thighs while she thought of an answer. “Well to be honest I've never had a relationship with anyone. What with church and my parents, it was never even considered for me, not with any one they approved anyway. Or even considered by me. Well, not unless I was ready to get married but it's not lega– I mean a few of my friends are married off already, one even has a child on the way. I – I'm not ready for that.”
I don't think I will ever be, or at least not how my family and friends expect. And they change the law.
“Not met the right person yet, huh?” asked Dana, looking at her with an expression that Kate struggled to read and couldn't meet; unsure if it meant more than it seemed, or if it was just more wishful thinking on her part. Kate felt a sickness in her stomach at her question, wondering if this is what everyone felt in her situation. It was the first time she had experienced these feelings – and it both excited and petrified her.
“Well,” she said, her voice falteringly a little, “at least not one that my family would approve of.” She dared a glance at Dana and caught her staring directly at her, and she blushed and looked down at her lap. She felt a hand on her arm which made her jump slightly, and she looked up once more to see Dana looking at her with a gentle smile on her face.
“Well,” she said, “I've definitely had enough of relationships with men. They are all useless, aren't they? It's a shame Max is taken isn't it.. or maybe I should say Victoria for you..” Kate went bright red and went to protest but Dana shoved her with a hand whilst laughing, causing Kate to fall over on the bed and end up giggling too.
“This is not helping with my homework, Dana,” she said looking up at her from her prone position and quite liking the view. “If I flunk the year then I'm blaming you.”
“Need I remind you that you came in and disturbed me? I'll tell you what, I'll come and read in yours while you finish up, then we can go do something together - what do you think? Watch a film, go eat..?”
“That sounds great,” said Kate happily, sitting up and getting off the bed, while Dana followed in one fluid motion. As they walked back to her room Kate was consumed by the very real spark of hope that Dana might, just might, have not given up dating women.
Frank Harrison watched everyone slowly file into the room and sit down in the various seats around the large table, the murmur of conversation slowly dying down as people got themselves organised. Frank exchanged a few nods with people; most of those here he had worked with before on numerous occasions, and the fresh faces he had requested to join the team were on recommendation from other departments. An expectant hush fell as everyone looked at him expectantly, and he took a moment to revel in the attention before addressing everyone.
“Good morning everyone, and thank you for attending at such short notice. Just a reminder before we start that all information is classified, no hard copies are to be taken, everything is to be run through the dedicated server - you all know the drill. Also if you can make sure your cells are on silent that would be appreciated.” He waited while there was a general shuffling as people checked that they were, before fiddling with his laptop to get a presentation up on the big screen - luckily for once it happened straight away without needing to call IT.
“There we go - right, let's get started. First a piece of admin - as you are all aware it's Joyce's 25 year service day next week, so there is a collection going around and we've got a table at the Steak House booked for seven. I trust you will all be there.” Frank looked around the table, ensuring that he got nods of acquiescence from people that they would be attending. Satisfied he started the presentation, beginning with an overview of where they currently were on the programme of increasing the United States covert force projection, outside of the usual channels of the traditional military, CIA and foreign operatives.
“Given the failure of the recent smart drone application, and the slow pace of development of the robotic infiltration systems - something I believe we are still decades away from achieving, despite the assurances we keep receiving - it's been decided that we look to what may be perceived as a more esoteric direction.” He paused, looking around the room. Most of them seemed to be paying attention, although some of the old hands looked a little bored - this was just another presentation in a long line of them for them, although Frank had hopes that the next section might wake then up a little, and he clicked to the next slide.
Jesse Faden's face suddenly filled the screen, glowering down at everyone.
“This, as some of you are already aware, is the Director of the Federal Bureau of Control, Director Jesse Faden. The FBC's remit is to investigate and control the paranormal, or what we could call the supernatural. They are meant to be the first line of defence against the sort of things that would keep the ordinary person awake at night, if they knew of them.” There was a snort from someone around the table, and Frank raised a questioning eyebrow.
“Sorry, sir - that just caught me by surprise. But I mean really, the supernatural? Who conned the Government into funding that, and more importantly, how do I join?” There was a general chuckle around the table and even Frank smiled - they were all aware, for example, of the CIA's ludicrous history of trying to set up a PsyOps department, and this must have seemed more of the same – another black hole for Government funds to disappear into.
“As amusing as it sounds - and I must confess that I thought exactly the same when I first heard – unfortunately this is not a joke. They are investigating and, more importantly, containing, things that are very real indeed. Horrifyingly real.” He paused for effect, judging their reaction. This was the first hurdle he had to cross, getting them to understand that the fantastical was merely the normal, mundane reality. “If you look at handout two on the table – and please, remember that these are not to be taken from this room – that handout details some of the investigations that the FBC has undertaken over the years. These are the only ones we have been able to obtain – most of them are classified beyond our access – but they give a flavour of the work they do.” He allowed them a few minutes to read the material, noting the raised eyebrows and whispered conversations.
“If you have any questions, save them for a moment as there will be plenty of time later as we go on.” The slide changed, showing a bullet list of what was known about the FBC's investigations. “Of particular interest for us would be things that they call Altered Items, which appear to be objects that are imbued with some form of power – whether that be a traffic light that kills when it turns red, or a x-ray machine that freezes people in place. Sounds fantastic, doesn't it – yet they are very real, very dangerous - and the potential for weaponising them, to give us a decisive edge, is something that has been – and still is – being considered. But there are serious drawbacks to such an approach. After-all, there is a reason the FBC was created in the first place – these items are dangerous to everyone, and thus any usage of them could pose an unacceptable risk to the CIA which - yes?” A hand was raised from the rear.
“Sorry, just a quick one – but I’m sorry, this still seems very farfetched. I have never heard of anything like this, it all just seems a bit, well, like a bad film. Or like something from a computer game.”
“I understand this is difficult to grasp, and I went through the exact same process. There is a world out there which is beyond our understanding, and in many ways it is better to ignore it – to remain in ignorance and trust to others to hold the line. But, in those such circumstances is where we operate - in that blurring of the boundaries, the shades of grey that we hide within, exerting our influence to further American Power, Influence and Freedom.” He was quite pleased with that line; he'd been practising it for a while. “I would ask that for now you put doubt aside, as things are about to get a little stranger.”
He spent a few more minutes elaborating on what little they knew about Altered Items, and how and where there they occur - the constant flow of information and analysis seemed to quell any further expressions of disbelief; instead he saw the look of people analysing the data, forming options and strategies.
Good. They are getting on board. Time to crank it up a notch.
“Moving on, the next part is where even our limited knowledge runs out. The only people who know - or at least have the ability to study it - is the FBC, and as their records are unavailable to us, and we have no one in place there at present to provide us with any intelligence, what follows is largely informed guesswork.” Another hand was raised, and Frank motioned for them to ask the question.
“Is there any chance we could get an asset in place? If we have a knowledge gap then surely we should target this Bureau in the same manner as we have other agencies, Governments?” Frank shook his head.
“We have tried previously and always been unsuccessful. There is some means they have of somehow rejecting every single candidate that we have put forward, even before they reach the interview stage. And as for recruiting the existing staff, they are all to a person fiercely loyal to the current Director. That means we are on own at this present time.” Frank changed to the next slide, which posited a series of questions.
“Of course, the obvious question is - if there are such things as Altered Items, then are there such things as altered people? And if there were, what would they look like? What could they do? And how would we know?” Frank left the questions hanging, seeing that the team were now focused on his every word, most with arms folded and looks of concentration on their faces.
“Two weeks ago there was an incident on the outskirts of Ardmore, Oklahoma. A chemical fire at a factory caused a large explosion and electrical fire, luckily with no fatalities or injuries. This was the official story as told to the media, and it made a few local news channels. The reality, however is very different.” He changed the slide, a nervousness in his stomach from anticipation of what was to come, despite having analysed it himself over and over. “This is the only known footage of the incident, which we managed to obtain before every digital record was wiped. We suspect that was done by the FBC, as it fits their modus operandi.”
On the screen a short video started to play, clearly taken from a security camera. The footage was grainy and low quality, but the compound of an industrial building could be seen. A large, flickering object looking very much like an industrial motor was pulsing with energy and electrical discharges as it hovered a metre above the ground. Suddenly into view flew a figure, coat billowing around her as she landed on the ground, the concrete surface cracking and breaking around them from the force. A burst of electricity leapt out at them from the object, but she seemed to dash to one side at incredible speed, before a large chunk of the floor detached itself and hovered around the her hand, before travelling with extreme force towards the motor, while she simultaneously leapt off into the air again and out of view.
The footage ended, leading to a stunned silence in the room. Frank changed the slide, and Jesse Faden's face looked at them once more.
“That was as you saw Jesse Faden, aforesaid Director of the FBC, and who is what we can call an Altered Individual, for want of a better term. Clearly what you have seen looks like something from a film, or a computer game, but -” He stopped and looked at all their faces, everyone waiting expectantly. “But I have personally seen her do some of this in person, only a few weeks ago at the FBC headquarters. That footage is completely genuine and an accurate reflection of what she can do, and as far as I know is the only existing recording of her, or any Altered Individual.” Frank let them process what they had seen, replaying the footage once more and pausing it at various points as the team analysed and discussed the implications.
“During our meeting I did discuss the prospect of mutual cooperation given her extraordinary capabilities; however given the onerous duties that the FBC undertake there would not be at present sufficient capacity for that to happen, but she wished us well in our mission.” There was a general murmur around the room, and he spent a few minutes answering their questions where he could, although it was clear that his knowledge was limited – and they didn't need to know the real truth about his meeting.
“So back to the question I posed earlier - at least one Altered Individual does exist. Which leads to another question - are there others?”
“It stands to reason,” answered someone from the back, “that if she exists, then there must be others either working for the FBC, or within the world at large. Although they are clearly hidden from discovery, otherwise we would be in a Marvel film and I haven't seen Thor anywhere lately.” That raised a few chuckles, which helped break the tension which had been building as their understanding of the world had shifted.
“You raise a good point,” Frank replied. “There are two possibilities: either they are common and yet have successfully hidden from view for years without anyone ever noticing; or, which I think is more likely, is that they are exceptionally rare. If we think back through history and all the tales of witches, or prophets with healing powers – all these old gods and religions like Thor that you mentioned – then it makes sense that these stories must have had a basis from somewhere. Why could this basis not have been Altered Individuals?” The somewhat deliberately provocative statement caused some heated debate amongst the team, which Frank let run – he thought he had them invested in the idea and open to the new way of looking at the world that he had shown them.
“So the question is,” he said loudly, causing the chatter to die down, “is there someone out there who has even a fraction of the ability of what Director Faden has shown?” He paused for dramatic effect, before letting a small smile creep across his face. “The answer, of course, is yes – which is why we are all gathered here today. During my meeting with Director Faden, it became known to me that the FBC was aware of another individual who was potentially of similar ability to Director Faden, although seemingly not yet under the control of the FBC. This individual is believed to be a young woman, possibly a teenager.” A change of slide, and Frank pointed at each bullet point in turn as he read them off.
“So this is the purpose of getting you all together today. We are going to form a new project, codenamed Apate. Our tasks going forward are as follows. One: identify who this person is, and what their abilities are; Two: seek to establish contact and earn their trust if at all possible, and Three: recruit them to the division and use them as a force multiplying asset for the United States. And if that is not possible, then we must endeavour to ensure that they are not appropriated by any other foreign power, by any means necessary – including termination.”
“Sooooo... what did you think?” Max skipped after Victoria, who had been marching on ahead as if in a rush. Victoria stopped suddenly, nearly causing Max to run into the back of her.
“That depends,” Victoria said, “on what the next words out of your mouth are.” Max scooted around to face her, reaching out to grab her hand.
“You’re not still mad at me, are you? It was only a joke, I wish you’d just let it go..” Victoria narrowed her eyes, her mouth set in a thin line.
“You’re treading a dangerous line here, Maxine,” she growled. Max fished around to take hold of Victoria’s other hand, before holding them tightly.
“Would you say,” she said with a sly grin, “that I’m treading on thin ice..?” Victoria went to push her away but Max held on tight, and the two began to contort around each other in the middle of the street.
“Let the fuck go of me, Maxine Caulfield, I’m going to turn you into a fucking popsicle!”
“Come on Elsa, use your powers for good! Be the good Queen!”
“Look you miserable little hipster, one more word and you’re walking home.” Victoria managed to get a hand free and then spun Max around, freeing her other hand; then dragging her back in against her and holding her tightly from behind.
“Got you,” she whispered in Max’s ear, the sound electrifying her spine. “Now, what were you saying?” Victoria held up her hand and Max saw a thin sheen of ice appear around it. She swallowed hard, feeling a delicious sensation of excitement and fear coursing through her – even though she knew Victoria would never hurt her, some subconscious part of her was thrilled by the danger of it all, and the power Victoria was showing.
“I was just saying that.. you’d look good in that dress..” Victoria lessened her grip a little.
“Go on..” Her lips were close to Max’s ears, voice even lower.
“And.. you’re my beautiful ice queen..”
“No more Frozen jokes?” Victoria released her grip, blowing into Max's ear as she did so which made her let out a shivery giggle.
“Well done, Maxine. No more Frozen jokes.” Max stepped away from her, a smirk on her face.
“It was like your autobiography though, wasn’t it – you should ask for royalt – OW! Great, now I’m going to have to rewind, aren't I. Hey! Come back here!” Max slipped a little as she went after Victoria, who was spreading ice around her as much as possible, forming it in large spikes and drifts; causing those around them to stare wild-eyed as others started to scream. Max slipped again and fell to her knees, before she remembered what she could do and quickly froze time. Carefully standing up, she slowly walked over to Victoria and grabbed hold of her.
“OK Chase, you made your point. Truce?” Victoria looked at the frozen world – in both senses – and nodded.
A moment later they were both walking down the street, hand in hand, watching people obliviously walk on by again. Max was humming to herself as they headed towards an Italian they had booked for dinner.
“Stop it,” Victoria said, causing Max to look at her questioningly.
“You’re humming that snowman song. Stop it.”
“Oh. Sorry. It was catchy though, you had to admit.” Max looked at the girl next to her and felt a warm, fuzzy feeling inside. She was happy, far happier than she had ever thought possible – even the grim events that had happened with Logan a week or so ago were slowly fading from her mind, helped by Victoria being there for her when she needed it, and just understanding. She looked around at the busy streets and felt content – until she suddenly felt a sharp poke in the ribs.
“Max, you’re doing it again. Stop.”
“Oh my god, sorry. It wasn’t deliberate, I swear. I’m just.. really happy.” Victoria halted and turned to look at her, a slightly vulnerable expression on her face.
“You are?” she asked quietly. Max smiled and stretched up to give her a kiss.
“Absolutely.” Victoria bit her lip then turned away, squeezing Max’s hand tight as if never wanting to let go.
“Good,” she said in a thick voice. “Come on, let’s get to the restaurant. I’m starving.”