Derek took a longer route getting into school. Blending in with the crowd as he got off the bus, he snuck around the side and went in a different door, getting to class immediately. Sorry, Lauren, he thought. It wasn't her fault for anything; he actually wanted to talk to her. But it had to wait until it was safe.
Lucas was back. And guarding the bus ramp. Waiting. Angry.
Derek tried to listen to Mr. Barnes and his math lessons, but he couldn't get his mind around the subject or focus on the monotonous tone of the teacher's voice. Instead, he doodled a bit. The shape of Amelia's new aquatic form, waist-down submerged in a torrent of water. Her arms spread dramatically, streams of water following them, her robe billowing in dramatic wind.
He only wished she had more modest clothes. He drew her in a one-piece swimsuit, rather than the bikini.
The path to history class was long and evasive. He knew he couldn't avoid Mike, but he managed to get around Lucas and Ben easy enough.
"You know Luke's back, right?" said Mike shortly after Derek took his seat in front of the jackass. Derek didn't respond and focused on the lesson. He was interested in the coming class trip to the museum; apparently they were getting a Terracotta soldier soon.
Gym class, badminton was the event of the day. Derek was consistently sub-par in this game even at his best focus, but he managed to get his mind into it well enough to not totally suck.
"Hey Derek," said Arthur. "How's it been?"
"Oh, you know. The usual," said Derek, taking his seat next to the guy. "Dodging Lucas, failing math..."
Carol, across from Arthur, said, "You'd probably be passing math if you weren't doodling in class."
"And if Mr. Barnes got a personality. He sounds like Ben Stein."
The others at the table stared at him.
"Ben Stein? That guy from the eyedrop commercials?"
"Oh, that guy," said Trevor. "Ouch. Having him for a teacher."
Carol was dismissive. "Yeah yeah, boring teachers and poor excuses. I've got something for ya. Any of you guys watch FOX News?"
The others pretty much just stared at her. "Not really, no," said Arthur.
"Nah," said John.
"Well, get this," said Carol. "There's a report from Galveston. Last weekend, there was some girl down there who could control water."
Derek tried his hardest not to react.
"Pft," said Arthur. "Yeah right."
"I'm dead serious. There's like six videos of it on YouTube. She saved a guy from drowning and sped off like she was the Avatar or something. FOX is making a big deal out of it."
"YouTube?" said Trevor. "It's gotta be a hoax."
"Tell that to the people who were there. This one kid tried to hit on her and got his face splashed for it."
It was all Derek could do to keep from shuddering at the memory.
"You so sure about that?" insisted Trevor. "He could've been acting."
"Say what you will. This stuff isn't a hoax. She's... Here, I'll pull up one of the videos." She reached down to get her phone out of her purse.
"Not gonna matter," said Trevor. "It's all fake."
"Hey," said Derek. He looked sternly at Trevor, eyes furrowing. "I believe it."
"Finally," said Carol in a groan.
"What? You're falling for this crap?" said Trevor.
"I was there," said Derek. "That guy who got face-splashed was Jason James. It was definitely real. He wouldn't shut up about it on the way back. Besides, I don't think you can fake that stuff in water that shallow."
"CGI," said Trevor.
"Wait," said Carol. "Jason James? You're friends with that pervert?"
"He's not so bad once you get to know him," said Derek. "Still a pervert, but..."
"Wait. Speaking of perverts..." Carol glared further down. Derek followed her gaze and saw, just like last week, Lauren approaching. "What do you want?"
"To sit here," said Lauren.
"Not a chance. Shoo."
"Yeah," said Derek, "why can't she sit here?"
"Don't act like you don't know who she is," said Carol.
"Why? Who is she?" said Arthur.
"What? You don't know? She's Lauren Carter."
Arthur shrugged. "And that name means what exactly?"
"That ex-friend I talked about?"
Derek had clearly missed this conversation. He gave Carol a confused glance.
"The one who got with Lucas Graver last year?"
Now Derek's face was even more confused. Lauren had made it perfectly clear she didn't like Lucas. Though now that he thought about it, they did seem to know each other.
"You guys can't honestly say you haven't heard about it."
"Carol," said Lauren, "the reason we stopped being friends is because you trusted a rumor more than me."
"But you did date Lucas, right?"
"Yeah, but w-"
"Then I don't need any more-"
"Will you stop that? You never let me explain anything! You just jump straight to conclusions and refuse to listen to anything that contradicts them."
"Can it. The fact is, you went out with Lucas and took it a bit too far. I don't wanna be associated with someone like you."
"Hey," said Derek, "she does have a point. You're not letting her say anything in her defense."
"Can't trust anything she says now," said Carol. "She's had enough time to make up any story that 'justifies' anything." She did the air-quotes at the appropriate moment.
"She hates Lucas," blurted Derek. "She told me herself."
"Yeah, sure she did. Anyway, why are you still here?"
"I wanted to sit here," said Lauren.
"There's no room, and there won't be."
"Carol," said Trevor, "I never believed that rumor from the start. Who in their right mind would sleep with that asshole?"
"Exactly!" said Lauren.
"Besides, look at the two of them. She doesn't look like his 'type'."
"Ugh," said Carol. "You guys are all idiots. If you wanna hang around with this slut, I'm outta here."
"Carol," said Arthur, "you're being unreasonable."
"You're the unreasonable ones."
"No, you're just being stubborn," said Lauren. "If you'd actually listen to what other people had to say-"
"Yeah, Carol," said Trevor.
"Sorry guys. See ya." Carol picked up her lunch tray and walked away in a huff.
Trevor sighed. "Why does she always act like that?"
"She should join the debate team," said Arthur.
The rest of the table nodded in agreement.
While they did this, Lauren stepped around the table and the next one over--the inhabitants of which had obviously overheard but said nothing--and took Carol's spot. In all Carol's stubborn baseless arguments, she did have one point: there were no free seats at that table.
As Lauren took a bite out of her lunch burger, Arthur asked, "So, what is your side of the story?"
Lauren swallowed and sighed. "Up until March last year, Lucas wasn't a total asshole. He was just a football player. And... Well, you know girls 'always' like those 'hunky sports guys'." She let the sarcasm seep into her voice in that sentence. "So, he was popular, I wanted to be cool, so... Yeah, I asked him out."
"And what'd he say?" said Trevor. "There any truth to the 'slept with you' part of the rumor?"
"Only wishful thinking on Lucas's part. I figured it out half way through the first date. We were at the mall eating lunch, and I asked him why he agreed to go out with me. I had my suspicions, but I wanted to know for sure. And what's the idiot say? He just outright admits he wanted to get into my pants. Like the rest of me doesn't matter. He heard from his uncle that sex is apparently the greatest thing ever, and he went for any girl who'd ask him out so he could get some. I get the feeling I wouldn't have been his first, but who knows? Anyway, I dumped him right there. Poured my soda in his face too."
"So how come I haven't heard any rumors of Lucas sleeping with lots of people?" said Trevor.
"Probably because before that could get out, he spread the rumor about me out of spite. It was probably spite, or a misguided attempt to force me into following what everyone expects. Carol caught wind and now you know the rest."
Throughout the whole exchange, Derek was comparing the story to what he knew about Lauren and Lucas. He didn't know much about Lucas until April, when Lucas's violent reputation was spreading around, so the timing matched up. An idea came to Derek. "You think he's bad now because of this date?"
Lauren didn't respond right away, as she was visibly thinking about it.
Arthur spoke first. "It makes sense, though. Girl asks guy out, girl dumps guy on first date, guy gets mad, guy takes it out on other people."
"You know," said Lauren, "he did start getting worse after that weekend. Crap. I made things worse."
"You don't know that," said John. "Maybe he was gonna be a jerk anyway. And if he was already thinking that way about girls, he could've turned into the playboy type jerk instead."
Lauren shuddered a bit. "I think we've covered this enough. What were you guys talking about before?"
Trevor seemed to appreciate the change of subject. "Well Carol showed us this video hoax. Some Waterbender in Galveston on Saturday."
Lauren paused in her eating, the last bite of her burger hovering in front of her mouth like it'd slammed into an invisible wall. She glanced at Derek for a second.
Derek shrugged and said, "It's not a hoax. I was there. I saw it happen live."
"You can't do stuff like that! Not without special effects," said Trevor.
"Sure looked real to me. Especially that part where she splashed Jason James in the face."
"Wait," said Lauren. "Jason James? You're friends with that pervert?"
"Didn't Carol say the same thing?" said Arthur.
"He's not all bad," said Derek. "Sure, he's a pervert, but he knows when to stop."
"Why do we keep talking about him," said John, "when this Waterbender is clearly more interesting?"
"Because she's a hoax, and Jason's not," said Trevor.
"Hey, I know what I saw," said Derek. "You can't fake that stuff live."
Too bad for them, the bell rang.
"Aw man," said John. "I wanted to hear more about this."
"Carol had the news," said Arthur, "and she left."
"Oh well," said Derek. "See you guys later."
The group split up, heading off to their own separate classes. Derek was about to head down the hall towards homeroom, but decided to take an alternate path. He knew Lucas would be waiting for him.
No. The last time he avoided Lucas for an extended period of time, Lucas knocked him out. A few slugs to the gut per day was less painful in the long run than a concussion every week. Derek headed down his regular hallway.
And there he was, at the end of the hallway, stomping towards him like an angry bull. Derek was having second thoughts about this.
Lucas spoke first, rage seething from between his teeth. "You got a lotta nerve, Parkinsons." Before Derek could say anything else, Lucas surprised Derek by kick-stomping his knee. "And I hope you finished all my homework while I was gone."
Derek was clutching his knee that was in enough pain for his exaggerations to make him think it was broken. But he managed to say, "I never got it. After you hit me, I couldn't find your backpack."
"Excuses!" And an attempted punch to the face. Derek swerved, and Lucas hit the wall instead. Denting it. It was some kind of solid plastic or something, but still, that's a feat. Derek ducked around Lucas, then bolted towards his class, ignoring his knee.
In retrospect, he should've listened to his second thoughts.
"Did you hear? There was some girl at Galveston this weekend. She could control water like on that show."
"Waterbenders are real? Then, does that mean there are Airbenders too? Or Firebenders? Do you think the Avatar is a real thing?"
"I saw the video. She wasn't hot, but hell if I didn't want her as my girl."
"I heard this Waterbender saved someone's life."
"I bet she's from Atlantis or something."
"It's gotta be some government superhuman experiment."
"Camera tricks and CGI. It's a hoax."
"Maybe she's an alien."
"Aliens? Now that's just plain kooky talk."
"Then she's some kind of superhero."
"She saved someone. She's gotta be on our side."
"Maybe she's like an ocean spirit. I mean, she like could move the water, so like she might be connected to it, ya know?"
"This is totally magic. It's some girl using water magic."
"It looks photoshopped. Yeah, the refractions are all wrong. Definitely photoshopped."
"You see how she got rid of that guy? She's totally a lesbian."
"I think she was a mermaid."
"Think she's the next Jesus?"
"Since we're throwing around stupid ideas, I say she's a dude. What? Don't give me that look. It's no dumber an idea than a mermaid or a space alien."
"What's all this about a water girl?"
"Derek, the whole school is talking about you," said Lauren in the car.
"Not the whole school," countered Derek.
"Well, what I've heard."
"That's not the whole school."
"Derek, this is serious. You're on YouTube. Everyone's getting their opinions and ideas about you now."
"Yeah, but nobody can connect Amelia to me. You're the only one who knows about that one. Not even the government."
They paused in realization.
"You think they can figure it out?" said Lauren.
"Well that Swanson guy could probably connect her to me, but other than him, I dunno." Another thing came to mind. "I just hope I don't have to get another identity set up."
"Yeah, that'd be a pain, having three secret identities. Er, legal identities."
They paused for ten minutes to go through the drive thru at Whataburger. "So," said Lauren around a mouthful of burger, "assuming nobody can trace you, which Mr. Swanson has already proven isn't possible, what do you plan on doing?"
Derek shrugged. "I'm not really sure. Figure out how to use my powers better, I guess."
Lauren swallowed another bite. "And what if you have to go in public again, only this time you can't get away?"
"I'm hoping it doesn't come to that, but I guess I'll have to be ready. Lord knows I can't keep it a secret forever." It was too late for that the day I first took flight, thought Derek, remembering Mr. Swanson showing up at his house.
Lauren nodded. "Is there... I mean, if you have to do that again, there's gonna be people asking who you are. You're gonna need an answer. A name, at least."
Derek thought for a moment. "Well, Amelia already has an identity. Maybe we could stick with that."
"No, that won't work. Something more... I dunno, fitting."
"Fitting?" said Derek. "What do you mean?"
"Well...every superhero has a name that kinda fits their powers. Like Wolverine has the claws and senses and anger stuff, Iron Man is obvious, Human Torch..."
"So, a superhero name."
"Yes. No, um, just like an alias so they don't identify you instantly."
"A superhero name," insisted Derek.
Lauren paused for a second, then said, almost sheepishly, "Yes."
"It's starting to make sense. Between your comics, and my powers... This is a dream come true for you, isn't it?"
If there could ever be such a thing as a one-sided awkward silence, it was in Lauren's car at that moment.
"Y...yeah, it kinda is," admitted Lauren.
"So it's not just the loneliness thing that made you wanna be friends with me."
"No," she said sheepishly.
After a moment of silence, which pulled the awkwardness to Derek's side as well, Derek said, "What got you into comics anyway?"
Lauren didn't answer at first. She focused on driving for a minute, until they pulled into Derek's subdivision. "Well, I guess it started when I was 8. Mom just died in childbirth, Dad was struggling to take care of things, I was in a black hole of emotions or whatever. I looked up to Mom and wanted someone to save her, but no, nothing. Then I saw the Spider Man movie at a friend's house. It was the idea of someone with incredible powers saving people that I guess I latched onto. Sometimes I would dream of myself being the hero..." She trailed off.
"Uh, Lauren? We passed my house."
"Huh? Oh, right." She pulled into another driveway to turn around. "Seriously, though," she said, "you could be a superhero. You have a solid secret identity, you already saved someone, you hate bullies, and you love using your powers."
"I wouldn't say I love them that much."
"You told me you enjoyed flying so much, you forgot about literally everything else."
It was Derek's turn to be on awkward side of a one-sided awkward silence.
They pulled up to Derek's house this time. "Alright," said Lauren. "See ya tomorrow."
"'K," said Derek.
Inside his room, Derek finished up his non-Math homework. Lauren's idea was floating around in his head. Me? A superhero? Nah. I mean, yeah, I have powers, but I can't be a superhero. I'm too plain for that.
He started sketching himself in a superhero costume. Cape, tights, underwear on the outside, muscles, a circle on his chest where the logo should go... He ended up looking like a ripoff of Superman or something.
I'm just not the hero type. I'm not really a heroic guy. A quick memory of him transforming into Amelia and rescuing the drowning guy without a second thought. But he would've drowned. I couldn't just sit there and do nothing. I have powers, and if I didn't use them to help him, I would've felt terrible. But that doesn't make me a hero. A flash of recognition at today's heroes: police, soldiers, doctors, firemen; people without powers who selflessly go into danger to save and protect others. But...superheroes are usually interesting. I'm just a normal kid. So was Virgil Hawkins. And Aang. Even Bruce Wayne, to a certain extent.
It was a losing battle. As he thought about how much of a hero he wasn't, something would pop into his mind to contradict him.
Lauren was right about one thing, he thought. My powers are pretty fun. And... I guess I need to be better at them, just in case something happens again.
He spent from then until dinner looking at some sketches he made the day before, and the details he could figure from them. This one... overalls, a Katniss braid, a tan, boots... I think she has something to do with dirt. Or rocks. At the bottom of the sketch, he wrote "Possible powers: 1) Earthbender; 2)".
Some of them were easy to mark off. The seven-foot one in military camo was easily identified as having super strength, having effortlessly lifted the bed the night before to prove it. The one with a red plus sign over her heart was listed as having healing as a possible power, considering the white clothes, bandages under most of her clothes, and the Red Cross symbol. The one in a sports bra and track shorts had Super Speed as her possible power.
Others, though, were difficult to figure out. There was one dressed in a red midriff-bearing spaghetti-strap tank top that showed an excessive, though not obscene, amount of her D-cup cleavage; black short-shorts that hugged her body tightly, black hair in a ponytail... Derek thought it was a bit disturbing, but this form was by far the most attractive of the forms he knew he had. He knew this one wouldn't be used much, if at all. Same for the one with the three-inch heels and the minidress and the one in the cheerleader outfit. And the one with the glasses and sweater he couldn't figure out; she didn't have super intelligence, so he was stumped.
At around dinner time, he'd put guesses for several of his forms' powers. Dinner time was also when the phone rang.
"Hello?" said Mrs. Parker. "---- Well y... ---- Yes, sir. ---- Tomorrow, actually. I have the day off. ---- Alright. ---- Goodbye." She hung up.
"Who was that?" said Derek's father.
"That was Mr. Swanson," she said. "He wants to talk to Amelia about the girl at Galveston last Saturday."
Derek's father seemed to cringe. Derek himself felt a little heavy anticipation in his heart too, more because he was feeling if what little the government knew already was already too much.
"I don't have a clue who she could be," said Amelia, her cap and coat discarded. She'd also tossed aside her shoes and socks for a change, letting her slim feet breathe.
Mr. Swanson sighed. "Okay. Well, there goes our best lead. Now we'll have to look elsewhere."
"If she showed up in Galveston," suggested Amelia, "maybe she lives there? I know, tourism, but still."
"We'll keep that idea in mind," said Mr. Swanson. "Thank you for your cooperation."
"No problem," said Amelia.
Mr. Swanson stood and picked up the tape recorder, clicking it off. He then sighed again. "Just make sure this doesn't happen again."
"I'll try," said Amelia, "but... what if something happens again and I don't have much choice?"
"Let's hope it doesn't come to that." Mr. Swanson packed what little things he had taken out of his briefcase and walked over to the door. "But still... While my gut instinct is to keep this whole thing as far under the rug as it can go, my head says you need to be ready."
"And so," said Mr. Barnes, "the coefficient times the derivative of X makes the logarithmic matrix equal seven. When we apply this to-"
SUDDENLY, ALARM! The school was erupt with klaxons and flashing red lights!
Derek sprang up from his seat and dashed into the hall. People were running in one direction, so he ran the other way, towards whatever they were running from. And there he saw a machine. A giant humanoid robot blasting things with lasers.
Without thinking, Derek transformed into Amelia and flew towards the mech, delivering a punch to the chest powerful enough to make the whole thing explode. "Ha ha!" she shouted in triumph before coming down to land near the crowd of cheering onlookers.
"Ha!" mocked Lucas. "Look at that! He turned into a girl! He's a freak!"
The cheers of triumphant praise rapidly turned into mocking laughter.
"No," protested Derek. "Stop it!"
But the mocking persisted, driving Derek to curl down in a corner.
Then a hand put itself on his shoulder. He turned to see...Amelia.
Amelia smiled and said, "Hi."
"How are you?"
"Okay, I guess. You?"
"Cool. So, um... How, exactly, are you standing there?"
"Same reason you're standing there."
"Oh. Um... I mean, how are you...separate?"
"Well people were picking on you. I couldn't just sit back and do nothing."
"So you...separated from me?"
"O...kay... This is kinda weird. It's like talking to myself."
"I know. It's like I'm in two places at once. So how-"
Derek woke up to his alarm clock. He reached over to turn it off, when he felt the strange feeling of thick-ish clothing on his arm. He looked down at himself, and saw he was Amelia.
"...I guess transforming in a dream counts," she said, quickly turning back to being Derek. "This better not be a recurring thing."