A Wizard In Alexandria's Court

Chapter Six

by Skysaber

OoOoO

"I know Kung Fu!" Taylor stated as she woke up in Cranial's chair.

"Show me," Jared commanded, leaning over her with a grin on his own face.

The fight that followed was actually very impressive, just not up to movie special-effects standards, seeing how Taylor, at least, was still limited to the physical abilities of a regular teenage girl.

"Good!" Jared declared, when he had her pinned down on the mat. Releasing her, he stood and offered her help to rise, while a part of Taylor's mind was wishing he could have just kept their bodies squeezed tight together just a little bit longer.

"Before you ask her 'how did you beat her', we already know it's because you're stronger and faster," Lisa quipped, idly eating a candy bar. Then she glanced around the room they'd adapted for sparring, "And yes, in this place, that would all be due to your muscles."

"Must you step on all of my movie quotes?" he pouted, disappointed.

Taylor was taking her place for another round, trying to deny she was looking forward to getting pinned again, but Lisa's face told her she already knew, and was probably going to reveal that when it would be most embarrassing, the bitch!

Just 'a' bitch. Not the other Bitch, who actually was acting far from bitchy, even in the dog terminology, ever since her turn in the Cranial chair earlier, having gone first.

They were all getting a half dozen skills each, then allowing those time to settle and practice them a little. Taylor had often thought of learning kung fu as a way to stay safe from her bullies, so had included that in her set.

Rachel had gotten a package devised by Jared, centered around the essential skills of being human. To everyone's surprise, Rachel had risen gracefully from the chair and, very politely and using correct English, requested a Clothier's Closet. She had since been selecting outfits, and they were nothing like the rough-and-tumble, 'I don't care about my appearance' look from before. In fact, what Rachel was wearing right now was a full dress with a whole bunch of fancy trimmings, including plenty of ruffs and frills, petticoats and a hoop skirt, with matching hat and gloves (though of course she did not wear the hat at the moment, since they were indoors), complete with a frilly parasol.

It was the most girly thing Taylor had ever seen with her own eyes, and she'd been friends with Emma!

Well, she had her own cape costume, of course. But while Rachel's choice was not her 17th century royal gown, in its own way it was just as fancy, if only a tiny fraction as expensive. And while the royal gown was regal, and definitely feminine, these new dresses seemed friendly and approachable, and far more girly.

Someone that guys would plot how to sneak a kiss from, rather than bow before. An entirely different impression, and now that Taylor had seen it, was feeling just the tiniest bit jealous over, as she could see it affecting Jared, who kept nodding in approval over Rachel's wardrobe choices.

"[Bleep]," Taylor muttered, seeing how the girl seemed to be aiming towards filling her entire wardrobe with equally fancy and frilly dresses and their accouterments. Must she leave no room for anyone else to compete?

"Now dear, we must watch our language," Rachel gently chided. "Only people with inadequate vocabularies resort to cursing. That, or the lazy, ignorant, or uncultured. As ladies of gentle refinement, we ought to hold ourselves to a higher standard."

"Ladies of gentle refinement, my [Bleep]." Lisa disagreed sourly, under her breath, already annoyed. She did not take well to being corrected on anything.

Rachel stood and fixed Lisa with a glare that, while proper, had pure iron in it. "Would you press alcohol into the hand of a recovering alcoholic? Would you present a known killer with a gun? Would you do both against their will? Swearing is a foul habit, and one I am attempting to recover from. It is not a mark of skill. It requires no talent. Any five-year old could do it. What requires skill and self control is not doing it, especially when it is an infectious habit that spreads from those around you. No, I am attempting to better myself, to control my language, and my behavior. Will you?"

"I agree," Jared said, stepping closer and taking Rachel's hand. "Swearing is not an achievement. You are not 'getting away' with anything doing it. You are merely playing with filth, and getting dirty doing it, and I for one, congratulate you on your resolve to improve yourself by not doing it, Rachel my dear."

The dog cape beamed at him.

"[Bleep]," Lisa swore in return, just to prove that she could.

Jared fixed her with a disapproving stare. "Bragging that you know how to swear is like bragging that you know how to dirty your diaper. It's the default. The achievement is not to do those things."

He returned an approving gaze on Rachel, who continued to beam at him.

Taylor and Dinah were both silently resolved to improve their language, also.

"[Bleep]," Lisa swore, just to contrary.

Rachel confronted her in a very ladylike style, for all that she was stocky and very unladylike in build. "There is nothing elegant, or refined, or sophisticated about the use of foul language. Those three all take effort. Foul language does not. As a habit, it is both crude and vulgar, focusing the mind on topics which are degrading. Go ahead, use your power to prove me wrong."

Lisa fumed for a moment, and they could all tell she was running her power. Then she stormed off impotently, unable to do as she was dared, and unhappy to have lost any argument at all, but especially one to someone who could not spell her own name half an hour ago.

She did not like not being smart enough to get away with whatever she wanted to do. But she had picked the wrong side of the argument for that, as everything Rachel had said was true, and her own power backed it up.

Thus, her fit of temper.

Nobody likes to be wrong, and Lisa least of all.

"Wow!" Dinah giggled. "I guess the stocky girl who chose to call herself Bitch has changed, huh?"

Rachel nodded. "Yes, in costume I would like for you all to call me Freya."

OoOoO

Knowing better than to let bad tempers fester, Jared left the room and sought out Lisa shortly after.

He found her glowing over a balcony and went to join her.

"So, upset, I take it?" he gently asked.

"You bet your sweet [Bleep] I am!" she returned.

"I'll take that bet, but not on that subject," he returned lightly.

Lisa turned to stare at him, sensing something more important than her temper looming.

"Oh come now," he shrugged. "You and I both know how fragile groups like this are. A single bad flare of temper could destroy the whole thing. Your temper is not so much over being wrong about swearing. That's trivial, and you know it. If you'd thought of it, you'd have been happy to make her arguments first, and glory in seeing everyone opposed to you look like an idiot. So it's not that, as much as it is your power pushing you to be the smartest person in any room."

He paused a moment to grin, and adopt a gangster accent. "But while you're good, kid, real good. As long as I'm around you're always going to be second best, see?"

Lisa's face slowly transformed into a very predatory grin. "Wanna bet?"

"Yes," he agreed. "Now to the terms. That's really what this is about, isn't it? A group this size can only have one leader. You've got two reasons for trying to take over that slot, one is you've had bad experiences with others using you for your powers before, first with your parents, then with Coil. Second is your power always pushing you to prove yourself smarter than everyone else. But I think, as much as you want it, you're a bad pick for the job. To you, all it means right now is freedom and status. To me, leadership is an obligation, an accepting of responsibility to do my best to strive towards the greatest amount of success and happiness each member of this group is able to achieve. That includes you, if you have any doubts."

He paused. "So I am willing to bet my sweet ass, against yours, that I am smarter than you are, and a better pick for the job."

Her gaze turned calculating, as she asked to clarify, "And that means the loser has to do what the winner says?"

He shrugged. "They would literally own the loser's [Bleep], and be leader of our small group as well."

"Very well," Lisa's gaze, while remaining calculating, became a trifle vicious. "I accept."

He gave her a very solemn nod, then offered to let her take his arm. "As this is a leadership contest, the only fair judges would be those we intend to lead. Let Taylor, Dinah, and Rachel propose one contest each, one at a time. Whichever one of us is most successful at passing each challenge takes that as a win. Best two out of three takes the prize. Agreed?"

Lisa stood there assessing him. While she did not like those terms, seeing as they were too rational, fair, and impartial to be a guaranteed victory for her, she could not tell how to successfully argue against them without spoiling the whole thing, and she'd very much like to own his [Bleep]. Then she decided she had not one but several angles to abuse, and a foxy expression took hold over her features. "Agreed."

She took his arm and allowed him to escort her off of the balcony.

OoOoO

"Am I a terrible person, Kurt?" Danny asked. "I mean, I know Taylor is dead and gone... and it really doesn't bother me."

When Danny had called him to come over that morning, Kurt had been expecting a bedraggled, broken man like he saw last night. One the entire dockworker's union was concerned might never heal. After all, Danny hadn't ever really recovered after his wife died. Instead, he arrived to find his friend washed, dressed in clean clothes, clean shaven, having already had breakfast, with the laundry machine rumbling its way through a load downstairs in the basement, and now the two men were cleaning up empty beer bottles together.

Danny was using a push broom to clear the floor of bottles. They'd already filled three cases. But the important part was Danny was talking, speaking like even he did not know to believe what he said. "I am conscious of all of the possibilities that will not be realized. I'd much rather she was around. I did, and do love her. But somehow it's just not eating me up that she's gone."

The floor finally clear, Danny leaned against the broom a moment, before putting it away. That broom hadn't been put away properly in years. Its place was leaned up in a corner in the kitchen, not in the broom cupboard. But into the broom cupboard it went, all the while Danny was talking, as if absolving himself, "I'd rather be with her, but that I am not isn't killing me."

Kurt just kept his silence, loading newly discovered bottles into cases as Danny went searching behind curtains and underneath the furniture for any bottles misplaced or that had rolled, speaking all of the while. "What's wrong with me, Kurt? All of this stuff I just said about Taylor applies to my wife Annette as well. I miss her, I love her, I'd rather be with her. I think of all of the things we could have done and achieved together, all of the time we could have spent, and would very much have preferred to spend that time and do those things, but it's just not destroying me anymore. It's there, but it does not hurt. I know I used to feel like this great big, empty hole had opened up inside of me, that hurt like a bullet wound is supposed to hurt. Only now it's like a belly button, a hole that doesn't hurt."

The men started carrying the boxes of bottles out to the truck together, both men knowing of a place that would redeem them for a few cents each. And while they were carrying, Danny was still talking. "New pain still hurts. I dropped a bottle on my toe this morning, and got both the physical pain, and the anger, and self-condemnation and grief at my stupidity at doing so - as is normal, nothing major. So my emotions aren't completely shut off. It's just that old pain is somehow completely dealt with, processed. It also no longer bothers me that my kindergarten teacher stole my heirloom teddy bear on the first day of school and never gave it back, or that time I got cut off in traffic and nearly died in an accident. Or when you dumped potato salad over my head and pants me as I stood on stage at our last union picnic - and I thought I'd never get over that one."

Having settled the last case of empties in place, Kurt leaned on one, and broke his silence to Danny, "Maybe you triggered with the rarest superpower of all - sanity."

OoOoO

Lisa examined the contract carefully.

She had watched him write it, and it only contained the things he'd said, but after they'd returned to the other three members of their immediate group and informed them they were the judges, Jared had, acting very naturally, also proposed some extra rules, and gotten the judges to agree on them before Lisa's objections took hold.

So she was not unaware that Jared kept detailing more clauses to their agreement at every stage. He'd gotten two new ones in about "No immoral behavior shall be allowed in any test" that killed off one angle she'd been planning to abuse, and another "in the interests of time, no test shall require anyone to leave this building" had killed another.

She had been so certain that she could have gotten Taylor, as the first judge, to declare a foot race to town and back. Then, while Jared was off winning that, Lisa would have had all of the time in the world to convince the other two girls to declare contests that Lisa was sure to win.

So she'd felt sure of victory until he'd sneakily gotten in that extra rule. Now she was determined not to let him slip past any more.

On the contract there was a line drawing of a female form, with dotted lines above and below the area being wagered. On his side, there was the drawing of a donkey wearing a Democrat hat with the lines both above the ears and below the hooves. Fine. He was a joker. She knew that about him. But if he wanted to throw himself all in while she only stood to lose her tail, that was his problem.

It was spelled out in the contract that the winner could do nearly whatever they liked with what had been wagered by the loser. Terms and limits were specifically set forth, and the loser's bet became the personal property of the winner immediately upon a winner being determined, without any limits on use. Even use for sexual purposes was specifically allowed. About the only thing not permitted the new owner was destruction of their winnings, as that was not considered use. The loser, on the other hand, was held to be continually responsible into perpetuity for the maintenance, daily and otherwise, of their former property, and were required to keep it in proper trim insofar as health and their personal ability allowed.

On any dispute, it fell to a vote of their three judges to clarify issues, and their decisions were to be considered binding. Lisa wasn't the happiest about that, as those three tender hearts would automatically overrule any of the more extreme uses she could think of... which, she had to allow was fair, she'd want that protection herself on the flip end. Lisa could think of a dozen uses for her winnings already, including cementing her leadership by offering his favors to the other young ladies of their group.

Hey, he shouldn't have wagered if he wasn't prepared to lose!

And he was too moral to do anything with hers that she would not approve of. She knew that. Although there was something there, some extra hidden detail that her power kept wanting her to explore. There was something about the way he was treating her that was unlike how he treated anyone else, and being aware of it being there, it was like an itch she could not scratch not to know what, or why.

No, she could not let this go. Her power was eating at her to accept this challenge.

She signed with a flourish, placing her signature next to his in front of all four witnesses.

Four? No, there were only three girls there, plus Jared, and he wasn't a witness. He was soon to be her property!

She could think of dozens of uses for a Power Tinker that he would not even object to!

OoOoO

"First test. Taylor, as first judge, you are up. What are we to do?" Jared asked kindly.

Taylor had been considering the matter mightily, giving it great thought, and when she raised her head, there was a firmness of determination as she declared, "True authority is always derived from the consent of those governed. This is a test to see who will be the best leader for us? Fine."

Taylor drew herself to her impressive for a girl of her age full height, crossing her arms across her nearly non-existent chest. "So I want you to prove your leadership ability, by first declaring what plans you have for the group, secondly informing us of some part of those plans that we won't want to do, and third by convincing us of the necessity of doing it anyway."

"Ladies first," Jared immediately deferred to Lisa, before she could say a word, resulting in her gaping like a fish, as Jared had been right, she HAD no immediate plans for the group, and by him deferring to her, Jared had not only cost her the option to wait and think of any, but also cost her the opportunity to listen to his plans first, then present a better version.

In that moment, Lisa realized that he had been correct about one thing: she wanted to be in charge, but that was her goal, not part one of getting to some other course of action. She'd had no plans other than it would be nice to lead her own group.

"I was thinking we would form a group something like Toybox. They do tinkering for hire. We could do thinking for hire. All five of us are good at some kind of thinking. Taylor has her bugs as scout sensors, that could give the rest of us all sorts of data to chew on. And since we robbed the ABB, money will never be a problem for us ever again, so we could get paid in favors and services from other capes, which can be significant. We could be among the most influential groups in the world!"

There! Lisa crowed inwardly. Not bad for something thought up on the spot. Besides, since he'd brought it up she'd decided she did like the idea of being the smartest, and this still left her that, as leader of a group of thinkers she might even be the smartest person in the world! Or seen that way, anyway, which was almost as good.

Taylor waited for a moment, then prompted her, "And what part of that would we not want to do?"

Lisa gave off a casual shrug to buy herself time. "There is still field work, and field work can be dangerous. Nobody wants to be in danger, but it's part of the job and cannot be avoided."

The bug-controller's serious gaze then swiveled over to the boy. "Jared, what would you say was the part we would like least about her plan, and how would you convince us to do it anyway?"

This question had not been allowed for ahead of time by anybody, but at the same time everyone there realized that it was fair. If one person could error-check another's plan better than its creator could, that too demonstrated a valuable leadership ability, and ought to be credited.

Lisa relaxed as it also took some of the sting out of her going first, as now she'd have an opportunity to pick apart his plan, and show how she'd do it better, with all of the advantage of having listened to both plans fully!

Jared gave it some consideration, but only the briefest pause. "As an all-thinker group, from the perspective of other groups out there, we would represent an undefended gold mine. Once we declared our existence, they would all want to own, control and enslave us; and would assume, fairly accurately, that other than trying to out think them and thus avoid their control, we would have no defenses. There isn't a group out there that would not want to press-gang us into their service, we'd be too rich a plum for them to pluck. So to remain free would require some fairly stringent group discipline, either to establish secrecy so complete as to avoid all efforts to breach our secrecy by all other groups out there, or to ally ourself with a group strong enough to protect us. Either way, we surrender most of our freedoms, as going deep cover can almost be compared to holding one's breath - over the short term it is easy, while long term feels like strangulation. But if we ally with another group, they'd lock us all up in some gilded cage somewhere, and the closest we'd ever come to seeing outdoors again would be on television."

All of them had gone pale. Taylor swallowed. "Which course would you choose? And how would you convince us to surrender our freedoms?

Jared shook his head. "No, I just outlined the danger. My recommended course of action would be to let them find some well-defended group of our decoys, and imprison them. Thus, we'd still be forced into lives of secrecy to conceal our group's powers, but the extent and limits on our actions would not be nearly as bad, as they would not be looking for us, thinking they'd already got us. Though this would involve constantly using our powers on the decoys' behalf, and sneaking the results to them so they could share those with their masters, which would be a bother. I would convince you to do it, however, simply by pointing out how much better that would be than to be imprisoned ourselves. Our only other course of action would be to somehow obtain an unbreachable defense, like those pocket dimensions Toybox hides itself in, but we do not have access to. Although that does open a possibility of a partnership with Toybox, which would probably be among the most tolerable of prisons we could choose."

It was a very somber group that considered that. Even Lisa began to question her idea. But she excused it, thinking that it was only a rough version anyway, that naturally she'd think out all of the angles like that before implementing it. Starting out by allying with Toybox seemed the right idea...

There were some who'd have been willing to declare the boy's victory in the first contest there, but Taylor felt strongly that the contest should be a fair one, and so asked, "Jared? Same original question: what would your plans for our group be? What parts would we not want to do, and how would you convince us to do them anyway?"

"Actually, I've got so many plans it will be difficult to summarize," he confessed quite frankly. "My ultimate goal is our group's happiness, but there are several steps necessary to achieve that. Our safety, for one, is paramount. You've all seen with the hospital how easy it can be to lose a base. There we had ease of access, secrecy, power and lights, water, a pool, laboratories and bedrooms, everything we needed to expand for quite some time, lost through a series of unfortunate events. None of the decisions leading to that loss were even bad ones, just risky, like trusting that a computer access point would not be tracked, or thinking we had time to adjust to a dose of Heart's Ease safely. Nine times out of ten, nothing bad would have occurred with either of those choices. Yet both happened together, and we nearly lost not only the base, but our secret identities - which once lost, are gone forever. And with losing those, we also lose our freedom, to some degree."

"Deal with that question alone," Taylor told him, deciding on her own to trim that question down, as it sounded like he had plans that could be told for hours. "How would you establish safe bases?"

Jared shrugged, looking around. "Well, why don't I describe this one, then? This estate is remote. That very remoteness is a good first shield, as is the fact they've lain abandoned for so long, as both say we are unlikely to have any visitors or stray tourists wandering around. As proof of that, this area does not even have any gang tags, or damage caused by homeless people, who are generally willing to strip wires out of walls to sell the copper for a few bucks... Actually, you know what? Let's back up a step. You already know most of my opinions on how to establish good, safe lairs. The hospital was even better than this one. All it needed was a traceless internet connection and we'd still be working out of there. Give me a day, and we'll have one of those, so Lisa can go computer hacking at her pleasure. No, how about we talk about safety, generally? Because there is no safety quite as good as the safety you carry around with yourself, by which I mean your own ability to handle emergencies and deal with other problems. For an unarmed civilian, meeting a mugger is an emergency. But an armed soldier? In that case it is the mugger who is having the emergency. I aim to increase our capabilities such that we can be the powerful ones in any likely confrontations. A thinker only group is an undefended gold mine. Fort Knox is an entirely different question. The US Army has a tank division based there, among other things. It's still a vast amount of gold, but it is the opposite of undefended, so nobody even tries to take it by force."

It was a much happier group that sounded pleased when Taylor asked the question, "And what part of that would we not like?"

He smiled. "Has anyone ever liked boot camp? Training our skills is easy with the methods Cranial has already provided, thanks to my efforts. But building up the muscle to truly make use of some of them? That's hard work, and sweaty, and miserable, and nobody likes to go through it."

"And how will you convince us?" she asked.

"Weeeell," he drew out the word playfully. "I *could* just point out that it's necessary, and everybody's got to go through it, and ultimately being fit is a very enjoyable experience, and encourage you that way. Or I could reveal that I've already got this," he held up a pair of sort tubes, like the tops of leather boots without the shoe part attached, "Which will, in minutes, give you the strength and endurance of Olympic athletes at no cost or discomfort to you whatsoever."

"I think it's safe to say that he's won the first challenge," Lisa declared, having read the telltales on everyone's faces, and finding a small advantage in admitting defeat gracefully.

"Not necessarily," Jared disagreed, feeling playful in victory. "I've got lots of plans. Getting skills and the muscles to use them is only one. The more capabilities we've got, the harder it will be to defeat or capture any of us, and I've got LOTS of plans to increase our abilities! There's probably something in there that someone won't like. You can still error check my idea for me. I am certain you could offer valuable input and make some important points."

"No, you won my challenge," Taylor declared, then turned to the other judges. "Agreed?"

She got two 'yes' answers. Then Dinah stepped forward.

Raising her chin high, she declared, "My uncle, Mayor Christner, says that a leader needs to be a problem solver with a good sense of the humanity of other people. So, we've just lost the hospital, and every other Teeth owned location just dropped about fifty percent in suitability for possible satellite bases, because the PRT will be checking them for a while. So, given that both of you have agreed there is a need for satellite bases, find one that would be a good base but is currently full of homeless, and come up with a humane way to get the homeless out and keep them out."

"Jared will take the lead on this one," Lisa interjected before anyone else could say a single word. "And what a coincidence! We've already looked up some suitable locations. One of the ones he wanted specifically was a mall, and we found one, but it is infested by homeless people. Why don't we both use that as our test case?"

The judges looked at each other and were all agreed before Jared had a proper counter-argument, leaving him feeling very annoyed at Lisa for putting his own tactic to work against him.

Feeling put on the spot, because he was, Jared started talking, "Well, the simplest approach is also the direct one: Do what the property owners ought to have done in the beginning. Put up a chain link fence around the lot, then patrol it with armed guards and dogs. Any homeless already inside can leave at any time. But once gone, they can never come back."

He was about to add more, because the first strokes of the first idea you have are never the best plan. No, the best plans only come as you error-check your first ideas and come up with refinements, which he was about to do when Lisa jumped in and eagerly began speaking.

"Which is just what the owners did do when the mall closed nearly thirty years ago," Lisa exulted, certain she had him now. And, not allowing him any time to speak, she continued, effectively ending his turn. "They had to stop once the gangs took the area and discovered they could get free guns by sniping the security guards, then looting the bodies. Pretty soon no security service would cover the mall. They tried just leaving the dogs to go feral, just tossing food over the fence and defend it that way, but Skidmark ended that a couple of months ago when he decided that the Merchants having their own mall to hang out in would be cool, and bulldozed the fence in one of Squealer's machines. Then his gang killed and ate most of the dogs at their victory party, while the Merchants took up residence."

Rachel growled deep in her throat, but when anyone looked at her was the very picture of innocence. Sweetness and light, that was her. Plotting bloody revenge, but so long as she kept quiet while plotting that was not unladylike behavior.

Nearly as a group, the others shook their heads. It was so odd, having image be important to her now.

Lisa then proceeded to lay out her plan, having thoroughly debunked Jared's start, and it was genius, clearly something she'd been working on for some days, in between other business. She had enticements to get them out, and discouragements for them to remain, or return. It was subtle, it was well thought out, it was genius, and it would work. The homeless would not even feel they had been kicked out, or kept out, more that they had chosen both to leave and to stay well away.

An infestation of dead skunks was something not even the homeless wanted to be too close to, and getting them there, and killing enough off, was only one of her ideas. She had many.

Jared gave her the nod and conceded victory on the second challenge.

Lisa was at least able to pretend to be gracious as she accepted victory, although the gloating under the surface was something to see for Jared, who had been reading her mind using Detect Thoughts since first going out to find her on the balcony.

Once again, the only unfair advantage is the one that you don't have.

Besides, women kinda like it when they have a boyfriend that can read their minds. Pity that it only read surface thoughts, as a ton of Lisa's plotting, and all of her power's activity, came at a deeper level. If it had not been so she could never have surprised him, and he felt he probably could have won the second point with a little time for preparation.

Magic came as a powerful advantage, after all. He could think of spells that would serve better than skunks.

Next up was Rachel.

No sooner had she stepped forward than Lisa's eyes widened. "Oh, [Bleep] me!" she groaned and cursed herself for not having realized that beneath the surface Rachel hadn't really changed at all.

"Maybe later," Jared teased the blonde girl, stepping forward to put his hand around her waist in what was meant to be a comforting gesture. "That depends on how things turn out here, I suspect. Why that reaction, anyway? Did your power tell you what the test was going to be?"

All eyes went to the short haired girl in the frilly dress.

Rachel gave a tiny shrug. "It's a dangerous world out there. There are all these crazy capes and other dangers. Dog packs are led by the strongest. All I am going to have them do is fight each other. Whoever wins the combat, wins the test."

"I forfeit," Lisa said promptly.

It was only the fact that he could read in her mind that it was her clear and obvious intention to do that that kept her conscious long enough to do so, as Jared had the Knockout Punch feat and was not afraid to use it. He did not *like* hitting ladies, and in fact had never done it, but in this situation, with what was at stake? It really would have been the kindest thing to do to Lisa, and with his initiative bonuses, her lights would have been out before she'd have known what happened. Knockout Punch only dealt nonlethal damage anyway, and he still had a healing potion, so she would've woken up without even a headache. So the roughest thing she would have suffered would've been to wake up and be declared the loser.

But it was better this way.

Unfortunately, he was wishing he could see more than just surface thoughts, as she had calculations going on over multiple levels. A part of what he was catching was her cursing but resigned, yet she was already plotting to turn the whole situation around to her advantage.

And, uh oh...

Lisa heaved a sigh. "Well, I guess it's time to show you your winnings."

The freckled blonde's hands went to the waistband of her pants, only to find his there blocking her.

"That won't be necessary." His gave her a gentlemanly smile even as he turned her down. "I prefer not to see more than modesty allows, thank you very much. As there are only two people who have any right to be concerned over what a lady's private parts look like: herself, and her husband. You can include her doctor in there, if you like. No one else has any legitimate use for that information."

He met her eyes, and each suddenly knew the other's position. He knew that Lisa's power delighted in feeding her all of the information you'd never want to know about a potential sexual partner, effectively rendering her celibate. While she knew, from his avoiding staring at Rachel naked by the pool, among other clues, that he avoided sexual temptation when possible.

And as quick as that, each knew the other's game plan. She knew that he would be avoiding her advances whenever possible, and so she could act like a complete tramp with him and do so in utter safety, without any risk of him cashing in on the deal. He knew that she would be bluffing, trying to force him into sexual situations simply because she knew that when she pushed, he would resist or retreat whenever possible, and that gave her control. Pushing was as useful a tool as pulling when it came to manipulating people, and Lisa knew that she was among the best when it came to manipulation.

A wide, foxy grin began to spread over her face as she already sensed victory - and a lot of fun doing it, too.

Lisa leaned into him, switching his hands from her waistband to her bottom, as she offered, "But you already own my [Bleep]. Now let's see how well you haaandle it," she purred seductively into his ear, feeling his reluctance and desire to pull away, even as she held his hands in place, knowing that she'd won.

Poof!

Suddenly he was on the other side of the room. "Now, let's not be too hasty," he amended, making sure to move so there was a piano between them. "It would not be gentlemanly not to offer you a chance to reclaim your bet, say, with another wager?"

"But you already own me," she pouted, actually sticking her lower lip out in an exaggerated fashion.

Lisa was enjoying herself!

"Only part," he corrected. "Let's call it Lower Torso, shall we? That avoids us being too crude should we repeat its other title. Now we really ought to prepare a challenge where you can win it back. Say, cards?"

"I'm not sure," Lisa called out throatily, stalking towards him. "I mean, what's in it for me?"

"Surely your freedom is its own reward?" He asked, dodging her around the piano one way when she fainted towards the right, only to get caught as Dinah positioned herself to interfere with the escape, and he was unwilling to injure either of them by using excessive force just to avoid contact.

Also unwilling to just teleport to safety, as this conversation did need to take place before they could move forward in their lives.

So Jared found himself caught in Lisa's far-too-amorous grip as she led him to a chair and sat him down in it, then took her place in his lap, deliberately taking one of his own arms to wrap it around her waist.

"But what if I don't want that? I want to belong to you!" Lisa sang, draping herself over Jared, pushing him back into the leather armchair when he tried to rise and idly drawing finger circles on his chest.

Clearly, he was not winning.

Deciding to change the game, he settled more comfortably into her embrace and supplied, "Well, that's very kind of you. You know, I suppose that I could use someone to take care of the washing, cooking, and general housekeeping. Oh! And cleaning up this old place, of course. The old owners left it in a frightful state. So good of you to volunteer."

Butter would not have melted in his mouth.

Lisa sat up to look at him, carefully judging both his face and general expressions to see if he was serious. Upon finding that he was perfectly willing to use her as a housekeeper, she began to have second thoughts.

The other three girls were enraptured, having been watching things happen like a tennis match, first swing her way, then his, then back again. It was a fascinating spectacle.

Little Dinah had somehow known ahead of time to procure popcorn, and was eating some.

A small smile of victory found its way onto Lisa's face again. "Only if you give me children first," she demanded, knowing he would refuse her escalation, and that would leave her the advantage.

"Nope!" he corrected. "I may flirt a bit... ok, more than just a bit. But in order to do what you're asking, I'd have to be married to you first."

"Darling, you'll have to do it at some point," Rachel interjected, derailing this private duel of a conversation.

All eyes went to her.

Jared instantly understood. Seeing many others didn't, he decided to explain his thoughts aloud. "Ah, yes. The dog pack is ultimately a family unit, isn't it? My place as alpha is far from an honorary, political, or even military title, it is to be literally the father of the pack, now isn't it? That requires children, and able females such as every one of you save Dinah are to be bred."

"In a nutshell," Rachel agreed with a salacious smile, and ignoring Taylor's blush. "So go ahead and mount her."

Lisa and Jared met eyes and in a glance determined their previous contest was over, and it was time for a change of venue. Lisa sprang up, straightening her clothes, cursing herself for the miscalculation that while *Jared* would not call her on her bluffing, she had forgotten in her march to victory that Rachel definitely *would*!

And HAD!

So, time to change the subject.

"You know," Lisa said, smoothing down her hair, "That card game sounds like a good idea about now."

"Ugh!" Rachel rolled her eyes. Dogs were so much more straightforward! "Darling, you have a responsibility," she scolded Jared.

"Not yet, he doesn't." Reminded of her predicament, Lisa stopped trying to take advantage of it and decided she wanted out, as Rachel made it too dangerous to play their previous game, so challenged him. "Okay, you own my [Bleep]. How do I win it back?"

The boy gave her his best lifted eyebrow. "Why, by wagering something of equal value, of course."

She glared at him.

His return smile was gentlemanly, and unwavering.

She broke first. "Alright. You have my [Bleep]. I'll bet my [Bleep]. Guys are always saying how women are just [Bleep] and [Bleep] anyway, might as well give you the set - if you win. Strip poker?"

Okay, she wasn't going to entirely abandon pressing him for her own advantage where she knew he was uncomfortable.

"You already know my views on modesty," he gently chided. "But if it's poker you're after, how about you pick one of these fine young ladies to deal us each a hand. Five card stud appeal to you?"

Moments later they were seated at a table in the estate's newly restored game room, a deck of cards having been discovered in a nearby drawer. Taylor dealt them five cards each, whereupon Lisa's smile grew.

She laid down her cards. "Full house, queens high."

Jared, having not even looked at his hand, just wordlessly turned them over, and was shocked to discover he'd laid down a royal straight flush in diamonds.

All eyes went to Taylor, who sat there the perfect picture of innocence.

Jared groaned within himself and his head sank down into his hands. Of course, having grown up around dockworkers, Taylor would know a thing or two about cards! But why would she be so intent on him winning? Then he collected himself, reading her he discovered Taylor was as shocked as anyone else.

Unless... oops! They'd forgotten to shuffle the cards!

Far from being a card-sharping expert, Taylor was as newbie as they'd come, and forgotten, along with everyone else, they had to randomize the deck first! They'd gone without, and gotten someone else's stacked deck from nearly thirty years ago!

Jared turned his amused gaze on Lisa, who was hunched over, chortling, having discovered the same thing he had. Finally, she sat up and stopped laughing. "Alright, you own my [Bleep] and [Bleep]. But you've got to give me a chance to win them back!"

Feeling Rachel looming behind her, puppies on her mind, Lisa raised her eyes to him, pleading.

"Of course," he agreed mildly. "But let's just call them upper and lower torso, shall we? After all, that's what they are, and it would be too crude to keep referring to them by those other terms. And!" he picked up the deck for emphasis, before laying it aside, "let's find something to play other than cards."

"There are these?" Taylor held up a pair of six-sided dice she'd found.

Jared's eyes found Lisa's. "Do those work for you? Highest roll wins?" On receiving two nods, he asked, "What will you wager?"

"My legs," Lisa replied. "One against the top parts, the other my bottom."

"That sounds fair," he agreed.

Jared turned his back on the girls, taking a seat in a leather arm chair facing a window. "Taylor, why don't you be a dear and roll for me, would you?"

There came the sound of rolling dice.

"A seven," Taylor declared.

Lisa rolled.

"A seven," Taylor declared again.

Lisa, who had begun a careful inspection of both dice, snorted in amused irony, then declared, "The Belmonts were cheaters. These dice will always roll seven, or eleven."

Jared got up from his chair, and looked back at them, then relaxed. "Well, so that's a tie then. Same stakes as we play something else?"

"A coin toss?" Dinah offered.

"Maybe, but for heaven's sake, let's not use any coin we might pick up in this room. It'd probably be double-sided," he cautioned. "Does anyone have any loose change in their pockets?"

Dinah was the only one, Taylor being too poor to carry frivolous money, Rachel having disdained human things like money until recently, unless it was to make purchases for her dogs, and Lisa was a proud user of credit cards.

"All I've got is two-fifty for lunch," she looked down on three coins in her hand.

Jared glanced over, curious. His modern homeworld had issued dollar coins a couple of times, but always managed to screw it up, making them the same size as the quarters so everyone mistook the rare dollar coins for the much more common 25 cent piece. That, and half-dollar coins were rare on his world.

He was disappointed to see it was the same Susan B. Anthony dollar that had been issued on his world by the United States Mint from 1979 to 1981, when "production had been suspended due to poor public acceptance", ie, rejected for being dang near identical in size and weight to the quarter.

Apparently, here their government had just been bull-headed enough to ram that through despite the public dislike. The coin had the same joyless expression on the woman's face and everything.

In a flash of insight, he saw that fifty-cent pieces had been issued much more commonly on this world, in order to reduce the number of quarters in circulation, so there was less competition to confuse against the dollar-that-looks-like-a-quarter.

Rather a heavy handed way of doing things, but whatever.

He knew that retailers had resisted those changes on his Earth, as they'd have to retool every cash register to be about thirty percent wider to have slots for the new sizes of coins. Not to mention the nigh-impossibility of getting vending machines to tell the difference between the nigh-identical dollar and twenty five cent coins. People also resisted letting go of paper bills because paper was easier to carry. You could shove thirty mixed bills in your wallet and it barely made any difference, and if ten of those were ones, who cared? But shove ten quarters into your wallet, or the same size dollar coins, and you've got a noticeable weight and a bulge that starts to feel uncomfortable in your pocket.

But apparently, their government just did not care, yanking the dollar bill and forcing coins onto people despite their objections, or the manifest proof that what was convenient to one party for their reason (coins wore out so much slower than paper currency that it saved them a lot on printing), was very often inconvenient to everyone else for their reasons.

Typical Worm, he supposed.

"Remind me," Jared stated to the group. "To arrange for all of you to carry some cash, at least five twenties each. I'll have money belts for each of you by tomorrow, so you can do so safely."

Seeing all eyes were on him, he explained, "It's just another aspect of leadership. I aim to expand your capabilities, and money can cure a multitude of ills in a modern society. You can hire a cab if stranded, pay for medicine or a hotel room if needed, buy food, arrange phone calls, or for packages to be delivered... deal with all sorts of problems that might arise. While credit cards are convenient, they cannot be relied upon as much as cash, as there are too many circumstances when they stop working. Disasters are too real on this world. Everything can happen from the power going out to phones being down, either one meaning stores can't scan the cards, to bank failure, or just the credit card company's anti-theft routines deciding that something you've done looks suspicious, and so locking you out until you can call in to clear that up - which you can't always do during a crisis situation, when your attention has got to be on managing that crisis."

He nodded, "So we'll each carry a few thousand in cash, and at the end of each week get together and pull it out to be counted, and account for any spending, just so nobody decides this is their personal mad money and blows it all, when it supposed to be saved for dealing with any emergencies that might arise. Don't forget to save any receipts for what you do buy."

He paused a moment, considering, "And everyone should have an allowance to spend however they please. I know Mike Falco, the president of Falco Wealth Management near Philadelphia, recommends as a very rough rule of thumb $1 per week for each year of your life; so a five-year-old would get $5 per week while a 16-year-old would get $16 per week. That sound fair to everybody?"

"I had twenty a week already," Dinah objected, not wanting to accept a pay cut on her allowance.

Lisa uncrossed, then crossed her legs while shifting to face him. "If we were civilians, twenty a week for each of us could be fair, I suppose. But don't forget cape expenses. As costumed lifestyles are a lot more expensive to maintain, and can burn a lot of cash in a short while just staying even."

Jared paused again to consider, then declared, "Time for another stint in the chair for everyone!" As truly, the lesson to be learned by having an allowance was the proper value of money, how to save up for what you really wanted, and not to blow it on trivial things...

... and he had skill programs for both Appraise (knowing the value of things), and Profession: Merchant (how to handle money, run a store, manage employees, arrange supplies and shipping contracts, etc), as well as the D20 Modern skill of Knowledge: Business (for the really high finance stuff, more concerned about corporations than a simple mom-and-pop shop), ready and waiting to download into all of them.

The average skilled worker, if he was really dedicated to something, had four ranks of the appropriate skill under D20 system rules. Most only put a rank or two into something like Drive, and if they did considered themselves to be fairly good at it.

Skill ranks were too rare and precious to be able to put some into everything, so most people did most things unskilled most of the time. So if you had a rank or two in something, you truly were better skilled than most people doing that, and four showed real dedication.

Since most people never climbed above Level One, four was the most ranks they could put into any skill.

Now if they were really dedicated, they could put four ranks into something, then get the Skill Focus feat to add three more points of bonus, then add really exceptional tools, getting another two. Then finally, if they were well above average in the ability score that skill was tied to that could add another point or two. That would total at them having about ten points of bonus to put behind any check, when using that skill. But those people would be considered true experts.

These skills had been recorded from Uber, who most of the time was carrying his team, in a superhero setting, where most of the opposition had true experts on hand, trying to defeat them. And most other challenges were on a superheroic scale. His superpower was skills, and just as someone whose superpower was brawn was way above even Olympic competitors in that category so too Uber's superpower placed him above non-superpowered skills, even those of experts.

Not just above, but way above. Cranial's recordings of Uber's skills had given Jared twenty ranks in the appropriate category every time he'd used one.

If downloading those skills did not teach them everything they needed to know about money, then an allowance never would.

"Heads," Lisa declared, just as everyone was getting up to move.

Upon being reminded, Dinah selected a coin, and then flipped it. Only in her eagerness, she threw it too high, and it ran into the hanging chandelier, spoiling the throw and messing up the flight path so she could not catch it on the return journey.

The half dollar fell onto the carpet where everyone could see it, tails side up.

Catching sight of Rachel's face, obviously anticipating new babies being born to their group, Lisa felt a slight surge of panic and began to devote some serious consideration to how she was going to arrange for Jared to lose, as sex under her power's interference would be nothing short of a miserable experience.

And Rachel would not take refusal on this issue well from anybody. It was too core to her own power's influence. Even Jared's control over her extended largely from his adopting the place as her alpha, and she'd made plain what she'd considered his responsibilities there. It would break his own relationship with the dog cape to even try and weasel out of that.

So it was changing diapers in her future, or finding some way to win.

Lisa began thinking at a furious pace as they left to go use Cranial's chair again.

OoOoO

The first skill in everyone's new program Jared called Handle Animal, and it was what every animal trainer or police dog handler, circus animal act, or zoo keeper could ever want to know about the subject. More than they'd ever imagined about how to rear, keep, train and direct such a wide variety of animals that it was difficult to think of any these skills might NOT work on!

You want to get an elephant to balance on a circus ball? Animal Handling was the skill you'd use. Want a bear to play the flute? The Romans did that for a warm up act before their gladiator contests, and it took Animal Handling. Want a chicken to blow a horn? Those same Romans. And Animal Handling.

Even Rachel stood up from that chair with a look of wonder upon her face, having learned significantly more than the bare details and instincts her power had given her.

Everyone else sat up from that lesson and looked directly at Rachel, each one of them thinking exactly the same thing, "So THAT'S why she..." insert some sort of odd, animal behavior there.

The Appraise skill was not any less revelatory a feeling, sitting up, looking around, and for the first time knowing a good ballpark figure for the dollar value of everything around you. They sat looking at what ruined antiques filled the still water damaged library of that mansion and could put a name and price to nearly everything they could see, what those things cost when they were new, what had likely been paid for them when this house had been bought and furnished, what they were worth now in their ruined condition, and what they would be worth if they could be restored.

They knew this for art, like the old, ruined paintings, they knew this for furnishings, like the collapsed sofas, motheaten curtains and broken lights, they knew it for those books whose titles they could read (that did not have too many printings), they knew this for the house itself, the land...

It seemed like they knew it for everything.

They also knew enough not to estimate the cost of anything until they had examined it properly. A priceless antique could have immeasurable value, while a reproduction of that same work was often worthless. Damage of these sorts to these objects actually added to their value, while damage of these others took it away.

It was an equation that had to be solved individually for every object. And yet they knew all of its parts, how to identify what information was needed to plug into that equation, and could do it all as easy as breathing.

With that skill alone, and no credentials whatsoever, any one of them could have walked into any auction house on Earth, given proof of their ability, then had a career for life, never again having to leave those halls.

The skill of Ride came with them, making them equestrians of the top order. It did not seem so revelatory after the other two, but if you wanted someone who could stay on the back of a wild, untrained emu while riding downhill on a loose scree slope, and controlling it with their knees during a stampede in a thunderstorm, they were your team.

It would certainly help with riding Rachel's dogs. They could easily play polo on them if you could find someone willing to take the field as the opposing team.

With that, Jared had also loaded the skill to Drive, and not just drive ordinary cars in commuter style traffic, they could drive ten wheelers and three wheelers and motorcycles as well as heavy machinery, monster trucks, or wild tinker inventions. And you could enter them into any race on Earth with a borrowed vehicle, and if it was even barely up to snuff they'd probably win it.

They also got the so-called defensive driving courses that police and the FBI got, so they could do a bootlegger turn and not flip themselves over, as well as the kind of stunts you typically only see in movies - only there wasn't a stunt man in the world who'd be willing to do under the most controlled conditions the kinds of things they could pull off with relative ease in the wild.

A good half of what they could do behind the wheel of a car wasn't illegal solely because lawmakers hadn't considered that anyone might try them.

Dinah disturbed everyone with her uncontrolled giggling as she got out of the chair after getting that program.

Profession: Merchant was no less comprehensive. While it was NOT true that they could sell anything to anyone (that was the job of the salesmen, and fell under a different skill, or skills), what they could do was own and operate any kind of a store under even the most adverse conditions. They could manage staff, including all of their myriad problems, manage inventory, with all of theirs, arrange for the best displays, including judging the best products to display for which times and seasons, then cheerfully handle supply and logistical problems that would make the US Army Logistics Branch's hair stand on end.

And do it all on time and under budget, too, because they also knew all of the details about pricing, and optimizing the margins, when to run sales, and how to make all of the little details work for you, rather than against.

Knowledge: Business was almost more frightening. That covered the stock market trading, corporate structure, and high finance stuff that would transform one guy with a portable grill frying patties on a street corner into the largest fast food chain in the world, as had happened in the case of McDonalds. At the highest levels, these were the kind of people whose successes and failures adjusted the world economy, had impacts that other people called depressions or recessions, and whose motions more or less created the boom and bust years that normal people lived through.

Home Depot, Subway, Fed Ex and Starbucks were all created the same way: one entrepreneur succeeding, using this skill.

And now Taylor and Rachel and Dinah and Lisa and Jared all had the skill at levels that would allow them to metaphorically pick up those high finance superstars that controlled the world's economy, and shake them by the necks like a terrier does a rat, taking them on in their own seats of control, at their own best business. Because those people were, at best, experts, while these skills came at superheroic levels.

It was a heady thought.

Jared was sorely tempted to just give these girls all the financial backing they could want and set them loose, let them have their heads and watch them take over the world's financial system. They could, too.

But, in the end, all that would result was the PRT hunting them down, declaring them parahumans on the basis of their skill alone, then locking them up in cages and forcing them to do the bidding of disgusting politicians who could not tie their own shoes right, and thus ruin the whole world faster.

But it was still a heady thought.

And that was only one set of the skills that Jared had arranged for.

But when you think about, Batman was just a skills-based super. So it should not be surprising that great things could be accomplished using just them.

OoOoO

Shortly thereafter, they were driving down the streets of Brockton, taking their break between skill sessions to use the new knowledge a bit to help it settle, while cruising the docks looking for suitably freaky looking homeless people to draw samples of for more of Jared's flesh golems, aka Frankenstein's monsters.

Along the way, they could not help but appraise the property values of the wrecks and ruins of abandoned properties as they drove by, what shops and stores they would place, and where, along with where they could obtain financing, what arguments they'd use to convince banks for loans, and what terms they would insist on, paying it all back in a year or less as property values skyrocketed and those businesses, homes and stores taking shape in their minds would return startling profits.

And unlike most of those with such fancy imaginings, they each knew they could do it, too.

Everybody but Jared, whose hands were on the wheel, had been quietly taking notes along this drive.

"Well, there is a likely looking one," he called out merrily. "What do you gals think, is he ugly enough?"

Then he realized they'd all been appraising property values, plotting out shopping centers, and populating them with sidewalk cafes, shoe stores, and little coffee shops, so much so they'd all stopped paying attention to the original mission.

He pulled over soonish thereafter, which turned out to be by the waterfront, between derelict warehouses. "You know," he said to the population of the vehicle at large, "At this rate we'll never complete today's mission, and it is rather important."

This sparked something in Lisa, who stopped plotting out the local industry she would put together to perk up with an idea. "You know," she said, sensing the perfect opportunity. "We could make that a contest. Want to bet on who can round up the most suitable samples in the shortest time, you or me?"

The boy looked at her, then said slowly. "Nooo, that wouldn't be a good idea."

"Oh, c'mon! It's perfect," she cried, hopping in her seat with delight over the idea, knowing that Jared was new to town, while she had been living in Brockton for nearly a year and a half. Furthermore, she had spent part of that time living on the streets as a homeless person herself, so she knew all of the shelters and soup kitchens, and the best places to find clusters of homeless men. She could not lose!

"I don't think you want to do this," he told her seriously.

"I do," she insisted, regretting that he'd closed her off so she was unable to read him. He did that sometimes and it always annoyed her. Sometimes her power had a very hard time reading him, too. But [bleep] it! This time she had the advantage! He did not even know where to buy groceries in this part of town, and she knew nearly everything! "In fact, I insist. It's my parts I'm wagering. So how about it, all or nothing that I can come back with more and better samples of freaky looking homeless men than you in any reasonable time frame, deal?"

Jared paused. "Do you consider five minutes a reasonable period of time?"

Lisa thought about it. They were close to a shelter that was just about perfect for her needs, only about a minute away, but he would not know where to find it, as few non-homeless did. She'd have to shell out some cash, but she'd get volunteers, enough to fill the car anyway. She'd have to break some speed limits, but she'd get back in plenty of time.

"Can I use the car?"

He winced. "Tell you what, wait one minute to see what I do, then you can have ten minutes, and the car, after that."

That was enough for her to make two trips, and cost him about two of his minutes repairing another car, if he got lucky and found one in reasonable shape. No, she had this in the bag, he'd never be able to compete without the car!

"Deal!" she held out her hand to shake.

They shook, and Jared got out of the car, walking down to the water's edge, not even at a hurried pace. It took him about ten seconds to get there, whereupon he reached into the water to pull out a torn and ratty backpack, in as bad condition as some of the ones she'd seen in his possession before, then came walking directly back, holding the backpack.

Lisa had already slid into the driver's seat and evicted the other girls to make room for the homeless she would be driving back with. She'd even turned the car around to position it right for maximum advantage for taking off in another thirty five seconds.

Jared just brought up the backpack to rest it in the open driver's side window of the Trans Am, tossing back the top flat to reveal rows upon rows of vial after vial containing blood, hair and skin samples.

There had to be hundreds of them in there.

Lisa actually blanched as she asked in a strangled voice... "How?"

He tossed the flap closed and took a step back. "I have a once a day ability that lets me reach into any reasonably-sized body of water and pull out any one thing I choose. It's temporary, the condition it's in is always terrible, and there is a limit on how valuable the find can be. But I always choose to pull out containers, frequently backpacks, which can be full of an assortment of minor things. Interestingly, the contents of those containers do not have to be in bad condition at all. And the value of human blood, hair and skin samples? So close to nothing as to not be worth calculating. If I use these up before tomorrow, they're as good as the real thing."(1)

He took a step back from the car to let her drive away, as his minute was up.

Lisa turned the ignition off and rested her forehead against the wheel.

He walked over to open the door and placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "Well, having won, according to the rules I am now sole owner into perpetuity of one Sarah Livsey, alias Lisa Wilbourn, alias Lisa Belmont, alias Tattletale. But, seeing how I've always hated the very idea of slavery, I hereby set you free. So sorry to have troubled you. I'd advise against wagering body parts in the future, it rarely ends well. Good day, everybody, meet you back at the Belmont estate? I've got to put this into use."

And with a jaunty wave, he was off down the street towards the water.

OoOoO

The girls soon followed him back, and found him in the yard feeding an animal.

"What is that?" Dinah asked, sizing it up and wondering how soon she could ride it.

Jared looked up from the feeding as they spotted him. "Ah! I see you've discovered Wonkey, my donkey. Yes, a beautifully even-tempered pack beast. She has a kindly disposition, and is, without a doubt, my sweet ass, and the only thing worth wagering between friends. Imagine my surprise when I learned Lisa did not even have a donkey, and was gambling body parts. Who'd ever heard of such a thing?"

OoOoO

Omake: Who's the Boss?

Taylor gained a very Lisa-like smirk on her face as she realized the power she'd just been handed over the pair, making Lisa pale and Jared start as he realized he'd forgotten something in his calculations before they'd signed the magical contract.

"First challenge," Taylor announced, "get me pregnant."

Jaws dropped as everyone turned to stare at her.

Rachel perked up. "That sounds like a fair challenge for the second round as well," she announced with a challenging glare at Taylor, "and no bowing out, you have to give it your best effort."

Lisa cursed the rule requiring them to stay in the house. If she'd been able to leave she'd at least have been able to rob a sperm bank, as it was the only source of viable sperm in the area was...

Jared felt a chill run down his back. No matter how you looked at it he was *bleeped*.

"Yes, yes, you are," Lisa agreed with a smile, as while she probably couldn't win it looked like losing was going to be the winning proposition for her here.

"Chances I should go out for ice cream and avoid returning for six hours," Dinah muttered, "ninety nine point eight percent."

OoOoO

Author's Notes:

Taylor was the only honest judge in that contest. As a classical literature nut who lives in New England, she'd naturally have been exposed to the founding documents of her country by her mother, and appreciated the benefits of having good leaders - especially after having so many worthless authority figures ruin her life.

She was merely after the best leader her group could have.

Dinah merely asked her power, making it her shard's choice. Shards talk with other shards, so Dinah's shard would know Lisa fairly well, it would have to in order to make accurate predictions concerning her. But Jared does not have a shard, not being a parahuman. So it is easy to conclude that both shards, Lisa's and Dinah's, would prefer that Lisa, and thus Lisa's shard, be in charge of this unknown, so they could study it and learn all sorts of data from it.

Dinah's shard thus strongly encouraged Dinah to act on Lisa's behalf.

Rachel's shard also had an influence, and that influence was dog-like, "The strongest must lead!"

So yes, as I wrote that first scene I was astonished by Lisa's behavior, and the whole rest of this chapter turned into a joke at her expense to get her to lighten up a bit.

(1) The SI just described the special ability of the Flotsom domain, in Pathfinder.

Beta work by Dogbertcarroll