VOLUME TWO: LEARNING CURVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN: "THE CALM BEFORE"

Calculations had been made and the date was finally set. To say that the girls were "ready" to step back into Metro Heights was correct in a technical sense, but not in an emotional sense. Mary knew all the "training" in the world was not going to prepare them or her for the real experience. Tonight's "Slumber Party" was their final mental check before Saturday's Dry Run into Metro.

So once again, gathered in her Loft, Mary had the attention of her friends. She had answered all the questions and fears as best she could, but the source material was iffy at best. For one, no one seemed to die in comics, they always died a fake death and came back later. That was certainly a false hope if she'd ever seen one. The lives of the people in pages were dictated by popularity and fan service. The female characters, in particular, seemed to only have as much popularity as they had cleavage hanging out.

"We're going to take a much more tactical approach to this." Mary explained. She passed out a picture of a scantily clad female superhero. "What do you notice about this character?"

"She's dressed like a whore, for one." Ann commented. The girls laughed at her remark, but she shrugged, "What? It's true. And look at her pose. Elli, you're a nurse: tell me that's not a healthy way to stand."

Elli snickered, "That kind of posture is not only unhealthy, I dare say it's downright impossible. Whoever drew this needs to retake art class. Also, these ridiculous bulges on her arms and legs aren't actual muscles."

Ann snatched the picture back, "This is my favorite part: look at her tits! What, does gravity not exist in her world or something?"

"Exactly." Mary said, "We're real and this perversely clad woman is not. Popuri, thankfully, has more sense than whoever drew this. We do have some skin showing, but she actually has good reasoning for it."

"You're done already?" Elli asked. "That was fast."

Popuri tugged a chest out from the corner. "This was really tricky to do. Our suits are a combination of leather and composite material in order to be able to stand against being handled roughly."

"Meaning," Ann butted in, "we should expect to get our asses kicked?"

"Will it stop a bullet?" Elli asked.

"I'm not a bullet expert." Popuri fussed, "I'm a chicken farmer and I sew on the side, so you'll need to ask someone brainy." Everyone turned to look at Mary

Mary cleared her throat, "I'm not an expert either, but judging from what Popuri's managed to do here we'll have suits that are tough and durable on the outside and stand up to a lot of wear and tear and the inside will help protect against-not prevent-serious injury. But I think with some serious training about using our powers we can prevent any injury from happening. The best defense is a good offence. With some smarts and luck on our side, we can hopefully prevent that from even happening. Popuri, please continue."

"Right, so Mary gave me a lot of pictures to work with and they all look stupider than chicken poo, but the one thing I figured out right away is that our boobies aren't going to stop someone from attacking us. So there's no cleavage hole or V-line so you can show the boys our goods."

Karen snapped her fingers, "Darn." The other girls laughed-even Mary.

Popuri opened the chest. "Mary wants us to stand out because that's what the comic superheroes do. We're not lurking in shadows, so no dark colors. Only primary colors and I chose the colors that suit each one of you best and NO ARGUING! You pack of waddle-butts put together wouldn't have the fashion sense of a mule."

Popuri pulled out a sky blue singlet, long boots and gloves, and a blue domino mask. She brought them right over to Karen and thrust them into her arms. Karen seemed dumbfounded by the garments she was holding in her hands. Popuri held the suit up in her hands, "Now, you need lots of leg movement, so your suit doesn't have legs, but that's okay cause your boots are knee high with knee pads attached and extra thick soles for those super tough landings."

Karen bit her lip and looked at the suit in her hands, not believing that she had to wear something so obscenely outlandish. Popuri then plopped a set of panties and a wide-strapped bra on top. "Here. We can't be bouncing all over the place, so I got extra durable athletic underwear and sports bras for all of us. It'll keep us nice and "in place" while we're doing the superhero thing."

Karen's mental damn broke and she took a deep breath, fully prepared to exhale a torrent of angered thoughts, but when she looked into Popuri's eyes she saw her friend pleading silently. She had put a lot of work into this and clearly wanted Karen's approval. In fact, when she looked around she saw everyone watching her with a mixture of wonder and pressure. Mary was the only one with a look of doubt and worry.

She had worked hard to sell the idea to everyone, now she was looking to Karen to seal the deal by showcasing it.

Karen closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She had asked for this. If she wanted to show she was worth being a leader, she had to lead by example. She set the clothes down and back up, causing Popuri to wonder until Karen slid her vest off and yanked her shirt off.

The other girls turned their heads or put a hand over their eyes as Karen undressed. Tight was the word of the day. The athletic gear was snug, but not too tight. However, the suit made up for it. It was coarse and hardly friendly by any stretch of the imagination, but once she was in it, it was similar to a corset. "There's no zipper?" She asked.

"A zipper would be a silly-billy thing for a superhero to have." Popuri said, "It'll bust under high strain and then you'll be trying to fight someone with your boobs falling out. There's a pair of straps that tighten up in the front so you can do this yourself."

"As if Karen would try and stop her boobs from falling out." Ann laughed.

"I'm a bit more modest than that." Karen fussed as she slid the suit on while everyone laughed at her. "I'm not a shameless hussy, you know."

"Your swimwear would disagree with that." Mary sniped with a giggle.

"So I was the first one of us to buy a two-piece swimsuit, so what?" Karen said as she slid her arms into place. "Wow, that's a snug fit. Let me get the boots and gloves."

"All black leather and straps. They have to hold up to lots of activity and strain." Popuri said. "Both have lots of pockets and compartments, since we won't have any pants pockets to use and Mary's gadgets are going to have to sit somewhere."

"Gadgets?" Karen asked.

"I'll get to those later." Mary said.

"Alright." Karen said. "Now for the belt. And…the finishing touch." She grabbed the blue domino mask and peeled off the plastic keeping the adhesive new. She had a moment's hesitation, feeling as though when she put the mask on that she wouldn't be going back to anything resembling a normal life. But since when was her life normal since she fell off Mother's Hill?

Karen pressed her mask to her face.

"Done."

The other girls looked up and their mouths dropped.

Karen had taken a dynamic stance, standing with her legs wide apart, fists on her hips like some of the pictures she had seen. The black leather boots and knee-pads covered her from the knee down and the soles made her an inch or two taller, but still not as tall as Popuri. Her thighs were bare to her pubis, though her upper arms were covered by long sleeves. The black leather gloves covered her fingers, knuckles, wrists, forearms, and elbows.

Her suit seemed to amplify her already athletic build, making her seem taller, much more imposing than a supermarket clerk had any right to be. The golden belt with a small rocket shaped buckle accentuated her curvy hips and the suit seemed molded to her form, but not so skin tight that it felt like a second skin. It did, however, point out her bust more and that was likely due to Popuri's constant taking measurements from them all week long. Thankfully, her suit didn't seem lewd or like armored lingerie. Her entire bust line was covered to her neck and her shoulders were covered by built in pads like the ones on her dad's hunting jacket.

She struggled to keep a straight face. Her natural smirk was enhanced by the blue domino mask, which, from the outside, did not show her eyes, as they appeared white and glassy.

"Wow." Popuri sighed, her own eyes sparkling in awe.

"Karen…" Elli couldn't find anything else to say

"You look…awesome!" Ann admired.

Mary stood to her feet and walked towards Karen, the first one of them to actually try their costume on, the first one of them to actually fulfill Mary's idea. "How does it feel?"

"A bit snug." Karen admitted. She held back her internal thought of I feel ridiculous, exposed, childish. "But it breathes well. Poppy, I gotta admit this is fine work you do."

Popuri beamed and clapped her hands together, "You wear it well, Karen."

Mary tilted her glasses up with a push of her finger, "How are the lenses?" She tapped the white lens on her mask, which made Karen flinch.

"Fine. My eyelashes aren't hitting them. It feels like they should be fogging up this close to my skin."

"The lenses are another composite, industrial strength material I had ordered." Mary explained, "Practically bulletproof, this stuff. Fog-proof and it auto-tints in bright light, so you won't have any trouble with the sun while jumping."

'That's good." Karen said.

"And it's like a one-way mirror, so you can see out, but others can't see in. The adhesive on our masks is industrial strength too, but it's what they use in the hospitals, so it won't be leaving irritated rings around our eyes."

"Jeez,, Mary." Ann exclaimed. "How far through have you thought this whole thing?"

"Forwards, backwards, and side-to-side in every way I could imagine." Mary said with a sly smile, "It's like chess: stay a couple steps ahead at all times. Karen…you look very good in this and I don't mean that you look prettier than all of us. It suits you."

"Thank Poppy." Karen said, "It's her work. I just filled it out. Still a bit snug, though."

"Hopefully once we've moved around in it a bit more it'll break in and you'll be used to it. Uh, turn around." Poppy said, spinning her finger in a circle.

Karen spun around and showed them her backside.

"Good." Popuri said, "Now move around a little bit. I want to make sure the material won't get swallowed by your butt."

Karen walked around and practiced a few crouches, thanking that Popuri had made something that wouldn't be riding up in her crack. She still felt a hot rush of embarrassment simply standing around in Popuri's very wall-tailored costume. "Why blue?" Karen asked, "Purple is my favorite color."

"Blue because it suits your hair and bangs." Popuri said, "Plus, of all of us, you're the only one who comes closest to flying. So when people think of sky blue, they'll think of Rocket Girl."

Karen paused and spun around, "Excuse me?" She looked down to her left breast, which had a picture of a rocket ship in a small circle. The exhaust of the ship went down in a purple stripe and purple stripes ran down her shoulders and sides. "Is that what this is for?" She tapped the symbol.

"Duh." Popuri said, "A rocket for Rocket Girl."

"I am NOT going to be called Rocket Girl." Karen snapped.

Popuri shrank in on herself, "Oh…well…what do you want to be called."

"Something, anything, but not Rocket Girl." Karen fussed.

"But…you totally take off like a rocket when you jump." Ann pointed out. "It makes sense, really. What do you want to be called? Leapfrog? The Jumper."

"If I think or WANT to be called something, I will let you know what it is in my own time." Karen said. "Any one of you calls me Rocket Girl and I will put this gigantic boot right up your ass."

The threat stood and Ann was the next one to jump up. "Alright, whatever, sourpuss. I'm next, Poppy."

Popuri dug out a yellow-and-black two-piece and tossed them to Ann. She stripped down and suited up regardless of who was watching her and squeezed into her suit easily. When she finished, she slapped her black mask on and held her arms out. "Ta-da! What do you think?"

"You look like a jogger." Elli commented.

"That's the idea, I suppose." Popuri said, "Ann's power is stretching so she needs a lot of room to move, so I made her costume less restricting. It's also more revealing, but Ann doesn't need as much protection as the rest of us what with her super bouncy skin."

"Good point." Ann said, jogging in place and twisting herself from side-to-side to test her suit. "Karen's right. A bit snug, but it'll work out." Her top was yellow down the middle and black on the sides, as was her bottom, which-unlike Karen's legless affair-were more like a pair of trunks and had a short pair of legs on them. Her gloves and boots were much shorter.

"Less gloves, ankle-high boots for more flexibility." Popuri said, "So you can do all your stretchy stuff.

Elli tried on her costume next. The emerald green look seemed to suit her short brunette hair. It was very similar to Karen's suit, though it had a black leather belt to accentuate it. Likewise, she had elbow length black leather greaves with elbow pads, knee high black leather boots with knee pads. The center of the chest held a silver symbol of an atom. Her legs remained bare and she was horrified to discover she had the meatiest thighs of all the girls and a backside that was less than flattering.

"Now you know why I wear those long dresses all the time." Elli said.

"How do you think I feel?" Mary muttered, silently dreading her suit.

Elli completed her ensemble with her green mask and sighed when she was done. "I just feel so...exposed."

"You can turn into solid steel." Ann pointed out, "You're better protected than any of us even if you're naked."

"Well, I still feel exposed in this, even though it feels rigid and thick." Elli sighed, examining herself in the mirror, "My thighs look like the ass end of a walrus."

"Well, maybe if you didn't sneak chocolate out while you're working, Elli, it might not go straight to your thighs." Ann laughed. "That's right, I see you sneaking those little chocolates when you think no one is looking."

Elli blushed and grumbled to herself, but in the end she turned to Popuri and said, "Thank you, Poppy. You did fine work. I know it'll be up to task when we're finally out in them. What's with the atom symbol on the chest?"

"Er..." Poppy shrugged, "I didn't have anything else to put there and I didn't want to leave it blank or a booby hole. I thought it looked...cool. Anyway, MY TURN!"

Popuri was the most eager to suit up. Her suit was nearly identical to Karen's,. but it was a crimson red. She also had no sleeves, which made her muscular arms stand out all the more. Her neck line and arm sleeves were circled by a black band with round, chrome metal studs. She had filled in the original costume's cleavage hole and kept a bright, glittering red Double "M" in the shape of a heart. Her red mask gave her a menacing appearance. The silver studs on her knuckles stood out in stark comparison to the other girls.

"Very badass!" Ann smiled, patting Popuri on the shoulder.

"Intimidating." Elli mutter to Mary, who nodded in agreement.

"Almost as tall as you." Karen said, standing next to Popuri. She extended her hand out from the top of her head ot Popuri's and came within an inch. "Well, at least you won't tower over everyone in the group."

"This works much better than that slutty swimsuit I wore in the wrestling ring. I had to stuff that as far back into my dresser as I could so mama won't find it. I mean-"

"Wait, wait, wait," Ann coughed in surprise, "You kept it?"

Popuri tossed Ann a sardonic look, "Well…it's special to me."

Karen nudged mary with her elbow. "C'mon, booger brain."

"My turn, I suppose." Mary said. She slapped on her undergarments and then slid on the full body suit. Unlike the other girls, Mary's costume was an off white affair, with a black belt encumbered by several pouches. It was the only costume to have the "outside underwear" look to it, with the "underwear" aspect being a change in color from white to black. The front of her chest from the neck to the center of her bustline-such as it was-and the center of her chest had a symbol of a simple white lightning bolt. The black-and-white color scheme surprised Mary, but when she finally slid on the suit, the gloves, the boots, and the black mask, she realized how well the scheme worked-especially with her raven colored hair.

Mary inspected herself in the mirror and smiled. The suit's colors and design worked perfectly. Her flat-chested look was eliminated in the transition from black to white at the chest and the same effect was achieved on her waist, where her relative lack of curves or hips wasn't noticeable with the utility belt and the black "underwear". The effect was that the things that made her self-conscious weren't noticeable. The downside is that she looked almost like a twelve-year-old if it wasn't for the bust.

Bust?

Mary patted her chest and turned to Popuri. "Poppy...did you pad my bra?"

Popuri rolled her eyes away guiltily and coughed nervously. Mary only smiled and mentally she thanked Popuri. Mary tried not to let her self perception interfere with her mission, but when she compared herself to the other girls, it was hard not to feel inadequate. She was shorter, flat-chested, no curves, and had all the grace of a pre-schooler. But as she admired herself in the mirror-thanking the lenses in her mask that meant she didn't have to wear her glasses-she admitted that she might not have looked like a superhero who could inspire fear or admiration, but she certainly felt like one.

"Well, now what?" Ann asked, "At least we'll be winning the Halloween contests from here on out."

"Here." Mary said, producing a small box and handing out black phones. "Latest generation iPhones. I've been programming these things all week. I've got apps for just about everything: GPS tracking, so we all know where we all are. I even color coded our dots so we know who is who. Our numbers are on speed dial and voice controlled, so you don't even have to bother dialing. Try it out."

Karen looked at hers and said, "Er...call Elli?"

Elli's phone rang with a short beep. She tapped the screen and answered it. "Very nice. But…don't you think it'd be a bad idea if someone heard us calling each other by our names?"

Mary grimaced, "Well, until we all have our names picked out, we'll just have to go with this. The security on these isn't that great, but I'm hoping to fix that later on when I have more time."

"Can I call one of those phone sex lines?" Ann asked with a laugh, "For those really lonely days when I'm superheroing all by myself?"

"Don't be ridiculous." Mary said, "Look, your phones will slide into the gel pouch on the underside of your left forearm. When you need to call, just lift it to your head, say who you want, and it'll do the rest. We can even do conference calls in case we've been split up and we need to strategize or something. There's a lot more to this, but I wanted you all to know the basics before tomorrow."

"What's tomorrow?" Karen asked.

"The Metro Heights Comic-con." Answered Mary, "The Metro convention center will be packed with three or four thousand comic and movie geeks, many of them dressed up in costumes of their own."

"I'm curious as to what this will accomplish." Karen asked, "Aside from us getting hit on by every lonely basement dweller in the city."

"As if you'd turn down attention." Ann snorted, "Or the chance to be oogled."

"Sweet merciful heavens." Elli groaned, "All those people packed into the same place. All that lack of hygiene and hand washing. I'm double packing my hand sanitizer. Mary, why are we going? We don't watch movies or read comics? And besides, you said that we weren't going on some whirlwind publicity tour. What makes you think parading around in our costumes is going to do any good?"

"It won't do good for them." Mary answered, "It'll do good for us. It's a dry run in our costumes. I figured, you know, its a big stretch to ask all of you to start marching around in a colorful costume, so why not get used to it first? For one: we won't stand out as badly in a place full of people already in costumes. And two: we can get used to them before we actually start fighting crime."

"It still sounds ridiculous to hear you say that out loud." Ann said. "Look, Mary, I know you're really psyched about this, but I can't help but feel maybe our powers might be more useful in another way, somewhere else."

"Can you end hunger with your power?" Mary asked.

Ann nodded, "Technically, yes. You order some food and I can stretch my arm twenty feet to pick up the plate without ever walking away from your table. Then you'll be fed and have the pleasure of my company to boot."

Mary blinked twice, "Ann, no offense, but ever since you came back from Metro Heights, you've become a bit of a smartass."

Ann smiled, "Thanks. How kind of you to notice."

"And to answer your question: no, I don't think there's any other way. I've contemplated a much more quiet and humble form of assistance, but I keep hanging up on human nature. People want to believe in something bigger than themselves and a more in-depth, hands-on approach would expose us to questions we couldn't begin to answer without completely discrediting ourselves. By acting as masked vigilantes, we're shielded from exposing our identities and the origins of our powers. The mystique of our existence will intrigue most folks."

"And what about those who aren't intrigued?" Elli asked.

"Can you two use words in English, please?' Popuri asked, but Elli and Mary ignored her.

"What do you mean?" asked Mary.

"I mean, what about those people who don't know who we are, see what we're capable of...and they fear us."

"Hopefully, the only people who will fear us will be the people we're trying to fight."

"But people fear what they don't understand." Elli said, "They fear things they can't explain and in that fear they lash out irrationally. Mary, please tell me that if things get too bad we'll pull out of this superhero idea and find some other way."

Mary looked to the other girls and saw Elli's expression of worry mirrored in theirs. Mary understood well enough: they didn't entirely believe what they were doing was going to work, but neither did they have an idea of their own.

They were humoring her.

For all the work and thought that had gone into her idea, they were simply allowing Mary's idea to take hold until it either worked or it ran its course. Indeed, Mary felt they were probably expecting this to fail, no matter how much they wanted to help the Harvest Goddess.

"If this hits too close to home or it backfires, I promise we'll scrap it. Until then, give your whole hearts to this, girls. We either go in full fledged or not at all. We can't half-ass this effort. We only have one shot to show the city-if not the whole world-that we're the real deal: superheoes-selfless and true. If we can't do that, then everything we have will fall around us. Don't forget what the Harvest Goddess warned would happen if people don't have Hope."

The other four sighed and nodded or looked solemnly at her. For good or ill, this was their path.

"Let's go home and get some sleep. Be at the Inn before opening. Six am should just about do it. We'll eat, head for the Groove and we'll change there and go to the city. Alright?"

The other four nodded and left silently.

XxXxXxXxXxX

Elsewhere

The one-eyed, pinked hair General Lynette approached a set of sliding doors, which opened before her presence. She entered a womb of technology unseen by the eyes of the world at large, but common place to her. She was unphased by the walls of machinery and computers and set her gaze on the room's only other occupant.

Dr. Jin Nakamura, clad in his immaculate lab coat, stood before a tube filled with a chaotic presence of tissue and uncontrolled growth. She sneered at the sight of it, thinking it resembled the remains of a man who had been run over by a tank tread.

As always, Jin refused to acknowledge the presence of a lesser.

"We've come upon a problem: we're lacking a number of components in order to initiate The Ragnarok Protocol."

"Anticipated." Jin answered, never straying from his screen.

"Then it would be nice to know where we can come up on our missing components. If you have them, it would be conductive to our mission if you share them."

"Technically, I do not have them." Jin said, "But I know where they are and what must be done to retrieve them. The W.A.S.P. is under government control in the basement of Metro Tower. The A.C.E. is held in control in Hamilton Labs Corp. And the G.A.M.E. is generated and stored in the Hamilton Corp. Super-Collider fifty miles west of Metro Heights."

"I'll organize three strike forces so we can hit them simultaneously." Lynette said.

"No." Jin said, finally turning around to face her, "We can't afford any loss of personnel at this stage of the Protocol. Three strike forces would be stretching ourselves far too thin. The coordination would alert the authorities and suddenly our Protocol is facing an armed force larger and more prepared than we want. Three strikes, separate times."

"But that will raise the same level of alarm." Lynette countered.

"Not if the attacks are considered unconnected by separate groups. We will maintain secrecy by generating two assaults: First to obtain the W.A.S.P. through a jackhammer assault. The city government cannot foresee it. Second, we shall need some of your old friends hired to strike the labs and procure the A.C.E."

"And the G.A.M.E.?"

"We can obtain the G.A.M.E. when we initiate the Ragnarok Protocol." Jin said, definitively.

Lynette's good eye popped wide open. "That is a dangerous decision, sir."

Jin gave a single nod. "The entire Protocol is a dangerous decision. By the time we initiate the Protocol, my Project will be complete and it will undertake the mission to obtain the G.A.M.E. Our entire force will be dedicated by the time we even need the G.A.M.E. I understand the consequence of not obtaining it and the Protocol's success depends on it, so do not think I have not thought this through. Surprise has always been our best ally and it will remain so."

"I'll assemble a strike force to attack Hamilton Labs. My underling will be happy for the chance to be let loose."

Jin turned back to his Project, "A leashed dog seldom questions being let off his confinement. Do as you must, but the A.C.E. and the W.A.S.P. are your responsibility now. Do not fail."

"I never fail." Lynette counter with a snarl.

Jin merely pushed his glasses up the rim of his nose. "Indeed. And the sequence of events that led you into my employ would not be considered failure?"

Lynette's narrowed gaze and grinding teeth spoke volumes, but she said nothing. She had contested his authority and power once before.

Once.

Upon leaving Dr. Jin's lab, General Lynette tapped a communications device on her ear and said, "Brodik, assemble your team. We leave in four hours."

XxXxXxXxXxX

Mineral Town

Knock Knock.

Mary jumped at the sound of a knock at her door. It was dark out, with the moon high in the starry night sky. She leapt up and finally put her practiced emergency plan into effect: sliding a false, hidden wall she and Ann had installed in her room under the guise of a Library extension. Her computers and tv were safely tucked away in the corner of the room and with a push of a small button, she released the safety mechanism and swing an "L"-shaped corner of wood over her workstation. Once the corner was secured, it appeared to be a large bookrack filled with volumes from floor to ceiling.

Nothing out of place for Mary to want extra space for extra books.

She shoved her costume under her bed and quickly stuffed her nightie over her head before opening the door. She quickly grabbed a book from the bookrack and held it as she saw her father standing there.

"Daddy?"

"Not working late, I hope?" Her father, Basil, said with a warm smile.

"Not at all. Just some late night reading. Er..." She held the book out for him to see.

Basil squinted and smiled, "The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemmingway. Good choice. I read that when I was about your age, just before I started dating your mother."

"Do I remind you of her at that age?' Mary asked.

Basil smirked. "No. Not at all. Your mother is as she's always been. You're more like me: always eager for something to stoke the mind."

Mary shared the smile with her father. It was widely thought amongst the people of Flowerbud that Basil was an eccentric plant collector. Many had forgotten that he had left the town for college and immediately came back when he was finished. Most weren't aware that her father was a rather intellectual Botanist who had seemingly made it his life's effort to catalogue and write papers on every form of plant life on Flowerbud Island. To date, he had written over five hundred papers published regularly in scientific journals. His "eccentric plant collecting" supported their family with a comfortable lifestyle that Mary had grown accustomed to.

He considered her with a tilt of his head and leaned against the doorframe, "Mary...are you certain about your decision?"

Mary fixed him with a look. What did he mean? He couldn't possibly know. "Daddy?"

"I know what it feels like." Basil said, "I know what it feels like to be underappreciated by the others in town. Never being the fastest or strongest or the best looking...whatever cliché you want to attach to it. Even now, even though I'm technically a scientist, no one thinks much more of me than "The Plant Guy" in town. But at the end of the day, I don't go to bed with anyone else. I have a wife and a daughter who love me and that's all I need."

Basil tapped her book with his finger, "I know-and I think everyone knows-that you are very likely the most intelligent person on this Island and that is the kind of thing that makes other people-other girls, in particular-very jealous."

In her mind's eye, Mary could see Karen's hand cocked back, her eyes brimming with tears. It had never occurred to her there might another reason Karen wasn't keen on her being the Team Captain. It didn't seem as though Karen had anything to be jealous over, but her father was not an unintelligent man. Suddenly, Mary was seeing Karen in a whole other light.

"You've got the potential to do as much or as little as you want, Mary." Basil smiled, "You can be a Librarian, if you want. Why, you could dig ditches a far as I'm concerned. You're my daughter and I'll love you no matter what you do with your life. You could change the world, if you so pleased."

Mary nodded, "Daddy...you came up here to tell me I can change the world?"

"And to give you some of these." Her father held out a small plate with a pair of home-baked brownies on them. Mary happily accepted them from him and leaned up to give him a peck on the cheek.

"Thanks Daddy. I mean it. But...one question: how can one person change the world?"

Basil smiled a grin that was unreadable to Mary and said, "When you figure out the answer to that old riddle, you'll know how powerful you can really be."

Basil left with that cryptic answer and Mary, confused, but not overly so, closed the door behind him and was left with a plate of brownies and a world's worth of questions.

Downstairs, Basil climbed into bed with his wife and Mary's mother, Anna. She saw the bemused and somewhat distant look in his eyes and asked, "You tried to convince her to go to the university again, didn't you?"

"Not really." Basil sighed, "Actually, now that I think about it, I might not have been clear enough. I had too much to say and...I don't know. I think I confused her."

"How do you know?"

"Because I confused myself." Basil wrapped himself in their comforter and then wrapped an arm around his wife, "I know how she feels being a smart fish in a small pond, but I also know it's bad out there in the city. It does awful things to people who aren't ready for it. I would hate to see Mary...corrupted by that kind of culture shock."

"Mary's a smart girl." Anna said, switching her bedside light off.

"Smart. But sometimes you need to be strong." Basil thought before turning his light off as well.

XxXxXxXxXxX

Karen had been kicking rocks nervously along the cobbled paths of the village after dark. She had passed Harris a number of times and now no longer bothered greeting her. He had offered her and escort home, but she didn't want to go home. Her mother had harped on her again today and she simply didn't want to be in the same house as her mother or her costume.

It was daunting, the very thought of what she was doing. And at the same time, she contemplated ways to make it work to her advantage. The more she thought about it, the more she felt as if she were always going along a path chosen for her, not one she chose herself.

But how to take charge?

When she passed by Rose Square, she stumbled upon kindly Mayor Thomas placing that month's activities and festival dates up on the bulletin board. He caught sight of her and waved. He was a funny little man with a quiet, yet confident way about him. He seemed to not be at all the kind of person who would run a village and yet he carried that distinction with ease.

"Good evening, Karen. Out awfully late, yes?"

"I've got a lot on my mind." Karen said. A sudden thought struck her from out of the blue. She approached him with a quick two steps and asked, "Mayor Thomas, may I ask you a question?"

The Mayor seemed perplexed, but nodded. Karen rarely spoke to him about anything outside of usual pleasantries. Normally, he dealt with her parents. "What is it?"

"What...what does it take to be a leader?"

Mayor Thomas's mustache dropped, his mind scrambling towards a proper and reasonable answer. At once, his political gears clicked into place he cleared his throat to cover his pause, "Well...hrrrn. Being a leader isn't easy, of course. It takes dedication to see the things you want done, patience to communicate and moderate between more than one party as well as yourself, and courage to represent the ideals and-most importantly-hopes of the people looking up to you."

Karen's eyes lifted in surprise. That was surprisingly more complex than she had imagined him saying.

He continued, "Being a leader isn't about bossing people around. Any idiot or bully can do that, it's easy if you're heartless enough not to care about someone else's opinion. Being a leader is about communicating your side of an argument...and convincing someone else that your way is the right way."

"It's not about being the voice that gives an order-it's about being the heart and soul of those following you. They have to believe that you are the representation of everything they hold dear to them. I do this by maintaining our community as it is, in the manner in which our families want it to be maintained. It's not a position to take lightly, but many people feel the call to be a representative of others."

He held up a finger, pointing to the Aja Winery. "Take, for example, Duke. A bit of a brash man, I think we all know. But when I had to leave our Island for three years in order to attend to family business on the Mainland, we held an election to see who would replace me. You remember?"

Karen had been ten when that happened. It had caused a few bad attitudes in town, but nothing worse. Duke and Harris had faced off and Duke had won by a single vote.

"Duke normally isn't a man who adores politics, but as a town Patron he felt called to serve the public. When I returned, he was happy to had the town back over to me and return to his winery. He was a good man for that and I was glad he had the fortitude to represent our community during my absence. There were lots of issues to hammer out once I got back. As you well know, we often have opposite views on how things should be run."

Karen nodded. The Mayor was starting to drift from her original question. "So what do you do when you come into conflict?" She asked

"Find a middle ground."

"And if that doesn't work?"

"Try it their way. You never know unless you try."

"And what if that doesn't work?"

The Mayor stoked his mustache thoughtfully, "When all else fails and you have no other recourse...punch em' in the mush."

XxXxXxXxXxX

Though it was the middle of the evening, Elli had only one clear course in mind. She had fought a struggling Stu into bed and waited until he was soundly snoring. She poked her head in at her grandmother's door and found the elderly woman sound asleep as well. She always slept the night and Stu would sleep like a rock as well with the exception of his occasional midnight toilet trip, but she would be back by then.

Elli snuck out of the house, careful to not wake either of it's inhabitants. She walked carefully down the cobblestone street, past the Clinic, then the graveyard, and finally opened the door to the Church.

Inside, the smell of clean carpet, candles, and treated lumber was powerful, as was the sheer atmosphere that came with it. Elli was a reverent person and she was never less in awe than when she was in church. But the church at night felt different than during the day, when it seemed that the only denizens at this time of the night were ones she couldn't see.

She stepped forward, head bowed, hands clasped together. She knelt at the front of the pulpit, under the gaze of a statue of Christ, and whispered her prayers out loud. Her prayers were very stream-of-conscious and at times she felt not even aware of what she was saying. She simply opened her heart and let her feelings out of the dam inside of her. Here she felt safe to spill her innermost thoughts and fears, for if she could not seek sanctuary in the house of the Lord, where else could she? Who else would comfort her?

"Elli." It wasn't a question, but a simple statement to get her attention. Elli's head whipped up at the voice she knew at once, a voice that she could catch in a crowd of thousands, a voice that must have been bad for her hearth because when she heard it, she suddenly couldn't breath normal, her thoughts felt muddled, and she could feel her heart thudding in her chest.

"Pastor Carter." Elli said, more a similar statement than question or greeting. He stood clad in a pair of simple night pants and a t-shirt. It was a much more dressed down manner than she was used to seeing him. Carter was in his smock no matter the occasion, though he did not seem at all offset by his late night visitor. He lived at the back of the church.

He approached her slowly, judging her intentions. She stayed kneeling. She wasn't so sure she could trust her legs. Her knees felt weak when he looked her in the eyes like he was doing now. Hands clasped before him, he asked, "Are you in need of pastoral care?"

"I need to be sedated before I pass out." She thought. But she simply nodded, unsure of what to say. She had actually hoped to avoid running into him and slip into and out of the Church unnoticed. She turned and sat on the edge of the pulpit and Carter did likewise, a solid foot between them. Always distance, save for the time she literally fell into his arms. Perhaps passing out would have it's advantages.

"You seem at odds with something.." He said in his soft, yet firm way. "May I ask? You are always so confident and sure of yourself. It's unlike you to seem troubled."

Elli blushed. She couldn't help it. At all. To be so complimented as confident and sure of one's self by the man she was so enamored with nearly took her breath away and her cheeks flared pink in response. Suddenly, all her troubles at once seemed forgotten.

"I feel better than I did a few minutes ago." She said, trying to do or say anything that would make her cheeks stop burning, "You've got a way with words, Pastor Carter."

Carter chuckled softly, "Well, thank you for your assessment, but I don't think I did anything. I only offered the things which I am most skilled: my time and my heart. Both yours, if you wish to open yours to me."

Elli found his choice of words filling her with another round of blushed cheeks and uncertain fuzzy feelings in places she normally didn't have fuzzy feelings. She saw him hold his hand out and she took it in hers. "Pastor…Carter. Please pray for me. I'm…things are going to change soon and I don't know what it's going to mean for me. I know what I'm doing in my life, but the path I'm on is so uncertain and fraught with danger-"

"Danger?" Carter asked, "Elli, what could you possibly be talking about? What are you going to do that's so dangerous?"

"I can't tell you." She said.

Carter seemed surprised by that. He was used to people baring their hearts to him-especially Elli. To hear that she had something she kept even from her pastor…

"Elli…you're not in trouble, are you?" He asked.

"No…at least, not yet. But I'm going to help people. A lot of them. I can't tell you, Carter, but please trust me when I say that it might be dangerous, but it's the right thing to do and I could really use the emotional support. I don't really have anyone to lean on for emotional support. Bless my grandmother, but she's too old and Stu isn't old enough to understand."

Elli's head hung down and tears spilled down her cheeks, "I'm all alone in this world, Carter. I don't have anyone to hold me and tell me it'll be alright. It's all me and sometimes it feels I could help the whole world ten times over but when I need real help, I'm all on my own."

Elli felt Carter slipping his strong arms around her shoulders. She spun and buried her face into his shoulder. Together, they rocked back and forth on pulpit as Carter felt Elli surrender her feelings before him. He was used to confessions, but it was hard to offer advice or counsel when he didn't know what his friend was talking about.

After a moment, she pulled back and looked up and found herself a bare inch from Carter's face. She paused, he paused. Together, they seemed to be sizing up each other's faces, their intentions, emotions, and all together everything that would scream permission for them to give in to Elli's heart's desire, but before they could close the gap between them, Carter cleared his throat and a worried look crossed his face. Elli pulled back, seeing his cheeks mirror her own hot flush and realized she had made him terribly uncomfortable.

Stupid, She thought. He's still trying to be your pastor.

"Sorry." She muttered. "I get…very lonely, sometimes."

"We all do." Carter smiled that impeccable smile that made Elli's heart melt like butter on a cast iron skillet. "If it helps you, you are always welcome here, no matter the time. Whatever support you need, I will be here for you, Elli."

Elli smiled back at him. It was the kind of smile she would only give him, a smile the came from her heart to him. In return, he gave her that damnable platonic smile he gave all the members of the church. But behind it, she saw the way his eyes darted to her lips, the short way he breathed and the sheen of sweat making his forehead glisten.

She hadn't come here with the intention of trying to break down his emotional walls, but it looked as though she had put a dent in his platonic shield. Elli left with her heart doing its best to claw its way out of her rib cage. Why, oh why did he make her feel this way? Why couldn't she just fall for someone who wasn't a world apart from her?

Elli collapsed onto her bed at home and watched the stars as she always did. She replayed her moments with Carter over and over, until she drifted asleep with his smile in her mind's eye. In the privacy of her own thoughts, they closed that gap between them and she would taste his lips.

At least the other girls had an excuse. The guys they had fallen for were gone and they would never see them again.

XxXxXxXxX

The morning was tricky. Very, very tricky. At six sharp, they met at the Inn where Ann made them good breakfast. Over grits, sausage, scrambled eggs, and cups of hot coffee, Mary explained to them how the Goddess Pond-the Portal, as she officially referred to it-warped time and would return them not long after they left.

Like any good science-minded person, Mary had been experimenting during their month long hiatus. She would approach the Pond in the morning and leap in, the test the time it took to return. The longer they were gone, the longer it would take to bring them back.

"If we jump in at seven am, stay and hour, and come back it will be approximately seven am here. From what I've tested, the Portal tries to bring us back roughly within the same hour we leave."

Karen took a sip. "Will it always do that? I mean, no matter how long we stay?"

"No." Mary said very affirmatively, "No, the Portal has a twenty-four hour limit. I tested it. I leapt in for over a week at different times so we would know exactly what to do. The Portal at nearly twenty-four hours will bring us back roughly an hour-and-a-half after we enter it. But after twenty-four hours exactly…the Portal will bring us back at the same time. If we leave at seven am and come back at seven-oh-one the next day, we will have been gone for an entire day."

"This Portal sure is handy." Ann said, "Just imagine the possibilities. We can have lives in the city and lives here. Boyfriends in both places! Oooh, I can tease twice as many dudes."

"Not funny." Popuri muttered, sipping her second cup of coffee. She was not a morning person.

Karen rapped her knuckles on the table and stood up before them. The other four girls looked up, wondering what her intention was. Karen cleared her throat and said, "Alright, so the day is finally here. We've planned and trained and we've done all we can to get ready for this. Today, we go into Metro and we get used to our costumes."

Ann lifted a finger, "We know that, Kare-"

"So this is what we need." Karen continued as if she hadn't heard her, "We'll hit the Portal at seven, get dressed before we go in, and when we get out and finally hit the streets, we maintain our composure, okay?"

The four of them looked at her in wonder.

She stood up, legs apart, fists on her hip, "Tall and strong, that's who we are. We have to walk onto the street and own them. If we step into the middle of a crime to prevent it, we have to maintain these personas. In Flowerbud, we're just normal girls with normal lives…but to them, we're something more. We won't be girls in costumes once they see us in action, we'll be an idea. That idea is the Hope Mary wants us to spread."

"It will take dedication to see the things we want done, patience to communicate and moderate between more than one party as well as ourselves, and courage to represent the ideals and-most importantly-hopes of the people looking up to us. They have to believe that we are the representation of everything they hold dear to them."

"When we come into conflict, we fight to keep the peace. If that doesn't work, we try and find a middle ground. And if all else fails and we're left with no recourse…punch em' in the mush!"

Karen pointed to Mary, "This is Mary's baby. And we are all going to do everything we can to see her vision come true. Come hell or high water, we're superheroes now. No more bitching and moaning. We've got the powers, the costumes…everything we need."

"We don't have names." Mary pointed out.

"Quiet, Bubble Brain. I'm committed to this and so should all of you. No more wincing, no more hand wringing-" She cast a glance at Elli, "No more worries. This is what we're doing and if you're not all in, you're out. Got it?"

The other four nodded in unison, dumbstruck by Karen's sudden authority. She seemed much older when she stood like this, speaking to them as she did. Mary thought she sounded more like her mother than she would have wanted to, but the response was immediate and undeniable: She had culled their bickering and brought them together with her words.

Karen nodded, "Alright. Let's head out. We've got a full day ahead of us."

In a small line, under the guise of a morning job together, the five of them jogged down the paths to the Goddess Pond and emerged into the Grove together. They spent several minutes putting their costumes together, stuffing themselves in and finally, at long last, the Five of them were together in their costumes, all looking at each other, trying to let the reality of what they were doing sink in.

As one, they looked to Karen. She looked down and found Mary smiling at her. The appreciative smile spoke to Karen, a simple understanding between the two of them. Thank you for taking this seriously.

Karen smiled back and cried, "ALL TOGETHER!"

As one, they leapt into the Pond.