As fun as flying was for the first few minutes, Andy had never imagined how incredibly, mind-numbingly boring being cooped up in an airplane for hours on end could be. Staring at the window was great, he spent what felt like years looking down on the Earth below, amazed by how it looked. But that left, according to a vaguely amused Fred, that he still had another five hours left to wait before he could get off the plane. Andy didn't care to read any of the books or magazines Fred had available, and worse yet he didn't have any kind of portable game system. His options for passing the time was napping, or nothing, and he was too buzzed to even try and nap. He couldn't even watch the in-flight movie, because there wasn't one!
"I'm bored!" Andy complained.
"I offered you some books and magazines," Fred smiled.
"Reading is boring," Andy sneered. "And stupid."
Fred laughed at him. "You think so, huh?" he smiled. "Well then, perhaps a quick wager."
"Wager?" Andy asked after a moment. "Is that some kind of game?"
Fred rolled his eyes in amusement. "A bet," he laughed.
"OK, what's the bet?" Andy asked.
Fred pulled a book out of his briefcase. "Read this book for an hour. You can ask me if the time is up, and I'll tell you yes or no. If you continue reading past the hour before asking me, I won't tell you. If you ask me if it's up between an hour and an hour and a half, you win. If you ask after an hour and a half, I win."
"What do I get if I win?" Andy asked.
Fred smiled. "I happen to have a Nintendo DS you could borrow, and even a few games to go with it," he suggested. "You can keep it for the duration of your stay in the hospital."
"And if you win?" Andy asked.
"You read a minimum of two hours a day from fun books, above and beyond what other reading is required of you," Fred suggested.
Andy frowned. Sure, reading was boring, but getting a DS would be great! Still, there had to be a catch, and he couldn't seem to figure out what it was. "What's the catch?" he said after a moment.
Fred smiled. "The catch, young man, is that if you give it a chance, reading is fun."
Andy laughed. "Fat chance. Give me your book. I've got a DS to win!"
"I thought you might think something like that," Fred smiled, and handed over the book he'd tried to suggest earlier.
Andy started out reading slowly enough, but the tale of Matilda's life was sad enough that he couldn't help but feel sorry for her, and wanted to know what happened. Then she started playing tricks on her family, and he was hooked. It wasn't until the attendant brought them their in-flight meals that he realized he'd forgotten to ask if the time was up for a while. "Fred, is the time up?" he asked hopefully.
"Oh, long since up," Fred laughed when he checked his watch. "I win."
Andy pouted. "But I wanted the DS!"
"I bet you enjoyed that book though, didn't you?" Fred laughed. "Roald Dahl is a very good author."
Andy sagged into his chair. "Yes, but I'm already halfway through this book."
"That is only one book, my lad, and there are several other options where that came from," Fred smiled. "I think you might enjoy The Twits next... after you've finished Matilda.
Andy picked at his food for a moment, frowning. He'd lost the bet! He couldn't believe he'd lost the bet!
Still, Fred had provided some very entertaining books, and while the time didn't exactly fly away on him again, it kept the airplane flight from being quite as boring as he was afraid of. All too soon it was time to get off the plane. Andy had a bit of trouble with trying to carry his current book and his canes, and regretfully had to hand it over to Fred. Halfway to the plane exit, he realized that he had actually been reluctant to hand the book over, and worse yet he'd shown it! Frowning, he hurried onto the exit in the hopes of helping that unpleasant fact be forgotten. Or else he'd never live it down...
When he got off the plane, the attendants had his wheelchair waiting for him, complete with his own canes. With a groan of complaint he sat down in the wheelchair before giving up he set of canes they'd given him for the flight. "Thank you very much for flying with us," one of them said with a large, almost comical smile. "Please, come back soon!"
Andy frowned as he pushed himself off. "Fat chance," he grumbled.
"Well, if it is that traumatic an experience," Fred said with a small smile, "perhaps we should take the train next time."
"The train?" Andy asked, surprised.
"Oh, yes. The seats are smaller, but the scenery is quite nice. You can keep your own wheelchair and canes, and you have a bit more freedom to move around while in transit, to stretch your legs at layovers and all that," Fred smiled. "I remember my last cross-country trip via train quite fondly. The observation cars were quite impressive, especially when traveling through the Rockies. The view was breathtaking. Of course, the trip takes several days instead of several hours, but-"
"I think I'll stick with the plane," Andy said quickly.
"Oh, of course," Fred smiled. "I thought you might see it that way. Imagine how much trouble one could get into given days, rather than mere hours, to make... ill-advised bets."
Andy pouted. "You tricked me!" he complained.
"Yes, I did," Fred agreed. "And if you weren't so busy being childish, you'd be quite happy over it. You enjoyed the book, as I recall."
"Still, you tricked me!" Andy groused.
"That is my job," Fred smiled. "That, and making certain you don't hurt anyone, oh and taking care of you while you're parent's can't."
Andy pointed. "Look!"
"Ah, our welcoming committee!" Fred said when he saw the large sign labeled 'Webster&Wilson'. "I asked them to arrange pickup for us."
"Frederick Wilson?" the man holding the sign asked as they approached.
"That would be me," Fred nodded. "Call me Fred."
"Which would make you Andrew Webster?" the man asked, turning to face Andy.
"Andy," Andy said.
"Pleased to meet you," the man smiled. "If you'll come with me?"
"I'm sorry," Fred shook his head. "I'm sure you understand, but I need to see some ID first."
"Of course," the man said, mouth tightening. Putting his sign down, he fished out his wallet and opened it up to display his ID.
"May I?" Fred asked, reaching of the wallet. The man frowned before fishing the ID out and handing it over. Fred looked at it for a few minutes before frowning.
"This is a very, very good fake," Fred said softly. "Best I've ever seen, in fact."
"Fake?" the man asked, sweating. "I don't know what you mean!"
"I know the real Agent Samuel Borsch," Fred said, putting his hand on Andy's shoulder and pushing him back. "He's my best friend, in fact."
"I am Samuel Borsch," the man protested. "Let me see your ID!"
"I think not," Fred shook his head. "I'm not about to give this over to a fake."
"I am no fake," the man shook his head. "You know that Fred."
"I said I know Samuel," Fred shook his head, "and you aren't him."
"No, he's not," another man said, laughing, as he walked up. "Hey Fred, how ya doin?"
"I've been better," Fred said, looking the second man up and down. "Nice try. You got the face right, but that attitude is wrong. Not very wrong, you're doing a very, very good job, but you just don't walk like Samuel."
The first man smiled. "Still can't fool you, can I?" he laughed, shifting.
Fred's eyebrows shot up. "That was... impressive, Sammy boy," he conceded. "Not the face and voice, you've always had the ability to shift those. But the attitude... you managed to erase every trace of your own personality, every quirk I usually use to recognize you."
The first man frowned. "I hate being called Sammy boy, you know that!"
"Just checking," Fred smiled.
"What's going on?" Andy asked, confused.
"Andy, I would like to introduce you to my fellow BEST agent, and best friend, Samuel Borsch, also known as Faceshift," Fred pointed to the first man.
"Faceshift?" Andy asked, confused.
"I've arranged a private room for us to wait in for a few minutes," Sam suggested. "Let's have our conversation there."
Fred's eyebrow rose, but he nodded quickly. When Fred started walking, Sammy moved to push Andy's wheelchair, but a quick glare convinced him to back off.
"Alright, now that we're private I believe the boy had a question," Sam said, closing the door. He shook his head, and it seemed to melt for a moment, features running like wet clay until a completely different face was there. "Huh?" Andy glanced back and forth between the two of them. "You look like twins!"
"Thanks," the second man said, smiling.
"I'm going to guess this is the kid you've been training the last few weeks?" Fred asked. "I'm impressed, he really managed to get your attitude down. He almost had me fooled."
"It get's even more impressive," the imposter said, frowning. Stretching he shoulders back, he seemed to shrink in on himself, gradually fading away until all that was left was a...
"You're a girl now!" Andy exclaimed.
"I've always been a girl," she snapped back. "Just putting a dick on me doesn't change that!"
"Language," Sam snapped at her. "That said, she's right. We spent a lot of time training on how to mimic the opposite gender, and she had a real hard time with it. Just taking on the external physical attributes didn't imbue the attitude and reflexes associated with them."
"I am... very impressed," Fred said, shaking his head in surprise. "Does she actually change mass as well as shape?"
"Yes," Sam nodded. "But she gets tired a lot quicker than I do, and can't hold it more than a few hours. Of course, she can do a much more thorough shift than I can, swapping body types, genders, even weight and size rather than just a couple of superficial features. Oh, by the way, her name is Ashley, Ashley Clarence."
"Pleased to meet you Ashley," Fred inclined his head toward her for a moment before turning to face Sam gain. "How did you train her to imitate your behavior so clearly?" Fred asked, "That kind of practice takes years!"
"It's actually one of her empowerments," Sam shrugged. "I have to train it into myself, but she comes by it naturally."
"It's impressive," Fred nodded. "Now, why are we waiting here?"
Sam sighed. "Only reason I played this particular masquerade at all is because we won't be able to hide the fact we have at least one augment in our party shortly."
"Oh?" Fred asked.
"Let's just say St. Damiens was going to send one of their orderlies to play pick up, until a situation arose which required a BEST agent or two on the ground," Sam sighed. "The plane in question landed thirty minutes ago, and they won't let me anywhere near the poor kid."
"Why didn't you pick the kid up already?" Fred asked angrily. "If it's that bad, I sincerely doubt-"
"One of the security guards knows about my shape-shifting ability," Sam snarled. "He decided that that meant a photo ID was invalid, and demanded I provide some other method of reliably proving my identity."
"That's preposterous!" Fred gasped. "How the hell does he think you can 'prove' your identity, a DNA test? What the hell is that man thinking?!"
"He's thinking that the world would be a lot better if humanity was a bit purer, I'm sure," Sam sighed. "I called it in, and it's working it's way up the chain of command. It'll probably be another fifteen, twenty minutes before we can actually get to the poor kid."
"I'm going to go try," Fred snarled. "My ability isn't shape-shifting!"
"He's already said that he considers all BEST photo-ID suspect thanks to my presence in the area," Sam said wryly.
"Is the man insane?" Fred snapped. "Dammit, I'm not letting this stand."
"Do you want me to get the kid out of here?" Sam asked, glancing at Andy.
"Yes," Fred nodded sharply. "He doesn't need to be here for this. It could get dangerous."
"I wanna stay!" Andy protested. "I wanna see what happens!"
Fred's skin slowly took on a more metallic tone and color. "Kid, you don't want to be anywhere near here," he ordered harshly. "Go with Sam."
"But-" Andy began.
"But me no buts," Fred said harshly, holding up a single, now silver, hand. "This is an order. You will obey."
"Fine," Andy groused. "Go away and leave me alone." Fred turned and walked out the door.
Sam sighed as he started pushing Andy's chair for him. "Kid-"
"I can push my own stinking wheelchair," Andy snapped, jerking it out of the agent's control. "Just tell me where I'm supposed to go, like a good little boy."
"Follow Ashley," Sam sighed. "Listen, Andy, I know you're upset. But I'd like you to think about something for a few minutes before you get too upset. If there happens to be a fight, what would you do?"
"I... I'd..." Andy started, then fell back into his chair. "I couldn't do anything."
"Worse yet, we'd have to protect you," Sam agreed. "It's not that you're useless, it's not that you're weak, it's the fact that you are ill and untrained. We're doing what we'd have to do in a fight, preemptively."
"Fine," Andy growled. "Just tell me where to go."
"I'll push-" Ashley moved to take control of the wheelchair.
"I'm not a cripple," Andy snapped angrily. "I can push myself."
"I didn't mean-" Ashley began, then shook her head. "Fine, be that way!"
Andy just pushed himself angrily after Sam, ignoring the rising noise behind them.
He was just a useless cripple, what could he do about a fight. Nothing.
The drive took a while, but Andy was too busy simmering in a dangerous mix of anger and self-loathing to really care. Ashley and Sam were silent during the ride, sensing that he needed some time to himself. Halfway there, Sam's cell phone rang and he pulled it out, talking quietly into it. Andy didn't pay much attention until his name came up. "Andy isn't happy," Sam admitted. "Actually, he's completely and utterly pissed."
Andy felt his lips tighten, and grew even angrier at his inability to display the complete disdain he felt towards them. "Yeah, I know it's to be expected, but- I understand that," Sam complained. "Alright, I'll let him know." Sam hung up and returned his cell phone to the belt clip. "I'm sure you were listening, Andy."
Andy ignored him, looking out the window. "Fine, have it your way," Sam conceded. "Fred wanted to make sure you were alright. He'll bring your stuff to St. Damiens when he can."
Andy stared at the passing scenery, too angry to really see what he was looking at. The city gave way to suburbs, and the suburbs to a strange, alien countryside filled with white. As time passed, his anger began to give way, leaving Andy with his nose pressed against the glass of the car in wonder. Snow. He'd heard of it, but the strange, wondrous beauty of it defied all expectations. Snow! It lay everywhere, piled high under trees and beside the rode, draping the trees in a white blanket and coating the land. Snow! Some of it was a pure, eye-watering white that dazzled, while some of it was a dirty, muddy brown, but snow!
Some part of him remembered that he was busy being angry, but he honestly couldn't find the energy to care. Not when there was snow to look at!
Not everything was white, but even the parts of the trees and shrubs he could see past the white were all wrong. Strange, needle-like leaves and bright, living greens were alien, and fascinating. Even where he saw brown, it wasn't the dried-up, dead thing brown he was expecting. Everything was brilliantly, vividly alive in a way that belonged in well-watered city, not a forest in the middle of nowhere. The red light of the setting sun simply gave everything that much more of an exotic appearance, even as it cut off his sight-seeing. Even by the light of the stars, it was still fascinating to stare out onto the dim, white expanse. Snow!
Almost before he knew it, the car was driving through a large, ornate gate set into a large, strong wall made of stone and razor wire. "Don't mind security, it's here to keep you safe," Sam offered up as Andy gazed at the wall, and the several watch posts that rose above it. "There are several locals who don't care for the facility, but the individuals who endowed it were quite clear about where they wanted it. And about the money they're willing to pay to make sure it stays where it is, and safe."
The facility itself was almost contradictory. It wasn't a single building, but an entire complex of them. The front consisted of a mansion built of a vivid, red brick and rich wood. Andy, as young as he was, still felt intimidated by the wealth and power the building implied. No, not implied, some part of him understood. This building embodied wealth and power, it was wealth and power.
And for the next several months, he would be calling it 'home'!
"Hello," a woman dressed in white uniform opened Andy's door for him. "I assume you're Andy?" she asked.
"I am," Andy grabbed his canes and levered himself out of the car. As clumsy as he was with them, he didn't want to be put back in the wheelchair. If he let them put him in a wheelchair on the first day, they'd try to keep him there, and he had no intention of being restricted to it.
"Glad to meet you," the woman smiled. "I'm Elaine Summers, chief nurse of St. Damien's Hospital for Neurological Disorders. You may address me as Nurse Summers," she said primly.
"I'm Andrew Webster," Andy responded politely as he tried to grab some of his belongings out of the backseat.
"I will arrange for those to be taken to your room," Elaine informed him, then rested a practiced hand under his elbow to help him step away from the car. Part of Andy wanted to snap at her, but it was just reflex. Somehow, she managed to avoid making him feel like a helpless cripple even as she treated him like one. "I understand you recently discovered you are an augment," she asked.
"Yes," Andy nodded as she helped him through the front door.
"This way," she said firmly. For all her prim, proper attitude, Andy couldn't help but warm to her. Her stiff, completely correct manner should have been off putting, but instead he found himself smiling. "I understand your training was interrupted?"
Andy flinched in remembered pain. "Yeah," he nodded.
"While you are here, you will refrain from unnecessary use of your abilities," she ordered. "I understand you do not have any special requirements?"
"Special requirements?" Andy asked, confused. Elaine frowned down at him for a moment, then glanced around.
"Not all of us are capable of passing for normals," she said, undoing a snap on her sleeve. Andy gaped as something slithered out of the sleeve and waved around. It looked almost like the tail of a snake, only with human skin and a slight rounding at the edge. It curled around for a few moments, then dove back into the sleeve tip first. "They don't care for the staff to advertise," she informed him as she redid the clasp on the sleeve, "but most of us are augments. It has caused some... difficulties."
Andy stared at her wrists, still slightly shocked. "So, do you have any special requirements?" she repeated, shaking him lightly.
"No," he told her. "I can't use my ability anyway, it hurts."
She nodded. "Very well," she opened the door and showed him into the room. "Doctor Gilbert, are you ready for Andrew?"
"Yes," the tall man said tiredly, rubbing his temples. His dark skin gleamed in the dim light of the room, as if it had been oiled, but what froze Andy in his tracks were his golden eyes. "Hello Andy," he smiled. "You'll have to excuse me if I don't get up, I'm rather tired already."
"It is kinda late," Andy agreed, glancing at the clock.
"Yes, but judging from your file, your case is a bit urgent," the doctor commented wryly. "At least, I assume you aren't interested in being stuck in the wheel chair still?"
Andy stiffened. "I'd really like to be able to walk without help," he commented after a moment.
"That isn't going to happen," the doctor shook his head. "Not tonight. Come here, I won't bite."
Andy tottered over, barely even noticing as Nurse Summers showed herself out. "Are you going to... Is it going to hurt?" he asked as he sat in the chair waiting for him.
"No," the doctor shook his head. Leaning across his desk, he offered Andy his hand, palm up. "Take it," he ordered. Andy set his canes against the desk and reached over to obey.
Andy's mouth opened in a silent gasp, air refusing to come as his back arched. It struck him with all the force and fury of a thunderstorm, instantly everywhere in his body. It wasn't pain. The doctor hadn't lied. But it was so intense, so overwhelming, that it might as well have been. It lasted for minutes, days, years, an eternity during the space between two heartbeats, and then it was over. Andy collapsed, slipping off his chair to hit the ground, shaking as his eyes glazed over. He'd never be able to describe it. It was like the static shock you'd get from touching someone, amplified beyond all imagination, but completely painless. And even that didn't quite explain it.
"I'm sorry I didn't warn you," the doctor sagged back into his chair, his skin suddenly more gray than brown. "It's easiest the first time if you don't expect it coming. People tense up, try to resist, and that makes it even more draining."
"That was... That was..." Andy shook his head.
"Indescribable," the doctor agreed. "My name is Daniel Gilbert, by the way. I will be one of your doctors for the duration of your stay here."
"Andrew Webster," Andy managed to say as he stood up. He tottered on uncertain feet to where he'd knocked one of his canes as he'd collapsed, and bent over to pick it up. Walking back to the desk, he sat back down.
"The nurse will..." The doctor trailed off, then shook his head. "Sorry. The nurse will see you to your room."
"Are you alright?" Andy asked, concerned.
"Tired," the doctor yawned. "Very, very tired. We'll talk tomorrow."
"What... what was that?" Andy asked as he stood up.
"Did you by any chance notice that you can walk straight again? That you barely need the crutches?" the doctor commented wryly.
Andy looked down at his feet in surprise. He was walking straight. He wasn't tripping over the carpeting. He was using the canes out of habit, but he didn't really need them anymore.
"Thank you," Andy almost collapsed again as tears welled up in his eyes. "Oh, thank you!"
"Go," Doctor Gilbert smiled. "The nurse will see you to your room."
"Thank you," Andy whispered as he opened the door. "Thank you so much."