"This will be your room for the duration of your stay with us," Nurse Summers opened the door for Andy. Inside was the wheelchair he should have been using earlier instead of his canes.
"I don't need that anymore!" Andy accused, pointing at the hateful thing.
"Incorrect," she cut him off. "You do not need it currently. You will tomorrow."
Andy looked at her in shock, then down at the canes he held in his hands. "I barely need these now!" he pointed out.
"The doctor's gift has two affects," she grabbed his elbow and guided him to the bed. "The first is short-term, a turbo-boost to the functioning of your nervous system. You aren't really better, you just feel better. Come tomorrow, you'll be back in the wheelchair and glad of that."
"It's gonna make me worse?" Andy cried out in complaint.
"Hardly," Nurse Summers shook her head. "The second effect is a measurable, potent, and long term repair of damaged neural tissue. Unfortunately, that repair is to the physical structure of your nervous system only. Your nerves will start working properly again, but that only means that you have to learn how to use them. You haven't even noticed, but you've been rerouting around damaged sections and compensating for diminished capacity for years. The brain is a very plastic organism, it will adapt if it possibly can. Now, all those adaptions are fighting against the basic fact that they aren't needed anymore. At the moment, the short-term boost is helping counter that, easing your system into the proper functioning."
Andy frowned. "It's like when my bicycle was damaged," he tried an analogy. "The handlebars were bent, but I could still ride it. After a while I didn't even notice, but when the bars were fixed I had a hard time again."
"Exactly," Nurse Summers smiled gently. The expression was profoundly and disturbingly unnatural on her face. "You're a smart boy, to understand that so quickly."
"Won't I just get sick again?" Andy asked. "Or does he fix that too?"
She shook her head. "Unfortunately no. He's good for repairs, but he can't change the way your biology works. Good news is, we have another doctor who does. You'll be meeting with him as well."
Andy shook his head. "I'm hungry," he commented.
"It's far past dinner time," Nurse Summers said stiffly, "but I imagine I can arrange a snack before bed."
"Please?" Andy asked.
"If you promise to go to sleep right after," she nodded.
"I dunno if I can sleep," Andy shrugged. "It feels earlier than it is."
Nurse Summers nodded. "You flew in from the West Coast, right?"
"Yeah," Andy nodded. "Why?"
"Nothing important," she shook her head. "I'll go see about that snack-"
"Hello, may I come in?" someone asked from the hallway, his voice odd. "Nurse Summers, I was told he was safe?"
Nurse Summers sighed. "Peter, we haven't-"
Andy's nose cut the conversation short. "Is that food?" he asked. "I'm starving, and it sure smells good!"
"Elaine?" the voice asked. Andy couldn't put his finger on what it was that was wrong with that voice, but it wasn't normal. There was something wrong with it.
She sighed, shaking her head. "Peter, you're pushing it, as usual. Might as well get this over with though." She turned to face Andy more directly. "If I'm careful, I can pass. Peter can't. Ever."
Andy's eyes widened as the strangest creature... man... he'd ever seen entered the room. His dark purple skin was run through with lines like the grain of a piece of wood, and in some places it stuck out in little ridges and valleys. The large, dark goggles that covered half his face seemed excessive, almost twice the size they'd need to be to cover a normal man's eyes. His hair was cropped short, but it looked like every strand of it had been dipped in glue and then coated in specks of glitter. He wasn't ugly -- actually, he looked kinda pretty -- but Nurse Summers's comment about 'passing' made sense. You couldn't disguise this man as anything but an augment.
"Hello, it is a pleasure to meat you," Peter smiled, and Andy was finally able to figure out what was wrong with the voice. It was very slight, but Peter's voice was more like a hiss than normal speech. It was clearly something he'd worked long, hard hours to compensate for, but you could still hear it.
"Hello," Andy smiled back, forcing himself to meet the man's gaze instead of looking down. His rumbling tummy won in a moment, and his eyes were nailed on the tray Peter had brought in. "Is that for me?" he asked, swallowing to control the sudden over-abundance of spit in his mouth.
"Indeed it isss," Peter coughed. "Sorry," he apologized. "I try not to hiss to much."
"It's OK," Andy looked up and smiled at Peter. "You brought me food!"
Peter laughed. "Oh, to be young again!"
"Your tongue!" Andy gasped.
Peter clamped his lips together. "Is something wrong with my tongue?" he asked, barely moving his teeth apart. It made his hissing worse, but helped hide the cause.
"It's like a snake's-" Andy was cut off as Nurse Summers put her hand over his mouth.
"There is absolutely nothing wrong with your tongue," Nurse Summers smiled at Peter. "Leave the tray, I'll bring it to the kitchens later."
"Eat up," Nurse Summers ordered Andy as soon as Peter was out of the room. "I'll be back in a moment."
The food was some kind of pasta dish that Andy had never had before, but it was really tasty. He wasn't too sure of the creamy white sauce covering it, but after a taste he started shoveling it in as fast as he could fork it up. He didn't even hesitate chowing down on the vegetables, either, since they were all coated in the sauce. Besides, he did kinda like broccoli, not that he'd ever admit it.
Just as he finished, Nurse Summers came back in the door, carefully closing it behind them. "That," she snapped the word out accusingly, "was incredibly thoughtless of you."
"What?" Andy complained. "His tongue-"
"I can understand your fascination," she cut him off, "but you should have noticed how incredibly self-conscious he is!"
"Well-" Andy squirmed in his seat. "But it's cool!"
She took a deep breath to yell at him, then paused and let it loose in a sigh. "Children," she muttered to herself. "He doesn't feel so. He can't hide his skin. He can't hide his eyes. He can hide his tongue. Of all his perceived deformities, he fixates on the tongue since it is the only one he can do anything about."
"His eyes?" Andy asked.
"You did notice the goggles, didn't you?" Nurse Summers asked, voice sharp. "You don't think he wears them for fun, do you?"
Andy forced back his frown. "Why you yellin' at me?" he complained. "I didn't do nothing!"
Nurse Summers sighed. "Children," she complained to herself. "Andy, listen to what I'm saying very, very closely. The problem is not that Peter is deformed, but that he perceives himself as deformed. Perceives, as in sees, even believes. He is convinced he is deformed. Now, imagine if someone pointed out your deformities to you. Imagine if they saw the only one you could hide, didn't leave you the mercy of hiding at least one of your 'grotesque' and 'unbearable' deformities."
Andy glanced at his canes. 'Three legs', and worse came back to him. Some of them were incredibly inventive, going so far as to glue a right shoe to his cane and explain that it was to give him a right foot to go with his two left feet. All of them hurt. "I'm sorry," he hung his head.
"Don't apologize," Nurse Summers sighed, "certainly not to me. Only one person deserves an apology, and he'd be happier if you didn't mention it. Ask about his eyes, if you will. He doesn't mind that. Or the hair, or the skin. No one can avoid asking, and he can't hide them anyways. But leave his tongue, and his voice, out of it."
"Yes Nurse Summers," Andy nodded.
"Good child," she turned for the door. "There is a restroom down the hall," she pointed, "and a nurse at the duty station if you need anything," she pointed the other way. "I will see you tomorrow evening. I strongly suggest you get in bed in the next half hour or so. The duty nurse will be checking."
Andy nodded, then wandered over to where his suit case was-
His suit case was here. "Where's Fred?" he asked. Not only did he get ordered out like a cripple, but Fred couldn't even be bothered to come see him?
Nurse Summers was already out the door and gone, though.
"Wake up, I said!" an unfamiliar voice ordered harshly as a rough hand shook him.
"Wha-?" Andy half-yawned as he forced his eyes open.
"I said wake up!" the voice told him angrily. "You got to sleep in later than usual because of your jet lag, but enough is enough. Shower and get dressed."
"Okay," Andy tried to say, but even to his ears it came out unintelligible. He tried to sit up in the bed, but flopped around almost helplessly instead.
"Did you have a session with Doctor Gilbert last night?" the voice asked, suddenly worried, with a strange undertone of anger and annoyance.
"Yash!" Andy tried to answer, but his body seemed to be fighting him even worse as he tried to fight whatever had happened.
"Calm down, stop trying to move," the voice ordered. Andy tried to open his eyes and look, but all that happened was a sudden increase in brightness. He couldn't actually make out much more than large, featureless blurs.
"Wash araneng oot-" Andy managed to bite his tongue, hard, halfway through trying to ask what was happening to him, and the pain caused him to reflexively yank his tongue away from his teeth. In his current condition, all he managed to do was yank it back far enough to block his airway, causing him to cough and gag.
"Calm down boy, stop trying to fight it and relax," the voice ordered firmly. "You'll be alright, just give yourself a few moments."
Andy somehow managed to turn his head to face the speaker. The large, vaguely taller than broad blob might have been a person. "That's it," the blob told him. "Calm down boy."
Andy tried to ignore the pain, and his fear, and obey the order to just relax and calm down. It was hard, but the mental discipline they'd tried to teach him at the BEST training camp helped. At the very least, his breathing was alright. He could slow it down, deepen his breaths until they helped slow everything else.
"That's good, take deep breaths," the voice ordered. Andy had calmed down enough to actually hear it. It was an old, rich voice that seemed strangely lively. Harsh, yes, but kind enough once trouble had arisen. No-nonsense, but not humorless.
He grasped onto that lifeline as he tried to understand what had happened.
"You had a session with Doctor Gilbert last night," the voice told him. "I'm sure you were warned that it would wear off eventually. What you're feeling today is a kind of rebound. Your nervous system is out of order and unbalanced. The harder you fight the healing, the worse the effect is, but over time your system adapts and the effect diminishes. The first time is always the worst, because you don't know what's going on."
Andy was almost able to focus his eyes on the old man. At least, he'd sounded old. But his hair, assuming that dark blob on the top of his head was hair, was raven-black, and the hand that was holding onto him didn't really feel that old. "Come on, I'll assist you in a few exercises that help."
It took Andy a while to notice it. At first he didn't mind, but after a while the constant, unremitting physical contact became vaguely disturbing. The man's hands didn't stray into 'bad' places very often, and even then it was usually a transitory touch just to assist Andy in shifting from one position to another. But the constant, skin-on-skin touch felt wrong. It wasn't dirty, it wasn't like he always thought being 'abused' must feel like. It wasn't a bad touch, in many ways it was like the nurses that had run him through other exercises, it was just weird that the guy always kept skin-on-skin contact. Not even full-hand contact, he seemed content with just a single finger or thumb being in contact with Andy's skin.
Andy weighed the options carefully in his head. His parents had always taught him that the people in 'trusted' positions -- teachers, nurses, doctors, even family -- were the ones most dangerous as 'that kind' of person, because their position gave them an excuse -- not a reason, an excuse -- for the 'bad' touches. But by the same token, they could be trusted because those positions made sure they were watched. The cornerstone of the way his parents taught him to judge -- talk to them -- wasn't really available. At the same time, Andy could hear people moving in the hall through the open door, so it wasn't like he was in private with the man.
Andy was on his side, carefully lifting his left leg up and then letting it sag down in one of the exercises the man was guiding him through, when he finally decided to try just asking. "Could you please take your hands off me?" he asked. There was still a slight slur in his speech, but it wasn't as bad as it had been.
The man paused, slowly and deliberately, before lifting the supportive hand away from Andy's shoulder. Andy shivered as the thumb that had been pressed against the back of his neck lifted away, and realized that he'd been sensing something the entire time. Something small, gentle, and infinitely weaker ghost of the overwhelming rush that had hit him last night. "You weren't just helping me with exercises, were you?" he accused.
"Doctor Gilbert was supposed to wait until after our initial session before doing his," the man shrugged as Andy rolled over to face him. "I didn't want to hit you with too much at once."
Andy frowned. "Please don't lie to me," he asked. "You were angry when you figured it out, and over more than just an upset schedule."
"Can't put one over on you, can I?" the man laughed. "I'm Doctor Joshua Bearnt. Unlike Doctor Gilbert, I can do this all day without straining myself. Physical contact is important, and having you do these exercises helps, but it's not really a strain. Doctor Gilbert, on the other hand, is trying to work himself into an early grave. What he does happens really quick, and puts a huge drain on his energy reserves."
"You're worried about him, aren't you?" Andy asked.
"You're perceptive, boy," Doctor Bearnt inclined his head. "He's a friend, a close friend, and I don't like seeing him hurt. It's especially galling when he does it to himself by overwork."
Andy nodded. "So what were you doing?"
Bearnt smiled. "My ability is much slower than Doctor Gilberts, and technically it's more of an empowerment than an augmentation. Do you know the difference?"
"An empowerment is something that just happens, an augmentation is something you have to do?" Andy asked.
"Close enough," Doctor Bearnt nodded. "Anyway, Doctor Gilberts repairs damage to nerves, causing them to regenerate and forcing growth. In the case of someone whose nerves have been injured via trauma, he can generally cure them with just one session. Which is where I come in, because what he can't do is prevent additional damage from occurring. My power isn't as good at gross physical damage, but I actually change the way the body works. It's proven effective for various neurodegenerative diseases, and that's why we're hoping that it will work for you. We don't know what is causing your cells to degrade boy, but we're hoping that I can convince them to stop."
Andy stretched carefully. "How long do I have to stay?" he asked.
Bearnt sighed. "I don't know," he admitted. "For a child your age, with a one hour session each day, it usually takes between one and two weeks to cure most disorders. Some of the more stubborn ones stick around for nearly a month. Now, our hour-long session is nearly half-over, and the exercises really do help. Lets get back to them."
Frowning, Andy reached down and pulled off his shirt. "More skin for you to touch," he explained to the confused Doctor Bearnt.
"Ah," Bearnt nodded. "Thank you for making my life a little easier."
Andy was shocked to realize that even after Doctor Bearnt helped him through the exercises he really did still need the wheelchair. "But they were healing me!" he complained to the orderly who came in to help him.
The orderly sighed, shaking his head. "Everyone is always surprised. The doctors have their own high-falutin' way of explainin' it, but I've got a really simple way."
"Yeah?" Andy asked, curious.
"It hurts to get better," the man shrugged. "No pain no gain. When you exercise, it hurts at first. It's supposed to."
Andy blinked in confusion at the contradictions. "I have to get worse to get better?"
"Yup," the orderly nodded as he pushed Andy down the hall to the showers. "Makes more sense to me than saying our brains are made of plastic!"
Andy had to admit that that much was true. It just didn't seem likely that any part of the body was made out of plastic, especially not the brain! Not that he'd ever actually seen a brain up close before.
"Here we are," the orderly pushed the chair into a small stall attached to the shower. "You need any help, or shall I just wait outside the door?"
"Wait outside the door?" Andy asked, mustering all the dignity he could. He could see from here that the shower was equipped with a fold-down chair, so maybe if he was lucky he could do this without any help.
"Call if ya need help, kid," the orderly nodded tossing a small bag onto a shelf in the shower.
Andy had put up with 'boy' from the doctor, but this guy wasn't that much older than him. "My name is Andy."
"I'm Tyler, kid," the orderly smirked as he closed the stall door behind himself. It latched easily enough, and Andy couldn't help but notice that it was just a latch, not a lock. He could get out, or someone could get in.
Andy pulled his socks off without trouble, and his shirt came right over his head just by leaning forward, but his pants proved more problematic. With some time and effort he eventually managed to squirm more or less out of them, far enough that when he pulled himself up using the grab bars he could just shake them down around his ankles and step out of them.
After all that, showering wasn't as difficult as it could have seemed. The bag the orderly had tossed in had soap, shampoo, and even a washrag for Andy to use, everything he needed to take the shower. The contortions necessary to haul his uncooperative body around weren't exactly fun, but it wasn't as bad as it could have been. It was incredibly frustrating to flop around with such little control, but there was some sense of liveliness to his body's awkwardness that helped defuse the tension. His body wasn't disobeying him, he was just having trouble giving the right orders. The result was the same, but he knew the difference. He smacked his hand against the shower because he'd ordered his hand out too sharply, not because it had been slow stopping when he told it to.
And while he fell a few times, it was because he couldn't maintain his balance, not because the world was sliding out from under him. With time and practice, he could fix that.
It wasn't all sunshine, of course. His limbs had never trembled before, and there was a slight ache behind his eyes, but it was so much better than he'd been in a long, long while. He could feel the difference. He could!
Having rinsed off, he opened up the curtain and started looking around for a towel. "Hey, Tyler," he called. "I need a towel!"
"Oh, yeah," the embarrassed teen muttered on the other side of the door. Slipping it open, he tossed another bag in. "You OK, kid?" he asked, looking Andy right in the eyes.
With his hands locked onto the grab bars for support, Andy couldn't pull the shower curtain back into place. "I'm fine," he growled, flicking his head in a 'get out of here' motion.
Tyler smiled before slipping back out, chuckling. "Nothing I haven't seen before, kiddo," he pointed out as he latched the door again. "Pretty often, what with having three baby brothers to babysit."
Andy ignored the implied crack about his age by toweling off. Sitting down to rub the last of the water out of his hair, he considered the rest of the contents of the bag. Shirt and socks weren't a problem, and when he got there shoes were easy. Pants, on the other hand, might be a bit of a problem.
Damnit. "God fucking damn it to hell and back again," Andy hissed one of his father's favorite curses as his attempts to wriggle into his underwear manage to injure his privates.
"You OK in there?" Tyler asked, sounding concerned. Andy could hear his hand resting on the latch, ready to storm in to the rescue.
"I'm fine," Andy squeaked. "Don't come in."
"You don't sound fine-" Tyler opened the stall door.
"Stay out!" Andy screeched, tossing an arm sideways as if to toss the older boy out.
The stall door slammed open the rest of the way, and the orderly staggered backwards, suddenly unbalanced as Andy collapsed into his wheelchair, the sudden daggers driving into his skull driving other, lesser pains out of his mind.
When the pain finally receded, Andy saw Tyler leaning against the far wall, white as a sheet, shaking his head in shock. "I'm sorry," Andy looked down at his feet. "I didn't mean... I'm sorry!"
"Fra-fra-fra..." Tyler stammered in reply. "Freak!" he squeaked softly. Andy winced at the word.
"Please don't tell anyone?" Andy asked as the restroom door squealed.
"Don't tell anyone what?" another boy, around Andy's age from the sound of his voice, asked. His tone was just dripping with venomous curiosity and eagerness to keep the secret, for a price.
"Freak," Tyler managed to say, somewhat louder. "You're a freak. A freak!" His voice grew louder until he was almost shrieking. "Stay away from me, freak! Just stay away!" he bolted from the restroom, and Andy dropped his head into his hands and tried not to sob.
"Go away," Andy muttered as someone opened the door. "I don' wanna talk."
"You can pull that crap on other people," Fred's voice was hard. "Get out of bed."
Andy ignored him.
"Andrew Lloyd Webster," Fred's voice gained an even sharper edge, "get out of that bed. Now. That is an order."
If his mother had addressed him in that tone, Andy would have jumped out of his grave to obey. Something deep inside him screamed that he had to obey, that The Tone was not something you just ignored to sulk.
Andy told that part of himself to take a flying leap. "Go away," he muttered angrily at Fred.
"Last chance, kid," Fred's voice was different somehow, as if he knew using that phrasing would set Andy off.
Andy tossed the covers off himself and rolled over to face Fred angrily. "Go away!" he shouted, welcoming the pain as he tossed his will at the man.
Fred took a step back, but his hands were up and the air seemed to shimmer around him. "Don't," he warned. "Stand down."
Andy sensed that somehow Fred was blocking his power. Which was probably the biggest mistake the man could have made, because that meant that the temper tantrum he'd been holding in check for fear of hurting someone could be let loose.
"Why!?" Andy screamed, tears streaming from his eyes. "Why?!"
Andy's power lashed out around him in response to his emotional distress, the pain feeding into the emotions, which then fed into his power, causing even more pain. In the past the pain would have clubbed him unconscious, but the strength of his despair and rage armored him against the worst of it. "Why why why?!"
Andy threw his hand sideways at one of his far-flung canes, and then flung it at Fred. The entire section of floor on which it was resting twisted and buckled under it as it picked up momentum, but his will moved faster than the cane. His will smashed into the barrier around Fred before the cane did, but the cane passed through unhindered to skitter along the floor harmlessly. "Why?" Andy sobbed again. "Why me?!"
Andy flung out his other hand, and this time he was careful to keep his will from moving ahead of where the second cane was. He wasn't gripping the cane, which was what made this so difficult, he was simply causing everything near the cane to move. Again the floor buckled, and he also pulled away a piece of the floorboard, but it was the cane that he focused on, sending it flying with lethal speed.
Fred ignored the blast of air that hit him, but just before the cane hit him he flicked his hand sideways and a blast of silver light knocked the cane aside. His face grew grim as he advanced on the now incoherent Andy. Andy looked around him in a rage, and seeing his wheelchair he reached out and grabbed hold of it. It began to roll forward slowly as he formed his will around it, and then Fred was just a foot away and the pain vanished. Andy felt it like a hole inside as the physical pain vanished, and the invisible energies he'd been creating suddenly ceased. Andy stumbled forward and began hitting on Fred's chest with his fists instead, screaming his pain and rage.
His legs, his powers, his being a freak, at the moment all of it mattered, and none of it mattered. It was one vast, all-consuming morass of pain, that he just couldn't hold in, not anymore.