Castle Roland

Unexpected Reactions

by Rilbur

In Progress

Chapter 6

Posted: N/A

Eventually, Andy cried himself out. Hiccuping, he pulled his head away from Fred's chest and looked up at the man. "Sorry," he said, sniffling. Fred let him pull a hand free long enough to smear some of the tears off his face, but it was still soaked.

"Here," Fred reached behind himself and pulled a small bottle of water out from somewhere, handing it to Andy. "I bet you need this."

"Thanks," Andy reached out for it. He struggled for a minute with the top, with Fred waiting patiently. Sighing, Andy slumped and handed it back. "I can't get it open."

"I noticed," Fred took the bottle back just long enough to break the seal. "Think you can handle it the rest of the way?"

Andy nodded. "Thanks for not treating me like a baby."

"I don't think the word you want is 'baby'," Fred pointed out. "Cripple, perhaps. Unfortunately, some people will look at you and see cripple. Just as some people will look at me with my shield up and think freak. Or see you using your powers and think freak."

Andy winced, "I didn't mean to hurt him."

"I know," Fred told him. "Your control still needs work. I shouldn't have left you alone long enough for that situation to develop, but I was called away on some urgent business."

Andy tried to pull away, but Fred reached out and pulled him right back. "Sorry. Not until I'm certain you're under control and will stay that way. Until then, you don't get more than a foot from me, and better yet I want physical contact."

Andy pouted, but he couldn't argue the point. He hadn't exactly behaved himself. "I'm sorry."

Fred sighed. "You should be. I may have been called away on urgent business, but you should have been fine for a day or two without me. This facility can't afford the kind of damage you can put out if you put your mind to it, and augments can't afford the bad press you'd provide our opponents if you got out of control."

Andy winced away from the withering condemnation in Fred's tone. "I'm sorry!" he repeated plaintively.

"The world doesn't care about 'I'm sorry', kid. The person whose head you break doesn't care about 'I didn't mean it', and the politicians couldn't give a damn about 'It won't happen again'." Andy felt each of the whining, plaintive comments like a blow as Fred copied, and then exaggerated, his own town. "They only care that it could happen once. Which means it can happen again. Do you read me loud and clear, boy?"

"Yes," Andy whined.

Fred held on for a minute or two before picking Andy up and putting him on the bed. Even after laying Andy there, though, he kept a hand on Andy's shoulder. Under other circumstances Andy might have taken some comfort from this, but under the current circumstances it was anything but. He finished the last of his water and dropped the bottle on the bed.

Fred sniffed disapprovingly before picking up the bottle and tossing it into the nearby waste bin. "You'll be glad to know that Tyler wasn't seriously injured," Fred added, almost as an afterthought. "In fact, I have it on good authority that he will be dropping by to apologize later today." Andy pretended he didn't hear. Tyler was probably being forced into it anyway.

"Doctor Bearnt and I talked about your incident, and he can't decide if he's more upset with Tyler or with you," Fred continued after a moment. "Apparently Tyler was assigned here as a volunteer worker because he was sentenced to a number of community service hours, but he did volunteer to work here rather than someplace else. He was told he could expect to be in the company of several augments, and he promised to be on his best behavior. In fact, I have it on the best of authority that he tried to come by and apologize earlier, but you wouldn't let him in."

Andy struggled with his legs, and eventually managed to put his back to Fred.

Fred ignored the sulk and kept on chattering. "Doctor Bearnt is quite upset about what you did as well, of course. Not only did you not accept help you really did need, but then you turned around and attacked someone who was rapidly becoming a valued member of his staff. The kid is well on the way to being offered a part-time job after his volunteer hours are over. Apparently he gets along well with younger kids, like you."

Andy's stomach growled loudly, interrupting Fred's monologue. "Between sleeping in and your little tantrum, you've totally missed breakfast," Fred shifted tack. "Lunch, I'm told, will be available at eleven thirty. It's about ten fifteen, so that's a bit over an hour to wait. If you hadn't had your little tantrum, they had a nice little tea set up to help you adjust your schedule, but I told them that you didn't need it. Between your little sulk and the tantrum, by the time you could have gotten to it you would have been too late anyway."

Andy hadn't really been paying much attention, but that last bit didn't quite make sense. "What?" he complained.

"I said that by the time your sulk was over, much less the tantrum that followed, you weren't going to need the tea to help you adjust," Fred repeated. "The sulk was bad enough, but I figured the tantrum was going to take a while."

Andy felt anger begin to boil again. "You did it on purpose!"

"In a word, yes," Fred said reasonably. "Your training was interrupted. That makes you dangerous. You were on the verge of exploding, and I made certain you exploded at someone who could handle it."

Anger made his body more cooperative as Andy turned back around. His body shook with the sudden rage that coursed through his veins. "I had myself under control. I was doing what you guys wanted, and you deliberately pushed me over the edge anyway?"

"Better myself than one of the staff," Fred pointed out.

Andy reached up, deliberately, and pulled Fred's hand off his shoulder. "If it had been one of the staff," he growled, "it wouldn't have happened."

Fred raised an eyebrow as he let his hand drop. "Really?" his voice dripped condescension.

"Really," Andy snapped. "All I did was push. You blocked it. If you hadn't blocked it, the rest wouldn't have happened."

Fred shook his head. "I don't care who it happened at, you never lose your control. It's not fair, it's not just, but you are too powerful. You can't afford to be a child, anymore. You have to be at least a little grown up. No more temper tantrums, no matter what the excuse."

Andy felt like he was going to vibrate out of his own body. The bed began to shake under him as his powers responded to that anger, to his sudden need to lash out. As he began to recognize what was happening, his own awareness of the leakage fed into it until the bed wasn't just shaking, it was lifting up on one leg only to rock over to the other side. "So, you want me to control myself?" Andy asked, then looked Fred right in the eyes. It was hard, it was almost -- but not quite -- painful, but he reached out to grab hold of his bed with his mind. For a second the bed hesitated, and then it slammed back down to the floor as Andy countered the leakage.

Countered it, unfortunately, a bit to harshly, and the frame cracked under the sudden force of his will. Fred raised another eyebrow. "Tell me, boy, are you countering the effects of your accidental power usage, or simply stopping the usage at it's source?"

Andy's eyes narrowed. "You tell me, old man. I think you already know the answer, don't you?"

Fred's mouth quirked. "One of the several definitions for the word power is 'possession of control'. I'd say you've amply demonstrated that you possess control over your abilities... when you choose to use it."

"And if it had been anyone else earlier, I would have," Andy said. "But then again, you knew that too, didn't you?"

"I-" Fred hesitated. "I suspected," he admitted. "Not when I first came in. I honestly expected that any person who walked in on you was going to trigger a response, and that it would be a full up tantrum. That's why I insisted, when you didn't snap out of it on your own, that it be me."

"When I was at the BEST camp, they told me that they'd give me any time I needed," Andy was calmer now. The deliberate effort of damping out his powers had generated it's own feedback loop, as damping the leaks caused by his rage caused his rage itself to subside.

"This isn't a BEST camp," Fred shrugged.

"You set this entire thing up," Andy accused.

"No," Fred shook his head. "Once it was set in motion, I kept it rolling, but you started it."

Andy looked suspiciously at the man. "You wanted me to lose control though, didn't you?"

Fred's eyes flickered. "I wanted to insure that if you were going to lose control, it would be at me. So long as I'm in arm's reach, I can shut your powers down if I have to. It's an unusual ability, but very useful in some situations."

"But I wouldn't have done it at anyone else," Andy grumbled.

"And why not?" Fred asked.

"I coulda hurt them," Andy shrugged. "Like I hurt Tyler."

Fred shook his head. "Tyler was shocked, rattled, and frightened half to death by your little stunt. That's actually why he's still on staff; his reaction wasn't hatred half so much as it was shock and fear. Big difference, and the doc's firm position is that while both hatred and fear are unfortunate, fear can, and will, be worked with."

"The thing is, you could have hurt him. I'll admit that. You weren't careful. You weren't... controlled in how you exercised your abilities," Fred explained carefully. Andy didn't know when the conversation had shifted from a chewing out into a basic lecture, but somehow it carried on a subliminal level, exactly the message he needed to hear. Yes, he'd screwed up, big time, but he could be, would be, forgiven. "All he got this time were some bruises and a conk on the head. The docs have already looked him over and given him a clear bill of health, as long as he stays away from any other bumps on the head."

Andy winced, but it didn't hurt as much as it could have. And it didn't hurt because Fred didn't mean for it to hurt. "I said I'm sorry," Andy complained anyway.

"Yes, I noticed you saying that. Often," Fred's voice was suspiciously dry. "But I'm not exactly the one who needs to hear it."

Andy shook his head. "I know," he said after a moment. "But he's not gonna want to see me."

"Kiddo, did you miss the part about him wanting to apologize?" Fred asked, exasperated.

"That's just 'cause they're gonna make him," Andy pointed out.

Fred opened his mouth for a moment, then hesitated, looking at Andy. "That," he said eventually, "isn't the stupidest thing I've ever heard." He shook his head. "But it comes pretty da- darned close, kiddo."

Fred turned and looked at the door. Andy followed his gaze, and noticed that someone had put a clock there. "He'll be by in another five minutes or so, and you can ask him."

"Five minutes?" Andy asked. "Really?"

Fred's eyes narrowed. "That's what I said," he replied, almost shiftily.

Andy narrowed his eyes in turn. "What aren't you telling me?"

"Quite a bit, as a matter of fact," Fred leaned back in his chair. "Quite a bit."

Andy pouted, but Fred didn't so much as shift on the subject. He wasn't gonna talk. "So, five minutes you said?" Andy asked. "I guess I need to get better dressed."

"Oh, no," Fred smiled. "Briefs and socks were enough to throw a tantrum at me, not to mention wheel yourself across half the building in a hissy fit."

Andy winced. He hadn't really done that... had he? Looking down at himself, he swallowed. Underwear and socks, and not much else. He didn't really remember how he'd gotten back to the room, either, so maybe he really had wheeled himself across the place dressed -- or rather, undressed -- like this.

Andy frowned. Wait. "What do you mean, wheel myself across the building?" he asked.

"What do you think I mean?" Fred asked.

Andy looked around the room, at the mess he'd left when he'd tossed his canes around by the force of his mind alone. There was something missing. Something important.

Oh. Duh.

"I couldn't have wheeled myself back, my wheelchair isn't here," Andy pointed out.

Fred nodded. "True enough, true enough." A knock at the door cut off further conversation. "Ah, Tyler, I'm glad to see you," Fred smiled.

"Hey kiddo," Tyler said softly, unable to look Andy in the eyes. "Listen, I'm, well, I'm sorry about earlier."

Andy levered himself off the bed and stumbled across the room, feeling the tears rise in his eyes again. "No," he managed to say as he tried to stay upright, "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. Please, I'm so sorry," Andy wrapped his arms around Tyler's waste and sobbed. "Sorry. Sorry."

It took a while before Andy and Tyler were able to stop apologizing to each other. Finally, Andy pulled away and tottered off a few feet to the corner of the room. He tried to bend over to pick up one of his canes, and almost fell over for his troubles. Bracing against the wall didn't help, either. Frowning at the thing, he decided to cheat.

It hurt, but it wasn't the same kind of hurt. It was the kind of hurt you got from picking at a scab, and he gleefully poked at this one in return for picking up his cane without even bending over.

"Here, let me help you," Tyler said, and then the cane leapt upwards into Andy's hand with a satisfying smack.

"No need," Andy smiled.

"The doctor's don't want you overdoing it, Andrew," Fred warned him firmly. Andy glanced over at him, surprised by the use of his entire name, and nodded.

"I won't," Andy promised. "It hurts lots worse if I overdo it," he pointed out.

Fred shook his head. "So it doesn't hurt as bad as it did in training?"

Andy shook his head. "It's more like picking at a scab now."

Fred frowned. "Well, try to avoid using your powers. In fact, I'd appreciate it if you waited to get clearance from the docs before you used your powers again."

Andy nodded. "Alright," he asked, then frowned. "Fred," he said after a moment, "do our powers get stronger over time?"

"Why do you ask?" Fred responded.

"It's just..." Andy hesitated, then looked at Tyler, who was waiting patiently by the door. "When I had my accident earlier, it didn't hurt as much as it used to. And it was easy, I didn't strain at all."

Fred frowned uncertainly. "We'll need to discuss this with the doctors, but we've already established that your powers effect your illness. It's possible, probable even, that the reverse is true."

"So as I get better, I'm gonna get stronger?" Andy asked.

Fred frowned. "Crap. Yes."

Andy blinked. "Crap? Why is that bad?" Fred raised a single, oh so expressive eyebrow, then pointedly glanced at the damage Andy had done earlier. "Oh," Andy responded. "I could hurt people easier."

"I think we're going to have to talk the doctors into a much more strenuous training regimin than we originally planned," Fred said dryly.

"I know you're in charge and all," Tyler finally broke in, "but surely we should get the little guy at least a little better dressed?"

Fred nodded. "Under the circumstances, I'm going to have to stay fairly close. To damp out any further... incidents."

Tyler shrugged. "No skin off my nose, but the little guy might complain a bit."

Andy laughed. "It's not like he's going to be getting in the shower with me or anything..." he looked over at Fred. "Right?" he ordered more than asked.

"We'll see," Fred temporized. "The more control you demonstrate, the more distant an eye I can keep on you."

Andy recognized the evasion, and decided to leave it be for now. Using his cane, he managed a decent hobble over to where his bags lay, overturned during his earlier tantrum.

Leaning over, he pulled a shirt and shorts out, and then promptly fell on his rear trying to pull the shirt over his head. Tyler was there, instantly, helping him untangle himself. Fred contented himself with watching and waiting as they danced around, until finally all that was left was shoes. "Um," Andy hesitated, "I don't know where my shoes are."

Tyler smiled, then walked over to the door. "Oh, I think I can help with that," he laughed as he opened the door and reached for something just out of sight. When he pulled his hand back into the room, Andy's shoes hung by their laces from his hand. "You left them behind, along with some clothes that got a little bit wet when you threw them in the shower."

"Thanks," Andy smiled, hobbling over to grab them. He managed to hobble halfway back to the bed before tripping over a loose floorboard. He managed to get one arm out and turn himself, so he landed on his side instead of his face, but it wasn't a fun trip at all. Especially since he managed to land on his cane. "Ow," he complained when he managed to catch his breath.

Tyler and Fred were there, hands seeming to fly over his body as they reassured themselves he was alright. "It's back in the wheelchair with you," Tyler ordered. "I'll get you another one while you're in therapy."

"Therapy?" Andy asked.

"Yes," Tyler nodded. "Your chart says you're required to do two one-hour physical therapy sessions per day, and you're late for your first one."

"Fine, fine," Andy complained. "Hey, wait!" he complained. "Didn't I already do one?"

"The session with Doctor Bearnt is classified as treatment, not therapy," Fred broke in. "I discussed that with Nurse Summers earlier."

"Fine," Andy pouted. He knew what PT was. "I'll do some more stupid exercises."

"I suspect you may find these more interesting than you're expecting," Fred commented idly. "Not this first one, but after that... well, I have plans little man."

"Plans?" Andy narrowed his eyes and looked over at Fred as Tyler pulled him to his feet. Firmly holding both canes, Andy determinedly started walking before they could try to carry him or something equally embarrassing.

"Yes, plans," Fred nodded, walking just a step or two behind Andy. "I won't talk about them just yet though, I need to run them past your doctors. I'd hate to disappoint you."

Andy hesitated at the door, not certain where he was going. "Turn left," Tyler ordered, "then at the end of the hall turn right." Andy nodded and took off as fast as his canes would let him. He didn't -- quite -- try to run, but he pushed the speed up as fast as he dared. Which really only came up to a slow, stumbling walk.

"Slow down," Tyler ordered. "Or I will make you sit down until we get you a wheelchair."

Andy looked over his shoulder to pout, which proved to be a mistake. His cane didn't hit the ground properly and began to slide, and if Fred hadn't moved to catch him he would have fallen. Again.

"Eyes on the road," Fred ordered. "Pay attention."

Andy yanked himself away and began to walk again. This time at an agonizing crawl, checking each step before he took it and double checking that his cane was firmly planted before putting his weight on it.

Bored with the routine of his walk, he idled away the time imagining using his new found powers to get suitable revenge. Tying laces wasn't too difficult, so just tie Fred's laces to Tyler's, and watch the fun begin.

"Here we are," Tyler said eventually. "Just head inside the door and Nurse Summers will take charge."

"Nurse Summers?" Andy asked in surprise, hand on the doorknob. Remembering the stern woman from the previous night, suddenly this didn't seem like such a good idea. Especially, he realized, since he had completely forgotten her orders about unnecessary use of his abilities.

"You may enter," she called from inside.

Tyler smiled, then brushed Andy's hand away from the doorknob and opened it himself. The smile turned into an outright grin as Tyler whispered, "Enjoy yourself. I've forgiven you for the incident in the showers, but she gets to handle your actual punishment."

Tyler nodded at Fred and then took off at a fast trot as Andy gaped at him. Noticing the giant grin on Fred's face, Andy's head snapped forward and he hobbled, as slowly as he could get away with, into the room.

It wasn't exactly a small room, but Andy had to be careful as he walked through it because it was stuffed full of equipment. Some of it was fairly obvious, other bits looked like they'd come straight out of a torture chamber he'd seen on TV once.

"Agent," Nurse Summers nodded to Fred. "Please remember our previous discussion."

"I intend to," Fred nodded back. "I'm just here to make certain nothing untoward happens. For now."

"So you said," she nodded, "and the doctor wants to be on hand for the first session, he thinks your idea is a brilliant one." She turned to look at Andy. "I'm sure you recall our previous discussion regarding unnecessary use of your abilities," she said icily.

He nodded. "I didn't mean to hurt him."

Nurse Summer's eyes glittered as she looked at him. "I'm sure you didn't. Around here, we have several options available for punishment, and I suspect that come lunch time you will understand exactly how effective some of them can be. For now, we have a therapy session to do."

"Our first order of business, however, is to take care of some housekeeping that was overlooked," she commented, opening a box in front of her and pulling out what Andy could only describe as a demented cross between a spider's web and a bicycle helmet. Complete with small bundles that looked like bugs wrapped up and being stored for later consumption.

"What's that?" he asked suspiciously.

"It's a piece of remote diagnostic equipment," Nurse Summers smiled. "It's not your punishment, if that's what you're wondering. BEST gave this to us to replace our standard equipment. In addition to giving us your EEG readings, something that we need as part of your treatment, this may help you learn to control your powers."

Andy blinked. "That... thing... is gonna help me?" he asked, incredulous.

"As a matter of fact, it will," she smiled. "It's called biofeedback, and some of the tests they did while you were at BEST suggested that it might be useful for you. They were going to do more tests, but it was necessary to transfer you here, so we get the pleasure of handling them."

"But that's for the future. For now, you will put this on, and keep it on. It's important that you keep it on continuously. Not only do we use it to monitor you, but the data it gathers will be vital to your training later."

"This isn't just a hospital rule, kiddo," Fred broke in. Nurse Summers didn't glare at him, but the look she gave him made it clear his interruption wasn't welcome. "BEST wants you in that, and what BEST wants, BEST gets. At least until you're done training."

Andy looked at it angrily. "I get to take it off at night, right?"

Nurse Summers cleared her throat to regain Andy's attention, then bent the device back and forth in her hands. "It's more comfortable than you think, and on top of that it's completely waterproof. You don't even have to take it off in the shower. Since your hair is already cut so very short, all we do is put it on and let the hair grow out around it."

"Don't worry, you won't even notice it's there after a few days," Fred broke in again.

"Yes, I suspect so," Nurse Summers agreed chilly. "We will have to exchange the battery once every day or so, but other than that I imagine you won't even notice it after a while."

Andy looked at the device with distaste, but swallowed the protest he really, really wanted to make. "Fine," he said after a moment. Hobbling forward, he sat down on a bench next to her and put his canes down. When he tried to take it from her, she shook her head and pulled it away.

"It needs to be properly adjusted," she told him. "Lean forward and I'll put it on."

Leaning forward, Andy had long minutes to stare at her feet as she poked, prodded, and adjusted his head and scalp. Apparently the fit really was quite finicky, but eventually she had it adjusted how she wanted and ran a strap under his head to lock it in place.

Andy had just gotten around to noticing that her shoes looked a little strange when she pulled his head back up and nodded. "This next part may sting a bit," she warned him, then pressed a button on a hand held remote.

Sting was a mild word. It felt like a thousand, no a million needles jabbed into his scalp all at once. Andy yelped and tried to jump to his feet. If Nurse Summers hadn't grabbed him, he might have fallen flat on his face. "That hurt!" he complained.

Nurse Summers shrugged. "Manual says it should been just a little sting," she commented. "Our normal equipment doesn't even do that much. It must be the BEST upgrade you were given."

"Now, does it still hurt?" she asked.

"No," Andy admitted, reaching up to rub his scalp. The plastic strands might have been fairly flexible, but they seemed to have adhered to his scalp somehow.

"Don't pick at it," Fred told him firmly. "You really don't want to know how painful it could be to put those sensors back in place if you dislodge them."

Andy pouted at the man, then turned back to Nurse Summers. "What's next?" he asked.

Nurse Summers smiled, and Andy quailed from the look of it. "Oh, don't worry," she reassured him. "I haven't lost a patient... yet." Andy would have been much, much happier without the qualifier.

He also would have been much, much happier had his earlier thought about torture chambers not been proven quite so accurate. Nurse Summers was merciless, requiring him to do 'just one more' until he was ready to drop... and then making him do 'just one more' anyway.

Walking, stretching, working out with weights, walking some more. She just didn't quit until the clock indicated that over an hour had passed.

"We'd scheduled a slightly longer session today, but you managed to run behind," she commented as she handed him a light towel. "I must admit, you did better than I expected. We didn't need the extra time."

Andy smiled back. "Does that mean you'll go easier next time?"

Nurse Summers shook her head. "Sorry, next time I have to go harder. If you want to get better, we have to keep working at it. It's not just the doctors that do all the work, you have to try too."

Andy pouted, but seeing that she was inflexible just reached for his canes. "Is it lunch time yet?" he asked.

"Oh, yes, indeed it is," she smiled. "I'm looking forward to the cake."

"Cake?" he asked.

"Yes, the kitchen has a special treat today. Triple layer chocolate cake, with fudge frosting," she smiled. "I usually skip desert, but I have a weak spot for chocolate."

"Don't forget the sprinkles," Fred added. "Mustn't ever forget the sprinkles, after all."

"Indeed," she smiled. "Why, the kids just love those sprinkles."

"Sounds yummy," Andy said, contentedly.

"Oh, I'm sure it does," Summers commented. "The other kids have been looking forward to it all week long. Too bad."

"Too bad what?" Andy asked.

"Hrm?" she answered, acting absentmindedly. "Oh. That. Yes, well, remember what I said earlier about punishment?"

"Yes," Andy nodded. "You said I'd find out about it later."

"Yes, well, I'll explain it shortly," she commented. "I'm hungry, how about you Fred?"

"Starved," Fred drawled. "And this is really quite cruel."

"I didn't notice you refusing to play along," she commented as she pulled a wheelchair into the room.

"My job is to make certain he doesn't repeat his mistake," Fred pointed out.

"What are you two talking about?" Andy complained as he settled into the wheelchair. "And where's the cafeteria? I'm hungry."

"Allow me," Nurse Summers started pushing him. "We'll get there faster this way."

Andy's arms ached from the exercises, so he didn't complain about her wheeling him off. And when he caught a whiff of the food that was about to be served, he was doubly glad that she was pushing him, since she was going faster than he would.

When they got there, it was less of a cafeteria setting and more a very large dining room. Nurse Summers wheeled him up to a table and just locked his wheelchair in place, not bothering with finding a separate chair for him. The table was clearly designed with this action in mind, being a little higher than normal, to allow the arm rests to tuck underneath it.

"Something smells good," Andy grinned, looking around the table. "I'm Andy."

"Hey Andy, I'm Peter," a redheaded boy replied, smiling awkwardly.

Andy almost opened his mouth to ask if the kid was OK, but caught himself just in time. Of course the kid was OK. And asking would just annoy him.

"So, what do you like to do for fun?" one of the other kids asked, and Andy eased into the back-and-forth banter. Slowly, gently, barriers he hadn't even thought of relaxed as he realized he was safe. No one at this table was going to tease him for being useless, for tripping over his own feet, for needing a cane or a wheelchair.

There was one kid, halfway down the table, who kept drawing his attention. Andy didn't actually catch him starring, but somehow he knew that the moment his eyes were off the kid, the kid would be glaring at him more dangerously than Mom at full bellow.

"What's his issue," Andy asked Bobby, the kid sitting to his left.

"Dunno," Bobby shrugged. "Hey, Eric!" he shouted, "What's eating you today?"

Eric turned his eyes towards Bobby sullenly. Any answer he would have made was cut short as a cart rolled into the room. A dozen conversations cut short as everyone turned to watch it's progress.

Nurse Summers and several orderlies made short order of distributing the plates, checking that each plate arrived at the table it was intended for. For the most part, every plate had the same food on it. A delicious slice of meatloaf that made Andy's mouth water just to look at it, a pile of steaming potatoes au gratin, and green beans gathered in a limp mound.

As the plates were delivered, the kids tucked in with a vengeance, ignoring the disparity in serving sizes. One kid barely had anything on his plate, while the plate that landed in front of Andy held double of everyone else's.

"Wow," Bobby commented as he waited for his plate. "That's a lot!"

Andy nodded, knife and fork flying. "Don't know why they gave me so much," he commented as he sliced another piece of meatloaf out. "I don't think I'll finish it."

Bobby nodded as his own, rather more meager plate, was set in front of him. "Wish I could have more," he said, almost dejected as he set to.

"Want some of mine?" Andy offered without thinking.

The sudden silence around him pulled his attention away from his own food. "What?" he asked, next bite halfway to his mouth.

"Since you're new here, you aren't aware of the rules," Nurse Summers chimed in, setting down another plate. "You will eat all of the food on your plate, and only the food on your plate. You do not leave any behind, and you don't give any to anyone else. Nor do you accept someone else's food. Each plate is nutritionally balanced for your specific needs. Charles," she indicated one of the boys, "is lactose intolerant, and his food was prepared to handle that. Thomas can't handle peanuts, and Bobby needs to keep his blood sugar low. You need to keep your blood sugar high, on the other hand, because the exercise of your abilities will be very draining on you."

"Abilities?" Eric asked, eyes narrowing. "I was right," he exclaimed. "He's the freak that was in the showers!"

"I will thank you not to use that term to refer to any of your fellow patients," Nurse Summers ordered firmly.

"I won't eat with a freak," Eric sneered. "What's he doing here, eating with real people?"

Andy winced at the sheer venom, but the reaction of most of the others at the table took him by greater surprise.

"Shut your piehole," one of the kids near Eric ordered angrily. "Or I'll shut it for you."

"Frank!" Nurse Summers snapped. "Behave!"

"Yes, ma'am," Frank responded, falling back in his chair. "But if he talks like that again-"

"I am more than capable of handling it," Nurse Summers cut him off. "While I applaud the sentiment, you will not fight in this facility."

"I'm not eating with a freak," Eric repeated. "Put him in a kennel where he belongs, with the rest of the working animals."

Nurse Summer's eyes glittered dangerously. "Is that your final word?" she asked.

"Yes," Eric jutted his chin out. "I know right from wrong, and Daddy says letting things like that pretend their people is wrong!"

Nurse Summers nodded gravely. "Very well then. You will not be asked to eat at the same table as Andrew." Andrew wilted. After the way the other boys had banded around him, he'd almost hoped for a good outcome out of this. "Instead," Nurse Summers continued, "you will be taken to your room and excused from your afternoon therapy. Assuming your attitude improves by dinner, perhaps you can eat then." Andrew's head snapped up as he looked at her. She couldn't possibly mean... could she?

"Why thank you," Eric stood, grabbing his canes. "I'll gladly take lunch in my room," the look he shot at Andrew was poisonous. "Away from that," he added, to make his point clear.

"I'm afraid you misunderstand me," Nurse Summers informed him. "You've been informed about your attitude in the past. Tyler!" she barked the name.

"Yes ma'am?" Tyler stepped forward.

"See Eric to his room. Lock the door behind yourself. If he needs anything, he can ring the duty nurse. Make certain he has a bottle of water and a bedpan." Nurse Summers glared at the boy. "This is your second strike. Three strikes..." she trailed off. "Your father paid good money to keep you alive, but this facility and it's staff remain a privilege."

Eric's eyes grew wide. "You wouldn't dare," he snarled. "Do you know who my father is?"

"How could I not," she commented wryly. "You only remind us about the Good Representative of the Grand State of Missouri being your father every hour or so. That said, I don't care if your father is the pope himself, shape up or you will be shipped out."

"My father-" Eric began as Tyler grabbed his elbow.

"Isn't here," Nurse Summers cut him off. "One more word, and you'll join him."

Eric opened his mouth as if to reply, but Tyler roughly turned him around. "Ow, watch it!" Eric complained, but if he had anything else to say, it was cut off as Tyler frog marched him out of the room.

Nurse Summers took a deep breath. "Well, now that that has been dealt with, let us continue with our meal. Andrew, please remember my orders regarding the food. Finish your plate, and no one is allowed to share food."

With that, everything returned to normal as Nurse Summers and the remaining orderly finished handing out food. Once they finished, they pulled out a few more plates and took it to a nearby table, where Fred had been watching silently.

Andy kept glancing over, wondering why Fred was frowning at him. The conversation around that table was disturbed at first, but settled down shortly before Tyler rejoined them.

"Eat faster, Andrew," Nurse Summers ordered when she got up to look around the room. "You don't have all day to dawdle." Andy looked around, noticing almost everyone was nearly finished with their meals, and proceeded to shove food into his mouth as fast as he could chew it. Naturally, this earned him reproof. "I said eat faster," Nurse Summers snapped. "I didn't say to choke yourself. Take the time to chew."

"Too slow, too fast," Andy muttered between bites. "Make up your mind."

"I did, in fact, make up my mind," Nurse Summers informed him. "You're the one who took things to extremes."

Andy's head snapped up to look at her, his latest forkful of food landing on his shirt. "I won't require you to eat that," Nurse Summers added, "but please do try to consume the food with your mouth, not your shirt."

Andy turned his attention back to eating as Bobby snickered. "She's got super ears," he shared in a whisper. "She'll usually pretend not to hear, but she hears everything. She told this one guy off for passing gas without excusing himself once, and no one else even noticed the stink, much less the sound!"

Andy looked over at him, surprised. Seeing Nurse Summer's gaze on him, he decided to focus on eating, not replying. She was already angry enough, he didn't need to tick her off more.

"Once Andrew is finished," she commented idly, "I'll start bringing out desert. Today is chocolate layer cake, for anyone who missed the calendar."

Every single eye turned towards Andrew, who finished his meal as quickly as he dared. As soon as the last bite left his plate, Nurse Summers nodded and the orderlies quickly wheeled in another cart.

"As usual, I will hear no complaints about who got more cake and who barely got any," Nurse Summers announced, singling out several kids for a focused look that announced she wouldn't tolerate any nonsense from them.

The cake was quickly passed around, and Andy fidgeted impatiently for his slice. Just before the adults retired for their own desert, Nurse Summers plopped a plateful of potatoes au gratin in front of him.

"What?" Andy screeched. "This isn't cake!"

Several of the other kids giggled, and Fred laughed outright. Andy turned in his chair to glare. "What gives?" he complained.

"In addition to more... traditional punishments," Nurse Summers explained, "we believe that enforcing a healthy diet gives us more room for disciplining errant students. We allow a slight leeway for desert, if you behave. If you misbehave, at the very least you lose your treat."

"Eat it up, Andrew," Fred added. "You'll need the energy later, trust me."

Andy shoved the plate away, angrily. "This isn't fair!" he shouted.

"And throwing Tyler across the room was?" Nurse Summers asked icily. Andy opened his mouth to argue, but angrily slumped back in his seat instead.

"Sulk if you choose," Fred told him, "but I strongly -- strongly -- advise you eat up." Andy glared silently at him. Fred snorted. "Be that way then," Fred smiled. "You'll learn."

It wasn't a nice smile, Andy mused, as he watched everyone else enjoying their delicious, moist, scrumptious, perfect chocolate cake. With sprinkles.p>

It just wasn't fair.

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