As Fred lead the way to rehab, Andy very pointedly didn't look at him. At all.
The shower was bearable enough. At least the man was willing to let Andy dress and undress inside the shower itself, with the curtain closed, while Fred waited in the little 'changing area' attached to it. In a more generous mood, Andy might have been willing to allow that it was a cleverly designed system, that gave those able to move under their own power the freedom to dress and undress in private, as well as shower privately.
The trip to the toilet that Andy had made immediately after his shower had illuminated another aspect of Fred's new, strictly enforced 'two foot' rule. It wasn't just two feet physical distance, Fred had to be able to reach out and grab Andy. Even on the toilet, with his pants around his ankles.
"You're going to have to talk to me eventually, you know," Fred commented. "And if you really don't like this situation, we can call off treatment and head to the nearest BEST camp for a month. You certainly seem stable enough now to try again."
Andy tried to ignore Fred. Just like he'd tried, desperately, to ignore his presence five minutes ago. It was easier. A little easier.
"I'm sorry, but if I can't tell my bosses I've done something to avoid another incident like the one we just had, they're going to yank you right out of this facility. They won't risk the bad press, whatever Doctor Gilbert has to say."
Andy felt his jaw tighten at the mention of the doctor. Fred's presence inside the stall had been bad enough. Having the doctor show up halfway through their respective showers and talk to Fred -- even when Fred had been patently ignoring Andy's attempts to pick a toilet stall small enough that Fred would have to leave him alone -- had cemented Andy's complete and utter embarrassment.
Eric's father was absolutely and utterly furious, according to the doctor. Completely and irrationally enraged. Doctor Gilbert had laughed as he'd described the man's attempts to change how the hospital was run.
"I'm sorry I didn't chase the doctor off," Fred tried a different track. "I wasn't watching you, so I had no idea how embarrassing you found it until afterward. He really did need to let me know about what was going on, and that my strict enforcement of the two foot rule would be enough to solve the problem."
Fred waited another minute, and then stopped Andy right outside the dining room. "Andy, I understand you're irked. You have every right to be. But this behavior isn't doing you any good. Do you want to be sent back to BEST? You're on a good road for it. And they might not let you out early a second time."
Andy let his eyes raise up to meet Fred's. "You won't even let me take a dump in peace," he complained, "and now you want me to be happy about it?"
Fred winced. "Not happy. Just... I need to know that you won't ignore me if I have to give orders. If I tell you to leave a room, I need to know you'll leave it -- without taking the time to fire any last second cheap shots at whoever you're arguing with. If I have to actively use my powers to restrain you, the rules are going to tighten down even further. All of this," Fred's hand wave took in the entire facility, "could go away. BEST doesn't want anyone getting hurt. You're getting a pretty sweet deal, because of your condition, but if BEST has to, it'll find another alternative. And you might not like that alternative."
"Like what?" Andy asked, sarcastically. "Cameras recording my dumps?"
Fred winced. "Well, that's possible," he agreed. "Here, you're surrounded by kids. Peers. You get time off to focus on schoolwork and we go easy on your training. If it hurts, we stop. The doctors here make me stop; the ones where you'd go, would get behind me and tell you to work harder."
"The other doctor made them stop!" Andy protested.
"That was then, this is now," Fred smiled coldly. "You were in much worse shape then. Now, we know how to deal with that."
Andy decided not to argue. He already had nightmares about being forced back into the wheelchair; causing those nightmares to come true by making them work him back into was a step past a mere 'nightmare'.
As Fred opened the door to the rehab room, Andy's stomach growled loudly. "I told you," Fred smirked. "You really should have eaten that extra serving of potatoes."
Andy ignored the jibe as he walked past Fred. "Hello Doctor," Andy put a false smile on, focusing on making sure it looked as large, cheesy, and fake as possible.
"Hello Andy," Doctor Gilbert smiled back, missing the weapons-grade sarcasm. "Our plans are in more or less complete disarray at this point. Between Fred's decision to start your practice early, and the recent confrontation with your fellow patient, I've decided that it makes no sense to try and regain our original schedule."
"At Fred's request," the doctor continued, "we're adding a fourth goal to your rehab sessions. In addition to restoring muscle tone, retraining physical dexterity, and monitoring your condition, we're going to begin the basics of training you in the use of your powers."
"The idea," Fred cut in, "is that you should be able to use your powers, in a controlled manner, while doing things physically. Think of it as the equivalent of talking and walking at the same time. We want to see how many things you can do at once, and stretch that limit if possible. The first and primary goal is safety, so if at any time you find that you're doing too much, feel free to back off. Just remember, our goal is to stretch your limits; if you aren't straining, we aren't working hard enough."
"We'll start with a relatively simple set of exercises today," Doctor Gilbert broke back in. "To begin with, we'll have you lift a single weight whenever you're in the 'hold' phase of any given physical exercise. If you prove capable of that with a reasonable degree of ease, we'll have you maintain the lift between exercises."
"I've already introduced Fred to the basic exercises we'll be doing today," Doctor Gilbert nodded to Fred. "I'll be directing from the observation room."
Doctor Gilbert slipped out a door on the side of the room, and within a moment his voice crackled over several speakers. "All right then, comm check. Can you hear me?"
"That's an affirmative doctor," Fred answered.
"Good. The computer here has a good read on Andy's telemetry, so feel free to begin," Doctor Gilbert replied. "Lets start with some basic stretches."
"I'm sure you're familiar with half of these from your school PE classes," Fred took over. Within a minute he had Andy arranged with one leg straight and back, and the other forward and bent. "Now, lift that light weight on the table," Fred ordered. "Hold the stretch where you feel the burn, but not so badly that it's painful."
Andy obeyed, one eye on the weight and another on Fred. Familiar with the process, he pushed the stretch hard. However much he'd hated the exercises he'd been expected to do, he'd known they were helping him, and he'd always been scrupulous about following the instructions to the letter.
Well, his mother had been anyway. That was just as good. He'd only wanted to skimp on a few of the least important ones. Half the exercises were pure crap. There wasn't any point in doing those. But he did the rest of them religiously!
"Not so hard, Andy," Doctor Gilbert cut in. "I know you've done a lot of exercises already, but you can't just cut to the end of the line. Build slow to last."
"Yes Doctor," Andy turned his head to face the direction the doctor had vanished in, and the weight clattered to the table.
"Eyes on what you're doing," Fred ordered.
Andy took a moment to shoot an angry glance at the man, then brought the weight rocketing upward. This time he was prepared for the way it moved, smoothly compensating for the speed by pressing down on it when it approached the desired height.
"Watch out!" Fred snapped, half reaching out as if to grab hold of Andy. He clenched his fists, then took a deep breath before stepping back. "You had that under control," he admitted, slightly chagrined. "I'd apologize for the overreaction, but I suspect you deliberately provoked it."
"You are responsible not simply for being in control of your abilities," Fred continued, voice hardening, "but for demonstrating that control. Not simply in the actual exercise of your powers, but in the manner you choose to use them."
"So let me ask a question," Fred smiled gently. "Did you do that because you were angry?"
Andy's shoulders slumped. "Yeah," he admitted. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry," Fred told him. "Control your temper. This time you pushed your abilities too hard. Next time you loose your temper, maybe you'll slam a door in someone's face because they barged in while you were dressing."
For half a second, Andy didn't get the reference, then his cheeks began to burn. Tyler hadn't been hurt, but... he could have been. He could have been hurt all too readily.
"I'm sorry," Andy repeated, knowing it was pointless.
"Alright then," Fred sighed, "switch your legs around and do the other one."
Andy nodded and did so, glancing over at Fred to check that he had the right position.
"Andy," Fred smiled, "did you notice that you just glanced at me without loosing control?"
"Huh?" Andy looked at Fred. "What do you mean?"
Fred's grin grew. "Well, well, well," he said thoughtfully, looking over his shoulder at the table. "You're looking at me, not that."
"Oh!" Andy exclaimed, looking at the weight hanging in the air.
"Evidence, albeit somewhat slim, that you don't need to be paying direct attention to what you are doing," Fred informed him. "You were just looking right at me, and I bet the only thought in your mind was what the heck was I talking about. But you still maintained control."
Fred's grin vanished. "By the time you're done with training, you're going to really, really wish I hadn't discovered that little ability of yours," he warned. "I'm going to push you to discover the limit of that particular ability."
"Now, given that you can clearly control a single weight, I want you to look at me. Keep your eyes on me while we do these exercises," Fred ordered. "We'll add additional weights until we discover the limit of your abilities. And I want you to hold them up separately."
If Andy had thought he'd understood the meaning of the word 'painful', the rehab session was rapidly proving him wrong. Two weights were rapidly supplanted by four, then eight. He couldn't quite manag eight, but six proved completely manageable, even as he kept his eyes on Fred and performed the exercises the man put him through.
"Now, this next exercise is going to involve you bending over, so I've made arrangements to compensate for that," Fred gloated. He opened a case beside him and pulled out a large mirror. "Pick this up, and lay it a few feet in front of you."
Andy glared at Fred. "I'll break it!" he warned. "You know I can't do seven things at once!"
"No, I know that you can't indefinitely maintain seven things at once," Fred replied reasonably. "You almost had seven, but you lost control after a bit. This won't take you long, and feel free to take it in stages."
"Stages!?" Andy complained. "Oh fine," he gave in under Fred's steady glare. "But if it gets broken, it's your fault!" he warned.
"I'll be certain they don't take it out your allowance if that's your concern," Fred laughed.
Andy felt a peculiar stretching sensation as he reached out to the mirror. Slowly it slid sideways out of Fred's grip. The mirror and the weights trembled and shifted, but he just barely managed to control the mirror's descent to a prone position. From there it was easier as he simply slid the mirror across the floor until it was in position.
"Now, move the weights until you can see them in the mirror, and bend down and touch your toes," Fred ordered.
Andy maintained the requested position for a good fifteen seconds, watching the weights the whole time. When he straightened up, Fred was bouncing a small ball in his hands. "Don't let this hit you," Fred ordered, then tossed the ball at Andy. Andy batted it aside fairly gently and watched it sail past him. Turning, he nearly lost control of the weights before he snapped his gaze forward, watching both the weights and the ball out of opposite corner's of his eyes.
And then the ball bounced off the wall violently, ricocheting off a piece of exercise equipment and then heading right back for Andy. He batted aside again this time, a little harder.
"Here, have a second one," Fred offered, bouncing another ball off the floor. Andy batted that one aside just in time for the first one to come bouncing back with demonic precision.
"Did I mention," Fred commented idly, "that I prevailed on a friend of mine to help us out today? His telekinetic ability operates in a completely different manner than yours, but he can adjust these ball's flights to make sure they keep coming right at you. He won't -- can't, really -- help you control anything, but he can tweak these balls paths so they keep coming right for you."
Andy carefully backed up to place his back against the wall, and Fred clucked sadly. "A good decision, I suppose," Fred told Andy sadly, "but you've forced my hand." With an evil grin, Fred showed Andy three balls resting in the palm of his hand, then bounced them, hard, off the floor.
They bounced off in three separate directions, and suddenly Andy had five separate balls bouncing around the room with demented energy and a devilish sense of aim.
He felt the weights wobble more than he saw them, but he couldn't do anything about it. Tracking five balls at once was pushing him to the limit and a tad bit beyond. Something was going to slip sooner or later, and he'd rather it was the weights than the balls. After all, the balls would hurt if they hit him that hard. The weights would just clatter to the floor noisily.
As he deflected a set of four balls coming in simultaneously on four different directions, he finally lost control over one of the weights. It didn't clatter noisily to the floor as he expected, however.
It crashed, even more noisily, into the glass mirror, shattering it.
"Excercise over," Fred ordered, raising a hand. "Andy, why did you let yourself loose control over the weights?"
"The balls would have hurt!" Andy pointed out, carefully leaving the 'duh' in his tone alone.
"And avoiding some pain was reason enough to break my poor, defenseless mirror?" Fred asked.
"Well, yeah," Andy agreed instantly.
"Why?" Fred asked, cocking his head.
"Why?" Andy asked back, confused. "It hurts!"
Fred took a deep breath. "Your job as an augment isn't to avoid pain. It's to learn to control your abilities to avoid physical injury, and minimize property damage. You just sacrificed property damage in order to avoid a little pain. There is a justification for that decision, but I need you to tell it to me."
Andy looked at the man like he was crazy. "It. Hurts."
"Life's tough, then you die. Life isn't always fair. No pain, no gain," Fred recited. "I could go on, but I think you get the point. Avoiding your own, personal pain doesn't count here. Try again."
"I don't understand," Andy complained.
"That would be the point," Fred smiled gently. "I've given you what you need to answer the question. It's... almost a riddle. And the point of this riddle is to get you to start to look at things in a certain way. A more mature, adult way. One that will help you when you go out into the real world and have to deal with the bullies and bigots that you will encounter."
Andy pouted. "Can't you just tell me?" he asked.
"Not this time," Fred told him. "It won't mean a thing if I just give you the answer. You have to be able to come up with it on your own."
Andy sighed. "Fine. So... I have to explain why breaking the mirror was the right thing."
"Correct," Fred smiled. "Remember, you have to prove that you can avoid causing injury and minimize property damage before you can 'graduate' from your initial training."
Andy shook his head. "Fine. I'll think about it." His stomach growled again. "Any chance of something to snack on while I think?" he asked hopefully.
Fred raised a single, sardonic eyebrow. "Eat? Dinner isn't for another two hours! You can't already be hungry, after all, you ate everything you were offered for lunch, right?"
"Not funny," Andy complained.
"Oh yes, that's right," Fred grinned. "You didn't finish your potatoes. You wanted some cake instead!" Fred opened the box back up and reached inside it. "Here they are!" Out come the plate Andy had refused earlier, and one of those small spork and napkin packages offered with take-away meals.
"Ugh," grunted Andy, making a face. Fred walked towards Andy, ignoring the glass that crunched under his feet with each step.
"Don't worry, we popped it in the fridge, it's still quite nutritious," Fred commented as Andy reached out for the plate.
"Ew," Andy complained, wrinkling his nose. "It's cold?"
"Yes, yes it is," Fred smiled. "And it's all you're going to get to eat until dinner time."
Andy's stomach complained again, and Andy forced himself to accept the inevitable. Fred wasn't going to bend. He reached out and snagged the spork package from Fred, and then hesitated. The easiest way to get the spork out would be to rip the package in two with his power, but he suspected Fred wouldn't be particularly amused. He was supposed to be avoiding 'unnecessary' use of his powers. Sure, he'd been using them a lot in this training session, but that was something Fred had ordered him to do.
"Here, let me help with that," Fred offered, taking the package back long enough to rip the plastic into pieces and slide the handle of the spork out. He held it out to Andy, who quickly took it and began sliding cold potatoes down his gullet. He did it as fast as he could, trying not to taste them any more than necessary. It wasn't that they tasted bad, exactly, just... they were cold. Ick!
"Now that we've got that settled," Fred announced as Andy was swallowing the last mouthful of potato, "we need to clean up all this glass."
Andy looked around. "Where's the broom?" he asked.
Fred laughed. "I'm looking at him!" he chortled. "This is a training session, Andy. I appreciate your restraint with the food, but we're going to push you to learn new ways not just to use your powers, but to think about them."
"Huh?" Andy looked at the mess on the floor. There were a lot of pieces floating around down there. Trying to pick them up would take forever!
"Lets try this another way," Fred suggested. "When you try to move something, do you actually grab it?"
Andy opened his mouth to say 'no', but then thought about it. Fred was right, he didn't grab individual objects. He just... pushed. The push moved everything near it. That got the object itself, but it also picked up other things. "So I just... push everything on the floor at once?"
"Can you?" Fred asked. "It's a relatively gentle push, after all."
Andy stretched his push outward, but it was... weak. Faint. It wouldn't quite... something. It was there, but it wasn't doing anything. Shaking his head, he frowned and pushed harder. He felt the push grow and grow until something snapped and suddenly it was there. He pulled back on the push instantly, and the push snapped.
"Oh," he grabbed his head, blinking away the sudden surge of pain.
"Stop this line of exercise immediately," Doctor Gilbert came over the speakers. "There was a random spike of energy across the alpha and beta waves, and they're showing a distinct shift and disruption. I think we may have found why his degenerative cycle seems to spike when he pushes his powers too hard."
"No!" Andy complained. "I just pulled back too hard. Let me try it again!"
"You pulled back because it hurt," Fred pointed out.
"No!" Andy turned to glare at him. "I pulled back because it was too much! I pulled back too far and the push broke!"
"Doctor?" Fred looked at the room where the doctor had hidden himself.
"I'm reviewing the records now," Doctor Gilbert announced. "I see a slow buildup of telekinetic signature, but it's... wrong? The signature is shifted slightly, too weak in some areas, too strong in others. It solidified once Andy pushed it far enough, the low parts coming up to match the strength of the high points. A pretty strong TK push, clear as day and a complete match to the previous signatures in everything except magnitude. Then... he pulled back, and the signature warped. Hard. I think..."
The doctor's voice faded for a minute. "I think he's right. It wasn't pushing so hard that caused his issues. The pain clearly comes after the signature was warped. I need to get him in an fMRI to confirm this, but I suspect he overloaded some of his nerves as a result of the backlash."
"Let me do it again," Andy begged. "I can control it!"
"Doctor?" Fred asked. "Doctor?" he repeated, slightly concerned, when he didn't get an answer.
"I don't know," Doctor Gilbert admitted. "I'm disinclined to do it on medical grounds, but... you need to train him. And maybe a second incident will give us additional information, that might help us diagnose what's going on better, hopefully come up with a treatment. Please note the train of suppositions there, maybe and might and hopefully. Medically, I'm mildly opposed to doing it here and now, but I think that this ball is in your court."
Fred took a deep breath and then blew it out, clearly annoyed. "Thanks for providing clear and consistent direction, doc," he glared at the room Doctor Gilbert had disappeared into. "Fine. One more try. Doc, put your gear into overdrive. I want every ounce of data you can suck out of this. Lets see what you can do, Andy. Whenever both of you are ready."
Andy took a deep breath and reached outward. "You ready doc?" he asked, unconsciously mirroring Fred's stance and choice of words.
"Data cap set to double maximum resolution," Doctor Gilbert announced. "System set to best resolution. We have sixty seconds from mark before the cap's internal buffer is overloaded. Mark."
"Now Andy," Fred ordered.
Again Andy reached out with his push. This time he could feel it better. His push wasn't strong enough to coalesce, to transform from just something in his mind to something that effected the real world. He didn't just push harder, he pushed tighter. It was hard, it was a strain, but he felt the push snap into place. The glass underfoot began skittering sideways under the gentle effects of the push, while the furniture didn't so much as rock.
Soon the broken glass was gathered in the center of the room, and Andy added a second, upward push to cause it to form a small mound.
"And the glass under your feet?" Fred asked, pacing around the pile.
Andy hopped backwards, grinning. The glass particles slid sideways like a veil of dust on a windy day, joining the rest of the mess.
"Twenty seconds left," Doctor Gilbert broke in. "End the experiment."
Instead of reducing the push, Andy let his focus broaden until the push dissipated into a useless cloud, then let the push fade away. It didn't hurt at all that way.
In fact, Andy realized with surprise, holding the weights hadn't even hurt at all, either. "It didn't hurt!" Andy exclaimed. "Other than the break earlier, nothing hurt -- not all session!" Andy did a little celebratory jig at the thought of not having to hurt himself anymore, completely missing the suddenly concerned look on Fred's face.
"Alright, settle down in there," Doctor Gilbert broke in. "We're still downloading the results from the data cap, it'll take about five minutes before we clear out the backlog of data, and that's if I leave it at minimum resolution for the duration. So, I recommend, strongly, that you run through a few excercises without any training. We can celebrate after we get more data."
The rest of the session proved to be just more of the same. Hold weights up, deflect a bouncing ball, and do some exercises. Occasionally, clean up a broken mirror and carefully break the push so it didn't hurt.
"If you'd asked me earlier," Andy grumbled, "I would have said it would be fun to be able to use my abilities without pain."
Fred grinned. "Well good. It's not supposed to be fun." If looks could kill, the one Andy sent Fred's way would have been considered a WMD. "Careful, that's a weapons grade glare if I've ever seen one," Fred warned cheerfully. "Don't worry, I'm sure we'll find you more entertaining training sessions at a later date if you really want them. I know a few really fun games. Just as fun as making a bet about whether some silly kid will enjoy a book I pick out for him."
Andy's cheeks began to burn, so he turned around and tightened the laces on his shoes. His hands shook a little while he did that, but he readily ascribed that to his condition, rather than any emotional impact Fred's words most assuredly did not have.
Doctor Gilbert opened the door and walked into the room. "Thank you very much for putting up with this, Andy," the man smiled. "I know these sessions aren't fun, but we really are trying to help you heal."
Andy turned and smiled at the man. "Thank you Doctor," he replied. "I know you are trying to help." He glanced over at Fred and added, reluctantly, "Both of you."
"You're welcome," the doctor replied before Fred could respond. "Now, we're running a bit behind schedule. Dinner should be starting any minute now, so I suggest we get moving. We wouldn't want to be late."
"Doctor, there's something we should talk about first," Fred broke in. "I'm concerned about the Reynolds kid."
"Don't be," grinned. "We really shouldn't be late to dinner. Come on, lets hurry."
Andy turned and ran to the exit. The plate of potatoes had vanished ages ago, and he was hungry! "Ah ah ah!" Fred warned him. "Two feet, no further."
"Actually, Agent, I believe it is your responsibility to maintain the two foot interval," Doctor Gilbert commented, opening the door for Andy with a wink. "Andy can't do anything to make that impossible, but he is quite free to run to the dining hall and expect you to keep up."
Andy grinned over his shoulder at Fred and shot out the door. He wasn't exactly familiar with the layout of the facility yet, but he had a fairly good idea where the food was. And if he got lost, all he had to do was follow his nose. "Of course, our facility does forbid running in the hallways!" Gilbert shouted at him, then trotted out the door. "Wait, that's my rule, isn't it?"
Andy looked over his shoulder as he waited for the adults to catch up. "Yes?" he answered.
"Well, if it's my rule," Doctor Gilbert grinned, "well, I won't tell anyone if you don't. And I would like to observe your gait while you run." Doctor Gilbert rubbed his chin thoughtfully for a few moments. "Andrew, you have my formal, verbal permission to run from here to the dining hall. For the purpose of this exercise, the following two rules are in play: you should run as fast as you feel you can safely manage -- no falling down, in other words -- and you must remain in my sight so I can observe your gait. If you reach a corner before I do, you should run back to where I am or trot in place."
Andy grinned, then took up a position as if waiting for the start of a race. "Oh, like that is it?" Fred laughed. "You're letting the kid loose?"
Gilbert nodded gravely. "I have suspicions I'm going to want to talk to you about later," he commented, "but for now... Ready. Steady. Go!"
Andy was off like a shot, Fred swearing as he caught up. Andy laughed with the sheer joy of movement. After years of slowly being cooped up and hedged around with restrictions and canes and wheelchairs, to let his muscles open up and run freely was a pure, blessed joy. The feel of his legs moving smoothly, his arms pumping, the ground flying under his feet... it was a joy he'd been denied for far too long.
Even with him occasionally running in circles and waiting for the doctor to catch up, the run to the dining hall didn't seem to take very long at all.
Entering the dining hall, he looked immediately for a place to sit down.
Nurse Summers stood, tapping her foot, right next to an open seat in front of a large pile of food. One look at the large piece of pot roast, a mound of already buttered rolls steaming with heat, and a large pile of carrots had Andy's mouth watering. He took a good three steps towards the table before he noticed who his table partners were. Bobby waved at Andy before turning back to his food. Eric scowled, clearly waiting for Andy to sit down so the torment could begin.
"It's not quite as bad as you might think." Doctor Gilbert squeezed Andy's shoulder gently and pressed lightly forward. "Give Nurse Summers an opportunity to explain."
Andy slowly walked up to the empty seat, eyes on Eric. Behind him, Fred hissed angrily at Doctor Gilbert, who replied quietly enough that Andy couldn't make out what was actually said in reply, though he recognized the placating tone. "Greetings Andrew," Nurse Summers smiled. "I understand there was something of an altercation earlier today."
"Yes ma'am," Andy nodded, taking that as permission to stop inching closer to Eric.
"According to Doctor Gilbert, Eric here was outside of his room and picked a fight with you," Nurse Summers prompted.
"Yes," Andy nodded. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to use my powers."
"Well, that's not where I was going," Nurse Summers smiled. "My understanding is that Eric struck first, and that you defended yourself. In fact, when you felt a new augmentation coming on, you diverted it into the ground and didn't use it to strike back. The doctor called it an extraordinary display of self control."
"The freak put me in a cage," Eric muttered.
"What was that, Eric Brian Reynolds?" Nurse Summers asked, raising an eyebrow as she turned to glare at the boy.
"Nothing ma'am," Eric looked down at her feet.
"Oh good," she nodded. The smile on her face didn't reach her ice-cold eyes. "I'd hate for you to loose the opportunity to eat tonight by disobeying my instructions to stay seated, be silent, and treat Andy with all due respect. Wouldn't you just hate that too?"
"Yes ma'am," Eric almost whispered.
"I'm sorry, I can't hear you," Nurse Summers told him, voice pitched upward in an effort to sound cheerful. "Were you apologizing to Andrew?"
"I'm sorry I picked a fight with you, Andrew," Eric muttered.
"I'm sorry, what was that?" Nurse Summers cupped a hand to her ear. "Was that the full and complete apology you agreed to give? You may have apologized for betraying Nurse Winter's trust, but that was only the first step that you agreed to."
Eric looked at her, and his tone dripped acid as he agreed, "No ma'am, that was only the beginning of my apology. I'm also sorry I called him a freak and told him he was less than human." Eric's tone added the phrase 'that I was caught' to the beginning of the apology.
"I think I may find that acceptable," Nurse Summers said grudgingly, skipping over the fact that half that apology had been addressed to her instead of Andy. "Then again, it's not my opinion that matters, is it Andrew?"
Andy took a deep breath. Her tone was as much an order to him as it was to Eric. "Apology accepted," he said as graciously as he could manage. He remembered Fred's advice during the shower earlier, and a sudden idea made him grin as he stuck his hand out at Eric. "No hard feelings."
Eric looked at the offered hand like Andy was offering him a nice, big hunk of slimy slug meat to eat. Slowly, grudgingly his hand rose up to gingerly take hold of Andy's. Andh's grin broadened as he realized that Fred was right; politeness and kindness could be used as a weapon that would completely confuse any bully.
Eric's eyes rose to meet Andy's and they shared a moment of understanding. Eric wasn't sorry, and Andy's actions had just made him madder. For the moment, he couldn't do anything about it, but eventually Eric would get even for the handshake.
"Good, now that that's settled, why don't both of you start eating," Nurse Summers ordered, either missing or ignoring the subtext of what had actually happened. Andy would have bet the former, but something about her voice, something in the way she held her eyes, made him suspect the latter.
The first sign of Eric's continued offensive came in the form of an elbow. "Oops, sorry," he said cheerfully. "Guess I went a little too hard cutting my meat."
"Eric Reynolds," Nurse Summers wandered back over. "You had exactly one warning. You've used it up. If Andrew so much as suggests that you've attacked him again, that's it. Your time here will be up and you will be sent home without any additional treatment. You're stabilized now, so I suspect that you will land on the bottom of the waiting list and never make your way further up. You will be on crutches the rest of your life."
"What? That's no fair!" Eric shouted.
"Rudeness to faculty is not as serious an offense as attacking your fellow patients, but our patience is running very thin, Eric Reynolds," Nurse Summers told him firmly.
"That isn't fair, ma'am," Eric managed to keep his voice from quite reaching the tone of a shout. "He hates me!"
"I haven't seen a single sign that he cares one way or the other about you," Nurse Summers told him icily. "You are the sole instigator and have been so from the beginning. I trust him to be mature about this. I do not trust you."
She looked at Andy and smiled. "He doesn't know it yet, but he has a heart of gold. The thought of consigning you to a lifetime stuck on crutches will weigh heavily on him. He knows what it's like to be stuck in a wheelchair, unable to do anything for himself. He won't do that to someone else unless he's made to, unless you make him."
Andy thought about the images she called up with her words, and felt his face wrinkle. He didn't like Eric. At all. But... she was right. He wouldn't do that to his worst enemy. Not even Jeremiah, back home, deserved that. Kevin... well, maybe Kevin. For a day or two at least. OK, not really Kevin.
After Nurse Summers had moved on, he looked over at Eric. "I've always hated crutches and canes," Andy offered. "I don't want to leave you stuck on them."
"Leave me alone, freak," Eric snapped. "Bad enough I have to eat next to you without having to talk to you."
Andy clenched his jaw for a moment in an effort to avoid snapping back. Nurse Summers was right. Getting Eric in trouble just wasn't worth the guilt trip it'd cause. Now, using a small 'push' to make his food spill down his shirt, that might be fun.
Andy glanced over at Eric, mulling the idea over, just in time to see a poke coming his way. Andy defended himself on reflex, using his powers to shove the finger forward, and Eric wound up skinning his finger on the table. "Ow!" Eric complained, yanking his hand back.
"Is something going on over here?" Nurse Summers asked, walking back to them.
"Eric was a bit careless with his cutlery again," Andy smiled at her. "Nothing to worry about. I'm sure you guys will help him just like you did me this morning."
Nurse Summers raised an eyebrow, then looked at Eric appraisingly. "Perhaps some additional rehab time is called for," she said after a moment. "I assumed his difficulty was because he wasn't doing his exercises before bed, but he should have regained more control than that even without them."
Eric groaned as she walked away. "Thanks," he hissed under his breath. "It's hard enough avoiding those stupid exercises without her piling on one of her 'special rehab' sessions on top of it!"
"You're quite welcome," Andy smiled beatifically.
"Why are you being so nice?" Eric hissed.
Andy opened his mouth to reply, then closed it. Nurse Summers had already spelled it out. If Eric didn't understand now, how could Andy explain it better? "It's not about you," Andy said slowly. "I don't like you." Admitting it let a weight of his chest. "I hate you," Andy hissed back at Eric. "I hate bullies. I hate you. I hate everyone like you!" Andy's voice raised slowly from the harsh whisper he'd started with. "And you know what? If I let my hate control me, I'd be like you, and the idea makes me as sick as I make you!"
"Is there something wrong?" Nurse Summers asked from the other side of the table.
"No Nurse Summers," Andy told her firmly. "Eric and I are settling out differences verbally. Exactly like we were taught to."
Nurse Summers eyes narrowed as he took in Andy's posture. "Agent Webster has gone to bat for you once today already," she said evenly. "I choose to believe that you will not violate that trust."
Somehow, the thought that she was trusting him made Andy feel worse about his already half-formed plans to play tricks on Eric. "I don't intend to," Andy heard his mouth announce. "Eric is a mean, small-minded bigot, but that doesn't mean I can't rise above his flaws and at least try to make nice. The fact that it makes him miserable is icing on my cake."
Bobby choked on his mouthful of food, and around the table everyone started looking at Andy. Andy didn't blame them. He couldn't believe what came out of his mouth himself! Sure, that was more or less his plan, to use 'making nice' to make Eric as miserable as possible, but to admit that was what he was doing?
Nurse Summers blinked. "Well, ask for a little honesty," she muttered. "Andrew, I... well... um..." Nurse Summers muttered under her breath for a moment. "I actually can't find anything wrong with that," she admitted after a moment. "Your decision to be polite is hardly... I mean..." She shook her head. "There should be something there I can chide you for, child, but I can't find it. Being polite is the right thing to do. I just... it seems wrong that you can use it as a weapon. I just trust that you don't intend to use your powers in any way?"
"Well, I thought about using them to tie his shoelaces together, or make him dribble food down his shirt-" Andy clapped his hands over his mouth in shock. What. The. Hell?! There was no way he'd be admitting to that on his own! He turned in his chair to glare at Fred, who was walking across the room. Was the man somehow making him tell the truth?
"Judging from the expression on your face, you weren't intending to be quite that honest," Fred commented, placing a hand on Andy's shoulder. Andy shook his head violently. "Well, I've studied the dossier on every augment in this facility, and none of them are known to have any ability that could cause this. I'm going to guess it's one of your fellow kids. Try to be understanding; this is probably like you and the car the other day. They don't even know they can do it, and may not even realize they're doing this to you."
"Well, make them stop," Andy pulled his hands away long enough to demand.
"Tell me, were you going do those things?" Fred asked. Andy glared at the man. "And yes, I really do mean to make you answer. Vocally. Honesty is just to precious a gift to waste."
"I was thinking about it," Andy admitted. "I couldn't tie his laces together, though. I'm too clumsy. Dribbling food... I wanted to do that to him. I thought about it. I hadn't decided one way or the other when he tried to-" Andy clapped his hands back over his mouth angrily. Beside him Eric was giggling.
"Alright then. Kid, I need you to do me a favor," Fred asked Bobby. "I need you to ask Andy questions. Safe stuff, like when was the Declaration of Independence signed, did George Washington chop down a cherry tree, what's two plus two. Just keep asking them every time he finishes a question. Andy, try to lie, or not respond, or something. Just keep trying it."
"So I'll say that George Washington didn't chop down the cherry tree?" Andy asked.
"Yes, precisely," Fred agreed. "When you can lie, we'll now I'm blocking the right person."
Andy frowned. "Um, I just said that. Doesn't that count?"
"You were asking a question, I'm going to assume that doesn't count. Try lying again," Fred suggested, nudging Bobby.
"Why is Abraham Lincoln important?" Bobby asked eagerly.
"Abraham Lincoln started the civil war by declaring that slavery was legal," Andy quickly said, then cheered. His voice was his own again!
"Crap," Fred swore, looking up and down the table. "I guess that won't work." Fred shook his head and backed away. Then he smacked his head in the classic 'Duh!' gesture. "Excuse me ladies and gentlemen," he announced loudly. "We have an unidentified augment in the room with the ability to force another person to speak the truth. Right at the moment, no one is in trouble. I'm going to assume that you didn't know what you could do or how to control the ability. That forbearance is conditional, however. I need you to step forward immediately. If I have to track you down, I'm not going to be amused. Come forward, admit to what you did, and everything is fine. No punishments for making Andy tell the truth. No lectures over how wrong what you did was. No extra rehab sessions with Nurse Summers."
"Hey!" Nurse summers complained, but Fred shushed her.
"That is a limited time offer, however," Fred continued. "You have until the end of this meal-" Fred shook his head. "If you don't want to do it in public, you have until the end of tonight to come find me, or ask one of the staff to do so. I'll come and talk to you with a degree of privacy. If you even think this might have been you, come talk to me. I won't chide you for wasting my time if it turns out to be a mistake."
Fred looked around the room. "If I have to find you, I'm not going to be as nice about this, folks," he warned. "If you genuinely don't know you did it, that's one thing. But I don't think that's very likely. You don't just 'slip up' and use an augment without realizing it. There's something, some giveaway. Odds are, you've done this before, and someone has blurted out truths they didn't mean to. Or they'll do it again. You can't hide. Come clean, please. You need training, because this probably isn't your only ability. The odds are very good that without the kind of training BEST can give you, you will hurt someone with your abilities."
"Any takers?" The room was dead silent for nearly ten seconds before Fred sighed and shook his head. "Thank you for your time and attention. Hopefully, whoever's ability was at play here will come forward on their own in the near future. If they don't, I'll make appropriate arrangements, and I will find them. Not to punish them, but because of the danger I just touched on. If they haven't actively used their abilities already, odds are unlikely that any new abilities will trigger in a dangerous fashion before I can find them. However, if any new abilities do manifest, contact me immediately. Try to avoid making a big deal out of whatever happens, just cope, contact me, and move on. If anyone shows flu-like symptoms in the next twenty four hours, contact me immediately; it may be augmentation sickness, and without treatment that can be fatal."
Fred looked around the room one last time. "Doctor Gilbert, I think we need to have a word. Perhaps after dinner?"
"Certainly," Doctor Gilbert nodded. "You have my complete support in this matter."
"Thank you," Fred nodded.
Andy turned back to his plate and began stuffing food down his throat. He smelled something sweet being rolled in, and he didn't want to hold up dessert. It smelled heavenly, and he wanted his own share. Plus, the other kids probably wouldn't be happy if he managed to hold things up on them... again.
Beside him, he could feel Eric's anger simmering and building. Every jab with the fork, every swipe with the knife declared Eric's building temper tantrum. Another reason to get out as quickly as possible. As much fun as his new game might be, Andy didn't think letting Eric close to him with sharp tools was a wise idea. Not in the mood he was rapidly settling into. Getting through dessert quickly might be a wise idea.
Desert, in fact, turned out to be brownies with fudge frosting, and a rich cup of hot chocolate with a hint of mint. Andy devoured his extra large portion, complete with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. "This is best brownie I've ever had!" he exclaimed before finishing the last bite.
"It's not that good," Bobby laughed. "You must have been eating some bad brownies!"
"Actually," Fred commented from behind Andy, "he's just hungry. He burned a lot of calories this afternoon. You could feed him dog food and he'd think it tasted good."
"Bleh," Andy made a face at the idea. "That sounds horrible."
"I imagine it does," Fred agreed. "Listen, Andy, the doctor and I need to discuss a few things privately. I'm going to relax the rules a little and let you walk back to your room on your own. Close the door behind you and wait for me to get back. Don't go anywhere else."
"What about the restroom?" Andy asked, shifting in his seat.
"You can hit the head if you need to," Fred agreed. "Make it quick, though." Andy nodded then slipped out of the chair. "I'll be back as quick as I can," Fred told him.
Andy walked, aware of Nurse Summer's eyes on him, straight out of the room. Given the number of ways he'd already gotten himself in trouble with, he chose to walk very carefully to the restroom off his hallway. When he stopped by the patch of floor he repaired, he reached down and rapped on in, smiling. He'd done a good job there, he decided. Slipping into the restroom, he stepped up to a urinal and unzipped his pants.
"You," an angry voice cut into his thoughts as he zipped back up.
"Eric," Andy sighed. Time to try politeness. "Hey man. How ya doin?"
Eric's eyebrow was twitching irregularly as he glared at Andy. "It's not enough you keep me from lunch," Eric complained. "It's not enough you put me in a cage, the cage you belong in. It's not enough that you humiliate me in front of everyone by making me apologize. Oh no. You have to try and 'make nice', make me look like a fool who thinks you're human. And then! And then!" Eric tossed his hands up angrily as a vein on his forehead began to swell. "And then here you are, again, taunting me." Eric wiped spittle away from the corner of his mouth. "I heard you planning to humiliate me with it earlier," Eric ranted. "Nurse Summers should have seen you for the beast you are!" Eric's arm began twitching, one of its muscles firing off in a random pattern that jerked it up and sideways.
"Hey, calm down," Andy tried. "Look at yourself in a mirror man," Andy gestured towards the sinks. "We need to get you to a nurse or something."
"A nurse," Eric sneered, the vein in his forehead thickening into an ugly red line that pulsed furiously. "Yeah, you'd like that, wouldn't you?" Eric looked around the room, then grinned.
It wasn't a sane expression. Andy took a step back away from it, raising his hands up as if in surrender. "No one here," Eric grinned, eyes opening wide to show whites all around. "Just you, just me," Eric knelt down and picked up a hammer from beside the door. "The cleaning crew must have left this behind," he giggled. "Cleaning up after animals. That's their job. I don't think they'll mind a little help in that, do you?"
"Eric, back off," Andy told him, his back bumping into the wall of a stall as he backed up. "Seriously, dude, you're scaring me."
"Oh good, little puppy knows he's in trouble," Eric cackled. "Little puppies that make messes need to be punished, so they don't do it again," he started swinging the hammer. "Yes, need to be punished."
"Eric, I'm telling you, back off," Andy stepped sideways so he could back up further. It wasn't a large hammer, not really. Something you might use to pound in a stubborn nail, or use the claw end to pry it up. But Andy wasn't a nail to be pounded in, or pried out. Either end would hurt, a lot.
"If a puppy won't stop making messes, he has to be put down," Eric added, stepping forward. He'd turned the hammer around, bringing the claw to the front for the strong outswing.
Andy looked at the hammer, hard. He almost reached out to push it, but he remembered Fred's warnings earlier. Looking around, he didn't see anything else. The urinals were bolted the walls, the toilets to the floors, the sinks-
The sinks! One of them was loose! Andy remembered running into it earlier. It hadn't broken free yet, but the sealant had great big gaps in it, and it was half hanging away from the wall. Concentrating, he pulled it right off the wall and shot it towards Eric. Water cascaded over the floor from the broken pipes, steam rising from one of the two streams to fill the room. Careful, Andy thought to himself, carefully! He brought the sink to a halt at waist height and used it to block Eric. With a single blow, Eric shattered the ceramic sink into a thousand shards.
Andy gaped at the shards, shocked at Eric's strength. Eric simply pushed through the mess, opening a long slice along one cheek where a sharp edge caught him. Frowning, Andy tossed the entire mess to a corner of the room. He didn't want to hurt Eric.
Wait. Eric had walked right through the shards and hadn't even been effected by Andy's push? Andy turned his push on Eric, shoving him backwards. For a moment, it seemed like it would work, but then Eric braced himself against the floor and pushed through it. Andy felt his push kinda slide off and around the boy.
Andy tried the hammer. If he could get the hammer away from Eric, maybe then he'd be safe. He jerked it sideways, as hard as he could, and Eric was yanked around. Eric refused to let go, and flew across the room with the hammer as Andy embedded it deep into the brick wall. Tile clinked as it shattered and fell to the ground, and Andy gave a deep sigh of relief. No way Eric would pull the hammer out of the wall, not now.
Eric tugged at it, annoyed, then put a foot against he wall and gripped the handle with both hands. With one mighty yank, he pulled the hammer out, yanking a dozen bricks out in the process.
"Oh shit," Andy swore. Remembering earlier, he reached out to the floor and found the connection. It came quickly, quicker than ever before, and with a touch the tile floor melted away, forming a small wall.
Unfortunately, he could only connect with individual tile pieces. Given time, he might be able to pull several together, but he didn't have time. The wall he could make with three or four pieces of tile was all of about an inch high.
But that did reveal the concrete base underneath the tile. As Eric came on like a juggernaut, unstoppable, Andy snarled and formed a connection to the concrete under the floor and yanked it up, hard. The room shook as the concrete bulged upward, ripping loose of the iron supports to form a thick barricade between him and Eric. Iron and steel groaned as the concrete moved, snapping rebar and shattering plumbing.
Andy panted in exhaustion when it was done. Forming the foot thick wall had consumed most of the available concrete, leaving behind metal rods and the piping from the plumbing, lying in twisted shards on a firm earthen floor beside shattered ceramic tiles. Andy's nose wrinkled as he took in the scent of the sewage trickling back in from the toilet pipes.
Boom. "No way," Andy gasped, stepping away from the wall. Boom. Flakes chipped away from a crack in the center of the wall, driving all thought of the sudden stink out of his mind. Boom. "Not. Fucking, possible!" Andy screamed in frustration.
Eric wasn't even hammering his way in inch by inch. Great gouts of concrete had to be falling away, because in less than six strikes the hammer smashed through, opening a foot wide hole that showered shattered concrete over Andy. Not just shattered, pulverised.
With two more strikes, Eric opened a large enough hole to step through. He had to hunch over to make it through, but he stepped through and began advancing on Andy.
"Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck," Andy swore, pressing his back against the wall. No where left to go.
Taking a deep breath, Andy watched the timing on Eric's swings. Eric could move faster than this. For some reason he wanted to draw this out. That gave Andy a chance. One chance.
Andy clenched his fists and focused on the weight. It was hard. He was already tired, and concentrating was almost beyond him, but he reached deep and found the strength to do it. He reached out for a connection, something to link to...
And couldn't find it. There was nothing there. Surprised, he tried the wall behind him, and the stalls, and a few pieces of metal. He could link to them. But when he reached out towards Eric...
For a moment, he'd find a piece of a connection. The skin, or something inside. But it'd skitter away when he tried to build on it, to reach for the whole of Eric. He didn't want to do it, but damnit, it was him or Eric, and Andy chose himself.
But he couldn't do it. Eric wasn't blocking it, there was just... no connection. It was like every time he connected to a part of Eric, that's all he could connect to.
There wasn't any time left. Two more swings, and Eric would be hammering into Andy.
Given what that hammer had already done to a concrete wall, Andy really didn't feel like letting it happen to him. He ducked under the next swing and pressed both hands into Eric's chest. If he couldn't make the connection one way, he'd make it another. He poured everything he had left into the push and weight, trying to somehow merge the two. For an instant the two struggled, then all sense of weight faded away as his push roared through him out of control. For a long instant, everything in his universe was the push. Even harder than when he'd pushed the car, it roared through him, an instant, searing pain behind his eyes making them water.
Eric flew backwards as if struck by a cannon ball, bouncing off the edges of the hole he'd made in the concrete barrier. The claw end of the hammer caught in a crevice and finally ripped loose from his hand, skittering across the room in its own, independent trajectory. Eric's flight arced across the length of the room before striking the brick wall next to the door.
The brick wall shattered as Eric flew through it. He landed in a pile of rubble in the hallway to the sound of Fred swearing. Andy pondered for a moment Fred's tendency toward profanity in the presence of children, then shook his head and tried to pull himself together. Blinking, he tried to force the light back into the darkening room, but all he could see was Eric trying to get up, torso actually embedded in the wall on the other side of the hallway.
Snarling, Eric's eyes met Andy's. Andy let himself fall, but Eric's hand snapped upward and vanished behind a cloud of red mist. A thousand scraps of wet, red meat showered outward from behind the cloud, and Andy felt a searing pain in his scalp as something slid its way across the top of his skull.
As he bounced on the floor, his last thought was that he really needed to stop passing out all the time.