3. Study Hall And at last it's time for Study Hall. I'm more than ready for it. Granted, the rest of the day has been relatively serene compared to an assembly where I had to decide where to sit in relationship to Leo and Summer and Aria (and there's a metaphor for you), and Alycia texted me out of the blue. Or a home ec class where Summer and Aria and Leo and Alycia were all there, and we got to talk about human sexuality. Or, for that matter, getting text messages from Barbara that Rosa Rook wants to meet with me. And that she wants to me with me about that apartment block where the Vyortovian reality bomb went off, and which we've been unable to acquire. And that she wants to do this at the actual apartment block. Because none of that doesn't dire. So I have that to look forward to after school (and Otto's going to drive me, which actually makes me feel better). Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play? Other classes were other classes. AP and XP types of thing in math, bio, US History, Engish Lit. Interesting stuff, though I could probably test out on all of that. But that's not the point, right? Socialization is what I need. Dad said that and, for once, he wasn't wrong. This morning's escapades prove that. Which makes it kind of mysterious as to why I don't have a major panic attack when I open the door to the Study Hall class and see who's there. At some point, the fight-or-flight reflex just sort of wears out, I guess. * * * I take in everyone, of course. Me am big brain, plus Rusty drilled situational awareness into me to a fare-thee-well. But I take each individual in turn, left to right because I need to save the last for last. Agent Waters, Leo's handler / liaison / probation officer, is there with another AEGIS agent. Waters is an interesting duck -- he's AEGIS, but he's helped the group as well as helping Leo, so that cuts him a lot of slack with me. I'm not sure who the other agent is with him, but she doesn't look like a noob. I give them a nod. Adam has textbooks scattered all around him. I hope he doesn't have a killer load this semester, after all the stress he's already under. He gives me a wan smile, and I give him a warmer one, and he flips his eyes back the book in front of him. Summer waves at me with a big smile and of course it's wonderful and of course it's guileless, and it still makes me feel like shit because of how I treated her, especially with Alycia in the same freaking room -- -- and I'm still glad as hell she's here, at school and at an impromptu meeting of the Menagerie. Or not-so-impromptu, I suspect, and missing Charlotte, too. I try to meet Summer's smile watt for watt, and do a poor job of it, but if she notices, she doesn't say anything. Of course. I transfer the smile over to Aria, who nods coolly. Yeah, they've been talking, which means -- Leo gives a small wave, "'sup?" His eyes aren't casual, though. Harry's next. He's tense. Given he's closest, I can understand that. He gives me an oh-so-subtle Look to my left, man, look to my left series of eyeball flicks. I nod and smile. I got this, man. I don't got this, but he gets fractionally less visibly tense. And then, off to the side, back to the wall, slouched in her desk -- and I'm still wondering who found a red "Q5K! 2017" polo shirt for her to wear, and why she agreed to wear it. I hated the graphics for that event, especially the running Quill logo with the pumping arms and legs and little hexagonal drips of sweat flying off -- but I have to admit, she makes it look good and focus, concentrate, breathe -- Alycia. She has that smile on her face she so often does, like she knows the punchline before you've even realized it's a joke. I try to return the smile, but now it's my turn to be a little tense, a little stiff. Plus it's across half the room. She shoots me with a finger gun. Good times. I turn to Waters & Co. "So, not normal study hall." The other agent turns to Waters, too, and he sighs. "Yeah. Go ahead and get seated, Mr. Quill, and we'll get started." I nod, and grab a desk. It's furthest away from Alycia, closer to Summer and Adam, but the point is to put myself between the others and the AEGIS duo. * * * Waters strolls to the front of the room, a rare raked classroom here at Gardner, with the desks up on tiers around the teaching area. He doesn't bother with the podium, or the big smart screen behind him. I have the sense that an overhead projector and 3x5 cards is Waters' speed, but he doesn't even bother with that. "Thanks, everyone. This is your actual Study Hall group, which should be convenient for you kids, but for today we've got something a bit less academic to go over. We wanted to let you know what's in the works." That gets everyone's visible attention, even if he already had it less obviously. I glance around as Adam marks his page and closes his book. Harry's backpack is suddenly closed and zipped. Even Alycia's straightened up a bit. Waters goes on, "So, Miss Chin here: she's here on probation and her own parole, under the watchful eye of AEGIS. Special Agent Parker is her handler." And that's who the other agent is and why she's here. I'm kind of sorry Waters doesn't have Alycia in his portfolio, too. When I look over at Parker, she's already looking at me, and not in a friendly, casual fashion. "Miss Chin surrendered herself to the agency," Waters continues. "And we've reached certain agreements to have her provide information on her father's activities, and helping those involved to be brought to justice." Way to go, Alycia! I turn back to her and give her an encouraging smile. Doing something like that can't be easy -- or safe, for that matter -- but it's a huge step. I hope it's a huge step. "We're working on some other arrangements, too, which is the real reason for this get-together. Miss Chin has shown an interest in -- well, turning over a new leaf, you might say. The Menagerie happens to be an organization with peers in her age range with whom she has some previous interaction. To that end, our intent is to have her be a member of the team, and so we thought it would be best to meet with you. Regardless of the disposition of that question, she will be attending Gardner Academy this year as part of her probation." I don't quite get up and make a giant fist-pumping action, but I feel that way on the inside. I've been trying to figure out how to get her on the team, and, once I knew what was going on with her, had been going to propose it. Having AEGIS recommend it instead helps keep it from being too much a "Jason, you're be ridiculous" moment. Alycia gives us all a smile that suddenly seems a lot more friendly, even shy, than snarky. Waters adds, "My understanding is that, at present, Leo is in charge of field operations, but we're officially presenting this to Mr Quill --" And every eye is on me. "-- since it's his name on the application form on file. We can't engage in an agreement with Mr Snow in any case because he is also an AEGIS asset, administered by myself, which would represent a conflict of interest." Wait, what? Dammit, no, we'd never updated all that stupid paperwork. Why should we? I was perfectly happy handing off the team leadership to Leo, he seemed happy to take it on, and nobody on the team seemed to mind. I hadn't even thought that AEGIS would really cavil at it, even if Leo's on probation with them, or whatever that relationship is. I mean, I've never worried about Leo being influenced or leaned on by AEGIS to do something against us -- it that happened, he'd come to us about it and we'd figure it out. So what happens when I resign? Or go inactive, or whatever we decide? Who will AEGIS deign to talk with then? Okay, fine, whatever, if they want to play this by the published org chart, we can do that. I half-raise my hand, and open my mouth to talk to Waters, when a voice breaks the silence. "I'd like to talk to Miss Chin. In private." Leo. He sounds angry. Well, given that Waters just demoted him (for AEGIS purposes), that's not surprising. But what does he want to talk with Alycia about? "You can step over to the corner," Waters suggests. "Only if you'll shut off whatever listening devices you'd be using on us." Parker speaks up for the first time, an English accent to her tone, but one that's faded a bit with government service here in the States. "Perhaps Agent Waters and myself can have a brief chat with Mr Quill. That should keep us little pitchers with big ears occupied while you have your little tête-à-tête." Leo looks at Waters, then nods to Parker. He gets up and heads over to Alycia. Dammit. If he's going to make trouble about this, I want to know, but maybe the best I can do is distract Waters and Parker. I join up with the two agents over in the opposite corner. "Mr. Quill, Special Agent Elizabeth Parker." She holds out a hand -- initially, I think, to shake mine, but it turns out she's handing me a business card. How mid-century proper. "Nice to meet you, Agent Parker. So you're Alycia's 'handler'? What exactly does that --" "Let's go over this other stuff first, Mr. Quill," Waters interrupts before I can finish my question and Parker can decline to answer as she already looks likely to do. Without pause, he starts to brief me on what I already knew about the government and Vyortovia -- blah blah Halycyon airspace blah active hostilities blah troops under the direction of the city including but not limited to the Menagerie, the JHHL, the Irregulators, and security forces under the employment of a subsidiary of Rook Industries. The last of which is an interesting way to spin matters, but Waters and AEGIS know the truth -- this is more to let us know what the official line is, which, given how the group is now in the cross-hairs of both sides, isn't a tremendous comfort. I only give it part of my attention, though. Another part is on this Parker lady, who's silently sizing me up while also paying attention to the goings-on across the room -- to which I'm also dedicating a part of my own attention, too. I mean, I doubt things are going to turn into a knife fight, but -- So that's why I see Leo turn and give me a thumbs-up. Which comes as a tremendous relief, on several levels. "All right," I break into Waters' dissertation, "That's cool, and we'll try not to cause an international incident until at least Thursday afternoon." I take a step away before he can continue, and turn to the rest of the team. They've been waiting patiently through all this. Not really fair to them, but -- "Hey, guys. I'll brief you later on the other stuff Agent Waters was bending my ear over, but -- I know I'm the one with the name at the top of the form and everything." I shake my head at the two agents. "Paperwork sucks, but that's nothing new. But you need to know, even if these guys expect me to make the decision about Alycia, I can't. Or won't. The Menagerie is a team, which mean we all have a say in this. We need everyone's input." I look over at Alycia, who's watching me intently, maybe even warily. "For what it's worth, my vote is yes." I look back at them and snort. "And, yeah, yeah, I know I'm not the most objective judge about Alycia Chin." The expected laughter ripples through the group, which is what I wanted. "But that's how I feel about it. I want her on the team. I trust her." Adam's looking concerned, but he nods, gravely -- though it's unclear if he's agreeing, or just accepting what I've said. Summer has a grin on her face -- she probably figures this is good for me, therefore it's good with her -- but I don't want to assume. Aria looks more skeptical, but that's something to discuss, too. Harry, he's not buying it, at least not yet. Leo, still over by Alycia, has a half-smile on his face that he might have gotten through infection from her. And Alycia -- I can see her shoulders look a lot less bunched up, but aside from that, she just gives me a nod. I have no idea what I'm doing, but maybe I'm getting better at this stuff. Parker speaks up from behind me. "This is still early days yet," she says. She glances at Waters, who's got a frown, but toward whom and what is unclear. "We have support from AEGIS on this, notionally at least, and from the congressional oversight committee that needs to give their approval. The asset would be brought into your group anonymously, as she as been into this school -- her official name here is Alice Chan --" Harry quips, "Jeez, who'd ever suspect that?" Parker raises an eyebrow, looking over at me. "You'd be surprised, Mr Gale." I'm never going to hear the end of that, am I? I mean, who would have thought Alycia would actually infiltrate into the Quill organization, down in the warehouse, to steal some items she needed to rescue her dad? Calling herself "Alice Chan"? Well, I wouldn't have thought of it, that's for sure. Obviously. "Regardless, we hope to have something concrete to offer and propose to you in a few short days. But as this was the start of term, we preferred Miss Chin inserted into the local school as smoothly as possible, and then wished to ease your minds that she hadn't escaped and was stalking you in your private lives. Thus this meeting." "So where does she live?" Adam asks. "Like, does she have an apartment, or --" "Government housing," Alycia comments, the smirk back. Parker snorts, and responds, "Miss Chin remains under AEGIS custody at the moment, aside from her time here at the school under her parole. That's subject to change as arrangements are made, but in the meantime we can make arrangements, as needed, for a visitation." "A 'visitation' sounds good," I speak up. I'm not happy she's still in jail, but we can tackle that later, and I have some ideas on the matter. In the meantime, we need some time with her, without Frick and Frack here in attendance. I want the others to have a chance to talk with her (hell, I want a chance to talk with her), but I also want to get this memory merge thing taken care of. "We need to talk with her," I say, to the agents, "as a group and individually, to make this a joint decision. A reception tonight at the Quill Residence would be perfect." I add, "Just her and us." Parker's not happy about that. "We'd want to make the appropriate arrangements, first." I shrug, casually. "You were the folks who seemed in a rush, wanting this wrapped up in a few days. Tonight's good for us." Parker exchanges a look with Waters. "That should be ... possible -- but let us get back to you later today. Just to confirm." She glances at her watch. "And I believe the three of us have an appointment with the principal. We'll be in touch." "Thanks," I reply, politely. No point in torquing her off, even if I'm not feeling particularly friendly toward her right that moment. Alycia picks up her satchel and slings it over one shoulder. She crosses over to the agents, but stops when she gets to me. "Thank you," she says. Her voice is low, soft. Not a terrorist ranting. Someone feeling gratitude. I nod back, and try to give her an encouraging grin. "No problem. I meant it. And we'll see you later." She turns to the others, smiles at them, then exists with Parker and Waters. * * * I lean against the wall. "Well, that wasn't at all awkward or anything." Leo laughs. "You know, I'm happy to let you be in charge when it comes to dealing with AEGIS." "Thanks." I raise an eyebrow at him. What was that all about. He nods, as if reading my mind. "She's in." And there's a sigh of relief from me, as I understand. She agreed, back in the Sepiaverse, to the memory merge process -- but that seems like months ago (more like a few days), and she's been in prison during that time. Leo was making sure she was still on board. He was watching my back, like usual. "Wait, she's in?" Harry speaks up. In a second he's in front of me. "Are you saying Alycia Chin's in the Menagerie now? Because I have to tell you, I've got serious reservations --" "Nothing is settled," I say quickly. "Really. I was dead serious about thinking she should be, but also that we need a consensus about it from the team. That means everyone," I add, looking over at Summer and Aria. And then add, for good measure. "And also including Charlotte." "So we're getting together tonight?" Adam asks. "Yeah," I say, glancing at Leo. He's still the guy in charge. "We've got a couple of things to go over besides that. And first I need to let you guys know about something that came up today." I give them a quick rundown on the Rosa Rook meeting, which cheers them just like it did me. Adam volunteers to come along with Otto, which is cool (I really don't want to go there packing for bear, and I'm pretty certain I can take Rook two falls out of three -- but I don't trust her, and having a couple of allies nearby might come in handy. And that ends up chewing up the rest of Study Hall. I'm glad that's going to be a thing for the team (except Charlotte, dammit), because even if I'm going into inactive membership / retirement stuff, I don't want to lose touch with these people. They're good. They make me better (when they don't overflow my teen drama buffers). So not that bad of a day at school after all. * * * The meeting with Rosa Rook is interesting, and portentous. But I'll have to talk about that some other time. I've got to get things ready for the party tonight. I hope Harry's bringing chips.