Issue #52 – Scenes From a Changing World

This entry is part 4 of 14 in the series The Descendants Vol 5: How the World Changes

Part 6

After Prom, Between Two Trees

Stepping out of the door was like crossing a boundary between worlds.

Inside, the music was cranked, the smell of smoke was thick in the air, and the atmosphere was so close that it was starting to feel oppressive. Outside, on the porch that wrapped around half the lake house rented for Connie Delmonico’s after prom party, the air was cool, clean and just a little lonely.

Juniper crossed to the railing and rested her elbows on it. She already missed her dress; the dream cloud of green ruffles, puffed shoulders and white lace at the sleeves and around the neck and back. It was her fairy tale dream dress, worth every one of the many hours she spent tracking it down online.

Peer pressure was the chief reason she wasn’t still wearing it. Lisa was testing a new ‘quick change’ spell, ostensibly to allow them to get into and out of costume almost instantly and Cyn had the bright idea to put it through its paces switching from formal attire to casual for the party. Lisa and Kay roped Juniper into it one the argument that they should be comfortable while playing their set at the party.

She did as they asked, but insisted on keeping her hair the way it was. Two braids were coiled atop her head in a way that invoked ideas of a crown or tiara, while a pair of delicate curls dropped down the frame her face. The rest of her thick hair hung down to her waist, accented here and there by more braids of varying thickness.

Though she would never voice the thought, she sort of resented Kay booking Snackrifice for sets at both prom and after prom. They were finally catching on, after all, with bookings well into July and a small but dedicated online following; playing school functions and teen parties wasn’t really necessary anymore, was it?

That was just a cover, of course. She just didn’t like losing an hour at both gatherings. Not just spending time with Malcolm, but everyone else too. Because once she graduated, she wasn’t sure what would become of Juniper Taylor.

Willow Chamberlain would be spending most of the summer back in Arizona with her parents (save for jaunts back to Mayfield for Snackrifice’s bigger gigs; the smaller ones would be taken care of by the combination of a certain shapeshifter and Kay’s auditory talents.) and after that… she didn’t know.

Before her secret fell apart at Greenview Ridge, she’d been accepted and confirmed with Emerald College and made a point of keeping far, far away from the subject when she talked with her parents. And there lay the problem: she loved her parents, but she didn’t like Willow all that much.

In retrospect, Willow had been a brat that rejected her parents and wound up a lab experiment as a form of cosmic punishment. Even at the moment, she was wearing makeup to cover the scars the green tank top and denim shorts she now wore revealed.

Juniper, on the other hand, was a sweet girl everyone loved. A little ‘naive’ (and it embarrassed her conclude that it wasn’t as much of an act as she told herself), but goodhearted, determined and loving. And her life was amazing: She’d become a hero like her parents and had more and better friends than Willow every hoped.

She sighed a little and looked out over Lake Standish. Lights twinkled on the other side, though she couldn’t see the houses they were attached to. One of them was Freeland House. Home. And at that moment, her parents were there and it was perfect.

But soon, she would have to go back to Arizona and it wouldn’t be perfect. Or her parents would leave and that wouldn’t be perfect either. Willow vs. Juniper. Her whole life was a subtle battle between two trees, neither of which could get everything they wanted.

Someone coughed and it wasn’t her. Turning at her place on the railing, she realized for the first time that she wasn’t alone. Without even noticing her, she’d walked right past Callie Krieger, who was sitting on the porch swing.

“Oh.” She said, embarrassed at her own rudeness. “Hi, Callie.”

Callie, not being privy to Lisa’s maverick use of magic, was still in her palm dress, and unassuming, sleeveless blue gown with little in the way of accents except for some lace around the neckline. She waved casually to Juniper. “Hey.”

“Why are you out here?” Juniper asked, curious. “It looked like you were the life of the part earlier.” She knew that wasn’t the right phrase, but it was the closest she knew. Callie wasn’t really the driving force of the party, so much as the center it swirled around, thanks to her still new status as local hero/celebrity. ‘Eye of the party’ wasn’t a thing you could call someone, was it?

A tired laugh came form Callie. “You could say that. Everyone wants to talk with me, or dance with me, or—I’m not kidding here—they want my autograph. I had to get out of there.” She didn’t sound at all like she was bragging with that. In fact, she sounded drained.

Juniper offered her a warm smile. “I would have thought you’d like that kind of thing.”

I would have thought I’d like that sort of thing.” said Callie. “I mean, I made Vamanos up so I could, you know, be special. Except now she’s like her own person. People have been calling me Vamanos; I’m not even sure most of them know my real name.” She wrinkled her nose. “It’s kind of annoying and they won’t leave me alone.”

“Maybe that’s another reason why the Descendants keep their identities a secret.” Juniper mused. Some more than others, of course. Posterity was probably number one on the list of reasons Cyn would want to reveal hers.

“Maybe.” Callie agreed. “But it is nice sometimes. And my life is definitely much better since I came up with Vamanos. I wouldn’t change anything, even the really stupid stuff I did at first.”

The door of the lake house opened again and Malcolm exited, accompanied by a fast paced song from inside. Juniper caught a glimpse of Cyn and Ollie dancing over his shoulder. She envied how naturally they took to it, flowing gracefully together even to a fast song.

Out of all the couples in their group, they were the only one that was actually god at it, in fact. She and Malcolm could dance slow, but neither had the confidence for speed. Lisa was good, but JC slowed her down. And it was a blessing Warrick and Tink weren’t at the party at all; they seemed to think abundance and enthusiasm made up for lack of talent and were very, very wrong on that point.

She let the giggle that came with that thought turn into a smile at Malcolm, who approached with a red plastic cup in each hand. He returned the smile as he came to her side.

The smile turned into a look of mild exasperation as he handed her both cups in turn. “The punch you asked for, and the champagne Cynthia insisted I bring out to you.” He clearly missed Callie on his way out too because he followed that with a nod in her direction.

“I’m surprised she didn’t make you get one of your own.” Juniper laughed softly.

Malcolm flushed a little and his eyes traveled to the wooden floor. “She may have forced me to drink an entire cup before I came out to you.”

Both Juniper and Callie burst out laughing at this, causing him to flush further. Finally, his girlfriend took pity on him and, setting the cup of champagne on the rail, put her free arm around him with her head resting on his shoulder. Then she looked up at him with eyes dancing with light from the windows. “It’s alright, Mal. When Cyn does incredibly inconsiderate things, it just means she cares.”

She hadn’t meant it to be funny, but Callie laughed anyway and Malcolm relaxed a little against her. Standing like that with him, she realized, was more of a Willow thing to do than a Juniper one. Especially calling him Mal. Maybe not everything about Willow should be abandoned. Maybe both she and Juniper were part of… whoever she was.

They stood like that a while, long enough for her to notice Callie getting uncomfortable with the idea of somehow intruding on their moment. Reluctantly, she pulled out of the embrace. Callie still needed to talk, and whether the girl knew it or not, they had a kinship now that was more than just being friends.

“Callie and I were just talking about the good and bad part of being a superhero.” She said, inviting Malcolm into the conversation. He didn’t know it, but it was also a test on his part. If he had some sort of problem with descendants or heroes, then what chance did he and Juniper have?

“I’ve always wondered at that.” He said, adjusting his glasses, which had become crooked during the embrace. “But by now, I thought you’d be tired of talking about it; they have been hounding you over it all month.”

“Not just the rest of the class either.” said Callie. “Reporters too. News and… other.”

“Other?”

“Gossip columnists.” Callie said with a shrug. “Just because Sonja Remington was there, they think we’re like best friends now. So they come to me asking if I have any dirt on her. You know, it’s terrible: they think we’re best friends, but they also think I’d tell them all her secrets for a million dollars.” She grimaced at the difference between the price placed on that and the money they paid for an interview with her about the actual battle. A million to do the wrong thing, nineteen thousand to do the right one.

While the other two were talking, Juniper picked up the other cup and then hopped up to sit on the railing, leaning on one of the beams holding up the overhang. If anyone had been paying attention, it was an impressive little feat, doing so without the use of her hands and without spilling either drink.

Training with Alexis made her far more graceful and athletic than she looked. A light layer of baby fat remained, leaving her slightly plump and her face cherubic as ever, but underneath was a woman who was more than a match for the average street tough even without her powers.

Spending so much time with her mother served to show that the baby fat was probably never going away, but she didn’t mind. She liked how she looked and, deceit aside, she liked who she was.

“I know you’re not really Sonja’s friends, but have you two talked since then? That doesn’t seem like an experience you just walk away from.”

Callie blushed a bit. “True. And she did get contact information from everyone after. We haven’t talked since the awards ceremony though; I’m kind of embarrassed contacting any of them, considering I pretty literally dragged them into all this.” She brightened as a grin crossed her face. “You might be hearing from her sometime though.”

Juniper blinked. “Me?”

“Mmm-hm.” Callie continued to smile. “See, I found her at the street festival that day. Where Snackrifice was playing. Turns out, she liked you guys a lot. She even asked me where she could download your stuff.”

Shock played on Juniper’s features. Sonja Remington was a big deal. A very big deal. And there were rumors going around that she was looking to launch a singing career. And now she was interested in the band that Juniper herself sang with?

Without really realizing it, she slid off the railing. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that; how she should feel about it. “I’ve… I’ve got to talk to Kay.” She apologized to them both before dishing back into the noise and smoke of the party.

Like a Kid Again

There was work she should be doing.

Essays by the students in her Power Creativity class on what goes through their mind now as opposed to when they started the class needed grading. Arrangements needed to be finalized for the students spending the summer at the Institute, or at least in Mayfield.

Whitecoat, Barn Owl, and the Rapscallion had all sent their contributions to the PSA campaign along to them, assuming the Descendants had a better idea of what they were doing with that idea than New York’s hero community did. They did not, but she promised she’d watch and critique them with Laurel anyway.

And speaking of Laurel, someone needed to talk her out of the idea she’d been bouncing around about buying one of Brant Industries’ soon to be retired private jets. The idea, as Freeland House’s resident genius presented it, was to increase security by cutting out the paper trail that came with purchasing tickets when moving about the country. When questioned about where they were going to get a private airstrip, Laurel would only smile and point out that one of the jets that would soon be available was designed for vertical takeoffs and landings.

Laurel had been on a bit of a kick with larger scale super-gadgets ever since Majestrix installed color shifting plating and a smokescreen in Juniper’s bike. A friendly, but competitive design rivalry had grown between the two women, except Laurel didn’t need to raid scrapyards for her resources.

So there was a lot of work that she could and probably should be doing. And anyone that knew Alexis Keyes, the harmless schoolmarm, Darkness, the steadfast leader of the Descendants, would probably imagine that she would be very diligently doing just that on a Saturday night when her fiance was, sadly, in Chicago trying to track down the elusive hero The Shade.

Those people hadn’t known Alex “The Darkness” Keyes, the girl who blew a three foot crater in the ground near the Academy wall at Langley in an effort to boost herself over so she could make a date. The girl who routinely needed her friends to come pick her up after a swing-shift mood led to her traveling to a strange city without the means or the money for a return trip. The girl whose guidance counselor had wanted to put in the Enforcer program because it was the closest thing to military school the Academy offered.

If they had, they wouldn’t have questioned how she ended up in a strange city, sitting atop a decorative bell tower on some college campus, watching the stars.

The night had started with revisiting an idea Laurel had put to her months prior: that she might be able to control her black heat enough to form rigid structures. With some effort of will, she could, but it was much easier to form solid, but malleable ones. Which led to the discovery that if she did that while flying, she didn’t have to worry so much about wind resistance. Which in turn fostered some curiosity as to how fast she could now that she wasn’t limited by the wind in her face or tugging at her costume.

The answer was ‘very fast’.

Her GPS said she was in a place called Fredericksburg now, after an hour or so of flying. Pushing so hard made her tired, something normal flight never did, no mater how long she flew, and hungry for some reason. But the feeling of it! Flight itself was an intoxicating experience, but combining that with speed? It felt addictive. Not only that, but it made her feel more like her old self, the one her friends said they still saw in her.

Maybe that girl was still there. In retrospect, after fighting it initially, she really had taken to the life of chaos and adventure she now lived surprisingly quickly. And privately, she did view the effort of keeping her identity secret as an elaborate spy game. There were also times that she’d used Laurel’s green light program for reasons that weren’t strictly emergencies.

She’d even taken to nicking Ian’s palm-top to read his thriller and espionage novels over the past few months, genres she’d previously shunned as fantasies from her younger days.

Leaning back on the sloped roof of the tower, she looked out over the campus. It was given over to a lot of green space and trees that partly hid just how many buildings it had. In a way, it reminded her of the Academy. The Academy, which she’d since learned not only kidnapped students, but had used her, in her capacity as a teacher, to facilitate doing so.

She always felt guilt when she thought about the Academy; about what she helped happen. But before that, she had been a student there and those times had been the best in her life. Thinking about all the things she and Laurel and Ian and sometimes even Melissa had done made her warm inside.

A scent wafted up to her. Cheap fast food, a must in the college diet, just as it had been for the high school students at the Academy. It didn’t smell like a good steak, but it did get her nostrils twitching and that hunger from her flight asserting itself.

Leaning forward, she saw two students climbing out of a car parked in the shadow of the tower. They had a large bag from Taco Villa in each hand.

“Dude, you think you bought enough? I forgot we had to carry all this stuff down to Willard from your shitty parking space.” One said to the other. He was tall, dark skinned, and trying to grow a beard.

“Fifty cents a taco’s a good deal. I’m storing these bitches in the fridge and eating all week. Only half of these are for watching the game.” replied his friend, also tall, but merely tanned. He had glasses and a soul patch. After locking the car, he retrieved his bags from the hood where he set them, he shot his friend a mischievous grin. “You got the bag of Mucho Macho sauce I grabbed?”

“You are not thinking about challenging someone else to a contest of drinking that hot shit again, are you?”

“What? It’s fun.”

Alexis didn’t know what came over her, but a moment later, the pair wheeled to face the living void that was Darkness of the Descendants, floating down form the tower to stand in front of them. A genuine paper five dollar bill (part of her emergency kit) was held in one hand.

“Evening, boys.”

Glasses turned to Not-a-beard. “Dude… you seeing this? Just wanna make sure I’m not high.”

“’This’? How rude.” She chuckled at their sudden panic.

“Sorry. Sorry.” Not-a-beard got his wits together first. “We’re just… well Fred’s kind of far from Machine Town, you know? We’re not real used to this kind of thing.”

“Trust me, no one in Mayfield is used to it either.” She laughed. “But anyway, I was just about to fly off and get a quick dinner when I heard you guy mention tacos?” The fiver fluttered in the wind as she brandished it. “I’ll pay for them.”

Glasses finally broke out of his shocked state. “You? Pay? Seriously, this story’s better than cash.” He held out his bag. “Just take what you want.”

“Can we get a picture though?” Asked the slightly quicker thinking Not-a-beard.

It was hidden by her black heat, but Darkness smiled.

***

Ten minutes and a short video of her splitting a taco with each and drinking two packets of Mucho Macho sauce without water, and she was on her way. Instead of flying though, she hopped the fence off campus and walked down the quiet side street in costume. It was something she’d secretly wanted to do for a long time.

And there was something else too. A huge smile came to her face when she thought of it.

“Alex?” Laurel’s voice came over her com moments after she hit the call home button. “Are you okay?”

“Never better.” Alexis laughed. “But I was wondering: how would you feel about coming and picking me up?”

End Issue #52

Series Navigation<< Issue #51 – Amore DetestabilisIssue #53 – The House on Dawson Bay >>

About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter.

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