Identity Crisis: Adventures in Babysitting - Chapter 4/6

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While Chris and Lydia search for answers, Caleb looks to Enchantrix and Bhramari for assistance, with unexpected results. But as they all prepare for their next encounter with the cunning villain Xenos, he readies his trap for them. And he seems to know them even better than they know themselves!

Identity Crisis: Adventures in Babysitting

By Jenny North

CHAPTER 4

~ CALEB ~

Caleb stood on the sidewalk and looked down at his phone yet again to confirm he was at the right address. He knew that time was of the essence to track down Enchantrix, but as he peered up and down the street, it wasn't at all what he expected. From what he knew of the magical heroine, she seemed more likely to have set her base of operations in another dimension, or via a hidden doorway under a bridge where you had to enter a faerie circle of mushrooms and speak a password three times. Not...a house.

He looked at the row of homes with their neatly maintained front yards, and for a moment he wondered if maybe the whole thing was a giant illusion. Like he'd approach and it would all melt away to reveal some fantastic otherworldly realm that didn't obey the laws of physics. Though by the time he walked up the steps and got to the doorbell, he was starting to suspect that the whole thing might be legit.

He rang the doorbell—just a regular ding-dong doorbell and not a deep booming gong or anything—and after a few moments, the front door opened and a teenage girl stood there. She was dressed casually in a camisole top and shorts, and her hair was a vibrant shade of auburn red that framed her face in long, loose waves. She looked at Caleb with a mildly curious expression, and as he made eye contact with her, Caleb realized that she looked very familiar.

"Enchantrix?" he said as he gaped at her.

"Hey, Caleb."

He stared at her incredulously. "Whoa. Is that your actual hair?" he asked.

"Yes, this is my actual hair," she replied in a deadpan tone, which her English accent seemed to make even more deadpan.

He continued to stare at her in awe and then blinked once. "Hey, I'm not looking to cast aspersions on your chosen career or anything, but you should not be in a line of work where you're covering that up. You should be doing shampoo commercials, or something."

"Uh huh. Look, I'm not real hung up on the whole 'secret identity' thing with the mask and all, but I do try to be a bit discreet, yes? So, having you come up to my front door and blurting out my hero name to the neighborhood isn't what you'd call super helpful."

"Sorry," he said sheepishly. "Can I come in? PG needs your help. It's...not good."

"When is it ever?"

She opened the door and he entered. The inside was cozy with framed pictures on the walls, and with various vases and knick-knacks and decorations on display that had intricate and colorful designs. A family lived here. Again, not what Caleb expected.

"Enchantrix, Peej told me that Bhramari would be here, too?" he said.

She nodded. "Caleb, call me Ren. But yeah, she's upstairs. Her parents have let me crash here ever since the Sanctuary was destroyed."

Caleb stopped short. "Wait, how do you know my name?"

She smiled. "You blurted it out to me that time in Prodigy's garage, remember? Or do you prefer Flamebait?" she teased.

"Um, listen, that was just..." he said haltingly.

"Yeah, that's not your name, I know." She shook her head. "I looked it up. It turns out the real Flamebait is an earth controller based out of Terra Haute. Total waste of a good hero name, if you ask me. Here, c'mon."

Ren started to climb the stairs and Caleb moved to follow her, but she stopped once she got to the third step as if something had occurred to her. She turned and gave him an odd look.

"Problem?" he asked.

"Probably not. Depends how long you're gonna be here. C'mon, and tell me what's going on with Peej," she said as they continued upstairs.

~o~O~o~

Caleb watched as Ren threw herself back into her desk chair and expelled a long, slow breath as she looked at the ceiling, taking in everything he'd told her. Bhramari was there as well—or Aparna, he'd learned her name was—and she was listening to their conversation while also grooving to the muffled thumping of house music that played from some speakers inside a terrarium. Although Aparna was deaf, she could see and hear through the insects she could control, several of which buzzed about the room in well-orchestrated flight patterns.

Caleb was seated on one of the two beds that had been jammed into the cramped bedroom that the two girls shared, and as he glanced around, he found himself becoming strangely edgy. He knew that Chris's identity as Prodigious Girl was to be kept strictly secret, even from his parents who certainly wouldn't have approved. However, it seemed that Aparna's family was evidently more open about such things, and supportive of her superheroing. From surreptitious glances around the room at some photos on display, Caleb started to piece together that it might even be a family business of sorts. Though at the moment he didn't want to pry, and they had bigger issues.

"Metahuman powers are tied to the body," Caleb said, finishing his explanation. "So, I don't see how any of them could have body-swapping powers. That's why Chris thought you might have some ideas." Caleb made a little face as he used Chris's real name, but evidently he'd already shared that with Ren and Aparna during his visits here. At least his first name. They didn't seem to know that Chris wasn't really a girl, however, so Caleb made a point to watch his pronouns.

"It's Xenos," Ren whispered with a faraway look.

"That's...more specific than I expected," Caleb admitted. "You know this dude?"

"I haven't had the pleasure, but I know the story," Ren said. "Originally there were five of them, all mindless creations to serve an evil sorceress, centuries ago. Only one survived. He evolved and developed this ability to trade souls with someone else. I don't even know his real name, I've only heard him called Xenos. I'm not even sure if that's a name or just a title someone gave him."

Over from her seat, Aparna responded using sign language.

Ren shook her head. "I'm sure because he's hunted down and killed everybody else like him. Let's just say he values his privacy and didn't appreciate others like him drawing attention. You could probably trigger a body swap with an artifact or something, but anybody on Earth with this innate ability...I doubt there are many left."

"Sounds like you know this guy pretty well," Caleb said.

"I should. The sorceress who created him is my mother." Then when Caleb frowned and shook his head, she added, "Rhiannon?"

Caleb seemed more confused than ever. "Your mom is Ri-Ri?"

"Rhiannon, you dingus, not Rihanna. Rhiannon Blackwood?"

He snapped his fingers. "Ultra-powerful black magic evil sorceress. That does make more sense."

Aparna looked concerned and signed something else.

Ren shook her head. "I have no idea."

"What'd she say?" Caleb asked.

"She was wondering why Xenos would take an interest in Peej. Hell, until just now, I thought he was dead. The last stories I heard about him were from before any of us were born."

Caleb nodded. "I think we need to talk to Chris. Maybe she's figured something out," he said, taking care with the pronoun.

~ CHRIS ~

Lydia and I wandered through the storage area of Prodigy's garage, with its racks and racks of God only knew what. It wasn't nearly as spacious as that big warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it wouldn't have surprised me to stumble across the Ark of the Covenant tucked away in a dusty corner back here.

Unfortunately, if there was any unifying organizational structure to how things were stored back here, Prodigy hadn't seen fit to share it with me. There were photon grenades stacked alongside cans of motor oil, which were alongside a chessboard where all of the pieces looked like members of the Liberty Squadron. Caleb was even more of a hero nerd than I was, and he immediately geeked out when he saw all this stuff, but I had trouble getting excited. When I first saw it, it seemed like a lot of junk being kept by an aging hoarder.

However, the more I learned about these items, the more freaked out I was that Prodigy didn't take better precautions. It was hard to tell the good stuff from the bad, but I had a funny feeling that a lot of it would be better off kept deep in a secure vault at the Liberty Squadron's headquarters than—

—a sonic disruptor pistol sitting on top of an open box of breakfast cereal. I sighed. It bothered me that I wasn't even sure what was more lethal, the gun or the cereal. I was certain that I didn't want to know.

I thought I'd remembered seeing the thing I was looking for back here.

I peered over my shoulder to keep an eye on Lydia as she followed me through the stacks, and I saw her tentatively reaching for something.

"Lydia! What'd I tell you? Don't touch anything!"

Now I did sound like Prodigy.

She quickly yanked her arm back, and she fretted her fingers in a guilty gesture. "But...it's just..." she said, darting her eyes over to the side.

I followed her line of vision, and there on the edge of the shelf was a plastic Troll doll. Its pudgy little plastic body was about five inches tall, and it was topped with a preposterous and towering tuft of bright red hair. It had big dark eyes and a goofy smile, and it was wearing a bikini in a colorful floral pattern. Its arms were spread invitingly wide, like it was going in for a hug.

"Leave it alone, it's dangerous," I told her.

She looked at me dubiously, then back to the doll, and then back to me.

"It's a Troll doll," she protested.

I let out an exasperated huff, which was no doubt a hilariously pouty gesture coming from my small frame.

"Lydia, I don't know what to tell you. I don't know what that thing is, but if it's sitting on that shelf, I know for certain that it's not what it looks like. It could be a grenade. Or it could open a black hole that'll destroy the city. Or maybe it holds the spirits of a cursed legion of a thousand undead samurai warriors bent on world domination! Leave it alone."

She crossed her arms petulantly. "Your boss is weird."

"No argument there," I agreed, as I spotted the object of my search. "Ah-ha! I knew saw this around here somewhere. Here, hand that to me, but be careful with it."

Lydia saw what I was pointing at and pulled the device down off the shelf and handed it to me. It was an energy rifle, and it was big and heavy—even more so from my current perspective—but I carefully slung the weapon over my shoulder. It was practically as tall as I was.

"And that's not dangerous?" Lydia challenged.

From over by the computer, I could hear the sound of my phone ringing. "Come on, we need to get that," I said to her.

~o~O~o~

"Xenos," I said, as if saying his name out loud might give me some better insight. It didn't. "We're sure about that?"

"Reasonably," Ren said. I wasn't entirely enthused with the ambivalence I detected in her voice.

"Okay. Let's assume that you're right. Do you know a spell or something to switch me and Lydia back?"

There was a long enough pause that I knew what was coming.

"No," Ren said. Much to my distress, this time her voice was filled with a good deal more conviction than her previous answer. "I mean, I could do some research and maybe there's something out there, or a magic item that'll change you back, but that could take weeks, maybe months—"

"We don't have weeks," I interrupted her. "Our parents are coming home tomorrow. Late afternoon or early evening. If they see us like this..." My voice trailed off as I looked over at Lydia, who seemed as concerned as I was. "Let's just say we won't be able to fool them. I mean, maybe for a few days, but—"

"That's not going to do it," Ren said.

There was a pause, then I heard her talking to Aparna. "Yeah, I agree. Xenos caused the problem, so he's the obvious fix. If we can ambush him, take him unawares—"

"No, that's too dangerous," I said. "We can't risk him swapping with one of you and making this whole situation worse than it already is."

"Good point," Caleb said. He had a funny tone to his voice, and it occurred to me he was probably looking at the girls and not relishing the idea of being stuck in one of their bodies.

"I might have something for that," Ren offered. "A protective talisman with a rune of spirit shielding should protect us."

"Should?" Caleb asked.

Ren made an equivocal noise. "As long as Xenos hasn't taken precautions against that. Though I don't think he'd expect us to use that kind of magic against him."

"I don't suppose you happen to have a talisman like that laying around?" I asked.

"No, but I can make some. I should have all the ingredients I need right here. Even so, it'll take several hours, maybe even overnight. Though that still begs the question how you're going to find him."

I glanced over at Lydia.

Her face lit up. "I'm going to be bait!" she said proudly.

"I'm not enthused with this plan, Chris," Caleb said.

Lydia said brightly, "Uh-uh, it's okay, I don't mind. Chris has used me as bait for bad guys before. Twice! Three times, counting today."

There was a long pause on the other end of the phone.

"I swear, it's like I don't even know you," Ren said.

~ CALEB ~

While Ren had gone downstairs to the kitchen to start working on the protective talismans, Caleb busied himself by idly looking around the bedroom, trying to seem politely curious without being overly nosy. Aparna, meanwhile, had returned her full attention to her music. She'd turned it up, so it was now more clearly audible in the room.

"This sounds really familiar," Caleb said, listening to the music. It was an EDM remix of a popular song, but it blended in elements of hip hop and synth-pop in a really interesting way.

He snapped his fingers in realization. "Hey, I know this guy! I mean, I follow him. He does these really great mixes. I can always pick out his stuff because the percussion always has this kind of weird reverb to it. I haven't heard this song, though. Did he just drop it?"

Aparna turned to look at Caleb, and she had a knowing little grin on her face. At first he didn't follow her meaning, but then he looked at her laptop and saw a program open with a sophisticated electronic mixing board.

"Shut up," he said. "You're DJ B. Buzzy?"

Aparna maintained her smile and looked to the terrarium, and Caleb watched as the insects all stopped in place and began to drone in harmony, then quickly shifting into a very distinct thumping beat.

"Outstanding," Caleb marveled with a smile as Aparna tilted her head in thanks. "Dang, I totally assumed you were a guy."

"Kinda credited you for having better observational skills than that," Ren teased as she entered the bedroom and tossed herself down in her desk chair. "Okay, the base materials are cooking now. I'll check on it in a few hours, but this is going to take a while."

"Chris doesn't have tons of time," Caleb reminded her.

"If the ingredients take, I should have these done by tomorrow morning," Ren said. She then picked up a spindle of heavy thread and pulled out a length and put it on the desk. Then she began to twist it around itself into a complex braided helix pattern.

Caleb peered over her shoulder. "What's that you're doing?"

"It's complicated," she growled, obviously annoyed at his intrusion.

He watched her work. "Those must be the cords for the talismans," he reasoned. When she didn't respond, he offered, "You know, I help out PG with stuff all the time."

"You don't say," Ren said dismissively. She then made a small grumble of annoyance as she had to stop and unwind the last few twists she'd just made. She then haltingly tried a different pattern.

"Mmm," Caleb intoned. By now, Aparna had taken an interest in their conversation, and she looked up from her laptop with a puzzled glance. Caleb gave her a sly wink. Then, in a conversational tone to Ren, he added, "You know, I once made a macrame potholder..."

Ren slammed the twisted thread down onto the desk in annoyance and spun around in her chair to face him. "Listen, halfwit, this is a little more complicated than that."

"Oh?"

"Yes! They need to be woven in a very particular way with the threads of magic."

He looked confused. "You're weaving magic? I thought that was only a figure of speech."

"It's how it works," Ren snapped. "There's threads of magic all around us, if you can see them. Then as you twist them around, it has different effects."

"But I guess you can't cut them, huh?"

"Of course you can! Though you'd need an aetherknife, and I don't have mine anymore."

"Oh. You misplaced it, huh?" he said sympathetically.

"I didn't misplace it! I lost it when I—" Ren stopped short, suddenly aware of not just the inquisitive look that Caleb was giving her, but Aparna's rather amused expression as she listened in. It took Ren a moment to realize that he'd baited her into divulging more information than if she'd simply answered his question in the first place.

"Very clever," she said, turning her back to him and resuming her work on the braided cord.

This time Caleb took the hint. He resumed his polite examination of the bedroom, but stopped as he spotted something that had caught his eye earlier.

"Okay," he said with an amused smirk. "Who's the Hexes and Hos fan?" chucking a thumb towards the collection of paperback books on a small bookshelf.

Aparna had returned her attention to her laptop, so she was turned away and he couldn't read her expression. Which was unfortunate, because it meant that he couldn't see the pained smile she was making at his gaffe.

Ren stopped fooling with the cord on her desk and once again spun her chair around to look directly at him. However, this time she did it slowly and very deliberately. Caleb didn't really notice that, however, since he'd turned to check out the row of dog-eared paperback books with a smile.

"Oh. Do you know much about Hexes and Horrors?" Ren asked in a strangely casual tone, putting extra emphasis on the proper title for the series. Meanwhile, Aparna was doing her best to suppress a smile as she bit on a fingernail and pretended not to listen as she slyly peered over towards the two of them.

Caleb, unfortunately, remained oblivious.

He scoffed and broke into an easy smile, as though the idea was ridiculous. "Me? No, hardly."

"Not a fan?"

He made a nervous chuckle as he read her face and finally began to see the trap he'd laid for himself. "I mean, there's nothing wrong with them."

"Of course not."

"It's just... I mean, they're kind of..." He glanced over to Aparna who had now fully turned in her seat to watch the exchange. From her amused smile, she was clearly enjoying watching him squirm.

Ren gave him a heedless shrug that belied the intensity in her eyes. "Kind of...what?"

Caleb's smile was frozen on his face, but it faded microscopically. "I mean, c'mon. Don't take this personally, but you gotta admit, they're basically steamy romance novels. They're awfully...girly."

"That's an interesting persp—"

Just then, Aparna's smile suddenly faded, and she got an alarmed look on her face. She knocked urgently on her desk to get Ren's attention, and signed something quickly to her.

"Shit!" Ren swore as she spun around and began to madly dig around in her desk drawers for something.

"What is it? What's wrong?" Caleb said anxiously as he glanced around, trying to figure out what had set the two of them off.

"A-ha!" Ren said as she retrieved a small item from the third drawer down. It was a twinkling crystal pendant, and in a blink she was up out of her seat and came straight at Caleb with it. He froze in confusion, and it was only when it was far too late that he recognized the pendant as the Morphex crystal that he'd once seen her use on Prodigy.

"Don't take this personally," she said with a smirk as she placed the pendant around his neck.

"Wait—!"

The transformation was instantaneous.

There was a disorienting blur of form and color, and Caleb reeled as he felt his flesh and bones shift, at first shrinking down somewhat and then feeling as the flesh on his chest, hips, and butt became a lot more rounded and squishier than he was used to. He barely had time to process the magnitude of that change when his clothes transformed into a laughable and scant superhero costume in bubblegum pink with baby blue highlights. Although in addition to the color, the style was equally shocking, consisting of thigh-high boots, skimpy little shorts, and a buckled bustier that had hefted up his brand-new boobs and put them on a rather brazen display.

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At first Caleb looked to Ren—who seemed altogether pleased with herself—but then as he spun to look at the nearby full-length mirror, he beheld the startled-looking girl reflected back at him, with her big bouncy blonde pigtails swishing about playfully.

He recognized his reflection immediately. It was the 'Candy Scrapper' disguise that Prodigy had worn to infiltrate Demetria's all-female Sanctuary using the Morphex crystal. At the time, Caleb had found it all very amusing, but at the moment he felt quite a bit differently about it.

His hands reflexively went for where the Morphex crystal should have been dangling around his neck, but all he saw and felt was his brand-new cleavage.

"Not so grabby," Ren hissed as she gave him a hard shove back.

Caleb gave a startled squeak as he stumbled back on his unfamiliar high-heeled boots as Ren cast another spell. By the time his butt landed on the bed, his superhero costume was gone, and he instead found himself wearing a totally different outfit...a light pink tee with a scoop neck, a dark pink print skirt, and sandals. It didn't seem like much of an improvement.

He turned angrily to Ren. "Change me b—!"

"Shush!"

"But I'm—!"

"Shush!"

"What's with all the shushing in here?" a woman's voice came from the doorway.

Caleb's head snapped around so quickly towards the source of the voice that one of his big blonde pigtails smacked him softly on his cheek. The person standing there was a middle-aged Indian woman with a round face and wide dark brown eyes, who Caleb guessed was Aparna's mother. And she was staring directly at him.

Caleb, still caught off-guard by suddenly being a teenage girl, said nothing and smiled politely. His eyes cut over to Ren, who was no longer joking and teasing. Although based on the intense look she was giving him, keeping his mouth shut was apparently the correct choice.

"Oh, hello," the woman said pleasantly. "Another one. Are you a superhero, too?"

Aparna gaped at her mother in open-mouthed shock and signed something to her. Caleb didn't know what she was saying, but her body language was instantly recognizable as that of a teenager embarrassed by her parents.

"Oh, suddenly you're worried about your secret identity," the woman scoffed in response. "If you ever brought home a friend who wasn't a superhero, that would be a shock."

Aparna signed something. Quite emphatically.

"You watch your language, young lady! I'd make you wash your hands with soap, but you should be doing that anyway." Then she turned to Caleb. "Are you a friend of Chris's?"

Caleb blinked. "Uh, yes," he admitted. His girl's voice was practically a chirp, making it sound like even more of a question than it was. Meanwhile, his mind raced to process that they were all on a first-name basis with Chris as Chris, not just Prodigious Girl. Though he was still practically certain they only knew Chris as a girl. Caleb turned to Ren in confusion.

"Mrs. Patel, this is Caylee," Ren offered, her eyes twinkling slightly as Caleb shot her an accusatory look at the name.

"Hm. Okay. Well, no costumes in the house, and no flying in the house. If that's even something you do. We're no strangers to superheroes, but we do try to be somewhat discreet," she admonished him before returning her attention to Ren. "And I'm assuming that foul-smelling brew you've got going downstairs that's ruining my good cookware is somehow for the good of the city?"

Ren looked mildly chagrined. "I'll also need the oven later. Sorry. It's not like these spells have microwave directions."

The older woman made a discomfited grumble. "Just clean up after you're done."

"Sure thing, Mrs. Patel."

"Ren, I've told you a thousand times. You're staying under our roof, which means you're family. Call me Mom."

Ren squirmed in her seat as she seemed to struggle with that. "Yeah, I...I don't see that happening. Thanks."

The woman nodded knowingly. "Ah, mother issues. It's because your birth mother is a satanic despot who tried to murder you, and then the woman who rescued you and to whom you looked for guidance broke your brain like so much peanut chikki, isn't it?"

Caleb cringed at the question, but to her credit, Ren simply tilted her head gamely in agreement. "Yeah, that's pretty much it."

"All right. Dinner is at six."

She made a move to leave, but then stopped herself and looked directly at Caleb. "Oh, and by the way, Caylee..." she began.

Aparna's shoulders visibly slumped in teenage exasperation at her mother's continued presence.

Mrs. Patel wagged her finger at Caleb like she was chastising him. "You need to tell Chris that she needs to find a better brassiere for her civilian outfits. Something that minimizes! She's not hiding anything. It's a wonder people haven't broadcast her secret identity all over the Internet. 'Prodigious Girl,' indeed."

"O-Okayyy..." Caleb said haltingly.

"She wears that tiny little mask as a hero, and then she comes in here with her long dark hair up in a ponytail like she thinks people aren't going to recognize those!"

As she made the comment, she gestured towards Caleb's own not-inconsiderable chest for emphasis. Since he'd only had breasts for less than two minutes himself, it took him a second for him to make the connection, but he nodded numbly in agreement.

"Caylee, do you have a boyfriend?" Mrs. Patel asked pointedly.

Aparna buried her face in her hand.

Caleb, whose brain was desperately trying to catch up with this situation, just shook his head, feeling his big ponytails jounce around.

"No? You see, that's good. Focusing on your studies first, I like that. There will be time enough for boys later."

Ren was clearly delighted watching "Caylee" squirm from all the attention. Aparna, meanwhile, had had about enough, and signed a message to her mother, who waved her hand dismissively.

"Fine, fine. You girls get back to your secret superheroing. Just try not to burn the house down. Or open a portal into the netherworld."

"It was just the one time," Ren muttered.

After she left, Caleb looked down at himself and gave his little pink tee a tug downwards, which had the unfortunate effect of making his cleavage more visible. He then looked up at Ren, who had an uncharacteristically mirthful expression on her face, especially as she saw his twin pigtails bouncing around.

"Remind me why I'm a girl, again?" Caleb asked in his ditzy high-pitched voice.

Aparna made a wide-eyed look of incredulity and signed something.

"Ha, you said it," Ren agreed. "Trust me, 'Caylee,' if she'd found us up here with a boy in our bedroom, it would have been a reenactment of the Manichean invasion."

Caleb looked down at himself again and fussed at his skirt. "Great. I have to stay like this until I leave?"

Ren made a pained face and cleared her throat gently. "Yeah, about that. Look, the spell was kind of a rush job, so I can't exactly just take the crystal off. It needs to run its course."

Caleb let out a groan that came out more like a girlish sigh. "How long?"

"Two weeks. Three at the outside."

"What?!"

"Don't worry! I'm not sure where you are in your menstrual cycle, but you probably won't even get your period."

Caleb smacked his knees together as he gaped at her in disbelief. Then he stopped and looked her in the eyes.

"You're messing with me," he said.

"Dang it. I pushed it with the period thing. You're not as gullible as you look."

Caleb swung his head to one side, causing his pigtails to bounce. "It'd be hard not to be." Then he gave her a more serious look. "How long?"

"I dunno. Maybe a day or two."

"What? I can't go home looking like this!"

"Yeah, welcome to the exciting and unpredictable world of the superhero, toots," Ren said as she spun around in her chair and returned to weaving the cord. Aparna, meanwhile, had already returned her attention to mixing a track on her laptop, leaving Caleb to look down at his changed body.

Ren cast an eye over at him and turned to pick up a small stack of printed pages from her desk and handed them over to him.

"Here. If you're bored, you can read my latest Hexes and Horrors fanfic. Let me know if you have any questions about the characters. Hopefully it's not too girly for you."

As she turned away, Caleb looked back in the mirror across the bed, seeing his feminized reflection staring back at him. He had to admit that the wide-eyed teenage girl with her blonde hair up in the two girlish pigtails did seem to fit the target demographic.

"Oh, boy," he lamented.

~ CHRIS ~

I needed time to research Prodigy's files, but I also had to do something with Lydia that I wasn't looking forward to. However, she was getting both antsy and snacky, so I figured a small break was in order. But first, I retrieved my CosFit and had her transform back into Prodigious Girl. She seemed more comfortable that way, and I think she liked wearing the costume. And I figured it might help ease her into the next activity I had in mind. Not that she was entirely accepting of the change.

"Would you stop fooling with those?" I hissed.

"But they're so dumb!" Lydia complained, looking fretfully down at her chest as she touched her stomach. "I can't even see where my belly button is!"

I turned to look at her. Her costume covered her midriff, so it wasn't like it would be visible, anyway. "Why would you need to see where your belly button is?" I asked.

"I dunno! It was never a problem before," she countered as she tried to peer past the fleshy obstructions. She wriggled her shoulders and gave a little shudder. "They're always just...there. Am I gonna be this big when I grow up?"

I sighed. "I don't know, Lydia. Probably not."

"Ugh, I hope not. I bet everybody would laugh."

"Fewer than you might think," I muttered. "Oh, thank God, we're here. Open this door, will you?"

She obliged me, opening up another storage area. Lydia stood back and gazed at the sizable stack of small meticulously organized bagged brown packages, all wrapped in heavy plastic. As she peered at them uncertainly, I dug around in the pile.

"What's a 'murray'?" she asked, bewildered.

"M.R.E.," I corrected her. "It stands for 'Meal, Ready to Eat.' It's like what soldiers eat when they're out in the field. Oh, this is a good one. It's got like a trail mix with M&Ms," I said, handing her the package. I found another one that included peanut butter, jelly, snack bread, and Skittles, figuring we could share.

Lydia continued to examine the large pile. "How come you have so many?"

"Prodigy likes to be prepared. Y'know, like if the world ends, or something."

Lydia read the label on her package. "If the world ends, you're gonna eat beef tacos and rice?"

"Just imagine what an amazing civilization we'll rebuild," I said, mostly to myself.

We returned over to the main area by the computer, and Lydia opened up the packages and we dug through the contents. She seemed quite taken with the concept, almost like we were camping, or something. I only picked at my food, but Lydia actually ate quite a bit. It was funny to watch her in my body as Prodigious Girl. She had an innocent, almost carefree air about her, which bent my brain. After all, right now she was in the body of a teenage superheroine eating military rations while we sat in my mentor's crappy superhero hideout, but to look at her from her attitude, she could just as easily have been sitting at home watching cartoons.

Meanwhile, I was freaking the hell out, not that I dared show it for fear of worrying her further.

"Lydia, I need to review some files to figure out what we're up against, okay?"

She nodded and munched on some Skittles. "Okay. I'll just play my game," she said, reaching over towards her backpack that was sitting by the computer.

"Actually, no. I've got something I need you to do. You're not going to like it, but it's really important, okay?"

She furrowed her brow in mild confusion and shrugged. "Sure, okay."

~o~O~o~

"Owwww!" Lydia cried out.

I glanced up from my data pad. "Lydia, you have to be faster. Pay attention. Go again."

A few moments later, I heard her shriek again. And again. And again.

"This is dumb! I don't want to do this anymore!"

"Again," I said in as uncompromising a tone as I could manage with my seven-year-old voice.

I hated doing this to her, but I didn't have a whole lot of choice. The lowest level of Prodigy's garage had a large open room with a somewhat elevated ceiling that we used for training. The room itself was nothing special, but Prodigy had worked out a training regimen for me which involved me wearing a VR headset to give the appearance of different environments. Meanwhile, I had to dodge incoming attacks from three small combat drones. Despite my invulnerability, even on their lowest stun settings their blasts stung like heck.

IdCrBabysit0402.jpg

I hated these exercises with a passion, and Lydia wasn't a fan, either. Nevertheless, we needed to be prepared for our next encounter with Xenos, and I knew that dodging while flying required more than a little finesse. However, finesse wasn't easy to come by when you were constantly getting stung by three very angry and determined hornets. Which was kind of the point of the exercise.

"Ow! OW! Chris, I can't do this! It hurts!" Lydia complained.

"God dammit," I growled, the profanity sounding particularly unnatural in Lydia's little voice. I knew I shouldn't have been short with her—what I was asking wasn't easy—but what research I'd managed to do on our bodyswapping adversary made me edgy. Xenos was dangerous and methodical, maybe even more so than Prodigy. If we weren't ready for him, then our best-case outcome was that Lydia and I would remain stuck in each other's bodies permanently. In the worst case, not all of us were likely to survive. So, watching Lydia fail and fail and fail was getting me agitated.

"I'm doing my best," she insisted.

"You have to do better!" I snapped back. "Lydia, I'm sorry this is falling on you, but this guy is dangerous! He's not going to go easy on you just because you're a kid!"

Lydia was cowed by my words, but to her credit she straightened up, seemingly ready to go again. Then she fell to her knees and broke down crying.

Unlike earlier, seeing her like that was a harsh and unmistakable reminder that whatever she looked like on the outside, on the inside she was a frightened and overwhelmed little girl. It was like a bucket of ice water being dumped all over me as I realized what I'd been doing.

I moved over to her and put my diminutive hand on hers. "I'm sorry, Lydia. That wasn't fair for me to ask that of you. I know you're doing your best."

She wiped the tears from her face. "No. You're right, I gotta do better," she said, standing up and taking a breath. "It's like you said. Heroes can't give up, even if it's hard. I'm ready. Do it again."

It was amazing to see the change come over her. She was still afraid, but much more determined. She looked, dare I say, heroic.

But it was obvious this wasn't working. I realized that I'd been training her the way that Prodigy had taught me, with his usual harsh tactics and ruthless efficiency. That wasn't going to work here.

"I think maybe we need to try something different," I told her. "Come on, we need to find some higher caliber weapons."

~ CALEB ~

"Brilliant, the talismans are cooking in the oven. It'll take several hours, but we should be in business," Ren informed Aparna and Caleb as she reentered the bedroom.

"They were kind of big, weren't they?" Caleb asked. Each one had been almost a foot across, and they'd had to load up a few cookie sheets to make enough for the whole team.

Ren shook her head. "It shouldn't be a problem. They get smaller as they bake. They'll be about a third that size when they come out."

Aparna got a puzzled expression and signed something to Ren.

"What the bloody hell are Shrinky Dinks?" Ren asked in response.

Aparna then went on to sign a much more involved message, and Ren furrowed her brow as she followed along.

"Okay, I have no idea what those are, but they sound like black magic to me," Ren informed her. "So, yeah, could be they're related."

Ren then cast a glance over at Caleb, who was still sitting on the bed holding a printed copy of her story.

"How're you enjoying that Hexes and Horrors story, Shapiro? Any notes?"

He peered at her suspiciously. "That depends. Are you asking as a writer looking to improve her craft, or as the temperamental witch who turned me into a girl because she thought it'd be funny?"

Ren shrugged.

"In that case, no notes," he informed her.

Aparna broke into a wide smile and signed a message to Ren, who smiled and nodded.

"Good point, except he's not actually going by 'Flamebait,' so I guess he can afford to be more guarded in his commentary," Ren joked.

"Hey, wait a minute," Caleb interjected, realizing something she'd said. "How'd you know my last name?"

Ren broke out into an impish grin as she summoned a small magical teleportal above her hand, and a few items fell into her waiting fingers. Caleb immediately recognized them as his wallet, phone, and keys.

"Hey, give those back!"

She put the items on her desk. "Why? It's not like you've got pockets in that outfit, hot stuff. We'll make sure you get a cute purse to carry them in before we send you on your way," she teased.

Then, she got a puzzled look on her face as something obviously occurred to her.

"Wait a minute. You were born in Faraday City, weren't you? That means you're almost certainly carrying the latent metagene, even if you haven't ascended to get actual powers."

Caleb regarded her carefully but said nothing.

Ren smiled and eyed him shrewdly. "And, anyone who's metagene-positive can reserve a name with the hero registration system. Of course, most assholes register one so that they can try to sell it for a profit to an actual hero, but it begs the question...what hero name did you reserve?" she wondered. "I know it's not Flamebait. And don't you dare try and tell me you didn't register one. I know guys like you. You're too close to the life not to want some skin in the game."

Caleb squirmed a little in his seat but remained silent.

Ren's face lit up. "Oh, it's good, isn't it? C'mon, tell me."

"No," he said, sounding very petulant in his girl's voice.

"Ohhh, it is good! All right, fine, let me see," she said, edging closer as she paced back and forth right in front of him, but keeping her eyes riveted on his face. Caleb shifted nervously at having her in such close proximity and being scrutinized so closely in his sexy little teenybopper body.

She stopped and leaned against her desk as she peered into his eyes. "Let's work this out. You love all this hero stuff, so you wouldn't settle for a throwaway name. That means you must think that it's good. Though it can't be too cool or you'd have just told me. So, the question is, would a guy like you have reserved a name in the hopes that you might someday get superpowers and use it yourself, or would you just hold on to it to sell to somebody?"

Caleb strained to maintain his neutral expression, but she obviously saw something. "See, someone like PG is a dreamer who would have hoped to use it herself. But you, you're more grounded, aren't you? You're a goofball, but you're practical."

"Thanks," Caleb said dryly.

"So, the name you reserved isn't one you planned to use for yourself," she decided as she tapped thoughtfully on her chin. "Hmm. You think it's a cool name, but not so cool that you'd tell me. But why wouldn't you just tell—"

Her face lit up in realization.

"It's a girl's name, isn't it?" she said brightly as she read his face and clapped her hands in delight. "Oh, now you are gonna tell me."

Caleb gave her an annoyed little pout. "If I tell you, you're just gonna transform me again!" he accused her.

Ren affected a wounded expression. "Do you really think that I would do that?" she asked in a plaintive tone.

Over at her desk, Aparna seemed to not be paying particular attention to their conversation, as she had her back to them and had returned to working on her laptop. However, in answer to Ren's rhetorical question, she raised her right hand and waggled it back and forth in an equivocal gesture.

Ren flashed her eyebrows and gave Caleb an evil grin. "You're still gonna tell me."

"You're evil. Forget it."

"I'm reformed. Basically. Tell me."

Caleb crossed his arms defiantly and fixed her with an obstinate glare that was nothing short of adorable on his girlish features, especially with his big blonde pigtails swinging about.

"Have it your way, then," Ren said as she edged closer to him. As she slowly began to invade his personal space, Caleb scooched back on the bed to retreat from her advance. "But I know something that you don't."

"Which is?" Caleb said apprehensively.

"I happen to know that hot little bod that you're rocking right now is very... very... ticklish."

"Uh oh."

Ren was on him in a trice as Caleb scrambled to get away. She was stronger than Caleb was in his new body, and she quickly pinned him on the bed and was kneeling astride him as she tickled him.

"Stooo-oo-op!" Caleb squealed in a high-pitched giggle as Ren continued her assault. Aparna turned to look at the two of them in disbelief and held her hands out helplessly and signed a message to Ren.

"No! The girl will surrender her secrets!" she cackled.

Tears streamed down Caleb's pretty face as he laughed. "Oh, God, stop, you evil witch!"

"Reformed witch! And I'm polytheistic! Your pleas for clemency mean nothing to me!" she cried as she tickled him. Eventually she stopped, and she tossed her long hair out of her face. "Had enough, sunshine?"

Caleb took a tremulous breath. "This is blackmail."

"No, this is coercion. Different thing entirely. Though depending on how embarrassing the name is, I may be able to blackmail you with it."

She grabbed his wrists, and as she pinned him fully under her weight, he became fully conscious of their strength differential. She tossed her long auburn hair again as it started to fall into his face, and as she moved close and licked her lips, Caleb saw her eyes flash seductively. Her insistent look had taken on a different air, and Caleb began to wonder if the encounter might be about to take a very different turn.

Ren leaned down even closer so that they were practically nose-to-nose, and Caleb squirmed slightly as he felt their breasts touch gently.

"Had enough?" Ren repeated in a low voice, her English accent giving it a smoky purr.

"Um...uh huh," Caleb said.

Ren pulled back briskly as she released his wrists. She was still kneeling astride him on the bed, and she put her hands on her hips as she loomed over him. "All right. Out with it, missy."

He looked up at her shyly. "Do you promise not to laugh?"

"I promise no such thing." Then she looked over at Aparna who signed a message. "She promises not to laugh out loud," Ren said with a smirk.

Caleb twitched his lip uncertainly and then got a resigned look on his face. "It's—", he took a deep breath and then sighed heavily. "Hissyfit."

Ren's eyes got wide and she looked like she was going to explode.

"BWAH HA HA HA HA!" she cried out in rapturous joy. She threw herself onto the bed and grabbed a pillow and hugged it tightly as she laughed uncontrollably. Caleb blushed and looked away, and he saw that Aparna was bent over her laptop with her face in her palm, practically trembling as she softly pounded on the desk with her fist.

"It's not that funny," Caleb said.

"Hi-Hiss-Hissyfit!" Ren stammered haltingly, trying to talk between laughs. "Oh, gods!" she wailed as she gripped her sides. "I can't breathe... I can't breathe..."

Caleb couldn't see Aparna's face, but she was slumped over and visibly shaking as she took ragged breaths.

He sat there and nodded gamely. "Yeah. All right. Okay," he said as Ren's laughter turned into little whimpers of delight.

She was still giggling as she touched his arm. "Oh, gods..." she gasped. "You caught me off guard. I wasn't ready. I thought... I didn't know what I thought. But... Hissyfit...!" she whimpered.

Aparna turned to look at her, and Caleb could see that she also had a huge smile on her face. Her hands trembled as she signed something to Ren.

Ren practically snorted. "Yeah, the pigtails didn't help," she agreed, looking over at Caleb as she sniffled and wiped away tears. "Gods, I don't remember the last time I laughed like that," she sighed.

"Glad I could provide some entertainment," Caleb muttered.

"Oh, don't be such a sourpuss, beautiful," Ren said as she scooched over to sit alongside of him and patted his bare thigh.

She checked the clock. "Okay, those talismans need another hour in the oven before I have to reduce the temperature. That gives us some time."

"Time for what?" Caleb asked.

"Well, I know you'd planned to sell that name to some lucky heroine, but you may as well get some use out of it in the meantime," Ren said with an evil grin on her face. "Luckily, now we have time to make Hissyfit her superhero costume."

~ CHRIS ~

I crouched down as I crept through the darkened garage. The standard lighting had been knocked out, leaving just the red emergency lighting. My little heart felt like it was beating like a hummingbird as I peered this way and that, clutching the heavy gun in my hands. Lydia was nowhere to be seen, and the only noises were some random beeps from the computer and some other automated systems.

This wasn't looking good.

I saw Prodigy's car parked 30 feet away and figured I could use that for cover, but that was a lot of open distance, and I fully expected to be spotted. Not seeing any choice, I breathlessly rushed across the span and pressed myself up against the cold metal of the car. My hands were sweaty as I held my gun at the ready and listened for a response, but all was quiet. I slowly edged towards the back of the car, peering into the dim light, looking for—

"Gotcha!"

I dove for cover around the back edge of the car, moving into a mad scramble as I dodged the incoming fire and spun around for a return volley. In the dim light, I saw the shadow above the car and let loose a fierce hail of automatic fire. My first shot went wide, and my target used the opportunity to pirouette nimbly out of the way, narrowly avoiding my second salvo. But I was ready, and I let loose another volley of shots that peppered my target ruthlessly.

"Haha, okay, quit it!" Lydia said, laughing.

I straightened up, holding my plastic rifle against my hip. Lydia was hovering a few feet off the ground holding her own plastic gun, with a number of plastic Nerf darts scattered all over the ground around her.

"It isn't fair, you're too little," Lydia said as we bent over to collect all the Nerf darts.

"You did a lot better that time," I told her. "I didn't hear you coming at all, and you even dodged my shots while you were hovering. That was a good spin."

"Thanks," she said, blushing at the praise.

The Nerf guns weren't exactly standard issue for Prodigy, so we'd made a quick trip to a nearby big box superstore to pick up appropriate armaments. Lydia took to this "training" with a lot more enthusiasm, and even I had to admit that it was kind of helpful for me to get used to sneaking around in her body, getting used to its smaller size. It was actually kind of fun...a word I would never use to describe the training regimen that Prodigy put me through.

My main focus was getting Lydia used to flying, and I pressed her repeatedly on practicing it. Even in the confines of the garage, her fear of heights prevented her from getting too far off the ground, but from experience I knew that being able to fly in a combat situation was too big an advantage to pass up.

We played our "war games" for a couple more hours in different variations. In particular, Lydia had picked up the "capture the flag" concept a lot quicker than I gave her credit for. Still, I was getting tired from all the running around, and I sat down on a bench over by the computer to get some rest and do some more research.

I woke up a couple hours later, not even realizing that I'd fallen asleep. Waking up in Lydia's body was disorienting to say the least, and it took me several seconds to figure out where I was. I heard a television playing, and I did a little double take as I saw Lydia watching some cartoons on the computer. She was hovering a few feet off the ground and "sitting" cross-legged. She was still in Prodigious Girl's body, but she'd also apparently used my shapeshifting power to shift her long hair from black to a golden blonde.

She took a quick glance over at me as I rubbed my eyes and chased away the cobwebs. I saw my phone laying nearby and reached for it.

"What time is it, anyw—oh shit!" I cried out as I saw the phone log. It was only around 8:00, but Aunt Jessica had called an hour ago!

A surge of adrenaline ran through me as I tried to think of some lie to explain why I hadn't answered. Of course, Lydia would have to be the one to talk to her, so I'd have to coach her on what to say.

"Lydia, your mom called. I need you to—"

"Yeah, I talked to her," she said absently, still watching her video.

"You..." I struggled to get my head around that. "You didn't talk to her as Prodigious Girl, did you? Because your mom wouldn't recognize her voice."

Lydia rolled her eyes. "Yeah, Chris, I did that, 'cause I'm a stupid idiot," she said with over-the-top sarcasm. "I turned into you first, duh."

"Oh. Well...good. That's good. What'd she say?"

"I dunno," she said with a more cavalier attitude than I'd have cared for. She seemed to think about it and shrugged. "She thinks you're doing a bad job."

"She's not wrong about that," I admitted, thinking over the events of the day. Then as I thought about how I'd abdicated my various responsibilities, I realized how late it was.

"I guess I should see about making you dinner," I said.

"It's okay, I already ate."

"You did?"

She gestured over to a few other opened MREs. "I didn't like the tacos, but the one with the spaghetti was pretty good," Lydia said.

I had to admit I wasn't sure how I felt about that. I was glad she'd eaten, and actually kind of proud of her for managing to handle it herself. On the other hand, it bothered me that she'd had to do so, since taking care of her was supposed to be my job. Which clearly I wasn't doing all that well.

As Lydia floated there, I found myself staring at her as something occurred to me.

"You changed your hair," I commented.

She touched her golden locks self-consciously. "I'll change it back."

"Yeah, okay," I said, though that hadn't been my reason for saying something. Lydia obviously had some affinity with my shapeshifting ability, having switched back and forth to my identity as Chris to talk to her mom, and changing her fingernails earlier, and here again to change PG's appearance. My first thought was if that might somehow give us an edge over Xenos, but I was extremely reluctant to go that route. For one thing, my shapeshifting power was slow. Swapping between Chris and PG was instantaneous, but making significant changes could take hours. Although even more than that, most people didn't know I had that ability, and I found myself hesitant for even Enchantrix and Bhramari to know I had it. It was a short step from there to them finding out that I wasn't really a girl, and I didn't know how they'd respond to my having deceived them.

Although even at that, I wasn't sure how much that trickery would benefit us against Xenos, anyway. We might be able to surprise him once, but after that, we'd still need to take him down.

The one good thing about all this was that it suggested that Lydia had full access to all of my powers, so that hopefully meant that she had access to my power mimicry ability, as well. I had no reason to believe she'd be any more proficient with it than I was—which was to say, not at all—but to get switched back to our proper bodies, we'd be relying on her to do whatever it was that I'd done to get us into this mess. I still had to explain all that to her, but unfortunately there wasn't much I could do to train her about that.

As I stared at her changed hair color, another thought popped into my mind, one that I wasn't comfortable with. I wondered if she could use that power to turn into a copy of herself. I knew that my power let me change my mass up and down somewhat, but I'd never attempted such a significant change. But it occurred to me...if she could pull it off, Lydia could go home. She'd have all of Prodigious Girl's powers, but her parents would be none the wiser. Meanwhile, I'd be stuck in her body, a powerless seven-year-old girl, and I'd have to face the music with my parents, telling them...God, everything. How this all happened, my secret outings as a superheroine, all of it. That would suck, but at least Lydia would get to walk away from this. After all, it was my fault we were in this mess, anyway.

I frowned as that thought tumbled around in my mind. If she could do it, we could walk away from all this right now. Even if Xenos was looking for PG, he'd have no idea where to look for Lydia. She'd be safe. Though I'd be stuck as a little girl. A powerless little girl.

I don't know why, but it was the "powerless" part that got me even more than the thought of being stuck as Lydia's twin for the rest of my life. I'd become accustomed to my powers and helping people and being special, and the thought of losing all that really bothered me.

Of course, the only way to get my powers or my body back was to trick or coerce Xenos into doing another double-switch, which meant Lydia and my body both needed to be there. Which unfortunately meant putting her in harm's way. I tried to console myself with the knowledge that she was strong and invulnerable and so was hardly helpless, but I hoped that I wouldn't have cause to regret that decision...

~ XENOS ~

Xenos sat back in his chair as he examined the readouts and dossiers on his computer screen. Now in addition to the limited information he had on Prodigious Girl, he'd also pulled up her known associates.

"Children," he muttered. "I'm dealing with children."

Xenos knew better than to underestimate his foes, especially ones who had been pushed to the point of desperation. However, these were hardly Faraday's finest. Once again, he reviewed the list.

Prodigy was of course her most obvious and most dangerous ally, but he'd be off-world for at least another 24 to 48 hours, Xenos had seen to that. He'd calculated that would be enough time to complete his plan.

The best sources of information were the public tools like HeroTracker, the social networking app that monitored sightings of known heroes. Though it was interesting, because Prodigious Girl hadn't had any recent sightings. Xenos deduced that Prodigy must have been doing something to cover her tracks. Regardless, Prodigious Girl was young and still new to being a superhero, so while she'd encountered her fair share of metahumans who operated both inside and outside the law, most were acquaintances at best. He further deduced that her current vigilante status made it unlikely that she'd reach out to law enforcement or any established heroes like the Liberty Squadron. Especially since there appeared to be some friction with Promethean for unclear reasons.

That left her friends. People with whom she was close and could trust.

In her earliest outings, she regularly teamed with a group of four other teenage heroes. She'd evidently had a falling-out with the armored hero Quasarblaze, so he seemed an unlikely choice unless she was truly desperate. Similarly, it appeared he could rule out the hero Triggerhappy as a potential ally since he frequently partnered with Quasarblaze.

That left Enchantrix and Bhramari. Yes. Prodigious Girl would seek them out.

Bhramari's insect control and manipulation made her a talented scout, essentially invisible given her insect scrying ability. Not much use in a combat situation, though.

Then, there was Enchantrix. Renata Blackwood.

Xenos took a slow breath as he pulled up her dossier, scarcely needing to do so. This was a family with which he was intimately acquainted. Even just seeing the name Blackwood made him edgy, but he reminded himself he was dealing with the daughter. Renata was talented, but lately appeared to be curtailing her abilities now that she fancied herself as a superhero. It was unclear if that was by choice or if something else was in play.

Given Xenos's campaign against magic users, Renata Blackwood was certainly on his hit list, one whom he'd personally been looking forward to taking out. Luckily, there seemed to be no love lost between Renata and her mother, so he didn't think killing her would bring him to Rhiannon Blackwood's attention. Still, he didn't dare take that risk. Not yet.

But he was getting ahead of himself. The bigger question was what risk Enchantrix posed. Her teleportals and energy blasts were dangerous, but manageable. Though he had to assume that she'd deduced his involvement by now. At her age, he doubted that she had the expertise or materials to create soulshield talismans to negate his body-swapping ability, but he couldn't be sure. He'd need to prepare for that contingency.

That left the other two. Prodigious Girl and the little girl in pink.

There was no note of the child in the dossiers, but she didn't seem to have powers. At least nothing obvious. And Prodigious Girl had never referred to the child by name. Clever. Some sort of personal connection, most likely.

Since she and Prodigious Girl had swapped bodies, they'd be off-balance, ill-prepared, and desperate. They would also be looking for him, since he was the only chance they had of swapping back.

That gave him a significant advantage. One which he had no intention of wasting.

Xenos tapped a control which pulled up a map of the city. He quietly perused it, his discerning eyes flitting over various locations he'd marked.

He would set a trap. And since they were desperate to find him, they would walk right into it, even knowing it was a trap.

"Children," he scoffed again.

He closed their dossiers and switched over to his list of candidate "hosts" again. These were movers and shakers whose bodies he could potentially swap into in order to take over one of their lives. For years, his plan had been to jump into one of them just as he'd jumped into his current mount. Over 20 years ago, Carson Beaumont had made an excellent target given his wealth and enhanced physical abilities, to say nothing of the usefulness of his costumed identity as the vigilante Chimera. Xenos had always assumed he would jump into someone similar.

But now Prodigious Girl had entered the picture.

Xenos had always merely considered her a means to an end, and certainly she would serve that purpose. Her powers would be useful, but they were hardly exceptional. Once he was done with her, Xenos had always expected to move on, back to someone on his list of candidates.

Though if she was indeed one of the Kindred...that was something else entirely.

Xenos didn't much relish the notion of his primary host body being that of a teenage girl. He'd been countless women over the years, but they were never his favorites, and being a teenager would certainly complicate matters. Although at least she looked older than she was. However, if she had a fraction of the power he suspected... Well, he would be willing to make some concessions.

Xenos shook his head. The power of a Kindred was quite literally in the hands of a small child right now. Right within his grasp.

He would be ready.

~ CHRIS ~

I managed to find a couple cots and some simple bedding tucked away in a corner of the garage, so Lydia and I bedded down there for the night. Lydia wasn't wild about staying there, and I couldn't say I blamed her. However, getting back to either her house or mine would have taken a significant amount of time, and Xenos was still hunting us. Our best option of taking him down meant doing the battle at a time and place of our choosing...and based on what I'd learned about him, even with that edge, our odds weren't what you'd call great. Staying at Prodigy's garage seemed as good a hideout as any.

Fortunately, Lydia fell asleep quickly, which I guess wasn't surprising given the day she'd had. In truth, I wasn't far behind her. Even with the nap I'd had, my little body had had about as much as it could take, as well. And tomorrow was going to be a lot more demanding.

I'd been trading texts with Caleb to get some status updates, so I knew that our plan was on track, such as it was. We were going to rendezvous in the morning and then begin our hunt for Xenos. Though I wasn't sure "hunt" was even the right word. Assuming that he was after my body—or rather, Prodigious Girl's body—for some reason, he'd be looking for us as much as we were looking for him. That thought didn't fill me with joy.

I was in the mood for some reassurance, so I slipped out of my cot and grabbed my phone and headed over by the computer to dial up Caleb. It was late but not desperately late, so I figured he'd probably still be awake. He picked up on the third ring. Or rather, someone did.

"Hey," a girl's voice came.

"Um...hi?" I said. Wait, had I dialed Caleb's sister Lori by mistake? "Lori, this is..." I trailed off as I heard my tiny voice. My mind raced as I tried to think of an explanation why a seven-year-old girl would be trying to call Caleb at this hour.

"Chris, it's okay, it's me," the girl said.

"Oh. Okay," I said, still not sure what was going on. Unless Ren had lost her accent, it wasn't her. It obviously wasn't Aparna. Who else knew about my situation? That only left...

"Caleb?" I asked, incredulous.

"Yeah," the girl sighed. "I'm still over at Ren and Aparna's. I'm sleeping downstairs on their couch. She used the Morphex crystal on me. This is Ren's idea of being inconspicuous."

I blinked as I processed that. The last time I'd seen the crystal used, it was to disguise my aging mentor Prodigy as a sexy blonde teenybopper superheroine named Candy Scrapper, all dressed in pinks and baby blues, and with two big pigtails. My laugh came out as a girlish giggle of delight.

"Caleb, what'd you do?"

"I...might have teased her about her Hexes and Hos collection. A little."

I winced. "Ohhh, big mistake. She loves that series. You should not have made fun of that."

"Yes. I can see that, now."

"She even writes her own H&H fanfiction."

"I've had the pleasure," he said.

"Yeah? What'd you think?"

Caleb paused, maybe checking to confirm that Ren wasn't within earshot. "It's really girly."

"I know, right?" I agreed.

As we both considered that, a silence fell as we obviously both became acutely aware of our situations. He was now a teenage girl, and I could easily have been the little girl he was babysitting. We weren't exactly in a position to be overly critical of such things.

"I think I'd like to change the subject now," Caleb offered.

"Right there with you," I said.

"How are you and Lydia holding up?" he asked.

"She's doing better than me, I think."

"Don't worry about it, Chris. We'll catch this guy tomorrow and get everything sorted out."

"Yeah, about that," I hedged. "I did some digging. I found an energy rifle in Prodigy's storage that reminded me of the one Xenos used against Lydia and me. From there, I was able to backtrack it to an old vigilante hero named Chimera. Prodigy crossed swords with him over twenty years ago—that's where Prodigy must have gotten the rifle—but the file is pretty thin."

"Are you even sure it's him?"

"I found this photo," I said, texting it to him. It was a faded and blurry image of a super in some kind of body armor holding the old energy rifle.

IdCrBabysit0403.jpg

"Ugh, couldn't you have cleaned this up a little?" Caleb asked.

"This is cleaned up. This is a guy who really doesn't like to have his picture taken. That's not the same armor or color, but it's similar. Though I definitely recognize that mask."

"I guess he updated his look. Probably his tech, too," Caleb said. "So, you think this Chimera guy is working with Xenos? Or maybe Xenos stole his body? Hey, if the real Chimera is out there, he might know stuff we can use to help take Xenos down."

I turned to make sure that Lydia was still asleep. I didn't want her to hear this part.

"Caleb, I don't think you get it. Back then, Chimera was the scourge of the Marchetti crime family, and things got really ugly. Then, 22 years ago, the feud ended overnight. Prodigy's notes from that time say he'd assumed that Chimera had been killed. Except that it looks like he popped up a few times after that. But never once fighting the Marchettis."

"Could be a different guy. Or he retired. Hero work isn't easy."

"Or there was a truce. Here, check this out, this photo was taken not long after. The guy on the left is Ferdinand Marchetti, the head of the Marchetti crime family."

The picture had clearly been taken with a telephoto lens. Hanging on Marchetti's arm was a buxom and stunning Latina woman with a cascade of chocolate brown hair in a skimpy and revealing dress, evidently his arm candy for the event.

"I'm not following," Caleb said.

"I couldn't find many more photos of her, but this is what I was able to dig up."

They were more long-distance surveillance photos, and the woman was often in the background. However, from the successive photographs it was obvious that she'd undergone a number of plastic surgeries that piece by piece had grossly hypersexualized her appearance. By the end, she was so outrageously curvaceous and pornographically suggestive that it looked like her surgeons had been trying to turn her into more of an inflatable pool toy more than a person. In every photo she was dressed as slutty arm candy, and she always had a bitter and ill-tempered look on her face.

"And this is...?" Caleb asked.

"Prodigy's file didn't have any information on her, but it listed her name as 'Chi Chi.'"

He paused to let that sink in. "Wait. Just...hang on a sec. You're telling me that 22 years ago, Xenos brokered a cease-fire with some gangsters. Then, in exchange, he trapped Chimera in that body, handed him over to the mob boss, and then just walked away in Chimera's body?"

"That's why Chimera disappeared. Any sightings of him since then have been Xenos all this time. Caleb, he didn't choose Chimera by accident. He specifically chose a loner, and one with access to technology and resources that would be useful to him."

"But...why would Chimera just go along with that?" Caleb asked. "Couldn't he—she—escape, and then—"

"I don't know. Maybe it was blackmail, or maybe they were threatening someone close to him. It doesn't matter. The point is, Xenos wanted it to happen, and he made it happen. He's ruthless, he's calculating, and he plans over the span of decades."

"So, how come he's after you?"

"I have no earthly idea."

Caleb let out a heavy sigh. "Terrific. Okay, let's say you're right. Maybe we can track down this Chi Chi person and see if she—"

I sighed heavily. "We can't. She's gone. There's no record of her after eight years ago. Best guess is that she was killed in a shootout with a rival gang."

Caleb and I both grew quiet. There was no way to know for sure if my hunch was right, but if Chi Chi really had been Chimera, that meant that he'd spent the last 14 years of his life in that outlandish body, trapped as the sexual plaything of his greatest enemy. That was nearly as long as either of us had been alive. I shuddered to think what that must have been like, but it seemed obvious that Xenos hadn't lost any sleep over it.

"Good grief, Chris, you really can pick 'em," Caleb said.

It was weird hearing Caleb sounding like a girl, though I could only imagine what he must think of me in my current body. But as my mind flashed to his "Candy Scrapper" transformation, a thought occurred to me.

"Actually, Caleb, there's something you might be able to help with..." I began.

~o~O~o~
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Comments

Great characters

Emma Anne Tate's picture

I haven’t read any other Faraday novels, so I don’t know all the backstories. But it isn’t necessary; as a standalone tale, this just feels like I’m reading about people who have histories together, the way that people do. It makes them feel real. Ren and Aparna are great additions to the story!

Emma

Trickling in hints of backstory

Jenny North's picture

I'm glad that it's working for you, Emma! I definitely try to write any story that's part of a series to be enjoyed even if people haven't read the other books. And I was fortunate with this story to get a beta reader who hadn't read the previous book, too.

The funny thing is that the characters maybe don't have as much established backstory as you might think. For instance, this is the first time we're seeing Ren and Aparna's secret identities. But I try to weave in new backstory along with references to what we've seen previously so that it feels a bit more lived-in and organic. (Or at least I hope so!) :)

That line about shrinky dinks

That line about shrinky dinks using black magic made me laugh.

They COULD be black magic...

Jenny North's picture

Haha, yeah, when I was sitting there trying to think of a punch line for that joke, I thought, "Well, we don't know for a fact that they aren't black magic..."