"Your partner's here."
Nate jumped slightly when Julie touched his shoulder and spoke softly into his ear. The living room of Lambert Acres was crowded with people now. Thanksgiving wasn't too far off and finals were not far beyond it. Most of the class felt the pressure of impending due dates. Hence, this meeting.
He climbed out of his traditional couch in the middle of the room, trying not to feel too disappointed that his time with Julie had come to an end. The couch closest to the kitchen belonged to Finn, though at the moment he shared it with his partner. Natasha Adler had a fetching pixie cut to her brown hair and a winning smile that in no way showed interest in the black Brit. Possibly because Finn's girlfriend, Amara, sat on the other side of him.
In the kitchen, Alley bustled about making food for everyone while her partner, Danielle Wyngarde, kept her company. Near the door, Jia was nimbly greeting Flynn Smith, her just arrived partner, while saying goodbye to Eli Amsley. As Nate approached the door, he witnessed Eli give Jia a shy, chaste kiss on the cheek before he left.
Then Marie Yates stepped in as Eli stepped out. The trim, compact brunette had green eyes and rather cute freckles on her tanned cheeks. The 14th ranked freshmen girl at West Private was also the only Enhancer currently enrolled. Nate didn't really understand how it worked but he remembered listening to Jia's experience of finding herself too strong and too fast to effectively fight.
Combining his Domination with her Enhancement scarcely bore thinking about.
"Hi Nate," Marie said, flashing a kindly smile. "Thanks for the invite. I brought my set of our notes. Should I have brought anything else?"
"Huh? Oh food? Nah. Alley's planned for everything." Nate shrugged and said "It's her thing, you get used to it. Come on in, I think everyone else is here."
As if on cue, Alley came out of the kitchen and whistled loudly over the crowd. The tall blonde wore her perpetual bikini top with form-fitting bike shorts, though the pattern and color varied on a daily basis. With her shoulder-length hair bound back in a pony-tail, she looked like little more than a blonde airheaded college girl out for fun.
"Alright people, homemade pizzas are in the oven." Alley stepped in front of the television near the fireplace and turned to face her audience. "Drinks are in a tub on the kitchen counter, there's plenty of snacks. Otherwise, butts in seats. Let's get this show on the road."
The ten other HCP students rotated through the kitchen to get a drink before settling onto one of the couches or in one of the fold-out chairs Jia had produced from the shop. Nate settled on a Coke and took a central spot between Julie and Marie. As everyone settled in, a certain silence eventually drew Nate's attention upwards only to find Alley looking at him. So were most of the people in the room.
"You want me to start?" Nate asked, surprised and uncomfortable with all the attention.
"You're the closest thing we have to an expert, Ginger," Alley said, placing her hands on her hips.
"Um, fine." Nate reluctantly stood and took the front spot. Alley in turn plopped herself down between Julie and Marie. "So our projects are due soon and all of us are doing our presentations on someone in the Circus. Rather than do it all solo, a lot of us thought it would be a good idea to get together and talk about the group to better understand the people in it. So, where do you guys want to start?"
"The Ringmaster," Flynn Smith said. The two men locked gazes. Nate remembered the heated exchange a month ago in Gym. Tonight, though, it seemed the 1st ranked Healer had put things behind him. "It's the logical place to begin, after all."
"It's also the place we know the least about," Dani Wyngarde said. The silver-haired white-eyed girl sat up in the couch beside her partner Alley. "The Ringmaster covered his tracks too well."
"Well, we know that the Circus was most of the Sizemore Tech HCP graduating class of 1982," Nate said, getting the subject back on track. "The Ringmaster was their leader even in the HCP days. She was said to be-"
"She?" Amara sat up a little straighter next to Finn. "I thought...I mean, everyone always says he."
Nate sighed. "It's widely known that the Ringmaster used Domination to cover up or distort his or her life. Police agencies, insurance companies, even the hospital he or she was born in had their staff Dominated to erase the Ringmaster's records or to insert contradictory information. The common consensus is that the Ringmaster's male."
"You think it's your Mom?" Alley asked.
"I don't...know for sure," Nate said. "I never saw either of my parents in costume. I don't really remember them very well but Mom seemed to be in charge. The Army takes what I do remember more seriously because I'm immune to Domination as near as anyone can tell. I'm maybe the only person on the planet whose memory is safe."
Nate turned away from the gathered group to look at the wall. It bought him a minute to get his composure back. It also gave everyone a chance to look at the wall-sized flowchart of pictures and biographic facts on the members of the Circus.
All six members were listed, along with notation beside each name:
The Ringmaster: Subtlety (Domination). Missing.
The Hypnotist: Subtlety (Possession). Missing.
The Monster: Close Combat (Shifter). Arrested and convicted.
The Fortune Teller: Focus (Time Manipulation). Arrested and convicted.
The Conjurer: Ranged Combat (Conjuration). Presumed dead.
The Mystic: Control (Telekinesis, flying, healing, energy emission). Presumed dead.
"So, we've all read about the stuff they did," Nate said. "Since the assignment's about hard choices and getting in their heads, I think it's important to talk about team chemistry. From what little remains, we know they were unusually tight-knit as a team. They all interned under different Heroes but still picked circus-themed Hero names and, when their two years were up, they formally created the Circus in 1984."
"Do you think the Ringmaster made it happen?" Jia asked. "I mean, how far back does her control go, do we know?"
"There's no way to know for sure," said Natasha Adler. "But they were all checked out, loads of times. Psych evals, Advanced Mind screens. Remember, they were the Russian experts! They took over as the primary detection, investigation and apprehension team when All-America retired. As far as I know, they kept that responsibility from 1985 right up until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991."
"Army Force Ops did their share you know," Alley muttered.
"I think Natasha's point is that they were under more scrutiny than most teams," Nate said, as politely as he could. "Between the Russian expertise and the fact that both team leaders could control people, they were thoroughly checked out."
"Right, so what about post 1991?" Finn looked around the couches. "I mean, 2005 was the year they went bad. There's a good fourteen year gap there."
"Well, we know the early years there went to the Russian Federation," Jia said. "And routing out lingering traces of Soviet power in the United States. After that...um..."
"They went on hiatus," Marie said. The Enhancer smiled at Nate and gave him a knowing nod. "After all, you were born around 1995? Putting the primary team leader out of action probably slowed them down. The other female member, the Fortune Teller, also took time out for a baby back around 1992 or 1993?"
Nate felt embarrassed being, in his own way, a part of history that others studied. "What records we have show the team responded to crises upon request but were much less proactive in the 1990s than they were in the 1980s. It was the aughts that put them back on the map."
"We're skipping to 2005 already?" Flynn asked.
"He means 9/11 at the World Trade Center," Jia said. "When President Bush launched the War on Terrorism in 2001 and organized the Department of Homeland Security, the Circus was brought in to consult or supplement domestic efforts. The Ringmaster, the Hypnotist and the Fortune Teller all had ways of finding out the truth from suspects or spying on people. The Monster, the Conjurer and the Mystic supported those operations as far as anyone knows but a lot of what they did in the early aughts was classified."
A timer in the kitchen announced the pizza was done, which quickly stalled further discussion. As usual, Alley took charge of the food and quickly served the students as they lined up for dinner. Nate eyed the gourmet pizzas piled high with exotic ingredients. Thankfully, she'd included a pepperoni pizza and more baked in the oven even now.
The class circled back to the living room. Nate wolfed down a slice and set his plate aside as he took up the lead position once more. He tapped the flow-chart on the wall and ran a finger down the list of names. Then he turned his back to it and leaned against the same wall, on the side so everyone could still see the Circus listing.
"So, anyone have any theories or thoughts about how the team functioned? Any perspective on how the whole impacts your individual Hero?"
"Sure," Finn said, sitting up from where he'd slouched back. "Natasha and I are doing the Monster. Seems to me that he's as strongly affected as any, don't you think? I mean, here's a bloke whose ability lets him turn into a city-destroying monster. Literally city-destroying in the case of Galesburg, Illinois. But his mates seem to have had a profound impact on his career. Compared to most Close Combat experts, the Monster did remarkably little damage, didn't he. There's at least fifteen cases Natasha turned up where smashing a villain or Russian would have been quicker and less risky. Only he didn't. Man of conscience, I think."
"Of course he was," Jia said, her quiet voice still silencing the tall black Brit. "He and the Fortune Teller were both found innocent in their trials. Flynn and I are doing the Fortune Teller, the other Circus member who was caught. The DVA ultimately found them not responsible for their actions. Both had been profoundly Dominated and we're pretty sure the Monster was actually Possessed by the Hypnotist when he leveled Galesburg. Since the Fortune Teller could manipulate time, she probably grappled with a whole range of ethical issues no one else ever faces. Going back to save someone's life might mean someone else dies instead, that kind of thing. There isn't a whole lot written about her involvement, though."
Nate was relieved to finally take a step back and let others talk. It was uncomfortable standing in the spotlight, much less for so long. He listened to Amara and Joe talk about the Conjurer, who'd disappeared inside one of his own conjurations, presumed dead to this day. Alley and Dani brought up the Mystic, the enigmatic jack-of-all-abilities who'd died in a collapsing warehouse. And of course Nate had the Hypnotist, one of the big mysteries of the modern Hero world. After all, he could be anyone.
Sometime during the conversation, Julie's hand found his. Just like that, his worries went away. The team was still hard at work, trying to find the Ringmaster, but it didn't all depend on him. In Nate's book at least, that was a very good thing.
After all, even he didn't know if he could really fight his parents if they found them.