Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Rebecca knew something was up the minute she came inside with the first bag of groceries. She’d learned what Jack’s hopeful face looked like a long time ago - not that she had wanted to, at first.
“All right,” she said. “What is it?”
“What, I can’t be happy to see my wife?”
“You’re always happy to see me, Jack. So no, you can’t be simply that.”
Jack sighed, and took the bag out of her arms. “Social Services called. They have a girl who’s between homes.”
“...Please tell me you didn’t say we’d take her without talking to me first. We’re getting too old for this--”
“I didn’t say we’d take her in, but I did say we’d at least talk to her. She’s been through four foster homes in five years, and... we need to do this, Becks. I know you’re going to say you should have taken us off the call list years ago, but we need to meet this girl.”
Rebecca raised an eyebrow. “And with both of us retired, where do you expect the money for a foster child to come from?”
“Trust fund her parents set up. I asked about that. They want us to go down tomorrow, and you can tell them when we’re there that this - if we take her in - will be our last one. Please, Becks.”
“I’m assuming you have a good reason for insisting on it this strongly?”
Jack nodded. “The best, or I wouldn’t have asked Social Services so many questions already.”
“All right. You and your vibes are going to be the death of me someday, Jack.”
“Don’t even joke, Becks. That hasn’t been funny since ‘58.”
They went to Social Services the next day; for all the questions he did ask, Jack had neglected to ask after the girl’s full history, and in any case Rebecca had heard nothing, so the case worker filled them in on the way to the common room.
“Claudia’s parents died when she was seven,” she said. “Car accident. Her older brother had custody, but he disappeared three years later. She’s not as wild as most foster kids, but a lot of families have found her... difficult. I think she’s too smart for her own good.”
Rebecca frowned. “Her brother disappeared? He didn’t decide to run out on her, did he?”
“I’ve been her case worker for three and a half years now, and she’s never elaborated. She’s only ever said that he’s gone.”
Rebecca glanced at Jack, and saw that he was frowning too - but it wouldn’t do to ask questions of someone who had already admitted to having no answers. Besides, it was probably just the same investigative itch that kept the two of them amused throughout the evening news and nothing worth springing on a teenager.
The case worker pushed open the door to the meeting room and called, “Claudia? This is Rebecca and Jack. They wanted to meet you.”
“Right,” Claudia said, without looking away from the computer she was typing on. “They’ll be running screaming in five minutes tops again. You know that as well as I do.”
“Really, now,” Jack said. He pulled up a chair across the table from Claudia. “I think we’ve seen scarier things in our time than a brilliant teenage girl, don’t you, Becks?”
Rebecca smiled, almost despite herself. “That we have.”
Claudia sighed, and finally looked up from her computer, only to glare at her case worker. “I told you I wanted to file for emancipation, Monica, what the hell?”
“Claudia, please. I know you think striking out on your own sounds like a great idea right now, but it’s a lot harder than you think it would be. We’re only asking for half an hour of your time, and if you don’t like them, then I promise we’ll start working on the paperwork. All right?”
“All right, all right, let me save my work.” Claudia typed a few commands into the computer - rather viciously, Rebecca thought - before closing it and looking up expectantly. “Okay, you’re here. Thrill me.”
“What were you working on?” Rebecca asked. It struck her as a good place to start, under the circumstances, and while computers were hardly her passion, she did find keeping up with the basic technology a worthwhile pursuit.
“Hacking the robotics team’s summer conference. The new captain seems to think he doesn’t need me - he wouldn’t say if it’s because I’m fifteen or because I’m a girl, but either way, it’s a load of crap.”
“That it is,” Jack said. “Knew a girl once who could program circles around me - you’re probably up to spheres, at least. Did you have any plans for once you got through?”
Rebecca opened her mouth to point out that Jack probably shouldn’t be encouraging her, but closed it again when a flicker of a smile crossed Claudia’s face.
“I was thinking dodecahedrons, dude. And I happen to know that he’s keeping the control program for their competition robot on the computer until they actually need to use it, so I plan on making him regret that decision. Forward is backward, left is right, he won’t know what hit him.”
“Why stop there when you can mix up the directions even more? Forward is left, right is backward - go for broke.”
The case worker cringed, and Rebecca gave her a sympathetic look; but by the time she or the case worker could get a word in edgewise, it was two hours later, and Jack and Claudia were on their third diabolical plan.
“So,” the case worker said, “do we have a placement or not, Claudia?”
Claudia grew quiet, then sighed. “I guess you win this time. But I’m holding you to the emancipation thing if this one falls apart at the seams too.”
“We’re not here to fight you on anything,” Rebecca said. “And I would hope we can give you something better than your previous situations. We have years of practice.”
As the case worker got her paperwork, Claudia opened her computer again, presumably to finish terrorising the robotics team while she was thinking of it. Rebecca wondered for a moment if they were getting in over their heads, but dismissed the thought; even if they were, that had never stopped them before.
Washington University, Minnesota
Rebecca adjusted her coat and sighed. She hated having to give progress reports on her student teaching nearly as much as she loved the teaching itself, but for now, at least, it was a necessary evil.
Four more months, she told herself, and then the whole thing’s at the mercy of your thesis defense. After last year’s room full of seventh-graders, that’s going to be a cake walk.
She squared her shoulders, and grabbed her bag on her way out the door. It struck her as a good day to walk to campus; while it was cold, there wasn’t much snow on the sidewalks, and her car would likely warm up just as she reached her destination.
Some children ran past her as she reached the edge of campus. They were shouting about something, but Rebecca paid it little mind - at least, she did until she got bowled over by someone behind them.
“I beg your pardon!” she said, as she picked herself up out of a snow bank; at least her papers for her meeting had stayed in her bag. “Can’t you watch where you’re...”
When she looked away from the snow bank, words failed her. Of all the things she’d thought she would see in her life, a snowman running - no, scratch that; it was more sort of bouncing, given its lack of legs - down the sidewalk of her alma mater wasn’t even on the list. Once she regained her composure, she started walking after it as quickly as she could.
“You don’t want to follow him, miss,” a boy’s voice said from behind a tree; Rebecca paused and rounded the tree, to find the children who had passed her just before the snowman did.
“Well, he was chasing you,” she said, “and he clearly doesn’t know how to be nice to people.”
The boy frantically shook his head. “No, he really doesn’t. And this was a fun day until he started jumping on us.”
“Why did he start jumping on you?” Rebecca felt more than a little silly asking the question, and yet, she could attest to how necessary it was from personal experience.
“I think it was the hat,” one of the boy’s companions said. “He didn’t move or anything until we put the hat on and then he got scary.”
“I... see. Where did you get the hat?”
The children looked at each other and shrugged. “We found it,” the first boy finally said. “It was laying in the gutter. Why, do you think it makes a difference?”
Rebecca sighed. “I really don’t know,” she said, “but I think I should try to keep that snowman from jumping on anyone else. You three get home before your parents start to worry, all right?”
The children nodded, and hurried off in the direction they’d come from; Rebecca shook her head as she watched them go.
“I am going to be so late to my appointment,” she muttered, and kept walking in pursuit of the snowman. Perhaps if it hadn’t pounced on children too young to think that teasing was an effective way to make friends, she wouldn’t have felt the need to pursue it to the end - but it had, and her soft spot for small children was winning out.
The snowman was easy enough to follow; all Rebecca had to do was look for fresh people-sized gaps in the snow banks. As she grew closer to the quad, some of those gaps in the snow still had people in them, and she found herself hoping the snowman hadn’t decided to jump on anyone’s car as well.
The quad itself looked like someone had taken a giant ice cream scoop to the snow. The snowman had apparently been busy enjoying its newfound freedom, and still was; this time, she saw the flicker of white in the corner of her eye and managed to avoid being knocked down again. Unfortunately, that meant she got a good look at its face.
She wouldn’t have thought a few pieces of coal and a button could be so menacing, but Rebecca got the distinct feeling that if the snowman could talk, it would be daring anyone in earshot, Catch me if you can.
The snowman launched itself at her again; as she dodged, Rebecca reached out for it with her free hand, not sure what good it would do. She came away with a handful of snow and the stick that had been serving as the snowman’s right arm.
“Not bad, for not knowing what you’re doing.”
Rebecca whirled to face the person who had said that, and found a man about her age, with sandy blond hair, a horrible brown plaid scarf and a very self-satisfied smirk, watching her.
“I beg your pardon, I know perfectly well what I’m doing. What I’m doing,” she said, waving the stick at him, “is missing an appointment about my student teaching because that thing--” she waved the stick at the snowman in turn-- “was terrorising some children. Since you’re such an expert on the subject, what are you doing about it?”
“I’m not letting that hat get away a second time, is what.” He pulled a gun that Rebecca would have expected to see as a prop from a science fiction movie out of a holster, and called, “Hey, Coal Breath!”
To Rebecca’s amazement, the snowman turned to face them as though it had heard the taunt.
“Yeah, that’s right, it’s me again,” the man added. “Looks like you didn’t put your hat in mothballs like I suggested. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of that for you.”
“That can’t possibly be the same snowman you dealt with last time,” Rebecca said. “It would have melted sooner or later.”
“It’s not the snowman that matters so much as the hat. It’s - well, we’re not sure if it acts on anything human-shaped or the collection of water molecules, we haven’t exactly had a chance to look into it. Either way, I’m not planning to wear it.”
“What are you planning to do, then, let it land on a convenient snow bank to test your theory? The snowman’s causing enough trouble as it is.”
The man shrugged. “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. You might want to duck.”
“Duck? Why would I want to--”
The snowman launched itself at them; as Rebecca stopped protesting and started ducking, the man fired his gun. It shot lightning, which made her feel justified in thinking it was better suited to The Day the Earth Stood Still than polite society. The snowman melted, its second arm, face pieces and hat falling to the ground; Rebecca ran forward to catch the hat before it could land in the snow.
“This is yours now, I believe,” she said.
“Thanks. Let me just...” The man holstered his gun and reached for something else, then frowned. “Dammit! I must have dropped the - do you see a canister laying around here, about so big?”
“And what does it do, hold the rest of the tools of your trade, whatever that is, in an impossibly small space?”
“It’ll stop anything like that from happening again. Assuming I can find the thing.”
“How on earth do you lose something close to a foot long?” Rebecca said, but looked for the stray canister anyway. She didn’t know why she was still bothering - she was assuredly late for her appointment by now, and the snowman was no longer a threat - but now that she was here, she wanted to see how this would be resolved.
Besides, he’d left her holding the hat.
“It might have escaped your notice, but our snowman friend there was playing hopscotch with anything that held still long enough. I was a little busy trying not to get flattened-- found it!” He held the canister aloft - in the middle of the quad.
“Bring it here, then. I’m not dressed to wade through a foot of snow, and I am not freezing my legs off because you dropped your equipment.”
“You are far too tightly wound for your own good, do you know that?”
Rebecca hoped he could fully appreciate the intensity of her glare from a distance; he was coming back to the sidewalk, she would grant him that, but there was simply no call for that sort of comment. “What makes that any of your business? We haven’t even been properly introduced.”
“Go on and introduce yourself, then.” He shrugged, and continued picking his way across the quad, giving her the feeling she’d wasted a perfectly good glare. “I really hope you don’t act like this with your students.”
“Also none of your business. Since you asked so nicely, my name is Rebecca.”
He grinned at her as he stepped back onto the sidewalk. “Jack Secord. Good to meet you, Becks.”
“Rebecca.” She glared at him again, just in case he had missed the first one. “Do let me know when you’re ready for the hat.”
She was still more than a little amazed that a battered silk top hat could cause so much trouble; if someone had told her the story secondhand, she would have assumed they made it up.
Jack ignored her and took the lid off the canister, revealing some sort of purple goo. “All right. Hat, please, and I suggest you cover your eyes.”
“If I don’t miss my guess, this is going to get hard to look at.” He dropped the hat into the goo as soon as Rebecca handed it to him, and it started shooting off sparks nearly as bright as Jack’s lightning gun had been; she put her arm over her eyes until, as far as she could tell, the light show had ended.
“Does that mean you’re finished, or have you lost something else?”
“No, I’m all set now. You can get back to your appointment. See you around, Becks.”
“I rather doubt that.” Rebecca wanted to roll her eyes, but settled for making a show of dusting off her coat before continuing on her way. She wasn’t sure how she was going to explain her unusual tardiness to her professor, but she knew for a fact she wouldn’t be talking about just how strange her afternoon actually was.