At The McDuckworthy Estate (Age 18)

Vanhi Pradhan, formerly Deepti Narula, was in the McDuckworthy Estate swimming pool. She could hear Afton in the background, getting ranted at by the Murpheys about proper electronics disposal, and could see Connor Murphey over at one side, keeping an eye on her. He was armed with a chemical fire extinguisher, and a wry smile.

Vanhi had just discovered that whatever was in her head, the visual trigger that had her set a delayed-reaction pyrotic event in Afton Barron's bed, could still be activated, possibly with different "instructions." She was completely unaware of the first event, and had to see it from the mansion's security feed's playback.

With a sigh, she climbed out of the pool, not quite noticing the strange, regularly intermittent buzzer sound that was coming into her awareness, until it started getting painfully loud.

Vanhi turned, trying to find the source, but nobody else seemed to hear it. She looked towards Afton, who was about fifteen feet away, and was about to say something, when she felt a hand on her shoulder. Van flipped around, to see who had approached her so quickly, when she realized she had flipped over, in bed, and the hand belonged to her husband, Sanjay.

"Come on, honey! We gotta get up, get showered, get going! We got a baby to get, today!" he was all grins and good cheer, while Vanhi tried to figure out where she was.


We're Getting A Baby! (Age 24)

Deepti sat in bed for a few moments, trying to reconcile her memories of the labs, Defender Protector, Afton, Azure, getting drugged, shot at, killing a man, leaving her family in order to stay in Florida, for their protection, with sitting in bed, in Los Angeles, with her husband for a bit more than a year. As she sat there, listening to Sanjay get his shower started, the whole of the Floridian events, all the super-powered UCLA events, all of that faded into the mists of "I had a weird dream, that I was 18 years old again, instead of the 24 year-old I am, now."

She sat up, turning, to put her feet on the floor, as she considered her recent history. Her family and Sanjay's had made arrangements for Deepti to attend medical school, while Sanjay worked his way through law school. Dee had earned some grants and qualified for several methods of alternate funding, which helped. Dee did go to UCLA, she had been on the lacrosse team, and played as well as any other athlete.

Dee got out of bed, and joined her husband in the shower, much to his delight, as they got ready to head to the courthouse, to get their baby. Or, as they'd been joking about it, to have a baby.

Deepti and Sanjay Mahajan arrived at the courthouse, in appropriate business-like attire, ready to meet with the judge to sign the final papers that grant them custody and parental rights to the infant. The families were there, as well, to witness and share in the bureaucratic "birth." Dee's parents and both siblings, Sanjay's parents and his brother. It was nice to see the families getting along so well, given how upset Deepti's extended family was about distant Cousin Palaavi getting pregnant, and her immediate family not wanting to keep the baby. But with Dee's sterility, and Sanjay's parents wanting to keep the baby in the family, a lot of proverbial horse-trading within the families, a few skeletons were rattled in a few closets, the dust settled, and things got ironed out. Deepti was even present at the birth, and got to hold the infant when he was only an hour old.

So, there they were, some twenty people in the lobby of the family courts courthouse, waiting for the lawyers and the paperwork. The Narulas, the Mahajans, and the birth mother's family (along with the infant). Hemanti, Dee's mother, smiled to her daughter, to which Dee chirped, "See? You're getting a grandchild!" and giggled.

"Now, aren't you glad you listened to me?" Hemanti mock-scolded, gently, in their native Hindi. "You're going to have a child, you're going to have your career, everything that you ever wanted."

Deepti nodded, reflecting on that. Her mother had always been right. She chuckled to herself, thinking of that song from that Disney movie, about mothers knowing best. "I've got too much energy; let's go get some coffee," Dee suggested, practically jumping to her feet from the bench she'd been sharing with her parents.

Deepti and Hemanti were standing in line at the coffee stand, discussing the process for adoption. Hemanti was remarking, "Well, it's wonderful that you're adopting, but wouldn't it be nice to have one of your own? I know that you're a little concerned..."

"The doctors said I couldn't!" remarked Dee. They'd apparently had this discussion, before.

Hemanti waved it off, dismissively, "What do doctors know? You just have to find the right one."

Dee shook her head, "We've already seen two. We got a legitimately second opinion."

"True," agreed Hemanti, "But there are hundreds more. One will figure it out." She sounded very secure in her statement.

Dee was getting irritable in her skepticism, "Yeah, and the one that says it wouldn't be a problem, is only doing it for the money, and doesn't care about me."

Hemanti patted Dee's arm comfortingly, "Oh, don't worry. We'll find the right one." As if she had someone or something in mind, already. Which Deepti should not have been surprised about, given that her mother rarely made sweeping statements like that without at least three plans of action to support it.

Dee rolled her eyes, "I'm hardly a brood mare." Her mother chuckled softly, agreeing.

Hemanti continued, "Just because we had that, ah, when we had you corr– fix that problem..." She trailed off a little.

"Fix that problem," murmured Dee, quietly.

"Yes, you know, the," Hemanti trailed off again, and made a small gesture with her hands, as if cupping something in one hand and drawing her wriggling fingers up away from it. "It wasn't anything that was too hard to correct," she continued. "We just tweak a couple of things, a couple of medicines, and look. You don't have that problem at all, any more. You don't flame up."

Deepti looked away, remembering.


Deepti's Saari. So Sorry. (Age 16)

Deepti came home from Artesia High School one afternoon, to find her mother sitting at the table, with a paper bag beside her at the table. Dee was immediately on guard.

Hemanti indicated the place across from her, "Deepti, have a seat."

Cautiously, Dee slid into the indicated chair. "I, ah, got an A on my history test," she offered. Her mother was always in a better mood when Dee brought home A's.

Hemanti nodded, "That's good," but her tone was a bit dismissive, even with the slight, prideful smile. She then pushed the bag across the table.

Dee gingerly opened the bag and looked inside. Contained within was ash, burnt bits of cloth, and enough of a swatch of fabric to identify what it came from. It was what was left of the saari that Auntie Abhilasha wove for Deepti.

"What happened, Deepti?" her mother asked, implacably.

Dee gaped a bit, before attempting an answer. "There... I'm not quite sure, but there was an accident," she finally managed to say. "And, I burst into flame," she added, quickly. Her face was red with embarrassment. Hemanti continued sitting there, watching her daughter. Dee continued, stammering, "It was very brief, but, that's what happened."

Hemanti murmured, "All right," nodding slightly. She took a deep breath, "Let me... Let's have a chat about Things You Should Know." Dee could actually hear the capital letters in that statement. "Your father and I were not always restaurateurs."

Deepti nodded slowly, "Okay." She knew they weren't always in the restaurant and dry cleaner business. That had started when they moved from Austin to Los Angeles.

"Back in India, we were actually bio-engineers, and chemists." This was new information, to Dee. "That was our career. We were very good at extracting, splicing, working with gene therapy, and technologies. Manipulating DNA strands, things of that nature." She took a sip of her tea. "We came across... we found The Code. You know that there are people with special abilities."

Deepti nodded, "Yes, of course. I've seen them online, and on the news and stuff."

"We found the code, as to which genes, to manipulate, that grant abilities," Hemanti admitted, absently fiddling with her tea cup.

Deepti frowned absently, "Are you saying, I'm an experiment?!" Her tone was almost accusatory, but it was definitely more confusion.

"No, not at all," Hemanti was quick to assure. "We, uhm. We realised this was far too dangerous. We found that spark; it was an accident. So, we started destroying that information. Some of the people who sponsored it, who backed it, weren't so happy, weren't thrilled. So, they sent people to try and salvage that information. I was pregnant with you, at the time." She looked to her daughter, fondly.

"So, I wasn't an experiment," said Deepti.

"You were never an experiment," assured Hemanti. "It got... Some of the people were a little more aggressive than others, ah, in trying to recover some of the data we were destroying. Some got a little more physical, and I got knocked into some vats."

"So, while I'm not an experiment, and not an accident, I'm still an 'accident'?" asked Deepti.

Hemanti smiled wryly, "That's one way to put it."

Dee continued, "Or, more like, 'collateral damage'?" Even Deepti was smirking at how ridiculous it sounded.

"That's a better way of putting it," confirmed her mother. "Although, I never thought of you as Collateral Damage. You've always been my daughter, and I've always raised you as that. But, needless to say, we could not stay. But, with help from your father's friends, and some special people, we were able to get out. The four of us." She grinned, "Well, three and a half of us. And we were able to relocate, to Texas. We've been keeping a close eye, so, like, when that time you swallowed the nickel–"

Deepti interrupted, giggling, "It came out all right, in the end!"

Hemanti smirked, "Exactly. But, we had to keep a close eye. It was a horrible analogy, but we knew there was a chance that something might happen."

Deepti indicated the bag, "Well, this is what happened." They both regarded the paper bag. "I can, mostly, control it. Mostly. But I'm still trying to figure it out."

"I," started Hemanti, and then stopped herself. She asked, "Do you know why we had to leave Texas?"

"Well, at the time, you said it was time for us to move," answered Deepti. "Because you and Daddy got a new opportunity in LA."

"You're absolutely right about that," muttered Hemanti.

"But, I'm going to guess from what you just told me, it was a little more complicated than that," continued Dee, as if her mother hadn't spoken. "And that this," she indicated the bag of burn fabric, "had something to do with it."

Hemanti nodded, and offered a wry smile. "When you get feverish, you get feverish. You know that you've always run very high fevers. When most people get sick, a fever for them starts in the 100 degree range. When you get sick, and you feel it, it's already around 104, and that worried some people, so we had to relocate. And use special doctors, that are here in LA, that they didn't have in Texas, to monitor when you got sick."

"So, that's why when we thought I broke my leg, we didn't go to the ER," remarked Deepti. "Why we went to Dr. Smith."

"Yes," answered Hemanti. "Now that your powers have manifest, I can run some tests. If you want."

"Okay...?" responded Dee.

"And I can find out how they manifest, and I can, potentially, suppress them," continued Hemanti. "So you won't have to worry about it. You won't have to fear about bursting into flames, you won't have to worry about burning down the house. You won't need to worry about your own children. We're still keeping an eye on Marisa. One the one hand, it's great that your powers have finally manifested, but now that scares me, because I don't know what's going to happen with Marisa."

Hemanti sat back in her chair a little. "If it was just because I was pregnant with you at the time, that's one thing, but we don't know if there might have been a change in me. If there is, that's more than we can research, right now."

Deepti nodded slowly, giving all this new information all due consideration. "I think," she said, slowly, "We better find out about what's going on with me, and if it, if it's something that can get passed along. I don't–" she stopped herself, envisioning being a little older, being pregnant, and having a fire baby burst out of her abdomen, or just having a super-powered infant, and trying to deal with that. She looked into her mother's eyes, and nodded slowly, in agreement.

Over the next couple of weeks, Deepti went through a series of tests. Hemanti had made arrangements with a lab. Dee's diet grew more iron-heavy, considering the amount of blood they'd been extracting, to examine. The lab Hemanti was using was loosely connected to GenoCyt, and while Jagad, Dee's father, wasn't happy about that, they knew that the information would be kept safe, away from the people who were looking for their family. There were no few passionate discussions (not arguments, because they weren't disagreeing with each other) between Jagad and Hemanti, but Jagad was coming off as overly concerned about the security of the information regarding Deepti, and the research his wife was engaging in.

There were discussions between her parents with worries about what sort of life Deepti would have, if her powers got suppressed, speculations on side effects, the length of the procedure, how effective it would be. These were strong discussions, because it involved their own children. There was always the knowledge that Marisa might need to go through something similar, if she started manifesting anything as well. Dee would overhear snippets of these discussions, but rarely the whole of any given discussion.

Marisa was picking up that the intense discussion their parents were having concerned Deepti, and one evening approached her. "Is Mummy mad at you about something?" she asked, outright, in the blunt manner that most twelve year-olds can express.

Deepti regarded her little sister, and considered how best to answer that. "She's not mad," she prevaricated. "It's just, things have come up, and it's a bit complicated..." She didn't explain what was going on, but she did her best to reassure her sister that it was nothing either of them were responsible for. That it was history catching up with them.

Their brother, Kamal, began spending more time at the house, even though he had his own apartment a couple of miles away. This was unusual, because Kamal had moved out before he reached his eighteenth birthday. Dee never knew why, other than Kamal and their parents had some strong disagreements, but she was never privy to the details of those. They weren't estranged from each other, it was more an agreement to keep some physical distance. The family bond was stronger than whatever it was they argued about, but it didn't stop the arguments from happening. But, because those disagreements would spill into other aspects of home-life, Kamal opted to promote domestic harmony by limiting contact. But he was never actually out of reach, just merely out from under foot.

So, Deepti's tests to trace and map out her powers, started after the school year ended. It involved going to the lab on a daily basis for the testing, extractions, preliminary treatments. Towards the end of the first week, Kamal arrived at the lab to take her home. Normally, it would be either of their parents, but as they were both directly involved with the lab end of the research, on that day, they were staying later in order to work out why the formulas or reactions were behaving out of spec. As it wasn't something Dee needed to be there for, they had Kamal come and pick her up to take her home.

Deepti buckled herself in the front seat, while Kamal started the engine up. "So," he said.

"So," replied Dee, in the same tone.

"Flames, huh?" he asked.

After a few moments, Dee answered, "Yeee-eah."

"So," he repeated, in the same tone as before. "Auntie Abhilasha's saari. The one she spent so much time weaving."

Deepti sighed, "Yeah." She tried very hard to look repentant.

"It was ugly," Kamal remarked, dead-pan.

"It was," agreed Dee, with less tact than enthusiasm.

"I don't know how you could mourn the loss of that, at all," he commented.

"I," started Dee. "It was so ugly. It was not my color, at all. It made me look like I had kidney issues."

"It didn't fit, either," agreed Kamal.

"It was just ugly. Ugly pattern, ugly colors," Dee remarked.

Her brother smirked, stopping at a light, "So you torched it."

"I... yeah. But not on purpose," she explained. "I was trying to find a way to make it drape properly, in a way that didn't leave a mile of it behind me, and I was just so frustrated with it."

"So you torched it," smirked Kamal.

"So I torched it," Dee agreed. She emphasized, "On accident."

Kamal chuckled, "You say 'accident,' I hear air quotes."

Deepti snorted, "You hear what you want to hear, because that's what you do!" They both chuckled at that. It had been a long-running argument between them, for years.

Affectionately, Dee muttered, "Jerk."

"Trollop," he replied, in kind. Kamal was taking his time getting her home, taking the scenic route. "How're you doing?" he asked, with all seriousness.

Deepti took a moment before answering. "I'm kinda stressed out," she admitted.

"Yeah, I kinda figured," he agreed.

"I, I, I'm fighting to keep it under control, because it's scary," Dee continued. "The more I think about it, the more I get stressed, the more I'm stressed, the more I think about it." She adopted a bad Brooklyn accent, and remarked in English, "It's a vicious circle!"

Kamal glanced sideways at her, switching to English as well, "When did you turn Jewish?"

"No," Dee replied, "That's from Victor/Victoria. You know I love that movie." He rolled his eyes. He wasn't big on musicals.

"Yeah, that's it," commented Kamal, back in Hindi. "We're not going home, yet." He made a left turn at the next light, instead of turning right, which would have taken them to the neighborhood their parents' house was in.

Dee asked, "Where are we going?" When he didn't reply, she said, louder, and more exaggeratedly, "Where we goin'?"

"We're gonna make an honest woman out of you," Kamal replied, calmly.

"You're taking me to Disneyland!" she grinned, teasingly.

He rolled his eyes, sighing with exasperation, "I'm not taking you to Disneyland. Too late to get into Disneyland, anyway."

Deepti muttered, "They're open until nine. I looked it up."

"Yeah, but by the time we get there, parked, and inside, it'll be after eight," Kamal pointed out.

Dee grinned impishly, "Still enough time to go on Small World!" Because she knew that was his least favorite ride.

Kamal got all mock-indignant, "I will strap you to a chair, and have you put on a separate track, and leave you there. For an hour." Deepti was giggling all through that threat.

Dee held her hands up, as if showcasing a headline, and laughed, "Fire at Disneyland, news at eleven!"

He shook his head, rolling his eyes, smirking, "Yeee-eah." He pulled into a restaurant parking lot, "Okay, we're here. C'mon."

Dee hadn't been to that restaurant before, but strode in with all confidence, just a step behind Kamal. They took a couple of seats, off to one side of the dining room, and the waitress came over with menus. He sat back in his chair, and regarded his sister with all due gravity. "So, what do you want your first drink to be?"

"Buh," she replied intelligently. "Menu." Dee proceeded to look over the drink section.

"Something not too heavy," admonished Kamal, "because I don't know if you're a lightweight."

"Uhrm, how about a peach margarita?" she asked.

Kamal shrugged and nodded. When the waitress came back, he ordered the margarita. When she asked for Dee's ID, Kamal was quick to point out that it was for him.

The waitress looked at Kamal, "You want a peach margarita?"

He shrugged, "Yes, I want a peach margarita." He discreetly handed her something. She pocketed it without looking at it, and shrugged. "We're going through stuff," he said, quietly to the waitress. She nodded understandingly, and headed off.

The waitress returned shortly after, with the drinks. Dee got her margarita, and Kamal got a beer. He chuckled, "This'll throw off Mum's numbers."

They sat for a few moments, sipping their drinks, before Kamal remarked, "So. They told you about Texas."

Dee nodded, "They told me about Texas. And about how," she paused. "How I'm not an accident? But, certain things about me are." She sipped her drink, fiddling with the straw absently. "And about how, ah, people are," again, she paused. "People," she stated.

Kamal nodded, "People are people, hey, slow down!" he admonished, as his sister took a stronger sip through the straw and he watched the level drop significantly.

"Don't worry!" Dee grinned. "It's just, I like peaches, and this is pretty good!" She returned to fidgeting with the straw, "Bottom line is, people suck. Did Mummy and Dad tell you what they're trying to figure out?" She didn't look at him as she asked, seemingly very interested in how the ice sloshed around in the glass.

"Yes," he affirmed. "But, did they talk to you about it? I mean, seriously, talk to you about it?" Kamal sipped his beer, watching her.

Dee opened her mouth to try and say something, but nothing came out.

"Yes, I know they're doing tests to see what it is, and blah-blah-blah, techno-blah blah-blah," Kamal gestured with one hand, as if making a puppet talk. "But, how do you feel about it?"

Dee focused her attention to her glass, absently turning it on its base. "I'm terrified of burning down the house," she finally said. "If... if I have a nightmare, and something freaks me out, am I going to wake up in a burning bed?" She continued, "And, down the line, if I get with somebody, and we're having some fun, am I going to accidentally blow them up?"

Kamal sighed at her response. He considered his next questions carefully, "You... You know there are people who will train you. There is training available."

Dee frowned,trying to find the right phrasing. "But, all the training in the world isn't going to stop me from blowing up the bed if I have a nightmare." She continued fidgeting with her glass.

"El Fuego doesn't blow up the bed," Kamal offered. "At least, not that we know of."

She smirked, "Would we even hear about it?" She sipped her drink. "I want to have a normal life."

"So, given the option, you," Kamal clarified, "You want them to take it away."

Dee gestured with one hand, "Well, I mean–" but she was unable to clarify.

He waited a moment, and nodded. "Well, there are certain advantages," he stated. "To having it gone."

"Yeah! I mean, I don't know how strong it'll get. I don't know how hard it'll be to control. Because, right now, it's only happened a couple of times, but, each time, it's gotten bigger." She took a sip from her glass. "And, I'm seriously afraid that I'm a danger," she said softly.

Kamal regarded his little sister with all due gravity. He started to say something, but Dee continued.

"I mean, it's not like I can just take a class on not doing it," she exerted.

"Well, actually, yeah," he contradicted. "There is a school. They got people who are expert at this stuff. They can train you." Dee looked very uncomfortable at that. "But, the other side of it is, there are people looking for you, for us. And, if you don't show, maybe they'll stay away." He paused, "You know what I mean?"

"If I get the power shut down," stated Deepti, "There will be no trail to follow. Keep everybody safer." She sighed, "I mean, yeah, on the one hand, I'd love to learn to control it, but, Texas."

Kamal nodded, "Yeah. And, despite what everyone says, people with powers draw attention. Whether they want to or not."

"And I don't," she commented. "If I'm going to draw attention to myself, I don't want it to be because I'm the sole survivor of... of an explosion."

Kamal nodded, and muttered a name, before taking a swig from his near-empty glass.

"I'm sorry, who?" Dee asked.

"Demo Man," he replied. "The sole survivor of an explosion, they deemed him too dangerous, so they, basically, they keep him sedated."

"Yeah, I'd like," started Dee. "I'd like to keep my faculties in tact."

Kamal smirked, "Why try something new, now?"

Deepti grinned impishly, "I would throw my drink in your face, but it would be a waste of perfectly good booze."

"Plus, you don't have much left," he observed.

She peered into her glass. "Yeah, well."

"Just," his expression returned to serious, "Don't let them railroad you. This is your life. That's all I want you to understand. And if you need to talk to somebody, who can be on either side... Well, I don't know who that is, but you can still call me."

Dee grinned sheepishly, "Oh, well, I call you a number of things."

"Yes," he replied, lifting one brow with disdain. "I know."

She finished her drink, and regarded Kamal with curiosity. "I mean, can you do anything?"

"No." He took a deep breath and released it. "No, if it's like what they figure, that you got changed because of the accident, then, no. I was along before that."

"Well, at least I know why," Dee started. "I know why... Remember a few years ago, when we thought I broke my leg? At least, now I know why they took me straight to Doctor Smith, and not the ER."

Kamal nodded. "Yes." And then he blinked, actually processing what she just said. "Wait, what?" He searched his memory, "Oh, right. Yeah. I got it. I got it."

She grinned, "C'mon, Kamal. Maybe you should take it easy on the beer..." She giggled at the glare of disdain he leveled at her.

"Gonna drive me to whiskey," he muttered, trying to hide his own smirk. "Don't judge me!"

That's when the food finally showed up, and they paid more attention to the meal than the discussion. Afterwards, on the way back to the house, Dee actually fell asleep in the car. "C'mon, Lightweight," remarked Kamal, giving her shoulder a gentle shove, to wake her up, in the driveway. "Wake up, sleepy-head. Make sure you brush your teeth before you go to bed. Or Mum will kill you."

"Thanks for dinner, Kamal. And thanks." She leaned over and kissed his cheek, before getting out of the car. He waited until the front door closed behind her, before pulling away to head for his own home.

Two days later, Dee approached her mother. "Mum, is there a chance that, you know. I could be trained with my power? So we don't have to go through all this?"

Hemanti regarded her daughter with a serious expression, before answering. "The people who train you, keep records," she stated, carefully. "Or, you know I've always said that nothing is for free." Dee nodded. "Well, the people who train you expect things. Either they keep records, which they would need to do, or you would be expected to do some service or things of that nature. In many of these cases, your life is no longer your own."

Hemanti continued, "Now, there are people who have lower level of abilities, like throwing a spot light on a wall. The interest level on that is not that high. But someone like you, who can immolate? That would be..." She looked for the proper phrase.

Deepti provided it, "Too tempting to weaponize."

Hemanti nodded, "Yes, exactly."

The testing continued, in order to find where, exactly, Dee's flame powers were in her genetic make-up. Some of the tests were more invasive than others. Some of the methods of extraction were extremely painful. Dee didn't complain too much, except at the actual time of extraction, but it was tempered with the vision of having a "normal" life, without worrying about accidentally setting anything on fire in a moment of stress.

Eventually, Hemanti isolated the necessary portion of her daughter's code, and mapped out where in Deepti's body the flame abilities, for lack of better phrase, used, between the specialized skin cells that would flake off as she immolated. Her parents were able to find where in Dee's brain the power would be activated.

But, during the time of research, one afternoon, Dee was on the sofa, after a morning of intense procedures, with a water bottle full of a strange protein drink that her father had concocted, to keep her relaxed and nourished through everything. She was feeling especially lethargic, when there came a knocking at the front door.

About a minute later, Dee could hear Marisa's dainty elephant tread coming down the stairs, "That's okay! I'll get it!" Marisa, being only twelve, was not privy to why her sister was going through these intense procedures, but she understood that it was very draining, physically and emotionally. But that didn't stop her being a stereotypical little sister brat. It merely reduced the types of shenanigans a kid sister might pull.

From where Deepti was curled up on the sofa, she took a sip of her protein drink, before saying, "Thank you," and put the bottle on the table, within easy reach. Dee wasn't sure if there was any part of her body, that afternoon, that didn't ache. Even her toenails ached, and nothing had been done to her feet!

Dee was wallowing in her aches, when she heard from the front hall, "Oh, hi, Sanjay!" Dee rolled her eyes.

Sanjay Mahajan was one of Kamal's friends, having gone to high school together, and his parents and Dee's parents were members of the same Hindu Social Club. Over the last several years, the families had been to each others' homes for dinners, and the mothers had been looking for any excuse to throw those two together, until Dee's procedures started. Dee liked Sanjay, but he was her brother's friend, really, not hers. It just felt weird, trying to think of him as any sort of romantic interest, despite how cute she might have otherwise found him, because of his relationship with her brother.

Mari's voice floated from the hallway, "Oh, no. She's just resting. She'd love to see you. Come this way." Dee could hear the malicious glee in her sister's voice, as she lead Sanjay to the living room. He had a backpack slung over one shoulder. "Look, Deep! It's Sanjay!" Mari practically shoved Sanjay into the room, and pulled a chair over, placing it in front of the TV, facing Dee on the sofa. Mari was taking malicious glee in her sister's discomfiture.

Sanjay demurred, "Maybe I should–"

But Marisa cut him off, pushing him into the chair. "Would you like something to drink, Sanjay?" she asked, grinning hugely at the both of them.

Deepti and Sanjay shared a look with each other, silently acknowledging that regardless of what any plans one or the other might have had at the beginning of this, Marisa had basically taken over and the two were going to Have A Visit, so they might as well just put up with it, and maybe Mari will otherwise leave them alone.

Sanjay started to answer, "Well, I really didn't want to be–"

And Marisa cut him off again, "Water it is. Just a moment." Mari practically skipped into the kitchen, to grab a bottle of water out of the fridge, and presented it to their guest. Dee was still curled up at one end of the sofa. Mari ambled towards the stairs, "I'll leave you two alone."

Dee actually smiled wryly, accepting the inevitability of Mari's antics, and decided to just roll with it. It took less effort, and Dee was entirely out of efforts to give. "Sisters," she muttered, almost chuckling.

She shifted on the sofa a little, to better give her attention to her guest. "Hey, Sanjay. What's up?" she asked, in English. Most of the time, they spoke Hindi in the house, but the kids swapped between English and Hindi, sometimes in the same sentence, depending on what they wanted to say.

Sanjay stammered a little, as he started wrestling with the zipper on his backpack. "I... I... I brought you some... food," he finally managed to say. "Some actual, solid food. That your parents wouldn't, that the hospital–" he stammered.

Dee's smile turned into a delighted grin, "Secret food. You're giving me Secret Food."

"I," Sanjay smiled a bit sheepishly, "Yes."

"I'm good with Secret Food," confirmed Dee, with enthusiasm.

As part of the procedures she's been going through, Deepti had been put on a vegan diet. And, while normally, that wouldn't have been too much of an issue, she was really craving some meat-based protein. But part of a non-vegan diet would screw up some of the numbers on the tests, hindering the efficacy of the research. It would all still process, but not at as rapid and regular a rate.

Sanjay pulled a cheeseburger out of his backpack, along with a couple of napkins. He offered them to her, with a shy smile. "Thank you," Dee murmured, before quickly (yet politely) devouring the treat.

When it was gone, she leaned back on the sofa, and shared a secret grin with Sanjay. He nodded. "I'd been... concerned," he said, quietly. "How are you doing?"

Dee's grin faded a little, and she gave a non-committal shrug. "Eeh, I've had better days," she said, truthfully. The official story was that she'd taken ill, no one knows why, and that's why she's having all the tests and procedures done. Part of her treatments included being put on antidepressants, which generally make her feel "blah." Mainly so that she doesn't get emotional enough to accidentally use her powers in a reflexive capacity. "I'm doing okay," she admitted. Sanjay made an appropriate noise of agreement. She smiled wryly, "This is a Disney Cartoon day."

Sanjay looked a little confused, but supportive, nodding a little. She gestured towards the television, behind him. The Little Mermaid was still playing, but on Mute. All the action, none of the sound.

He turned, and laughed. "Oh! O-o-oh! I thought you meant, like, you were a princess, and you were, uh, doing one of those low points, like when Belle was sacrificing herself to the Beast, or Rapunzel was stuck in the tower, or Sleeping Beauty eats the apple, or..."

Dee chuckled, "Well, at least Sleeping Beauty got to eat the apple. I get to eat the burger!" She made burger-eating motions with her hands, "Om nom nom!" She rested her head on the sofa's arm-rest, regarding Sanjay, definitely in a better mood. "How you doin', Jay?" she asked him.

He sat back in the chair. It was one of the living room wing-back chair. He sighed and shrugged absently, "I, too, have been better." He leaned his head on the side-wing, regarding her across the coffee table.

"What's wrong?" Dee asked, still sounding cheerful, but toning it down just a little.

Sanjay shifted his position a little, and turned his attention to the table between them, in that annoyingly bashful-cute way he had. She smiled absently, and hid rolling her eyes by rubbing her face with one hand, as the "Kiss the Girl" song played silently on the television, behind him. "Nothing I can't, I can't get over," he finally said.

Deepti's tone turned a bit more serious, as she asked, "Do you want to talk about?"

Sanjay smiled, shaking his head. "Just seeing you, that makes me feel better," he replied.

She looked at herself, and grinned. Tank-top, gym shorts, her flip-flops next to the sofa. Her waist-length hair in a messy braid. Her general appearance one of slowly failing health. She knew, intellectually, she was less physically fit than she was from even four months earlier, but his words made her feel better about herself, emotionally.

He remarked, "You know how, when you're at home, and you're happy to just, be at home?"

Dee nodded, "Yeah."

"And you don't want to go anywhere, you just want to stay home, twenty-four seven, just kicking it and relaxed," Sanjay continued. "But then someone says, 'You can't go out. You have to stay home', And, all of a sudden–"

Dee interjected, "Like you're in quarantine?"

"Well, yeah," he agreed. "But you don't want to stay home, you know, it's, you miss the, the..."

She continued for him, "The freedom to choose to stay at home, rather than–"

"Yeah, and the knowledge that you can leave," he completed.

Deepti shifted her position on the sofa a bit, to sit up more. "Yeah," she answered, decisively, before looking back to him.

He was watching her, and Dee saw him come to some internal realization of his own. He sat up and leaned forward in his chair, resting his elbows on his legs, and steepling his fingers. "I know that our paths cross," he stated, softly. "And I know that our parents want us to get together." They both grinned wryly at that. One would have had to be completely blind not to have seen their parents' machinations, in the past. "And I thought, 'meh!'" He gave that with a flippant toss of one hand.

Jay regarded her seriously, as an equal, as he continued, "But, knowing that you're sick? It... It makes me want to make you better." He regarded his knotted fingers, as he spoke, "I want to help you get better. I want to do whatever it takes, to make you feel better."

Deepti couldn't help it. She giggled, as she replied, "So, you bring me food my parents don't want me to have!"

Sanjay shared a conspiratorial grin, glancing up slightly, "Did it work?"

"Oh, yeah!" she affirmed, still giggling. She took a deep breath, leaning back on the sofa again, as the exertion of the past hour's events and conversation were taking a toll on her reserves. "I'm definitely feeling better," she remarked, still smiling. "Definitely better. Feeling like crap, but now it's happy-crap!"

He lifted his face to her, a bit of a stupid grin on his face, and muttered, "Oh, lord." He chuckled. "This would be one of those times when you would hear a shehnai (Indian double-reed instrument) start a melody, and I'd get up, singing, and pick you up from the couch, and, it's a Bollywood number, and we'd be twirling, we'd go out to the street, where everyone would be dancing with us..."

Deepti started laughing with him at the description, nodding, "And there would be chalk explosions in the air," she added.

Sanjay nodded, grinning, "And your sister would come out, and would have a solo piece." He sat back in the chair, rubbing his knees and thighs with his palms, "But, uh..." His voice dropped to a stage whisper, "I can't sing or dance."

Dee nodded, and stage-whispered back, "I've seen you try." Her grin was genuinely impish. In a normal tone, she added, "It's not from lack of enthusiasm.

"No," he agreed. "I am very enthusiastic."

"Yes, you are. Gotta give you that." Deepti gave a long sigh.

"I think," started Sanjay, but Dee held up one hand, to stop him.

"I don't want to be a burden," she said, her smile turning a bit sad. "I don't want to be something that has to be endured."

Sanjay was about to reply, when Marisa called out from the stairs, "But you already are!"

Dee raised her voice, "If I were feeling better, I'd throw my shoe at you!"

Sanjay smirked, "You want me to throw your shoe at her?"

She looked from the stairway, back to Sanjay, and grinned, "Please."

He got up, took one of Deepti's flip-flops, and threw it about three feet towards the stairs. They both started laughing.

"Yes," sighed Dee, catching her breath. "My day has definitely improved."

She wasn't sure if he botched the throw on purpose. Jay was in good shape, and was on the Cricket team, but he was a third-alternate. Yet, he still made the team. Definitely an enthusiastic third-alternate, she thought to herself, regarding his profile, as he returned to the chair.

"Uhm," he started, and regarded her soberly. "If you need something, it would be my honor to help you get it."

Dee returned his regard, equally sober, before quietly responding, "I wouldn't mind another burger, in a few days."

Sanjay nodded slowly, "I can arrange that." He smiled fondly to her, and reached down for his backpack. It was still open from when he pulled the burger from it. "Well, I don't want to over-exert you," he remarked, getting to his feet.

Deepti got the merest glance of something else inside, but it looked like a medical folder, full of some varieties of forms. "Well, there is one thing I'd like to ask you about?" she said, hastily.

Jay sat back down, his eyes bright with enthusiasm. "Anything," he affirmed.

"What's in the folder," Dee pointed towards the backpack, and looked back to his face.

All the enthusiasm left his face. She remained in her relaxed, reclining position on the sofa. Hardly a threat at all.

"N-nothing," he prevaricated. "Nothing, it's just..." He looked at her, and she continued regarding him, soberly.

"Whose file is it?" she asked, plainly. She wasn't accusing him of reading her files, but her tone showed that she wouldn't have been surprised if he had.

"Mine," Sanjay admitted. He swung his backpack around, and unzipped it, holding it between his feet. He pulled out the folder, remarking, "When I knew you were sick," he opened the file, "I had myself tested."

Jay completely missed the huge, silent sigh of relief, of how happy Dee was that it was his own file, and not a copy of hers.

"I had myself tested to see if I was a blood-match," he admitted. Dee could see from the paperwork that it looked like he had every organ tested, to see if Deepti needed one, could he be a donor.

"Oh," whispered Dee, "Sanjay."

He said, quietly, "I'd... like the opportunity to choose to see you, for a long time."

Deepti bit her lower lip, before answering, "I'd like that, too."

They lingered for a moment, just staring into each other's eyes, before Sanjay suddenly stood up, shoving the folder back into his pack, "Anyway, I, uh, need to go." He hastily made his retreat.

It was after she heard his car pull away that she realized that the burger he brought for her, was the special, off-menu style she normally would have custom-ordered for herself.

Over the next several days, Sanjay returned, with a variety of Secret Foods. They shared conspiratorial grins as Dee enjoyed them. It did, however, skew the test results that Hemanti was monitoring.

One afternoon, while looking over test results, Hemanti asks her daughter, "You have been fasting, haven't you?"

In a small voice, Dee replied, "Ye-e-e-es..." It wasn't entirely a lie; she fasted immediately after having whatever Secret Food Jay brought her.

Hemanti muttered something under her breath. Jagad glanced at the results his wife was holding, then looked to Deepti. The corner of his mouth quirked, briefly.

Hemanti stood up, to leave the room, still examining the test results, complaining about how strange the numbers were. Jagad followed her, but murmured to Dee as he passed by, "Give my regards to Sanjay." Dee was never so glad her parents weren't looking at her, because even she could feel the heat from her blush.

Over the next week, Sanjay continued visiting, and being the best, supportive friend a person could be. He would sneak in food, hold her hair back when she got ill. They watched movies together, laughing at the on-screen antics, cheering when the bad guys lost, jumping when the monster attacked. Deepti's vision of her future started changing from some amorphous figure "some day" to the boyish grin from Sanjay. She didn't say anything, mainly because she wasn't yet "normal," and thus, saw herself as a danger to him.

Late one morning, after the lab, Hemanti and Jagad sat down with Deepti. Hemanti started, "All right. I've got it down. I have isolated the sequences and pathways, I know what we need to do, and we have to have a talk." Dee nodded her agreement. "We'll talk about it at dinner. Marisa is conveniently off at a sleep-over, since she doesn't need to be a part of this. It might affect her later, but not right now. She's too young to understand all of this, right now," explained Hemanti, decisively. "We'll swing by the restaurant on the way home, to pick up dinner, and see you this evening."

About an hour later, after Dee got herself settled on the sofa, for the post-lab-visit exhaustion, when her cell phone rang. The ID said it was Kamal. "Hello?" she answered.

"Deep?" came her brother's voice. "You've been home for, what. A week and a half? Almost two weeks?"

"Yup," she replied, tiredly.

"And all that time, Mum and Dad have been working; I'm pretty sure they haven't been cooking, or just throwing together something," he stated.

"Yeah," she answered, a little guardedly.

"So, what's going on, tonight? Why did they order food from Village Masala?" Kamal continued, "What aren't they telling me?"

Dee hesitated before replying, "We're having a discussion tonight. Because Mum finished the tests. She's gotten the results."

There was perhaps a heartbeat between her finishing her statement and Kamal's reply, "I'll be down." He then cut the call.

A couple of hours later, Kamal arrived, several bags of take-out in-hand, and headed straight to the kitchen, with only a vague greeting to his sister on his way through. It was about half an hour before their parents usually got home for dinner, normally. Dee could hear him in the kitchen putting the items in their separate dishes, warming them up. She moved to the kitchen, and parked herself at the table. They chatted about inconsequentials, while Kamal puttered.

His phone rang, and he answered it. "No... I brought the food... Yes, I know you were going to pick it up, but I brought it... I figured it would be simpler for you to have a more direct route home..." Kamal's eyes rolled, and he looked to Deepti, and made the 'blah-blah-blah' gesture with his free hand, while listening on the phone. "Yes, I know the restaurant is on the way, but at least you don't have to make the extra stop... Well, it's too late, I'm already here. I'm not going to take the food back so you can pick it up. I'll see you here." He flinched slightly at the vehemence of getting hung up on, and looked to Dee, "She doesn't want me here, does she?"

"I know that you, and Mum and Dad, have some differences of opinion on some things, and," Deepti answered, carefully.

"Are they going to try and railroad you into taking the cure?" Kamal asked, outright.

"Yeah," nodded his sister. "But I don't think it's railroading."

"You want to take it?" he asked, watching her closely.

Dee answered promptly, "I want to take it." She said that, looking him straight in the eyes.

They continued regarding each other for several long moments, before Deepti sat back in the kitchen chair, looking away. "Uhm, Sanjay's been really nice, this past week and a half," she informed him.

"Change the subject? Okay!" huffed Kamal, frustrated.

"No," Dee said, quietly. "I'm not changing the subject."

"Why?" frowned Kamal. "What are you saying?"

"D'you know what's near Sanjay's house?" she asked, giving her brother the side-eye. "The In-n-Out. He's been sneaking me burgers. And Dad hasn't said a word."

Kamal blinked, surprised, "Animal style?"

Dee grinned, nodding, "Hell, yeah."

Kamal's expression changed to one of satisfaction, "Well. He has been paying attention."

Deepti continued, "And, Dad knows that he's been here, and that he's been bringing me food, and..." She looked away, smiling softly, "And, Jay's been nothing but a gentleman. And, when he heard I was 'sick,' he had tests done. He had a copy of his chart, and I made him show it to me."

Kamal smirked, "Why, did he think you gave him something?"

"No!" snapped Dee. "He was willing to give me something. Anything out of his parts box, that didn't work in my own body. Organ compatibility, in case he had to donate something."

"So fucking romantic," Kamal shuddered. "It's making me cringe. But, Sanjay, he's always been a good guy. I can see why Mum wants you to marry him."

Dee started fidgeting with the napkin at her place-setting. "We've kinda been talking, and we're not adverse to the thought of, ah, prolonged association," she admitted, hesitantly.

Dee realized that, for the past two weeks, their mother hasn't been nagging her about marrying Sanjay, like she normally would. In fact, Hemanti's attention has been laser-focused on the project at hand, and specifically on the project, rather than ancillary, trivial side-issues. Growing up, she'd seen her mother be able to multi-task and ride herd on any number of projects, but since starting Dee's 'cure' project, all of Hemanti's attention has been on the science. As she came to that realization, their parents arrived home.

Jagad and Hemanti came into the kitchen, and saw the table set and ready for dinner. For four.

"Oh," remarked their mother. She looked to her son, "We'd like to have a chat with your sister."

"I know," smiled Kamal. "That's why I'm here."

There were several moments of tense silence, as Hemanti looked from her son to her husband, then back to her son.

"Mum," interjected Deepti. "We've already talked."

Jagad added, "He's been watching over her."

Hemanti regarded her family with vague, motherly irritation, before sitting at the table. "Fine."

Jagad and Kamal took their seats, as well.

Hemanti started, "Like you know, we've done the tests, we've isolated the centers of your powers." She sighed deeply, collecting her thoughts. She then focused her attention on Deepti. "The option is here, for you to keep your powers, or we can introduce you to a treatment program, that will completely suppress and remove you power, so you can live a normal life and have children, and, uhm, obtain all the dreams you wanted."

Dee frowned absently, and replied, "I'm sorry, Mother, all the dreams that you want me to have?"

"Yes," remarked Hemanti, "All that dreams that you want to have, which, surprisingly, frequently correspond with what I want. If done properly. But, seriously, you can keep your powers, or you can live a long life with–" and she stopped herself. She took a deep breath, and rolled her head on her neck, releasing some of her own tension. "Now, there are some other things that need to be brought up. I," Hemanti paused a moment. "I am very good at my job. I have studied DNA and gene splicing and so forth. But, there are certain random elements that I can not predict. I'm ninety-nine point nine percent certain that this won't kill you, or present you with any long-term deleterious effects. But there may be other things; I don't think it's going to, say, turn your skin blue, or purple. But, I can't predict what some of the other side effects might be, but if they come up, we can deal with them. But, it's not like you're going to go bald, or anything."

Dee took a deep breath and released it, listening to her mother. "Honestly, if I lose all my hair, I can wear a wig." She offered a weak smile.

Hemanti nodded, "Yes, but you'll have no eyebrows or eye lashes. Anyway."

Deepti nodded once, granting the point. She spoke up, "I have been thinking about it. For the last week and a half, and, I do want to go through it. The treatment. To suppress it."

Hemanti's expression remained neutral, except for a lift of her eyebrows, and a gleeful wriggling of her toes. Jagad and Kamal glanced at each other, with knowing looks.

"All right. Tomorrow, we'll put you on a strict diet, to prep you for the treatments," Hemanti remarked, serving up some of the food.

"How, ah, strictly does the diet need to be kept?" Dee asked, carefully. She glanced towards her father, even as she accepted the plate from her mother.

"Well, there are certain limits and boundaries," Hemanti went on.

Jagad promptly added, "There will be a little wiggle room, but not a whole lot." He gave her a speaking glance. "But, I'm sure that we can come up with a diet that you'll be able to stay with. But, you will need to watch what you eat, because we are now out of the box, on this."

Note to self. Text Sanjay about this.

Kamal spoke up, then, "So, she'll be able to live a happy life, as a normal person, that can have children. Yeah, nice way to not lean on it, Mum."

"Oh, hush," Hemanti gently scolded. "It's what she wants."

"I know," agreed Kamal. "But, I'm just making sure you're still Mum." He smirked a little, at that.

She smiled warmly to her oldest child, "And I can't be anything else."

The rest of the meal passed uneventfully.


Within the first few days of treatments, Deepti was feeling physically miserable. The treatments, which included more than just injections and radiation, were administered in the mornings, so that they could take full effect throughout the day. It felt like there was a weight in her chest, which was turning into what could best be described as a hollowness; as if that was the center of her flame powers, and she could feel it slowly dwindling. It had been a part of her, but she hadn't noticed it before, much like one doesn't notice any specific part of their body, until something happens to it. Under her parents' close observation, the warmth she had always felt was fading, leaving her chilled. She could feel the reduction within her, during the treatments, but she endured them with minimal complaint.

It was the final day of treatment, late in July. Dee was on the sofa, recovering from the morning's endeavors. She had some music playing as she stared out the window, at the trees in the yard, trying to let that distract her as she felt the final ember within her finally go out. She shuddered softly, pulling her knees up, and reached for the throw that was draped across the sofa's back.

Deepti was cold. And she was alone; empty. All alone. Completely hollow; without substance. And cold. So, very, cold. She withdrew into herself, closing her eyes, to try and hide from The Emptiness. It had been creeping closer through the summer, when Sanjay wasn't there to keep it at bay, but now, it was almost upon her. Tears fell, as she felt that no matter where she went, The Emptiness would find her, that it would become an actual thing and find her.

Somewhere, outside of the emptiness, Dee could hear her sister, talking to Sanjay. She could hear the concern in her sister's voice, but it was on the other side of The Emptiness. "She's not doing too well. She's sad, all the time, now. She doesn't get up, she doesn't move, she just lays there."

Of course I just lay here. The Emptiness can't find me, here. If I move, it will find me.

Marisa continued, "Mummy and Dad said it wouldn't last long, but..." Clearly, her sister was distressed. "It's – It's not the Deepti I know."

Sanjay murmured something to Mari, but Dee couldn't hear it. It required more effort than she could muster. She heard footsteps approaching her, but she lacked the curiosity to just open her eyes.

"Hi, Dee," Sanjay said, softly.

She turned her head slightly, so she could actually see him. "Hi," she whispered.

He brought one of the chairs to be next to the sofa's arm rest, and settled himself in the chair. He leaned against the sofa, draping an arm behind Deepti's head, and started gently stroking the area above her ear with his fingers. "Sucks, huh?" he asked, gently.

She relaxed against the arm rest, half-closing her eyes. "Yeah. Today was the last," she whispered. She couldn't bring herself to speak any louder. After a minute, she lifted her hand up, to cover his, by her ear.

"I know you've," started Sanjay, but he stopped. He started again, "I don't know what you're going through, but I know that it sucks."

"It sucks, but it's," confirmed Dee, quietly. She paused, before saying, "Things went well, but the worst is over, now. It's..." She took a shuddering breath, as more tears fell, "It's done. It, it can only get better, from here." She tightened her grip on his hand slightly. She wasn't sobbing in her voice, but it was easy to hear her pain. "Wuh- we'll see... we'll see how it's going, tomorrow." After another pause, "Because this sucks."

Sanjay's thumb continued stroking against Dee's hair, through this. "Tomorrow?" he said, softly. "I don't know if you'll be hungry, but I'm going to bring you some fries."

She sniffled, smiling a little, "Better make sure it's okay with Dad."

She couldn't see his boyish grin, "Why do you think it's just fries?"

"Well, it is a simple starch," murmured Dee, still holding Jay's hand by her ear. She continued on, quietly, about why potatoes were a good sick-food for a few breaths, before finishing, "Just go easy on the salt."

"I'll put one grain on each fry," Jay promised. Dee almost giggled at the thought, but it had gotten to the point where she wasn't entirely certain he was joking about it.

"That one grain is going to get lost in the dressing," she whined, with a weak smile.

"No, you can't have dressing," Jay answered. "You can have fries, with maybe two grains of salt, but no dressing. Not tomorrow." His thumb never stopped moving. "And then, in a couple of days, a burger. But not Animal Style, yet." Dee huffed a small chuckle. "And then, in a couple of days," Jay continued, "I'll bring you a burger, Animal Style."

"You've already discussed this with Dad, haven't you," Deepti murmured.

"And then, in a couple of days? Maybe a shake." Jay continued like that for the next hour. It was "And then, in a couple of days," a new activity. "We'll go to the park." "We'll walk around the park. Or just sit in the car if you're not feeling up to that, yet." "We're going to go on a boat, one of those paddle-boats. Then we'll have you jet-skiing." "And then Summer will be over, so, you'll be going back to school, but you'll be ready for it. And you're going to learn a lot of stuff. And you'll become a great doctor."

Sanjay kept his word, for the rest of the summer. Every couple of days, he brought her something, took her somewhere, and Dee's strength returned. And he continued to map out what they would do, "in a couple of days," and they would proceed to do so. This went on throughout Dee's senior year of high school, and through the following summer. They were very careful not to discuss marriage during that whole year, but it did, eventually come into the picture.

Sanjay passed the bar exam, and became a junior associate at a local law firm, while Deepti entered college. When they realized that, despite enthusiastic practice, Dee wasn't getting pregnant, it was discovered by two different ObGyns that she was infertile, most likely due to the radiation therapy when she was sixteen. They decided to wait on doing anything until after Dee was finished with University, before they would look into adoption.

And that's when Cousin Palaavi's boyfriend left her, after getting her pregnant.


Order In The Court! (Age 24)

Given how large the family groups were, the final judgments and paper-signing could not take place in a side-meeting room. They were taken to a smaller court room, which was still a half-dozen below capacity, even with the lawyers, the judge, the court recorder, and bailiff. There was also a court-appointed matron, essentially to handle infant-juggling while the papers would get signed.

Deepti was holding the baby in her arms as they filed into the court room, murmuring happy nonsense to him quietly, and gently bouncing him to keep him quiet for the proceedings. The judge suggested she hand him to the matron, and she reluctantly did so.

The matron, an older woman with a cheerful disposition, continued with the happy nonsense, off to one side and out of general ear-shot.

The three lawyers went up to the bench, to discuss matters with the judge, quietly. Deepti couldn't hear what they were saying, but worry grew as she saw the judge's expression turn to irritation. Dee's lawyer was looking quite upset, when the judge motioned the matron to him. The matron approached, baby in arms, and her expression shifted to one of neutrality, as the judge murmured some directions to her. She turned, and left the court room.

Dee put her hand on Jay's arm, having gone cold, watching her baby be removed from her sight. Her attention shifted to their lawyer who approached the couple. "What's going on?" hissed Deepti.

"She," started the lawyer, glancing at Palaavi's family group, "She's going to keep the baby."

Sanjay stood up, "But, she can't do that. We have the papers, this was only supposed to be a formality." Dee stood up a moment after, still clutching Jay's arm.

Their lawyer started explaining why she could, and at that point, Deepti's parents and Sanjay's parents start yelling at Palaavi's family, who started yelling back. Dee sat back down, angry and confused, and started shaking her head, from the ringing that was growing in her ears, which was getting louder. Her heart was pounding, and the ringing was loud enough to drown out the yelling, the judge's gavel hitting the block as he attempted to bring order back into the court room. Tears rolled down Deepti's cheeks, as all she could think of was, This wasn't how it was supposed to be. The ringing grew louder, as did the yelling in the small room.

Her tears started to sizzle.

That lost warmth in her chest, from almost a decade earlier, suddenly erupted within her, like an inferno.

Deepti stood up, and gave a primal yell. In that moment, everything flashed out, all flame and fury.


Back At The McDuckworthy Estate (Age 18)

"Are you listening to me?" Afton asked, from behind her.

Vanhi turned around, confused. Water was dripping from her, as she stood on the top step of the McDuckworthy Estate's swimming pool. Afton Barron was holding his warped motherboard. "Yeah," Van said, blinking a little, and looking around, getting her bearings. "Yeah, uhm. No, I just, uh. Wait, what?"

"Dwayne wanted to talk to you?" he repeated.

That night, as Vanhi lay in bed, staring at a spot on the wall, she thought she heard Madame Mireya's voice in her head, "And now, you know the Path of the Hearth is not for you."


Author's Note: This is a world similar to the one in Vox Veritatus. Both were built using the Mighty Protectors RPG system published by Monkey House Games. The images were created in Titan Icon, from the City of Heroes MMO.