I Don't Think We're in Kansas Anymore (Part 1)
A Generation 2 Whateley Academy Adventure
I Don't Think We're In Kansas Anymore
by ElrodW and Nagrij
(with help and contributions from the usual suspects)
Tuesday, September 6, 2016 - Late Afternoon
As he watched the group of seven girls and two boys get off the train and start milling about on the platform, it made sense to Jimmy Cannes that they'd all been on the same train. From his observations of them during the train ride from Boston, he'd become more and more convinced - especially with the assistance of his VI - that they were mutants like him, and that they were the group who'd been in some kind of fracas in New York City the previous day - which made the odds pretty good that they weren't the only mutants on the train heading for the school... an assumption quickly proven as a number of other teens disembarked from the train. A woman with a jacket bearing a Whateley crest slowly circulated among the soon-to-be students, pausing to have a few words with each. Most of the teens were carrying a lot of suitcases, while only a few had just the one travel bag like Jimmy did, having elected - like Jimmy - to ship their belongings ahead.
The boy focused on the group he'd been watching on the train. "Tavi," he addressed the holographic VI assistant that always accompanied him, "ping greetings and connect info to everyone in that group."
"Hey," he greeted as he boldly stepped right into the midst of the teens who he was certain had been in the vids from yesterday. "I wanted to say...," was about as far as he got before realizing that he'd just intentionally drawn the attention of several rather pretty girls at once, "..um... hi. I... um ... I'm Jimmy, I saw you all on the train, but, um, I... didn't realize that you were heading to Whateley, too." Now that he looked more carefully, most of them looked poised to just walk away from him , which would be socially awkward, and with so many of them, his nerves started to give out. At least it was better than if they'd decided to fight, because getting his butt handed to him by a group of girls would be a really shitty way to start out at the new school.
"Tavi says HI!" his VI rescued him, at that moment pinging all of their mobiles and VI's with his contact info. The hyperactive computer-generated ferret raced around Jimmy before darting forward to investigate each of them. The girl in the hoodie flinched, causing Tavi to step back from her, while a blue-haired girl seemed fascinated by the holographic VI creature, enough so that he hesitantly stepped forward. When she reached out her hand to probe at the VI, he shattered, and as she looked around to see where it had gone, looking embarrassed at having apparently broken it, Tavi appeared on her shoulder, peering around her hair at her face. She swatted at him, and he dodged, then circled her arm rapidly and playfully, stopping atop her arm to grin at her.
A moment later, he was sniffing warily at a girl with dark red hair, who glared down at him, swatting angrily at the apparition. Tavi backed up immediately, and then did the same investigating to another girl with colorful hair, this time lavender in hue, who was a lot more curious and less angry. A pale girl, also in a hoodie, reacted very stiffly, like she didn't want the VI in her personal space. The Japanese boy in the group merely stared warily at the ferret, while one of the other girls actually tried to pet him, which made him arch his back like a cat being stroked. The VI flickered a bit as it tried to sustain projection around some of the further-out individuals; at that point, he was probably more projection than hard light.
"So... " Jimmy pressed on while Tavi explored the newcomers, "I was wondering how you already know each other...," he muttered awkwardly, terrified that he was coming across as creepy. "I thought only freshmen came in this early, but you're like already a group... and... well.." he lowered his voice some. "You fought together in New York. It's like you're a paranormal team already."
"We just happened to be trapped together at the airport," the white-haired girl told him, swatting the VI ferret away from her hoodie. "And when the flights got cancelled..."
"By the Central Park thing?" Jimmy interrupted.
"That was some kind of battlefield or something. An invasion..." chimed in another nearby student who wasn't part of the group to whom Jimmy was introducing himself, but had decided to butt in nonetheless. The boy awkwardly dropped several suitcases near the van and then collapsed on top of them. He was slightly heavy set with odd proportions, like he was usually skinny and had just gotten fat... or vice versa. "We were watching it on the news like all day. Were you in New York, yesterday?"
Jimmy ignored the fat-skinny kid, since he didn't appear to have been in the videos. "I'm Jimmy," he said, extending a hand to the Japanese boy. "I'm going to Whateley, too."
The Japanese boy looked warily at his outstretched hand, and then, as if prodded by slow-reacting protocols of politeness, he shook Jimmy's hand. "Taka Ono," he answered simply, half-bowing his head respectfully.
Jimmy turned to the other boy in the group, stretching out his hand again.
"Vic Rivera," the boy replied, sounding almost grateful to have another guy around to help him stay afloat in the sea of estrogen surrounding him.
Before he could extend his hand to the clutch of girls, the pale girl practically demanded of him, "Why would you think we were in a fight or were a team?"
Jimmy looked a little more closely at her - under her hoodie, it looked like she was an albino; her hair was pure white, and even her irises lacked color. Jimmy sensed that the group of girls was nervous about his supposition. "Um," he hesitated, "I heard news about a fight, and there were some really poor-quality, blurry videos, and ...."
"That doesn't sound like very solid evidence," the purple-haired girl said flatly, sounding to Jimmy almost like his pals in the precinct when they were dubious about someone's story.
Jimmy winced; the girls were overly sensitive about the video and the fight, he decided. Maybe he should just lay his cards on the table. "Um, I ... was kind of a junior assistant gofer at a police department," he confessed, "and I kind of learned to put two and two together."
"Oh?" the blue-haired girl seemed intrigued, like she was eager to hear his logic.
"The group had eight kids fighting ...," Jimmy started to explain his reasoning.
"Yeah, but there are nine of us," the girl countered immediately.
"You could have met someone after the fight." He noticed that Vic and one of the other girls exchanged wary looks, perhaps confirming by their actions that his supposition was correct.
"That sounds like a bit of a coincidence," the red-haired girl said in an unmistakably British accent.
"And you said the video was pretty bad," another girl interjected. Was she Italian? From the accent, possibly.
"The kids in the video had rather remarkable hair color," Jimmy asserted. "One light purple...."
"Lavender," the purple-haired girl corrected him quickly - perhaps a little too quickly. Maybe she was a little sensitive about how her hair was described.
"One royal blue, and one very dark red. Just like three of you do." He stared knowingly at the pale-skinned girl. "From what I could make out on the blurry video, one girl appeared to have white skin." When she gulped nervously, he smiled and looked around at the group. "The odds are that..."
The little CGI ferret swarmed up the boy's leg and onto his shoulder. "Tavi tell odds," he said eagerly.
With a frustrated sigh, the boy shook his head. "No, Tavi. Don't tell me the odds. Never tell me the odds!"
"Tavi gots." The furball scrambled down his leg and resumed circling and investigating the others.
"Anyway," Jimmy put a smile back on his face, "I'm pretty certain that group was you guys."
The pale girl winced visibly, not happy at all with the boy's deductive reasoning - which was spot-on for accuracy. "Um, could you keep it down about the fight?" she pleaded. "We already got in trouble for that from a teacher who was in New York, and we'd really rather not call more attention to ourselves."
Jimmy nodded with a knowing smile. "I get it, really. I know how to keep my mouth shut."
Several of the kids sighed with visible relief. "We don't want to get a reputation as trouble-makers or, worse, tough kids that bullies decide they have to pick on to show how tough they are!" the blue-haired girl noted in a hushed tone.
"Excuse me," a woman's strong voice interrupted Jimmy's explanation. "Would I be correct to assume you all are destined for Whateley Academy?"
"Um, yeah." "Yes." "Uh, huh."
The woman nodded. "I'm Elaine Claire, Dean of Students. Could you please, one-at-a-time, tell me your names so I can check you against my roster?" Without waiting for affirmative nods, she started to her right, looking right at the Japanese boy.
"Ono," he replied, bowing formally. "Ono Taka."
The other kids paused while she checked the names, each replying to her in turn. "Bianca St Claire," the pale girl replied. "Morgana Jones," replied the redhead. "Tanya Wright," said the girl with lavender hair. "Jimmy Cannes," Jimmy said strongly. "Erica von Abendritter." "Fiorella Persico." Jimmy smiled to himself - the girl likely was Italian, as he'd supposed.
"Lucretia Del Bosque." Jimmy knew he'd Heard that name before; he filed it away to research more later. "Laura Samuels." So that was the blue-haired girl's name? "Victor Rivera."
"Thank you." Ms. Claire turned to the next small cluster of teens.
"Well, that worked out better than if I'd asked all of your names," Jimmy said with a goofy grin, reaching out once more to shake hands with the girls.
One of Laura's blue eyebrows lifted warily and she withheld a responsive hand clasp. "You aren't trying to... put moves on us or anything, are you?" she practically accused the boy as she got in his face.
"No, no!" Jimmy protested, putting his hands up almost as if surrendering. "Not at all! I just... well, we're all new here, and, um, I figured I should start making friends. I'm not trying to pick you up! Honest!"
"Oh," Cally said, stepping to Laura's side to confront the hapless boy, her hands angrily on her hips. "So you're saying you're too good for us? That you don't think us worth your time to try to pick up?"
"Um, no," Jimmy protested, blushing furiously. "I mean, you're pretty and, um, I.., maybe... but...." he stammered trying to figure out how to get out of the verbal snare into which he'd inadvertently stepped and so stupefied by the situation that he failed to notice the playful grin on several of the girls' faces.
He was saved further embarrassment by Ms. Claire. "Attention, everyone," she said loudly, her voice easily carrying over the subdued roar of the milling throng of students. "Please proceed to the shuttle buses in the parking lot. There are Whateley trucks parked beside the buses for everything but handbags, and staff will help load your luggage. If you have more than you can carry, please wait here and staff members will come along to help you collect your things." She looked around the assembled horde of students. "Any questions?"
Of course, being a mass of teenagers, there were no questions, or at least no-one brave enough to commit the social sin of a teenager by asking an adult for directions or assistance!
As they walked toward the parking lot, Tanya sidled up beside Jimmy. "We're going to try to hang out for dinner and stuff - if they let us. You wanna join us?"
"Besides, Taka and Vic might appreciate have a bit more testosterone in the group!" she laughed. "If they're the only guys hangin' with so many girls, people might start thinking they're gay or something!"
Tuesday, September 6, 2016 - Late Afternoon
Visitor's Parking Lot, Whateley Academy
‘Older sedans might garner less attention than a brand-new luxury car, but their ride sure sucks,' Bailey thought as the great hulking piece of metal rolled to a careful stop in between the lines of one of the first spaces, well away from anyone.
"Alright dear, we're finally here! Whateley Academy, my alma mater."
Bailey looked over at the slightly frazzled figure in the driver's seat. She didn't know whether to hug or throttle her. "Yes Mom, I know Mom."
"Yes… well. Got your phone, and your tablet? Do they have a full charge?"
Bailey knew they did because they spent the trip plugged in, but checked again so her Mom wouldn't bring it up again, or offer another lecture on the importance of making sure her new phone was charged. She had liked her old phone, but it hadn't been good enough to go to Whateley with, at least not for her Mom. "All charged."
Her Mom nodded and popped the trunk, then stepped out of the car, putting on her fedora. Bailey rolled her eyes as she followed suit, yanking her small travel bag out and putting the tech items into it. Mother was in the process of removing the luggage – several suitcases of new clothes and other odds and ends – when she was approached by a man in a gray camouflage uniform.
He was tall, well over six feet, and gangly. He was probably Hispanic and wore a handkerchief over his brown hair. Bailey saw he carried something that looked like a metal rod, maybe one of those collapsible kind you see in movies all the time? The overall impression was imposing, but not threatening … at least not yet.
Her Mom took a step back warily as he walked into hearing range.
"Excuse me ma'am, but who do you have there? A new student?"
"Yes, I'm Dot and this is Backtrack. She's a new student but I'm afraid we're a little late, and we may have missed her tour."
The urge to yell 'if you hadn't insisted in driving twenty miles per hour, we wouldn't have been late' was strong for a moment, but Backtrack swallowed it down with effort while the man introduced himself.
"I'm officer Kamos, Whateley security. One moment and I'll just check you in from here, if you don't mind. Administration is a little busy at the moment."
He brought out his phone and tapped on it a few times. Then looked from his phone to each of them while Dot beamed at him. As he fiddled with his phone, Bailey looked around, her gaze stopping on a car transport truck on the far side of the parking lot, laden with something under a tarp. Bailey couldn't help wondering what the vehicle was; whatever it was, she doubted it was as inconspicuous as all her Mom's cars were. "Alright, all checked in."
Bailey snapped back to the conversation as Mom hugged her tight and whispered in her ear, "Alright dear, got to go lead off the pursuit, be good in school, I'll be close if you need me, bye!"
She was in the car with the engine started before Bailey could finish the sentence.
"...there is no pursuit."
The car drove off, with Mom still waving. Bailey watched as it drove out of the gate, her feelings mixed. The security officer clapped a light hand on her shoulder.
"Tough luck there, kid. Look, I've got to go. There are more people to check in, and more things to do. You've got a mountain of baggage there, so I could help you carry it to the cottage baggage cart. We have them set up around the sides of the lot. You're in Poe, right?"
Bailey nodded and picked up her car bag and the biggest bag she could manage. "Yes sir."
Officer Kamos managed to get the other two bags and two suitcases, but it was a near thing. He was panting by the time he reached the cart, but was still gentle with her things as Bailey placed her own heavy suitcase in.
"Alright, that's it. The next tour for the school is in about half an hour when the next couple buses of kids come in from Dunwich. Now the campus tour is important and you can't skip it, so wait right here, out of the way, and someone will be along, okay?"
Bailey wondered what she was supposed to say in response as she looked at the seemingly very busy people moving quickly through the lot, kids and adults both. None were coming near the section of asphalt the Poe baggage cart was placed on. "Okay."
"Later kid, have a good time at school." Officer Kamos walked off with a wave not unlike her Mom's, leaving Bailey alone.
The thick curtains had cast the hotel room into a stygian darkness lit only by the flickering candlelight glow of the girl's seemingly-flaming hair, as she sat cross-legged in front of an obsidian bowl. The water in the bowl shimmered, a pale pink in color as small, iridescent whorls coalesced, dissipated, and reformed inside it. The girl's attention wasn't really on the bowl; instead, she was focused on the glowing display that hung in mid-air in front of her - a decidedly customized version of Google Maps, currently displaying a section of New Hampshire with a small symbol slowly moving across it.
"Are we there yet?"
She repressed a smile at the sarcastic comment from her green and scaly sidekick, but even as she opened her mouth with the obvious answer, the bowl darkened and a small icon on the map faded and vanished. She sighed, and slowly pushed the bowl away from her.
"Well, she's there now. Safe behind their wards. At least, it broke the link when she passed through the gate. "
Standing gracefully, she closed the display window with a casual gesture, then picked up the bowl.
"I hope she'll be safe now."
Her sidekick grinned as he started to put away her tools. "Hey, sure she will. Remember, we looked up this Whateley place. And you said yourself their shields were very good indeed."
The girl frowned, nibbling on her lower lip. "I know, but..."
"Look, we have to get packed up, your studies start in a few days. Anyway, you don't need to worry about her. She's only going to High School, right? What's the worst that can happen?"
Tuesday, September 6, 2016 - Late Afternoon
Main Parking Lot, Whateley Academy
There was no help for it; buses absolutely sucked. No matter how expensive, the ride was terrible, the seats awful, and the noise would have been intolerable if not for her customized clip-on ear plugs. Tia decided that she really needed to properly thank Laura - preferably from as much distance as possible. No, those were bad thoughts, and borrowing trouble; Laura had been nothing but nice to her, at least so far. She was sure she looked weird trying to massage feeling back into her tail, but at least she wasn't alone in the weirdness.
At least without the confining hoodie pulled tightly over her head, her ears had been free to stretch the last several miles of the trip; now if only she could find a vehicle seat that didn't cramp her tail, she would be set forever. She'd probably have to design one or something.
Thinking about it was a great distraction though. She waited, outwardly patient, as the other kids disembarked. Her own demeanor matched by that of her quiet seatmate. For all that his English was rough, Taka Ono was unflappable, an ocean of calm in the midst of the antics of the others… and he didn't display that he was a sword, a human weapon to be used for right. Not that she could forget, but it helped that he wasn't so obvious about it.
She envied that he seemed half-asleep, even now. She couldn't sleep; not here.
Of course, the noise and chaos was worse the moment she stepped off the bus, carefully keeping her distance, trying not to appear threatening. She could see that immediately from behind Taka; her fellow students were still milling around nearby.
There were kids everywhere; far more than existed in Redding … and every one of them was probably a mutant. She forced the panic down; showing fear would be the worst thing possible here. She was sure that at least some of them would be able to sense it. Deep, calming breaths. This wasn't worse than the bus - at least she had directions to run in, so she wasn't trapped. She did her best to ignore the raised eyebrow of the Japanese boy she had briefly hidden behind as she stepped out of his shadow to take in her surroundings.
The campus was beautiful - all manicured lawn and well-kept trees, inhabited by smiling and happy people walking along in the warm evening sun.
Wait a minute. The people, especially the older students and the few staff were scurrying frantically about, all but running, and the adults didn't look happy at all. There was hardly a smile to be seen among the grown-ups; instead they looked tense and stressed. There was more than one actual frown gracing a passerby, and everyone seemed to have somewhere to be. A simple delay couldn't be the cause of this. She looked over; judging from the way his hand flexed at his side, her hapless charge had noticed it too.
Their escort spoke up, now that the headcount was over; this part seemed unscripted as well. "Alright kids, most of you are a bit late for your assigned tours. If you WAIT RIGHT HERE someone will be along to take you where you need to be and give you the tour."
She scanned the group. "All boys assigned to Emerson and Twain cottages, and male students assigned to Melville, please step to my left as I call your names." She proceeded to read a rather long list of names, including Taka, Jimmy, and Vic, and the boys gathered as indicated. Oddly, a few boys remained behind.
"Girls assigned to Dickinson, Whitman, and Melville, please step to my right as I call your names." This group included Tanya, Erica, and Cally among the small herd of incoming female students.
"The rest of you should be assigned to Poe Cottage. Please raise your hand and keep it up as I call your names." This list included both boys and girls; including Morgana, Laura, Bianca, and Tia.
She looked around once more after the horde had been separated. "Any questions?" Seeing that there were none, she nodded. "Wait here, please. Your representatives will be here momentarily." With that, she turned and practically marched into the administration building.
An idle check of the lot while Tia retrieved one of her bottled teas out of her bag revealed how empty it was; for a busy school, there weren't that many vehicles here, and most of the ones in her range revealed out-of-state plates. So the faculty had to have another place to park, and this was a visitor's lot… maybe. Her eyes briefly caught on a covered car sitting on a truck, with a guy in a lab coat standing next to it. He had a clip-board and was scanning the crowd, his back turned towards the bus. Probably looking for some teacher or staff member, to deliver their recently-repaired car.
Of course, it was odd to see a sharply-dressed man in a lab coat and without a speck of dirt or grease on him deliver a car, but who was she to judge? Maybe that sort of thing was normal here.
There was much shifting and grumbling and Tia refocused, catching the conversations. Just random nonsense things about shopping and money and food. Mutant kids were always hungry, it seemed. Something tripped her paparazzi sense; her ears caught them before her eyes. Four chatting kids, walking together… talking about a tour? One of the girls was looking right at her, even though she wasn't the most colorful of the group present.
On the other hand, the girl causing the hair on her neck to stand was easily the most colorful of her group. Tall and thin, she had a gymnast build easily visible past the cargo shorts and tee shirt she wore. Her dark blonde hair was long and lustrous, showing hints of red, yellow, and green that somehow didn't seem out of place. She also sported a rose tucked behind her left ear and a ready smile as she sauntered alongside her friends.
The girl walking alongside her, currently whispering something that Tia couldn't quite catch in all the background noise, throwing her arms with reckless abandon, seemed an odd companion. She was as tall, but far less colorful. Her short gold hair was matched by the trim of her own tee shirt, and her glowing white skin was offset by her black chinos. Tia was happy to note the glowing was just a trick of the light, at least.
The guy to her right seemed the quiet type, with dark brown hair and glasses. He was holding a small book in his right hand, and wore a red checkered flannel shirt and tan slacks… in this heat. He was taller than the girls he seemed to be following, and well-built, but fell just short of handsome in that way that most mutants Tia was familiar with were. He was also very quiet, and his eyes seemed to linger on Taka a little too long.
The fourth, trailing behind the other three and as silent as the boy, was about as tall as Tia and pretty in a way she readily recognized. She had hair just a shade lighter than pitch black, and a complexion a shade darker than Tia's own. Her look was also readily recognizable; she was taking in everything, soaking up details around her as if her life depended on it.
The other students running around paid no real attention to the group as they stopped in front of the bus. The colorful brunette all but yelled, taking charge. "Alright, so who came on this bus? Show of hands, please."
Tia raised her hand along with the others, feeling like she was back in grade school on a field trip. The brunette grinned.
"Okay, so, there's been a change in plans. Most of the staff and RA's are busy, so we're grouping up to knock some things out. The tour we are about to give you is required by the school itself; part of the charter, for some reason. As a result, many of you are going to go with an RA that isn't from your cottage for this. When we call out your name, come stand next to us, and we'll begin. Understood?"
Tia nodded along, lowering her hand. The girl was still giving her glances, but now was splitting her focus to include a few of the others. Again, she went first.
"Alright, for now, we'll go by given names, but eventually, you'll get code-names with your MIDs that will be used for many functions around campus, so you'll need to get used to replying to either your name or your code name - but all in good time." The girl noticed a few hands climbing into the air. "And I know some of you probably already have code names. Just don't worry about it. For now, your regular names." She scanned the group again. "I need Morgana Jones, Bailey George, Bianca St. Claire, Lucretia Del Bosque, and Laura Samuels." She looked at a notebook with her roster, and then back up at the group, focusing on Laura. "This is interesting. Samuels? You're the only one in my group without a code-name yet."
The blue girl, who had been wiping off her abused and ruined makeup, blushed a pretty lavender as she stepped forward. Apparently she no longer wanted to hide her true skin color; Tia could relate. Most of her that was visible was showing blue anyway, so trying damage control would be pointless.
"I haven't really had time, miss…."
"Barrett. Krystal Barrett, also known as Flower, and it's no big deal, but you might want to pick one quickly. If you don't like it later, you can always change it, but not having one makes things a little more difficult around here. You'll need one for powers testing and the MID, if nothing else."
Laura seemed to wilt a little. "I have an idea, but…."
"That's fine, we'll handle it later - perhaps after I regale you with stories of myth and legend and bad names caused by snap decisions. There's still time left, after all."
"Um," Laura was a little shy with the RA, "can I stop in a restroom to finish cleaning off my makeup? It's gets ... kind of hot and a little greasy."
"We're on a tight schedule," Krystal replied a little curtly, enough so that Laura flinched. "You'll have time later,"
The other students were being called too. Tia idly listened in as a thought rose. The school had sent four RA's, even as busy as they were. Why not just send one? Surely they needed all the help they could get doing whatever they needed to do to get the school ready, if they were so obviously behind on that. So something unusual had to be happening.
They knew her situation, and Krystal had called her specifically into her group. She couldn't help wondering as she looked at the others - 'Did they have something in common? Nah, that was impossible! ...Wasn't it?
She hoped it wasn't… that. More victims of mutant devisors, the world did not need. The other students weren't all standing around and pointing, something for which she was profoundly grateful, but she was sure that Krystal, at least, knew just based on how the RA kept glancing at her with a knowing smile.
The quiet boy with the book was calling other boys. "Kieren Mason, Leland Patton, Clayton Adams, Terry Adams? I'm Julian O'Brien, and I'll be your Resident Assistant and your guide today. If you'll all follow me, please?" It was far less a question than an order.
And he just turned around and left, forcing the other boys to scramble to keep up with him – two blondes, one brunette, and one redhead, with the first three being suspiciously good-looking, again. That sort of appearance seemed to be common here, and it was enough to make a person self-conscious… or jealous. One of them - Clayton, she guessed - seemed a little... different; Tia noticed how he'd been ignoring the exemplar girls, but had focused his attention laser-like on the guide, and his gestures and mannerisms seemed a trifle off. She filed it away for later consideration; the day was providing more mysteries than it was answers, and now was not the time to try to solve the minor ones. The boys all left their bags, which was also, apparently, accepted here. Well, security was supposed to be good, but she was glad that her luggage had been sent ahead; this entire lot was a madhouse and… was that an ape, walking upright?
The first blonde RA was calling out names too. She stopped after just two though. "Alicia Godwin, Jeanette Quinn, I'm Annette Carpenter, your hostess for today's courtesy tour. Please follow me." She spoke in a lovely contralto voice that oozed sex-appeal and practically begged a romp in her bed, and she wore a syrupy-sweet flight-attendant smile that was certain to cause problems for any diabetic within a hundred feet. The girls who went with her were practically drooling; Laura couldn't help but wonder if they, like her, batted for the other team, and thus were absolutely enraptured by Annette.
The three girls strutted off in a different direction from the boys and from Tia's group. She watched them go, now even more confused. Why the separate directions at all, if the tour was the same? Were the groups too big? If so, why not put some of the guys with the girls, or thin their own group out?
The last one started calling names, and the first to respond was a very short girl; had she been on the bus? Tia didn't remember meeting any Kareela Greer. Tanya stepped over eagerly when she was called, and then Taka and the two European students Fiorella and Erica were called … that group was going to be downright large, so it was baffling that the other groups were so small.
Tuesday, September 6, 2016 - Late Afternoon
Main Gate Security Checkpoint, Whateley Academy
Hikaru felt the limousine stop; her driver Jiro spoke, then another voice answered. She could not make out what they were saying. Jiro rolled down the divider, and through it she could see a man framed in Jiro's own window, dressed in a black and gray uniform.
<"Whateley security, Hikaru-sama. He says he needs to see your student ID, or MID.">
Hikaru rolled her eyes as she passed her RSIC forward. <"Here, Hopefully he won't be as incompetent as the MCO is, Jiro-san.">
Hikaru leaned back, out of potential line of sight as she checked once more to make sure she had gathered all of her personal belongings from the back of the car. She heard soft instructions from the front but paid little attention, letting the muttered comments about "another rich kid" from the American voice slide as the Limo started moving again.
Her eyes and attention were drawn to her own window and the parking lot beyond, and the collection of vans, buses, and cars on that lot. She thought she saw a flash of rabbit ears in the crush, but couldn't be certain and wasn't it too early for them to arrive? Hikaru was sure they had made better time than the other route, her way had required less waiting.
<"Hikaru-sama, we have permission to go directly to Melville following this road. Do you want your card back?">
Hikaru thought a moment, then shook her head. <"It is only a moment. Do not trouble yourself.">
A short drive later, down a drive lined with stately trees, the limo once again stopped and the door was opened by Jiro, who waited to help her out, with her RSIC in hand. After putting the card away she accepted the hand and stepped out, but before she could reach behind her for her other bag, Jiro had already moved to get it for her.
Restraining herself, she nodded politely to the man. <"Thank you, Jiro-san."> turning away while she let Jiro do what he believed to be his job, she stared at the building that looked like a fancy hotel where she was to spend the next four years.
It took serious effort for Hikaru to keep in check the doubts which assailed her stomach like tiny shinobi butterflies bursting their cocoons in a coordinated strike, but Jiro, bags in hand, saw nothing of it. Her inner voice however, was not so easily fooled.
*Mm. What did Carson-sensei say, musume?*
* …that she had faith that I could do the job.* Hikaru shook her head as she answered the spirit within her. *I think she was just being nice, while wanting our money.*
*So suspicious… while a good trait, and one you will find most useful as my avatar, in this case it is misplaced. Carson-sensei was who she was, and meant what she said. I do have more than a little experience at reading people, even those deemed most clever and worldly by their peers, as you are aware, Hikaru-chan. No, I am sure such was not her intent at all.*
A mental tape recorder rewound itself through her memories, then with a mental 'eureka' play was pressed, and Mrs. Carson's voice filled her mind:
"Not only do I know you can do the job, Hikaru, but I think you need it for yourself. So that you can learn about yourself, and who you are now; what being Hikaru means."
The mental playback ended with a tinge of amusement. *besides, the students could use your unique perspective; they need to know that being young and having powers does not mean they are unstoppable… not to mention that with wealth and power come obligations. If nothing else, politeness, no?*
Hikaru felt the mental nod, and found herself shaking her head in response. *So you both say, but this? I am not so sure….*
*Oh, daughter… Have you ever truly failed at something, aside from doing something for yourself?* The voice was amused. *I'm quite sure that Carson-sensei was right. You will do this, and you will do it as well as Carson-sensei thinks you can. You were a good teacher, child; you know that. A good defender, when it comes to that, as well.*
Hikaru stopped in mid response as an Asian face popped into her line of sight. Blinking rapidly, she tried to dispel the illusion, the recognition, but it persisted.
*Is that… * Her inner voice was bemused, clearly seeing the same thing she was.
"Hi! Sorry for interrupting what is clearly a really nice inner discussion you're having in your head, but I'm Tiff Lock, your guide and orientation specialist!" The young Asian-looking woman was a dead ringer for one of the two most famous video game characters ever to come out of Japan, one Tifa Lockheart, and was just as cheery and energetic as her namesake, apparently.
Even Hikaru's mental voice was boggling, but she managed to choke out: "I… see." Tiff rocked on her heels as she gathered her thoughts. "I am Myoujin Hikaru."
The apparition grinned and answered with that California accent that made it hard not to gape. "Okami. I know all about you, or at least everything Whateley knows. I know it's not a big practice over in Japan, but over here we tend to use code names for some official things. This tour … well it's kind of mandatory, I mean we have to file a statement saying we gave so and so a tour, but it's not something we need to use code-names on. Many students don't even have code-names yet. Normally you'd have already been briefed on all this before arrival, but things have been hectic for everyone lately, and your status is a little odd; I've never heard of a freshman being an RA before. They must think that your spirit will help you handle the load."
Tiff paused and shrugged, drawing Hikaru's eyes to another aspect which resembled the young lady’s namesake before snapping back to her face. "Can't say they are wrong or right on that one, but still… oh well. Off to the tour we go; the sooner we get done, the sooner you're on the job, and the quicker we all get caught up. Everyone's running seriously behind schedule thanks to something that happened two weeks ago, and now New York.
Hikaru blinked into the raised eyebrow and obvious question. "Not sure what it was, but it was big enough to give the MCO some… leeway."
Tiff nodded with a wince. "Yeah, what can you do? Those weasels take any chance at all to claim power again, or show off what power they have, although… they didn't hassle you, did they?"
Hikaru nodded. "They tried, yes. Apparently the MCO agents in New York do not know what a Japanese diplomatic passport or SIC looks like, nor do they know Japanese policy regarding such." Hikaru made it clear exactly how low her opinion of such incompetents was.
Tiff stopped for a second, clearly shocked that the MCO would ignore a diplomatic passport, before beginning to lead the way again. "SIC?"
Hikaru answered promptly, with a shrug. "Special Identification Card. Same as your MID, but generally unless convicted of a crime, all powers listed on it are classified save those that require a bio-hazard warning."
"Sounds like our MMID's." Tiff responded. Hikaru shook her head.
"Not quite. SIC's can be accessed without a court order, in Japan by authorized personnel; usually police of a certain rank, PSA officers, and other like personnel… RSIC, our version of your MMID, can't. There has to be a court order and approval by our version of your DPA," Hikaru grinned. "We also don't issue as many of them as you do."
Tiff shrugged that aside. "Is it true the MCO has no power in Japan at all? I've read it on the net, but no one believes it over here."
Hikaru grinned, showing teeth this time. "Actually correct. The MCO in Japan only has authority on U.S. military bases and only with U.S. Citizens on those bases. Outside that condition, mandated by treaty, their authority is none, period. They are just liaison officers whose job is to make sure the information contained on our SIC's and like information get into the various databases of other countries."
Tiff grinned back even as she ruefully shook her head. "Lucky you. Here, we got stuck with them again thanks to… well, you know."
"Well," Tiff waved an arm in the direction of the large crystal dome they found themselves in front of.
"This is Crystal Hall, our first stop. Later on, we'll come back here to eat. What kinds of food? Any kind; the selection is top notch."
Tiff gave her a curious glance. "Of course burgers, this is America. I'd have figured you for sushi and teriyaki though."
"When in Rome, wear a toga, I believe."
"And in America, eat burgers. Says a lot about us, doesn’t it? Alright, so how good is your memory, really?”
Hikaru shot her companion a look. "I'm an exemplar, but if it helps… Kurenai, please wake up."
Tiff barely glanced at the little hologram that appeared over Hikaru's wrist; her question was idle. "A Pepper, or a Siri?"
Hikaru smiled, knowing what was coming. "A Cortana."
Tiff did an almost comical double take, almost glaring at the unassuming looking hologram, who was staring back at her in incredulous recognition. "Right, since I don't recognize that designation, we'll definitely have to add a stop at Cyber, so you can register her. The school frowns on unknown AI's, especially ones that are likely military grade. It seems they take a dislike to things running around their network."
Hikaru nodded and did her best to ignore Kurenai, who was using hand signals… probably to inform her mistress that the little device was already in the schools network, permission or not.
"Right, speaking of powers, it comes up here all the time, and RA's are supposed to know the powers of those under their care. Everyone around here plays the game, 'what's your power, and your track,' which is kind of like a major in college here. You'll probably end up telling others your own power-set as an ice-breaker often… and the official records you get don't always list the entire story, so it's best to ask."
Tiff took a breath and Kurenai's eyes widened to comical levels. Tiff noticed of course, and grinned. "First off, I'm a mage, on the magic track, and I specialize in healing spells. I'm also an exemplar myself. Don't ask why my BIT looks like Tifa Lockheart, because no one knows. The working guess is that I was a big fan of Final Fantasy 7 to begin with, and that influenced things."
Hikaru responded quickly, before Kurenai had a chance to. "Avatar, as you're aware, external sunlight energizer, and specialized exemplar. Plus regenerator."
Tiff nodded. "Right. Get used to saying it that way. Low key, no big deal, sort of undersell it. Otherwise some students get the idea that you're bragging. Anyway, RA's act as sort of junior house-parents. They are the first line of defense for floor problems, stuff like ordering more supplies or informing house parents it's time to do so, giving tours, showing people where the restrooms and phone are, keeping an eye out for special needs students, that kind of thing. You'll have a few of those on your floor if memory serves. If your email account doesn’t have their files yet, tell me, and I’ll make sure you get them by the end of today."
"I...see." Hikaru managed to mutter.
Tiff continued as if she hadn't heard. "Anyway, for informal or inter-cottage stuff, shady stuff that might or might not be strictly legit according to the rules, we have fixers; we don't handle that stuff. Our job is to provide the other kids with what they need, make sure they're not destroying the dorm or themselves, and that they know where to go for things we can't provide. Our own fixer is Materielle. Well, her or Inkblood, her understudy."
"And to be a shoulder for them? Listen to them rant about a teacher, or rules?"
"Both, yeah. It's actually one of the more important parts of the job, because it keeps us informed about what's going on and potentially helps us head off trouble before it starts … as well as helping out the student. Anyway, normally you'd get the junior high kids, but since you're new, the little hellions are mine this year. I'd give your Kurenai my number, but I think she probably has it already."
Hikaru did not deny the charge. Most importantly, Kurenai didn't either, though the whistling of some piece of Star Wars music was a bit much. Hikaru would have to have a word with her later. Again.
"So, do I call you Tiff-sempai?" Hikaru asked with a wry smile.
Tiff grinned. "If you want, I don't mind… though the anime club will probably eat it up. I have a feeling we will both be dodging otaku anyway."
The pair snickered.
Tuesday, September 6, 2016 - Late Afternoon
Secret Lab, New York City
"Dr. Stauffer!" a lab-coated assistant called as he scurried into the research facility. "Dr. Stauffer, it's time for your meeting."
Frau Doctor Hilde Stauffer, gloved and masked and holding a wicked-looking syringe, turned angrily to the interloper. "I'm busy, you fool!"
The newcomer halted, stung by the vehemence of her reaction. "But ... but you told me to remind you five minutes before the telecon with the Major and Herr Rolf!" he stammered by way of apology and excuse.
Stauffer turned her attention back to the white rat held by an assistant on the lab table, her entire attention focused on the lab animal as she moved the needle toward the helpless little creature. "Tell them to wait! They know how important it is that I harvest the serum now!"
Without turning an eye toward him, she nevertheless directed her fury at the man. "Bruno, you know as well as I do the sensitivity of the serum level! What happens if we let the serum level get too high?" She sounded like a graduate thesis advisor administering orals to a hapless student.
"The animal will begin to have liver and kidney damage," Bruno stammered.
"And the animal dies, or quits producing the serum."
"Go explain it to Herr Rolf, then! He's interested in results, not failure, and I will not fail because I lose my research animals!"
"Jawohl, Frau Doctor!" Bruno replied smartly, nodding his head deferentially to the female terror.
"I have seven animals still to process. Tell them I will be available in ... twenty-five minutes."
"And then get back to work on separating the enzyme from the serum!"
Twenty-three minutes later, Frau Doctor Stauffer marched into a rather elegant combination library and study. Oak-paneled walls alternated with tall, oak bookcases stuffed with research and medical texts, and a large, mahogany desk sat majestically in the center of the room, dominating the room and the tiny chairs set before it. The computer on the desk was waiting; with a few deft keystrokes, a screen unrolled from a hidden recess in the wall. No sooner had the screen deployed than it lit up with an image of a balding man holding a bizarre cat-monkey creature in his arms, stroking its long Angora-like, white fur lovingly.
"Good day, Hilde," the man said in a voice thick with upper-crust British accent. "How goes the research today?"
"It's proceeding, Quinten," she replied. There was a hint of familiarity in the two's exchange, the faintest tone that was less commanding and authoritarian than she'd used in the lab with her underlings. "But it's very, very slow. Is Herr Rolf on the line yet?"
"Of course, Dr. Stauffer," a second voice said, deep and gravelly and somewhat intimidating in tone. "Your ... associate ... explained the delay."
"Yes, Herr Rolf," she replied curtly. "I cannot afford to lose any more of my animals! It is critical that the serum level be kept high enough to stimulate production, but not so high as to kill the animal, and as few animals as survive the initial treatment, I must harvest the serum when the animal is ready. Every microgram we recover is extremely precious!"
"Why don't you simply breed the animals?" Herr Rolf asked curiously.
Dr. Stauffer knew that the Major was sighing inwardly, even if he maintained perfect composure. "The treatment renders the animals sterile," she explained. "And since over ninety-five percent of the animals die during the initial treatment, it is difficult to simply obtain more animals."
"How much have you recovered so far? In terms of doses for ... tests?" Herr Rolf asked, using euphemisms to indicate the intended targets for the Doctor's experimentation.
The doctor did a few mental calculations. "Assuming the average subject is approximately sixty kilos, I have enough for ... twenty-two or twenty-three tests."
"Good. And you're convinced this new serum will be more ... effective than the last batch? You only had one ..."
"Two," the doctor interrupted sharply.
"Two successes ... out of fifteen trial subjects?"
"Sixteen, Herr Rolf," the Major corrected, still stroking his monk-cat. "The fourteen failures were unfortunate, but that is the price of success. And that is a significant improvement over the first two tests."
"It is going to be difficult to cover up another series of 'disappearances' and mysterious deaths," Herr Rolf sighed heavily. "Oh well, so be it. It is the price of our ... project."
"With the new protocols, failures should seem like natural causes," the Doctor interrupted again.
"I hope so. It was most expensive keeping the questions to a minimum on the last test set," Herr Rolf growled. "And the two subjects?" He changed the subject.
"Are both under observation," the Major reported instantly. "Conveniently at the same location, where our operatives are monitoring them and are ready to step in to protect them if necessary."
A beeping telephone interrupted the Doctor. "Excuse me a moment." She turned from the screen and pressed a button on the phone. "What is it? I'm in the middle of a conference."
"I'm sorry to interrupt, Frau Doctor, but I have very important news," a woman's voice apologized, but she couldn't disguise the excitement in her voice. "I finished sequencing the genomes of the viable animals, and I have identified the genome combination which seems to be common on all the successful animals. I checked the incoming animals, and I've identified two male and five female rats who match that genetic sequence."
Dr. Stauffer understood the implications at once. "Hold those animals back and begin breeding them immediately!"
"Yes, Frau Doctor," the woman answered.
"Good work, Julia. I'll see to it you have a bonus for all your hard work." The doctor released the intercom button and turned back to the screen. "You heard, gentlemen?"
The major nodded, a smile beneath a scarred cheek, a wound that resembled an old dueling scar in appearance. "Yes, and that's good news. If this is the breakthrough you've sought, you'll be able to ramp up production of serum significantly."
The gravelly voice interjected. "Good. Very good. How soon can you and your serum get to the Midwest lab? I have obtained medical records, and the organization has identified about thirty candidate subjects in a five-state area. As you require, all are pre-manifestation-age, and from their records, all have an incomplete meta-gene complex." The doctor's eyebrows arched. "Of course," Herr Rolf continued deferentially, "I will send you the dossiers so you can perform the final screenings."
"Sehr gut," Dr. Stauffer replied, curtly acknowledging her place as Herr Rolf's underling, even if he had no clue about technical details. He protected and funded her research - that was enough to maintain her loyalty. "I will make arrangements to travel tomorrow."
"Very good, Frau Doctor," the Major suggested. "We have the telecon with the entire Committee next week, remember. And I would prefer you to be in my office for the telecon - to avoid ... certain confusion on the part of the others."
A scowl flitted onto the doctor's face. "You can do these annoying telecons without me," she grumbled. "Especially if we don't want them to know all the details of my research."
"I know it's annoying," the Major replied soothingly, "but Director Müller insists on your presence." He smiled, or what, for him, passed as a smile. "Let me know your flight arrangements and I will have a car for you."
Tuesday, September 6, 2016 - Late Afternoon
Main Parking Lot, Whateley Academy
"Alright! Let's go. We head this way. This is the last group for our cottage today, so let's get this done," Krystal directed cheerfully. She turned and led the group with a spring in her step; Tia was following close behind, excitedly chatting with Laura and Morgana about campus details, like how green the grass was (maybe it was mutant grass, she said with a grin) and the old institutional look on buildings that didn't look to be over ten years old.
The walking path was already pretty full, with busy students dashing around like ants around a disturbed hill. There was also a pretty obvious security presence, teams of four patrolling around with badges and uniforms that appeared to include prodigious amounts of body armor. The path leading from the parking lot was comprised of carefully placed flagstones, flanked by antique looking fake gaslights. A bit farther out, large well-trimmed trees formed a canopy over the walk. The path led up a hill to what looked to be a large, twelve-story luxury hotel uprooted directly from some exotic resort destination.
The senior girl stopped at the top of the hill and took in their expressions with a smirk. "Melville cottage, first stop."
"That's a cottage?!?" Tia realized she'd spoke after she said it. She wished one of the trees were close enough to hide behind as Krystal turned that dazzling smile on her. It looked sparkling clean and new, and from where they stood, it appeared to be oval-shaped, or at least a rectangle with rounded corners. The first two were larger, so it looked somewhat like a two-layer wedding cake with an overly-tall top layer.
"It's mostly for the uber-rich and for the well-connected, yes. If you have more money than is good for you, strictly speaking, and an attitude to match, then that's the cottage for you. To be fair, there are a lot of nice, average students that live there, but that’s maybe just to show the rest of us that they’re not all uber-rich. But mostly it's the typical A-listers, snobs, and social climbers. It used to be eight stories, but between my freshman and sophomore years, they added four more floors - apparently someone thinks we need more snobs here.” She sounded a little condescending about the Melville residents - which was probably typical high-school social games. "Just a bit farther along here; I'll point out the rest."
Everyone bunched closer as their guide pointed down the other side of the hill into a small gentle valley which held most of the campus buildings. The campus itself was much larger than Tia had suspected, even from her map. The large, crystal, geodesic dome dominated the cluster of buildings in an odd, almost alien way too; at least for a Redding girl.
"In the distance, atop those hills, we have Dickinson and Emerson Cottages," Krystal pointed out. "Behind those are Whitman and Twain Cottages, which you can't see from here. On the other side there," she gestured with a sweeping motion back down the hill away from Melville and the center of campus, "we have Poe and Hawthorne. Poe will be our home-away-from-home for the school year. Hawthorne is the cottage for real hard-luck cases - kids who can't control dangerous powers and kids who's GSD could be harmful or fatal to themselves or to others." Her features went stern for a moment. "No matter how bad you think you have it," she admonished the group, "be thankful you're not a Thornie. Remember that." After a deliberate and awkward pause, she pasted back on her cheery tour-guide face. "But also remember that no matter how they look or what powers they have, the Thornies are teenagers, too, and deserve to be treated like you would want to be treated. Despite their... situations, most of them are really, really sweet people." She turned again toward the center of campus. "Follow me, please." It seemed that the tour was going to be the short-short version - like 'Europe in seven days', only this was Whateley in seven minutes.
She led the way to an old green statue in the middle of a cobble covered square and immediately began in a voice clearly bored to tears, "This is Noah Whateley, who founded the original school back in 1878; it seems to be a legally-required homage to a school's founder to erect a bronze statue to him, and so we have old Noah. His school chugged along in obscurity for eighty years, until the 60's when it closed. A few years later, a group of mutant superheroes and supervillains bought it from the bank and refurbished it as a place to anonymously train emerging mutants how to better use their powers - out of the public eye. They kept the old name, probably because it was on all the old stationery. Which brings us to today! And follow me, please."
Without much hesitation, she led the way down the walk to a large, red-bricked structure that could probably tie Grand Central in traffic heading in and out, or at least so it seemed. Krystal gave a melodramatic shudder, before stopping and just pointing at it.
"No way we're going in that mess. That, newbies, is the administration building, otherwise known as Schuster Hall. If any of you have a reason to brave the evils of paperwork or bureaucracy, this is where you come. The place is running behind, like everywhere else around here, for reasons that aren't related to the tour. There are classrooms in there too, but why bother? All we'd see are empty rooms and a few diehard teachers, and who wants to start dealing with school before they have to, right? So unless some of you have a pressing need to brave that crowd now, we're moving on." She apparently wasn't going to let anyone persuade her to enter that madhouse.
Tia didn't want to go in there; it looked like a mall on black Friday. No one else seemed to want to either, but Laura actually looked like she was going to argue for a moment, before shrugging.
Krystal winked again. "Don't worry, don't worry. You won't be unprepared; you'll know where everything is, and where you need to go at what time. I won't send innocent babes into the woods; it reflects on my paycheck." She grinned and winked at Laura again." Just got to handle the old legacy things first. So, should we play the game? The 'who are you, what can you do, and how can you do it?' game? It's all the rage among froshies."
"We already did that in New York City, but if you insist ..." Morgana commented, a touch sarcastically.
Flower shrugged. "You found me out - I'm curious. If it helps, I'll start. My name is Krystal Barrett, aka Flower, I'm a senior from Miami, and I manifest flowers. That's it; your turns."
That was it? There were other people, actual mutants, short-changed in the powers lottery? Try as she might, Tia couldn't really think of another use in a survival situation aside from blinding someone, though she could probably make a fortune as a perfumer. At least, assuming the petals she made weren't just random, and she had control.
Oddly enough, Bianca spoke up first as Flower started off. A brief image of a mama duck leading ducklings crossed Tia's mind. "Glyph. Mage."
Their guide stared at her with a disappointed look. "That's it? No 'where you're from', or other tidbits of information?"
Morgana grinned. "Dragonsfyre. Mage."
Bianca grinned back at her; Tia could feel the headache they were giving the poor guide build.
Laura caught on, sealing the deal. "No code name yet. Gadgeteer and devisor."
"Both? That's unusual!" Flower interrupted, more than a little surprised.
Even the girl they all didn't know, who hadn't been to New York, kept up the joke. "Backtrack. Psychic."
Flower groaned a little too theatrically, ruining her performance. "One word answers, huh? So vague. Well," she clucked, "you'll have to be more talkative in meetings with your RAs and cottage mates in the next few days. How about you, Tia? What can you do?"
Tia coughed as the others looked away. "Lapin. Exemplar 1. Nothing else."
Flower stumbled a bit before recovering. "Underdog, huh? Damn, that's gotta suck. Oh well, powers aren't everything, and don't worry, we don't discriminate. Alright, now our next stop is Homer gallery, and unfortunately, we have to brave Schuster Hall to get to it, so stick close to me so you don't get lost and we’ll go through one of the back entrances. You'll like it; it's very cloak and dagger."
The gallery turned out to be exactly what one would suppose. Hidden behind some old school Batman or James Bond stuff (a key hidden in a bust, a security card, a retinal scanner), it was in a blessedly-empty part of Schuster Hall. The keeper of the keys was the kindly seeming Mrs. Linsford, who let them through with a smile.
A series of small beeps caught Tia's attention. Her phone had turned itself off; and it was not alone.
Flower explained as she led the way into the gallery itself, which was much like any modern art museum everywhere. "Everything with a record or internet function will not work in this gallery; at least anything without the correct protocols. So this room is a complete dead zone where we cannot be overheard or recorded by anyone who isn't staff."
She stopped in front of a blue costume and turned around rather melodramatically. "I'm sure some of you are wondering why I'm in charge of all of you, and why you're all together as a group." She paused for dramatic effect, looking with a bemused smile around the group. "Well, it's simple; I'm Flower, and I'm what Whateley Academy calls a changeling. Simply put, I started out on one side of the gender fence - once a pudgy boy named Chris Barrett, and thanks to my mutation and BIT, I myself hopped over it to the other side - actually, kind of crawled, given how long it took me … as are all of you." She couldn't help but smile as the kids looked around, jaws dropping as their brains registered that the others were also changelings and that their stories weren't as unique as they'd believed only moments earlier. "It's so fun to watch the light-bulbs click on," she added with a chuckle.
"We're not alone; there are more of us changelings, and we all room at Poe. Well, mostly." She smiled and looked around again. "Although usually, there are only two or three in each class. There was a rather ... infamous ... spike in changelings several years ago, and your numbers apparently have the powers-that-be in a tizzy, just like that last group, because there are, statistically speaking, far too many of you - just like the last time. No one ever figured out why - there are probably fifty theories, but apparently, it's happened again. Don't be surprised if the power boffins want to spend extra time with you. From the stories I've heard, if you guys are anything like them, it might drive our beloved housemother Mrs. Horton to retire ...."
Flower grinned as Tia looked around, noticing the now more thoughtful looks exchanging among everyone else. She stifled her sigh of relief; it wouldn't do to let others hear that. In the expressions, she noticed that Laura had a knowing look as she glanced at Bianca and Morgana; no doubt there was a story there that she'd have to hear. And she noticed something else about the blue girl - she seemed the least puzzled or confused - or ... she was the most comfortable with her change? Another story she'd have to hear - probably in the wing meeting.
Krystal gave them a moment then continued, "This is commonly what's referred to around here as 'the talk'. Some of you are further along than others. Some of you are already done. Some of you have barely started. But all of you, for convenience’s sake, are who you appear to be. If you're wearing girl clothes, you're a girl and you use girl facilities. Boys, same deal. If anyone happens to see something that maybe shouldn't belong on a girl or a boy, well, you didn't see it. Anyone breaking this rule, or telling anyone else's secrets, will quickly find their lives made into a living hell here for however long they last before washing out and being shipped back to wherever they came from."
Tia noticed Bailey turn almost fully white at that news. Laura, on the other hand, seemed totally unfazed by the discussion, as if she wasn't bothered by the notion of being a changeling or keeping a secret about it.
"You may or may not have guessed, but Poe is the cottage for the, um, alternative sexuality students," Krystal said cautiously.
"You mean we're all changelings?" Bailey gasped.
"No," Flower answered with a smile. "Annette is the RA for the dykes-in-training, the girls who are either very aggressively bi or who are completely lesbian." She winked at Laura, having read the blue girl's expression. "And the boys following Julian ..."
"Are all gay?" Bianca asked, interrupting their guide.
"Yes. Which is why, if you noticed, all of you fresh-things were separated at the bus stop into four groups - one of which encompassed all the other cottages - because they don't have a secret to protect like we do."
Krystal then pointed at Tia as the ready smile fell from her face. "That said, we have a bit of a celebrity over here. Her secret is already out, so you can't blow it. No, I'm not picking on you, Tia; but the fact is, the people who are in Poe cottage rely on the cover the secret provides, so yours will be a bit different. Poe's official cover story is that we're the 'crazy house'… for various reasons. You'll be with us officially because Poe cottage is also where many who have psychological issues are put up. If anyone asks you, you're in Poe for the trained and experienced staff and support network we've built there… and it won't even be a lie. Alright?"
Tia nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
"Hey, I'm serious here Tia; we aren't going to abandon you. Poe never abandons any of its own… unless you blab and endanger us all. In fact, unless you have problems with magic resistance, you will be spelled by Mrs. Horton to make it very difficult, if not impossible, to 'spill the beans' about our cottage. Over the years, she's found that it really, really cuts down on accidental slips of the tongue. And now with that awkward moment out of the way, any questions for me on this very delicate subject?"
Her smile returned when no one spoke up. "Good, now on to the nickel-and-dime tour, or maybe the full two-dollar tour, considering this place…"
The gallery tour was a blur, at least for Tia. She hung back with Bianca and watched while the others chatted, relaxing and drinking up each other's company. The one thing that did make a large impression -other than the knife that killed the second Champion - was the metric ton of gold. Krystal had said if one didn't understand why the alum had donated that much gold with the request it be on display, one never would.
Tia thought she had it though - it seemed to say to her 'you can triumph regardless of the hurdles placed before you, if you just keep going.' She didn't voice her guess out loud of course; she was probably wrong and didn't want to look stupid. She caught up to her tour group as they headed back out, Flower stopping by Mrs. Linsford to watch them all file out. Once Tia passed she waved to Mrs. Linsford and skipped past them until she was in the lead again.
"Almost done. Then we can eat! I don't know about all of you, but I'm starving!"
Tia was used to what came next; everyone rushed to assure their guide of how hungry they were. Most mutants were always hungry, it seemed.
Right on the other side of the hall from the Homer gallery there were two elevators which looked to be a hundred years old and creaked with each new person entering, which seemed quite odd when the rest of the building was in very good repair despite the appearance of being an ancient great hall. Krystal waited near the control panel.
"The cloak and dagger stuff isn't done quite yet; watch this."
She pushed the button for the third floor, then opened the elevator's alarm recess and pulled out her student I.D. There was a weird type of card reader there; the card itself clicked into place with the portrait side facing the group, and then a scanner clicked on and bathed Flower's face in light. Her card popped out and as she took it, a small hatch under the panel which Tia had taken for a maintenance hatch slid open, revealing another button, which Flower pushed. The elevator stopped shuddering, and started moving quickly and smoothly downwards.
"That sequence is the same for every elevator in every building, but don't worry if you didn't get it the first time, we will cover it again later. What this does is lead to the tunnels. The tunnels are the school beneath the school, so to speak; most of the labs and power testing facilities are down here... as well as various clubhouses, a few secret lairs, and the power plant. Yes, the school has its own. You will have noticed that the elevator seemed ancient and creaky and slow above ground, but very fast when accessing the tunnels. This is part of the cover so people won't suspect that the tunnels even exist. So when you use an elevator to or from the tunnels, don't hold the car, because it does impact the cover story. The tunnels are also how those who don't conform to the strict standards of normalcy get between buildings on red flag days."
Krystal opened the door, and as they stepped out, put an arm on Tia's shoulder. "Sorry Tia and Laura, but that means you. On days when the flag at the center of campus is yellow or red, it's the tunnels for you. If it was up to me, you could walk around freely upstairs, but it's school policy. You might be able to cheat on yellow days, but red is a no go for anyone with GSD. Oh, and if you sign up for the Whateley app, something I highly recommend, you'll get text alerts when the flag is yellow or red.
Tia could feel her ears droop, and focused to bring them back up; she didn't like being so easily read. "It's alright, if it's policy, I'll adjust."
She had hoped that not being a slimy tentacle monster, the staff would overlook that one little rule… but she could deal with a rule that applied to everyone. She just hoped she didn't meet any slimy tentacle monsters while alone in the halls; she could deal with a lot, but an honest-to-God tentacle monster might really test her, and she didn't want to make anyone feel worse about themselves than they might already.
"That really sucks," Laura said bluntly. "I thought this was supposed to be a refuge for people ... like us." Tia nodded her agreement; using tunnels just to hide seemed to belie the purpose of Whateley, as well as to seriously inconvenience the students who were, after all, the reason for the school's existence.
"It is," Flower answered, "but we get baselines on campus - like food deliveries, parents, and so on - and we have to protect Whateley's secret." She smiled at Laura. "Besides, I saw your makeup - it'd be a pain, Laura, but you can pass, but with some effort." She looked sympathetically at Tia. "I don't know if you'll be able to disguise or hide yourself, though. The hoodie is ... marginal, I think."
Tia nodded glumly; it might take effort, but Laura could at least hide her GSD with a lot of effort and makeup. "It's not fair."
Krystal just nodded in agreement, then nodded to the camera visible in the hall they had stepped into. "I hear you, but I have to inform people about official school policy on these tours; it's my job. You want to disagree with policy? That's absolutely fine… but I'm not the one who makes that policy, so you're barking up the wrong tree, here. Or Flower, as the case may be."
At least she waited for the face palming to stop before starting off again. The halls she led them all down were color coded; orange with a red stripe in the center for this particular corridor. They crossed a few intersections, which sported different colors, but didn't meet another soul until they got to a section of the tunnel that looked down on a large glass-enclosed chamber with technicians suited in yellow suits running to and fro. Laura eagerly pressed herself against the glass, eyes sparkling with delight as she soaked in the sight.
"And this is the main power room, where that plant is. It was explained to me once, but heck if I can remember. I think they are on geothermal now, with fusion scattered here and there, but it changes every time some hotshot gets a new random idea. Rumor has it when the school started, it was nuclear fission. No need to worry about radiation though; there are sensors for that sort of thing and the glass isn't really glass."
Laura couldn't resist. "Let me guess; you were told what the glass was, once, but can't remember?"
"Yep, you got it."
Laura opened her mouth, but Krystal held up a hand. "I'm sure you know what it is, or have a good guess, and I'm sure you know what the power-plant is, too… but I don't care. Life really is too short for me to learn all that egghead devisor stuff when I'm not an egghead devisor. At any rate, now that the nickel-and-dime tour is over, I'm sure you all have questions… but you don't need to ask them - because this entire exercise was mildly pointless. If you will all simply pull out your phones or other mobile devices and download the Whateley App, which is now available to all of you, you can download the entire map including all mapped tunnels. If you type in your student ID number, once you get it that is, you'll even get a handy local GPS so you'll always be able to find your classes, and an alarm which will take away your excuse to oversleep."
"None of this is of course mandatory, but, again, I highly recommend it. If you're paranoid and don't want to, that's fine, you can simply ask one of us Poesie upperclassmen to lead you around and we will, no problem, but it's a real time saver. If you're one of those who don't own a mobile device of any kind, no worries, we got you covered. The school provides one as part of your tuition. I'd advise against breaking it though," she cautioned, and Laura immediately understood; phones rugged enough to stand up to various mutant powers - like energizers, speedsters, bricks, and so forth - would be hideously expensive.
Tia found her phone and started the download on it as Krystal stopped in front of another elevator, as ancient looking as the one they took down. "And here we are, last stop. Up we go."
Tia made sure to memorize the sequence for the elevator this time, and noticed everyone else just as focused - mostly; Morgana looked pale and nervous?
This could be bad, Tia thought. Had she done that on the way down? She might have; if she had, Tia had missed it.
"Hey, look, Morgana," Tia said to distract the girl, "the elevator is perfectly safe. No need to worry, right Krystal?"
The upperclassman looked over as the doors opened. "Of course. We're already here, see? No problems; the elevators are perfectly safe. They have five fully redundant safety systems."
Morgana gave an obviously forced smile as she all but bolted out of the cramped space; it looked more like a grimace. "Sorry…I'm still having a few issues with feeling locked in ... confined spaces."
The space they all piled into was huge, and one entire wall was dominated by a buffet. Overhead were another two stories and a geodesic dome that seemed to be collecting the fading light. Tia could see people of all possible variety gathered in the lines that seemed endless, being served by staff that looked just this side of bored to tears.
It was a lot to take in, even when the view wasn't suddenly being blocked by four people in splotchy gray and black uniforms. Tia couldn't even begin to guess where they had come from, and from the looks of things neither could anyone else. She saw no weapons, unless the tube belted at the side of each was one, somehow. Their leader, a large man with graying hair that contrasted with an unlined face and the only one that seemed capable of expression, stepped forward.
"Flower, your tour is done, right?"
Flower gave a nervous nod.
"Good. We need to see most of your charges for a little chat. We'll bring them right back when we're done, if you want to wait, alright?"
Krystal shrugged. "No problem. See you guys later; I'll wait here; when you're done just meet up back here."
The man pointed to Tia, Morgana, Bianca, and Laura, as expected. Their fifth wheel - Bailey? - followed Krystal to one of the lines.
Morgana looked more than a little put out… probably from being dragged away from the food. "What's this all about?" she hissed to Bianca, beside her.
"New York," Bianca said with grim certainty.
Hadn't they already been punished for that?
Tuesday, September 6, 2016 - dinnertime
Kane Hall Security Conference Room, Whateley Academy
The walk to the security offices had been in full view of all the milling students, and they naturally pointed and whispered, which Tia could overhear. They'd been escorted into a meeting room, where everyone else who had been involved in the fight against that stupid squid villain was already gathered. Tanya blew a breath. "Finally! What took you guys so long? Our tour was only ten minutes long!"
Tia shared a loaded glance with the others, then sighed. It was obvious that none of them want to try and field this one. "Our RA was a bit of a chatterbox. She kept telling us stories about the stuff in Homer Gallery, and in exhaustive detail. She went over every one; the time just flew by."
Tanya grinned. "I know, right? Champion's costume, and the dagger, and Champion's costume, and that ugly portrait, and Champion's costume…."
"We get it, we get it - you really liked Champion's costume. A bit… dated for my taste - too much blue. But we get it." Tia hoped Tanya wasn't a coffee drinker.
Bottoms hadn't even hit chairs before the door opened again. A man looking more severe than even the other security officers walked in, glaring around the table at the seated students. He threw a thick file on the table with a loud slap.
"I'm Sergeant Clauser, and that," he paused for dramatic effect, as if more were actually needed, "is the incident report we got from the New York police department. An incident report involving freshman students, minors, who hadn't even made it to campus yet, getting into a super fight against a known villain. Freshman students who were told to lay low and stay in their hotel, but decided they knew better."
Morgana opened her mouth, and Sergeant Clauser just glared at her with laser focus. He had a much better stare than the escort had, too. Morgana sank down in her seat, body language indicating very reluctant compliance. Clauser started pacing, hands behind his back.
"Was any part of what our representative said in New York unclear? Did he stutter? Because if he didn't, you all willingly disobeyed instructions made for your safety," he began very sternly. "You could have easily all been killed; the character you faced is a megalomaniac with Diedricks, responsible for injuries and mass property damage. No deaths have been pinned on him – yet, but it's only a matter of time, especially if he Dricks out! Did you all want to be the first?"
“His henchmen were attacking people on the street!” Tanya interjected indignantly. “Were we just supposed to let it happen?”
“Yes!” Clauser replied angrily as he steamed right on ahead, slamming his hands down on the table which caused all the students to flinch. He glared at Tanya first, causing her to instantly wilt into her seat, before somehow meeting the eyes of everyone in the room at once. "The New York City Police Department has arrested the Mighty Squid with few injuries and no casualties no fewer than twenty times; more than half of those were without any super-powered support of any kind. They didn't need the help of any children. So let me make this absolutely clear; we, Whateley security, don't need your help to do our jobs, either. You have any trouble, any physical altercations? You call us. You resist any urges you may have to handle it yourselves… or administration makes your lives as miserable as possible. NO MORE FILES LIKE THESE OUT OF YOU – got it?"
He waited until everyone seated nodded. "Good. Get out of here, and if I see you again, it better be because you called me. Enjoy your day, and try the burgers - they are reputedly the best in a five county area."
Tia wasted no time getting out of Kane Hall; Tanya was right behind her.
"So, what do you think, boss? Troublemakers?"
Sergeant Clauser shook his head, gathering together the papers that had spilled from the file he'd so dramatically thrown down. "I'd say two of them. The quiet one sitting in back and the Brit. Did you see the others? The bunny and the wannabe cape were so cowed they probably would have believed me if I said they were now our gofers for a year. We won't see them much. The others? The smurf has a temper, and the samurai-wannabe - really hard to read him, so those are toss ups. The other two - unless I'm slipping, there's a stern parent that they know is watching them, so they'll try their best to keep out of trouble for fear that the parent would find out."
"One other thing, boss. That file… that isn't the New York file; theirs was all electronic, so what was that?"
The good Sergeant grinned. "Procurements for the semester. A prop to help scare some sense into those kids. Do yourself a favor, and don't ever get promoted, Jenkins. Also, put me down for fifty on the Brit and the purple-haired one being back in a week… and fifty on the bunny. It won't be her fault, but we'll see her again."
"I'll update the pool. I'll take all those and add the smurf and the samurai. I have a feeling about those two."
Sergeant Clauser shrugged. "It's your money."
Tuesday, September 6, 2016 - Dinnertime
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
After quick-timing it back to the dining facility, in case Security changed their mind, the group got into the serving line, which was, by that time, fairly sparse and, thankfully, moved very quickly. Morgana and Tanya each had a tray with two plates filled to almost overflowing with a wide variety of comestibles, while Laura and Bianca had one plate each with sensible portions thereon. Tia sighed, passed all the burgers and ribs and steaks, and picked up a salad with a small bottle of vinaigrette dressing. There were cashew nuts so she picked up a cup of those, too, and dumped them into the salad on her way out of the line.
There were three floors worth of tables, and the upper floors were well out of the way of massive foot traffic and had the better view… but it was very likely that many of those tables were already staked out in keeping with some kind of social hierarchy. If newbies, like themselves, picked the wrong table, Laura and Tia somehow instinctively knew, there would be consequences. Their question of where to sit was answered when they spotted Flower sitting at a large, mostly empty table in the back of the room; Bailey was with her.
"This way! Our RA from the tour is waiting for us."
"Hey everyone! I'm Krystal, and I know Tia, Bianca, Morgana, and Laura, so who might the rest of you be?"
Tia took a seat facing the room while the others introduced themselves. The table was in a relatively remote corner of the cafeteria, under the main air duct, and as out of the way as any table on the first floor could be. In short, it was a place where one could see trouble coming, and it wasn't exactly prime real estate in Crystal Hall - so it seemed socially safe.
"Nice to meet you all. This section of tables is called Underdog Corner, where the underdogs - the lesser-powered students - eat. There aren't many of them around yet, but starting tomorrow they should pour in. They're a large group, but very nice, so don't be intimidated by the number of them. Unfortunately for them, they don't have very strong powers. They won't say no to anyone sitting down here and just hanging out, but if you start trouble here, well - just don't."
She gave them all a stern glare, but after the other glares they had suffered so far today, this one was nothing. "Anyway, you'll all probably move on to other tables soon enough; one group or another will likely want each of you, for whatever reason. But if you don't, there are worse places to end up than here. Although that air duct is a pain in the butt sometimes. It's usually either a sauna or a freezer under it.
As everyone began eating, Krystal continued. "So, are the rest of you done with your tour, or did you get pulled out of it?"
"No, they at least let us finish the tour," Tanya answered between bites of a huge burger that looked simply heavenly.
"So they grabbed you all… for what?"
Morgana looked up from the sheer devastation of her first plate. "To give us another chewing-out. We had a bit of a tussle with a villain and his henchmen in New York City - no big deal, really. But now because of that, and a situation that wasn't our fault, I bet security has us pegged as troublemakers! It's unfair! And as if that weren't enough, according to their own rulebook, they can't punish us for anything, anyway. We were off school grounds and not supervised by one of theirs; I'm sure they were just trying to scare us, but I refuse to be intimidated."
The next table over, three boys perked up as they overheard bits of the conversation. "Did you hear that?" one of the boys hissed insistently to his mates. "They tangled with a villain?"
"I heard about that!" the second boy, a lanky blonde, freckled boy replied. "There was some big thing in New York City yesterday! They had out all the cops, the MCO, the FBI, the National Guard, the Knights of Purity - everyone!"
"They're all acting like it's no big deal!" the third boy sputtered.
"Man! Why are they sitting in Underdog Corner? Unless ...." the first boy's voice trailed off as he thought.
"Unless security ordered them to keep a low profile," the boy speculated. "Or unless they're trying to be underestimated!"
The second guy threw the remains of a bread-stick at his companion. "You always make a Machiavellian plot out of everything!"
Back at the table, Krystal just rolled her eyes. "...If I were you guys, I'd just drop it. Security may seem weird here, but at a school where every other kid can bench press a car, they do a good job. I'd take their obvious advice and let them handle things."
It would be easy advice to take; Tia had no choice. Bailey also nodded, still silent. Bianca just stared.
"Anyway, I don't know about the rest of you, but the Poesies here need to hurry up; we still have to pick up bags and get room assignments out of the way, and I'd like to do all that before dark, which is rapidly approaching."
Bianca beat Tia to the punch. "What happens after dark? Some sort of curfew?"
Krystal grinned. "Nah, we just have a movie night tonight, and I don't want to miss it."
"Movie night, huh? What's playing?"
"Sorry, um, Tanya, was it? Sorry, it's cottage only, at least tonight. Maybe next time? As for what's playing, well we have a poll choice and most popular vote wins among the latest Marvel films or 'Tales of the MCO, the movie.' I think we also have the latest 'Kid Wonder, boy of the future today' on the list too."
Tia shuddered. Kid Wonder was a fictional devisor; the other choices sounded alright though. Hopefully 'Kid Blunder' as he was known wouldn't win. Tanya looked pretty bummed; Tia resolved to invite her to the next one, whether she could go or not.
"One thing before we go," Erica interjected, catching everyone's attention. "What are we going to do tomorrow?"
"I would suggest you make a priority of registering," Krystal volunteered her advice. "The sooner you sign up with your advisor, the better chance you have of getting the classes you want as opposed to the ones that are left over."
"How do the class schedules go?" Morgana asked. "I'm familiar with what it would be in the UK, but ..." Her confusion was left unspoken; no doubt classes would be different from her experience.
Krystal thought a moment and then dug a piece of paper from her purse. "The day is divided into hour-long class periods," she began to explain, drawing a chart. "There's an optional PE time from 5:30 to 6:30 in the morning for those sickos who like to rise early and torture their bodies. Breakfast normally runs from 6:45 to 7:45. Classes start on the hour beginning at eight; a total of 8 class periods in the regular day, but you're only expected to take five or six actual classes. At eleven, you'll either be in lunch or class; at twelve, the same, but you have to sign up for a lunch period. If you're not in class, there are study halls and of course the library for independent study. The administration and advisors sort-of expect you to be in study hall or lunch or doing work-study if you're not in class during the normal class hours." She smiled "And study hall is useful - among other things, it's a good way to get your homework out of the way so your evening is free."
"What about late afternoon, like dinner and evenings and stuff?" Laura blurted.
"There are two optional class periods at 4 and 5," Krystal explained, penciling in the options. "A lot of you gadgeteer types hang out in the labs, of course, working on your sonic death rays or whatever other instruments of mayhem and destruction strike your fancy!"
The senior's wink and grin disarmed Laura's still-forming caustic reply, letting her know that Krystal was just teasing her. Wasn't she? Or was she flirting? Laura gave pause to that thought. Maybe Krystal was both a changeling and a lesbian, and was looking for a girlfriend and was flirting.
"Dinner runs from six PM to eight PM. After that, it's two more hours that you can use as free time, study time, lab time, or for special evening classes."
"Holy cow!" Bianca mumbled softly. "Do they expect anyone to take all those classes?"
"Oh, heavens no! It's hard to get an advisor to sign off on more than six classes, and that needs administration approval. You've got four years here! What's the rush?" Krystal's smile advertised the fact that she thought fondly of her time at Whateley and probably wouldn't understand why anyone would want to rush through the school. "Besides, while you could technically get as many as eleven classes in a term, the administration would never let you take that many."
"So what do we have to take?" Tia asked the question that was on everyone's mind. Before Krystal could answer, she plowed on. "Because Mrs. Dennon told us in New York that we had to take certain classes. Like I have to take survival."
Krystal's eyes widened. "You met Mrs. Dennon in New York?"
"Yeah," Tanya admitted sheepishly. "It was that whole Squiddley mix-up. She got us out of being questioned at the police station."
The senior shook her head slowly, sighing heavily. "Looks like you guys got the Kimba Curse!" Seeing all the questioning looks, she forced a chuckle. "Never mind. I'll tell you later." She put a smile back on. "You'll have to take English, a Math class, powers theory and lab if you have certain powers, magic theory if you're a mage," she was looking at Bianca and Morgana while she spoke, "and gadgeteer lab classes for you lab-coat types." She was looking at Laura again with that annoyingly-confusing and possibly overly-friendly smile.
"And martial arts?"
Krystal nodded. "And martial arts or survival."
"Maybe we can get into the same classes?" Tanya asked hopefully.
"Then I suggest you go to talk with your advisors as soon as you can, and then you communicate - text or call - to the others so you can sync your schedules," Krystal offered.
"And if we get our classes lined up in the morning, maybe after lunch we can go shopping?" Laura asked, pleading with her eyes. "I know we have to buy uniforms and stuff, and I need more makeup, and ... a few, um, things ...."
"It's going to depend on whether any of you have power testing tomorrow," Krystal cautioned them. "That takes precedence over anything else."
"We can talk about that at breakfast," Bailey said, the first words she contributed to the conversation. Everyone had taken her for shy; the fact that she had spoken indicated that she was warming up to the group. The other Poesies exchanged glances; was Bailey trying to muscle into their nascent little social group? Would that be a bad thing? The social dynamics of Whateley and their group were still forming, so maybe ....
The conversation went on as the group ate, some a bit more talkative than others; naturally, the topic drifted mainly to how each had come to be at the school, which led some of the group to be a little more circumspect about their answers; it seemed that everyone had at least one deep, dark secret they were reluctant to reveal.
Tia finished up first and dumped her trash, carefully weaving in between people to do so. A few minutes of waiting patiently while the others made small talk about current movies, and her tour group was ready to move again. She waved to Tanya, and it was enthusiastically returned. Ono's own return wave was much more subdued, like the rest of him; he was even easier to forget about than Bianca was.
Tuesday, September 6, 2016 - Evening
Between Crystal Hall and Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy
As the group of kids wended their way to Poe cottage from the Crystal Hall, Morgana used the opportunity to slip close to Bianca. The pale girl raised an eyebrow, but didn't say a word.
"Um, Bianca...I was wondering, after the talk we had ...." Bianca still said nothing, just walking quietly alongside her. So she decided she may as well say it anyway. "Well, they said we need to find roommates for Poe, and well, I was wondering ...?"
To her relief Bianca smiled slightly rather than slapping her down. "You were wondering if I was interested in rooming with you?"
Morgana nodded. "Yeah. After all, we're both mages, and, well, I thought maybe we could help each other out a bit."
Bianca thought about that for a minute while Morgana tried to look casual in spite of being nervous about how the other might reply. "Actually, that's not a bad idea. I'm sure we can help each other with our studies."
"If you don't mind that I still sometimes have nightmares because of ... things," Morgana admitted with a wince. "In the interest of full disclosure, I'm ... a little bit messed up still."
Bianca actually seemed to become more at ease. "Good. I ... didn't exactly have a good summer, either, and ... I'm probably as messed up as you are. So maybe we can help each other with our ... neuroses? Sure, it's OK with me."
Morgana broke into a big, relieved grin. "That's great. But ... I should warn you, I sometimes wake up screaming from nightmares."
Bianca just smiled slightly. "You aren't the only one who has that problem. As long as you don't snore too loudly, I think we'll manage."
Tuesday, September 6, 2016 - Evening
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy
The trip across campus was faster this time, and Poe cottage was right where the group had left it, which Tia reflected was a plus. She wouldn't have put it past the place to be able to walk around like Baba Yaga's hut… or maybe one of the other cottages could pull that off.
The sun was just beginning to duck behind the trees to the West when they entered the front door of Poe; the first thing to greet them was the bust of Edgar Allen Poe on prominent display in the lobby. The lobby was empty, though further in there was enough noise for a herd of buffalo. There was a large pile of luggage sitting in one out-of-the-way corner, some of which Tia recognized as belonging to Laura and Bianca.
"Mrs. Horton? We're here - finally!" Krystal's call cut through the background noise easily. In response an elderly matron strode into the lobby, clad in a well-cared-for black dress that looked to be as old as she was.
"No need to yell, dear. I was on my way already." She glanced quickly around the group. "Sorry I wasn't waiting for you, but you are a bit late. I was just sitting down to dinner with Mr. Babich, Mrs. Savage, and Ms. Everette."
"It couldn't be helped," Krystal apologized. "Security interrupted our meal to have a little discussion with them."
Mrs. Horton frowned, arching one eyebrow at the same time. "You aren't going to try to set new records for how quickly and how often you can get in trouble, are you?"
Laura gulped nervously. "No, ma'am," she said quickly.
Mrs. Horton nodded approvingly as the others shook their heads, echoing Laura's statement. Looking over the group, she addressed the tour guide. "So these are our new prodigals?"
"Yes Ma'am, the last group for the day. Allow me to introduce Lucretia Del Bosque, Morgana Jones, Laura Samuels, Bailey George, and Bianca St Claire."
She took the time to shake hands with every one of the newcomers. "Pleased to meet you all. I'm Mrs. Horton, one of your two Poe Cottage house-parents. You'll meet Mr. Babich, the other house-parent, at the welcome reception. We're your guardians while you're here; please feel free to contact either of us or your Resident Advisor with any difficulties you may have, but we'll talk about that more later. I took the liberty of sending someone to retrieve your bags while you were on your tour. Please retrieve them and follow me."
As the others started grabbing their luggage, Mrs. Horton turned to Tia. "We didn't find any baggage for you; we had assumed you took it with you. Judging from your expression, though, I assume that's not the case?"
"No ma'am. All my luggage was sent ahead. It should be in the room I was assigned."
"I’m not aware of any such delivery, but it might have escaped my notice. Things have been rather ... hectic, lately. Krystal?"
"I haven’t seen any deliveries, either. I hate to say this, but they may be late or lost or something."
Tia had only one change of clothes; her mom had assured her that everything was fine, and the delivery was being made. Tia had the tracking information on her phone, and a ‘delivery complete’ message had popped up on her phone two days ago, so how could it be lost? And if her luggage was lost, what about the bed, delivered weeks before on Ibby's insistence? "What about any furniture? A special custom bed, maybe?"
Mrs. Horton and Krystal both shook their heads. "Sorry, nothing like that either."
Tia winced as she sighed heavily, and then re-checked her phone as the others came back with bags in hands. The notices were right there, both of her luggage and her new bed, and both proclaiming successful delivery. "Would the school’s protections turn down delivery people maybe?" She was obviously grasping at straws to explain the discrepancy.
Mrs. Horton took Tia’s phone. "Not from this company. We use them all the time, and they're very reliable."
Morgana walked up, puzzled by the exchange. "What's going on?"
"Nothing - I hope. It looks like my baggage is lost in Limbo, even though the company reports delivering it."
The front door opened, and a slightly out-of-breath, slightly less-immaculate-than-before Japanese girl Tia recognized strode in; she locked eyes immediately with Tia and her irritation was plain.
She marched directly to Tia, heels clacking loudly on the polished wood floor, as she spoke with some relief in her tone. "Usagi … here you are! Finally. You need to come with me." She noticed the housemother stepping to intervene. "Ah, Mrs. Horton; hello." Hikaru bowed respectfully as she spoke.
"Wait, why do you want me? Where are we going?" Tia asked, frowning with concern.
Mrs. Horton gracefully moved between the new arrival and the door. Krystal flanked her, arms crossed. The girl, Hikaru stopped, a little startled. "You're the new Melville Resident Adviser, correct?" Mrs. Horton demanded firmly.
"Yes, Mrs. Horton. I am Hikaru Myoujin. Pleased to meet you." Hikaru responded.
Mrs. Horton returned the bow before asking her next question. "And where do you want to take Tia, exactly?"
"I was told to bring her to my cottage. According to the records, she is supposed to be on my wing in Melville in the room next to my own."
With a concerned frown, Tia started digging in her bag, retrieving the folder the school had sent her. She knew she was supposed to be in Poe cottage.
Mrs. Horton agreed. "Well, Hikaru, my copy of Tia’s enrollment places her here. I even have her transcripts and a few other odds and ends. She was clearly meant to be placed here."
Hikaru shrugged, clearly indicating that she wasn’t arguing with the housemother. "Forgive me, but I'm just the messenger. My wing records and floorplan show Tia on my floor, and she's the only Lucretia Del Bosque here. Her luggage and furniture were delivered to her room in Melville. I was sent to retrieve her by my sempai."
Mrs. Horton held out a hand, but her question didn't sound like one. "May I see the file?"
"Of course." Hikaru replied politely. "Kurenai, display documents in file Lapin 1, please."
A small kimono clad hologram sprang to life around the device Tia had taken for a watch or a fancy bangle. "Of course, Hikaru-sama!" the hologram replied with a cheery voice, and the documents also appeared, numbered one to three and revolving in the air slowly. They stopped moving when Mrs. Horton started carefully reading them.
Mrs. Horton perused the file, her face unreadable. Finally she looked up. "Tia, come with me. Hikaru, please wait here. Krystal, could you show the others their rooms, please?"
Wordlessly Tia followed Mrs. Horton down the hall, almost jogging in order to keep up, her own file in her hand. Mrs. Horton seemed composed, but Tia could hear her muttering softly under her breath, not quite able to make out everything that she was saying. At least other than the rhetorical sounding 'what were they thinking?' which Tia dared not answer.
Three other adults were sitting at a table in the kitchen, pausing their dinner to watch and listen; obviously, these were Mr. Babich, Mrs. Savage, and Ms. Everette, whom the housemother had mentioned. A fourth unoccupied place at the table with food cooling on a plate was silent testimony that the group had interrupted Mrs. Horton's dinner. Tia winced nervously, wondering how upset the housemother would be at having her meal plans ruined.
Mrs. Horton's office reflected her appearance - old-fashioned and utilitarian. Paper files that weren't in the two large file cabinets were piled neatly on an old, hardwood desk. Her computer, though old, was still well-used, and as she ran her hand over the mouse, the display sprang to life. Without a word, she clicked through her files, pausing to snag a file from beside her without having to visually search for it. It included, to Tia's shock, a few newspaper clippings with her picture.
After a moment, the house-matron looked up. "It seems, Tia, that someone in the administration, for some unknown reason, decided to move you from Poe to Melville." She sighed. "This is obviously an error, as you belong in Poe with us."
Tia could only nod.
"The room I had reserved for you has been assigned to someone else because the administration placed you in Melville." Mrs. Horton’s heavy sigh matched her expression of disgust and exasperation at the ineptitude of the administration; she picked up her office phone and dialed. Tia just stood silently, trying not to look awkward or stare at the old-style television in the corner - one of those tube things that wasn't even high definition!
"This is Mrs. Horton at Poe. I'm calling about a student that was supposed to be in my cottage; Lucretia Del Bosque, or Lapin." Mrs. Horton fiddled with the phone cord as she spoke. "Yes. Yes, I see." Her tone was gradually hardening, indicating her displeasure with whatever bureaucratic buffoon she was speaking with. "But why can't we just…? But, that…! No, I don't care what your records say - I do have room! Yes, I understand. Expect me in your office bright and early tomorrow. Good-bye."
Tia understood the situation from only half the conversation. "So, it's a no go?"
"No. The new pencil pushers in administration want to make this much harder than simply moving you; the ... idiot," her tone of voice matched her disgust, "even claimed all freshmen beds in Poe are taken. I'm sorry dear, but it looks like you're stuck in Melville at least for the night. I promise I'll meet with administration in the morning and straighten out this mess."
Stuck with rich, snooty kids who probably wouldn't like her because of her situation - both of them - and without any ability to defend herself should one of them get violent about it.
Mrs. Horton read her easily from her drooping ears. "Don't worry, everything will be fine. I'm sure you will be just as safe in Melville for the night as you would in Poe. Perhaps even more so." Mrs. Horton’s voice was both sincere and serious. Tia just nodded again.
"There is one more thing, before you go. I hate to do this, but I am required; you know the Poe secret. It now binds you to us, as it cannot be unlearned. Should you ever learn a Poe student's secrets, you are not to tell them to any soul, living or dead. If you do, you will have no future here. Do you understand, Lucretia?" It was clear that Mrs. Horton wanted a verbal response.
"Yes, I understand. After what's happened to me, I'd never do that to anyone." She wouldn't either; she knew from firsthand experience. She felt a tingle course through her body.
"I didn't think you would, dear. It's just my job to say it. That tingle you felt is the spell we promised you on the tour, taking effect, ensuring you don’t have a slip of the tongue. Now, off with you, go get settled in and have a restful night; you look tired. And tomorrow we'll see about getting you moved back over here where you belong." Tia nodded again at Mrs. Horton’s statement and left to find Hikaru in the lobby. Mrs. Horton did not follow.
Instead, she watched the girl leave, and then walked back to the kitchen table and sat down. Only after she scooted her chair forward did she look at the other house-parents. "Sorry about the interruption," she apologized. "My last group ...." She looked at the only male at the table. "Sorry," she smiled. "Years of habit. Anyway, our last group has already gotten in trouble with security, which is why they were late."
"What's with the girl?" Mr. Babich asked the obvious question. "You didn't exactly sound happy."
Mrs. Horton sighed, rolling her eyes. "Some idiot in administration somehow got Tia placed in Melville, when she very clearly belongs here. She's the one who's been in the papers? The boy whose less-than-stable devisor girlfriend changed him into the bunny-girl?"
Mr. Babich goggled at that. "She belongs in Poe!" he nearly screeched. "What moron put her in Melville?"
"We're going to have to try to straighten it out tomorrow," she told her compatriot, before chuckling toward Mrs. Savage. "If this is how the year's starting, Trish, we're going to have an interesting year."
Trish Savage grinned back. "As long as it's your cottage and not mine!"
Tuesday, September 6, 2016 - Early Evening
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy
The lobby was empty save for Hikaru, who was idly examining the bust of Poe. Lapin walked up, a dejected expression on her face, grabbing her overnight bag again along the way. Hikaru heard her approaching, glanced around, then headed for the door with a curt, "Please follow me."
Tia winced. The other girl was probably still mad about earlier. Tia looked around; no one was in ear-shot - not even for her ears. "Don't kill me, okay? The plushie in your bag was just a joke," Tia pleaded with wide eyes.
Hikaru gave a sunny smile. "Whatever made you think I do not believe in proportional payback?"
Tia stared. "Well, the talk of lethal force might have… but it was an impulse. Sometimes I can't help them. And you have to admit that you dress like one of those idol singers. Are those clothes more gifts or something?"
"Mhm. Don't worry… you will learn restraint," Hikaru mused, tapping her lip.
Tia did not like the sound of that; there was something of a predator in the girl in front of her. But at the same time, there was something else, something she couldn't resist needling. "Does this mean since my plushie was a gift, you'll use it too?" Tia widened her eyes as much as she could as the girl turned to her; she had been told that her puppy-dog fu (or rabbit-look fu as Ibby insisted it be called) was strong.
It appeared to work as expected, drawing an amused snort from her new guide. "Well, I do need a new target dummy…," Hikaru replied with an evil grin.
"Oh, that's cold. Be nice to the poor little doggy; he's soft after all." Tia carefully injected some humor into the words.
Hikaru laughed aloud. "At least it wasn't a wolf plush toy."
The bunny-girl looked confused. "Why would a wolf plushie work at all? No one keeps a wolf in a purse, not even idol singers." Tia had the feeling this would not be the last time she’d be confused by something the idol said.
Hikaru seemed a bit distant as she responded, "You wouldn't be the first to think a wolf plush toy was a good idea. A certain cousin of mine, well…. She has gained a lot of evasion training, the little troll." Hikaru shook her head.
Right; Tia got the message. No wolf plushies at all. Ever.
"And here we are; be it ever so humble, Melville cottage." Hikaru waved her hand at the door.
It still looked like a luxury hotel, slapped down in the middle of a school, and the spacious lobby with marble tiled floor and a large, splashing marble fountain did nothing to dispel the notion. Tasteful marble flooring blended well with white marble pillars and actual white curtains fitted over the large picture windows, all contrasting with the dark wood paneling and trim around the cavernous entry foyer. There was an elaborate, wood front desk, just like in a hotel, opposite a common room.
The people at the desk were busy, but looked up curiously as Hikaru walked past them with a wave. Tia realized that she was drawing a few curious stares as she nervously fiddled with her hoodie.
Hikaru was headed directly across the lobby area toward a coffee shop named "Devisor Donuts," where she ordered two mochas. The barista didn't outwardly look like the stereotype of a devisor; Tia had to remind herself what her doctor said about jumping to conclusions about people as she accepted one of the mochas from Hikaru. "Follow me, please," Hikaru said in a firm, commanding voice.
"I didn't see you pay. You did pay, didn't you?" Tia asked, a bit worried that she'd end up with an angry coffee guy hunting her down, especially one that looked like he could bend her into a pretzel.
Hikaru waved her right arm "Of course. Kurenai handled it."
Tia’s eyes narrowed at Hikaru’s statement; no one trusted a smart system with their credit information. Tia thought her phone was pretty secure, but Kurenai had hacked it earlier, proving it was far from foolproof. Since Hikaru hadn't even brought up an app, so Kurenai had to be one of those new AI’s that were finally making it out of the military to the civilian world.
Hikaru stopped when a chime sounded, muttering to herself and handing Tia her coffee as she began to tap at a screen which had appeared near the bangle. Out of politeness and respect for the girl’s privacy, Tia turned away.
"Ah, good! I don’t need to give you the campus tour, so I’ll just show you Melville’s facilities." Hikaru sounded faintly relieved, though the bunny-girl wasn’t positive; if she spent more time with Hikaru, she'd have to learn to 'read' the girl's emotions and inflections. Tia couldn’t help wondering why she needed a tour of the dorm, but since Hikaru was giving her a tour, she shrugged and resigned herself to not asking. Hikaru started walking again. "Follow me please. We'll start with the basement."
Tia's eyebrows arched in surprise; generally, people never started a tour with the basement.
Ignoring the elevator, Hikaru led Tia down one of a pair of staircases that were as excessively opulent as the lobby, emerging in a large foyer in the basement. Another two flights of stairs led further down, but Hikaru stepped smartly away from them even as she saw Tia's eyes following the steps downward. "The sub-basement provides access to the tunnels; they can be reached by stairs or elevator, but I prefer the stairs."
Tia nodded, a little numb. She could see a large, circular blast door down there, like an old-time bank vault complete with a spoked handle, over the entrance to the tunnels. That sight made her tremble slightly as a shiver coursed up and down her spine. Naturally, Hikaru noticed and smiled, "It works both ways; anyone with a student ID can open the door. It has cameras and overrides."
"But ... why?" was all Tia could manage to stammer.
Hikaru simply shrugged, indicating to Tia that she thought nothing of the security feature. "Presumably it is in the event of an attack or other disaster; students are supposed to take cover in the tunnels and lock the doors behind them."
That… made no sense. Tia remembered a Marvel movie with an ill-fated attack by special forces. "Who would be stupid enough to attack a school full of hormonal mutant adolescents and stocked with experienced and probably quite powerful staff?"
Hikaru smiled, a bit amused. "You'd be surprised, but the quick answer is: 'no one in their right mind.' But caution is prudent, no?"
Tia nodded as she resolved to learn as many of the tunnels as she could; some would probably make excellent bolt holes to lose any possible pursuers, no matter what sort of torches or pitchforks they had. No, she caught herself; that line of thought was borrowing trouble again.
Striding through the ornate basement facilities as if she owned the place, Hikaru pointed out the heated, endless pools in a large, glass-enclosed room - almost as if the students were expected to watch each other. A very well-equipped full gym sat apart from the pools, also behind a glass wall. Next, she stopped in front of a more simple wooden set of double doors. "The saunas," she explained tersely.
Curious, Tia peeked in and nearly fell over in shock at the elaborate, Roman-bath-themed area. Her jaw still hung agape when she turned to Hikaru with a 'you've got to be kidding me' look on her face. Hikaru just smiled, and continued the tour, pointing out a private massage parlor, with two nearly-full-time masseuses, for the cottage. To Tia's continued amazement, the RA explained the reservation system - and the considerable fines associated with abusing any of the privileges of the cottage's amenities. Tia's jaw dropped further and she coughed in disbelief when she was told the size of the fine.
Hikaru just shrugged. "This is Melville. I've been told that there are many students here have weekly allowances bigger than that." She turned and wordlessly led Tia to a clean, very well-fitted laundromat. Even though it was just as luxurious as the other facilities, it seemed a little out of place compared to the other amenities. Hikaru read Tia's puzzled expression. "Most Melville students of means hire other students as domestic help for things like room cleaning and laundry."
"They can do that?" Tia gasped even as she realized that, in a cottage like Melville, being caught doing one's own laundry would be social suicide.
"Provided they comply with the school's rules for hired help, yes," Hikaru replied simply. "There's a job board in Schuster where students can post or find work."
Tia boggled slightly. She would have to find a way to hire some help or her fellow Melville students would probably ostracize her. She hoped the funds Ibby provided her were up to the task; she also knew she'd have to find summer employment to pay back the unanticipated expenditures.
After the basement tour, Tia felt very awkward in what her mom had called her 'ragamuffin outfit. Fortunately for her self-respect, there were few other students to notice her attire. She'd have to fix that little social issue as well. She winced as she realized how fast expenses were going to accrue.
Back on the ground floor, they walked past a salon called 'Final Cuts'. "What's that?" Tia asked, gesturing to a small, nondescript, unlabeled door in a recess.
"Laundry drop-off and pickup," Hikaru replied. "It's a shame it's not attended today; you really need to get the wrinkles out of your hoodie," she added, deadpan.
"Did you just make a joke?" Tia blurted out her question.
"Would I do such a thing?" Hikaru turned and asked, as serious as Tia ever heard her.
"You did! You clearly did." Tia’s smile stretched across her face.
"I did no such thing." Hikaru ignored Tia's comment and continued her narrative. Past the salon were the junior high students' rooms and then the houseparents' apartments. Where Poe and the other cottages had two houseparents, Melville had three, quite probably, Tia realized, because rich kids were more demanding and at least as troublesome as non-rich kids. The first house-parent's apartment bore a nameplate that simply read 'Concierge'.
"Concierge? He's named Concierge?" Tia gawked.
Hikaru shook her head. "She is, and she was the adult at the desk when we came in. Concerns you feel I or another RA cannot address you can bring to her. She can procure ... unusual items or services from outside the school - within legal bounds, of course, but use caution - it is rumored that she gets even if someone wastes her time. While she is not Melville's 'fixer', she has contacts and resources of her own."
In answer to Tia's question, Hikaru explained that no-one knew why she used her code-name, but that she'd worked for years for five-star luxury hotels, and connections she'd made then now served her position at Whateley, which caused Tia to wonder why someone would leave such a job to work at Whateley.
The waning light framed the two trees on either end of the atrium perfectly, highlighting the rose, juniper, and holly bushes lining the figure eight path in between it all and the stone -coated patio that was decked with small tables. Tia had to admit, if only to herself, that it looked pretty nice.
The next apartment had a nameplate that said 'Woodruff.’ "The house parent for the upperclassmen; Matthew Woodruff. He does not use a code name. No-one seem to know much about him, other than rumors, but those are impolite to repeat." Hikaru’s dry tone hinted that Tia might want to find out about those rumors. The next apartment door read: 'Lindy'. Hikaru’s tone was still dry as she spoke again. "I've been told that Lindy is a devisor. But since there are three house parents, you probably won't have any interactions with her."
With considerable effort, Tia managed to suppress another nervous shudder. "No problem on that score."
Continuing around the open core of the building, they saw more junior-high student rooms, computer labs, and a rather fancy library with reservable study rooms. Ascending one of two curved marble staircases, the RA led her charge to the primary activity floor of the cottage.
Everything was just as posh as the ground floor - as elegant and as costly as everything Tia had seen so far. The inner walls displayed the open atrium, while the outer walls, through some trick, had floor-to-ceiling views of the outside scenery. Tia pondered this for a moment. "How do they do that trick with the wall?" she asked, unable to contain her curiosity.
"Hologram projection. Some scenes are very popular, like Tahitian beaches during the winter months," Hikaru said as if distracted by the question. "Your handbook explains everything about the rooms on this floor, including how to reserve a multi-purpose room if you need.”
Tia followed Hikaru up more stairs to the third floor - which happened to be the floor the two of them shared. The hall circling the open inner core gave a nice view of the atrium while also providing access to all the rooms of the living floor - the bedrooms, bathrooms, elevators and stairs, and a few 'niceties' such as a corner room that could double as a mini-theater and a cooking room.
The doors of the last corner room had a small set of red cubes next to it, with four sets of slippers in the lower cubes. Atop the cubes was a soft cushion, and on the door was a sun disk with a red holographic plate listing Hikaru's name, codename, and "She is out. Please leave a message." Tia's eyebrows rose at the scene.
"This is my room," Hikaru said simply, as if the cubes and hologram were nothing out of the ordinary. "If you have a problem or concern, you will first come to me to resolve it."
Given the somewhat curt formality displayed by Hikaru, Tia resolved to never have a problem. Even imagining a problem with this dorm was impossible. Besides, it was only for the night, she reminded herself, and then Mrs. Horton would get her moved back to Poe, where she belonged.
Hikaru's next words sounded amused, which surprised the bunny-girl. "As you might notice, you were placed next to me. When we finish the rest of the tour, I will give you your student identification so you can be sure all your belongings are present." Without waiting for a reply, Hikaru marched back toward the elevators, while Tia boggled, wondering how much more there was to see.
The fourth floor, laid out identically to the third, was for male freshmen, fifth and sixth for sophomores, and the seventh and eighth were for juniors. The ninth floor was special - it was an activity floor for upperclassmen, although smaller than the amenities in the basement and the primary activity floor, it nonetheless had the cachet of a private club.
Above that were two floors for seniors, and then Hikaru paused. "Aren't we going to the twelfth floor?" Tia asked as she stared at the elevator button.
"No," Hikaru replied calmly. "The twelfth floor is penthouse suites for the most important seniors, as well as the Alpha clubhouse. It's considered extremely rude to visit without an invitation. You won't get thrown out of Whateley or Melville, but it is a social sin to go uninvited."
When Tia nodded acknowledgement, Hikaru pressed the elevator's third-floor button. "Do you have any questions?" she asked the rabbit-girl.
"I don't think so," Tia mumbled, somewhat overwhelmed by the features and facilities of Melville. And Hikaru probably didn't know the answer to the one question on Tia's mind. "No, I'm good."
"Very well. Let's go see to your room, then, and make sure everything is in its place."
Tia's room was much as she expected it - a large room decorated as expected, given the cottage, just with greens, instead of Melville’s usual blue and white. It was also all new smelling, just to add to the impression of wealth. A patio door across from the hallway was the final touch before she looked for her stuff. The bed was a brand new version of the bed from home, with settable hybrid memory gel. The office chair was as plush as she could want it, designed to accommodate her tail, and under the window was a box her eyes noted the right size and logo for a brand new laptop. New books were next to it, just waiting for school to start. Her empty bags at the foot of the bed indicated that her clothing had already been put away - no doubt by the same service which had delivered and set up all her furniture and other belongings.
Hikaru stepped inside, heading right for the Fruit of the Month basket. "Do you mind if I have a sample?"
Tia went to her new bed and sat down with a contented sigh. The programmed number was even correct; no doubt the movers work. "No, help yourself."
Hikaru, it seemed, liked apples - a lot. She was demolishing the apple she'd selected. Tia looked around; across from the bed, there was an open closet, large enough to hold a bureau and hang clothes … and the clothes rack was full, which accounted for her missing clothes. Custom Whateley uniforms hung to one side of everything else.
"Hm, what's this? A second envelope?"Hikaru was holding something in one hand as she attacked an orange. An orange that she peeled with her teeth as she devoured the poor fruit. The envelope she was holding wasn't the fruit of the month one, but another with just a logo on it. It also bulged as if something was inside. The logo was the Porsche shield.
"Let me see that." Tia all but snatched it out of the other girl’s hands. She tore open the envelope, finding two new car keys, shiny and unscratched, with gleaming plastic, adorned with a very prominent logo. Both had multiple remote button - no doubt remote-starter as well as lock - and probably a few other features. A sense of dread overcame Tia. "Oh God, she didn't."
Hikaru looked over, a grape between her fingers near her mouth. "Hmm?"
"Um, can you lock the door? I've got to check on something." Tia bolted before Hikaru could say no; she had a very bad feeling. Perhaps the mantra from home would help? "She didn't, she didn't, please tell me she didn't…."
September 7, 2016 - Early Evening
Outside Melville Cottage, Whateley Academy
Hikaru easily caught up with Tia and kept pace as the rabbit-girl raced toward the parking lot. It wasn't fair, Tia thought to herself, that the RA could run so easily without getting winded - and in heels, no less!
"A friend from home was going to send me a car," Tia explained as they ran. "I was supposed to get one for my sixteenth, but well, stuff happened and things got hectic. So Mom was going to buy a car from a dealer here, and Ibby - that's my Whateley sponsor, she's an alum- she was going to get it shipped. I love Porsches, so I was kind of expecting an old Carrera or 911 or something - you know, an old fixer-upper. But this key looks new, which gives me a bad feeling. You remember that car under the tarp on the flatbed we saw on the way in?"
With a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, Tia noticed immediately that the lab coated guy was still there in the nearly-empty lot, as was the flatbed truck with its cargo of a tarp-covered car. Lab-coat guy noticed the pair running up, and his bored expression brightened, recognition in his eyes. Tia winced at that reminder that she was somewhat well-known.
"Are you Lucretia Del Bosque?" lab-coat man asked in a slight German accent.
"I am," Tia acknowledged with a wince, one eye on the man and one on the truck.
"I am Neil Bleier, from Porsche America, with a delivery for you. Do you have the keys?"
Tia held them up like they were snakes and she was afraid of what they were keys to.
"Sehr gut," Mr. Bleier said crisply, and Tia noticed that beneath the lab coat was a very expensive-looking suit. "I was here yesterday, but I was told that you would be late and would arrive today. Ach, such are the misfortunes of life, no?" He brightened again. "But now you are here to take delivery." With that, he turned to the truck, and loosening a few straps, pulled back the tarp.
It was pink. Not mild pink, but shockingly, familiarly pink. Enough that Hikaru snickered while Tia winced. Fortunately for Tia, the number of students arriving had seriously waned, so there were few spectators to see the Playboy Pink car, which looked brand new, and significantly fancier than the expected Carerra or 911. Still, she cringed in embarrassment.
"One new Porsche 918 Spyder, model number 428 of 918," Mr. Bleier announced. As the girls looked on, he operated the truck's controls, lowering the bed, and then rolled the car back off the truck. As it gently rolled onto the pavement, Tia noticed an all-too-familiar logo under the side mirror; it was probably too much to ask, she thought, for anyone else to not notice them.
"Very discrete," Hikaru deadpanned, drawing a quick glare from Tia.
"I know," Tia hissed, her attention riveted on the car. "I wish Ibby hadn't gotten that logo painted on!"
"I was thinking more about the color," Hikaru snorted, trying not to chuckle aloud, "but yeah, the logo, too."
Mr. Bleier retrieved a book from the glove compartment - a leather-bound book stamped with the Porsche logo, and then got out a small folder. After explaining the functions of the remote buttons, he showed Tia the registration and insurance information in the folder. After verifying her identity from her driver’s license, he gave her a pen to sign the delivery receipt, and then gave her the thick owner's manual.
"Now, let me explain some of the features of the car," he continued smoothly. With himself in the passenger's compartment and Tia behind the wheel, he ran through the basic operating procedures and amenities of the car, starting with keying the remotes to her fingerprints for extra security. As he spoke, she couldn't help noticing the custom gel-filled seat that conformed neatly and comfortably around her tail, which was a blessing in itself. It was difficult to keep her focus on Mr. Bleier, because the car was luxurious, comfortable, and equipped far beyond anything she'd ever imagined! But with considerable effort, she followed his directions and looked in the mirror, whereupon a flash and chirp indicated that the car was also keyed to her retinal print.
"This car has more security than some banks," Hikaru said in a bored tone.
Tia ignored the impulse of sticking her tongue out at her RA, and instead kept her attention focused on Mr. Bleier. He had her start the car, noting the paddle shifters on either side of the steering wheel, and then she drove slowly around the truck to get a feel for the new vehicle that was quiet as a whisper.
"Any final questions?" Mr. Bleier asked after he'd finished his introduction to the Spyder.
"Um, not right now," Tia said hesitantly, thinking of the very thick owner's manual. No doubt some questions would arise.
Mr. Bleier anticipated that. "My card is in the manual. If you have any questions, no matter how trivial they may seem, call at any time." After she shut off the car, they climbed out and Mr. Bleier shook her hand. "Congratulations; you now own one of the finest sports cars in the world."
Tia noticed that the truck driver, who was rolling the flatbed and ramp back into position, seemed to be trying really, really hard not to gawk at her; she winced at the reminder of her unwanted fame and new body.
"A representative of the school mentioned that there is a parking garage nearby," Mr. Bleier added as he climbed into the cab of the truck. "You might want to inquire and park your car there, a little more protected from the elements and less ... obvious."
"Thanks," Tia acknowledged as the driver put the truck into gear and the pair rolled away while she pulled the cover back over her new car.
She turned around to find Hikaru glancing around idly, whistling of all things. "So, Playboy? Really?"
"It's not my fault! This car has got to be from Ibby and Uncle Hugh."
"Oh, Uncle Hugh, is it?" Hikaru’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly, though she managed to keep her voice light and a slight smirk on her features.
Tia glanced around nervously to ensure no-one could overhear. "Look, he's not really my uncle, but he insists I call him that. Hugh and Ibby know each other. Since he also has eyes and ears in the oddest places, I'm not risking not calling him that, because I don't know what he'd do besides be very disappointed; just that he will do something. Plus, the only way I can think of that I can even come close to affording a brand new car and a room in Melville is if they are footing the bill together. The car was obviously his idea; even without the logo on it, it's his color."
Hikaru's face slipped into curiosity. "Pink?" Hikaru paused, thinking. "Playmate pink? You call Hugh Hefner, uncle." Hikaru accused flatly.
Tia flinched and her ears twitched. "Yes."
"Exactly who is this 'Ibby' and what does she do for Mr. Hefner? And what does he expect from you?" Hikaru’s tone at this point seemed quite judgmental, even harsh.
Tia laid her ears back on purpose. "Ewww, it's not like that at all! Don't be gross, he's like a hundred. Look, you had my file in your computer; didn't you read it?"
Hikaru looked at Tia flatly again. "Time has been a precious commodity of late."
"The short version is Ibby is the Iron Bunny, and she's my BIT donor. She was a pretty big deal in the 70's and early 80's as a hero, and she modeled for Uncle Hugh. They got along and did some business things together, I don't know exactly what, and I don't want to know how close they were. Are. Whatever." She sighed. "But Hugh is Hugh, and Ibby is almost as rich, and since … since summer, she sort of adopted me as a younger sister. My family is NOT rich. Mom does alright, but nothing like this." She pointed at the car and Melville to make her point.
Hikaru shook her head. "You'll learn, Usagi. You'll learn."
Tia frowned at her RA. "I'll learn what?"
The sound of someone approaching interrupted the conversation that seemed to be getting more tense. A tall, lanky Hispanic boy, ragged, black hair loose in the breeze, sporting a light five-o'clock shadow, and worn jeans and a rumpled shirt gave him a scruffy, roguish air. He stopped, not looking at the girls, but at the tarp-covered vehicle. "This your car?" he asked casually.
"Yes?" Tia’s ears were transmitting her confusion.
"You drive?" The young man’s tone was to the point.
"Yes, I have my license." Tia’s ears began to lay back at the serious stare she was getting from the boy in front of her.
"You register it in Schuster, yet?" he asked simply.
"Um, no," Tia winced. "I ... don't know the rules yet."
"The rules are pretty strict," the boy said with an air of resignation that practically screamed 'newbies!' "I'm Quinn, Whateley Academy Automotive Club, by the way."
Lucretia held out her hand hesitantly. "Tia. Tia Del Bosque. So how do I register it?"
Quinn rolled his eyes at her naïve innocence. "I guess I can help you, since I'm not doing anything right now. Follow me." Without being forward, he turned and led Tia toward the administrative building. "If you don't get the right paperwork done, then administration will have the car towed. And the impound yard doubles as a salvage yard, so you probably don't want that."
Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy
The inside of Schuster Hall, which Tia hadn't seen yet, was sumptuous and rich-looking, with a dark hardwood floor, rich oak paneling, and chandeliers - at last in the main entry hall. Two massive fireplaces at either end were surrounded by clusters of antique-looking chairs and small tables, and a full-length balcony overlooked the great hall of the entryway. The boy ignored it all, even as Tia tried to drink in the old-school atmosphere; Quinn led her and Hikaru straight to an elevator off to the left of the grand hall.
The third floor looked a lot less like the traditional old-school hall and more like a typical older school building with plaster walls and lockers and numerous doors to offices and classrooms. Tia wanted to look around a bit, since Flower hadn't shown her tour group anything inside Schuster, but Hikaru and Quinn seemed uninterested. But for the matter of her car, Tia would have much rather been in her room, possibly catching up on sleep.
The office Quinn led them to was bland and unassuming, with a hulking dark wood desk, an old wooden desk chair on rollers that looked rather uncomfortable, an old metal file cabinet, a throw rug on the wooden floor, and a lot of pictures with a common theme of race cars or people with race cars. The only thing that saved this office from being like Mrs. Horton's was the more up to date computer sitting on the desk.
The man behind the desk wasn't as tall as Quinn, but he was almost as lanky. It was possible to see the muscle sheathing him through his tight shirt however. His face was aquiline, almost hatchet like, yet still sort of handsome; there wasn't a shiny dark brown hair out of place on his head, and his blue eyes focused in a weighted gaze quickly, shifting away from the dartboard as he put the dart in his hand down.
Quinn snagged a folding chair in the corner and sat down. There wasn't another chair nearby, or even any room in the tiny office for one, so Tia and Hikaru were forced to stand.
The man behind the desk broke the ice, the words almost caressed by a thick French accent." Well, this is unusual. Quinn doesn't usually bring people by. Jules Boucher. To what do I owe this pleasure?" He stood up and held out a hand with a smile, which Tia and Hikaru both shook in turns.
"Tia Del Bosque, sir. Quinn said that I had to register my car. I have a license, but he said there was more I had to do."
Mr. Boucher noted Tia's pleading tone. "Ah, true, true. You're a Freshman?" he asked, to which Tia nodded. "For underclassmen, to keep a car on campus, you have to take defensive driving and be a member of the Whateley Auto Club. Otherwise," he noted with a slight frown, "the vehicle will be towed and impounded at the owner's expense. Most students just use the shuttles to and from Dunwich and Berlin."
Tia's body language betrayed her again. "I can't do that!" she said, fighting a sense of desperation. "If something happens to the car my mom sent me, she'll get very angry. It's a very expensive car, sir."
"It is, is it?" His eyebrow rose, as if he didn’t believe her.
Tia hoped that the staff member in front of her knew more about her car than she did. "Yes sir, the Porsche representative called it a Spyder."
Mr. Boucher goggled at her, and then looked at Quinn, who nodded affirmatively. "I see. Well, the Gearhead - the auto club- meetings start this weekend. I'll give you an application for the club. You'll need to pass our driver's test and enroll in Defensive Driving 100; if you fail the test, you're out - at least for this term. Of course, your car will have to be stored somewhere off-campus in that event."
Tia didn't even hesitate. "What day and time?"
"The next test is this Saturday at 10 AM. The Defensive Driving class is either Saturdays at 10 AM, or after normal classes on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday. You can sign up with your academic advisor. Shall I put you down for a test?" The tone of his voice told Tia that he expected a ‘yes’.
"Yes, please," Tia said, relief flooding her. "Saturday at ten."
He tapped at his computer for a bit, then turned again to Tia. "Done. Anything else?"
Quinn interrupted. "I want to put the car in the lab."
Mr. Boucher's eyebrows arched in surprise. "Really, Quinn? You know those spaces are at a premium. I was thinking the teacher's lot…."
"It won't be safe there. The lab is safer."
Safe was good, Tia agreed silently.
Jules smiled. "Well I suppose we can, at least for the time being. The other student's projects haven't started yet, anyway. Will you show her the way, Quinn?"
Main Parking Lot, Whateley Academy
Tia pulled up short as they walked toward her car; a girl who was the absolute dead ringer for one of the most well-known and well-endowed video game characters of all time was storming across the lot directly toward them, making Tia quite nervous.
Quinn and Hikaru were nonplussed by the girl's approach. "Tiff," Quinn nodded in greeting a she neared.
She replied in the same manner, gravely. "Quinn." Then she turned to Hikaru. "Okami, what the heck?!? You missed meeting us for dinner almost an hour ago!"
Hikaru scuffed an imaginary rock with her heel, then looked the other girl in the eye. "I had to find one of my charges, complete the tour, and then we had to deal with her car." She gestured to the tarp-covered car sitting alone in the lot. "It took longer than anticipated."
Tiff looked over, seeming to notice Tia for the first time, so Tia stuck her hand out. Tiff wasted no time. "Tiff Lock," she said warmly, shaking Tia's hand enthusiastically.
"Tia Del Bosque. Pleased to meet you."
"Likewise, but I'm afraid I've got to meet and run. Hikaru here hasn't had any food since lunch, and since she missed dinner covering for me, I'm going to take her into Dunwich to the local burger place; it's quite good. You're welcome to come if you want, but we have to leave now, before she withers away!" There was an unexpected friendly energy in Tiff's voice that seemed almost refreshing.
Tia was pretty sure Hikaru was in no danger of imminent withering. "Sorry. But I can't. I have to park this car in a safe place. Quinn was just going to show me where."
Tia unclasped the cover and pulled it off. Tiff, who had already been stepping away, paused. She put her hands on her hips with a grin. "Neat car. Alright then, have fun!"
Hikaru looked to Tia, but Tia waved her off. "Have a good time. I'll be fine."
After they left. Tia turned to Quinn, but he was staring after them. The chirp of the alarm disarming snapped him out of his trance, and after climbing in and buckling in the unusual straps, she started the engine. "Where to?"
"Head to that end of the lot."
As Tia drove, Quinn looked around, finally settling his gaze on the massive engine behind them, which was startlingly quiet considering its size. The car was a new puzzle to Tia, and it seemed the same to Quinn. At the end of the lot, Quinn clambered out and waved his badge at a reader beside a gate, causing it to open; Tia considered that maybe the school was going a little overboard on the whole student ID thing. Then again, with a school full of mutants, maybe not.
Tia drove through the gate, took a left fork in the road, and then down a ramp that seemed to be going under Kane Hall, where another ID reader awaited, this one beside a massive garage door. Quinn just walked into the open door, so Tia idled into the subterranean garage.
The underground cavern strongly resembled a parking garage, but it was very well lit - enough so that Tia didn't need to turn on the headlights. Three of the large parking spots were already occupied; Quinn directed Tia to an open spot near another door which looked large enough to drive a tank through. A random thought zipped through Tia's already-overloaded brain - she desperately hoped that there wasn't a tank on the other side of the massive portal.
"This is your temporary spot until next Tuesday, and it'll be yours if you pass the test. If you don't pass the test Saturday, you'll need to make arrangements to have your car out by Tuesday, or it'll be towed and impounded. Understand?"
While Tia put the tarp back over the Playboy Pink car - she couldn't hide the color forever, but she needed to try, especially in the presence of a bunch of car-nerds - Quinn turned his attention to an old blue Dodge Challenger. "Good." He replied as he buried his attention under the hood.
"Anything else I need to do?" Tia asked hesitantly.
"Nope." Quinn's response was matter-of-fact, almost cheerful.
"No one will mess with my car, will they?" She eased up beside one fender, looking into the engine compartment of the Challenger.
Quinn shook his head. "Nope. No one in the club will touch it without your express permission. That's a promise. Tampering with another's car? It's not done."
"Okay." She looked over the Challenger again and saw, instead of simply a car, a painstaking and loving restoration in progress. "Your car?"
"Yeah. Been working on it a while. It's getting there." There was pride in Quinn's voice. "She's got a 440, with a six pack. Took a while to get that tuned the way I want."
"Nice. I have to say that I have no idea what that means - but I’m willing to learn, a little later." Tia said, hoping she sounded appreciative enough of his work. "I'm going to go - I've got a lot of jet-lag to get over."
Quinn gave a half-hearted wave as he reached for a socket wrench, eyes still on whatever part he wanted to deal with. "Later."
The walk back in the fading evening light was uneventful; in Melville, Concierge even smiled at her from the desk. No one questioned whether Tia belonged there or not, nor did anyone comment on the state of her clothing or on her ears. Her bed was just as soft and inviting as earlier; clean sheets or no, Tia didn't want to wait or look for her pajamas. So she shucked off her clothes and crawled under the sheets, falling asleep almost instantly.
(to be continued)