––––Friday, Sept. 30, 2016, late evening
––Macarthur Price, a.k.a. "the idiot"
While in the broadest sense Whateley Academy's campus rested upon a dense bedrock of New Hampshire granite, the reality was that much of the school's infrastructure was built upon, under, or around other parts of itself in a loopy, organic, and chaotic hodgepodge of architectural fiat that defeated all attempts to fully map its depths. Sometimes it seemed that there were enough small apartment-styled hideyholes to equal one of the academy's actual dormitories.
One of these convenient accidents of architecture was claimed by a group of disaffected young men who called themselves the Outstanding Dudes Society, largely in the hopes that some girl of the feminine persuasion would take them for their word. That this so rarely happened was a point of dissatisfaction among the ranks.
Macarthur Price was a new member, but he'd caught on to the facts of the world early on. Over the course of the past year he'd gone from pasty, pimply, and persistently single to heroically handsome, with the sort of look that caught the interest of all the girls back home. That they'd all had boyfriends already was just a momentary annoyance, he knew. He'd won the genetic lottery, getting cool powers and cooler looks, and he was going to enjoy it.
So he'd thought, before arriving at Whateley.
Everyone here had powers. A majority of the campus could be mistaken for movie stars and supermodels. And his debonair new appearance was squarely average. It still ground his gears to recall how the girls had treated him that first day, as someone to ignore at best or dismiss with mocking laughter at worst.
It hadn't taken him long to find like-minded males, young men who could be kings in the outside world but who were now forced to beg ignominiously for attention from females beyond anyone's league. What began as an opportunity to bitch and boast took an interesting turn just that evening, with a drunken admission from someone who should've known better.
Now, the ODS had decided, it was time to be more pro-active.
"Seriously, how sure are we on this?" Macarthur asked, not for the first time that evening. "I mean, F-dude was pretty hammered..."
"In vino veritas," said Gouyasse, the heavyset sophomore from Belgium who'd supplied the hard booze that made this meeting happen. "An honest, minor slip. I doubt he even noticed, his English is so weak at times. Always fumbling with pronouns and such. We all heard what was said about his sister, however."
The other young men at the table nodded. A photo of a girl with gold-streaked hair in Whateley uniform was passed around, and someone had already written "It's a trap!!" on it in red pen. On the reverse side was the name Fiorella "Calliope" Persico.
"Sorry to keep you guys waiting." High Gear, junior year student and all around leader of the ODS, slipped through the clubhouse's secret door and placed his mobile rig on the table. Much like its owner, the concatenated computer attempted to look sleek and sophisticated, even as the bargain bin nature of its components was obvious. The top was a molded convex display projector, and at High Gear's command it sent holographic images into the air above it. "Had to let it work its magic for a little bit, first."
"What're we lookin' at?" one of the other boys asked in a thick Southern accent.
"My personal search algorithm," said High Gear. "Starting with Francesco's Facebook account and photos of him and his, ahem, 'sister,' we quickly skim through his friends' lists for hits on images that match, and then friends of those friends, looking for subtle changes as the photos go backwards in date, until..." The rig beeped and flashed red. "Bingo."
A few dozen images floated in rough groups, recognizable from Facebook or Instagram. The most recent photos were clearly of Calliope, and some might have been taken on campus, even. The second group appeared to date back to the summer, and included a few bikini shots that drew appreciative whistles from the ODS.
Then there was a skip, and the photos in the third group were a little... Macarthur wasn't quite sure how to put it. They were still definitely of Calliope, and from the background they were taken in Italy, but the girl's face didn't look right. She was also bundled up in the most unflattering of sweaters, with her hair all a mess and never a smile on her face.
"Mid-mutation?" guessed one of the other sophomores, a witty, redheaded devisor who went by the handle Jack-in-the-Box. "Her exemplar trait's not set in yet?"
"Looks like," High Gear agreed. "Now, this is where our initial trail goes cold. A whole lot of 'after' photos, a few 'in-between', and none 'before'. Suspicious, isn't it?"
"Someone scrubbed it," said Jack. "It's what I would've done in her place. Who wants something like that out in the open? Fuck, it'd be understandable for a lot of other mutants, even."
Fingers clicked over the rig's keyboard. "Way ahead of you," High Gear said with the confidence of someone who'd done most of the heavy work well in advance. "From their grandma's Facebook page, dated to 2013. It didn't take much work to get around the privacy settings."
It was a photo of a birthday party, with two happy, twelve-year-old faces proudly beaming over the candles on a cake. "Buon compleanno, Francesco e Fabrizio!" read the caption. Two identical faces, or nearly so. Both indisputably male.
"They always said they were twins..." Macarthur felt sick to his stomach. Perhaps he hadn't really believed it was possible until that moment? In any case, the feeling only intensified as High Gear pulled up more and more photos of the twins from their loving grandma's personal archive. None seemed more recent than the previous year, but people didn't usually change that much, that fast.
Calliope had. Oh, how she had.
"Okay, so we're all in agreement here?" A chorus of grunts answered High Gear's vague question. "Right. She's a trap, and traps need springing."
"Practically doing a favor to all dudes on campus," Jack said. "Taking one for the team and all."
High Gear loaded up another display. "Here's where it gets dicey: our pretty little trap is already on a training team." That caused a stir around the table, especially among the freshmen. None of them had been invited to join a training group yet. "I know, right? A whole group of froshies claimed a table at the very start. The 'Mutant Mayhem Machine', if you'd believe it. Here's the roster."
School-mandated mugshots flashed by. Gouyasse was the next to pause the action. "Wait. The von Abendritter girl is in this group?"
"The trap's roommate," High Gear confirmed. "Rumor has it that this group was involved with that business in New York City last month, but reports are iffy."
The Belgian snorted. "If it involves these two they they are at best exaggerated, these reports, and more likely lies. I have met this roommate, and she is nothing but annoyance." He took a sip from his habitual beer, a Jupiler he referred to as a soft drink. "I can tell you that Kirsten would be most interested in any information as well. To suggest an open alliance would strain credulity, but..."
"Coincidences happen." Jack's smile was broad and nasty. "Hm. They got some betas on this team with 'em, huh. Typical." He reached over to flip through the images personally. "Right, Mac'n'Cheese, we need you to tail this Jimmy kid." Across the table, Macarthur nodded. "And Shake'n'Bake, you––"
"Shawn." This other freshman wasn't the smallest at the table, but the way he shrank into himself when Jack glared at him made it seem otherwise. "S-sorry..."
"Ahem. Shake'n'Bake gets to shadow the fag around." A thumb jerked towards the floating image of Kenshin, the Japanese exchange student who'd become the butt of most jokes in the ODS, primarily because he was getting more girly attention than they were. "Get us a rough schedule and anything that looks promising as dirt on the fag, got it?"
"What about the last beta?" High Gear asked.
"Him..." Jack-in-the-Box's smile should not have been able to turn meaner, but the world was not fair like that. "Don't worry. I know how to deal with this one, personally."
Good night. Much quiet.
Doghouse good. Warm. Comfy.
Boy sleeping. Good feelings. Dorm quiet.
Left head down. Nap time. Right head watch. Good job. Dorm safe.
Small noise. Ears prick.
Water-smell boy. Up late. Too late? Anxious whine.
"Oh, hello there, um. Good... good dog?" Pat on head. Nervous touch. "Just gotta... um, I'm only stepping out for a little bit. I'll be back soon. No need to worry, okay?"
Soft bark. Lick hand. Body-scent, sweaty and nervous. Feeling-scent, same. Whine.
"Um, see you later."
It was virtually a given that the average student's route to Whateley was a story of their very own. In the first week, much of the new freshman class had had a shell-shocked look to them that couldn't completely be blamed on the nature of the school itself. He hadn't asked, and few were willing to volunteer their own life stories. No one had inquired after his own.
In all honesty, he would rather not focus too much on it, himself. While he couldn't argue with the end result, the sequence of events resulting in his attendance at Whateley wasn't something he cared to dwell too much upon. That part was in the past, and he needed to get on with the life that was ahead.
Too bad life didn't share his sentiments.
He'd been about ready to sleep when his phone had buzzed with a message, and the handful of words on it was enough to get him back into his warm clothes and out into the night. This would have come eventually, he knew. There was a short list somewhere at this school with his name on it, and he couldn't really say no to the summons, such as it was. Just directions to a room and one extra word: Masterminds.
The room was easy enough to locate, a class space in the main building. A quick check of the handle proved it to be locked. Of course. He had to sigh. It would be so nice if he could leave it at that, but he'd been told to expect challenges, and to get through them.
A canteen was clipped to his belt, an old tin canister in canvas that he'd found at an army surplus store. He unscrewed the top and sloshed it gently beneath the door's lock. He dipped a finger in, then withdrew a thin spiral of water out of the canteen's mouth, a whirlpool in reverse. Under his command the hydrous tendril insinuated itself into the locking mechanism, spreading through and around the moving pieces and manipulating them from within. Then the water returned to its container and he pulled the handle. The door opened without a fuss.
The clapping started five steps in. "Nice going, Vapo-rub! Yanno, I didn't believe the power profile they sent, but by golly you can do something right."
That feeling from before, where he'd wanted to just ignore it all and get on with his life? It had returned tenfold, crashing over everything else in one big tidal wave of annoyance and doubt. "What's this all about, Jack?" he asked.
The sophomore who called himself Jack-in-the-Box was a head taller, and that head was a shade of orange that Vic more often associated with drink mix powder. Dark brown eyes were fixed to either side of a thin nose, but the smile beneath them all threatened to break the face's otherwise narrow mold.
Aside from 'Jack,' the other common name for him in Twain was Asshole, and for good reason. Vic had certainly never seen any side of him that could be described as good. "What're you doing here," he added in a low growl.
"Recruiting, can't you see? Really, Vapo-rub, you must be spending too much time rubbing them out, cuz your brain's gone to spunk. Why else do all this cloak and dagger shit? It's half the fun!"
"For the Masterminds." Vic's sponsor –– the representative for his sponsor, rather–– had argued hard in favor of giving the group a try. Almost as strongly as his current legal guardian had argued against it. That he was here right now showed that he'd at least entertained the idea, but he knew which of the two ladies he was inclined to believe. Any group that would have Jack-Asshole as a member... "Well, goodbye. See you never."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa! Wait a minute!" Jack interposed himself between Vic and the door. "You don't just say no to an invite from the Masterminds, especially not now that we've got a Headmaster from the Syndicate in charge."
"Don't remind me." Vic made a face. "But if the Masterminds are really recruiting, and this isn't some stupid trick of yours, then they chose the wrong person to do it. Get someone prettier next time."
"True enough," said Jack. "Guess I can't fault you for having some modicum of good taste. Still, shake?" Without waiting for a reply, the sophomore grabbed Vic's hand and pressed it against his own. Vic didn't feel the kernel of metal in Jack's palm until a half-second before it released a loud buzz that vibrated through his arm, conducted up via the bones to jolt his brain into submission.
He didn't exactly pass out, but direct consciousness took a little vacation. The last thing he could recall was Jack's voice wobbling in his ears: "Now, let's get down to business..."
––––Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016
One of these days she was going to get an alarm clock. A proper timepiece with a loud buzzer to announce the time to wake up. Eventually she would need one, she figured. The inner workings of her brain provided a good substitute, though, and it was rare that she ever slept later than 6 AM these days.
This morning was no different. Eyes open at precisely 6, confirmed a moment later on her smartphone screen. Two minutes spent changing into her next set of clean gym clothes, with extra bumping around to alert her roommate to what was coming. While Calliope was yawning and stretching her way into consciousness, Erica was ready to go.
But one step away from the door, the morning became just a little different.
"What's this?" Erica picked a small, rectangular card from the floor.
"Che?" her roommate mumbled. "What is what?"
"Looks like someone slipped me a message under the door last night." Her name was written on one side of the card in sharply swooping cursive. Below it was a number, 14:05. Eyebrows furrowed in confusion as she flipped the card over. On the reverse, there was an image of a thorny rosebush sprouting from a single heart-shaped seed. One more flip, and she could see that the card now read 14:04.
"Che strano." Calliope was looking over her shoulder as she got into her own gym clothes. "You have not made yourself a new boyfriend while I was not looking?"
"No." That was the last thing she needed, not after the past few weeks. Blue eyes focused on the slip of card stock, but no answers were forthcoming. Instead, after a long pause, the ink shifted to show 14:03. "I guess I'll just have to wait."
The New Hampshire sky was already well on its way to morning brightness, but few students were willing to get up early on a Saturday morning to enjoy it. The tween girl now hopping along the front steps of Dickinson Cottage was one of those few. Natalie Macauliffe was part of the school's small junior high contingent, and her age was readily apparent when you looked at her face. The rest of her was well into her teens. She also appeared to be more muscular than Erica, which was why they'd recommended she take the legacy codename Physique. It certainly fit her.
"Hey!" she called out when they walked through the front door. "We ready to go?"
"Yes, indeed!" Erica yelled back. Cally merely groaned. A stern 'ahem' from the front desk reminded them that Ms. Plimsoll was on Cerberus duties that morning. With a polite wave to the assistant dorm mom, the three of them headed out.
The morning routine was by now as set and regular as its name implied. Stretches, laps around the quad, aerobics, more laps, rinse, repeat. The air held a chill to it that had been missing even the day before, and Erica's muscles ached pleasantly as they pulled and folded.
"How're classes?" she asked Physique as they trotted past Twain. Cookie, devisor guard dog and informal cottage mascot, raised both heads to bark a greeting. "And hello to you too, Cookie!" she called.
"Doin' pretty good," the girl said. "I mean, classes are classes, but..." She shrugged mostly with her arms as they jogged. "Ms. Barnes is really good at pushing us."
"So I've been hearing." The only time Erica had actually met the fabled Ms. Barnes had been just that past Thursday, when a Rager fight had spilled out of an English classroom and into the hallway. The teacher had put an end to it with a baseball bat and a sleep spell.
Out in the quad in front of Twain, Erica and Cally's teammate Kenshin was performing his own morning routine. Erica couldn't say anything about swordplay or fighting forms, but the boneless grace the young Japanese man exhibited bespoke a great deal of practice and dedication. The three of them pulled up for a moment, jogging in place as they watched Kenshin deal with an entire squad of imaginary attackers. With each measured, efficient stroke, he laid out the scene so well that the observer's own mind supplied the ghostly images of his sparring partners.
"Hai!" he shouted, coming to a pause that could hardly be called a rest, but rather a base from which to spring into further action. "Teki sandan, shuryou!" A brief pause. "Teki yondan, hajime!" And with that, his blade began a new pattern of deadly beauty.
Natalie's feet had stopped, and her gaze turned slightly dreamy. "He's single, yanno," Erica said, only half in jest.
That snapped the girl out of her reverie. "Um, no. No.... I promised my mama I wouldn't mess with boys till I was in actual high school at the earliest. But..." Her smile never quite faded. "It's nice to look."
"If that is to your taste," said Cally, her eyes rolling.
"Afraid you're in the minority there." As usual, Kenshin's morning routine had attracted a crowd of admirers, including much of Venus Inc., the school's modeling contingent. Personally, Erica was inclined to agree with Cally, but they were clearly outnumbered.
"Oh, there's Kareela!" Natalie said, pointing out their friend in the crowd. "Um, do y'all mind if I...?"
"Go ahead," said Erica. "We won't twist your arm."
With a giggle, Natalie danced over to join her friend. The two roommates shared a look of amusement before jogging off. There was still more routine to finish, after all.
For all that she stood at one-hundred-feckin'-nineteen centimeters tall, and showed no signs of ever gaining another cee-em, Kareela Greer wasn't going to let the world get on top of her. Around her head, her usual assortment of fidgets and gewgaws rotated leisurely. Package Deal Psychics like her usually came with three powers that couldn't be used simultaneously. Her primary power was feckin' annoying, though, so keeping the little toys spinning with her PK took the edge off it.
She tugged at the bra straps under her shirt. The first set of underwear she'd special-ordered through the school's tailoring services had been functional and fit, taking some of the load off her front as Mamma's genetics attempted to express themselves on a significantly smaller frame. After a bit of wheedling and some well-placed words on herself, she'd sweet-talked the tailoring service into whipping up a couple of nicer ones, which changed her profile considerably.
Her fourteenth birthday might still be a month away, but she was feckin' gonna make sure the boys didn't overlook her.
Right now she was sitting on a quad bench admiring that Japanese kid's abs. There was no way she had a chance with him, not with all the other girls watching with equally intense interest, but window-shopping was fun, too.
"Hey, beanpole," Natalie said as she sat down next to Kareela.
"Heya, shrimp," she replied to the girl was was almost twice her size. "Here to enjoy the view?"
"Yeah..." They both craned their heads to the left as the swordsman executed a perfect series of slashes. Kareela could almost see the heads rolling.
"Surprised to see you up so early."
She snorted, and random knicknacks danced around her head. "Ya know why." A smile squirmed across her face. Last Thursday when a fight had broken out after class, Taka over there with the sword had swept up her and Anais with the fern-hair, carrying them to safety. A single thoughtless act of chivalry, but feck if it didn't make a girl feel special.
"Yeah, he's really something, innee?"
Kareela considered her words carefully, her little planetary system of fidget toys drifting to a rest upon her lap. "Yeah... he's..." She nodded. "Awesome."
From her lips to his self, the word flew like it had a life of its own. Kareela couldn't ever feel the effects of her odd little third power, but she loved to share her opinion of a person whenever appropriate.
And feck was Taka as awesome as they came.
If the morning routine had left her feeling half-dead, then the showers in Dickinson were literal miracles, bringing life back to her sore and battered body. Even a few moments in the warmth of its spray were enough to reinvigorate, to rejuvenate, to resurrect her from the grip of exercise related enervation...
"Drama queen," her roommate teased as they dressed in their room.
"Che no!" she tutted back. "I am una cantate, a singer! No actress I!"
Erica laughed. "That doesn't make you any less of a ham."
The mention of pork products was enough to focus attention on her stomach and the current lack of yummy food therein. The walk to the Crystal Hall was brisk, almost as quick as the morning jog.
When they arrived at the M3 table with trays in hand, it was to find Laura and Bailey sitting to either side of Hikaru Myoujin, the semi-literal Japanese princess from Melville. "I'd say it's all Greek to me..." quipped Laura, "but with all the science getting pounded through my brain, I could probably sound out most of the Greek alphabet by this point."
"Oh, I know that symbol!" Laura's roommate Bailey pointed. "That's the one you taught me, right Hikaru? The one for love?"
"Ah, what is going on?" Calliope asked politely as she sat with her tray.
Hikaru angled the screen of her smartpad so that more could see. Visible on it was a photoshopped image of Laura dressed in a Japanese schoolgirl's uniform, which somehow looked less natural on her than her own perfectly blue complexion. "Remember those tourists from Osaka we ran into in New York?" she asked. "Well, they posted pictures onto Yotsuba Channel, an imageboard forum over there, and Laura's face got turned into a meme. Or three...?"
"Six so far," reported a voice from the bangle on her wrist. "However, that last one is highly derivative of the third, and so may not count."
"Thank you, Kurenai." Hikaru rolled her eyes. "Suffice to say that Laura has become a minor sensation among mutant-watchers in my homeland. Also, they're still convinced that Kenshin is her boyfriend."
Laura looked as sour as a lemon –– or more likely a lime, given the color her face turned at the thought. "Not. My. Type," she averred.
The voice of Hikaru's digital assistant twinkled with well-programmed humor. "There is some argument about that, mostly between young men."
"Aren't they talking about anything else?" the blue girl begged.
Hikaru scrolled down. "Ah, here's something. Though they all agree to the nickname Aokko for you, they cannot decide which kanji symbol is best."
"What exactly does that mean?" Erica asked between bites of cinnamon roll.
The Japanese princess got out a pen and scribbled three symbols on a napkin: 青, 蒼, and 碧. "Each of these is pronounced ao," she explained. "And each translates as blue."
"Now that's not confusing as heck..." Bailey griped.
"As if English is any better about its homophones," Hikaru retorted. "But here, though the meaning is largely the same, there are differences. The first," she said, tapping 青, "is the general word for blue. Not too pale or too dark; there are separate words for those."
"Of course there are," Bailey snickered.
"The second," Hikaru continued, ignoring the other girl as her finger moved to 蒼, "is far more of a blue-green, or even a true shade of green. In older days the Japanese language did not distinguish between the two at all, which has left some linguistic oddities here and there."
"And the last?" asked Laura, pointing to 碧.
"That one is a deeper hue, like the clear sky or southern sea," said Hikaru. "It might be closer to such shades as azure or cerulean."
"Cerulean..." Laura rolled the word on her tongue. "Yeah, let's go with that symbol."
"Oh yes, that is your code name, is it not?" said Calliope. "Cerulean or Cerulea, something like that?"
Erica chuckled. "You use it so rarely, I'd about forgotten what it was."
Laura's blush simply served to make her face more 碧. "I'm not really the code name type..." she murmured. "But I suppose I should start using it more. Um, Hikaru, could your VI make me an account on whatever channel it was? I can't really put this genie back in the bottle, but maybe I can have a say in my own memes."
Hikaru nodded. "I thought you might want something like that. So let's get to it." Picking up her camera, she powered it up and aimed. "Alright, who wants to be in the picture?"
"You won't be in it?" Calliope asked.
"I've had enough problems with paparazzi," the Japanese princess griped. "I'm not about to do it to myself. Okay," she said to the four girls: Laura, Bailey, Erica, and Calliope, all bunched together. "Do a V-for-Victory sign... yes, that's good. And... cheese!"
"Cheese!" they shouted, giggling.
There was a loud, automated click from the camera. "Got it," Kurenai announced. "Adding appropriate messaging in Japanese and creating a Yotsuba Channel account for designated agent Cerulea. Permission to post?"
Hikaru looked to Laura. "Last chance to back out."
The blue girl shrugged. "Might as well jump in the deep end. It's all blue from where I'm sitting. Permission granted," she told the VI.
"I have got to learn the language," Laura said, shaking blue bangs.
He'd fallen off the deep end, into a sea of mists and shadows where fell currents dragged him through pieces of dreams best forgotten. And then a wave, a tsunami rippled through, pulling him up only to dash him against a... an iron bar...?
His alarm clock was blaring shrilly, angry at the day for happening. Vic sat up, rapping his forehead against the overhead shelving of his bunk. There were no proper words sloshing through his brain at the moment, so the cussing that followed was less than coherent. It still got the point across.
"Someone had a busy night," his roommate teased. Tobias was suspiciously perky for this early in the morning, and the wet hair slicked around his pointed ears meant he'd even had a shower already.
"Whah... time?" Vic croaked. Damn, his voice sounded awful.
"Almost eight. You didn't get back in till almost one," Tobias said. "What was that about?"
"I..." Vic clutched his head as it sloshed some more. "Dunno. There was... someone I had to meet? And... and..." He fell back into bed. "All a blank now."
Tobias combed his hair one way, and then another, before giving up and letting it fall where it would. "Well, far be it for me to tell you what a good time is, but..."
"It wasn't good," Vic snapped back as he stared at the clock on his desk, confirming the time. Shit, he'd about lost his morning. And he'd been doing so well about it so far this semester. "Um, it doesn't feel like it was."
"At least your purple girlfriend won't have anything to get jealous over, then."
"Lavender," he corrected automatically. "And she's not..."
His roommate raised his hands in mock-surrender. "Right, right. Gotcha. Weren't you supposed to meet her for a breakfast not-date, anyway?"
His brain still wasn't willing to divulge the memories of last night, but everything else was working just as advertised. "Oh, crap..." They'd promised to meet at 8, because their Saturday classes were at 9.
"Better get a move on," Tobias said drily as Vic sped out of the room.
The line for showers was far too long, and anyway he didn't have the time for that. Vic grabbed the canteen on his way out and made a stop by the floor's water fountain to refill it. Proving once again that hydrokinesis was the best superpower, he then completely drenched his head in a large sphere of water, scrubbing himself to a cleanish level before pulling all the water back and down the drinking fountain's drain.
Quickly combing his hair in place, Vic turned to find one of his neighbors, Saumer of the spiky black hair and parabolic bunny ears, staring at him. "What?" he asked.
"Nothing..." the boy replied. "Just one of those Whateley moments."
Vic ignored him, dashing back into his room to change into a clean t-shirt and jeans before racing out of the dorm and across the quad. He made it through the front doors of the Crystal Hall at exactly 8:30 AM. His path took him straight up the stairs to the second level, completely bypassing the breakfast line.
Almost all the members of the Mutant Mayhem Machine were already at the table –– which was to say, he was practically the last one to the party. Only Tia the bunny girl was missing. The blonde German Erica was talking with Vic's own floormate, Jimmy "Shieldwall" Cannes. Not far off, Taka was eating his egg and toast, skillfully dicing the pieces with a specialized knife that flipped through his fingers to spell the demise of an egg yolk... Vic had to shake his head and wonder where that thought had come from.
Next around the table, the blue-skinned Laura was going over design sketches with Calliope ––
There was a weird tugging sensation in his brain, the mental equivalent of someone scratching a record. Vic's feet kept on going a moment longer without any neurons devoted to spotting obstacles in the way.
"Oof!" He wasn't sure just what tripped him up, but it squeaked angrily before scampering away. An older girl in a much-stained lab coat skipped over his prone body in hot pursuit of whatever it was.
"Need a hand?" Tanya was there too, and he had to wonder what brain-fart he'd had to miss that. The girl with the lavender hair and eyes was the entire reason he'd run there, after all. At least the look in those eyes was one of concern, rather than annoyance.
He let her help him up. "Thanks. Um, sorry I'm..."
Tanya giggled. "Don't be. I only just got here a few minutes ago, myself. Been introducing the new girl around. She just spent the last couple days in special orientation."
Who? he almost asked. The unvoiced question answered itself soon enough as Tanya took her seat. In the next chair over, a young woman was looking him over quizzically. She was tall, almost stretched out with arms that didn't quite fit her lean frame, and hair of the sort that shifted between light brown and dark blonde depending on the day. She was also wearing the lightest clothing of anyone at the table, as if the October morning outside was actually sunny summer. "Sera Eir Magnusdottir," she said. "Or Einherjar, if you prefer code names."
"Victor Rivera. Tidestriker." He nodded to her, but kept his attention on Tanya. "So, um, will you be here much longer? I need to grab some breakfast."
The lavender girl shook her head. "Sorry, but we're just here for a quick bite before moving on. Gotta make sure Sera's got everything ready for Costuming Class, and I've got Flight after that. But hey, picnic this afternoon! Cape Squad tryouts are right in the middle, and you wouldn't wanna miss me showing off, right?"
"Yeah..." He found where his grin had been hiding. "Meet you at Whitman, around one-thirty?"
"Um, and I can take your trays back right now," he offered.
"Thanks. You're a sweetheart. Oh, looks like Bianca and Morgana are finishing up, and Kenshin's already vamoosed. Time to jet." She gave him a nice hug, pinched his nose playfully, then left with Einherjar in tow.
She didn't really have to show Sera where the tray return was –– the girl from Iceland had been on campus long enough to learn that much –– but as designated guide for a day, Tanya felt she might as well be thorough.
"Okay," she said as their trays clattered down the little ramp to the washing area, "so you still wanna join me for Costumes class? The teacher won't mind, seriously."
"Ah..." Sera Eir Magnusdottir was the sort of gangly you saw with big puppies, her various parts grown at different rates that had yet to synchronize. Already she was well above Tanya in height, and in all likelihood she'd be a veritable giantess by the time they graduated. But for the moment, she was stuck in-between, where the biggest problem was what to do with her elbows.
Tanya winked. "C'mon, we're at a school for bona-fide super-whatevers. Don't tell me you didn't have some kind of outfit in mind when you realized you had powers."
"Perhaps..." The girl's accent was light, but definitely trended more towards her father's side. "Something classical, like the sagas of yore..."
"Or at least like valkyries in the video games of right now?" Tanya suggested. She giggled at the face Sera made.
The Crystal Hall was filling up, as those who had the luxury of sleeping in arrived for bacon, waffles, and cinnamon rolls. Tanya spotted part of the Cape Squad contingent –– the Future Super Heroes of America (plus a few other countries)–– and made a point of stopping to greet them.
"Hey!" Star Sentry was only a year older, a sophomore, but she was one of the official faces of the club. Even in plainclothes, like she was now, the girl cut such a figure that it was hard to imagine her as anything but a super girl. Tanya felt kind of intimidated to stand next to her for comparison.
"Ready for the tournament?" the young heroine continued. "Biggest event on campus this afternoon!"
"Kinda silly, putting on a show like this," grumbled one of the other Capes, a laid-back young black man who went by the name Chillout.
"It's an all-school thing, so it's not like we could really back out. And after last year's debacles, we need all the good publicity we can manage," Star Sentry reminded him. She tugged at her hair, blonde shading to brown at the tips. "Um, thanks for giving us a shot," she added to Tanya.
The lavender girl just grinned. "No problem. Past is past; present is now."
"I'm glad you think that," said the leader of the little group, Star Sentry's boyfriend Megaton. "You all go ahead," he said to his friends. "Just want a word with our hopeful recruit here."
Megaton was very much the male equivalent to Star Sentry: so perfectly formed he may well have been designed for the hero role. Sandy blond hair lay perfectly in place, and a square, rugged face was the ideal setting for viridian eyes and a smile like a piano.
Tanya knew he was happily taken, but oh what a feast for the eyes. Even Sera seemed impressed.
"Ah, a word in private?" he asked, nodding to the girl from Iceland. When Sera nodded and moved a ways away, Megaton began. "So, Invictus. I'm sure you heard the stories by now..."
Her mouth squirmed in place, but she kept her answer to just a nod. It was hard to distinguish fact from rumor, but the gist was that the Cape Squad had not had a good time of it these past few years. The usual clashes and competition with less lawful groups –– especially the Masterminds and the Bad Seeds –– had turned into full-on feuds which left nobody smelling of roses. One member of the Capes had even gotten expelled after a disagreement went too far out of hand.
"Yes. Ah, we appreciate your interest, and Lord knows we need some fresh blood. Only..." He paused to consider his words. "As a Cape, you have to be careful about how you socialize. There will be those who will attempt to worm their way into your confidence, only to betray you at the most opportune moment. That's just the way this hero business is."
"Um, thanks. But what...?" Tanya let the question trail.
"I'm just saying, be careful about how you choose your friends," said Megaton. He looked up, and by following his gaze Tanya could notice Morgana and Bianca coming down the stairs, still gabbing about that mystery project of theirs. "And," the young man added, "reconsider the friends you already have. Not all will be deserving of your trust."
Megaton left to join his friends, but his words lingered.
He was right; already Tana had to come to grips with the fact that one friend was the heiress to a criminal enterprise, and another was the great-granddaughter of Nazis.
He was wrong; Bianca and Erica were just so, so... not villainous. It was easier for her to accept it of the German, but it was true for both.
She needed to speak with Bianca later, she decided.
––Shawn Barker, ODS dud
As a freshman adrift in strange social waters, Shawn had thought it lucky to fall in with other kids who were having trouble getting attention from the girls. The first few meetings of the Outstanding Dudes Society were fun, if a little too boozy. His mom would not have approved.
Well, she wouldn't have approved of a lot of things in his life recently. The reminder hit his nerves like a live wire, which started him to twitching, and for a few seconds his outline blurred as he vibrated in place. "Damn it," he said under his breath, the word sounding more like the curse of an angry bee.
He grabbed the squeeze toy from his bag, gripping it for dear life and counting backwards down from ten. The shakes subsided quickly enough. His body was back to normal just in time for the target to pass by.
Okay, so he wasn't too happy about this. The Japanese kid hadn't done anything wrong in his opinion, though the others griped about how the foreign kid who couldn't really speak English had gotten all the hot girls already. This Kenshin fella had just done better than they had.
Shawn, on the other hand... He now had to deal with the likes of High Gear and Jack-in-the-Box, who'd made it clear what would happen to young men who didn't support the ODS agenda after signing on. He only hoped this would blow over soon.
From his vantage point near the front doors, Shawn could watch Kenshin return his tray and leave without having to get up himself. So that's pretty much what he did. He watched...
Kenshin slip down the stairs...
On the railing, to avoid traffic...
While balancing his tray in his off hand...
Dancing around the ever-growing line of hungry, irritable teens...
Ducking under the swinging arms of Franklin, the rhino boy...
Sharing a complicated handshake once Franklin realized he was there...
Depositing his tray...
And the trays of three other people who had trouble getting through...
Nearly getting smacked in the face by a long sports stick...
Only to twist and twirl out of the way...
With a final bow to the girl who'd nearly whacked him...
...and Shawn was left staring at Kenshin as the Japanese kid passed by. The way he'd moved... and made it look so effortless. Words came to mind, Shawn's mind picking through them until he found the exact right one.
She left the table ahead of her roommate for once. The Italian was deep in conversation with Laura over what to do for future performances. Vic had made his own exit a few minutes earlier with a mixed expression on his face that Erica was not about to decipher. There were better things to do on a Saturday morning.
The social scene was in full motion, with most tables in the Crystal Hall now occupied and talkative. The second floor was, except for the M3 table, dominated by sophomores and juniors, and it wasn't until Erica got to ground level that she saw any faces that were both friendly and familiar.
At one table not far from the stairs there sat Chessa Barnes, noticeable by her slightly metallic complexion and wiry bronze hair. The girl had mutated into a young version of her last Dungeons & Dragons character, Erica had been informed, with an emphasis on the dragon part. To either side of Chessa were her oddball brothers, the versatile Pat and the young prodigy Marcus. And with them all was...
Somebody Erica had never seen before. An older girl, possibly a senior... though at Whateley, it really was impossible to guess at times. Anywhere else, and she'd have assumed college at the least. The girl was showing off a dress of colorful folds and patches, with a neatly cinched bit of laced corsetry in the midriff area that reminded Erica of RenFaire styles. A pair of old granny glasses didn't hide blue eyes flecked with gold.
"Hey, Erica!" Chessa was waving her over. "I wantcha to meet the mysterious fourth member of the Barnes family, M... Moonbrook!"
"We've met," her sister said with a chuckle.
That was news to Erica, but it did make her take a closer look at this Moonbrook woman. The eyes were familiar, as was the shape of the face, but it wasn't until the woman slipped her granny glasses off and winked that the connection was made. "Ms. B-"
"Sh." Ms. Barnes, English teacher and baseball bat aficionado, held a finger to her lips. The glasses resumed their place, with a wink behind them. "I'm slumming it this morning, and trying out my disguise skills at the same time. So far, only Mr. Diggins at the pastry counter seems to have caught on. And now yourself, of course."
"Of course..." Erica shook her head. "Seems like a bit of a bother, though."
"Everybody needs a hobby," Pat said, rolling his eyes. "And Moonie's decided she wants to try and outdo me in the play-with-expectations department."
Ms. Barnes laughed at that. "Oh, I know I'm not playing in your league, Pat, but it does feel good to walk around incognito at times. Plus," she added, "I may be auditing a class soon, and that's easier to do if I'm not immediately identifiable as a responsible adult. They're going to be doing a special seminar series for those with... quirky magic abilities in the near future, and I probably need it almost as much as the poor girl who incited it."
"Something 'bout exploding bunny rabbits," Marcus commented around a mouthful of toast. "And not even bunny-shaped drones, but real ones."
"You forgot the 'invisible' part." Erica sighed. "I was doing so well to forget that whole incident... Well, you and Morgana will probably get along just fine."
"Hey, while I gotcha here a sec," Chessa said, pulling papers out of her bag. "Wanna work on some new game characters?"
Erica took the opportunity provided to avoid the topic of exploding lagomorphs, though their plaintive cries of mugu-mugu buzzed in her ears. Chessa even had a small bag of dice with her, which by themselves were worth hours of entertainment in the right hands.
The green-haired junior high annoyance known as Meatball approached while they were dickering over the pros and cons of different feat builds. Erica was ready to tell him off if he came too close –– his habit of guessing girls' cup sizes still outweighed his usefulness as an emergency healer, in her opinion –– but his attention was nominally on Marcus. In actuality it was mostly on Ms. Barnes's chest, which was of little surprise.
In her persona of Moonbrook, Ms. Barnes took it well in stride. Marcus introduced her as his older sister, working weekdays in the area but taking special courses on Saturdays. Meatball nodded along, and it was debatable how much he really heard. When the two boys walked off, Marcus had to physically push Meatball along.
"So..." Pat began. "Do you think he realized?"
"Not one whit," said Ms. Barnes. "Okay, ladies and gentleman. How long before young Bryon figures out who I am? I'll trust Marcus not to spill the beans."
"Three days," said Erica.
"At least a week," Chessa guessed.
Pat mulled it over. "I'd say... until you decide to inform him."
"Yes, he does seem rather clueless in the face of femininity." Ms. Barnes looked down upon her chest. "While it does feel good to let the girls out like this, I think I shall stick to wearing sports bras in the classroom. Bryon wouldn't get anything finished otherwise."
"Changing the subject," said Erica. "Do you all have plans for the picnic this afternoon?"
"Plans?" Pat said, hands against his chest in feigned innocence. "Whatever would those be?"
"We do tend to wing it," Chessa commented. "Hey, you bring your source books and I bring mine, and we see what we can put together. Sound good?"
She answered with a thumb's-up. "Sounds like you do know how to plan."
"Miracles do happen," Ms. Barnes said in long-suffering tones.
As regular old Noah, he'd not been a morning person. At all. Nuh-uh. No way. Perish the thought. So when the truce inside his head had been struck, he'd gladly ceded the breakfast hours to his girlish side. Sometimes he regretted it, but there hadn't been much he could do about it.
It's not that bad, is it? The voice in the back of his brain wasn't normally so self-conscious. Noah took that as a sign of improvement. I mean, a girl's gotta eat...
And that there was the crux of the matter. Up until last July he'd been a pretty average high school boy, with all the hopes and interests of one. He'd even dreamed of being on the football team. Nowadays, he'd fit in better with the cheer squad.
Last July, he'd discovered there was an open spot in his soul, a pocket of ethereal space perfect for housing something that was neither corporeal nor human. And like most avatars, he'd discovered this the hard way: a spirit had found his space and decided to set up shop.
That was Glee, a happy-go-lucky entity who claimed she'd been born of "confluxion of girlyish enthusiasmia" following the finale of a particularly popular girls TV program. The experts at Whateley openly doubted this was truly possible, or grammatically accurate, but no one could really tell him what Glee was––
I'm me, silly!
Other than annoying at times. Guesses ranged from amnesiac ghost to genius locii, from aggregate emotional imprint to a fragment of some ancient goddess of youth and happiness. Nobody could say anything for certain except that in this state she was still incomplete, formative, and thus any attempt to separate her from her avatar host would end badly for everyone involved.
As her avatar host, Noah had almost been willing to take that chance in the beginning, but getting angry with Glee was like kicking a puppy. A loud, energetic puppy that happened to live in his head and required regular feedings. And thus back to the problem: the spirit required the emotional vibes of girlish happiness to thrive, and she often failed to consider her host's reactions when she "helped" him into such a state where such vibes were provided.
Which was why Noah was now sitting down to breakfast in a skirt and white blouse, with a lacy pink bra and matching panties which were thankfully not visible. In fact, it wasn't accurate to call him Noah at all, not this moment. For now, he was Nina, and his brain was about to get thrown into third gear.
Aw, it's fun! Glee assured him, for perhaps the thousandth time. You always enjoy it while it's on.
And yet he'd fought tooth and nail to have a "no surprise mental adjustments" clause included in their little truce.
Sitting next to him was Kara O'Keegan, sometimes called Nightingale here at Whateley. Not a mutant herself, she'd inherited a magic trinket from her aunt, which effectively made her the next best thing. Noah was glad to have someone around who understood what had happened to his life, even if it meant he was never going to be able to ask her out like he'd always wanted. Life was stupid like that.
"So, what's the topic for this morning?" Kara asked.
With an inward sigh, he let Glee shift his gears, and with a rush of blood filling her ears, Nina Blake's mouth kicked into action. "Well, I was going over the fall lineup from this new designer down in Atlanta –– you would not believe how hot she is right now! I mean, for someone new on the scene, and..."
The others at the table let her babble on. Kara nodded appreciatively while Nina's little sister Darcy alternated between interest and annoyance. Next to Darcy, fellow junior high school student Beverly Taylor, a.k.a. Time Bomb, was staring at Nina as if she'd grown another head –– and that was almost the correct way to think it.
Of all the denizens of Poe Cottage, Nina in either form got along with Bev and Pat Barnes the best. The three of them had the shared misfortune of being transformed against their will, and very little interest in accepting the facts of the matter in their personal lives.
"Betsy!" Bev hollered, waving her hands. "Get over here! My sister," the girl explained quickly. "Hey, sis, come on over and join the conversation."
The part of Noah that was holding back wondered at this. There was no way the resolutely resistant Bev was enjoying a chat about fashion. Then the sister arrived, and the part of him that was still male whistled appreciatively.
"Um, hi?" she said as she sat. "My name's Elizabeth, but Velvet or Betsy are okay, too."
"Wait, wait," said Kara. "Elizabeth... Taylor?"
The bigger sister blushed while little sister giggled. "Our parents had... aspirations for things like beauty pageants," Betty admitted. "When I came into my BIT, they thought they'd hit the jackpot."
It was easy to see why. Betsy was the spitting image of her namesake, minus several decades. A porcelain complexion, haughty cheekbone structure, light violet eyes.... The forward part of Nina's brain was still in girl-mode, and was already compiling a list of fashion recommendations even as the oddities began to register.
Outfit: lab coat. Nerd chic was back as a thing, but the cut was wrong; it hung like a coat hanger and hadn't been cleaned in a few days.
Hair: clipped to medium-short length, and recently. Her eyebrows appeared to be painted on, and not as a fashion statement.
Makeup: very little, and mostly by disaster rather than design. Betsy had a wonderful smoky eye thing going on, but it looked to be actual smoke residue rather than mascara.
These observations did not stop the flow of words coming out of Nina's mouth, though they did alter the direction at times. Betsy's eyes quickly glazed over from the fashion feedback, and Noah doubted any of the advice actually took.
During a convenient lull, while Nina was about to transition into a discussion of the newest of sandals out of Adelaide, Betsy mumbled something about refilling her coffee and skedaddled. Bev's snickers filled the empty space around the table neatly.
"Okay," said Darcy to her friend. "What was that about?"
"I'm thinking she set her sister up," Kara remarked.
Memories from one of the first Poe residential meetings clicked together in Noah's head. "She... she was the one who, you know..." He wasn't sure how much Bev actually wanted known.
Darcy's eyes went wide. "You mean the 'accident'?" She made finger quotes for emphasis.
Kara was looking back and forth with one eyebrow arched. "O... kay..." she drawled. "I'm not gonna ask, even if I can most definitely guess. Long and short, you're using Nina here as an instrument of revenge on your fashion-blunder of a sister."
"Yup. Not quite as satisfying as a bomb in her panty drawer, but..."
"I'm okay with it," Noah managed to say through the haze of personality shift. Girl-mode was wearing off.
I'm not okay with it! Glee whined. That was mean!
He shushed her mentally. Her breakfast was over, and now it was time for him to eat. The plate had gone cold, but really, there was no such thing as a bad waffle. Girl-mode's motormouth took a lot of calories to power, and he was almost ready for seconds.
The big sister's bag was still at the table, and Betsy sheepishly returned several minutes later to pick it up. "Um, sorry to run off like that..." she said.
"Don't worry," said Darcy. "Nina has that effect on people at times."
A fork was waved menacingly in their direction, but her cheeks were too full to add a verbal warning. When the conversation resumed, it was about more normal dorm stuff.
Someone bumped into the back of her chair. "Oh, excuse me," a girl's voice said, the accent vaguely British. "Eliza! Oh, might I sit here?" This new girl was around the table and in a chair before anyone could respond. It was probably by accident that her hand stroked across Noah's bare shoulders, but it made him shiver anyway.
"Hey, Michelle," said Betsy. The girl perked up. "She's from my floor in Melville," she explained. "And we're in the same science classes."
This Michelle girl was the normal sort of pretty by Whateley standards, with russet brown hair worn in a pixie cut and a pair of half-moon glasses perched on her nose. "Nice to meet you all. You can call me Matsu or Michelle" she was saying. "So, Eliza! Did you get up early or stay up late? Didn't see you in the showers this morning." Her grin was a little too sharp.
"Oh. Showers. Well..."
"You forgot again?" Michelle's eyes were full moons behind her half-moons. "Really, Eliza! The RA hasn't warned you enough? Japanese girl," she explained. "Practically a princess, and you know how those people are with cleanliness being next to godliness. No, no, no!" she continued. "After a long creative fugue, you absolutely must take care of yourself. Shall I help?" Now her voice was as sharp as her grin. "Yes, that's a capital idea. We shall get you to the showers as soon as we're done here."
"But, um, Michelle..." Betsy stammered. "You don't have to..."
"Pish and tosh! This is the honor of Melville at stake here, Eliza. We do have to look our best."
Bev snickered. "This is about as good as it gets, really."
"No..." Michelle's grin sharpened and her brown eyes flickered. "I dare say we can do better. Come on now, chop-chop!"
Noah wasn't sure what was going on, and he didn't really want to know. Swallowing his last piece of waffle, he scanned the room for anything of interest. Then Calliope strolled down the stairs, and his heart missed a beat. "Ah, well, it's been fun," he said. "But I have to get going."
"You sure?" Kara asked. She'd spotted the Italian girl as well, and was a pretty good judge of Noah's state of mind by this point. "Take care of yourself."
Michelle nudged Kara. "She's a big girl. Unless you want to take 'special' care of her yourself."
"I'm sure I have no idea what you mean," Kara said blankly.
Noah was up and away before he could hear how the rest of that conversation turned out.
After a wonderfully productive breakfast conversation with Laura, Calliope had a full belly and a fuller mind. Anything seemed possible with that combination and she traipsed out the doors of the Crystal Hall with a song held close to her lips. She wouldn't let it loose, not yet, but more out of respect for other students. Few people took forced happiness well, she'd found, and she got enough complaints from singing in the showers some mornings.
This didn't stop her from unleashing a single note of joy that substantially brightened the morning of everyone in range when she saw who was walking towards her now.
"Neff!" Calliope ran over to hug her friend. Nefertiti Copeland was just as enthusiastic in hugging her back. With skin of polished brown and short, tightly curled hair, Neff provided a strong contrast to Calliope's own fair complexion and gold-streaked mane.
"Hey, Cally-girl! Ready for practice? Gotta work on those moves!" Neff was wearing a dancer's leotard under her skirt and blouse, which was hardly unusual for her.
The Italian blushed. "Just the moves, or..."
Neff took Calliope's hand, raised it to her lips for a quick kiss, then pulled Calliope into a spin-around. "Moves now, then moves later. If that's copacetic with you?"
"Si..." The actual meaning of Neff's favorite word still eluded her, but she'd learned love when it came into play. "Molto copacetico. Copacetissimo."
A warm chuckle sent thrills across her heart. "Whatever you say, Cally. Let's go!"
She let Neff lead her away, and the world seemed to pare itself down to just the two of them. Certainly, she never noticed the three people watching from a distance, each with a different set of mixed emotions.
In her mind, the fun and creativity of Costumes 101 outweighed the annoyance of having it on a Saturday morning. From the random complaints and moanings that floated past her ears, she was in the minority for this opinion, which made her wonder why these other kids even bothered. The classroom population varied quite a bit by the week, but there was rarely a lack of choice for seating. Tanya always put herself up in front.
A few rows back, Morgana and Bianca were whispering excitedly, undoubtedly about their little project. What that was all about, she did not know. Didn't want to know. Megaton's words decided at that moment to go into repeat between her ears, but she squelched them down to size by focusing on the placement of her work materials. It was easier to avoid the thought with more classwork.
Sera took the next chair over, towards the center of the row. The newcomer from Iceland was friendly enough. Tanya's basic knowledge of her language and country was enough to make her Sera's new best friend in this strange place. It probably was not coincidence that they shared so many classes on the schedule, starting today.
To Tanya's right, on the last chair of the row before the aisle, there was nothing but a bag hanging from the back. The student sitting in the chair might as well have been invisible... and effectively she was.
Sterling should have gathered more attention than she did. In a perfect world, her combination of silvered skin, glass-green hair, and hourglass figure would have left admirers raving. In this oh-so-imperfect world, however, some combination of traumas from before and after her mutation had left Sterling unable to deal with attention of any sort. And when one had a difficult to control psi ability, shutting yourself away from the world held a whole new meaning.
Tanya was pretty sure she was the only person in the room who could actually see Sterling, thanks to a natural mental shield that blocked the girl's constant no-see-um effect. That's why she'd been made the girl's roommate. Even the RAs tended to forget Sterling existed, and Tanya was occasionally teased for 'lucking out' and getting a room to herself.
"How are you feeling today?" she asked Sterling in a low voice. Experience had taught her that most people wouldn't even notice her talking with her roommate if she kept the volume down. Sera gave her an odd look, but that was all.
Sterling's perfectly sculpted nose wrinkled, and a tear dribbled down her cheek. "I... I couldn't get breakfast," she whispered. "No one would give me anything in the line, and, and, and they forgot to make the regular order that we reserved... in... in case..."
That morning's cinnamon roll, courtesy or Erica's friend the donut kid, was still wrapped in a napkin in Tanya's bag. She got it out and passed it to her roommate. "Here. And next time, you're coming with me to breakfast. No buts this time."
"I, I don't want to be a bother..."
"And I don't want to you to starve. So we're in agreement. Eat up."
Sterling nibbled on her pastry, relaxing a bit as it hit her tastebuds. That donut kid sure knew how to make them, Tanya thought. After a moment, her roommate had unwound enough that other people actually started to acknowledge her presence in that offhand way that implied the girl had always been on the edge of their perception, but merely ignored.
The teacher made her grand entrance, just before the bell, and announced happily that the day's lesson was to be all about color theory. It sounded like something Vic would enjoy, she figured. Maybe his Saturday art class was doing something similar.
The world snapped into place, the rubber band of reality released from its tension to smack him right in the metaphorical face. If her weren't sitting on a quad bench just then, he probably would've fallen over.
... he didn't remember sitting down. Not here, at least.
He didn't remember getting up from the breakfast table either, and yet here he was, on the other side of the quad from the Crystal Hall, with the feeling of sand behind his eyes. In fact, the last clear memory he had was of listening to Calliope and Laura going on about a show the next day. He'd been stuffing his face with cornflakes as fast as he could, so he wouldn't be late for...
Wait. What time was it? His watch was blinking 9:40 at him.
Shit. Almost an hour? His morning art class would be almost over with before he could even get to it, and he dreaded having to explain his tardiness to the teacher when he didn't even know what was going on. She had a way of embarrassing students, and he wasn't about to give her a reason.
Okay, focus, he told himself. Meditate, just like mom used to teach... Breathe in, breathe out, think about... about water. Cool, clear droplets forming ripples on a pond... Hokey and cliche as it sounded, given his elemental affinity, this actually helped. The feeling behind his eyes was soothed away, and slowly the fog receded from the edges of his memory.
...he'd gotten up from the table. Took his bags but not his tray.
...walking out the front door.
...getting pulled over by Jack-in-the-Box. His teeth gritted and the image of water in his head shook with choppy, angry wavelets. Another moment of meditation was needed before continuing.
...questions were asked. Reports were made. In his own voice, Vic heard snippets of details about Calliope's upcoming performance, info he hadn't been aware of overhearing, even.
...and then, the handshake.
His brain reeled at that memory, of the sharp buzz that bypassed his defenses and threw his brain into the abyss. Everything was blank after that.
"That... pendejo," he gasped. There should've been questions welling up in his head, stuff like what and how and why... but it was drowned in a flood of "oh fuck."
Wobbly legs, the knees having the consistency of jelly, could barely carry him back to the Crystal Hall, but he really didn't know where else to go at this point. His old thoughts, the street smarts that had kept him alive and safe for much of the past year, were screaming that he needed to lay low, hide out for a bit and avoid trouble.
He was rather tired of those old thoughts. His year hadn't been a very happy one, and things had only been looking up since he started at Whateley. New allies, new friends...
And what would they say if they knew the whole story? his traitorous, doubtful brain shouted back. About the tanker job, or the offer you couldn't refuse, or Ollie...
There was no need to tell them everything, obviously, but even if he did... well... He thought about his chats with Tanya and Calliope, Taka and Jimmy, even Morgana, Bianca, or Hikaru... And then Jack-Asshole. One of these things was not like the other. At all. He would take his chances.
Back into the Crystal Hall he trudged, mingling with the late breakfast crowd. Up the steps and back to the M3 table. Only a few people were still there. Laura had not budged from her seat and the pages of plans laid out before it. Hikaru appeared to be doing paperwork of some sort. Tia... was bouncing in her seat between bits of fruits and vegetables.
He still wasn't sure what to make of the bunny-girl, to be honest. Knowing what little he did, he wasn't sure how to treat her, for that matter. So his general policy of not interacting with her much seemed the safest.
"Hiya!" Tia called his way, unaware of any general policies he might have. "How're you doing this bright, beautiful, splendiferous Saturday morn?" She blew a kiss and giggled.
At least he wasn't the only one giving her a weird look. "Ah, Tia?" Hikaru said. "You did take your medication this morning, yes?"
"Right-o! Must be why I'm feeling so awesome. And I've got my automobile elective this morning, which is awesome. And my breakfast, that's awesome, too. Everything is awesome..." The bunny-girl started humming to herself as she gnawed on a baby carrot.
Hikaru's eyes, a weird starburst swirl of blue and green around the pupil, were patterns of puzzlement. "Ah, sure..." Bringing the high-tech bangle on her wrist to her mouth, she whispered something in Japanese. Her VI chirped an acknowledgment.
"So what brings you back?" Laura asked. "You skipped out pretty early. Thought you had class?"
"I, well, I..." He had to tell someone. Had to tell them. If not them, then who else? His mouth opened, his larynx vibrated as his throat stretched around the vowels and his tongue formed consonants against his teeth, and...
"I wanted to apologize. For the skipping out part. I wasn't feeling very well, and I forgot to take my dishes back and all. Didn't want to be a bother."
"Don't worry, Erica took them down for you," said Laura.
"Ah, good. Well, see you at the picnic." Vic nodded to the three of them, turned around, and headed back downstairs. He was out the front door by the time the actual thinking parts of his brain caught up with the conversation.
What the fuck had just happened?