It was a quarter to two, and everything was finished. The fruits of his labor were arranged in boxes on the counter by the ovens in the Home Ec. kitchens. Daniel was rather proud of his efforts, both magicked and mundane. The cookies were nestled within cupcake sleeves in groups of five, and they looked neatly cute in their display tin. The two cakes had taken a lot out of him. The next time he took a job like this, he needed to insist on enough lead time to properly bake something instead of relying solely on his power.
Still, all was ready for the Bohemians' little viewing party for the picnic tournament that afternoon. He was sorta surprised that no one else had approached him for catering, though he was thankful, too. It'd be a while before his stamina recovered enough for him to handle anything bigger than an individual ring donut or two every few minutes.
"Hey, Danny? Ya in here? Monica said ya needed needed some help?"
Jordain Statham, a.k.a. Ophidian, was in his English class with Ms. Barnes, though he rarely had a chance to talk with her there. Most of the words to pass between them had crossed over the pastry counter. Much like the rest of campus, Jordain never said no to a Saturday morning cinnamon roll.
She and her roommate were a study in contrasts. Monica was short; Jordain was tall. Shy, outgoing. Quiet, loud. Fluffy avian down, scaly reptilian dreadlocks.
Monica had admitted to him that they didn't always get along, but that seemed more a natural consequence of who they were rather than any malicious intent.
"Could you carry the cake boxes?" he asked. "I'm, er, a mite tired right now, and it'd be a shame to fumble 'em."
"No problem." Jordain carefully arranged the boxes in their carry straps and hefted them. "This is for the Bohemians, right?"
"And ya been warned about 'em, right?"
"Several times, yes." He finished arranging the cookie tin and closed the top. "I don't wanna think too ill of people 'fore I know 'em, and I figger if they're that bad it'll be obvious enough, but a job's a job, and they're payin'."
"Yeah, they're good about paying for stuff..." Jordain said darkly. Daniel wisely figgered it wasn't his place to ask.
It wasn't too far to the quad, but by now the majority of campus had settled in, marking out their territories with blankets and tarps on the grass, often with little regard or consideration as to how a body was supposed to navigate through it all. Even with directions to the Bohemians' shindig, written neatly on a napkin by the Lion himself, it was tough going because there was no straight-line route to follow. More than once, he simply bribed his way across someone's space with a donut or three, but after those two cakes he was dangerously close to the limits of his stamina.
At the center of the quad was a large event stage, done up like a boxing ring. This had to be the 'main event' thing that everyone was yakking on about, and the Bohemians had secured front-row seats. Instead of blankets, they'd brought in actual furniture and rugs, turning their little square of turf into a lounge.
"Oh, you must be the catering Karel ordered." The young woman who greeted them had the definite air of a hostess to her. "Put them on the table and we'll settle the bill."
"Um, thanks, Miss...?"
"Shinall. Melisandre Shinall. Call me Glam." If anyone deserved the nickname, it was her. From her outfit to her hair, her make-up to the bangles on her wrists, Daniel hadn't ever seen someone so dressed up. It was hard to take his eyes off her, especially that strategically placed keyhole over her chest, and from the wry smile she flashed him, Ms. Shinall was well aware of it.
He tore his attention away, blushing. "Yeah, er, um. Well, five dozen cookies, as ordered. Did an assortment, so there's a bit of everythin' for everyone. Nothin' with peanuts, just in case... well." It was silly, he figgered; all these super-bodies prolly didn't get allergies, but it never hurt to be careful with the non-magicked goodies.
"As for the cakes.." He eased them from their boxes, grateful for Jordain's steady hand to help him. "One tiramisu and one red velvet, as requested. Serving knives are on loan from the Crystal Hall, so just return 'em there when you're finished."
"Wonderful!" Ms. Shinall counted out his fee in twenty-dollar bills, then added one more to the stack. "Well worth the price."
"Thanks for sayin' so, miss."
"And I just love your eyes!" she continued, coming in close to stare into his face. Her own were spangled with stars in a way that could not be natural, even for a mutant. "What a lovely shade of pink! But surely it's hard to hide?"
He pulled back, face pinker than his eyes. "Um, not so much as you'd think. Could claim they're contacts, or, or a kinda albino thing... Sunglasses are usually enough to keep 'em hid."
"Oh, I could do better than that." With a flourish she waved a hand over her hair, which turned from a honey blonde to pale blue with streaks of pink. "Custom color masking, on demand. Anytime, Mr. Baker-man."
"Um, Danny?" Jordain was tugging at his sleeve. "We got another job to take care of, remember?" Her voice was firm but worried.
Ms. Shinall laughed. "I won't keep you. But think it over. You too, snaky girl."
Jordain hustled him out of there as fast as she could, maneuvering between picnic territories with little regard as to where they ended up. The point was to get away.
"What was that all about?" he asked once they were largely clear.
"Ya don't get it yet?" Jordain shook her head. "Being nice, offering to 'help,' that's how Glam gets people."
It wasn't really clicking for him. "Um, so? She can, what, change colors or somethin'? Doesn't seem so bad."
"Boys." Jordain hissed. "Yins all get caught by her pretty face. Look. She covers stuff up. Hides it under little illusions. How many kids in Whitman or Twain would do anything to look normal, huh?" Her jaws clenched, revealing some unusual muscles at work under the lightly scaled skin of her face. "The first time's always free -- or even better, some big show of charity for a little thing. But once yins get used to it..."
"Price goes up?" Daniel guessed.
"Worse. Those illusions ain't permanent, of course, but what she never mentions is that she can turn 'em off at any time, from anywhere. She decides ya did her wrong, bam! the whole world sees yer real face."
"Yah, really. Remember Scarlyt? Redhead with a Southern accent and nasty attitude? They say she's got her face so messed up yins would never believe, only Glam keeps her pretty. In exchange, she does anything the Bohemians tell her to. Anything," she stressed. "Not good to have a grade-A nutcase come after ya, 'cuz the Lion or Glam think you need a lesson."
He gulped. "I, ah, get the picture. Figger I'll be more careful 'bout 'em from here on."
"Good. Let's go find Monica now. She was scared to heck that they'd eat ya or something."
"Well, it's a good thing I got 'em cookies and cake instead."
Jordain's laugh was long and horsey, as his mama used to call it. "Yeah, I can see why Monica and the rest like ya. Not really my type, but..." Her smile stretched over sharpened teeth. "At least ya keep it real. We should hang out sometime."
"No time like the present." He mustered enough strength to magic up a cruller. The extra twenty-dollar bill served as a wrapper. "Here, with thanks."
"Mighty nice of ya." She hooked elbows with him and led the way back to the Whitman zone.
Morgana was impressed by the way Tanya could multi-task her worrying about where Vic was and the upcoming fight trials, her friend was more flexible than she'd thought. "Look, I'm sure Vic will be along soon. Look at what a madhouse this is, he's just got held up by something, no need to worry."
Tanya bit her lip. "Yeah, I guess DF. I was just hoping..."
Morgana grinned at her short lavender friend. "He'll be here. And stop worrying about the fight, I'm sure you'll impress the FSHA. They'd be crazy not to want someone like you."
Tanya looked down at her combat outfit, running a finger along her arm with a disconsolate look. "I wish I'd had time to make a proper combat suit."
She patted the girl on the shoulder. "Yeah, you're going to look good, but Mrs. Ryan hasn't got that far in class yet. Better to wait a bit and make a really good one, do it right."
Her friend looked down. "Yeah, I guess you're right." Then, in a determined attempt to change the subject. "Are you sure you won't take part? I mean, you said you might be interested in the hero stuff? And this will get you noticed!"
The redhead shook her head. "I wouldn't mind it...but... I still don't have proper control of my powers, until I do I really should be careful. You remember what happened to the bunny."
Tanya tried not to wince at the memory of what had happened to the rabbit, and instead administered a pleading look. It would be great if she had a friend taking part, it would relieve some of her nerves, but Morgana just smiled and patted her shoulder. "Seriously, Tanya, I can't risk hurting someone badly, not for something like an exhibition match. Maybe later on when I have things properly under control. But don't worry, I'll be here watching and cheering you on."
The lavender girl tried to put a good face on it. "I guess." Then her face went right back to worrying.
Morgana looked at her friend and tried not to grin. Considering how well she controlled her powers, Tanya really shouldn't be worrying so much, but she never seemed to consider her own abilities, always worrying about everyone else. Still, she kept quiet about the main reason she didn't want to take part in the trials: that she really didn't want to be noticed that way. Tanya would only ask why, and she didn't want to lie to her.
Well this was a fine mess, he thought as the team from the Outstanding Dudes Society dragged themselves from the tunnels and into the sunlight. They'd ditched the masks in a cache point built into the tunnel wall, and now they just had to get to the picnic site. High Gear had picked a spot specifically for its Security camera coverage, hacking the feed so they'd all have alibis on video if the need arose.
It hadn't so much arisen as rocketed into orbit.
What had gone wrong? Let him count the ways...
Okay, so there was only one way. They'd been found out. Their plot to punish that little trap Calliope had been uncovered, and the cavalry arrived in time to save the day. The more important questions were things like: Who was it? How did they know?
Could they prove the ODS was involved?
They really had to hurry to the alibi site.
Unfortunately, Gouyasse had taken a real hit at the start, and needed help to get anywhere. That pretty little dancer had done Lucky Lad hard enough to have him walk funny for the afternoon, too. And Jack himself had got kicked in the face a few times more than he'd prefer -- which was never.
And all for what? They'd scared the trap, that girl who was really a boy, and roughed up her friend more than they should've, but the plan called for more than just a scare if the trap was to know her place.
High Gear and the rest of the ODS -- sans F-dude and Shake'n'Bake, but no big loss there -- were at the picnic spot, looking social and helping to pin down the images on the hacked feed for better verisimilitude. The trap team settled in with them, grabbing sodas and forcing smiles.
More than a few were looking green around the gills, and Jack had serious doubts as to how many would be sticking around after this fiasco. He would have to have words with some of them, to keep their lips sealed later.
"Three, two, one..." High Gear was muttering. "Okay, the feed's blanking for twenty seconds, which should be enough to explain a sudden, minor reshuffling of who is where. Now, dude. What happened?"
"Gotta be Vapo-rub," said Jack. "No one else had enough info and opportunity."
"Thought your whammy would..."
"Yeah, I thought so, too, but it's a new model. There are still bugs to work out. He must've found a way around the blocks somehow. And we don't know who the others might be..." He could guess, though. The voices of those girls had sounded familiar.
Conversation on the tarp settled down as a Security patrol wandered past. "Hello, gentlemen," the lead officer said in greeting.
"Hey, Officer Canterbury," High Gear called back. "Beautiful day, innit?"
"Sure is," she agreed. "A wonderful chance to enjoy the sun. Seems like I always get assigned down to the tunnels on the nice days..." If she noticed how some boys went still at the mention, she gave no sign. "Oh, Mr. Thawne, are you alright? Your face is looking a bit beat-up."
"Just a run-in with one of those Amazon bi... beauties," Jack-in-the-Box lied skillfully. The extra stutter on the skipped slur usually did the trick. "The usual, y'know? I heal up fast enough, so not worth the effort to report. Not like anything sticks on them anyway." All around, his ODS brothers nodded and made sympathetic noises.
"I see..." There was plenty for Officer Canterbury to see. What she heard was more important, as well as how much of it she believed. Nobody relaxed until the Security squad continued on down the path.
High Gear waited another ten minutes before he and Jack got their heads together again. "So, Plan B?" he suggested.
"Fuck that," said Jack. "Enough with trying to get her alone. We're skipping to Plan C. Yeah, yeah, I know it'll take a while to set up, but we can't risk anything more personal. Springing the trap is more important than any enjoyment we could get out of it."
As he worked his way around, through, and occasionally over the claimed territories of the picnic ground, his brain worked at the biggest problem of the hour: specifically, he was almost an hour late for meeting up with Tanya. The girls hanging around Whitman were more than happy to tell how the lavender girl had waited for close to thirty minutes before leaving for the event, and their mocking laughter did nothing to help his nerves.
His initials could've been FML. Hopefully they weren't SOL as well.
The structure at the center of the quad resembled a boxing ring, in that it was squared off, with posts at the corners and ropes run between them. The posts angled out, and boxy devises at their base turned the entire thing into the bottom of a bowl-shaped force field. Overhead, projectors sent up images of the floor area, so everyone at the picnic could see the action.
Tanya was already suited up. Her training outfit was a generic grey model that many freshmen used while they figured out their costuming options. Vic had one much like it, though he didn't fill it out quite so well. His old suit was better, but too easily identifiable.
When the lavender girl's eyes locked on him, it was like a light turned on, and not a good one; there was a fire behind those pupils. "Where have you been!" she shouted. "I waited and I called and I waited..."
Even with Jack-Asshole's control blockers short-circuited from his brain, Vic found it hard to form words. The day had been so, so... just so awful so far, and the fact he'd missed their not-a-date was icing on the turd.
"Hey, Invictus." The last person Vic wanted to see at the moment stepped in between them. Gwen was in costume as Star Sentry, with a well-padded combat suit in burgundy with gold line art that formed star patterns fractally across its surface. He hated to admit how good she looked in it.
"I'd like to apologize for my step-brother here," Star Sentry was saying. "There was an incident earlier, an attack on a student, and Vic played a big part in making sure the cavalry arrived in time. Isn't that right?" she said to him.
"Yeah, um, exactly," he stammered.
"Did you report to Security yet?" Star Sentry pressed.
He gave her a glare. "I had more important things to do first."
The metaphorical light in Tanya's eyes had gone from fiery to friendly in a heartbeat. "I'm, I'm not that important!" she squeaked. "You should've gone to Security first!"
"And miss your big bout?" he said. "Nuh-uh. I promised I'd be here to cheer you on. Priorities."
Getting hugged through a bulky combat suit wasn't the best way to go about it, but he enjoyed the experience nonetheless. Tanya was just short enough that her head fit comfortably against his chest, his chin resting on pastel hair. Even her shampoo smelled of lavender, his nose told him.
"I hate to interrupt." Star Sentry's amused tone belied her words. "But Invictus is up in a few minutes."
"See you soon, Vic," Tanya promised, winking as she glided away.
"So..." Star Sentry began, suddenly Gwen again. "What's the magic word?"
Vic's smile turned sour. "Thank you," he grumbled.
"No problem. That's what big stepsisters are for." She stuck out her hand. "We cool?"
He took it grudgingly. "Getting there, I suppose."
"Good. C'mon, you can sit over with me. Best seats in the house."
--The Bohemian Lion
Karel Lorenc, cousin to the Hapsburg line and self-described bon vivant, surveyed his little kingdom from the comforts of his wide armchair, and saw that it was good. The large rectangle his group had claimed, now floored with rugs and furnished with tables and reclining couches, had the lowest population density of anywhere in the quad, save for the ring itself. Quality over quantity, of course.
Some of his guests were regulars, members of other clubs and groups who had grown to appreciate the level of entertainment he expected at one of his events. Others were the help, the ones he relied on to get things going. Right now, Scarlyt was perched on a stool by his side, baleful eyes keeping the lookout under her mess of red hair.
"Relax," he told her. "Nothing is going to happen."
"Famous last words," she drawled. "I'm goin'." She stood and left without another word; not that this was unusual for her. Karel had long since learned to accept her quirks, because the benefits of having her on his side far outweighed them.
Melisandre floated over, her hostess duties largely finished. Currently her hair was bright aqua with streaks of pink. "What's got her panties in a twist this time?" she asked.
"Neither of us, more is the pity," he quipped. "It is merely one of her moods. It shall pass."
"Good." Mel squeezed herself into his chair, draping her legs across his lap. "I would say a happy Scarlyt is a good Scarlyt, but I've never seen proof that such a state exists." She giggled.
"What are we laughing about?" Melisandre's roommate, Jane Chorley, came over to see what the mirth was about. At a hundred seventy-two centimeters, not counting the crown of frizz atop her head, the mahogany-skinned beauty towered over Mel but fit comfortably against Karel as she now proved by wedging herself into the other side of his armchair. He had to raise his arms and open them wide to reach around the two of them.
"Scarlyt's got herself in a mood," said Melisandre. "Girl just doesn't know how to enjoy a party." Her grin flashed, a dash of illusion making it literally gleam. "I think she needs another lesson."
He could feel Jane's heart skip at the thought. "Oooh, I like the sound of that. Shall we have a victory party, then? One with a bright red party favor?"
"You've got to win your fight," Karel reminded her.
"Oh boo hiss. Ye of little faith. Well then, I suppose I shall need a proper kiss for good luck." Jane bent across Karel's chest, meeting Melisandre halfway for a long, lingering token of fortune. "And from you, too," she demanded, placing a hand behind his head to pull him down to her lips. There was the promise of a lovely evening ahead, regardless of how the fight went.
Certainly others saw them give Janet kisses for good luck -- far more luck than she'd ever need, in fact -- but no one at their little party would ever comment on it. The Bohemian Lion and his two lionesses, Glam and Knock-Out, ran the show, and that was that.
Val was not happy about the placement of the Amazon's picnic space. True, it was near the front, with a great view of the action to come. Yes, they had snagged several large picnic baskets from the cafeteria staff. However, it was also barely a quarter of the way around the ring from where the Bohemians held court, which was too close for some.
Not that she minded; it was fun to see Glam and Knock-Out go at it sometimes. If it weren't for the fact that those two were happy with their choice of male companionship, they'd be perfect candidates for the sisterhood.
The problem was, as always, StahlFaust. Much as she loved Brita, that girl had issues, back issues, and hardbound collections of classic issues. Being within sight of the Bohemian Lion was a dangerous risk, and one that Brita was bringing on herself by choosing this site.
Sometimes she had to wonder about that girl.
"Are you feeling better?" she asked her guests, willing herself to ignore the goings-on amongst the Bohemians. Calliope had been a victim of male assault not half an hour before, and both she and her friend were holding at a specific level of shaken up, helped along by some subtle empathetic guidance.
The friend was a lovely bit of serendipity, though. The dark-skinned dancer hadn't been on her gaydar at all, but now it was looking like, as they said, dos pajaros de un tiro. Two birds, one shot. She needed a patient hand on the line, and soon enough she would have them both. If Brita could keep her mouth shut, at least.
"What is the hold-up!" the German was yelling at the event managers. "We want to see our girl beat up one of those pompous Cape twits!"
Val sighed. It was a wish in vain.
"Is she always that keen?" Neff asked. "Kinda intense."
"She's got a lot bottled up," Val admitted.
Calliope's mouth formed a moue of distaste. "There is a saying from one of the northern Italian dialects. I believe Umberto Eco used it in his writing: Pull the cork out. Much as I have enjoyed my talks with her in the past, I am afraid Brita's cork is too well wedged in for it to be removable."
"I shouldn't laugh..." Val said with a barely repressed giggle. "Brita is... unfortunately enthusiastic, but she means well. There is an element of rivalry as well. Both we and the Capes work to protect those weaker than us, but their record has been, let us say, spotty as of late. Plus, she does not get along with two of the Cape sophomores, Celerity and Star Sentry. Some sort of dorm drama in Poe."
That was putting it mildly, but it would not do to discuss Poe's supposedly secret nature in public like this. Even should Val agree completely with Brita on this matter, which was far from reality, it just was not a good subject for potential recruits.
"Star Sentry and... Celerity?" Calliope repeated. "Those were the two who helped us get away from those awful boys!"
"Were they?" Damn it, there was another opportunity stolen. "That is good, but will they help you hunt down those awful boys and make them properly pay for their transgressions? Most likely not." She sniffed. "The true concept of justice is lost on them. The cape is a symbol of the hero, and it is the symbol which concerns them, more than the reality."
"We, we should go to Security," said Neff.
"In a bit," Val promised, pushing lightly with her empathy. "You should rest a little longer, and then we can all go together. For what good it will do you." They sat in silence for a few minutes, sipping on their drinks before she changed the subject. "It's an odd sort of event, don't you think? Essentially a series of cage matches between students."
Neff shrugged. "Odd sort of school."
"Quite." Crimson lips smiled widely. "The administration -- the current one even more so than the last -- understands that such a mix of hormones and powers is a battleground waiting to happen. So either you crack down, enforcing rigid codes with no goal other than their enforcement, and fuel the resentment of several hundred teenagers, or..." She waved dismissively towards the ring. "You provide avenues for the more active fraction to express themselves through competition. And it works, mostly. Student bookies keep track of who is good at what and do their unofficial rankings, which gives training groups something to compete over."
There was a roar from the surrounding student body as the force field surrounding the ring sprang to life. The words FRESHMAN ROUND appeared in large letters upon the hard-light surface, followed by images of the competitors.
"Oh! Tanya is competing!" said Calliope. "I'd forgotten about that."
The girl with the lavender hair and matching domino mask was the first to appear. The next was a black girl with a black-and-yellow Mardi Gras mask and matching leotard. Then an Italian-looking young man, looking nervous in his basic combat suit and blue domino.
Brita crowed when the Amazon's newest recruit appeared: a fair-haired girl with a ponytail, black domino, and strange gloves over her hands.
Then there was another young man, one who would best be described as black if he weren't actually a uniform grey. No costume mask in the world could hide that face. The same could be said of the kid who followed him, the one who looked like a clown-faced muscle man. Completing the set was a young man who didn't need a costume or suit because his entire body seemed to be made of dirt and rock.
Lastly, the image shifted to a short girl with curly hair and taped-up glasses. She was the only one not in some sort of costume or obvious mutant appearance. She wasn't even wearing any protective gear. Instead, she had on a black t-shirt with the words CARPE SCROTUM printed in bright pink.
"Three for the Capes, a couple of potential Masterminds or other problem group, one for us Amazons, and I'm not sure who that last one is representing," Val commented.
"The last one is Ratel." Calliope giggled. "I do not think she is representing anyone but herself. That girl loves to fight."
"Oh, does she..." Val nodded as the first fight's setup commenced. "None for the Seeds this time. Or the Grunts, unless the young rhinoceros boy is with them. And I would have thought your roommate was perfect for representing the Berets."
"Ah..." The Italian hesitated. "As I am sure you have heard, there are... personal issues at hand which need to be dealt with."
Which was putting it mildly, as Val did know. Oh well, the Berets' loss might well be the Amazons' gain. Once Calliope and her friend were properly inducted, she would move on to the roommate. Surely there were things she could do to assist in that little piece of inter-dorm drama. After all, a sister in need was a sister indeed.
The girls' changing area was a tense environment. To Tanya, the air practically shivered with the electric vibe of nervousness. She didn't really know the first two girls. Zapper, she'd met a few times at the M3 table, usually in the company of the Poe contingent. The black girl was... maybe? ... dating Bailey, but no one had really spelled it out for Tanya. She hadn't dared ask, either.
The second girl, LightSaber, was another Poesie, but their paths had never to this point crossed. The glares that LightSaber and Zapper were exchanging could never be called chummy.
The third, Tanya knew all too well.
"Hey, Purple!" cried Rachel, interposing herself between the world and the rest of the world so no one's attention would go to waste.
"Lavender," she snapped. A sigh broke from her lungs. "Why am I not surprised to find you here?"
"Well, duh," Rachel said, pushing her taped glasses up with her middle finger. "There's a fight to be had! That's practically the Ratel-Signal right there! Do you think we'll have a rematch today? Huh? Huh?"
"Dear Lord, I hope not," Tanya muttered under her breath. The last time the two of them had tangled, she'd been caught off-guard and pummeled into the quad grass. It was doubtful that anyone sane would want to fight the girl more than once. Or even once; bad news spread quickly, and the other two were eyeing the honey badger girl nervously as well.
She was increasingly happy with the spot she'd chosen. It may not have been the closest to the ring, but it had a good view of the proceedings and enough room around it to accommodate neighbors.
Right next to the Barneses, and thoroughly enjoying their mystery ice creamery, the entire junior high class had gathered, with a good deal of overlap to the Melville freshman girls area where Hikaru held court. Two of the Melville tweens, Breakdance and Heartfinder, were busy introducing everyone to everyone, though the heart-eyed little empath seemed to find her way over to Pat Barnes more often than not. The third tween of the cottage, Scheherezade, was sitting aloof to the side.
At least, that was until Tia bounced over and dragged the young Arab heiress into some conversation. The bunny girl seemed particularly energetic today, giggling and chatting at a hundred words a minute. Perhaps someone had spiked her carrots?
On Erica's end, the Mutant Mayhem Machine had slowly gathered. Laura and Bailey had wandered by a few minutes earlier, and now the blue girl was deep in conversation with Ms. Barnes's boyfriend, Dr. Speers, as well as the technically minded tweens, Marcus and Twitch. Despite Ms. Barnes's previous words, Erica's smartpad and its wish list were soon requested. The number of ten-syllable words bandied about was staggering.
Morgana and Bianca's conversation was about as indecipherable, and Erica was convinced that it had to be in some sort of code.
Kenshin had passed by a few minutes before to say something to Hikaru, only to be shanghaied by a bevy of Venus Inc. girls en route to their own primo spot. By Erica's reckoning, that boy still did not quite get how weird his situation on campus was. A few other boys wandered by, but the only one to sit down and stay was that Wilder kid, looking far less hairy and toothsome than the last time she'd seen him. Under Ms. Barnes's watchful eye, he settled down and quivered his lips in the semblance of a smile.
Where was Cally? Erica's eyes scanned around, searching for some sign of her roommate, but nothing was to be found. An attempt to buzz the Italian girl's phone was also fruitless.
"Hey, they're starting!" shouted Bailey, pointing to the force-field's image projection. "Our girls are up!"
"Our girls?" Morgana asked, tone and grin both sharp.
"Well, Tanya's in our group, and Catherine, um, Zapper's..." Bailey turned bright red and snapped her mouth shut.
Erica raised her own voice to say, "Yup, them's our girls!" in her hickest accent. Everyone across multiple quilts and tarps laughed at that. "Looks like it's Tanya versus... LightSaber? Do we know a LightSaber?" The Poe kids were suddenly quiet. "Um, that's not good, huh."
"Finally some action. It's about damn time." Brita Baumann settled back against the comforting presence of Muliebris and sipped her apple-flavored soda. After more than a week of conscientiously not beating anyone up, there was a whole lot of pent-up angst just waiting for vicarious release.
Out of the corner of her eye she could see that snake who called himself a lion, Karel the Bohemian, laughing loudly at something his pet whore said. Now there was a face in need of punching. Her fists clenched tightly, nails digging into the meat of her palm.
Behind her, she felt Muliebris shift in place, the black Amazon's intimidation field springing into action, but with a softer, more welcoming feel to it. Wordlessly Muliebris comforted her, pulling her attention back to the present, where their newest recruit was about to thrash a wannabe Cape.
Of the current crop of sisters in Poe, only LightSaber had proven amenable to the Amazon cause. So far, at least. Brita was certain that between Val's charms and the inevitability of masculine perfidy, more would see the light eventually. Just why the pony-tailed recruit was so willing, she did not know, but there had to be a story in there somewhere. There always was.
They couldn't start until the official tournament rules were read. All of them. In painstaking detail. She was beginning to see why Megaton's nickname was 'Megamouth'; the boy certainly enjoyed the sound of his own voice.
It gave her a bit more time to size up her opponent, though. The fair-haired girl with the black domino mask was even scrawnier than she was, which meant precisely nil, as Tanya was well aware. She didn't know the girl's real name, but 'LightSaber' sounded like something a devisor or gadgeteer would choose. Only, her opponent didn't seem to have a lot of tech on her. A basic black combat suit and a utility belt -- that was about as standard as it got. Tanya's own suit was fancier.
"...and let's have a good clean fight." Megaton was finally finishing the opening remarks, and appeared to relish the cheers despite the fact that they weren't for him. "Round 1! Invictus versus LightSaber! Begin!"
Tanya did not hurtle herself at the other girl, despite any advice that Ratel might have imparted earlier. That wasn't her style of fight. Instead she let LightSaber kick things off, and braced for impact.
In the air in front of her, the PK of her shields flared, going from light pastel to deep purple in an instant as LightSaber leapt in. The girl's gloves must have been devises of some sort, focusing PK energy around them into blades of light the color of blood. When red met lavender, yellow sparks flew.
Concentrating her PK on her hands, Tanya shoved as hard as she could, sending her opponent flying across the ring. The girl landed on her feet, and twin blades sprouted from her gloved hands. Swinging them in a complicated form that was almost certainly a copyright violation of some old movie, the girl made a dizzying and beautiful display.
Also a distracting one. When Tanya brought her hands up to focus her shield against the blade attack, LightSaber kicked her in the gut.
Cheers and boos poured through her ears in about equal measure. She did her best to tune them out, rolling quickly to avoid the next kick, then lashing out with her own feet. Pushing up with one arm, she funneled her PK into levitation, adding momentum to her spin and sweeping LightSaber off her feet. When the girl's head came down, it met Tanya's going up.
And then Tanya had her pinned, both hands secured by the wrist and with knees pressed into the small of her back. While she wasn't so good at pushing with her PK, the lavender energy field did a passable job of holding the girl down. "Say uncle!" she demanded.
"Never!" LightSaber shot back. Tanya leaned in a little. "Urk! But, but I will say auntie! How 'bout that? Auntie!"
"Victory goes to Invictus!" Megaton announced happily to the cheering crowd.
"If you're ever in the mood," the girl whispered to Tanya as they left the ring, "I wouldn't mind letting you pin me like that again sometime..."
Her brain took way too long to figure that one out, but when the meaning finally trickled through her little grey cells, she couldn't stop the blush. "Um. Okay. I'm, um, flattered, but I'm, ah, I've got..."
"A boyfriend? Typical." LightSaber pouted. "Oh well. He'll cheat on you eventually. Look me up after that." With a quick wink, she ran off ahead.
That wasn't how Tanya had intended to end that sentence, but now that the other girl had said it, she couldn't really un-hear it.
Oh! how she cheered as Tanya turned the tables on her opponent. Only a moment too late did she recall with whom she was sitting. "Ah, I'm sorry. I..."
"It is nothing," Val assured her. "We may not be cheering for the same person, but we cheer for friends. That is what is important. Let us keep our friends close."
Neff's mood had lightened some. "It was a good match," the black girl declared. "Coulda gone either way."
"Which is what makes it so exciting!" Calliope said. "So, who is next?"
Val eyed the screen. "Well, we've got a few minutes before they start, but it's better than even odds that there'll be a boy involved, which makes it easier for us."
"Oh?" said Neff.
"Sure. We will know immediately who to cheer for and against," said the Venezuelan with the broad red smile that radiated warmth.
Sitting with his stepsister in the Cape Squad's claimed picnic space, he tried his best to be quiet and unobtrusive. No matter how welcoming an act Gwen put on, he knew that these weren't his people, and he feared they could feel it, too. Chrissy tolerated his presence better now than she had at the start, but everyone else kept giving him the side-eye, as if wondering what the hell he was doing there.
Not even he could say what the hell he was doing there, however, and he should have been the first to know. Even Tanya's new friend, the Nordic girl whose name he'd forgotten, was looking at him funny.
But at least they could all cheer for Tanya together. That part felt good.
"Who's the blowhard?" he asked in the time before the second bout. The same announcer guy had taken the stage, stating the obvious and repeating some rules stuff they'd all heard before.
The air around him went chill. "That's Megaton," Gwen told him. "FSHA lieutenant and my boyfriend."
"Oh." Well, that could've gone better. "Um, then... as your little stepbrother, I guess I feel obligated to dislike him?"
"He does make it easy sometimes," one of the older kids in the club admitted. The atmosphere lightened considerably as a chuckle passed its way around.
Gwen's mouth still skewed leftward in a moue of annoyance, but even she snorted at what he said. "Fair enough. Just watch your mouth when he comes by, after the freshman round's done."
"I'll try," he promised. It wouldn't be that bad, would it? New year, new people, making good first impressions...
Just, why did he have the feeling he'd met the guy before?
The Whitman girls held a large swath of picnic territory, much of it split up into little plots for groups and clubs within the cottage. At the far end it overlapped with the Beret domain, but in his particular corner it was nothing but freshman girls.
And him. He had to wonder about his life sometimes.
Cookie wasn't far off, being happily on the receiving end of skilled hugs and ear-skritches. Pup's eyes were lidded and dreamy in the afternoon warmth. Anaïs, the green-haired girl from Daniel's English class, was curled up on pup's back alongside the very feline Shisa.
Jordain of the light scales and corded dreadlocks had more-or-less claimed his company for the afternoon. Not that he minded; once she was comfortable she turned out to be quite the talker, full of stories about her native Pittsburgh that were every bit as ridiculous as his tall tales from the mountains. Pretty soon the two of them had a crowd of laughing listeners, from the middle-eastern Avsel to one of the RAs, the big girl who looked like a panda and talked like a New Yorker.
Everyone cheered when Tanya appeared in the first round, and even more loudly when she won. Daniel magicked up enough chocolate chip cookies for everyone to celebrate, though that was pushing it. He was still tuckered from the cake job earlier that afternoon.
"Look!" Monica shouted. "The next match is being announced."
"Finally," griped Jordain. "The Cape dude's pretty to look at, but I thought he'd never shut up."
Anaïs sat up on Cookie's shoulders, the green fronds on her head shaking with excitement. "It's Rachel! And... oh, that dude." The rest of the Whitman girls greeted the image of Groundpounder on the screen with a variety of rude noises.
Daniel considered speaking up in the defense of his fellow Twainee, but the earthen effigy of a football player had never been that nice to him, either. He did have to worry for the girl, though. Rachel was maybe half the size of her opponent.
"Don't worry," said Monica when he voiced his concern. "Rachel's got this one in the bag."
Oh goody-goody gumdrops. Rachel hadn't felt this revved for battle in... well, okay, a couple days, but the thrill of adrenaline was the same every time. She entered the ring first, pumping her fists defiantly as the excitement put her more in synch with the spirit inside her, and the shadow of a black mask cast itself across her features. Inside the little den in her soul, she could feel Honey Boo-Boo rouse for a fight.
Rachel got only one good look across the picnic area of the quad, but that was enough to locate Wilder sitting in the back near his English teacher. Good call, staying near the one person he knew could take him down fast in an emergency. The boy was right to worry, but maybe he worried too much.
That was something Rachel could definitely help with. It was hard to be scared when you didn't give a shit.
'Hey, boyfriend!" she yelled, her pointer finger aimed unerringly at Wilder. "This one's for you!" She didn't have time to appreciate his reaction; her opponent had just entered the ring.
The boy was just how she liked her targets: big, hulking, with lots of good places to punch. At nearly seven feet in height and about four feet in width, Groundpounder provided a plethora of punchable points upon his earthy exterior. She would know; she'd beaten him badly enough before.
"Hey, Claude," she yelled. "Long time no fight!"
The moving statue of dirt and gravel reversed its stride for a step, dribbles of dust pouring off its skin. "Rach... er, Ratel. You, er, won't be so lucky this time."
Oh, luck had had nothing to do with it, as they both knew. She didn't bother with a reply, because the announcer had shouted "Start!" and the match was on.
One blink later, she was on Groundpounder, with her PK claws out and ready to play.
Now, she could've ended the fight right there. The real Claude Rousse, as she well knew, was barely five feet tall and curled up in the chest and abdomen of the earth suit his power built for him. Arms, legs, or even the head could be severed with impunity. But that wouldn't be fun.
Claude had learned a few things at Whateley, at least: stuff like close-in defense. She climbed up his back, and he slammed himself to the floor in an attempt to squish her. She swung around his shoulders, and those fake football shoulder pads of his sprouted spikes.
Still, if there was one thing besides fighting that honey badgers were built for, it was digging. Every time her hands touched him, they came away with fistfuls of loose dirt, and soon Claude had huge gashes and fissures running across his body.
"Ready for this to be over?" she asked, daring him on with a feral grin.
He didn't answer with words. Instead, a whole new set of arms exploded from his chest, timed to catch her in mid-swing. His original arms swept in to slam her from both sides, the dirt and gravel merging together into a creeping mass that pinned her arms and squeezed her chest. Her hands couldn't reach a thing.
"Oh, I'm ready," Claude said. "Been waiting for this moment for a long time, yeah."
She tried to shrug, but her shoulders wouldn't move. "Nice trick, Claude."
"Don't call me that! It's Groundpounder!"
"Whatever you say..." Rachel swung her dangling legs experimentally. "Hmmm...." PK claws erupted outward from her toes, turning socks and sneakers into ribbons. A high kick sliced upwards through Groundpounder's earthy face, shearing away his mouth and nose completely. His grip on her loosened enough to let her twist around, putting her feet through an elbow.
The breath got knocked out of her when she hit the ground, but who needed to breathe, really? Rachel was already scything through both of his legs, bringing the big lump to his knees. A quick slam to his chest, and he was down, with at best one of four appendages in working order.
"So, Claude," she said. "Do you surrender, or do I get to have some more fun?"
The remaining arm thumped the floor of the ring in surrender.
"Wimp." She snorted. "Well then..." Turning to the audience, she shouted, "Hey, boyfriend! It's your turn to play next! I promise I'll be gentle!"
Daniel Fontenot thought he knew what fear was, had thought the aftermath of his first Rager incident -- so bloody and yet so justified -- would remain the scariest memory of his life. He was wrong.
He could feel his ears morphing into something more animalistic, just so they could droop in anxiety as he whimpered.
"The young lady is... rather impressive," his English teacher said. Ms. Barnes had a hand on her trusty baseball bat as she spoke. "I would advise against running; she'd only find you eventually, and here you have witnesses."
"And mebbe victims," he muttered.
"C'mon, dude, lighten up a little," said Marcus, his neighbor on Poe's first floor and new best friend by process of elimination. None of Daniel's old friends would even recognize him now, and the tween devisor was the only one who dared get close to him here.
A blonde girl stepped away from the neighboring picnic spot. "For what it's worth," she said. "I've tangled with Ratel before, and she's never malicious. Just aggressively direct. After that fight on Thursday, you know what she said about you?"
He gulped. "N-no..."
"Nothing about you being dangerous or wild or a literal cat monster from the bayou. No, when you got KO'ed and reverted to normal, she said you were cute in human form too." She stressed the last word.
His ears drooped even more. "Ah, Ah'm so not ready for that..." Not at all, for so many reasons he just couldn't say.
Ms. Barnes ruffled his hair. "Then tell her that when she comes over. A direct answer to a direct question. Tell her no, set terms, whatever, but make sure to say something."
"Take your time," said the blonde. "Tanya just texted me to say that they're not letting the combatants loose until the round's over, which means two more fights to go."
"If we ever get to it," with a reddish tinge to her tan and a set of horns curling back beside her head, complained with a sigh. Morgana, he remembered her name was. She'd been on hand when he arrived at Whateley earlier in the week. "Seriously, some of us had other things to do." She lifted and shook a bag marked LAKE EQUIPMENT. "I was going to see if I could get Tanya to pull me around on water skis while the weather's still warm enough to enjoy it."
"Oh, don't worry," said the blonde. "There's still plenty of light left in the day."
"Not as much now that we're into October," Morgana shot back, "and some of us have plans for the evening that need prep-time."
"Hot date?" teased Ms. Barnes.
""Something like that. An appointment I have to keep," Morgana said cryptically. Then she gave Ms Barnes a half smile. "For I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep..."
--Jimmy "Shieldwall" Cannes
Jimmy stepped across the boundary and squared off against an opponent going by the codename Humorless. Whatever his name, the kid had the hair and nose of a clown... and the muscles of a gorilla.
The sight of the kid, nominally a freshman like himself, was enough to put Jimmy on edge. Unfortunately, when he was nervous; he was prone to bad jokes. "So... shall we finish quickly so you can get back to your job at the circus?" he said.
"What. Did. You. Say." There was no question mark in that sentence, only four periods driven home like nails in a coffin. Humorless's eyes were normally a little off-color, but now they were bloodshot with anger.
"Great, " Jimmy admonished himself, under his breath. "Just what we needed. Note to self: piss off all the potential ragers before the fight starts."
"Tavi gots," came the ferret's reply from the pile of gear outside the ring, where he'd left the GridGear to safely record the match.
The two freshmen were a perfect study in fighting physique: Humorless was larger, heavily muscled, powerful... while Shieldwall was a wiry scrapper, light on his feet and with good speed. Unfortunately, Tavi had dug up some information that showed that the muscles gracing the arms of the larger teen came from an Exemplar BIT: a very highly ranked one, possibly rank five... maybe even six. That meant that the speed advantage normally associated with being the smaller, wiry fighter wouldn't be there... Shieldwall would be outclassed in both power and speed. Power enough to crack his PK shell, most likely.
The Philly-boy's shield flashed on, royal blue fractal patterns chasing around his aura as his mental energy built the psychokinetic structure that protected and strengthened him.
As if signalling action, the thrum of the PK shell taking shape was immediately followed by Megaton's voice in his role as referee and announcer shouting, "Start!"
The boys closed quickly, each taking a couple jabs as they crossed through boxing range. Jimmy ducked under a second jab, but Humorless changed it into an upward pump with his fist and then dropped heavily with his elbow to Jimmy's shoulder. His PK shell splashed hard scattering the impact energy across its full surface, barely remaining cohesive. The remaining force of the blow dropped the smaller boy to his knees. He rolled with the momentum, barely avoiding a follow-up kick as his shell came back together. Instinct drove him to roll again as he was chased with yet second kick. It wasn't as solidly grounded, but was likely still carrying more power than Jimmy wanted to test without a fully functioning PK shell.
"Out of bounds!" Megaton shouted.
"Come back here and fight!" growled Humorless.
Jimmy realized that, in escaping the hit, he'd accidentally rolled under the force field projectors surrounding the ring. He came quickly to his feet and returned to center. He looked up, sighed out the air in his lungs and prepared himself. This was as good a time as any to test a technique he'd been working on with the Sensei, where it didn't really matter. But was he doing it to test the technique or because his ego didn't want to lose to the gorilla clown smirking at him from across the ring?
"Once more, start!"
This second exchange began much like the first, but instead of closing after the initial jabs, Shieldwall pushed quickly under the larger boy's swing and off to one side as he thrust his mental focus down into his center and, drawing back his fist for a jab, he released the anchor for his PK shell and threw those psychic energies forward with the punch. His active shield destabilized and dropped with the transfer of energy, but the blue haze flashed forward to coalesce around Humorless. The clown boy's confused reaction was immediate... followed by shouts and questions from the crowd. Shieldwall reset his own shell, the process feeling strangely out of sync somehow, but it formed normally while a copy of it sparked and sputtered around his opponent.
Humorless was having difficulty moving at all, like struggling through jello... or molasses. Shieldwall punched at his stomach, the two versions of his shell clashing with royal blue sparks, but neither yielded... just as though he'd punched another PK-4. There was no reaction from the hit. He dropped his arms into a guard position and stood puzzled for a moment.
"What did you do to me?" the larger boy growled.
"I'm protecting you..." Jimmy explained, "with all the might of my phenomenally powerful PK shell."
"You ain't that powerful. I broke that shell like an egg just a minute ago."
"Not getting out of it, are you?"
Humorless strained again, fighting the shell from the inside. He was moving a little faster, the metaphorical molasses warming up. He was still far too slow to be effective in combat, though. Jimmy stepped back enough to get some momentum and charged him. Royal blue sparks flew and a high pitched whine pierced ears as the two versions of Jimmy's shell collided, and then his push separated them. The larger boy, unable to really ground or brace himself because of his low reaction times; found himself thrown right into the ring's force field. He landed badly, unable to roll with the impact, but the PK shell that allowed his defeat sheltered him. When he came to a stop, Jimmy released the shell to allow him to recover.
"Point for Shieldwall!" the referee announced. "Finished?" he asked, checking in with larger boy.
The third round closely resembled the second, with Jimmy quickly trapping and then knocking his opponent out of bounds.
"Point for Shieldwall" This time around he got some boos from the crowd. It might have been an effective strategy, but it wasn't a very exciting one to watch.
The fourth round went awry from the first moments.
"Okay you two, let's try this again..." Even Megaton was getting bored, it seemed, but Humorless wasn't about to let him call the match just yet.
Jimmy reached for that extra bit of PK energy that he needed to throw his shell... and it wasn't there. He could feel his face contort with the moment's panic and saw a mean grin form in the smile-shaped space around Humorless's mouth. The next thing he was conscious of, he was sitting up, with one of the student healers emitting a comforting glow with her hands upon his shoulder.
"Ouch?" he asked her, goofy grin on his face. The healer nodded, "Very ouch." Jimmy clearly heard the rest of the statement scolding him for his carelessness, despite its lack of having been spoken. He would later swear that that unspoken voice got both louder and angrier as he stood and returned to the circle. His shell flashed on, a stable royal blue.
"Point, Humorless. 2 and 2." Megaton repeated for Jimmy's benefit. "I assume since you're still here, you want to make it a tie-breaker?" The smaller boy nodded. "Okay. It's your funeral. Start!"
Shieldwall pushed and this time his PK ability responded. The shell flashed forward and landed on his opponent. It took his breath with it, though, leaving him feeling like he'd run a marathon... something he'd actually tried once, unofficially running alongside the real competitors. He'd had to quit without making it to even a quarter of the way done, and when he had, it had felt like this. His shell sputtered and blinked out. He forced himself to breath, feeling... knowing... that Humorless was getting closer and faster, overcoming the attunement problem that seemed to affect every new person he shielded for the first few minutes they were protected. After that, his opponent might not have his full exemplar power available to him, but PK-4 was more than enough to cripple the baseline that Jimmy resembled at that moment.
He reached and broke into a coughing fit as his body refused to respond. Humorless took a step closer, his slightly less than human speed telegraphing the haymaker he was about to throw. Getting hold of his breathing again, Jimmy was able to dodge the punch but he had nothing left... and while he'd reduced his opponent's strength, in the end, the difference was just as severe. Instead of Ex-5 or 6 to PK-4, it was now PK-4 vs baseline.
The Sensei could probably show him a fancy move that could get him the last point. What would that earn him, though? He might manage to win this fight, but he doubted he'd be able to walk away afterwards.
"I yield," he decided, aloud for the benefit of the ref and crowd.
Everyone froze, the referee looking just as surprised as Jimmy's opponent.
By the time Megaton had finished announcing the winner, Jimmy had collected Tavi and his GridGear and disappeared into the crowd. He'd learned a couple of important things in that fight and the last thing he wanted to do was talk about it with anyone.
--Macarthur Price, a.k.a. "the idiot"
"What a beta," Lucky Lad said, to the snickers of a few other boys in the group. Mac had to agree with them there, but a sliver of doubt niggled at his mind. Pete 'Humorless' Foley had attended the first of the early ODS get-togethers, and Mac had seen for himself just how ripped the boy was in the muscles department. He doubted any of his friends could've done any better against the young giant, no matter how they boasted right now.
High Gear leaned over. "What are you thinking?"
"Thinking that I'm glad the B group didn't have to take on any more of the trap's friends than they did," he said truthfully. "I mean, book by the cover and all, but that Jimmy kid's a lot stronger than he seemed, just from what I saw when I followed him around today."
The junior nodded. "Yeah, and don't forget that lesson. Pretty sure the kid over-extended himself there, but that's noob stuff. You'd better remember that yourself. Might need it someday soon..."
Mac's eyes followed in the general direction of High Gear's nod, looking to the picnic spots near the ring where the trap was now sitting with a few girls he recognized as Amazon members. He gulped. "Gotcha."
Catherine Brooks gave her mask one last check in the mirror before taking to the ring. The black and gold accessory, a simple version of a Mardi Gras mask, was a gift from her aunt in New Orleans, and it was such a thrill to actually be wearing it to a fight for the first time. Her hair, pulled tight into a frizzy bun, matched the mask's colors perfectly, while cobalt-blue eyes marked her as seriously different from any of the other little black girls to come out of her parish.
As she walked into the ring, she sent a wave and a big kiss to her girl Bailey, sitting out there in the picnic zone. Even before her mutation, Catherine had known she was different, too.
She knew her opponent from the one meeting of the school's black student union that every kid above a certain amount of melanin was not so subtly encouraged to attend. Franklin Post, a.k.a. Hardnose, was more grey than black at this point, with a face that wouldn't need a mask even if one could fit. Tough, keratinous growth covered his nose and cheekbones, and a definite horn was slowly developing.
The one conversation they'd had soon turned into a debate over the independent rap and hip-hop scenes on their respective ends of the Mississippi River drainage basin. She'd been all for the Louisiana scene, while he'd staunchly defended those dweebs up in Chicago. Not that she was going to hold it against him in the match... but she was totally going to hold it against him.
As her aunt had told her a few months back, people who fought for something always fought harder, so musical tastes would be her stake in this bout.
Megaton was finally done with the intros and rules, again, so with a quick salute to each other, she and Hardnose got to it.
She was an energized speedster, propelling herself in short bursts of electric sparkles, landing a dozen punches on Hardnose's chest in less than a second.
He was a brick with a not so coincidental resemblance to a rhinoceros. Those dozen punches were ignored like the buzzing of flies, and he swatted at her with an open palm.
Over, under, around. She swung by his wrist and twisted to deliver a kick to his face. His head turned, redirecting the force of the blow and tearing the leggings of her outfit with his nose horn.
There was a brief chase as she retreated and he followed. Her power could take her from one end of the ring to the other in a blink, or even a few yards into the air. No punch he threw landed on her, while her own hits caused more pain to her fists than to him.
"Ya know, this shit's goin' nowhere fast," Hardnose said after a few rounds of nothing really happening."
"Damn straight," she called back from a safe distance. "But it's what we're here for. Any better ideas?"
Hardnose leaned back against the force-field at the edge of the ring, creating a sizable bulge as it adjusted against the weight. "Well, this is supposed to be fun 'n games, right? I dunno 'bout the other fights, but the only thing I got 'gainst you is that you think that godawful cajun hiphop counts as music."
Her cobalt eyes flashed with humor at the job. "Dem's fightin' words," she drawled.
"Of course they are. But if we're gonna duke it out over that, we gotta do it right. So, money where your mouth is, Loozy-Anna. Rap battle. Right here, right now."
"WHAT!?" Megaton didn't even need a mike; that one word was loud enough for all to hear unaided. "Hey now, this is not in the rules. You two..."
"Have come to an agreement to change the rules for this fight," Hardnose yelled back. "Saumer! Get yo' scrawny white ass over here and lay down a beat!"
From the direction of the Twain contingent's picnic tarps and funny tent, a short kid with pale skin, spiky black hair, and parabolic bunny ears leapt into action. The rest of the student body was so amused by this turn of events -- and possibly by Megaton's annoyance -- that the boy was given free and easy passage through multiple territories, all the way to the ring. Even the Amazons let him pass without trouble.
"Thanks, dude," Saumer said as he grabbed the mike from Megaton. "Okay, you two. Any requests?"
"Pure Chicago beats," said Hardnose. He was answered with the opening notes to the Blues Brothers theme song. "Very funny, man..."
"Something from N'Awlins!" Catherine shouted. Suddenly the air was filled with the sound of accordion, banjo, and washboard. "Not zydeco, you wise-ass!"
Saumer laughed and wiggled his ears. The music in the air shifted to a thumping, classic West Coast beat. "Now, I know we've had enough rules to last us all day!" he announced to much laughter, "but special circumstances apply. First, this is a timed battle, with combatants taking turns. Sixty seconds allowed per turn to think up and rap your verse. Pause for longer than ten seconds after you start, and that's end of turn. No biting your opponent's rhymes, and let's try to keep it clean. We got faculty out in the audience today, and we all know how tender their precious ears are." That got an even louder laugh, especially from the teachers.
"Ladies first," Hardnose said to Catherine. Saumer passed her an extra mike under the ring's force field, and she got started.
"Crescent City represent! Get the hint, we got a heaven-sent Muse from the krewes here to infuse some life in the party, so get it on! Get it strong! We're crowding it in your space, so know your place! Have you even seen your face? I ain't normally saying such, but good Lord, man, you horny much?"
She knew he was more at peace with his looks than a lot of Twainees, but it was such an obvious target that she just couldn't resist. Hardnose chuckled away the first few seconds of his turn before starting the riposte.
"Ha ha ha, I know what the joke is, 'bout guys with big noses, guys with big poses, but in the end we always come up smellin' of roses. But whatcha don't understand, whatcha gotta know is, people from Shy Town ain't got no neurosis 'bout sizes, they's really the wisest, knowin' big or small, it's words that win all the prizes. So get ready, girl, for an up-close verbose champion poem in prose."
Okay, she was willing to give him props for fitting both 'neurosis' and 'verbose' into his verse. That English class of his was doing him good. Still, she was in it to win it.
"Poetry? That's gotta be the biggest joke in recent history. Boy from the hood, thinks he's so good, but really, dude, you're so misunderstood in your own head, brain almost dead, churning out rhymes as crude as your 'tude. Now I'm from Kenner, raised to be free, good school teaching no fools, sticking to the rules long enough to learn 'em, to spurn 'em, to know when to earn your rewards or burn the cords tying me down, trying to drown my creativity, but can't you see? You don't wanna be a crook, fool, so crack open a book!"
He had a smirk on his face when she passed the mike back to him for the final verse. It mirrored her own expression well. She was looking forward to seeing how he would top her rhymes.
"Life in the hood ain't the best, ain't a festival at all, but the worst of the worst from the very first are idiot kids who flip their lids 'bout some little thing, some little defect to reflect the fact their own lives ain't perfect. And yeah, my old life was shit, couldn't fit with the rest of the brothers living under covers, living on crime and slime and someone else's dime. But now where are we, both at Whateley, breathing the same air and fighting the claim where some people say were we came from is where we shoulda stayed, huh. Well, dunno 'bout you, Ms. Z, but I much prefer present company. Shy-Town, N'Awlins, don't matter where you been, cuz we're here now, lookin' to win."
Holding out the mike parallel to the ring, he saluted the student body and let it drop to the floor.
"Awright!" shouted Saumer. "Ladies, gentlemen, and I guess all you various faculty types as well..." He waited out the next wave of laughter. "Let's hear your opinion here. Who won? Was it Hardnose?" A loud roar, mostly male but with a good number of female voices. "Or was it Zapper?" An equally loud response, mostly female with a significant proportion of male. "Wow, it sounds awful close, folks..."
Catherine picked up the mike from the floor. "Honestly, I agree with Hardnose's last verse. No matter where we came from, here we are now, and that's what's important. So I'm gonna concede. This time," she added, poking Franklin in the chest. "Next time, though, you're gonna go down in flames. Got that?"
"Bring it," the rhino boy said.
--Ms. Myra Barnes
The English teacher may have had a room in Poe, may have been on reasonable terms with most of its underclassmen, but there was no way she wasn't going to applaud her pupil from Twain as loudly as she could. "I do believe," she said to her little brother and his friend, "that Mr. Post has been holding out on me. The boy has the soul of a warrior poet. I think I might have to move up the class unit on rhyme, meter and verse to... next week."
Young Mr. Fontenot whined plaintively, ears now permanently tilted downward. "Do we haveta..."
"Don't worry," she told him. "Even if you're not good at it, the point is to learn and be better than before."
"And this way, you'll have plenty of practice for any love poems to Rachel..." Marcus teased.
"Shut yo' mouth," the cajun catboy growled.
The Whitman girls had cheered as a bloc for Franklin in the rap battle, and Daniel had his voice in there too for his classmate and fellow Twainee. The loudest by far was Jordain, however, whooping and hollering like no one else could. With a deep breath, she could fill her lungs till her chest billowed out, then release it all in one great shout of enthusiasm.
"He did a good job of it, right?" Daniel asked her. "I mean, I figger as much, but I ain't no kind of singer or poet, so..."
"Yeah, he did pretty good," Jordain said, her eyes never leaving the ring. Tiny, sharp teeth pressed against her lower lip.
Daniel wasn't as good at sniffing out feelings as Cookie, but it was hard to miss the obvious sometimes. Leaning in, he said quietly into her ear, "Yanno, he's still single. Ya couldn't really miss it when he talks about it in class."
"Had better things to do than listen to yins yammer on," she replied out the side of her mouth. "Well, mostly better."
"Right." Daniel pulled out a clean napkin, passed his hand over it, and magicked up one of Franklin's favorite strawberry-iced ring donuts. "Don't suppose you'd mind deliverin' this to him when he gets back to the Twain area, wouldja? Victory donut."
She took the pastry, breaking eye contact with the ring long enough to stare him down with snake-slit eyes. "And here I thought we were on a date or somethin' here."
"Did we ever call it that?" Daniel shrugged. "Two friends hangin' out; it's all good. Ya want a real date, though, then you'd better hurry, before a line forms."
Jordain came to her feet in one seamless, fluid motion. "Well then, I'd better hurry." She chuckled. "Yanno, if I didn't think you'd get a chemical burn from it, I'd be kissing you on the cheek right now."
"Bet Franklin's got tougher skin than me," said Daniel.
"Heh, I'll keep ya informed. And yins all, too," she said to her dorm friends, who'd been doing their best imitation of not listening in, but winning no prizes at it.
Monica hovered down into the spot her roommate vacated. "That was awful nice of you," she said once Jordain was out of sight. It didn't take long.
"S'what friends are for," he replied. "And anyhoo, Franklin told me he liked her earlier this week. Wasn't sure what to do 'bout it till just now."
"Boys... talk about that sort of thing?" It wasn't Monica who asked.
"Yeah, sometimes. Um..." His corner of the tarp was suddenly a lot cozier as the Whitman freshman floor converged. Only the golden-fleeced Dawn Renae, already happy with her own boyfriend, stayed where she was. "Okay, no promises or guarantees, but if you want me to, um, encourage a friend or three..."
Cookie raised two flat-faced heads, and their eyebrows even higher, at the ruckus that started up nearby. Then the pup went back to the regular mid-day doze, with Shisa the cat-cat curled up on their shoulders.
Derek Richardson's part in this farce of an event was over, thank God. The student organizers should've been begging him to keep at the announcements, and he'd relished the thought of politely turning them down, as his dignity had suffered enough so far, but no one had bothered. Instead they'd drafted that rabbit-eared twerp from Twain to cover the entire rest of the tournament and let him go without a second word.
Yeah, he didn't want to do it, but he didn't want to do it on his terms, damnit!
Most of his attention had been on the ring, and the rest was at work noting where the usual suspects were all seated, if they even showed. The Amazons were out in force, cheering on their latest little fanatic, and the Bohemians couldn't resist flaunting their amateur debauchery, but the Masterminds never showed up as a group, and the Seeds simply hadn't made an appearance, aside from that RA from Dickinson. If the heirs to villainy had any new members, he hadn't heard.
The one area he hadn't bothered to check was the one where his own club sat. He trusted his teammates, his yearmates Chillout and Cherry Bomb, his girlfriend Star Sentry and her best gal pal Celerity. With them on watch, nothing would go wrong.
And then it turned out the most unusual suspect of all was sitting right in the middle of them, caught between Star Sentry and that Euro girl that Invictus had brought along to watch her fight.
"What the hell is he doing here?" Derek demanded, jabbing a finger at the Rivera kid. Drugged out little punk was sitting next to Derek's girl, and no one had said anything?
"I let my stepbrother here warm your seat while you were busy," Gwen replied. "His friend was in the first fight of the round."
"Your step..." Oh, no. Oh, hell no. What horrible miscarriage of karma, what bug squished or puppy kicked in a previous life had brought this mess upon him? Not that it mattered -- his family was Episcopalian -- but at the moment it felt good to blame the blind forces of the cosmos for his troubles. "Star Sentry, a word?"
The only spot around that was suitable for private whispers was right by the ring, and he had to glare at a few people before he and his girlfriend actually had it to themselves. "Why do you... no," he interrupted himself. "Do you know who he really is?"
"I should," said Gwen. "My mom knew his dad for years before they finally made it official, and we hung out all the time. It was pretty brutal for a while with his mom on life support. Yeah, we haven't gotten along recently, but I'm trying to fix that here."
"He's... I saw him, Gwen, tried talking to him this morning, and he was so high it was like nothing meant anything to him. Doped out to the gills. And then I saw him have a meeting with Tang-head from the Masterminds..."
"You mean Jack?" Gwen shook her head. "That wasn't what it looked like. He--"
His palm slapped the ring's force-field in frustration. "It's never what it looks like, is it? That's what they all claim, the thugs and punks and lowlifes. It's all relative this and subjectively that, until they've got our brains on the runaround. I know what I saw, Gwen, and I want him out of here, pronto."
"I can do pronto, but you're all tonto, man!" Vic shouted from the seats. "We got ears, you know!"
"Derek..." Gwen had a warning hand on his arm. "I promise I can explain it all later, but now's not the time. We've had a stressful day so far, and we all need to calm down."
"You've had a stressful day?" he shot back. "What do you think I'm doing, huh? Keeping this joke of an event together when we all know it's a waste of time, bread and circuses to keep the student body happy, and then getting myself kicked to the curb? By some frosh from the weird cottage who's got frickin' bunny ears?"
The punk's voice broke in: "Maybe if you'd done better'n a half-assed job of it."
"Vic!" Gwen shouted reproachfully. Her fingers bit into the meat of Derek's arm.
"I'm tired of this crap, al... alright?" The punk waved a sealed bottle of water at him. "I'm just waiting here till Tanya comes, and then it's adios."
Tanya? Invictus? Up-and-coming freshman recruit? That Tanya? He'd warned her just that morning about choosing her friends, but it seemed the lesson had not taken.
As a lieutenant in the FSHA, it was his duty to protect others, even from themselves. Brushing away Gwen's hand, he stormed over to the smirking little punk. His palm prickled as motes of metal formed in his hand, arranging themselves into a crude but usable sword, its tip pointed at the punk's chest. "Get out," he ordered.
"Not yet." The punk had the gall to crack open his bottle of water and take a sip. Derek's sword lashed out, flinging the plastic away. Only... the water didn't fling with it. It stayed in mid-air, flowing out of the falling bottle and tethered to the punk's lips. Then the little bastard spat it all in Derek's face.
The first second, he could only feel a burning fury. Starting from the next, he realized that even though his face felt wet, he wasn't dripping. Three seconds in, and Derek was on the ground, clawing at the mask of water now plugging his nose and mouth.
"Vic! Stop it!" He heard that cry in stereo, from Gwen and from Tanya. When had the girl arrived?"
"You saw him!" the punk shouted. "I was minding my own business and he badmouths me and draws a f... a sword on me!"
The lavender girl was right up next to the punk now, in good punching distance. Instead she hugged him. "Come on. Let him go, then let's get out of here. Everyone's waiting, I'm sure."
"I... I... yeah." The punk released his grip on his thin leash of water, and the mask it connected to suddenly dribbled away. "Sorry, Tanya. It's been a helluva day." The two of them walked off, leaving Invictus's Euro friend to scramble after them with a sour look on her face.
Derek was gasping as he stood. "That, that little..."
"Hush, you," said Gwen. "You didn't really cover yourself with glory there."
"Man," Chillout spoke up from the sidelines, "if you just turned off a new recruit, SturmMeister's gonna have words with you again."
"Misread a situation, made assumptions, started a verbal attack, reacted badly to the response, and then physically threatened a freshman," Cherry Bomb said, ticking each item off on her fingers. "Really, Megaton, didn't you learn anything from last year?"
"You forgot 'underestimate an opponent' as well," said Gwen. "I could've warned you that Vic fights dirty."
"How would you..." A few factoids went click in his head. "Start of last month, your arm in a cast, was that..."
"A family argument," said Gwen. "And it's staying in the family. Now sit down and shut your adorably heroic jaw until you're feeling like better company, Derek."
His seat was soggy. Gwen wouldn't let him switch. He suffered in silence, but his temper was steaming. Little punk had shown up on his turf, disrespecting him, assaulting him, and apparently had hurt his own sister, Derek's girl. There was no way that he as Megaton, son of the west coast hero Gigaton, was going to let that slide. Sooner than later, the two of them would settle this.
"Well wasn't that interesting," Val commented as the little disagreement in Capes Country dried up. "Two bull monkeys screaming and flinging dung as they always do."
Calliope wasn't looking so convinced. "That was my teammate," she said. "The one who helped us earlier. I, I said some awful things to him. I should apologize..."
"In a bit," said Val. "This would be a good time to make that report to Security, now that you've had a chance to calm yourself. Shall we... hm?"
A low but persistent beeping sounded from the direction of Calliope's girlfriend, Neff. "Oh man, I forgot about that," the black girl said in a weirdly even tone of voice. "I'll meet up with you in a few minutes, okay? Gotta go check something first..." She got up, dancer's grace now absent, and stumbled away.
That... There was something not right there. Val's empathy was more geared towards projection than reception, or else she'd have scanned harder. Instead, she nodded to Kammie on the way out. Hopefully her fellow Amazon could handle whatever was going on.
It just wouldn't do for anything to interfere before she could seal the deal with these two.