––Saturday, September 17th
Whateley Academy campus on a weekend morning had a sort of energy to it that was as unmistakable as it was difficult to define. Fiorella Persico, Calliope to most and Cally to her friends, could practically taste it. The fact that this gustatory response was somehow being processed via her ears was just one more thing to add to the list of oddities which was her life.
The sounds rushed in, laden with perfumed accents of excitement and vim as the student body awoke a little later than usual to a day without classroom obligations – for most, at least – and was not shy about expressing those emotions. To an empath such as herself, it was a heady rush, and she was hardly surprised to see one of her lab buddies – Heartfinder, from the junior high division – walking along slowly and with a glazed expression on her face. The rest of the eighth-grade contingent was helping her along to breakfast.
Calliope herself had been up for almost two hours at this point, thanks to her roommate Erica's adherence to the euphemistically benign-sounding morning exercise routine, so she'd had time to acclimate. And it wasn't as if this was even the first weekend she'd experienced here. But as the summer season swung to a close and the school year loomed ahead, somehow everyone found the energy for a few more days of craziness and fun before the cold set in.
"C'mon! We're gonna be late!" her roommate said, tugging her arm towards the school's cafeteria. The so-called Crystal Hall was a modern wonder, a geodesic dome of diamond glass panes encompassing three tiers of dining tables and high school social stratification.
Her friends had handily abused the system in order to snag a table on the second floor in the name of their training team, the "Mutant Mayhem Machine." She still had trouble believing they'd actually gotten away with it.
The breakfast line was its usual sort of chaos. Teenage appetites were often bad enough, but with the caloric requirements of an exemplar physique or energizer ability... Ahead of her, Erica had piled three plates with pancakes, bacon, sausage, oven-baked potatoes, and a salad, yet she still wasn't the biggest eater in line. Calliope contented herself with a short stack, a single sausage, and a latte from the coffee bar.
"There's the guy I told you about. Remember him?" Erica nudged her, gesturing with gilded eyebrows toward the next counter. A young man, too soft and rounded to be an exemplar, but with a surprisingly pink pair of eyes, was managing the pastries. He had on an apron and one of those chef hats that was hardly seen in a real kitchen. The nametag on his chest said "Daniel," but the word had been crossed out with a red pen, to be replaced with "Donut."
He wore a big grin as they made their way down the line to him. "Mornin', Erica. Feeling better this morning?"
"Much, thanks," her roommate replied. There was no outward sign on that alabaster complexion, but Calliope had learned to tell when the girl was blushing. "And how's Cookie? Being a good pup?"
"Well, I hadda run an hour this mornin' early to keep up with pup, so..." Daniel shrugged. "Good for my health, and pup's happy, but that don't mean I wouldn't've liked to sleep in."
"You have my sympathies," said Calliope. "So... what do we have today?"
"It's Saturday, so we have cinnamon rolls," the boy said proudly. "Miz Debbie's own recipe, made fresh by yers truly." His tongs quickly transferred the pastries over to their trays. "I hope ya enjoy."
Erica was all smiles. "We will, thanks. Have fun with Cookie's training today, and see you tomorrow." She actually winked. Calliope had to keep her own eyes from rolling.
She held her peace until they were out of the line and heading to the stairs. "You actually asked him out? On a date?" Even now she had trouble believing, and her bar for the strange and impossible was set so low that even a girl with obvious avian features, sitting at a table along their route, seemed less surreal. "Why?"
"Because..." Erica waved her right hand vaguely while balancing her maximally loaded tray on her left. "He's nice, he seems to care, and he's good with pastries. What's not to like?"
Plenty, Calliope thought but did not say. Or rather, plenty of things contained in one single element that automatically placed the boy outside her sphere of preferences. She was not ready for that conversation yet, however!
Her feet practically skipped up the stairs, with her heart bouncing along happily. The perpetual flock of butterflies in her stomach had migrated upwards, much to her surprise and delight. Even a week ago she'd have been horrified at the prospect, she knew, but it was so tiring to fight with herself like this.
She had a date! That was the only detail of any importance right now. She had a date, and more importantly she'd chosen to ask him out. It was done on the spur of the moment, but unlike any other instance when her body's overdeveloped instinct for romance kicked in, it really was her decision. Just for that, she cherished the thought.
Oma had told her once that she would need to love being a girl eventually, and she knew her grandmother was right about that, but she'd never thought it would happen.
Skipping feet told her otherwise.
Their table was occupied by the usual suspects. Bianca St. Claire, pale of skin and hair, was getting up to leave already with her plate cleared. Erica said hi in passing, but the girl from Chicago didn't seem much in the mood for chatting that morning, making a quick exit. Morgana, the red-haired lass from Wales, was still settled in with more plates than even Erica had. Right next to her, filling in the list of primary colors handily, was Laura. Blue from head to toe, the devisor was sketching out some random idea on a napkin.
The two remaining girls, red and blue, looked up as they arrived. "Oh, hey," said Laura.
"Good morning," Morgana said around a mouthful of pancakes. "Ooh... cinnamon rolls! How'd I miss those?"
"They are the special product of Erica's new friend," Cally said primly as she slid sideways into her chair. "Though I am surprised he did not have something ready just for her."
"I think he only does that for people who really need the pick-me-up," said Erica. "Like you did last weekend, remember? I'm not gonna demand privileges like that until at least the third date." Her romance gland quivered at the thought.
"Third date?" Morganna hitched up an eyebrow. "When was the first?"
"Tomorrow," Erica admitted sunnily. "He's got a training course for most of the day today."
Laura had a polite smile on. "That's... nice?" she said. "Um, who's the, er, lucky guy, again?"
She lifted her cinnamon roll in salute. "Only our local pastry chef." Her nose delighted in the aroma wafting off it before taking a big bite. "He's a real sweetie."
"He must be," Morganna snickered. "I'd better go grab one before Costuming class starts at 9. Maybe one for Bianca, too, since she's feeling a bit down. Or Tanya... oh, there's Tanya!"
Not far off, a head of lavender hair was rising up like a miniature storm cloud. Tanya had feet of lead as she walked over, stomping heavily. Her food tray must've weighed half a ton by itself.
"What's up, sunshine?" Morganna asked.
Tanya winced. "Roommate issues, whacky floor hijinks, and someone shaking down the freshmen girls for quote-unquote favors." She sighed. "Another weekend at Whitman Cottage."
"Sounds like a doozy," Erica said.
"You don't know the half of it. Hell, I don't know the half of it." The lavender girl attacked her pancake tower with knife, fork, and vengeful gusto. "But if you run into a redhead named Scarlyt, I'd suggest running the other way. That girl's just not right up there."
The melody of silverware on porcelain filled the airspace for a few minutes, until Cally finally broached a new topic. "I have my first band practice meeting this afternoon," she said. "Laura, would you like to come with me? We can discuss many possibilities, I am thinking."
Blue skin paled slightly. "Oh yeah... I sorta volunteered for that, didn't I."
Morganna snorted again. "That you did. Have fun being a roadie."
The devisor did not look too thrilled at the prospect.
More than any other day of the week, Saturday was crunch time for Daniel Diggins. His part time job at the school cafeteria was split between evening prep time and morning service, and on a day like today, everyone was coming back for seconds, if not fourths or fifths. Even with a strict rule of one per customer, the stock of cinnamon rolls he'd made the night before and baked in the wee hours after his run with Cookie had just vanished.
Yeah, he could simply magic up more, which he did as necessary, but he needed to pace himself.
His shift ended at the brunch/lunch switchover, leaving him exactly two hours to catch a nap in his room before the next item on his schedule. That was in theory.
In practice, it was hard to nap when your roommate was about fit to break the door down.
"Grah!" The fittings had been made with super-strength in mind, so they only strained a little. His roommate managed to rattle the walls as he shut it, but that was all.
"What now, Pete?" he mumbled from bed.
"The usual. Some dick-eating jerkwad makin' fun of my face." Peter Foley's chosen code name was Humorless, which Daniel figgered ought to be more than enough warning that Pete couldn't take a joke. So far, lots of people had proved they didn't have the good sense the Lord gave a possum.
Peter Foley was the angriest, most serious kid he'd ever met. Unfortunately, his mutation had left him with a bright red nose, pale skin with a peachy outline around his mouth, and lime green hair that stuck out in two huge tufts. Just from the face, he looked exactly like a clown should. Then you had to zoom out a bit to notice that the kid had the muscles of a grizzly bear, and probably a bear's sense of humor to go with it.
His roommate's favorite was a glazed chocolate ring donut, nothing fancy, and Daniel already had one magicked up and ready on a plate. Pete snatched it away and ate it in two chews, but that was enough time to cool him down.
"Er, you were restin', right?" Pete hunched his shoulders in embarrassment. "Um, sorry 'bout that."
"Weren't nothin'," Daniel assured him. "I needed to get up and meet Cookie for practice anyway. You gonna be alright?"
Pete scowled, but that was sorta his default mode. "Think so. I'm gonna, er, do homework or somethin' to calm my nerves. English class stuff."
Daniel placed another donut on Pete's desk, thumped the big lug on the back, and then changed into his exercise clothes. Today was gonna be his first official session with Cookie and an instructor, and he wasn't sure what to expect.
Pup was waiting for him when he got downstairs, patiently sitting at the entrance of Twain Cottage and getting no small number of curious stares. Even for Whateley, Cookie was something of a sight.
No one could say what'd been going through old Doc Talltale's brain – not even the doc himself – when he'd made Cookie, but the results barked for themself. At the shoulder, the devisor's former guard dog stood almost four feet tall and about as broad, with legs that were short only in proportion to the rest of its body. One stubby tail wagged happily while two round heads with mashed in noses and Boston Terrier markings had huge grins. "Warf," they barked in stereo, tongues lolling.
"Hey, pup." He presented a pair of mince pies, which were inhaled quickly. "Ready to go?"
He had to run beside pup all the way to the training ground, rather than ride. Need to exercise, they'd said. Stretch those legs, they'd said. Unfortunately, it'd all been said within earshot of pup, who took its boy's health seriously. He waved at Nick Brennan, the huge kid from down the hall who looked like he was half horse, as they high-tailed it to the practice ground.
The big open field would've been perfect for a baseball diamond, if Whateley did anything so normal. Instead, it looked like a bunch of students were playing catch... about a hundred feet up in the air. Only one guy was down on the ground at this end, a security guy with thick and curly black hair and a face that told Daniel that no one'd mentioned what sort of dog was coming for training.
"Um..." the man said. "Is this..." He checked his paper. "Doctor's Precious Badass Nihilistic Killer with–"
"Just Cookie is fine," Daniel said, on top of pup's barks.
"Corporal Ames. Er, call me Jack. I... good Lord... um, I used to work with K9 training back in the day..." Jack tried not to flinch as Cookie sniffed both his feet simultaneously. "They said they needed someone to work with a student's dog, but... I'm really gonna have to get Simms for this one," he muttered. "Anyway, I guess I'm the least least qualified person to work with you and, er..."
"Yes..." The officer patted the pup's heads, turning them back and forth. "So is Cookie a boy or a girl?"
"Ain't either one," he replied. "The doc did somethin' weird with the, er, equipment during the whole design phase. We think. I just say 'pup' this and 'pup' that."
"And, er, pup understands?"
Daniel nodded. "Every word."
Jack was looking Cookie in the lefthand pair of eyes. "Yes... this is gonna be one of those years, ain't it. Shee-yit... Okay then. Absolutely none of my training's gonna be of help, so we'll make this up as we go. For today, I want to see what pup can do. Running, jumping, whatever. With me so far?"
Cookie barked and nodded both heads. When the officer had the stopwatch ready, the guard dog took off like a shot.
And Daniel had to run with him. Oh well, that was one way to burn off all those breakfast donuts.
There was a theater buried somewhere beneath the Whateley campus, connected by tunnels that were only sometimes listed on the official maps. Just which building it was actually beneath, Calliope could not say. Nor did she know why it had been made in the first place. It could not have held more than a few dozen people in its seats, and the stage was not much larger than the floor of her dorm's common room.
At the moment, its only use seemed to be to serve as home to Mr. August's advanced music program and its corollary, the band known as the Unladen Swallows. She had yet to hear an explanation for that name that made sense.
While the band seemed to be some sort of tradition in the department, its popularity had run into the ground the year before. The two upperclassmen, Dalton and Emile, blamed it on the old guard and their leader, all of whom graduated last semester. Apparently there'd been the sentiment that any sort of conformity to rational taste was a sign of selling out, and the band had famously done performances like belching a capella, avant-garde lack-of-music, and a one-man show based on arrhythmic cowbell virtuoso improv. Her ears hurt at the simple thought.
But that was then, and in the now the new Unladen Sparrows were rising like the phoenix. Well, hopefully. Right now, rising meant assembling and tuning equipment.
Emile's keyboard rig was not the one he'd had out for the club fair or the auditions last week. That had been a normal sort of electric piano on a stand. This, this thing he had set up in one corner of the stage was to that keyboard as a functioning battle drone was to a wind-up toy. It was a densely formed monument of electronic parts, with three separate sets of keys, one set in a spiralling configuration that beggared the imagination as to how it might be played. There were knobs and buttons, levers and pedals, and she could not see how it could be played without the use of three hands, four feet, and perhaps some tentacles.
Then Emile's outline blurred, and upon the extra wide piano bench sat three shadowy copies of him. With a crack of the knuckles in quadruplicato, the upperclassman played a sort of quartet with himself.
In the other corner, Dalton was messing with his drum set in a far more normal manner. Some of the percussion instruments appeared to be hanging upside down in mid-air, but that was all.
At center stage, Kieron and Nick were fine-tuning. The young man with the saxophone was a good specimen of an exemplar trait in mid-expression, looking far more handsome than a teen should, but with a raw and stretched feeling to his features that suggested he had a bit more to go. His eyes glinted in the light of the stage lamps.
Next to him, Nick commanded attention just for what he was: an anthropomorphic horse, almost two and a half meters tall, in a loud flower print shirt. Thick fingers proved surprisingly dextrous as he strummed his electric guitar lovingly.
Was there anyone else? Calliope strained her eyes as she walked up the aisle to the stage. Many had come to the audition, though some had as much stated that they only wanted to show off, not be part of something regular. Her ears still twinged from the memory of some of the others. Walking around the stage, she finally spied one new face, previously hidden behind Nick's impressive frame.
The girl was tall and thin, with long black hair that flowed limply over her shoulders and face. She was dressed for a funeral, almost – all in dark tones to match her hair, but with a low-cut top and a slit up the side. Neither feature did much to reveal anything on her. But then she brought up her instrument, a violin assimilated by a car stereo with a sort of typewriter keyboard and a crank on one end. With a flick of her wrist, she began.
At the first electric note, a ripple of bright yellow raced across her dress and hair. More followed, turning her into a visual expression of chords and measures. Limp tresses gained a life of their own, fanning out and moving in a non-existent breeze as they scintillated.
"Very good, Ngaire," said Mr. August when her practice piece came to a close.
"Thank you," the girl said, her hair returning to its earlier state. "And please; it's Electradyne."
"Buongiorno!" Calliope said from the steps. "I, ah, did not wish to interrupt."
Mr. August turned that jovial face of his to her. "And our chanteuse is here as well! Good. Let us get started."
A fat stack of seating cushions was hauled onstage, and soon they were arranged in a lopsided circle. The upperclassmen lounged at one end, with Nick positioned a bit back to allow others space. Calliope draped her legs over a cushion next to Mr. August, while all pretended not to notice how Electradyne scooted hers to bring it a little closer to Kieron.
"Now," said Mr. August. "I know we've only mostly just met this week, but I'd like to encourage you to hit the ground running. You all are talented musicians already, and with the benefits of exemplar memory and physical prowess I see no reason why you couldn't or shouldn't show it off as soon as possible."
"You mean you've already booked gigs for us," Dalton translated.
"Not booked, no, but I have been looking around." The teacher's eyes twinkled. "Ah, Calliope, is your devisor friend coming?"
"Not this afternoon," she said. "Laura had some things to take care of this afternoon, and I did not think we would need her services just yet."
Electradyne murmured something too low to catch, but the emotion reached Calliope well enough. "And I will confess," the Italian continued, "that she is unsure how she can contribute. Devisors do tend to be so specialized, after all." The dark-haired girl screwed her mouth up at that.
"True, true," said the teacher. Well, for today I would like you all to get to know each other, jam a bit, and share some favorite tunes. Over the next few weeks we'll have short gigs near each of the cottage dorms. Just a song or two, your choices, to showcase our talents and help erase any memories of last year's fiascos." Mr. August's smile broadened as Emile and Dalton groaned in stereo. "Indeed. Let us take advantage of the fact we lost almost everyone to graduation. Now, let's jam!"
This was the sort of atmosphere she could revel in, Calliope thought as everyone got started. There was a buzz of camaraderie, notes of emotion coming together in chords and harmonies of creativity. She, Dalton, and Nick spent the afternoon discussing rock ballads and the classics, while Kieron, Emile, and Electradyne talked jazz.
Mr. August was right: it was time to take the world by storm.
It was a quiet afternoon in the language labs. Anyone with any sense was out enjoying the last days of summer sun, but with all her friends tied up in various activities, Erica felt guilty about having fun without them. So instead she was making sure all her homework was done before her date on Sunday. This included listening to old lectures in German for class. Herr Auer said he didn't expect them to be able to argue the points, but Erica at least wanted to make sure she knew all the proper terms. Some of those words rambled on for entire paragraphs, it seemed.
One wall of the lab was all glass, looking out into the hall. When someone passed by, which was rarely, it was difficult not to take note. So Erica's eyes flicked of their own accord to run up into the burning blue gaze of Kirsten Bischofsheim, locking on before her brain could realize the threat.
"Ami-Mädchen." The word sounded like a cute nickname, but the nuance behind it was anything but. American, the other girl was saying. Pretender, fake. "What are you doing here?"
"My homework. Listening practice," Erica replied simply. "Do not let me bother you."
"Too late for that." Kirsten's sneer was almost as ugly as the bruise along her left cheekbone. Erica had put that there just the other night, and it was already well on its way out. "Never forget: I'm on to you, von Abendritter."
Erica shivered and ducked her head back behind the listening stand's partition, which seemed to mollify the other student. Kirsten checked out a reading text and left without another word, but last night's exchange echoed anew in the freshman's ears, drowning out the tape recording.
Kirsten claimed to know something, some piece of information which she felt sufficiently disgraced Erica that... well, she wasn't sure just what the German girl had wanted, to be honest. The pounding of her own heart in her ears had made it impossible to hear much of last night's speech. Even the knee-jerk reaction, that Kirsten somehow knew about Eric, seemed so less likely by the light of day.
Her palms were still covered with a nervous sweat, though.
The listening practice could wait. Erica hoofed it back to Dickinson Cottage, confirmed that Cally was still out, and made a phone call.
"Yes?" The voice on the other end was calm and businesslike, but warm as well. Erica knew that this was not its normal temperature.
"Hello, Uncle Adolf. There's... ah, I need you to check out someone for me."
"For reasons personal or professional?"
Erica hesitated. "A bit of both. There's this girl in my German class who claims she knows some secret about me, and, and, she confronted me over it the other night. I don't know exactly what, and I realize there's no way she could know the big one, but, but..."
"Better safe than sorry, yes." The sound of moving paper shuffled over the line. "Name?"
"Kirsten Bischofsheim. German. Er... maybe the Rhineland or one of the other western states, from her accent. Age... at least a year older, so fifteen or sixteen. I never caught her codename."
"Understood. I will mail you a dossier within the week." Adolf paused a second. "While I have you on the line, there was something I wanted to ask you."
"Your cousin, her birthday is coming soon, and I... well, Margit and I wished to make one big gift to catch up on eighteen years. Some parts of this gift will require special manufacture, and you are well situated to find people who are skilled, innovative, and less expensive than the current market."
"... you want me to hire a devisor or gadgeteer?"
Adolf's laugh warmed up his voice considerably. "Excellent deduction! I will mail you a list of items. Please get back to me as soon as you can with some estimates on price."
"Okay, will do. Thanks, Uncle."
Dinner at the Crystal Hall was as haphazard as breakfast, though the emotional atmosphere was less dizzyingly frenetic. Much of the regular group had already come and gone, so Calliope did not feel bad in inviting friends over.
"Whew, nice view from up here," said Nefertiti Copeland, Neff to her friends, as she stared over the nearest railing. The dark-skinned beauty had arrived from her weekend dance class still dressed in leggings and a jacket over her leotard. Curly hair was done up in a bun behind her head.
"It is nice, yes." Victoria Stone was gnawing on some steak from the carnivore counter. With an annoyed pout, she retrieved a devise from her pocket, perhaps the size of a cigarette lighter. When activated, it grew into a dagger of hard light projection, and she quickly diced everything into bite-sized chunks... including part of the plate. "Whoops."
The other girls giggled. Sitting around the table clockwise, there was Calliope, Nina Blake, and Laura with her roommate Bailey. "So..." Laura began. "How was the practice?"
"It was very nice. You should come to the next one. Mr. August is willing to use part of the music program's budget for special effects."
"Ooh!" Vickie managed around a bit of steak. "I've been working on holo-suits. I could do something like Jem!"
"Ah, who?" Calliope asked.
"Jem and the Holograms! Yanno? Old cartoon about a pop star who used devises to keep her identity secret and fight crime!"
"I'm not sure you're remembering that right," Laura said. Beside her, Bailey tittered.
Neff bounced in her seat. "Sounds cool! Like, costume changes run smooth as butter, and there'd be nothing to get in the way when you danced. Totally copacetic."
"I don't dance..."
"Ya coulda fooled me!" the black girl said. "You were really cutting the rug at the mixer!"
"Well, perhaps... Ah." Calliope had a pretty good view of the first floor herself, and right now she could see her brother chatting up a girl with dark brown hair and a pair of boobs that should not have been architecturally possibly to keep aloft without bra straps showing across her bared shoulders. Fra obviously had trouble keeping his eyes off this example of the most common superpower at Whateley, much to the girl's annoyance. Calliope could almost hear the slap through the cafeteria din.
"What's the matter?" asked Bailey.
"Niente," she said. "Only my brother being an idiot."
––Sunday, Sept. 18
The Lord's Day was the day to rest and recover, as the Reverend Barkus had always said. Of course, Daniel knew the old man had meant everyone should pray and contemplate how sinful and awful they really were, which didn't strike the boy as particularly restful. He hadn't attended any real church services in eight months now, and he wasn't really missing it.
He was still trying to dress nice, sure, but church had nothing to do with that.
"How in the world did you get a date so soon?" his roommate grumbled, munching on his usual chocolate glazed ring.
Daniel shrugged. "You'd have to ask her. I don't really get it either." Today was a perfectly fine summer day, so he went with a t-shirt and flannel over jeans. His old pair of sunglasses, familiar and comfortable but no longer necessary to hide his eyes, were hanging from a chest pocket. "How do I look?"
"Like you always do."
"Good. I figger fakin' it won't get me nowhere anyhow."
As much as his brain told his feet not to be nervous, they still hopped down the dorm's stairs three at a time, only to bring him to a complete stop right at the exit to Twain Cottage. From there, he could just about see clear through the front doors to the lawn area where Cookie was yipping and playing with a gold-haired figure....
His stomach was about fit to give up its last few donuts, but the pastries themselves refused to budge.
"You okay, dude?" asked the senior at the front desk. The older student was bulky and muscular, with waxy, pale green skin and no hair at all on top. The nametag on his uniform said Lenape. "Only, you've been standing there for a minute or two now..."
"Er, yeah. I'm fine. Um..." His eyes flicked back towards the door, and Lenape followed their line of sight.
The senior chuckled. "First date?"
Daniel gulped. "That obvious?"
"Been there, sweated that. Bad thing in my case, but I'm betting your skin's less toxic than mine." He held out a gloved hand. "The name's Darius."
"Daniel. Er, d'you got any..."
"Advice? None worth sharing. She said yes when you asked her out, right?"
"She actually asked me..."
Now Lenape laughed. "Well then, nothing to be nervous about."
"Easier said than done." Daniel squared his shoulders. "But, um, thanks for the pep talk."
"Go sweep her off her feet, dude." The senior gave him a wink and a thumb's up as Daniel walked out of the dorm.
Erica wasn't any more dressed up than he was, he was glad to see. Definitely not in her Sunday best, but in jeans and a t-shirt with a light jacket. There was something printed on the shirt, but he couldn't recognize it at a glance. Staring at it too long wouldn't be too smart either, he figgered. So instead he stammered out: "H-hello. Y-you look nice today."
Dangit, this was harder without the pastry counter between them.
"Same to you," she said. "And Cookie's handsome as always," she added with a pat on pup's heads. "So where are we going?"
There'd been a plan floating in his head all day yesterday. Right now it was floating off somewhere on the horizon. "Um, well, I..." Frantically he tried to pull his brain together right. "Um, got a friend at the cafeteria to p-put together a picnic basket for us. Figgered we could en-n-joy the sunshine while it lasts."
Cookie whoofed, then dashed around the corner of Twain to where the new doghouse was located. Pup trotted back a second later with a baseball bat in one mouth and an oversized softball in the other.
"It looks like pup's got ideas, too," Erica said with a giggle. "Well? Let's go!"
They walked side by side for most of the way to the Crystal Hall, until Cookie nudged him into Erica enough times for them to get the hint and hold hands. The cafeteria lady with the picnic basket must've thought this was something funny, to look at her face.
The back area of the quad was as good a place as any to sit and have lunch. The grass was soft and reasonably dry, and there was plenty of space for Cookie to lounge and appreciate the meat pies that Daniel magicked up.
"So..." Erica said as they finished off the sandwiches from the picnic box. "Tell me about yourself."
Daniel chewed for a moment before replying. "Ain't much to say. Pretty normal here."
The girl raised one golden arch of an eyebrow and pointed at Cookie. Pup's tongues were out and hanging in doggy laughter. "Are we talking Whateley normal here?" she asked. "Because I think the local standards for normalcy are pretty low."
"Kay, 'kay," he said. "Um... folks moved us up to this small town in Idaho when I was little. More of a commune, actually. I didn't know the word till a few months ago, but it fits, I figger. The Revered... well, he didn't take kindly to, ah, our sort of people, so when my eyes turned pink, my mom and pop helped me get out quietly. They still live there." His smile had quickly turned upside down at that. Cookie padded over to nuzzle his ear.
"Wow. Er, sorry..." Erica said. "I didn't mean to..."
"Ain't no worry," he assured her. "Been livin' with my mom's friend, Miz Debbie, ever since. And then I met Cookie and stuff got better. Ain't that right, pup?"
The sandwiches were followed by individual salad bowls, greens mixed with croutons and small cubes of egg or cheese. Little cups of caesar salad were included. Erica kept the conversation going as they ate. "Well, my mom... I never really knew her. She rarely visited long enough. I was raised by my grandparents."
"Sounds nice of them."
"Oh, they're wonderful. Also, they're former Nazi-hunting secret agents. Whateley normal, remember?" she said to his dumbfounded face.
"... no foolin'."
"And my distant cousins are actual Nazi villains still, unfortunately." She made a disgusted grimace. "They, ah, tried to force a reconciliation last summer, get us to join them. Or kill us all if we refused. It's complicated."
Daniel didn't have much to say to that, so... "Dessert?" he asked.
"Sure. Can you do sachertorte?"
He gave it a thought. "Prolly, but thing is, I can't produce parts. All or nothin'. And the bigger it is, or the more all at once, the quicker I hit a wall. Little stuff's more easy than a whole cake."
That he could manage easily, magicking up two with a flourish. It didn't take long to finish lunch after that, but pup had ideas of its own. Picking up the ball and bat in their mouths, the twin heads presented a quadruple onslaught of puppy eyes.
Erica giggled. "Okay, Cookie. It's your turn." She grabbed the ball, Daniel took the bat, and Cookie managed to catch every single fly ball, often in mid-air. When the shadows started to grow across the quad, Daniel made a point of walking her back to Dickinson Cottage, earning a goodbye peck on the cheek for his gallantry.
The quad was a wide place, with many places to sit and watch the world pass by. With the right amount of bushes, some of them served as the perfect spot to cry as well. Monica Lawrence, often called Whirlibird these days, was used to it already.
She'd heard those two girls from Dickinson talking about dates as they'd walked past her in the Crystal Hall the other day, had felt so envious of them with their fit bodies and perfect hair. Monica was frail, tiny, light enough to be picked up in a strong breeze, and her mutation was only getting worse, from her point of view. The thick down covering her scalp and arms was a small consolation for the loss of her hair last spring.
But watching the date in action had really hammered the spike in her heart. That blonde girl had looked so happy, so carefree with, with... him.
That was the hardest part. She knew the blonde girl's date. He'd been... nice to her, when no one else at the Twain-Whitman mixer would even deign to notice her. There'd even been a pastry. And now, just like that, he had a girlfriend.
Sobs shook her body, but she felt a sudden, desperate need to move, to get away from her little spot hidden by bushes and to someplace safer. She could hardly do more than hover, when her powers really worked at all, but that was enough to lift her over a shrubbery and through the doors to Whitman.
And straight into one of her cottage-mates.
"Sorry!" she squeaked. "I... I..."
"It's okay." The other girl was picking herself off the ground. Anaïs Carrasco was shorter than her by a few inches, but seemed far more solid. Thick, frondlike greenery hung over a happily sun-browned face. "Um, are you okay?"
"No!" She gulped, surprised at her own outburst. Anaïs frowned, then dragged her over to the nearest couch in the dorm lobby. A few other students were hanging around, and Monica blushed at all the attention turned towards her.
"Emotional emergency," Anaïs declared.
"Whrrat's rrong?" mewled Shisa, perhaps the cottage's most extreme case of gross structural deformity. Usual cases of GSD at least still looked humanish in outline. No one looking at Shisa saw more than an oversized housecat at first. She was sitting on the lap of Dawn, who herself possessed an unnaturally abundant fleece of frizzy golden curls.
The last cushion was occupied by a foreign student, one with golden eyes and a beautiful headscarf in shades of blue. Monica couldn't recall her name, but she made space for the sobbing bird-girl without being asked.
"It's... it's..." The explanation did not come easily, partly because it embarrassed her half to death to be such a mess over it. Daniel had been nice to her, yes, but only that one time, and it wasn't like she had any other connection with him, or... The others patted her head and gave her hugs as she cried it all out anyway.
By the end, she'd attracted a few more girls over to hear her sobby mess, and if anything they were angrier about it than she could ever see herself getting, though for different reasons. "It ain't fair," griped her roommate, a snaky young woman who normally didn't have more than two words for her a day. "Yinz know it's always the truth," Ophidian said. "Not all of us are as lucky as Dawn's been so far. Damn near none of us have. Those pretties get almost all the nice guys. And all the bad boys. And half the girls too, these days." She spat, and specks of varnish fizzled off the arm of the nearest chair. "So who's the hussy who's got yinz worked up?"
"I-I don't know her very w-well," Monica admitted. "B-but I've seen her in the cafeteria a lot. B-blonde, cute, and, and..." She took a big gulp of air. "I think her name is Erica?"
"Oh. That girl." Another voice broke in, and everyone turned to look at the sophomore who'd just walked by. Her words stung with their distaste. "Let me tell you about Erica von Abendritter...."
It had been a pleasant enough afternoon with Erica out. Mr. August had mailed out a selection of MP3s based on the suggestions of everyone in the band, which she'd listened to attentively on her headphones, taking notes of her reactions and thoughts of the emotions in each song. If she were to sing, it was best to know what sort of vibe she was projecting. Several songs were crossed off for being too angry.
The dorm room's phone had a buzzer light, which she saw flash well before she could hear its buzzing tone. "Yes?" she said into the receiver when she finally picked it up.
"Fio, it's, er, me." Her brother's voice was remarkably true to life over the phone. She could just pick out the quiver of nervousness in his tones, like he used to have when they were kids, and she was still the bigger sibling by grace of her ten-minute head start. In her head, she could imagine the movement of the lower lip that used to accompany it.
"Hello, Fra. Is everything well?" she asked.
"Could you, eh, come down for a bit? To talk? And, eh, soon? The old lady down her is staring at me like she is wishing she had a stiletto knife ready."
Calliope arrived downstairs a few minutes later to witness a very contrite Francesco Persico sitting on a stool at the dorm's front desk, looking sheepish as the assistant dorm mother fixed him in place with her glare. Ms. Plimsoll was not particularly good with children by her own admission, but the presence of a boy at the door probably violated a few rules, and the middle-aged cerberus was good with rules.
"Do you know this person, Ms. Persico?" she asked.
"I have the mixed fortune of being his twin sister, though older and wiser," Calliope replied. "Come on, Fra. Let us sit in the corner where we will bother no one."
It took a moment to get situated, and a few more before Fra would really talk. "How are you doing, Fio?" he asked. "Is everything alright with you?"
She humored him. "Oh, my life is fine and dandy. Rainbows and kittens for all. Why do you ask?"
"It is..." He ran a hand through his exemplar-perfect coif. "It is this school!" he finally blurted out in Italian. "This school is crazy and strange and nothing seems to go right. I... I cannot communicate properly and no one ever listens, and, and..."
She hummed an old lullaby under her breath, forcing calmness around her. "That is to be expected, you know," she replied in the same language. "It is a very different place, America."
"You seem to be doing well enough."
"I studied the language properly before I arrived."
Fra grunted. "You know what I mean," he said. "You have friends. You have, ah..."
"Spit it out," she told him.
"How do I meet these American women!?" he cried, thankfully still in Italian. "I try to be nice, I try to compliment them...."
Calliope snickered. "I have seen you in action, brother. It is not your words which cause problems, but your eyes and where they go."
"Only that once! And you try not looking when some lovely thing is on display like that! It is a miracle, a feast for the senses this school, but I am forced to content myself with merely looking!"
A grimace crossed her face. "You are not pleading your case well, Fra. I am hardly doing any better."
"But you have friends. You have girlfriends! Surely you could..."
She had to stop him right there. "I have friends who are girls, yes. They are dear to me, but they are not my girlfriends, as you would put it. Not yet and perhaps not ever. That is my business, not yours."
"What did you want, for me to set you up on a date out of pity?" His hangdog look answered that question for her. "No, I cannot and will not help you with that sort of thing. Be lucky that I am forgiving you for attempting to seduce Erica."
He had the grace to wince. "She, ah, told you about that?"
"Of course she did! Girls share that sort of detail, and as I am included in that number now I must gossip and gab with them. It has been... an experience," she admitted, "but a good one. You should try it."
"But Fio, talking to girls is the problem!"
"Not girls; boys. Make more friends, talk, communicate, learn the language and the customs and then start on the girls. Just do not start on mine," she added, poking him in the chest for emphasis.
"Ah, yes. Understood." Fra got up, kissing the air by each of her cheeks as he said goodbye. "I will, I will do what I can, I suppose. It's so different, though..."
"It is America," she replied. "And it is Whateley, even above that. If it were the same as home, that would be strange."
As her brother sullenly exited the cottage lobby, Ms. Plimsoll looked up from her paperback novel long enough to say, "Tieni la voce più bassa la prossima volta. Non abbiamo bisogno di conoscere tutti i dettagli della tua vita amorosa" in the decent Italian of someone who had paid attention in school. Then, for the benefit of every girl within earshot, she translated: "We do not need to know all the details of your love life." Fra's ears burned and his feet hastened after that.
––September 19th, Monday
The Monday morning experience did nothing to raise Fra's spirit. To him, the weekends were largely tolerable but for their lack of companionship. The days when he had classes were ordeals to be endured.
Second period was not the worst of them, though it held his worst subject by far: English. Math, he could work through easily enough with just the numbers. History, he could doze through and then read up on the material via the Italian encyclopedia sites. The English Language Learners class had the dual embarrassment of focusing on his weakness while being openly designed for students who had issues with the language or its instruction. He felt he was being labeled a dunce just for sitting in the room.
It had not been an uncommon sentiment at the start of the first week, though the others seem to have come to terms with it. Knowing that his twin sister was studying at a completely different level galled him, however.
The other students filed in. A tiny child with clicking toys like a planetario around her head grumbled as she took a seat up front, next to the girl with the plantlike hair. Several boys from Twain arrived as a group, but as far as Fra knew he was the only Emerson kid in the classroom. He leaned back to listen to their conversation anyway.
"C'mon, man, all the details. Please!" the one who looked like a human rhinoceros was begging the boy with the pink eyes – Daniel, Fra thought his name was.
"Ain't no details of the sort you're wantin'," the boy said. "We had a picnic, chatted, and played ball with Cookie. That's all."
Another Twain boy, the one who looked like a circus clown but was in no mood to be told so, snorted. "It's no use askin' him. He's as goody-goody as they get."
"But he's the only one of us getting dates!" rhino boy groaned. Fra's ears perked at that.
"One date," Daniel corrected. "And Erica is a very nice girl who would pound your face in if you suggested more details than actually happened, so I figger it's best I don't make any up." His friends all sniggered at that. "I will say that bringin' snacks helped."
"Dude," said the clown. "We don't all have supplies of donuts on hand."
"True enough." Daniel reached into his bag and began producing pastries at an astounding rate. "But they make good runner-up prizes, too."
Fra managed to snag a donut – chocolate sprinkles – while Daniel was doing his usual sharing with the entire class. There wasn't much time to savor the taste, though it was delicious as usual. His brain was busy with other things besides pastry and English. How had Daniel, soft and hardly handsome when compared to practically any exemplar male on campus, scored a real date before anyone else? And... Erica? Fio's roommate Erica? It was possible, he supposed, but it was not an uncommon name in this country, was it? He was so preoccupied with that riddle that he almost missed the last great entrance to the class that morning.
The noise heralded the arrival of that Japanese boy, Kenshin – a wave of excited chatter that rolled up the hallway and spilled through the doors. Kenshin seemed cool as ice, paying little attention to the squad of girls he was leaving behind, though he did turn at the last to bow in their direction, sending them into fits of laughter. With kisses blown through the air, the gang of ladies left for their own classes.
He was happy to notice he was not the only person staring at the door. A decent percentage of the Top 20 Most Beautiful Girls on Campus had... walked Kenshin to class?
"Non c'è giustizia," he muttered as he slumped into his chair and faced the day. There was no justice.
Second-period Earth Sciences class wasn't the sexiest of options on the school's list of courses. In fact, only her high-level German class had fewer people in attendance. Coming straight out of Power Theory in first period, that sort of made sense. PT counted as a basic science credit, and for a lot of students it probably seemed more immediately useful.
Erica didn't mind. The teacher had been interesting enough so far, and she'd always liked things like geology.
"Hey!" Chessa Barnes waved as she hopped into the room. Behind her, her little brother Marcus was dragging his feet.
"Hey yourself," said Erica. "Um, what's the matter with him?"
"Aw, he's a little bummed 'cuz they made him transfer here into Useful Sciences 101 after spending the last week arguing over his schedule." Chessa laughed as her brother thumbed his nose at her. "Sorry, bro, but after your first day of history class went so well, you thought they'd chance you repeating it?"
Erica's eyebrows knotted in confusion as the Barneses sat by her. "Um, what happened?"
"You wanna tell her?" The only response from Marcus was rude and nonverbal. "Ha, fine. Little bro's got... let's call 'em issues with explosives and missiles and a lot of other stuff. And he gets panicky over it at odd times. So, when the first slideshow of the semester was about a mutant terrorist attack..."
The boy groaned and buried his head in his arms.
"Wait, that was you?" asked Erica. "The teacher showed us the projection screen. What was left of it. We had a nice talk about PTSD after that."
Chessa was rubbing her brother's shoulders gently. "There, there... So yeah, he's not taking certain history courses until the shrink okays it, but he still needs somewhere to be."
"Coulda just given me extra lab time," Marcus grumbled.
"And like I said, Useful Sciences 101," Chessa concluded sunnily. "So here he is with me."
Marcus's mood improved once the class actually started. Mrs. Carmichael was the sort to get of on tangents – and occasionally rants – about the various aspects of science, and her teacher's bag held a surprisingly large amount of materials for experiments to demonstrate.
She had to wonder how much if any of this was on the exam, but it was hard to care when your teacher was producing miniature fireballs out of test tubes. Marcus was busy taking notes, few of which seemed connected to anything but explosive power.
"Did you check your email?" Chessa asked as they were packing up to leave.
"Not yet today," she admitted. "Why?"
Chessa's face was all grin. "Got one from the kid who runs the gaming club. Gazebo? Yeah, him. He's talking about getting a campaign going from October. Now I just gotta come up with a cool character concept who isn't, well, me." She winked an eye that was green all the way across, framed by a face that was oh-so-faintly scaled.
"I should come up with someone, too," Erica said. She'd run a game for a while over the summer with her cousin, but the character she'd used then was... had been Eric's. It'd felt weird, to say the least. "Maybe go for one of the weirder classes this time. Shake it up a bit."
"That's the spirit!" Chessa clapped her lightly on the back. 'Maybe we can even drag Marcus in."
"No thank you," said her brother.
She was glad that lunch periods were staggered at this school. The chaos of weekend breakfast was bad enough, but compressing it all into a single hour.... Calliope shuddered at the thought of all that emotion boiling over.
Erica was already at the table, eating a burger and chatting with the slightly metallic Chessa of Poe Cottage over a sheet of paper. Calliope's seasoned eye caught the distinctive features of a gaming character sheet. Next to them, Chessa's official twin Pat Barnes was balancing a fork vertically on his index finger as he made suggestions.
"Are you playing as well?" she asked Pat as she sat down.
"Me? Nah." The young man shook his head. "Me and dice get along a little too well. I'd be rolling high every time unless everyone turned around and trusted me not to cheat when they weren't looking." He swiped a handful of colorful dice from his sister's collection, shook them in his cupped hands, and then released them with a flourish. They bounced and rolled, coming to a stop with the numbers 18, 19, or 20 showing on every single one. "Succeeding on a Hail Mary roll is about as cool as it gets," Pat said, as if that explained everything. "And if it looks cool, I can manage it."
Calliope felt rather than saw the presence that suddenly loomed behind her, crackling with broken notes of negativity. She could also see the others' faces. Chessa's brassy tones went almost green with the patina of alarm, while Erica's perfect pallor was marred only by a slight frown. Pat as always seemed fresh as a rose, though there were certainly thorns hidden somewhere in there.
"Ah, gutentag, Brita," her roommate said. "And how are you today?"
She dared look up, seeing the chin of one Brita Baumann, a.k.a. StahlFaust of the Amazons, working its way up and down in the rhythm of a woman holding back a deluge of words. "Might I have a word with Erica and Calliope?" she asked the faux-twins. "In private? It is the business of the Euro-Promotional League."
Pat and Chessa shared an uncomfortable glance. "Um, sure," said the girl.
"We need to get refills," said the boy.
Once the two were away, the junior girl pulled out a chair – not one of the recently vacated – and sat down. "There is to be a group meeting next Friday evening," she told them. "Catered by the school. You may bring guests if you like, but..." StahlFaust pursed her lips in distaste. "I would be careful of who and what you allow to be close to you."
"Um, what's that supposed to mean?" asked Erica.
"Only that there are some who are not what they claim to be, or were born different from what they pretend to be now. They may say they are simply making themselves right, as the inside so the outside, but it is a perversion of nature." StahlFaust's words were directed mainly towards Erica, without even a glance towards Calliope, and yet they shook the Italian girl like an earthquake.
Brita wasn't talking about her... was she? No! that couldn't be right. Claudio had buried that detail of her mutation well, to the point that even the official power testers had suspected nothing. And why this roundabout way of saying it?
"U-um," she stuttered. "Is everything... good? Between us?"
The junior swiveled in her chair, turning a bright smile on. The emotion failed to carry over to her eyes or her voice. "Of course, we are," she assured. "I simply worry for my younger sisters in life. If I can defend and protect against the evils of the world, however, then I must. Until later." She stood and nodded stiffly to the Barneses as they returned with drinks and fruit bowls, but left without a word to her fellow Poesies.
"Whew." Erica let out one long sigh. "What was that all about?"
Calliope wanted to say, wanted to give voice to her fears and suspicions, but to do so would be to expose herself. Silence made her sick to her stomach, but the words might make her vomit.
"It was likely about me, I'm afraid," said Pat.
"Cosa?" blurted Calliope. "Eh, I am not sure that I follow."
The faux-twins shared another look, one she was not about to try and interpret. "Well..." Chessa began. "There's, er, more to Pat than meets the eye."
"I'm a female-to-male transgender," Pat said bluntly. "Anatomically, I'm a girl but I refuse to identify as one. The school allowed me to register openly under some legalese version of 'It's complicated' at the spot where you would usually tick male or female, so I am officially a male on the books, but I still have to use the girls facilities to change and shower. Stupid body-literalists," he grumbled.
"Aw... at least we still get to be roommates!" Chessa squealed happily.
"Er, you..." Calliope fumbled with her tongue.
"You can do that?" Erica finished for her. "Er, not to doubt, but you don't...."
"Look very female?" Pat laughed. "Cover your eyes, turn around, and give me, oh, thirty seconds."
Calliope and her roommate humored him. Privately she had her doubts. It was true that Pat was not a specimen of rugged machismo, but nothing in the way he acted or carried himself had struck her as being even remotely fake. If he had had to learn how to be a boy, then he had done so quite well.
Could he teach her how to do that, but in reverse? She squelched that thought almost as soon as it formed.
When Chessa announced the thirty seconds were up, she and Erica turned back around to see... someone completely different sitting in the chair next to Chessa. The young woman had the exact same mix of hair colors as Pat – only combed a different way and fixed with a barrette. She was wearing the same school uniform, but with a few buttons loosened and the top filled out more. Her face was dusted lightly with cosmetics, just enough to take advantage of a median skin tone and eyes that shifted like alexandrite in the cafeteria lighting.
"Well?" Even the voice had seemed to shift, from Pat's light tenor to a husky alto. Logically, Calliope could understand that they were practically the same register, but the sense was completely different.
Erica was gawking. "How?"
"It's mostly a matter of observation bias," Pat explained. "People see what they expect to see, and my powers can play on that. I tell them I'm a boy, dress appropriately, and their ideas of what a boy should be reflect back on me. Your brains needed about half a minute to shrug off the impression of a male me, and that was enough time to pop my corset, pin up my hair, and spray on an emergency face." He – yes, Calliope demanded that her brain try to use the right pronoun! – placed a funny gadget on the table. It looked like a combination plastic mask and asthma spray inhaler. "A toy that Marcus made. Nothing fancy, but if I need a bit of make-up in a hurry, it suffices."
Chessa giggled. "Of course now, he's gotta go through the next class period in drag,' she said, pointing to the clock.
"The things I suffer through," lamented Pat, draping a hand over her – his! – face melodramatically. "Oh well. C'est la vie. Let's go see if I can break anyone's brain today."
"Like Brita's?" Erica suggested.
Pat waved a hand in delicate dismissal. "Please. That one's brain got broken long ago, and not by me. Even for an Amazon, she's a bit... intense," he said. "It's like they've all internalized this big dogma of a gender war so deeply that the entire concept of gender has become stuck on a dualistic antagonism with no room for any gradation between them."
"Someone's been reading the pop psychology books again..." Chessa rolled her eyes. "Seriously, bro. We need to get to class soon."
"Fine, fine." Pat picked out one last piece of strawberry from his bowl and nibbled it teasingly before gulping it down. "If either of you are interested, I've got a decent collection of trans-lit in our dorm room. Available anytime."
"Ah, thank you," Calliope said politely. "I... it would be interesting to read about, I am sure." She tried not to let anything show through, to not stare after the girl-who-was-boy... whose butt looked ten times cuter in girl mode for some forsaken reason that had nothing to do with the uniform pants he wore. Questions bubbled below the surface of her thoughts, threatening to burst out into words.
If Pat sensed any of this, he was too wise to show it.
Back when he'd still been ordinary old Patrick Dulles, Pat had dreaded the thought of Phys. Ed. classes, where the athletic aristocracy of the school none too subtly enforced the status quo with jeers, leers, and well-aimed dodgeballs. As the years had gone on, the importance of the class had diminished in step with school budgets, until by the end of junior high it had been seen more as a joke. All the cool kids were in the real sports programs, and everyone else... well, they just hadn't mattered as much.
That was back in the quote-unquote real world, where people could easily be slotted into labeled niches. At Whateley, it was completely possible for the smallest girl in the class to bench-press a Buick, and such a level of surreality wouldn't help but seep into how physical education was addressed.
Pat's two Phys. Ed. classes were perfect examples. In the first, early every morning, he had practice sessions against robots, with Sensei Tolman critiquing his performance remotely. In that class of one, he was both the best student and oh so definitely the worst as well. The point was to learn, but that wasn't going to be easy.
As for the second class, he wasn't supposed to learn anything there.
It was an issue with his power. While the empathic feedback he possessed let him dash, dodge, spin, and hit with the best of them, it was more an effect that washed through him without leaving much behind in the way of experience or learning. As Sensei had said, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, learn." His power let him ride on the expectations of the crowd to skip to the "do" part without stopping by "learn" first – but only as long as the audience was there.
The only reason Pat was in the advanced martial arts class this year was because Sensei thought he'd make the perfect practice dummy. He'd survived so far.
His private musings on the matter continued uninterrupted even as he ducked and twisted to the right, allowing a very determined fist to pass through where his tonsils had been. Drawing without thought upon strings of impressions arriving from the teacher, the classmates, and his opponent herself, he was able to glide an arm down along the inside curve of that blow, slamming the palm of his hand into StahlFaust's nose.
Immediately after, he found himself flat on the floor, because that was the only way to avoid the wild flailing and flurry of German cusswords assailing the air above him.
Was he really in control? He sometimes wondered as his body went on autopilot and accomplished feats of absolute coolness while his brain simply desired to crawl into a corner and whimper.
StahlFaust had one of her tricks out: a pair of force bars, the blunt instrument equivalent to a lightsaber. He had to dance like a pro to be everywhere those bars were not, with every turn a spin and every step a preparation to leap out of the way.
"And... time!" came Sensei Tolman's shout. The force bars continued a second longer than necessary, missing Pat only thanks to a well-timed bunny hop. They left a sizeable dent in the dojo's floor matting.
"Even if that had connected," Sensei said, "it still would not have counted, StahlFaust. The challenge was to hit Hat Trick within one minute."
"Sorry, Sheriff Steely-Fists," Pat teased as he stepped off the mat. "But you'll just have to get your man another day." That got a muted chuckle from the rest of the class, who were all well aware of the Amazon's personal philosophy.
"You, you Geschlechtsverräter!"
"Save the language lesson for another day. And Hat Trick," Sensei Tolman said with a finger wagged in Pat's direction. "Stop trying to get her goat. Now, let's discuss what StahlFaust could've done to get a hit on him."
Next to Pat on the dojo's floor, Kenshin nodded along to the discussion for the first few points, but set his attention on his neighbor once the sensei's analysis began to repeat itself. "I do not understand why does she not like you," he said to Pat quietly.
"She thinks I'm a traitor to all women," Pat replied from the side of his mouth.
The Japanese boy's English was improving by leaps and bounds, but there were still little errors and vocabulary gaps from time to time. Normally Pat left that sort of thing to his adoptive big sis, since that was her job, but sometimes a guy just had to help in order for things to continue smoothly. He focused on the word 'traitor' in his mind, willing his power into activity. There was a flicker of warmth in his chest, one sign that his empathic ability was engaging proactively, and he followed that warmth back to Kenshin, allowing the feedback cycle to provide the best answer to the boy's question.
Slowly his mouth formed six syllables, with no input from his own speech center. "U... Ra... Gi... Ri... Mo... No..."
"Ah, uragirimono. Traitor. Understood." Kenshin nodded gratefully. "It is because of, ah..." The boy poked his chest with a pointer finger.
"Yeah." It was harder to conceal his build and breasts during gym class, so he largely didn't try. He kept a simple binding and bodice armor under his training gi, so his front wouldn't jiggle around, and used the girl showers with everyone else. No one but Brita really seemed to care, once he'd had a chance to explain his situation.
His powers made it easy to talk people around to understanding , but some people just couldn't let themselves be persuaded.
"Gentlemen, are you finished gossiping?" Sensei Tolman asked.
"Hai!" barked the Japanese boy, with Pat echoing.
"Good, because it's Kenshin's turn to put a hit on Hat Trick. Remember the rules: physical hit only, to the touch, weapons allowed, and I am the final arbiter. Now get up here!"
Pat and Kenshin scrambled onto the mat, facing each other from a distance of four yards and bowing. At Sensei Tolman's shout, they began.
... and nearly ended, right out the gate. Pat barely sidestepped the boy's initial lunge, a wooden practice sword suddenly in hand and slicing through the previously occupied space like something out of an old samurai movie. He didn't stop moving after that.
Fighting Kenshin was a different experience, he'd found. When the swords were out, the Japanese boy's mind became hyper-focused, a laser-pointer of attention aimed at the target. All else was relegated to the background, and his body seemed to choose actions on its own. Pat could tell where Kenshin was and which way he was headed, but that was it. In all other respects, the boy's mind was blanked to him.
He bobbed and weaved, relying an input from third-party impressions to tell him which way to go. In most fights, that would be enough. This was not most fights.
So when a second sword materialized at knee level as he dodged its twin aimed at his neck, there wasn't much to be done about it.
"A point!" called out Sensei. "Clocked at thirty-two seconds. Good job, Kenshin."
The boy bowed and returned to his seat.
"So, Hat Trick. What was the difference here?" she asked.
Pat didn't hesitate. "Emotion. Kenshin does not let his feelings intrude on his actions in a fight, which makes it more difficult to provoke the reactions I want, or to predict what he will do next." That was the safest way to put it – for himself, at least. There were some people he did not wish to inform about his reliance on empathy for his survival.
"A salient point, Hat Trick. Now, who will be the next contender..."
It was going to be a long class again, he realized.
That lunchtime encounter followed Erica all afternoon, nibbling at her attention. It wasn't the fact that Brita was a raging bitch – she'd pretty much figured that one out on her own – but rather the totality of what Pat was.
Had that... could that have been an option for her? she wondered. Losing Eric had been hard enough, cling though she did to the things he used to like. Staring at her reflection in the window during fifth-period algebra, she sadly concluded that it wouldn't have worked.
Unlike most of her fellow students, Erica could trace her changes to a single moment, when Eric had chosen to take a chance on what he thought was a super-strength serum, and set into motion a cascading series of side effects that had resulted in... her. The tests had been uncomfortably thorough, showing that even brain structure and chemistry had altered in subtle ways. Erica was a perfectly healthy, normal, heterosexual girl... who could bend iron bars with her bare hands. That practically counted as normal around here.
Still, the thoughts of might-have-been dominated that same female brain as she drifted through her final classes of the day. She could barely muster the focus needed to get Herr Auer's latest bad pun in German class, and did not notice at all the daggers that Kirsten stared at her.
On the plus side, it turned out she could speak flawless German when on auto-pilot like that. She didn't realize until after class, though.
––Tuesday, September 20th
Morning. Sun up.
Hello, Mr. Sun. Happy barks. Silly people in windows. Silly people yelling. Need wake up.
Daniel here. Happiness. Treats. More happiness.
Run! Run! Run! Boy needs exercise! Run more!
Erica! Run with friends!
"Good pup." Kind words. Pats on head. Happiness. Know Erica. Know Erica's friend. Learn name: Calliope. Pretty feeling. Other friend? Lick, lick, laughter. Younger girl. Physique. Funny name. Strong feeling.
Breakfast! Yum yum yum. Good taste. Treats better. But good taste. Healthy taste. Daniel's food healthy too.
Boy works. Loneliness.
Boy finishes. Happiness! Back to little house.
Left head naps. Guarding big house.
Right head naps. Guarding big house.
Daniel back! Lunchtime! Happiness.
Classtime! Boy and pup!
Important word: Survival. Good word. Help Daniel. Daniel help.
Obstacle course! Run! Run! Faster, Daniel!
"Good dog." Teacher happy. Ear scritches. Happiness.
Run, run, back to little house.
People this way. People that way. People say hello. People say goodbye.
Bird-girl walks by. Sad girl. Smell on her sadness.
Cute puppy eyes. Bird-girl smell less sad.
Good job. Good pup.
––Wednesday, September 21st
There was an open space, a sort of piazza in front of Melville Cottage. In her head, she laughed at the word assigned to the seven stories of high-quality living that was the wealthiest dorm on campus. It was... it was so American, both in its ostentatious nature and the understatement so poorly used to hide it.
But the piazza, that was more important right now. The broad square of cobbled pavement formed at the intersection of three sidewalks with the entry path to Melville itself, making it a major crossroads for much of the campus. And so it was a perfect location to set up.
They were doing three songs that night. Kieron had picked them out, but they each focused on a different instrument for their main features. Calliope was happy enough to sing whatever she was given. Showcase their talents, Mr. August had said, and so the Unladen Swallows were doing their best.
Emile had a medium-sized electric piano out, splitting his attention and his self between the two keyboards. Dalton was spinning his drumsticks in mid-air without touching them or letting them fall. Nick had his guitar tuned and its woofer up to 11. Electradyne was sitting on the side, messing with her instrument impatiently as she waited for her turn. Even Tobias, who regularly denied being a member despite being press-ganged into practice jam sessions, was settled on the nearby pavement.
Kieron was already playing a long, rambling number on his saxophone. Calliope still couldn't tell how much of it he was improvising on the spot. It was attracting an audience, at least. With a nod, she signaled to them that she was ready, and the Poe boy's instrumental piece morphed into the start of their first group effort. Emile's left side lay out a piano line that was almost drumlike, if softer and curvier to her ears. Nick stood at the ready.
Taking a deep breath and ignoring the crowd, Calliope began:
Dreamless dorm, ticking clock,
I walk away, from the soundless room,
Windless night, moonlight melts
My ghostly shadow to the lukewarm gloom,
Nightly dance, of bleeding swords
Reminds me that, I still live...
I will burn my dread!
I once ran away from the god of fear
And he chained me to my despair!
Burn my dread!
I'll break the chain and run,
Till I see the sunlight again.
I'll lift my face, and run to the sunlight...
She took the chance to watch the crowd during Kieron's long saxophone interlude. All her friends were out there, of course. Tia and Hikaru actually lived in Melville, and had brought a good chunk of their floor down to the show with them. Likewise, most of Dickinson's freshman floor had dropped in, and the junior high kids as well. Essemmelle had traded out her usual planetario of baubles for a set of glowsticks.
Fra was over on the far end with some other boys. Calliope's eyes narrowed at the sight of the idiot, that boy whose name she'd never bothered to learn. Vague memories of the dorm mixer suggested that he might be nicer than her initial impression of him, but she was suspicious anyway.
Erica was sitting with Daniel, front and center before her. They were waving, and she had to resist the urge to wave back because Kieron's super-extended solo was winding back to her.
Voiceless town, tapping feet,
I clench my fists, in pockets tight.
Far in mist, a tower waits,
Like a merciless tomb, devouring light
Clockwork maze, end unknown
In frozen time, a staircase stands.
Shadows crawl, on bloodstained floor,
I rush straight ahead with a sword in hands
Cold touch... of my trembling gun...
I close my eyes... to hear you breathe...
The song was new to her, something that Kieron's dad had imported on CD years ago, but it had a lively current to it, a rebellious flow that pushed a soul to stand up to, well, anything. Without real context, Calliope could not say what the lyrics were referencing, so she let her heart pick the moods, and what she projected to the audience was courage, hope, and a sense of purpose.
This dovetailed neatly with the third section of the song that rode in on Emile's piano duo-solo.
I will burn my dread!
This time I'll wrestle down the god of fear,
And throw him into hell's fire!
Burn my dread!I'll shrug the pain, and run till I see the sunlight again.
Oh... I will run, burning all regret and dread.
And I will face the sun with the pride of living...
The god of fear... again, she had no context, but she could feel that divinely infernal presence, that shadowy presence upon her heart nearly every day. Looking up again as she sang, the faces of her personal girl squad could be seen cheering her on.
She nearly choked on the knot of emotions, but somehow managed to keep it all out of her voice. There were her hopes and fears laid out before her. Calliope had tried hard to be social, and was rewarded with friends like Erica and Vicky, Nina and Neff... but she had been banging her head against an emotional wall for just as long.
Could she dare? Perhaps for all or nothing? Slay the god of fear and burn his poisons from her soul, at the potential cost of friendship?
No. The god still held to a corner of her heart. Some things needed more courage than she could muster.
"Wow, that was cool."
"You can say that again." Beside her, Daniel was applauding with everyone else as the first song ended. The keyboardist and the kid with the sax never really stopped, instead going into a holding pattern of layered sounds as Nick retuned and Cally got a sip of water. "Don't really know much 'bout music," the boy admitted.
"Oh? Because of the whole..." She wasn't sure how to say it, so she blazed forward with a limp hand wave. "The whole religious commune thing?"
"Ayup. The Reverend wasn't that big into music, even for stuff like Sunday school. And now, well, listenin' to the radio sometimes and I can't see the point."
"That may have more to do with what's on the radio these days," she pointed out.
"Not like I'd've known the difference."
On the makeshift stage, the next tune in the set was announced by a heavy guitar riff. Calliope's voice rang out for a few lines before the guitar solo dominated again.
Now I face out! I hold out!
I reach out to the truth of my life,
Seeking to seize, on the whole moment, yeah...
Erica's hand sidled over to take Daniel's, and while the boy tensed a little in surprise, he didn't pull away either. She leaned in, and this time she didn't chicken out at the last second.
In fierce competition with Nick's wailing chords, Cally's voice belted out a long sequence of words that were almost rap, then finished with a series of reprises and refrains syncopated with the heavy beat of Dalton's drumsticks.
Now I face out! I hold out!
I reach out to the truth of my life,
Seeking to seize on the moment,
to now break away...
Oh God let me out, can you let me out
Can you set me free from this dark inner world,
Save me now, last beat in the soul...
He didn't really get this music. The words came fast and ferocious, twisting the vowels in that idiotic way that English did until his ears, trained in a more sensibly phonetic tongue, couldn't decipher what his own sister was singing. The words simply sped through the air like bullets of emotion, and that part at least he understood. Fear, courage, hope, all in that first song. The second was more filled with hope at its most victorious.
It didn't make the handprint on his face sting any less, but his mood was buoyed.
"Awful timing, F-dude," said the young man standing next to him. Fra wasn't sure how he and Macarthur had become friends, though it had definitely happened at the dorm mixer. Mac was a stereotype of the American exemplar: tall and lean, square jawed with a permanent hint of stubble, and wavy brown hair that never needed combing to look good. Once he grew into it all, at least.
Fra felt like he was in the same boat. He was good-looking, but he knew that he'd only get more handsome as it all came together. That kid with the saxophone in Fio's band looked the same way. So did most of Emerson Cottage and about half of Melville.
Oh God, it's enough. Are you satisfied?
It's already disgusting to dance in your palm.
Save me now, last beat in the soul...
The most frustrating part was that he didn't even know why he'd been slapped this time. Conversation may not have been his strongest asset, but he was working on it, had even gotten some pointers from Mac and his other friends about interesting American idioms and colloquialisms to use so he would appear more suave.
His cheek burned. That girl had applied bright orange energy to that open-hand slap of hers. Hopefully it would heal quickly. Either way, he resolved to figure out just what it was he had said, and how he had messed it up.
"F-dude, your sister's awesome!" Mac was shouting in his ear, beating out the noise of the band and the crowd by a thin margin. The rest of the words were drowned out entirely, but Fra nodded amicably to whatever it was.
Fio was right: friends were important to have. He needed to listen to them better.
She'd come to appreciate trees so much more since her mutation, Monica had. An absurdly low body weight combined with a weak PK assist meant that she could go straight up most tree trunks with ease, and there was something comfy about roosting on a low branch.
Being this close to Melville left her nervous. All those beautiful people. But she'd promised Electradyne she'd see the show, so... She clapped at the end of the first song, and was eagerly awaiting the third, which was supposed to include Electra somehow. She never made it past the second, though.
From her roost, she could see a head of gold, sitting next to someone topped with brown. Monica's eyesight was quite sharp these days, and there was no mistaking that moment, that kiss...
She'd managed to fly a good ten yards the other way before realization set in and she plummeted to the earth. The grass was soft enough, but it still hurt. In the twilight, no one seemed to notice. The instrumental solo from the third song carried far, but her heart wasn't in it to properly enjoy Electra's musical stylings.
Two warm noses pressed against her ears, followed by friendly licks. In spite of herself, she giggled and looked up to see the two heads of Daniel's dog staring at her with matching puzzled expressions. Cookie whined, then got down on its belly.
"H-hey..." she said shakily, patting their heads. "I d-don't suppose..." Her brain flashed up another repeat of that kiss scene, barely five minutes past. "N-no, never mind..."
One doggy head rested on her lap while the other licked her face. For such a big animal, Cookie hardly smelled at all, even when she hugged it tight around one neck.
"Y-yeah. I'm... I think I'm alright," she said. "Thank you."
Cookie whoofed softly, then both heads raised to stare into the evening twilight. She followed their gaze to find... Oh, Lord. Daniel and Erica were heading this way. Monica tried to get up, to leave quietly, but her legs were noodles and her butt still hurt from the landing.
"Whatcha got, pup?" Daniel called.
"Uh, um, hi." In the back of her head, a teeny-tiny Monica was screaming in frustration. What kind of hello was that?
Erica knelt down on the grass beside her. "Hey. It's... Whirlibird, right? One of Tanya's friends from Whitman. Is everything okay?" Blue eyes turned hard. "No one's been harassing you, have they? I've been hearing stories...."
"N-n-no, nothing like that." Not today, at any rate. "I-I gotta get back to Whitman...."
"We can walk with you," the golden girl offered.
No, no, no! she thought. "...okay," she squeaked out. Cookie was looking at her with one set of doggy eyebrows raised, but the dog couldn't say anything. Probably. Monica was almost as mute on the way to her dorm, letting the other two fill the space with words. She could almost be thankful for their descriptions of the short concert, because Electra would surely quiz her on it later.
When they arrived, she tried to make the goodbye quick and painless, but Erica surprised her with a big hug that nearly squished her. "Don't give up," the golden girl said. "Whatever's wrong, it'll get better, or you'll find a way around."
"Um. Thank you," she mumbled. Monica lingered by the cottage front windows a few minutes longer, watching them walk away, arm in arm. Then she crept back to one of the comfy chairs, sank into its cushions, and groaned.
Why oh why did that girl have to be so nice?
Normally Kirsten did not mind covering for her friends on desk duty in the early evenings. The actual work was light, and it gave her a chance to both study and engage in light socializing. She'd been in the middle of helping a froshie with some math homework when little Whirlibird arrived with von Abendritter of all people.
"Um, you okay?" the freshman girl asked. In Kirsten's hand, the pencil had just snapped in two.
"Ja. Ahem, yes..." She shook her head. "I will be, at least. Only, I need to get over the sudden urge to punch someone in the face."
The girl, a plain young thing with frizzy brown hair and strangely intense eyes behind her taped-up glasses, nodded sagely. "I know how that is. The administration's barred me from issuing fight challenges on weekdays for now, but man is it hard to hold it in when you really wanna clock somebody..."
That got a curious look out of Kirsten. Nothing about the girl really screamed "fighter" to her, beyond a certain predatory gaze. "Is that so... Ah, pardon, but i forgot your name..."
"Rachel. Rachel Altus."
"Well, Rachel, what would you do if..." The conversation continued for another ten minutes, and the girl proved to be quite creative in describing how she'd beat up various people on and off campus. It was likely all bluster, but little Rachel seemed as earnest as anyone could be when it came to brawling. Carefully, casually, and with great circumspection, Kirsten brought the conversation back around to von Abendritter...
Cally was going to be out late, she'd said, hanging out with the band and other music kids. Erica didn't mind. That just meant she could count on having privacy for a while longer. Back in the dorm room, she got ready for bed, taking a quick shower while the evening line was still short before changing into pajamas and checking mail.
As expected, two files had arrived from Uncle Adolf earlier in the day. She set them aside for later perusal. With a quick series of taps, she roused her smartphone out of its hibernation and bade it reach out to touch someone.
Brrrp... Brrrp... Brrrp... The dial tone continued for a good thirty seconds, and Erica was beginning to second-guess her timing just as the person on the other end picked up. "Um... hello?" her cousin answered groggily.
"Penny?" Erica said. "Are you alright? It's awful early to sound like that."
From one time zone to the left, Penelope Stein chuckled. "Don't worry. I had a long day; that's all."
"School doing you in, huh."
She could hear the older teen's shrug in her voice. "Mostly the extra-curriculars. Safta Margit's determined to exercise this new danger sense of mine as thoroughly as possible, and she's gotten to be... creative."
"Oh dear." Erica's Great-Aunt Margit could be subtle when she wanted to be, but more often than not that still somehow involved explosives. "So, um, I could use some girl-talk."
A sharp laugh carried across the line. "Coming from you, cuz, that just sounds bad. What's the disaster?"
"Nothing like that!" She inhaled, exhaled, and continued. "It's, um, well, um... I had a second date tonight..."
"Hold up! When was the first? And who's the guy?"
"Last Sunday, and his name's Daniel. We, ah, we met last Friday, after, well..." She quickly recounted the scene as it had played out with Kirsten. Penny snorted appreciatively at the part where Erica backhanded the girl. "Then Daniel came by to see if I was all right, and he was nice, and I tried to kiss him..."
"Whoa, whoa! You actually made the first move?"
"Yes... Well, tried, like I said. Missed the first time. Um, didn't miss tonight." Erica winced as Penny's raucous shouts of jubilation briefly overloaded her earphones. "...ow. You don't have to be that loud..."
"Don't I?" her cousin asked. "Seriously, that's a big step, cuz! It's not like you got much experience either. That must've been your third..."
"First kiss," she said definitively. "I'm saying so right now."
"But what about the time..."
"Doesn't count!" Her face desperately wanted to blush, but she knew by now that the sensation was largely in her head. "Er, but... I wanted to ask..."
"Yeeeeees?" Penny drawled.
"What's supposed to come next?"
There was a long pause, followed by: "Cuz, I know you can't see this, but I am face-palming so hard right now. Do not make me give you the Talk."
"Not that part!" Oma had been very thorough about teaching that subject over the summer, and Erica was in no mood to get dragged eternally screaming down the ruins of Memory Lane. "Just... how to date? We've had a picnic, played catch with his dog, been to a little concert...." She heaved a sigh. "But, where to from here?"
"Well, why did you ask him out?"
"Why? Um, he seemed nice, and yanno, caring. He's a good listener and storyteller, and he's great with pastries... I guess I wanted to know more."
"And now that you do?"
"He's still a great person. I just don't know how to deal with him, with... well...." She patted at her pajamas, acutely aware of how they fit on her. "Um... everything."
Penny didn't laugh, or even chuckle under her breath this time. "Look, cuz. You're all of fourteen, even if it's easy to forget that sometimes, and this is some senior-level dating angst building up here. You would not believe some of the crap that goes on at my oh-so-mundane high school over here, and half of it happens because some kid's got so desperate over dating that others can take advantage. Don't be like that. At your age – and I say this from the lofty heights of almost-eighteen – you don't worry about if it's going anywhere."
"So, what should I..."
"Enjoy life, go out on another date, and then let your head decide. Not your heart, because it doesn't know what's good for it. Certainly not your glands, either, because those know what's good for them, and it ain't always good for you. Your brain's the thinky bit, so think! If you think it's going somewhere, then maybe it is. And if you think it's not, then you're probably right."
Erica blew air out her lips as she stared up at the ceiling from the comfort of her mattress. "You're probably right..."
"Of course I am."
"Humble, too," she snarked. "Well, thank you for listening. I should let you get some rest."
"Thanks, cuz. And good luck."
She hung up the phone, then turned her attention back to the computer screen upon her study desk, where the two files from Uncle Adolf were waiting. Clicking on the one titled 'Birthday List', she settled in for a good read. Cousin Penny wouldn't be almost-eighteen for much longer, after all.
––Thursday, September 22nd
For all that she'd had a long evening the night before, Calliope felt so full of energy the following morning that her blood practically fizzed from the excess jubilation. Simply opening her mouth was now cause for concern, because she couldn't stop singing happy songs to herself while running with Erica and Physique, or in line for the showers, or in the showers themselves, which soon reverberated with elated Italian folk tunes.
"Will you cut that out?" shouted a girl from one stall over. A long arm of bluish PK energy reached over the partition to wave a finger at her. "Some of us are allergic to chipper this early in the morning!"
"It ain't gonna kill ya, Mairead!" yelled another girl from the opposite side.
Calliope giggled and continued to sing, if a bit pianissimo, as she washed her hair. When she quit the shower, towel wrapped securely around, it was to a round of applause from her fellow Dickinsonians. A quick bow nearly turned disastrous as her towel slipped, but she recovered quickly. Friendly laughter accompanied her to the mirrors.
She was no longer so nervous in this place, surrounded by all the beautiful young ladies. Seeing herself naked in the mirror every day for the past six months had helped cure her of the novelty, and a sense of embarrassed self-preservation kept her eyes from wandering as far as she'd like. Well-intended compliments on her face or figure no longer forced a blush to bloom across her face, and she'd come to enjoy the frisson of excitement such words gave.
Neff sat herself down on the stool beside Calliope, dark skin gleaming with rivulets from the shower's spray. The girl's towel was draped over her shoulders instead of around the chest, and Calliope had to force her eyes to remain forward-facing as her friend applied treatment to her short, frizzy shell of hair, without seeming to care how that affected the placement of her towel.
"Great show last night," the black girl said. A sunny smile lit up that corner of the room.
"Grazie," Calliope said. "I'm ... I'm happy everyone could make it to see."
Neff winked. "No need to worry about that. You got a complete package going on, girl! Voice, looks, style – just need to work on your moves. Shake those hips a bit more on stage, put 'em to good use!"
Erica pulled out the stool on the other side, providing a deep contrast to Neff's rich brown colors with her own ivory skin and golden locks. Her roommate's towel was a dark blue wrap around her chest and waist. "What're we talking about now?" she asked.
"Cally needs to brush up on her moves," Neff repeated. "Get with the program and shake it up! And down," she added.
"And all around?" Erica said with a grin.
"Ekh-zackly! She's got it, so now she has to learn to flaunt it!"
"Could we please be having this conversation someplace else?" Calliope said, drying her hair as discretion would allow.
"Yes, please," came Mairead's voice from behind. "Some of us still need a turn at the counter!"
"Sorry!" the three of them said in chagrined unison. A minute later, and they were out of the grumpy teen's hair for good.
By some strange confluence of probability, their team's table was almost fully populated at breakfast. Coming up the stairs with a laden tray and an extra plate of strudel, courtesy of Daniel, Erica had to eye her approach carefully in order to choose the best space, and in her vigilance pulled in many other details.
Bianca and Tanya were still not talking to each other – though that seemed more on the lavender girl than the pale girl from Chicago. They sat at opposite ends of the table, with Bianca's gaze sometimes turning to bridge the distance. Tanya's lightly purpled eyes never seemed to be looking back. Erica still had not heard the exact reasons for this, as no one really seemed to want to say.
In between the two poles sat everyone else. Kenshin and Hikaru were front and center, their plates moved to the side as they concentrated on two identical plain sheets of paper covered in decidedly non-identical handwriting. Each had an odd sort of marker pen, almost a paintbrush at its tip, which they used to create strange, flowing letters.
"Okay... what's going on now?" she asked Laura as she and Cally took the best seats left.
The blue girl had to think for a moment. "Well, it sort of started with a comment about Hikaru's choice of breakfast..."
"She has fish – marinated – with everything!" Tanya said. "I just wanted to know what kind..."
"So, what kind?"
"Mackerel," the lavender girl replied.
"That," Laura continued, "led to a convoluted lecture of the cultural significance of the fish..."
Kenshin lay his pen down and slapped the table. "Hai!" Hikaru finished at about the same time, and now they presented the papers to Bianca for judging. The girl pursed colorless lips, then tapped Kenshin's paper.
Next to Bianca, Morgana had her smartphone out. "Okay, now do... sea bream!" The two Japanese students grabbed their brush pens and began again.
"...and the next thing we know, it's a competition to see who can write the most elegant versions of each fish's name in traditional Japanese characters. The really complicated ones, not the ones like letters," Laura explained with a twitch of an eyebrow. "There was even a break to argue which version of the symbol for octopus was correct."
"For tako, the lines atop the second radical should slope outward," Hikaru stated firmly, not looking up from her paper.
"I do not want to con... contra-dikuto you," replied Kenshin, "but the official hyōgai listing has them sloping inward."
"As you can see, they're not willing to agree to disagree," Laura said.
"So it’s any fish?" Erica asked.
Laura shook her head. "It has to be available on sushi. That’s about the only rule though. They even did stuff like eggplant and…" She made a face. "Whale, if you can believe it."
Erica grinned, then waited for the lull when Morgana was preparing for the next word. "Crawdad!" she called out.
"Seriously?" Hikaru asked.
"I have it on good authority that you can get crawdad sushi in New Orleans," Erica confirmed.
Hikaru made a face that spoke volumes concerning the state of Japanese cuisine in the United States, before illustrating a pair of intricate symbols on her paper. "There. Are you happy?"
"Eh!? Zarigani? Uso..."
"Witness the perfidy of Americans who think they can improve on perfection," Hikaru said, the sarcasm strong in her voice. After a pause, she repeated herself in Japanese. Her would-be bodyguard shook his head in disbelief.
Bailey was peering over Hikaru's shoulder at the elegant mess of calligraphy. "Um, d'you think you could teach me a few of those?" she asked. "Looks cool."
The Japanese girl had more than enough sense of noblesse oblige to go along with the request, demonstrating to her audience a few symbols that were common away from the sushi menu.
Then she handed the brush pen to Bailey. The Poe girl held it tightly between her fingers, focusing her eyes and attention on its tip. With a flourish, she copied one of the demonstrated symbols, 愛 for love, in a clear hand. "This kooky mind stuff is good for something after all," she said happily.
Erica gulped down the last of her orange juice, then nudged Laura. "Hey, got a minute?"
"What is it?" the blue girl asked.
"Um, my uncle's asked me to, um, ask around to see if I can get some things made. I thought I should definitely ask you first." She pulled out the list and showed it to her friend.
Laura perused it carefully, indigo lips pursed. "Hm... honestly? I might be able to make some of this stuff, but it's not anything I've looked into. Yet. Maybe in a year or two I might be comfortable with trying, but as it is my devises still tend to be a little unstable without me there for maintenance. And your roommate's managed to get me on the hook for stuff with her band. Sorry, but I gotta decline."
"No sweat," said Erica. "Just thought I'd ask. So what are you working on?"
"Oh! Well, there's this problem that Dr. Speers set me this week..." The blue devisor rattled off a verbal paragraph of technical terms, only a few of which Erica actually understood. She nodded appreciatively, though, and posed questions whenever an opening showed itself.
She saved the strudel for later, savoring every last crumb before heading to class.
She had gotten quite fond of her study group in Power Theory. The empath corner was a circle of peace and calm for the most part, as she and Heartfinder did their best to synchronize their feelings and head off runaway panic attacks. The junior high girl with the tapered red pupils was getting better at shields, but the other three could feel how wobbly they still were.
At the moment, Heartfinder was working with Pat Barnes, using the boy's innate empathetic feedback and resonance to measure how well she was doing. By the way she fluttered her eyes, doing well was not the top thing on her mind. Calliope wondered if anyone had mentioned Pat's situation to her yet.
Bailey was currently trying to teach her the basics of psychometry, the reading of emotional imprints left behind on common items. The girl from Poe swore up and down that the rock in her hand was the anchor for a happy thought, but no matter how Calliope tried, she could only feel the echo of it via Bailey's own impressions.
"Okay, everyone!" announced the teacher, Mr. Bergamot. "For the second half of today's class, we are going to switch things up. Each of you will pair off with someone from a different group, someone you do not know well for preference, and interview each other about your powers. Your homework for today will be your report on this other person, so take notes! You have twenty minutes. And... go!"
In the mad shuffle that followed, Calliope got pushed and pulled by the warring emotions of a class full of teens who may not know who they wished to work with, but had firm ideas of who they did not. Slightly dazed and completely confounded, it took her a moment to realize just how many friends she did have in this class, and how the teacher's suggestions disqualified them all.
Which was why, when the dust settled, she found herself sitting across from a smirking, round, lime-topped face that was only slightly familiar, and not as a friend. Calliope recalled meeting him the other week with the rest of of the junior high students, and not liking the experience.
"So hey," the boy called Meatball began. "I googled Italian sizes after that last time, and a 2B is the equivalent to a 34B, so I got it right after all." His chubby cheeks beamed happily, as if this was some great accomplishment.
Calliope sighed. "Ah, Meatball..."
"Okay, Bryon. Please do not tell me that your superpower is solely the ability to guess a woman's brassiere size?"
The boy chuckled. "It's a good trick, innit?"
She shook her head. "We do not have too much time. Why don't you start?"
"Alright, then! Name?"
"Fiorella Persico. Code name Calliope."
"Eh... 154 cm."
"No," she said flatly.
"Okay, okay... so no asking your measurements?"
The sharpest thing in her bag at that moment was a fresh pencil. It was now pointing straight at Bryon's nose. "Either we do the assignment or you get sent to Doyle," she promised. "Now, to answer the questions you should be asking, I am an empath, receptive and projective, and I can focus my talents through music. Anything else?"
"Uh, um... Does the style of music change anything?" He gulped as the pencil's tip wavered before his eyes.
"Sometimes," she said. "The lyrics help set the tone in my head more than anything, but some styles tend to focus on specific emotions as their main theme. Lullabies calm people down. Heavy metal gets them excited or angry. That sort of thing."
"What about pop music? Like, the current Top 40?"
"Vapid and dimwitted," Calliope stated with an irritable face. "Now it's your turn. Name?"
"Bryon von Deen."
"Four foot nine."
"Weight?" She screwed her face into a smirk at his reaction.
"Um... one hundred twenty pounds." He shifted his chair, which did nothing to hide how solid (she was being charitable) his belly was.
"Power?" Now the boy looked uneasy. "Cosa! It is not really that stupid trick, is it?"
"Nope. The testing guys won't even try to check for an ESP power. Like, really!"
"Really, indeed. Now answer the question."
"It's..." Bryon ran a hand through lime-green hair. "Er, healing. Really!" he said to her doubting face. "I, um, increase the healing speed of just about anyone for just about anything by a few levels of regen, as long as I'm... uh..."
She waited impatiently, tapping her pencil on the desk.
"Um, as long as I'm holding their hand," the boy finally admitted.
"That is it?" she asked. "That is what you were so nervous about?" She laughed, and Bryon's face went the color of a fresh beet.
"Hey, keep it down!" he hissed, checking to see if anyone was listening. The rest of the class seemed more preoccupied with their own interviews, except for that one pair in the corner who were putting out a small desk fire with the class extinguisher.
"What's the matter with them knowing?" she asked.
Bryon shook his head. "You're a chick. You wouldn't understand. Us guys gotta at least try and look tough and manly, but holding hands ain't either of those. What are other guys gonna think? What are girls gonna think if they see me holding hands with another guy?"
"I suspect none of the girls would care," Calliope said archly, "because your favorite trick makes you too much an asshole to deal with as it is." She sighed at the look on the boy's face. "Eh, let's get this over with. Tell me how it feels when your power's on..."
She somehow pulled enough detail out of him to make a decent report – she hoped. Calliope even shared her own experiences with Bryon, unasked, because she felt it reflected poorly on her if his homework for this assignment was complete garbage. The conversation had become almost cordial by the time Mr. Bergamot called the end of the class.
"Okay, everyone! That's it for the day. Be sure to mail your reports in by midnight tomorrow, and I will be checking the time-stamps. Oh, and Ms. Abendritter, could I speak with you after class?"
Calliope's head whipped around, locating her roommate on the far side of the room with one of the Poesies – Zapper, her name was. The blonde girl looked as surprised and confused as one might expect.
"What's going on?" she asked Erica quietly as they got their bags together.
"Search me," came the reply. "I'll let you know in third period, okay?"
"Grazie." She hefted her bookbag and ran off to history class. It would not be anything too bad, surely. Mr. Bergamot was too nice for that.
As soon as the last student exited, leaving her with the teacher and Hannah Sammish, acting TA. Erica approached the desk to ask, "Um, what was it you wanted?"
Mr. Bergamot removed his glasses, placing them neatly folded on the wooden surface. His eyes, when he brought them up to meet hers, were colder and harder without those panes of glass to shield them. "What I would like," he said in a too-calm voice, "is to know why you dissembled on your admissions form."
"Excuse me?" Perhaps her ears weren't working right, because she had no idea what he was talking about.
"On your school application, it clearly states that you are a mutant, and yet I have here..." Sheets of paper knocked against the tabletop as he tapped them into an orderly stack. "Bloodwork results which show that not only are you not an active mutant, but that you lack any of the identified gene complexes associated with mutant powers of any sort. So, why did you present false data, and what are you?"
"I'm sorry!" squeaked Hannah. "I-I commented on how your exemplar trait felt different, a couple times at least, and he said he'd check, and... and..."
"It's okay," Erica told her. To Mr. Bergamot she said, "I'm sorry, sir, but I'm not certain how much I can divulge. Do you have some proof of security clearance?"
"What?" Now it was the teacher's turn to look confused. "Fine. Be that way. We shall take this to the top. Come along." He waved Erica to follow him as he headed to the door.
"Um, where are we going?" asked Hannah.
"You, my dear Assay, are going to do your independent study work. Ms. Abendritter and I will be discussing security clearances with someone whose authority she cannot question."
"Um, who?" Erica was already wincing in anticipation of the response.
The answer to her question worked in a fine office, located high in the school's administrative annex and with a broad vista of the of the academy viewable from its windows. Every square inch of wood – be it desk, shelves, chairs, or wall panels – had been oiled and polished until they gleamed with reddish-brown warmth. Brass fittings had taken a mirror-like shine, and the old leather of the upholstery had the smell of antique sophistication. The carpet underfoot devoured footsteps with its soft, pliant surface.
It was an Old World sort of charm that the room held, accentuated by elegant portraits and imperious tomes, by the mathematically precise ordering of writing implements and the miniature tree gracing the still.
Dr. Mazarin, Headmaster of Whateley Academy, fit inside this space like an integral piece of a complicated puzzle. The elder gentleman was silver of both hair and beard, with his van Dyke goatee trimmed simply and effectively. He walked with a cane, which to Erica was immediately suspect. Someone who could gain the rank he had in the Syndicate, and then the Headmastership of this school, that was not a person who would ever slow down when it came time to strike.
"Sir!" Mr. Bergamot said from the door to the office. "Thank you for seeing us on such short notice..."
"For your sake," said the Headmaster, "I hope that this is worth the time I have set aside for it." Eyes like stormclouds passed over Erica. "And this is?"
"Erica von Abendritter, sir," she said before the teacher could, and with a salute for good measure.
"And what brings you here today, Ms. von Abenritter? Aside from your teacher."
Mr. Bergamot's face was half-purple from frustration, which he released in a short wave of words. "Sir! This student purposefully misrepresented herself on her admissions forms and throughout powers testing, stating she was a mutant when she is in fact not. When confronted, she claimed a need for security clearances, in complete obstruction of my assigned work at this institution. Please, sir, order her to divulge the details immediately!"
"Well?" Dr. Mazarin said simply, gesturing to Erica.
The girl chose her words carefully. "With all due respect, sir, I do not possess all of the information Mr. Bergamot is requesting, and I doubt I could explain it well if I did. I can only offer to ask my Uncle Adolf to send a copy of the pertinent file to you directly, for you to decide what to do next."
"Adolf, you say?" The Headmaster stroked his beard thoughtfully. "Far be it for me to assume, for it is not an uncommon name in some areas, but might I know the full name of this uncle of yours?"
"Adolf Stein, sir, born Adolf von Abendritter but he took his wife's name later on."
"And would his old code name be Taginbert?" he asked, eyes of storm fixed upon her.
"In fact it would, sir. Should I be sending my regards?" She did not bother wasting energy on surprise or wondering how the Headmaster had come to his conclusion. The man could not have gotten where he was without both connections and intel. Adolf Stein had turned those two things into a sort of superpower all their own, and she knew from experience what her uncle could discover in a short period of time.
"If you could, please. I have had the pleasure of working with your uncle in the past, as well as the pain of working against him. Would you trust me if I say that I do in fact have the sort of clearance and credentials which Adolf Stein would respect?"
Erica nodded. "Yes, sir."
"Then please, tell what you can right now, before Mr. Bergamot dies of an apoplectic stroke." The Headmaster pulled a chair out for her to sit upon. The teacher had to fend for himself, once his face stopped making stunned fish impressions.
"Are you aware of my uncle's origins, sir?" she asked to begin with.
"Vaguely, in that I know he had a Nazi connection of some sort that he'd carefully extirpated from his record."
"Well then, to start, he and my grandfather were two of forty children created by the experiments of the World War II era theme villain, Baron Dämmerung, to be his next generation of empowered übermenschen. They were the only successes, being naturally healthier, stronger, and smarter than most baselines."
"Five percent success rate..." Mr. Bergamot muttered as he took notes. "Not terribly bad for that day and age..."
"Ninety-five percent fatality rate," she corrected. "They were the only survivors, and that's the first generation. Extensive intervention was necessary for the second, my mother, to be born and remain healthy. All of that carried over into me. My grandfather had lots of words to describe it, like epigenetics and homeotic boxes, but it's all Greek to me. All I know is that when I was exposed to a serum that was only intended to fix and optimize genetic expression via epigenetic tags, it turned on things that my blaggard of a great-grandfather had only dreamed of making reality. Enhanced senses, amplified muscles, and a limited PK force-field projection, to be precise. That is all in the official record," she added.
"As a list of mutant traits," the teacher protested. "Which these..."
"Are powers derived from an apparent non-normative combination of genetic and epigenetic traits," concluded the Headmaster. "And, triggered or not by outside forces, they seem to conform to the same basic form of known mutations. You may leave now, Ms. von Abendritter," he said. "If you hurry, you should be able to make it to your third-period class. Contact your uncle and inform him of the situation. I await his call with interest."
"Yes, sir!" Erica saluted again, then quit the room as fast as was seemly.
What was that all about? she had to wonder again. Like the Headmaster had said, her set of changes, the official ones at least, mapped so well to the standard mutant traits that they'd been advised by the school's own admissions office to leave it at that. She hoped calmer and more experienced heads could help her figure this out.
Being the public head of any institution was a difficult task. Being the Headmaster of this school was at least one degree of magnitude more so. Watching the next generation leave the room in a polite and orderly manner, Dr. Mazarin could have some sense of what he was supposed to be working towards in this place, and it felt... uplifting, in a way.
But that left the overeducated dolt sitting in the chair before him. "Yes, Mr. Bergamot?" he inquired wearily.
"You, you're just letting her go?"
"What would you have me do? It isn't as though she's going to leave the school. And if she skips your class tomorrow, I'd say you have only your zeal to blame."
"But-but! The things she could tell us! The things we could learn by examining her more thoroughly. Why, we could..."
"Mr. Bergamot," he said, stopping the man with a simple gesture. "As I have read your file – your complete file – I have some idea of what you have in mind here, and while the previous administration was willing to either overlook or accommodate your personal... quirks, believing your strengths as a teacher and researcher outweighed them, I have yet to reach the same conclusions. You are not helping your case," he added drily.
"Ah... ahem." The man looked chagrined, and the Headmaster doubted he was good enough an actor to fake it. "My apologies. I... I let my enthusiasm get the better of me."
"Apparently so. Do keep a stronger rein on your... enthusiasm in the future. As well, you owe Ms. von Abendritter an apology. I expect you will do so promptly?" The other man nodded. "Good. You are a fine teacher, Mr. Bergamot, but you tend to make some things too... personal. It is a tendency you would do well to curb in the future."
"U-understood, sir." The teacher got up to leave, and Dr. Mazarin let him, though stormy eyes watched his every move up until the door latched shut.
With a heavy sigh, he dialed a campus directory code on his office phone. "Hello, Dierdre? Ah yes, my apologies. Elspeth. How is Dickinson treating you? Oh? Well I would not have asked you to take the position if I thought you could not handle it. But as it happens..." he continued. "I would like it if you could keep a special eye on one of your wards...."
The lounge on the first floor of Dickinson was a convenient space indeed. Its coffee tables were perfect for laying out papers and crafting schemes as precocious children sat around. With the lower ceiling and crackling holographic fire in its hearth, the atmosphere was also cozier than the Crystal Hall in the mid to late afternoon.
Seven girls were there at the table, looking at the handiwork of several days spent doodling in class. "So..." Laura began, "I guess we can all safely say that we're not artists."
That was a safe bet, Calliope would say. The assemblage of sketches were at least reasonably recognizable as humanoid, though the proportions ranged all the way from troll doll to Barbie doll with a bit of alien Grey. She had not contributed anything on paper, though her opinions on colors and patterns had been sought on several occasions.
"At least I tried!" Nina Blake said, flipping a pen in circles between her fingers. "People are hard."
"If we could get some pencils from the artsy kids," Bailey was saying, "I might be able to channel something through. Might only be the last thing they drew," she added.
"Nil persperandum, B," Vickie Stone assured. "I'm a lot better with the holo-design programs. These are just for perspective."
Calliope picked up one picture and tilted it ninety degrees. Perspective did not improve it terribly much. She passed it over to Nina, whose mouth went crinkled as the girl held it upside down and then rightside up. They shook their heads.
"Um, so what are we trying to do here...?" Across from her at the table, the rabbit-eared Tia del Bosque was hovering on her seat with a confused stare. "I mean, it's not Picasso or anything..."
"We've gotta design Cally a cool outfit for her performance next week," Laura told her. She ran a blue finger around one sketch. It was mostly black with flecks of red, and had a spiky look that suggested someone had attacked the paper with a fountain pen. "I think we could get a cool punk look out of this one."
To Calliope's left, her friend Neff nodded. "Yeah, I can see it. Won't match her song at all, and it'd be hell to dance in it if it weren't holographic, but we could keep it in reserve."
"But why am I here?" Tia continued.
"Outside opinions are always welcome," said Vickie.
"And it means that you've got company out and around campus," Laura said pointedly.
Neff was switching her gaze back and forth between the blue girl and the bunny. "Am I missing something?" she asked.
Tia gritted her teeth, ears wilting. "I've... got a stalker. Total Diedricks case, and about one degree away from full-on mad scientist. Um, no offense," she said to the devisors in the room.
"None taken," said Vickie. "There are some real nutters in our specialty courses. Did you hear the latest about Stark, Laura?"
The blue girl groaned.
"Okay, what's that about?" Nina asked.
"Bergholdt Stuttley, a.k.a. Stark. He thinks it's an Iron Man reference, but really it's because he's stark raving nuts. His latest masterpiece is built around a calculation of pi based on actual pie."
Tia's ears perked as she giggled. Next to her, Nina added her own nervous laughter.
"I know, right? Specifically his aunt's banoffee pie." Vicky made a gagging face. "Sticky, sugary, and thick. I felt like I was getting diabetes just looking at it."
"The devise did work," Laura noted.
"Heaven only knows how."
Calliope picked out another sketch, this one in pastels. "I like this one. Would it be difficult to do?"
The two devisors conferred. "On short notice?" said Vickie. "Well, biggest problem is getting the projector working. Portable image cloaks aren't too different from personal force-field projectors, but they're even more finicky."
"Care to explain to us lay-women?" Neff asked.
Laura pulled a schematic from her bag and unfolded it on top of the sketches. "Well, as you can see here, the devise has to manage image propagation across the force field..."
"Maybe a teensy bit less explanation?" Bailey suggested. "Skipping to problem number one?"
The blue girl pouted, her lips turning a delicate indigo. "Fine. It needs a lot of processing power to keep up with the person wearing it, so everything moves right with her, but space is limited for portable models. And we don't have the money or means to get superprocessors in that size. Right now, we could get it looking perfect as long as Cally stands still."
"But she's gotta move!" Neff protested. "Otherwise, what's the point? Shake that booty!"
Calliope blushed, and she was interested to note that she was not the only one around the table to do so. Even Laura turned a purple tone on her cheeks. "If it's all we have to work with," she said, "perhaps we should focus on practical outfits first?"
"Now or never," Vickie said. "I mean, we'd hit this issue soon enough, and it's not ever going to get easier. Might as well tackle it now and get it over with."
"And turn in the notes for a grade in Dr. Speers's lab class," Laura added.
"Yeah, of course."
Tia and Nina were giving the schematics a once-over. "Um, so I'm not the most mechanically minded person," the bunny girl said, "but is there a reason the projector needs to be portable? I mean, she'll be on stage or something, and there's only so many places she could stand..."
"But how would it know where she was?" Nina said.
"How does motion-capture stuff work?" Tia asked back. "I mean, I've seen how it's done, with the little marker ball things on a suit – which looks really silly, so we'd have to change that somehow – but would something like that even work?"
Laura was staring at her friend. "Tia, that's..."
"Brilliant!" Vickie shouted. "We can make a suit – like a leotard or long underwear or something – and sew in a buncha RFID chips. An offstage projector could have enough processing power to keep track of them and slap the image right over a portable field in real time!"
A harsh cough from the front desk reminded them all that Ms. Plimsoll was on duty, and that there'd be no loud outbursts permitted on her watch. The seven girls giggled nervously and then huddled down to business.
Richard Bergamot liked to think he was a good guy, a good scientist, and a good teacher. He was often rated at the top of the freshman course instructors on the school back-sites, of which the students thought the teachers ignorant, and everyone tended to greet him with a smile.
Good man, good teacher, good scientist. At best, he could manage two out of three in any given situation.
And the student sitting in his office right now was hardly smiling.
"Ms. Howe, would you like to guess why I asked you to visit?"
"I wasn't stalking her! Really! It's just that there are only so many routes between the buildings and our schedules keep aligning in completely coincidental ways that I can totally prove if you give me some graphing paper and about ten minutes." Jamie Howe had that glazed, slightly unfocused look in her eyes that he'd come to associate with mid- to high-functioning Diedrick's cases. There was no doubt that she believed every lie to make it through her teeth, because they suited her current view of reality.
"And I am sure you were not," he said, fibbing atrociously. "In point of fact, I wanted to speak with you about your long-term research goals."
"What about them?" she snapped back.
He treated her with his warmest grin. Her expression remained frosted. "Only that they align neatly with lines of research which I have been entertaining for the better part of a decade. You must admit, the creation or duplication of mutant traits is the hot topic these days."
"Tell that to my backers," she grumbled. "I haven't heard from them since that little slut bunny got what was coming to her."
"Of course not; you pushed the envelope much farther than they would ever be comfortable with, and they don't want to be associated with that sort of thing publicly. All they want is to use your data while you get sentenced to ooventry. And yet, here you are."
"I can neither confirm nor deny..." He could very well lie, though. "Ms. Howe, I am a dedicated researcher, but I am also an instructor. It meets both my interests to enable yours, or even to supply information pertinent to your field of research. For instance..." Mr. Bergamot passed her a page with a list of names upon it. "Here are students whom my personal research has led me to suspect did not come by their powers naturally. Your, ah, friend is naturally at the top of that list."
Her psych profile specifically warned against saying the name Lucretia del Bosque within earshot of her, and even the briefest of allusions to the victim of her manic revenge experiment lit a fire in Ms. Howe's eyes that burned sanity for fuel. "And the rest?"
"The next two are confirmed to be enhanced baselines of one sort or another."
"Eisenmadel and Nightingale?"
"The same. Below them are students who appear to be normal mutants, save that certain discrepancies have appeared in their testing or genetic profiles. Discrepancies which are again similar to a certain young, ah, lady of your acquaintance."
Ms. Howe never did smile. Her expression might be attributed to what they called "resting bitch face" these days, only there was nothing passive or restful about it. That face was actively and aggressively pissed off at the world for its continued existence. "And what am I going to do with this?" she demanded.
"Whatever you will. My interests, as I've said, lie in research and education. I will not stand in the way of yours, though I would love to hear about whatever you may discover."
The corners of her mouth almost lifted. "Finally, someone who gets it."
Yes, he thought as she vacated the office with an urgency born of disturbed inspiration, of the three facets of his life, being a good man was surely the hardest, as well as the first to be abandoned when needs be. But the results would justify it in the end.
––Friday, September 23rd
World History ended as it usually did, with a mad rush to copy all the notes on the board before the teacher could erase them. Mr. DuChamp had a certain inimitable presence, and while his history lectures were interesting, no one really wanted to repeat the experience.
"So what're you up to tonight?" Jimmy asked her as they exited the building. "Another date?"
A smile dimpled her cheeks. "Not tonight. I've got a Euro event and I think Donut said something about a movie night?"
"Oh yeah, Taka mentioned it. I guess I might check it out."
"And before that," she continued, "Cally's band's got another show going on. Mostly for Nick and that other girl in the group to show off their instruments, I think." She was looking forward to the chance to listen and relax, to be honest. The day had been on-and-off stressful, and she'd simply skipped first period with Mr. Bergamot entirely.
The boy nodded. "Gotcha. I'd definitely be there too, or horsey-boy won't let me hear the end of it."
Campus was mildly deserted at this hour, as most students had wisely decided against having eighth-period classes. Erica was walking with Jimmy mainly because the path to Twain was in the same direction as her German class. The conversation was welcome, too.
Along that depopulated walkway, anyone should have stood out, but somehow neither of them noticed the strange girl waiting by the next cement intersection until she was literally under their noses. Then she seemed to pop out of the background, becoming more than just scenery.
In her hands, the girl held a clipboard and a pen like she had no concept of how either worked. "Campus survey?" she stated, thrusting her implements out so suddenly she nearly clipped Jimmy's nose.
"Um, what's this?" he asked.
The smile on the girl's face was too broad to look natural, and her eyes had the look of frosted glass lit from behind. "Nothing too much. Just one question, in fact. How do you feel about sharing a campus with a no-good, lying, cheating, amoral freak of nature who couldn't keep it in his pants so he got what was coming to him. Her," she corrected, punctuating with a pronoun.
"Say what?" Erica grabbed the clipboard. On the front there was nothing but a single sheet of paper covered in printed photographs. Half were of their M3 teammate Tia, and the rest were of a boy who might have been her baseline brother.
"You see, she's been a bad bunny," said the girl. Her grin was cracking around the edges. "And if you know what's good for you, you'll keep your distance. Unless you want certain things to... come to light."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Jimmy demanded. "There's nothing you could possibly know about either of us."
Oh, how Erica wished that could be the truth. She was pretty sure this was the infamous Jamie who'd forcibly altered Tia into her present form. While there was no way she could have any dirt on either of them – if dirt even stuck to Jimmy, Boy Scout that he was – that didn't mean she couldn't be dangerous.
"I have my ways..." Jamie leered, her eyes twinkling. "But let's leave it at that. Remember, keep your distance from the slut-bunny if you know what's good for you. And... Erica, isn't it? Let your grandfather know that I'm a big fan." Jamie stepped back, pressing a button on her lapel. She faded out before their very eyes, remaining noticeable only as long as they could keep a visual lock on her. One blink, and she was gone.
By mutual agreement, neither of them said a word as they hurried along. There was no telling where the crazy girl had gone.
Guitar riffs continued to burn through her brain. Whatever else he might be, Nick was a superlative guitarist, and his voice was good, too. Calliope almost envied the girls at the front of the crowd who screamed and shouted if he looked their way. Life would be so much simpler if she could just...
But that was impossible, un sogno irrealizzabile. It was best she put it out of her mind and focus on the present, where an hour after the concert she was freshened up, dolled up, and carrying her best hand bag. She'd been given to understand that the Tartucci brand had some cachet with the young and fashion-conscious young ladies in America, and she was most interested in meeting just that sort of person.
Though where she and her roommate were headed now was perhaps not the best location to meet Americans.
The evening's soiree was a social function arranged by the Euro-Promotional League, better known on campus by the name "The Beret Mafia", though only a small percentage of the group was actually French. One of Whateley's copious number of underground chambers had been appropriated for the event, and the hall was wide if not particularly high-vaulted. It could have been a wine cellar back home, save for the lack of alcohol.
From the entrance, the righthand wall was dominated by the buffet table, and what a spread it was. Calliope could spy platters of crudités, of cheese or fruit, of an impressive assortment of regional baked goods, and other delicacies. She and Erica signed in at the first table and then helped themselves. Many had come before them, yet the selection was hardly reduced.
There were plenty of tables to choose from, and more seats than seemed strictly necessary. Calliope spied Brita already in place with her fellow Amazons of European origin, glaring at a darkly handsome young man at the opposite end of the hall who was holding court with a much more mixed set of teens. It did not take an empath to sense the animosity there. Suddenly the option to keep extra space in seemed like excellent foresight.
"Ah, do you mind if we join you?" she asked the student at one table. The girl looked like she might be a freshman or sophomore. Then again, she also looked like she might be part werewolf.
There was an uncomfortable pause from the girl before she said, "Sure, g'wan an' sit yerselves," in one of the thickest accents Calliope had heard yet. "Name's Leslie, from Glasgow." After a second long pause, she continued, "And you?"
"Fiorella. Or Calliope. From Genova in Italy."
"Erica, half and half from Arkansas and Bavaria."
Leslie's eyes were mostly human, but they glittered fiercely. Her shoulders squeezed together a bit, and the fur beneath pushed up the fabric of her dress. "Erica, huh. Yer the one datin' the donut lad?" The burr in her voice could almost cut.
"Well and good for yer, but a right number of girls back in Whitman are mickle upset with yer over that. Liken it to stealin' him from under their noses."
The golden girl blinked back surprise. "I... I had no idea."
"Small surprise. A song for the ages, how the Dickie-girls get all the best guys."
Calliope felt some need to stick up for her roommate and cottage. "Ah, we don't all–"
"Still single, huh? Don't worry; you'll find some nice guy to steal away from a poor unpretty girl eventually."
"That's not... I don't..." The war in her head between the urge to speak candidly about her feelings and the fear of repercussions expressed itself in a growl of frustration.
"Be careful," warned the wolf-girl. "Someone might think yer takin' a piss outta me."
Erica picked up her plate. "It was nice to meet you, Leslie, but perhaps we should be moving on."
"Yeah, perhaps yer should." The wolf-girl turned back to her plate, leaving Calliope and her roommate with a coldly furred shoulder.
After a quick relocation to an empty table, Erica asked, "What was that all about?"
"Niente... oh, nothing. She struck the wrong nerve, and that is all. I might ask you why she objected to your presence, were it not obvious."
Erica groaned into her cup of orange juice. "Believe me; I did not know there was competition of any sort, though..." She trailed off for a moment, caught in a thought. "That may explain what was going on with Whirlibird. Damnit, now I feel like I should apologize to her."
"What for?" Calliope sniffed. "If they are too slow then they are too slow."
Her roommate eyed her curiously. "That's awful harsh. What flea got caught in your drawers?"
Nothing was caught in her drawers, which was half the problem. That certainly was not what she wished to discuss right now, however. "Ah, I am sorry. As I said, the wrong nerve at the wrong moment. Shall we, ah, socialize some more?"
"Couldn't hurt. Together or split up?"
"Separately for now," she said. "Else they might think we are joined at the hip.
With her plate in one hand and juice in the other, Erica went in search of ... something. Of all the objectives set to her by her relatives, socializing was the most vaguely worded – certainly by intent. It was up to her to decide what she would get out of the experience. Besides a bumper crop of butterflies in her stomach.
She made the senior German boy SturmMeister her first target. He was a leader in her regular German class as well as in the school's European community, so it made sense to pay her respects. "Gutenabend," she said.
"Gutenabend," he replied. With a gesture, he invited her to sit with the seniors for a moment. "And how have you been this week? You seem distracted in class. Not that this stops you from talking." The other students around the table chuckled.
Erica joined in the laughter. "It is going as well as one might expect, starting at a new school like this."
"And more so this one than any other in the world, I expect," said one of the other young men at the table, in the familiarly inaccurate German of a native speaker. "Friedrich, code name Thunderous; at least for as long as I am here."
"Won't you need one after graduation as well?" she asked.
"Certainly, if I were to go into the business of heroics as my friend Wilhelm here." He nudged SturmMeister, who merely smiled. "But no; I attend Whateley for other reasons, and I am fine with one of the school's legacy names for the duration."
"I hadn't realized that was an option," she admitted. "I was under the impression that the Fatherland had training programs for empowered noncombatants."
Friedrich nodded. "That is true, but they couldn't accommodate my particular needs."
"He stays in Hawthorne," SturmMeister said by way of explanation.
That made her eyebrows arch. Hawthorne Cottage had a reputation for being where the school housed its most dangerous students, those whose powers posed a grave threat to either themselves or others around them. "Er, I do not mean to pry, but..."
"What's wrong with me?" Friedrich guffawed, and the bass from his laughter rattled tables and chairs nearby. "I have a PK shout of considerable potency, but it is unfortunately paired with a severely deviated septum. To whit: I snore. Loudly."
"He understates it," said SturmMeister. "He nearly shook his family's home to pieces, early on."
"And the best part?" said Friedrich. "The part that these Americans think is oh-so-funny? My surname is Schnöring."
"Oh... dear." Erica wasn't sure what to say, and in any case she feared to open her mouth lest a giggle escape. "That truly is... unfortunate? Ironic?" she finally hazarded.
She left the seniors' table soon after, though heartened by the experience. Her eyes scanned the room, locating the sophomores swiftly enough. The red-headed Adrienne Le Floc'h was sitting to the side with her brothers, the junior high twins who shared her hair and complexion almost perfectly. Towards the punch bowl, the Belgian Gouyasse stood chatting with Gregory of Britain and Calliope's brother Fra. That left only...
Erica bit back a groan. "Gutenabend, Kirsten," she said, turning around.
Kirsten Bischofsheim was looking good that evening in a black leather outfit that set well with her dark hair and pale skin. The sophomore was half a head taller than Erica, but a pair of thick-heeled shoes pushed her even higher. "And just what are you doing here?" the girl asked.
"Um, eating, meeting, and chatting?" Erica ventured. "Isn't that what we're all here for?"
The older girl snorted. "Hmph. I would have thought you would be more circumspect, von Abendritter. There are would-be heroes around. I would have thought," she repeated with voice raised, "that our little conversation of last week had left a lasting impression in that golden head of yours. Gold is the softest of metals, after all." Not far behind her, a group of Whitman girls tittered nervously.
"What are you talking about?" To be fair, Erica hadn't really listened to Kirsten's ranting beyond the first few words last Friday, because those had been enough to trigger a panic attack. And the following week had helped drive the rest of the unease from her mind. It was returning now with the wings of a thousand butterflies.
"How soon we forget!" Kirsten was practically shouting, and they now had the attention of more people than Erica found comfortable. "And by we I mean you, von Abendritter. I for one shall always remember the perfidy of that name."
"Um, you have a problem with it? I mean, it is a bit odd, I know...."
"It is almost unique!" the sophomore cried. "And yet its secrets were so well-buried. But no longer! I warned you, von Abendritter, I said that your secret would be held in trust against your future behavior..."
"You did? I don't remember that..." She had to wonder if Kirsten even knew what she was talking about.
"...and now, a week later you've brought pain and shame on my cottage mates, belittling and taunting them with your supposed superiority..." Those same cottage mates, now standing behind her, weren't laughing now.
"Wait, is this about Daniel? How? Why?"
"...but of course that feeling of superiority comes naturally to you, doesn't it? Der Apfel fällt nicht weit vom Stamm. The apple does not fall far from the tree. The von Abendritter name has hidden in the shadows too long; it is time everyone knew its shame..."
"My name?" A cold burst of panic hit her guts, and she was acutely aware of all the watching eyes now. This was the secret which the sophomore had boasted of? Not Eric at all?
"Can you deny that you are the descendant of Manfred von Abendritter, more infamously known as Baron Dämmerung, the terror of southern Europe and murderer of tens of thousands, if not millions, with his engines of death and destruction? Who escaped justice in the post-war years, only to perpetrate more terror and tragedy as an agent of the secret Fourth Reich?"
"No, no... I can't... That's... my family disowned him..."
"And yet here you are, von Abendritter, bearing his name and following in his oppressive shadow."
A growl arose from her left, where the Scottish wolf-girl stood with hackles raised. "My great-grandfather fought the Nazis in the war," she said, voice rough. "He was at Sicily and Napoli where the Germans deployed their monsters, and he bore witness when the Allied flag heroes drove out the Nazi bastard responsible for the worst: Baron Dämmerung! Great-grandad lost half a lung and his right eye, and he was one of the lucky ones. Most of his friends died a-cuz of Dämmerung's dirty tricks."
"I... I..." Oh Lord, her knees were turned to jelly now.
"Just leave, von Abendritter," came Kirsten's harsh consonants. "You are not wanted here."
Those same legs of jelly proved strong enough to drag her from the room without her willing them to, pushed along by the pressure of a dozen or more hateful glares.
Friday night was movie night in the Twain freshman rec room, and it was by faculty mandate at that. A fair number of boys on the floor were in Ms. Barnes's Language Learners course that semester, and they were getting the last bit of homework for the week over and done with.
It wasn't enough to just learn the grammar, the teacher had said. Smart as they were – and smarter than they'd been, more often than not – memorizing grammar was no major task. But as Daniel himself could agree, just because you spoke the language didn't mean that you understood what folk were saying half the time. There was a whole nother level to English built out of random elements of pop trivia, and all that needed work too.
"Hey Pete. Put it over there," he said to his roommate, directing the delivery of several boxes of cafeteria pizza to the table in back. Beside them he magicked up a big pile of donuts, of all shapes and flavors, for friends to enjoy.
"So what's the show we're watchin'," Pete grunted as he flattened the bean bag chair near the corner.
Over by the front, one of their floormates was messing with the TV. The boy with the spiky black hair and rabbit ears wasn't actually in their class, but he knew how everything worked. "A classic!" he said. "Grade-A quotation material. I guarantee that there's not more than five minutes of dialogue in the entire production that cannot be referenced somehow!"
"So, uh, what is it, Saumer?" asked the boy's roommate, the Mongolian Arsi Khan.
"The Princess Bride!"
"Ain't never heard of it," Pete grunted.
Saumer stood up straight and pointed to an empty spot in the air. The word "Inconceivable!" erupted into hearing, as spoken by a squeaky and irritable person.
"And that means?" Pete continued.
"Watch and find out for yourself," said Saumer. "So, who all are we waiting for?"
The answer turned out to be quite a lot of people. From the English Learners class, there was John with his armadillo plate armor, Franklin with his rhino stub, and then the Japanese kid Kenshin with his roommate Jimmy along. A couple of neighbors from down the hall, the musical Tobias and his roommate Victor, stopped by as well. Even the big horse-guy, Nick, was chatting with his roommate and a couple of other kids about his new vlog, whatever that meant.
Quietly, one more member of the class snuck into the room, eyes darting around nervously. Sam was a Poe kid, but he looked like he fit into Twain with his monkey tail dangling out the back of his pants. Daniel waved him in, and he settled on the end of the couch.
"Any problems getting in?" Saumer asked the newest arrival.
"N-no..." Sam shrugged. "I... um, not sure if the guy at the front desk even noticed me."
"We brought popcorn!" Tobias announced, hefting two large bowls.
"And drinks..." Victor added, placing a bag of large plastic soda bottles on the table. "Um, no cups, though..."
Daniel shrugged. "We got those covered," he said. "So, I figger it's about time to start. Everyone ready?"
No one really answered the question because their mouths were already filled with some sort of foodstuff. With a shrug, Saumer hit the play button on the video machine while Daniel dimmed the lights.
He really didn't know what to expect, but the opening scene of an old man sitting down to read with his grandson was... well, it felt nice. His own mama had read to him a bit, before bedtimes or when he was feeling poorly, though it'd usually been Bible stories. Daniel settled back into his seat, within easy reach of one bowl of popcorn, and waited to see what happened next.
"Boring mushy stuff..." muttered Pete, right as the first romantic scene cut back to the grandson, who was complaining of the exact same thing. A chuckle danced around the room, and Daniel could feel the young man's muscles tensing up.
"Pete..." he whispered in his roommate's ear. "It ain't about you this time, y'understand? S'all the timing and the co-win-si-dense. Simmer down."
By then the movie was getting into gear with a royal kidnapping, and Daniel didn't have to worry about his friend so much. Yellowed eyes followed every scene with the movie's own giant, Fezzik, and Pete booed loudly when the mysterious Man in Black successfully took down the strongman. The very next line, however, won a snort of appreciation. "Dream of large women," Pete muttered to himself, shaking his frizzy green hair.
If Pete was a fan of the giant Fezzik, Kenshin was equally interested in the swordsman Inigo Montoya and his grand duel with the Man in Black. "Yah!" he cried more than once, though at the end he sheepishly added, "Was fun, but not real swords-fighting."
"Movie magic, man," Jimmy told him.
Everyone laughed together when the scheming Sicilian, leader of the kidnappers, got what was coming to him. Daniel kinda felt bad about that, but again, it was just a movie.
Then his phone buzzed in his pocket. Um, 'scuse me," he said to no one in particular as he rushed out into the hall. "Um, hello?" he said into the receiver.
"It's me." Erica's voice was shaky. "D-do you have time to talk? I'm, I'm right by Cookie's little house." In the background he heard pup whine.
"Be down in a moment," he told her. On the way he snagged a paper plate from his room to hold the emergency strudel.
By the light of the quad's lamps, Erica didn't look too bad. That was until he actually looked her in the eyes and realized that only her eyes turned red when she was crying. "So, uh, what's the matter?" he asked.
Everything was, it seemed. There'd been some sort of argument, a repeat or continuation of the ones that had led to them meeting last week, but in front of a lot of other people whose opinions she cared about. It took a lot of careful talking and puppy dog eyes before the details were all laid out, but...
"Your great-grandad was really that bad?"
"Worse," she confirmed. "A real A-list villain, seventy years ago. People in small towns across Europe still curse his name, stuff like that. My grandfather and his brother, they turned their backs on all that, spent decades proving themselves better in every way... and some high school jerk can still trot out the old family history and ruin my life." She clung to Cookie's right neck, sobbing into his fur.
"It does sound pretty bad..." he said. "Prolly worse than it really is, after all this time. Um..." He tried to hug her, but couldn't figger a good way in.
"And now I find out that half of the Whitman freshmen are angry at me, and one of them was there to accuse me and oh God they probably all know already..."
"There, there. It's gonna be all right..."
"You, you think...?" Erica hiccuped. "Even with all the..." Sniff. "Oh! this is so stupid..." Hic. "Why do you even bother with someone like me..."
Daniel might not have had much experience with girls, but he could tell when a question was supposed to be answered and when it wasn't. This one, he figgered, was a bit of both, which was why he chose his next words real carefully. "Like ya said, 'round this time last week. Part of datin' is figgerin' the other person out, seein' what they're like."
"Yer sweet and carin', and ya worry too much what others think, which makes ya about like everyone else, really. Nothin' bad at all."
She sniffed again, but a thin smile grew upon her lips. "Th-thanks. You're a real, a real friend, Daniel..." Now she sighed loudly. "I-I think I need a friend a lot more than a boyfriend right now..."
"Whatcha mean?" he asked, though he thought he might know.
"My, my life is crazy. Like, at its baseline it's practically insane! And, and... I wanted to get to know you and I did and you're an awesome cool guy and..." A hard shudder wracked her body. "I... I'm not sure if I'm ready for anything beyond that. For, yanno, romance."
Daniel magicked himself up a donut so he could avoid talking for a moment. Cookie took the opportunity to nuzzle and lick both of them together.
"I figger..." he said finally. "I figger I don't know what I'm ready for either. Love and romance are 'bout the sorta thing you see in the movies, but dunno what they're like for real. But a friend..." He nodded. "Friends are good."
Erica wiped her eyes. In the lamplight they almost glowed blue. "P-promise me then? Friends, like, no matter what?"
"Yeah," he said, holding out a hand. She took it, and they shared a slightly sticky handshake. "And if you ever need a shoulder to, uh, yanno, cry on..."
"I've got you on speed dial." She hugged him tight. "Thanks. Um. I hope I didn't ruin your evening or anything."
"Nah, don't worry about it." From the windows above he could hear the rest of his friends laughing. "Nothin' I can't catch up on later. C'mon," he said, getting to his feet. "Let me and Cookie walk ya back, at least."
It wasn't far to Dickinson Cottage, though pup tried to lead them the long way around just for funnies. Erica was mostly recovered by the time they arrived. She hugged him once, and Cookie twice, before going upstairs.
"Well, pup," he said as they returned to Twain. "What now?"
A pair of highly nuanced barks, with expressive eyebrow wiggles, informed him that a run was in order.
"If you insist..." He huffed and puffed as he chased Cookie across the quad.
She was in the middle of explaining the situation to the RA – no mean feat, when she was not sure what was happening – when her roommate dragged herself back into the room. "Erica! Where have you been? I was worried sick!"
"Like, what happened?" drawled the RA. Milena Tarkisian was dressed for an early night, with light blue pajamas and a matching hairband over her mane of black, but the dark eyes behind those vanity glasses she sported were keenly alert. "I was getting the, like, Cliff Notes version from Cally here, but better straight from the horse's mouth. So, giddy up."
Erica sat unsteadily on the edge of the bed, teetering slightly before falling backwards onto the mattress. "It's... it's Kirsten. Bischofsheim. It's like she's crazy or something, and she's got me in her sights."
"Kirsten?" Behind the glasses, Milena's eyes blinked in surprise. "And here I was thinking she was the most level-headed of the sophomore Berets."
"Since when?" Her roommate had no reason to believe that, and neither did Calliope.
"All last year. Saw it for myself. The Eurofroshes that year were, like, a complete mess. That French girl with the water powers? Afraid to swim. The Belgian kid? Burgeoning alcoholic. Still is. His Lordship Gregory Crumbley... Okay, so he was, like, okay, but then that French devisor they used to hang with completely balanced out the sanity levels, in a bad way. Kirsten was the only thing that, like, held them together."
That sort of jived with some of the comments that Calliope had heard from Adrienne le Floc'h and Gregory, both that evening and previously, but reality still did not seem to match.
"So what's different now?" Erica demanded. "Why's she coming after me?"
"Wish I knew," said the RA. "Guess everyone's got, like, a crazy button and you keep on pressing hers. I still owe you a favor, yanno. I could, like, check it out."
Erica sat up and flipped on the screen of her computer. "Already done," she said, bringing up a document. "Family history, powers overview, arrest history, and psych profile."
"Arrest?" asked Calliope.
"Yeah." Erica tapped to that page. "German police don't take kindly to vigilantism , and they had to stop her a few times when things get out of hand. This here's the 'steamroller incident,' as they called it."
Calliope would have to take her roommate's word for that, as German was not one of the languages she could command – at least, not to the degree needed here. Milena was eyeing the document text with interest, though.
"So the stuff Kirsten was saying..." the RA asked.
"Technically true." Erica groaned and collapsed on the mattress again. "Great-grandad was Evil with a capital Ewww... Class-A villain and war criminal, in the history books, just not under his own name. It's always just Baron Dämmerung."
"Perhaps it sounded cooler that way?" Calliope suggested.
Milena laughed at that. "Could be. Mind sending me a copy of that file? I can use it as a starting point for my own checks."
"Be my guest," said Erica. Quickly the file was forwarded to the school address provided. The RA stuck around a few minutes, more to confirm that Erica really was okay, honest, and then made her exit.
Once she was gone, Calliope flopped back onto the mattress and hugged her roommate tight. Erica responded by sobbing quietly into her pajamas. She tried her hardest to ignore how that felt against her chest.
"So..." Sniffle. "What happened after I, um, left?"
Calliope petted that golden mop and settled into storyteller mode. "Well, obviously there was quite a fuss. Kirsten had her side arguing about old Nazi atrocities..." That got a groan. "...and unfortunately they had very good notes prepared. I am afraid they did a proper job of convincing those who do not know you very well." Another groan. "But the older German boys, they took your side, said that the past is the past, and not to dwell on it. Then Kirsten accused them of either wanting to sleep with you or actually doing so." That prompted a very emphatic word which, while she could not understand the precise meaning, was most certainly angry and rude. "Exactly."
"This is all going so bad..." She held Erica till the shivering stopped. "Um, Cally... You know I'm not... right?"
"Certamente! Didn't your family practically adopt me this summer? I know who you are and where you come from, better than any on this campus. And," she sniffed, "it is not like most family trees are without proper manure at their base."
For a second, she thought her roommate might kiss her for that. Any decent romantic film would have had it happen at that moment. Alas, this was the real life, and the moment passed without a passionate embrace. Calliope was not sure what she would have done if it had happened.
That did not stop her from wishing Erica were interested in girls, all night long.
Nor, though she didn't realize, did it stop her roommate from wishing the exact same thing.
There was a door behind the Dickinson front desk that few students were allowed to use without permission. It led to a corridor that ran the length of the building, with other doors spaced far apart. Milena Tarkisian was there by request, and not her own.
"Come in." The voice of a stern British governess answered her knock.
The personal apartment of Elspeth Plimsoll, assistant dorm mother of Dickinson Cottage and bane of any young male visitor in the foyer, was easily three or four times the size of the average student room, but so spartanly furnished that it looked almost abandoned. At the far end of this personal desert was a kitchenette with a small table and two chairs. Ms. Plimsoll was sitting in one with a mug of tea in her hand. A second mug was set for Milena's arrival.
"A status report, Ms. Tarkisian, if you would," the woman said as the RA took a seat.
"Um, pardon me for asking, ma'am, but why do you want to know?" She had every intent of informing the main dorm mom, Mrs. Sinclair, on the morrow, but Ms. Plimsoll had never seemed to care so much for her nominal charges.
The woman's words were cool and measured. "I have been tasked with keeping an eye on certain individuals, Ms. von Abendritter among them, for reasons which I shall not divulge but which are not malicious. Is that enough?"
Milena nodded. In between sips of tea – Earl Grey, properly steeped with a hint of lemon – she recounted the whole mess as she knew it. "I'd say it's just the usual inter-cottage drama, ma'am," she said at the end, "only I've never seen Kirsten be so manic, and there are a few red flags in her file I'm looking into."
"Report to me if you find anything troubling,' said Ms. Plimsoll. "And... one last question. Were you intending on inviting Ms. von Abendritter to join that club of yours?"
Milena couldn't say she was surprised by the question, even if it hadn't been expected. "I considered it, ma'am. If it gets too bad, Erica's going to need emotional support from people who understand. I'm not sure if the others will see it that way, however."
"That is the way of the world. If needs must, then your associates will have to get used to it." A thin hand waved dismissively. "Now, finish your tea and return to whatever teenaged frivolity you had planned for the evening."
"Yes, ma'am," Milena said, smile hidden behind the mug.
––Saturday, Sept. 24th
The morning began in a manner that Erica hadn't experienced in a long time: late. Even though she cratered early, her eyes did not open again until well after dawn's first light filtered through the blinds. The line for the morning shower was that much longer for it, as she'd got up at the same time as most of the dorm for a change, and it was almost ten in the morning by the time she and Cally arrived at the Crystal Hall. Predictably, most of their friends in the Mutant Mayhem Machine were already gone, busy with their Saturday morning classes.
In line at the cafeteria, Daniel gave her a smile, a thumb's up, and an extra cinnamon roll. Her wobbly smile wasn't the best repayment, but he accepted it cheerily nonetheless.
"Hey!" a girl's voice called to Erica as she was walking to the stairs. Natalie MacAuliffe was one of four junior high girls at Dickinson, and by far the most athletic of the group. Barely twelve years old, she stood almost as tall as Erica and was more visibly muscular. Only her face was still obviously young, though at the moment it was filled with worry. "Is everything okay? I was waiting at the front this morning for our usual run, but Old Lady Plimsoll said you'd had a bad night and not to expect you. I... got some better details from the twins."
Most of the JHS kids were sitting at their usual table on the first floor. Laurent and Jean-Marie le Floc'h, redheaded brothers to Adrienne, had been present the night before. Erica tensed a little, but the two of them simply nodded her way and chimed "Salut!" in unison.
"Wanna sit with us?" offered Essemmelle, the oldest and at the same time shortest person at the table.
"Why should we let her?" grumbled Linette, one of the Whitman students. Spots of light flared up along her arms and across her face. "Haven't you all been listening?"
"Yeah, we have," said one of the other Dickinson girls, Acolyte. Her brown hair was bound that morning into a frizzy ponytail. "And that includes listening to Erica."
"She does seem nicer than that other girl," added Marcus from the far end, where he and Twitch had been sketching out schematics in between bites of cereal.
Linette's roommate Darcy stuck her tongue out at him. "Says you. Kirsten's been helping me with history and science. She's nice, too!"
"I'm sure she is," Erica said quickly. 'I've been told she is. Only, I apparently hit all the wrong buttons with Kirsten, so I never see her good side, unfortunately."
"Maybe 'cuz you're a boyfriend-stealing b–" Linette managed to get a hand over Darcy's mouth before that sentence could be concluded.
Cally huffed. "Shall I inform your sister that you use such language?" Darcy could only glare at that, because the hand was still firmly on her mouth.
Erica sighed. "Yanno, I wish I'd known there was a waiting line. Be that as it may, Daniel and I aren't dating anymore."
"Cosa?" Her roommate reacted more loudly than anyone. In hindsight, Erica reflected, she probably should have warned her.
"Yeah... He's a great guy, and I wish it could've worked... but neither of us were really ready for anything romantic."
"But, but..." Cally stuttered. "He gave you a second cinnamon roll!"
"I never said we weren't still friends. And that's the kinda thing he does when he sees someone having a bad day. I mean, he's given you extra before, too."
"What you're saying," Linette stated in overly loud tones with her head tilted in a particular direction. "Is that Daniel the donut boy is not currently dating anyone?"
She didn't bother trying to follow the girl's line of sight. Her own peripheral vision was quite good, and she'd spotted Whirlibird sitting in her usual spot in the corner by the plants. It took a great deal of self-control to pretend not to notice when the girl made a hasty exit.
"Anyone wanna take bets?" Essemmelle snickered.
"Hah. Now be nice," said Natalie.
The beat of her heart was something that had taken Monica months to get used to. In any normal person, that regular rhythm would've been a sign of acute stress or some other medical problem. So when she really was excited, her blood was treated to the xylophone measures from "Modern Major General."
"I am the very model of a modern flightless funny girl..." she sang under her breath, giggling through the lyrics she and her aunt had made up together. Halfway to her dorm, she realized that the words were inaccurate. Her feet had literally not touched the ground since she'd quit the cafeteria, and this flash of insight sent her tumbling.
It was only a minor fall, barely even a trip, but it did remind her that she had class that afternoon.
Flight 100 should have been a fun class, a breeze, and for most of the students it was. As Monica knew too well, she could barely hover at the best of times, and simply thinking too hard was enough to keep her grounded. She'd been told to take it, however, so she dutifuly showed up every Saturday afternoon in her flight suit – really an old track suit that her aunt had sewn padding into – and gave it her best.
That day, she was paired with one of her dorm mates, a girl with light purple hair who answered to either Invictus or Tanya. They technically used the same means of flight, PK projection, but the other girl was so much better at it that sometimes Monica wanted to cry.
"Hey, hey," Tanya was saying after a third failure to remain aloft brought the tears out for real. "What's the matter? You seem out of focus today."
"Um." She didn't want to look downfield, where Daniel and his dog were running over, around, and through a series of hurdles. "There's... well, this guy..."
"Say no more." Tanya winked.
"Th-that's the problem. I, I can't..."
"Talk to him?"
The lavender girl twirled in place, rising several inches off the ground. "Well, how about going old-school? Write him a note with two little boxes labeled Yes and No, and have him tick one?"
"Do people actually do that?"
Tanya shrugged. "If after-school specials have taught me anything, then sure. It's worth a try, at least. Something like, 'Hey, my name's Tanya'..."
"Well, yeah, but this is just an example, right? So, 'My name's Tanya, and I think you're really neat. Wanna get lunch together? Yes. No.' with the boxes."
"That sounds awful embarrassing..."
"As bad as talking to him straight?"
"Well then, just ask him directly. After practice is over," Tanya added. "Let's see if we can get you off the ground before he sweeps you off your feet."
That was a nice thing to focus upon. The idea of someone – maybe Daniel, but mainly anyone at all – twirling her around or dancing together under the stars. As the daydream flowed through her mind, her steps turned to dance, echoing ballet lessons of years past. It wasn't until Tanya started clapping that she realized she'd once again left solid ground behind.
"Yay! You got it! Think happy thoughts... whoops!" And Tanya was there to catch her on the way down.
As soon as the class finished, Monica stumbled nervously over to other end of the field, where Daniel was just winding up his own practice. Cookie had their ears up and poised, and a soft double whoof welcomed her over. She could've sworn one of those oversized Boston terrier heads winked at her.
The dog nudged Daniel, who looked up in surprise. "Oh, hey. Um... sorry, I know we met a few times before, but I don't remember...."
"Monica! Um, my name's M-Monica..."
"Hey then, Monica." He nodded agreeably as he checked Cookie's harness. "Anything I can do for ya?"
"I-I was w-w-wondering if..." She tried to sigh, then caught her breath, and finally sneezed hard enough to launch herself into the air, if only by an inch.
"Thanks. I... you... um... wanna-go-on-a-date-sometime-please-oh-no-this-is-so-embarrassing-bye!" She tried to take off, to get airborne again, but her acute sense of self-awareness clipped her metaphorical wings before she got more than a foot. Instead she landed face first in the turf.
"Kyun?" Two puppy sniffed and licked her ears gently, until she almost snorted some dirt from laughter.
"Um, are ya alright?" Daniel asked, leaning down to give her a hand. When he lifted, he pulled her right off the ground, overbalanced, and landed flat on his own back. Monica alit daintily beside him.
"I'm sorry!" she cried.
"Ain't no worry," he said, sitting up. "Now, what were ya sayin'?"
Monica blushed and stammered. "I-I w-wanted to ask y-you... a date?"
"Dunno if ya heard, but I'm not really lookin' for a girlfriend right now. Still workin' stuff out."
"It doesn't have to be serious!" she squeaked. "Um, I... I just wanted to... Never mind..." She turned to run off again, only to bump into Cookie. Those puppy-dog eyes were irresistible. "I just wanna be normal!" She fell back on her bottom and felt the tears flow. "I wanna be a regular girl and not some freak that no one will even look at, and, and..." She stopped as a cream donut was presented to her. "Thanks..."
"Not a worry," Daniel assured her. "Well, like I said, I ain't lookin' for a date-date right now, but a friends-date, just bein' social and all... we could try that. How's, um, Tuesday sound?"
"Really?" she tried to say around a mouthful of donut.
"Yeah. Um, I really need to get pup washed up. Gonna smell all sweaty soon... yeah, you are!" he stated when Cookie whined.
Monica giggled. "Okay. Tuesday, after sixth period in front of Whitman?"
"I'll be there," Daniel promised as he tried to lead Cookie away.
Pup got a pair of goodbye kisses in before they were gone.
Good boy. Much happiness.
Girl smell, happy smell. Was sad smell. Now good smell. Much happiness.
Walk home. No run. Slow walk. Reward for Daniel. Good boy.
Big place. Lots of people. Lots of smells. Bad smells, good smells. Need more good.
"Hey, pupper." Head pat. Short girl, angry girl. Always angry. Smell... not bad, not good.
Angry girl gone. Smell stays. Snort, sniffle, sneeze.
"You okay, Cookie?"
Nod heads. Bark. Lick face.
Girl angry. Not Daniel-angry. Later problem.
House time. Nap time.
Bath time first. Whine...
One of the best things about this school was that people learned fast. That hadn't been true at her old school in Terre Haute, even though it was supposed to be a school for smart kids. A lot of her old classmates had been too smart, but not savvy at all. That had caused problems by the end.
But here? Here, folks were savvy, and fast. After just two weeks, anyone who saw Rachel Altus coming quickly stepped out of the way.
At five-foot-two, with frizzy brown curls and a pair of glasses held together by duct tape and gumption, she didn't look like too much of a danger. A person with savvy would look closer, see the feral gleam in her eyes or the obvious armband with the letters UV emblazoned upon it. At the very least, they would see her t-shirt and get the message.
Today it was deep indigo with sky blue letters, the words CARPE SCROTUM loud and clear. The color didn't matter that much. Rachel had two dozen shirts in a crazed rainbow of hues, but all of them had the same phrase.
On the back they read DON'T GIVE A SHIT. And she never did.
Damns, on the other hand... sometimes she did give a damn, and damn if that didn't mean that someone else was about to have a damned hard time walking for a while afterwards.
There were a lot of things that could be said about Rachel, avatar of a wayward spirit she knew as Honey-Boo-Boo the honey badger. Most had been said to her face exactly once. Of the few that had survived to be repeated, the frontrunner was 'loyal'. Loyal to friends, loyal to family.
By now, the Whitman Cottage girls counted as both, and somebody had been picking on them.
School injunctions prevented her from willfully starting fights on a weekday, but today was Saturday... And there was the problem girl, walking across the quad with friends. Rachel clenched her fists of fury, and the only thing stopping a quick and nasty donkey punch was the memory of a stern lecture from her guidance counselor, Officer Canterbury of school security. If she wanted to beat someone up – and oh, how she did! – it would have to be mostly by the rules.
Rule #1: State intent, as openly or as baldly as possible. Rachel marched right up to the girl, stopping her in her tracks. "We are going to fight," she declared.
"What? What do you... er, Rachel, isn't it? Why?"
"Does it matter?" She scooted her glasses back up her nose with her middle finger and locked eyes with the blonde girl. "You. Me. Fight. Capisce?"
The friend was trying to pull the girl away. "Erica, let's go," she was saying.
Erica shook her head. "No... you remember what Tanya said, right? Rachel doesn't stop, not until she's got what she wants. And you want a fight," she said straight at the honey badger girl.
"But it is the middle of the quad!" the friend whined. "You will get in trouble!"
"Who gives a shit?"
The blonde girl groaned. "I do. If we're having this fight, it's going to be somewhere official and private. Not out in the open with lots of bystanders."
"So that's a yes?" Her grin was all teeth.
"Conditionally. Do you have a place?"
Frizzy brown hair bounced as she nodded. "Of course I do! Second subbasement, training hall three, half an hour. Be there or be lunch." With that, she turned left and walked off without waiting for a response.
This was gonna be fun.
Half an hour was barely enough time to get to Dickinson, get changed into her combat suit, and get to the training hall. In the middle of that time, she'd picked up a few friends to cheer her on. Cally of course couldn't have been pried from her side with an adamantium crowbar, but Nana and Hannah from the sophomore side had opted to tag along as well.
"You might need backup," was all that Nana would say. Possessing all the aggressive characteristics of a ladybug as she did, the girl was a welcome ally.
"And it'll be awesome to see you both in action, eh?" Hannah burbled happily. "I mean, I've seen you both before, but when things get real then a person's feel can get different, yanno?"
Cally shook her head. "No, not really."
En route they picked up Tanya, who was less enthused about the spectacle about to unfold. "Do not take your eyes off that girl," she was warning Erica. "Not even for a second. It's not that she's fast; she just does not hesitate!"
"Got it," Erica said, tugging at her glove straps. The combat suit hadn't seen much use, for all that it was also her registered outfit for school activities. It was the best that her uncle's contacts and grandfather's know-how could assemble, with fabric material that was heat-, cold-, shock-, tear-, puncture-, and bullet-resistant. Her power actually rendered that last one moot, but memories of how power-testing had shown that her force-field trick could be overloaded made her glad for it anyway. The suit had a plethora of pockets for tools and holdouts she had yet to acquire. That was on her To Do list for the year.
As for the gloves... Her friends in Kansas had had a friend south of the border in Oklahoma who'd owed a favor. She couldn't explain how they worked, but anyone punched with those things was going to feel it.
Rachel was waiting for them at the entrance to the training room. The chamber was little larger than a squash court, and had thin exercise mats covering the floors and walls. Normally Erica would have taken off her shoes before stepping in, but she wasn't about to leave any vulnerable spots exposed. As for Rachel, the girl didn't give a... didn't care about normal niceties. Dressed in loose jeans and the trademark t-shirt, she didn't seem to worry about personal safety, either.
Everyone else gathered in the observation room next door, safely separate from the short little mistress of mayhem.
"Ready?" the girl called.
"Yes..." The end of the S had barely passed her lips as Rachel charged, bridging the space between them with a single bound. Erica brought up an arm to block the first punch, twisting to the side to catch the second punch along something less vital than what it was aiming for, and letting the girl's momentum bring her face straight into Erica's elbow.
The honey badger avatar met the arm less than halfway, chomping down on Erica's bicep. It couldn't break through the fabric, but it startled her enough to force her to break away.
Rachel leapt forward, launching herself in a flying tackle that hit Erica straight in the midsection and slammed her into the nearest wall. Grabbing onto Erica's shoulders, she climbed straight up and got a leg hooked around the blonde girl's neck.
Punching at that angle wouldn't do any good, so Erica grabbed a handful of frizzy hair and yanked as hard as she could. When that failed to ease the pressure on her throat, she flipped forward, using the handhold to throw Rachel to the floormat.
The girl didn't go far, but there was enough space now for Erica to fit a fist in. Muscles rippled along her arm as she let her enhanced strength out to play, and when it connected, it hardly needed the extra oomph provided by the gloves' kinetic echo. Rachel went flying, smacking into the far wall of the chamber with a dull thud, almost a full yard off the ground.
Oh scheisse. Just how tough was Rachel, anyway? Erica's worries ramped up as the girl slid limply down the wall and to the floor.
Then she got up.
"Yanno, that was a pretty good hit," Ratel said as she dusted herself off. There was a dangerous stillness to her body now, all that nervous energy tensed and ready. Shadows clung to her face, forming a dark mask around her eyes that only made them shine more brightly with predatory glee. "This is gonna be real fun."
Erica was ready for the attack this time, her senses stretching her perception of time into discrete frames per second. It wouldn't make her move faster, but on the other hand she was already fast enough to avoid anything she could see coming. Rachel came in quick and low, a blur forming around her fists. Silvery claws formed of feral dreams ripped through the exercise mats as Erica dodged out of their path. But when they veered around to do the same thing to Erica's face–
A veil of light caught the fist and held it, sending off imaginary sparks where the two shades of silver met. It was the first time she'd seen her PK catch anything besides bullets, and she didn't waste time gawking. Grabbing Rachel by the sleeves, she twisted the fabric to hamper the girl's movement.
With a rip, Rachel shredded part of her own t-shirt, wriggling and turning as she fought to get a better angle on her opponent.
Erica had one hand on the back of the girl's head as she slammed it repeatedly into the mat. Then she sat on Rachel's back and pinned her arms, putting her full weight down on the words DON'T GIVE A SHIT. For such an apparently slender frame, she massed far more than anyone would guess, and the honey badger avatar just didn't have the strength to lift her off.
"Now," she said. "Not that this hasn't been fun and all, but why are we doing this?"
"Can't a girl have a little fun?" Rachel growled.
"This is your idea of fun?"
"Sure. Get some exercise, beat up a bully or two, maybe even break a sweat. It's all good."
"Bully... Have you been talking to Kirsten Bischofsheim, by any chance?"
Rachel tried to shrug, but a pair of bony knees were in the way. "She's been helping me with math. Side order of gossip comes free. And a lot of the GSD girls are pissed at you right now."
"All because I asked out someone they like."
"Even though we're no longer dating."
The Whitman girl paused in mid-wriggle. "Okay, that's news to me."
Tanya's voice came over the loudspeaker. "It's true. Whirlibird's already asked him out, if you can believe."
Erica grinned. "Good for her."
"Well, huh." Rachel had stopped struggling, so Erica let her up. "Guess I might've overreacted a bit."
"Ya think!?" Tanya boomed.
"It happens to the best of us," said Erica. She held out a hand to pull the girl to her feet. "Good fight."
"Ain't they all?" Rachel snickered. "We should do this again sometime."
"Maybe..." Erica looked around the chamber at the dents and tears. "Though Maintenance might not be too happy about it."
"Eh..." That got a dismissive wave. "Don't you worry. These mats are some kind of special memory foam. Just push their stuffing back in and they'll fix themselves in a few hours. What, you didn't think they'd have something like this, here of all places?" The girl snorted.
"Well, I'm starving," Rachel declared. "Who wants to go raid the cafeteria dessert counter?"
"Ooh! Ooh!" Hannah's voice could be heard over the speakers. The thunk of her roommate's open palm across the back of her head was almost as loud and clear. "Sorry, Nana..."
The Crystal Hall was still open, of course. With the student body's broad variety of schedules, dietary needs, metabolism, and religious abstentions, the school cafeteria had to be ready and able to provide something at any hour of the day, though selection might vary. One thing that could usually be counted on was the desserts counter, its own little kingdom of cakes, jellies, and chocolates by the far end of the lunch line that was dominated by... the Machine.
Calliope would not try to guess how it worked. Laura had tried to explain her personal theories, and it had almost put the Italian off her ice cream completely. Words like quantum waveform collapse had no business in a discussion about sweets. All that she needed to know was that if she entered any two-digit code into the Machine's front display and pulled the handle, ice cream happened. A little booklet hanging to the side listed all one hundred possibilities, starting with 00 for plain vanilla, but many students prefered to hit the big digital button that said "Surprise Me." Some even did it more than once.
She'd won the contest of rock-paper-scissors to see who had first choice, and her random number had come up 35. This got her a bowl of almond fudge ripple. Erica's number, 91, delivered English toffee crunch. The two of them headed upstairs to the M3 table while the others got their randomly designated flavors.
"Huh, pineapple," Nana commented as she sat with them. Erica made a face at that, so she continued. "Yeah, I know it's not for everyone, but at least my inner carnivore still considers dairy and some fruit to be edible. What did you get, Sammish?"
"Dunno, but it looks tasty, eh!" Hannah's ice cream was a light purple with chunks of dark violet fruit and thick lines of syrup in the same color. "The Machine said jamun, but no idea what that means."
"Javanese plum, from southeast Asia originally." Hikaru walked past with an economy of motion, not wasting a single step as she slipped into her habitual seat at the table. "Are we having a party?" she inquired.
Erica shrugged. "Sort of?"
"She just finished a one-on-one fight with Ratel, from Whitman," Calliope added, with no small measure of pride harmonizing into her words.
Hikaru's left eyebrow delineated a graceful curve of surprise. "Oh? The same girl who got Tanya in so much trouble that first week?" She chuckled as the teammate from Whitman trudged up the stairs with her own bowl of ice cream, this time bright pink.
"What'd you get?" Hannah asked.
"Cotton candy, apparently."
Calliope craned her head around. "Ah, where is...?"
"The little glutton will need a moment," Tanya informed them.
Hannah was already recounting the fight to a bemused Hikaru. Calliope could not recall if those two had ever been properly introduced, and apparently neither could the Japanese girl, who was too polite to interrupt. "So Ratel was going crazy in there, slashing up stuff and yelling and biting and going nyar-nyar-nyar trying to bite Erica..."
"How ever did you survive?" Hikaru asked Erica, eyes rolling.
"A bit of luck, a bit of preparation, and a lot of it not being quite that bad," her roommate responded, rubbing her shoulder. "As it is, I'm gonna have bruises. That girl does not pull punches."
That girl was now bounding up the stairs, taking them two or three at a time while balancing a tray on one hand. An ice-cream bowl and spoon rattled upon it... or at least that's what everyone but Tanya assumed. Ratel had procured for herself a large porcelain salad bowl, as wide as a normal dinner plate, and the monstrosity piled up within it was not so much a sundae as it was a month of sundaes. There was fruit, there was syrup, there were brownies and cookies and... potato chips? An alphabet's worth of ice cream flavors was slowly melting together into a gloppy brown mess, topped with a crown of cherries.
"That is, ah, quite impressive," Calliope said politely. "You are not needing help to finish?"
The abomination of dairy gone so wrongly right landed on the table with a clatter and a plop. "Nah. This is all for me," Ratel said proudly. "Gotta keep the fuel tank on this fighting machine topped up."
"I had not realized," Hikaru said drily, "that the US had perfected engines that ran on pure sucrose."
"You learn something new every day," Ratel said proudly. She stuck out a slightly sticky hand. "The name's Rachel, Rachel Altus."
"Hikaru Myoujin. Your reputation precedes you."
"As well it should!" Everyone rolled their eyes at that, but Ratel didn't notice as she launched a Godzilla-style assault on her confectionary Tokyo.
Even the Japanese princess was speechless for a moment at the spectacle. "So, what was this fight about?" she asked once the shock had passed. "You all seem on good enough terms now."
"A mistaken impression and some problems in communication," Erica began tactfully.
Ratel belched. "Half the freshmen in my dorm are pissed because blondie here asked the nicest guy on campus out before they had a chance to."
Her roommate was not looking at Tanya, but the lavender girl sputtered anyway. "Hey, nobody mentioned it to me, like out in the open or anything..."
"They wouldn't." Ratel snickered. "They know you all are tight, so they've been avoiding the subject."
Tanya pouted. "Well, that'd explain that one talk with Toison, but still!" She scooped up the last of her cotton candy ice cream and clapped the bowl down on the tabletop. "Darn, I'm gonna need more than that if we're having this conversation."
The honey badger girl circled her arms jealously around her personal mountain of melting sweetness, now half as large as it had been. "Nuh-uh. Get your own."
"If you could get me some while you're down there?" Hikaru asked sweetly. Tanya shrugged and made a hand gesture that could be loosely interpreted as compliance. "So..." the Japanese girl continued. "It's all about boy trouble this week?"
"Seems like," Erica admitted.
Calliope sniffed. "Some of us are managing to stay out of such drama," she said. Boys, she had long understood, were more trouble than they were worth. She'd much rather have girl problems to solve.
"Then I am in good company." Hikaru sighed. "There's a well-bred idiot, a scion of one of the old Japanese feudal clans whose family sent him here solely to woo me, and he's getting insufferable about it."
"Would you like it if I did something about him?" Ratel said, anticipation plastered on her smile like another layer of ice cream.
"Oh, how I wish, but no. That would feel too good, I'm afraid. And even with him gone, I'd still have... well, a certain somebody or three would still be urging me to expand my social options in various embarrassing ways."
Hannah had been focused on her jamun ice cream, but she paused long enough to chime in. "Are you talking about your spirit? So it's independent enough to hold conversations? That's pretty rare. I mean, I know Nana's ladybug agglomeration barely counts as sentient, and I'm willing to bet that Ratel's, er, ratel isn't much of a talker either, eh?"
Ratel nodded with her mouth full.
"Excuse me, but who are you again?" Hikaru was staring a hole through Hannah's forehead, which the Canadian blissfully ignored.
"Hannah Sammish. Code name Assay. I read power profiles."
Nana bonked her lightly on the head. "And you gab too much."
"Sorry, Nana... It's just so exciting to be here!"
Hikaru's response was slow and wary. "I see... To answer your question, yes, my spirit has opinions on social interaction which do not match my own, and she would be more than happy if I ventured more in that direction, but in fact I was talking about the imperial bureaucracy back home. There are some busybodies there who really concern themselves too much in my business, though I suppose that actually is there business to do so."
"Wow," said Ratel. "Your English is really good."
Nana looked ready to bonk the other girl's head for being rude, but then wisely thought better of it. "Any good stories to tell?" she asked instead. "I think we're all tired of this dorm drama going on."
"Amen to that!" Tanya shouted as she arrived back at the table. "You got a #6, grape," she informed Hikaru.
"Thanks." The Japanese girl sampled a spoonful and nodded contentedly. "Actually, my biggest problem right now has to do with cars, not boys."
"Do tell," said Calliope.
"I have ordered a car via my cousin, who said she put the order through to Nissan." Hikaru rolled her eyes. "But every time I try to get an answer out of her when it would be delivered, she evades. It does not help that Amazon is putting on a show of Japanese supercars, I admit." The Japanese girl paused. "Though I understand why there's a bit of delay, the motor pool likely is modifying to place armor inserts in the car. But it shouldn't take this long."
"Had to have armor.. or?" Erica asked. Hikaru just smiled a bit wanly at that.
Nana was staring at the girl as if she'd grown a second head. "That is your biggest problem right now? Hell! I busted my ass all last year raising cash for a secondhand clunker, that I couldn't even get in the end because I got sent here instead, and you're stressed out about not getting a brand new customized car? One you don't even have to pay for?"
Hikaru shot the girl a look. "I paid for the car, and frankly, I didn't ask or want it customized. I just want my car. I do not like being on campus at all times." The young princess sniffed. "And before you point out winter break, I'm afraid that I've been reliably informed that I have a busy schedule. Unlike America, Japan's view on Christmas is more of a romantic holiday for couples than anything of importance, and even at New Years I have... obligations, shall we say. And since ... well." Hikaru shrugged. "I expect the rest of my time, based on what I've been informed, to be quite busy."
Calliope noted Hikaru's distate, and couldn't help but ask. "Pomp and circumstance?" She received a nod from Hikaru. The Italian girl fully understood the Japanese princess's distaste. "You are not an entertainer, nor do you crave the spotlight, but you are forced into it anyways."
"Yes, exactly!" Hikaru's smile beamed now. "It is not so much the duties that bother me, to be fair, it is how some in the Imperial Household Agency seem to think I should be happy to do so, or at least not disappointed in their desire to maximize my time while I am in Japan."
Calliope shuddered internally. Hikaru sounded and felt resigned to how her winter would go. "Could you invite a friend? Someone who is willing to be ah... helpful in prying you out of their clutches?"
Hikaru blinked. The empath received a blast of emotion that was hard to parse, but hope and a bit of glee were part of it. "That... and I do owe an invitation to Tia... Excellent idea, Calliope! I couldn't be a bad hostess, could I? That would be rude." An impish smirk crossed her face.
A loud belch intruded into the girl's happy place. A stunned moment of silence later, and: "Excuse me," said Ratel. "Anyone else up for seconds?"
When it came time to admit he did not know something, Fra... wouldn't be the first to speak, but he would not be the last, either. The first two weeks of school had hammered in that realization, that he most certainly did not know as much as he should about a great many things. Some of that could be remedied in his regular classs, but other things required him to go looking to older and wiser students for advice.
Which was how he found himself where he was right now, in a clubhouse hidden in the tunnels that ran beneath Twain Cottage. Those twisty passages were another item he needed to learn more about. He rarely used them, and it was clear that he was missing out on so much of the campus by ignoring their existence.
This room, for example, did not seem to appear on any official map. Its door was hidden along a less-frequented section of tunnel, two or three degrees removed from the main avenue between Twain and the Crystal Hall. How and why it happened to be, Fra couldn't say, but now it was outfitted as a comfortable lounge, with couches and tables, a television and game machine, and a well-stocked kitchenette.
His host, a junior from Emerson who called himself High Gear, was demonstrating just how well stocked it was by pulling out a case of beer and handing out cans to his guests.
"Pft," said one of the other boys, the Belgian sophomore Gouyasse. "Couldn't you get something better than this American piss-water? My dog back home drank better than this."
"It's not so bad..." Macarthur opined, sipping carefully and trying to hide a wince at the bitter taste.
"Only if you've never had better."
Fra was inclined to agree with Gouyasse there. Italian beer was nothing worth talking about, which was why he and his friends had stuck with Stella Artois, a product of Belgium. When it came to arguments over beer, he was on the side of anyone whose country had more branded breweries than there were days in the year to sample them.
High Gear took the criticism with a habitual grin, a lopsided smirk that never seemed to leave his face. "Well then, next time you bring the booze."
"I just might," said the Belgian. "My father was going to send me a special order for my personal allowance anyway."
"Oh, to be a brewer's son," laughed one of the guests, whose name Fra never did catch."
Their host had handed out the last silver can, and now raised his own in toast. "Welcome all to the first meeting this year of the Outstanding Dudes Society! To all our returning friends, I salute you. May your luck be good this semester, because we are blessed with a bumper crop of hotties. And to our new faces..." His hand swept around to include Fra, Macarthur, several of Macarthur's friends, and Pete the clown-faced kid from English class. "Know that we feel your pain. Once we were all frustrated chumps like you..."
"Who ya callin' chump..." Pete growled under his breath.
"...made average because the kids at this school set the bar too fucking high." I know it seems incredible now, but it is perfectly possible for any guy to score with the choice females on this campus – yes, even those impossible beauties of Venus Inc."
"Seriously?" one of the other freshman guys said. "It seems like all they do is fawn over that little Japanese faggot." Several of the others, including Macarthur, nodded in agreement.
Gouyasse belched lightly. "That's nothing. It is the safety in numbers, hiding behind a safe, compliant beta male who will not assert himself."
"And who won't ever get what he really wants," High Gear added, "because he's playing the game by their rules. Well, gentlemen, the Outstanding Dudes Society is here to help you learn how to bend the rules, to turn the tables on those females and make them realize what alphas you really are. How does that sound?"
Fra joined in the chorus of hurrahs, though he didn't quite understand everything that was said, then or later. Even in plain English, he could tell that a lot of the words bandied about were special terms or slang, which he already knew from experience was the most difficult part of the language. As the beer continued to pour and the spirit of the room lightened, he stopped caring so much about the exact meanings and focused on what he could get out of the experience.
––Monday, September 26th
The morning routine was a welcome relief, a time of quiet focus and exertion. Even with Cally and the junior high Natalie along for company, conversation was light. There were greetings made in passing to various other early birds, including Tanya on her way to parkour or that speedster in the headscarf out of Whitman, and the routine giggles at Kenshin's flock of martial matinee admirers, but for the most part words were unnecessary.
Erica saved up her words, barely speaking at all in the morning shower line, thankful that none of the conversation being gossiped around had anything to do with her. Once, she spotted Adrienne le Floc'h in the halls, but the red-headed French girl chose not to acknowledge her.
For breakfast, she grabbed a fruit cup and a cheese danish from Daniel in a to-go pack, then headed out. Her first business of the day took her to the school's administrative halls, where most of the teachers nominally kept offices. There was a small window of opportunity when Herr Auer could be found there, and she timed it perfectly.
"Gutenmorgen," his voice called through the door when she knocked. "Please, come in."
"Herr Auer..." Erica began in her politest German. "I... I must request to drop your class."
The normally glib teacher went mute, the grave seriousness of his mood mirrored in his chiseled marble face. "That is a major decision, Fraulein von Abendritter," he said finally. "I would like to hear a reason before I allow this. It certainly isn't that the material is too difficult. You are doing remarkably well, even by the standards of native speakers your age. So, what is it?"
"It's..." She took a deep breath before going on. "It's Kirsten, sir. She's... well, she's been threatening me with vague revelations since nearly the start, and last Friday she told the entire Euro-Promotional League about some skeletons in the family history that were better left forgotten."
"And how bad are these skeletons?"
"Does the name Baron Dämmerung ring a bell?" She winced in anticipation.
The teacher let out a low whistle. "Now that is a name that shall live in infamy."
"Unfortunately, it's also a name that will live on as Urgrossvater for me. My family has distanced ourselves as best we could, but... Kirsten insists on bridging that distance with military action."
"She does tend to tackle problems like every solution is a blitzkrieg," Herr Auer said with a nod. "Not to mention she takes everything so seriously. Why, last year she called me a clown to my face because of my love of puns." He picked up a framed motto from his desk. "So of course I had this made to tweak her nose about it."
Was macht ein Clown im Büro? Faxen. It took a few confused blinks before that one could sink through, and then she groaned. What was the clown doing in the office? Faxing / Pranks. "I think you and my grandfather would get along atrociously well."
"Glad to hear it. Now, as to the class... No, I will not let you drop it, even though Kirsten is being awful at the moment. However, I think that for the next week or two, you can handle the reading by yourself. Instead of the usual classes, you can manage the tutoring station in the language lab, and for the days when Kirsten is on duty there, we will arrange something with either Wilhelm or myself. Basically, we will invert your current schedule for the class."
"Besten Danke, Herr Auer."
"Bitte, fraulein. Now, if you will excuse me, I must ready the worksheets for the beginner and intermediate classes. Expect some of them to come by the lab later."
"Understood, sir." Erica was out the hall and into the quad a moment later, enjoying the fresh air and her breakfast pastry. A small burden was gone from her chest, and while there was still plenty of weight remaining on her spirit, she felt pretty positive... until she remembered her first class of the day was Power Theory.
Another awesome week and a marvelous Monday, too! Hannah Sammish wished sometimes that he could walk on air like some of her classmates, but she could settle for just the feeling. Life was just awesome. Everything was awesome.
"Everything is cool when you're part of a team..." she was singing to herself as she skipped along. That movie had been awesomesauce, too. She needed to watch it again sometime soon.
And of course her day started with the most awesomest of classes, Mr. Bergamot's Power Theory. All those people, all those powers in their awesome variety. It was... cool. Excellent.
Normally she was the first in, every day, but today one familiar face slumped against the door to the class. Erica was balanced on the balls of her feet, ready to go one way or the other.
The world felt a little less awesome. The freshman hadn't come on Friday, and Mr. Bergamot hadn't commented on that absence, but Hannah couldn't help but feel a teeny-tiny tad responsible for it. Things hadn't gone too well on Thursday, obviously, but she hadn't had the guts to ask Erica about it directly, even when she'd had the chance.
"Hey!" she said sunnily, with clouds only slightly in the way. "Like, I know I asked you before, but we're still cool, right?"
Erica tensed for a second, then relaxed her shoulders. "Yeah, of course." The girl almost managed a smile. "It's the teacher who worries me."
Hannah hated to hear that, since Mr. Bergamot was such a cool dude most of the time, but at the same time it was easy to understand why the girl would say that. "Well, if you're worried, I can delay that report I made on how your PK reacted with Ratel's. Um, I took notes..." she explained apologetically.
That got her a chuckle. "Of course you did. It's okay. The more you report, the less... pushy Mr. Bergamot will get. Hopefully." The two of them walked into the empty classroom. "Um, you trust him, right?"
"Who, Mr. B? Sure. I mean, he must've passed some wowzer background checks to work here, and promised this and that and swore an oath on a Bible or Necronomicon or something, so even if he used to be like, some hero or villain or alien brain in a jar, he'd still need to abide by school rules, and I'm sure that doing naughty awful stuff to students is a no-no."
"We can only hope..." Erica didn't look too sure as she took her seat.
Hannah kept one eye on Mr. B that class, no matter how awesomely cool the power show was that day. Aside from a quiet word of apology at the beginning, the teacher seemed to avoid interacting with Erica for the entire period.
Just to be careful though, she decided to delay her report by a few more days.
Lunch was uneventful. Calliope had opted for light meals all day on the grounds that she'd taken in far too many calories in yesterday's ice cream extravaganza, so her plate was dominated by a salad and some fruit that disappeared much too quickly. Erica was going back for seconds after wolfing down twice as much, and Calliope had no interest in competing.
"Ah, I shall go on ahead," she told her roommate. "I need to check my math homework before it is due."
Erica waved her goodbye. "See you at Powers Lab, then."
After a quick stop by the tray return, Calliope was heading out when a friendly face spotted out of the corner of her eye stopped her. At one of the first floor tables sat Nina Blake with her sister Darcy and a dark-haired girl whose name she'd never gotten.
"Hi!" said Nina when she walked over. "All ready for math?" Next to her, Darcy made a face.
"As ready as I can ever be," she admitted. "It is hardly my best class."
"You and the midget both," Nina joked, giving her little sister a noogie. "Hey Darcy, the two of you could be study buddies!"
A loud brrrpt! noise answered her as Darcy stuck out her tongue. "No way! The great Breakthrough needs no help against any obstacle, be it a brick wall or a word problem!"
"Ah, I thought your code name was, um..." Calliope could not actually recall, but she was certain that it was something different.
Nina's friend snickered. "She changed it again. The junior-high kids all have a little more of a grace period before they're stuck with whatever they picked, and Darcy's on her fifth so far."
"This one's the last, Kara, promise!"
Calliope giggled with the other girls. "If you're finished, shall we go to class together?" she asked Nina.
"That'd be cool, thanks."
A few minutes later, they were strolling towards the building where the class would be, arms hooked at the elbow and happily chatting about Italy. Calliope had dozens of fun little details, and could even answer some questions pertaining to fashion. In return, she heard all sorts of things about clothing trends in America. A little light had turned on behind Nina's usual face, as it sometimes did, and the girl's entire personality shifted to bubbly and energetic.
"Whew," the girl said after the initial rush had worn off. "Sorry about that. I... got carried away there."
"It is okay," Calliope assured. "Is there anything else American girls talk about?"
"Well, boys," Nina said. "I mean, your roommate is Exhibit A right there."
She had to laugh. "Fair enough."
"So... what kind of guy do you like?"
Her head turned just enough so Nina couldn't see her wince at the question. "That is... a difficult question," she admitted. "I have not had the best history or experiences this year."
Nina's mood sank, all the bubbles now popped. "Was it, um..."
"I'd rather not discuss it."
"Gotcha. Well, I guess not all guys are like that, right? Some might be, well, into the same things you are, or can be polite and caring, or..." She shrugged. "A bit more like us, less like some alien species from Mars? I'd probably make a nice guy, in some alternate reality."
"Probably." Calliope wondered where this conversation was going, if it even had a destination in mind. "Yes, if there was a boy as nice and considerate as you, I might consider," she admitted. "Though I doubt it would end well. Um, are you alright?"
Nina's face had turned an odd color, if only for a brief moment. "Ah, just something I ate, I think. Food's so good, it's normal to eat too much, right?"
"Yes..." Calliope switched the topic of conversation back to clothes, and that light inside Nina turned back on, leading them away from the strangely dark mood they'd sunk into. By the time they arrived at class, they'd silently agreed never to mention it again.
––Tuesday, September 27th
Despite a longtime interest in music and a familiarity with enough instruments to form a particularly eclectic orchestra, Tobias wasn't of a personality to seek out the spotlight of fame. He'd seen where that often led, and he had no desire to risk it all on fifteen minutes of strangers prying into his business. The life that stretched before him was potentially a long one indeed, he had been told, and there was no rush.
For all that, he'd still found himself dragged into things. First Mr. August's special class, and then into the orbit of this ongoing music project that the others were calling a band. Tonight he was only sitting on the sidelines, but as soon as they needed an extra horn, or an air lariat, or a glockenspiel....
Admit it, Sedrynnor; you love to feel needed. The thought could well have been him talking to himself, if it were not a rippling soprano which practically sang coloratura with every syllable, rolling its consonants and tilting the vowels at odd angles.
He would have rolled his eyes, but that wouldn't have done much good. It was hard to show passive-aggressive defiance in the face of authority when said authority was taking up residence behind your face. "Not now, Tira..." he mumbled through pursed lips.
"Huh? You say something?" asked his roommate. Victor Rivera was a stupendously non-musical person, of the sort who would need an extra-large bucket to carry a tune. That didn't mean he wasn't appreciative of others' work, but he had no inclination to try for himself. Tobias found that attitude to be quite refreshing, actually.
"Nothing. Just, ah, thinking out loud." He tapped his forehead, and then smoothed a loose strand of hair back behind pointed ears. Be quiet, he added subvocally.
Quiet is relative when no words, no notes of mine may sully the tranquility of the breeze, came the reply. And no, I would not in any case. If left to your own devices, you would not go any place. It was trouble enough simply to get you in this school!
And he still had to wonder how she'd pulled that off.
Never demand of a lady her secrets, Tira said primly.
Tobias did roll his eyes at that, though thankfully Vic did not notice. The two of them were strolling across the quad and around the hill a ways, to the spot near Poe Cottage where the Unladen Swallows were setting up for their third live mini-concert.
See, Sedrynnor? Tira prodded. Wouldn't it feel nice to be out there, giving it your all?
Undoubtedly it would, but he'd rather have it on his terms. The music came first, and it was on himself to determine what that meant.
The lady sulked in the back of his mind while he and Vic said hi to Calliope's friends. Vic's friends, too – at least, some more than others. Quite a few of them were residents of Poe, and despite all rumors they didn't seem any less sane than the average student here.
That was, he was willing to concede as a heated argument nearby actually set part of a shrubbery on fire, a highly subjective statement. But who was he to call someone crazy when he had an actual ghost haunting his brain?
Hmph. Perhaps I should wander afield to find someone more willing and able to entertain an interesting conversation, said Tira. Oh! Mr. August....
For the life of him, Tobias could not say whether the music teacher was actually able to hear the disembodied leannen-sidhe, or if Tira was simply very good at timing when the music teacher did things like waving and smiling. With Tirandael nic Mirthriel, it could go either way.
"Hey," he said to Vic, mindful that he'd let himself go too long without a word spoken. "Where's your purple-haired girlfriend?"
"Lavender," his roommate snapped back automatically. "Um, and she's not my girlfriend."
"Whatever you say..." But what the boy did not say spoke volumes on its own.
Ah, young lust. What a pleasantly, creatively chaotic entertainment it provides.
He ignored her, focusing on the first act as it started up. Ngaire, known by preference as Electradyne, wasn't someone he knew well at all. She wasn't a member of the special music class – this semester, at least – and her instrument was something that even he would find eclectic. It was the shape of a violin, held like a ukelele, and played by turning a crank and fingering the keyboard along its side. Several wires connected it directly to Ngaire's skin and clothing, though he'd never heard a reason for that. The crank controlled the speed, while the keys produced bell-like tones that were somewhere between a piano, a set of chimes, and a fancy music box. Every note it played seemed to bounce and weave through the air, dancing with the sound of Nick on guitar and Dalton on drums.
Electrified patterns played across Ngaire's hair and dress as the music spilled forth. Leaning into the microphone, she began the song she'd chosen.
Savage at heart... Escape for a day,
Won't go back...
I should have seen from the start,
There'd be more heartache and pain...
I'm watching the wind blow...
I'm watching the rain.
I'm watching this love grow,
No more heartache or pain.
'Cause this is real....
This is, real....
This is, real....
This is as good as it gets.
The sound of her instrument cycled through the bridge of the song, wrapping the notes into a slowly turning spiral of positive thoughts borne from sadness. There were extra levers on her instrument, pulled or pressed to distort the chords until they wailed along with the words that followed.
I'm staying for a party.
I'm staying for change.
I'm feeling kinda naughty...
(I'm glad to say)
Nothing has changed.
I'm watching this love grow...
I'm watching the kids go mad and I'm,
Watching this whole thing from above....
This is real....
This is, real....
This is, real....
This is as good as it gets
Second time round I'll make it better...
Second time round I'll make you, stay...
Second time round I'll make it better, for you,
My honeymoon child...
My honeymoon child...
This is real....
This is, real....
This is, real....
This is as good as it gets.
As the last notes rang into echoes, she took a bow. And then a more melodramatic second and third.
There's someone with a lust for life and fame, Sedrynnor, Tira noted. You should pay her court sometime.
Even if he were interested – which he was not – the girl seemed to have eyes for Kieron, the band's sax player. Certainly, her bows seemed poised to expose a proper amount of decolletage in his direction.
Pish and tosh. The quaint swear echoed oddly, which happened sometimes when the words of Tira's actual language didn't quite jive with what he heard coming down the mental connection they shared. Whatever word the leannen-sidhe had actually used, it was far more nuanced.
In any case, she continued, it's obvious enough that he does not fancy her. Indeed, Kieron seemed more caught up in conversation with the other boys from Poe – a buzz-cut, angry-looking young redheaded man and Sam, the kid who'd visited for movie night – than in any show that Ngaire was putting on. Hm... Perhaps you should ask him out sometime instead? He's certainly handsome enough.
Only by the greatest force of will did he stop himself from shouting at her to please shut up. His jaw nearly cramped, and as he winced, his eyes missed the look on Ngaire's face as the applause for her song died down and a cheer arose for Calliope, now moving into place.
She was clapping as loud as the rest when Electradyne's song finished up. The other girl's instrument was far more versatile than it looked at first glance, and the song had sparkled impressively across that outfit Electra preferred.
It was a good act to follow; the crowd was warmed up and enthusiastic.
It was a terrible act to follow; her nerves were convinced she'd never be able to match.
Calliope took a deep breath, letting her shields down just enough to soak in the vibes from her friends around her. Nina and Neff were closest, and the warm fuzziness of their excitement lifted her like a cloud of bubbles. She was ready to jump on stage right then and there, but Laura and Vickie held her back.
"One last check," said Vickie, running a diagnostic tool over her outfit. Laura was putting the final adjustments into the projector's interface screen. "There. It's all working. Go get 'em, Cally."
Electradyne was on her third encore of bows, but even so she shot Calliope an annoyed glare as the Italian took to the stage. Words wrinkled the girl's lips, but their sound was lost to the roar of the crowd as Calliope took the mike.
"Ah, thank you, everyone," she said. Her fingers wanted so much to fidget with the outfit, to pull at the pale fabric that was the devisors' backdrop, but then Dalton started up the drum line, and Nick strummed along, and her voice took off.
I've been here in this place,
I've been stuck in this space,
Like a ghost that's been missing.
Silent words in my mouth,
Yeah they want to scream out,
And I'll leave my old shadow behind,
In my heart and out of my mind.
She could tell the exact second that the projection started, as gasps drew out from the audience. As per the program, phantasmagoric flowers budded and bloomed along her the material of her costume, opening and closing in time with the music, shifting colors in a mesmerizing display. When she stretched out a hand, palm open and up, vines twined themselves around and a large lotus burst like a fireball above her fingers.
I'll go but I won't go quietly,
Go down but I'll go down fighting.
Don't know where, don't know why,
But I can't go back, back to the way I was.
I'll show who I am from the inside,
Gonna take my walk on the wild side.
Don't know where, don't know why,
But I can't go back, back to the way I was.
Truer words about the high school experience, she had never heard. Even before she took it to a personal level – and oh, how she could not go back to the way she'd been – wasn't that what school was about? Figuring out who you were and trying to become more of that?
I'm the leaf, I'm the seed,
That's been waiting for spring
I'm a girl reinventing herself.
We might fall, we might rise,
We are all butterflies,
Breaking free from our jars on the shelf,
Finding out the truth for ourselves.
The song came to its second chorus, winding down to its final measures as she strutted across the stage with chains of daisies streaming behind her. It was not as active a performance as Neff had wanted – the projector was still not so good as that – but the effect was beautiful.
Calliope only took the single bow for her songs. Vickie had set the hologram to fall apart at that point, literally shedding petals and pixels into the air as she dipped low. She hopped off the stage to the sound of applause.
Electradyne was right there at the edge, eyes sharp and hard. "Just had to upstage me, didn't you?" the girl growled. Gathering up the hem of her dress, she stormed away.
Her personal girl squad ran straight past Electra, cheering Calliope happily. Nina and Neff were first to get hugs in, from both sides at once, but everyone had a chance soon enough. Calliope was more than happy; she was literally ecstatic from the groundswell of emotions overloading her mental senses. She almost died a little death right there from sheer joy.
By the time she finally came down to earth, thoughts of Electradyne's words had been completely washed away by the flood of positivity. Calliope never gave it a second consideration.
–– Wednesday, September 28th
For Day Three of her self-imposed exile from German class, Erica once again sat in the foreign language lab. She'd reorganized the free-reading shelves, and was now settled in a chair with a copy of Andreas Eschbach's Die Haarteppichknüpfer. German science-fiction was bizarre at times, but the strange panoply of chapters detailing the existence and history of a future galaxy dominated by an imperial hair-weaving cult was... well, strange and bizarre, with no central protagonist beyond its own dominating premise.
Not many students had come asking for help, despite Herr Auer's invitation to come ask her. At least one, a young lady with frizzy blonde curls that hung down from her head like a fleece had turned fluffy tail and walked briskly in the other direction at the sight of Erica behind the greeting desk. Bad gossip traveled fast and stayed long.
Erica was toying with the idea of skipping out early that afternoon, and even had her books packed up, when one last head stuck itself through the lab door. She could identify it on sight. Spiky black hair that seemed permanently gelled against the forces of gravity, coupled with a pair of parabolic rabbit ears that swiveled and furled as she watched – and a face that was as familiar as its frame was new and strange. Beyond the obvious, Saumer hadn't changed much since the last time she... the last time Eric had seen him, on a park trail in northern Arkasas with black-suited agents en route.
"Oh, hey." Even his voice was still the same. "Um, is the other tutor in here? Kirsten?"
"She's not in today," Erica said, forcing a frown away from the surface. "It's just me. Sign in, and we can get started." She made an obvious show of looking at the book as he scribbled his name. "Okay. Hiram Saumer. Which do you prefer?"
"Saumer. Or Playback." The boy's ears twitched. "Um, have we met?"
"I think we've seen each other around school a few times, either here or by Twain," she said. "Why?"
"Huh. It's just that your voice tastes familiar, but I know I've never heard you say anything... Um, sorry, that sounds stupendously weird."
Erica giggled. "At this school, what really counts as weird?"
"Darn tootin'. Um, oh yeah. I guess I could use some help."
With a twirling finger, Erica pointed around the lab. "That would be the reason for the place. What's the matter?"
Saumer shrugged. "Not much, actually. I, er, my power comes in handy for remembering how stuff is said, so I'm getting the tenses and declensions down pretty easily. Even if Mr. Auer's examples are weird." With a snap of his fingers, the teacher's voice spoke from a spot about a foot away.
"Tut mir leid, aber mein Englisch is under aller Sau."
She had to keep her expression carefully neutral there. "Did Herr Auer... explain what that meant?"
"Just that it was useful for apologizing if we're in Germany, and that by the time we can decipher it for ourselves, we probably won't need to use it."
"Indeed..." Honestly, sometimes she wondered if the teacher was missing a few cups from the cupboard. His clock certainly didn't tick correctly. "The high level class is nothing but awful puns some days, so I can sympathize. So if your listening's going well, what's the but behind all this?"
"But my spelling sucks," Saumer admitted. "And, well, Kirsten's been really nice about not laughing, and..."
"She's got that tough, dark, Wagnerian chic going on for her?"
"Uh-huh... er, um, not that you're not cute too..."
Erica presented him with her best deadpan look, the kind that would never give away the eternal scream echoing behind it. "Thanks."
His ears dipped down, and he winced. "Ouch. That was a painful overtone right there."
"There's more where that came from, so mind your mouth, bub. Come on, the spelling drills are this way."
She got him set up at the appropriate terminal, then holed herself in a corner with her sci-fi, being sure to glare at him whenever he glanced her way. It wasn't very nice of her, she knew, but it was better to put the distance in now rather than let him in close enough where he did know her from. It only took him fifteen minutes to wrap up the exercise and leave.
Five minutes after that, she was signed out herself, hiking out across the quad while fighting her nerves. The butterflies in her stomach were doing their darnedest to get let out. Too close, too close... She needed to calm down. She needed to relax. She needed...
On the path ahead she could see the four-legged form of a monstrous canine walking beside its boy. Erica almost ran up and hugged Daniel right then, but better sense won out. After all that had happened, she did not want to risk crushing Whirlibird, emotionally or physically.
The bird girl was skipping along on the other side of Daniel, chatting happily. She drooped as Erica walked up. "Um, hi..." she said nervously.
"Hey. You two headed somewhere?"
"Just takin' a walk, maybe find a nice place to sit and gab," said Daniel.
"Cool. Mind if I take Cookie off your hands? I could use a good run." She winked at Whirlibird. "And give you a bit more privacy, right?"
The girl turned red and tittered.
Cookie at least knew how to read a situation. With a friendly whoof, pup bounded over to Erica and gave her a sloppy kiss. Twin heads turned their eyes back to their boy and waggled eyebrows.
"Heh, sure thing, pup," said Daniel. "You all have fun."
Pup didn't waste time, four feet pounding the dirt as the dog rushed away. Erica took off after Cookie, focusing on the pursuit rather than wondering where they were going. A few hundred yards was cleared in a short span, and she found herself standing in front of Twain, next to Cookie's dog house. Pup had both both heads inside and rummaging. When they turned to give Erica the puppy dog eyes, one held an aluminum bat and the other an oversized ball.
"Time to play catch again, huh?" she asked.
"Kyun?" The matched Boston terrier heads managed to tilt themselves asymetrically as they whined in harmony.
"Sounds good to me." She patted Cookie on each head as she retrieved the items from their respective mouths.
They settled on an open clearing on the far side of Hawthorne, facing out into the woods surrounding the school. Stories abounded of the forest and its dangers, and Erica would have written most of them off as tall-tales to haze the freshmen if the school wasn't already ten types of unbelievable already. She was careful to whack the ball in the direction with the fewest trees, buildings, and assorted other stuff.
It took Cookie less than ten seconds to fetch. Both heads had the left eyebrow cocked, as if to ask "Is that the best you can do?"
For the second hit, she put some real muscle into it. The sound of the bat was a heavy bonk that echoed up its length and into her arms as the ball flew through the air and into the undergrowth. Most of the time spent retrieving it went toward uprooting part of a bush.
"Sorry," she said when a dirt-speckled Cookie returned with its prize.
The two wide Boston terrier grins told her that, hey, it happens sometimes.
"Do you mind listening for a little bit, pup?"
The left head shook its ears while the right head kept the grin going. Together they whined expectantly. Pup lay on the ground and dragged a paw to invite her over.
"Well then..." She sat down on the grass, leaning up against Cookie's heavy frame. "I've been going at all this like it's a mission in a game, good old Operation Snowflake. Look the same, act the same, be the same on the outside. Where's the best place to hide a snowflake but with all the other snowflakes, right? But it's not working!" she cried.
"It's like my body and brain aren't on the same page, and occasionally I've got a full-on war of the glands happening, and I know I don't want any of it right now... It's, it's all scary enough as it is without having to deal with new parts – new internal organs – like this. And, and, I've got another me in there who wants the romance and the dating and..." She gulped. "Some nice guy to mess around with, and I can't even begin to process all that together, yet here I am, trying anyway..."
Cookie nuzzled her cheek with one warm nose, wiping off tears as they dripped. She hugged the other head's neck fiercely, whispering every little worry and fear that she'd suffered haunting her for far too long. She even talked about Eric, things that she hadn't mentioned to anyone in months, and the pup simply nodded along and gave puppy-kisses as needed.
"So, um, do you like... er, are you reading anything? Um, I mean, of course we have to read stuff – it's school, after all – but I was wondering what sorts of things interest you in a book..." Oh, she was rambling and the brake lines had been cut on her jaw, tongue, and lips. Monica babbled through the entire question, somehow arriving at an endpoint.
Daniel's answer was far less verbose. "Well," he said as he sat there on the grass beside her. "Back in the community with my folks, the Reverend wasn't really big on any book but the Good Book, if ya get my meanin'. Lotsa Bible stories and not much else. I'm still catchin' up. Right now I'm readin' this book called Shiloh for class. Nice one 'bout a boy and his dog."
"I read that one in fourth grade," Monica said happily. "It is nice. Better than Old Yeller, definitely."
"Oh? How's that go?"
She bit her lip. "Um... Maybe it's better I not tell you that one. It, um, doesn't end well."
"Lotsa stories don't, I'm thinkin'." Daniel wiped the crumbs from his hands. "Er, sorry I couldn't really answer yer question. Gimme a few months and might be I can."
Well hidden in her shoes, her toes wiggled with embarrassment. "It's... oh..." She'd made him feel bad, hadn't she? "Um, don't worry. We all have our different things."
"Yeah, but I gotta get myself better anyway. That's why I'm in Ms. Barnes's English class. So, what wouldja recommend?"
"Me?" Huge lists of books floated through her brain, complete with the fleeting images of cover art in full color. Her memory had only improved in the past few months, and sometimes it was enough to overwhelm her. "Um... how about The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? I really liked that one when I was younger, but I think it's supposed to be a 7th-grade reading level book."
Daniel nodded happily. "I'll haveta check it out sometime."
With her one major topic of conversation now expended, Monica was at a loss as to how to keep their chat going. This was their first date, sorta – and her first date of any sort, period – and she was already flailing mentally.
"Now, if ya like stories, I do know a few that ya might not find in the books," Daniel said. "Ever heard of the flyin' deer of Alder Gulch?"
"Didn't think so. When it comes to the funny critters of the mountain tales, most folk only know the jackelopes at best, but..." The boy's easygoing ramble wended its way around descriptions of animals, or rather 'critters', that people had made up to fool the tourists. "Well, many years ago this local newspaper ran a tale about these deer that'd learned how to escape wolves by flingin' themselves offa cliffs and flyin' like those squirrels with the extra skin 'tween their legs. Even included a gen-you-wine fake photograph, courtesy of a local taxidermist with too much time on his hands. Well, someone sent a clip of the paper back east, and this rich old sucker from New York came all the way to that little town, just to shoot himself one of these deer."
"Yeah. More money 'n brains. Supposedly, the townsfolk strung up the fake on a zipline, got the rich guy pretty drunk, and then let him shoot the dummy in mid-air. A few days later they presented him with the stuffed deer and said they'd done it up just for him. Dunno if he ever did figger it out, and it's prolly way too late to ask him."
Giggles kept popping up and out of her like bubbles in a well-shaken can of soda. They were easy to catch, too, and soon Daniel was laughing along with her. When they'd finally subsided into the occasional happy hiccup, she gave him a big hug. "You sure know how to make a girl feel normal," she said.
"Heh, Erica said 'bout the same thing. Thought I was supposed to make y'all feel special or somethin'."
Her bubbly mood went flat at the mention of the golden-haired girl, though this was the only time that name had cropped up this entire date. "What did she mean by it, then?" she asked with a pout.
"Only that life was so darn strange that she couldn't see herself when she looked in the mirror sometimes." The boy shrugged. "Guess we all lost somethin' or other on the way here, and it's nice when the days seem like they used to be." Now he looked at her. "That what you meant?"
Monica had to grudgingly nod. "Yeah. I guess we're all not so different after all."
"Maybe not, 'cept for Cookie, of course."
"Of course." She gave him another hug, and a peck on the cheek. "Thank you for the lovely afternoon, and for helping me feel like a normal girl, if only a little while." She rubbed the downy feathers on her scalp. "It's been a long time."
"You're welcome, Monica."
"We should do this again sometime," she said. "Maybe when you're a bit more widely read, so we've got something in common to talk about."
"And maybe you'll find yourself a better guy by then," he said with a wink.
She tittered. "Not likely. You're setting the bar for gentlemanliness pretty high. Um... some of the other girls in Whitman might like a friendly ear sometime. If you don't mind?"
"Never any trouble," he said.
Step, step, left, turn. Step, step, right, turn... It was one thing to move to the beat, Calliope was discovering, and a whole different thing to follow a set choreography like what people used for shows. Those had to be planned and practiced, both to present the best possible form and to prevent unfortunate accidents. It was a funny predicament, that something which came so naturally could become so impossible simply by having to think about it.
"Okay! Let's try that again!" And then there was the other distraction in the room. Neff had been serious when she'd offered to teach Calliope some moves, and from the way she moved there were years of dance classes evident. A pastel-tinted leotard set off her dark brown skin beautifully.
Calliope was so grateful to her stepmother for insisting that she have one such practice outfit in her wardrobe. She was even more grateful that her leotard came with built-in padding on the front, so her nipples weren't so obvious at the moment.
Neff was a wonder to behold, true poetry in motion, and the fact that Calliope had been commanded to stare at her friend as she bent, posed, and jiggled made the experience equal parts heaven and hell.
When it came time to practice those same poses, her legs had the consistency of overboiled manicotti stuffed with old cheese. She could have cried. There were reasons she had chosen the name Calliope, and not Terpsichore, after all! But Neff walked her through the routine slowly, always with a hand on her shoulder or her back to steady her while the other hand guided her limbs in the right direction.
Did that hand linger for more time than was necessary, or slide farther along than it should? Calliope could not say for certain, and her every hope was tinged with the fear that it was all in her imagination.
"Let's walk through this at full speed now," Neff was saying. "I'll be right behind you, okay?"
Oh, how aware she was of where the other girl stood.... Her legs wobbled unsteadily as they went, and she managed to trip over wrinkles in the floor mat that were hardly even there.
"Huh. This ain't working right. You're nothing but nerves right now! We need to loosen you up." Neff hopped over to the CD player, bending forward enough to give Calliope an eye-opening view of her butt.
It had to be coincidence... She repeated that over and over in her head.
The lively, artificially emotional bup-bup-bup of a techno dance tune hit the air space. There were no words, for which she was thankful, only the rhythm and the beat. Neff danced back to her side, hips swaying and arms waving. "C'mon, let's boogy!" the girl cried, grabbing Calliope by the hand.
Her nerves were so tense that it took a few measures to loosen up, and as they did her empathy began to engage. She'd been keeping the emotional sense close to her chest these past few weeks, out of an interest in self-preservation. High school drama was simply awful for an empath who couldn't tune it out.
With only the two of them there, she let it tune in, and the feeling was... magical. A rush. Neff's heart and soul reacted to the music in ways both familiar and different, but she wore those feelings like a leotard and skirt, swinging and flinging them around as she moved. Much like the first night they'd met, at the dorm mixer, Calliope was drawn into the dance, syncing her motions with the other girl as they circled around each other and laughed.
Neff grabbed her by the hand, twirling her around until she was giddy, and then somehow the distance between them was gone. The track wound down, and in the brief span before the next song began, it was only the two of them, standing chest to chest and flush with the excitment of the dance.
Calliope could never be too sure who kissed whom first, only that it felt so right in that moment.
––Thursday, September 29th
She was tempted to nab Cookie and take the pup out on the morning routine that day. Their little heart to heart had been nice, and it felt good to know that someone on campus knew about her real problems – even if that someone was a one-ton, two-headed guard dog who couldn't talk back. Her feet seemed to bounce as they ran along.
"You guys sure are happy today," Natalie commented as they began the second lap.
"Are we?" Erica could only speak for herself.
Cally's beaming, smiling face spoke entire sonnets, but in what language was anybody's guess. Her roommate had returned to the dorm like that the night before, and from the sound of it there'd been some embarrassingly good dreams in between dusk and dawn that had only made the smile bigger.
The Italian wouldn't actually say anything about it just yet, and Erica respected her privacy on the matter, but she still wondered.
"Trying to put the negative stuff behind us," she told the junior high girl. "It's only the start of the year, and we've already had so much crap hit the fan. Better not to dwell on it."
"I hear you." The younger girl's ponytail bobbed as she ran. "For what it's worth, Darcy and Linette think you're okay again."
Erica smiled at that. She spared a wave to Daniel as he and Cookie galloped past in the opposite direction. "It's all good."
By now, everyone in the English Learners course had figured out that it paid to arrive a few minutes early, because Ms. Barnes enforcement of the rule against snacks in class could be timed to the second by the bells at the beginning and end of class. Outside that period, anyone could get a donut in. Kenshin had a honey old fashioned mostly finished, and he was savoring the first few crumbs as the seconds ticked down.
The bell rang.
There was no teacher behind the desk.
Kenshin was not the only one to crane their head around in confusion. This had never happened before. Indeed, Ms. Barnes may have been the most punctual person he'd met since leaving Japan.
Thirty seconds after the bell had ceased its melodic torture, the classroom door opened, stifling the nervous chatter that had filled the atmosphere. "My apologies, everyone," Ms. Barnes said. Behind her was one of the junior high kids, the devisor with the messy brown hair, and behind him was a new face entirely.
"I would like to introduce the newest member of our class," said the teacher. "Daniel Fontenot. Now, we already have a Daniel in the class – and thank you for the strawberry cream, Mr. Diggins," she said as she picked the gifted donut off her desk, where it had kept the stacked homework company. "But I doubt there will be much confusion as to who is who."
An understatement, that was. Kenshin was still working on the English concepts of hyperbole and dry wit, but he could hear it clearly here. This new Daniel was tall and skinny, where the usual Daniel was average height and somewhat round on the edges. The new boy stood nervously in place, until the junior high devisor nudged him carefully.
"Um!" he gasped. "Hi. My name's Daniel Fontenot... er, y'all alreddy knew that..." Kenshin's ears were having trouble following the boy's accent, with long and nasal vowels, almost swallowing up the consonants. "I, um, guess y'all can call me Wilder." The code name sounded more like will-dur when he said it. "I'm from Thibodaux, Louisiana..."
"Tippy-toe?" shouted Franklin from the other end of the classroom. The muscular young man snorted through his rhino horn. "Sam, ain't that your code name?"
The quiet kid with the monkey tail who sat beside Franklin looked like he'd rather be anywhere else. "It's Tiptoe..." he murmurred.
"Getting back on track!" Ms. Barnes said, loud and firm, "Marcus, thank you for your assistance. Now, get back to class."
With a jaunty salute, the junior high kid left Wilder alone with them. There was an empty seat for him next to Pete Foley, behind and to the left of Kenshin.
"Please get out your grammar workbooks, everyone, and turn to page twenty..."
The focus of the day's lesson was what Ms. Barnes referred to as "change-ups". Changes in verb tense, in mode or in article use, that happened naturally as a sentence or conversation progressed. The use of "a" and "the" was always a mystery to him and his fellow students in Japan – and often the teachers as well, he suspected. Almost everything about how the perfect tenses worked had been approached with just as much wariness. But in this class and in his language lab sections, Kenshin felt he might actually be able to master the art of the word. Eventually. As with many things, it was easier thought than said.
From behind him, his ears caught the occasional angry mutter of Pete being his usual self. Kenshin had learned to pay him no mind. No one had thought to warn the new kid, though. Wilder hissed at his neighbor several times to be quiet during the lecture, and the two avoided each other completely for the pair practice.
It wasn't until the class had concluded and everyone began packing up books that things came to a head. "What's the matter with you?" Wilder said. At least, that's what Kenshin thought was said. It sounded more like "Waza mada wichuu" to him.
"Mebbe I don't like havin' to give up my elbow room to some little creep who can't even talk right!" Pete roared back.
"Talk right? Y'all are one to talk. Mistuh Grand Beede, actin' all big an' tuff." The new kid was sitting, not a muscle moved, but it was the sort of stillness that put Kenshin on edge. "You gotta bug up your–"
"That's enough, boys." Ms. Barnes materialized behind them as efficiently as an actual teleporter, and with only the power of her own two feet. "If you can't get along, we can change seats around tomorrow, but for now you both need to get moving."
Wilder pushed out from his desk, huffing as he got to his feet. "Ain't no biggie," he said. "I just ain't gonna take cracks 'bout my accent fromma kid looks like a clown."
The last word, even deformed by Wilder's accent, hit the airspace of the classroom like a clap of thunder. The students who were still milling by the door to the hall began a quick shuffle out.
Pete's eyes, normally a bit yellowed and bloodshot, nearly popped out of his face from the force of his scowl. "What. Did. You. Call. Me?"
Fourth period was English for her, and the walk into the building was usually a quiet one. That had changed since Sunday. Erica hadn't recalled that Rachel Altus was in that class, but the honey badger girl's memory was anything but rusty. So now, every day en route to that class, she'd run into Rachel, who was always keen to discuss the when, where, and how of their next practice bout – which had yet to happen, though Erica doubted she could put it off much longer.
"I'm just saying that there's too much red tape about these things," Rachel was saying. "Coordinating schedules, renting a fight room, keeping the hospice on the line – and that's only for the sanctioned stuff! Heaven forbid if you just jump someone, even if they really deserved it, because you have to worry about security surveillance and blind spots, or else your ass gets hauled up for nine different infractions and then they add insult to injury by limiting your legitimate avenues even more." The girl made a face. "It's like they don't want me to start anything!"
"Maybe with extenuating circumstances?" Erica suggested.
Frizzy brown hair shook negatively. "Nope. Start a fight, get in trouble. I mean, I guess if someone else's fight happens to fall in my lap, maybe, but..."
Up ahead along the busy hallway, the wall next to a door burst in an explosion of plaster dust and wood chips. A body was flung through it at the same time, tumbling through the passing-period crowd and landing on the floor with a thud. Erica didn't recognize the kid, but she did know the face of Daniel's roommate Pete as he loomed through the newly expanded entrance.
"You were saying... huh." Erica didn't have a chance to finish the thought. Rachel bounded over to the fallen kid, saying "Hey! Tag me in! Nod! Anything!"
The boy shouldn't have been able to stand after an exit like that, let alone flip himself to his feet, muttering "No, no, ain't gonna... oh, the fuck with it." His entire body was trembling, and not from shock or nerves. Eyes glinted red, and then the boy exploded into action.
Erica's slowed-down senses gave her a frame by frame view as he leapt across the same distance he'd just been flung, with each blink the boy got larger, hairier, and toothier. The thing that slammed Pete Foley back into the classroom at high speed bore little resemblance to the boy who was thrown out.
"Thank you, Sweet Fighting Jeebus!" Rachel shouted with glee.
Pete was trying to hold off the crazed shifter, laying fists the size of hams into its face with solid thuds that could be heard from down the hall. The shifter replied with slashing claws, ripping the young giant's uniform and leaving a long line of red across his chest.
"Kenshin!" Erica shouted, spotting her teammate through the hole in the wall. "Get everyone away from there!"
The Japanese boy's nod was just there enough to be seen, and then he was off, lunging to grab Essemmelle and one of her classmates, the one with green ferns for hair. He bolted away with the two of them tucked under his arms with their legs flailing behind.
"Rachel! Take the... oh, why do I even bother," she griped as the other girl jumped onto the shifter's back and began clawing with her own PK claws. The beast didn't notice at first, so intent was it on the clown boy.
The honey badger girl grabbed one fuzzy ear and bit down hard. Her teeth glinted with the same silvery PK of her claws, and then she was spitting out blood and a flap of skin. The beast screamed, waving its arms backwards and failing to reach the tenacious little monster on its back. Rachel was laughing and yelling.
Erica rushed over to Pete, who was still struggling to stand and completely failing at it. His face was normally pale, but now it was practically ashen, and even the thick red bump of his nose was a thinner shade of pink. "Lemme at 'im..." he mumbled incoherently. His shirt was ripped open, and unfortunately so was part of his abdomen.
"Don't look," she ordered Daniel as he came close. "Anyone here a healer?" she shouted across the corridor, over the howls of the shifter losing part of its other ear.
Of all people it was Calliope who responded. The Italian girl came running, dragging the lime-haired little pervert from the junior high squad behind her. "Hey, hey, lemme go!" Meatball was whining.
"You want people to like you more, yes?" Cally said to him. "Then do something that warrants it. You are a healer, so heal."
"But..." The boy was turning cherry red, eyes darting left and right.
"There is no one paying attention here." Erica didn't know what her roommate was talking about, but it seemed to calm the boy some. "Now, do the thing that needs doing!"
Meatball hunched down beside Pete, taking one huge hand between both of his own. Still looking mildly embarrassed, the boy scrunched his face together in concentration, and Erica's slow-frame vision caught motes of green flickering in the air. Pete's breathing steadied, and his color improved.
Back down the hall, Kenshin had hustled most of the bystanders out of the way – those who hadn't immediately stepped back when they saw what was happening. So far the building had taken damage to three sections of wall, four windows, and at the moment Rachel was applying a door to the shifter's face. The girl was in fine form, shadowy mask drawn across her manic, smiling face, and while her uniform was once again half in tatters, she herself seemed untouched.
With a howl of rage, the shifter pounced, only to find Rachel clambering up its front legs to smack it hard across the nose with her own claws.
"Alright, this has gone on long enough," stated a more mature voice to Erica's right. The teacher looked young, almost too young, though this was hardly strange for Whateley. The navy blue pantsuit she wore was thoroughly mundane as well. The shining white baseball bat she swung nonchalantly was anything but. Stepping in while the shifter was distracted, the teacher slammed it in the stomach with her bat, and when its head came down, she spoke a single word: "Lalihoma."
A little cloud of golden light hovered across the shifter's face. It coughed twice, eyes crossed, and then collapsed to the floor. A moment later, it was snoring.
"Um, thanks, ma'am," Erica said. "We're grateful for the save."
"Don't be. I should have knocked them both out immediately. I shouldn't have let them sit by each other to begin with." The teacher sighed. "This will not look good on the performance review, I'm afraid."
Rachel was watching with curious eyes as the beast reverted to human form, minus any clothing save for a pair of underpants that must have been custom-made by a materials devisor. "Aw, he's cute in this form, too."
Too? Cally mouthed silently. Erica just rolled her eyes.
A security detail approached cautiously from the far end of the stairwell. "Rachel Marie Altus!" the woman at the front of the group shouted. "What in all hell did you stir up this time?"
"Hey, Officer Canterbury!" Rachel said cheerfully. "This isn't what it looks like."
The woman turned a helmeted head to survey the damage. "Do tell. I would love to hear what explanation you might have that doesn't implicate you."
Leaving Pete's side, the teacher with the baseball bat walked up to the Security guards. "Myra Barnes, English Department. There was a multi-rager incident at the end of my class just now. Miss Altus was able to keep young Mr. Fontenot occupied while other students evacuated the area or attended to the wounded." She nodded to where Pete lay. "Mr. Foley will need further medical attention. Bryon, please go with them and keep your healing effect active, please."
"Yes, Ms. Barnes..." Meatball said.
"Mr. Fontenot will need to be moved to a safe location," said Officer Canterbury. "I doubt he'll be too happy when he wakes up, and we don't want to risk anyone getting injured."
"I'll go with him!" Rachel said.
"No." The teacher and the officer spoke practically in the same voice.
The honey badger girl shrugged. "Oh well. Catch you later, cutie." She bowed down to kiss the slumbering shifter boy on the forehead. "C'mon, Erica. We're late for English class!"
"Um, your uniform?" Erica said. The outfit was technically still in one piece, not unlike a wedge of Swiss cheese might be. The girl's taste in brassieres apparently trended more towards leather than lace.
"Eh, I've got a needle and thread in my bag. It'll fix up in a jiff."
Officer Canterbury stepped in. "Rachel, unless you want to be in violation of Article 3, item 6 of the school dress code, to whit flagrant displays of wardrobe malfunction, you will go back to your dorm immediately and change into your next spare uniform. Failure to do so will constitute ignoring of a direct order by Security, which in itself is a violation of your current probationary status, and will result in your combat restrictions to be extended indefinitely. Do you understand?"
"Yeah, yeah. No need to get your knickers in a knot." Rachel shrugged, almost losing her uniform in the process. "Catcha later, Erica." She strode off proudly, showing her habitual level of indifference at the stares she acquired along the way.
––Friday, September 30th
In a normal school, he understood, an incident like what had happened the other day would have thrown everything into chaos and cancelled out homework for at least a week. At Whateley, it may have raised eyebrows, but it certainly didn't cause anything to slow down. Homework remained to be done, and it wasn't going to just sit there on his desk and do itself.
Halfway through a math worksheet, Pete walked in, opening and closing the door to their room carefully. The young giant had gotten patched up faster than a ripped pair of jeans, but that didn't mean that he was back at a hundred percent.
"How was your club thing?" Daniel asked. His nose wrinkled at the smell of booze.
"Stupid, is what is was," the other boy growled. "Danny, would you call yerself an alpha or a beta?"
He knew the words, sorta, but had no idea what Pete was on about. "Figger I'd be more of a delta," he said. "Yanno, D is for Donut?"
Pete almost chuckled at that. "Yeah, thought so. Stupid, pointless, meaningless. Just a buncha guys cryin' about how they can't get girlfriends or braggin' how they hooked up with some girl. And me?" He snorted. "They think I couldn't figger it out on my own, cuz I was dumb, but all their 'big plans' to help me were really about me creeping girls out so that the other guys would look better. Hell... er, sorry," he said at Daniel's disappointed glance. "Heck, you've had more datin' success this year than most of 'em. Figger I'll be askin' you for advice from now on."
"And, er, if you could put in a good word for me..."
Daniel sighed. "I can do that much, sure."
This meeting of the Outstanding Dudes Society was coming along pretty well. Already he was picking up some good pointers from the upperclassmen, stuff that he'd have to try out sometime soon. Maybe on one of those Whitman girls. He didn't really like them fuzzy or scaly, but High Gear assured him that half the dorm was desperate for attention, and that made them easy to catch.
He still had his eyes set on a certain Italian songbird, however. Every concert, every little show she'd done in the past week only increased her appeal, and he was sure he wasn't the only guy on campus making plans. He had to move fast, and for that he needed an edge.
"You sure about this?" he asked Gouyasse. The two of them were in one corner of the lounge, talking strategy and watching the couch. "It seems a bit... rough. On him, I mean."
"If you want to get the girl," the Belgian replied, "then you are going to have to be ready for anything. And it's not like you weren't already thinking it. Why else did you make friends with Francesco, if not to get close to his sister?"
"Bros before hoes, like the Americans say?" Gouyasse snorted. "It is silly sentiment, and hypocritical. You both want the same thing, and yet he also wants to protect his little sister from real men like us. It is a farce, yes?" He nodded to the couch, where the F-dude was on his third beer. "Now is your chance. I have been watching, and he holds his beer pretty well when it's that cheap American piss-water, but tonight he's into my special reserve. De Struisse Brewery's Black Damnation IV. Thirty-nine percent by volume, but doesn't taste like it. He won't realize how drunk he really is for a few more minutes, so get in there now."
Macarthur nodded, squaring his shoulders and taking a deep breath before going in for the win. "Hey, F-dude!" he said as he popped down on the couch. "How's it hanging?"
"Hanging? Ah, you mean how am I? Fine. Fine. Fine..." The Italian boy didn't seem to notice the repetition. "Fine... it is nice to relax."
"Yeah, really. But y'know what we need? Some music in here. Think we could get your sister for a private performance?"
"Fio? No, I do not think so. She is not so trusting. There was an... an incident last spring and now she is shy by herself."
"Sorry to hear, dude. But, I mean, she doesn't seem shy up on stage. She's really rocking out up there. Like, wow, those moves and that voice, and the last show she was wearing that glittery outfit..." Macarthur whistled. "Whew, are all the girls back home like that?"
F-dude was quiet for a long moment, and he couldn't tell if the Italian was upset or just zoning out from the buzz. "No, no," he said finally. "No... Fio is special."
"Runs in the family, huh."
"Eh, maybe? I do not always think so. Or, I did, and then I came here, and, and, and... it is so frustrating, this school!" he shouted. "Back home, I was the, the, the cool one, the, the, the alpha, like High Gear ways it, and no one looked at Fio much. Just another be-be-beta, could never get a date, and now he is a girl and everyone loves him? Her! Stupid pronouns..." he mumbled into his beer as he took a sip.
Conversation had stopped on all sides surrounding the couch. Macarthur wasn't sure if he'd heard right through the Italian's drunken slur, but a quick hand sign from High Gear shut his mouth before he could ask.
Nodding dozily, the F-dude didn't even notice as his supposed friend slinked away to discuss the implications.
Burn My Dread -- Persona Music Live Band
Reach Out to the Truth -- Persona Music Live Band
As Good As It Gets -- The Feelers
The Way I Was -- Jem and the Holograms