Wednesday, May 16th, 2007, evening
Headmistress' Office, Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy
A light rap on the frame of the open door interrupted Mrs. Carson. She rolled her eyes up to look at the door, her head still pointed toward the memo she had been reading.
"You wanted to see me, Mrs. Carson?" Nikki Reilly asked softly, uncertainly. One was not summoned to the Headmistress' office - especially after normal business hours - for trivial matters, although for the life of her, she couldn't figure out why.
"Yes, Miss Reilly," the Headmistress said, letting go of the memo and looking directly at the red-headed beauty. "Please close the door and have a seat."
Nikki gulped; formality was usually a prelude to something serious, and the expression on her face - very guardedly neutral - further hinted at trouble. Without another word, the elven girl closed the door behind herself and slipped into one of the leather wing-back chairs in front of the massive desk which dominated the center of the room. She knew better than to sit back casually; such gestures of familiarity were usually not welcome in this office unless Mrs. Carson so indicated. And from her posture and demeanor, Nikki realized that it was unlikely that the headmistress would be casual.
With only a slight glance away from Nikki, Elizabeth Carson picked up a large manila envelope from the corner of her desk, stood, and walked around to where Nikki sat. "Nichole Susanne Reilly?"
Nikki gulped nervously; being called by her formal name, including her middle name, usually meant serious trouble. "Yes, ma'am?" she squeaked in reply.
Mrs. Carson handed her the envelope. "Whateley Academy has been served with these papers in loco parentis. This is your official notice of the action."
"What?" the girl asked, her features clouded with confusion. "What do you mean, served?"
"Miss Reilly, you are being sued, and those are the papers notifying us and you of the civil action." the Headmistress gracefully resumed her position in her 'throne' behind the desk.
"What? By who?"
"By whom, Miss Reilly. Confusion is no excuse for poor grammar," the former English teacher corrected her. "In answer to your question, you are being sued by the Solicitor." She watched Nikki's jaw drop and her eyes nearly bulge out of their sockets. "For damages caused by your revenge spell."
"But ...," Nikki sputtered, "they can't DO that!"
"They can, Miss Reilly, and they have," the older woman replied in a frosty tone.
"I'll fight it. Any way I can," Nikki countered, her visage growing and angry. "He ... he tried to enslave me!"
"And if you do choose to fight," Mrs. Carson's voice was still cool, "Whateley and the Magic Arts Department will be forced to testify against you because the magic you used was not in line with the situation you were in."
"What?" Nikki almost screamed.
"You used a revenge spell, plain and simple. And that is not something that we can condone in any way, shape, or form. It also happens to be quite illegal," she added.
"But ... he was helping Hekate!" Nikki snarled angrily, rising to her feet and staring angrily at the Headmistress. "I had to fight back because no-one here was capable of helping me! No-one helped Sky and Cav, and no-one would have helped me, either!" She glared at Mrs. Carson.
"Don't take that tone with me, young lady!" Mrs. Carson snapped, her eyes narrowed to angry slits and her jaw clenched. "You are not a queen, no matter what Aunghadhail was trying to tell you."
"How DARE you!" Nikki sputtered angrily and loudly, her face a mask of rage. "I lost her! You think I don't feel that pain every single day?" The girl looked so furious that she might be capable of unleashing her magic in a torrent of anger.
The Headmistress rose, leaning forward menacingly, her knuckles on the desk, her expression fixed in her 'glare of supreme authority.' "Without the Sidhe queen, maybe you can learn a lesson or two on humility and remember your humanity," she lectured the girl sternly. "Maybe you'll also realize that the law applies to you as equally as to anyone else."
"Oh yeah? You were okay letting Hekate get away with her dark magic, making mind slaves, and screwing up people's lives and trying to ruin mine, so I had to stop her! Or maybe you would have preferred I not defended myself and that they'd succeeded and I had become their little fuck-slut mind-slave! That wouldn't have upset your perfect little world!"
"Watch your language, young lady!" Mrs. Carson snapped in a full 'Lady Astarte' righteous-indignation mode. "That's completely untrue and you know it. We do care about you."
"You could have fooled me," Nikki huffed in response. "You aren't doing anything to help me right now."
"That will be enough of that, Miss Reilly!" Mrs. Carson said, glowering at the elf-girl until Nikki cowered under her withering stare and sank back into her chair, clutching at the chair's arms and fuming silently.
"We did not let Hekate get away with anything!" She remained standing for a moment, using her stature to emphasize her point. "Yes, we knew something happened, and we investigated as much as we legally and ethically could - and we pushed more than a few boundaries out of our concern for them. But unlike you, we knew where the line was and stayed on the correct side of it. You, on the other hand, went way over the line with a revenge spell - and not knowing or willfully ignoring those boundaries is a good way to end up with a red MID card. Or worse. Ignorance of the law is no excuse."
Mrs. Carson sat down, smoothing her suit professionally and chiding herself for allowing the Sidhe girl to rile her, even though she was convinced the girl needed a controlled display of adult authority to get past the arrogance she'd learned from Aunghadhail. "You know very well how Mythos magic applied in a Fool's Circle works - if you've been keeping up with your studies, that is. And how difficult that made for us to detect any of Hekates's doings." She let the girl glare at her for several long seconds, allowing time for Nikki's emotions to a bit. "Now, the suit has proposed what Whateley's legal team considers a very reasonable settlement, and we recommend that you should accept the terms."
"And what's that? For me to be his personal servant, like Hekate and he wanted?" Nikki was angry and she couldn't help but sound snarky.
Mrs. Carson narrowed her eyes until the girl flinched again. "The offer is payment of all of your royalties from modeling for the duration of your stay at Whateley, minus a stipend for living and educational expenses."
Nikki's eyes nearly bugged out. "What? No! Hell no!" she screamed. "I'll quit modeling before I give him a penny! After what he did to me ...."
"And if you quit modeling, since you are a minor, the suit will be filed against your parents," Mrs. Carson continued, her voice reasonable and calm in stark contrast to the angry and frustrated teenager opposite her. Nikki stared in disbelief, realization of her predicament slowly sinking in. "Pending negotiations and final settlement, Whateley is placing your royalty account in escrow."
"You can't do that!" Nikki screamed in protest, on her feet again and leaning over Mrs. Carson's desk, fists balled on the mahogany surface.
"Sit. Down." the Headmistress said slowly and firmly, waiting until Nikki, still glowering unhappily, sat back down. "I assure you we can," Mrs. Carson replied, "and our legal team has advised me that if we do not do so, Whateley Academy is placing itself in legal jeopardy since we have responsibility in loco parentis while you attend this school."
"But ..." Nikki stared, slack-jawed at the headmistress. "I need money for my expenses!"
"Until a settlement is reached, or until you turn eighteen, whichever comes first, you will receive a stipend to cover books, uniforms, and a modest weekly allowance." The headmistress watched as the facts sank in to the stunned girl. "Also, as Whateley's punishment for using a highly illegal spell, you will take the paranormal law and magic ethics series of courses starting next fall. But in the meantime, you will complete an essay of not less than twenty-five pages, double-spaced, footnoted, and referenced, summarizing the responsible use of magic and the legalities associated with it, including the moral and legal consequences of abusing magic. The essay is due before combat finals. The grade given on that will be factored into your Magic Arts grade for the term."
Nikki was stunned almost to the point of tears. "But ..."
"Also, for the next two weeks, you are confined to your cottage except for classes and meals. That should give you ample opportunity to work on your paper and to reflect on the illegal and unethical action you took."
"That's not fair!" Nikki finally broke, tears trickling from her eyes as the enormity of her punishment sank in. And then Nikki realized something - if she was confined, she couldn't do any modeling, so Mrs. Carson had just inadvertently sabotaged one aspect of her punishment and the pending suit.
"And of course your work with Venus Inc.," Mrs. Carson added, having picked up on the look in Nikki's eyes.
"What about sims?" she asked the headmistress, disappointed that Mrs. Carson had corrected her minor oversight.
"But ... I have responsibilities to my team!"
"And your team could stand to do some simulations without a powerful mage pulling their chestnuts out of the fire every time things go south," Mrs. Carson replied levelly. "Do you have any other questions?"
Nikki sat, staring sullenly at the headmistress, contemplating the very few options that she felt she did have. "No, ma'am," she hissed through clenched teeth.
"Good. Personally, I would strongly suggest that you take the proposed settlement. If it goes to arbitration or court, I doubt you will get such ... generous terms, considering that your magic basically destroyed the Solicitor's career. You have twenty-four hours to decide if you wish to accept the offered terms, negotiate, or actively fight the suit in court." She looked over the shell-shocked girl. "That will be all." Without looking at Nikki again, Mrs. Carson turned her attention back to the paperwork on her desk, letting the girl know, by her actions, that Mrs. Carson was well and truly angry with Nikki and how far over the line she considered Nikki's words and actions.
Wordlessly, stunned, angry, Nikki rose and trudged to the door, pausing once to glance over her shoulder at Mrs. Carson, but the headmistress had effectively dismissed her from her concerns, so Nikki, her cheeks tear-stained from the way her world had been suddenly upended, slunk out of the office, closing the door with a soft click behind her.
When the door shut, Mrs. Carson looked up at the door where the girl had exited, a thoughtful expression on her face. She let out a heavy sigh, knowing that she had been very cruel to the girl, but life was like that, and Nikki had to learn to be responsible with her magic or she'd end up in serious trouble or even dead. And as long as she had anything to say about the education of Nikki Reilly, she was going to keep trying to get through the girl's thick, stubborn, arrogant shell that Aunghadhail had inadvertently or deliberately caused.
After staring a couple of seconds, the Headmistress realized that there was one additional loose end, and she picked up her phone, dialing a number from memory. "Please come to the Headmistress' office immediately," she said curtly. "Ten minutes? I'll be expecting you." With that, she hung up the phone and returned to the seemingly never-ending flood of paperwork trying to spill from her 'in' box.
Less than ten minutes later, a knock sounded on her door. "Come in," Mrs. Carson said without even looking up, secretly pleased at how promptly the student had come.
The door opened and Ayla peeked in. "You wanted to see me, Mrs. Carson?"
"Yes," the headmistress answered, putting down the report she'd been engrossed in. "Please come in and sit down." Dutifully, Ayla complied. "Let me explain the situation and what I require of you. Nikki is being sued by the Solicitor. As such, Whateley has put her modeling royalties account in escrow until the matter is resolved. She will, however, receive a modest stipend for living expenses. Further, Nikki is confined to her cottage for the next two weeks, excepting classes, meals, and modeling."
"I see," Ayla Goodkind replied, his face in the typical neutral Goodkind bargaining and negotiating expression. "And I presume you're going to tell me how this involves me?"
"Very astute," Mrs. Carson permitted a small smile, which she then quickly erased. "During this time, you are absolutely forbidden to help her in any way." She saw the young mogul's expression crack slightly in disbelief. "No outside lawyers, no business advice, no investigation, no 'gifts', no loans. No financial favors. Nada."
The enormity of the request cracked Ayla's carefully neutral expression, causing him to frown. "Those are extremely draconian conditions. I don't believe you can't legally bar me from doing any of that," he said cautiously.
"Miss Goodkind," Mrs. Carson hissed, rising to her feet and switching on her Lady Astarte attitude and expression, "you will not help her, unless you wish to find yourself expelled on grounds of interfering with administrative disciplinary proceedings, which I can legally do. Further, you will not speak of this conversation. Do I in any way fail to make myself clear?"
Ayla winced at the feminine way the Headmistress had addressed him, but given her mood, he decided to not protest, even politely. "No, ma'am," Ayla replied quickly and wisely. "As you can well imagine, I do not like being in this position between the administration and my friend and teammate," he added carefully.
"I understand, but it is unfortunately necessary, as you do have a tendency to bring a lot of outside ... interference." The Headmistress sank back into her chair. "Bearing in mind that this conversation did not happen, do you have any further questions that might clarify the extent to which you are allowed to help?"
"I would assume that this involves the Black Hand spell she cast during her and Jade's little misadventure over Christmas break?" Ayla asked cautiously.
"I can't answer that." She saw Ayla nod, accepting that the information was confidential, knowing that by telling him she couldn't answer, she was answering indirectly. Ayla was more than smart enough to put two and two together. "Why would you ask that?"
Ayla decided to put his cards on the table with Mrs. Carson. Though tough, she was fair. "Because the factors surrounding the lawsuit don't make sense."
"Oh? Please humor me by explaining your logic."
"First, suing a minor student directly instead of the parents is unusual except in the case where the minor is emancipated, which is not true in this case. Second, the lawsuit by the Solicitor makes no rational sense."
Mrs. Carson interrupted him. "Please explain your thinking on that point."
Ayla nodded deferentially. "Given the Solicitor's role in the attempted use of dark magic on Nikki, he should logically be reluctant to sue and have his participation in the scheme exposed to public scrutiny. If he has any career left, the publicity of having gone to that extreme to secure a client would destroy any reputation he has left. Third, for Whateley to take a neutral position rather than to aggressively defend a student is ... unexpected and could be interpreted as a violation of the neutrality policy by allowing an outside financial attack on a student."
"Fourth, prohibiting me from assisting with external legal counsel seems to indicate a goal that Nikki not be able to fight and win."
"Interesting reasoning," Mr. Carson said simply, schooling her expression and tone of voice to not betray how accurate or inaccurate Ayla's suppositions were. Years of experience and practice had given her a talent for maintaining a neutral expression far beyond what the young mogul seated across from her possessed, and Ayla's ability was considerable.
"Fifth, given how this affair has suddenly resurfaced, months after it was investigated and punishments meted out, something unusual must have happened that involves Nikki. If I were to speculate, I'd come to the conclusion that someone wants to teach her a lesson about spell selection and their consequences."
"Is there anything else?"
Ayla shook his head. "No, ma'am." He sat up a little straighter, a little more solemn in his expression and posture. "You have my word - I won't assist Nikki in any way."
"That's very ... understanding and unusually cooperative of you," Mrs. Carson replied, more than a little surprised.
"The rest of the team will insist that I help in some way, though," Ayla said cautiously. "So I may have to give her some basic business advice and go through the motions of helping her. And if she gets into a pinch financially ...."
"I trust you'll use appropriate judgment and keep me informed?" It wasn't so much a question as it was a demand.
"Yes, ma'am." Ayla sighed and thought a moment, deciding if he should continue the discussion or not. "If this is about Nikki's spell, and I know you can't tell me," he said in a strangely calm, rational voice, "then I concur that she needs a lesson in responsible use of her magic."
The Headmistress' eyebrows arched. "Oh?"
Ayla nodded. "She was very callous about the spell she cast, sufficiently so that I don't believe that she cared whether the results were disproportionate to the actions of the Solicitor and Hekate or not. Further, once she was no longer helpless and out of immediate danger, that spell crossed the line from self-defense to revenge. I'm not a lawyer, but I believe that crosses the line from self-defense to assault. It is quite understandable that you would find it necessary to let her feel the consequences of her actions, especially considering how powerful she is."
"Somehow, I expected you to rise to the defense of your teammate," Mrs. Carson interjected, one eyebrow still arched.
"Loyalty is one thing. Blind loyalty is another - and it usually leads to disaster." Ayla smiled thinly. "I am loyal to Nikki, just like I am to all of my teammates. But that doesn't blind me to when they are wrong."
Mrs. Carson's eyes widened a bit. "I didn't think it would be possible," she said, "but you continue to surprise me." A smile flitted momentarily across her features. "I'll let you get back to your studies. Good evening, Miss ... er ... Ayla."
Wednesday, May 16th, 2007, Evening
Melville Cottage, Room 809, Whateley Academy
Ayla subconsciously stood a bit straighter as the door opened and he was presented with the room's occupant. From his training, he knew that tall people had a psychological advantage in any kind of negotiations, and Wyatt Cody was more than a foot taller, a very masculine, very muscular foot at that. Intimidation was a mental hangup and Ayla reminded himself that he had decided not to be intimidated. "Miss Goodkind?" asked Wyatt, obviously surprised at his visitor.
Biting down on the irritation, Ayla forced a smile. "Please, call me Ayla, and, despite...these..." and the young businessman made a gesture at the C cup breasts that were, in his mind, spoiling the cut of his tailored uniform jacket, "I prefer male pronouns, and I assure you that I am very male where it counts."
The smile on Wyatt's face could have been cruel. Phase knew that earlier this year he would have called it cruel, but he had learned much about Wyatt Cody in this last year - most of it quite surprising - and so was not offended. "I'll take your word for it, Ayla," the mountain of a senior replied. "And masculine pronouns it will be. Now what can I do for you?"
"Thank you," he said with a nod. "May I come in? I would like to request a favor."
Wyatt's bushy eyebrows rose in curiosity and he stepped aside, gesturing a welcome. Ayla stepped in and tried not to be envious. The room was more than double the size of what he shared with Vamp, had a private bath, a balcony, and even a portable fireplace in a cozy corner with a bearskin rug in front of it. One corner had a little kitchenette and refrigerator as well. Ayla's mind couldn't help imagining what had likely gone on in this room, on that rug, but a quick mental centering exercise gave him focus once more.
Wyatt, meanwhile, had crossed to the over-sized dorm fridge and opened it. "Can I get you something? Beer? Cola?"
The surprise didn't show on Ayla's face, but he did ask, "You have beer?"
Now the smile was a bit cruel. "There's a guy in security ..."
"Ah, no doubt the third - 'payola' - platoon ..."
"Exactly." He lifted a bottle of Sam Adams in offer. "Would you like one?"
"Thank you, no."
Wyatt returned the bottle to the fridge and made a gesture to the small table that had a lovely view through open French Doors to the balcony and the landscape beyond; a gentle, cool, spring-evening breeze wafted through the doors, giving a bit of nip to the air. It was enough to be slightly uncomfortable to Ayla, but to an Alaskan like Wyatt, it was probably heavenly. Sitting down, Ayla clasped his hands neutrally before him on the table. "I apologize for intruding on your evening, but I need your, and your spirit's, expertise."
Wyatt frowned. "Kodiak? What do you need him for?"
Ayla took a small breath, trying hard not to feel like he was someone's puppet. "It's been brought to my attention that Fey....Nikki might have been taking on some of Aunghadhail's less ... endearing traits. That perhaps Aunghadhail wasn't the best role model for a young girl who's also such a powerful sorceress. I have to admit that, now that these objections have been raised to me, there is some merit in them."
The great bear spirit materialized next to the table with a very dark laugh. And you want to know if your Nikki was turning into my Aunghadhail, is that it?
"There is some debate on how much avatars 'ape' to use the vulgar term, their spirits," Ayla replied as if sentient animal spirits materialized next to him every day. Which, here at Whateley was in fact something of a daily phenomenon. "But, yes, I am not the only one that saw Nikki as becoming colder, more aloof, more..."
Spit it out, boy, more cruel, the spirit replied. He snorted and looked out the window for a moment, then back. Yes, Aunghadhail was a very cruel woman. She was Sidhe and she was royal and that's practically the definition of cruelty. Were I to tell you what she did to her personal physician who betrayed her, you'd likely throw up. The muzzle split in a display of murderous fangs. Or faint.
"Betrayed?" asked Ayla with an uneasy glance at Wyatt.
"Court politics," Cody told him. "It's how Kodiak and Aunghadhail met. She was injured fighting the Bastard, and old Baloo here ..."
Will you please stop calling me that?
"... patched her up. In doing that, he found that Aunghadhail had been rendered sterile and he had to remove her womb. Aunghadhail's own doctor had done it on the pay of one of her rival Queens so the rival could bear Oberon's heir and Aunghadhail couldn't."
"What did she do?" Ayla couldn't help but ask.
You really don't want to know, Kodiak assured him. But it was more than a month before she let him die, and he was awake and screaming for most of that time.
Training or not, Ayla paled in horror. After swallowing the bile that was fighting its way up his throat, he sighed. "I'm becoming more convinced that perhaps Nikki is better off without her."
Losing a spirit bond is no small thing, boy, the Kodiak cautioned him. But the worries of whomever you speak were likely well justified. As you may have learned in your classes, a strong spirit does influence the host, and Aunghadhail was a very strong spirit. Had they stayed bonded, at some point, she would have sought to reclaim her throne. And woe to your nations that would have chosen to try to stop her.
"You knew her and you can say that with certainty?" asked Ayla, startled by the bear's candor and complete lack of doubt.
I was her friend, the Kodiak replied. Perhaps her last and only friend, and I can say it for a fact.
Ayla nodded slowly. "Then, this is what I would like for you to do."
Wednesday, May 16th, 2007, Evening
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy
Toni looked up from her book as Nikki flopped on her bed, whimpering softly. The sight that greeted her was definitely not her happy-go-lucky Sidhe friend, but a very troubled girl who'd been crying a lot. Instantly, Toni's excitement about the upcoming team sim vanished, replaced by concern for her best friend.
"What's up?" she asked, back-flipping impossibly out of her chair, doing an aerial cartwheel to her left, and landing on Nikki's bed beside the prone girl.
Nikki didn't answer, but only shoved a manila envelope at Toni.
Toni looked at it, reading the addressing. "This looks ... important. What is it?"
Nikki didn't deign to look up. "I'm being sued," she sobbed. "By the Solicitor. Because of the spell I cast over Christmas."
"What?" Toni roared. "They can't do that! You have to fight this - because he was helping Hekate with the mind-slave spell! Ain't no way you can lose!" She bounced from the bed to the door, opening it. "Ayles!" she called loudly into the hallway.
The door to Ayla's room opened and his roommate Vamp stuck her head out. "He's not here," she said, sounding rather snarky - like always.
"He ran out in a hurry. After he got a phone call," Vamp countered. "I don't know anything more, and I'm trying to study, so can you hold it down?" She retreated back into the room and slammed the door to punctuate the request.
"I can't fight it, Toni," the redheaded elf replied.
"What? Of course you can! It was self-defense ...."
Nikki shook her head sadly, still crying. "Mrs. Carson said that if I fight, the school will have to side with the Solicitor."
"What?!? That's ... crazy!"
"She said I used a forbidden revenge spell, and that I was out of danger, it went from self-defense to malicious attack, so the school has to side with the legal definitions here."
A knock interrupted Toni's question. "Come in," she said, not taking her eyes off her best friend. Ayla, Billie, Jade, and Hank paraded in, Ayla looking a bit flustered.
"Vamp said you were looking for me a few seconds ago?" Ayla asked.
"Ayles," Toni chirped instantly, "Nikki needs your special kind of help."
Ayla cocked an eyebrow. "What's going on?" he asked, playing innocent.
"Nikki's being sued by the guy who was helping Hekate enslave her!" Toni explained hyperactively. "You gotta help her!" She handed the manila folder, which was still in her hands to Ayla.
"What do you want me to do?" Ayla asked, cringing inwardly. He'd been prohibited from helping, but his team-mates and friends didn't know that - couldn't know it - and they expected him to do something. Not sure what else to do, he opened the folder and began to skim through the file.
"It'll be okay, Nikki," Toni reassured her roommate as Jade and Billie crowded around the prone redhead. "Ayles'll figure something out."
Toni, Billie, and Jade watched Ayla expectantly as he quickly skimmed over the material, and he was painfully aware of their gazes upon him. "Well," he said after a few minutes of reading, "it all looks in order." He slipped the papers back into the envelope. "What do you want me to do?"
"Get one of your hotshot lawyers on it!" Toni countered angrily, as if the answer was patently obvious.
Ayla sighed. "To be honest, as a business-person," he winced at what he was about to say, "the terms look very reasonable to me. Any corporation or businessperson would take the offered settlement rather than try to fight this."
"But ...," Nikki looked up at him, her eyes pleading, "that's all my royalties - until I graduate! Including what's in my account!"
"What?!" Billie and Jade exclaimed simultaneously.
"Then quit modeling," Billie suggested with an air of finality. "He doesn't get anything if you aren't modeling."
"I can't quit!" Nikki sobbed. "If I do, he'll go after my parents!" She shook her head, causing her thoroughly mussed hair to become even more disheveled. "And ... and it's my job. It's how I pay my expenses and stuff! I have to keep earning that!"
"We can talk more on the way to the simulators," Toni said urgently. "We gotta run so we aren't late. I'm not in the mood for another lecture from Gunny."
"It's not the lectures," Billie interjected unhappily. "It's the extra homework that goes with the lecture that I dislike most!"
"I can't go!" Nikki sobbed, a new stream of tears staining her cheeks, eliciting gasps of surprise from her teammates. "I'm ... I'm grounded!" she wailed. "Unless I'm in class or eating or modeling," she continued to explain, "I can't leave the cottage for the next two weeks!"
"That's not fair!" Jade declared, wrapping herself around Nikki to hug her.
"Come on," Toni urged the group as Jinn floated in the door and Hank stood, peering into the room. "We've gotta go."
Ayla nodded, looking pained. "I'll ... I'll get Trin and McIntyre to look into it," he said solemnly. Though Jinn didn't have to turn to look around, it felt like her stare was piercing into Ayla's very soul; he wondered if Jinn's 'emotion' sense could tell he was lying through his teeth. Even as discrete as T&M were, they couldn't investigate this and stay off Carson's radar. And he'd given his word to Mrs. Carson.
Toni ushered everyone out of the room, pausing to give Nikki a big hug. As she closed the door behind her, she heard Nikki scream a couple of profanities, and something broke - no doubt hurled by the girl as she gave vent to her overwhelming frustration. The sound of thunder echoed behind the door; Nikki was most likely having a temper tantrum over her unfair treatment, and as a result, losing control of her magic. It'd be just like her first bout of PMS with the thunderstorm in the hall, she sighed to herself.
Not that she couldn't blame Nikki. It sounded like Mrs. Carson was being very unreasonable. But Ayla would figure it out, Toni reminded herself. Ayles always came through for the team.
Ahead of her, walking beside Hank, Ayla was torn with guilt. He was keeping a secret from his team - what Mrs. Carson had said, and just as importantly, what she hadn't said. He'd have to fake helping Fey, at least until she wasn't grounded, and it tore him up inside to know that he wasn't allowed to help her financially. Mrs. Carson had put the squeeze on Nikki - for some unspoken reason - in such a way as to make Nikki suffer. Or more precisely, Ayla corrected himself, to make her think about her actions and learn.
Wednesday, May 16th, 2007, Late Evening
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy
The ring of the phone broke Ayla's concentration on his calculus homework. "Hello, Ayla speaking," he answered, trying not to sound frustrated. The interruption was definitely not welcome. Automatically, he pressed a button on a devise which was connected to his phone.
"Ayla Goodkind?" a muffled female voice on the other end asked.
"Speaking." Though Ayla wasn't one hundred percent certain, he was pretty sure he recognized the muffled voice. When his devise showed a number and location of the origin of the phone call, confirming his suspicion, Ayla relaxed.
"Did she ask you for assistance?" the voice asked bluntly.
Ayla sighed, but softly, glancing across the room to the sleeping roommate. It wouldn't have been out of character for Vamp to play possum just to listen in. "Yes, she did."
"I presume you're stringing her along, as you were asked?"
"Yes, ma'am," Ayla answered, feeling his guts knot up. He'd been asked to lie to Nikki, and it really tore him apart since she was a teammate, and more than that, a friend.
"I would assume that she - or one your friends - asked you to help her legally?"
"And I told her I'd have a team look at the suit and proposed settlement." Ayla winced; he abhorred lying, and yet he was stuck in the middle of this nettlesome problem.
"Tomorrow, tell her the legal team advises her to negotiate for a better settlement," the voice directed him.
"She already asked me about that, and I told her what's common sense in business - never accept the first offer."
"Very good. I presume you'll keep me informed?"
"Yes, ma'am," Ayla replied. The phone clicked dead, leaving Ayla sitting in his chair, shaking his head slowly. At that moment, he was someone's puppet, and he really didn't like the feeling of not knowing what was going on or of being manipulated.
And yet, he had no choice. Sighing heavily, he turned his attention back to calculus.
Thursday, May 17th, 2007, After Dinner
Venus Inc. Clubhouse and Studio, Dunn Hall, Whateley Academy
"I thought you guys had a sim tonight," Naomi - also known as Freeze Frame because her gadgeteering skills worked wonders with photographic equipment -greeted Fey as she came out of the locker room, wearing a tight, Kelly-green dress that really set off her red hair.
"They do," Fey grumbled, looking totally unhappy. "I ... can't go."
"What?" Poise, who'd overheard, asked. "The sims are mandatory! You can't just skip them!"
Fey shook her head. "Carson's orders. She wants me to put more effort into modeling," she lied. She felt very self-conscious since all the girls were staring at her like she was a green, two-headed space alien.
Poise wasn't flustered. She lightly grasped another girl's elbow and turned her. "Good news, Nikki!" she proclaimed enthusiastically. "Kayda decided to join!"
Nikki's fellow Poesie gave the Sidhe girl a quick hug. "On the condition I don't have to be on the Venus Inc. training team! Two are enough, especially if you count the 'recreational' sims with The Nations!" She smiled nervously. "I hope I do alright." Kayda was attired in a white leather dress that looked thoroughly Native American, adorned with beadwork on the neckline, waist, and just above the fringe at the hem, and moccasins. It was off her shoulders, and the hem was several inches above her knees. Just below the beadwork at the neckline was another row of short fringe. With the tight, calf-high beaded moccasins, she looked like a Native American seductress. Bead leather bands wrapped the ends of her two braids, with dream-catcher hoop earrings and a shell-and-bead necklace.
Nikki looked up and down the Lakota girl's figure. "You'll do fine," she said, but her voice lacked conviction. "What are you shooting?"
The Native American girl smiled, mostly hiding her nervousness. "Mr. Parker wants some shots of me with Tatanka," she replied, indicating the white bison spirit she could manifest.
"Who's your photographer?" Even being in a deep funk, Nikki could see how nervous the Native American girl was. She'd modeled in Sioux Falls, but that was with Debra and Card Trick, and it was casual and fun. This seemed a lot more formal, and thus intimidating.
"Lanie," Kayda said, smiling. She knew Lanie was good, and Lanie was her best friend, her soul-sister. That alone was enormous comfort. "Mr. Parker wants to do another session outdoors on Sunday afternoon at the new tepees we put up, the sweat lodge, and of me riding Summer." Summer was Kayda's pinto horse that the Sicangu tribe had gifted her with. "If the weather cooperates," she added.
Naomi's face lit up. "Hey, why don't you come along? I bet we could get some fantastic shots of the two of you - you know, Native girl and an exotic wood elf! I think costuming has a couple of outfits that'd look dynamite in a natural setting!"
Fey frowned. "No, that's alright," she said, "I've got to study this weekend." Her voice was far from its usual cheery, chipper tone
"I guess I've got you tonight," said Naomi. She gently took Fey's elbow and led the reluctant, somber girl to the third set, which was decorated like a dance club, complete with a disco ball overhead that was going to make Naomi's job difficult.
No matter what she tried, Fey just couldn't get into modeling. Naomi begged, urged, scolded, wheedled and cajoled, and even gently threatened, but every time Nikki started to feel like modeling, the cold, hard reality that she was getting nothing out of the job dampened her mood.
It got so bad that Naomi called for a break to talk to Mr. Parker, who came over to Fey. "Nikki, hon," he said the same way he greeted most of the girls. Everyone knew that Mr. Parker was completely gay, and so his little affectionate mannerisms weren't seen by many of the girls as threatening or creepy. "This is a test shoot for the Lorelei collection! It'll be a huge contract. Let's see happy, confident Nikki! Show us sultry, sexy, and seductive!"
Nikki sighed, shaking her head wearily. "Why? It doesn't do any good."
Naomi squatted down beside the redhead. "Nikki, it's like you're not even trying. Is something wrong?"
The Sidhe girl let her head hang, as she took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "You don't get it - it doesn't do me any good!
Mr. Parker decided to try another tack. "Mrs. Carson told me you accepted those two contracts you were negotiating! That'll be great on your resume, and should get you some good royalties."
"Mrs. Carson told me you accepted the contracts, and ...."
"That ... that ... bitch!" Fey practically screamed, getting everyone else's attention. "She had no right to do that!"
"Nikki," Mr. Parker tried to calm the girl, "it's a very good deal ...."
"Except she took away my right to decide the terms of those two contracts! And I get nothing out of it!" Nikki snarled, her voice rising in volume as anger tried to overwhelm her. She wasn't even cognizant of the startled looks on everyone around her. "But he does! He helped Hekate try to hurt me, and now he gets all my money! And Carson is helping him!"
Poise was at Nikki's side in a heartbeat, gesturing with her eyes and head that everyone else should leave the two alone. Once they were in relative quiet, she asked, "What's going on, Nikki?"
Nikki's eyes were misting, threatening to shed tears, as she was swamped by a sense of total helplessness. "The Solicitor," she snapped. "He was helping Hekate get me in a mind-slave spell, and I had to defend myself, so now he's suing me!" She looked up at Poise defiantly. "And Mrs. Carson is helping him!" She looked down again, shaking her head. "They put all my royalties into escrow. All of them! My money! I earned it, but now they locked it away so I have to beg like a little kid to spend my own money! And only if someone approves what I need to buy! Like I'm getting an allowance!"
Poise sat, stunned by what Nikki had said. Surely the girl had misunderstood some of the details, because there was no way that Mrs. Carson would help an outsider take action against one of her students! Would she? Such a thing was totally inconceivable to Poise.
"It'll probably blow over, and things will be back to normal in a month or two," she tried to assure the redheaded Sidhe.
Fey snapped her head up to look at Poise. "You don't get it. He wants all of my royalties until I graduate. ALL of them!" She lowered her gaze once more. "It doesn't matter what I do. He gets all the benefit of my work. So why should I give a rat's ass?"
"It doesn’t matter if you don't get royalties now, because you'll build up a portfolio for after you graduate," Poise countered. "And the bigger portfolio and resume you have, the more money you can demand for modeling."
"Until he sues me again and gets all of that money, too!" Nikki grumbled.
"Are you going to quit?" Poise asked bluntly.
Nikki shook her head. "I can't. If I do, he'll sue my parents." She slumped down in a chair, looking completely unladylike and simultaneously angry and depressed. "Maybe she can make me model," she grumbled to herself, "but she can't make me do a good job."
No-one had ever accused Poise of being indecisive. "Since you're pretty upset right now, you're no good for modeling, so why don't you go change?" She helped Nikki up and guided her to the locker room. When she was sure the Sidhe girl was changing, she walked back out, unsurprisingly finding Mr. Parker right outside fretting.
"Now what?" he sighed. "My best exotic model is too upset to work, and I have to get that shoot done and proofs submitted by the weekend."
Poise shrugged, and even as casual a movement like that was utterly graceful and feminine. "I suppose someone else gets this break."
"Yeah, I know. But who?" He absently rubbed the top of his head, a nervous affectation, which partially explained his premature balding.
"You want my opinion?" Poise asked.
"I figured you were going to give it to me regardless. How long will it take for you to change?"
"Not me," Poise said, shaking her head. A smile crept over her face. "You want an exotic look?" Mr. Parker nodded. "Kayda."
"What?" Parker gasped in surprise. "Kayda? She's ... very inexperienced."
"She's good," Poise said simply. "You've seen the work she's done before. She can do it."
Mr. Parker looked doubtful. "She's not the same ... size as Nikki! It'll never work."
"Nobody here is," Poise smiled reassuringly at him. "Kayda's doing the shoot with Lanie. I'll interrupt her and have one of the seamstresses measure her, and while Kayda finishes her shoot, they'll get the dress altered. Then she can shoot the new line."
Mr. Parker rubbed his head, not quite convinced. "I don't know. There are seven or eight dresses in that line. Altering all of them - after they'd been fitted for Nikki?"
Poise shrugged. "Do you have a better plan?"
A grueling two hours later, Kayda walked beside the still-upset Nikki back to Poe. "What's the deal, Nikki?" Kayda asked as they strolled along the walkway.
"That stupid lawsuit," Nikki grumbled. "I don't see any reason to put any effort into modeling. It doesn't get me anything."
"That's what I heard," the Lakota girl acknowledged. "What are you going to do?"
Nikki shook her head. "I dunno. I don't know if Mrs. Carson is bluffing, so I really can't take a chance and fight it. And I'll be damned if I hand over all my money to that asshole! After what he did?" They walked along a bit further. "Hey, aren't you missing a meeting?"
Kayda shrugged. "I'd have been done modeling a while ago, but Poise and Mr. Parker wanted me to try the line you were going to model." She looked quite contrite. "I hope you don't mind."
"It doesn't matter anyway," Fey muttered. "So why should I care?"
"And as far as my meeting, Pristine is running it," the Lakota girl answered the original question. "We're planning a campout for the weekend after next - tepees and cooking deer and bison over an open fire. And she's better at planning that stuff than me, so it's no big deal." There was another pregnant pause. "So what are you going to do? Take the offer?"
"No," the Sidhe girl said, resignation in her voice. "But I can't fight it either. Ayla's lawyers told him my best bet is to try to negotiate a better deal. I have to anyway. At the very least, I need a bigger clothing allowance than what was proposed because I'm allergic to synthetics."
"Is that risky?" Kayda asked, worried a bit because she'd seen her dad's business involved in legal issues that seemed to stretch interminably.
"No. Ayla said that if I can't get better terms, I can always fall back to the original offer." She sighed. "There are other tricks, like filing for emancipation to try to get the threat away from mom and dad, and possibly filing for bankruptcy when I turn eighteen."
Kayda wrapped her arm around Nikki's shoulder supportively, knowing the girl was distraught and angry. "It sounds like Ayla is helping, so even thought things look bad right now, they will get better."
Nikki shook her head, the moisture on her cheeks glistening like jewels in the walkway lights. "It's ... it feels hopeless," she replied.
"You've got your friends," Kayda encouraged Nikki. "Look how they're sticking up for you, how they're trying to help you."
"But ... they can't do anything."
"Is Ayla's legal team nothing?" Kayda asked, unaware of the irony of discussing the fiction Ayla was playing on his team-mate. There was no legal team; it was all a ruse to make Nikki and the rest of Team Kimba think Ayla was helping her.
"I suppose," Nikki muttered, unconvinced.
"I know how things can seem pretty bad," Kayda continued. "Look at all the crap that happened to me. And I came through it." She smiled and squeezed the elf-girl's shoulders. "You're going to be okay. Right?"
Nikki sniffled. "Maybe."
Coincidentally, as the two came into Poe, Team Kimba came up from the tunnels. To Fey's dismay, they looked rather the worse for wear. "What happened?" she asked, horrified.
Hank shrugged. "Gunny took advantage of you not being there," he said simply, not noticing the anguish in Nikki's eyes as she felt even worse for having let her team down. "Stuff that you would have countered easily, but that we weren't ready for without you."
Nikki's sense of guilt overflowed. "I'm sorry," she apologized over and over. "This is all my fault!"
Ayla shook his head. "It exposed some weaknesses in our team," he tried to offer something positive. "A few places we need to improve. In fact, as we go through sims, we should purposely rotate out one of our heavy hitters to ensure we're prepared for situations like this."
In her room, Nikki slumped on her bed, looking down. Slowly, tears started to trickle down her cheeks, until she flopped down on her side, curling up in a fetal position, crying once again.
Toni noticed and bounced over to check on her friend. "Are you okay?" she asked simply.
Nikki shook her head a tiny bit. "No," she whimpered. "I'm not. It's bad enough that I ... that I lost ... Aung," she sobbed, "but then this happens, and I'm getting punished for defending myself, and I'm going to lose my money, and I'm letting you guys down, and ... and ...." She sniffled. "Mrs. Carson accepted two contracts that I was negotiating - without my input!" She closed her eyes, trying to fight the feeling of utter helplessness and the tears it was causing. "It's like ... Mrs. Carson is trying hard to rub my face in it all!
Toni winced. She had the exact same feeling as her roommate, but she dared not voice her suspicions. Not right now, when Nikki needed to be comforted. "It'll be alright," she assured her friend, holding her close. After a bit, Toni stood up. "I'll be right back."
Nikki needed some genuine TLC, and Toni could only give her so much. Hopefully, she thought to herself, Bugs was in her room and not down in the labs.
Sunday, May 20th, 2007, Lunch
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
The red-haired girl sat at the table, picking at her food, while around her, her friends ate and talked with their usual gusto, saving for occasional worried glances at Nikki. She'd been moping for the past two days, ever since her anger - no, anger wasn't strong enough a word. Rage was more like it. Ever since her rage at the Headmistress had burned itself out, leaving a crying, morose, defeated girl in its wake. Depression was taking its place, a deep, dark funk from which Nikki saw no hope of escape. Her eyes were dull, almost lifeless, lacking the sparkle of life she'd had only days before, and her normal exuberance was seriously muted.
Nikki didn't even notice her best friend and room-mate's eyes looking up, over her shoulder, but Toni, ever alert, had seen someone approaching, and while she looked calm, everyone knew that Toni was a hyperactive coiled spring, ready to unwind at any time.
"Wyatt," Toni acknowledge the newcomer tersely, wondering why he'd come to the Team Kimba table. "Hangin' with us Freshmen Poe nutcases ain't gonna do your rep no good."
The burly senior grinned broadly. "If my rep isn’t ruined by now, nothing can hurt it." He sat down, uninvited, next to Fey. "How's my favorite Sidhe doing?"
Fey shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly, unfazed by Wyatt's presence or attempted conversation.
"Your favorite?" Toni chuckled.
"Wait till Loophole finds out that you're tryin' to make time with another redhead," Billie, the scary-powerful anime-looking girl said, half-joking and half serious. She was like all the Kimbas - very defensive of their teammates.
Fey didn't even acknowledge the attempted light-hearted humor. Instead, she stared down at her plate, picking at the salad and vegetables without even trying to eat them.
"Come on, Fey," Wyatt said, trying to break through her self-imposed wall. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," the Sidhe retorted softly.
"You're not fooling me," the senior countered. "What's going on?" When he saw that Nikki was trying to avoid conversation, he stood, laying one of his big, meaty hands on her shoulder. "Come on. Let's go talk." Without waiting for an answer, he picked up her tray and offered her a gentlemanly hand to help her rise.
"I don't need to talk," Nikki protested weakly, even as she let the big senior guide her away from the Kimba table.
"Is that why everyone is saying you're sullen and angry and moody, and maybe even a bit depressed?" He led the girl to a semi-secluded table, far enough that nobody nearby would overhear a casual conversation. As she sat, he placed her tray in front of her and then slid into the chair opposite her. "Word is that Carson dropped the hammer on you. What's going on?" he asked, concern echoing in his voice.
"Wouldn't you be pissed if Carson had basically grounded you? And had frozen all your accounts?" Nikki replied angrily. "She's treating me like a child, dammit!"
Wyatt frowned. "Why? What's going on?"
Nikki looked past him, shaking her head. "You know when I freed Cav and Sky?" Wyatt nodded. "Well, Hekate was trying to do the mind-slave spell on me, too," she grumbled, her eyes flaring with anger at the memories. "A sleazy agent called the Solicitor, who wanted me as a modeling client, was helping her because I wouldn't let him represent me. When I got free, I cast a spell that returned their evil threefold. It's not as much as they deserved!"
Without warning, the physical manifestation of Cody's bear spirit was squatting on its haunches beside the table, and even then, it towered over the redhead. That sounds like something Aunghadhail would do.
She shook her head, lowering her gaze again. "I did it, using Aung's memories of the spell. And then Carson got all high-and-mighty about it, practically screaming at me because I'd had the audacity to defend myself! Like she'd have been happier if I hadn't done anything and had become Donny's fuck-toy, like Sky and Cav!" Tears were trickling from the corners of her eyes at the memories - both of the encounter with Hekate and being disciplined by the Headmistress.
Wordlessly, Wyatt and his bear spirit exchanged a knowing glance.
"Then she said that ... that I wasn't a queen, and to stop acting like I was one," Nikki spat the words, so angry at what Carson had said that she seemed overwhelmed. After a few silent moments, she looked up at Wyatt and read his expression.
Wyatt was conflicted; Nikki was really, really hurting emotionally, clearly deeply wounded by what Mrs. Carson had said. And yet, the girl had been acting as haughty and self-important as the old queen. He wasn't quite sure what to say, and his uncertainty was reflected on his face.
"Am I really like that?" she asked in a tiny, meek voice. "Is she right?"
Aung was not the best influence you could have had, the Kodiak answered, startling the girl with his candid admission.
Fey goggled at the bear, and then at the big senior, before looking down at her tray of uneaten food again. A few awkward seconds later, she looked up at the bear. "What was she like?" She saw him open his mouth to speak, but interrupted him. "Really like. Don't give me some 'feel good' story about her. What was she really like?" She sighed heavily. "From what Mrs. Carson said, I'm starting to wonder if I really knew her."
The bear looked at Wyatt uncertainly, grimacing. She'd asked for the truth, so with a sigh, the huge animal spirit turned back to her. Aunghadhail was one of the Paramount Queens of the Sidhe. Collectively, they were nine stone-cold, hard-hearted, selfish, arrogant, backstabbing, deceitful bitches from a long line of stone-cold bitches.
Fey started to open her mouth to protest, but Wyatt shook his head. "You asked for the truth," he chided the girl.
She was a queen, the bear continued, and that was what it meant to be a Sidhe queen - to love oneself first, her kingdom second, and there was almost nothing left over for the downtrodden, oppressed peasants who toiled without end and were butchered in war at her command. Peasants - serfs - whose only outlet was the foul home-brewed drink they consumed and sex, reproducing like rabbits to replenish the ranks of the damned.
As the bear spoke, Nikki's jaw slowly crept downward in shock at what he was saying. "Was ... was Aung that bad?"
Wyatt and the bear exchanged a concerned glance again. "Why would you want to know that?"
Nikki let her head hang, looking at the utensils on her tray that were. "Mrs. Carson said that ... Aung's death ... was good," she started sobbing, "because she was a bad influence on me. She said Aung was stealing my ... my humanity."
The bear started to speak, but Wyatt put his hand on the spirit's huge arm and shook his head, glaring at the beast.
After a few awkward seconds, Nikki looked up at Wyatt, her violet eyes moist and pleading. "Am I really that bad?"
"If you can ask that question," Wyatt replied, gently putting his big hand reassuringly on Nikki's, "then there's hope for you."
The bear looked at the stricken girl. Aung was alright. She was a great friend, loyal to those few who she called friends.
"Was she ... like the other queens? A cold-hearted bitch?" the redheaded beauty asked nervously, not quite sure she wanted to know the answer.
In some ways, she was more politically manipulative than her sisters, but in many other ways, not. Self-centered at times, arrogant most of the time, but not nearly as bad as she could have been. And driven to complete her own agenda, the Kodiak replied.
Fey winced. "Am I ... did I ... pick up those traits from her?" she asked hesitantly.
"Honestly?" Wyatt asked, looking with one raised eyebrow at the girl. She goggled at him, wondering for a moment, and then she nodded. "Mrs. Carson was right; Aung was a bad influence on you." He ignored Fey's gasp of disbelief. "You were sometimes arrogant and haughty, and getting more so the longer she was influencing you."
Fey's tears, a small trickle, became a deluge as the girl, wracked by sobs, confronted a truth that she knew the Kodiak had told. "I ... I'm afraid," she said between sobs. "I'm afraid ... that I lost ... lost myself." She shook her head sadly, "Even if I could have, I would have never cast that evil of a spell before ... before Aung came to me," she cried. "I never hurt anyone like that before! Mrs. Carson was right - I've become her!" She let her face drop into her hands as she convulsed with sobs.
Wyatt put his hand on her shoulder. "Nikki," he said soothingly, "if you can remember that, if you can even think that, it shows that you're still Nikki Reilly, not the heir apparent to the Sidhe Paramount Queen of the West."
Look inside you, the bear spirit said. You'll find Nikki Reilly still there. And she's a good person. But you have to always remember who you are, and live those values and principles, not the arrogance and self-importance that Aung was teaching you.
Nikki looked up at the bear, and then at Wyatt, her eyes pleading to be told that the bear spoke the truth, that she wasn't too far gone, that she hadn't lost herself.
"I think there's a lot more of Nikki than Aung inside you," Wyatt said with a smile. "And there are a lot of people - your friends - who believe in Nikki Reilly. Mrs. Carson believes in you."
"What?" Nikki asked, her mouth open in astonishment. "She sure doesn't act like it!" she practically spat.
"If she didn't care, she wouldn't try to help you," Wyatt replied confidently. "But she does care for a girl named Nikki Reilly, and she wants you to succeed. She believes you will succeed." He watched Nikki practically chew on his words, wondering if there was truth to what he was trying to tell her. "So believe in yourself," he added, patting her hand gently. "Believe in yourself."