Dorms of Our Lives Season 4 (Part 6)
A Second Generation Whateley Academy Tale
Dorms of Our Lives
By Wasamon and Souffle Girl
with the assistance of the usual suspects
Season 4, "A Picnic Outing"
----Saturday, Oct. 1st, for a little while longer
-- Sister Secret
Milena Tarkisian was the sort to confuse many of her classmates simply by being the way she was. The daughter of an infamous thief turned grey market trader, she'd arrived at Whateley her freshman year with a strangely naive view of the world and a lax attitude towards the concept of personal property. The first term had gone about as well as could be expected. Fortunately, she was a fast learner, not to mention free and easy with her own possessions as well. Her willingness to help a classmate out and loan anything she didn't immediately require was a crucial part of her social recovery, to the point where she could even be considered for a residential assistant position. She was honored by the trust that implied.
No one had mentioned the negative aspects to the job, though in retrospect she probably should've guessed about those.
"You called, madam?" she said after knocking upon and opening the door to the apartment belonging to Ms. Plimsoll, assistant dorm mother of Dickinson Cottage.
The room was as spartan as ever. Milena suspected that the woman hadn't spent much time in one place for far too long. What decor there was matched the occupant perfectly: austere, colorless, showing only what was needed. Aside from the bed and dresser, the only real furniture was the table and chair set in the apartment's small kitchen. Ms. Plimsoll was already seated with a cup of tea. A second was sitting there waiting for Milena to claim it.
She took the cup carefully, trying not to be too obvious about sniffing it first.
"Thank you for coming," said the woman. "I trust that your little social gathering went as expected?"
"Pretty much," she admitted. "I didn't expect Erica to say yes, but at least she's aware we exist. If she needs help, Twitch and I will be there. Right now it's Calliope I'm more worried about."
Ms. Plimsoll's lips came together naturally into the shape of a postbox. "Yes, that. Bad business all around, and perhaps worse than you think. One of the ringleaders has already bought his safety via a deal with the Syndicate over some disturbing little toys."
Milena bit back an old Armenian curse her father always used.
"Exactly. What is worse is the reason why he and the other boys targeted her." Ms. Plimsoll paused. "I hate to break a confidence like this, even one which the other person does not realize has been made, but I have the worst feeling that you shall need this information."
"It cannot be that bad, can it?"
"In all honesty, no, except that certain people will make it as bad as they think it should be." The woman sighed. "Out with it, then: Ms. Persico was born male and apparently transitioned to female as part of her mutation. I have checked her records and no mention is made of it, but her brother was involved in the initial filing, so I don't doubt he buried it."
She wore a pair of Lennon vanity specs, just because she liked the style. Right now they were sliding off the tip of her nose as she stared at the dorm mother in surprise. "Wow. Like, um, they gave us a short history of crazy stuff that's gone down in the past, and there were incidents like that, but, um, I never thought I'd be involved in one. Does... does anyone else know?"
"I assume her twin brother does, and unfortunately there's about a dozen other boys out there who do as well, now. Otherwise it is just you and I. Mrs. Sinclair has yet to be informed, and I would rather not tell her just yet. We may not have a choice, however."
"Escalation. Their attack was a bust, so what to do next... Is Calliope in danger?" she asked.
"Not from the boys, I believe. Or at least not directly. From how the ringleader acted, I believe that group is now covering their arses as best they can before the Amazons come after them."
Milena winced. "The Amazons won't be so friendly to her either, if they find out."
"Which is why I am telling you now. Forewarned is forearmed. Go, get some rest, and let us pray in vain that no one decides to do anything stupid."
----Sunday, Oct. 2nd, early morning
She skipped out into the chill October air and took a deep breath. Her insides protested, but she took another after that. Her skin never changed color, not for anything, and that was the only reason she wasn't green around the gills at the moment.
Even if her color didn't show her discomfort, the rest of her body language must have screamed it, because the first words out of young Physique's mouth that morning were, "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," she told the junior high girl. It wasn't exactly a lie, though it certainly wasn't true either. "It's just, um, that time of the month. What a surprise to wake up to, huh."
Physique was looking green enough for the both of them. "Ew. I feel you. The first period I got after mutating was, um, special. That's the... politest word, I guess."
It certainly wasn't the best word, but Oma hadn't raised her grandchild to cuss like that. Unfortunately, this period was not an isolated case. While her body was pretty much set in its current appearance, there were still some internal bits in transition, and apparently her newfound menstrual cycle had been co-opted as a schedule for when to move stuff around. The good news was that Opa and his friends at the MIT research lab believed it would settle down by the end of the year. The bad news was that it was still only October, and her body hated her.
"We'll take it slow this week," Erica said, "but I don't want to get out of the habit."
"And Cally?" asked Physique. "Um, Kareela and Twitch both stopped by the other night and mentioned..."
Erica nodded. "Yeah. Cally's doing as well as could be expected. I'm letting her sleep in today. Shall we get going?"
The two of them moseyed around the quad, nodding at friendly and familiar faces, and even at the Amazon squad which lapped them a few times. The militant young ladies were quick to proclaim their support of Calliope against 'those malicious males,' which was... not exactly a relief, but certainly not bad, either.
About halfway around the second time, they found Daniel walking along at a calm pace. His dog was nowhere in sight.
"Hey, you!" Erica called. "What'd you do with Cookie?"
"Pup's havin' a good time," Daniel replied. "Should be back around any second now."
"Back around?" Erica looked behind her to see the bulky shape of a four-foot-tall, two-headed Boston Terrier tearing down the path at full speed, both tongues lolling happily. She pulled Physique to the side just before Cookie could run them over.
Pup came to a screeching halt in front of its boy, tail wagging and sides heaving with exertion. Four ears twitched happily, and the barks came in stereo. Right behind pup, a girl in a modest track suit and head scarf left a long track in the dust as she stopped as well.
"Didn't give her no trouble, didya pup?" Daniel asked, grabbing one set of jowls and jiggling them.
"No, no. Not at all," the girl replied, patting Cookie on the left neck column. "It... ah, pup was a good running companion." When she raised her eyes, they reflected golden in the morning light. "The one within is happy to run with another such free spirit. Thank you for letting us."
"Anytime, Miss Avsel," Daniel said. "Say, if you're up for it, I'm sure pup wouldn't mind another long run 'round the campus again." Cookie woofed in agreement.
"If you say so, then..." For an instant, the golden-eyed girl's face went from shy and nervous to fierce and focused. That instant was all they had to judge by, because Avsel didn't wait a second longer to zoom off, with a happy Cookie chasing after.
"Popular as ever," Erica noted.
"Everybody loves a puppy," said Daniel. "And Avsel's... not good with people, I guess ya could say. Could be the spirit in her heart, could be somethin' else. So a playdate with Cookie's a good thing for her, or at least her friends in Whitman think so."
"They're probably right," Erica said, thinking back to quality time spent one-on-one with pup, and the good it had done her. She stretched, then bit back a gasp of pain.
"Ya doin' all right?" he asked.
"It's that time of the month," Physique informed him.
Daniel's smiled wobbled and then tightened back into place, but otherwise he didn't recoil or react to that news. "Well then," he said. "Let's get somethin' to make you feel better." Pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, he draped it over his hand and then tugged it away to reveal a peanut butter cookie. "For you," he announced with a grin.
"Thanks." She nibbled, then unleashed her inner Cookie Monster, gobbling it up in two bites. A second cookie was produced forthwith.
"Hey, where's mine?" Physique whined.
"Ya feelin' poorly today?"
The junior high girl paused. "I could fake it."
The boy shook his head and tsked. "And on the Lord's Day, no less. Well, I'm feelin' charitable, at least." A third cookie appeared in his hand. The girl hooted with joy.
Erica's second cookie was long since gone, and with it some of the discomfort of her abdomen. "There wasn't anything different about that cookie, was there?" she asked.
"Nope. Everything I make is in-dee-sting-wishabel from the real thing," Daniel said proudly. "All the researchers say so, or at least their tests do. They just haven't figgered out why the goods make people feel good, too. Got a Healin' ratin' stuck on my MID with a little star that means 'heck if we know'."
"Well, it's certainly doing something right. Thanks." She was cleaning the crumbs off her fingers when Cookie and Avsel stopped by again. This time, pup's heads were sagging, and their legs dragged the last few yards.
"Bibûre, I think I wore him out," the girl in the head scarf apologized.
Daniel already had a meat pie in each hand. Pup's heads lifted and their ears perked happily. Those pies did not last long. "Have a good run, pup?" A contented whine answered him. "Then it's all good, Miss Avsel," he said to the volunteer dog walker. "Wouldya like a cookie too? Er, the baked kind."
"Ah, it is fine. You do not need to..."
"C'mon!" Physique chimed in. "These things are delish!"
Shyly Avsel took a newly produced peanut butter cookie from Daniel, taking care to only touch the baked good and the handkerchief, and not the boy's hand. "Sipas dekem."
"If you feel like walkin', I need to get Cookie back to Twain for a quick rinse. Yeah, pup," he said to the plaintive whine, "we gotta wash ya down a little now or you'll be sweaty-stinky all day."
Avsel smiled, a furtive expression that flitted across her face disappeared for a second, and then returned to its place to hang out a while longer. "I... guess I could slow down for a while. To enjoy a cookie. Either one."
Happy barks belled in duplicate.
He had slept the night before. He was pretty certain of that. Surely the entire night had not been spent staring at the ceiling of his room and counting all the ways in which he'd fucked up during the past four to twenty weeks. In honesty -- and honest he was trying to be with himself -- it was a long list, and Fio was a central figure in it. Whether helping him out of a mess, telling him off for his stupidity, or... or being hurt by his thoughtlessness. That last had happened far too often. He rolled over, buried his face in his pillow, and let out a burst of frustration, somewhere between a groan and a scream.
"Dude, keep it down. The neighbors are trying to sleep."
So if he had indeed slept that night, he had still woken up early enough for his roommate to be in. Garrett "Duster" Burke made a habit of getting out of the dorm room as early as possible every morning, while Fra preferred to take his time. At the moment, Garrett was getting dressed, and not for a usual day off: nice slacks, white shirt, a necktie. If they were in Genoa, he'd think the boy was...
Oh yes. This was Sunday, and they were in America. The conclusion was obvious. "You're going to church?" he asked to confirm.
"Yeah." The boy cinched his belt buckle. "Since you're up, you wanna come with?"
Fra almost turned him down. It wasn't as if his family was particularly pious, aside from mandatory attendance on Christmas, Easter, and All Saints. But... "Let me get dressed," he said. "Only a moment."
When he stepped out into the morning sunshine, it was in a neat suit that his father had bought him to replace the old one after his mutation-induced growth spurt. It still had that new smell to it. He'd kept his sports shoes on because the nice dress shoes pinched his toes in the worst way.
"Hey, Danny!" Garrett called out as they passed Twain Cottage. The short, pudgy boy from Fra's English class was currently taking a hose to the oversized canine who lived in the little house next to the cottage. "You joining us this morning?"
"Nah, I"m good," Daniel said. "Had enough church to last me a lifetime. Just gonna live like a good person and hope for the best. Oh, thank you, Miss Avsel," he said to the girl in the headscarf who'd zoomed in with a fresh towel. "Gotta get pup cleaned up."
One doggy head turned soulful eyes towards Fra, whining pitifully.
"Cut it out, Cookie."
He gave the dog a friendly pat and ear scratch before heading off with Garrett. Thanks to his exemplar memory, Fra knew more or less where the school chapel was located, just from reading the official map during orientation, but he'd never stopped in. Now that its doors were wide open and welcoming, he felt a perverse urge to run, to avoid the place entirely.
Born Catholic, raised Catholic, but not practicing Catholic -- Fra knew enough about the power of guilt firsthand. He focused on following Garrett into the little chapel -- hardly even that, compared to the grand old structures of home!-- and took a seat on a pew. The two of them were not the first ones to arrive, nor were they the last. Most of the students made some effort to dress up, and a few sported crosses and crucifixes to match the portrait of Jesus Christ looking up towards heaven, which took up most of the wall behind the altar. A few were in more casual clothes, often because they didn't make nice stuff for folk with body dimensions too far outside the norm. One girl appeared to be a panda.
He recognized one of Fio's friends, the rabbit-eared Tia, as she quietly slipped in. Normally he would have at least said hello, and not only because she was cute, but instead he slumped down in his seat and turned a little so his face was not so obvious from where she sat. What Fio had told her friends, he did not know. Neither was he in a hurry to find out.
Garrett grabbed hymnals for the both of them, and he flipped through page after page of songs set to tunes he did not necessarily know, in languages he did not necessarily speak, though he could make a fair guess at the Latin. Fio would have been able to read the notes above the lyrics, hanging there like little dangling grapes. For himself, the book served better as a shield between himself and the world.
"Greetings, everyone!" said the priest as the first song came to an end. He wore vestments that were mostly familiar and likely Catholic. A month of Ms. Barnes's English class had helped his brain along enough to understand what was being said, even. "I see we have some new faces in the congregation today. My name is Father Ignacio Verraco, and I have the honor of being your school chaplain. We try to keep things interdenominational around here, but old habits do die so hard, which is why I'm sticking to my familiar liturgical calendar. If no one minds?"
Apparently this was an old joke with the regular congregants, who all giggled at him. "Good," the priest continued. "So, according to my calendar, today is the Feast of the Guardian Angels. Now, I know most of us must be familiar with the image of the guardian angel, of an unseen watcher protecting us from harm without our cognizance. But let me ask you now: does a guardian angel need be an actual angel, or can it be a person like you or me?"
With the book no longer in front of him, Fra's facial muscles strained not to wince. This was not the best day to have turned churchgoer.
"As I make my way here at Whateley, I have seen many who possess a strong desire to help, and many more who possess a strong need of it. When God gives us the opportunity to make the world better, be it through the strength of our arms or the sharpness of our minds, it is not for us to pass up. Perhaps the wise souls who compile my little liturgical calendar are of the same mind, for today they direct us to open our Bibles to the Second Letter to Timothy, chapter one, verses six through eight. Those of you who have brought your own Bibles may want to check them now. The wording of the translation may vary, but I believe the message shines through:
"6 Wherefore I put thee in remembrance that thou stir up the gift of God, which is in thee by the putting on of my hands.
"7 For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.
"8 Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner: but be thou partaker of the afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God"
Father Verraco gave them a moment for the words to sink in. Fra's jaws had long since given up the struggle to stay clinched and unmoving, and there was a tingling sensation through the tip of his nose that presaged a most embarrassing amount of tears if he couldn't keep it in check.
"Now, obviously St. Paul did not write this epistle with our modern world in mind. In truth, I doubt he would like much about our life and society at all, even before we bring in the special circumstances of Whateley." He nodded to the panda girl and the other obvious GSD kids in the chapel. "No, he would be mortified, and he would most certainly be wrong, but that does not mean we cannot take inspiration from his words. For you all have certainly received a gift in this life, yet it remains to you to put it to use, and how you shall do so. And just as no Christian should be ashamed of their faith and the way they live it, neither should any of you find shame in the way God has made and remade you. For God has given you power, love, and a sound mind. With those three gifts, anyone can be a guardian angel."
It wasn't a long sermon -- in fact, it may have been the shortest that Fra had ever had to sit through -- but focusing on the words made the seconds seem like hours.
Communion came with no regard for who followed which version of the Church. All were offered to share in the sacrament, though not everyone did. The pastor varied his actions for each celebrant, offering a handshake to some, or a brief prayer while touching the forehead of another. Fra took his communion wafer directly in his mouth, as was customary back home, but forbore the sip of sacramental wine.
Ten minutes later, and the little service was wrapping up. One more song he did not know and could not sing, then the students all got up to leave. Fra stayed. The pew was not the most comfortable of seats, but he did not wish to leave it.
"Hello, young man," the pastor said, coming over with a friendly face. "I haven't seen you around before."
"This is Fra," said Garrett. "My roommate."
"Francesco Persico," he said for himself. "I am, ah, Italian. From Genoa."
Father Verraco nodded. "Ciao, Francesco, e benvenuto. It is good to see you."
Garrett was getting up to leave, too, but Fra still couldn't move. "Ah, padre," he said. "Do you, ah, can you do the confessione here? I, ah, I think I feel a need."
If the pastor was surprised, he did not show it. "Of course, young man. Garrett, could you help Susan tidy up? This will only take a few minutes." One sidelong glance looked Fra over. "That is, I hope it will only be a few."
The confessional was a little room to the side of the chapel, partitioned and with bench seating. A sliding panel opened in the wall between the two halves. "Don't worry," said the pastor. "One of the senior devisor students installed the best in anti-eavesdropping technology, and he comes by every week to ensure that no new bugs have been sneaked in."
That had not even occurred to Fra. He gulped at the thought of one more thing to worry about. Sitting himself down on the bench cushion, he began with the traditional words in Italian: "Perdonami padre, perché ho peccato... Ah, forgive me, because I sinned..." he said in his best guess of the English translation. "It has been..." His traitorous exemplar-enhanced brain supplied a calculation. "...nine months, eleven days, thirteen hours since my last confession."
"Ahem," the pastor's voice floated through the panel. "That is very specific."
"It is heavy on my soul," Fra admitted.
"Why wait so long?"
"It is... ah, I was not... ah..." He paused to think. "On one hand, my parish priest was not happy with mutants, and, ah, my sister... and I... were a problem for him. On the other hand..." A long sigh. "I did not want to. I only wanted to enjoy being strong and handsome and popular."
"A common enough tale," said the pastor. "Both of them. So what brings you to me today?"
This was the moment that had made him hesitate at the door to the chapel, that had kept him glued to his pew, that let him feeling a need to run even now. It was the entire point of coming here this morning, and it was something he had to do. "I... someone close to me, I shared a confidence, and, and, I was careless and some people found out. And, and they tried... I think they tried to do something bad because of what I said. My... the other person was very angry and hurt, and, and, it is all my fault! I, I could not keep a secret, and bad things happened, and now she will not trust me or talk to me or..." Tears ran wet down his cheeks. "And I deserve it. I have been so awful. She was always helpful and good and supportive, and I do this?"
There was a long pause from behind the screen. "Everything you say here is of course confidential," said Father Verraco, "but I do suggest you make an appointment with one of the school's counselors, and perhaps Security as well, if things have gotten so far out of hand as that. They will help you more than I can."
"It... it will not make me feel any better," Fra admitted. "I, I deserve..."
"I am afraid that the worst I can give you is a penance, young man. Do you own a rosary?"
He did, in fact: a surprise gift his mother had slipped into his baggage. Fra nodded before realizing that the man could not see the gesture. "Si, I do."
"Good. One full time around. For each Our Father, consider the mistakes of your life. For each Hail Mary, ponder what you can do to help this young lady... your sister, I believe?"
"Si. Thank you, padre."
"It is the least I can do, I am afraid. But as long as you remember your mistakes with shame and focus on what good you may do in the future, then a better man you will become. Now, get over to the cafeteria for some breakfast! I can hear your stomach growling from here."
"Si! Grazie, grazie..." His mouth repeated the word as he exited, losing all meaning as it descended into a mumbling mantra. When he left the chapel, he did not immediately go with Garrett to the cafeteria, but instead returned to his room to search his bags. The carved wooden beads of the rosary were right were he had left them.
--Shawn Barker, former ODS dud
The watch on his wrist beeped nine times for the hour as he walked into the Crystal Hall for breakfast. Shawn was in something of a bind here. Normally he sat with a few of the other Twain and Emerson boys from the ODS. That was off the table now. Even if they didn't know that he'd reported the club to Security, he knew, and the thought of palling with them was, well, appalling.
He quickly grabbed a stack of pancakes, poured on the syrup, added a few sausages, and then went in search of a seat. The first floor was all freshmen as usual, except for the junior high table at one end. Most were grouped first by cottage and then by social cliques, with a few groups of inter-dorm friendships at the edges. It didn't take him long to find the Twain zone. It was the loudest and most colorful.
Only half the dorm population had anything more than cosmetic GSD, usually just fun hair and eye coloration, but when things got weird, they got weird fast. Along the border with their sister-cottage of Whitman, a young man with more than a passing resemblance to a rhinoceros was having an animated discussion with a girl whose scaled dreadlocks and snake-slit eyes were obvious even at a distance. A boy with bunny ears sat nearby, grinning wide enough to break his head.
At a different table, a figure made of dirt and rock was in an argument with some friends, themselves looking quite like a warthog and some sort of canine. As Shawn passed, he caught a few words about the previous day's fights, including some snickering and protestation over the word "clod". He hadn't seen any of the event on account of being interviewed by Security at the time, so he couldn't tell just what the point of the discussion was.
In one corner, a gaunt young man was eating by himself. All of the shadows seemed to cling to that spot, making the contrast between pallid skin and dark hair all the more apparent. Having seen the kid in the showers, Shawn knew that the unnatural skin tone was actually make-up, but that didn't keep the so-called Crepescule from outweirding a lot of the floor.
His feet took him over to one of the more central of the Twain tables, down just a little from Franklin the rhino's breakfast date, where an oriental-looking kid in a knit cap was gnawing on a chunk of ham. "Sain uu!" Arsi Khan said sunnily. "Hello, wrestling friend!"
"Um, hey," Shawn replied. "Is this seat taken?"
"No, no one is the taking of it. Please be sitting! C'mon, yes!" As usual, the Mongolian kid's English was understandable in spite of itself. "You want talk wrestling?"
He shrugged. "Sure?"
Arsi whooped with joy. "Yeah yeah! Hearing that, Sah-mer?"
"Dude, you just made his day," the rabbit-eared kid commented. "Not that it takes much."
As he gorged his way through his pancakes, Shawn's ears were filled with half-sensical accounts of wrestling, which was apparently a big thing in Mongolia, with national tournaments going back practically to the time when their ancestors had conquered most of the Eurasian landmass. Arsi's father and grandfather had both been regular participants in their day.
"Want practicing?" Arsi suggested. "Can do, can do!"
Shawn gave him a thumb's up. "Okay, dude. Around 11 o'clock? We can work up an appetite for lunch."
"Yes, yes, good lunchings!"
Out of the corner of his eye, Shawn saw the F-dude... Francesco shuffling towards an empty table. "Um, excuse me a second," he said, getting up to intercept the Italian.
Francesco's reaction when he saw him was telling. The boy flinched and looked away, sitting down quickly.
"Hey," Shawn said in a low voice. "Hey, Francesco... er, Fra, right?"
"What do you want?" the other boy said, just as quietly.
"Just wanted to see if you were alright," Shawn said.
"It is my sister whom you should ask that question. She hurts more than me."
Shawn winced at the tone of those words. "Maybe, but that doesn't mean you're doing well. And I bet she's got a lot of friends worrying about her now. Who's worrying about you?"
"Well then I'm gonna change that now." Shawn grabbed Fra's tray. "Up and at 'em. Arsi's not done talking about wrestling yet, and I think I just agreed to start a team with him. You're drafted. And..." He leaned down to whisper in the boy's ear. "Anything I might've learned this weekend stays between us, okay? I swear on a stack of Bibles. But if you need someone to talk stuff over with, I'm your man."
The Italian looked up now, his eyes suspiciously wet. "Grazie. I... perhaps later."
"Of course later. Breakfast first!" Shawn led the way back to the American Mongolian Wrestling Federation's just-now-appointed headquarters, new friend in tow.
If he spent every meal of his school career at Whateley eating alone, it would not have surprised him. Wilder's very first class at this school had ended in a rage-fueled brawl, which was one heckuva way to leave an impression -- in a wall, a door, the ceiling, and another student's chest. He wouldn't have sat with himself, after something like that.
So while it was annoying that he didn't have a say in the matter, the fact that the Barnes family had quasi-adopted him was a comfort. All four of them resided in Poe: two on the first floor near his own special single, and two on the second floor with the rest of the freshmen. Chessa and Pat were cool with just about anything, it seemed, while Marcus was quick to include both him and their neighbor Time Bomb in random video game competitions.
It was the fourth member of the family who was hard for him to figure out. The big sister of the Barnes tribe was simultaneously his English teacher, his neighbor, and currently in disguise as someone much younger than she really was. Keeping track of which name to use was hurting his head.
Still, he was glad she was nearby. No matter how she presented herself, she always had her trusty baseball bat close at hand.
Pat was cracking a joke at Chessa's indignant expense when suddenly his head whipped around, staring into the distance behind Wilder. "Head's up," the boy announced. "Incoming visitor for Danny."
For him? Wilder could feel his hackles rising, and not in a metaphorical way. Thick hair spontaneously grew across his shoulders, just so it could stand on end. Not many people would be looking for him, and from the way Pat said it...
A quick glance confirmed it. Across the cafeteria and aiming his way was a frizzy-haired figure with taped-up glasses in a black t-shirt. On the shirt, the words CARPE SCROTUM appeared in dark red letters. Part of him had been dreading this moment ever since the picnic yesterday. The rest of him wanted to make a run for it. The only reason he did not was because he knew she would catch him.
"Should we..." Chessa started to say, only for Pat to hush her.
The boy pulled his magic 8-ball from its habitual place in his bag. A quick shake and peek, and then Pat said, "I think Danny should talk with her. Over by the plants. That's enough for privacy, but close enough for us to watch. Okay?" he asked Wilder.
He sighed. "If it ain't..." He let the word hang.
Rachel Altus moved to intercept as he set himself down at the new table. "So, I've let you think about it for most of a day," she said. "What's the word?"
"Why me?" he whimpered.
"Why not you?" she countered. "If I'm gonna date someone, then he should be able to keep up and keep it interesting. Yeah, you're dangerous sometimes, but do you think I give a shit? They don't!" Rachel waved to the Barneses, who were making no effort to hide their interest in the meeting. Ms. Barnes, or Moonbrook, or whoever... the big sister of the crew even waved back.
"Is it?" Rachel asked. "Wanna know what I think? I think you're scared to death of yourself."
"Aren't, aren't you?" he stuttered.
"Fuck no. Who's got time to be scared? Not me. Like it says on the back of my shirt, I don't give a shit. But you do, and that's okay, but not if you're gonna let it hold you back! That's the real reason you hang out with them, isn't it? You know that lady who's currently impersonating a teenager can take you down if she has to. Well, newsflash: So can I."
He mulled that one over. "Okay, yeah. Ya made your point yesterday." His face still hurt.. "Still doesn't mean Ah'm ready for, for anything romantic..."
"And you think I am?" Rachel asked. "Well, maybe a little, but I'm willing to take it slow at first. As long as we get to fight regularly. At least twice a week!"
"Yeah, Ah guess we..." He shook his head violently. "Whaddamah saying? Ah ain't agreed to nothing yet!"
"But you're considering it." The girl's smile was all teeth, right before she swooped in to kiss him on the cheek. His traitorous body shivered at that. "Good. Keep thinking. Let me know when you're ready for our first play-date. But don't keep me waiting too long." With a wink, she got up from her seat and sauntered away.
Wilder groaned and collapsed against the tabletop. Who'da thought being a boy was so fuckin' crazy?
It was a labor of near-herculean levels, getting Cally out of the dorm room and through the daily gantlet of the showers. Not that Erica could blame her roommate for being skittish -- no one got over an assault emotionally in so short a time -- but the one place they could certainly be safe from boys would be the girls' showers!
The usual crowd of slightly early risers mumbled non-greetings. Mairead, though busy with wrapping a towel around herself, at least gave them a perfunctory wave with one PK projection of a hand. Mouse was soaking in one of the plastic bowls at the wash station, next to a girl with so many piercings she probably had her own magnetic field. Erica had learned not to stare.
Some of the girls had already heard about the incident with Cally; others were finding out now, from whispers which ran the length of the showers and back at a reasonable fraction of the speed of light. No one tried to get in their way or harass them with the usual dorm dramas. It was perhaps the quietest shower the two of them had had in a long time.
Cally was tensed up all the way from the dorm to the cafeteria, eyes darting in all directions and throat humming a low tune that Erica recognized as an Italian lullaby. Even secondhand, the effect was calming.
They wasted little time getting their breakfasts. Erica had her usual piles of everything while Cally went for an espresso, fruit bowl, and croissant. It was Daniel's day off from the pastry counter, the regular adult standing there wasn't nearly as friendly. On their way over to the stairs, Erica spotted Fra. The boy had a hangdog expression even in the midst of a chattering crowd of boys. If Cally noticed her twin, she refused to acknowledge it.
No one was at their table just yet, so they settled in. Cally picked at her fruit bowl, and hardly touched her espresso. Finally Erica took the Italian's hand in her own and squeezed gently. That got her a smile, but no appetite for her friend.
The voices of the Mutant Mayhem Machine's Poe faction drifted up the stairs, announcing the arrival of Laura, Bianca, Bailey, and Morgana. That last girl in particular was happy and hopping, almost giddy as she danced over to the table and sat herself down.
Laura had already set her tray down with a light crash, glaring at the Welsh girl with her face screwed up in annoyed confusion. At Erica's raised eyebrow, the devisor stabbed a finger at the font of bubbly happiness and declared, "Morgana hasn't had her coffee yet, and she's cheerful! Bouncy! Happy! She's done everything but sing a bloody Disney tune on the way over here!"
Bianca's mouth was tight at the corners as it steadfastly refused to turn up at the corners. This fight was lost when the accusative blue finger turned her way. "So, Glyph," Laura said, "where is the real Morgana and what have you done with the body?"
She might've been speaking for everyone in that moment. "I take it your mystery appointment last night went well?" Erica said.
Morgana was already gnawing though a side of bacon. "Mph?" She swallowed quickly, coughing part of it down the hatch. "Oh. Oh, yeah. Went great. 'Twas a wonderful evening..."
"Speaking for yourself, as always." Hikaru's pointed remark heralded her arrival with Tia in tow. "We should all be so lucky."
"Yeah, it's kind of hard to best this level of awesome."
Hikaru rolled her eyes and muttered something so low that Erica's ears could hardly register it. It sounded like "Kay-why," which must've meant something in Japanese.
Laura leaned in to hug Cally from behind. "And how are you doing?" the blue girl asked. "We heard a bit from Erica and from Vic, but we never had the chance to ask you."
"I, it is... I do not wish to talk about it just yet," said Cally. "Please... let it be for now. Security is handling it, and I, I wish to leave it behind me." She took one final sip of espresso, organized her tray, and stood up. "My apologies, but I think I shall return to my room. I'm still not feeling too well..."
"You want me to go back with you?" Erica offered.
"No, it will be fine. I... I should see how Neff is doing. I never called last night, and she must be as anxious as I. Ciao, everyone..." After a full round of hugs, the Italian left the table, and the conversation moved on.
"I had one other spot of bother last night," Hikaru said. "Somewhat minor, compared to everything else, but aggravating nonetheless."
"What now?" asked Bailey, rolling her eyes.
A smartphone landed on the tablecloth so hard that it bounced a few inches. "This," spat Hikaru. "It was supposed to be a gift from a company in Japan, and a generous one at that, but there's been an unforeseen issue..."
"It's bugged?" Laura guessed.
"Oh heavens no," said Hikaru with a sigh. "If that were the case, returning it would be simple. No, the problem is that it does not get along well with the electronics I already have, or rather..."
The bangle at her wrist beeped. "Moshi wake gozaimasen, Hikaru-sama. Demo, ano kudaranai denki-kuzu ga anatasama niwa bujoku de gozaimasu..."
"In English?" Laura requested. "I haven't had that much time to study..."
"I simply voiced my disapproval," the VI responded before her owner could tell her to be quiet. "Such a piece of silicon scrap is an insult to my mistress."
"Kurenai is jealous." Hikaru groaned. "And I've been hearing it all night long. Does anyone need a phone? I am serious here. It is not possible for me to return this without causing insult."
The blue girl's eyes did not blink once as she examined the phone. "This... this model isn't even on the market yet!"
"Yes, I am aware."
"And it comes with its own virtual intelligence housing, terabyte storage, twelve gig RAM, full satellite link-up capability..." Laura's description accelerated into a thick mess of technobabble that only Hikaru seemed to understand, ending with: "Why don't you want this!?"
"Because Kurenai has threatened to turn it into the world's most expensive paperweight if I do not remove it from my possession post-haste. You know what? Keep it." She pressed the phone back into Laura's hands. "It will do you more good than it will me."
"B-but!" Laura was turning her deepest shade of Blue.
"Please!" the RA begged.
Laura looked at her friend, then down at the four-digit price tag sitting in her hand. "Sure," she said quickly, before the Japanese princess could come to her senses.
The bangle chirped again. "Good!" said Kurenai. "Ownership has been transferred to User:Cerulea. All systems are now synched with your email and messaging accounts, and you may begin use immediately. Payment plan to be billed to the Imperial House Agency," the VI added.
Erica giggled with the rest of them at the expressions on Laura's and Hikaru's faces. The mood around the table lifted like a flock of balloons, until it was popped by a loud beep. Erica pulled out her phone, hardly noting the matching bleat from Laura's new device. All across the cafeteria, phones and tablets put out alerts, which their owners quickly checked. On the screen, Erica saw the header of an All-Campus Alert, of the sort reserved for true emergencies. The details, though...
She ran out of the cafeteria cussing. No attention was paid to the reactions from the table behind her, though those would have proved most interesting to witness.
--Contact High, about ten minutes earlier
His head was the opposite of pounding. At some point the night before, someone had opened the top off his cranium and packed the insides with soft wool, and now his brain floated along without much care. It wasn't unlike the effects of his own envenomed fingernails, but he hadn't shot himself up by accident in a long time. If more than two brain cells ever managed to float by each other, he might have felt worried. Instead, he lay on his mattress and watched the digital display on his clock tick up the minutes until 10 AM.
There was something important about that time. A meeting or ... an appointment? Yes, that was it. He had an appointment to keep with Security, to help his brothers in the ODS. The wooliness was warm and fuzzy, telling him he was doing a good thing.
Just one last chore to complete before he left. His feet hobbled over to his desk, and his hands tapped at the keyboard on his personal computer. Fingers picked out the proper keys, one by one, and then a program opened up before his eyes, though he wasn't really looking. It did its work and then expunged itself in an act of digital suicide. His computer screen went dark, never to show anything ever again.
Rutherford didn't notice, and would not have appreciate it if he had. Already his feet were carrying him out the door to his scheduled rendezvous. His phone beeped loudly at him as he left.
--Reactions around campus
Jack-in-the-Box heard the beep as he came back from the showers. One quick glance confirmed the contents. "Yes..." he said, grinning to himself. Now the truth would out. This would teach that little trap well and good.
He chose his clothes carefully. Things were about to get interesting, and while he usually wanted to look his best, the stealth suit with its chameleon circuitry seemed the better choice. No point in making it easy for those bitches to find him, after all.
* * *
In a quiet dorm room in Whitman, a girl was having her weekly haircut, combing and shearing long strands of black to save for later. Her smartphone was playing YouTube videos of improbably melodic hand-cranked instruments, and the beep of the All-Campus Alert cut through the peace like a razor blade on harp strings. Pausing in her chore, she checked the mail. It was read through twice before she let it fall to her bed.
"Well, this makes things weird," she said to herself.
* * *
High up in Melville, a party had concluded at some point in the evening. The guest list had been somewhat vague and amorphous, and the current state of the bed and its inhabitants made it difficult to do a headcount. Only one phone had made it into the room, and the contents of its image folder would provide blackmail material for months if not years to come.
A slender, toned arm belonging to one Jane "Knock-Out" Chorley retrieved it from where it lay bleating, a finger tapping the screen to see what was the matter. "Ah, Karel?" she said. "Here's something you might find interesting..."
* * *
An honor guard of sorts stood outside a resting room at Doyle. Brita Baumann and Muliebris took their post seriously, allowing no one but Dr. Tennant herself in to see the poor girl under their protection. Nefertiti "Copacetic" Copeland had slept the night through, fitfully turning in her borrowed bed but never waking up completely.
Valentina had come to check on them, to see if their potential recruit was ready for a good talk about many things before going to work on the girlfriend. Instead, all her plans had been thrown into chaos by a single email alert.
"Oh, scheiss," Brita groaned when she saw the contents of that alert. "And she was the one I really liked!"
"What shall we do?" asked Val, hoping for an instant that her German friend might come to her senses on a few things.
"Get Copacetic out of here, let her recover at our base. And come up with a better story to tell her when she's ready to hear. We need to do damage control, schnell, before the fake-girls can get their nails back in her."
Val sighed inwardly. Ah well, Brita had at least hesitated before condemnation. Perhaps there was hope yet.
* * *
At a table on the first floor of the Crystal Hall, Francesco Persico was staring at his phone screen. The pit of his stomach had already sunk through the floor, and the empty space was quickly filling with bile. "Belin!" he spat. To his left, Shawn was grimacing as if he were sick. Everyone else at the table was very quiet. "Did you know about this?" he demanded.
The former ODS boy had his hands out in front, waving them frantically in self-defense. "No! Seriously, they never told me anything! And this... This just ain't right!"
"I shall have words with Mac then." When Fra moved, it was with the gravity of a tank, rolling out and building up speed. The Italian boy simply ignored all chairs and diners between himself and the exit. , pushing through a crowd of teens who were now all trying to figure out what the email alert was about.
* * *
Chessa Barnes burst into the common area of Poe to find her official twin brother stacking Jenga blocks. "We have an emergency here!" she shouted. "Put 'em down and let's go!"
Pat didn't spare even an eye roll as he teased a block from its position and placed it at the top of the stack. His audience of fellow freshmen was rapt with attention to each subtle movement. "In a moment," he told her. "I am about to win a bet."
"In your dreams," snorted Swerve, the buzz-cut speedster from the gay boys wing. On the couch beside him, Tiptoe and Bebop made various noises of agreement. "Three in a row, getting a tower to forty stories? Impossible."
"Seriously?" Chessa rolled her eyes in annoyance.
"It's a matter of honor between dudes," Swerve noted. "Of which you aren't one anymore."
She stuck her tongue out at him. "Yeah, I used to be three times the dude you are, by straight poundage. That hardly means I regret losing it all."
The camisole she'd chosen that day buttoned up front, but felt so smooth on her skin that she didn't have anything underneath. She was light enough on top to get away with that from time to time, though Myra might tease her.
Standing to behind and a bit to the side of Pat, she popped the front open in one swift motion, and flashed the audience. Gay those three might be, but her girls still caught their attention via the element of surprise. All it took was a single second, and the sound of falling Jenga bricks clattered through the air.
"Chessa..." Pat whined.
"Hush. You can scam them some other time." Chessa rebuttoned her camisole and held up her phone. "Like I said, we've got a situation here..."
She'd made her way across the quad with her head down and feet scrambling. Her chosen path avoided as many people as possible, but boys in particular made her take wide, circuitous routes. It was with a gasp of relief that she passed through the front door of Dickinson, past the familiar glare of Ms. Plimsoll at the morning desk, and up the stairs to her floor.
Her dorm room was tempting, with its soft, warm bed, but she'd spent too long cooped up in there already. Instead she grabbed a volume of an old favorite manga, Futaba-kun Change!, and settled into a comfy chair in the common room. Even without her exemplar-enhanced memory, she would have memorized most of the dialog by now. Perhaps she could talk Hikaru into helping her obtain the series in the original Japanese. It would be a challenge, but she needed something to take her mind off her life.
A chorus of electronic beeps sounded in the distance, tickling her ears but leaving little impression. She preferred the soft silence that followed. While it lasted.
"Is this you?" A smartpad was thrust in her face. Following the arm attached to the hand now brandishing the device, she found the face of one of the girls from the sophomore end of the floor. Alvina, or something like that. Calliope had never really been introduced to her. Flanking to either side were two other girls, forming a matched set of model exemplars: toned, lithesome, and improbably proportioned compared to the general population. Without any obvious mutant traits, they would certainly go far after graduation.
"Well?" the first girl demanded, shaking the smartpad at Calliope's nose.
"Well, what?" she asked in return. "I cannot see it when you wave it around like a feather-duster." Grabbing the device from Alvina's hand, Calliope looked down to find herself on the screen. She ran her fingers along the glassy surface, scrolling up to find a bright red announcement banner with CAMPUS ALERT in yellow letters. Beneath that was an introductory warning text, which her eyes immediately skipped over. The mail was laid out as a single infographic, leading the viewer naturally downward through each step of the author's argument.
There was Calliope's picture, current as of the start of the school year. The word FAKE was super-imposed over it like a red ink stamp. Scrolling down, she was treated to a reverse chronology of the past eight months of her life in photographic format, with each image marked and annotated to point out the progression of her BIT's influence. She could wince at the spring pictures, from when she'd been so in denial of the truth that she refused to recognize her own face in the mirror.
It ended with a photo she never thought she'd see again.
Her and Fra, at their last birthday together before genetics stepped in to make things weird. Two happy, smiling, nigh-identical faces above a cake, their names clearly spelled upon it. Beneath that photo was a time-lapse image which slowly morphed from her current face to her old one and back.
She didn't bother with the text at the end. Her eyes wouldn't focus.
"That is you!" Alvina declared. "See, girls?" she said to the others. More than just the original two had gathered around by now to see what the fuss was. "I told you it had to be legit. Calliope here... no, wait, Fabrizio here's a freak!"
"No... please..." she tried to say, her voice a kitten's whisper.
Alvina didn't even slow down. "A fucking boy in our dorm! What the hell is this school thinking? When my parents find out, they'll never let the administration forget this. Why, we've been taking showers with him. And you enjoyed it, didn't you?" the girl accused, poking at Calliope with her smartpad. "Does your little ghetto friend realize you still have a hard-on for the ladies, is that it?"
"Um, Allie, don't you think..." one of her friends started to say.
"In a moment, Harriet. I got one last word for the pervert here..." Alvina stood tall, looming over Calliope's chair. "If you so much as look at me the wrong way, I am going to find where you're hiding your balls and rip them out."
Now the other friend was looking green. "Geeze, Allie..."
"What, you want this fake girly-boy drooling over you in the shower? Huh?"
There was a knot in Calliope's chest, a thick spot of pain and heat right above her sternum that made it difficult to breathe or speak. She choked on it, coughing and wheezing in panic until she felt like vomiting. But instead of stomach bile and partially digested fruit salad, she spewed out a low, animalistic scream of fear. With the full force of her power behind it, that cry pounded at the ears and minds of everyone in the room, and the shrieks of a dozen more girls joined her in chorus.
Her eyes streaming with tears, she did not even see it when Ms. Plimsoll burst through the door with a small canister in hand. The thin pink mist it sent out spared no one, and a second later all was quiet again save for the thud of unconscious bodies hitting the floor.
He was the Ram. He was Arriete, the heavy tank of the Italian armed forces, rolling over and through all obstacles. His anger fueled him, building into a fiery rage reflected in the golden flicker of his PK around him. Every step left a dent in the ground of the quad. If he were thinking more clearly, he might have flown straight to Emerson, but this stormy parade of fury fit his mood better.
Macarthur Price was standing to the side of the dorm, waiting stoically with his hands in his pockets. With a perfunctory wave, he motioned to Fra and then walked towards the rear gardens behind Emerson. He knew what Fra was there for. One did not need empathic abilities such as Fio's to see that. The boy's grin spoke the language of the self-justified.
"Why!?" Fra demanded as he rounded the corner, throwing every angry thought he had into that single syllable.
"Why what?" came the reply through that grin. "I have no idea what you are talking about, F-dude."
"Do not call me that!" he shouted. "Do not act as if we are friends, if it is you who are behind this, this... You tricked me, used me, and then, then, you decide to hurt her for, for no reason at all! Why?"
Mac sneered. "No reason, huh." The boy snorted. "There was plenty of reason. She's a liar and a fraud, teasing us the way she did when there was nothing in it for us. So what, everyone knows what she is now? Good. Then everyone will know to avoid her lying little ass."
"You... you..." Fra's hands were trembling.
"Though to be fair, if she were really who she said she was, I wouldn't mind some of that ass. Not at all. Why'd you think we hung out so much, huh?"
Fra answered the question with his fist, now sheathed in a golden veil of light that magnified its strength tenfold.
The punch caught Mac straight in the face, and in a perfect world it would have knocked him out in one hit. In a far less perfect but certainly more satisfying world, it would have decapitated him. Instead, Fra's golden PK met and was caught by a flare of red, slowing it and bleeding its force away until the hit was little more than a tap. The red energy retreated under Mac's skin, delineating thick veins of force across his muscles.
"Was that the best you got?" the boy replied. Stepping in, he brought a red-swathed hand to bear on Fra, slamming him through the air and into the dirt several meters away. "Idiot. Haven't you learned anything from this school yet? Don't attack unless you're sure what you're up against."
He was gasping for air. "Wh... what?"
"PK 2, Energizer 3," Mac said idly as he walked up to where Fra lay. "Lacks kick, doesn't it?" A glowing red boot of energy was introduced to the Italian's rib cage. "Could be anything, really. Kinetic force absorption and redistribution, now that's a detail worth knowing." After one last boot to the face, the boy leaned down to say, "We weren't ever friends, but now at least it's official."
"Mac..." he tried to mumble through loosened teeth.
"No, you don't get to call me that. Only my friends do. You call me Backlash." With a mocking laugh, the young man formerly known as Mac walked off in search of a late breakfast, leaving the other Persico twin lying in the dust. Fra's vision dimmed out before he turned the corner.
Well, she would have been lying to herself if she didn't expect some sort of repercussions for gassing an entire room full of children who were nominally under her care. The woman known variously as Elspeth Plimsoll, Deirdre da Valera, and Patience knew that the ends rarely cared about the means, and often enough there wasn't enough time to worry about that sort of thing anyway. A problem presented itself and she dealt with it. That was the sort of thing she'd been trained to do, as her CV well attested.
It remained to be seen if she had any future in academics or pedagogy. She somewhat doubted either to be the case.
Mrs. Sinclair, senior dorm mother of Dickinson, was a round, happy-looking woman, and it was not entirely an act. Now, however, the woman's more serious side shone through. "If you could explain yourself, please, Jolene."
That wasn't a name she'd used in many a year, and she had no idea how Mrs. Sinclair might know it. Yet know it she did, saving it for times that were truly just between the two of them.
"I received the message on my phone and immediately went in search of Ms. Persico. I found her surrounded by confused young women, one of whom was openly belligerent and provocative. I stepped in when I saw that Ms. Persico's control was slipping, and her power was going wild." She met the other woman's eyes. "I have seen what happens when empathy runs amok, and have no interest in seeing it again. So I did what was needed to contain the situation."
"By dosing them all with sleep gas."
She shrugged. "Cuckoo Channel's Knock-Out #3. Potent, easily aerosolised and deployed, just as easily dissipated. The best tool for the job at hand. They should all awaken within ten to fifteen minutes of exposure."
Mrs. Sinclair had the look of a woman who could put a name to her own headache, and that name was Jolene. "One would think you were prepared for this sort of eventuality," the dorm mother said.
"And one would be right," she said in reply. "You saw the report on the incident yesterday, yes?"
"What there was of it. Security's darning a sock with more holes than thread."
A grimace formed on her case. "It is what it is. In my, ah, other capacity, I had to broker a plea deal last night, and that's the only thing saving that little scoundrel's neck after this newest debacle."
"Oh, they already know the boy who sent the email. Turned himself in, practically."
Her head shook in disbelief. "Does this boy have any expertise in counter-electronics? I doubt it." She sighed and muttered the word 'patsy' under her breath. "But what of Ms. Persico?"
Mrs. Sinclair nodded her approval of the change in topic. "She's resting in Doyle. They should let her friends in soon, and her brother's supposed to be coming up from Boston already."
"Good... good. That's nice to hear." She found herself relaxing. "But what is to be done for later?"
A warm, plump hand patted her own. "Not to worry. The assistant headmaster is already making arrangements."
Normally when working in security and law enforcement, one was grateful when the culprit was incompetent enough to give it all up willingly. Right now Officer Pruitt was sitting across from a young man who was looking not nearly as nervous as he should, considering there was a handwritten confession on the table with his personal John Hancock on it.
It should've been an open and shut case, a true slam dunk, if Pruitt's every instinct weren't telling him it was all a fraud. Unfortunately, his gut wasn't getting a vote on the matter.
"Okay, let's go over this one last time," he told young Rutherford Grimsby, a.k.a. Contact High. "You decided to target Ms. Persico because..."
"She embarrassed me at the dorm mixer," Rutherford said in too calm a voice. "I tried to make some cool moves on her, and she wouldn't play along. When I tried to change her mind, she and her friends got me kicked out of the party. So I guess I was a little angry about that. Then her brother accidentally let slip the truth about her at a club meeting, and I just had to do something about it. Dating's hard!" he cried. "And we don't need freaks like that making things more difficult!"
Officer Pruitt had his reservations about the state of Rutherford's love life. "And the attack on her the other day..."
"Not the best of ideas," the boy admitted tonelessly. "We just wanted to warn her off using her fake feminine wiles on us, that we were on to her, and things got out of control."
"...I see." The officer wasn't sure what he was seeing, but it was bigger than the sprout sitting in his pot. "And this last item..." He gestured to the evidence bag on the table, with its small, round devise inside.
Rutherford gave a noncommital shrug, and it took most of Pruitt's self-control not to punch the boy in the face. "A toy from last year," he said. "My friend Jack got in trouble for playing around with them, so he destroyed them all, but I managed to hold onto the last one. Figured it might help my game enough that I wouldn't be tempted to use my nails so much. Too bad the little dancer girl had a bad reaction to my one-two combo."
He might've been talking about sports scores. If Pruitt hadn't heard it nearly word-for-word twice already, he'd never have believed anyone could have the chutzpah to even say that sort of thing out loud. After a few more minor, less incriminating verifications, he left the kid to stew while he conferred with his colleagues in the next room.
"Well?" he asked. "Can we prove that he's talking out his ass?"
Officer Canterbury was observing the kid on the camera. "Stupid as it is, he seems to believe it, or has been made to believe it. You know where my money is on that score."
"Not that it makes a difference," said Sergeant Lafayette. "Word's come down that we take his confession at face value and shove him, not it, where he belongs."
"Word from where?" asked Canterbury.
"Verified adminstrative codes, anonymous. Someone managed a plea deal, I'm thinking."
Pruitt could almost spit. "Sometimes I fucking hate this school."
"Wouldn't have happened under Carson," Canterbury said darkly.
The sergeant was shaking his head. "You know that's not exactly true. The Thawne kid managed to weasel out of it last year with damn near the same devise in action. Those back channels exist for a reason, no matter what we think of them personally. The situation wouldn't have gotten as far as it did to begin with, but that's all. But since we have the new Headmaster..."
"People are stretching the limit," said Pruitt.
"Students and faculty both," Lafayette agreed. "And note that the Headmaster is out of town this weekend."
Canterbury's arms were crossed and her lips were postboxed. "So... we let it go at that?"
"We get our facts straight," said the sergeant. "And our ducks in a row, ready for shooting. As soon as anyone makes an inquiry into this farce, we lock and load. And... Canterbury, the Amazons like you, right?"
"They tolerate me," she said with a shrug.
"Close enough. Give the Hernandez girl a discreet note that we will definitely act on any incidents of retaliation that we see."
"And the ones we don't see..."
"Let that go unsaid." The man paused for a thought. "And make it clear that the Persico girl is off-limits as well. Not that I think they'd do anything on that front when the Thawne kid's such a nice target, but..."
Canterbury saluted. "Understood."
Cally had an angel's face when she slept, peaceful and serene. Her hair spread out like a halo upon the infirmary bed's pillow, the color of burnished mahogany streaked with thick veins of gold. There was no longer any hit of the greenish pallor caused by the knock-out gas, but she still wasn't waking up. Dr. Tennant figured it for nervous exhaustion, given the circumstances.
Erica could only sit by her bedside and stare in dismay.
"Hey, hey, cheer up," said the girl sitting on the other side. Vickie "Power Stunt" Stone was one of Erica and Cally's first Whateley friends, from before they'd even arrived on campus. Her cousin Diane worked with Cally's brother Claudio, and the three girls were introduced back in early August. None of the explosions had been their fault, but they'd survived them together. Erica felt bad about not spending more time with the peppy little devisor since the start of the school year.
"Wish I knew how..." she said. "It's just, just... why didn't she tell us?" A long sigh ended in a sob. "Why didn't she tell me?"
"Some stuff's just hard to put into words," said Vicky. "Well, so I've been told, at least. Oh, hey. Did she just move?"
That she had, turning her head to the left and quivering her eyelids. After a moment's hesitation, her eyes opened completely. "Ah... hello," Cally said weakly.
"Good morning, again," Erica replied. Then she threw herself across the bed, sobbing into Cally's hair as she hugged her roommate. "Don't, don't scare me like that," she whispered in the girl's ear.
Cally's face was turning bright red -- though from embarrassment or from the weight of Erica's arm across her chest, it was difficult to say. She squirmed and mumbled weak protestation in Italian that only she could understand. "You, you are taking this... I do not know how to say it... well?"
"Well?" Erica sniffled. "I've been worrying myself sick inside because I knew there was something going on and I couldn't figure it out and you weren't talking..."
"I think she means the part about being a former boy," Vicky suggested.
"Oh, that." She moved back to her chair, rubbing her eyes. "Um. Well. Huh. This is going to sound really off-topic, but did I ever tell you about Operation Snowflake?" The look on her roommate's face was answer enough. "Well, er, it goes back to the very beginning, when I was stuck inside my crazy Nazi cousin's secret base with all the teen girl recruits. And me, having recently chugged what I thought was a super-soldier serum and only then realizing the side effects. So, um, where is the best place to hide a snowflake? In with all the other snowflakes. Makes sense, right?" Her sniffles were returning with a vengeance, and she wasn't trying to stop them. "And I, I never th-thought I'd find another s-snowflake like me doing the same thing, yanno, just trying to fit in and never letting on that you used to... used to be..." She wanted to say more, but the last words were drowned out.
Cally had to take a moment to parse all that, the cogwheels in her head grinding towards a conclusion, and Erica could see the very instant the light bulb clicked on. "You mean, you too...?"
After a long moment of awkward silence, Vicky delivered a load of giggles from the other side of the bed. "Oh me, oh my, no wonder Diane and Claudio were so happy you two got along last summer!"
"Yes..." The look on Cally's face did not bode well for her older brother. "He must have known, si? We shall have to discuss this when he arrives at... what time is it? 11:00?" Her voice dropped back down to worried tones. "He should be here by now?"
"Maybe he's lurking outside?" Vicky suggested. The devisor then tested her hypothesis by sticking her head out the door into the infirmary's corridor. "Oh! I see him! Hey, Claudio, get your keister over here! You got some 'splaining to do!"
The two roommates giggled as a contrite Claudio shuffled into the room. "Ciao, Fio," he said. "Ciao, Erica, Vicky. Nice to see you all again."
"Chow, dude," said Vicky. "I'm gonna call Diane to let her know what's up, and see if I can get her to divulge anything else. We'll talk!" she promised the other girls. "Find a good window in your schedules, or just come visit me down in the labs. Whatever!"
Claudio waited until the bubbly teen was well and gone before he said anything. "Ah, well, I suppose the two of you have realized..."
"That you withheld sensitive and critical information?" Erica suggested.
He had the good grace to wince. "We, ah, had hoped that one of you would have confided to the other..."
"I was doing my best to move on without dwelling on it too much," said Cally. "This high school life has too much drama as it is!"
Erica rolled her shoulders. "Um, I did tell someone... if dogs count?"
"What, you told Cookie?"
"Pup's a great listener!"
A polite clap interrupted them. Claudio's smile was broad and friendly. "It is good to see you ladies get along so well," he said. "And that you are feeling better as well, Fio. I must check on our brother and then speak with someone in charge, but we shall have a nice dinner before I leave, okay?"
"If you must..." Cally gave Cookie a run for pup's money in the sad puppy eyes competition. "Please, go yell at Fra, loudly and creatively."
"I will," Claudio promised. "As soon as he wakes up. He's down the hall from here. Someone pummeled him to within an inch of his life."
Just the other day she had repudiated her twin brother, disowned him, declared him no relation of hers. Every word had borne the weight of her anger and despair at his betrayal, and she'd meant every last syllable of it. There was nothing new to say to Fra, she felt -- at least, nothing she would ever want to say. So all she could do was stare in silence at the bed now occupied by her former twin.
It was almost exactly the same as the one she'd recently occupied, but it seemed so much smaller with Fra's body in it. His face was a mess, already turning the ugly purple of mashed grapes. His shirt was off, and bandages went all the way around his chest.
Next to the bed, a junior-high boy with lime-green hair sat, looking rather embarrassed as he continued to hold Fra's limp hand.
"Ciao, Bryon," she said finally. Her brother was certainly about to ask, but she pre-emptively answered, "He's a healer of sorts."
"Healing factor acceleration," the boy provided. "As long as I'm holding his hand." Now he grimaced, his cheeks turning pink.
Erica patted him on the shoulder. "Well, keep up the good work."
"Yeah..." Bryon 'Meatball' van Deen didn't seem too enthused about it. "Er, um, Calliope? I'd, um, like to apologize, um, for anything I might've said this past month. It, um, must've been weird, and, um..."
She rolled her eyes. "It would be weird for anyone, and not just because of... whatever. Please keep that in mind." Turning on a heel, she stepped back out of the room. "I have seen, and now I am done. Ciao, Claudio. When he wakes up, tell him that I still refuse to speak with him."
Erica followed her out, rubbing her stomach gingerly but not saying anything about what had just happened. "Where to now?" the blonde girl asked eventually. "Back to the dorm, or...?"
"I wish to find Neff," Calliope said. "I've not heard from her since the picnic, and that is worrying."
First, however, they had to get her officially checked out of Doyle. Dr. Tennant examined her eyes with a bright light, massaged her temples, took her pulse, and finally asked a long series of questions that she'd rather not have answered. As her secret was out, however, she had little choice but to detail the chronology of her mutation, of her unwilling transition, and the ways she'd come to cope with it.
All throughout, Erica held her hand in support.
"Well then, as far as I am concerned, that's all sorted out," the doctor said. "The research wonks will of course be ordering up more tests, because that's just what they do, but all I care is that the reality matches the information in your file. Anything you'd like to ask?"
Erica raised her free hand. "Do you have anything for cramps? Having a not-so-good morning, if you know what I mean."
A wince of sympathy was shared by all. Dr. Tennant wasted no time in finding some exemplar-grade painkillers, and then they were free to go.
It was a quiet walk back to the dorm, though hardly peaceful. Empathy was a curse at times, and none more than now, where she could feel the unpleasant or unhappy thoughts pouring in like broken melodies from all directions. Everyone on campus had seen that email, it seemed, and few were happy. She clung to Erica's side as much for the girl's positive vibes as for her physical support.
And then as they approached Dickinson, she found the face she'd been searching for.
"Neff!" she cried. "Where did you go? I was so worried..." For all that the day had been among the worst in her life -- and it wasn't even noon yet! -- a smile from the dark-skinned dancer would have brought things back to happy and good.
There was no smile on that face. "Where've I been? Girl, I was kidnapped, brain-scrambled and molested, and where were you? Huh? I spent all night in Doyle, and did you come to see me? No! I had messages sent to you, and did you reply to 'em? No!"
"Messages? What? I, I didn't..."
"Zactly. You didn't do anything. That ain't copacetic. And then I wake up to this new shit, this big reveal that you've been lying to me this whole time? That hella ain't copacetic. What, you trying to get your freak on with the ladies because you really are a freak? Is that it?"
"I... I..." Caught out in the open, with Neff's words shouted for all to hear, Calliope could hardly move. Not forward, not away, just trembling in place while words knotted in her chest and threatened to spill out in another siren blast of sorrow.
Erica was at her side this whole time, a hand on her shoulder. "Dunno what you're talking about," said the blonde girl, "but Calliope was passed out all night from nerves, and I know for a fact she didn't get any messages delivered before 10 this morning."
"Sure, take her side. Huh, funny; I thought your Nazi grandpa would hated trannies."
Her roommate's face never changed from its usual pale shade, but to Calliope's empathy the girl was a symphony of angry red. "Great-grandfather, actually, she replied, "and I would not have agreed with him on many topics. Are you finished?"
"Finished? I am through. Over. Finito. Capisce?" Neff was shouting at Calliope. "It took the worst night of my fucking life to make me realize who my real friends are, my real sisters of soul." The dancer turned with a grace born of fury, walking to a nearby group of girls. Belatedly, Calliope realized that Val, Brita, and a half-dozen other Amazons had been standing there watching the confrontation. They welcomed Neff into their ranks and marched off.
Only Val bothered to look back at Calliope, her expression one of wistful regret at how the world turned. The girl from Venezuela had her arm around Neff's waist as they walked away.
Milena arguably had more important things to do that day than sitting at her dorm's front desk. Brunch, for one. But when the assistant dorm mom had to step out and have a chat with the senior dorm mom over a certain use of crowd-control gas, and one was asked to fill in for her, one really could not say no. On top of that, she knew more about the situation than most other students or faculty at the moment, which made it really hard to ignore when Cally burst through the front doors, weeping and sobbing.
She had to thank the moms' foresight. In a blink she was by the Italian's side, not bothering to go through the intermediate steps of standing, opening the front desk gate, or walking the three yards of distance. The only thing to mark her passing was a relatively loud pop as air displaced.
Also skipped were all those steps involving words, going straight into big, quiet hugs, with a few gentle pats on the head for good measure.
"Cally!" Right on cue, the roommate rushed in. Milena pulled her into the group hug, holding onto Cally as she sobbed.
The RA's eyes met all onlookers with a defiant challenge. No one dared interfere, though a few joined in for a moment of solidarity. The junior high foursome of Physique, Magique, Acolyte, and Tek Witch made it a rather large hug for several heartbeats. Finally, when Milena was reasonably certain the empath wasn't about to have a further breakdown, they shuffled over to the sofa. The junior partners of the hugathon went off to get waffles, leaving her with the duo from Room 203.
"So I, like, know everything up to half an hour ago," she began. "But what's the newest drama?"
"Amazons stole her girlfriend," Erica explained on behalf of the still-nonverbal Calliope.
"What." The word escaped through gritted teeth.
"With a public denunciation just now." Erica was still hugging her roommate. "Neff said something about being in Doyle all night. Did you hear anything about it?"
Her Lennon specs were sliding down again, and nearly fell off when she shook her head. "No... Neff's on Panoptikon's side, so maybe she heard, but..." A middle finger pushed the specs back in place. "That's suspicious ay-eff. And most likely nothing to be done about it... damnit!" She would have to pay her former friend Kammie a visit in the near future, she decided.
The front bell rang. Standing at her abandoned post were two young men... at first glance. She knew the older one well enough to understand that things weren't always so neatly described. The younger one was well-dressed, with an olive complexion and hair that varied between brown and not-brown under the lamps. Large eyes seemed to shift from dark green to nearly violet as they turned towards the foyer's sofa. "Excuse me," he said. "We're looking for... there she is. Calliope?"
"Who're you?" said Milena. "I recognize Papi -- oh, and hey to you -- but we've never been introduced."
"That's Pat," Erica provided.
The young man bowed dramatically. "Pat Barnes of the Poe Cottage Barneses, at your service. Or rather, at Calliope's service right now."
"And I," said the other student with a faint accent, "am Paponthanai Sutasanachinda. Call me Papi. Everyone does." Their outfit could have been a Japanese-style school uniform, if it weren't also made out of the same sort of fabric as a traditional China dress. The swirls of gold thread on crimson stood out in the Dickinson foyer. "We are here on behalf of the Whateley Transgender Support Alliance."
Milena raised an eyebrow. "Never heard of it."
"That would be because it was only formed about an hour ago and we're the only members," Pat said. "As you might have noticed, this school has an odd history when it comes to students finding themselves suddenly different, so as the two most brazenly genderqueer students in attendance, the administration has asked us to represent. It's about time, really," he added in an annoyed voice.
"Though we're waiting to hear from Tia del Bosque and a couple of the Melville RAs to see if they're interested," Papi added.
Tucked between Milena and Erica, Calliope sniffled. "Is, is it about me?"
Pat took a seat in the chair across from them, crossing his legs carefully and leaning in to speak. "In all honesty, if it weren't you, it would probably be someone else later on. I wasn't kidding when I said this school had a history. Check the records for some past students code-named Reach, Biohazard, Phase, Jobe... Oh, there is quite a list. Some of them were spectacularly high profile in their time here. Even if it's a one in a thousand chance, those are still really high odds that someone's getting changed in any given year."
"So, in other words..." Erica began.
"The odds are good that that the goods are odd," Papi said with a wink. They joined Pat on the other sofa. "But with all that said, it's time for business. Calliope, we've been asked to fetch you for a meeting. Nothing bad," they were quick to assure, "but there are some things that the administration would like to go over with you."
Milena fixed the two Poesies with a stern look. "Not sure I, like, wanna let her out of my sight right now."
"And I wouldn't blame you for that," Pat agreed. "But I believe you're about to be notified of a mandatory floor meeting on the very subject of Calliope here."
"I'll be with her," Erica said. "And we both know Pat well enough to trust him. C'mon," she said to her roommate. "Let's get you into some fresh clothes. If that's not a problem?"
Papi raised his hands in a gesture of understanding. "We shall just hang out down here. Don't take too long, though."
The hall was deserted as she hustled Cally back to their room. Thank heaven for small favors, at least. It didn't take long for the Italian to change into something less tear-stained -- just enough time for Erica to retrieve an item or two she felt might be useful soon.
With Cally in her Sunday best -- a demure white dress that made Erica reconsider her own current outfit as being too grubby -- they set out from Dickinson with Pat in the lead. The boy had a keen eye for what paths to take, having them avoid some groups out on the quad based on some metric which she assumed was tied to his empathic abilities. Whatever the reason, no one got in their way as they walked to the administrative building.
Erica had only been there once before, when a teacher had brought her up before the headmaster himself over a misunderstanding. She simultaneously felt more and less reassured this time around. Following Pat and Papi up a flight of stairs and down a corridor, soft carpeting absorbing every footfall, she could feel her nerves surge and fall. On her arm, Cally shivered with uncertainty.
Their eventual goal was a standard meeting room, nicely appointed because it was official, but otherwise little different from other places she'd been debriefed in. The table was set up for two people, so she dragged over a third chair from the corner. As they took their seats, she scanned the room, noting one obvious camera and a few spots where she was sure her uncle wouldn't place any devices, because they were easy enough to identify. That left plenty of the room she couldn't be sure about.
A man came in through the other door. It took her a moment to recognize Falcon, formerly of STAR League and now assistant headmaster of Whateley. He looked older now than he had at the opening assembly in September, which may have said something about which occupation was more stressful.
"Ah, Ms., er, von Abendritter," he said, registering her presence with some surprise. "You should be at a floor meeting right now."
"I think I'm right where I need to be," she replied. Cally's hand was still tight around hers. "Is there a problem?"
Falcon had the look of a man who had let duty override embarrassment. Like the stereotypical dad giving a talk about the so-called facts of life. "Well, as a matter of fact, ahem, there were some things which I need to discuss with Ms. Persico here..."
"And you can discuss them with me here, easy enough."
"Ahem, and some of it may be of a confidential nature which, um, should be kept to as few people as possible."
Her eyes narrowed. "Few people, yes... A thousand to one odds, Pat said."
"I don't doubt he meant it as a joke, but enough people around here have apparently changed genders that one can actually make a ballpark estimate. One in a thousand should just about come to one incident every two or three years, for a school of this size... but that only counts the incidents at school that everyone might hear about. I'm willing to bet that the odds are a lot lower than that."
The assistant headmaster's face was a study in neutrality, which in itself made her more certain of the conclusions her brain was spinning out. After all, 'I can neither confirm nor deny' was simply another way of saying 'yes' with less liability.
"And you mention confidentiality," she pressed on. "Whose? Cally's not got much left to protect, and we're sharing everything anyway. There's got to be others, kids who haven't been outed like Cally and Tia, or aren't willing to be open like Pat. But to support a sister, they're willing to let her know about them, right? I'm just in the way."
With a scowl, she lifted her bag onto the table and pulled out a folder. "You've read my file, right?" she asked Falcon.
"Yes, actually. The most recent one, even. Why?"
The scowl morphed its way upward into a smirk. "My apologies to you and the Headmaster, but Uncle Adolf was not able to provide the complete file for your records. It was missing three pages." She slid the folder over to his side of the table. "These pages."
He picked it up carefully, but even so a loose photograph managed to slip out, flipping lightly down to the table and crashing with a thunderous silence. Erica knew that face so well, though she hadn't seen it in four months, and never would again, in the flesh.
A boy, maybe thirteen years of age, with messy brown hair and ears that stuck out. The lines of his face suggested a family connection to her, but the strongest link was his left eye, a mismatched brilliant blue. His brownish right eye was from his dad's side.
Cally was craning her neck to see it better.
Erica took a deep breath. It was now or never. "I was born Eric Schroeder, though all other details of my life other than name and original gender do match what's in my file. Have you heard of human chimerism? People born from merged clumps of embryonic cells, bearing two different sets of DNA? That was me. You can even see it in my old eyes, with the heterochromia. When I chugged my Opa's serum, it went to work optimizing all my genes, like it was designed to. It's just that one of my sets of DNA was a lot more optimized than the other, and it quickly overwrote the rest of me."
A sharp pain in her belly reminded her that her primary DNA still wasn't finished with the job, either. It did prompt her into silence, though, which it was the Falcon's turn to break.
"I see..." he said as his eyes scanned the pages she'd provided. "I would ask why you didn't include this in your school application, but I assume it to be the usual list of reasons." A moment was spared for an annoyed sigh. "Sometimes I think that if we just ended this whole charade, we'd suddenly find dozens more changelings who simply never realized that their situation was not unique."
"So I'm right in my conclusions?" Erica asked.
"Yes. You're giving us quite a headache now. We already had one emergency meeting this morning over Ms. Persico, and now..." His head cocked to the left, listening to a silent voice by means Erica couldn't even guess at. "Well, in for a penny, in for a pound, apparently. Let's start at the beginning."
Erica and Cally put on their best listening faces. The blonde girl stayed stiff and serious in her chair while her roommate leaned into her.
"As you know," Falcon began, "this school was founded fifty-some years ago to provide a place for those who were too different for the world at large. As it turned out, the more things change, the more they stay the same, and certain prejudices take generations to remove. A safe place was founded for those who were different in ways society frowned upon, beyond the obvious mutations."
"You're talking about Poe," Erica guessed. "I always thought the 'crazy house' story didn't hold water. We know too many Poesies who are saner than the general population."
"That's a bit of an exaggeration..."
"Ahem, I regularly spar with Ratel. Need I say more?" As expected, the assistant headmaster's face went deadpan at the mention of the honey badger girl.
He cleared his throat. "Yes. Point made. Ahem. So a cottage was established specifically for the gay and lesbian population of the school, and with them a small number of students such as yourselves whose gender or sexuality were altered in some way by mutation. Or devises, or magic, or assorted other," he added.
"Fortunately, times have changed, and the outside world has improved in regards to most such things. Unfortunately, changelings are still the most vulnerable of the groups. And... if I am to be honest, the protections and methods we have developed over the years may have done their job too well. Much effort was put into keeping the very existence of changelings a complete secret, so that no one could suspect and attack their fellow students over a perceived problem, but time and again that lack of public knowledge has meant that children such as yourselves fall into the cracks and never realize there's a place to turn to for help."
Cally stirred, sitting up and letting go of Erica's hand for a moment. "Will I... will we need to change cottages now?" she asked.
"That is an option, though it's not often done. Another complication of keeping things so secret," he explained. "If we move every transgendered student to Poe as they are discovered, it becomes too obvious and the entire dorm population is made suspect. Some are even placed in other cottages on purpose, so as not to draw attention to the secret. So at this very moment, your entire floor is locked in a meeting room not unlike this one, having a long talk about you. Apparently most of the discussion is a shouting match between that girl who confronted you earlier this morning, versus most everyone else. The faculty moderator has indicated that it's looking as good as it ever may for you."
The Italian relaxed. "That is, it is good to hear."
"So, are you ready to meet everyone?" Falcon asked.
"What, the other, um, changelings?" Erica looked to Cally, who nodded nervously. "Um, sure. Let's go."
Falcon stood. "Well then, follow me." He opened the door for them, to reveal a grinning Pat Barnes standing at attention in the corridor. "Is everything ready?" the assistant headmaster asked the boy.
"Yes indeed, sir!" Pat saluted. "It's going to be so fun to see the looks on your faces..." he added to the girls.
Erica raised an eyebrow. "I assume we actually know several of these people, besides you, Tia, and Papi, and never realized?"
"Oh you have no idea..." As Pat stood there grinning, his official twin sister slipped through a door down the hall and ran over. Chessa Barnes was dressed up, sort of, in a pink poodle skirt with matching stockings. Her coppery hair was tied into a pony tail. "Though some may be less surprising than others," the boy added.
"Yay!" shouted his twin, hooking an arm around Erica and Cally each and delivering a skillful double-hug. "Sorry, but I just couldn't wait!"
"You used to be a boy?" The surprise in Erica's voice accented the question perfectly.
"Technically I still am," she replied. "Androgen insensitivity. If you did a genetic check, I'd be the boy and Pat would be the girl. What a world, right?"
Cally had her mouth open to say something, shut it, then opened it again to finally ask, "Ah, is Marcus...?"
"Nah, little bro's just a regular basket case," Chessa asserted. "Gotta keep the dorm's rep going somehow."
The ersatz twins pulled the roommates along, with the assistant headmaster following mutely behind. It simply was not his time to talk, everyone seemed to understand. Pat filled in the necessary details.
"I wasn't joking about the Whateley Transgender Support Alliance," Pat explained. The administration wants, or rather needs, a few of us in the open so anyone with hidden problems of that sort are able to find someone to reach out to."
"I... I was tempted, a few times," Cally admitted. "When you told us about yourself, but..."
Erica finished for her: "But it's a big, scary step to take."
"Amen to that," Pat said. "We're still trying to get a few upperclassmen on board, and we've yet to get a hold of Ping-Pong in Melville or Damsel in Hawthorne, but you're about to meet the mostly full and completely secret version of the Alliance." He knocked on the door. "Are you ready?"
Two deep breaths flew from the roommates' lungs. Cally clung to Erica's arm as Pat eased the door open and they peered inside. The meeting room was larger than they'd expected. And fuller.
"Thousand to one odds, huh," Erica said to Pat out of the corner of her mouth. The boy merely grinned and bowed, sweeping his arms around in an invitation to enter.
"Cosa!" Cally let loose her grip on Erica's arm, pushing into a group hug that consisted of literally half their own team, the Mutant Mayhem Machine. "Laura! Bailey! Morgana! Bianca!" She glanced around. "Ah, I half-expected Tanya to be here as well."
"Near as we can tell, that one is exactly who she says she is," said one of the few adults in the room, a tall brunette in a serious looking suit. "And trust me, we did a quick but thorough check not so long ago."
"Find anything?" Falcon asked.
"A few oddities that may be leads, or may not." The woman shrugged, then patted the assistant headmaster on the cheek. "No fears, darling. We shall let you know before any more surprises erupt. Hopefully."
Morgana caught Erica by the hand and dragged her along. "Come on! There's people to meet! This here's Flower, and Peregrino, and..." There was a whirlwind tour around the room, as they were introduced or reintroduced to a significant portion of the Poe freshman floor, multiple RAs, the three sophomores who'd been in on Cally's rescue the day before, several upperclassmen, and even two teachers. The first, Tabby Cat, was actually Falcon's wife, much to their surprise. The other, Eldritch, lived up to her adjective with weird and unsettling tattoos that looked more etched than inked into her skin.
The party settled down a little after the initial burst of excitement. Cally got to publicly thank Celerity, Ping, and Star Sentry for their help, gushing with emotions that spilled out to everyone in earshot. This prompted another round of hugs, with a girl named Noah holding on the longest. On the other side of the room, Erica listened in on a conversation between a handful of the boys present: Wilder, a sophomore named Mganga, and a junior named Satchel. The older boys were trying to keep Wilder calmed down while he freaked out over girl problems. Even if she hadn't already known he was the target of the affections of one Rachel Altus, the boy would have had her sympathy. Dating was hard enough when you were playing by the original rules!
Tia was bouncing in place while talking to Chessa Barnes and a junior named Decibelle. Their animated gestures could've been about anything, but there was no mistaking when Tia bent her ears back and tensed herself up into a perfect imitation of a certain Amazon with a cork up her butt. Laughter again spilled across the room.
"How are you holding up?" she asked Cally when the social tides pushed them back together. "Not gonna have another freak-out anytime soon?"
"No, no..." The Italian's smile was radiant, and the warmth shone through her voice. "Why should I? After all this time, after this belin weekend, I am finally home."
"We are," Erica tutted, giving her yet another hug. "Somehow, we made it together."
Looking around, finding two dozen or more people who really got it, who understood without having to ask uncomfortable questions, who simply were there for each other now... This was something she never would have imagined -- never in her wildest dreams. She'd asked Cally how she was doing, but Erica was the one feeling more than she could handle.
And when it all came together, when the sheer force of happiness overwhelmed her and knocked her into a comfortable chair with tears in her eyes, there were people who understood, who could hold her hand and be strong for her instead. There was no need to hold back, to hide. Operation Snowflake was put on hold.
Just as Cally had said: they were home.