----Monday, October 3rd, 2016
The alarm clock buzzed in the dorm room she shared with her friend Erica. Its happy little bleet, like an innocent electric sheep, heralded a bright new day full of excitement and adventure.
How she hated it.
This was no fault of the device, of course. The alarm clock was only doing its job, but Fiorella 'Calliope' Persico was in no mood for anything at that moment -- except perhaps for lying in bed for the rest of the day -- but that was an activity the alarm clock was designed explicitly to prevent.
"Hey," said Erica from the other bed. The blonde girl did not bother to say "Good morning," because it wasn't. They both knew that. "Did you sleep okay?"
"Reasonably," Calliope admitted. In truth she did not recall much beyond a lingering anxiety and perhaps a chase scene, but after the past weekend, 'bad' was relative. Unbidden memories of the Saturday before emerged from the folds of memory, and Calliope had to smack her forehead several times to dislodge them.
"Hey now, none of that." Erica was out of bed and prying the offending hand from its target. "Let's get our showers in early before everyone else is awake."
She was slow to respond, more to prolong the feeling of her roommate's touch than anything else. "No morning routine?" she asked.
"Not today, at least," Erica promised. "But we should hurry."
There was little worth arguing in that. One thing Calliope did not feel the need for that morning was excess social contact with anyone. It was so easy for her to let Erica lead her by the hand down the hall to the showers.
The line was short, but unfortunately not short enough. Some of the girls stared at her curiously, as if their gaze could peel back the layers which time had laid upon her soul to reveal the Fabrizio who had once been. Erica glared back at them for her until they gave it up in embarrassment.
"Well look what the cat dragged in." And then there was Alvina, the girl who'd nearly assaulted her after yesterday's revelation. Who looked ready to assault her again. Of course, she would choose today of all days to be an early riser. "Already got yourself a new girlfriend, pretty boy?"
"Alas," said Erica, "I'm as straight as a shotgun barrel, so we must settle for being platonic life partners."
"What?" It did not seem to be a good hour of the morning for Alvina's brain. The way the girl shook it around in her cranium likely did not help. "The hell you talking about? No, never mind; doesn't matter. That thing steps into my showers, I'm kicking it out."
Her roommate was not the tallest girl in the dorm, actually a few centimeters shorter than Calliope herself, but when Erica von Abendritter stepped up there were few who could push her around. That was quite literal, in fact; the blonde girl was denser than she looked, and it was all hyper-compact muscle mass. When Alvina tried to shove Erica aside, it was like someone pushing a brick wall.
"I'm sorry; you were saying?" Sarcasm dripped from Erica's voice. "Your showers? I think the school would disagree. But if it's that important to you..." A dismissive wave flowed from a pale hand. "Go ahead. Take your shower. We can wait. There's no need to ruin the experience for anyone."
"Too late for that," growled Alvina. There was a golden glimmer along her arm as she backhanded Erica. A short concussive blast followed.
Calliope was the first to admit she'd rather a lover than a fighter be. Her roommate was otherwise. In the half-second of the strike, impact, and ka-boom, Erica's arm rose to block in one fluid motion, sending Alvina's slap into the air, where a silvery veil of PK force caught at the golden glimmer as it released its payload.
And suddenly the RA was there. Milena lived up to the moniker of Sister Secret, her movements and very presence an unknown up to the point where she forced her way between combative floormates.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" said Milena. "It's a little early in the day for that."
"I'd agree," said Erica, "but Allie here apparently wanted a warm-up before showers."
"What I want is your freak of a roommate out of our showers!"
"Oh, so it's our showers now..."
The RA's sigh was long and melodramatic. "Ladies, please. First, no one can be banned from the showers, like, ever. If you wanna, like, voluntarily abstain for personal reasons, Alvina, then you do you. Cally, get in there, wash up, relax a bit."
"Allie, after yesterday's little floor meeting, do you really wanna, like, push your luck?" Milena tutted as the girl shook her head. "Didn't think so. Now stop stinking up the floor with your attitude."
Calliope's ears caught the faint slurs vibrating off of Alvina's vocal cords, though she doubted anyone else could. She chose to ignore them as Erica escorted her through the showers.
The breakfast line in the Crystal Hall was hardly better than the dorm showers. Too many people, too many eyes... Calliope shivered in a cold sweat as she hurried through the breakfast selection process. The extra senses in her head, the ones she'd been working so hard to toughen and shield against the world around them, felt rough and abraded by the emotions of the past two days. Even her usual repast of a fruit bowl, pastry, and espresso felt like it took forever to claim.
One friendly face eased her through. Erica's one-time boyfriend, Daniel the donut boy, was cheerfully manning his customary station at the pastry counter. Instead of the usual, her plate held a surprise: genovesi, a sort of pastry named after her own hometown, made of two soft cookies sandwiched over a cheese custard filling, baked until crispy on the outside. Her grandmother had made them, in the past, but she hadn't seen anyone make them in years.
"Just tryin' somethin' new," the pink-irised boy replied to her surprised expression. "Lemme know how it turned out."
"G-grazie..." She was saying the word a lot, for every little kindness now keeping her afloat.
It was a careful walk up the stairs to the second story tables, where her friends in the Mutant Mayhem Machine -- what a name! -- had their seats. Long experience had taught her how easily a skillful foot could trip a person up, even before superpowers were factored in. But however tense the atmosphere might be -- and to her extra senses, the emotional threads sang like violin strings in a giallo thriller -- no one seemed ready to make a move on her.
A few friends were already seated. Bailey and Zapper held down one corner, and her empathy was not needed to see how that conversation was going. The two girls were holding hands beneath the table. Tanya and Vic were discussing something in low tones at the other end.
Her stomach clenched some when she saw the boy. Words had passed between them, and not kind ones, this past Saturday. Much anger had been misplaced, though she had not realized that until after she had calmed down. An apology...
...could come later, as Vic was already picking up his tray to leave. The look which he shot at her did not bode well.
"Sorry," Tanya said for him as Calliope and Erica sat. "He had a rough weekend, too."
"Si, I know." She shrank into her seat. "Ah, if you could... tell him I wish to make amends, per favore?"
A lavender eye winked back at her. "No problem."
The pastry was rather quite good, she thought as she nibbled. Setting back in her seat, she let the conversation flow around her.
"So how are you getting along in Dickinson, now that everyone knows about Cally?" The question jolted her out of a mental fugue, and she noticed that the rest of the Poe contingent had arrived. Morgana, Laura, and Bianca were all taking their seats.
Laura gave her roommate Bailey a thumb's-up that made the other girl blush, but Zapper just laughed. Calliope envied them.
Her roommate was giving her a sidelong glance, ending with a shrug. "It's calmed down a bit from yesterday..."
The day was young, she could not help but think.
"...but we still have some of the girls in the dorm giving us grief. On the other hand, a lot of them are supportive, so... some good, some bad."
"Have you thought about some sort of security on your room?" Bianca asked as her own roommate tucked into a dragon's share of pancakes, bacon, and eggs. "Just in case, given that we know someone hacked your history once already?"
It was a necessary reminder of a thing she'd rather not recall, an emotional hot potato she was more than willing to pass over to her roommate. "Erica, do you think we need to, ah, do something? Um, given that we room together, they may target you for something next."
Erica chewed thoughtfully through a mouthful of bacon. "Well... I guess I could do something about tech surveillance..."
A loud gulp heralded Morgana's return to the conversation. "Snag is, this is Whateley, so you also have to worry about magic and psi bugging you as well." The Welsh girl turned to her roommate. "We could set them up with some wards, couldn't we? That would catch pretty much anything."
"Yeah, it wouldn't be hard. At least their room... Trying something that would work all the time isn't too practical, with all the powers and stuff going on here, but your room at least should be a safe place."
Calliope would never wish to beg or plead, but circumstances demanded. "Would you? That would be wonderful. The idea of people spying on us all the time is horrible!"
Morgana's hand was pleasantly warm as she reached over to pat Calliope. "Don't worry. We'll have a think tonight and sort something for you."
That raised her spirits, at least relative to the rock-bottom point to which they had plummeted. Too many people had decided she was not their friend recently, and little was scarier than the prospect of facing her problems alone. Friends were good.
----Amazons morning meeting
Friends, Valentina had long since determined, were one of the strangest commodities one might accumulate in one's life. In times of trouble they could be the life preserver that kept one's head above water, and yet in a heartbeat become a stone around the neck. Help or hindrance, deliverance or damnation, and often in a quantum state that allowed for both at the same time.
At least, she thought as she settled in hip to hip with her newest friend, they could be enjoyable company the majority of the time.
Of the one dozen-plus members of the Amazons, rarely more than half showed up to a morning meeting with any regularity. Val had been known to skip from time to time, depending on how vigorously she'd applied herself to various activities the night before. She would have skipped this morning, too, only last night's business was this morning's business as well.
Her newest friend, Nefertiti 'Copacetic' Copeland was being formally inducted into the club, and everyone had show up, from Brita 'StahlFaust' Baumann to the lovely little freshwoman, LightSaber. Even the fiery-haired Macha, whose code name had elicited much teasing from Val when first they'd dated back in their freshwoman year at Whateley, had found the time to attend.
It was a veritable rainbow coalition, with the dark-skinned beauty of Muliebris or Copacetic, the porcelain pallor of StahlFaust or Macha, and Val's own dusky demeanor set between them. Every natural color of hair could be found, as well as one or two less natural ones. About the only thing missing was a particular configuration of genitalia, because who needed that mess?
That did not mean she had anything against those who might once had had such, only to think better of it later in life. No, she dared think she actually enjoyed the presence of some of Poe's more exotic sorts.
Alas, the current tone of the main conversation was not in accord with her preferences.
"What are we to do about this little predicament?" Macha was asking.
Brita's shrug made her sports bra stretch in marvelous ways. "Leave her alone, same as the bunny girl? She's neither aggressive nor a threat as she is now. Not as... intrusive as others, either." The German was staring at Val as she said it.
Val smiled back. She actually had high hopes for her little blue-blood of a devisor, if and when she managed to seal the deal with her. If it weren't for Brita's little jealousies getting in the way, she might even have caught the TG Poesie by now and had a wonderful time of it.
"She lied," said Copacetic beside her. "Don't have anything against the bunny girl cuz at least she's honest about it. But Cally done lied to everyone, to me, and I don't think she'd ever have stopped." The dark-skinned dancer huddled in on herself. "And... and when I needed her... I... she... couldn't be bothered..."
Another hug was provided, courtesy of Val, much like the others which had buoyed poor Copacetic through the night. The poor girl had really had the worst weekend. Val hadn't even needed to nudge her any to get her to join their little self-defense club. It all just clicked.
"Shall we focus on more immediate threats?" Val suggested. "Like, perhaps, Jack-in-the-Box?" She could feel the temperature in the room plummet at the mere mention of the name.
"Yes..." said Macha, with a gleam in her eyes worthy of her namesake, the Irish goddess of war. "The fake-girls are a problem, but that little dick..." She spat the word out like the insult it was. "...deserves our full attention. The sooner we castrate the bastard, the better."
"Um, that's not what we're actually gonna do to him, is it?" Copacetic whispered in Val's ear, her breath tickling. "Not that he doesn't... um..."
"Do not worry. Macha is just being enthusiastic. She won't let it go that far." She paused to consider. "Probably."
It would be an understatement to say she was worried about her best friend and roommate. Drawing a standard level of worry as a baseline, Erica felt she was surely at a 10 on the revised scale. Watching Cally pick at her breakfast did nothing to alleviate the anxious pressure in her heart. So far, little had been said directly about Cally's situation -- their situation -- because of Tanya, Jimmy, and Hikaru, none of whom could be privy to the secrets shared by most of the table. Rather than talk endlessly around the topic, they found more entertaining things to discuss.
"Cally, are you still looking for people for your band?" Laura asked. "Because Morgana was singing in the showers this morning, and she sounded really good!"
Erica needed a good word to put to the feeling she got while watching Morgana's face contort around a mouthful of pancakes, fruit, egg, and whatever else was stuffed in there. Thankfully, where English fell short, German provided: schadenfreude. Such a useful language.
"Please, no," the Welsh girl begged. "I can't sing in front of people, and anyway, I'm not that good."
"Are you sure?" Cally said. "We could always use another singer."
"I can't. Really, I can't!" Morgana repeated. "I mean, singing for myself, or in the shower where no one can see me, that's one thing. Singing in front of an audience..." The girl shivered at the very thought. "I couldn't do that. I'd just die!"
Oh, the drama... Erica grinned and added a jab of her own. "Oh come on, it's not as if you're shy."
That one sentence was a veritable dragonslayer all by itself. Morgana's face turned deep red as she stared at her plate.
"Look, about this... yeah, I am shy. I just can't do it!" If a dragon could have puppy dog eyes, then they would look like Morgana's in that moment. "If you need help with your band, I'm happy to be a roadie for you -- I'm strong, and I understand tech... well, normal tech," she added with a glare towards Laura, "which you're going to have to use in public. Just don't ask me to stand in front of an audience, okay?"
"Ah, si. It is okay... I can understand..." Erica's roommate held up a brave face all the way out the front of the hall, and even then she held the sniffles back for almost the entire walk back to the dorm.
"Come on, come on," Erica said, squeezing Cally with a side-hug. "Cheer up. You know she..."
"Si, si. Capisco. It is just..." One slender hand waved uncertainly. "The stage. The world. I am up-front on both and... and..." A delicate sniffle. "It is lonely being at the center of such attention."
"Well, if you ever need me up on stage..."
"Ah, but your singing is even worse."
"Thanks," she said sourly.
"Oh! I did not mean..."
"I got it. Well, maybe I can get Nick to teach me electric guitar or something. It's not fair, making you go everywhere alone. Least I could do is make myself available."
"Grazie. I, ah, Claudio should be here soon. I must get ready."
"Have a nice one out on the town," Erica told her. "Say hi to your big brother for me."
It should have been a quiet walk to class after that.
Kirsten Bischoffsheim, unhappy bearer of the code name Wahnsennig by government fiat, had glanced daggers at the Abendritter girl and her freak of a friend as the two had left the cafeteria. It was to her great displeasure that her mutant powers did not include energy beams from her eyes, that she could make the saying more of a reality.
"Oh, please do not make that face," said her best friend in this madhouse, Adrienne le Floc'h, also known as Fleuve Noire. The girl had a full head of curls, all Bretagnonne red. "It is better to be calm, no? You become agitated, and your drowning commences."
Her scowl didn't change. "Fair words."
"They should be. It was you who said them to me last year, do you not recall?" Adrienne sipped her morning tisane. "Where is the calm, cool young woman who helped me with my swimming troubles, hein? This malaise, it does not suit you, mon amie."
She allowed her face to soften, just a few degrees. "I know I've been somewhat... intense lately."
"And the lake, it is wet. What is it about this girl that gets to you? That is to say, besides her code name?"
It was as if someone had stuck a clock key in her and begun to turn, screwing up her features and her mood until both were tense and trembling. "Her... her... it is her everything. She is not even German, do you realize? Oh, she may claim citizenship through some diplomatic trick, but she is American, born and raised. And, and yet she has claimed one of the most prestigious legacy code names of the secret wars! Imagine if some child from -- as an example -- Paris, Texas, were to claim the code name Tricolore from its rightful French roots, when they cannot even pronounce their own city's name properly."
"That would be annoying, yes," Adrienne nodded. "Still--"
"Could we give it a rest?" asked Kirsten. "I am tired of thinking about that girl."
Happily, her friend started in on the news from the old continent, especially the exploits of various hero groups they both favored. The team from Arsenal had finally rounded up Pantagruel after his latest escape, apparently. She would have to check the video later. So divided was her attention that she never even noticed the approach of the male cohort of their little team, not until they'd actually pulled chairs out to sit.
Gouyasse was moving carefully, gingerly even, as he took his place at the table. She knew the reason, though they'd agreed the others should not. The past weekend had seen him taking part in a plan to harass the Abendritter girl's roommate, for reasons which the entire school was now painfully aware.
What typical irony, that the little Nazi was chummy with the sexual deviant. Unfortunately, the Italian transsexual had other friends as well, and those ones had things like pencil missiles in their possession.
She'd helped tend to his injuries the other night. Nothing was broken, but a great deal had been bruised. From the dull glare with which he met the morning, Gouyasse's pride numbered amongst the black and the blue. That would not bode well for someone, but it wasn't likely she should care for whom.
The fourth member of the training team, Fortenbras, was chipper as ever, but this morning and in contrast to Gouyasse's mood, it was ever more annoying. The young British peer quickly picked up the conversation with Adrienne, tossing in a new story about his cousin, currently in some training program in France.
But Kirsten found it hard to care. No matter where the conversation went, a little part of her never wound down, never gave up its ticking observance of the Abendritter girl's faults. Eventually, her time would be up.
All things being equal, this should have been one of Erica's favorite classes. There was plenty of action, plenty of things to see, and with a core curriculum as varied as the students in attendance, there should never have been a dull moment. And there wasn't, really,.
"Today, in our exploration of infinite diversity in infinite combinations..." began the instructor, Mr. Bergamot, "we look at the extremes to which the human form may shape itself. Over half of you all possess an Exemplar trait -- not for nothing is it called the most common of all mutant expression! -- but what does it really mean to stretch the limits of this facet of mutation?
"After all, at its most basic the Exemplar form is supposedly an expression of one's most perfect self. Well, barring incomplete manifestation, acceleration burnout, or the host of other issues that people have managed to inflict on Body Image Templates over the years." A dramatic sigh filtered down from on high as Bergamot gazed down on the seated students. "Who can define the Exemplar trait, stage 1, for me? Yes... Backtrack."
Laura's roommate blinked in surprise at being called on, but recovered by the third flutter of an eye. "Um, like you said. It's all about, um, being you. Ex-1's are just themselves, but a little better. Er, healthier, maybe kinda fit without working at it, a little handsomer or cuter, but otherwise pretty normal."
"Well said. Next... Bebop. Exemplar, stage 2."
That code name belonged to Kieron, the boy from Poe with the reflective eyes who played saxophone in Cally's music class. "Everything the Ex-1 is," he said, "but taken up a notch. Athletic at a competitive level, not just in one aspect, but in most or all of them. They're able to do a lot of things, and do them well, but it's still stuff regular folk can manage. Just more of it altogether."
"And as the resident regular folk," Bergamot said dryly, "I appreciate the fact that I can still trounce my exemplar colleagues at three-dimensional chess." The teacher smiled as the chuckles echoed across the lecture room. "But truly, Exemplar stage 2 is where we begin to see variance in the extent of the trait's influence, and things only become more exaggerated as it progresses. Some exemplars favor the physical over the mental, others the opposite -- though no matter what, a few secondary traits tend to remain constant. Can anyone who did the reading enlighten us? Anyone?" he asked to a room suddenly devoid of raised hands. "I suppose it is a little much to ask. Well then, Assay!"
"Aye-aye, sir!" The class's official teaching assistant leapt to attention, snapping off a salute that was probably professional in at least one military force somewhere on earth. the brunette was the most normal-looking teen in the room, if one ignored the manic enthusiasm for the subject matter. Hannah 'Assay' Sammish had as her singular ESP trait the ability to gauge and evaluate the power profiles of others. Naturally, she took to her TA job like a fish to water.
"Okay-o!" she continued, hopping in place. "First off, the one thing all exemplars have in common is the Body Image Template, or BIT. This is full-stop, absolutely, positively something every EX-rating should have, because it defines the form their mutation is putting them into. To date, there have been three identified cases out of thousands where an exemplar lacks a BIT, and in all three the trait was initially misidentified as a funky and poorly controlled Shifter power, because they just couldn't hold onto a single image of what they should look like.
"Second! Because the whole BIT thing has you stuck in a particular range of form, you get a lot of what they're calling 'morphic inertia' these days. Simply put, your body likes the way it is or is going to be eventually. This is part of why so many high-level exemplars also have a regenerative factor, because the BIT wants the body to stay all healthy and in one piece. Any effects that push you towards that ideal get accelerated, and any that try to change it or regress it either don't last long or get messy."
"I suppose I should mention," Mr. Bergamot cut in, "but every few years someone here at Whateley announces they've figured out a way to alter or reverse BIT traits, and it ends in tragedy without fail."
"Um, why would anyone want to change back?" asked one of the boys in the rear. Erica didn't recall his name, but he had the movie-star good looks of someone who'd gotten lucky in the BIT lottery himself.
"If you have to ask, then consider yourself fortunate," said Bergamot. "Because there is one aspect of mutation which, while it doesn't necessarily go hand in hand with the exemplar suite of traits, well... The more extreme the traits get, the more likely it is that you will no longer look quite human."
On the left, Morgana had a hand up. "You're talking about GSD," the Welsh girl said flatly.
"That I am. Gross Structural Dystrophy is most often cosmetic -- fanciful colors of hair, eye, or skin -- but any mutation that greatly alters your physical capabilities will also alter you physically, which means that once you pass Exemplar stage three, and thus the limits of human potential itself, your bodies perforce begin to adapt in ways that are strange and unpredictable. This is, of course, independent of any other changes necessitated by a plethora of possible mutant traits.
"And this brings us to our practical section today. We have a number of students here who possess GSD to varying degrees. You shall interview each other to see how your mutations have dictated the changes your bodies have experienced. So... any questions before we start?"
"Yeah, does turning into a tranny count as GSD?" The sniggers that accompanied the question were unfortunately familiar.
Erica knew the Darby twins from her afternoon history class, though they hadn't dared test the patience of Mr. DuChamp on any topic since the start of the term. Which twin it was who asked, she couldn't tell, but it would be in character for either.
Mr. Bergamot waited a long moment for the sniggering to die off, falling to the ground to provide fertilizer for the awkward silence that grew taller and taller as the teacher blankly stared at the two young men.
"I assume," the teacher said, finally mowing down the quiet, "that you are referring to the case of Calliope, who is not here today to speak for herself, largely because of asinine questions such as yours intruding on the everyday discourse of regular school, to whit she has taken the day off for reasons of nervous exhaustion. Well, to answer the question which provides façade to your bigotry, GSD refers solely to alterations outside the human base state. Novel color palettes, extra organs or appendages, scales or claws -- these are GSD. Enhanced muscular development, facial reconstruction, regenerative repairs, or, yes, gender reassignment are considered base state alterations within the norm. That Calliope's case is an extreme outlier is not of consequence."
She had to assume she wasn't the only one in the room to hide a wince at that. In fact, she didn't even need to assume; there were seven transgender students in the room right now that she knew of, and she suspected Bergamot knew far more about everyone in the class than he let on.
"Now, let's get to work!" the teacher snapped.
As Erica showed off the way her enhanced physiology worked, appearing normal until she flexed it to a full muscularity, she had to wonder about Mr. Bergamot. Her experience with the man so far had not been the most cordial, but on the other hand he'd just stepped up to bat for a large group of people like her, whether he realized it or not.
Perhaps she should give him another chance.
It was a rare day that he was not among the first out of the room when the lesson ended, but today perhaps was a day for rarities. Or even week -- this past weekend had certainly seen its share of oddness. But this morning in particular, Kenshin took his time organizing his notes of observations on the physical quirks of people he'd known for a month now, people whom he might even consider friends, but who were far stranger than they first appeared.
Some were more obvious, with the scales or the claws or the horns. Others looked normal only because they were not trying hard, like Erica. Just to look at her, he would not have guessed that, much like the character of Mariko in the manga series Kochi Kame, she hid beneath a soft appearance the form of a professional bodybuilder.
"Ah, Ono-sempai. Chotto..."
And there was the other rarity of the day. This morning he'd been called away from his usual sword practice in the quad to be officially re-introduced to his newest schoolmate, a young man from Kansai who was even more surprised to be here than Kenshin had been to see him a week before.
Koichi Taniguchi had, until a week and a half ago, been a third-year junior high school student at a reasonably high-prestige private school in Osaka. Now he was a first-year high school student at one of the most exclusive institutions of education on the planet, and with absolutely no say in the matter.
"Hai, Taniguchi-kun?" he said in reply. "Do not worry. We shall be on our way to our next class momentarily." It felt a little odd to be switching back into full Japanese in the middle of a school day. Even Hikaru-sama insisted he use English most of the time. "We are given enough time to wander between classes. You will get used to it."
"Ah. That is... that is good," said Koichi. "I had heard about American schools being different, of course, but..."
Kenshin's nod was one of understanding. In Japanese schools, one's homeroom class was the unit that defined your schedule, and only a few subjects were ever taught outside of the same four walls. Teachers came to dispense wisdom, but here they made students wander around in search of it.
"Also, I am, ah, surprised by how open everyone here is about their, ah, quirks. My old school had other mutants, but we were all rather private about it."
"I doubt most Americans could truly be private about anything," said Kenshin, "in spite of everything they say about privacy. A nosier group of people you shall never meet."
They were out the door now, turning the corner to the stairs leading to their shared English class. Five minutes still remained of passing period, so Kenshin was not so worried.
A young woman pushed past them, in that unconsciously rude manner Americans had when they were in a hurry. Kenshin would not have given her a second glance, only that his first glance identified her as that girl who'd given his friend Tia so much trouble recently.
The bunny girl had in fact been one of the first out of the room after Bergamot-sensei had dismissed them, so she would not be there to meet the crazy one. That did not stop Kenshin from watching warily as Jamie Howe slipped into the Power Theory room.
"Ah, senpai? Is everything okay?"
"Yes... most likely. As okay as anything at this school. Come along. We mustn't miss the donuts before next class."
"Okay... um. Donuts, senpai?"
Breakfast was a lump of lead in her stomach. No matter which way she lay upon her dorm bed, it rolled back and forth, tripping over her spine and pushing other organs out of the way. She would throw it all up, only it was too stubborn and heavy to be moved. Instead she ignored it as best she could as she waited for her phone to sound.
She had somehow passed out on the bed before it did, and the loud ringtone startled her off the mattress and onto the floor.
"P-pronto," she said into the receiver once she'd gotten it in hand.
"Ciao, Fio. Sono Claudio." Who else it might have been, she could not even have imagined, but the mundane familiarity of the phone etiquette in Italian helped to melt the lump in her stomach. "I am downstairs now," her brother continued in their mother tongue.
"Coming!" she shouted. The dash down the stairs was blissfully lonesome and quiet.
Claudio Persico was tall, lanky, and of a nervous temperament that kept him from ever eating much at one time, or gaining any grams if he did. There wasn't much of a resemblance between them any more, though traces were still there if one looked hard enough. At the moment, he was on the receiving end of a deep scan through the eyes of one Elspeth Plimsoll, assistant dorm mother and resident Cerberus.
"Ah, Calliope," the woman said, nodding as the girl stepped off the stairs. "It is good to see you up and feeling better."
The last time the woman had seen her, knock-out gas had been involved. Calliope did not actually remember much of it, and Ms. Plimsoll was nice enough to leave it at that. Or professional enough. It was hard to tell with her, even when Calliope's empathy was working properly.
Which it was not, currently. As she stepped out the front doors with her big brother at her side, she gritted her teeth against the liability that her so-called gift was making of itself. Passing period on a green flag day meant that everyone was out and about to enjoy the sunshine between lessons. A part of her brain which thought it was attached to her ears but actually was not translated the rise and fall of emotions into a surreal sort of music, and drained as she was from the stress, Calliope was not having an easy time of blocking it out.
She kept her head facing away from those spots in the atmosphere of emotion where the notes turned sour and the unheard lyrics, nasty. Whether those students looked her way or not, she did not want to know.
"It is certainly an interesting campus," Claudio opined as a girl in a headscarf raced past them at speeds better suited for sports cars than sneakers. "It is too bad that, ah..."
"That people are still people, warts and all?" she finished for him. "Being a mutant gives people a new perspective on many things, but that does not mean they will look."
Another speedster darted past, this one more feline in the form of her face, legs, and tail, and her training outfit left little to the imagination. This one took a look at them, dug in a heel, and somehow managed to drift in a rough U-turn, backwards. Pulling up alongside the path they were on, she spat out the word 'tranny' before zooming off again.
"Più cambia, più è uguale," she muttered. "The more things change..."
"The more the people remain idiots," her brother ad-libbed. "First rule of public relations: assume the mean brightness of a group is equal to its dimmest bulbs." He offered her his arm. "Come along, then. Shall we at least make our promenade in style?"
Reining her shields in as tightly as she could, Calliope hooked her elbow in with Claudio's and strutted across the quad with her head held high and her chest thrust ever so slightly forward. Embarrassing, yes, but she felt the need to accentuate her femininity, and was that not what push-up brassieres were for?
With her brother to steady her, she made it all the way to Doyle before she even realized which way they were headed. "Wait, Claudio!" she said to him. "I do not want to..."
"I understand, but I am his brother as well as yours, Fio. You may stay out in the waiting room if you must."
The school's hospice was quiet and unpopulated to the regular senses, but to her emotional ones, scrubbed raw by current events, there was so much pain baked into the very bricks that she might have wished for a sedative just to get through the door. The other day, she'd been brought in already sedated, and had not felt the shock of going from outside to inside quite so viscerally -- though leaving had certainly been a relief.
Her friend Bailey, a psychometrist, had once said that she couldn't get a dozen meters inside a hospital-like place of any sort without feeling like screaming, though shielding lessons had helped. Pulling her own mental shields around as close as she could, Calliope took a deep breath and passed through.
"Are you alright, Fio?"
"Ah, I shall be better soon," she promised him. "I must... acclimate? to the new atmosphere here."
"Capisco." Perhaps the greatest benefit of having such a nerd for a brother was that he did understand things like this, about powers he would thankfully never know firsthand. The warm flow of love and positivity from his hand to hers kept her steady as they passed through the lobby. By the time they reached Fra's room, she had her mental feet back under her, and she could settle into a waiting room chair with only a low moan.
"Are you sure you wouldn't like to come in with me?"
She sighed and shook her head. "There will be a time for forgiveness, but it is not now. I, I think we both know that, Fra and I. You may say hello for me, but I shall not."
Her roommate had had the right idea, Erica thought as she hauled her lunch tray to the second floor of the cafeteria. Stay out of sight, find a quiet place, focus on de-stressing. She could only wish they were all able to do the same. So far, there'd been enough comments about sexual perversion to count on one fist, and she was working on that second fist right now. Perhaps there would come a time to let those fists make a counter-argument. She certainly hoped so, at least. Perhaps after her guts had finished with their monthly punishment.
But for now, there was the group table and its normal, everyday level of conversation.
"Geez, it was only one bunny! You'd think I'd committed lepine genocide or something!"
OK, normal for them. Erica was not about to assume her circle of friends would ever count as a baseline for normalcy. "Wondercute already seems to think you did," she said, settling into her chair.
"Those morons?" Morgana groaned and cradled her head in her hands. "That's all I need!"
Bianca rolled her eyes at the melodrama. "They certainly get... enthusiastic," she opined.
"They are yo-low," Kenshin stated. Beside him, his newly acquired shadow was quietly shoveling rice into his mouth as he tried to make sense of what had thus far been a truly bizarre introduction to English conversation as it had never been meant to be had.
"Yo-low?" Morgana repeated. "Alright, I don't speak Japanese, remember. What's that mean?"
"Eh?" Uncertainty made a short hop across the would-be samurai's face. "Yo-low. It is English, yes? We are learning online English expressions in class today. Yo-low... chotto sutemi mitai..." he muttered in actual Japanese. "Eto, you do not care about the con... consequences. You jump into big problems. For example, look before you leap?" He looked around the table. "I said it right?"
"YOLO." Erica didn't hold in her laugh. "You Only Live Once. Sorry, Kenshin, sorry, but we were not expecting you to say something like that!"
"So how's your... our... friend doing so far?" Laura asked, waving to Kenshin's shadow. The second Japanese boy turned red around the edges and ducked his head before putting inordinate focus into eating his lunch.
"Taniguchi-kun is surviving. Sou desu ne, Taniguchi-kun?" Another nod from the boy. "Good. We must go soon, find art department for him. A busy day it is!"
With the departure of the Japanese boys, the conversation resumed its usual swervy course. "Was it just me," said Laura, "or was Koichi staring at me again?"
"You do stand out," said Bianca. "Even for us."
"Maybe he's a member of your fan club," Erica teased.
"Ya think? Like there's any doubt about that, after his dad practically begged me for an autograph..."
"For his sister, though."
Morgana patted Laura on the back. "Don't worry. He's just not used to seeing someone as colorful as you are. Give him another week to get used to things."
"Perhaps..." Laura's voice was about the same shade as her face, which was blue. A perfect, pastel blue with complementary darker shading for the lips and brilliant royal-blue eyes and hair. Her cheeks were at present lilac in tone, which by now all her friends had learned to recognize as a typical blush. The color deepened as they watched. The girl code-named Cerulean was stuck with a limited section of the electromagnetic spectrum to play with, but she still managed quite a range of hues. "At least he's not as bad as Kosuke, or even his sister Sakura! She's a tech wiz, and I swear I get five to ten e-mails a day from her!"
"And you answer them?" Morgana gawked at the blue girl.
Laura shrugged. "I told her I'd exchange e-mails if she promised that none of it goes on the Gadget Girl Heroes website.
Whateley's closest companion by geography, the town of Berlin, was a study in picturesque normalcy. It must absolutely be a ruse, Calliope suspected. The town's main street was designed in a style to recall a 1950s which only existed in television programs, and that stretch of road was the primary attraction of the town. Transit to or from Whateley put one through the residential areas, the sections that did not take part in the façade, and her battered senses could feel the disconnect between the town-as-presented and the town-as-it-was. What exactly she was feeling, it was hard to say, but the contrast was there.
"This is the Miskatonic Valley," Claudio said when she mentioned it to him, as if that were explanation enough. "I have only heard tales of a much darker time, and I'm afraid to ask how much was true."
"Why put the school here, then?"
"I asked a colleague of mine at ARC that exact same thing," said Claudio. "His reply was that in a worst-case scenario, at least the trigger-happy students could get some target practice. I, ah, hope he was joking."
Calliope was not about to assume anything when it came to Whateley and its environs. Not anymore.
Lunch was had at a little diner, a tourist spot that was built mainly of formica, linoleum, and neon lighting. Everything was polished and shiny, but the interior was deserted. Only a single waitress was on hand to take orders, and the middle-aged woman in the pressed skirt looked surprised to have any business at all on a Monday. Presumably there was someone in the kitchen to make their meals as well, but Calliope saw no proof of his existence.
"So..." Claudio said as he poured some ketchup into a little paper cup for her, "how shall we take things from here? Do you wish to continue at Whateley, despite all that has happened?"
"Do I have anywhere else to go?" she asked. "I came to this school in part because I could not stay at my old one. But new school, same problems. At least here, I have friends in whom I can confide." The glare she sent him should have frosted the glass of soda he'd ordered with his meal.
"Ah, yes, I should have told you about Erica sooner..."
She waved away that particular regret. "No, capisco. Her privacy is important as well. But, there seems to have been a section of the application form expressly intended to allow students such as I the chance to let our situations be known?"
For the span of one refrain of a Fabrizio De André ballad, the silence was marred only by the sound of chewing on overly crisp fried potatoes. "In light of recent events illuminating our hindsight..." Claudio finally began, "yes, we should have been more open in your application. We only meant to..." His voice trailed off again as he fiddled with his fork.
"Si, si. The irony, it is overwhelming. But, but... we did not realize how common the situation truly was, nor how the school would react. You were doing well, acclimating, and your physical changes were complete. There was no sense in reopening old wounds, we thought. We were wrong. I, I must beg you to forgive me..."
She wanted to scream, to shout, to release all the pain in full measure and verse... but she'd done just that the other day, when Alvina had come after her in the Dickinson rec room, and it hadn't made anything or anyone feel better. Quite the opposite, in fact. How close she'd come to killing those girls through empathy, she did not want to know, but Ms. Plimsoll deserved an award for the way she'd defused things.
A momentary hiss did escape her lips, at a frequency that rattled the mind like an operatic soprano might shake a wine glass, but it was cut off quickly enough. Claudio only winced. Somewhere behind her, Calliope could sense the waitress tense up as well.
"Belin," she said, letting all the stress congeal within that single cuss word so that she could expel it in a single breath. "Do not, do not blame yourself, Claudio. I was... almost happy, pretending. If Fra had not been an idiot, had not let those boys abuse his trust so... it might have turned out better. Still, I am happier for knowing what I know now."
"Si, si, really! I have friends who understand, better than anyone else ever could, and support from the teachers. I will survive." Calliope finished the last of her burger. "And perhaps one day I shall make certain others regret their stupidity. Until then, I stand strong."
"Would you stand stronger with some ice cream?"
It was seventh period, and she should have been in German class. Technically, she already was, but in reality she currently occupied a seat in the Whateley language lab, organizing the literature and whittling at her pile of homework assignments. Normally her advanced German composition and grammar class took place in the main room Monday-Wednesday-Friday, and then saddled them with various tutoring duties on Tuesday and Thursday, to assist those less able in the language. Herr Auer was of the belief that the best way to learn was to teach, so learn they did.
That her current German schedule was in reverse, with her Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays spent in the language lab, was just another symptom of how things could go wrong. Or how people could. She still couldn't grok why Kirsten Bischofsheim had it in for her, even as the sophomore from Mannheim shouted it in her face, full volume, but that particular piece of personal interaction helped define her week.
Chimes rattled as the outer door to the lab opened. Spiky black hair and parabolic rabbit ears quickly identified the new arrival as someone almost as problematic to Erica as Kirsten, even if he himself did not realize it.
Hiram Saumer hated his first name, and insisted that none of his friends should ever use it. She'd intentionally called him Hiram at least once a week. The last thing she wanted was to let him in too close, because then the boy might figure out where they actually knew each other from.
What twist of fate had sent Eric Schroeder's old best friend from Arkansas to the same school as Erica von Abendritter, she would never know, and hopefully neither would he.
"Gutentag," she said politely as the boy made his way over. "Wie kann ich dir helfen?"
"Um, Herr Auer said he had new listening exercises available?" Saumer replied. "I was wondering if I could copy them?"
At any other school, or with any other student, there would be cassette tapes or flash drives involved in that request. For the mutant code-named Playback, it was simply a matter of sitting there for a quarter hour with the headphones over his rabbit ears. After that, his mutant power allowed him to repeat the clips from thin air, with perfect fidelity.
Saumer always had been an audiophile, as she remembered. With an internalized wince, she thrust the thought of the memory back deep into the folds of her brain, where it wouldn't betray her at the wrong moment.
"Anything else?" she asked him when he was through.
"Maybe? I could use a recommendation for reading. Herr Auer assigned me a 'blue' rating?"
One slender finger traced its way to the bookshelves. "You're a little late to the party. Most of your friends in German I came by last week."
"Yeah, uh, listening's more my strong suite..."
"I'm sure it is."
Herr Auer had organized the German reading section by colored tags on the spines of the books, and Erica did not bother to mention that blue was actually pretty good for a kid in German I. Certainly better than the C- grade Saumer had jokingly bragged about last semester in eighth grade...
Another memory, quashed.
"All the comic books were snapped up quick," she told him, "and they're yet to be returned. I'd recommend this." She tapped a thick, red-bound tome.
"Kinder- und Hausmärchen...?" Saumer read carefully. "Grimm's Fairy Tales?"
"Yep. You should definitely be familiar with the more popular stories, and they're all pretty short reads anyway."
"What are you reading?" he asked her instead.
"Just finished a work of classic German science fiction, and I haven't decided what will come next." Her fingers fidgeted nervously behind the chair, where she hoped Saumer couldn't see them. Why was he still here?
"Yanno, your accent's way different from the others."
"Is it?" She almost yelped the question out.
"Definitely. Well, in English at least. Dunno enough about German yet to tell, but your accent in English sounds like someone from back home, not foreign at all."
"Oh, um. Well, my grandparents are -- well, my legal guardians are both from Bavaria originally. München, er, Munich area. So my German's more of that. But, um, I've spent most of my life in the US so far, so I'd hope my English is good, too."
"Is this why Kirsten's so bugged with you?"
"Hell if I know!" she shouted at the ceiling. "Um, sorry. That's the, er, million-dollar question."
"Sorry to press, then." Saumer's ears actually drooped, in a way she did not wish to accept was cute.
"It's almost the end of the period," she quickly pointed out. "If there's anything else? I still have history class."
"No, nothing. See you around?"
"Er, maybe. No promises. Busy Whateley life and all that."
"Ain't that the truth."
She was not running away. Erica knew that in her heart of hearts. This was not a retreat. It was... a strategic withdrawal. Plus, no one wanted to be late to history class. Mr. DuChamp might force them to exercise those exemplar brains and repeat the entire daily reading verbatim. Again.
There was some guilt to be felt, monopolizing her older brother's precious time for an entire afternoon, but outweighed as it was by the delight of having Claudio's undivided attention, she'd decided to let the feeling sit and stew in the corner. She could feel it another time.
The town of Berlin was not so large, but it was still the center of the county and the primary destination for any Whateley kids taking a day trip on the weekend, so there was in fact much to see and do. The local museum of weird phenomena, the aptly titled Odditorium, was a trip through the bizarre imaginations of 19th-century New England farmers with little to do for the winter months, which resulted in all manner of taxidermic grotesques and unsettling artwork.
At the cinema, they caught an early afternoon showing of the latest massive action blockbuster, based loosely on the events that had resulted in a small Central Asian city turning into an impressive crater. At least in the film, they'd caught the villain. Having the entire theater to themselves, she and Claudio did not hold back on the cheering and the booing of various characters.
And then, attached to the cinema by a covered walkway, there was the video game arcade. The oh-so-wonderful arcade. Calliope had seen its like in old American teen movies, but she had been told that the real thing no longer existed in most cities. To judge from the immaculate condition of the game machines, someone was running the place as much for himself as for anyone else.
They did not manage to break any high scores, but Claudio made a good showing at the skee-ball lanes.
But it had to come to an end, as all good things should. One quick dinner, then a trip through the local grocery store for snacks, and then Claudio was dropping her off at Dickinson again, with bags of junk food and a yellow plush donkey won with prize tickets.
"Alla prossima, Fio," said her brother as he gave a farewell hug and kisses on the cheek. "See you later."
"Ci sentiamo," she replied. "I shall be calling regularly."
With a nod to the RA womanning the front desk, Claudio made his exit. His sister did not miss how several of the older girls checked him over in passing. Più cambia... The more things changed, indeed.
"Have a good day out?" asked Milena, with a wink behind her trademark John Lennon spectacles.
"Si. It was... It was nice. Not having to worry so."
"I hear you. Like, I'd never turn down a nice break from class. Only wish things were, like, better for you over-all."
"Me too," Calliope muttered. "Ah, and here. A thank you, for being so good about all the fuss." From one bag, she produced a small packaged cake, filled with artificial sweetening products and about as unhealthy as it was delicious.
"Woot! Thanks, girl." Milena accepted the snack cake from her happily, and when Calliope pulled back her hand, somehow a small black card had found its way into it. She was about to ask, but Milena shushed her with a conspiratorial wink of the eye. "I saw Erica go up a few minutes ago," the RA told her. "Better go catch up."
"Ah, okay..." Sticking the mystery card in her pocket, she hurried up the stairs. It was hard, but she tried to ignore how many girls gave her a wide passage, rather than risk bumping into her. It was like she had a personal force field around her, blocking all approach, and she did not even have a PK rating to blame it on.
Courtesy demanded she knock before barging in on her roommate. Two hands full of grocery bags made this difficult. Her current mood as of the stairs provided the simple and expedient solution of applying forehead to wood, with a belabored groan for good measure. The door opened, she fell forward, and friendly arms caught her in a hug.
"Welcome home," said Erica.
"Grazie." She so wanted to linger in that hug, but gravity and the shopping bags were conspiring to slowly rip her arms off, exemplar strength or no. As she moved to place the bags on her personal desk, she realized that Erica's computer was up and running with a familiar face on it. "Oh, and hello, Penelope."
Erica's cousin waved back. "Hello yourself, Cally. So I hear I don't have to tiptoe around certain topics anymore when you're around?"
"Ah, I guess that is true."
"Great. I get enough experience with double-speak at home as it is."
"All is well, I take it?" Cousin Penny lived with Erica's Uncle Adolf and Aunt Margit, two of the... if she were to be polite, two of the twistiest people Calliope had ever met. Five minutes of conversation with them was enough to keep one confused for hours, even as they figured out more about you than you'd ever want in turn. She could only imagine what it would be like as their adopted granddaughter.
"Everything's all hunky-dory at home," said Penny. "School's S-O-S, D-D."
"Same Old Shit..."
"Different Day," Erica finished for her.
"That it is! But hey, looks like I might get to tag along for Parents Day next month. You two can show me all the neat stuff my school will never, ever, not in a million years, possibly ever have."
"Oh, sure," said Erica. "Like the Olympic-sized swimming pool..."
"The three-story cafeteria!" Calliope added.
"The stack of gold bricks on display."
"The giant robot in the science lab!"
"The mystic circles for demon-summoning."
"The miraculous every-flavor ice cream machine!"
Cousin Penny's mouth had skewed into a blend of amusement and annoyance. "I honestly cannot tell which parts are true and which are you two just messing with me," she said.
"You'll just have to come see for yourself," said Erica. "Now, since you know how nutso our weekend was, why don't you bore us with some stories of what actual high school is supposed to be like."
A pearly white grin flashed through the video feed. "Okay, then. You asked for it." The following chronicle of petty drama, messy relationships, and hormonal chaos did not include a single instance of mind control, eye lasers, or collateral damage of a physical nature. There was a bomb threat mentioned, but that was very unlike Whateley, where the bomb-builders rarely had to threaten anything.
For her part, Calliope filled them in on the good points of the neighboring town. Cousin Penny made appropriately appreciative noises as she and her roommate happily discussed the choices at the video game arcade. They could all agree on which movies they'd like to see in the future, at least.
"That was a nice chat," said Erica once her cousin had signed off.
"Si..." Calliope leaned back onto her bed with a plop. "It is nice that she is so okay with all the... ah..."
"She's had practice," said Erica. "And wow, do I appreciate it now. Gotta finish up that side quest Uncle Adolf set me, get Penny's birthday present together. Have you talked to Vicky today?"
"Ah, no," she replied. "When would I have the time?"
"I shall see her tomorrow, though. Would you like me to pass the word?"
The blonde girl smiled. "If you could, please. We need to move on, get on with it all, right?"
"Certo che si!"