----Tuesday, October 4th, 2016
It was a morning. That was about all which could be said about it. She had skipped breakfast today, or at least skipped the part where she'd gone to the cafeteria to have it. Rare and exotic snack foods from the Berlin supermarket sufficed, though her stomach did complain some afterwords.
Perhaps it were possible to skip today as well, but she was afraid to press her luck so. And if she were to be honest with herself, the prospect of spending the entire day alone in the dorm room without Claudio or Erica or any of her other friends around could have been as bad as the alternative. She did not like the taste of her emotions, and had no desire to marinate in them.
So at ten minutes before class, Calliope scurried down the stairs of Dickinson to where the Poe contingent were waiting with Erica. Bianca and Morgana, Laura and Bailey, the legally-noted Barnes twins; a mob of hugs seemed imminent. It took a quick word from Pat to stop their friends short.
Calliope spared a special smile for the boy. There were some things only a member of the hyper-empathy spectrum could understand.
With an honor guard of white and blue, red and gold marching around her, Calliope made it to her first class of the week with a few minutes to spare. Her flanks were well defended, but her ears could still be pierced by the words 'tranny freak' shooting from the far seats.
As one, they all glared daggers at the Darby twins. Morgana and Chessa Barnes looked ready unleash their respective elements upon the two, only that the arrival of Mr. Bergamot interrupted the moment.
"I would hope you two would get the message yesterday," the teacher said sternly. "Alas, I cannot say 'five points deducted from Emerson,' because this is Whateley, and not Hogwarts, so instead I have one word: detention."
The boys had a perfectly timed groan in stereo.
"And repeat offenses shall progress the punishment," Mr. Bergamot added. "Okay, everyone! It is Tuesday, and that means it is time once more for your special group work. You know the drill."
Desks and chairs were already scraping along the floor as students maneuvered them into boxes or circles. Bailey and Pat accompanied her to the empaths club, where the fourth member, the little junior high girl Heartfinder, was waiting for them. The peculiar shape of her pupils, slightly split at the top and tapered to a point below, was easy to see as she looked at Calliope with a wide-eyed curiosity.
"Um, are you..." The girl stopped to chew her lip nervously. "Sorry. Um, wow. I can feel it pouring off you..."
"First order of business, then," Pat announced. "Get Cally's shields up and centered again, before we all go nuts from emotional over-exposure."
"Cosa! It is so bad as that, is it?"
"Only to those who can feel it," Bailey assured her. "Heck, I'm not even a hundred percent real empath, but you're leaving a small trail of misery on everything you touch, and that I can read."
"Ah, so how do we...?"
"We change the topic first so we can all relax," said Pat. "So, Bailey, how're things going with you and Zapper?"
The psychometric girl blushed crimson as they giggled. "It's going fine, thank you very much," she shot back. "In fact, I think we can say--"
"Ano, do I sit here?" The interruption had a strong accent, all the vowels too straight and true for common English. "Eto, sensei said, 'You need to sit over there.' Is that right?"
"He said we have to...?" Heartfinder asked.
Pat chuckled and shook his head. "I think he's quoting directly. Mr. Bergamot told you to sit with us?" he asked the new arrival.
"Koichi, right?" said Bailey, taking the conversation football and running it a few yards. "We met at lunch the other day. Well, last week, I guess." She turned to Calliope. "You weren't around that time, I think, but he was showing us how his drawings worked and everything. I remember you're something of an empath, right? With the art?"
"Ah. Ek... excuse me, empasu?"
Calliope tapped her forehead, and then the spot over her heart. "You feel what others feel?"
"Feel...? Hai, feel. Kanjiru..." The boy's brow furrowed as he worked through the meaning. "...'tte sou iu waké janai!"
"I think that's a negative," Pat said.
"Kanjitenai... ano, no feel. Kanjisaserareru... make be felt?"
"You make other people feel things." Calliope and Heartfinder shared a nervous glance. With the Italian's control currently ragged, and the tween's being historically inconsistent, the idea of sharing a space with a dedicated emotional projector was not the definition of a fun time.
"Hai!" Koichi said, finding his grin somewhere. "I am ah-tist! Mité, look." From his schoolbag he retrieved a sketchbook, flipping through it to reveal page after page of intricately inked designs. Some were realistic, images of birds or trees, or a handsome little dog. Others were more abstract, all curves or angles or spiraling geometry. At least one was a Pokémon. "Kochi! This one!"
The book stopped at the picture of a stuffed bear, a round fuzzy doll with button eyes and a raggedy bandanna around its neck. Just to look at it, Calliope felt calmer, safer, happier.
She blinked herself back to sour and unhappy. Those had not been her emotions.
"So you're fixing the vibes in your sketches?" said Pat. "That's... interesting."
"To see is being happy," said Koichi. "You are feeling happy?"
"A little..." Bailey admitted. She took an experimental stroke of the finger along the paper's edge, then froze in shock. "That's... your favorite toy from when you were three years old and your father won it for you in a crane-catcher game while you watched. It's supposed to be a mascot of some kind but no one in your family really knew what it was. You never went to bed without it until you were twelve and you had to go to school camp, where you drew this sketch, so there's a touch of sadness there, and... what?"
The girl broke contact and rubbed her hand. "Oof, I don't think I actually touched it, last time. That's sort of like my power, but in reverse!"
"You put so much heart into the artwork?" said Calliope. She dared touch the picture herself, but while the feelings of warmth and happiness certainly expanded to fill her senses, she got none of the detail that Bailey had described.
"It's... interesting?" Bailey was saying. "Kinda... tingly? What else have you got in there?"
"Ano..." The boy shrank back from the presence of an interested, animated, and attractive young woman suddenly in his face.
Pat Barnes carefully reeled her back in. "Whoa, there. Give the dude some space. And dude, that's pretty cool. Any ideas what you want to do with it in the future? Maybe something therapeutic?"
The boy with the in-between hair puffed out his cheeks. "Okay, this is gonna take some work. Therapeutic, therapeutic, therapeutic..." He kept his eyes locked on Koichi's, and Calliope thought she felt a vibe pass through the space between them. "Chi-ryo-u-ko-u-ka," Pat said, dropping a salad of syllables from his lips.
"Ah, chiryou-kouka! Hai! Wakarimasu! Ah, I understand. Serapyuuchiku!" the boy repeated, almost accurately. "Like serapi, yes?"
"If you mean therapy, then yeah," said Pat. "Make people feel good. Like Calliope here. She had a really bad weekend."
"Ah, really?" The word was mostly recognizable, despite how Koichi mangled both its consonants. "Eto... here." On a free piece of paper, the boy set his pen to making an outline in broad strokes. Switching to ever finer implements, he added layers of detail, shading with a cotton swab. As he worked, Calliope felt jingles of emotion, ringing in short little bursts that could barely be felt if she focused too hard, but which formed a soothing background noise in the back of her head when she let it float past.
The result was a rushed but uncannily accurate portrait of Calliope in mixed media, sitting there with a smile like La Gioconda and an air of confidence she personally had not felt in far too long. She accepted it as gracefully as she could, and once the slip of paper was in her hands, she really did feel a little better.
"Ooh, I wonder what a portrait of me would feel like..." Bailey mused. The expression on her face was best described as feline, in the way that a healthy young cat might look upon a small bird.
"Down, girl," said Pat as Heartfinder giggled nervously. "Your friend across the way's giving you some odd looks." And in fact Zapper did have her head turned their way, cobalt-blue eyes twinkling curiously.
Bailey's runaway enthusiasm hit a blush-colored brick wall. "Oh! Ah, hehe?" she giggled nervously. "Sorry. I got a little carried away. Nothing meant."
"Better tell Zapper that," Heartfinder teased.
Koichi glanced around nervously as the circle broke out in giggles.
A dull ache rang through him like gong with every step up the stairs. It was only partly because of the patchwork of bruises running up and down his body. Those had all faded to a dirty yellow stain. His limp was almost gone as well. Everything fixable had been fixed.
For everything else, there was the little Catholic rosary now clinking its beads together from the inside of his jacket pocket. He'd gone through the whole sequence of Padre Nostro and Ave Maria twice while he was stuck in the hospice. It hadn't helped much so far, but one could pray.
First period had not quite finished, so the hallways held only the potential for lively activity. He was happy with a relative hush for the moment as he passed the classroom where he knew Fio would be. She would not see him, he could not hear her, and for the moment nothing may change for the worse.
With perfect timing, he arrived at the door to his second-period class, English Language Learners, just as the passing period bell rang. Before it ended, he was seated in his usual spot with his books out, waiting for the others to appear.
There wasn't much time wasted in waiting. Students trickled in steadily, starting with the diminutive Kareela and her assortment of baubles floating around her head. The glare she sent him was unmistakable in its hostility, but the girl said not a word as she passed, nor did her toys cease their dance. She was soon joined by Anaïs, almost as short but with green fronds for hair, and by Avsel in her headscarf.
"Friend Franchesko! You are being the okey and the dokey!" Arsi Khan bounded over to him, ignoring several rows of desks as being only minor obstacles. While they'd all improved their English a lot in just the first three weeks, the Mongolian still had the largest gap between enthusiasm and ability.
"Yes, I am doing better..." He winced as Arsi clapped a hand on a sore spot. "It still hurts, though."
"Ah! Sorry-sorry! No mean to achy hurty!"
"They catch the bastard who gotcha?" This slightly more accurate form of English rumbled from the powder-pale throat of Peter Foley, whose bright red nose and frizzy green hair had caused many students to immediately regret any clown comparisons. It was small wonder that he'd taken the code name Humorless, because that was the safest way to speak with him: without any jokes.
"Ah, no," he admitted. "There was no camera watching that corner, and... I did not tell them I remember who it was."
There was the outline of a smile around Peter's mouth that completely failed to match the face within it. "Why the hell not?"
"Because..." Fra gulped. "Because he made it personal even before that fight. He made it the thing that it is, and I..."
"Wanna be the one to end it with him."
Peter snorted, doing terrible things to his nose in the process. "Lemme know when you're ready," said the young giant. "I got yer back on this."
A pastry was pushed into his hands. It took a bite for him to realize that this was not a typical donut, such as Peter's roommate Daniel regularly shared before class, but rather some kind of cookie sandwich with lemon cheese filling. It made him feel somewhat nostalgic for home.
"Welcome back," said Daniel.
Fra settled into his chair, pastry in hand as Arsi went on and on about that wrestling group they'd discussed forming on Sunday, not long before everything went to hell. He nodded along, though in honesty, he only understood half of what the Mongolian was saying. By the time Ms. Barnes made her punctual appearance, he almost felt welcome. Only the rosary in his jacket pocket reminded him otherwise.
----Third Period, BMA
She was never a fighter. An artist, yes. A lover, hopefully. But she had always left the fighting to others, because they were so much better at it. That was how she had thought, back when she'd had the luxury of being just another girl. All the nudges and stares and covered whispers which she still could hear perfectly well -- those things told her that she no longer had any choice in the matter. This did not make her look forward to Basic Martial Arts class any more than usual, however. Quite the opposite, in fact, because she knew who else would be there.
Alvina was already changed into her practice outfit when they arrived, though in fairness, so was Calliope. She and Erica had gotten ready in the hall restrooms, rather than risk another fight before it was time.
"Ladies and gentlemen!" the fighting instructor, Sensei Tolman, began. "We shall spend the first twenty minutes reviewing grips, holds, and throws. Buddy up with someone about your own size, if possible, and find an open area to work in. Let's go!"
"C'mon," said Erica, helping her up from the start-of-class sitting position. "Just like Aunt Margit taught us."
The blonde girl's aunt had been as strict an instructor as Tolman, though more willing to teach the dirty tricks up-front as well. Hit hard, hurt hard, before the other person could; that seemed the woman's motto. Calliope wished she had paid more attention to those summer sessions.
In the here and now, she and Erica took turns throwing each other to the mat, breaking choke-holds, and trying not to hurt each other too much with precision damage to tender spots. Even with the best padding, blows to the chest still hurt.
"O-suwaré!" came the shout, and they scrambled back to the sitting area with the others. "Now that we are warmed up and limber, it is time for some sparring," Sensei Tolman carefully perused her list. "First up... Calliope and Rah-Rah."
Rah-Rah? Who was... oh, belin, she thought as Alvina got up as well. Oh, belin, oh no, oh gods of Olympus, what had she done to deserve this?
"First bout, no powers, weapons, or holdouts," the teacher told them. "Let's see you use some of those holds. Hajimé!"
She let Alvina make the first move, not trusting in her ability or her aggressive nature to prevail. The girl led with a sneer, unnerving no matter how expected, and proceeded to feint left and hit right, twisting Calliope's arm around until her shoulder screamed silently.
Throwing her head back, Calliope connected with something. Not hard enough to really hurt, but the grip on her arm weakened enough for her to spin away. Alvina's leg snaked out, hooking her ankles and bringing her down again.
And then she was locked into a choke-hold, the inner curve of an elbow pressing into her neck as the girl's other hand poked and prodded and --
And quite deliberately grabbed Calliope's groin, in a way that would have certainly hurt far more if there'd been anything hanging there.
"First match to Rah-Rah," Sensei Tolman said. "But watch what you do with your hands. Are you okay?" she asked Calliope.
"Si..." No, she was not, but she wasn't about to let Alvina see that. The girl was making crude gestures to her giggling friends while the instructor's back was turned.
"If you want to make a complaint, I'll back you," Sensei Tolman whispered to her.
Again, she shook her head. There was a tiny kernel of flame in her chest, a seed of anger that had been patiently waiting for its time to quicken, and now it was growing fast. With careful, deliberate steps, she took her place again on the mat.
"Alright then. Second bout, with powers. Hajimé."
This time, her opponent came in even faster, with energy wreathing her fists like sizzling pom-poms of PK. Calliope stepped back and left, back and right, using what evasive maneuvers she could recall to stay out of range of the explosive force those bundles of streaming sparkles promised to deal.
"Not so cocky, are you?" the girl jeered. "No fancy singing." Punch. "No friends to save your butt." Kick. "Little helpless freak!" Jab. "No balls at all!"
The kernel of anger was well watered by the girl's hate, growing in Calliope's chest until she was afraid it might burst right out. They were on the mat again. Alvina had her shoulder pinned with one hand, the other fist raised with a PK pom-pom ready to blast. Sensei Tolman was shouting in the background, calling the match--
Calliope could hardly hear over the sound of the hiss escaping her lips, a sharp, piercing sound pouring out from the fire within her, and carrying with it all the motion she could not put into words, all the sick, twisted feelings she'd been forced to absorb and mirror over the past three days without a means of release.
*hate!* sang the words she screamed in the girl's face. *anger! rage! die! die! die!*
Syllables without voice punched Alvina in the forebrain, and Calliope's own fists followed as best they could. Alvina's face and forehead did get in the way, however. With a shove, she threw the other girl up into the air, then slammed into her as she landed. Fists rose and fell, in time with screams of rage from her and cries of pain from Alvina.
And then, like someone turning off the faucet, the stream of rage ran dry. Calliope was left on her knees, trembling spasmodically as Alvina whimpered and her own body turned limp. She lacked the energy to stand, but could not sit, either. The world went pale for a moment, and then dark.
It was a longish while before the light came back, and Calliope could not say exactly when the world went from dark and hazy to merely dim and vaguely defined. She did know when Sensei Tolman turned on the overhead light, because the streams of photons from the bulb drilled into her skull and dragged a groan from the darkness. She lay in a cot, in what looked to be one of the secondary rooms which budded away from the gymnasium proper.
"How are you feeling?" asked the teacher.
"Like a garbage truck, it ran over me," she complained. "Ah, is Alvina okay?"
"Battered, bruised, and in need of an ego transplant," said Sensei Tolman. "She was threatening to report you for this, but I told her I was already writing her up for gross provocation and whatever regulation best matches to being an asshole."
"Don't be thanking me," said Tolman with a grunt as she rubbed her forehead. "I should've dressed her down immediately for that 'check the junk' feel that she copped. My apologies. Do you need to see the therapists? I'll write you a note to get out of your next few class periods." The tone of the woman's voice made it plain that it was only out of politeness that this was phrased as an offer, and not an order.
"I, ah, do not know..."
"Who your therapist is?"
"Damn it; that should've been near the top of the list of things to do for you. Bureaucrats," the teacher spat. "Okay, get over to Doyle, psychiatric side, and ask for Dr. Shu. I'll call ahead and let them know you're coming."
"One of the therapists. After that episode you had, I think he'd be good for you."
The reminder of the incident only brought the emotions back to the top of her mind, and her body quaked from the raw force of it all. An attempt to stand simply put her back in her cot.
"Take it easy," Tolman advised. "And take a shower before you go. You'll feel better."
"G-grazie... I do not, ah, understand..."
The instructor sighed. "Empaths. You're either the worst at hitting people because you feel them too well, or else you're the nastiest bitches in the fight because you feel everything too much and can't stop feeling it."
"I'm not a trained therapist, Calliope. Go talk to someone who is."
A hard gulp rattled its way down her throat. "Capisco. I, ah, I've got it. Grazie."
"Thank you all for coming," Erica said to her guests. The four of them were sitting in a booth at the little diner that served as an alternative food source for the lab rats in the devisor and gadgeteer course tracks, the kids who often did not know how to draw up a proper sleep schedule with both hands and a protractor. The others at the table were not so bad as that, but they were also only at the start of their careers.
"How's Cally doing?" asked Vicky. The perky devisor had known the Italian for longer than even Erica, and was one of the few people outside of Poe who knew the German girl's secret as well.
"Sleeping it off, last I heard," Erica told them. "Sensei Tolman will take good care of her."
"Good," said her second guest, a girl with gold ringlets and a sunny disposition who went by the code name Tek Witch. Anyone who cared called her Twitch instead. She wasn't out of junior high yet, but Erica could personally attest to the amount of crazy tech that had come with her to school via her luggage.
The last member of the meeting was also the only current male. Marcus Barnes was apparently a rarity: a resident of Poe for genuine psychological issues. His adopted brother and sisters all assured Erica that he was doing much better now, but there'd been one incident of him shooting a hole in a classroom projector screen already. She was going to have to watch her words.
At the moment, Marcus was retrieving plans from his bag. "Okay, so, based on what you were telling us on Saturday, here's what I think we can do..."
The devisor girls both took one look at the tentative plans, and not a second passed before pens were out and a war of words erupted as edits and alterations flew. Much criticism was given to the design aesthetic as well, which Erica did not think was entirely warranted.
Granted, Penny probably was not as big a fan of Mega Man as she or Marcus... and thankfully, the boy acknowledged this with an easy-going grin.
"If it helps," she offered, "Penny's more of a sneak-and-shoot type, so maybe something more stealth-minded? And she's got a danger sense thing going on, but I'm not sure how strong it is. Oh, and I haven't confirmed, but I'd be willing to bet she'll get my aunt's -- her grandmother's -- code name, Silberstern."
"Silver star?" Twitch asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Yeah. Six-pointed silver Star of David. They're Jewish," she added with a shrug.
The corners of Twitch's mouth matched her nickname. "You don't say. Well, I can certainly work with that motif..." More frantic pencil scribbles followed.
"Do we have a price estimate?" she asked the next time there was a lull in the planning process.
"Maybe?" said Marcus. "The dor... er, Dr. Speers helped me figure it up, but then big sis took one look at it and made him double the numbers. Er, she insists on talking with this uncle of yours, too."
"I'll arrange something for tomorrow," Erica promised.
Well, there went any chance that the week was going to be any less interesting than the weekend...
Sensei Tolman had been correct about the shower, at least. After a few quiet moments of running water, Calliope was feeling at least forty-two percent more human.
She could only hope that the instructor's other advice worked half so well. After a deep breath... and then another... and then one last time for good measure, and a fourth for good luck, and a fifth to steady her hand as she almost raised it to knock on the door, and --
And the door opened from the inside, revealing a round, bespectacled face framed by a goatee and a jawline beard. The bare parts were a weathered, swarthy tan, and the salt and pepper hair was black everywhere except where it wasn't.
"You must be Ms. Persico," he said. "Please, please, come in."
"Ah, Dr. Shu?" she said.
"None other. And I should know; I picked the name myself." Dark eyes twinkled behind tiny round lenses. "Sit anywhere you want. I've got room."
That he did; there were no fewer than six chairs in the office, most of them padded or reclining. Two were giant beanbag chairs -- the first in the shape of a sleepy blue Pokémon, and the other a fuzzy Totoro. Calliope chose a more dignified seat, but it was a difficult decision.
"So," said the doctor as he plopped down on the Totoro. "Welcome to my humble den, Ms. Persico... or may I call you Fiorella?"
"Calliope, actually. I... I prefer that."
She could almost see the notes writing themselves behind his eyes. "Well then, Calliope," he continued. "I've only had a short time to skim over your file, but it seems like you've got plenty to talk about, if you wish. Any place you would like to start with?"
Though she hadn't really meant to, Calliope found herself hugging her knees as she rocked in her chair. Where to start? With Sunday? With Saturday? With this time, that time... every moment she could think of, there was always just one more thing before it, extending back months and months to the vague point in time when a small tweak of the DNA had sealed the fate of one Fabrizio Persico.
"We can always begin at the end," the doctor suggested, guessing her confusion. "Ms. Tolman informed me of an incident, but would not divulge particulars, only that it was not you who was at fault."
One last deep breath -- truly the last, with no more of the procrastination --filled her lungs with the air needed to say as much as possible before she had the risk of thinking again: "There's this girl on my floor who has been absolutely awful to me since those boys outed me -- she was also the reason for an incident on Sunday -- and we were paired for a sparring match, because I guess no one told Sensei, but she... she..." Her singular breath had run out, and the story sputtered with it.
"We can skip that part if you like," Dr. Shu offered.
"No, no... this is..." She hugged her knees more tightly. "It is, it is the example of the, the everything! All the looks, all the whispers and taunts and awful words and... and... and then this bitch thinks it is funny to try and crush the, the things I no longer have, to... to verify? To check? To... to... humiliate, that is what it is! And it, it has only been three days now -- only three! -- and I cannot, do not wish to ignore it but I do not know what, and...
"I hit back. I hurt her, and I do not think Sensei was honest with me about how much I did. I was there; I was on fire in my brain and I could not stop hitting until my body would not move anymore, and I do not know why or how or..." She sobbed into the fabric of her uniform skirt. "Or if it will happen again."
"This is not so rare a thing as you might think," Dr. Shu offered. "With the extremes of physiology or sensory apparatus many mutants experience, the hormones and emotions of the teenage years must perforce be amplified."
Calliope grimaced. "This was far more than mere hormones," she said.
"Quite. It was in fact a first-degree rager episode. I can see why Ms. Tolman recommended you to me." He gestured to the wall behind him. "It is something of a specialty for me, my area of expertise."
The knowledge needed to properly assess the row of diplomas was not something which she possessed, but they certainly looked impressive. What they had to do with her, that was also something she was uncertain of. "Ah, but, my mutation does not include Rager..." She let the words trail off.
"No one's does," said the doctor. "That is something of the point. There is no clinical definition used for Rager ratings as a thing in and of themselves. It is a syndrome, but not a sickness, if that makes sense. Something brought on by hormonal flux, by traumatized reactions, by emotional overload..."
"Such as what I experienced during the fight..." Calliope hid her face in her knees. "Cosa..."
"Exactly." The doctor was examining her closely. "Now, this is not exactly a common thing for empaths, but neither is it unheard of. It does happen."
"Because we feel too much."
"Yes. But as this is the first time you've shown this issue, and it does not appear to be primarily biological, and the traumas involved are both identifiable and fresh, I feel we should be able to head this off and avoid a Rager-1 rating on your MID. If you're willing to work with me?"
"Certo. Ah, yes, please."
"Good. I'll set up an appointment schedule, consult Ms. Tolman and your other teachers, and then we can apply one of my other specialties." He tapped the last of his framed certificates.
"Registered instructor of zen meditative techniques?" she half-read, half-asked.
"Yes. Or as my grandfather would call it, Ch'an Buddhist reflection." Dr. Shu sighed. "I do miss him. Patience of a saint, or a Bodhisattva. I learned a lot from him."
"I, ah, look forward to hearing more."
A rumbling laugh shook the beanbag chair. "He would certainly be amused by the life I live. But for now, I would recommend resting for the remainder of the day. They let you come back to class too soon, in my opinion."
"But!" she stammered. "My... my music class..."
"Do you think it a good idea to go?"
She spent a moment examining the ceiling tiles. They were in remarkably pristine condition. "I ... do not get along with everyone, but I do, did, with most, and I would like to think they would be, ah, cool about my situation. But I do not know and, and I need to..."
"I shall call ahead to Mr. August then, if that is okay? Keep him apprised of the situation. And in the meantime, try to keep yourself surrounded by people whom you know to care about you. Absorb some positive vibes. Doctor's orders."
She padded up the stairs, passing into the rarefied hallways of the teachers' office complex. Every instructor in the school, no matter how limited or infrequent the actual field of study, kept at least a token space in this wing of Schuster Hall. Some were large enough to host a small class, if they weren't filled with books. Others were literally broom closets. One door, she suspected after much examination and consideration, could not possibly lead anywhere at all, given the geometry of the building. She regretted not having an excuse to knock on that one to see what was up with it.
Her business that afternoon, as it was most Tuesdays and Thursdays, was with Herr Karl Auer, the German instructor. They would chat, discuss her reading material, go over her composition homework, and generally pretend like this was a normal scholastic situation. Also as usual, she arrived almost half an hour early, well within the extended break in time before seventh period that many used to do assignments or have an early half-dinner.
"Gutentag, Erica," the teacher said as she let herself into the office. "And how was your weekend?"
"Eventful," she replied in German. "Not always in the best way."
"Such is life..." said Herr Auer.
"And, ah, how is Kirsten doing? I've been doing my best to avoid her, but..."
"Fraülein Bischofsheim is as vocal as ever," he confirmed. "For our last group discussion, it was her turn to choose the topic, and she decided to debate the question of what makes someone German."
Her face would have burned red if it could change color at all. "I am afraid I might be the reason for that..." she began.
"Ja, ja, Kirsten is about as subtle as a steamroller, isn't she." The teacher shook his head. "Not that she didn't make some good points. I cannot count the number of students I have had in America who proudly proclaimed a German genetic heritage without knowing the first thing about Germany beyond Oktoberfest."
"Oh, I am not including you in that group," he assured her. "You're essentially a second-generation immigrant, and I can tell that your grandparents raised you well. Lots of little traditions and things, I would imagine?"
"Well..." Erica chuckled. "I always used to brag that St. Nicholas came to my house early every year because I'd leave my shoes outside the bedroom door on December 5th, and he'd fill them with candy. Or I'd hide my thumb in my fist instead of crossing my fingers for good luck. And Oma was more likely to pack braunschweiger than PBJ in my school lunches. Or spaetzle instead of macaroni and cheese." Her stomach rumbled from the happy memories. "We had plans to visit the old country for a few weeks, or even all of next summer, but life got crazy in a guns and ammo sort of way, and now here I am."
"A better foundation than most," said Herr Auer, "and something you're willing to build upon. The other German-speaking students on campus all agree on that, which is why," he continued, "I shall be changing up your learning plans. On Thursdays, I shall arrange a one-on-one cultural exchange session with an upperclassman, so you can learn more about your heritage, and we can hopefully shut Kirsten up for good on the matter."
"That is a rather heavy hope," she said.
"Now, as a pop quiz on your German-ness..." There was laughter in his eyes. "Was ist das beste Weihnachtsgeschenk?"
Without a blink, she replied, "Ein Trommel, die is unschlager."
Opa had run that same joke past her every Christmas, often in both English and German. What's the best Christmas present? A drum. It's unbeatable.
Herr Auer made a polite clap. "Perhaps I am biased, but I dare say there is hope. Now, take out your textbook and let us work on the first subjunctive for today..."
She hid her grin behind the book as the teacher began picking specific examples from various novels, some of which she had read. Working from the memory of a story did in fact help more than just the grammar book alone, and by the time she left the office she had another novel in hand to help her out more.
There depths in the depths beneath Whateley's core academic buildings that Calliope had yet to plumb, and likely never would. At the moment, she was barely scratching the surface with a visit to the freshman devisor lab space, where her friend Victoria Stone earned lesson credits by building -- or more often, destroying -- sundry items. She held her breath in as she watched the other girl carefully weld a flexible matrix of circuitry into a matte black material using a gun that shot miniature rainbows.
In the back of her head, a tiny part of her wondered at the fact that she could sit there and accept the ridiculous so well. Whateley seemed to have that effect on people.
"Ta-da!" Vicky cried, true to her name. Pulling the matte black material over her hand like a glove, she slapped the side of a nearby crate and then lifted the bulky cube as if it were glued on.
"Ah, impressive," said Calliope. "How, er..."
"Does it do that?"
"Si." She could feel her cheeks redden. For all that she loved her science fiction novels and games, Calliope was generally at a loss to guess at the function of whatever her friend made.
"It's a specialized force-field projection circuit that mimics certain aspects of PK, specifically this sticky effect that my art teacher can do," said Vicky. "I've been wanting to give it a try, and that project of Erica's gives me the excuse to add it to my docket."
"Ah, I see." She wasn't quite sure what Cousin Pennny would make of this as a birthday present, but at least it was not boring. Her own Nonna was prone to giving out homemade socks as a joke. "What is this fabric? It looks familiar, but I..."
"This? I traded favors with Electradyne for some swatches of her stuff. It's a little weird, but it takes printed circuitry like nothing else out there. At least that I can afford; I'm sure Materielle's got something awesome in her stock but I can't manage that on a freshman stipend."
"Really? Ah..." In all honesty, the girl known as Electradyne was the main reason she was even considering to skip music class next period, but now Calliope found herself getting dragged across the lab space to where the girl had her things set up.
Some of these things, Calliope might hazard a guess on. They looked similar to machinery she had seen years ago on a school trip out into the country, when they'd visited a small sheep ranch. There was a separator, a spinner, and other items needed for converting wool to thread. A loom dominated one side of the cubby, its shuttle dashing back and forth on automatic.
"Hey, Ngaire!" Vicky shouted. "Your stuff's working like a charm!"
"Of course it is," said the other devisor without looking up from her workstation. She appeared to be feeding raw filaments into it for processing. "It's the same stuff I use to make my performance wear, after all. I wouldn't ruin my good name with shoddy..." Electradyne's voice paused the second she glanced up to see who else was there. "Ah, hello, Calliope."
"Electra. How are you doing today?"
"Better than you, I'd imagine. Ah, what time is it?"
"Almost five," Vicky helpfully informed.
"Then it's almost time for music practice," murmured Electra. From behind her deck the girl retrieved her musical... instrument was not quite the right word for it. Her musical engine, a strange blend of accordion, music box, and desktop computer with a crank handle, keyboard, and myriad cables to plug into other devices or her own outfit. "Are you coming, Calliope?"
"Certo che si," she replied, switching to the comfortable familiarity of her mother tongue and hoping the other two girls got the message. It was flat-out the opposite of how she felt, but she was not going to show weakness in front of the likes of Electra at a time like this.
"Then we can go together, have a bit of time for girl talk." Try as she might, Calliope could not detect any tinge of sarcasm to that turn of phrase.
Shouldering her musical engine, Electra motioned to the door. "Shall we?"
"Catch you two later," Vicky said, seemingly oblivious to the undercurrents of emotion now grating against her friend's nerves. "Have fun at practice!"
"We will..." The two of them were out the door and several meters down the hall before Electra spoke again. "Why is it that Americans are so obsessed with wishing people fun, anyway?"
"Ah, I could not say," Calliope admitted. "It is one of their peculiarities. Like the smiling all of the time. Back home, we are generally an emotional and positive people, but if we smiled as much as Americans, people would think we were deranged!"
"That sounds about right." They nodded along in silence a few more steps. "Um, I'd like to apologize. For being such a bitch."
"You were not so bad. I have met far worse in the past week. And..." Her mouth quirked to the side. "I did show you up a few times, if only by accident. Never did I mean to offend."
"It wasn't just that. I thought you might get in between me and Kieran..."
"You, ah, do realize..."
"That he's queer as a football bat? Yeah. Finally. And, well, new school, new life, trying to live a little after all the shit that came before, and there you were, minding your own business. I shouldn't have taken it out on you. And, well, you've got enough shit going down as it is. I owe it to my brother to make amends if I can."
Calliope replayed the last sentence in her head a few times. "Ah, your brother?"
"Jimmy. Well, James. Best big brother I could've had, took me in after I got disfellowshipped for reasons that absolutely had nothing to do with my mutation." That last phrase proved that Calliope's sarcasm scanners were in fact fully operational.
"Excuse me, but dis...?"
"Oh, sorry. Disfellowshipped. It's a Witnesses thing. Jehovah's Witnesses? Basically I got kicked out and no one in the church can speak with me or acknowledge I exist, even my family."
"So yeah, the only person I could turn to was Jimmy, and even then he was the one who had to find me, because I didn't know where to look. I still thought his name was Janice."
That sentence ran like a locomotive on a track between her ears, overshooting the station of her brain and having to back up some. "Eh? Cosa?"
"Like I said," Electra continued. "I owe him a lot of things, and one of those is to be an ally to anyone in a situation like either of ours, his or mine." The devisor girl stopped short, thrusting out a hand out to grab Calliope's for a good shake. "Can't promise we'll always get along, but you'll have my support."
"G-grazie. Thank you. Um... could we talk again sometime? Maybe plan a performance together?"
It was perhaps the first time she'd seen Electra's smile aimed her way. "Sure. Let's do that."
Some things were best left alone, Kirsten knew. Things like scabs and spiders and devices with big red buttons on the top. Just because they should be left alone, however, did not mean they would be. Buttons were meant to be pressed; spiders, to be harassed. Scabs were to be picked off, which summed up her emotional hangups on the von Abendritter girl perfectly.
The Ami-Mädchen, the American posing as German was a scab on Kirsten's life, an irritant that itched and caught on things: impossible to ignore, painful to scratch, and yet impossible to turn away from.
Which was why she was now sitting in one of the little study rooms off to the side of the library, looking over a contract that would take out most of her discretionary funds for the month of October if signed. The pen was in her hand.
"It is a thorough document," she stated, pushing back the moment of truth by a few more syllables.
Across the table from her, the first of three nodded. "It had better be," said the girl known as Annalee Newton, though she preferred the code name Osmic Ace. "My man Deduce over here spent a winter term on studying contract law, just so we could do this right."
Next to Osmic Ace, the second member of the trio grinned sheepishly. Kirsten knew Deduce largely by reputation, but despite that reputation, the boy was still painfully shy. She had only the word of his two teammates that he was even capable of speech.
The third member, the girl named Trace, was fiddling with a roll of pennies. "So, are we doing business or what?" she snapped. "All the staring in the world's not gonna change the ink any."
"Ja, ja, let's do this." Putting her pen to paper, Kirsten scrawled out her name. The paper took the ink, glittered faintly around each letter, and then automatically added the time and date stamps.
"Smart paper. What a thing, huh?" said Osmic.
"That it is..."
"Well then." The trio stood and bowed. "The Card Sharps Detective Agency is at your service, Ms. Bischofsheim. Expect our first report by tomorrow afternoon."
"I look forward to it," said Kirsten.
--Macarthur Price (formerly known as the Idiot; Backlash)
There'd been a big change of mood around campus in the past few days, and Mac didn't need an empathy rating to feel it. Things were tense; they were on edge every time a familiar gold-and-brunette head came into view, and it was all because of him.
He'd learned the truth and seen the need to share, so all those dudes out there who didn't know better yet wouldn't walk into the trap he'd so narrowly avoided. Really, he'd done the male half of society a favor.
The best part was that he'd gotten out of it relatively clear of any guilt. Sure, there were some who suspected his part in beating the trap's beta loser of a brother senseless, but Fra himself had had the sense not to implicate him. So rumors remained rumors, and those only helped to build his reputation.
Now, when he walked across the quad, people paid attention. Dudes stepped aside, and girls watched him go. This was how it was supposed to be, he felt. How it had been, at his old school where he'd been the toughest, handsomest thing on campus. Here, he still couldn't compete directly with the top exemplars, but he could at least be confident in the feeling that he still had 'it.'
"You are looking awfully glad, friend." The dude known as Gouyasse -- and really, Mac would never tell the burly Belgian how gay that name sounded, no matter how he thought it -- was waiting for him by the door to the Crystal Hall. They hadn't seen each other since the last, panicked meeting of the Outstanding Dudes Society, and Mac wasn't too sorry about that. Dude was good for beer, but his attitude stunk.
"It's a wonderful time to be alive," he replied with his best grin plastered over his face. He'd spent a lot of time studying his favorite action movie stars and staring in the mirror, perfecting it.
"For some, yes." The Belgian might have been including himself in that plural.
"Is... there a problem?" he asked, pacing a few yards away from the doors. Gouyasse ambled after him. "High Gear and Jack said they would take care of things."
"And so they have," Gouyasse confirmed. "This is why you will not be seeing Rutherford ever again. I simply wished to pass on a word of advice, as a sophomore to a freshman: leave it be. We do not bother the Italian. Not directly, and not for a while to come. Anything like the attack last Saturday is simply out of the question."
"Dude, you don't have to tell me twice."
A grin broke the Belgian's face. "Good. I just had to make sure. Not everyone on this campus is so level-headed, and I've had to work with some true idiots before."
"But, if for example, the brother attacks me again?"
"Pound him into the dirt. Again." The grin only grew toothier. "Only she is off limits. The ones around her? Those are new situations. Be careful."
"Hah, always." Mac smirked as he walked away, noting which girls watched him pass. One upperclasswoman with the hair that seemed to change from day to day, she was definitely giving him a once-over. Her friend with the bright red hair, fading to salmon, even nodded at him.
His steps turned into a saunter that lasted all the way to the buffet line. Yes, life was looking up, indeed.
Dinner had not been so bad. It had not been much, either. Even with her friends all around to provide an oasis of positivity in a desert of scratchy, itchy emotions, she had found it hard to have much appetite. Tanya was nice enough to grab a take-out box for her, and she'd made her exit with Erica before the majority of campus was finished shoveling foodstuffs.
So far, no one had asked how she was holding up. The answer was obvious to see.
"You know what we need?" Erica said as they wandered towards Dickinson.
"What?" she asked, more out of form than curiosity.
"Some puppy love." The blonde girl nodded ahead of them on the walking path, where her former somewhat-sorta-kinda boyfriend Daniel was strolling with a shorter girl whose green fronds of hair were familiar, even if Calliope couldn't recall her name.
Behind them, the squat, bulky form of Cookie trotted along. Pup was a good dog. Perhaps even the best dog, if everything Daniel said was true, but that did not change the fact that pup was also a nine-hundred kilogram Boston Terrier with two heads and paws the size of an energizer's dinner plate. Even as Cookie padded along, as quietly as pup could, it was obvious to Calliope's senses that the poor dog was a fifth wheel to its boy's little after-dinner date.
"Hey, Daniel!" Erica called. "Mind if we take the pup off your hands for a while? It sure looks like someone could use a little baseball time."
Cookie's yips of agreement echoed between their heads as one went down, the other up, and then the reverse, in an energetic fit of nodding. A stubby tail wagged.
"As long as pup's okay with it, sure," said Daniel. "Bat 'n ball are in the usual spot."
"Thanks." Erica tugged Calliope along after Cookie as pup took off towards its doghouse on the corner of Twain Cottage.
"Um, are you sure..." Calliope stuttered out.
"Pup's an excellent therapy dog."
That was not the part which concerned her. Twain meant boys, and boys meant... She pulled her mental shields tight around her, bracing herself against what she was afraid might come.
She was not so skilled as Pat, to tell exactly the direction and position of a person by the flows of attention, but she could feel the eyes on her nonetheless. The eyes on them, in fact, as any female passing by the boys' dorm was going to attract attention, but it was the timbre of the emotion, how the notes changed when they danced past her in particular, that was chilling.
Cookie's toys, a baseball bat and an oversized ball half the size of Calliope's head, were safely retrieved, and they were walking away from the dorm when the inevitable finally occurred: "Hey, freak!"
"Ignore it," said Erica out the corner of her mouth.
Calliope did her best to do so. She did not look at the speaker, but neither did she need to. His spiky aggressiveness pressed at her brain, ramming up against her shields, and she could feel the stress building inside her as defense mechanisms stirred to life.
And then a puppy tongue licked her hand. Rather, a long, broad flap of muscle folded around and over her hand, leaving it dripping with slobber, but it was the thought that counted, and Cookie's feelings were nothing but pleasant as the pup nudged her along.
"Hey, I'm talking to you, freak."
"Big talk, coming from a guy who looks like a warthog," Erica shot back. Cookie woofed in agreement.
Calliope still did not look at the boy, though she was quite curious now. She was not sure how her control would suffer if she did, however. It was only when Cookie nudged her again with a wet nose that she realized that she was humming a sharp, spiteful note. If her roommate heard, the blonde did not say anything.
There was a puppy at her side all the way to the big field behind Dickinson, where Erica practiced whacking balls into the firmament and Cookie practiced impossible catches. For a creature its size, pup could move. Calliope even took a few turns at bat, with Erica pitching softballs at her until she could actually hit one. It was what the Americans called a pop fly, which Cookie caught with ease, but it was something.
"Ah, perhaps I should go back to the dorm soon," she said. "It has been a long day, again."
"That it has." Erica put a hand to her abdomen and grimaced. "And I don't think I'm up for much running. Sorry, pup."
Cookie treated them to a double-wide grin, woofed, and retrieved its toys, carrying them carefully in both mouths. Pup escorted them all the way to Dickinson, growling as necessary to let people nearby know they should think before opening their face-holes. For a creature without proper gonads, the dog was a more proper gentleman than any male in Calliope's recent experience -- save, perhaps, for Claudio. She felt that her older brother would be honored by the comparison.
This evening, the RA at the desk was Panoptikon, she of the long movie starlet hair draped stylishly over the spot where her right eye should have been.
"Milena out tonight?" Erica asked her.
"Yes. She had some chore to take care of." Delicate shoulders rose and fell. "The usual. She said to say hi. So, hi."
In the current mess of her mind, things sloshed around to be remembered at the oddest of times. At the moment, the little card Milena had passed to her the other day floated like a leaf atop it all. The first thing she did upon reaching their room was to check the square of black, to find a time, a place, and a name written on it in dark violet letters. Her breath caught in her chest. Those had definitely not been there earlier in the day.
"Something wrong?" asked Erica from the door.
"Nothing!" she cried back. "Ah, aside from the usual. My phone, it has messages." This was in fact true, and she had no desire to see what those... thirty-four messages from anonymous senders had to say. It was too easy to guess. "Could you, ah..."
Erica took the phone from her hand. "Sure."
The German girl's face could not get any paler -- literally, as her skin tone was fixed -- and neither could she turn green. The grimace now making an appearance on the center stage of her visage signaled the true colors of her emotion well enough. "Okay... forwarding all these to spam control. Maybe the school IT department can do something."
"One can hope..." she murmured.
"Well, now I feel dirty," Erica declared. "Time to hit the showers. Um, will you...?"
"I will wait," she replied. "Milena will not mind if I break curfew by a little in order to shower in peace, I think."
"Probably not," Erica agreed.
-- 11 PM
Calliope looked up from her book. Not to check the time -- she knew it to the second -- but to check on her roommate. Erica had gone to bed soon after her shower, and the light sniffles and snrks announced the onset of dreams. Humming an old Italian lullaby, she made sure that the other girl's sleep was deep and restful.
When she padded out of the room and down the hall, it was not to the showers she went.
"Good evening, ma'am," she said when she reached the bottom of the stairs. Ms. Plimsoll was again on duty, a bored and irritable Cerberus for the dorm.
"Hello, Ms. Persico," the woman replied. She motioned to the door near the front desk. "If you would follow me?"
This corridor of Dickinson was terra incognita for most girls, and its bare walls little resembled the rest of the dorm. At the far end, a simple door unlocked to reveal a stairwell descending into the earth.
"I swear, this school has more secrets than a cathedral of confessionals," the woman muttered. Calliope giggled her agreement, the sound bubbling from fizzing nerves.
Down the stairs, to another corridor. Down the corridor, to a plain, grey waiting room. In the room --
There was no one near to punch Calliope in the stomach, yet that was how she felt. Sitting at the singular table within the room, himself with a puzzled and disagreeable expression on his face, was Vic Rivera.
"What is she--"
"What is he--"
"Silence." What Ms. Plimsoll demanded, she got. "I understand if there is ill will between you. That is the nature of high school. I ask only that you put it aside for a moment and hear me out."
The woman tutted, her finger waving in exact arcs. "Here, I am to be called Patience. Please do not test me. Now, sit."
"Yes, Ms. P... Patience." She quickly took her seat, as far away beside Vic as she could manage. The emotional tintinnabulation ringing from him was... disconcerting.
On the other hand, the woman calling herself Patience was a single, sharp note. "I have called you here to make an offer," she began.
"If this is another recruitment pitch for the Masterminds..." Vic said.
"It is not, though it involves some resources normally set aside for their use, and if you wish to further avail yourself of them after this, you are welcome to join. Either of you."
She filed away that sentence away, to parse out later. In the here and now, there was a more important question to ask: "What is this offer? For real?"
Patience steepled her fingers. "In one of my other unofficial capacities, I brokered a plea deal to ensure that a student would not see punishment for his actions in exchange for the equipment which he used to offend. At the time, I was not aware of the extent of the actions in question, nor what plots he had already set in motion. By the letter of the rules, I did my job as required, but I cannot approve of how this young man bent the spirit of the system."
"If you could get to the point?" Vic grumbled. "Some of us have class in the morning."
"I am offering a chance at revenge," said Patience. "On young Mr. Thawne. Jack-in-the-Box," she added, seeing the looks of confusion.
"Who?" Calliope still asked.
"That bastard!" shouted Vic.
"One of the ringleaders behind this weekend's fiasco," Patience continued, for Calliope's benefit.
"And the guy who led that attack on you," Vic said. "I knew it was his voice, but without a recording or other evidence..."
The scowl on the woman's face deepened. "It was the nature of his plea deal that even direct evidence of wrongdoing would likely get buried. Oh, don't look at me. These rules have been in place for half a century. The Syndicate had an active role in the foundation of this school, and of its infamous neutrality agreement, so of course there are systems in place to circumvent it all and avoid punishment.
"The question is, Mr. Rivera, Ms. Persico, are you willing to work together, work with me, to take that little jackass down a notch?"
A week ago, she would have said no. This was not a thing that she did. It was not an act of the person she thought she was. Tonight, however, she was filled with all the anger and hate which life had sent crashing over her, and if she were to let it all out, better that it be on someone who deserved it.
"Certo che si," she replied. "Yes, let us do this."