----Wednesday, Oct. 5th, 2016
Mittwoch. The German word for Wednesday was simple, concise, and accurate. The middle of the week, indeed. No fancy names were needed, just an acknowledgement that the only thing going for it was that it meant yet another week was half over.
This week in particular could not end soon enough, she'd already decided as she led her roommate outside for the first morning run since things had gone nuts. The Italian looked like the butterflies in her stomach were about to burst out of her chest, and Erica's own insides were aching, if for different reasons. The internal twists and churns that came with her slightly irregular menstrual cycle were almost finished. She hoped.
So this morning they took it slow, walking the first circuit of the quad in about twice the usual time. Halfway along, the junior high school girl Physique caught up with them to stroll in solidarity. As they passed Poe, the equally junior Time Bomb and the somewhat older Nina Blake joined in as well.
"You -huff- do this -puff- every day?" Nina was asking before too long.
"Most every," Physique replied for them. "A bit of running to warm up, then calisthenics and stuff."
"Morning routine," Erica confirmed. "Though with less martial arts practice than my grandmother or Aunt Margit usually have me do. We get that in BMA, after all."
Her roommate was quiet all the way around, though Erica couldn't miss how the Italian tensed up at the mention of certain topics, or when specific people passed them by on the track. She doubted the others missed it, either.
"Say, Cally," Nina asked once they'd stopped for a moment and she'd stopped huffing and puffing like an asthmatic wolf. "Wanna hang out with us at lunch today? Um, I mean, you don't have to, but..."
Behind Nina and Cally, where only Erica could see, the junior high girls were rolling their eyes and making kissie expressions. She kept her own face neutral. "It might be good for you," she said instead to Cally. "Let people see you've got broader support than they'd expect."
"Maybe..." The Italian paused, hesitating briefly in the face of Nina's full-force enthusiasm, but there were few who could resist for long. "Ah, okay. It is a... a lunch."
"Yay!" Nina shook her hands through the simple expedience of grabbing them tight and bouncing up and down excitedly. "Well, I should go get ready for the day, I guess. S-see you later!" With TimeBomb dragged along in her emotional undertow, Nina skipped all the way back to the dorm.
The look on Cally's face was a masterpiece that would require an empath to decipher, with the twists of the mouth and the curls at the corners. The eyes were a puzzle in and of themselves. "That was, ah..." the girl began.
"She's got such a crush on you!" Physique giggled.
"Si..." Even the Italian's voice was shell-shocked. "It is, ah, we... I guess we shall see." She was notably quiet all the way back to Dickinson.
Up until about a month ago, schooling hadn't been a major part of Daniel Diggins' life. As with many other things, the blame for that could be laid at the feet of old Reverend Barkus, the leader of the religious commune where Daniel's family still resided. Education was not a priority when you believed the world was literally going to hell, and you were praying for the Rapture to hurry up and get there.
So, unlike many of his classmates, he didn't grudge the teachers any for sticking him in remedial classes for most every subject. With the sole exception of Kitchen Arts, he really needed the help.
His roommate hadn't taken it so well at first. Pete 'Humorless' Foley was used to being called stupid, and used to beating up anyone who called him that. The fact that the young giant with the not-a-clown-so-don't-say-it face was not dumb as a load of bricks anymore only made it harder to take, apparently.
Daniel always had a chocolate donut ready for when Pete arrived at the English Language Learners classroom, since the boy almost always came in angry from math. It just made things easier on everybody.
Today must not've been a good first period. Pete took the donut without a word, making the little ring of fried dough last through many careful nibbles.
ELL was the only class where Daniel regularly served up the sweets, and he knew most everyone's orders by heart now. Kenshin and his new friend from Osaka both favored honey-glazed old-fashioneds for some reason, while little Kareela in front always got a cinnamon roll. Avsel in her headscarf preferred a round danish, and Anaïs got a churro.
The leafy-haired girl accepted the long, fried pastry with a wink that set her little circle of friends to giggling. Even Avsel was hiding a smile behind one hand.
"Guess things went well with little greenie last night," Pete chuckled once Daniel had returned from placing a strawberry jammy on the teacher's desk.
"About as well as any," he replied. "Nice walk, nice talk, a tour of the school gardens under the stars. Pretty nice, all around."
"Kiss at the end?"
He felt his ears redden. "Gentlemen don't say." All around, he could feel the attention of the boys' half of the class -- except for Hardnose, who was too busy flirting with Jourdain.
"C'mon, man," said Johnny Irvine, the sleepy kid with the armadillo plates instead of hair. "We need some details!"
"Yeah, before Johnny falls asleep again," said Pete. The armadillo boy tried to argue, but was yawning before he got two words in. "I mean," the not-a-clown continued, "ya been out with almost half the girls in this class already, and a few outside of it, which is more than all the rest of us put together! We could use some pointers."
"Or tricks to help," said Johnny through another yawn.
From the row ahead of them, a blond head stirred, and Francesco Persico turned to glare blearily at them. "No. No tricks. If you start speaking like that, it begins to sound like the ODS. Do not be like them."
"Damn straight," growled Pete. "They tried to recruit me only because they thought I could scare the cuter girls right into their arms. Tricks. Hell, no. Doesn't mean we can't stand for some help, though."
"Not from me," said the Italian around a bite of donut.
"What about you, fuzz-butt?" Pete called down the aisle a ways, to where the class's other Daniel, better known as Wilder, sat. "You been here maybe a week, and you already got a girlfriend!"
The boy from the bayou gave the not-a-clown a glare that was barely three shades short of crimson blood rage. "Don't be jokin' bout that," he drawled. "Rachel's nice when she's not in the mood to punch, but when she is..."
"Yeah, really," said Johnny. "I was talking with Groundpounder the other day..."
"You mean Clod?" Despite his code name, Pete could still find humor in other people. The young giant's laugh was a snort that shook the air around him.
"Don't gotta be all that, just..." Daniel fished through his head for something to say in the space between one conversation and the next. "Just common sense, yanno? Be nice, be honest. Walk, talk, share thoughts. Unnerstand that ninety percent 'a the time, it ain't goin' nowhere, so don't get mad when it don't. I mean," he said with a shrug, "we're all, what, fourteen? Fifteen at most? Got all the time in the world ahead of us. No point in rushin'."
"Easy for you to say," said Johnny.
"Ain't a race. Well, unless you wanna date Avsel, 'cuz she'll make ya run for it."
"So how'd you do it, then?" Pete asked with a grin that almost matched the outline of his face.
"Me? Nah, she had a date with Cookie. I was just the shappy-rone for that one."
A new voice butted into the conversation: "Um..." It came from Sam, the nervous-looking kid from Poe. Daniel had chatted with him a few times at the Friday night movie parties that Ms. Barnes had semi-mandated, but otherwise he didn't know much about the boy.
Except for his taste in donuts, of course. He handed Sam a bear-claw.
"Thanks. Um, what're you guys talking about?" Sam's voice was high and nasal, with some east coast accent to it that Daniel wasn't about to place.
"Girls," said Pete with a snort. "How 'bout you? Any luck so far?"
Sam froze in place, wide eyes darting left and right. "Um... no? I guess? I, I didn't have much, much luck, y-y'know, before, and..."
"And we're either too shy, or they are, or both," Pete finished for him. "That's why we're all so jealous, Danny. So go on, put a good word in for us, will ya?"
The boy with the pink eyes blinked them several times. "Well, if anyone asks, I suppose... Y'all can't be strangers, though. If we don't hang out, I won't know what to recommend. Be friendly to be a friend, right?"
"Ladies and gentlemen!" announced the teacher, Ms. Barnes, from her desk. "It shall take me exactly twenty seconds to finish off this delectable donut which someone has left for me, and you had better be ready to start class by then!"
There was a frantic shuffle as the teacher savored her daily bribe, as if this wasn't how just about every ELL class started. Sam had a sideways smile on as he sat beside Daniel. The donut boy's answering shrug was one of 'Whatcha gonna do?'
The proper reply was, of course, to learn. Just like it always was.
She should have been in BMA class. That she was not was both a relief and a worry. Time to cool off, time to assess, time to see if this 'little problem' of hers -- how euphemistic! -- could be in fact curtailed. And thus, for the immediate future, he martial arts class had been replaced with visits to Dr. Shu's office.
"How would you rate your day so far?" the large, jovial man was asking from the comfort of his Totoro beanbag chair.
That morning, she'd opted for the rocking chair. Back and forth it went as she considered. "On what scale?"
"Whatever you decide."
Not her favorite sort of answer. "Well then. On a musical scale, it has been a mi. Not the lowest note, but far from a high one."
"Nice..." the psychiatrist said appreciatively. "Have you had a chance to practice your breathing exercises?"
"A little." She'd almost blasted the brains out of the Darby twins in Powers Theory, the period before, only for Pat had caught her in time. The matching set of idiots never even realized. Much breathing and counting had happened right after. "I confess, I am not sure of its, ah, efficacy? Is that the word?"
"It's a good word, certainly," said Dr. Shu. "But to address your true question, these meditative practices are as good as you make them. Zen is not, as many assume, about living in serenity. It is about living in the moment, unfettered by the past and uncaring of the future. A sort of serenity just seems to follow from there."
"But for me..."
"It should help you to manage your perspective, to channel the flow of your emotions so that they do not dam up and then burst in a flood of pain upon others. If that means letting them out before they build too much, then that is still progress."
"Ah, it just seems so... so..."
"Out of reach?"
Dr. Shu reached up to pluck a toy from the nearest shelf: a little red figurine, a sort of round, red and orange monkey-thing with long forelegs and great, bushy eyebrows. "Do you know what this is?" he asked.
"It is... some sort of Pokémon?" she guessed.
The doctor's laugh indicated a correct answer. "Yes, in fact. This is Darmanitan, a wild and fiery-tempered creature that will run roughshod over everything in its path. And yet, if it were to focus on the now, rather than the aches of the past or desires of the future, then..." Fingers pressed at the figurine, and it changed. Subtly at first, arms and legs folding in, but then the entire lump of plastic re-molded its outline and changed color to a stony grey with blazing eyebrows.
"Amazing what they put in children's meal boxes these days, isn't it?" said Dr. Shu wistfully. "Why, when I was a child, we were lucky to get something that did anything at all."
"What is it now?" she asked.
"Now? It's a Darmanitan, same as before. But did you know that this Pokémon is based on an actual person -- a Buddhist monk, no less?"
"Ah, no. I did not."
"Bodhidharma," said Dr. Shu, "also known in Japan as Daruma-sama, was a man of fierce passions. Much like our plastic friend here, he was a force to be reckoned with, for his strength grew in step with the heat of his heart. At his worst, he was described in language not unlike that said of Ragers nowadays. But then he found a new channel for that passion, placing it into the focus of his meditations. According to the tales, he sat in a cave for seven years, until his arms and legs were practically useless and his body was like a stone." He paused to place the rounded pebble shape of the transformed Darmanitan back on its shelf.
"Obviously, we won't be going that far," chuckled the doctor. "But note the difference. Without focus, without the meditation on the now, Bodhidharma's passions were at the mercy of his past and future, forcing him to react to memories and traumas, hopes and desires, in ways that were harmful to himself as well as others. But with that focus, he was in control. He could direct those passions, or leave them be, but it was always he who ruled himself."
"I am still not sure I like to be compared to a Pokémon," she told him.
"Hah! True, Darmanitan is more my type of creature. Here," said Dr. Shu. "Take Meloetta with you. She too is zen, in her own way."
The figurine he handed her now was dainty and feminine, with green hair, a rounded and noseless face, and what looked like a pop star's microphone headset crossed with a musical note. Balanced on her hand, the figurine reacted to her heat by swaying and posing.
"Ah, g-grazie," she said.
"Never a problem. Now, let us practice our breathing, and you can meditate on your Pokémon a while..."
Brita Baumann was a young woman of Opinions, so strongly so that the uppercase O was required even in English. In that respect she was not unlike most high school students pouring all their available passion into a cause for the first time in their young lives. Quite unlike most other teens, Brita's force of passion could punch through brick walls, and her Opinions were as steeled as her fists.
Which made those Opinions even more difficult to chew and swallow when she was forced to deal with those people she disliked on a visceral level. So it was that, with teeth gritted and grinding, she knocked upon the door of that little den of cybernetic iniquity known as Ping's Office.
The capital letters were necessary there as well; the sign on the door dictated as much.
"Come in." The voice crackled over an old intercom speaker -- an affectation, Brita was sure. The gadgeteer behind that door was too skilled to make such distortion by accident.
"Hello, Ping," she said as she let herself in, trying not to grimace at the faint smell of ozone in the air.
"Oh, so it's politeness and code names today? What sort of favor do you need?" Leslie Wainwright sat in a bulbous, all-encompassing swivel chair in the middle of an electronic jungle. By the variegated light of the many display screens, the girl's unique combination of Chinese features and red Irish coloration turned dappled and strange.
Brita had to remind herself that Leslie was a) straight, b) not looking, and c) formerly a boy, even if the sophomore herself couldn't recall the details of her former life. There was just too much bundled in that package that made her blood fizz in ways that promised delightful distractions that could never be fulfilled.
Enough, shouted one corner of her psyche. Once a boy, always a boy. The shrill voice, so like a nagging grandmother, kept her libido in line as the rest of her brain got in the proper gear.
As if mocking the thoughts she would not speak, a digital portrait frame was flashing pictures of Leslie's hometown boyfriend.
"We're going after Jack-in-the-Box," she said, diligently ignoring all distractions. "And we could use some help."
"You must really be needing it, if you're asking the likes of me..." Leslie spun around in her chair. "Of course... the fact that you're asking means you're aware that he's gone to ground, and his main lab is harder to locate than that little love shack of his."
The German girl's jaw clenched so tight that she might have lost a tooth if it wasn't as tough as the rest of her. "And he hasn't been in class all week."
"Devisor prerogative," said Leslie. "All they have to do is declare they're working on a Big Idea, and they can lock themselves up with minimal oversight for days on end. Of course, usually they actually mean it when they do, but..."
"Ja, ja, he's a slippery bastard. What do you have?"
"Well... I do have a breakdown of his little man-cave's domestic systems, caught before they completed their scheduled self-destruct sequence..." On one screen behind her, several windows popped into being, teasing Brita with details.
"Anything of note?" the Amazon asked.
"Plenty, but I'm only sharing one for free," said Leslie. "Jack-Asshole had a worm program in that dancer girl's phone. He used it to track her and Calliope before the attack, and afterwards he had it intercept messages between them so he could read it all first before passing it on. It was still forwarding mail after you chased him off." The screens changed again, to a phone schematic. "I had it purged out by Sunday afternoon, but..."
Brita didn't show any reaction on her face, though she cringed a little inside. Of the several charges leveled against the Italian by her newest sister-in-arms, the lack of response to text messages had been the strangest, because it did not fit what she knew of Calliope's character. "That is... interesting," she said finally.
"I thought so, too. Now, to business. You want the rest of this info? I want to make a deal with you and your buddies."
"I cannot speak for..."
"Oh yes, you certainly can. The rest of them will follow as you lead. Even Macha, mostly. So, here's the deal: in exchange for my help in pinning down Jack-Asshole and making him pay for his assorted assholery, you call off any plans you have this year for harassing the TG students."
"I cannot speak for anyone else..." she growled. While certain... events of the past few weeks had disinclined her from that sort of thing, the same did not apply to her sisters, many of whom had axes of their own to grind. "Incidents happen."
"Of course," said Leslie, "but I'd much rather they happen to an asshole who deserves it." The red-headed China girl tittered. "Better decide soon. Someone else might beat you to beating him up."
"It would be a mercy for him if they did," said Brita.
"Perhaps," was all the gadgeteer would say to that.
The first floor of the Crystal Hall was broad and surprisingly well-lit for a zone literally overshadowed by the levels above it. As her friends had incorporated the Mutant Mayhem Machine -- and again, what a name! -- with the express purpose of snagging a table on the second floor early on, Calliope actually had very little experience with the dining experiences of most freshmen at Whateley. Keeping her lunch tray in a white-knuckle grip, she navigated the sea of curious stares and muttered comments.
Ahead of her flew her own personal albatross, a guide to safe harbor in the form of Nina Blake, dancing and twirling her way through the crowd with more enthusiasm than grace, but always with one eye turned towards Calliope.
She still was not sure what to make of this newest twist in her personal life. The break-up with... no, to put it fairly, the denunciation by her now ex-girlfriend Nefertiti Copeland had been the touch of sandpaper on top of already raw nerves, and she was afraid to ever return to those emotions ever again.
If Nina noticed, then... well, most likely the girl did not. The Poesie was subject to the most mercurial fits of positivity that Calliope had ever witnessed, and it was assuredly not an act. Her empathy often caught the exact moment Nina went from grumpy to joyous, and it was like the flick of a switch: simple, swift, binary.
Calliope had heard some of Nina's past particulars, back during the big changeling get-together last Sunday, but without those details in mind, she would be worried about the girl's stability. That was somewhat ironic coming from her this week, but...
She had her best fashion accessory, the Tartucci bag that her step-mother had helped picked out, the very item which Nina had gushed over on their first meeting, dangling from her shoulder. Its familiar weight, familiar smell, anchored her emotions.
"Hey! Over here!" Nina called, waving her arms towards a table near the center of the floor. From the ceiling, a constellation of little lights chased away the shadows of the floors above. The table itself was standard for the cafeteria, a round piece of carpentry with room for perhaps eight people around it. Most of that space was already occupied.
The faces were all known to her -- sometimes well known, in fact. On one side was Nina's little sister, Darcy, chatting with her fellow junior high school student from Poe, Time Bomb. Monitoring their conversation was Kara from Whitman, an old friend of Nina's from before Whateley and apparently 'in' on many secrets. On the other side of Time Bomb sat an older girl with the face of a classical movie star and the air of a devisor. At least, Calliope could think of no other type for whom a perfect smoky eye meant actual smoke smudges instead of mascara. This, she quickly gathered, was Time Bomb's sister, Velvet.
That was one side of the table. The other side, where Nina was now holding a seat out for her, had two other occupants: the mismatched and yet official twin pairing of Pat and Chessa Barnes. As Calliope sat down, Pat gave her a little salute, while his ersatz twin's grin ran from ear to ear.
"How'd your special time go?" the official boy of the table asked.
"Ah, it went as well as it might," she said. "Dr. Shu is... he is an interesting person."
"I know, right?" bubbled Chessa. "He teaches this Zen class on the weekends and it's really cool and--"
"Let's let her eat," Pat told his alleged twin.
Calliope settled into her chair, content to let the conversation flow around her like cool, running water. Most of it came from the font of Nina's mouth, as the girl was still in the middle of her manic chatty mood. The Tartucci hand bag was burbled over thoroughly, with Velvet and Chessa adding in praise of their own.
Cheeriness puddled around the table as Nina's mood splashed over everyone. From what inner wellspring the girl was drawing the emotion, Calliope could not tell, but despite all common sense the girl and her emotional output showed no sign of slowing down.
"Is she often like this?" Calliope asked quietly while Nina was off getting her drink refilled. "Not that I complain, but..."
"She's overcompensating," said Kara.
"Massively," Pat agreed.
Velvet was glancing back and forth curiously. "Compensating for what?" the violet-eyed girl asked.
The best friend of the subject of discussion looked ready to smack herself on the forehead for opening her big, fat mouth. "Nina's spirit is... a big influence on her mood," Kara began. "Normally Nina's really quiet and nervous, especially these days, but when Glee -- the spirit -- gets going... whew..."
"Whew is right," said Darcy. "Even before Glee arrived, N... Nina wasn't what you'd call charismatic, but when she's 'off', she's really down."
Suddenly several things made a lot more sense than they had when Calliope had first tried to figure the girl out with empathy. "So, ah, so it was the spirit who asked..."
Kara shook her head. "I really think it was Nina trying and failing to be an outgoing sort of person to get your attention. Only, her main example of how to do that is still Glee, which is... problematic. Pretty sure she gave up before you even showed for lunch, and Glee's behind the emotional steering wheel right now."
"Oh." The simple syllable fit perfectly to Velvet's mouth as she made a face halfway between puzzlement and enlightened realization. Her eyes had rolled up and inward, until she was squinting cross-eyed at some conceptual point only she could recognize. "Well then, the first thing to do is to identify variables and change or eliminate them until the proper equilibrium is attained, which for Nina would have to be a level at which she feels she has a modicum of control over her situation without fear of giving a poor impression so publicly, and thus perhaps..."
Time Bomb stood up in her seat to whack her big sister on the head. "Get to the point, dork," she said.
"Well, if we were back home, I'd suggest a sleepover," said Velvet.
"A what?" said Calliope. "A... a... where?"
"Yeah, they don't really encourage dorm-hopping here," said Chessa. "In the evenings, at least. Place is already hormonal enough as it is."
"Ain't that the truth." She couldn't be sure who at the table voiced the opinion first.
Pat probably could tell her, only the boy was chuckling too hard. "Okay," he said as soon as he was able, "I'm sure Mrs. Horton wouldn't mind you stopping by at odd times for a chat or a hug or a Tarot card reading."
"And you could swing by my part of Melville sometime," Velvet offered. "We could hang out with Tia! She's your friend, right?"
"Si..." For a given definition, at least. She and the bunny girl had not had much direct interaction, though they often chatted at mealtimes.
Right in the middle of this, Nina came bouncing back, and when she herd what the topic was, her squeal of joy could rattle glass. "Oh, yes! We really must have a sleepover sometime!"
The sheer force of Nina's happy mode, of her... glee, made it hard for Calliope to hear anything else from the effervescence of the girl's emotions, yet in between the rapid stream of words, she thought she felt notes of panic, fear, and conversely true happiness. She thought. It was rather like listening to a washing machine full of pebbles and antacid tablets.
"I hate to bust a mood," said Pat suddenly, "but head's up for Velvet. Someone's coming."
"Who..." said the violet-eyed girl. The trailing end of the question turned downward into a groan. "Oh, no. Not her."
Along with everyone else, Calliope turned to look at the bespectacled brunette now approaching. -- now backing away slowly from the emotional push of all the stares. Now gulping and squaring her shoulders to come on by anyway. "Um, hello, Liz."
That must have been Velvet's real name, as the girl answered immediately. "What do you want, Michelle? I thought we said it all on Sunday."
"Um, well, I guess we did. Well, most of it, um..." The nausea of nerves emanating from this Michelle girl made Calliope feel queasy, too. The vibe of raw, unadulterated embarrassment hit like an unsupported perfect fourth chord, sounding around the other notes which the brain was convinced should be there, only to get hung up on their absence.
"Then what was missed?" The emotional music behind Velvet's words, on the other hand, were sharply complete, and enough to make anyone wince.
"Um, never, um..." Michelle was trembling, her eyes turning red at the corners. "Never said sorry, okay? I, I wasn't thinking straight or right and, and now they've got me on meds to help but I still remember what I said and... I'm sorry!" The girl's head plunged downward, into an apologetic bow that narrowly missed clipping the table. When she returned to an upright position, then she noted how everyone was staring, and not just the eight students at Velvet's table.
Michelle fled, leaving perfect fourths in her wake.
"What was that all about?" asked Calliope.
"I do not wish to talk about it," said Velvet.
--Macarthur Price (formerly the Idiot, now Backlash)
And it'd been such a nice lunch, too. Shame that the trap had to walk by and ruin his appetite. The kicker was, Mac wasn't even sure that the Italian tranny even recognized his face. She certainly hadn't given him a second glance.
He was of two minds about that. On the one, it reduced the chances that she'd ever try some half-assed rules trick to get her revenge on him. On the other, a part of his brain still noticed how hot the trap looked, even in the school uniform, and his pride demanded he have the attention of the hotties.
There were still plenty of fish in the sea, though, and at a school like Whateley, some of them might even be literal mermaids. As he put away his tray and made his exit out the front, he saw that same girl who'd given him the hungry look the other day, the one with the red-to-salmon hair and ruby eyes. With her this time was an African-looking girl, dark-skinned with tight, curled hair and a pair of weird-ass boxing gloves dangling from her bag.
Oh, he'd seen boxer-girl on Saturday, at the quad picnic exhibition matches. She'd been in the junior round, and her code name had been... Knock-Out, he recalled. And she was, whew.
Mac kept his best grin on as he sauntered past. "Good day to you, ladies," he said in suavest tones.
"It is?" Knock-Out replied, with a matching grin. Her voice was some sort of British.
"Now that I've seen the two of you, definitely."
"Ha, so you have. Would you agree, Jenifer?"
The redhead didn't smile, but her mouth did quirk a little. "It's a Wednesday. Not much to do about that."
"Oh, we're smart people, so I'm sure we could think of something," said Mac.
Knock-Out snickered at that. "That we could. Here," she said, passing him a slip of paper. "Maybe you can show us what you got. Later."
The look on his face had frozen into either something debonair or something dopey. Whichever it was, the two young ladies simply smirked and strutted away. Mac stuck the card in his pocket, all thoughts of the trap long gone.
Other fish in the sea, indeed, and someone was on the hook.
Another Mittwoch, another day in the language lab. She had a book of jokes for German schoolchildren, courtesy of Herr Auer. An improbable number of them translated near-perfectly into English, but many others hinged on peculiarities of language or specific cultural references that required her to look through the teacher's annotations before she could understand enough to laugh.
Erica was chuckling up to the point where a familiar, spiky-haired head stuck its way through the door. "Gutentag, Hiram," she called to him.
"Hello-o!" said Saumer. The rabbit ears drooped a little, but that was the only reaction to hearing his dreaded first name.
"You haven't finished that book of fairy tales already, have you?" she asked.
"Huh? Oh, no. Not yet. Got three paragraphs into 'The Elves and the Shoemaker' before I even realized what it was I was reading, ha-ha."
"Which is why you need to work on it more," she tutted. "Now, what brings you here today?"
"Um, well, I was wondering if, you know, if you're free tonight..."
Alarm bells sounded between her ears, beating the drums with hammer and tongs until all the grey jelly jiggled. Her face never changed from its usual shade, and she wasn't sure what color it should be: pure white, beet red, or green as a frog's underbelly. "Ah, well, I'm afraid that I shall be busy this evening. A teammate will be over to work on some things. Security stuff, very important, can't put it off, unfortunately."
Oh, scheisse, she was babbling, and not in a cute way, either.
"If you don't want to, you can just say so," Saumer told her, his ears drooping even lower.
"It's not that!" she didn't quite shout. "I tried dating, with Daniel, and it just felt... odd. I, I really don't think I'm ready for it just yet."
Now the boy was blushing. "Um, I wasn't meaning anything serious or stuff. Just, hanging out sometime? Could be a group activity or..."
It was tempting. Quite tempting. Of all the personal and social connections she'd had to cut herself off from this past summer, post-craziness, the loss of Eric Schroeder's online role-playing chat sessions left the biggest, emptiest ache in her chest. And she'd been weighing her options for replacing the old game anyway...
"Do you play any games?" she asked, knowing full well he did. "Like, tabletop, with dice? I was talking with this upperclassman, Gazebo, about running a game sometime this month, only that thing with my roommate blew up and I haven't gotten back to him..."
Stop babbling! she scolded herself.
Saumer's face had lit up, and his ears now stood high. "Yeah! I... well, I had this awesome game running at home till last June, but then my best friend up and vanished, and then my ears turned weird and..." The fuzzy appendages went limp. "And then my other friends were all told not to talk to me anymore."
He looked like he needed a hug. She felt the need to hug him. Her will to resist that need lasted for all of two seconds. Saumer's ears shot back up so suddenly that one of them smacked her right in the eyes.
"Sorry," the boy said.
"No problem," she replied, breaking off the hug and retreating a few feet. "So, let's talk to Gazebo about setting up a regular game time, and I'll pull my roommate over, because she needs the distraction, too. What do you play? D&D? Pathfinder?"
"Either's fine," he said.
"Okay, then. Maybe I can get Gazebo to run a game of Das Schwarze Auge in German after a few sessions. Get you some more practice." She giggled at his groans.
The first report of many lay flat on the table before her, its corner slowly seeping up a spot off grease from her all-too-American steak. The things they did to meat in this country should be considered criminal; that was her opinion on the matter.
"You three have a fetish for details, don't you," she said.
Osmic Ace beamed back. "Comes with the business. You never can be sure what detail's worth the entire investigation. Especially on the first day. Best to be thorough."
"True..." The summary was three pages long. The first, long paragraph was solely an appraisal of the von Abendritter's physical condition based on close observation, with a frankly disturbing level of detail from Osmic Ace's personal sensory abilities. "And this is accurate?"
"The nose knows," said Osmic, tapping a plugged nostril and winking. "And what it knows is that your friend's Aunt Flo's in town, so to speak. Has been for most of the week, I think. Not that it's apropos, but like I said, preliminary reports can be like that."
"Ja, I understood you the first time."
So the von Abendritter girl was actually a girl. Not that Kirsten had doubted, but ever since the Italian's outing, a niggling line of thought had whispered the possibility of the American being the same way, and wouldn't that have been a coup, to reveal another, more visceral reason why von Abendritter was not qualified to bear the code name of Eisenmädel, the Maiden of Iron?
More details came, about the girl's daily scheduled, regular contacts, time wasted in German lab with children's books and... "She has been flirting with boys during class time?"
"It's more like they're flirting with her," Osmic confirmed. "At least, that's what I could tell from watching them instead of doing French homework. I really should get to that... Anyway! It's mostly bunny boy that she's noticed so far. Her scent profile changes dramatically when he comes in. All nervous and panicky, though she hides it well."
"Well, well..." Kirsten echoed. "Perhaps I should chat with Herr Saumer more, myself, when he stops by..."
"Wouldn't have pegged him as being your type."
Her face scrunched up into the refusal of a smile. "Ja, ja, how drole. Thank you for the report, and now off to French homework with you."
"Always a pleasure," said Osmic. "Later."
Post-lunch classes had been survived. Calliope was not sure there was any other way to describe the feeling of going through Math and Biology, Powers Lab and Classical Literature, with the constant feeling of judgment, odd curiosity, and detestation that continued to swirl around her. Her music period was a blessing after all that, as everyone in it had been astoundingly chill about her situation. She and Ngaire -- Electradyne -- were even working on a collaboration.
Tia had said it would get better eventually, that the majority of imbeciles in the crowd would simply ignore her once the novelty had worn off. The bunny girl may have had experience being out, but she was no empath. Calliope was never so fortunate.
In the break time between Music and the start of dinner, she could retreat back to her dorm room with Erica and enjoy a respite from the oppressive atmosphere outside. And a look through a reprint of W.I.T.C.H. that Claudio had ordered for her online. It had been so long since she'd last read it, and with the new perspective her mutation had brought her, the graphic novel was like a whole new story.
There was a knock on the door. Were they expecting... oh. She'd almost forgotten that Morgana would be by that afternoon.
Erica was less forgetful. "Oh! Hi, Morgana!" she said as she opened the door. "Thanks for bringing her up, Milena." The RA must have said something, but Calliope did not catch it. Instead, she heard her roommate continue with, "Enter freely and of your own will."
It sounded like something a character in her graphic novels would say. Calliope snickered sotto voce.
"Gee, worried about the undead much?" Morgana snarked as she came in.
"Nah, not really. Well, probably not."
Calliope nodded. This was Whateley and the Miskatonic Valley, after all.
"Well, I've come to ward your room for you, as promised."
She and her roommate settled onto her bed and looked on curiously. "Is it secret stuff we can't watch?" asked Erica.
"No, of course it isn't." Morgana set her backpack on a chair and unzipped it. "Why should it be?"
"Well, you mages are all secret and stuff."
With a giggle inside, Calliope turned to her roommate. "Erica, stop teasing the mage. She might turn you into something you would regret."
"It's okay," said Morgana. "I didn't pack a lily pad, so she's safe. For now." She gave the blonde an extra-evil look.
Erica's grin did not falter in the slightest.
"Here we are," announced the Welsh girl, retrieving a loose stack of paper covered in ink marks, and a cute red plush dragon toy. "Say hello to Ifor. He's going to be staying with you."
She had seen something not dissimilar to it this past Monday, as her brother Claudio had dominated the skee ball lane at the Berlin game center. It was balanced on its haunches, the little dragon was, with its wings folded back and its arms wide as if inviting them all in for a warm hug. "Er, why do we need a stuffed dragon?" she asked. "Not that he is not cute, but..."
"Actually, he's part of the wards," Morgana explained, patting the doll on the head. "Neither of you are mages, so you won't be able to tell if anyone has broken the wards like Bianca or I could. So Ifor here is your warning system."
The Welsh girl took one of her intricately inked strips of paper and pushed it through a hole in the dragon's -- Ifor's -- seams. His eyes lit up green.
"Er, Morgana? Your dragon's glowing," said Erica.
Morgana's laugh was loud and horsey. "That's the point. I'm going to tie him into the wards. While they're up and working, his eyes won't glow, but if someone breaks them, they'll light up and you can see that someone's intruded. Now we just need somewhere to put him where he'll look normal."
Taking Ifor, Erica carefully placed him atop the wardrobe. "Will this do?"
"Sure, anywhere will do as long as you can see him."
Erica fiddled with Ifor some more, leaning him against the plush donkey Claudio had won for his little sister earlier in the week. "That's pretty clever," she said, "using a plushie. Everyone expects to see them in a girl's room."
Their guest was not yet done, sorting out more graffiti strips on their desk. "Now I'm going to place these on the walls, floor, and ceiling. They'll define the warded space for you..."
Calliope didn't bother trying to follow the ensuing lecture on the topography of mystic wards and why certain numbers worked better in certain situations. The information seemed common-sensical where it was not esoteric to the point of resembling devisor-speak. She simply nodded along, moving posters and furniture as directed until all six of the graffiti strips were set to the planes of the cube that was their bedroom.
"Now, I just have to tie the spell to the area," Morgana concluded. "And include you and Ifor. Just stand there, and don't worry; you probably won't even notice anything."
"Are you sure?" said Erica. "I remember the bunny..."
Calliope herself did not remember the bunny, had not witnessed its rumored demise, and from the look on Morgana's face, she did not wish to. "Something interfered!" growled the other girl, "and this is perfectly safe. I've been practicing wards for ages."
Morgana had a few breathing exercises of her own, it seemed, as the magic-user took a moment to calm her nerves before taking a final, blank slip of paper and applying her brush. The calligraphy was... well, Calliope could not be one to criticize, even if she were able to identify the alphabet in question. For all she knew, the twisty, knotty letters were perfectly formed. It was decent enough for the purposes of the spell, as lines of ink glowed crimson and then sent tendrils of light at the posted wards, at Ifor, and at the roommates.
The light was not exactly there, and her eyes did not seem necessary to view its odd flickering. Like a phantasmal web it hung in the air for the span of five breaths, and then faded into the background until she could see it no more.
"There, all done," Morgana said proudly. "See? His eyes aren't glowing anymore. If they start up again, get a hold of me or Bianca, and we'll come check it out."
"Will it stop any intrusion?" asked Erica, looking sour at the thought.
"Well, not physical ones, but it should stop magic or powers from seeing or hearing what you're up to in here. and yes," she said, hand forestalling the next question, "you can hear people knocking on the door. We, ah, made that mistake the first time, but not anymore."
"How long will they last?" Calliope asked. "If no one breaks them?"
The Welsh grin was reassuring in spite of its toothiness. "Quite a while. I tied them into the half-lunar cycle." Morgana held in a sigh at their puzzled looks. "It means I have to recharge them every new moon and full moon. Next full moon is a week from next Sunday, so I'll come around and fix them for you, okay?"
"You know," said Erica, "I thought it would have been a bit more, well, flashy?"
Morgana's eyes rolled at that. "What, you'd prefer it if there was smoke and thunder and lots of fire? In your bedroom?" The girl waved her arms in comically melodramatic fashion. "Pay no attention to the dragon behind the curtain..."
They all broke down into giggles after that.
"Okay, ma'am, we're all set," Erica announced.
The ma'am in question nodded, setting gold-spangled blue eyes on the monitor in front of her. Ms. Myra Barnes claimed to be in her thirties on a technicality, though she never specified what she meant by that. Certainly the woman didn't look so old, and she was even known to dress down and go slumming in the Crystal Hall on weekends with her adopted siblings -- Pat, Chessa, and Marcus -- where she was sometimes mistaken for a student who looked older than she should. That sort of thing was not uncommon at Whateley, either.
At the moment, Ms. Barnes wore her maturity like a mantle, looking every inch the high school English teacher that she was. Seated behind her was her younger brother, Marcus, plus the boy's two partners in the current round of mischief, Twitch and Vicky Stone. Off in the rafters stood the kids' science adviser, Dr. Speers, ready to provide support for any technical questions, once negotiations reached that point.
Until then, it was Ms. Barnes's show.
Erica's phone buzzed as the call was placed. As soon as the person on the other end picked up, she switched it to projection mode, and a face appeared on the monitor in front of the teacher.
Much like Ms. Barnes, this new face was of an age that was hard to define, though in the man's case it was because he'd always looked reasonably old and then matured into it. Adolf Stein had a face comparable to a New Hampshire cliff, all stark and planar and about as weathered. Two eyes like chips of sky were fitted beneath snowy eyebrows, and his hair had grown out some since this summer.
"Hello, Erica," he said.
"Hello, Uncle," she replied.
"If you would introduce us all?"
She nodded. "Everyone, this is my Uncle Adolf, who has placed the job request. Uncle, over here we have the students interested in working on it: Retrofit, Tek Witch, and Power Stunt." The three devisors all waved. "And this is Ms. Barnes, who is acting as agent and negotiator on their behalf."
"Charmed," said the teacher.
"Likewise," said her uncle. "So, I have here your initial prospectus and cost analysis, and I have a few questions... beginning with the pricing of materiel."
"We've had to factor in overage from experimentation and prototyping," came the reply. "You are hiring schoolchildren, after all. We had to consult with the Headmaster to see if you could even do so in this manner."
"And his response?"
Ms. Barnes pursed her lips. "It was... interesting, Herr Taginbert." For a short pause, she stared intently at the face on the screen. "In particular, he noted that nothing on your wish list was directly weaponized, which fact may have helped the decision process along."
"My granddaughter needs tools, Ms. Barnes, not more weapons. And call me old-fashioned, but I much prefer my firearms to conform to the rules of physics and engineering as I know them. That way, when they explode I may at least know why."
A wide grin seemed a now-permanent fixture upon the teacher's face. "My sympathies. Now, shall we get down to the details?"
Erica sat back and let the conversation went its way from there. She didn't know most of the words being thrown around, either the financial ones from Ms. Barnes or the technical deluge that ensued once Dr. Speers was finally dragged over, but it was enough that they and Uncle Adolf seemed to understand each other. Her work here was largely done.
Hopefully Cousin Penny would appreciate it.
It was funny, she thought as she slipped out of Dickinson and did her best to pass unnoticed along the back paths, but to that very day she'd never been to one of the other dorms on campus, not even for a courtesy call to her brother. The closest she'd managed was that stop by Cookie's doghouse, which sat at the corner of Twain, but since she'd had no business at the dorm proper, she'd never really thought to stop by and see them for herself.
And now here she was, walking around the hill and down the way to Poe. A funny name, so short for the shadow it cast over campus. The wacko dorm, they called it, where the crazies got put. After a full month at Whateley, Calliope had yet to really see a difference in the quality or caliber of the insanity, and if she had not been personally entrusted with some measure of its secrets, she would have laughed off that dorm's reputation as more teen politics.
But she knew better now, didn't she?
They had given her an open invitation to come by, any time and for any reason -- or no reason at all. The RA on duty at the dorm's front desk, Calliope recognized on sight as one of the girls at that Sunday's impromptu changeling get-together. Flower, she thought the code name was.
Flower waved her over, grinning in a friendly sort of manner. "Hey, you. Glad to see you drop by. Here to see anyone in particular?"
"Ah, I was going to see Nina..."
"Oh." Flower's grin slipped for a second. "That would explain why they've been hyperventilating in their room, I guess. Glee's still running off checks that Nina's bank won't cash, huh?"
"Nothing. Just a bad metaphor in play. Suffice to say that Nina's being Nina, and you might want to stop by someplace else first while they calm down. And let me know later if we need to dial-a-shrink again."
She felt the presence behind her, warm tones and tinkling notes of emotion, and correctly identified the person before a word could be uttered. "Perhaps Chessa could show me around, then," she suggested.
"Hey, you peeked! Somehow!" the vaguely draconic girl fake-spluttered before breaking down in giggles. Skipping up to the front desk, Chessa saluted Flower. "Ready and willing to give her the guided tour, ma'am!"
"Ma'am yourself," Flower grumbled back. "I'm only a junior!"
"Anyhoo," Chessa continued. "I'll walk Cally here up to the Barne and then go check on Nina. See if we can't bring a bit of harmony back to the floor."
Flower's sense of humor reinstated itself with a heavy snort from the nose. "Tall order, what with the normal sort of chaotic mess we have ourselves here."
"You cannot have harmony without many notes," Calliope pointed out.
"True that!" said Chessa. The girl grabbed her by the arm and tugged her towards the stairs. "Let's go teach the world to sing, huh?"
The RA's fatalistic sigh could be heard all the way to the second floor.
"Ta-da!" Chessa announced with a flourish when they arrived in front of Room 218. The humble portal was obscured by layer upon layer of decoration and construction paper, forming chaotic blooms of color that extended past the actual door frame. In the middle of it all, a miniature whiteboard sat ready to take messages. Above that was a hand-crafted sign which read "The Barne," with an e.
"You like it?" Chessa asked. "We all got here like weeks ahead of everyone else, what with big sis's mandatory training and the crisis and delays and all, so I had a bit of time on my hands, and well..."
"Capisco," said Calliope.
"Does that mean something like 'I understand'?"
"Knew I should've point more skill points into Linguistics." Chessa giggled. "Now, Pat's still on the phone with his girlfriend..."
"The two of you are roommates?"
"Well, yeah. School policy's very anatomically oriented, even for kids like us, so since we've got mostly the same plumbing, no problem." The girl rolled her eyes, showing them to be a vivid green for their entire breadth. "You do not want to get Pat started on this topic. Trust me."
After a moment's wait, the door inched open, and Pat peered out. "Are you two done yakking?" his official twin sister asked.
"Not yet, but it's hard to ignore you two noisy birds standing outside," he shot back. "So come on in and say hi."
"Don't mind if I do!" the dragon girl said, pulling Calliope in after her. "Hey, Dina! How's it going?" she called to the room's computer monitor, wherein a cute little brunette was currently visible. "This here's Calliope from Italy. She's named after the Greek muse, not the circus instrument," she added.
"Ah, how do you do," Calliope mumbled politely.
The girl on the monitor waved. "Nice to meet you!"
"So how are the mutant exercises going?" Chessa asked. "Any success?"
"Nope." The web camera on Dina's end magnified her pout beautifully. "I can lift a little more than before, but that may just be because I'm hitting the weights every day to see if I've got super strength yet."
"A fortune-teller I knew once predicted we'd end up at the same school by next January," Pat explained. "So Dina's convinced that means she's going to mutate soon. But since it's not happened yet, she's trying all sorts of things, just in case."
"You never know, right?" said Dina. "Maybe if I squint harder I'll shoot lasers or something."
"Wouldn't that be fun," Chessa teased. "Still, that doesn't make it a good idea to pay your little brother to sneak-attack you with beanbags, just to see if you've got a danger sense."
"Hey, I only paid him once!" Dina protested. "Every other time was pro bono twerpico."
"So you, ah, trust this fortune-teller?" asked Calliope. "She is accurate?"
Pat's face went morose, his eyes reflecting a sadness that hit her empathy like a concerto of raindrops. "Yeah, Grammy was very good at that sort of thing."
"Show her the cards, Pat!" his girlfriend shouted through the microphone.
From the depths of Pat's usual shoulder bag, the legally male young man retrieved an old box, perhaps once a cigar case, now held together mostly by tape and rubber bands. When the lid was unfastened, Calliope could see a stack of thick, rectangular cards with colorful artwork.
"Oh, Tarocchi. Like the gypsies use?"
"Sort of," said Pat. "This is a special deck that Grammy gifted to me, before..." It was perhaps the first time she had ever seen him hesitate to say something. "Well, that's all in the past. Care to do a reading?" He picked up the cards and sent them flying in the air as he shuffled.
"Okay." Even as she said it , he was presenting her with the shuffled deck. She cut the cards, lifting about a quarter of the deck up, to be mixed back in with their brothers.
"I'll go check on Nina while you're at it," said Chessa. "Dina, you keep an eye on them for me, okay?"
"What we're going to do today," Pat began, ignoring both his twin and his girlfriend as he laid the cards, "is a basic triple spread. These can represent all sorts of triads, but I think we shall go with Mind, Body, and Soul today."
Three cards were placed face down on his desk, at angles to each other as they formed the axes of a triangle. Their reverse sides had a beautiful motif of leaves and vines, with a stylized pomegranate spilling its seeds. She watched carefully as Pat flipped over the first card.
"Representing the Mind, we have the Ace of Cups, pointing away from the others, so it's in reverse." The card showed a gilded goblet, like a communion cup at church, filled to the brim and over it, red liquid spilling to the ground. "It doesn't take much to guess this one."
She nodded mutely. Too much, too fast, all the emotions pouring in from every direction at once, until the vessel of her mind had trouble not sloshing it all over everything.
"So the Ace of Cups is about being overwhelmed," Pat continued with the obvious, "of feelings suppressed or repressed. Good thing you're seeing Dr. Shu, right?"
"S-si... could we move on?" she asked.
"Alright, then. Next comes Body, represented by the... Two of Swords," Pat announced. This card had a woman, blindfolded, bearing a sword in each hand. "The Swords are often about the tough moments in life, and of getting through them. This lady's well armed, but she can't see, and she's as likely to hurt herself as anyone else unless she puts one of them down. The Two's the card of decisions and options. Which to choose, and which to toss? It's a tough call, and you might avoid it for as long as you can, but you still have to do it eventually."
Her eyebrows clinched together as she tried to puzzle through. "But what choices do I have?"
"Could be anything. The cards tend to be very oriented on the now, so at a guess?" The boy waved a finger, pointing from Calliope's head down to her toes. "The big one. Be who they want you to be, or who you want yourself to be. The most important choice for a trans kid. Take it from me."
"I think you made a great choice, Pat," Dina chimed in from the monitor.
"Thanks." He blew his girlfriend a kiss, which she made a big production of catching. "But for you, Calliope, I think there's a bit of doubt to this card as well. Which sword's the right one? Is the easy way the better way, or not? Your body, your decision, but it's never an easy one."
"C-capisco," she stuttered.
"And now, the best for last... In the domain of Spirit, we have the Two of Coins." On the card, a young woman stood with two large metal discs, one in each hand. They each had a star engraved upon them, and one was clearly heavier than the other, from the way she held them. A length of ribbon looped around the coins, crossing in between to form a moebius strip.
"Hey Pat, show me?" asked Dina. "Huh, I remember you drawing this one for me before, only it was a boy on the card."
"You know how this deck can get. Cards are being a little uppity; that's all."
"Ah, what does this one mean?" Calliope asked.
"The Twos of any suit stand for duality, but Coins are usually about value, worth, and results. And in the reverse, like this one is, it implies that even when you have choices, deep down you know they're not equal ones. Don't think about it too hard; that's the Mind's job, and the Ace of Cups shows that it's too busy as it is. Don't trust your Body to keep on with both for too long, either. Your heart, your Spirit knows the weight of the options, so just choose."
She sat back on Chessa's bed, staring at the cards. Lacking eyes, they nevertheless gave the impression of staring back. Pat let her mull it over in silence as she glanced around the dorm room. The place was as well decorated on the inside as its door was on the outside, with a crooked row of knickknacks arranged along the window sill: a solar-powered dancing flower, an anime figurine of some sort, a statue of a happy, chubby little man with big feet, a wooden carving of a turtle, a tiny bottle filled with fine sand and diminutive seashells.
"I shall..." she finally began, hiccuping the words. "I guess I shall have to try."
"That's all we can do, really," said Pat. "But friends help." He sent a big wink to the video monitor, prompting another happy squeak from his girlfriend. "Now, I think I can feel Chessa listening from the other side of the door, so I'll just let her take you over to Nina while I continue my chat."
"Ah, yes. Grazie. Sorry to interrupt... and, it was nice meeting you, Dina."
"You too! See you again soon, I hope."
"How'd it go?" Chessa asked as they padded back up the hall.
"It was... good? I think?" Calliope said. "I am not sure I understood it all."
The other girl giggled. "Yeah, that's normal. The trick is to understand it before it's obvious, because it's usually too late by then. Okay, here we are, la casa de Nina o Noah."
"Ah?" There was in fact two names on this door above the number 214, but only the one surname. Nina / Noah Blake. "Oh, that is Nina's old..."
"Kinda," said Chessa. "Even for us, Nina's got issues."
She hoped that was not meant to be reassuring, for it would assuredly have failed in its purpose. Knocking politely on the door, she waited a long moment before a muffled voice prompted her to come in.
There was only one bed in the room, or rather only one fit for sleeping in. On the opposite side, the second bed frame was covered in boxes and clothes. Nina was sitting backwards in her chair, body draped limply over the upholstery. "Um, hi," she said to Calliope.
"Ciao, Ni... ah. Perhaps I should ask what name you prefer."
Red-rimmed eyes lifted to look at her. "In, in here it's... it's Noah. It's always been Noah, except when... No, no," they said, not to their guest. Instead, those weepy eyes had turned both upwards and inwards. "It's... no, don't blame yourself. I agreed to it and everything, I..."
"Should I leave you to, ah, talk with yourself?" Calliope asked.
"Huh?" Noah/Nina suddenly recalled that they had a guest, and all color drained from that frail face. "No! Don't go! Don't... don't..." Their body collapsed against the chair back. "Don't leave me alone with my thoughts, please."
Should she stay, should she go... A weighty decision, which her heart solved for her. Three steps in, bend down, embrace. Her mind was not even consulted. Her body just pressed into it, until she and Noah were cheek to cheek. Through the close contact she could feel their heartbeat, the swift thumping of a base for a complicated concerto of emotion. After a few measures, the beat slowed, but the music played on.
Several more measures passed. "Ah, Noah?" said Calliope. "This position is not particularly comfortable for my back..."
"S-sorry..." they mumbled against her shoulder.
After some coaxing, she got them onto the mattress, where she could lean against a wall while keeping up the hugs. Noah had curled up in her arms, crying and shivering slightly.
"It's... it's just a little crash," they tried to explain. "If, if Glee's running things for too long it, it screws with my, like, brain chemicals? I think? Doctors still aren't sure, but it's all glands and hormones and endorphins in their discussions and, and..." Their sigh ended in a sob. "I pushed it too hard today, let Glee ride me too long."
"Because you wanted to appear happy?"
There was only a sob for a response.
The two of them rocked in silence for a few minutes. In spite of the trembling, chaotic knot of emotions Noah presented to her, Calliope felt calm for the first time that week. This was something she knew, something she understood, and seeing it in someone else for a change... She understood the role she needed to play here, and with that emotional framework in mind, her guard could relax.
At what point her thoughts became words, it mattered not. Calliope's whispers were half lullaby and half autobiography as she recounted the highs and lows of her old life in Italy, of how the changes came on gradually, and how easy it was to deny it all until she'd reached a tipping point when no one could possibly not see. How she had still tried to hide it, only for perfect strangers to address her as signorina, even before her genitals had finished retreating inward. How hard it was to accept how things had changed, or later to accept how they had not.
She had lost friends, lost a girlfriend who had not been able to deal with the fact that Fabrizio, now Fiorella, still held feelings for her.
"I am not sure I have ever accepted it fully," she admitted. "When people assumed my code name was my actual name, I did not correct them. Perhaps I identify more as Calliope now than I ever did as Fiorella."
"Wish I'd don't that," Noah murmured. "Now I'm stuck with Bewitched. Cuz I am." They looked up, eyes blurrier but not so red as before. "I'm all messed up and mixed up and, and... please don't leave..."
"I think Mrs. Norton would eventually make me go home," she told them. "But until she comes by to tell me so, I shall stay."
Her heart made the decision for her again. With Noah cradled in her arms, their faces mere centimeters apart, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to bridge that distance, to lay her lips upon theirs, and then not to remove them for the longest time possible. No input from her mind was necessary.
Her body happily complied.
----Elsewhere, at a later hour
The basements under Melville went down almost as deep as the dormitory itself rose into the sky. Like most of Whateley's subterranean expanse, it was largely taken up with support and maintenance facilities, with a side order of fancy lab space. And, hidden in the nooks and crannies, there was still plenty of miscellaneous real estate to claim, renovate, or sub-let. Certain brokers and speculators at Melville made tidy sums that way.
Janet Chorley, also known as Knock-Out, was entertaining herself on the couch in the Bohemians' own little home away from home. The newest series of reality television from the BBC was finally available, and she reacquainted herself with its quirks at high volume, the better to drown out what noise came from the side room.
After several minutes of nothing but televised gossip, the door to the side room opened and Scarlyt slunk out, adjusting her clothes as she joined Janet on the sofa.
"So, how does he rate?" she asked.
The redhead's shrug spoke a thousand words, none of them of a particularly complimentary nature. "He has an exemplar's stamina, but he does not know how to use it -- or anything else -- to its best effect."
Janet sniggered. "Why am I not surprised. Will he be waking up soon?"
"Well then, shall we?"
With a nod, Scarlyt stood up, leaned forward slightly, and presented her left cheek to Jane's incoming fist. Flesh met flesh with a satisfying smack, but the redhead remained unmoved. A blush of PK caught the force of the blow, flowing across the skin like red-black ink before settling into a dim glow around the young woman's figure.
"A test bar, please."
"Here you are," said Janet, handing over a length of steel rebar.
The red-black PK pulsed around Scarlyt's arms as she quickly twisted the metal into knots. Placing the bar on the coffee table, she let out a deep breath and the PK dissipated into a cloud of tiny motes, which soon faded into nothing. "A difficult one to hold on to," she told Janet. "I would need more experience before it could be made practical."
"Worth keeping lover-boy around?" Janet was pretty certain that Scarlyt did not need to do everything she did usually to borrow a power, and Karel, the leader of their little cabal, agreed with her, but the redhead never bothered to try. The power wonks could probably have told them, but that would mean disclosing the full extent of Scarlyt's abilities -- something which none of them were inclined to do.
"Perhaps," said Scarlyt. "It is tricky, but it is not uncontrollable. We may keep trying without risk of collateral damage."
That almost made Janet wince on the outside as well as the inside. One of Scarlyt's first such experiences had been with an energizer calling himself Hot Stuff. Thankfully they'd pinned the blame for that fiasco on him, got him sent to Hawthorne for a month as a precaution against 'bed-wetting.' She and Karel had been careful to research and vet Scarlyt's potential power donors ever since.
"Well, you go and get yourself cleaned up," said Janet, thumbing towards the little unit's WC and shower suite. A leer crept across her face. "Do you need help washing off?"
Scarlyt hardly paused before nodding. Taking the redhead by the hand, Janet led her to the shower, to make extra sure things went right. She might sometimes wonder about Scarlyt's passivity, her apparent willingness to be used like this, but that didn't mean she wouldn't enjoy it at the same time.
----Thursday, October 6th, 12:03 AM
Leslie Wainwright was not much one for sleep. It had to happen, but it still got in the way more often than not. For the times when it could not be avoided, however, there were always subroutines. One such semi-autonomous program buzzed her just after midnight, flashing a specific code at her until her personal power-save mode disengaged.
It was only for her ears, but she still spared a glance across the room to where her roommate Antonia was snoring. She'd really hoped to get a triple with Gwen and Chrissy this year, but right now she was thankful they hadn't. While Gwen and Chrissy her friends wouldn't necessarily disapprove of what she was about to set in motion, Gwen and Chrissy as Star Sentry and Celerity, members of the Future Super Heroes of America, would certainly quibble about the methods employed.
Thankfully, Antonia was a sound sleeper in all senses, and Les could do most of what she had to do with her eyes closed. The small devise affixed to the back of her skull, legacy of an experiment she couldn't properly recall even if she wished to, served to keep her linked into her phone, computer, and assorted other digital companions at all times, and now it allowed her to send a text message with but a thought.
"The donkey is leaving the stable." A silly turn of phrase, but it was what had been agreed upon. She only hoped the recipient was awake to read it.
A phone call came three breaths later, silently routed back through the parts of her brain normally associated with her ears. Likewise, her voice answered without bothering with her throat.
"Signs of life from his lab." Her voice sounded metallic and artificial this way, but it was too useful to complain about. "Odds are good he's about to make a meal run. We need to hit hard and fast, before he goes to ground. Are you ready?"
No response came down the line, only static and the faint sound of breathing.
"You agreed to this, remember? It's time. Are you ready?"
Three words fell through the ether in reply. She didn't know the language, but the tone was enough to understand.
"Certo che si."