----Wednesday, October 5th, 2016; 11:56 PM
Fiorella Persico had always been a big fan of sleep, even back when she had been Fabrizio. She'd not thought about those days of not-so-long-ago in some time, having learned the hard way not to poke at the spots that hurt, but this evening had been a different one in many ways.
She'd talked with Noah for hours, literally up to the moment the RA had come around to escort her out of Poe Cottage. A lot of it had been on Noah's side: their old life, their old interests, and all the myriad issues that came from having an entity called Glee in their head. But a lot of it had been from her as well, stories from her old life in Italy, that she never told anyone else.
The memory of remembering for Noah was, even secondhand, like a stab to the soul, no matter how necessary it had all been for her to say. No one knew it all. Had known. Noah was the first, even before Erica.
She should tell Erica the whole story some day soon. Now would be ideal, as her heart could not realistically ache any more than it already did, but her roommate was in bed snoring like a bellows when she got back. To wake her up would be rude.
With no one awake to share, the words bumped and bounced their way through her skull, occasionally popping out of her mouth in muttered syllables, only to re-enter through the ears. They never really left, and she wouldn't be able to sleep until they did.
The shelf above her bed had some beautiful under-paneling, though.
As she pondered the carpentry, the phone nestled beneath her pillow began to buzz. Calliope was hesitant to look, even with the new spam controls active to prevent certain unpleasantness from getting through. She had agreed to wait for something in particular, however, and so she unlocked the smartphone, just to check.
The donkey is leaving the stable. Sensible words in a nonsensical context. Much like everything else these days. She dialed back the number immediately.
On the other end of the line, a metallic voice, almost inhuman in its lack of emotion, continued: "Signs of life from his lab. Odds are good that he's about to make a meal run. We need to hit hard and hit fast before he goes to ground. Are you ready?"
No mention of who he was, but no names were necessary. She knew. Thawne. Jack-in-the-Box.
The boy who had made it his mission to ruin her life.
"You agreed to do this, remember?" Even a robotic voice could sound testy and impatient. "It's time. Are you ready?"
One quick glance back to Erica, to confirm the girl was still snoring. "Certo che si," she whispered into the phone. "I shall be at the meeting place soon."
Though it would surprise almost anyone who knew her, Calliope did have a combat suit. Erica's grandparents had insisted on helping her choose it, after that one attack on a lab adjacent to her brother Claudio's, last August. Erica had said nothing when she had taken it from her suitcase for the first time, just the other day, and set it in her wardrobe.
It took a moment to pull on, and she winced at how it pressed at certain spots, but the armor fit like a glove. A partial collar, a deep crescent of high technology, provided a force-field helmet on command. That came courtesy of Diane Davies, the older and more experienced cousin of her friend Vicky Stone. Calliope hoped that she would not need it.
----Thursday, October 6th, 2016, 12:10 AM
Annoyance was a fact of life. Sometimes it seemed like life was nothing but annoyance, in fact. Getting woken up at too-damn-late or too-damn-early (he'd yet to decide which it was), was a major annoyance, but a necessary one. An email, a short phone call, and he was out the door in his fight suit.
His roommate Tobias mumbled a "Good luck" as he left. Vic could only hope the words were heard by some higher power.
The little meeting room, nestled somewhere in the sprawling underground network of tunnels between Dickinson and Twain, had three occupants when he arrived. He'd expected two of them. The woman who insisted she be called Patience in this place was tall and severe, the very image of a Syndicate specialist -- which she roundly denied being. Vic had his doubts on that.
Next to her was his partner in this current fiasco, Calliope. While they were technically on the same team, the so-called Mutant Mayhem Machine, the fact that the M3 hadn't actually done any sort of training together meant he was completely in the dark about what she could do in a fight.
Aside from screaming someone's ears off and then punching them until her fists bled, like in BMA on Tuesday. That sort of thing should probably be discouraged.
It was the third person that made him stop and question the current situation. The Twainee known mainly as Groundpounder was almost twice Vic's size, and it was all bulk. More specifically, it was gravel and dirt, sculpted by some sort of PK into the semblance of a professional quarterback.
"What are you doing here, Clod?" he grumbled.
"Don't call me that," the other boy rumbled back.
"It's your name, isn't it?"
"No, my name is Claude."
"That's what I said."
A sharp clearing of the throat brought them both to attention. The woman called Patience directed them both to sit. On the wall, a flatscreen blinked, and then displayed a map of the local underground. "If we're all ready..." said the metallic voice from the phone conversation earlier. "Jack-Asshole is taking his own sweet time getting out the door. Estimated time of arrival at the convenience store is ten minutes. Security cameras in the corridors nearby will go out in fifteen."
"The store attendant has been informed of a training exercise to be held in the immediate area," said Patience. "This is not so uncommon for training teams who wish to work on close-quarter maneuvers. Keep the noise reasonable and reasonably distant, and she will not report anything amiss."
"What's he doing here?" Vic repeated, thumbing at Groundpounder.
"Two is a small number of agents on the ground," said Patience. "It's a good idea to have someone to brick off an exit, and so we hired one. A perk of being with the Masterminds," she added.
His scowl was as deep as the lake. The woman might say she was doing this pro bono, as a favor, but he knew where favors like this led. And dammitif he wasn't willing to go with it this time, for a chance at Jack-in-the-Box. "Fine."
"Here," said the woman, passing him a package. "A reservoir belt. Holds three liters of water, easy access. It's yours to keep, so make good use of it."
Vic was really starting to hate getting surprises.
There were a million fucking things he hated about this school, but the flexibility in schedules wasn't one of them. Once you got past the basic frosh classes, someone on the devisor or gadgeteer tracks could easily arrange an entire semester of limited contact with the rest of society, all classwork to be turned in at their convenience, with nothing counted as late as long as it was finished by the end of the term. The administration understood; it knew a lot of its income was grace of the improbable array of creative talent whose inspired output the school was only too happy to license out for further profit.
So if he needed a few days -- or weeks -- to hide until the more notorious tempers on campus cooled, it was as easy as locking himself in an anonymous lab in the depths of Whateley's infamously unmappable subterranean zone and messing around with his toy boxes.
The only problem was that a guy still had to eat, and the local Pizza Nut in Berlin wouldn't deliver to the school, not even to the front gate or the teachers' village, under any circumstances -- not since that time the delivery driver'd been institutionalized. Getting anything delivered to a semi-secret room in a maze of space that shouldn't really exist was a pipe dream.
Not that he hadn't considered inventing some sort of tele-pad, as much for escape as for ducking out to get a pie, but the initial tests had convinced him to can that one. He didn't want to go out for pizza, only to look like the pizza afterwards.
So, item number 2 to not hate about Whateley: the convenience store. The Store didn't have an actual name, wasn't a part of any franchise, and if it had certain fixtures associated with other such businesses, then it was because guys like him had missed their Slushees and Slurpees enough to invent their own alternatives.
His meal run had to last him through the next evening, so he piled stuff high on the counter: eight Nukemburgers, two of each variety and ready for reheating; six bags of chips, in all his favorite flavors; two fruit bowls, mostly pineapple and cherries; three salads, with dressing packets; a six-pack of Whateley's in-house energy drink, not legal in seven states; and for his evening treat, a bottle of Cryo-Cola, super-chilled in its bottle down to -10°C, so when you cracked it open, the contents would spontaneously congelate into slush.
As the nocturnal student behind the counter tallied it up, he added a package of Mostest snack cakes on a whim.
The entire food run was done in the strange silence of a building after midnight, when no one was bumping around and any background music was shut off. His feet probably made little claps as he walked, but the white noise of the fluorescent lights buzzing above blanketed all lesser sounds until they were meaningless. The store attendant was rocking her head to the music of her earplugs, probably in the defense of her sanity.
The unnatural hush of the white noise worked like a dose of his now-former comrade Contact High's personal product, dulling the senses and loosening the joints until Jack was wobbling down the hall. His brain scrambled to muster the mental energy to stay alert, but at this hour of the evening, with that drone of white noise worse than silence...
A flash of inspiration seared its way through his brain, burning out the mental fog. Something was wrong. What? His ears caught nothing, caught at nothing, were caught by the hollow nothingness handing in the air.
Jack hurried his steps, turned a corner--
Immediately began his retreat. A large, muscular woman was blocking the corridor, as much with her presence as with her biceps. His eyes took in the details -- dark black skin, shaved head, one gold earring, yellow eyes -- and his brain ran an identification subroutine automatically, going through his personal list of people who hated him. It was a long list, but a quick search. Lashandra Washington. Muliebris. Exemplar 4, Empath 1, blanket projection. Amazon.
The feel of the air around him congealed, shifting from oppressive, mind-dulling weight to an atmosphere of menace and intimidation. He knew it was all in his head, that Muliebris was pushing him down with the force of emotion, and like hell he was going to let this bitch get to him like that.
Ignoring everything he felt or was made to feel, he shouldered his shopping bag, stood tall, and stared the Amazon in the eyes. "If you'd please move aside," he told her. "I have to get back to work."
There was a clap of hands behind him. He didn't dare turn to look. "Bravo, Dick-in-a-Box."
Oh-double-shit, that was StahlFaust. He didn't need his brain to pull up the details, though it did anyway: Brita Baumann, Exemplar 1, Telekinetic 4 brick, and built like a brick house.
"It seems you do have balls after all," StahlFaust continued. "I was worried we would have no trophies to return home with."
"You have no reason to do this," he stated boldly, knowing full well it was a falsehood, a misdirection at best. "So unless you want the Worn Wrench to spank all your asses..." He slid over to the wall so he could keep both the Amazon bitches in sight.
"Dick-in-a-Box, really, why do you think it took us this long to come looking? It's not like we couldn't locate your sordid little den eventually, one way or another." StahlFaust snorted. "We had to make sure the entire technical track would not claim vengeance on us, and you know what? Not one of those colleagues of yours thinks much of you at all."
He heard, and his heart sank. Only a little, because he'd sort of expected that, but it wasthe complete opposite of what he had wanted to hear. More of his attention was on the space behind StahlFaust, however, where one last person was entering the scene.
Nefertiti Copeland, his brain provided. Copacetic, Exemplar 2, Regeneration 2, Paragon 1, dance and gymnastic focus. Skin like mahogany, lithe and supple, the face of an angel and the body of... well, he'd had high hopes of getting to know all of her better last weekend, before the Amazons had busted in. From the expression on her face, she was remembering that time as well, and not so fondly.
"Go ahead, little sister," StahlFaust said. "He is there before you, trembling even as he struggles to act macho. Such a pathetic worm should be quashed."
His grocery bag hit the ground as his fists went up. He flexed his wrists, activating the techno-bracers beneath his sleeves, and prayed he remembered more than he thought from Tolman's Basic Martial Arts class. All around, the emotional atmosphere thickened, until it felt like he was moving in syrup.
Copacetic was under no such effect, her fists coming in fast and direct. Each hit bounced off the force fields of his bracers, though at the cost of his shirt sleeves. He didn't dare punch back just yet.
"What's the matter," the dark dancer said, leaning in. "Thought you liked it rough. Not so tough now, are ya? Jackass." She kept up the rain of punches, dinging his shoulders and the side of his head a few times, before rushing in straight to pin him up against the wall with full force of body.
In any other circumstance, he might have enjoyed that. The sudden knee to the groin took all the fun out of it, though. When Copacetic backed off, he fell to the ground in a slump that wasn't as faked as he'd have liked. His wrists, he managed to keep out of sight.
"Good going," said StahlFaust. "Now, ruin that face of his. We've had enough of that smirk to last us forever."
He'd known this was coming. Standard Amazon M.O.: humiliate, beat down, then add one last bit of cosmetic damage to further demean the target. Yes, he'd done his homework.
Just as Copacetic was winding up for the coup de grâce, with his eyes shut tight in expectation, Jack set off the flash bomb.
The plan, such as it was, didn't go much past this point. Emergency plans were like that. You hit the big moment, and then all that was left would be the word RUN in big letters. So he did. The last thing he wanted to be was in sight when the light died back down.
It was a shame about the groceries, though. He never had the chance to enjoy his Cryo-Cola.
It was a mad dash down the corridors, but not as blindly as it seemed. The navigation chip within his bracer had commandeered the holographic watch function on his wrist, so there was little chance of getting turned around as long as he didn't get too far afield.
And then he hit another roadblock, one that actually looked the part. A mass of gravel and dirt was blocking the most direct route back to his lab, and as he watched, a familiar face appeared in the middle.
"Ground Chuck, is that you?" His tired brain again threw out the details without asking: Claude Rousse, Groundpounder, Psychokinesis 3, materials manipulation. He and the frosh worked together on Mastermind stuff from time to time, especially this past summer, when the kid had been fresh in on the juvie offender program. "Help a guy out here? I've got those Amazon bitches on my tail."
"That's not all you got," Ground Chuck replied, in that voice that wasn't nearly as deep and menacing as the frosh would have liked. "Lotsa people aren't happy with you."
"What else is new?" he quipped. "Come on! Masterminds help each other out when the heat's on!"
"We also work for the highest bidder, and she doesn't like you at all."
Oh-double-plus-ungood-shitlord. This was something he'd considered, that his main allies of convenience might find it more convenient to take him out, but not so soon as this! Still, where there was consideration, there were contingencies.
Taking a step back, Jack hit the panic button on his bracers, bringing up the override menu for everything in bluetooth range. Then he cranked up the sprinkler system. Know your allies, know their weaknesses for when they inevitably turned on you. Tough as Ground Chuck could be, he was still just a kid in a gravel suit, a materials kinetic, so take away the material. Already the sprinklers were sluicing away large chunks of the frosh's usable mass.
"You really thought you could fight me?" he shouted, sending a modulated force field bubble-punch through the weakened wall. His arms were burning a bit from the energy backlash, but now wasn't the time to worry about that. "Really?"
"He doesn't have to." Another voice. From behind him. Fuck this life, and fuck this evening.
"Hey, Vapo-Rub..." he said, again getting his back against the wall.
In the spray of the sprinklers, the new kid's face was hardly visible, but Jack's brain just wouldn't stop feeding him the details, as much as he'd like to tell it to shut the fuck up: Victor Rivera, Tidestriker, Telekinetic 4, hydrokinesis with a tactile limitation... His brain halted so fast that his ears hurt from the phantom record scratch.
Hydrokinetic. Only had control when in contact, but...
The sprinklers were pouring so hard there was hardly any space between the drops. Vapo-Rub was a materials kinetic, and Jack had provided the materials. Fuck his life in a bucket.
Vapo-Rub didn't waste any more time with words, lashing out with a stream of water from his canteen that grew and grew as it absorbed all the droplets en route. It snaked around before exploding outward into a massive hand that smashed Jack up against the wall.
He could see the kid's eyes now, because they were flashing blue with rage in the darkness. Then the light faded, and he heard Vapo-Rub say, "No. You're not worth killing."
This would have gotten his wholehearted agreement, if the hydraulic hand would let him go. As it was, the weight on his chest and a sudden fear of opening his mouth disinclined him from saying a thing. The water seeped across the wall at his back, soaking his clothes, and then he was lifted bodily, to be dragged down the hall.
Damnit, was Vapo-Rub always this strong, or only when he was pissed?
At one of the broader intersections, a rounded and domed chamber where two of the major student thoroughfares met, Jack was dropped to the floor with a splash. Lungs heaved as pressure was suddenly relieved from them.
"Look, look," he gasped. "I know I did you a wrong one, Vapo... er, Victor, and you just kicked my ass right back. Good for you. Can we call it even and both go home now, before the Amazons catch up and castrate the both of us on general principle?
"Oh, I am finished." Damn, did Vapo-Rub sound smug there. "But you're not. Got one last person here who'd like to leave her regards in your face."
Who... was walking in from the other corridor, skipping over the puddles as she made a beeline for him. For the last time that night, his brain spent precious seconds processing instead of doing anything useful: Fiorella Persico, né Fabrizio, Calliope, Exemplar 2, Empath 4, sonic component. The trap. How'd she...
The question came apart as he thought it, shattered by the rising hiss now vibrating the room. Puddles rippled outwards, away from the trap, inching away as if they too could feel the danger. The sound rose sharply to cut the air and stab his ears, and he could feel the underlying heat of her anger as surely as his own heartbeat.
"You." The word was softer than the hiss it replaced, but it pressed harder into his brain. "You were the ringleader. You made the decisions. You made the plans. You violated Vic. You attacked me. You arranged the email to the campus..."
Each carefully spaced sentence, a bare statement of fact, hit his mind like a bullet, a concentrated slug of emotions he could hardly process before the next one hit. Fear, anger, hatred, rage, in so many flavors which his neurons were not equipped to understand. He could feel his brain melting out his ears well before she reached the final blow.
"You hurt Neff." Three little words bore more emotion, stronger emotion, than all the rest combined. He could not move, could hardly begin to think, as the trap stepped in close, took his head in her hands, and screamed.
There was no thought after that.
"Göttin im Himmel..." Brita kept the words to herself, not wishing for a second of attention down her particular corridor. With her right hand, she held back Copacetic. There was no telling what would happen to anyone walking into that situation. Even at this distance, it was painful to hear.
She almost felt sorry for Dick-in-the-Box as she watched his slow, limp collapse to the floor.
Taking Copacetic by the hand, she led her newest little sister back down the corridor to where Muliebris kept watch. "Nothing more to do," she said. "Let's go home."
"But, but!" said Copacetic. "What're we gonna do about that?"
"We came to make sure that Dick-in-the-Box paid for his crimes, and there's not much more that can be done to him," she replied. "What would you do?"
They walked in silence for a moment. "I'd, I'd make Cally tell me why," Copacetic finally said.
"Why the lies. Why the tricks. Why the... why the everything!" An inhabitual frown had installed itself upon the girl's face.
"I would assume," said Brita, choosing her words carefully, "that it was to avoid the very series of events she has been living for the past four days."
"Wish I'd know before... well, before anything," said the girl. "Could've avoided some of the weirdness. Prolly some of the trauma, too."
Brita had to stop to hug the girl properly. No one should have had to go through what she had at the hands of Dick-in-the-Box. And now, no one would, ever again.
She would still need to keep an eye on Calliope, though.
There was no one awake to hear her return to her dorm room, for which she was thankful. The way she stumbled in, people would have been concerned.
She... she... her hands trembled as she stared at them. What had she done? Why... why had she liked it, rejoiced in it, even as the worst of all emotions poured from her? What...
The questions had no answers. That lack hurt more than all else.
The key was uncomfortable between her fingers as she opened the door to her room, taking three tries before turning. Walking down the space between beds, she tripped and nearly fell. Instead, she landed on Erica's bed.
"Huh?" Her roommate stirred. "Oh, Cally? That you? Have a bad dream, or..."
"I... I..." Tears were streaming, and her throat was closed by sobs. "I did something... something terrible..."
Erica's arms were around her, hugging. If her roommate noticed the combat suit she wore, then she said nothing. They rocked there for a few minutes before the blonde continued: "What happened?"
It took a while to tell this story. Neither of them slept for much of the early morning.
----Meanwhile, at Castle Groenwald...
It was almost midnight. A low, plaintive cry broke the silence of the lower halls, where few busy drones still worked at this hour. The owner of those lungs did not care who heard, so long as they were heard, and they continued until a response was received.
A warm response, a safe response, smelling faintly of sweat and soap. Strong arms cradled, rocked, and a full breast was presented. Gina Winifred Greenwood, two months old and already a little commanderette, accepted it gladly with loud slurps and gurgles as milk went in and around her greedy mouth.
There was no noise at all for many minutes, not until a satisfied belch punched the air and a happy infant was laid down in her crib to sleep once more.
"Mission accomplished?" her father asked with a grin as her mother left the nursery.
Danielle Greenwood only smiled in return as she adjusted the leak-guard padding of her bra and restored the buttons of her jacket to their proper order. To look at her, one would not immediately suspect her of having such a young child, not with the way the cut of her quasi-military outfit cleaved itself to her. The benefit of the best genes, she would say.
Her husband, Brian Greenwood, would say a great many other things, whispered sweetly into her ear when they were alone. Alas, the opportunity was not there tonight.
Already, those dedicated specialists, they who kept the organization running like the well-oiled machine of state it was meant to be, were working their magic upon his wife, swarming in to fix every detail of her military jacket with its gilt epaulets, high collar, and stylized insignia. A brilliant green eisenkreuz, a quintessentially German emblem like a cross formed of four sharp triangles piercing the heart, shone with newly polished luster upon her breast.
"Is everything ready?" Danielle asked breathlessly as the storm of assistance subsided.
"Ready and perfect," Brian confirmed. "Every t crossed, i dotted, and all p's and q's properly segregated. Your debut will be one to remember."
"Ah-ah," she tutted. "If it is to be remembered so, it won't be as my debut." Taking a jewelry case from one attendant, Danielle opened it to reveal the golden valkyrie mask which her own cousin, Brian's half-sister, had bequeathed to her. "No..." she said, slipping into a German accent as effortlessly as she did the mask, "a debut is a beginning, but here we are continuing a legacy."
Brian admired his wife the debutante in her mask, as she fitted it carefully around her eyes and inspected herself in the mirror. "You wear it well," he said.
"It is a prop," she told him. "A pretty one, but still a prop."
"For the role of a lifetime," he pointed out.
Blue eyes, more sapphire than ice, showed her smile more than her mouth did. "Yes... How I would have killed for a break like this in L.A. So." Danielle inhaled deeply. "Shall we go knock them dead?"
The man known publicly as Brian Greenwood, also as Bernhard von Groenwald and Agent Sänger, graced the hand of his wife, Agent Miene, with a kiss before she led the way to the mission staging zone. This was her show, and he knew she was going to kill it.
----Whateley Security, 6:00AM
There were few things worse, in Sgt. Lafayette's opinion, than being woken early in the morning after pulling a late shift Waking up to a student in the hospice for the foreseeable future was at the top of the bottom, even when it was a student whom he personally despised.
"I hate this fucking school sometimes," he muttered into his coffee.
Across the desk from him, Officers Pruitt and Canterbury nodded. Whether in agreement or because the coffee had yet to kick in, he could not say for certain.
"Let's start with the facts, then." The stack of papers on his desk seemed to taunt him.
"Anonymous tip-off at half-past one," Canterbury began, her eyes closed as she recited from memory. "A specific set of coordinates in the underground. Officer Pipps was first on the scene." Now she grimaced.
Lafayette chose not to recall the exact reasons why Pipps was on graveyard shift. Not pertinent at the moment. "Go on."
"The Thawne kid was found unconscious at the intersection. Beaten up, but no obvious reason for a K.O., according to Tennant. Lots of kids walk out of Tolson's AMA class with more damage. She's thinking some sort of power's in play."
"Checked security cam footage," Pruitt added. "Everything within a hundred meters was blanked for a quarter-hour except for the convenience store. Confirmed that Thawne bought some stuff; found that stuff three corridors away, untouched."
"How long is the list of suspects?" Lafayette's hand rubbed against his face wearily.
"Longer than my arm," Canterbury confirmed. "I was going to inquire about it to the Amazons later today. The bruises match their M.O., but not the rest."
He waved for Pruitt to go on. "What else is there?"
"Mud in one corridor, copious amounts. The sprinkler system was set off, and the trail of water leads straight to Thawne's position. Cause for his current condition is unknown, but Tennant's willing to concede that the kid's comatose."
"Christ..." The other hand joined its brother on Lafayette's face, rubbing at his eyes.
"One last thing," said Canterbury. "Aster over in Cyber Security sent us an update about half an hour ago. Someone's produced a full log from the domestic system of that little love nest where the Copeland girl was being coerced last Saturday..."
"Do we know who that someone is?"
"Aster's not saying, so it has to be one of her protégés. My money's on Ping. But guess who's in all the footage?"
Now he leaned forward, feeling a thrill of vindication and thus more human than before. "Not the Grimsby kid, then."
"Nope." Canterbury shared his grin. "Solid evidence that Thawne was guilty of that incident."
"Good..." His armchair accepted him willingly into its embrace. "Keep at it, see what you can find. And wish me luck. In about two hours, I get to make a long-distance wake-up call to Mrs. Thawne to let her know that her son's both in a coma and at the center of multiple criminal investigations." He rubbed his chin. "And shave before that. Fuck, I hate this school..."
----First Period, Powers Theory
The morning so far had just sort of happened. Erica wasn't sure how much sleep she and Cally had had, but it certainly was not enough. That was why she had left the Italian to her nap in the dorm room, skipped the morning routine with apologies to Physique, and gone straight to breakfast.
She couldn't recall much of that, either, except for the raspberry donut from Daniel. That had made her feel at least a little better.
Powers Theory was its usual interesting blend of science lecture and show-and-tell. Arbolita was up in front of the class demonstrating how fast she could grow a flower from a seed with the right conditions while everyone took notes.
In the seat next to her, Vic Rivera was looking pretty rough himself. Dark circles underlined his eyes, and occasionally his left hand would absently scratch one spot on his right arm. He blinked like an owl as he focused on the demonstration.
When the bell rang to announce the end of the period, she snagged his elbow. "Hey, got a moment?"
"What do you want?" he said warily.
"Just wanted to say thanks. For standing by Cally, earlier. She's not here to say it right now herself, but I know she's thinking it."
His eyes went hard on her. "How much did she tell you?"
"Enough for me to know she appreciated you being there."
"Okay..." A sigh flowed from his lips. "Don't, ah, mention this to Tanya just yet, please? It's, ah..."
"Gotcha." Grabbing his hand, Erica gave it a good, strong shake. "My lips are sealed."
----Second Period, not BMA
Compared to some of the professionals on the Whateley roster, Dr. Hortensio Shu did not have a large number of students permanently assigned to him, nor was he regularly on call for the random problems which might arise amid the student body. There was such a thing as quality over quantity, and his specialization was for a particular quality of student indeed. Of the small group of students put under his care, most were the sort to require immediate attention with little warning but much collateral damage to their emotional states. And to walls, floors, or other students, but it was their feelings that mattered. He was not a mason or a carpenter, after all, or even a medical doctor in the physical sense.
At the moment, he was observing his latest charge, arrived early for her mandated once-a-day counselling plan. Young Calliope did not look the sort to turn berserk and punch people till their fists bled, but that just went to show how deceiving appearances could be.
Though there was indeed much one could tell at a glance. The awkward, nervous girl of their first session was back in force after the more relaxed experience of the previous day's meeting. If anything, Calliope was even more withdrawn in her rocking chair, with her knees brought up against her chest and her face planted squarely down upon them. She'd been that way for twenty minutes now. His entire shelf of anime figurines was taken down, sorted, and re-shelved before she said her first word of the day: "Belin."
What that word meant, Dr. Shu had no idea. He was a psychologist, not a linguist, and unless she began expressing herself in either English or some dialect of Chinese, he was not going to be able to work with that.
"Belin," the girl spat out a second time. "Battu ù belin n'sci scheuggi."
"I am afraid that I neglected to bring my Italian-English dictionary today," he said.
She at least glanced up at that comment, though her head burrowed down soon after. "You would not find that word in one," she mumbled through one knee. "It is a regional phrase, in local dialect, and its meaning is... ah, best left untranslated."
"I believe I know it, then," said Dr. Shu. "Or at least, I know how to say it in English, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Guarani. Among others. Some things are practically universal to the human experience."
"Perhaps..." Another long, involved examination of her kneecaps followed. "Will you ask why I said it?"
"Will you tell me?"
That was not necessarily intended as a request, but the girl took it as such anyway. "L-last night, or perhaps rather this morning, I... I... I was given an offer, a chance to hit back at one of those boys who had made my life so terrible last weekend, and I, I..."
"Took the opportunity?"
"Si..." When she lifted her head again, he could see the tear streaks. "I... I am..."
"A fairly normal teenager who has been mistreated and harmed, then given a chance to strike back," he said. "I would find it stranger if you had done nothing with such an opportunity."
Red-rimmed eyes stared his way. "Are you... will you be reporting me?"
"Whether someone in my profession should report to the police on such matters is still a hotly contested point of ethics, but for me, the answer will always be 'No.' When you work in my specialization, you meet too many who cannot contain themselves, yet regret it afterwards so much. I can only help them manage, to cope, and if going to the authorities themselves is best, well... I let them decide for themselves."
He plucked a figurine from his shelf. "Well then, a change of topic. Remember this?"
"Si... Meloetta, wasn't it?"
"That she is. Did you look up anything about her?"
"Ah, no. My evening yesterday, it was... busy."
"Doubtless. Well, Meloetta here is a bit like you, I think. She'd rather spend her days singing happily and bringing joy to others, but sometimes people just won't behave. Now, normally she is a Psychic type -- again, much like yourself -- and yet when needs must..."
Positioning the little doll's arms upwards, he flipped the entire thing over. The trick plastic of its manufacture came into play, and suddenly arms were legs, hair shifted down to become a skirt, and what had been a skirt was now a headpiece, all colors shifting from green to orange and red. He stood the reborn Meloetta on the table to dance in place.
"I do not understand..."
"Meloetta is special," he explained. "Just like that, she switches from lyrical and psychic to a flamenco-kicking fighter. We adapt to our situation, and sometimes that means temporarily becoming something else in order to deal with it all. The trick," he concluded as he flipped the figurine back over, "is to learn how to change back to our earlier state, if we can, or strike a balance if we cannot."
Calliope now stared at the figurine as the memory plastic shifted it back to its original melodic state. "I do not know if I can do that," she said.
"Do? Not do?" He shrugged. "There is only try, and we must try every day, because it is either that, or fail."
----Third Period, Earth Science
BMA had passed without incident. Or Calliope. Erica hated that those two conditions could even be linked, but that was how the world was at the moment. Her only consolation that the bruises had yet to fade from Alvina's face. The girl code-named Rah-Rah looked more like Rah-Raccoon, sporting two black eyes, a busted lip, and a nose swelled up like an elephant seal's.
No one had given the girl much sympathy, either. That was another bright point for the morning.
After a quick in-and-out rinse to get the sweat off, Erica was back in her school uniform and dashing through the halls for science class. For future consideration, she promised herself to pick a class situated closer to the gym and dojo for the period after martial arts, next term and all thereafter. Passing period gave her enough time, but only because of her pseudo-exemplar physique. The old Eric Schroeder would have collapsed on the stairs halfway there.
The current Erica von Abendritter skipped into the classroom with a minute to spare. A seat was left open next to Chessa Barnes, she of the slightly metallic hair and all-green eyes, and Erica took it gratefully.
"Did you get an email from Gazebo?" Chessa inquired. "We might have a chance to game next week."
"Um, haven't checked my inbox recently," she admitted. "It's been a crazy day."
"It started early."
"I hear you." Chessa dug an elbow into her little brother Marcus, who was seated on her other side. "Bro here isn't having a good day of it, either."
Marcus grunted an acknowledgement over a schematic. It looked like something from an old video game, and probably was.
"What now..." Erica asked.
"Did you watch TV last night?" Chessa bounced back.
"TV...? Um, no. Haven't been watching much." In fact she'd been avoiding the common room for a few weeks now, what with some girls upset over that Nazi nonsense and others getting their panties in a twist over Cally. "What about it?"
Marcus made a face as Chessa explained for him. "A new pilot aired last night, two-parter. One of those themed mystery detective shows, yanno? Only this one has a devisor for a hero."
Judging from the look on the boy's face, this was not a positive. "Um, and the problem is...?
"The title of the show is Drick."
Blue eyes blinked as the brain behind them processed that. "Oh. Is the, ah, the main character..."
"A genius who's prone to ranting and raving at the drop of a hat," Chessa confirmed. "Like, literally, someone knocked his hat off in the first five minutes of the pilot, nearly got a death ray to the face while he was spitting and screaming at them."
Chessa's little brother had his own face vertically integrated into his schematic, hands clutching at the mess of brown hair on top. "All morning, it's been dricking jokes," he complained. "I don't even have Diedrick's! Confirmed it clinically!"
"You did put a blaster hole in the middle of a projector screen," Chessa reminded him. "Myra had to cancel her first ELL class of the semester to deal with it all."
"Why you gotta..."
"I am sorry to be late," announced the science teacher, Mrs. Hastings, from the door. Eyeing Marcus as she passed, the teacher added, "I am guessing some of you watched the latest big detective program last night? A show of hands."
About half the class acknowledged, though no one seemed happy to admit it at the moment. Mrs. Hastings was usually a fun teacher to have, but this morning, her grin was like two sawblades, and her eyes were sharper still. Under one arm, she carried a box with far too many warning labels plastered upon it.
"Let it be known," said the teacher in heavy tones, "that anyone caught making a drick joke or other reference tò̸͝ t͝͠h̷̛͘at͝ s̛͡h̷͟͝ow ͟will be treated to a close and personal demonstration of what a real Diedrick's Syndrome episode is like, ending in extirpation."
"Um, what the heck does that even mean?" asked one of the boys in the back.
That sawblade smile turned his way. "Would you like to find out?"
"No, I'm fine," came the hurried response. Nervous giggles across the room were quickly choked back.
"Good." Inhaling deeply, Mrs. Hastings appeared to count silently, and her overall mien softened by a few points on the Mohs scale. "All things considered, I am changing up the lesson plan for today. I've not been in the best of moods since last night, so..." The teacher struck a pose, spearing the air with a finger as her lab coat flared out behind her in a dramatic fashion that must have been engineered into it. "Grab your lab gear, ladies and gents! There'll be no namby-pamby sugar solutions today, oh no! We're heading out to the quad to blow some shit up!"
A loud cry of excitement answered this, because when Mrs. Hastings was in a mood, something was sure to blow up, and everyone was happy it wouldn't be them.
"C'mon, little bro," said Chessa. "Time to science the heck out of things."
That raised the boy's spirits like nothing else.
--Shawn Barker, former ODS dud
It had been a quiet week for him. Almost a quiet day, too, only the explosions from out in the quad had rattled the windows of his Spanish class often enough that Sra. Wilmington had to stick her head out the window to yell at the science teacher. Shawn's skin was still crawling from how villainously creepy the return laughter had been. In any case, he was avoiding the quad on his way to lunch.
Too bad not all of his problems were so obvious to avoid.
The two boys were leaning against a brick wall not far off the path. Most likely they were trying for nonchalance and failing at it. Shawn would have rolled his eyes at this display and continued on, except that he knew these two, and more importantly he knew that they might not be happy with him. The scowls they aimed his way confirmed it.
"Hey, Shake'n'Bake," the younger of the two said, moving in to block the way.
"Hey yourself, Mac'n'Cheese," he replied.
"It's Macarthur," the boy snapped. "Or better, Backlash. Show some respect."
Muscles tensed -- to run, not to fight. He didn't doubt the outcome. "Respect comes to those who give it," Shawn said. "So call me Shawn, or Tremblor, or something else besides that stupid nickname. Jack gave 'em to both of us, and neither of us like it, so screw him."
"Someone already did. He won't be nick-naming anyone any time soon." That was from Gouyasse.
"What do you mean?" It was hard to give them both a close watch, and when Shawn took a step back to keep them in sight, Gouyasse just crowded in closer.
"He is in the hospice," the Belgian said, his breath slightly boozy. "We do not know why, or by whose hand, but he will not be leaving anytime soon."
"Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy," Shawn lied through gritted teeth. "What's it got to do with me?"
Macarthur -- Backlash -- ground one fist into the palm of his other hand. "Whoever did it had to find him somehow, had to know he'd done something, which means someone told..."
"Not me," he declared. "Not to anyone who'd listen and do that. Now, if you'd excuse me." The shakes were about to hit; he could feel them coming. Always when he was nervous, and for the first time this week. His former not-friends in the ODS had been a regular cause, which should have tipped him off to them sooner.
The trick, he was learning, was to push the shakes in a direction they couldn't be seen, in that spot perpendicular to reality. When the Belgian attempted to grab him by the arm, he shook himself farther that way and slipped through Gouyasse's fingers, quite literally. From the look on the other boy's face, it hadn't felt that nice.
"Look," said Shawn. "I'm not here to make trouble, okay? It's lunchtime, we're all hungry, so let's leave well enough alone. Later." He made a quick turn and hustled away before Macarthur or Gouyasse could try anything else, trusting in the growing lunchtime crowds to keep him safe in the short term.
For the longer term... His eyes located the first-floor table where Arsi Khan and his roommate Saumer had claimed space. It wasn't that hard; the Mongolian was waving at him with the biggest grin on his face. After a quick trip through the lunch line for a pasta and salad combo, he joined them.
"Friend Shahn!" cried Arsi. "It is the goodness graciousness you are not being not-safe."
"We saw MacMoron and Monsieur Drunky try to pin you," Saumer translated. "What's got their dander up?"
He quickly recounted what had happened, and then more slowly a second time for Arsi, as the Mongolian kid kept mixing up words and meanings. "So yeah, they think I ratted on them, which I did, and that I'm involved in Jack's sitch..."
"Which you're not," Saumer concluded.
"Helpy-help I can!" Arsi said. "With the fightings and the trainings and the becoming the bestest-best you to be all you can be!"
"I think he means it's time to get that wrestling club going," said Saumer. "I know Pete was interested. Maybe Fra, too, if his mood's back up. Whaddaya say? Tomorrow morning, before breakfast? I'll send some emails, see who'll come. Sound like a plan?"
"Yeah..." said Shawn around a mouthful of meatballs. A sip of soda, and he continued. "Yeah, let's do this. To the, ah..."
"American Mongolian Wrestling Federation," Saumer supplied.
"Yeah, to that." He raised his soda cup for a toast.
"To the future," added the bunny-eared boy, raising his own cup.
Arsi's eyes tracked back and forth as he attempted to figure out what to do. Then, with a shrug he lifted his cup and proudly stated, "To infinity, and beyond! Um, I am the doing it right?"
His roommate's grin could light a room. "Don't ever change, dude."
"Okey and the dokey!"
----just before 7th period, Music Class
The day had been hard, but she was in the final stretch. There was little to threaten her in her afternoon classes, not now that she'd been back a few days and felt the vibes of the room. Chill, as the Americans would say, and not cold. Back on Tuesday, the senior members of the class had taken her news with a shrug and gone back to tweaking their sound. Kieran, coming from Poe as he did, had already been aware of transgender mutations, and was on good terms with many of her team-mates. Nick was one whom she'd worried about, not knowing much of how the lumbering horse-boy thought of anything, but he'd only given her a very large thumb's-up in encouragement.
So really, her only real concern had been Ngaire the musically inclined devisor, who'd turned out to be more sympathetic than anyone would ever have guessed.
Even if she was at the moment trying to throttle Calliope with a set of undergarments.
"Hold still!" shouted the girl. "We must get you fitted first, and I cannot do that until you stop moving."
"But it, ah..." She searched for the word for solletico. "It makes the tickles!"
Ngaire held the offending garment up for inspection, then tutted. "The inner weave is a little rough. I could apply a layer of polypropylene..."
"Wouldn't that make it too warm on stage?" called Vicky from her own lab space. The other devisor was all grins at their antics.
"Not terribly so. The outfit's already got heat sinks built in. I'll just boost those a bit more."
"Ah, what is the main material?" Though Calliope had seen Ngaire preparing the fibers, she'd not heard where it came from.
Ngaire paused for a second, shrugged, and then reached up to pull at a pin stuck in her hair. The girl's style seemed to change from day to day, but the current coif was nothing but intricate coils that fell apart on command, dropping a silky river of darkness across the flooring. "I didn't trim this morning," she explained. "I needed it longer for a special project."
"Do you... cut it often?" To look at it, Calliope would not have thought the scissors had touched Ngaire's hair in two or three years.
"Every morning," the devisor confirmed with a nod. A careful nod, what with the likely weight upon her neck. "It's an MATD thing, they think. You know, Manifestation-Augmented Tissue Deformity? Instead of keratin, my hair up there's made up of these weird polymer strands that are each essentially a single long chain. I just let it grow out to the necessary length, chop it off, and send it through the machines I invented to process it." She beamed happily, though the intensity dimmed as she noticed the mixed expression on Calliope's face. "Um, I didn't weird you out, did I? Oh no, I did..."
"It's fine! Really!" Calliope did her best not to think about the outfit she was in the process of trying on. "It is just, ah, it was a surprise. That is all. I had thought it more, ah, synthetic. What with the shimmer effect."
"Nope, that's just how it is," said Ngaire, her grin lighting up a few lumens. Taking a battery-looking thing from her worktable, she applied its contacts to a bundle of hair, still attached to her scalp. "Watch this."
A wave passed across that dark river of hair, a bright line in yellow that left sparkly trails of blue in its wake. Orange and red floated like the surface of the ocean, broken apart by a purpled foam of glitter. "I usually modulate it with gadgets and trinkets," said Ngaire, "though Vicky's done a good job of printing circuits on it. I might ask her to share some technical tips I haven't considered."
"Anytime!" Vicky shouted from across the way. "I figure that with a little more practice, we could incorporate those holo-projectors we used in Cally's performance two weeks ago directly into the circuitry. The two effects should complement each other synergistically..."
The grin skewed sideways on Ngaire's face at the reminder of that particular show, but the girl shrugged it off with nary a sniff. "Perhaps. I was thinking of something along those lines eventually, but with some assistance..."
"That is what we are here for, is it not?" said Calliope. "To help each other and to learn?" Though, the angriest parts of her brain did remind, some were just as likely to argue and harm. Such was life in the dorm.
Assistance could come in many forms, so when Ngaire suggested she make the walk to the Music Class mini-auditorium in the performance suit prototype, Calliope was in no position to refuse. The material was sheer but layered, shimmering darkly as she moved, and if it showed more on top than she would prefer in public, that was as much the fault of the push-up brassiere she had chosen for the day. Weaponized femininity, as Erica's aunt had called it when they'd gone bra shopping at the nice stores in New York City.
Oh, how she would like a few bombshells to drop on certain skulls. This would have to do. As minor consolation, her still-ragged mental shields managed to block out most of the background buzz, except for the melodic notes of appreciation from passing boys -- and no few of the girls as well.
That lifted her spirits as surely as her brassiere.
The advanced Music Class -- as much an excuse for students to gather and jam as anything else -- had at some point in the past claimed a minor stage and auditorium in the upper depths of the Whateley underground, and the seats in the rear now served as convenient storage space for a variety of instruments, support gear, costumes, and devises of mad science the use of which Calliope could only guess.
Dalton had once shown her an item he called an 'assault accordion,' but she'd declined the offer to take it up to the firing ranges for a demonstration.
All conversation stopped as she strutted down down the aisle to the stage, and she took that for the compliment that it was. With a hand-up from Nick, she could get up onto the boards without tripping herself, and gave a quick twirl to show off Ngaire's handiwork. Much applause followed, and she shared a bow with the devisor girl.
"Elegant work, Electra," said the music teacher, Mr. August. Portly and round, with a neat goatee on his chin, he could nevertheless dance across the stage as delicately as any dancer. He did so now, stepping around his students to come in for a closer inspection. "Yes. You've been paying attention in Costumes class."
"And getting extra practice in," Ngaire admitted. "Materielle's been giving me pointers."
"Has she? Good for her. So," said Mr. August. "What have you built into this one?"
Ngaire had Calliope raise an arm, revealing several small items of a digital nature sewn into the folds of the armpit, where they could not be seen. "My outfits usually hook directly into my musical engine," the girl began, "but for Cally, I've set up a series of miniaturized sound sensors tied into a central processor via bluetooth. The processor analyzes the emotional pitch of her singing in real time, then translates that into color images upon the dress material."
"That sounds delightful," said Mr. August. "Might we have a demonstration?"
An entire discography flashed through Calliope's mind, every song which her newly prodigious memory had stored for her to practice. Most were discarded instantly for not matching her mood of the moment. This was not the week for light, cheerful music. After a few seconds of thought, a decision came, and she nodded as she stepped to center stage. Not bothering with a microphone, she began:
"Buongiorno... tristezza..." The opening lines were low and slow. Not quite ponderous, they welcomed the sadness as a natural part of life. Her dress turned a deep indigo with frissons of cobalt.
"Lo no sapero lusinghe d'amore... Canzione d'amore... veleni d'amore..." The words were true -- perhaps too true -- She'd known not the delightful temptations of love, the songs and the poisonous nature of love, until it was too late to avoid them. At home and at Whateley, she'd thought it come, only for heartache.
"Quando in un bacio mi chiese un cuore, le diedi un cuore, perdetti un cuore..." Veins of red broke out across the fabric, pulsing like the heart promised in a kiss, given and then lost. While the original singer -- her older brother's namesake, Claudio Villa -- had made those lyrics sound poignant, in her voice the words were sharp and pained, and the stabbing throb moved in time with them.
"D'allora quante monetti d'oro, quest'occhi le han donato d'allora..." Attention, love, paid out through the eyes like gilded coins. How much had she paid so far?
Now did the melody pick up speed, her voice swooping in dramatic arcs as the colors of her dress bloomed. "Buongiorno, tristezza! Torniamo dove un giorno t'incontrai..."
Returning to the day she'd met sadness... One Sunday past, one lonely afternoon in May past, twice met, twice too often.
"É dissi di lei, 'Mi vuole ancora bene...'" And she had told herself that the other... that Michela could have loved her... that Neff had still loved her...
"É mi sbagliai..." And she had been wrong. Her voice rose and broke upon the last word, and the lights of her dress shattered, falling like yellow leaves weeping from the trees. They matched the tears from her eyes as she fell to her knees on the boards of the stage, unable to finish the song.
Ngaire was at her side in an instant, and Kieran a second later. On wobbling feet she let herself be led to the nearest chair, where she was content to watch everyone else practice and jam for most of the class period. It was enough to be there, in the moment. Sadness was welcome, but it was not her only friend.
----also 7th period, in the library
It should have been a quiet period. She should have spent it in Herr Auer's office, discussing her latest homework and compositions. That was the current plan, to ensure she did not become the receiving end of Kirsten's ire yet again. Much good that it had done.
But Herr Auer had had an idea, that she needed more cultural exchange with native Germans in order to better know her own heritage. At the time, she could agree that it was a good idea. Right now, sitting across the table from her first cultural mentor, she was not so sure.
"Ah, gutentag," she said.
"Gutentag," replied Brita Baumann, code-named StahlFaust. "Though to call it good," the upperclasswoman continued in German, "is something I am unsure of."
"Is something the matter?" Lord, she hoped the Amazon had not been picking fights with Morgana or one of her other Poe teammates. That would have been the cherry on the turd cake, right there.
"This is Whateley," said Brita. "Something is always the matter. Now, what would Herr Auer wish for us to talk about?"
Erica's smile was flat, but at least the effort was made. "I guess... What is your hometown like? You're from München, right? In Bavaria? That's where my grandparents are from." Originally, sort of, she added mentally. Neither Oma nor Opa had actually visited in decades.
"I could tell from the accent." Brita laughed. "Between the colloquialisms and the outdated slang, you'd never pass for a regular German girl on the street."
If she could have blushed... "I am working on that."
"Oh, do not fret. You make mistakes, but they are German mistakes, not American."
"Ah, danke." She eyed the other girl for a moment. "So... what cartoons did you watch, growing up?" That seemed safe enough.
"Mostly Disney in German," Brita admitted, making an exaggerated grimace of shame. "And mostly at friends' houses. My grandmother, she did not approve of such things."
The way it was said sent warning bells through Erica's brain. "Ah, then I guess we could discuss something else..."
"Besides my grandmother?" A loud snort attacked the air. "No, do not worry about me or my feelings. A lot has passed between me and my Oma. And you cannot choose the family which raises you."
"Um, your parents...?" Erica inquired, fearing the worst.
"My mother became a rebellious teen, left home as soon as she legally could, reappeared three years later with me, and then disappeared again," Brita said flatly. "She has not been seen since."
Blink, blink, blink, went blue eyes. "You too?"
"You too, what?" Now Brita was returning the stare of confusion.
Erica grimaced. "My own mother, she... when she learned about some parts of the family history..." The Nazi science experiment parts, not to mention being a designer baby herself. "...she did not take it well, and left. Went to seek her fortune in Hollywood or somewhere. She only came home once, to sign over custody of me to Oma and Opa, and in the decade since then we've only heard from her a few times."
They knew where she was, however. Unfortunately. Brita did not need to know that part.
"Huh. I would not have imagined we had so much in common," said Brita. "Do your grandparents approve of your mutation?"
They'd better, since most of it was Opa's fault. But she wouldn't say that to anyone. Instead: "They're happy that I am living well and learning. It is my distant cousins who have the issues with my situation, but they're all Nazis, so fuck them." The expletive came far more easily to her lips in German than it ever did in English.
Brita chuckled her approval. "My great-grandfather was Wehrmacht, but he would say similar things when he was in his cups. It bothered Oma to no end. She's a deaconess, you see, and a chairperson for the Christian Social Union in our little town outside of München. She tries to keep herself above such crudeness."
"Does she include mutation in that category?"
"Sometimes." Now a sigh, to follow the chuckles. "She is convinced that most heroes of all stripes are somehow profane, even the ones who claim divine sources of power. Especially those. Our local Volksherren representative is just fine, of course -- a regular churchgoer, he -- but in principle..."
"Sinful until proven otherwise."
"Exactly." Another long sigh.
There were other things to ask about, surely. Erica's mind rifled through the folds of her brain, searching for ideas like they were loose change in the sofa cushions. She couldn't even come up with two cents, and it was an expensive silence now falling between them.
"I believe I know what you are thinking," said Brita.
"What?" Erica wanted to know as well.
"How did someone with a grandmother like that end up here, at Whateley, and with the Amazons?"
Her lips smooshed together as she thought about it. "Teenage rebelliousness?"
The table shook as Brita slapped it, laughing hard. "That would be the answer to most any question as to what happens at this school."
"That Volksherren recommended you?"
"Yes. Perhaps under similar circumstances to your own. We might even be teammates, in the future."
Again she searched for words. "That might be interesting," she opined.
"It might," Brita agreed. "Of course, our offer for you to join the Amazons is still open, even though we understand why you might not wish to."
There was a lot of water flowing under that bridge, and too turbulently to be ignored and forgotten so soon. "Unfortunately, I prefer to date men."
"So did I, at one point. Or so I thought. I've learned better." A predatory look had settled into the older girl's eyes.
"Well, I, ah, did try... once," she admitted. "Try to test the waters, I guess? But sadly, heterosexuality appears to be hardwired into me. Literally, as a function of my... my mutation. I'm just not attracted to girls. If I were..." She matched Brita stare for stare. "If I were, I'd be dating Calliope right now."
"If there's no way to change your mind on the matter..." Brita shrugged.
"There's not," Erica affirmed. "Not unless Valentina really does have the power to turn girls lesbian -- and even then, I doubt it."
Another laugh and slap rattled the table. "I shall have to tell her that one," chuckled Brita. "She will be amused at how the legend grows. But no, Val is perceptive, and a strong empath, but her ability to suggest directly with her power is limited. But you would be amazed at what people can be convinced into doing when they believe they can blame it on outside control... But alas, no. She can sense interest and encourage you to act on it, but she cannot create that interest in the first place."
"That is... good to know."
"But on the subject of friends, how is Calliope?" Brita asked.
A certain wariness took hold of Erica. "Fine. Why do you ask?"
"When I last saw her, she did not look so fine. That is all."
"Last Sunday was hardly a good moment to judge her by."
"I meant this morning," said Brita. "Well, barely this morning. It was just past midnight."
Every instinct in Erica's hindbrain was screaming that it would be a bad idea, a terrible idea, a magnificently disastrous idea to punch the junior in the face. She almost did anyway, only redirecting the vector of her fist towards the table surface at the last blink. The crater it left on the fake wood went on to crack the unfortunate piece of cheap furniture all the way across.
Brita sat back, her hands making a polite golf clap. "Impressive. They're going to bill you for that, you realize."
"Let them," Erica said, curling and uncurling her fingers as they buzzed from the impact. "But if you tell anyone..."
"Why should I?" said the Amazon with a shrug. "She did all women a favor there, and I respect her for that, for having the strength to go the distance. That is more than most would do, by far."
She eyed the other girl. "I was given to understand that you do not approve of..."
"Of transgender folk. No, I do not. The majority are a medical oddity at best, a psychological issue at worst. Calliope's sort is rarer, and far more female than most, but it is still..." Brita balled a fist. "It is... it still feels wrong to me. I may think it over a hundred, a thousand times, and it still feels so. It is not within me to accept your roommate for what she wishes to be, but that does not mean I cannot like her as a person or respect her for her actions."
That was a large load of scheisse, but Erica let it slide down into the toilet of memory to be flushed away. "I guess we're about done here, then," she said. "Only... could you at least tell Neff that Cally wants to speak to her? To apologize?"
"That I will do," said the Amazon. "Though, I cannot promise that it will do her much good. Anything they might have had would have been doomed, as soon as Calliope came out to her. If she ever did."
"I hardly think we can guess about stuff like that, with everything that's happened," Erica said pointedly.
Brita got up to leave, shaking her head. "I told you; Val can suggest all she wants, but she has to work with what's already there. That much vehemence does not just happen in a few hours. No... it is a sad truth of this world that we cannot know how people, how our friends or family, will react to our inner selves, should we reveal them. That is what makes such revelations so difficult. That is why there are things about me which my own Oma shall never know. No matter how well I might predict the response, I still fear what it may be. Ask your roommate; she will understand."
Erica understood all too well herself, for reasons she would never say to the junior. There was no doubt in her mind how that revelation would be received. So instead of speaking up, she let the Amazon leave, taking the few extra minutes to inspect the damage to the table before going in search of someone to report it to.
----still 7th Period, Language Lab
Hiram Saumer had always been the sort of kid who had a song in his head. It didn't matter what song; his brain had a natural tendency to pick up random tunes and then parrot them back days, months, or even years later. There was a jingle that he'd heard on a Christmas trip to his aunt in OKC years back, some little ditty about a jewelry store, that still popped into his head from time to time. He caught himself singing it at least once a winter holiday.
That had been his situation before mutation had kicked in, but once it had... well, he'd never really needed an MP3 player, and now he pretty much was one. Perfect sonic retention and playback -- that's where he got his code name from. Around the fuzzy parabolic bunny ears that had come part and parcel with it all, the fast-paced notes of "99 Luftballons" buzzed. He could have just listened to it silently in his head, but there was a certain something, ein gewisses Etwas, to the physical sensation of sound in his ears.
He chuckled to himself. Big words. Big foreign words, even. School was rubbing off on him.
One thing that was for certain, he was doing better in German class here than he'd ever done in middle school. Saumer had often joked about how a C- was still passing, but the truth had been that for all his audiophilia, he'd had no skill when it came to learning a foreign language. Things were different now, far beyond the bunny ears -- though his mutation played a part in it all, for sure.
Tutoring sessions with cute German girls went a long way towards explaining the rest.
It was a Thursday, and so most of the German-born students were on duty at the language lab that afternoon. Saumer knew them all by name at this point, though there some he'd yet to talk to. Erica wasn't there, of course -- she operated on a different schedule for some reason -- but neither was Brita.
That was too bad; the Amazon was actually quite a good tutor.
Kirsten was available, sitting at her usual station like a dark-haired Valkyrie. "Ah, gutentag, Saumer," she said as he strolled over, his ambient music on mute. "Still having trouble with the irregular verb sequences?"
"Not any more, no. Thanks." She'd taught him a mnemonic chant the other week -- something for kindergartners, but it had worked. "I just need to review some vocabulary from my reading."
"Let us see, then...Grimms Kinder- und Hausmärchen?" she asked as she saw the book in his hands. "Are you younger than I thought?"
His ears curled and flopped backwards as he laughed nervously. "No, no... ah, I was late to choosing, and there wasn't much left. It's harder to get through than it looks."
"I'm sure..." Kirsten rolled her eyes. "So you chose to read it anyway?"
"Erica recommended it, actually."
Though he was more of an audio man, there was no way his eyes could miss how Kirsten's smile morphed into a tight frown. The tones of her voice supported the shift. "I see. Well, I would be careful with that one. The apple does not fall far from the trunk, and the tree of her family has terrible roots. She is nothing but trouble."
"I'll take your word for it," he said politely. In his opinion, anyone who liked role-playing games couldn't be that bad, and Erica certainly seemed nice enough when he'd seen her around campus. "Oh, have you heard of a game called Das Schwarz Auge? A friend recommended I look into it, since I'm studying German."
"No, I can't say that I have," Kirsten admitted. "It is a video game?"
"Tabletop," he said. "With dice?"
"Oh. One of those games. No, definitely not." She opened the book to the first story, 'Der Froschkönig,' and gave it a quick skim with her eyes. "So, where shall we begin?"
Judging a person by their interests was about as useful as judging a book by its cover. In either case, it gave you a pretty quick idea of what their life was all about. Saumer was pretty sure in his judgments. Kirsten was a great tutor, skilled at explaining why sentences were arranged as they were, and good at answering any questions he might have.
He still liked Erica more, though.
----Pre-dinner free time
Once more had the day been survived. Stepping through the front door of Dickinson Cottage, Calliope breathed a deep sigh of relief to acknowledge this as the accomplishment it was. All the way home, she had still felt the stares turned her way from time to time. Had felt them all the way to the door.
Felt them still, if she were to be honest. Alvina was seated in the foyer, reading a book. The black-eyed girl buried her battered nose deep in between the pages when Calliope looked her way.
The vibes from the front desk were more positive in timbre. Milena and Ms. Plimsoll had been deep in conversation when she walked in, and the sudden lull was a better signal than any other. When the dorm mother motioned her towards the side door, Calliope knew to follow.
It was the same bare corridor, so unlike the warm colors of carpet and wallpaper that the dorm halls possessed. The door at the far end, she knew, led to private meeting chambers in the Whateley underground. Eventually, at least. That was not where they were headed, however, as Ms. Plimsoll led her to a side door and into an apartment.
The chambers must have belonged to the dorm mother; they had her signature lack of decor. Bare walls, bare floor, barely any furniture at all this was the sort of domicile for which the term 'spartan' had been intended. The only frippery to be found was a pair of teacups, china porcelain with delicate vines and flowers, into which Ms. Plimsoll was now pouring tea. The table under them might have come from a junk sale.
"So..." said the woman after they'd each had a sip. "We had a message from a Dr. Shu, on the psychiatric faculty, asking us to check up on you."
She fidgeted with her cup. "Ah, yes. He said that he would do so. The minimum required response, he called it."
"Should I ask why, or do we both know the reason already?"
The swirl of particulate matter at the bottom of the cup, gently swaying dregs of tea leaves, was suddenly quite interesting. Perhaps she could learn to tell fortunes in it... so she could avoid conversations like this one in the future.
"I thought as much. I take it you told him?"
"And he is not taking this to Security?"
"And you're considering to do so anyway?"
A hard slump back into the chair, her teacup abandoned on the table.
"Calliope..." The brief flash of concern came and left the woman's face faster than the eye could perceive, but she heard the accompanying jingle of emotion clearly. "If it is punishment, expiation that you require, then I can arrange that. I would be utilizing the same avenues which Mr. Thawne so abused, in fact. Provided it is accepted, you would receive detention for a known offense -- beating Alvina Baxter senseless, for example -- in exchange for an anonymous admission of guilt for Mr. Thawne's state."
"Would... would that work?" she asked.
"In most likelihood it would," said the woman, now speaking as Patience. "Especially as you did not kill the young man. I would strongly advise against testing the limits of this particular set of rules, however. As it stands, Security would be assured that the culprit was caught and punished. They can certainly figure out who did it, of course, but they shall let it lie. The doctors at the hospice would likely wish to know what sort of power did the damage as well, to adjust their therapeutic regimens. And I will most likely be having more than one uncomfortable conversation with the headmaster or assistant headmaster on my role in this whole sordid mess. I would much prefer not having to repeat the experience too often, if you understand my meaning?"
"S-si... Yes. Ah, thank you, ma'am."
"Think nothing of it. I did lead you into this action, even if I had not considered all outcomes as well as I should have."
Calliope shifted in her chair. "I, I should go. I do not want to take any more of your time. And... I suppose I should decline your offer now, to join the Masterminds. It is... I am not a good fit, I think."
"I wouldn't say that," said Patience. "You are a good person, it is true, but I knew that from the start. So, why would I invite you?"
"I, I do not know."
"Because you are hurt. Because you are angry. Those are not good things for a good person to be, because you have little experience working through it, and it will do more harm to you than anyone else. What the Masterminds offer you, Calliope, is a means of releasing those negative moods, to be the bad girl in a controlled, constructive manner, so you can continue to be the good girl in public. An opportunity to learn, to flex your mind and body in new ways, to gain new skills which shall serve you later in life. I have checked; fewer than one-third of the Masterminds alumni have turned to active villainy, and several of those were under duress. More have become actual heroes, applying what they learned here and being all the more effective for it. Like the assistant Headmaster's wife, to provide one example."
"Ms. Tabby Cat?" She'd met the woman, Falcon's wife, at the inaugural meeting of the Whateley Transgender Alliance, the Sunday before. "She..."
"Is an alumna in good standing," Patience confirmed. "She and I had many interesting discussions when I was first placed into this position. But now, I am keeping you from your supper. Go, Calliope, fill your stomach, and keep my words in mind. There is much you can gain from the Masterminds."
"I... I shall think about it," she promised.
Patience saluted her with a teacup in hand, a rare smile gracing her lips.
----post-dinner free time
On her bed, on her back, with her arms stretched up high, Erica tried to focus on her World History reading. Approaching it from this new angle did not help, and so she let go of the book. Perhaps direct facial application would work better.
It did not. She groaned her annoyance through two and a half pounds of printed paper.
Across the room, Cally was reviewing a lyrics sheet with her headphones on, her lips moving in time to the music. When the Italian removed the muffs from her ears, a plinking piano line could be heard. "What is the matter?" she asked Erica.
"Just not feeling it this evening," Erica admitted.
"You have been stuck in this room too long. Go do something."
She kept the book over her face a moment longer, hesitating. "But then you'd..."
"I will be fine here by myself. Really. I have my music to focus on, whereas you have only long, dull lists of dates and names. Go rest and recharge your brain."
Well, it had been a while since she'd shown her face in the floor's common area. For various and good reasons. She peeked through the door to the commons before risking it, just in case Alvina or one of her own detractors on the floor were inside. A sigh of relief accompanied the confirmation that they were not, and she let herself in.
"Hello, stranger," called Nana from the couch. The sophomore with the ladybug hair was sitting with her roommate Hannah. The diminutive Mouse was perched on the back of the couch with her elbows resting on Nana's shoulder. At the table, Essemmelle was playing a high-speed game of Parcheesi with the blue-toned Mairead 'Multi-Task' Macadam. Neither of them were using their hands to move the pieces. At the far end, the devisors Tinker and Giggles were engrossed in something on their tablets.
"Woo-hoo! How do you do!" Hannah added. "Here for TV night? The show's about to start!"
She glanced at the TV. "What show... oh." The word DRICK had appeared on the screen, in neo-futuristic chrome letters reminiscent of 1950s science fiction. "My science teacher had some interesting things to say about this one."
"Mrs. Hastings?" Hannah chuckled. "I bet she did. Any of them good?"
"Depends on how you define 'good.' I certainly expanded my vocabulary." She took the last bit of open space on the couch, folding her legs under her. "This is the second episode?"
"Sorta! Second half of the pilot. First half was a real gong show," said the brunette. "I'm watching just so I can understand what all the lab guys will be complaining about tomorrow."
The opening credits had come and passed, jumping from there straight into the action. Erica had no idea what she was seeing, except that it involved a lot of improbable firefights. Lasers simply did not work like that, in her experience; not even devisor ones. She quickly gathered that the hero of the piece was named Thomas, played by an actor who was just ridiculously handsome enough to be an actual exemplar, possibly.
"Uh-oh, Tommy's having a temper tantrum..." came the line, spoken by one of the secondary cast members as the hero suddenly snarled and spat at... pretty much everyone, once the enemies had all been one-shotted by suspiciously accurate marksmanship. Apparently that was another symptom of Diedrick's, as far as the show was concerned. So was the ability to create a devise capable of breaching a vault door, using only sundry office supplies.
Oof, her head hurt just watching, with her left eye peeking between the fingers of the hand now attached to her face in embarrassment. "I'm going to have to apologize to so many people for watching this..." she mumbled. "Starting with my Opa."
"Oh, it's not that bad," said Mouse.
"Yes, it is!" shouted Giggles and Tinker from their spot at the table.
"We can change the channel, yanno," Nana said. The ladybug sophomore was reaching for the remote when the TV screen changed on its own. The problematic dreck of Drick vanished, to be replaced with a static image.
The eisenkreuz, the Iron Cross, was one of the most recognizable emblems of Germany, right after the historically problematic hakenkreuz. Like four sharp arrowheads oriented to a shared center point, its design was stark and distinct. In this instance, it was also an emerald green.
"Scheisse." She hadn't meant to say that out loud, much less as loud as she had.
"What? What is it?" Hannah asked. Erica waved her to silence. The real show was starting.
"People of the United States! Of Canada and England, of France and Germany!" The words were spoken with a German accent. Standing full center-screen, the woman wore a military-styled jacket with gold fringe on blocky shoulders and strange insignia on the chest. A gilded valkyrie mask gazed out at the world. "I speak to you today of a subject which affects us all, of a threat which for too long has been neglected, left to its own devices to fester and rot our beloved nations from within. This illness this blight, this worm in the apple of the tree of life itself weakens us as nations, as people, and as a species.
"I speak of course of the mutant scourge..."
Erica winced and shook her head as Nana tried to change the channel. The diatribe continued on every channel. "This isn't... something is wrong," she said.
"No fooling," said Mouse from near her shoulder. "Who is this bitch, anyway?"
"She... she's dressed as the Green Cross," said Erica. "With the jacket, mask, and everything, but..."
"That's not the Green Cross," she said. "I, I've met the real deal, last summer. We're like third or fourth cousins, something like that."
"None at all. And no love lost, either," said Erica. "Last time I saw her, I punched her straight in the face. Broke her nose, too. But that's not her."
"Her mask could be hiding the nose, eh?"
"That's not it, Hannah." She shook her head. "It's... the voice is perfect, but it doesn't feel right. And the eyes... Blue, but not quite the right shade. I don't know..."
On the screen, the Green Cross was only getting warmed up. "And who is complicit?" she charged. "Who allows this genetic filth to spread beneath the surface, hidden in plain sight? None other than our heroes, they who rely on an unnatural culture of secrecy to maintain their masquerade. Capes, cowls, masks... what use are they to hide our identities in this day and age of smartphones and biometrics? No, the very mechanisms of law and culture which lead us to look the other way, to ignore the familiar faces behind the gaudy adornments, to overlook the obvious, to turn blind eyes to even the most blatant of secrets. In truth, we have it in us to expose every hero, every villain to ever hide their face, and to do it by the end of the following day!
"How much harder, then, should it be to expose the unnatural posing as natural, to root out the changelings hidden within our midst?"
At the table, Essemmelle was snickering. "She said root..."
"Quiet!" Mairead told her, bopping her lightly with a blue PK hand.
"And so, to all who would call themselves heroes, I lay down this challenge. Serve your species rightly and quit enabling this threat to our existence. Quit the pretense, the cheap charade of mask and cowl, so that the law may be properly applied. We work for a better tomorrow! A safer tomorrow, when no accidents of nature may destroy a house with a simple sneeze, or kill their friends with a touch. They hide in secret, and so to defeat them, secrets we must abandon."
With a flourish, the woman on TV plucked the mask from her own face, turning blue eyes to stab through the screen.
"My apologies for not introducing myself immediately, but when I first appeared to you this evening, it was as the Green Cross. Now do I declare that my name is Danielle von Groenwald, for I would live in a world without lies, a world without threats, a world without the pollution which lies beneath the surface of society.
"Join me in this quest. For truth! For our future! For our species!"
All eyes had been on the TV. Now they were on Erica. And then back to the woman on the screen. And back to Erica. Her face was already pale; the blood draining from it did not change a thing. Unsteadily, she got to her feet and walked to the door of the commons area. She did not dare say a word.
"Erica..." Hannah sounded concerned. She couldn't look back to confirm.
Through the door. Down the hall. Into her room. Face-first into bed. Cry.
"Cosa!" Cally was at her side in an instant, pulling her up and holding her tight. "Erica? Erica! What is it? What happened?"
Erica could not answer, but the door did, with a polite knock. "Everything okay in there?" came Milena's voice. "Only, some of the girls are concerned and asked me to check."
Cally let her in, and the RA snagged a chair to sit down and stare at them both. "I swear, you two," she groused. "Why is it that you attract so much drama?"
"We do not wish to!" Cally protested. "It is only a thing which happens!"
"Fair enough. So, Erica. What is it this time?"
She sniffled, raising eyes red from tears. "You... did you see that broadcast?"
"Part of it. Whoever it really was, it looks like she hijacked the signal for half the satellite broadcast system. Why? Do you know who she is?"
"She... I..." The lump in her throat was impossible to swallow, so she coughed it out instead. "Ech. You... you can tell Hammer that I officially qualify for membership in your little anti-social club now."
"What do you... oh." One could almost see the brain cells working behind Milena's John Lennon spectacles as they compared the memory of one face, briefly seen, to the girl before her. "That was your mother," the RA said. "Well, damn."
There was no point in responding. Erica did not even wish to try. Cally held her as she sobbed, well into the evening. Milena left after a few minutes, to report this latest twist of dorm drama to Ms. Plimsoll or Mrs. Sinclair. Other friends on the floor stopped by, knocking politely and asking how she was. Cally answered the door every time. Then the cuddles would resume.
"It will be all right," Cally promised in a soft whisper. "We will survive these troubles, you and I."
"Y-you think so?" she hiccuped.
"Certo che si, amica mia. Certo che si."