----Friday, October 7th, 2016
New Hampshire was of a latitude where, when the equinox had passed and the seasons began to shift once more, the changes were swift and obvious. Already, the dawn dared not show the first hints of arrival until practically breakfast, and the dark hours of morning only made one long more for those long, bright days of summer.
Kirsten Bischofsheim was accustomed to this, as her own home city of Mannheim in Germany was actually five degrees farther north by latitude. This did not mean she had to like it when circumstances required her to be up before anything could be seen out the window. Business demanded, however.
She was thankful that her roommate Samantha was such a sound sleeper, however. In the pre-dawn light, the girl's head of pure-white hair was as visible upon her pillow as her snores were to Kirsten's ears.
"So, Arni, what have you found?" Her go-to man for information and intel online lived in Germany, where it had been light out for several hours now. The sandy-haired young man in the vid-stream still looked like he'd only just stumbled out of bed.
"Not much yet." He scratched at his five o'clock shadow, visible five hours ahead of schedule, absentmindedly as he threw segments of text and photos onto the screen. "Lots of squawking about how the satellite broadcast system was hacked -- though really, the only reason no one does that more often is because they don't want the security to be too good for when they really need it. Some rumblings in the down-low that this has inconvenienced unnamed parties. In short, the usual rumors."
"Never mind all that," Kirsten said. "The woman. This Danielle von Groenwald person. Is there anything on her?"
"No," said Arni, "and that's what's really strange. Plenty about das Grünkreuz as an organization, and even some speculation as to its backers, but this is the first anyone's heard of a Danielle von Groenwald in charge of it."
"She is a fake, then?"
"Or just good at covering her tracks, which scans with das Grünkreuz. It's a lot better organized than most fly-by-night post-Nazi wannabes, and more circumspect. You hardly ever heard anything about them up to now, which is where so much of the confusion in the down-low is springing from. Got a lot of forums shouting that she's some sort of hero because of the way she was calling out the capes on their hypocrisy. Folks in there aren't too happy with mutants," he added. "Especially the devisors and infopaths who actually bother enforcing laws in the darker corners."
Kirsten had a paper in hand, a biometric analysis of two faces: one from last night's television surprise and the other from her school's directory. "What of the photographs I sent?" she inquired. "How accurate were the conclusions?"
The face on the other end was bursting with enthusiasm. "Now there's something interesting!" he gushed. "You were correct about the similarities -- I ran the software three times, and it still thinks they're of the same person at different ages. Either that, or clones," he added. "That's always a possibility."
"No doubt on a relation, then."
"Isn't that what I just said? Seriously, this is huge, Kirsten! No one's been able to place this Danielle von Groenwald anywhere, and here you have undoctored photos of someone who could be her. You have to let me post this on the down-low; this would boost my credentials so much, and then I could dig up more. Let me bring Jan in to run another..."
"Nein," she said. "Not yet, at least. She is a student here, and the school administration has made... well, they have made it clear that sharing student details on a public forum is verboten. If I am going to get into trouble for doxxing the von Abendritter girl, I want it to be for a good reason."
"Understood," Arni said with a shrug. "I will keep at it on my end, but you were right; this girl does not deserve the title of das Eisenmädel. I am sorry to have doubted."
"Do not worry, Arni. We are on the same page now. Signing out now; I should get ready for breakfast."
The morning routine had not lived up to its name recently. It had been that sort of week, and no schedule, habit, or routine -- however regular it might be -- could get through all that without some turbulence. But a girl could try, and so she did. They did. The quad was lit by tall lampposts as she and Cally set out in their jogging outfits. They waved good morning to Twitch and Essemmelle, who were chatting with Milena in the first floor foyer, and then they were off.
For the first lap, they had the quad largely to themselves. Tanya gave them a nervous wave before heading off to whatever it was she did in the morning. Avsel sped past them six times with the ends of her scarves trailing behind, stopping once to greet them before racing off again. No one actually bothered them, thankfully.
On the second lap, they were joined by Natalie 'Physique' MacAuliffe, who just started jogging along without a word said. Erica had no idea what the junior high girl might have heard in so short a time, but she could appreciate the silent support all the way around the quad. Several of the junior high kids were out and about early, oddly enough, and their little trio was occasionally greeted with a 'Hi!' or a 'Yo!' or a 'Bonjour, les filles!' from the le Floc'h twins with their red hair still wet from the showers.
By the start of the third loop, the sun was spilling light across campus and the lampposts had all switched off. In the morning air, more students were out and about on the grass, doing their own morning routines. Kenshin had his swords out, practicing his kata with a grace and speed that turned it into something more akin to a sharply flashing dance. As the three girls rounded the path towards him, a boy with Emerson pips on his school uniform dashed past with what looked to be a cantelope in hand.
"Hey, fudge-pucker! Catch this!" shouted the young man as he zipped by at a fraction of the local speed limit not normally attainable by human legs. The cantelope lofted through the air at a multiple of that speed limit, only to land on the ground in seven roughly equal pieces.
A eighth piece rested upon the tip of Kenshin's sword. Plucking the fruit from his blade, he gave a bow and shouted "Meron wo itadaitekurete arigatou gozaimasu!" to the fruit-boy's retreating back before finishing the morsel in one bite and continuing on with his kata as if nothing had happened.
Sometimes Erica had to wonder at the... her brain jogged along for a second before it grabbed the right word. The equanimity. She had to wonder at the equanimity with which Kenshin took everything that life threw his way. There was something she could learn from the exchange student.
By the time the fourth lap started, the grassy area in front of Twain was taken over by an odd assortment of boys. One or two were puny by Whateley standards. One was practically a giant. One was a dog. The rest were firmly in the middle of Whateley's admittedly stretched spectrum of normality. Erica could put names to several of them: Saumer, Arsi, Peter... Cookie, of course, needed no introduction.
Neither did a certain fair-haired Italian. Said Italian's twin sister stopped in her tracks, forcing Erica and Physique to backpedal a moment. "Cosa... What is he doing here?" Cally wondered aloud.
"Looks like wrestling," said Physique.
That it did, though Erica couldn't say what kind it might be. Not Greco-Roman, though. There was a circle laid out on the ground with a thick rope, and what looked like a pair of baseball bases placed opposite each other in the center. Arsi Khan stood at one base, barefoot and stripped to the waist but seemingly oblivious to the morning chill. Pete Foley crowded the other side of the ring, looking a lot less comfortable with his shirt off. The last lines of a truly nasty scar across his chest stood as testament to the skills of the hospice staff and student healers.
"Whoo-ee, clown-boy's nothing but beef under there, isn't he?" said Physique, who herself was no slouch in the muscles department.
"Better not let him hear you say the C-word," Erica advised.
"Aw, but I like clowns."
Pete thankfully did not hear a thing about the C-word. Keeping his eyes on the Mongolian boy, he said, "Best two outta three?"
"Okey-dokey." Arsi crouched into a ready position. "First time, no power."
"Hey, I only wish I could turn this stupid face off..." growled Pete.
"Only me, talking 'bout."
Saumer stood at the sidelines, parabolic bunny ears upright and twitching. "In the East!" he declared, "we have that white-faced titan, that sober-miened menace, that don't-call-him-that-word-you're-thinking-seriously, Humorless!"
"Shut yer trap, Saumer."
"And in the West, we have the Sultan of Swish, the Wind-Walking Wonder, the Mongolian Mangler, the Salkhitai-Khün!"
"Mash ikh bayarlalaa, Saw-mer!"
"Okay, gents!" the announcer bunny-boy cried. "Standard rules: No hitting below the belt, no going for the eyes, and you lose if you either fall to the ground or leave the ring for any reason."
"Yeah, yeah, we remember."
"Just stating it for the folks in the audience, Pete. Okay, let's get ready to RUUUUUUUUMMMMMBBBLLLLLE!" That last word did not come out in Saumer's voice.
Erica groaned and shook her head. "That boy always did watch too much WWE..." she muttered.
"What?" said Physique. "Did you say something?"
"No, nothing." She snapped her mouth shut and turned her attention back to the match.
At first glance, it seemed a clear David and Goliath situation, with Pete being at least twice Arsi's size. She wasn't paying attention to that, however, as the two boys took their opening stances. Instead, she focused on their feet. The Mongolian was balanced on the balls of his feet, on the rounded section behind the toes, while Pete was not. Which was why, when Saumer's impeccably accurate imitation of Sensei Tolman's "Hajimé!" sounded, Arsi unloaded like a coiled spring while Pete was flat-footed.
An open-palmed slam to the face threw Pete off-balance, and it was followed by a double-palm push to the chest. Neither really hurt anything more than Pete's pride, but when the young giant recovered enough to make a grab for the Mongolian, Arsi simply stepped out of the way, letting Pete's own momentum do most of the work. That and a quick thump to the back sent the muscle-bound boy out of the ring headfirst.
"That ain't gonna happen again," Pete grumbled.
"I have the hoping it won't-ing!" his opponent agreed. "Bee-cause then the learn we are doing!"
"Take your places!" said Saumer. "Second bout, with powers!"
Now it was going to get interesting, Erica thought. While Pete Foley's mutation was obvious -- just look at those biceps! -- there was always the off chance that he had something else going on. As for Arsi... she had no idea where to even begin guessing. Presumably his name held a clue, but she couldn't even pronounce it, much less understand it.
"Hajimé!" She was about to find out, though.
Pete was quicker on his feet this time, rushing at Arsi with his arms outstretched for the least welcoming hug imaginable. Arsi had his hands poised for another open-palm push, which Erica would not have thought the best of ideas when that much bulk was actively falling your way, but--
The air between the boys snapped like a towel puled taut between the hands, and then it broke into a rush of wind that slammed into the young giant, sending his hair flying back and himself rocking and hopping on a single foot. One last poke from Arsi, and the not-a-clown fell over.
"Good matching!" cried the Mongolian. "Now to be working on the balancing, yes? Come on, come on, everybody! Up, up, up! Time to practicing the standings, right way. Daniel! Sam! Saw-mer! Come on!"
"Aw-roof?" The query came in stereo.
"Yes, yes, the puppies, too! Saw-mer, music is pleasing playing?"
"Let's get going," said Erica to her friends as the Mongolian urged his friends to pose in odd ways to the sounds of what seemed to be epic Mongolian heavy-metal throat yodeling. "Entertaining as this is, we should probably wash up and get to breakfast."
"One moment, please," said Cally as she stepped off the track. Skipping over to the blond young man now trying to keep his balance on one leg for reasons known only to a certain Mongolian, she raised a dainty fist and then not-so-daintily thunked him on the head. The following argument played out in some form of Italian, but Erica could guess that it went something like so:
"What did you do that for?"
"That was for being a stupid idiot of a brother."
"I said I was sorry!"
"Yes, and that is why I am not sending you to the hospice like we both know I can."
"Well, what more do you want?"
"Give me a hug, you moron." Only that last part was likely accurate, since there was a physical embrace involved. Even if it ended with Cally giving her brother a noogie.
----First Period, not in a classroom
The early warning bells were sounding, and Kirsten Bischofsheim should have been in science class awaiting the teacher's arrival. She hoped that there was a good reason why she was not. The anonymous little meeting room was located somewhere beneath Siegel Hall, though there was no telling what she might find if she attempted to tunnel straight up through the ceiling.
"Well?" she said tot he other person in the room. "This had better be good."
The girl known as Trace, of the Card Sharps Detective Agency, only nodded. Kirsten did not know much about the third pillar of the amateur investigation club. Not as up-front and sociable as Osmic Ace, and nowhere near as shy as Deduce, but exactly where between the two extremes the girl fell was not clear. Neither was the manila envelope now lying flat upon the table.
"This," said Trace, "was acquired with some difficulty last night. It is Bergamot's personal file on your friend the Nazi." Sarcasm dripped from the girl's sneer.
Kirsten picked up the folder and opened it carefully. "I suppose I shall be paying extra for your difficulties?"
"No. This one's on the house, from me. Noa Rosenthal." A thumb tapped the girl's uniform lapel, where a Star of David caught the overhead lights in a silvery haze. "Ms. von Abendritter was bad enough when she was just stealing boyfriends, but now that I know her mom's a... well," said Trace. "Apples and trees and all that."
Nodding along, Kirsten scanned down the first page of the file. "There is nothing in here I have not already seen," she commented. "Same listed guardians, personal background, questionable diplomatic status..."
"Page two, powers profile," said Trace. "You can't miss it."
The young detective had that right. Someone, presumably Mr. Bergamot from the haphazard craziness of the handwriting, had circled, crossed out, or written over large sections of the text. One detail in particular stood out. "...this is accurate?" Kirsten demanded.
"Bergamot may be an old woman sometimes, but he knows his stuff," said Trace. "And we have it on record that he had your girl pulled out of class -- taken to the Headmaster's office, no less! -- about two weeks ago for unspecified reasons. That page provides those reasons."
"That it does..." Kirsten mused. "That it does, indeed. My thanks for this."
"Let's call it my good deed for the day," said Trace, giving a two-finger salute.
----2nd Period, Math
Back in his old life as Noah, the unfortunately monikered Bewitched hadn't been a big fan of academics. Looking in hindsight now, she had to wonder how much of that had been the difficulty, how much of it the teachers, and how much of it the expectation shared jointly by the boys of his class that school was meant to suck ass, so why bother trying? So when classes at Whateley had finally gotten under way and she was attending as Nina, girl-brain and all, and it hadn't seemed that bad, she had to wonder if it really was biological.
But no. As they had proved over the past few weeks, class was class no matter whether he was Noah or she was Nina. They weren't an Exemplar, either, so it wasn't like they'd gained super-brains overnight. As annoying as it was to admit, it really had been Noah's bad attitude tripping him up.
And the teachers. Old Mr. Boyd the math teacher should've sold samples of his voice for insomnia treatments.
-It's still boring, though!- came the thought in his head. -All the squiggly lines and funny signs!-
"You remember what they mean," Noah subvocalized. It had taken some practice at first, but they'd finally gotten the hang of talking without speaking out loud. The spirit in his head would hear it anyway. "I mean, this quiz isn't too hard. Just solving for X."
-X is ten, duh.-
It was 5, in fact, but that was Glee for you. Sometimes he wondered if the spirit even understood the concept of numbers.
-Do, too! Just use the right numbers, silly!-
What could anyone say to that? Nothing, and so the voice in her head was ignored in favor of finishing the algebra quiz. It did not take very long, and at no point did X equal 10.
A blinking icon on his school-issue tablet announced that the quiz was over, just as they'd all scribbled in the last of their answers. Across the room, the digital assistants chewed and swallowed the math problems, to regurgitate results in seconds. 100%, its zeroes both smiley faces and its percentage sign morphing into a thumb's-up, flashed across the screen.
"Very good, everyone," said the teacher, Ms. Liebeck. "Most of you have been paying attention." Her eyes were not looking at anyone in particular, but the grey parrot on her shoulder stared directly at two students.
"Most of you! Most of you!" it squawked. "Twelve and a half percent!"
"Now, now, Hypatia. Don't go blurting out quiz scores like that," Ms. Liebeck tutted the bird.
"Who's a dumbass? Who's a dumbass? Brawrk!"
Everyone knew the answer; no one bothered to say. Back in their corner, Sam and Dave Darby sat with their usual cohorts, and there were no chuckles to be had that morning, not even a smile. Noah couldn't find it in his heart to feel sorry for them, and even here and now as Nina the eternal optimist, she was hard-pressed to find anything good to say.
-They're a pair of butt-ugly, smelly-monkey, booger-brained bonkerheads!- Strong words, coming from Glee. -All true, too!- Glee responded to the thought.
The math lesson continued as normal, with Ms. Liebeck going over the concepts to be found in the current unit, then providing real-life, if not realistic, examples. Then again, this was Whateley; if anyone needed to know how to apply algebra to bomb disposal, they were probably already sitting in. And it kept the attention on the teacher like nothing else. Even the Darby boys took notes, in between snide, under-the-breath comments.
Hypatia the parrot, in her own inimitable fashion, at one point flew to her perch, squawked "Quiz scores! Quiz scores!" and then lifted a fan of red feathers to delicately crap on the paper below. It was only symbolic, since all their quizzes were electronic this semester, but the bird had a point. A smelly, awful point.
As usual, Ms. Liebeck finished up the lesson on the dot, with a precision that could be used for setting watches. The passing period bell sounded exactly five seconds after she announced "That is all for today," just as it did every day. Noah could wonder about that, but again, this was Whateley. There were weirder teachers around campus. Plus, Hypatia made an excellent TA.
Nina usually had time for a quick nap between these periods, since her next class was literally next door. It was a short hop and skip over to put her bags down and settle in with her head on a rolled-up towel. For a few minutes, there would be peace and quiet.
Or there would, if other people didn't come and ruin the mood.
"Fucking stupid bird." One of the Darby twins -- she could not tell which -- was braver when the teachers weren't around, it seemed. "Fucking lame-ass bitch teacher." His bag slammed into the desk with a thud.
"You said it, Dave," his brother agreed. "We oughta get Dad to file a complaint. This is harassment! Just cuz we don't do well on her stupid-ass quizzes..."
Because they never did the actual work, Noah translated for them.
"Man, they told us this school would be so awesome," the first one -- Dave? -- whined. "Whiz! Bang! Superpowers! And then they saddle us with bitch-faced harpies for math and science and... and..."
"History." Both brothers shuddered at the thought, which made Noah wonder what the hell had happened in History class, and if it was likely to repeat itself.
"And now wee got these women ordering us around all the time and we gotta watch what we say or some man-hater's gonna put her fist through our faces for a fuckin' joke..." Darby #2 was building up steam, and the black fumes of his personality were running hot. "And now we got chicks with dicks up and strutting around campus, and we just gotta accept that shit?"
-Oh no they didn't- said Glee. -They did not just say that.-
Not only had they, but in the next three sentences of their just-between-twins conversation they actually made it worse: "Can't wait till we get on a real training team and have a chance to whup her gay-ass fake girl butt, aight?"
"You said it," Darby #2 agreed.
-They said it, alright...- Deep within that space that was not a space inside him, Noah could feel Glee shaking, and the flavor of vibes was sharply different. -They, they're talking about hurting Cally, right? Maybe not right now, maybe not even her specifically, but they're f-feeling happiness at... at the very idea... and that's not what that feeling's supposed to be...!- the spirit cried out in confusion.
Noah winced at the psychic feedback, knocking his pencil case off the table. The Darby boys finally notices they weren't alone in the room, and glared at the supposed girl, possibly for the sin of taking up space.
"What are you looking at, you little nit?" Darby #1 demanded. "Don't you gotta be somewhere?"
Well, yes. They all had to be here, in class, in the next few minutes. Noah was about to say as much, but Glee chose that moment to surge forth from the not-a-space within him, pulling their shared body to its feet and putting a lock on the vocal chords.
-What?- he managed to think, to which Glee replied, -Let me handle this, for I Am Not Happy With Them.-
Neither was he, which made the decision much simpler. With a mental nod, they opened the connection between host and spirit from both ends, and...
Nothing had ever felt like this. Not exactly, at least. There'd been that one time he'd stuck a fork in an open socket when he was eight, but... Glee's regular happy-fests were but an echo of the wave of emotion rushing out of his depths. The part of his mind not currently reverberating like a gong noticed that his... her... their feet had left the floor behind.
Also, their clothes were morphing.
The school uniform's skirt had gone from pleated to slatted, with stiff strips of leather like some sort of battle kilt. The blouse turned long and flowing, while the jacket molded itself into a breastplate. Her reflection in the window revealed a luminescent tiara encircling the space just above her head, with a central crest running to a point behind her. And there were big, poofy ribbons everywhere. They could probably blame their sister and her love of Japanese cartoon shows for that.
"What the fuck?" was about the most eloquent thing that a Darby could say at that point.
"We are the Instrument of Happiness." The plural came naturally; Noah couldn't rightly say in that moment where he ended and Glee began. "We are the Champion of Cheer, the Bastion of Bliss." How someone currently topping five foot five could loom, they did not know, but that was what they did now, standing high above the Darby boys. "We Are Not Happy With You."
"Bite us, bitch." In math class, X might not equal ten, but a Darby's IQ sure did. The words were followed by a bubble of hardened air, a bullet of gas the size of a ping-pong ball that was barely visible as it shot at them, hitting in the stomach. Bursting into nothing.
"Um, bro, that was supposed to hurt, right?" Darby #2 asked.
"Cut me some slack! I'm still working on... oh, shit!"
From somewhere else -- they were not too sure of the why's and the how's in that instant -- the self-styled Instrument of Happiness had pulled a magical girl stick to hand. Or an ancient, studded battle mace. It was hard to tell the difference, but it had a satisfying heft as it fell, making a crash of sound as it met an invisible shield that Darby #2 threw up in desperation.
"Shit! I can't hold it!"
Darby #1 was pelting them with bubble-bullets, for all the good it did. One hit them in the face, which smarted but otherwise did not do much besides keep her attention on him, dancing between and atop desks to line up a good smite with their magic stick. Those bubble-bullets of pressurized air could knock over things, including chairs, just as they were stepping off of them.
But then came the opportunity, the chance to place that studded scepter of Justice and Contentment straight through the Darby boy's smug, smirking face. The swing was perfect in its grace, describing a beautiful arc of punishment as it arrived to smite--
Through a fart-like puff of gas now filling the space where the Darby had been. Their head snapped around, following the sound of mocking laughter to the door, where Darby #1 was materializing next to his brother. "Smell ya later, bitch!" he shouted.
They were at the door in three steps, bounding off of desks and chairs to reach the brothers Darby just as the two of little creeps slammed the door in their face. The door probably did not deserve what happened to it next, but as an inanimate object it did not actually feel anything, and so Glee did not care. Noah would not have cared. This weird gestalt that was neither and both certainly did not.
The twins, barely a yard and a half down the hall when the door blasted outwards, most certainly did. The vocal trail of cusswords left in their wake was easy to follow, as the Bastion of Bliss raced down the hall, through the front doors of the building, and chased the boys out into the quad.
"Now!" A transparent wall flew up and into their face. The studded scepter smashed it to pieces.
"Incorrigible." The word shot from their lips. "Ignorant little chauvinists who pervert the concept of happiness with your base desires and puerile fantasies..." In their hand, the scepter glowed and altered, lengthening into a javelin. "You would hurt others just to laugh at their pain..."
"Oh fuck, bro. She's monologuing!"
There was space to run, space to flee, and the Darby brothers were not so dumb that they didn't try. It would probably have worked better if they had split up, but a course on tactics would have been lost on the two of them. Most likely they'd have slept through it. The glowing javelin arced through the air above, bursting into a rain of pointy death that slammed to the earth ahead of the twins, and then behind and to the sides as well.
"Let us out!" the boys shouted.
"Only if you promise to apologize," said Glee/Noah. "To every teacher, every student, every woman you have ever badmouthed or insulted."
"What the fuck are you talking about, you crazy bitch?"
Their tiara shook at the idiocy of that answer. "Incorrigible." Miniature lightning began to arc between the glowing javelins of the impromptu cage. "It might make the entire world happier if..."
"Hold that thought right there." An upperclassman with a Security Auxiliary band on his arm was sprinting over. Eyes, icy pale in a dark face, took in the scene. "What did you two idiots do this time?"
"It's not our fault, Chill-Out!" one of the Darby twins whined. "We were minding our own business, and she jumped us!"
"...really." Chill-Out did not seem to be buying what they were selling. "And you, miss?
"It's Bewitched," they said. "And their own business, as they put it, is to insult, denigrate, and demean those we care about. We Are Not Happy."
"Join the world," said Chill-Out. "But unless you want to make your by-now-inevitable detention detail even worse, I'd lay off them now."
"Detention..." The word, not finding a crack in the Glee/Noah gestalt, proceeded to pound one into existence. They looked back to see a trail of destruction leading up to the front doors of the school building, and well into it. The spiritual connection faltered, and suddenly it was just Noah standing there as Nina, with her uniform still stuck in mid-transition, not to mention slightly drafty.
-Sorry!- Glee cried. -I didn't...-
"Just... walk me to Security," Nina said to the upperclassman. She turned away, not wanting to spare the twins another look. "Get me there before I have a complete breakdown, please."
---- 3rd Period, Security
--Assistant Headmaster Falcon
There were days when he regretted taking the job offer, taking up the mantle of Assistant Headmaster to his old alma mater. Being the counterweight to Headmaster Mazarin's old Syndicate connections -- and all the worries they had provoked among certain trustees and student parents -- was not his idea of a dream job, and so he tried to keep his focus on the real reasons why he had needed to accept so much weight.
One such reason was sitting on a holding room sofa seat, bawling her eyes out as he watched over closed-circuit television. The tears were not fake; he'd seen enough weeping crocodiles to learn the difference. The video feed had recorded the girl's breakdown over the course of five short minutes of doing little more than sitting and waiting. She had yet to stop, though she had thanked Officer Canterbury for the gift of a handkerchief.
"Tell me what I'm seeing." He didn't bother to ask if the girl was alright, or even what the problem might be. It could never be so simple.
"According to her file..." said his wife and better half, Tabby Cat, "Bewitched experiences moderate to severe shifts in brain chemistry while under the direct effects of her spirit. She is already seeing Dr. Phillips on a regular basis."
"And what does the doctor say?"
"She says that Bewitched would be a textbook case of extreme bipolar disorder if she were a baseline." Tabby scrolled down the screen of her tablet. "Also, got some alerts. The folks in Doyle put a monitor on her -- with permission -- to measure the intensity of the mood swings. They say she just broke the damn thing somehow."
"You said alerts, plural?"
"Yeah..." She tapped open the other one. "It doesn't specifically mention her by name, but the Mystic Arts Department is making a polite inquiry into what the hell just happened and who the hell it just happened to."
That evoked a wince of anticipation. "There are plenty other things I would rather be treated to in the morning."
"At least this one doesn't involve tentacles."
A sigh and a shake of the head from him. "Bewitched is an Avatar... 2, wasn't it?"
"According to initial estimates," said his wife, "but as they could not firmly identify what Glee actually is... it's likely they're about to revise that estimate upward."
"Of course." He let the words hang for a moment. "Why is it always the quiet ones?"
"You have to ask?"
"No, just to ponder. Your thoughts, dear?"
Tabby had some good claws on her when she decided to flex them, and at the moment she was shredding the air. "The attitudes on campus are bad," she said. "Gassy and Sigh are just two of the loudest and dumbest. It was on simmer before last weekend, but now..."
"And with a lot of our kids in the stew, feeling like they're about to get chewed on. I'm surprised we've had so few incidents so far. There will be more to come. Kids are scared, which is bad enough, but when they've got powers..."
"They've got each other, too," he noted. "Surely that helps?"
His wife was giving him a Look. "No offense, dear, but you didn't grow up in this situation. The old chestnut about it not being paranoia if they really are out to get you? It applies to all mutants, sure, but doubly or even trebly for the TG kids. Threats from baselines, threats from other supers, threats from their supposed friends, if they're really unlucky -- that's a helluva lot to live under. Friends make it better, but..."
"But?" he prompted. This was the very reason he'd asked her to shoulder part of the load, when he'd accepted the position. Her perspective was invaluable.
"I mean, I was the only one in my grade year, and I doubt we had more than five in the entire school at any point during my stay. I had to keep my head down and get along because I knew I couldn't count on any of my friends outside of Poe to have my back if they found out -- and some of the other Poesies weren't too comfortable with me, either."
"You told me," he said. His hand had been with hers for a few minutes now.
"Eventually. And don't think it wasn't a tough decision! But now, this year, we have upwards of two dozen TG kids of one sort or another across four grades. That's a lot of friends and confidants, and with confidants comes confidence. A willingness to stand up for one another. Bewitched didn't do this because Gassy and Sigh threatened her, but because they were saying things about Calliope. I would never have dared, because I couldn't have counted on that support."
"With the good comes the bad." It wasn't eleven o'clock yet, and he was feeling tired. "They've got friends, a community of sorts, but that also means they have a side."
"Exactly." Tabby had her eyes on the sobbing Bewitched. "It's going to get worse before it all normalizes out, and I'm not sure what we can do about it."
"Cracking down on the bigots..."
"Risks fracturing our delicate little masquerade all the more. Those two boys already have detention detail from four teachers this week, twice from Bergamot. And DuChamp has noted their pronounced phobic reaction to spiders. He's addended a potential correctional course plan to take advantage of that."
"...of course he has." Lord, but he was happy that man was on their side now.
"And putting pressure on all the TG kids to keep it down and play safe will only increase their frustration. No..." Tabby Cat mused, "it's going to take something big to grab attention and enforce the idea that the openly TG kids should not be messed with. And we have no way of telling when the shoe will drop."
"It's the Class of 2010, all over again."
"Oh dear, I hope not," said Tabby. "I fear so, but I hope not. As it is..." She let go of his hand and stepped to the door. "I need to go hug and comfort a young lady while informing her of her detention detail."
"Of course. I think I'll have them put her with Coldsnap. Two birds with one stone."
Her grin was of such feral pleasure that he could almost imagine the yellow canary feathers. "We must nudge where we can, after all."
She was not sure how long it would be until she was allowed to return to Basic Martial Arts class. After three days of not attending, Calliope found herself missing it a little. Or missing her friends in the class, at least. The martial arts training, not so much. But for the moment, she was required to see Dr. Shu instead, at his little office on the psychiatric side of Doyle Hall.
Or, as was the case today, someplace entirely different.
At the moment, she was bent over a sandy plot of land with a wooden rake in hand, carefully removing everything that was not gritty or granular. With unsteady motions she attempted to spread the sand equally, leaving behind crooked lines and broken curves.
"Once more, please," the doctor said. "Let the motion flow along your arms until the rake moves itself."
"I thought..." said Calliope as she swept, "that detention was supposed to be a punishment."
"Why, are you having fun?" Dr. Shu's eyes twinkled with mischief. "Once we've got the sand garden sorted out, we could always go around back and finish painting the rear wall."
"Ah, not in my uniform, I hope..." This was not how she had imagined her detention detail would go. Not for... well, officially, she was not being punished for the affair with Jack, now was she? According to the books, this was for the incident with Alvina earlier in the week, and apparently for that level of offense, an hour or so spent cleaning the school sufficed.
She did not want to know what punishment was appropriate for screaming somebody into a coma. Hopefully she never would.
The sand garden sat in the atrium of one of the newer outbuildings on campus, a place of smooth wooden floors, minimal furnishings, and sliding partitions. The front door bore the name WHATELEY ZENDO. It was a neat little thing, this so-called garden without a single plant to grow. Instead it was all fine, white sand and large, rounded rocks that provided a spot from which to rake the surface into some semblance of order.
"Not bad," said Dr. Shu as he examined her handiwork.
"Now how are you going to get back to the floor?"
Belatedly, she realized that the stone beneath her was rather isolated from the rest -- too far to hop, certainly, or if she tried, she would send her bottom to the sand.
The doctor let her panic for a moment before he released one of his signature bellowing laughs. With heavy steps which shook the sand, he trod across the garden to her and offered a hand. "Come. There is nothing here so important that we must worry about the way."
"But, but the sand..."
"Will be messed up on its own, and then fixed again," said the doctor. "The same as every day."
Her shoulders drooped. "So it is a pointless task."
"Most punishments are. Hammering rocks, for example. Now, help me hang the floor cushions. They must be beaten properly to get all the dust out before my weekly Zen class."
"Only on Saturdays. You are free to attend, of course."
"Perhaps..." Try as she might, she could not get a read on the man, and she could not figure out why. Her empathic senses were not so broken as before -- and in any case, a lack of sensitivity had not been the issue -- but the avuncular man with the round face and neat goatee was just... there. That was all. At the most she might perceive a ripple as he laughed, but never the sense that he was about to laugh.
Was that what it meant to live in the present? She wondered. To be detached and content? She was not sure if that was a state that she would wish to attain, even if she could, but it did make her conversations with Dr. Shu unpredictable.
Like so: "What is the sound of the color blue?"
"Cosa?" She had no idea where to begin.
"Only, I was chatting with this young man the other week -- fine boy, rabbit ears -- and he was trying to explain to me the taste of my own voice. The closest he could get was that it was like a milk toffee while absolutely not being a milk toffee, which is kind of sad. I do like those candies... Well, he got me to thinking about such things. It is an excellent mental exercise."
"If you say so..." Her thoughts jangled in her head. "Perhaps it depends on the shade... but, for example that sign on the wall, in the deep blue? I would imagine it a high-pitched chime in the key of G."
"Thanks," said the doctor. He left her to her own thoughts for the rest of the hour, and she was to busy to ask what the point of that had been. Those floor cushions were not going to beat themselves, after all.
The morning had not been too bad. So far. She held no high hopes that this state of affairs would continue much longer. The rumor mill had gotten a slow start; that was all. Once the gossip really got going, then...
A squad of sophomore girls gave her a stern look as they passed by the M3 table. There was no mistaking that it was aimed her way, either. One even hissed the word "Nazi" at her, low enough that only Erica should have been able to hear it.
Cally glared back at them, but Erica remained chin-up and calm, relying on the serene pallor of her skin to hide any bluster or feelings of illness. One could fry an egg on her cheekbones by the heat of embarrassment, but those girls would never know by looking. Instead, she focused on her chicken salad.
"That's really messed up," Tanya was saying. "I mean, you've mentioned your mom being out of the picture before, but to have her pop up like this..." The lavender girl picked at her pasta. "I mean, it's nice that your mom's all... alright, I suppose, but..."
"Family reunions are going to be difficult," said Erica. "Especially when half the family thinks I shouldn't exist."
Laura was sitting one seat over, and took it upon herself to give out hugs. "I'd say 'welcome to the club' on that one, but it's nothing to celebrate. Just treasure the family that will have you, no matter what."
Looking around the table at the erstwhile members of the Mutant Mayhem Machine, et al., Erica found a smile. "Thanks. And... and maybe it won't be such a big thing, right? Not everyone saw the broadcast, and they'd still have to notice the physical resemblance. As long as no one makes a big deal..."
"Guten Tag, Ami-Mädchen," came the unwelcome greeting from the direction of the stairs. Erica bit back a long and complicated string of adjectives which could have described Kirsten Bischofsheim as the Euro sophomore walked by.
"Why does she call you that?" Laura whispered, unfortunately not quietly enough.
"Ah! It is an easy reason," said Kirsten, as loud as Laura was not. "Ami-Mädchen, the American girl who thinks a silly name is enough to make her German. But what a name! Von Abendritter, the surname of a German Nazi villain!"
"We've all got family we're not proud of, I'm sure," said Erica. "But that is three generations in the past."
"True." Kirsten had a cat's smirk upon her face, all malice and anticipation. "And history can be such a bore! I much prefer current events. Don't you, Erica von Groenwald?"
The fork bent between Erica's fingers. "That is not my name," she stated loudly.
"Isn't it, though? Why, I was watching last night's surprise broadcast..." From the various reactions of those students all across the cafeteria pretending not to listen, Kirsten had not been the only one watching. "...and I thought to myself, doesn't that woman, that Danielle von Groenwald, look familiar? So, being the inquisitive young woman that I am, I thought to put it through some facial recognition software."
"As one does," said Morgana from across the table. Her Welsh accent rolled in tandem with her eyes. "Seriously, stalker much?"
"I care about this school!" shouted Kirsten. I care about my friends and sisters in Whitman! And when I see the scion of Nazis prancing around with a purloined legacy, when I find that she is in fact either the daughter or the clone of a villainess who has directly threatened us all, when an examination of her powers profile reveals that she is not even a mutant--!"
The chaotic chorus of "WHAT!?" from everywhere at once proved the ability of Kirsten Bischofsheim to attract attention. The sophomore already had the file out and open, waving it around for all to see.
"That's right, our darling von Groenwald here lacks any trace of the MGC in her genetic profile! She's something called a... ah, let me see the exact wording... a 'Thulean enhanced operative.' Why, I'm not sure you could find a more Nazi-ish term than that!"
"Um, is that true?" Laura asked. The blue girl's face had paled to the color of the mid-day sky.
The chair screeched against the floor as Erica bolted up to face Kirsten. "Let's get things straight," she spat. "It's Erica von Abendritter, because for all its baggage, that's still the name my grandparents gave me. And no, I have never denied having distant relatives that were Nazis, and while I could have wished to find out under better circumstances, it's still a relief to discover that my mother is even alive after not hearing from her for over a decade! And if she's a von Groenwald now, so what? That doesn't change how I was raised, or where, or by whom. My grandparents were heroes, and I can only dream of living up to their example.
"And as for this..." She ripped the file from Kirsten's hands and then tore it in half. "I don't know how you found that, but all I can say is, one day I was normal and the next day I was not. The reason was completely within my own DNA. I'm a teenager who can bend iron bars, and if all that isn't enough to qualify me as a mutant, I don't know what does! So, verpiss dich, du Fickfehler!" she finished in German.
Kirsten was about as red in the face as Erica was not, and she let it out in a bullish snort. "Fine. Go on pretending. We've all heard what your mother has to say about the truth, so either you're a disgrace and a liar, or you're just waiting for the chance to slip in the knife. Keep that in mind," she said to the kids at the M3 table. "Her mother would just as soon see you all exposed as freaks." A glare was reserved for Cally in particular. "Or as sexual deviants. You would think that a false-girl would be used to seeing through other people's scheisse, but perhaps you are simply confused about more things than the obvious? It does not matter; she will turn on you in the end. Mark my words."
Whatever response the sophomore had been expecting from that last bit of ranting, it was not to happen. If ever one had misread an audience... Erica did a quick headcount: Calliope, Morgana, Laura, Bianca, Bailey, Tia, herself... She thought she saw Pat and Chessa Barnes peeking up from the staircase, and she definitely saw the trio of Star Sentry, Celerity, and Ping three tables over. That was at least twelve TG kids within striking distance.
It was a miracle of restraint that Kirsten Bischofsheim arrived at her own table unmaimed, much less alive. Also, completely self-satisfied and oblivious.
Morgana set the tone of the following conversation quite well: "What the f--"
"Hold that thought," said the Welsh girl's roommate. Bianca had a square of card stock in one hand and a fancy quill pen in the other. With a flourish, the girl in white scribbled out a spell word and slapped it down on the center of the table. "Okay, we have a Cone of Silence in effect," she declared as the cafeteria sounds turned strangely fuzzy and muted. "You were saying?"
Smoke rings blew from Morgana's mouth. "Not worth it. So, what should we do about all that?"
"Erica could report it, I guess?" said Tanya. "I mean, even if it was all true, it's still a bully move to announce it publicly like that."
"No, no, I mean about the diss on... on Cally!" Morgana quickly amended.
"On Cally?" Tanya echoed.
Erica's roommate was attempting to hide behind her salad. "Ah, it is not a thing..."
"After the week you've had?" Morgana countered. "Getting called a, a sexual deviant as an aside, like it's self-evident and not worthy of debate? And then to say you're just confused? Jesus wept! That's insulting!"
"I guess if you put it that way..." said Tanya.
Next to the lavender girl, Vic was nodding. "That girl's not right in the head," he declared. "And if that's how she is on the straight, then that's how she'll act in the future." The boy sent Cally a shaky thumb's-up. "We, ah, gotta stick together, even for stuff that's not directly about us, right?"
"Yeah." Erica hugged her roommate. "Definitely we should. So, the only question is, how and where do we make her regret it?"
"No, Tanya. Seriously. That girl's never going to learn on her own, and while I'm not too worried about myself, Cally's been through enough already!"
"And what about Tia?" said Bailey.
"What about me?" Bunny ears slanted this way and that as their owner tried to follow the conversations now buzzing in different directions around the table.
"Well, if she's saying stuff like that, all regular-like, then what might happen is she decides she doesn't like you, either? Or, or..." Bailey's face was all screwed up, and Erica could appreciate the feelings as she herself strained internally, doing her damnedest not to show how hard the sophomore's little slip had actually hit a majority of the girls at the table.
If Tanya, Vic, or Kenshin felt the tension, they must have thought they understood the reasons, because they did not bother asking. Instead: "I am not allowed to start fights," Kenshin said, "but here, she is the one provoking. If she does any more, I will protect. Promise."
"We can protect ourselves!" shouted Morgana. "Er, if she comes after any of us for fraternizing with Erica, that is. Even Cally can... right?"
The Italian's face had gone pale, or even a little green around the edges. "I, ah, that is... I would rather not see how far I might go when pressed. It is... not a comfortable matter for me."
Not far off, Vic and Tanya's little discussion was heating up. "An ambush?" the lavender girl cried. "Why would we..."
"Well, I don't know Kirsten's ability level," said Vic, "but she's a sophomore, so she must have more experience. And none of us are that good yet. I just thought we should consider it..."
"There are blind spots in the Security camera network," Laura pointed out, her face all post-box shaped. "I found a few the hard way. We'd need a way of luring her there..."
"I cannot believe we're even discussing this!" Tanya looked about ready to rip out hanks of lavender hair in exasperation. "We're supposed to be acting like the good guys, right? Right? Ah... no offense," she said to Bianca.
"None taken," said the girl in white. "This isn't how I'd like to go about things, either."
Morgana growled, "So we... what, just wait for this German bitch or someone else like her to make a move, when we know that someone we care about is going to get hurt if that happens? Hell no! I say we jump her, and--"
"Skyooz me, but that's really not the best plan if you wanna rough her up properly." All eyes spun over to one corner of the table, so hard that optical whiplash was suddenly a thing. sitting behind a large bowl of five randomized ice cream samples, dibbled with caramel sauce, the bespectacled face of Rachel Altus was beaming. "Seriously, they've beefed up the penalties for student ambushes, but if you'd like to find out for yourselves... Eh, it's still probably not worth it."
"What are you doing here?" demanded Tanya.
"Told ya last weekend, remember? Someone talks about fighting, that's practically the Ratel Signal lighting the way for me. So, poof, here I am."
"That's not..." Bianca scrambled to recover her security glyph, giving it a short examination. "There's no way you could have heard!"
"Well, yeah, your voices were all fluffed out, but your body language, well, I saw that and I said to myself, 'Gee golly willikers, Rach, it looks like they're talking about beating the ever-fucking shit out of someone who probably deserves it. Let's go see what's up!'" The honey badger avatar turned a saccharine-coated grin to the members of the Mutant Mayhem Machine. "Well? Was I right?"
"No comment," said Erica.
"That's a yes, then. Goody," said Rachel through a mouthful of rum raisin. "But yeah, if Kirsten gets thumped, no matter whodunnit, you all are the top suspects because it's so obvious she's pissed you all off. So hold your horses and think it out first."
"You are telling us to show restraint?" Tanya did not sound as if she believed the very words coming out of her mouth.
"Yeah, I know, right? What a world. But," Rachel said, her grin sharp, "you're talking to somebody who's memorized the entire school fight code. You wanna make a proper challenge? I can help with that."
"Can we all challenge Kirsten?" asked Erica.
"What, everyone at once? No can do. That's a dogpile; not allowed. One after another? Good idea; it would wear her down, but... Section 1, paragraph 8, a student can only be challenged a certain number of times in a week, and not by members of the same training team successively. And this is assuming she's registered as personally open to challenges. Not all students are, even in the upper grades."
"How do we... of course," said Tanya, shaking her head as Rachel produced her school-issue tablet and opened the appropriate application with a single tap.
The honey badger girl took only a few seconds to get results. "O-kay, so it looks like Kirsten is not currently registered for personal challenges, but her training team got signed up for the rotation a few days back. That's the Western European Alliance... crap name. Not as ridiculous as yours but not as cool either. Anyhoo. That's a five-man band according to the app, so you'll need to match that."
At her place at the table, Cally was fidgeting and humming a few bars of courage to herself. It was a familiar sight to Erica, a sign that her roommate was working herself up to do something. After another moment, the Italian spoke up: "If, if we do this... who shall take part? I do not think we are all allowed -- or able -- to do such a thing. I... I am not sure I..."
"Cally," Vic interrupted. "You've got one confirmed K.O. this week. That's more than most of us."
"Belin. Please do not remind..."
"If we do this," said Erica, "we'll need you on the team, Cally. The insult was on you, and you can hold your own if you... yes, you can!" she insisted in the face of her roommate's furious head-shakes. "You can be the bard if you want, sticking to the back row and singing for the morale bonuses, but you really need to represent."
Represent us, she meant. Represent all those who couldn't admit they had been insulted personally. She knew her roommate felt the unspoken lines when that head of gold-streaked hair nodded wearily. "Si. I, I guess I can... but you had better be there with me!"
"Of course," said Erica.
"And you, too," said Cally, pointing at Vic.
"Huh?" said the boy.
"Huh?" said the boy's not-exactly-a-girlfriend. "Okay, I don't wanna sound jealous or anything..."
"Oh, he is not my type," Cally assured. "Not at all. But, ah, he can fight, yes?"
The lavender girl swelled with pride. "You should've seen him in that practice bout versus Mouse the other day."
"Ah, si, I am sorry to have missed that. But, ah, if we are doing this as a show of solidarity, I think it would be good if we had a boy on the team as well."
That was certainly true, and Erica was about ready to smack herself for not thinking of it sooner. This confrontation was going to be about the optics, the perception of it all as much as anything else, and a visible male presence would help as they hopefully sent a message to any of the groups on campus who might have it in for them. It was sad that they couldn't even be sure how many groups that might be, so they would have to do what they could and hope for the best.
"Okay," she said, breaking back into the conversation. "That's me, Cally, and Vic for sure."
"And me!" cried Tanya, hanging onto her boyfriend's arm.
"Right. So who's our fifth?"
Rachel paused in her orgy of ice cream consumption as she realized everyone was looking at her again. "Well, I'd love to," the honey badger girl admitted, "but seeing as I'm not on your training team -- or anyone else's... really, what's up with that? Nobody wants to play... er, ahem. Yeah. No. Sorry. I can help you with procedure, but no fighting for me this time." Her tragic sigh was put out of its misery by another large spoonful of ice cream, this time pistachio.
"How about you, Kenshin?" Erica asked.
The Japanese boy considered this deeply for a moment. "I have given my word to Hikaru-sama that would not start a fight. But, in formal and rules, I maybe join. However, it is not my fight to, ah, fight. If you need, then yes. If other do not want to, yes. So..."
"Don't worry your little head then," said Morgana, rapping a knuckle on the table. "I'll take the last spot."
"Are you sure?" said Bianca. "Your, ah, control issues..."
"I'll try and stick to hitting stuff the old-fashioned way," the Welsh girl promised. "And if accidental explosions happen, then at least I can aim those at Kirsten and not feel too guilty."
"Awright, then!" said Rachel with a satisfied burp. "Just give me your student numbers and I'll see about arranging a proper group challenge, all official-like. We'll be good to go by dinner, maybe!"
An uneasy glance wended its way around the table. Erica herself passed it along more than once. Just what were they getting themselves into?
On the closed-circuit monitor, the second-story table of the so-called Mutant Mayhem Machine was front and center. The inhabitants of the office watched the denizens of the dinner table with growing unease.
"They're planning something," said Canterbury.
"Thanks, Madame Obvious," said Sgt. Lafayette. "The question is, how bad will it be if we let them continue?" He let out a groan. "Why does this shit always happen on our shift?"
Pruitt chuckled. There was little mirth in the sound. "Our complete lack of proper sleep schedule probably factors into that." The man took another sip of his Security-grade coffee. "What do our eyes on the ground think?"
The sergeant checked his tablet. Multiple chat boxes were open on its surface. "Three faculty members are discussing where Ms. Bischofsheim might have come by her information, if it was accurate, and what to do about it. The leak, not the information, I mean. Two Security Auxiliaries have expressed concerns that a fight might break out in the next few minutes, and have announced their readiness to contain it. And..." His brow furrowed at the newest section of text. "And our group of lovelies has just been declared a Group of Interest by someone in the upper administration."
"What's that mean?" asked Officer Pipps. The man was recently off graveyard detail, but still had a dozy look about him.
"It means," said Pruitt, "that they either have a patron, or someone's decided that they should have a chance to measure their own rope before the hanging's to commence."
"Huh?" Then again, it might have been the officer's innate intelligence failing to shine through.
"My money's on the administration realizing they're a bunch of trouble magnets," said Canterbury. "Seriously, half that table's got a file by now, and little of it from stuff they started."
Lafayette rubbed his temples. "It means that we don't bother them until told otherwise, unless they do something explicitly against the rules in public. Like start a fight right now. And... that does not bode well."
On-screen, a certain bespectacled menace had just made herself known at the table. Canterbury's groan mirrored the sergeant's own. "Your little protege gets around, huh," said Pruitt.
"I did not ask to be her adviser..." Canterbury complained. "They didn't ask me, either. I don't even teach a class here!"
"But you got her to stop challenging folk right and left," said Lafayette, "so at least she listens to you."
"Small consolation..." Canterbury examined the scene. "Okay, it looks like they're calming down. I'll ping Rachel for a quick meeting."
"You think she'd tell you what's up?"
"With pride. And..." Now Canterbury had a grin on her face. "If we like what she has to say, then we might even help a little. Off the record."
----Fourth Period, English
--Shawn "Tremblor" Barker
It was Friday, which in Mr. Forster's class meant dedicated reading day. Everyone had to bring in a book, a real book, with an actual cover and a decent text-to-picture ratio, and Mr. Forster expected them all to sit silently for the entire period and read. Depending on who you asked, reactions varied from 'heaven' to 'torture'.
From where he was sitting in the middle and towards the back with a copy of Alas, Babylon in front of him, it was pretty good. Mr. Forster's strictly enforced silence policy meant that he didn't have to listen to the Darby twins whinge their way through another class. The scrapes and scratches that the two boys shared did not come close to matching the horror story they were willing to tell, and the teacher had informed them early on that this was reading day, not creative fiction day.
The most he heard out of them the entire period was the occasional snicker at their neighbor's reading book, The Scarlet Pimpernel.
And then the bell rang, the class was over, and he was walking out into the corridor, en route to his next class.
And immediately missing the peace and quiet, as the sharp little grin awaiting him by the door made no promise of either. "Hello, Rachel," he said, smothering a groan. "Anything I can help you with?"
Please let it be math homework, please let it be math homework...
"Funny you should ask," said the girl. "I'm just starting up a new project, in what you might call the discovery phase, and I need to get it done ASAP, if you know what I mean. And to do that, I gotta ask you a few questions."
Well, that was potentially less painful than the alternatives, when one dealt with Rachel Altus. "What questions?" he asked, letting her pull him aside.
"You were a member of the Outstanding Dudes Society, weren'tcha?"
Alarm bells rang in his head. "Not anymore," he stated firmly.
"Of course not. But..." Rachel dragged out the word like yesterday's leftovers. "You were last Friday, right? At a certain party? And Saturday?"
"I already made my statement to Security."
"How'd you think I learned this much, huh? Just corroborating here. Now, in the interests of me getting what I want and you not missing your next class, spill. All the details. I don't care if it's not legally actionable; I wanna know what was done."
"Fine. Condensed version: Gouyasse got Fra drunk. Fra blabbed. Upper membership went nuts. Crazy things were said. I can't confirm anything past that point because I spent all of Saturday watching other people, and camera footage contradicts most of what I could say. Happy?"
"Happy as a pot of honey. Thanks."
-plink, plinky-plink- Ngaire's musical engine rolled out the base melody perfectly, modulating up or down, sped or slowed, all according to the girl's mastery of a control system no one else could really wrap their heads around. The fact that the musically inclined devisor could play a rondo with herself was quite impressive, actually. "Sounds good," said the girl with a nod. "How about your part, Cally?"
"Ah, yes. I have the lyrics memorized," she assured. Assured herself, more than her partner in this performance. "Ahem... 'Look inside...'" The note held out overly long, catching on a hitch in her throat that ended in a coughing sob. "Ah, ah...."
"What's wrong today?" Ngaire asked, as if were the most normal thing in the world. Calliope hated that it was. "Let me guess: that mess at lunch?"
"Ah, yes. It is just... there is so much anger and hate going around. It wears on me."
"It would." Ngaire stretched and took a seat on the edge of the stage. She patted the boards, inviting Calliope to join her. "My brother likes to complain about the same thing."
Her smile was thin as she sat. "It seems a normal thing to complain about."
"Too damn true." Ngaire fiddled with the buttons on her keyboard until the musical notes of her engine came out all oblong and droopy. "Did I ever tell you what my brother does?" she asked.
"For a living, or for therapy?"
"Both, really. Most days he's a receptionist, working towards getting a medical technician certificate, but on the weekends he does amateur stand-up. Comedy," she explained to Calliope. "Jimmy's got a lot of haters, and not all of them are as polite as the Witnesses when it comes to shutting up and pretending he doesn't exist. So he gets up on stage and talks, makes jokes, normalizes himself to the audience while demeaning his detractors. If you're out, then stand proud -- that's the lesson he taught me. Either way, you'll be a target, so be a target that fires back."
Was it good advice? Calliope could not in that instant say for certain. Was it the only advice to be had? Unfortunately, yes. "I... it... ah, seems a good idea," she said. "Only, I am not sure I can make the jokes like that."
Ngaire already had her school-issue tablet in hand. "Who needs jokes to deliver insults, when you can sing them? Let's see..." The screen scrolled quickly through search results. "Ah, here."
"It is... rap music?" Calliope asked, mostly certain that she was correct. It was not her preferred musical style.
"A kind of rap. Insult songs, diss raps, partially improvised. Like... oh!" Ngaire's fist hit her palm decisively. "I know just who to ask about this. You remember last Saturday?"
"I remember many things from last Saturday."
"Oh. Yeah. Sorry. I didn't mean that part. The freshman matches, with the black girl from Poe versus the rhino dude from Twain."
Calliope's memories of that day were not the happiest, but the scene to which Ngaire referred was one of the better moments. "Ah, you mean Zapper. She is in my Powers Theory class. I guess I could ask..."
"Do it!" Ngaire urged. "Sharpen those skills! Weaponise!"
Again, it may not have been the best of advice, but it was the only one presenting itself now. With a nod, Calliope picked up her phone and accessed the school directory.
It was Friday. His last class of the day was over. He had survived. That was reason to celebrate, and even more so because he'd started out the week black and blue and unconscious in a hospice bed. The bruises had all faded to ugly yellow and purple blotches on his skin, but he hardly felt the stiffness or the pain.
Except when he got thrown to the dirt by a two-meter-tall, bare-chested clown. That sort of thing did not tickle. "Your... your win," he coughed.
"Friend Franchesko! You are being the okey and the dokey?" Arsi got him by the one arm, and Pete by the other, and between the two of them Fra was practically flung to his feet.
"Ah, si, okay. I am. Just..." He winced as he rolled a shoulder. "I am still a little stiff."
"Shouldn't be pushin' yerself so hard then," said Pete.
"I will heal," said Fra. Another wince. "Eventually." He allowed himself to be led to the bench, from which he observed the rest of the American Mongolian Wrestling Federation's afternoon practice. Daniel had had to bow out early for his school job at the cafeteria, but Cookie was happy to stick around and lick all comers into submission. At the moment, that Sam boy from Poe was jumping around, trying to avoid two large, pink, slobbery tongues. The boy's tail trailed after, providing a counterbalance.
That had actually been a surprise, the first time Fra had seen it. He wondered why Sam kept it hidden most of the time. It was hardly the strangest sight on campus.... he thought as he watched another boy, this one with bunny ears, leap into the fray against the two-headed Boston terrier.
In the far ring, Pete and Arsi were at it again. No one else could last half as long against the young giant with the fanciful hair and fake smile outlining his mouth, much less throw him from the ring with any regularity. The so-called Humorless was slowly learning to be a better sport about it, in large part because it was hard to stay mad at Arsi for long.
"How're you holding up?" asked Shawn, taking a seat beside him. The boy called Tremblor was looking a little beat-up himself, mainly from attempts to keep out of Pete's hands. Between deep breaths, Shawn seemed to vibrate around the edges, but then settled down. "Crazy times, huh?"
"Si..." Fra was still not sure what to make of his fellow former Outstanding Dude. Shawn was the only member of the Outstanding Dudes Society to give him the time of day, as the Americans would put it, since the ODS had betrayed him and his sister the weekend before, and if he were to be honest, he still could not say if he liked the boy. But... they had common cause, not to mention a common enemy.
In the distance, his eyes spotted his former friend, Macarthur Price, strutting up the path to dinner with a redheaded upperclasswoman on his arm. The little bastard had been busy, it seemed.
Shawn was following his gaze. "Damn, wouldn't I just love to pop him one in that smirking face."
"He would only, ah, pop you one back," said Fra. "Even harder." His bruises ached at the memory.
A shrug from the boy. "He's got to have a limit or a weakness or something. We just have to figure it out."
We... Fra was not used to the word in this sense. He'd had friends back home, other boys to hang out with, drink with, make improbable boasts with. These boys, here and now, were not friends in that manner. They were... A vocabulary search passed in the blink of an eye. Campagni. Camarati. Comrades. This odd little club they'd formed out of self-defense was a new sort of friendship for him, and he knew it would take time to accustom himself to it.
He could not imagine his friends back home offering to fight beside him, though. Not Stefano, not Giuseppe, certainly not Amadeo. Watching as Arsi successfully flipped a boy twice his size, again, Fra figured he might be better off with these new friends.
Cookie bounded over, looking him over with two full sets of soulful puppy eyes before licking both his ears simultaneously.
Si. He would probably get used to it eventually.
It was the end of another week, and my, what a week it had been. Kirsten was rather proud of the progress she had made towards divesting the von Abendritter -- the von Groenwald girl of her honored code name. Surely once the central registration office in Germany learned of the Ami-Mädchen's duplicitous heritage, the title of das Eisenmädelwould once more be free for a more worthy person to take. She could hardly wait.
"You certainly look happy," said Adrienne. The redheaded French girl had a modest plate arranged for her dinner, mostly fish and salad. Kirsten herself had gone for the sausages and potatoes. "Are we finally leaving behind your little grudge against the freshman?"
"It's not a grudge," she said. "Ah, well, not just a grudge. That girl, she is bad news. But she will be gone before too long. No one wants her here."
Gouyasse rumbled from the other end of the table. "So you say. And I agree; her mother is bad news, and so is she. Still, do not underestimate her."
"It would be nice to get back to business as usual," said Fortenbras, chewing on his Salisbury steak. "When are we starting our team training rotation? Most of the other sophomore groups have had at least one match so far."
"Soon," Kirsten promised, her smile covering the frantic motions of her brain. In the midst of all this Ami-Mädchen business, she had almost missed the first deadline for team combat registration, but it would not do at all to mention that fact. As it was, they were likely the last group in the rotation. "It is only a matter of time."
As if to agree with her, the screen on her phone came to life, the little rectangle of glass and plastic vibrating upon the table until it bumped against her dinner plate. The emblem at the top of the incoming message was that of the school's combat coordination office. With a satisfied smirk, Kirsten swiped the screen left to open the message and see the details.
Her eyes blinked, refusing to believe the sight before them.
"In pursuant to gross insult given..." she read aloud. "...satisfaction is demanded... to address complaints against specific parties... challenge is made... tomorrow?" she demanded. "A challenge match for tomorrow?"
"Whom did you piss off?" asked Fortenbras as he sneaked a peek across her arm. "Mutant Mayhem Machine... wait, isn't that..."
"The Ami-Mädchen's so-called training team," growled Kirsten. "That fake group they made up to steal a table on this floor. What do those idiots think they are doing?"
"Challenging us to a fight, obviously," said Fortenbras. "Well, it should be a good practice, shouldn't it? I guess someone ought to go and drag Nonpareil out of his cave. It would do him some good."
"I will do it," said Kirsten. She did not know what game the von Groenwald girl was playing, but when it came to the team combat arena, she knew the rules well enough. Let the Ami-Mädchen and her friends come at them. Those stupid freshmen would soon learn those rules the hard way.
----Dickinson Cottage, 7 PM
Not long after dinner, Erica found herself in her dorm room, all alone. She should have been elsewhere; she should have had company. If nothing else, she should have been working on a strategy with the friends she'd somehow dragged into the middle of her personal mess of a life.
Her face had been about to crack in half. She'd felt it, even if she wasn't sure it was physically possible. The strain of holding it all in was... it was frankly exhausting, even for someone who could not naturally blush anymore. So, with Cally off for a while to confer with Zapper, Morgana busy with her own projects, and Tanya having a study session with Vic before things went really nuts, Erica felt the need to lie down and cry into her pillow in privacy.
She wasn't long about it. There was too much left to do. To start with, she tapped an icon on her smartphone and waited for the connection to click.
"Ah, Erica! Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, Oma," she sniffed into the receiver. "Um, current sound effects notwithstanding."
"I understand. I take it that word has gotten around?"
Sniff. "More like tossed around. That one sophomore who's been so awful, she's telling everyone and, and then she insulted Cally and the whole group is up in arms and there's going to be a team challenge match tomorrow and I'm so confused about this and..." That was probably at least four conjunctions too many, but she didn't care. Several more of them happened before she was through.
On the other end, the silence continued for just as many seconds as there had been conjunctions. "I'm putting you on speaker now," said her grandmother.
"Listen," said her grandfather. "Whatever happens, we will be there for you."
"I know, Opa..."
"And like it or not," her grandmother added, "this is a part of your life now, as much as your hair or your eyes. Best you get off to a good start."
"B-but..." She hiccuped. "What if I just want a quiet, normal life?"
After another pause, her grandfather's voice returned to the speaker. "Erica, when I was your age, I was designing surface-to-air missiles for the Fourth Reich. Your grandmother was in training to seduce me away from the dark side, or to browbeat me into submission if she couldn't. Neither of us ever had a chance at normal, but we still did our best to give that chance to Danielle, and then to you. And look what has come to pass. Some things are inevitable, perhaps?"
"That doesn't mean we don't stop fighting it, of course," said Oma. "We managed a normal life quite well until the past came knocking. Now, tell us what you know about your opponents, and about your friends, and let's brainstorm some possible tactics, shall we?"
A smile briefly found its place upon her lips. Same old Oma. "Thank you. Um, here's what I've got so far..."
Adrienne le Floc'h was not an outgoing person. She would have been the first to concede that point. It was not in her nature to push against the tide, which was why her actual ability to make literal tides reverse their flow had always felt disturbing to her.
Practice. They always told her that she needed practice. Kirsten in particular had repeated that as they parted ways after dinner. In the safety of her dorm room, she held her hands out straight and tried to focus. Beads of water gathered on her hands, forming into a globe twice the size of her head. Calmly, deliberately, she pressed her face into it and held steady as a timer clicked down from 5:00. By 3:30, she was twitching. By 1:30, she was trembling. As soon as the digital display hit 0:00, she broke contact with a gasp, tossing the manifested sphere of liquid into the funnel that had its outlet on the other side of her dorm window. The little planter of flowers below it was well-watered, indeed.
The need to lie down and rest fell upon her, and she did just that, focusing on her breath until it was no longer so rapid or shallow. It was a silly problem, she knew. The power testers had long ago documented her ability to breathe underwater, though that did not mean she enjoyed it. Quite the contrary, in fact. When she had first started at Whateley, she had found it impossible to even duck her head in the pool for more than a dozen seconds.
Upon the wall, a photo from last year sat in its frame. A picture of herself and Kirsten, happy and smiling, after she had finally passed the school's swim test. That had been an effort, and without the German for a coach, she might not have. Strong, helpful, friendly... that was the Kirsten she knew.
She wondered where her friend had gone lately. Ever since the start of the year, it had all been about the von Abendritter girl and her code name, to the point where she worried for her friend's sanity.
Eh bien, they would trounce the freshmen tomorrow. Perhaps that would settle Kirsten enough for the friend she knew to return.
With a timid knock, her roommate announced her entrance. Ri So-yeong was still in her work-study outfit, a pure white nurse's smock with a red emblem of an Asian crane upon the left breast. "How was your shift?" Adrienne asked her.
Delicately folded eyelids fluttered in surprise, which was So-yeong's normal expression. The girl looked constantly half-ready to take flight. "Ah, it is oh-kay," she replied, her accent as light as Adrienne's while being completely different in tone. "Not as many hurted folk today. And the boy with the green hair is behaving himself better."
"that is good." Adrienne had heard plenty about the one they called Meatball from her brothers. That they were still friends with the little pervert in spite of his foibles was a sign that something about the boy was redeemable.
"Also, your brothers they are downstairs in the foyer. They asked me to let you know." With that, So-yeong turned away to busy herself with her evening correspondence. No other explanation was given, and Adrienne had learned not to expect any from her roommate.
Downstairs in the foyer, she found her brothers joking and laughing with the other children their age who actually lived in Dickinson. Gossip had kept Adrienne well abreast of who was who. Tek Witch was the little blonde with the ringlets and the deceptively cute façade, whose father was a powered soldier of fortune, for example, while the Parisienne calling herself Magique had a sister who'd graduated from this very school in 2010. The brunette who went by Acolyte was some sort of magic-user. And then there was Physique, roommate to the Parisienne, who was as tall as Adrienne and better muscled than Kirsten, but was still a twelve-year-old in the face.
That last one, Physique, was giving her a look that boded no good. The girl was a jogging companion of von Abendritter's, and a friend. They all were, she realized as the other three Dickinsonians joined in the glare.
Her brothers bade their adieus, each grabbing her by an elbow and walking her away.
"We need to talk," said Laurent, slipping into the familiar Bretagnon dialect of home.
"It is somewhat urgent," added Jean-Marie on the other side.
"Is there a quiet place where we could chat?"
"Anywhere would do, really."
"But we wouldn't want it to be too obvious."
With an aggrieved sigh, she led her brothers across the front foyer to the study rooms. A quick check confirmed that most girls were as delinquent in their homework as the boys on a Friday night; to whit, all the study rooms were vacant. She ushered Laurent and Jean-Marie in quickly.
"What is this about?" she asked, fearing she knew the answer already.
"Your friend la Boche has really done it this time," said Laurent.
"And we are afraid she is going to drag you down with her," added Jean-Marie.
Ouais, it was exactly what she had thought. "You worry too much," she told them. "It is a challenge match, pure and simple, and against inexperienced freshmen, no less. I shall be fine."
"It's not that..."
"It's not the how, but the why of it," Jean-Marie concluded.
Brick-red arches rose above her eyes with a foundation of surprise beneath them. "Why? That girl Kirsten is feuding with has raised the stakes, and soon she will learn that she was betting on a mistake. Simple as that."
Her brothers' heads were shaking in unison. "Sister..." Jean-Marie began again. "Did Kirsten tell you why the challenge happened?"
"Or did you not read the official declaration?"
"No, I..." A school-issue tablet was thrust in her face. The challenge declaration was upon it in large print. "How...?"
"Apparently," said Jean-Marie, "one can opt to make such things fully public, or even televised on the school's private network. The Mutant Mayhem Machine..." The words grated, misplaced English in the midst of a stream of Bretagnon. "...has opted to air their grievances openly."
"So l'allemande blonde wishes to look like a whiny brat. So what?"
"Third paragraph," said Jean-Marie. "Read it aloud, please."
Her eyes flicked down, just to humor him. "Ahem. 'The sole purpose of this challenge is to address complaints against specific parties: Kirsten 'Wahnsinnig' Bischofsheim for her gross slander of Fiorella 'Calliope' Persico in declaring her a sexual deviant and pervert in a public space, and to Emile 'Gouyasse' Duval for his part in the activities leading up to the malicious attack on Fiorella 'Calliope' Persico this previous weekend... Quoi!?"
"Exactly what is said." Laurent's mouth was a thin, sealed line of distaste.
Jean-Marie's was firmly downward-oriented at the corners. "A complaint was made on Saturday, only they cannot prove that he personally did anything beyond possession of alcohol on campus, and..."
"And he always has alcohol," Adrienne confirmed. "But still, while he is a boor at times, that does not mean..."
"Sister, can you truly say that you are comfortable with what la Boche has been doing?"
"Don't call her that..." she said. "Kirsten is... she is the first good friend I have had in years! She helped me through so much last year... I owe her so much..."
"Is she helping you now? Is she helping anyone, really?" Jean-Marie demanded. "Is she helping us?"
It was a losing battle, she knew, but it was one which she had to fight. "We are teammates, and our team has been challenged. I must stand by her side."
"One can assist without helping." To assist... in French, it was a very different verb, meaning simply to be there, to attend... which itself had a different meaning in the language. The number of false friends, of false similarities in vocabulary between the two languages, was enough to rattle the brain. Almost as much as even considering herself a false friend, not helping those to whom she owed so much.
Even if she could not agree with much of what her friends were doing. A small sphere of water came together in her hand, and she juggled it nervously. "I do not know what..." she began.
"To borrow an expression from the Americans, take one for the team," said Jean-Marie. "And make it look like you did it for Kirsten's side, even if we know differently. But you can't keep supporting her like this."
"She is scaring a lot of people," said Laurent.
"And getting many more people to agree with her," said Jean-Marie, "which is scarier."
"Ah, but... to throw the fight? To sabotage it? You are suggesting that, yes? Impossible! That, that would take coordination with the freshmen and... they would not trust me."
"There is one thing you could say to make them trust you," said Laurent. "One thing you could tell them."
She turned hard eyes to her brothers. "No. Not that. That is between us, and it is for your protection, for the protection of the family..."
"Ouais, that," said Jean-Marie. "And we do not think you are protecting the family now with your support of Kirsten. If you do not tell them, then we will." The twins got up to leave. "We will always be proud to be your brothers, but please do not make us ashamed of it at the same time."
A moment later, and she was alone with her thoughts. She wished they were nice ones.
Movie night had happened as ordained by Ms. Barnes of the English Language Learners classroom, the same as it did every Friday night in the Twain freshman common room. Fra was somewhat ashamed to admit that he had not attended every one of them, and quite ashamed that the previous week he'd passed on it to go to the ODS meeting where...
His brain sat on that thought whenever it tried to raise its ugly little head from the murk of his subconscious. Fio had forgiven him. Finally. Mostly. Conditionally. This did not mean he had forgiven himself yet.
It had not been a long movie this time, taking only an hour or so to feature the animated tale of a little elephant with huge ears. According to Ms. Barnes, it had recently faced bans in school libraries across the country for 'promoting the mutant agenda,' but he could not see what the fuss was about. If she had not mentioned it in class that day, perhaps none of them would have even made the connection. As it was, his was not the only pair of eyes to tear up when the little elephant had visited his mother in the prison wagon, nor the only voice to cheer when the little elephant's superpower became evident, and happy, childlike vengeance was wrought.
Only Pete had actively booed and cursed at the circus clowns, but no one else had disagreed with him.
"Ah, well," he said as he wiped the last of the popcorn dust from his fingers. "Thank you for letting me visit, but I must go."
"Good to have you," said Daniel. As usual, the pink-eyed boy had provided the snacks, while Arsi's roommate had managed the video system. Most of the students were Twainees, as they called themselves, with Fra being the odd one out.
Not the only one, he amended. Sam Warner was also there, sitting perched upon one of the couch ends, as usual. The boy's tail provided a counterbalance, so Sam hardly moved as he sat, and Fra kept forgetting he was there.
"Yeah, um, I should get going too," said Sam. "The guys'll get worried about me if I'm out too late." With delicate, nervous precision, the boy hopped to the floor. "Um, mind if I walk with?"
It took a second for Fra to realize the question was aimed at him. "Fine. Come along."
"Th-thanks," said Sam.
Fra did not share his sister's empathic talents, for better or for worse, but that did not mean he could not feel the pressure of eyes upon him as he descended the stairs to the ground floor and walked out the front of the building. There was a natural rivalry between the boys' cottages, he knew, and between those who still looked human and those who did not. With his head up and his chest straightened, Fra put forth his best façade of strength and hoped none would challenge. His bruises were only mostly healed.
Sam stuck to his side like a shadow, tail whipping nervously.
"Are you, ah, okay?" Fra asked as they exited the cottage.
"Just nervous," the boy admitted. "It's a Friday night, everyone's out, and, well, haven't had the best experiences with being out, I guess you could say."
"You don't say..." Fra let the idiom out from the corner of his brain that had paid attention to Ms. Barnes's lessons on natural conversation. It bought him some time to work through the jumble of the boy's American accent. "You are having troubles?"
"Just the usual, right?" Sam shrugged. "You try to stay out of trouble, only for people to go looking for new ways to trouble you."
"Ah, yes..." Fra nodded sagely as he processed this more.
The walking path split just up ahead, with one route heading down and around the hill a ways to Poe Cottage, and the other making its way upwards to Emerson. This would have been where they parted ways, only he had the thought to look ahead, to see where their path led.
Straight towards a group of boys he recognized all too well. He'd spent last Friday evening partying with them. A less outstanding set of dudes, he hoped to never meet, but from the way they were lounging on the benches by the hedge, just at the fork in the walking path, it wasn't likely he could avoid it. A muttered word, a belin, escaped his lips.
It was really more his sister's word, but twins could share things like that sometimes.
"What?" asked Sam.
"Up ahead." Fra stopped and then took a step towards the hedge. Traffic on the path was not so light that his presence was obvious, but there was no point taking chances. "Some people I no longer speak to."
"Who...? Oh, them," Sam said in distaste. "The one on the far left likes to yank on my tail when I'm not looking."
"That is not good. Your tail is a good tail."
"Ah, thanks." By the lamplight, Sam's smile flashed past his face. "So, um, we want to avoid 'em?"
"Si. Ah, that is, yes."
The boy grabbed Fra's hand and tugged. "C'mon, then. This way. There's space on the other side of the hedge, so they won't see if we crouch down a bit."
"They will hear, surely?"
"My code name's not Tiptoe for nothing. C'mon!"
Crouched and creeping, the two of them made their way along the hedge. Sam never relinquished his hold on Fra's hand as he tugged the Italian along. The leaves were plentiful underfoot, and yet the crunch of teenage footfalls was muted, diminished to a point where Fra's own ears had to strain to hear his feet.
Sam caught his questioning look, but only put a finger to his lips and winked for a reply.
They came out not far from Poe Cottage, near a decorative gazebo barely broad enough to hold the bench within it. That bench was good for two, as they now proved. "Ah, thank you," said Fra. "That was, ah, impressive."
A shrug from Sam said, "No problem," as well as any words. "It's a neat little warper effect," the boy admitted. "It's about the only thing I can do, but it's gotten me out of a few bad situations."
"It is useful, then."
"If you've gotta deal with drunken uncles or disgruntled exes, sure." A world-weary sigh followed Sam's slump against Fra's chest. "Sometimes I think I'd rather have super-strength, honestly."
"It is not, ah..." What was the expression from class? Ah, yes... "It is not all that it is cracked up to be," said Fra. "Everything is suddenly a little more fragile, and it seems you are always just not strong enough to do what you want, anyway. And it does not impress the girls as much as one might think."
"Seen you at BMA," said Sam. "Sure impresses me."
"Grazie. Ah, thank you." He let his head tilt against the back of the bench seat as he stared at the gazebo rafters. "It is... ah, nice to hear I may do something right. This past week has been nothing but bad decisions, it seems."
"It happens. Just..." Sam hesitated, but his tail twitched. "Just be you, okay? Be the best you, and things'll get better. It's what my counselor tells me," he explained.
"And if that is not good enough?"
"Leave that for others to decide. Well, um," Sam continued, "it's been nice, but I gotta git. Um... be seeing you?"
"Of course. We have wrestling practice twice a day, if Arsi is the decision...er? Decider," he corrected.
"Oh yeah. That. Um, I meant..." In one slinky motion, Sam braced his hands against Fra's chest and pulled up to plant a kiss on the Italian's cheek. Bouncing backwards to land on his feet, the boy set his feet towards Poe. "Well, you're a great guy, Fra. Never forget."
As much as he had learned here at Whateley, Fra still did not have the words to respond to that.
----9.30pm, Poe Cottage
Bianca looked over at her roommate, who was inspecting the combat outfit she'd acquired earlier.
"So, what's it like?"
Morgana gave the greyish costume another look, and shrugged.
"It's a generic freebie form-fitting outfit, for close combat. It's pretty basic. The fabric is tough, but it's not nearly as good as some of the stuff Mrs. Ryan has been recommending. There is some padding at, ah, appropriate areas--" She stopped for a moment as Bianca snickered - "Thank you in the audience... And there is a bit of extra Kevlar over the front and spine. Basic, but it was free to borrow."
Bianca frowned. "It doesn't sound like it will give you much protection."
"Well, it's more than I get in BMA. I'm not that fragile, after all. And it's more to cover the regulation to wear a combat outfit, because apparently they've had issues with kids fighting in their normal gear and it coming apart."
Bianca got up and poked the costume dubiously. "Um. I don't suppose it's fireproof either?"
"Oh come on! No, it isn't fireproof, but what are the chances, right?"
Bianca didn't reply, but her body language said volumes.
"It's ugly, though. I mean, it's just grey. So I thought I'd change the colour."
Bianca looked at her friend again. "Magic?"
"Yeah, I had a look in the book earlier. There's a colour-change spell you can do to things like clothing, I figured it would look cooler than grey. And maybe hide the fact it is a low-protection loaner."
"You aren't going for white, are you? They might think you're me."
Morgana snickered loudly. "It might scare them, but no." She held up a small bottle of dark blue ink. "I thought royal blue would look good. The spell uses the Laws of Contagion and Association, so it will mimic the ink's colour. It's a simple spell; I'll do it before we go to bed."
"You aren't going to turn us blue overnight, are you? "
Morgana shook her head with a grin. "Nope. One Laura is enough, I think!"
"Aren't you worried about losing control? I know it's been something you worry about."
Morgana sighed as she took a look at her costume, now a rather attractive royal blue colour. "Yeah, a bit. But this needs to be done. As long as I keep it low, like in BMA, it should be OK."
"That won't let you do much damage."
The redhead made a face. "Look, it's a fight, but I don't want to actually injure someone if I can help it. Well, maybe Kirsten..." she gave a deep sigh. "My fire is dangerous, so if I feel it getting away I'll step out and tap out. Besides, even when it's relatively harmless, it worries most people to get too close to fire."
Bianca lay on her side and nodded. "You don't think fighting tomorrow will give away your image then?"
Morgana gave her friend her best innocent look -- which sadly for her wasn't that good. "My image?"
Bianca snorted. "The one you've been putting on, in BMA, about being a loose cannon who likes fighting and attacks without thinking? That image. And of course I knew, I'm your roomie."
There was another deep sigh from the other bed. "If I can use it, yeah. I can't keep it up forever, but hopefully they'll assume it's me and start out accordingly. We're going to need every edge we can get."
"Well, look on the bright side."
"There's a bright side?"
Bianca nodded. "When it comes down to it, we're a group of freshmen in our first fight against a soph training team. Unless we make a complete mess of it, no-one expects us to win, so we don't lose much face if we do. Of course if we win, they look dumb!"
Morgana chuckled as she folded the costume and put it away ready for tomorrow. "True. But I don't fight to lose, I'm going to do my best."
"As long as you don't set fire to too many people!"
"Eh, don't worry. It's not like they have any bunnies on their team, right?"
'Music has charms to soothe the savage breast,' or so the old wives would say. In that same thought, those old women of proverbial wisdom always failed to mention the obvious: music could do a lot more than simply soothe. It could suppress, it could inflame, it could mold the soul of the listener or smash it to pieces. She was focusing her attention on that aspect right now.
"Ah! This is so difficult!" she cried, popping the little earbuds from their proper place and leaning her chair dangerously far back. "There is the beat and the rhythm and the rhyme and..."
"And?" her roommate prompted from her own bed when the next item on that list of complaints failed to materialize.
"And it is, it is so difficult to, to learn a new style of music overnight, even with a better brain like I have now, and this one in particular..." She glared at the digital folder of her laptop, now home to a short discography of disrespect, a litany of libel, so many songs of slander courtesy of her friend Zapper in Poe. "It is... The lyrics are so important, and I have so little to go on!"
"We could ask Milena?" Erica suggested. "It might cost us a favor, but it'd be worth it."
"Perhaps..." Perhaps she could call Ms. Plimsoll, came the thought. The Masterminds probably had access to all sorts of dirty laundry, the sort which should be washed with the family and not aired in public. But... no. She shook her head to clear it of the idea. While she had not ruled out joining that odd little clique, it was still not a thing of which she was sure.
There was a polite knock on the door. "Hey, do you two, like, mind if I barge in?" came the voice of their RA. "And, could you make up your minds, like, fast?"
"Wenn man vom Teufel sprecht..." said Erica as she hopped to the door. "We were just talking about you... Was zum Teufel!?"
"Practicing your German swears, huh?" said Milena as she walked in. Not by herself "Smart. Oh, and shut the door, now!" The door went shut in record time. "You got, like, protection on this room yet?"
"If you mean against snooping, then yeah," said Erica. "Since last Wednesday." Her eyes weren't leaving the other visitor, who was hiding herself in the RA's shadow.
"Huh, thought so. And good, cuz we obviously don't want word to, like, get out about this little visit."
"I'll say..." Erica walked over to address Milena's redheaded shadow directly. "Hello... Adrienne, wasn't it? I'm sorry, but it's been a while since we last had the chance to talk about anything."
Adrienne le Floc'h could not bring her eyes up to meet the blue-eyed stare, preferring to keep them pointed at the mattress. "Ah, oui. It has been a long time, hasn't it. I should apologize. I mean..."
"It was not you saying the awful things," said Calliope. "But it was not you speaking against them, either."
The sophomore's face burned as red as her hair. "It is not so easy! Kirsten, my friends, my... It was never this crazy before!" she cried. "Kirsten, she is un petit peu monomane, euh, I mean, she has the things she focuses on, even obsesses over, but... From the start, there has been something about that code name of yours that sets her off, and, and... I am not sure I can call her sane at times."
"Crazy can do that to you," said Milena, now sitting in the room's other chair, backwards with her arms draped over the rear. "And friendship can make it hard to, like, stop someone from going too far, am I right?"
It might have been a nod; it might have been a slump of dejection. "I, I cannot get out of the match tomorrow. You have challenged us as a team, and so I must be there. But..." A long gulp punctuated the pause. "But I can help."
"How?" asked Erica. "Sorry, too short. "How can we trust you on this? I mean, I doubt Kirsten is sneaky enough to try and sabotage us with a double agent ploy, but it's still a bit of a leap."
Reaching over, Milena prodded the redhead with a finger. "Go on, tell them."
With a breath deep enough to affect local air pressure by a few millibars, Adrienne inflated herself enough to let her eyes rise to meet theirs. To Calliope's sense, the ether around the girl was filled with tight, shrill chords, mostly violins being tortured to death. Whatever was about to be said, Adrienne did not wish to have to say it.
"My... my brothers were not always identical." Whatever Calliope had been expecting -- and she honestly was not sure what that would be -- those words were not even close. Milena had to wave down questions from Erica so the sophomore could continue.
"It is, euh, a part of their mutation. They grow ever more alike physically. Laurent, he was brun, ah, brown of hair. Now he is red, like myself or... Ahem. Yes. Laurent was brown, and Jean-Marie was... euh..." The silent violins shrieked in Calliope's mental ears. "He was Marie-Éloise."
"Cosa!" said Calliope. "Is it... are you sure you should be telling us that? It, it was obviously difficult, but..."
"Outing your brother is not cool," Erica finished for her.
Adrienne's smile hung limply on her face. "They, euh, threatened to tell you themselves if I did not. And... I think they may tell their friends soon. One friend, Marcus, has a brother..."
"We know Pat," said Calliope.
"Ah, yes. Of course...." Adrienne murmured. "But yes, you can see that... that, no matter what I owe Kirsten, the things she is saying now, they are too much! The family, it is more important than the friendship in this case. So... so, I ask of you, what may I do to help?"
"Well..." Calliope shared a look with Erica, who nodded firmly. "We had a basic battle plan in mind," the German girl continued. "Some tactics we're working on. One idea was to put our water-bender up against you, to see if you could cancel each other out. But now, I'm thinking that with your cooperation, we could put on a big show."
"Si," said Calliope. Behind her, the lyrics of some sample raps were still visible on her computer screen. "In fact, if you are in the mood to gossip now, I think there is another way you could help us out."
"If it's gossip you need, I'm in, too," said Milena.
"Grazie. Well?" she said to Adrienne. "Could you tell us more about Kirsten and Gouyasse?"
The violins of nerves were ceding place to the silly horns of confusion. "Ah, yes. I suppose I could. Do you really think it would be of help?"
"Certo che si."