A Goldfish in the Ocean (Part 6)
A Second Generation Whateley Academy Tale
A Goldfish in the Ocean
About an hour before everything went ape-shit for Vic.
Berlin’s 103 Mall, Pet store, Paw Prince,
If there was a happier place in the mall, it certainly couldn’t be any more so than the pet store, where puppies and kittens just played before getting their attention sidetracked by all the new faces who might came over to say ‘Hi.’ Leaning over the edge of their pen, tails wagging and noses whining for attention... it almost made Vic sad to leave. But he had to catch up with Tanya and Erica at the end of the mall's cluttered corridor.
In the end, this small trip had turned out quieter than he'd imagined without the girls around. It felt as if they'd split for hours even though, checking his phone, he saw that it had only been about ten minutes. And in that time, he’d stopped by a clothing store to look for some spare shirts, purchased one, learned how to use his credit card, regretted spending the money from his savings, and then hung around the pet store.
What would it have been like if they’d all stuck together? he wondered. The bigger question, however, was why they had brought up the idea in the first place. Vic could only imagine they wanted to do some private shopping. That seemed like a normal girl thing.
One of the pups barked encouragingly as Vic stopped scratching behind its ears, just in time for the littermates to wrestle him, much to the teen's amusement.
He'd never had a pet, but he imagined it might have been nice to. He figured that was the case for many of the window shoppers at the store. There were the couples looking for a pet to be their parenting trial run, and the kids insisting on a specific animal that grabbed their attention. Dogs, cats, rabbits, birds and even fish always cheered up at the sight of customers, regarding them with curious excitement.
Vic liked to stroll around the pet pens, imagining which he would choose if he were to live on his own. He imagined how his fledgling telepathic skills might one day enable him to communicate with them, at least a little, like a real live Dr. Dolittle.
It worked kinda well with Cookie. The two-headed devisor dog that stuck around the front of Twain Cottage was friendly to everyone, which made it the ideal subject for Vic to practice on, one afternoon after Powers Lab. Still, despite Cookie being a pretty smart... well, a pretty smart cookie, there was no actual thought the boy could understand. It wasn’t to say that the dog wasn’t thinking; Vic got the inkling of that in the form of joyful emotions that came from human contact. There just weren’t any words he could understand, and whenever he projected his own thoughts the animal looked at him funny, seemingly not noticing that it was being talked to without any actual words. At least, one of the heads did; the other was just yawning at the time.
And if the trick didn’t work with Cookie, a dog created by a mad scientist, regular puppies had much less of a chance. The only upside was that their projected thoughts were cheerful emotions that bubbled through the open connection his fingers made with their fluffy ears.
That train of thought led Vic to the strange, cat-like creature from the other day. The one who'd been prying into Vic's stuff, only to turn tail and disappear when it realized someone was watching. Definitely not a normal animal, which made sense considering this was Whateley Academy and the place had its fair share of mad scientists and angry warlocks going about. He hadn’t tried his luck with imps or magical creatures like Smokey, but… well it was simpler to assume that devised creatures were a tad smarter in their conception.
A quick glance at his watch proved that he’d already spent too much time playing with the kitties and puppies, and it was about time to move on to the next store. He still needed to find a tablet, the entire reason to make this trip, and he was eager to see what else he would find on the way there. Though... he had to remind himself not to spend any more money than was absolutely necessary.
It was as he was making his way to the exit, past the pet collars for cats, that his sleeve snagged onto one of the round bells that hung from the front of one collar. The thing popped out of the seams.
The bell didn’t ring that loud as it fell onto the carpet, in between the sound of barks, mewls, or chirps of the animals, not to mention the giggles of children, but Vic certainly noticed. He didn’t think much of it though. He was sorry for ruining the collar, even if it was relatively cheap, but he was reluctant to step up and confess the accident.
Still, he figured that the bell could be a decent toy for Cookie, or even for the strange cat creature if they were to cross paths again. Thinking no real harm done, he stuffed the bell into his pocket before discreetly walking out.
The next set of stores ahead were full of more clothing. Whether formal, for women, or high-end brands, none of them captured his attention.
But it was then that the loud blaring of a car horn brought his attention back to earth. Something had just happened outside, and Vic’s first reaction was to set off in that direction, out of both curiosity and a desire to help if the situation allowed it. And by that, he meant only if the street were flooding or something like that. Something that he might actually be useful for.
I feel like Aquaman sometimes, Vic thought to himself, useless without a source of water around.
A group of men towered over a fallen figure. Vic might not have been more than half a year on the streets, but he was streetwise enough to pick out a criminal crew when he saw one. How they were standing and conversing onto each other, whilst gathered around the poor man, who seemed to have no chance of standing up to them. Their looks of frustration at having to do this. The way they exchanged words with each other conspicuously... The signs were easy to pick up for someone who looked for them.
Even so, all this was happening right next to a street, with cars moving past. That was rather ballsy from them, Vic thought. He had to wonder how strong a gang would have to be, or at least, how many connections it should have, to even consider conducting business like that in public.
With a short kick to the leg of the poor guy at the center of everything, they set off moving in a direction that was away from there. But it was then that he got a good look at the face of their hapless victim.
Iggy? Vic blinked.
He stared for a moment longer to make sure his eyes weren’t deceiving him, but without a proper angle he could only follow to make sure. There was no other choice but to follow...
Sunday, September 25, 2016 - 12:36 pm
Berlin’s 103 Mall, Parking lot, third basement access
...and one busy hour later, fate was throwing him a knuckleball. After having sat forgotten in Vic's pocket for a series of chase scenes, the little collar bell from the pet store fell to the concrete floor. An iron ball sat inside to serve as the clapper, and it sang against the brass alloy. The single, metallic note resounded throughout the bare space of the parking lot, vibrating off the walls in a long, drawn out melody that could’ve passed unnoticed in the heat of the moment. Only Tanya was deafened by it.
The ring grew loud and deafened the rest of the world, even as the gunshots rang through the air. Tanya’s mind shut down, forcing itself into a hard reset, and her vision of the world slowly blurred until her eyes closed and her entire body went slack.
To everyone watching, it looked as if she’d passed out. Her head was thrown back as she fell down to her knees, and her face struck the concrete with a hard thud that brought a sympathetic wince to many a face.
"Tan… I mean, Invi!” Erica corrected herself as she kept on blocking the gunfire with her personal kinetic barrier. There was the fear in her that a stray bullet might have struck her friend, even though she knew the lavender girl's own PK forcefield meant gunshots would be but a joke to her.
"Get up!” Vic called out just as he dodged a hard punch of the guy that threw him. The boy returned with one of his own. The fist connected straight into the guy's jaw, but the teen didn’t have the strength to put a person out with just one hit. He could only back down as the larger man responded with a backhanded fist. He called out again only to see Tanya still prone on the floor, without any response to show she was conscious.
"Get off me, ya mutie!” yelled the gunman as Erica finally managed to catch up with him. She forced him to point the gun upward as the pull of the trigger produced only desperate clicks. She was about to silence him, pulling her fist back and aiming for his stomach, when the lout slipped out of her grasp in a desperate squirm. He jumped a couple of steps back.
"Forget about that. Grab the girl and get out!” blurted the leader of this group, and the only person that wasn’t engaged in his own personal battle. The man pulled out a knife, but whether it was for self defense or to threaten Tanya was up to debate. What wasn’t was that he was heading her way with his face looking like a gambler who'd just come upon money lying in the street.
"Don’t you dare!” Vic blurted as he dodged a kick, though barely, as it grazed his waist. Yet the moment he would turn his head to run, the man was ready to lunge, to throw a punch that would be enough to give himself the advantage.
"Go!” Iggy’s voice came from nowhere, from a place almost forgotten by the people fighting for the good past couple of seconds. It was a most welcome voice. The man was rotund and as stealthy as a grapefruit, but to the guy now focused on Vic, the forger's move was a complete surprise. The moment the man tried to pull out another kick, he found himself grabbed from behind, and the short moment of distraction was all the teenager needed to land a hard hit. Discombobulated and unbalanced, the guy was easy to topple.
Vic wasn't sure the goon was out of the fight or not, and he didn't care. He was already running straight for the knife-wielding leader of the group.
"Leave her alone!” Vic shouted as he rushed towards the leader, making a leaping punch that only just missed. With his landing a bit off and his legs aching from the activity, Vic took a couple of steps away before turning around to place himself between Tanya and the guy. She was completely knocked out with no sign of waking up soon and the man was looking at him like he was the biggest and most annoying gnat ever. The knife was held like a flyswatter.
"I’m really getting tired of you getting in the way of our plans, boy,” the dark-skinned man muttered, holding the knife pointed out and ready. Even a single swipe would leave a nasty cut. The man from D’s crew looked worse for wear after the run around town and the most recent antics, but he was still holding his own and not looking any less of a threat.
From the initial rescue where Vic had taken Iggy right from under their noses to the struggle within the laundry where he'd outed himself as a mutant to break into a run, this man had been tailing after them. The young man felt he’d spent more time with him on this not-a-date than he had with Tanya.
Speaking of which... Vic couldn’t afford to look over his shoulder to check the girl that laid on the floor behind him and there was no clue to explain her sudden loss of consciousness. She was front and center in his mind, but he couldn’t afford himself the distraction to check on her. Not with a fight still going about: one simple glance over his shoulder and the man holding the knife would waste no time to stick it in. Without knowing how far behind she lay behind him, Vic dared not take a step behind lest he stepped on her.
"I've got no idea what's up with her, but she's my ticket out of this mess,” the man explained, as if that would nudge Vic into stepping away.
"You can leave now!” Vic pointed out in frustration. “We told you guys we weren’t looking for a fight with you! Just go!” He'd be lying if he said that he wasn't willing to throw a punch in this guy’s face for putting them through this entire disaster of a morning, but that would just get in the way of other things.
"You might be right…” the man muttered. There was a disarming sigh as heavy arms, half in frustration, half in an effort to let go of his own anger, were dropped and his face turned towards the exit ramp that led up to the second floor.
"Then just leave before the cameras start up working again.” Iggy called out, just as the man he was clinging to slipped out of his grasp and responded with a kick, which the forger somehow managed to dodge from the ground.
"How do you know about that?” the man said.
"The cameras aren’t working?” Vic muttered. Of course, this was the parking lot of a mall, there was no doubt that there would, at least, be one security camera around to make sure no one was stealing the cars. Even in the third level of the basement there had to be some sort of surveillance… But then again, he had a feeling that he couldn’t afford the distraction.
"You better leave!” Iggy coughed up just as he dodged another kick, desperately rolling away from the swing of the gangster's shoe.
"Fine… Fine…” the man conceded. There was a feeling deep within Vic’s gut that told him this wasn’t the end of it all. Sure, this guy had gotten himself the runaround, and was at a stalemate with a pair of girls, a teen boy, and a rather round individual… and he certainly didn’t seem to be in the process of winning. The logical thing would be to cut his losses but… that was Iggy-level reasoning.
The thug’s body eased up as he looked at the knife in his hand and then at the exit. “Fuck,” he muttered as he turned his back to Vic. One could easily assume he was about to call for his buddies to just walk away, yet with his right heel tapping against the ground and the arm with the knife tensing up, the signs came to the contrary.
He pivoted on his left leg and jumped on Vic’s way for a thrust of the knife that surged upwards, looking to take a slice out of something. The teen didn't have a chance to say anything as the tip of the blade grazed past, missing his clothes, if only by a hair.
"Just leave? Fuck that noise. Getting arrested by the police or mall security would be better than getting beat up by a fat man and a bunch of teens!” He threw swipe after swipe at the boy.
Vic couldn't afford to take even one step back. All he could do was to desperately dodge at the best of his ability, angling his body from side to side while keeping his arms spread for balance. All the while, he had to internalize as many of Sensei Tolman's lessons as possible.
Worst. Pop. Quiz. Ever.
Evading the attacks with just a hair’s distance between the blade and him. All while trying to find a way to attack. The best defense is a good offense and vice versa. To use the opponent’s strength against him, to target the joints… lessons that did not come only from Sensei Tolman but also from Cole of the Syndicate’s scouting, tactical analysis, and combat support. That man had been ruthless and efficient; and, while he wasn’t discrediting his sensei’s teaching much less her expertise on the matter, Vic had never seen her deal with a man holding a knife.
Cole would catch the person’s wrist, strike the elbow joint, forcing it to bend and stab its user without ever having to touch the grip. A move Vic had only seen in movies till then, but the Syndicate man had pulled it off with barely a thought given. That was too much outside of Vic’s own level of expertise, though.
Another strike came in short to Vic’s stomach and he had to throw his body to the side as the point of the blade went where his ribs would have been. He had to remind himself that he couldn’t cross the imaginary line behind him and Tanya, or even check to see where it was. With the wrist and hilt of the knife in sight, he could try to emulate Cole’s move but he highly doubted, even feared that he would fail at it, considering how poorly he tended to do in BMA. The idea of missing his grip or letting the blade slip past his grasp, leaving a hard cut on his palm made him relent. And Vic knew what would happen soon after as he saw the blade pull towards its own right. In preparation for a swing.
"Let me give you something so you remember not to mess with us!” the man shouted, claiming victory as he threw his arm to the side for a waist side cut.
A reflex surged within Vic. He forced his body to pivot on the spot and raised his right knee to meet the man’s hand, barely missing the knife’s edge. He wasn’t sure what came over him, but that action did save him from the nasty slice.
What was better, as the man pulled the knife back it left an opening for another of Cole’s lessons: “Fighters from all ranges and ranks have a stance they rely on. Position Zero, I call it. The moment they do, as they reel back, attack because you’ll know where to hit.”
Vic didn’t want to throw his foot into danger, but it was better than exposing his own hand and, if he was going to continue this ‘Try and hit me’ game, he would inevitably lose. His left leg lifted, and the tip of his foot struck the man’s wrist to send the knife flipping into the air.
The man let out a trail of profanities, many of which Vic had never even heard before, but he wasn’t registering even ten percent of them. Instead he focused on the follow-up attack, spinning his body and providing a roundhouse with his right foot -- pretty much like he’d practiced with Erica the day before.
By the end of it, he'd almost lost his balance when both feet touched the ground, but he managed to register the result of his attack.
He’d missed. That much was clear when he completed the spin, but the results were still auspicious. The kick had struck the butt of the knife’s hilt while it was airborne and sent it like an arrow down into the tire of a lone car that was parked to the side. Granted, it hadn’t been perfect. Judging by the clink he heard at the end of the kick, it must have ricocheted against the ground, but it was still something he couldn’t believe he’d managed.
And he dared not imagine how it would’ve hurt if he’d struck the pointy end.
The man stared, dumbfounded by the stunt. With frustration still brimming up in his eyes, he raised up his fists. Vic wasn’t sure if he himself would be able to keep up an endurance and defense fight with someone like that.
"Just… leave,” Vic told him.
"Bo! Bo!” It was the cowardly man who had been holding the gun. “We can’t beat them!”
"Don’t you say my name!” the man, Bo, called out angrily. When he turned around, his tune changed, though.
Erica had not only, predictably, disabled the man. There was the gun, either disassembled or bent to pieces -- he couldn’t tell at the distance -- scattered across the floor. She had also taken on the other larger man who had been facing up with Iggy not long ago. That one seemed to have decided to help his buddy, only to have his face knocked into the pavement.
Vic seized the moment for payback, and struck Bo with a hard fist on the side of the man's face while he was distracted. The gangster hit the ground himself, for a moment.
"You heard my friend!” Erica said in all seriousness. From her tone, she was getting frustrated with the whole situation. Both she and Vic were well aware that they were on a time crunch, and if authorities got involved there would be a lot of explaining to do. “He told you to leave.”
"Yeah,” even Iggy weighed in, albeit weakly.
By then, the two other thugs that had been thrown out at the start of the fight were staggering to their feet. They didn't look too certain about what to do next, though.
For a moment, Vic was worried that they'd get their heads and their shit together to gang up on the teens with the strength in numbers… but, fortunately, they didn’t. It seemed that Erica outing herself as capable of out-muscling them was all that was needed for the gang members to balk.
"You will step back, or we’ll hand you over to the police… So... leave,” Vic repeated putting as much strength in his posture and voice as a bluff. "Just leave."
Bo, on the floor, looked up at them and despite the anger still being there, a bit of fear was there as well. “Fine… we’re leaving. We’re leaving!” he shouted loudly as the men picked themselves up. Some of them looked puzzled, still trying to piece together what had just happened, but others, like the cowardly man that still clung to the dismantled parts of the firearm, were quick to stand up and make a hastened not-sprint towards the ramp.
It was an awkward finish to the situation, with the defeated thug party walking away with the tail between their legs. And the humiliation was not lost to them. In particular, Bo threw glares their way, the better to memorize Vic’s face. The man made it so intensely apparent that the teen knew that it was a threat, were he to ever to show his face around town again.
"Great...” Vic thought sarcastically as he saw them walk away. In a few short breaths, it was just the four of them scattered about the parking lot. And a great sigh of relief was felt by all. Iggy was in the act of picking himself while Erica made haste to Tanya, still lying down a step behind Vic.
He would have turned around to check on her, but his legs, which had been complaining silently throughout the fight, decided to declare themselves on strike. He fell to his knees as the bruise on his left cheek from that punch he'd received back in the laundry began to pulsate.
"Tanya?” Vic turned around to look at the girl as Erica rolled her around.
"What happened to her?” Erica asked. There was not a hint of blame in her voice, only utter confusion.
"I have no idea… She just fainted all of a sudden,” Vic said as he got a good look at her. Lying on her back, there was a sort of serenity about her. Not even her expression was disturbed. Eyes were closed but her brow wasn’t furrowed, instead completely relaxed and at peace. She was clearly breathing as her chest slowly pushed itself up and down and there was a faint whistle coming from her lips.
"She’s… asleep?” The answer to Vic’s question came out right away as the lavender girl let out a small quiet snort.
"What the…” Erica's was the face of confusion.
"I have no clue…” said Vic. “Tanya? Wake up?” Only after he said it did he realize that, if the chaos and screaming of the past few minutes hadn’t gotten her to stir, the friendly whisper of a friend certainly wouldn’t. Still, they paused with bated breath to see if she would react.
"Oh look, is that a super bargain on extra fluffy pancakes? They’re selling them by the dozen!” Erica baited and waited for a couple more beats. Other than a slight snort, there was no clear hint that it worked, and he couldn’t tell if Erica was just making a joke or actually expecting it to do something.
"She’s out cold… Really asleep. How did that even happen?” Vic muttered as he pushed himself back up to his feet.
"I have no clue… Tanya didn’t drink any coffee, so I’m sure it isn’t a caffeine crash,” Erica commented as she boldly tapped Tanya’s cheek. That elicited a snore and a slight twitch, nothing more.
"We should hurry and get out of here. It’ll be only a matter of time before mall security comes looking.” Iggy called, finally walking up to them.
"What do you mean? And how did you know that the cameras weren’t working?” Erica gave Iggy a good long look. “Also, who are you?”
"Cameras. I’ve stalked them long enough to know. Folks have seen them rough people up in the mall, but they always do it on the clock,” Iggy fumbled in his words to explain.
"That doesn’t prove they control the cameras.”
"I investigated the people that run the security room. One of them wears a really high-end brand watch, so it was a good guess… and that guy confirmed it on the spot,” Iggy mumbled in conclusion. “Also, the name is Ignatius… but people call me Iggy. I’m a friend of Vic here.”
"Are you now?” Erica muttered, casting a look at Vic’s way that danced the line between “Is this true?” and “What have you been up to?” But still, she did heed the advice. Without saying another word, she slipped arms beneath Tanya’s back and legs to pick the lavender girl up bridal style with ease. That was a slight blow to Vic’s masculine pride, but couldn’t really blame her. She was far stronger than he was, even if he wasn't currently drained.
"Let’s go, hurry up,” Iggy urged.
And as two or three steps were taken towards the exit, there were loud screams and sounds of struggle. The voice of that paranoid mutant-phobic thug screeched, “No wait! I-I did fire a handgun, but it was in self-defense. There are mutants down there. No- No… let me go. I’m part of H1...”
There was a tinge of panic reflected in Erica’s face, but she didn’t say a thing. Instead, she redoubled her pace towards the emergency stairwell that would bypass the elevator.
Erica went in first, pushing the door open with her back while Iggy stumbled his way in soon after. Vic was about to follow when his gaze came upon the brass bell, the one which he’d picked up from the pet store. The one that had fallen out of his pocket during the struggle. It was just by his feet, and he didn't see the harm in keeping it, so he reached down to grab it, before slipping into the stairwell access.
Sunday, September 25, 2016 - 12:10 pm
Berlin’s Central Plaza Park
Berlin’s Central Park could be considered as an offshoot attempt to copy its namesake in New York. It was a fraction of the size and perhaps a fifth of the lushness that was to be expected… but it was still a good effort, with many well-tended trees and the entire ambiance sending vibes of peaceful woods.
And at this time on a Sunday, there were certainly a lot of activities going on: things like street performers taking their chance at making a quick buck, or snack sellers proclaiming their special treats. They attracted quite a crowd, which boded well for their income prospects but also made Gwen very reluctant to lug around the still-sleeping Chris. Between the sleeping girl resting on the back of her slender frame and the rather hefty looking bags and her own purse clasped under her arm, there was little hiding her personal strength.
It was fortunate that no one picked up on it -- or if they did, then they didn’t think twice about it. Gwen walked past the crowd, slipping down a side trail where she spotted a bench to lay Chris upon. And it was worth it to eliminate the feeling of warm, sleepy breath tickling against her ear.
"There you go?” she muttered as she carefully deposited her friend along the length of the bench. Hopefully the accidental bonk the girl's head took against the wood wouldn’t hurt that much. But Chris was, for all intents and purposes, out cold, to a ridiculous degree of anesthetization if all she could do was snore with a pleased smile on her face.
Gwen could only look at her friend with envy, seeing her lying down napping, unaware of the whole chaos she’d put Gwen through. What was in that so-called curse Caro'd unleashed on the cottage? She hoped that things were well enough back at the school.
"One thing at a time, Gwen… One thing at a time,” she mumbled with a quiet sigh as she dropped the bag and the purse at the foot of the bench, only to feel the cold breeze of the park hit her bare lower back. "Great… I trashed my shirt," Gwen thought mournfully, wishing she’d brought up a spare change of clothes for herself… but then again, how was she supposed to know things would turn out this way?
"Caro, I hope you included an easy fix for this,” she mumbled as she fished out her cellphone.
Her friend picked up the phone right on the second ring. “Gwen? What happened? Is Chris okay?”
"Chris is okay… I think.” Her tone pretty much clued that something bad happened, and to keep her friend from worrying she amended: “She took a bit of a fall… But don’t worry, she’s alive… just sleeping.”
"But did she get injured or anything? I hope it didn’t happen in the middle of one of her tricks,” Caro said. In between her words on the end of the line, Gwen could hear movement, in particular, a door opening and closing with the sound of the wind tickling the eardrums. “Okay, now I can talk. Had to move away from some of the girls that were… keen of hearing.”
"I caught Chris before she hit the ground,” Gwen stated sternly before summoning forth her own frustration. “Now, can you tell me what happened? What did you hit them with?”
"It was a sleep spell… Again, I didn’t expect this thing to blow out way out of proportion…”
"I'm guessing that campus security hasn’t picked up on this…”
"No… everything is good… at least it all feels like it is. And none of them seem any wiser of it…”
"Well, that’s fortunate. It won’t fix the shirt that got scrapped during the catch but it’s good to know this is sorted out. So how do I wake her up?”
"Let me try something. Can you put the phone on Chris’ ear?”
Gwen did as her friend requested. While her friend was still sleeping, she had no idea what was being said or played, but after half a minute, Gwen put herself back in the conversation. “What was it?”
"Did it work?”
She glanced back at her friend, Chris was still sleeping soundly, no differently than a minute ago.
"It’s not working… the sound might not be as clear enough.”
"Caro?” Gwen said slowly. “Please, explain your spell.”
"There are two clauses. The first requires you to pluck a lone violin string against the person’s ear.” Caro muttered.
"A… a violin string? Where am I to get that?” Gwen exclaimed. Whilst she understood the way her friend’s magic worked, how much the wording and mixing of conditions enhanced the effect, a situation like this was where the obscurity of the solution made things trickier to sort out.
Never daunted, though, she began to search around, wondering if she could even find a violin around here. She didn’t recall seeing or hearing anyone playing the violin in the park and she was more reluctant to make a quest to a musical instrument store, either with or without Chris. It also didn’t help that Caro had said “a lone violin string” meaning not only she wouldn’t just need to find a violin but also take its string. All out of the question.
"What’s the other one?”
"It’s a failsafe I added as a backup… though I didn’t really expect it to come into play.” The clear reluctance of that utterance was already giving Gwen a bad feeling in the back of her head.
"Then why did you include it?”
"I don’t know. I didn’t wake up this morning planning to actually curse the cottage!” Caro hissed. “Crap… Leslie's already gone, and I don't think I can get it to work over the phone like she did... Do you think you can bring Chris back here to Whitman? I have the string I’ve been using to disenchant every girl in the cottage.”
"Caro, what is the other clause to undo it?”
"A classic kiss by a boyborn works as ever…” Caro muttered. “This was one of the parts I thought I would eventually have to amend… if I had been really planning to cast the spell.”
Gwen forced a sigh to remain within her. Lips quivered and her jaw was unsure if it wanted to clench her teeth in frustration or just open up for a stream of words she would likely regret later. Though the most likely candidates were “Why does this have to happen to me?”
"Is that the literal wording you have there?”
"For the spell? Yeah. I basically read them to you verbatim.”
"Any chance the curse will wear off on its own?” Gwen asked with a good deal of hesitation. Of course, if that were the case, Caro wouldn’t have panicked this much.
"Well, it is meant to last until sunset.”
"Crap…” Gwen forced herself to utter the most profane of the words her friends would ever hear from her lips.
"Do you think you can escort Chris back… without raising a fuss with security?” Caro whispered over the line.
"I probably could… I mean, our chaperon is pretty easygoing but… You know? I’ll deal with this on my own. I think I have an idea on how to fix this. But we’re going to have a talk about this eventually… and you owe me a new coat.”
"I can buy you something the next time we get out. I regret spoiling your fun.”
"Fortunately, that was a much-needed break,” Gwen mumbled. The whole event at the skate park had been grinding her with boredom. Still, she couldn’t let her friend disarm her with the mild positive. She was still standing in the middle of the city’s park, with her friend unconscious, her clothes ripped, and her morning pretty much wrecked. And then there was Vic; his sudden appearance had been bugging her ever since the start of this whole trip, claiming priority in her thoughts and stirring up her emotions. She didn’t want to bring up the silver lining here… “And you’re sure Tanya is also affected by this curse?”
"I think she might be. Actually, it's even more likely than with Chris… though I haven’t been able to reach her phone.”
"That can’t be good… Fine, I’ll check on her as soon as I deal with Chris,”
"What are you going to do?” Caro asked.
"I don’t know, but I’ll figure something,” And with that, she punctuated the end of her call with a stabbing finger to the hang-up button.
"This day is getting to me...” she muttered.
Truth be told, she was aware that there was a simple and clean fix to waking Chris up. It was just that it brought her no joy to do so because it would only remind herself of who she was now in contrast to who she thought she'd be or at least who she was supposed to be prior her mutation. And it both freaked her out and frustrated her whenever the connection to the past sprang up.
She took a step closer, casting her glance to either side to make sure there wouldn’t be any needless onlookers who would get a kick out of the scene. Fortunately, at this time on the park trail she’d chosen there was no one that would even turn their gaze her way.
Of course, the spell had to have a sleeping beauty fairy tale wake up clause, she thought as she knelt. And of course, her friend’s wording set it up so it would be up to her to fix it. It was some sort of cosmic joke.
And with that, she leaned in closer, clasping her hands on Chris’ shoulders and leaning over to press her lips against those of her friend.
Dreams were always strange things. As time passed, perceptions were warped, mixing time, reality, and imagination. With how one would start to perceive, especially towards the end of things, how things became. It wasn’t only the surreality but the sudden understanding of how imaginary the scenario was, but still latching on her head, and calling reality into question.
To Chris, it was hard to say whether she'd just come from Costumes or whether she was back at her cottage with her friend. But as she felt herself stirring, recent events slowly made themselves clearer, and she remembered the movements she'd made, dancing around the half-pipes for attention. It would’ve been a good dream if the physical activity hadn't warmed her body in an all-too-real manner. The first thing to greet her eyes as she opened them was the knitted tree branches and leaves that clearly showed out she wasn’t where she thought she was.
A long yawn sought to reclaim her energy and propel her fully from her groggy state. “What happened?” She spotted her friend sitting right by the side of the bench with her hand braiding a piece of long grass. “Gwen? What happened? Why am I here? And… Why do my arm and butt hurt?”
"Sorry… I caught you as best I could, but it was still a rough landing,” Gwen told her. Chris could see a bit of sadness in her friend's eyes, but she had no idea why, only the thought that she really should know.
"What happened? Where are we?” Chris tried to establish an order to things as she pushed herself back up on her feet only to find herself tripping. She was still wearing her rollerblades, so it was clear that that part of her dream had been real. “We’re in Berlin, right? But this isn’t the skating park.”
"No, we’re at a different park.” Gwen sighed as she finished the braid of grass and got up. And as she did, Chris could get a good look at her friend’s back, where her once clean shirt had been shredded away to expose skin that bore a bare, soft redness from a bruise. “Caro cursed you by accident.”
"What? Why would she curse me?” Chris blurted out. It was true that Caro’s main way of dealing with problems was with magic, but thinking back on it, she hadn’t done anything recently that would bring on the ire of her witch friend.
"She said it was an accident and that she actually meant it for her roommate.”
"Right… I remember that,” Chris said. She had been there when Caro and Sofia were in the middle of their screaming match, and ended up being brought, awkwardly, into the discussion. “So, her spell kinda frizzed?”
Gwen nodded. “She was trying to call you for the past couple of hours, but you had your phone stuffed in the depths of your bag." The girl threw the braid of grass at her friend. “I had to make a mad dash your way just as the bell was rung. I have no idea what would’ve happened if you’d suddenly tumbled if I hadn’t been there to catch you, but I was worried as hell.”
The bell was rung. Chris had no idea, but she figured it must’ve had something to do with the spell that had been placed on her.
"I don’t remember that…” she muttered, searching her memory. The last thing she recalled as clear as water was raising her hand to wave at the participants as they were ending the half pipe section of the competition. From there on, the rest was hazy. So many tricks and stunts happened that they all just merged into the emotion of fun. It all felt like a pleasant dream, yet as she gazed at Gwen, the more she felt that not only her friend had gotten herself the scare of a lifetime but that something else had happened.
"Why did you even have to do that?” Gwen said. “Come all the way here to the skate park to show off how well you can balance yourself on your rollerblades. I know it isn’t your fault you got cursed but… but…” the teen grumbled, throwing her hands in the air. Any further words were contained by bitten lip.
"What happened, Gwen?” Chris asked. She'd known her friend just long enough to understand that what bothered her was at a personal level.
"Nevermind… First, we have to check on Tanya.”
"Tanya? Did she also get cursed?” And Chris would clearly remember the Whitmanian freshman with her during the morning -- in particular, during the argument between Caro and Sofia. That the two had been cursed at the same time would hardly be a surprise.
Chris was still coming out of the weird dream funk and finding her own footing in this situation, but there was no doubt that a sleeping curse was bad regardless. “So, if Tanya was also affected, why not just call her?” Ahead of her words, Gwen turned around to show that she had the phone against her ear, awaiting something.
"Caro already tried. So did I,” Gwen grumbled. “And she isn’t answering, so either her phone isn’t working, or something happened.”
"What about her friends? Erica or Vic,” Chris offered as she searched her phone. After a brief stint of panic, she realized she'd left it in her bag.
"Do you have their numbers?” Gwen snapped.
"Eh… no…” Chris muttered. The only reason they had Tanya's was because of the FSHA connection Part of the Capes coaching program included the sharing of phone numbers and the like. Other than that, they didn’t really have a real reason or excuse to have the phone numbers of the two other freshmen, being as they lived in different cottages.
The two of them exchanged a look as they shared the same flash of inspiration.
They didn’t have the numbers, but their chaperon would.
Sunday, September 25, 2016 - 12:37 pm
Berlin’s 103 Mall, Toulouse Arts and Crafts
"Interesting…” Preston commented with an admiring tone. “So all this goes into mind when you start planning your next piece?” The man was staring over the expansive diagram that stood on the drawing wall of the art store, right next to the sketch she’d done that had prompted their earlier conversation.
"There’s more, but this is where I usually start.”
Even if Josephine wasn’t one to start a conversation with others and, let alone maintain it that easily, when it came to talking about her techniques, the art theory and teaching in general, she could spin her words for hours and hours to no end. When the city council candidate asked her for some process and advice for his daughter who seemed to, currently, have aspirations in the arts, the class was in session.
The resulting work was a series of simple sketches, one that showed the basics that every good artist need know, from the reliance on geometric figures, proportions of a face, tips for the drawing of the form and the setups for vanishing points and perspective, with the two of them every now and then cracking up a joke for the sake of educational levity. Josephine in particular was finding her entertainment in just teaching with her hands, with what started as a criss-cross of lines on a plane quickly turning into a representation of a corner of a store building, not unlike the one they stood in. Preston applauded, taking enjoyment in this private lesson.
"So,” he inquired, “if for example, I was to insert a person in this scene. How would I go about doing so?”
"Well, it’s kinda tricky to get the proportions right, especially if you have a downward looking angle like here,” she said as she picked up a different color of pencil and traced a segmented line. “What you would do is take a point of reference. Let’s say your person is as tall as here… and here… Then you just project the line following the vanishing line. Notice how space grows? This is the circle of the head, like we talked about before… and you just repeat, only taking in mind the… slant of the angle going on here and here and then… there you go.”
By the time the pencil was lifted from the surface, there was the outline of a person standing in the middle of the image, fitting perfectly within the angle of view. Preston would swear it could be used as a stand-in for a security camera photo.
"I insist, one of these days you should drop by my place. Give my daughter some good lessons. Things like this would be really helpful.”
"I’m flattered. Maybe one of these days. Just be sure to give my agent a call.”
"If he handles your tutoring hours then, I’ll be sure to do it, eventually,” Preston promised.
"Sure thing… I tend to be busy but would be happy to do some tutoring,” Josephine smiled as she reached over for the pen she’d been using during the demonstration. She inspected the tip appreciatively before turning towards the cashier. "I’ll take this one. I want to try the brand.”
"You know what? It’s on the house.” The clerk smiled from behind the two large bags of art supplies. The assortment of paintings, brushes, and other props, some of which now belonged to her school’s art club and the rest which was just for herself. Josephine was such a frequent customer, not to mention one so keen to leave behind samples of her work that showcased the things one could achieve with the products, that it felt like a smart courtesy to offer her freebies every now and then.
"Thank you.” Josephine smiled earnestly. Then she checked at her phone. “Crud… it’s getting late. Time flies, right? I really need to finish up here and take the things back to my car.”
"Very well, sorry for intruding on your shopping.”
"Nonsense, I’m more than happy to give aspiring artists the advice they need. Speaking of which, I hope this advice can help your daughter. I don’t really know where to start without seeing her work first. Does she have any pieces I can evaluate?”
"No… no she doesn’t… Truth be told she is still learning the ropes. She’s… well…”
From there, in came a distraction, a noise. Not so much a loud strenuous one, but, as the store began to fill itself with people distantly admiring Josephine’s sketching class, it was something as subtle as the people around turning their heads towards the mall’s hallway with hardly any words uttered. Small and subdued but noticeable.
"What is everyone looking at?” Josephine asked, but it was Preston who stepped up ahead at the entrance of the store, where he stood in between a couple of families and what happened to be passing by.
The answer became clearer. There was a procession going on, though not one that people were watching for admiration. It was more of a morbid interest. Men dressed in the orange and yellow vests that identified them as mall security were escorting a group of five men down the main hallway.
They were all somewhere between their twenties and early forties and bore street clothes that would pass for casual among the shopping crowd. However, an observer that was keenly aware of what he was looking for, would pick up that their coats bore different shades of brown and had a squared patch on the left elbow. Something that wouldn’t raise suspicions but was a subtle way of signifying allegiance.
"What happened?” someone asked.
"I don’t know. Drunk and disorderly? Muggers? They’re just taking them to the mall’s jail.”
"There is a jail in the mall?” someone’s wife added.
"Yeah, I think it’s… at the security office? Maybe close to where they take missing children?”
"Tsk…” was all Preston could mutter, and was close to turning around when…
"You! You!” one of the men called out. This one was a thin man at the front of the line: tall and lanky, with curly, ruffled hair and a hard bruise on his cheek. He was not the image of someone all that stable, and, when compared to the more robust members of the parade, did not look like someone who could back his position. Yet his eyes, while spelling out desperation, also concealed a threat. And Preston’s face froze. “Bro…You’re the brother, right?”
The people in the crowd turned their heads around in confusion. Between the movement in each of his steps and the mall security's efforts to quiet him down, it was not obvious at all who he was referring to, which only piled on the confusion of the interlopers and bystanders.
"Help us! Help!” the man pressed on with his message, even as the person that he was speaking to had already turned his back and disappeared from the scene.
"Quiet, dumbass.” Even his fellow felons seemed fed up with him as the security guards ushered them along. One detaining officer fumbled with his personal taser, aiming the little black weapon in a show to quiet the thug down.
"What was that?” Josephine asked as Preston made his way back. She had her phone in hand and appeared to be in the middle of a rather busy conversation with someone, so much so she gave the man the time to take a deep breath to calm down and relax his posture to adopt a more casual tone for his answer.
"It’s just mall security. Caught some troublemakers.”
"That’s terrible. I can’t believe that sort of thing happens around here,” Josephine said, looking up from her phone. “Were they stealing something? I hope they didn’t get too close to my van. I’m pretty sure I actually locked it, but you never know.”
"Don’t worry, I’m sure they were just some punks. Pickpockets, most likely. Probably couldn't steal a car even if it were unlocked.” Impromptu comedy was not one of his strong suits, and whether Josephine laughed because of the charm or from the lameness of it was anyone’s guess. Still, Preston saw it as his out.
"Anyway, ahem. As you were saying...” He checked his wristwatch. “I should get going. Get lunch for the family and finish my purchases.”
"Right. Thank you, Mr. Crossby. It’s certainly been a fun morning at the mall.” Josephine smiled and waved as the man bowed and walked out the main entrance of the shop and into the mall.
"Don’t forget, I’ll be in touch with you about my daughter. She could really use the advice,” he remarked, as he exited out at a hastened pace.
"Wish I could vote for him,” Josephine mused as she went back to her phone text. It was from Gwen, one of the girls she was theoretically chaperoning. Her first reaction was to feel a tinge of concern in the back of her head. After all, Whateley students rarely called their city chaperon when things were going well… And oh how things could go wrong... She could still remember last year’s troubles, plural.
Fortunately, it was just to ask for the other group’s phone number. “Glad it doesn’t seem like there’s trouble,” she muttered to herself.
A quick answer and she was already walking up to the cashier to pick up her bags of goodies.
The mall could be a large place with an ever-changing colorful face that was presented to those that walked its aisles and shops. Every one of the stores that lined the corridors was different and vibrant, and it would be easy for anyone passing by the forget that there was a backstage.
Accessible through the same corridor that led to the communal bathroom, there was a door that would eventually lead to the security office. And Preston could only hope that the snippet of information he'd caught before then would lead him to the thugs.
Being as he was in a hurry and not in the best of moods, it was hard for Preston to bear his usual smile. He pushed through past the bathroom lines and walked through the service hallways as if he owned the place. The first lesson about sneaking in plain sight, he had found, was that it was seventy percent attitude and twenty percent knowing the right word. The rest was just luck. Yet luck trumped it all.
And luck seemed on his side, as there was no sign of the security guards or any responsible authority figure that would even question his presence. And the fewer people saw him fully conscious, the better.
He carried on down the narrow corridor with hastened steps. Ensuring that no one would see his face, that was something not under his control, and so it was a worry that would creep upon him whenever he turned a corner. Sure, he could cook up a lie, a bluff to disguise his intentions. Something like getting lost on the way to the bathroom and so on… but there was always a risk. The only reason he bothered now was that it was far more detrimental to leave those morons around.
"And to think I always made an effort to avoid the busy places, and the one time I ignore that rule, I just happen to run into someone who recognizes me…” he grumbled under his breath as he glanced up to check out a camera. It was one of those rounded bubble-head models one would see in banks, with the polarized glass to make it uncertain whether he was in frame, or if the lens were staring somewhere else… Not that it mattered.
Preston’s hands reached down to his wallet pocket, where right next to his presentation cards lay a small item. The devise of polished plastic fit neatly between his fingers. A singular large button rested in the middle, with a thick dial now set in the locked position. Upon the solid surface, the values were engraved to mark the dial’s settings.
It could easily be confused for a car alarm clicker, but in reality, it was a rather sophisticated trinket he'd had commissioned from a workshop. Made through gadgeteer insight, this little thing could scramble whatever camera was pointed his way. Either it would subtly swap his facial features, or reduce himself into a static silhouette, depending on the setting. Convenient and small, it was the perfect thing to hide himself from any potential scandal… like breaking a group of thugs out of confinement.
Soon enough, he was at the open door to the detention center. Who would have imagined that the mall would have a miniature jail behind its polished appearance backstage? Steel bars that gleamed from lack of use fenced in a corner, creating a simple box-like space that was filled to bursting thanks to being overstuffed with five large men.
With a clear line of sight to the open door, the thugs picked up on his presence just as he appeared around the corner, and much to Preston’s annoyance, some reacted accordingly. One glanced back and forth between the corridor and the room. Another immediately got up from his bench, in an overly sudden reaction. The worst of the bunch would have to be the lanky guy who’d shouted his way not long ago. At the sight of Preston walking down the hallway, the idiot jumped to his feet, only to immediately get pulled back by a dark-skinned man who pushed the moron against the wall with a wrestling move. Smart man: he knew the value of not showing his cards.
It did not take long to understand why the dark-skinned man was pissed at his cohort, either.
"What is going on?!” came a rough voice came from some other point of the room. “Cut that out!” the mall cop grumbled as he slammed his fist against the bars, making them ring to get the attention of those present inside.
"Sorry,” the thug that struck first muttered as he tossed his rather troublesome companion aside. “I’m just pissed off that this shit got us into this trouble. It’s his fault, you know. Your friends found the gun in his hands. I told him not to take the damn thing out of the house.”
"Really?” the man answered with a discerning voice. The guard leaned into the bars, just enough so that Preston could see the chiseled face of a man who could well have spent time as a real cop.
Warily, Preston stepped with his back against the wall to avoid line of sight.
"And you allowed your friend to use the mall’s garage as his personal shooting range?" the guard continued. "I'm looking forward to what the police will do once they hear…”
Preston had to wonder what the hell these morons had been up to. Fortunately, the police response was always slow on this side of the city, so he might still have a chance to demand the answer.
"Please, officer,” the dark-skinned man saidd diplomatically. “Do you think you could let us out? It’s only you in here with no cameras. I promise we’ll go quietly, and my friend here won't be having any relapses of the dumbass.”
"What the hell are you smoking? You're really something, you realize that? Pathetic…”
The dark-skinned man was built, a definite fighter, so it was surprising to see someone like him resort to diplomatic groveling rather than sticking to his guns. That was something Preston could respect. This was a man who knew where his attitude would get him, but had no problem with making a play for the rest of the team. And Preston knew perfectly why the man was directing the conversation this way: so that he, as their rescuer, knew that the coast was clear to do whatever he wanted. Granted, he didn’t need the help, but it was appreciated.
Preston closed his eyes and softly raised his arm in the direction of the security officer.
"Do you expect me to keep on fighting? What would I get out of it?”
"I'd expect more sauce from you, less simp. Hah! You need to toughen up if you really want to play the crime game.”
"I just happen to know when I’ve been caught. Unlike my friend here, I, at least, know when to quit.”
"As if… An attitude like that would probably get you parole… but certainly not a null sentence. That's if you were white.” A comment like that would usually be something damning or at least the cause of uproar if it were heard by the wrong person. Even some of the other thugs were yelling in outrage. But to Preston was a sign that his trick was working perfectly.
"What I meant,” the guard carried on after banging the bars again to get things quieted down. The man was trying to backpedal but missing the step. “What I meant, was that… If you were as well-behaved as a regular citizen, you wouldn’t be in thish… in this problem. All you bums and niggers were just looking for it. Your lot shouldn’t even be allowed to carry up arms if you ash… ashked me.”
Under regular circumstances, Preston would find this sort of tomfoolery and shameless ramblings amusing, but he had to remind himself of the need to hurry, so he upped up the influence.
"Officer… sir, are you okay?” the dark-skinned man said. His tone was not really selling the concern in his words, however. Instead there was a smile on the corner of his lips as he turned around to glance Preston’s way.
From Preston's point of view, he could spy how the jailer moved and stepped about. The man tried to bang his hand against the bars again, only to miss by a large margin and almost drive his head against the iron as he tripped on his feet. The men inside all burst out laughing.
"Shut up…” the guard snarled, pushing himself back up with the desperation of a man about to be grabbed by an undead horde from below. Preston leaned in to get a good look at how the man flailed around with a discombobulated sway, arms up in the air.
What had once been a straight and strong man of the mall law was now a rambling madman yelling incoherently at an imaginary enemy, letting himself carried by his momentum and anger. A punch was thrown that sent the guard off balance, turning into a spin that sent him into the wall under his own power. “Wu… Where did all of you come from? Shix… Six, Sheven…” he blurted out as he tried to recover. The fear might have dulled some of the effects, but in the guard's panic, he missed the stranger walking into the office room.
With a pivoted step and arm pulled back, a quick punch was thrown, landing square into the face and sending the mall cop to the floor. The man did not get up, and to judge from the hard, dry snores coming from his mouth, he wouldn't for some time.
"Drinking on the job? That’s not a good example to set,” Preston muttered as he tapped the mall cop's leg with the tip of his shoe.
"Sir… Thank you,” the man who'd been talking with the jailer blurted out appreciatively.
"S…See? I told you I was doing it for all of us,” the lanky thug mumbled.
Preston ignored the comment as he reached down for the guard’s belt. Napkin in hand, he worked fast to remove the keyring from its holder. Without much ceremony he tossed the keys to the men who stood by the door. They were surprised by this and missed the catch, letting it fall down to the floor with a loud clang… but none of them faulted him or even looked up in surprise. They just began to sift through the individual keys and tried them on the lock one by one.
"We’re free!” the lanky man said with a holler of victory, only to get shoved against the bars. After all, they were still at risk of being found out.
"I’m so sorry, sir. So sorry this guy got you involved…” mumbled the criminal with implicit seniority over the five.
"What’s your name?” Preston demanded.
"They call me Bo.”
"Bo… I remember your boss being quite adamant about keeping yourselves away from the mall for the next few weeks… What happened?” Not far off, the click of the door’s lock was followed by a rusty screech as it opened, and the thugs began to pour out.
"It’s… It’s a long story. We were basically lured into a trap.”
"By muties,” the pest added. He was the last to leave the cell. By then, the other men were standing up by the door waiting urgently for the conversation to be over but not daring to leave yet. Their presence made Preston aware that time was of the essence, but there was still one thing to address.
"What did you say?” Preston demanded.
"Muties. Mutants. Filth of the genes,” Lanky uttered with a mocking laugh.
"I swear, sir. We don’t stand by what he says.”
"But he is on your crew?”
"For now… For now, he is,” Bo muttered looking in horror at the purist leaning against the bars with his eyes wandering around, going from person to empty spaces and from light to light with an awed expression on his face.
"Humanity rules,” the man added with a laugh.
"I hate this game of us and them,” Preston mumbled, with a roll of his eyes as he stepped up to the moron. “Do you understand what that means? Do you understand who you work for?”
"The best criminal.”
"And do you know who I am?” Preston hissed, already feeling the frustration welling up from the man’s doped up expression. He was not inclined to lift a finger to reverse it.
"His big brother. A good man with power.”
"Yeah. A man with power. I have the power to let my little brother run his crew around the city and the neighboring counties, robbing banks, kidnapping people and doing whatever he does with the business. I don’t care, the only thing I ask is that I don’t get involved in his shit.”
Bo interjected, “Sir… it won’t happen again. We never thought of bringing you in.”
"But you did. And the chatterbox over here called to me.” With a quick lunge, Preston smashed the purist up against the bars, making them rattle. The man was hardly feeling any pain, though. Nothing seemed to be registering with him. “I know his kind. Weasels that will latch on the opportunity. I know he would’ve thrown my name under the bus. And there would go my entire life.”
"I knew you would save us,” the moron replied with a drunken smile.
"You’re right.” Preston gripped the purist’s right hand, fingers wrapping around the idiot's ring and pinkie fingers. Thumb on joint, and what followed was a sickening crack.
Yet all the moron could do was laugh at how straight the remaining three fingers in his hand looked when compared to the twisted ones.
"You’ll feel that in a couple of hours,” Preston declared as he cleaned his hands with the handkerchief. He cast his glance back at Bo. “Take him to my brother, let him know what he did and what he said. And then either teach him better manners or get rid of him.”
Bo just looked startled. “This won’t happen again.”
"It better not,” Preston muttered as he made his way down the corridor, sighing at the waste of a morning and how easily these clowns just managed to sour his plans. “Oh brother, where do you find these people?”
Sunday, September 25, 2016 - 1:01 pm
Whitman Cottage, Main hall
Caro was more than ready to get her day going and leave the past behind her. There were a lot of things she needed to do, and skipping breakfast wasn’t helping her mood. But she had to carry on.
Sure, she was still worried for Chris and Tanya’s well-being, and would continue worrying until she got word from Gwen that everything was okay, but she’d accepted that they were out of her reach. She crossed her fingers in the hope that her friend had all things covered.
By now, it appeared that the entirety of the incident had been successfully covered up. Almost all girls were accounted for, with most hardly noticing that they'd overslept. There were one or two who were puzzled and even suspicious of the matter, perhaps making a new case for the secret squirrels to sort out… But of course, Caro wasn’t planning on starting a curse streak.
"I feel like such a villain,” Caro thought to herself with a chuckle. It was the only thing she could think of to soothe whatever anxiety came to her.
She made it back to the common room only to find a bit of a surprise.
"Caro, there you are. Look at what I got for the cottage!” Mrs. Savage’s voice came from her right side, by the front door. Leaning against the wall were five brand-new mattresses, still wrapped in the plastic and looking ever so inviting to the Whitman sophomore.
"Mrs.… Woah!” Caro said as she drew closer, just as a couple of the girls from the cottage helped carry three more slabs stacked one over the other into the room. That reminded her of the ordeal of carrying each of the girls back to their beds. She wished she could’ve done it without breaking a sweat, like the super strong girls did.
But even so, she was still celebrating. “Thank you, Mrs. Savage.”
"Don’t say that. I had a long day at the mattress company, trying to at least stock up, and it was all worth it,” the dorm mom admitted as she patted one of the slabs, making the plastic crinkle. “I should’ve known scratched mattresses would be an issue with all the catgirls around,” she said looking over to Meow Mix who was sitting in the common room’s couch eyeing her phone.
"Still, thanks for rushing through the morning to get this sorted out,” Caro said, appreciating the new mattresses with an inquisitive eye. She was anxious to pick out the one she wanted, even though she guessed it didn't really matter.
"It’s okay; I didn’t have any grand plans today,” Mrs. Savage smiled. “Was the morning quiet enough without Mrs. Spencer keeping an eye on you?”
"It was… peaceful. Many of the girls slept late so there wasn’t much noise,” Caro said sheepishly.
"That’s good. You really seemed like you needed the quiet rest this morning,” Mrs. Savage said with a small chuckle. For a moment, Caro thought the woman was hinting at the incident, but quickly realized she was talking about how Caro had spent the first hours of the morning.
"Yeah… heh, I managed to recover most of my beauty sleep.” Caro smirked, stifling a yawn which the sleep-related talk and sight was evoking. “I’ll bring you the air mattress later today. I’m a bit hungry right now.”
"Very well, don’t worry. I’ll have some of the girls deliver it to your room.” Mrs. Savage smiled as she saw the two helper girls return to pick up the five stacked mattresses by the wall.
Caro bid a quick bye to the cottage mother and girls as she made her way out of the building. Standing under the sun, it felt like the marking of the end of her ordeal for the day. The only thing that would have completed this would have been to use magic to ceremoniously burn out the spell that had caused all these trouble… But considering how her mana reserves were still drained and her confidence was shaky, she would content herself to wipe the slate clean later.
Sunday, September 25, 2016 - 1:07 pm
Berlin’s 103 Mall, A small corner around the stairwell between first and second floor
Vic wasn’t sure how much ground they'd covered during their getaway from the parking lot, but he was definitely tired, if not overall frustrated of even thinking how the day had gone. But he just had to convince himself that this was probably the last time he would be running for the day, and that they had successfully evaded security.
This was a spot in the mall that was within the public view, open to the customers but was, at the same time, pretty much devoid of people and passersby since they were a good distance away from the food court and no one had a reason to take the stairs when there was an escalator and a lift only a few yards away.
"I think we’re good…” Iggy panted, producing a handkerchief to wipe the sweat off his brow. “I feel like I’ve ran a marathon or something like that,” the forger added, mustering half a laugh.
"I better hope that’s the case,” Erica muttered with her usual casualness, but there was still the creeping concern that mirrored her expression, which was only exacerbated the more she carried Tanya in her arms. Fortunately, there was a plain bench on the rounding platform of the stairwell where she could carefully deposit their friend.
Despite all the action going on, with the movement that came from running up sets of stairs and the careful trot they had indulged in, the lavender was still knocked out, still quietly snoring with a small smile on her face.
"I’m getting worried…” Vic muttered.
"Me too,” Erica replied. “She’s dead as a log.” The girl picked up her friend’s arm by the wrist and wiggled it in the air before releasing it, watching it fall straight back to her chest.
"I take it she’s not a narcoleptic, right?” Iggy asked. Whether it was a legitimate question or he was trying to lighten the mood with half-joke, it still got him a glare from the teenagers.
"She’s not. Definitely not the person to spontaneously fall asleep like that,” Vic told him. “Did she take anything? Did they slip her something, somehow?”
"Nothing that I didn’t have… and I’m fine.” Erica sighed as she placed her bag down next to Tanya. He wondered about what that was, had been wondering from the moment she'd picked it up as they fled, but he didn’t think it was a good moment to bring it up.
"Then what are the odds something happened? Maybe something those thugs had with them?” Vic proposed. “I mean, they saw Tanya use her forcefield, immediately assumed she was a mutant and took her down?”
"That wouldn’t do,” Erica said. “For starters, whatever they did, it didn’t affect me, and they would've use it more than once.”
"Right… and they would’ve caught us back at the laundry if not earlier.”
"The laundry?” Erica blurted out.
"It’s a long story.” Vic sighed.
"And it’ll be a long ride back,” Erica pointed out.
"What about another mutant? Maybe one of the people used some sort of telepathic effect on her and that’s what caused it.”
"You better hope that’s not the case because I’m not in the mood to go back and deal with them.”
"That is an unlikely scenario,” Iggy declared with his usual matter-of-fact tone of logic. The forger was about done with catching his breath, leaning against the handrail and looking much more stable.
"Excuse me Vic, but how do you know this guy? And you, guy, Iggy, how do you know so much about the sort of mafia that runs this part of town?” Erica demanded.
Vic sighed. “Right. Proper introductions. Iggy here used to run with the crew back in Plymouth. He is… a methodical sort of person and by accident, I just happened to run into him.”
"Luck…” Erica said with a sigh.
It was Iggy who picked up the conversation. “For starters, the people I interviewed don’t mention a mutant. And there hasn’t been a report to the MCO or any of the purist groups around on that matter. Lastly, did you forget how that guy with the gun reacted? A guy with that sort of demented reaction... there's no way he'd put up with a mutant in his group.”
"He is… very observant,” Vic added.
"Pleased to meet you… Erica and Tanya, right?” Iggy said, looking between the faces, though Tanya was still out cold.
"Yeah,” Erica said.
"Glad Vic has found some good friends,” Iggy said with a small smirk.
"I feel like I should say ‘likewise,’ but I just met you,” Erica said bluntly before turning her gaze down at her friend. “But what do we do with her? Wait till we can find someone who can help her?”
"Any chance we can just wait till we go back to the school?” Vic asked. The implied meaning was conspicuous enough that Erica would know that Iggy was in on the basic idea of the mutant institute.
"I’m pretty sure we would get in trouble if they found out what happened,” Erica muttered. “Speaking of which...” The blonde reached over for Vic’s left cheek. He reeled back as much from surprise at the gesture as the soreness. “Why were you out there picking fights? That's a bruise. There is no way Josephine won’t ask questions, not to mention Security.”
"I was sticking up for a friend.”
"In all fairness, I appreciate it,” Iggy added absentmindedly, reaching down to take off his left shoe. That earned a moment of confusion from the two teenagers, at least until the forger produced a slightly bent credit card. “I expected to get my money stolen, so I hid it in my shoe.”
"Is this something that happens often?” Vic asked, perhaps with a bit of frustration.
"Please, don’t think my forethought is out of habit,” Iggy protested as he searched his pocket for his actual wallet. “If it’s okay with you. I might not know what happened, but I can at least go and get you something cold to reduce the swelling.” And without adding much, the man carried himself down the stairs.
"He doesn’t seem like a bad person.”
"He means well… just somewhat absentminded,” Vic said. Both of them turned towards Tanya, still sleeping soundly, and their brain churned for an explanation and a solution. The possibilities ranged from dipping her in cold water to giving her a tickle and even going as far as to take her somewhere so loud that sleeping would be practically impossible. Of course, all those options felt mean to do to someone who was clearly enjoying her dreams.
Vic considered another option. His telepathy was limited, and feckless, and untrained... but maybe he could do something with it? It was way outside his scope to influence anyone, but maybe could get some insight as to what might be going on…
And it was about then that a ring came from Erica’s jean pocket. It was her cellphone.
"Hm?” Erica looked down at the ID on the screen, but her puzzled expression and the lack of an immediate ID spelled out that it wasn’t someone she knew.
It might’ve been the recent series of events, but Vic was dreading that the person on the other end of the line would be someone from D’s crew, swearing revenge or siccing the MCO and H1 groups on them. The truth turned out to be much worse.
"Gwen?” Erica said out loud, just so that Vic would know who it was. “Heya.”
What does she want? Vic wondered. He had a hard time picking any reason why his estranged step-sister would reach out at a time like this, and it was just as easy to assume that she was about to add more to the situation than before. Calm down… it’s not like she’s doing this to get in contact with you, he reassured himself as Erica continued.
"Josephine gave you my number? No, it’s no problem. Tanya’s number? Her phone ran out of battery about an hour ago…. Yes, we’re all here. Vic, Tanya and I…” Erica cast a worried look at the sleeping girl as she mentioned them. It was easy to tell that she wasn’t exactly into the conversation right now. And something was said as Erica’s look became complicit, like someone caught by a topic that was best left avoided. “But she’s indisposed and…”
And then, Erica’s panicked face shifted, taken aback but also reassured, as if the answer to the question had been found… and Vic would be lying if he wasn’t curious to know the what, how, and how much. “How did you know? Y-Yes, she’s asleep. How? We don’t know. She just fell and is having a hard time waking her up…. A curse?”
"A curse?” Vic mouthed. All this just added more to his confusion, but the question only got a shrug of a response from Erica.
"Y-Yes, he’s here…” Erica said, offering her phone his way.
There was a butt-load of reluctance to even answer. Considering the clear and dry message she'd delivered during the ride when he tried to talk to her, it was understandable: Don’t even try to talk to me. He was tempted to reject the call. But then again, he both wanted to know what was going on and, at the same time, couldn’t actually avoid the call without giving Erica a hard explanation. When Erica waggled the phone, beckoning him to answer, he had to relent.
"Hey… Gwen,” Vic said as he put the device to his ear.
"Listen to me… I’m not really doing this out of a need to talk with you, but because you’re probably the only person that can solve this issue.” Gwen’s words were cutting and to the point, quite a difference compared to the candid and sensible girl she'd been in the presence of others. “First, though, the person that caused this is a friend of mine, so I would appreciate it if you could keep this between us. It was an accident, she didn't mean it, end of story. So, I hope you won’t get her into trouble.”
"Please just tell me what happened.”
"She accidentally cursed Tanya and Chris as they were on their way out of Whitman,” Gwen stated. “In this case, it’s a Sleeping Beauty kind of sitch.”
"I see,” Vic said, mostly to let her know he was still paying attention.
"It triggers at the ring of a bell. A brass bell.” Vic had to pause to make sense of that line. His hand brushed against his pocket and he felt the hard lump of the round bell he'd picked up from the pet store, the one that slipped out of his pocket during the fight. Then it made a little more sense in the context. To say that he felt guilty now was an understatement. There was no way he could have known this would happen when he picked the thing up, but at the same time it was his fault that it had been there to ring.
"And to dispel it there are two clauses. The first one is to pluck a lone violin string.”
"A violin string?” The word evoked curious confusion from Erica.
"Yes, a violin string! Don’t question it. This is how her magic works. The more obscure the things she writes, the stronger her powers are. In this case, the first solution is to pluck a violin string close to her ear to make sure the curse is broken.”
"And what is the other option?” Vic asked. There was no question that getting a violin string would be a side-quest that they lacked time for… at least in the twenty minutes remaining before their scheduled meeting back at the parking lot.
"The other option is for you to kiss her.”
"What? You mean like in…”
"Sleeping Beauty? Yeah. My friend added a clause, her magic is… quite a stickler for rules and in the literal sense. The line goes: for a more conventional way to dispel, a classic kiss by a boyborn works as ever.”
"Are you serious?” Vic demanded.
"It works. And unless you have a lone violin string at hand, it’s either that or coming up with some story for Josephine to explain what happened.”
"You’re asking me to…” Vic halted himself before completing the sentence.
"Erica is still there, I take it…”
"Yeah,” Vic muttered discreetly, avoiding eye contact with Erica, just to avoid making the situation sound any more embarrassing than it already was.
"Still,” Gwen sighed. “As I said, those are the best options to deal with this. Either you find the string, we find a way to smuggle a sleeping Tanya back into the school, or you steal a kiss. I know you were always a shy one around girls, especially back at our old school. And that…” she paused, struggling to not get herself tangled in the last words. “I know that you’re not a bad person… despite all the things that happened. But you’re probably the best option at hand.”
"Okay…” Vic conceded trailing off for a moment that would end up becoming a long bit of hesitation. His gaze danced between the lying Tanya to Erica, whose expression had grown the more anxious as she heard the conversation drag on with confusion. It almost made Vic debate as to whether to tell her. While she was her friend, she had no idea how she would react if she were to hear the solution… or even the reason for the curse. Maybe she would be outraged bringing and tell the rest of the group, or maybe she would be chill about it. But that was dependent on her believing the story in the first place.
His step-sister didn't give him the chance to ask more. He heard the bleep of the line being hung up.
Gwen cut the connection and let out a long, held-back sigh, one that had been weighing her down since she'd found out about the curse. The knowledge of a problem being over… Even if Tanya hadn’t woken up right away, once given the solution, it felt sorted out. That was not to say that she was washing her hands of the whole matter by dropping the problem on Vic's lap. She was still incredibly concerned, both at the idea of Caro being found out by campus security and that someone had been put in danger.
But she had to believe Erica’s words that everything that had happened with Tanya had been ‘safe’. She trusted that Caro had the thing at Whitman under control. And that she could rely on Vic. Even if she disliked her step-brother and wanted to keep him as far away from her as possible… she knew he would do the right thing, regardless of how much of a dark shade their previous meeting cast.
"I know he’s fine… but I can’t help but worry about this whole mess,” Gwen muttered, using her own words, and it turned into a startled gasp as something rested on her exposed back.
"You can have my jacket,” Chris said kindly, hanging her simple gray hoodie over Gwen's shoulders. Even someone as novice in the ways of fashion and trends as Gwen would know that the piece was the kind of thing one would see a guy wear on his day off, but she appreciated the gesture with a forced smile. “Thanks,” she whispered as she took off her own scrapped coat and passed it back.
Chris had been oddly quiet as she knelt on the grass to change out of her rollerblades. That was not a common occurrence.
The girl looked the same as usual, wearing her black and lilac hair pulled back into a ponytail. That gave Gwen a view of her brow, softly furrowed in thought as she slipped a shoe and tied her shoelaces.
"How did it go?” she asked.
"Vic said he would take care of it,” Gwen muttered.
"I guess he was the only way,” Chris sighed. “Other than confessing to Josephine what happened, the only option would be to get a stranger for help… or break a violin for a string, which I’m pretty sure is a felony. By the way, we’re telling Tanya’s friend’s that we found a string, but it burned up after use, right? Because of the magic.”
"Of course, we are,” Gwen scoffed. Even when she tried to sound derisive, it came across as cutely innocent.
The silence followed for what must have been a minute or so as Chris slipped off her other pair of shoes, tied up the knots and stuffed everything else, including Gwen’s scrapped coat, into her bag.
Once Chris got to her feet, Gwen spoke up. “We should get going. Make it back to Josephine’s car.”
"We still have a bit of time,” Chris complained. And before anything could be said, she added, “Where do you know Vic from?”
"Gwen, I know we Poesies tend to have this sort of unspoken agreement about not speaking much about our past unless it’s absolutely necessary. Because, you know,” Chris muttered holding index fingers together at crotch height before making a self-groping gesture up by her chest. She was trying to make Gwen laugh, but that subject never did it for her. “But who is Vic to you?”
"Huh?” Gwen answered.
"You know what I mean,” Chris sighed. “You’ve acted… distant, no, retreated, whenever he’s around. Different to your usual, but just now you were all: ‘I know you were always shy’ and ‘our old school’.”
"I…” Gwen muttered. She’d completely screwed her goal of secrecy when she uttered those words and completely forgot that Chris was present behind her bench.
"You know him from before, right? From before you manifested and then came to Whateley. But at the same time, he was never brought up in conversation. I know you don’t have to tell us everything from before the school. But why are you two so cautious when one another? Did you have a fight?”
"No… I…” Gwen fidgeted.
"Listen, I know you don’t have to tell me every little secret… but if he makes you uncomfortable, you should at the very least tell me,” Chris said, with a look of certainty.
"The issue,” Gwen began slowly. She picked at her words as she tried to make the decision herself. Should she lie, even if she wasn’t that good at it? Should she tell the truth, wasting time they wouldn’t have to get the full saga? Or should she be vague at the risk of misunderstanding?
Whichever it was, it was unlikely that Chris would relent.
"Yeah… I know Vic from my old school, back when I went by Oliver,” Gwen told her. The name was a blemish even on a crap day like today had turned out to be. She wondered if the time would come when she would be able to talk about her life as a boy without getting herself depressed. “Things didn’t end that well.”
"Was he a mutant hater?” Chris asked.
"Oh no… that wasn’t the problem… but it’s more than I could tell you here.” Gwen sighed as they drifted down the path. “It’ll have to be another time… but let’s just say things didn’t end the greatest between us.”
No conscious thought went into the gesture, but her hand now rested on her left arm. The one that had been broken prior to arrival at Whateley that semester. And Chris noticed that, her eyes widening and jaw opening as if to say something. It only took one look at her friend’s face for her to relent.
"Please, don't ask anything… for now at least,” Gwen begged.
"Did she give you a solution?” Erica asked, extending her hand to accept the phone back.
"Yeah… Gwen says the scent of coffee might wake her up,” Vic lied. While not a stranger to working around the truth, it was always tricky whenever he had to fool a friend. Someone who knew his usual way of speaking might be able to tell when he was deceiving them. And knowing this made the flaws in any story even more apparent to him.
Whether his friend bought it or not, he couldn't say. Erica gave him a scrutinizing glance but then nodded. “I’ll be right back,” she told him as she headed down the stairs. Whether she meant it or was just announcing her exit, he couldn’t tell, but he had to hope it was the former. The next part would be too embarrassing to do, otherwise.
Once Erica had disappeared around the corner, he turned his gaze down to the sleeping Tanya. The girl was still pleasantly dreaming, to judge from the hint of a smile around her lips. He hoped he wouldn't ruin it for her.
A “kiss of a boyborn,” that was the part of the spell Gwen had cited as an option, like it was nothing much at all. The cure to this sleeping curse was a kiss, much like in the tale of Sleeping Beauty. It was a fantasy that any guy would kill for, the ideal romantic scenario stolen right out of the fairy tales.
The last thing he wanted was to take advantage of someone like that. And... he liked Tanya. That was the only reason he wasn't refusing to do it outright, as his feelings pulled in one direction while his morals pulled in the other.
But now it was a matter of courage and cowardice, and the way this whole thing was spinning in his head would eventually break him, he knew. His heart beat faster and his steps grew heavier with each one he took. It was hard to buy into the temptation and still not feel like he wasn’t taking advantage.
It was about then that, in frantic search for an alternative, he realized that there was the possibility that the kiss could be applied anywhere, and not just to the lips. He hoped that would spare him the embarrassment. Doing his best knightly impression, he knelt to her level as she lay on the bench and carefully took up her hand in his.
Though she was asleep, he could feel an underlying tension in her. One that kept her limb from going full slack. There was an aura that surged deep within, completely alien to how he usually saw Tanya. Was this what magic felt like?
Without daring to speak a word, he leaned in close to plant his lips upon her skin. A quiet kiss, the touch of a butterfly on her hand.
He waited with bated breath, softly holding her arm and wondering if the spell had been broken. Either it was taking its time to disappear, or the kiss was supposed to be laid on the lips. As the moment stretched on, Vic began to worry. The window of opportunity was fast closing, and Erica and Iggy would be back soon. The last thing he wanted was to do this all over again in front of an audience.
He looked at Tanya’s lips as they softly quivered with each breath she took, and it felt as if there was no change to be seen. He was aware that not even a minute had passed, but in fairy-tale time, that was eternity. He wanted to pull out his phone to call Gwen, ask more about the curse… but he didn’t have Erica’s phone and was not about to call Josephine to bother her with the request.
"Maybe I should try to break the spell as it was intended?” Vic muttered uneasily. He wanted the situation to be over and done with, for her to wake up, but he had no idea how long it would take. A kiss on the lips sounded like a solution he had to try, and it had to be done before Erica came back. It was either that or waiting…
Tanya’s consciousness stirred, the pleasant dream slowly ebbing away, deconstructing itself into bits which gave each memory a time and place to fill in the gaps that had been left behind. She recalled waking up on Sunday, having a quick chat with her roommate about confidence. Then witnessing an argument between two of the sophomore Whitmanians…
Then there was the meeting with Vic and Erica. That was when the dream took a turn for the pleasant as it mixed in her thoughts with the reality. Rather than proposing to split up, she dreamed of them sticking together and hanging around the stores, going to the food court together, and for some reason, there was even a carnival inside the mall, which may well have been a memory from back in Tennessee. She got a gift for the boy who had been surviving on the street.
And then she recalled the phone call, then waiting for Vic to catch up with them… wasn’t he with them? While they waited for him, a phone call happened to Erica, Vic called and said something… something that brought her anxious concern. Before she knew it, she felt the need to leap into action.
A hard gasp escaped Tanya’s lips as she propped herself up, like someone given a jump-scare. Her balance was thrown when she realized that rather than standing up, she was laying down on a hard wooden bench.
"You’re okay.” Vic’s face was the first thing she saw. He looked disheveled but not agitated. Almost as if he’d been in a fight or something… In fact, the bruise on his left cheek stated just that.
Her gaze then drifted to the surroundings, and she realized they were in a mall stairwell, not the food court as she remembered from before the strange phone call prompted her to action. People were moving around on the floor below, somehow not picking up that there was a stairway that connected the two levels. It was an ideal spot for privacy, or whatever reason she found herself there now.
"Vic?” Tanya muttered, her eyes refocusing on him. She noticed how his clothes were wrinkled, more so than when they'd parted ways, with the subtle smell of sweat all over. “What happened? Why are we here? What happened?” She bit her lip, not sure of which was more embarrassing, falling asleep randomly or not being there for whatever prompted a repeated question.
"It’s… it’s a long story,” Vic said. At that moment he must’ve realized how his hand was resting on her wrist and tugged it back. “And I’m not sure where to start… or if you’ll even believe me. But we’re kinda running late, so we should probably get going soon to talk to Josephine.”
A puzzled look flashed across her face. How long had she been sleeping? Her hand fished for her phone to check the time, only for her brain to remind it that the device had run out of battery.
"It’s close to one-thirty. You were asleep for quite some time. At least an hour I think.”
Tanya’s cheeks burned. “Why? How did it happen?”
Vic looked reluctant to say, glancing down at her phone and then back towards here. He wouldn't quite meet her eyes. “I think you should talk to Gwen," he said. "She knows a lot more about it all.”
"Gwen? What did she tell you?”
Vic sighed. “Basically, she has a friend that apparently accidentally cursed you.”
"Got it.” That cleared things up instantly. The moment the word ‘curse’ was uttered, she knew this had to be one of Caro’s little accidents. Tanya had heard a few funny stories about what the fairy-tale magician's mishaps the previous year, each with their own brand of an ironic or comedic backfire.
Tanya rubbed at her temples. She knew she shouldn't hold it against the sophomore -- really, she didn’t want to -- but there was still a tinge of bitterness that this was how the day had turned out. Though from the looks of Vic, things might have been going south even before she'd conked out.
Sifting through her memories, now with more clarity as to what was and was not a dream, she pieced together the events of the morning, and especially the details surrounding Caro. How her cottage mate had been having a hard time sleeping, with the roommate, Sophia’s, nightly escapades to Emerson. In a way, it made sense something like that might have happened. She just needed to know, why her?
"But it’s all fixed now. Gwen told me how to break the spell…”
"It’s broken?” Tanya echoed, stopping herself before she could ask about the conditions. Caro had once told her that the fairy-tale spells were built on clauses for triggering and dispelling. Something had happened to make her sleep, and then something else caused her to wake up. Caro could have set it in a sort of timer, but Tanya had to wonder if that’d been the case this time.
She didn't ask, but she could wonder. It didn't seem right to ask Vic, though. If the chain of messages extended more than two people -- as it currently was from Caro to Gwen to Vic to her --- there was more likely to be a misunderstanding if there was anything important to say. She would have to ask the girl herself once she was back in the cottage.
"It’s probably nothing…” she thought.
"Tanya! You’re awake!” Erica yelled from the lower flight of stairs. The blonde carefully made her way up to meet her, careful not to accidentally spill the cup of coffee in her hand.
"Yeah, I am,” Tanya said. “I still have no clear idea of what happened, but I'm pretty sure I know how.”
"What was it? All I know is that it’s a curse. Don’t even know how Vic broke it,” the blonde said, casting a look at Vic’s way that ranged somewhere between pride and doubt.
"It seems like it was...” Tanya began. “Well, it was magic, but at least I feel normal now.”
"Here,” Erica said, handing the cup of coffee over to Tanya who eagerly accepted it and took a sip. It felt good to get a nice warm drink after waking up from what was, admittedly, a relaxing sleep. She was only a little embarrassed to enjoy it so much.
"Can I pay you back later? I don’t really have any cash on me,” Vic admitted.
"Don’t worry; it’s on me,” Erica said with a small smirk. “It’s good to know you’re chivalrous enough to offer, though.”
"Oh. She’s awake!” This new voice belonged to a stranger. She didn't know the man walking up the steps, so in her head she tried to keep her impression polite. He was... robust. That was a good word to describe him. A better word than rotund. His own face was bruised, even more so than Vic's, swelling beneath an ice pack. The man passed a similar package to the teen boy, who applied it happily to his own face.
"What took you so long?” Vic asked with a complete familiarity that made Tanya do a double take.
"I had to stop by the bank, get some money, and then make grab some new duds,” the man said, drawing attention to his attire. It was apparent that the clothes were brand-new, with the colors as vibrant as they could be and barely a speck of dust on them. Tanya had no idea what the man's old clothes might’ve looked like or how disheveled they could’ve been… but looking over at Vic, she had to imagine they were far worse. “It’ll help me stay under the radar till I leave the block.”
"Radar? Leave the block? Wait, what happened? And who are you?”
"A lot of things happened,” Erica interjected before Vic could answer.
"Oh right,” Vic muttered with hesitation and veiled shame. “Tanya, this is Iggy, he used to be a part of the crew I ran with back in Ply.”
Tanya gave the guy another look, this one with some disbelief backing it up. The guy certainly had a look to him, but it wasn't that of a former gang member. With the brand-new clothes, he looked like some random tourist pretending to have a casual Sunday at the mall.
"I just happened to run into him after the three of us split up, and he had some problems that… I had to help him out with.”
"Yeah,” Erica said with a sigh that spoke volumes. “Quite an adventure there.”
"For what it’s worth, I’m thankful Vic happened by at the best possible moment. I would’ve been a goner if he hadn’t. And I thank you ladies for coming to our aid afterward,” Iggy stated, expressing gratitude now that all the three teenagers were conscious.
"Don’t mention it.” Vic waved it off.
"Just sorry that I dragged you into trouble.”
Awkward, nice, polite… certainly not the kind of things she'd expect to see from someone on a gang crew. Tanya's thoughts teetered between relief and disappointment.
"But, well, now you know that I’m in the city. If there is anything you need, well, I have my little expertise. I gave you two my number.”
"Hope it's nothing criminal,” Tanya muttered, warily.
"Tanya is rushing for the superheroes club,” Erica explained in a half-whisper, much to the lavender girl’s surprise. Either that was an uncharacteristic slip for the blonde, or the stranger knew more than she'd have thought.
"I see… that explains some things.” Iggy's laugh was small and nervous, like a vocal chihuahua. He never did answer the question.
"So… we should probably head back,” Vic said, taking the cold pack from his face and touching the area. The bruise had eased up, but it was still there. “It’s one-thirty, right?”
"No…” Tanya muttered, glancing down at the floor when she caught, with the corner of her eye, the corner of a light brown paper bag. It clicked in her mind what it was.
"About that,” Erica weighed in. “I wasn’t sure if we would be able to wake you up in time, so I went ahead and called Josephine. Asked if we could delay the return until two PM, and she agreed. That gives us half an hour.”
"I’ll be honest, but after the morning I just had, sitting down in a car is perhaps all I need,” Vic said with a relieved smile.
"Yeah, but we still haven’t gotten what we came here for. The tablet,” Erica pointed out.
"Tablet?” There was a bit of a thrill in Iggy's voice. “That is my area of expertise. I can point you to the best version around.”
"We only have half an hour, but I guess that’s enough time to pick… We’re looking for a budget model,” the boy told him.
"Listen Vic, you saved me from going to jail, so I owe you a solid. The very least I can do is help you buy a good tablet.”
Saved from going to jail? What happened? Tanya kept her puzzlement to herself, though she could find relief that everything had turned out well. Bringing a smile to herself, she straightened up in her seat and snagged the bag that sat next to the bench. The conversation went on pause as every looked, and out of the corner of her eye, Tanya saw Erica give a subtle encouraging nod.
"Before we go, though. I wanted to give you this,” she said, thrusting the bag in Vic’s face.
"For me?” She couldn't see his face at first, what with the bag in the way, but then it was pushed aside to reveal a surprised smile that was all she needed. She was doing things right.
"Thought you would need those with a tablet,” Tanya prefaced as the boy opened the bag to examine the items within. There were a pair of headphones, a notebook and a couple of gift cards. “I wasn’t sure what to get, so I just went with my gut.”
"Thanks,” Vic said wholeheartedly. It could have been a trick of her eyes, but Tanya thought he might have been about to hug her, but then pulled back. If only Erica had arrived a couple of minutes later... Now she really wanted to see what he'd have done. As opposed to squirming awkwardly.
"Ahem,” Iggy saved them from the moment of stillness, “Now, if I got this right, you three have less than half an hour to finish shopping. I know a good store around here, and we don’t have time to get sidetracked, so...”
"Alright,” all three of them responded.
Sunday, September 25, 2016 - 1:52 pm
Berlin’s 103 Mall Parking lot.
"Again, thanks for the ice cream, Jo,” Chris said as she nibbled the butt end of her waffle cone.
"It’s no problem,” Josephine said with a small smile. It was rather a nice day for waiting outside. The clouds had moved in earlier today and cast a cool shade over the entirety of the parking lot, and the noon breeze wasn’t cold enough to ruin the experience. It was a perfect fall afternoon, and the artist did not expect to see too many of those later in the season. The Miskatonic tended towards damp, dreary, and/or frigid, starting partway through October.
"Think they’ll be back soon?” There was a hint of worry in Gwen's voice. Both she and Chris exchanged furtive looks while Josephine had her back turned to them.
"Told them to come here by two o’clock, so they should be around here soon.” Josephine let out a sigh, as she checked the time with her phone. “They said they would be doing some last-minute purchases. I’m sure they’ll be back soon, I hope.”
Truth be told, Josephine was worried that after such a good morning up here at the mall, the end would ruined by the pokey little puppies under her supervision. It had happened before, enough that she could often see it coming despite her efforts. Inevitably she ended up stressed, worried, and then campus security would give her quite an earful for the tardiness of the entire group. Fortunately, this time, she had a feeling that most of the students were responsible enough. And the one that she wasn't sure about, well, Chris was already sitting there finishing her ice cream cone.
"S-So, how did you girls do?” Josephine knew it was an awkward attempt to start a conversation, but it felt like the chaperone thing to do. The two sophomores had been whispering like a pair of conniving crows, and her words startled them.
>Oh, great. Was there actually something she needed to know about?
"Hm? Well, things were… okay, they were okay,” Chris answered.
"That’s good,” Josephine replied. Then she turned to Gwen. “Did she get into trouble?”
"Nope, not at all." The other girl's grin was a familiar sort of mask. Josephine had never been able to cover her guilt that well, but she'd had friends who could teach master classes. “Well, other than putting the school’s rules of secrecy at risk.”
"Oh, come on,” Chris protested, earning a couple of laughs. “For the record, I was doing a good job pulling off tricks without using my powers.”
"I have to pretend I didn’t hear that,” Josephine said with a small chuckle. “Gwen, did you change jackets?”
The sophomore looked down at herself, as if realizing she was wearing a dark gray hoodie that contrasted harshly with her skirt and leggings, and certainly not the thin turquoise coat that she’d been wearing on the way here. “Oh this? Yeah… I um. I was fee-”
"She spilled something on her shirt, and I lent her my hoodie to cover it.” Chris immediately chimed in.
Gwen was going to say she was ‘feeling cold.’ Josephine thought about calling them on the obvious mix-up, but she left it up to the girls to disclose. What mattered was that things were settled and no squad cars were in sight.
"I see. Good to hear, I guess? Now I just have to worry about the junior partners. Wonder where… Oh, there they are!” Much to Josephine's relief, the three freshmen could be seen trotting across the parking lot, just a short couple of minutes before two. Thank goodness. Josephine knew she couldn't be the only one with a yearning for lunch, and it looked like they'd have enough leeway to swing a stop by a convenience store along the way back.
"Sorry for the delay,” Tanya called as she ran ahead.
"Did you find what you needed?” Josephine asked. That was the excuse Erica had used to ask for the extra half-hour, and judging by the amount of bags that Vic carried in both hands, it seemed that they'd had their fair share of fun around the mall. His clothes looked roughed up, though that only made the scarf around his neck stand out more as a freshly bought article.
"Oh, we definitely did,” Erica mused, holding out a bag that rattled with the distinctive sound of hard plastic dice within.
"Were there any problems?” Gwen asked.
"None whatsoever,” Erica answered right away. Their chaperon pretended not to see the significant glances the girls shared as the blonde made her way over to the back of the van, to help Vic stash the goods.
Again, no police, no worries. She'd survived worse trips into town.
"How are you feeling?” Gwen asked, secretively, directly to Tanya. "Um, I mean, this morning you were a little drowsy, right?"
"I’m good,” Tanya muttered as Chris came up to her and gave her a pat on the back as a sign of solidarity. "Must've been, um, something from breakfast. Did it happen to you too?”
"Yeah,” Chris said sheepishly. “But it, ah, passed. Hardly a memory now, ha-ha.”
"I know, right!” Tanya said, evidently for the sake of a small laugh from Gwen and Erica.
No, Josephine was telling herself. She did not want to know what this was about. Even if she were about to die from curiosity in the next five minutes.
"I’m just glad you two are okay… and that you didn't have a bad time with it.” Gwen had an arm around each friend's shoulder. “Nothing happened at a bad time, didn’t it?”
"Eh…” Tanya muttered, and her lips looked ready loosen up and spill all if it weren’t for Erica jumping in.
"Actually, we had a great time out. No real problems. Nothing at all.”
"I see…” None of this was making their chaperon feel better, but again she knew from experience that actually knowing what was going on would only make things worse for her. No police, no reporters, no explosions, no problem. “So, a-are we ready to go back? No one is forgetting anything?” Josephine called out as she opened the driver's side door.
"I called shotgun for the day!” Erica shouted, jumping for the front passenger’s seat.
"That’s not fair!” Chris joked as she made her way back but then stopped.
"So, Chris, are you going in the back too?” asked Josephine.
"Actually, no. I was thinking to take that offer from earlier and sit up front. In the middle.” Chris said as she opened the door, her gaze lingering for a moment on Vic before moving over to Gwen.
"That’s fine by me,” Vic said. It really wasn't up to him anyway, as the rest of the girls were already in motion, boarding up the car and getting the engine running.
Inwardly, the boy was holding back his disappointment. Part of him was insisting that he, at least, try to start another conversation with Gwen. He had to... he wasn't sure. Build bridges? Make amends? Patch things up? It had to be now, or never, because he knew it would be ten times harder to meet her as soon as they got back to Whateley. And while he was okay with that, it was a pity to let things end like this.
But he couldn’t complain about how things had gone. He’d gotten what he'd come for, bumped into an old friend, spent some time with new friends and the girl he liked, and, even though this was more of a negative, he'd managed to win more than a couple of fights.
The trip back was a good time to rest, and as he focused on the taller buildings of the town as they drifted further away, he was tempted to lie back and rest his eyes. It was easier than trying to work his way into the random girl conversations around him. As the token male in the van, he wasn't sure what he could even contribute that wouldn't get him in trouble from the moment he opened his yap.
Everyone fell into the same rhythm as they departed for school. Erica and Josephine hit it off talking about their purchases, with the chaperon gushing about this art store she frequented and how one of the patrons there offered her a tutoring job. Meanwhile, Tanya and Chris were still chatting, though Gwen had her own two bits to contribute from time to time. It was the usual: classic hero trivia, which led into their club activities, with an aside to discuss their favorite meals and snacks at the mall.
"So… do you think I can be told about… you know what?” Tanya said conspiratorially before Chris made a shushing gesture. Fortunately, Josephine was too distracted at the time to hear. By general unspoken agreement, that topic of conversation was shelved indefinitely, and the superhero fan-gossip continued. Vic would’ve joined in, but again he didn’t want to be the spare tire in the group of friends.
His mouth rested on the back of his hand as his elbow rested on his bent knee. With his other hand, he searched the bags. His fingers were looking for the heaviest item of the bunch: a high-end tablet, costing only twice as much as he'd felt comfortable with Iggy spending. The forger had insisted, though. Slick, as big as one of the sketchbooks that rested in the bag of art supplies, and just as thick. It didn't weigh that much, but it certainly wouldn’t be convenient to carry with both hands.
Iggy had gone into great detail on the technical specs, pointing that the weight was due to the expanded motherboard and chips that gave it the extra processing power to rival a medium-tier desktop PC, which was exactly what Vic needed.
Seeing the slick and smooth surface of the touch screen, he vowed to be extra careful to avoid smudging, bumping, or cracking the thing. He'd be using it for a long while to come, hopefully. It was tempting to turn it on in the car but he feared he'd get car-sick on the winding roads if he had to focus on a screen at the same time.
To say that he was smitten by the look of the device was no understatement. The sticker price had been way over the amount of credit he had on his card, and even when Iggy had haggled it down a bit, it had still cost more than he'd planned on paying that day. When he'd attempted to nudge his way towards the cheaper, economic options, Iggy'd immediately stepped in to cover the costs. Despite knowing Iggy for months, Vic couldn’t help but ask how he would be able to pay him back. But the forger had simply called it due payment for services heroically rendered, and not even Vic's oft-guilty conscience could argue with that. Much.
And before his brain could work a way around itself to argue anyway, Erica'd returned from her own purchases, and it was time to get back to the van. They'd bid a quick farewell to Iggy, promising to pay him a visit if they happened to drop by the city again. A part of Vic would be lying if he claimed he wasn’t worried for Iggy, but at the same time he was looking forward to it. Iggy was the ‘geek’ of his old crew, and well versed in the ways of fun and nerd culture. Their next brawl was more likely to involve arcade games, and that was fine by him.
Back in the van, Vic tugged self-consciously at the scarf around his neck. At least he'd got to pay for that one, to the relief of his masculine pride. It hid the bruises beautifully.
Carefully, he stashed the tablet away and looked at the notepad he'd gotten from Tanya. A happy chuckle rested in his chest. It was a simple thing, even useless to some folk, but this was the sort of present he appreciated. He would have begun writing on it, a a front page or something like that, but he didn’t have a pencil at hand. The road was bumpy enough that searching the bags for one would have been more trouble than it was worth.
The headphones were also nice. They were an advanced model, completely wireless and - because of course they were - waterproof. It felt like Christmas had come early, for once. He couldn't wait to try them out.
Sunday, September 25, 2016 - 6:34 PM
Whitman Cottage, Room 247
"There we go!” Caro exclaimed as she admired her work in making up her bed. She'd made sure the sheets were tucked, the edges were perfectly lined, and the pillow fluffed. The completed look was like something her family's maid might have done, and she could appreciate the effort Marcie must put into it every day, back home.
>It was the perfect picture for exactly one second before she dropped her butt onto it, feeling the bouncy sturdiness. It was much softer than the one she'd had, so she knew she would be getting some good sleep tonight.
Even as she perked at that thought, she was reminded of the other issue as Sofia entered the room.
"Heya,” the roommate greeted. “Chevere, so Mrs. Savage did get new mattresses?” The girl made no effort to hide her relief at the issue being done with.
"Yeah,” Caro told her. “She says that, if you want, you can have yours traded in, too.”
"I think I’ll pass for now.” Sofia mused over her own bed, the one that had been Caro’s just a couple of days ago that drunken dream. While she had made a bit of effort to refill the bled-out stuffing and give it shape, it was still lumpy and unbalanced. The claw marks were hard to miss, still.
"Alright,” Caro said, pushing herself up. It was time to do the evening business of sorting her table and preparing her things for the next day. This included picking up the scattered pieces of paper from that morning and folding the deflated air mattress back into its box.
She hadn’t been back to her room since the hour past noon when she'd left for lunch. The rest of the afternoon was spent catching up with Gwen and Chris. And apologizing. A lot. It had been… a bit of an uncomfortable talk. Apologies had never come easy to her, and she wasn't getting any better at it with experience. She hoped she would’ve gotten used to not making mistakes, or at least established some useful routines... But alas, she caused trouble to her friends, and so she practiced her groveling some more.
At least it seemed that the spell hadn’t interrupted their day out. Gwen'd remarked that she'd been bored of watching Chris showboat her skills before the rest of the contestants, even though the girl knew the rules wouldn’t allow late registration. And the reason Gwen knew that was because, at some point in her boredom, she'd read the contest poster’s fine print. But Chris wasn’t broken-hearted. If anything, the high-velocity girl had set her sights on going back again just to try out the other activities, like the rock climbing and the parkour pit. And maybe signing up for a tournament, properly, though she never said as much.
It had been an interesting conversation, fun even -- aside from having to explain the situation at Whitman yet again. Chris had laughed her skinny butt off. Gwen had not. But they'd both given Caro a big hug of support at the end anyway.
She'd also given Tanya a brief explanation over the phone. The girl, while sounding disappointed in her, let her off the hook without any hard feelings or even the thought of blackmail. The lavender girl was a pure soul, in Caro's opinion.
About half an hour later, once everything at the table was set, Caro sat herself down in front of her laptop with the notepad on the side, doing her readings for the upcoming week of History class assignments. The theme was 'revolutions,' and there were certainly plenty to choose from. Mr. Duchamp was scary-precise on the details, so she read up on her selected political uprising from as many sources as she could find, taking down notes longhand to compile into something typed later.
And Sofia was doing the same, sitting on her side of the room with her head bowed as she typed away at the computer keyboard. The sound of the roommate's mechanical keys grated on the nerves, but Caro supposed she could’ve been worse. Having mediated as a representative RA, she’d handled complaints of girls that sang off key, talked loudly in conversations, played games at full volume, gotten too enthusiastic with boyfriends on the phone, or even performed experiments of an explosive nature in their dorm room. The rhythmic ‘tac tac tac’ sound wasn’t bad at all.
Caro glanced down at the clock on her computer screen. Twelve minutes past seven.
It wasn’t long after that Sofia let out a long sigh, making a break ing the constant clicking-clacking and pushing the chair back to get up. Caro knew where this was going. This was about the time when Crossby would open his bar to friends and ‘girlfriends’.
So this was why Sofia'd been so relieved to see the matter of the mattress put behind them: now the girl could go out for a drink, guilt-free. Of course. Typical. This had happened so often in the past month that Caro could plot out the argument as it arose. First she would frown at her roommate. There'd be the casual good-bye from Sofia, answered with a request from Caro that she would not go. This would go back and forth two, maybe three times before the sass levels reached the danger zone, and then there would be yelling and slammed doors and passive-aggressive sniping for the following day.
And tonight didn't look to be any different. As she glanced at Sofia search her drawers for her wallet and unplug her phone from its charger, Caro was close to setting off the entire chain of events again. But the events of the day played back, and...
This wasn't how she wanted it to be. Not how she wanted herself to be. Finding out that Sofia wasn’t the cause for her ruined spell, that had been a punch to the gut, but what made it escalate as it did was that she’d been so expectant of the worse from her roommate that she immediately flew off the handle when talking to her, accusing without giving her a chance. It might’ve been smoothed from Sofia’s mind, but not from Caro’s.
She held her tongue and took a deeper breath. “Sofi?”
"Hm?” her roommate replied, with a hint of clinging exasperation, like she was expecting the usual argument, too.
"Is everything okay?”
"It’s… I'm okay. Just frustrated with the history homework,” Sofia admitted. The girl was not exactly a straight A student. She was decent last year, but then along came Crossby and... It was amazing that she somehow managed to skid by and stay away from the failing grade, all things considered. “So, I’m going for a short visit to Crossby. To relax and all that stuff.”
"No, those visits aren’t short,” was another answer that almost slipped off her tongue. She bit it off at the last second.
Really need to chill out, Caro thought to herself. “You know? I’m working on my own essay right now. If you want, I can help you out. It’d be great if you could look over mine, and I can do what I can to help you move things along.”
Caro held her breath as Sofia considered. She hoped the smile on her face looked warm and friendly, and not like something out of Faust. All the while, she was quietly asking: “What will it be? Your grade or the booze?”
Sofia glanced down at her computer, which still had the screen on and open to a word document stopped in mid-sentence. Then down at her smartphone clock. Then over to Caro. Then back to the assignment. Mr. Duchamp had asked for it to be handed in by next Tuesday.
Her roommate bit her lip and took a long sigh. “Fine, let’s do this.” She picked up the computer reading glasses she’d put aside and sat back down.
Baby steps, Caro told herself as she rolled her chair over. One small thing at a time. They could fix this without going to extremes.
"So, what did you choose to write about this time?”
Sunday, September 25, 2016 - 7:12 pm
Twain room 217
"Vic? Did you get a new rig?” Ronnie asked, shortly after she answered the video call.
"How did you know?” Vic chuckled as he adjusted the headphones. They were every bit as comfortable as he'd imagined.
"I’m a technomancer. I just know.” Ronnie's laugh was as soft as the earpiece cushions. “I take it you did go to Berlin… with friends, I hope.”
"Yeah. I did.” Vic's sigh echoed the previous conversations he'd had with his step-sister. Of how she insisted on him to ease up on the studying and just have a ‘normal’ school life. So of course she needed to get her jab in.
"Did you have fun?”
Vic nodded. “Eh… kinda. There was a lot of trouble.”
"That seems to be a regular thing with you,” Ronnie chuckled. On her side of the screen, she pulled out a couple of pictures and articles gathered from the last couple of adventures.
"Did you really have those at hand?” Vic muttered bitterly. He couldn’t read the headlines or focus on any of the pictures that danced around her, but he had a good idea what was in each of those, judging by the images.
"I thought of making a scrapbook,” Ronnie said, as ambiguously as she could. “So, tell me, anything interesting that brought this up?”
"Yeah… about that…”
From there on, Vic began his own narration. It must’ve taken a half-hour of back and forth conversation with following questions before he could narrate all the way through the important events.
Important for his step-sister to know, of course. That did not include the mad chase scene, the gang fight, or the Sleeping Beauty curse. Which made this conversation trickier but not impossible.
"You ended up running with Gwen…” Ronnie muttered. “I figured it was bound to happen eventually.”
"Same, but I'd blocked it from my mind. It was a surprise when it happened anyway,” Vic admitted.
"So, what happens now?” Ronnie asked. “Are you back on speaking terms or still mad at each other?”
"I don’t know. It’s hard to tell,” Vic brought himself to say. He'd barely had a chance to talk to her, but from that brief interaction on the phone, Gwen seemed at least open to talk in the future.
Just not too soon. He didn't think that either of them wanted to rush things.
"How about you? Are you interested in trying to talk things out? I can give you her number.”
That was the other side of the coin. How did he feel about her? In a sense, all the things he said back in Plymouth were true to him and his feelings on those matters hadn’t changed. The idea that a person was both a stranger and the same after their change was a confusing topic that he wasn't sure he could manage, even now. On top of that, he still wanted to distance himself from the family and the awkwardness of the entire situation. And it was embarrassing to even say as much to Gwen’s biological sister.
"I’ll pass…” Vic sighed.
"Hmph…” Ronnie sounded disappointed, but did not press the issue. “I guess I can expect a phone call from Gwen tonight or tomorrow.”
"You don’t have to be the go-between,”
"I do, actually, because if it weren’t for me, who knows where you two would end up,” she said confidently. "Aside from the ER or the morgue, that is."
"Right…” Vic humored her awful sense of humor with a small sigh. “Anyway, I just wanted to let you know.”
"Oh? Heading off with friends?” Ronnie mused.
"No, I have some catching up to do.” Vic flashed a history textbook. There was plenty of reading left before the week officially started.
"Baby steps, I guess,” Ronnie commented. By then the headphones were off, so she just contented herself with a smile and wave from her side of the screen before the connection went black.
With a smile on him at the good day, he glanced down at the purchase bags and emptied boxes that rested by the corner, at a hard risk of falling over. It felt like a fortunate twist. He’d gone out with $500 in his wallet and he estimated he must’ve spent about $30. It was a stroke of fortune of how things had turned out, all other incidents notwithstanding… but he wanted to pay them all back one of these days.
That got him thinking about Erica and Tanya -- the latter, in particular. Erica had confided to him later on that the notebook was the lavender girl's idea and that she was the one who, in Erica's words, ‘struggled adorably’ to come up with a good gift.
One of these days, he thought, he should find a way to repay Erica for that… and maybe, if he had the courage, he would ask Tanya on a date, for real and proper.
He couldn’t really bring himself to dislike the day, but he wished the outing would’ve been longer, the seconds stretched even the slightest so that he wouldn’t have to wonder what could have been. Idly, his hand raised up to touch his lips.
"Okay… back to studying,” Vic declared, taking in the fortunate silence that came from his roommate’s absence. The spirit totem had gone with Tobias as well, which meant Vic was almost completely certain in his solitude. Sitting on the bed, with his back on the wall, Vic opened the book and resumed his studies, pouring his focus back into it.
Sunday, September 25, 2016 - 7:40 pm
Poe Cottage, Room 236
"So… your stepbrother broke your arm!?” Chris blurted out with a wide-eyed look.
Gwen shushed her friend, waving her hands down. Though... there was a mild sense of relief that it was out, at least between friends. It felt like she'd been waiting forever and a day to tell the tale.
"And that’s how it happened? Wow. I always wondered how you managed that with an exemplar physique,” Chris continued.
"It was mostly gravity, I’ll admit … and poor placement.”
"But he still slapped you to the ground,” Chris growled. It was a bit tactless but pretty accurate nonetheless.
"Yeah...” Gwen nodded with a long sigh before carrying on. “I swear, how could I have known he'd end up in Whateley? I was almost certain he'd stay back in Massachusetts after all that mess. For all I cared he could’ve stayed back there and sort out the life he chose for himself… Does that make me a bad person? I get my hand smacked when I’m offering help, and now I'm cutting him off? All this feels like my fault from the start. I was the stepsister and best friend…” She bit back the word ‘former.’ No matter how much she wanted to distance herself, she couldn't bring herself to use it. “I’m a bad person… I feel like I am. Or maybe I was too weak to do the right thing?”
And to that Chris could only prop up her best smile and keep nodding along. Not that she was insensitive, but she hadn’t really gotten used to this sort of ‘supportive’ girl talk. It was all so out of her ballpark that she didn't even have a glove. But even so, she could recognize when someone needed to vent out a secret and Gwen had been holding some really harsh words ever since the start of the school year… All Chris could do was brace herself for the ride.
"Do you have any idea what his disappearance has put my dad through? How would you even begin to tell your father, a police commissioner, that his son has ran off and joined a criminal gang? I…” Gwen took a deep breath and exhaled through her teeth, almost whistling. “I’m happy he’s here… I’m glad that he’s not out of the street… but I’m terrified to find out how he made it. I know how much Whateley costs, and there’s no way he could cover his tuition by himself. I’m just... I'm terrified to find out. I don’t know if it's a valid concern or… or I don’t know what. And what’ll happen.”
"But you did talk to him… right?”
"Twice. The first time, I threatened to break his fingers “
"When was that?”
"In the van.”
"Oh,” I didn’t notice… And what about the other time?”
"The second conversation on the phone? That was… well, as good as it could’ve been.”
"You were calmer…” Chris agreed. “And will there be a third time?”
"But that’s the thing. I don’t want to. I shouldn’t... cannot go out of my way to try and fix it. He made it clear that it’s his matter to deal with. And the things he said back then, they still hurt.” Gwen's mouth clamped shut at that, and took the rest of the sound in the room with it.
Chris wished she could know just what that boy had said to her friend, but if Gwen didn't want to talk, then she wouldn't. This girl-talk thing would have to continue around the topic.
"So… What are you going to do? I mean, from here on?” Chris finally said, breaking the quiet.
"I don’t know… I really have no idea…” Gwen muttered, slumping down on her bed. She grabbed for her pillow to hold between her arms. “I think… I think I’ll just carry on with my life and hope I won’t be forced into the same car as him again.”
Hopefully that wouldn't put a wrench on trips to Berlin. Chris sighed inwardly. She had really enjoyed the trip with Josephine the chaperon. “So you’re going to pretend like he isn't here even if he’s around?”
"I’m not abandoning…” Gwen whispered bitterly through her pillow. Whether this was her sense of duty or familial love talking, Chris wasn’t certain, but much like every other word spoken in the past twenty minutes, it came across as strained and labored. “I just don’t want anything to do with him, and I’m not ready to worry about his problems… But that isn’t to say... well, if he were to walk up to me for help a problem, I don't think I'd turn him down right away. Probably.”
Who would’ve thought Gwen could be so… ‘high and mighty?’ Chris smiled at the thought as she sat up. “Heya, Leslie,” she called out over her shoulder before her friend could get on with the next verse in her ranty song of angst.
Like clockwork, the door to the bedroom opened and in came Gwen’s roommate, the Asian gadgeteer, Ping. “Hey, Chris,” she greeted, pulling down her headphones and adjusting her glasses.
Chris moved to get out of her chair, but Leslie waved her to stop. “Don’t get up; I just came by to leave my bag.”
"Are you sure? I don’t really mind. Was about to head back to my room anyway.”
"Positive. Going to go hang out by the common room, see what’s the activity for the night.” Leslie dropped her bag under the desk and gave a thumb's-up. “So you can stay over.”
"Speaking of activity… Caro told us you had a busy morning.” Chris said.
"Yeah, that I did.” Leslie sighed through her teeth, making somewhere between a grimace and a smirk. “Your friend Caro could’ve gotten into trouble. Great heaping piles.”
"I know… Thanks for helping her out,” said Gwen.
"Don’t mention it. Always good to have a warlock owe you one.” Leslie chuckled. Knowing her friend, Chris guessed she would either ask for something simple right away or downright forget the debt. “By the way… your boyfriend dropped by around one, just as I came back from Whitman. Apparently, he expected to see you as soon as you came back. Asking you out on a date or something… Then he picked up a fight with one of the Ammy’s. It didn’t get past the verbal, luckily.”
"He’s kinda gung-ho,” Gwen said with a warm smile. “I should call him though.”
"Yeah.” Leslie nodded. “Well, I’d better get going. Be sure to keep your boy out of trouble, okay?”
And with that, the gadgeteer strutted out of the room, closing the door behind her. Chris had already gotten up, following her friend’s lead about going out. Partly, she wanted to squeeze some videogame time out of her Sunday and partly wanted to check out the events of the evening.
"You know…” Chris added. “if Dereck finds out Vic did you-know-what to you, he’ll be on the warpath.”
"I’m worried about that too.” Gwen sighed. "He's already picked up a few things, and probably would’ve figured it out by now hadn’t I asked him to drop the matter…"
"Just... be prepared for the worst." Chris didn't have much experience with boyfriends -- didn't want much, to be honest -- but she worried that Dereck would never forget anything so easily.
Sunday, September 25, 2016 - 11:58 pm
Mr. Kim considered himself a quiet sort of person. Residing within the Village just outside of campus limit, in a cabin he had affectionately dubbed the ‘Monastery Villa,' he had filled his space with homely charm and simple elegance. A couple of paintings hung from the wall, classic oils that were bought from the art club students merely because of the way they did justice to some truths of the past. They were peaceful images, reminiscent of quieter times.
He shuffled from the bathroom, ready for a good sleep, with the night enveloping the place in quiet and gentle darkness. Making his way around the bed with practiced steps, he passed the bookcase that sat where a TV might have been in another home. Nothing spelled 'English teacher' more than his dedication to the written word.
There was a leatherbound book on the desk nearby, its pages creamy pale under the light of the moon and stars. With ritualistic practice, he pulled back the chair and turned on the lamp to cast a white light across the room. With a flip of the cover, the book opened to the latest page of the work-in-progress. Mr. Kim sat down, pen in hand as he gazed down at it.
The words within were for his eyes only, though they brought a sensible smile to his lips as the ink scribbled down the text. He may have held the pen, but the words lived on their own.
<The spell burst out of control and the entire cottage had fallen asleep,> his hands wrote.
Some time passed as he looked down at the book, with curious interest as he waited. His gaze moved over to the books that lined his shelf. Stories were treasures that evoked the forces of creativity unbounded. Worlds of ink, but real nonetheless.
He returned to where he'd left off, gazing down at the pages. Words had continued: <I made sure to check on her. And kept campus security from looking her way.>
There was another pause, this one just as long as the one before as the pen danced in his fingers.
Spin and spin… it continued for a stanza of heartbeats before locking between index and middle.
<I’ll keep an eye on her.>
And the book was closed.
A Few Days later - 5:40 pm
Vic traced his steps back to the clearing in the woods; to the lake where he’d toyed around and gotten himself a good splash of water the previous week. At this time of the afternoon, just like then, twilight grew and spread through the woods as the sky grew a warm orange, and there was silence between the birds and squirrels he’d spotted running around. Even the insects were quiet, occasionally flying around but more often than not making themselves scarce.
It was perhaps the peace of the walk that brought Vic to reflection. The last time he’d been there, he had not particularly been in a good place. He'd felt as if his grades were struggling, thought himself useless in BMA and stressed himself about the future.
Those things were still there, but now he felt better about them.
His grades were still above average, not as great as he would like them to be, but the effort he was putting into them gave its own sense of accomplishment. It was challenging, not impossible, and every victory gave him the determination to work harder.
And for combat classes, well, he was still a long way from beating powerhouses like Hardnose or Morgana, but he could say with confidence that he was improving. He was able to at least be on equal footing with some of the other students. One time earlier in the week, he'd managed to push Bacon out of the circle with some of the techniques they were practicing. That had felt good, and now he was debating whether to ask Sensei Tolman for a tutor or a practice partner who could chart his progress.
He even found himself interested in the arts. After paying a visit to the art club, he was curious and eager to give it a try. All he needed now was to gather up the courage to fill in his application and suffer whatever trial the Imp might unleash on him.
How many of the things happened because of the weekend outing... The tablet made homework easier, for sure, and the unwanted encounters with the thugs had showed him that he wasn’t so useless in a fight. But the biggest thing was that he'd had fun with Tanya and Erica, especially the former. Part of him was really hoping that he'd tripped the right flags and started something.
Friends found, friendships strengthened, and obstacles faced -- it had been the good sort of awful weekend, after all.
Eventually he made it to the lake, to the same spot he’d been before. He could even point out the exact spot where he'd laid his things when he'd practiced in the water. He wasn’t here for that, this time.
He had other intentions besides enjoying a quiet stroll in the woods. Fishing through his pocket, he produced a small round bell. The brass bell that had belonged to a collar in a pet store. The reason why Tanya had fallen asleep in the middle of a fight. Such a small thing, for the trouble it caused. Though it wasn’t really the cause, just a catalyst, and as Tanya later explained to Erica and him, it was completely harmless. Still, it was meant to be given to an animal for its own amusement.
And fearing that Cookie would eagerly try to eat it and accidentally choke, despite the pup's size, Vic had decided to leave it in the forest. Maybe that strange cat creature would find it.
Without much ceremony, he left the bell on a stump, rested for a couple of minutes to take in the sight of the sun on the calm, shimmering water. and then set himself on the way back. His mind was filled with thoughts of that evening's homework regimen.
Some time later, after Vic’s steps had taken him back to the cottage and silence ruled the dusk, a curious paw misted itself out of thin air and batted at the bell. Its tinkly ring echoed in the quiet.