I Don't Think We're in Kansas Anymore (Part 3)
A Generation 2 Whateley Academy Adventure
I Don't Think We're In Kansas Anymore
by ElrodW and Nagrij
(with help and contributions from the usual suspects)
Wednesday, September 7, 2016 - Lunchtime
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
Even as the number of students on-campus swelled quickly, the anticipated exponential increase in buzz inside the cafeteria didn't materialize. Instead, there was a hushed undertone, a whispered anxiety and tension that couldn't help but be noticed.
As Laura ascended the stairs with Bailey, Vic, Tanya, Kenshin, Jimmy, and Tia, the girls noticed a few upperclassmen nosing about tables, obviously scouting to see which tables were unclaimed, possibly to stake claim to their own territory. As the small group strode to 'their' table and sat down, three upperclassmen - two boys and one girl - glared at them.
"This is a reserved table, freshies," the larger of the two boys said in a less-than-friendly and condescending tone.
Laura smiled sweetly. "Oh really?" she asked, teasing them a little bit with her feigned innocence.
"Underclassmen sit on the bottom tier," the guy growled at her. "You better move before whoever ...," he leaned closer to look at the registration label, "Mutant Mayhem Machine? What the hell is that?" he couldn't help stammering.
"Actually," Bailey replied, "it's us."
"What the fuck kind of team name is that?" the girl scoffed aloud.
"It's our team name," Tanya said with a smile. "And we registered the team and the table this morning," she added politely.
"Froshies? Registering as a team?" the second guy asked, flabbergasted. "You do know that it's a combat training team, don't you?"
"Yeah," Laura replied lightly. "After our little adventure in New York on the way here, we figured we might as well form a team."
The girl's eyes widened. "Wait!" she began, her mouth a little agape. "You guys ... that mess in New York? That was you?!?"
Tanya smiled shyly. "Yeah, we had a minor ... scuffle. So ...."
"Um, never mind," the first guy said quickly, his eyes wide as saucers. "Um, I guess we just want to welcome you to Whateley." The three scampered off quickly, as if they'd seen ghosts.
"What was that all about?" Vic asked, curiously.
Tia's ears were cocked toward the retreating upperclassmen. "They're talking about us being in some really big fight in New York," she reported after a second. "The girl just asked if it was wise to tangle with us if we could take on that fight."
"Squidley?" Tanya gasped, stunned. "Mrs. Dennon said he was a pretty lame villain!"
"Who's a lame villain?" Morgana asked as she sat down at the table, with Bianca, Cally, and Erica right behind her
"Squidley," Tanya said. "Mrs. Dennon said he would be a Class D if they had such a thing!"
"Yeah, but everyone is talking like we kicked some major villain ass," Laura said in a hushed tone. "You don't suppose everyone thinks ...."
"That we were involved in that other mess in New York?" Erica asked. "Yeah, probably."
"But ... they're gonna think we're really bad-asses!" Tia said, wide-eyed.
Bianca chuckled. "Think of it this way. As long as people think that we kicked some major villain butt, they'll leave us alone. A reputation of bad-assery can really help deter aggression."
"But when they find out it wasn't us ...." Cally stammered fearfully.
"By then, something else will have made the news, and no-one will remember," Morgana predicted confidently, looking up from the plate of food she was rapidly devouring.
A few jaws dropped in shock that Morgana had interrupted her feeding frenzy. "Um, probably true," Tanya said between her own large bites.
Cally decided it was time to change the subject. "Have you heard the rumors? Mrs. Carson, the headmistress, disappeared?"
"That's all anyone is talking about!" Bianca grumbled. "Our RAs in Poe were acting like she was a goddess or something."
Laura shook her head. "I looked it up on my phone. She was headmistress here since forever. Retired hero, taught English before she was put in charge. Pretty well respected."
Tanya nodded. "I heard a lot of stories about Mrs. Carson while I was growing up. Everyone respected her. Tough but fair, and very concerned about every kid here."
"It's like ... people almost genuflect when they mention her name," Bailey said. "It's kind of creepy - like they're talking about a spirit that's haunting the place and ...." She didn't quite suppress a shudder.
"Yeah, I noticed," Laura said. "But everyone older than us knew her, and ... they've gotta be upset that she's gone."
Jimmy shook off an eerie feeling with a visible shudder. Instead, he decided to change the subject. "Where's your keeper, Hikaru?" he asked Taka teasingly.
The Japanese boy frowned deeply. "Hikaru-san ... not keeper."
"She's got power testing today," Tia explained. "And she was warned to not eat before testing, because it can be somewhat ... stressing."
Laura grimaced at the thought, and Tanya noticed. "Don't worry, Laura," she said with a smile. "Power testing isn't that bad. It's like ... everyone makes it sound bad to scare the newbies."
"Like me," Laura said with a heavy scowl. "It sounds ... awful!" She couldn't suppress a shudder of fear.
Tanya noticed, and put her hand on the blue girl's arm. "It's not that bad," she said to reassure her friend.
"What classes have you all signed up for?" Laura hastily changed the subject. "What are your schedules like?" Tia, Morgana, Tanya, Laura, and Bianca had registered; the others weren't able to get scheduled with their advisors until that afternoon, and consequently, that discussion was very, very short. Instead, the group changed to comparison of odd things they'd seen that morning. After only three meals together, it was clearly becoming a favorite fun topic.
Wednesday, September 7, 2016 - Mid-Afternoon
Fox Hall, Whateley Academy
Fox Hall, the Whateley bookstore, was not a normal campus store - Tia knew that from first glance. There were top end computers and other gadgets she didn't recognize, right in the windows to the right of the entrance. The windows to the left of the doors held school uniforms, accessories, and pins. There were hats and sweaters in school colors with the logo, which seemed to be a very clever plan on the school's part to help camouflage the school's true purpose, and which probably sold very well. More tellingly, while it seemed to be a one-story building from the outside, inside, it had escalators and elevators down to lower shopping levels, like a fancy department store, and it had departments with foods and snacks, non-school uniforms, books and magazines, electronics and parts, appliances - in fact, just about everything one would find in a G-mart. And much more. A G-mart would definitely not carry magic supplies.
The place wasn't full yet, but as students returned, the campus itself was becoming busier and more crowded, and slowly that crowd was going to have to shop. It was a green-flag day and she didn't have to hide her ears, but Tia decided that she wasn't going to hide anyway unless it was red - or at least until someone officially told her that she had to hide her mild GSD on yellow-flag days. Given the publicity she'd received, it wasn't as if people didn't know she didn't exist. Besides, bunny ears and a tail were extremely mild compared to some of the students who were still arriving.
Spotting Taka checking out textbooks, she grabbed him by the arm, startling him, but he kept his mouth shut and didn't object, instead following along with a world-history textbook in hand.
Laura, Morgana, Bianca, and Bailey were in the makeup aisle, where Laura was studiously checking the label of various brands while gently chewing on her bottom lip and occasionally offering advice to Bianca, who was just as diligently studying the assortment of products, but whereas Laura seemed excited to be looking at makeup, there was a definite look of trepidation on Bianca's face. Morgana was beside her, looking dubiously at one of the hoodies held out before her that looked too small.
Nearby, Tanya looked over various bolts of cloth; having been told about costuming shop, Tia shouldn't have been surprised at the existence of a sewing department in the very-extensive campus store.
"Hi guys! Find anything cool?"
Laura started, almost dropping the jar she was inspecting. "Sheesh, don't do that!"
Tanya grinned. "She was hardly sneaking up on you, Laura. You were just off in la-la land."
Tia made a show of looking over the makeup aisle. "Find what you're looking for?"
"Yes, they have my brand. It's effective, and most importantly, cheap. Some of the other stuff here, well it's probably very nice, but it's very expensive. Like, look at this! 'Greasy brand spray on skin: it works.' What kind of name for a concealer is that? That's like the worst marketing ever. And the price! It costs more than five jars of what I use."
Tia grabbed one and looked at it. "Says here it's made for 'unusual skin conditions and colors.' Sounds perfect for you."
Laura shook her head. "Too expensive; even if I had the money I wouldn't spend it on something I wasn't sure would work. I'll stick with what I'm familiar with."
As soon as Laura turned to explain some esoteric goop to her roommate Bailey, Tia snuck the can of spray skin into her shopping cart, hiding it under the makeup and books Laura had already picked. Tanya noticed and raised an eyebrow; Tia hoped the finger to her lips would be enough.
Tia tried her best to look innocent as Laura suddenly turned her way. "Do you need anything, Tia? Any help with makeup or anything else?"
Tia hated to turn her down, because she looked so happy. "No, thanks. I learned all about that stuff from Ibby before I got here."
Laura gave her face a once over. "But ... you aren't wearing any. Not that you need it, or anything, but ...!"
Tia grinned and decided to let her off the hook. "Of course not, I don't need to. Part of my crash course in stuff like this included 'expected feminine behavior' and make up - every day. So now, with no one looking over my shoulder, or yelling at me? A welcome day off. Or maybe a week off, if I can stretch it. Normally I just go for eyeshadow, lipstick or gloss, and mascara anyway."
Laura cast her eyes down, disappointed.
"Heh, don't worry, you'll have plenty of people who need your expertise," Tia reassured her. "So, I don't see any clothes in here."
Laura glanced down, but luckily didn't see the can. "I just need some detergent, and maybe some underwear, and my uniforms, and I'm done."
Tia grinned. "And maybe anything else that strikes your fancy?"
Laura's return look was pensive. "Maybe. We'll see."
Tanya got close as they started toward the next aisle. "What are you doing?" she hissed.
Tia grinned at her. "Saying 'thank you' for a favor she did for me."
As the group wound its way through the various departments, Tia noticed a small collection of teas she liked, so she put some in her own basket. Not much later, the contents of Tia's basket had grown considerably - including the addition of a couple of outfits carefully draped over the top. Laura's shopping cart fared no better; it was overflowing because, unlike Tia, she had to purchase uniforms, too.
"I need to wash all my clothes," Laura explained as she looked through the various brands of detergent, searching for the one her mom used. "I'm not wearing them after they were stolen until I'm sure they are clean."
Laura had a fair point, and Tia could use it as an opening for what she had to say. "Speaking of washing clothes, did you know there are people in Melville that hire other students to do that? Hikaru told me that they pay well, too, for doing laundry and gofering and stuff."
Tia could see Laura mulling over the idea, staring fixedly at her basket and its content. As Tia and the others had learned during their social time since meeting in New York City, Laura's parents were in a nasty divorce, and Laura's financial position was rather delicate. When the blue girl gave no immediate response, Tia decided to back off. "It's just something I heard. I'm not sure if maybe I should do that, too." Laura hadn't immediately bitten on the offer, but was clearly thinking, so Tia figured she'd bring up the idea again later.
After stopping in nearly every department to satisfy the needs of every member of the group, the mini-horde wended their way up the stairs to the ground floor and the checkout lines. In addition to her books, Bailey had enough makeup for an entire kit, and Tanya had added some sewing supplies to her pile of texts and other things, but Laura had enough stuff to fill a suitcase, from basic room supplies like a wastebasket and hangers, to more makeup, her books, four uniforms, and some more lingerie. She was struggling with it, using both hands to keep it all in a shopping cart as they made it up to the checkout.
It actually surprised Tia that the person behind the counter, named Cindi if her nametag was accurate, wasn't a student, but instead looked to be college age, or maybe even out of college. She was a pleasantly-pretty blonde but fell short of the 'exemplar look'. She also looked pretty disinterested, only perking up when she saw them coming to her lane. "Good morning. Did you find everything okay?"
Tia couldn't help wondering if Cindi had ever heard anyone answer 'no' in the time she'd been working here; it seemed impossible that someone couldn't find nearly anything in the vast maze-like store.
"Yes, we did, thanks." Laura said as she gestured Bailey on ahead, since Bailey's basket was much less full than Laura's cart. Tia snuck in with her tea, her phone in hand. Though Laura sighed at Tia's line-cutting, she didn't object aloud. After all, Tia might have thought she was gesturing her ahead, too. And Tia had only a small basket of purchases.
Tia waited until Laura was distracted by a tech magazine on the impulse-buy rack, where one would have normally found tabloids and gossip rags, and getting Cindi's attention, pointed to her phone where an image of her credit card was displayed, then back to Laura's basket, one finger on her lips. Cindi nodded knowingly.
Laura wasn't really paying attention as the clerk rang up her purchases; it took a nudge from Tanya to get her to regain focus. Laura jumped and started fumbling in her purse. "Oh. I'm sorry, let me just get my money ...."
Cindi cut off her apology as she shoved Laura's bags forward. "No need. It's been paid for. Have a nice day!"
The flustered and confused look Laura was sporting was priceless. Her eyes settled on Tia and Tia just couldn't help herself; she looked away and whistled a tune, trying to appear as the very picture of innocence.
"But ... you! That's too much! You didn't need to!"
Tia turned back, tapping an ear clip. "I wanted to. I owe you from the train, remember? I know what it would have cost to have a gadgeteer fix something another gadgeteer made - it can run into hundreds of dollars per hour, and you saved me from a very painful experience. And you got rid of the listening bugs that I didn't even know were there. I decided what that was worth, and this is my way to pay you for your time. It's no big deal," she added with a nonchalant shrug.
"No buts, Laura, it's done." Tia could have sounded smug, but somehow, she didn't. "Unless you want to return everything and make Cindi work more and then ringing it up again, your stuff is all paid for. Now," she glanced around, visibly dismissing the subject, "what we need now is a cart or something, 'cause that seems like a lot for one person to carry. Maybe if we split it up or something."
With all the stuff everyone was buying, a cart made sense. Cindi, who had overheard the conversation because her station was idle again, spoke up: "There are cart rentals by the door; all it takes to rent one is a deposit. But if you break it, you bought it."
None of the group had seen the carts coming in, but it was nearly impossible to miss them by the exit doors; they were set in a rack by the checkout lines. They appeared to be made of heavy gauge steel wire framework set atop large very stable wheels, almost like they were designed to survive a nuclear holocaust. Or a school full of overpowered mutant teenagers. Tia waived her phone again, and struggled to tug one of the heavy things from the rack.
They stuck Taka with the task of pulling it, though after only a few minutes Tanya took pity on him and gave him a hand. Or more accurately, she started to glow her signature violet glow and literally lifted the whole cart into the air, grinning at the stunned expressions of the others as she hovered there.
"Hey, it's a green flag day. Do you honestly expect me to NOT get some flying in today?"
Wednesday, September 7, 2016 - Mid-Afternoon
Melville Cottage, Whateley Academy
Hikaru breezed into view, striding purposefully to the corner chair of the lounge Tia had staked out. Taka immediately tensed and bowed; Hikaru glanced at him and then dismissed him visibly. "You sent me a text? You have a problem so soon?" Her tone made it clear that she didn't appreciate either the text or the possibility of a problem - or both.
"It's nothing official, and I did say there was no rush. You were the one that said you'd be right here." Tia held out a coffee, the same kind Hikaru had enjoyed on the tour yesterday; it was graciously accepted.
"Why is he here?" Hikaru pointedly did not look in Taka's direction, and Taka shifted uncomfortably.
"Because this concerns him," Tia answered evenly.
Hikaru raised an eyebrow.
"Look, part of the Melvillain thing is to have minions, right? Well, I know he's one of yours, and I want to borrow him," Tia blurted.
Hikaru blinked. "I have minions?" she shook her head and settled her gaze on Tia. There seemed to be actual weight to her disapproval. "No, Melville students do not have minions, Tia. Even if we do, there are numerous school rules and policies pertaining to having minions, and they would have to be of a quality and reputation worthy of us." Taka seemed to shrink under Hikaru's steely gaze and demeaning words.
Despite Hikaru's intimidating tone and stare, Tia wasn't ready to give up yet. "But he can fight, right? Out of all the people I've met going here so far, the only one he was afraid of was you, and I can't hire you, obviously. I can't fight - I don't know how, and I wouldn't be strong enough anyway. But ... if you order him to help, he will; I know that."
Hikaru face-palmed at the girl's request.
Tia sensed that her points were losing and that another argument was needed. "Look, I can help him too! I know English, and I know other languages. I'm good at learning them, and I can teach him English and make sure he doesn't get into any trouble based on the language barrier, alright?" she practically babbled to complete her thoughts before Hikaru could interrupt her again. "Besides, I have an idea to make sure he behaves while at school, which if I were the Japanese government, would be a good thing, right?" Honestly, the idea Tia had was so simple it had to have been tried before, but maybe it hadn't stuck or something.
Hikaru bit. "What's your plan?"
"Simply to hire him, then order him not to kill or permanently injure anyone."
Taka chose this moment to interrupt. "I am right here, yes I am."
Tia and Hikaru both chose to ignore him. Hikaru shook her head. "It has been tried. He is Ronin by choice, and therefore not controllable. Further, he is not suited to you. He is most definitely not Yojimbo."
Tia sighed and nodded her understanding. "Alright, I'm sorry to waste your time. I thought it was worth a shot at least, but if you're saying it won't work, then it won't work." She bit the bullet, getting up to stand in front of Taka, before bowing to him.
"I'm sorry if anything I said offended you," she said contritely "It was not my intention, and I apologize."
Taka's hard gaze softened. "There is no need, really. You need not fear." He, in turn, bowed to Hikaru. "I will see myself out, Voice of the Heavens." He strode down the stairs, head held high, as Hikaru sighed.
Tia knew an opportunity when she saw one. "Voice of the Heavens, huh? I knew it, you ARE an idol singer!"
The couch cushion knocked her back into her chair.
Wednesday, September 7, 2016 - Late-Afternoon
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy
"Listen up, girls." Annette Carpenter greeted the freshmen girls in one of the common rooms, "How many of you had the tour of Poe's facilities?"
Laura and Glyph looked around the room - Laura curiously and Glyph a bit nervously; they'd had a briefing of the cottage amenities already. Annette caught their nervous glances, and she stared at Laura until the blue girl looked at her in the silence, gulping when she saw the upper-class girl watching her with a curious twinkle in her eye.
"We ... kinda had a tour," Laura said meekly. "Some of us got here pretty late, and with a little ... detour ...."
"To security," Annette grinned. "Yes, I heard about that." Not shedding the friendly smile, she chuckled. "You guys don't waste any time, do you?"
"Technically," Bianca calmly challenged Annette, "it was off-campus, so there are no grounds for us to be punished."
"Don't," Annette warned her with a stern look.
"What?" Bianca, Morgana, and several other girls were perplexed by the cautioning word.
"Don't try to lawyer your way out of things around here," Annette expanded upon her warning, the smile temporarily gone. "There have been students over the years who think they can outsmart the faculty and administration. One of the most famous ones from a few years ago was gifted by the administration with a code-name she hated. So don't try." The pleasant look returned. "If you have questions or think you've got a difficult situation, ask your RA or your cottage fixer. Or you can go talk to the Dean or Assistant Headmaster. Okay?"
When all the freshies nodded, Annette led the group downstairs to the main floor, where they had the nickel tour and orientation of the game room, library, study rooms, kitchen, and laundry, which were replicated in diagonally-opposing arms of the 'H'. The small herd then proceeded to the basement; Annette skipped the ballroom since they'd had an all-cottage assembly there earlier, focusing instead on the gyms, locker rooms, saunas, hot tubs, and the single endless-pool - which on the women's side were done up in a pastoral forest glade theme. Copious storage space was available for the students, as well.
To the puzzlement of most of the girls, the tour group walked to the second floor bathroom on the lesbian girls' wing. "Now, for the most important, and most secret, amenity of Poe cottage," Annette said solemnly to the group, standing in the hall by the door. "This is a secret, left as a legacy endowment by an alum, and we don't think any other cottage has this ... feature. It must remain a secret; if the other girls' cottages find out, they'll raise a stink, and the administration might force us to remove the equipment. And that would make a lot of girls very unhappy. Comprende?"
A few of the girls gulped nervously at Annette's words, but all nodded or muttered their understanding. With that, Annette threw open the door and led the girls into the room, stopping beside the shower stalls. "Girls, I give you the ultimate in showers, the Hydroflux!" She swept open a stall door and gestured to the somewhat complex-looking plumbing.
"It's ... a shower massage?" Morgana asked, baffled by the mysterious buildup to what seemed ordinary and common.
"It's not ...." Annette began.
"It's a very ... personal ... shower massage!" Laura blurted out, a small grin on her blushing face.
Annette frowned. "You spoiled my buildup!" she said accusingly to the blue girl. "Did someone ... tell you about it already?"
Laura flushed a very bright shade of lavender. "Um, no," she admitted in a tiny, embarrassed voice. "I'm ... um ... a gadgeteer and devisor," she explained, looking at the floor as she scuffed it with her toe, "so ... you know ... I ... kind of ... experimented until I figured it out."
"Oh, so you can demonstrate for the girls, then," Annette said brightly, causing Laura's head to snap up, a shocked look on her face. "Just ... kidding. Mostly," laying her hand on Laura's arm in a friendly gesture. "So, how about if you explain, and I'll see how well you do?"
Several minutes later, with only a couple of minor corrections from Annette, Laura completed her explanation as Annette demonstrated the controls. "Very good. Now, girls, there are some rules with the Hydroflux. Rule 1 - we do NOT talk about the Hydroflux. Rule 2 - No Hydroflux from 6am to 9am weekdays. This rule is inviolable; getting distracted in a shower affects your wing-mates' ability to get to breakfast and classes on time. Rule 3 - do NOT change the settings on the Hydroflux on anyone. Rule 4 - ALWAYS turn on the noise cancellation system when using the Hydroflux." She pointed to the signs on the wall. "Got it?"
"Now, you've got a little free time before dinner, so ...." She just smiled and winked at Laura and several of the lesbian girls.
As the girls drifted out of the bathroom, expressions ranging from shock to curiosity, Annette touched Laura's arm, taking her aside from the flow of girls. "Um, I'm sorry," Laura apologized to the older girl. "I wasn't trying ...."
"No problem," Annette laughed. "I'm not upset at all. Saves my voice, you know. But I'm curious about something I heard."
"And that is ...?" Laura asked cautiously, not quite sure where Annette was leading.
"Rumor is that you and Toni are an item," the older girl said softly and conspiratorially, clearly interested in getting the latest rumors and gossip.
Laura's jaw dropped. "Um ...." she stammered, eyes wide as she tried to figure out where the rumor had come from and how to respond. "Um, we, um, just met, and I, um, just moved in, and , um ...."
"She says you are." Annette's laugh was soft and sweet. "I know you're one of our changelings, and based on your reaction, I can tell you have the sense to bat for the right team?" She turned and sashayed out of the bathroom, leaving Laura standing, mouth agape, watching the sexy and highly-exaggerated wiggle Annette added to her strut.
Thursday, September 8, 2016 - Dinner
Kansas City, Office of Major Smythe-Barnes
"We're muted and the screen is blanked," Major Smythe-Barnes reassured Dr. Stauffer as the woman entered a somewhat lavish office. He sat behind a modern desk, but seemed old fashioned in his traditional dark gray suit.
"What are the topics?" Dr. Stauffer asked formally as she eased her trim frame into a chair. One might have mistaken her for a librarian, with her glasses, hair in a bun, and extremely restrained jacket and skirt over a plain white blouse. It was as if she dressed to purposefully hide even a vestigial hint of femininity.
Major Quinten Smythe-Barnes leaned back, smiling pleasantly as he stroked his ever-present long-furred white monk-cat, the devisor hybrid of an Angora cat and a capuchin monkey with a couple of extra surprises. The creature had other secrets - instead of mere sharp canines, it had the folding fangs of a viper, complete with poison sacs containing a powerful neurotoxin. More than one adversary had underestimated the white animal's ferocious loyalty to its master.
"Just the usual," the retired major replied easily.
"Then you don't need me," Frau Doctor Hilde Stauffer said angrily. "I have my work to tend to."
Smythe-Barnes chuckled. There was an air about him such that even if one didn't know he was retired military, it would be self-evident. Bald, very slightly overweight, with a jagged scar down his right cheek, if he'd been wearing a monocle, he'd have been passable as a villain from a superspy novel or movie. "Your presence tends to dampen the ... exuberance of the other factions," he said with a hint of charm in his voice.
"Bah!" the woman spat angrily. "That idiot Butler has a typical economist's view that people will react rationally to everything, forgetting about events like the Fool's Fight and the Fullerton Incident! And since he got that ... woman ... as an assistant, he's only gotten worse!"
"Money does talk," the Major reminded her.
"He reminds me of Opa's tales about Herr Speer during the war," she snarled distastefully. "And that idiot Reineke - he's going to stir up a riot and get us all killed!"
"He's not that bad," the Major countered. "He is being prudent in preparing for self-defense."
"No, he's not, and you know it!" she countered. "He's acting like the arrogant buffoons who ran the Waffen SS - they think a small, well-equipped and trained army can defeat hordes of an angry barbarian army. That does not work! We must have numbers for our own army!"
"That's why Herr Rolf is funding us," the Major reminded her. "Our project has the best chance of success, and he knows it. So we are to put up with the ... nonsense ... of the other two, and continue your work."
Frau Doctor Stauffer sighed. "But can Müller keep Reineke and his aide Lincoln from starting a race war? That's what they're trying to do! Reineke's type always overestimates their own capabilities and underestimates the foe!"
"And how do you know this with such certainty?" Smythe-Barnes was a little upset by her vehemence, which he'd never seen before; she was normally ice-cold and unflappably reserved.
"Because my grandfather overestimated the abilities of the Reich when he threw in with them!" Stauffer spat. "We cannot afford such arrogance - our opponents are legion and full of fear and hate! It will take nothing to anger them into riots and race war. How valuable will mutant rights be to the dead?"
Smythe-Barnes nodded sympathetically. "Give Müller credit; he knows this truth. That's why Herr Rolf has funded us so well. All of your projects - Phoenix, Rhein Mädchen, and Götterdammerung."
"Well, I need breakthroughs on all of them!" Stauffer griped. "Unless we want to accept a success rate of less than eight percent for Phoenix! That is not good enough! And I need a nano-technology expert to assist with Rhein Mädchen and Götterdammerung! The biological issues are ... well, not trivial, but much easier than the nano-tech."
"Rolf said he'd get us an expert. And he asked if you wanted assistance with the bioengineering. Specifically, he asked about recruiting Princess Jobe ..."
"Nein!" Stauffer's face flushed crimson, matching the iron in her voice. "I will not work with that ... schwarze Elfe! I don't care how much of a genius she is - that ... abomination can have no part of my work!"
The Major recoiled slightly; he'd never seen Stauffer get so worked up. "It was only an idea."
"Die ist eine sehr schlechte Idee!" The doctor visibly worked to compose herself from her outburst. "Let's get this telecon done with so I can get back to my lab. There is much to do before we begin the next round of experiments."
Wednesday, September 7, 2016 - Dinner
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
With a large group of Poe freshmen girls, Laura wandered into Crystal Hall, her hair wet and a silly, contented grin on her face. Most of the other Poe girls also seemed unnaturally relaxed and cheerful - or a little ... distracted.
"Laura?" Tanya, ahead of the Poe group in line, called out to her friend, but Laura didn't seem to notice. "Laura?"
The blue girl turned, and still with a glazed look in her eyes, she turned slowly. "Oh, hey, Tanya!" she called back through her puzzling smile.
"Are you okay?"
A crooked smile crossed Laura's face. "Yeah," she said absently, her mind quite obviously a long ways away.
"You're late!" Tanya exclaimed in disbelief. Around her, not only Laura, but all the Poe girls were equally distracted.
"I can't be too late - you're just dishing up your plate," Laura said.
Tanya frowned. "This is my third helping! Why are you so late? Did something happen?"
Laura glanced around at the other girls, who were giggling lightly through their smiles. "Um," she replied, "we ... um ... we had a ... a meeting."
"Okayyyyy." Tanya turned to finish piling slices of pork roast onto her plate, covering up a heap of potatoes au gratin and half a rack of beef ribs smothered in barbeque sauce. "Everyone else ... at least from the other cottages ... is upstairs."
Laura nodded, then glanced over her shoulder, where Bianca, Morgana, and Bailey stood waiting in the serving line, their eyes also glazed and the silly smiles stuck on their faces. "Did you ... um ... leave some for Morgana? You know she's a big eater," she said, not taking her eyes off the British girl, "and, um, I think she worked up a big appetite in our ... um ... meeting!"
Surprised by Laura's odd phrasing, Tanya glanced toward Morgana, in time to see the girl flush slightly. Beside her, Glyph's white cheeks were a healthy pink. Tanya suddenly had an odd thought that she might not want to know any more. "See you upstairs in a bit." She turned and beat a hasty retreat toward the checkout lane, glancing occasionally over her shoulder uneasily at the gaggle of Poe girls who were blushing, dazed, pleased, embarrassed, and displaying a plethora of other emotions.
Laura, Bianca, Morgana, and Bailey had no sooner stepped off the escalator than they all realized that everyone at their table sat transfixed, staring at them. Feeling suddenly awkward, Laura tried to ignore the stares from the other kids as she strolled nonchalantly to an open chair. "Hi, guys," she said innocently, feeling her cheeks burning and knowing that she was blushing. "How was everyone's day?"
"Not as good as yours, apparently," Hikaru smirked, studying the girls with a knowing smile.
Gulping, wondering if Hikaru had any idea of what had transpired at their 'meeting', Laura decided to pre-empt any such discussions. "How was your testing this afternoon?"
A heavy sigh from the Japanese girl answered Laura's question. "Not good. To start with, we're ... that is, I'm very uncomfortable down in the tunnels out of the sun." She had a wary look on her face, like she was expecting others to probe into her near-slip, but they didn't. "The easy part is they confirmed that I'm an exemplar-1 physically, while my coordination and reflexes rate much higher ..."
"That's kind of low," Morgana observed.
Hikaru shot her a momentary glare in response. "They know I've got exemplar memory traits, but due to my ... burnouts ... they can't tell."
"Burnouts?" The gasp was unanimous and audible.
Hikaru winced. "I burned out when I manifested, and then I ... my spirit ... did a ritual which drew too much power through me and I had a burnout."
"The tests ruled out psychic and esper traits." She turned directly toward Lapin. "I'm not a gadgeteer or devisor," she said with a wink at the rabbit-girl. "They didn't get complete magic testing done; they said my results were 'confusing'. And they didn't test my energizer trait because they wanted to focus on post-burnout memory and skill testing."
Tanya frowned. "Post-burnout doesn't ...." She winced when a foot contacted her shin, and she saw a warning glance from Tia.
Hikaru paused a moment, thinking, before she continued, "So I spent the afternoon going through a variety of memory tests, school knowledge tests, and personal skills tests." She read the concerned looks being directed her way. "It seems I forgot what I used to know about cooking, so it's a good thing we have the cafeteria." The last was delivered with a light, airy chuckle and smile, but Laura knew that there was a lot more to her story that she wasn't telling.
"So what about these vaunted combat capabilities?" Morgana couldn't resist getting in a shot, although she had a cherubic smile on her face.
"I have to go back for more testing," Hikaru said, voice heavy with resignation. "The power testers here are a lot more detailed than the testers in Japan. They must believe that I'm unique, and they can use me as a captive subject to test more of their power-testing gadgets."
"So did they have you demonstrate your 'combat laser' powers?" Morgana got in another snide comment before Bianca kicked her under the table.
Hikaru slowly turned and shot an icy glare Morgana's way. "No," she said in an unusually calm, emotionless voice. "They'll test more powers on Monday."
The silence that crashed upon the table was awkward, so Laura decided to change the subject. "Did everyone get registered?" She looked around expectantly.
"Yes." "Yup." "Uh huh." "Yeah." All the heads bobbed up and down affirmatively.
"I've got English in first period," Laura began. "Anyone else?" Bailey nodded, but lots of the others shook their heads.
"Power theory," Tanya said, which was echoed by almost everyone. Only Laura and Bailey weren't in first-period power theory.
"If we have more troubles like in New York," Laura observed dryly, "they'll only have to go to one class to get all you fighting types."
"What about second period?" Erica asked, voice tinged with anticipation. "I've got Earth Science."
"Me too," Jimmy noted.
"English," Lapin said, not sounding happy about it.
"Yeah, I'm in English, too." Vic seemed as unhappy about English as Lapin had.
"World History," Tanya said, looking excited when Laura and Cally nodded.
"Power theory," Bailey said sadly. "I couldn't get in first section. For some reason," she glanced around the table with a feigned expression of anger, "it was full!"
"Bianca and I have magic theory," Morgana chimed in. "Does anyone not have basic martial arts third period?"
"I've got survival, remember?" Tia sounded like she might have regrets about being the only one of the group in Survival instead of martial arts.
"Hey, I'm in survival then, too!" Bailey interjected cheerfully, and her comment erased a few worry lines from Tia's expression.
"English as second language," Taka put in.
"For most of the semester," Hikaru said, keeping even the slightest hint of emotion out of her voice, "my second and third periods will be occupied with testing to determine the extent of damage from my burnouts."
"Who has fourth period lunch?" Cally asked. Everyone raised their hand or said some form of 'yes'.
"How about fifth period?" Vic spoke up. "Anyone else in algebra?" Tia's, Cally's, Bailey's, and Bianca's hands shot up. "Cool! Someone to help me study!"
"English?" Jimmy posed. Tanya and Erica nodded yes.
"My afternoon is power lab, avatar 1, and then home-ec," Hikaru noted resignedly. "Apparently, someone I know put a note in my file that my ... domestic skills ... are lacking."
"World history," Taka said, "then algebra 2 and advanced martial arts."
"Hey," Laura observed, "why don't you talk to your advisor and swap your ESL class to fourth period, so you'll be in world history with me, Tanya, and Cally?"
Kenshin's eyebrows arched very slightly. "Idea is good. I ... talk to advisor ... first morning thing."
Tia nearly spewed the soda she was drinking. "It's 'first thing in the morning'," she commented, still chuckling.
"I've got calc 1," Morgana said, "then French and magic lab."
Laura shrugged when everyone looked at her. "Advanced Electronics in fifth." She glanced around. "Anyone else got sixth-period biology?"
"Me," Cally answered. "Seventh is powers lab, and then I'm taking the extra periods in classical literature and music."
"Extra class periods?" Tia wrinkled her nose. "Why? We have four years, remember? When I finish home-ec in seventh period, I'm done for the day."
"I've got advanced programming in seventh, and then two periods of workshop - which is optional, so I won't always be down in the labs, but I should have plenty of time to tinker." Laura said with a smile.
"Algebra?" Tanya asked. Erica and Jimmy waved their hands. "And then powers lab for me."
"Me, too," Bailey commented. Cally, Erica, Jimmy, and Vic joined them in that class.
"Oma was very specific that I take German, so I'm taking it in eighth period, and world history in ninth."
"If you've got Dr. Barton," Laura shot in, "you'll love him. He's really nice."
"Nice people can be asshole teachers," Jimmy interjected sarcastically.
"How do they rate?" Ike Mackay, a brown-haired, blue-eyed boy sitting with friends on the first tier asked enviously, staring up at the occupied table on the second tier. There was no doubt, from his appearance, that he was an exemplar. "My RA said that's for upperclassmen!"
"Maybe they are," Timothy King, one of the boy's dining companions replied with a mouth half-full of hamburger. If one were to guess which cottage he was from, one would guess Emerson, since he, like his two companions, had exemplar-class looks. In Tim's case, it included almost perfect musculature beneath a nearly-perfect face, which was beneath a mop of very blonde hair, and he wore a tank to show off his perfectly-tanned body. If he'd had on shorts and was carrying a surfboard, the stereotype would have fit perfectly.
"Nah," a third kid, a redheaded kid who looked like an Irish kid out of central casting, said, staring at the attractive girls. "Upperclassmen don't arrive until tomorrow, except for the RAs and other special leaders, and some of them don't look older than us."
"Are they maybe the badass group that took down supervillains in New York?" Tim asked, his eyes fixed lustfully on Morgana.
"Yeah," Garrett Burke, the third boy, chimed in. "I saw it on the news." He shook his head. "I don't remember any girls in that mess, though."
"Dude," Tim chided his new friend, "the cameras were like a half mile away because of all the firepower getting thrown around."
"Yeah," Ike, Tim's roommate in Emerson, chimed in. "I saw it too." He shook his head. "I don't remember any girls, either."
Tim chuckled. "Everyone was there! The police, the FBI, the CIA, the MCO, the Knights of Purity - everyone!"
"Uh, I don't know," Garrett rebutted. "There was that one news helicopter shot - and it looked like one of those horse-dudes. You know, from the reality show? Paradise Island?"
"Oh, yeah." Tim grinned. "I love that show! I wanted to sign up for that, but my mom said no!" He shook his head sadly. "It'd be so cool to be a horse-boy!"
"Hell, if you were a rat-boy, it'd be an improvement!" Ike chuckled.
"Fuck you!" Tim snapped angrily.
"Rather do the redhead up there," Ike laughed. "Or the blue girl."
"What, are you into smurfs? Or Na'vi?" Garrett laughed openly at his friend.
"What?" Ike countered. "She's cute!"
"And none of that group are horse-men - what do they call them? Ani-men or something like that?" Garrett noted.
"Yeah, but SNAFU told us that a bunch of girls with weird hair colors got in seriously deep shit with security for a big supervillain fight in New York! And I heard that's them," Tim rebutted. He gazed at them longingly. "Hell, all of them are doable!"
Laughter erupted from Ike and Garrett. "Even the Japanese gay-boy in the poet shirt and the other two guys up there? What are you, some kinda fag?"
Tim's cheeks flushed red with anger as he turned on his new friends. "Fuck you guys! You know I mean the girls!" Seeing them back down a bit, he turned his attention back to the redhead. "I'm gonna do her. By Thanksgiving."
"I am!" Tim declared defiantly. "You wanna put ten bucks on it?"
Cally had her nose buried in a booklet. "Hey, Laura" she called out, "there's a Sci-Fi club!"
Laura's features clouded slightly. "Is that some kinda stereotypical nerd joke?" Cally's eyes widened and she started to apologize, but Laura grinned. "'Cuz in this case, it's kinda accurate." She glanced around at the 'I told you so' grins. "What gave me away?"
"The fact that you made your neural thingy look like a Phaser," Erica giggled.
"So it's a yes for Laura in the sci-fi club." Bailey grinned. "Just watch out for guys dressed up like Kirk," she cautioned Laura. "You do look like the kind of alien babe Kirk would seduce, and some guys might have ideas." Laura replied by sticking her tongue out at her roommate.
"Any other interesting clubs?" Tanya interrupted the teasing.
"Alphas - campus leaders." Erica shook her head. "Nah. Probably snobs. Anime?" That got Kenshin's attention, but none of the others responded. "European Promotional League?" Cally's eyebrows arched. "Could be interesting."
"And you, too, Morgana?" Laura offered.
"Probably not," Cally interjected. "There's a group called Commonwealth. Probably the Brits and their colonies trying to relive past glories!"
"I thought Britain was part of Europe?" Vic said with a puzzled frown.
"Hardly!" Morgana and Cally replied simultaneously.
"Art club," Cally continued. "The Future Superheroes of America." Everyone looked at Tanya.
"What?" she asked. "Okay, so maybe I'm interested," she grudgingly acknowledged after a momentary pause.
"Yeah, maybe me, too," Jimmy said with a shrug.
"Evolution Rocks. Faction 3." Cally's nose wrinkled. "Hmmm - that's a group for kids with GSD." She looked around the table. "That's not us. Fliers ...."
"What's that?" Tanya's ears perked up.
"Some kind of aerial games club, it looks like," Cally reported.
"Could be cool," Tanya said. "What else?"
"Culinary club - foodies!" Cally continued down the list. "Gearheads."
"Auto club," Tia and Hikaru expounded on that.
"Golden Kids. Hmm - rich kids?" Everyone turned to Hikaru, who looked put-upon.
"Junior ROTC. Journalism Guild." No-one expressed interest in either. "Whateley Literature Guild? Martial arts club." Again everyone's heads turned, this time toward Kenshin, who simply nodded. "The Nations - a Native American culture group?"
"I don't think that applies to any of us," Bianca noted.
"Pan-Asia." Again, everyone looked, this time toward both Kenshin and Hikaru.
"Parkour Hooligans. Intelligence Corps of Cadets."
"Spy Kids," Tanya explained. "James Bond wannabes. And the Parkour group sounds like fun. Mind Geist was a member until he graduated last year, and he told me all about it."
"Southern Heritage Club." There were no takers. "Theater guild? Wondercute?"
Tanya's eyes widened. "They're still here?" she asked, mouth agape in shock. Seeing others staring at her, she expounded on her reaction. "Geist told me some rather unbelievable stories about them as well! I was warned to stay away - if they're anything like the original, they're bubbly-happy girls heavily into 'cuteness'!" She watched everyone cringe from even a short description of the group.
"Venus, Inc. - a modeling club?" Cally looked around. "Fashionistas and models? No, thank you."
"Not interested," Hikaru replied evenly when several of the group looked her way. When eyes swiveled toward Lapin, she shook her head also, denying any interest.
"There's a meet-and-greet on Saturday at the picnic and all-school get-together," Hikaru explained. "All of the formal groups will have tables where you can get more information and talk to some of the members."
A small group of students walked past, staring at the group to the point that they stumbled on the first step of the escalator, all the while whispering among themselves. The group turned toward Tia. "Well?"
Tia winced; she felt like she was a living remote-listening device for the group. "They were talking about us fighting the MCO and a supervillain in New York," she reported what she'd overheard. There was a lot more, to be sure, but she wasn't sure she should share some of what the boys were whispering.
"Damn," Bianca swore softly. "I hope all this talk dies down soon. It's not safe to have a reputation like that. It'll attract the wrong kinds of attention."
As she started to walk from the group's table, Laura's eyes were riveted by the curves on the Hispanic girl walking unerringly toward her in a very sultry, alluring manner. The girl's eyes sparkled with life and more than a slight hint of 'come-hitherness'; her long, wavy black hair dancing tantalizingly in time with her hip-swaying step. Tilting her head ever so slightly, she slowly, deliberately touched her tongue lightly to her deep maroon lips, her dark eyes never blinking nor straying from the gaze she had fixed on Laura. The blue-haired girl couldn't help but gulp nervously as the other girl drew closer.
"Hi," the girl said, managing to put massive amounts of sex appeal into the simplest of greetings. "I'm Valentina Maria Sanchez de Hernandez, but my friends call me Val."
"Um, hi, Val," Laura managed to stammer, wondering why she seemed so tongue-tied. "I'm Laura. Laura Samuels." She reached out her hand to shake with Val. "Um, Valentina is a pretty name."
Val's cheeks rose slightly as a smile graced her full, sensuous, kissable lips. "The way you say it makes my plain, boring name sound ... sexy." Laura blushed, her cheeks turning a nice shade of lavender. "I'm pleased to meet you," Val replied, shaking Laura's hand in a way that seemed like a flirty caress instead of a mere greeting.
"I've heard some gossip about you," she said, "and your friends." Her eyes never strayed from their laser-lock on Laura's. "They say you're something of a hero already."
Laura's blush deepened; she figured she was a full purple by that point. "I wouldn't say that," she muttered meekly, unable to take her gaze from Val's eyes. "We ... were just in the wrong place ...."
Val's laugh was like sweet music. "...at the wrong time?" she finished Laura's thought. "It should be the motto of the school - iniuriam loco, iniuriam tempus."
"Wrong place, wrong time?" Laura asked, not quite sure of her Latin, since she'd only had a year and a half of the language before she'd been forced out of her prep school due to her mutation.
"Pretty and smart!" Val complimented her with a warm smile.
"You're embarrassing me," Laura said, flinching even though deep down, she was loving the attention she was getting. "I'm not very pretty. Not like you! Or most of the other girls!"
"Since you're carrying your tray, why don't you walk with me and we can talk more?" Val suggested. For some reason, Laura found the offer irresistible, and she nodded. As the two walked toward the escalator down to the main floor, Val continued. "You're a freshman? What cottage?"
"Yeah," Laura replied. "I'm in Poe."
"Oh, really?" Val's eyebrows arched, while her eyes got a predatory gleam. "My best friend Brita lives in Poe. I know several Poe girls!" She smiled. "How are you fitting in?"
The blue girl puzzled for a moment; the question was a little unusual, but then again, she thought, it could be her use of English idioms wasn't perfected. After all, she did have that extremely sexy Latina accent. "It's ... nice. The girls are helpful and very friendly." Laura couldn't help but smile as she continued. "I'm sure I'm going to like living there this year."
"Do you have a code-name yet?" Val asked. "Mine is Eurydice."
"As in a beautiful tree nymph?" Laura asked with a smile. "Or someone worthy of odes to her beauty?"
"You know a bit about Greek mythology, too!"
"I was always kind of ... bookish," Laura admitted. "I'm ... I think I'm going to go with Cerulea for a code-name," she said hesitantly.
"Fitting." After Laura put her tray on the conveyor and walked out of Crystal Hall, Val lightly took her arm in a very flirtatious manner. "How about I walk with you to Poe so we can continue our conversation? I do have to meet Brita, and I'm sure she's already done with dinner."
Laura felt a warm flush; Val was so sexy, and with her Hispanic accent and looks, she was irresistibly charming. "Sure," she answered. "That'd be nice." And from her flirty behavior, Laura was wondering if she should have been in Poe with the other lesbians.
Wednesday, September 7, 2016 - Early Evening
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy
The ballroom was mostly empty; the freshman class and the few new upperclassmen were only a fraction of the total occupants of Poe Cottage. Despite the house-parent's note that the gathering was informal, a hush descended over the ballroom and the gathered students clustered around the stage, despite the fact that the PA system rendered that unnecessary.
"Please, this is informal," Mr. Babich implored from the raised stage in the ballroom, which had no chairs set out, but had several tables with punch, a variety of snacks, and other hors d'oeuvres. "Gather 'round for a few moments, and then you can get back to visiting, snacking, gossiping, or whatever else you think need to do." Babich wasn't an imposing presence; he was only five foot six. He appeared in his mid-fifties, with salt-and-pepper hair that looked a little untamed, piercing blue eyes, and a thin, bony face. He wore a 'Mr. Rogers' cardigan sweater in a bland tone, over a plain shirt and with plain slacks, and in his arms was his ever-present cat. Compared to Mrs. Horton, he seemed less friendly, less approachable.
"Thanks for coming," Mr. Babich continued, smiling as he looked around. His voice, unlike his appearance, was warm and friendly.
"I thought we didn't have a choice!" one of the gay boys chuckled aloud, causing a titter of laughter to course through the students.
"Well, yes, I guess we did say that," the house-parent said with a sheepish smile, "and you could have skipped, but it's very helpful information, so it'd be your loss."
He waited for the chuckles to die down. "First, welcome to Poe, your home-away-from-home for the next several years. I'm Adam Babich, and I've been a house-parent here at Whateley for eight years now. This," he glanced down at the pet he was absently stroking, "is my cat Bob, and I trust you will all treat him kindly. He gets cantankerous when kids prank him."
"Now," he looked back up at the kids in the ballroom, "you're going to hear rumors that I'm a former super-villain, that I was a henchman, and so forth, so let's clear that up right now. I did spend some years working for Dr. Malicious, who despite his unfortunate code-name, was a leading-edge researcher into mutants and mental powers.
"Great," one boy muttered just loud enough that everyone could hear, "another villain!"
Mr. Babich returned an iron gaze at the boy. "Dr. Malicious was not a villain. His experiments were quite badly mischaracterized by a fearful press and public, until it seemed he was an evil supervillain. In answer to your unspoken question, young man," his words hardened a bit, "I never did anything outside the law."
He closed his eyes a moment and took a breath to re-center himself. "Back to the subject at hand, you all know Poe's secret. Well, I could have been a resident of Poe if I'd have attended Whateley. I'm not gay, but a changeling; I started life as a girl, and either through delayed BIT or through Dr. Malicious' experiments, I changed into the young man I desired to be."
He saw the looks from some of the kids - unwitting changelings, he knew. "And no, I don't know which it was, and Dr. Malicious' notes and laboratory are long gone, so don't ask."
Mrs. Horton, an older, somewhat stout woman, stepped forward. "For those of you who haven't met me, I'm Mrs. Bella Horton, and I've been here since," she got a far-off look in her eyes, "practically since this cottage was dirt, or so it seems!" That drew a few titters from the assembled students.
"I'm a mage, and I keep up the wards around our cottage to protect our little secrets. Additionally, I will be giving each of you - and this is not optional - a spell to help keep you from accidentally betraying Poe's little secret." She smiled, but it carried both warmth and warning. "I understand that you're teenagers, and your lives can be a little ... shall we say 'interesting?' Especially since you're also gifted with powers you don't necessarily have firm control of?"
"We," she glanced at Mr. Babich, "expect you to have a few problems or a little drama in your lives. If you have troubles, I want to assure you that both of us have open-door policies, and we'll help you in any way we can." Her visage became stern. "But there is a line, and that's the Whateley Code of Conduct and Rules. If you break the rules or do something deliberate or harmful, you'll find our tolerance is very limited."
"If you're having problems with another student - resident of Poe or not - please, please talk to one of us. With your powers, attempting to solve it yourself can have terrible consequences." Suddenly, her countenance seemed weighed down by a thousand bad memories. "Because you're all mutants, minor spats or fights can turn deadly in seconds. A minor prank can end up causing serious or fatal injuries. In an average year, the school has several student deaths, and it's not uncommon to have half a dozen students expelled for serious infractions of the rules - often leaving in a DPA van."
Her words had exactly the effect she desired; one could have heard a pin drop in the ballroom following the collective gulp of all the students as they realized the seriousness of the situation.
"I will repeat, if you have a problem, seek out your Resident Advisor or myself or Mr. Babich. We are here to help you. Understand?"
"Remember that you are teenagers, not superheroes or supervillains," Mr. Babich continued her thought process, "despite some rather ... interesting students that have inhabited Poe over the years, one group of which seemed to be trouble magnets. No doubt you will hear stories of some of our more colorful alumnae."
Mrs. Horton picked up the narrative. "Your job is not to battle supervillains when you're off campus. You should NOT be filling in for security, even if you do happen to spot a team of ninjas infiltrating campus, find someone doing a demonic ritual, or spot a cult engaged in some bizarre ritual. Let security do their jobs - it is why they're so well-paid, after all!"
"Now, that's enough of that - for now. Let's talk about who's here to help you, and in what ways," Babich put a smile back on his face. "Your first resource is your Resident Advisor, an older student on your cottage wing who's being paid to help us in our jobs."
"Do not think that because you're a friend of an RA, they'll cover for your infractions. They will not. They're the first line of help you can get when you need advice, and the first line of enforcement for rules. Mind you," Mrs. Horton added, "they are not going to dish out punishment; their job is to report infractions to me or Mr. Babich, and we will mete out appropriate consequences."
"If the infraction is within our jurisdiction," Mr. Babich added quickly. "For more serious incidents, you may be punished by the Dean of Students, or in extreme cases, by the Assistant Headmaster or the Headmaster himself. I would strongly advise you to avoid the Headmaster's office for disciplinary actions." Another collective gulp circulated around the room.
"If you're not feeling well, let your RA know, and we'll get you the help you need. If you're lonely, or homesick, or have other emotional feelings, let your RA know. They will treat any of your problems as confidential matters, just like a doctor would. If they can't help you, they will notify Mr. Babich or me, and we'll get you assistance."
"There will be matters which confuse you on campus - registration, disputes, and so forth. Each cottage has a 'fixer' and at least one 'assistant fixer'. These are students who have a knack for knowing the rules and knowing how to best help you with non-cottage issues. Is your advisor shunting you into classes which are irrelevant to your powers? The fixers know how to work through the bureaucracy. Having issues with a club or group or team? The fixers can help you resolve those issues within the rules of Whateley. In other words, they're general-purpose experts at anything outside the walls of Poe."
"Now that that's out of the way," Mrs. Horton said after a short pause for the new freshmen to digest what had been said so far, "let's talk about the cottage amenities and their rules. Your RAs should have already given you the overview of what's available here to help make your time with us more enjoyable. So let's talk about the rules for using - and the consequences of misusing - our facilities." She and Mr. Babich continued for another fifteen minutes discussing the cottage's amenities in detail, and especially the rules for their use, like the gyms / weight rooms and the saunas. It seemed like a large amount of knowledge to ingest, at least to Laura, but she was reassured when Mrs. Horton concluded. "If you're not sure, ask your RA, or one of the other RAs if you can't find your own."
"Now," Mr. Babich said with a smile, "let's not bore you further, but instead, enjoy some punch, tea, coffee cakes, and hors d'oeuvres while you mingle and socialize."
"And by the way," Mrs. Horton said as she stepped down off the stage, "I have placed a ward on the door, so you won't be able to leave the ballroom until I've given you the secrecy spell."
Wednesday, September 7, 2016 - Mid Evening
Melville Cottage, Whateley Academy
A knock on Tia's door interrupted her reading of cars and all-wheel-drive handling. She almost fell out of her chair before springing up to answer it; she'd lost track of time.
Hikaru was somber as she gave Tia a once-over. "Come, we have a floor meeting."
Hikaru led the way to one of the large rooms, converted into a sort of lounge for this purpose, and closed the door. Inside were a good twenty-five to thirty kids, most of which were already talking to each other, drinks in hands. Tia was reminded forcefully of a business party, and she doubted the similarity was an accident. At least there were plenty of couches to sit on.
Hikaru hadn't said a word during the admittedly short walk, and seemed pensive, almost as if she didn't know what to do with herself.
Then the door opened and Tiff stuck her head in. She looked around then clapped, sharply. "Yeah, no, this isn't going to work. All of you, get your swimsuits and a towel and meet me back here in five. Kelly, you too."
"But Tiff...," a gorgeous if mousey looking brunette dressed in well-made but baggy clothes started to protest. Tiff held up a hand.
"Don't care. You're the RA for the boys, you need to be there. Five minutes, people!"
Tia was already moving; did she mean to move this to the pool? And wasn't the RA for the boys supposed to be a boy? There had to be a story there.
Back in her room, she had a choice. There had been two suits in her bags, one packed by Ibby and one by her mom. The one from her mom was a one piece that while flattering and a little revealing, was in basic black and purple trim and very tasteful. It was even tailored for her tail.
The other was strings of dental floss tied to band aids, or close enough. The choice was pretty easy. She grabbed her phone, earbuds, her sonic brush, and some goggles too, wrapped everything in a towel, and headed back.
Tiff was inside the room, her own stuff in hand, tapping her foot, about half the students and Hikaru around her; some of them already in their suits or trunks. Tia joined the crowd.
"So where are we going? The pool?"
Tiff glanced at Hikaru. "Nope, not going near the pool; it's a surprise, and I'm not going to spoil it. Let's just say you'll like it, and you'll likely be angry at me by the end of tonight."
Tia saw her tea on the refreshments table and grabbed it.
Kelly had been the last to show, slipping in and trying to go unnoticed; she flinched slightly at Tiff's gaze. Tiff just stated evenly: "Alright, all of you, follow me." and strode out.
Tia followed, wondering why there was such a big production over something so simple. She waited and fell into the back of the line, but someone slid in behind her as they left the room. She turned to see Michelle behind her.
"Hello again, Tia. I wonder what's going on; this was supposed to be a simple meet-your-neighbors sort of thing? Do you have any idea?"
Tia shook her head and just barely kept her ears from lowering; there was a guy ahead of them with scales, a forked tongue he was tasting the air with, and yellow snake-like eyes. In all likelihood, he was very nice, but when he looked at her, her reaction wasn't exactly rational.
Michelle leaned over and purred out: "He's admiring your tail, Tia dear. Can't say I blame him. You do have a nice one."
It took a second for Tia to control her ears again; Michelle probably didn't mean it like that. Tia decided to change her focus anyway; it would be much better that way. She pointed to a boy with an ear. Said boy was perhaps thirteen or younger, and following Tiff around like a lost puppy, complete with a forlorn look.
"Speaking of admiring ... look at that."
Michelle looked and grinned. "I don't think she's even noticed ... but he has pretty good taste for a kid."
A boy caught Tia's eye ... a boy that bore a more than passing resemblance to Michelle, though he seemed to have been shorted in the genetic lottery appearance department, at least compared to her. Michelle noticed.
"Yeah, that's my brother, Micheal Brown."
"So your parents had a love for the name Micheal in all its forms?"
Michelle shrugged, her grin widening again. "They wanted us to be perfect little angels, so they named us after them. Clearly, it was a mistake."
Tia looked again; Micheal didn't look the type to get into too much trouble. "Clearly, you're both little miscreants."
Tiff led them past the pool entrance. Kelly was once again protesting mildly in whispers that Tia could make out. She didn't want to take a shower or something, but Tiff was having none of it. "Where are we going, anyway?"
Michelle shrugged. "We'll find out when we get there; knowing this place, it'll probably be amazing."
It was. The room at the end of the hall, one Tia had been told was a broom closet - wasn't. It was as large as one, but it had a card scanner and lock, and there was nothing in it. With a wave, Tiff walked to the far wall, and then through it. Hikaru followed, and soon everyone else was filing in.
When it was Tia's turn, Michelle pushed her in.
On the other side of the wall was a smooth hallway. Tia turned in time to see Michelle come through the wall, which looked like a blank wall on this side too. Everyone else was already moving, so Tia joined the line again, stopping when they all did in front of a pair of doors, marked male and female.
"Alright. Now, this is the Melville cottage onsen, made especially for us. And by us, I mean Melville, with a stress on upperclassmen. Since there aren't that many upperclassmen running around right now, and since I want to, your floor meeting is now moved here. When you're all done cleaning yourselves - and you WILL clean yourselves, I'll know if you don't - you will go through the door marked co-ed. The other doors lead to gender-specific pools. Let's go, girls."
Kelly tried to beg off again ... but was firmly rebuffed by Tiff. "Not this time, Kelly. It's your responsibility." She dragged her inside, leaving the boys staring after Kelly, as confused as Tia felt.
The inside room looked like the freshman shower. Tia picked a stool and got to work with the cleaning stuff on hand, keeping her eyes to herself. She was one of the first done and dressed, and as she walked to the door both Tiff's and Hikaru's critical eyes fell upon her. They were right next to each other at the door, and beginning to work on their hair. Kelly was beside them, looking pointedly at the floor, muttering "they're not used to this - it's a bad idea" over and over as she scrubbed.
Tiff raised a finger. "Alright. Twirl for me."
Tia spun, face heating.
"Looks good Tia. No trace of soap or dirt. Even the ears - pretty good for keeping those clips in."
Tia gave her a rueful grin. "Practice."
Tiff waved her away. "Go ahead, go through. We're almost done here ourselves."
Tia opened the door carefully and slipped through. The boy that had been following Tiff around looked disappointed; his position was perfect to see inside the room if the door were opened wide, which struck Tia as an architectural failure. Of course, the boy's side was built the same way, so maybe it evened out.
Outside the door was a steaming pool inside a high wooden fence. The scene looked like something from a mountain spa. An experimental toe proved the water was hot, just on the low side of too hot in fact. There was a little sulfurous odor to the steam and a metallic taste to the air. Tia picked a spot with a nice bench and where she couldn't see the guy's side door.
Splashing alerted her.
"Hi. Name's Willy, and you're Tia. Pleased to meet you." The boy all but sticking his hand in her face was handsome, with dark swarthy looks marred a bit by his expression. His eyes weren't anywhere near her face.
Nonetheless, Tia shook the hand offered, mainly to stop it from inching closer when she wasn't entirely sure where it was being aimed. A younger but unfortunately larger kid was floating by; he took a glance at her and blurted out "32B," before floating past.
Evidently Willy knew him. "Yes, thank you Meatball."
Tia raised an eyebrow. "Meatball?"
Willy raised his hands. "Hey, I didn't name him that. It's his code name; he chose it himself. So, was he right? I mean, he looks right, but I've been fooled before."
Tia wondered if they had both been dropped on the head as babies; idly she began to calculate the odds of such a thing. "About my cup size? Yes, he was."
"Damn. He told me he was never wrong, but I bet him anyway. I was kind of hoping your suit would fool him."
Implying it was 1 for 2 out of fooling horndogs so far ... which was better than the other one would have done. Perhaps she shouldn't have finished rinsing so quickly.
"So, is it true what they say about bunny girls?"
Oh dear God, he was so bad at this, Tia thought. Even his leer looked awkward. "I don't know, I haven't met any bunny girls. What do they say?"
Tia watched as his brain threw a gear. Perhaps some of the steam swirling around them was actually smoke from his ears? She made a show of waiting patiently, all bright-eyed, for his response.
Tiff and Hikaru spoiled her fun simply by arriving. The poor guy's brain definitely short-circuited when he saw them in their bikinis, both of which were barely above decency standards in Tia's opinion; he could barely squeak out a "hey babes" to greet them with. A reluctant Kelly was sporting a one piece that looked like a YMCA suit as she followed, one of Tiff's hands locked around an arm.
Hikaru looked at Willy as if he were a particularly nasty bug. "So, what did I miss?"
Tia couldn't help herself. "Oh, not much. Willy here was just going to tell me what was said about bunny girls, so I could tell him whether it was true or not."
Standing next to Tiff made Tia almost invisible, she was sure, so she shifted a little. Hikaru and Tiff's grins were shark-like - worse than Tia's own, or so she hoped. They both turned to the stuttering boy.
"Oh, and what do they say? Inquiring minds want to know!"
He gave it his best shot. "Um ... that they like carrots?"
Tia decided to take pity on him. "So, floor meeting. What's involved in a floor meeting?"
Tiff jumped in. "Oh, not much. Just getting to know your neighbors and an announcement, in this case."
Tia could tell the announcement, whatever it was, was bad. Hikaru seemed visibly upset by whatever it was, and even Tiff seemed subdued for a moment.
"So, Kelly was it? Could you please introduce yourself? I'm Tia Del Bosque."
"I'm Kelly Mishkin. Pleased to meet you." She didn't sound pleased. She sounded like she'd rather be anywhere else.
"Pleased to meet you, Kelly. Can you answer a question for me? I heard something that got me curious."
Kelly glanced at Tia's ears as her eyes widened. She tried to tug her hand free, and Tiff just looked at her. Why did Kelly seem afraid of her - which was stupid.
"I'm not trying to pry, but how does a girl get the boy's RA position?"
Kelly muttered it, but this close it was as loud as a shout to Tia since she didn't have her ear clips in. "I'm not a girl." Kelly sighed, shaking her head. "At least, not my permanent form."
Tia thought she certainly looked like one.
Tiff poked Kelly in the side and rolled her eyes when the girl who claimed she wasn't stayed silent. "What Kelly here is trying to say is that she's a shifter. A bistable shifter, to be precise, with two stable forms - one female, and one male."
Kelly scowled at Tiff; there was more that wasn't being said, and Kelly interrupted Tiff, probably to make sure it wasn't said. "I flip back and forth between forms - and genders - based on who is near me at the time, and I don't have a lot of control over it; I can't change more than once every twenty to twenty-two hours." She shrugged. "This morning, I bumped into a girl in the hall."
"It triggers when Kelly gets ... excited," Tiff interjected with a grin.
"I'm telling the story, Tiff!" Kelly took a deep breath before continuing. "Yeah, it's ... when ... what Tiff said. So I changed."
"Damn!" Tia swore softly. "That's gotta play hell with your love life!"
Kelly shrugged. "It's ... difficult, but I'm learning to cope."
"If you're a junior," Hikaru asked the obvious, "I would think you were used to it by now."
"Yeah, mostly, but with newbies who don't know?" She shook her head sadly. "Sometimes, they kind of freak out - especially the girls, when they find out that I'm sometimes a boy." She looked around nervously. "You're not gonna let any of them beat me up, are you?"
"No, I won't let it happen," Tiff reassured the nervous girl before turning back to Tia. "The rule is that Kelly gets treated as the gender he is at the time; so when he's a girl, it's the girls' showers, et cetera. At least, when she remembers." She chuckled at the blushing Kelly. "Sometimes, if she hasn't had her morning coffee, she forgets."
Tia's and Michelle's eyes popped wide open. "Forgets?"
"The guys don't mind when Kelly stumbles into the boys' bathroom as a girl, but ...."
"I don't want the girls here beating me up again!" Kelly complained. "Just because I make a mistake now and again ...."
"Won't happen this year. I won't let it."
Tia didn't know what to think, other than the situation was horrible all around. "You won't have to worry about me hurting you. I can't. Strength of a kitten and fighting skill of a blind hobo, that's me."
Michelle swam up, grinning. "So, this seems to be where the fun is."
"Not so sure about that. Michelle, this is Hikaru, Tiff, and Kelly, if you haven't met yet. Hikaru, Tiff, and Kelly, this is Michelle."
Hikaru sniffed. "I know who she is. Hello, Miss Brown. How do you like your cottage so far? I trust there have been no issues?"
Michelle shook her head. "No, no issues. This is much better than where I had been staying."
"For you, perhaps. I am left wondering why the remodeling I ordered weeks ago remains incomplete."
The newcomer to the group was small, probably not even old enough for high school yet, and was trying - and failing - to carry off some kind of regal air. Thin, with dark skin, eyes, and hair, she was clearly from a Middle Eastern country, though Tia couldn't place the accent well enough to tell which. She had a drink in hand, a wine glass that probably contained grape juice. Her swimsuit showed less than Tia's own, and Tia idly wondered if she'd gotten it from around here; maybe she could find one her size?
"There was a good reason for that, actually, along with some of the other odd things that have been going on. And it's what we're here to discuss, so just a bit longer, and your patience will be rewarded, Sara. Besides, all the remodeling is being handled now, and your suite will be ready-to-go by bedtime tonight, according to the latest."
Sara spit out the metaphorical lemon. "Really? That is good news; I have no desire to sleep in ... that other room again."
Tiff just turned to Hikaru and rolled her eyes. Sara didn't notice; she was too busy staring with open fascination at something else. Tia managed to gather that Tiff and Hikaru were making a headcount.
"Looks like we're all here. Alright! Everyone gather close and listen up!" Tiff announced.
Everyone gathered, and aside from splashes as they moved it was silent.
"Alright, so here's the deal," Tiff began. "The Headmaster of this school, for the longest time, was a woman named Mrs. Carson. It's okay if you haven't heard of her, but she was very well-respected by everyone, and a fixture of the place. Almost everyone around here liked her, and at the very least, everyone respected her."
"Around two weeks ago, she vanished. We weren't told why or how, but she and some of the senior staff, many of those experts or better in their fields, all vanished from somewhere in the tunnels. Since then, the school has been scrambling to investigate the disappearance and to replace the missing staff. We don't know much about our new headmaster except that his name is Geoffrey Mazarin, and he's retired from the Syndicate. We also have a new Assistant Headmaster, a retired hero named Robert Turner." She shrugged. "So if you see a bunch of depressed upperclassmen or staff, you know why."
Tia now knew why Dr. Quintain hadn't been in the labs to oversee her case as she'd been assured he would be. And Mrs. Carson sounded like a pretty amazing person to know, to have the respect of generations of kids. It was also clear that the three people present who had known her, Tiff, Kelly, and Hikaru, were more than a little shaken.
"Anyway, now that the unpleasantness is over and we've said all we know on the subject, it's time for all you little froshies and junior froshies to get to know each other. So mingle and tell everyone about yourselves. Consider it practice for the all-cottage mixer tomorrow."
Tia sidled closer to Tiff. "Just how will Mrs. Carson being gone affect the school?" she whispered.
Tiff turned to whisper back. "I don't have any clue; the new headmaster is almost a complete unknown from outside the school. The next in line for the job from the staff, well, if they didn't vanish with Mrs. Carson, there were ... incidents."
Hikaru perked up. "A coordinated attack?"
Tiff shook her head, her expression stern. "The investigation found no evidence of that. Besides, Ms. Hartford, the Assistant Headmistress, simply resigned. That doesn't sound very conspiratorial if you ask me. Now quit talking like that before the rumor spreads; everything suggests that it was just some really bad coincidences. Sometimes crap just happens, even though it sucks. So go mingle."
That was as clear a dismissal as any Tia had ever heard; she moved. Unfortunately, the first one she ran into was the snake boy.
"Hello, my name is Jamessss." He drew out the S at the end of his name, just a little, just like Tia thought he would.
"Tia. Pleased to meet you."
He grinned, scales flashing in the dim lighting. "It ssseemsss we are to be tunnel buddiesss. I thought I should get to know you. The irony isss amusing, isssn't it?"
A rabbit person and a snake person, in the tunnels together - hopefully getting along. "Yes, I can see the fun factor in it. Though we probably won't be alone; we can't be the only GSD cases in Melville."
Quick movement caught Tia's attention; Hikaru hadn't gotten far before she felt the urge to dunk Willy. Another boy was standing there, mouth open, and Hikaru had him pinned with a look that spoke of bad things. Tiff managed to get between all three. Tia resolved to focus more; whatever had clearly been said, she'd tuned out along with the other conversations, and that kind of thing could come back to haunt her. "I don't really think I want to know what's going on over there."
James nodded. "I think that'sss for the bessst. Ssso, what do you do for fun? How much money doesss your family make, and where are you from?"
Tia flashed him a wry grin. "I'm not very interesting at all. I like to run, drive, and read for fun. My family doesn't make that much money, and I'm from California. My mom's from Spain though. How about you?"
James grinned back; in the background, Willy got another dunking the moment Tiff's back was turned. "Obviousssly your family, or you, have enough, or you wouldn't be here. Nothing wrong with reading. Now becaussse you asssked, I enjoy reading and sssunbathing, ssswimming, and moviesss. I'm from Nevada, though my family isss from Japan originally. And my family isss moderately well off, and what sssome people consider 'old money'. I'm alssso a wizard, Harry."
Tia groaned. Not that old one-liner again! She had a feeling it was popular here - probably way too popular. "Please, please please, don't say that again."
He grinned again. "No promisssesss."
Tia heard the guy walking up to her before he came into view; a Japanese boy who looked to actually be from Japan, judging from his accent, intoned: "What light through yon window breaks! She is the sun, and I the moon!"
Tiff interposed herself between Tia and the Japanese boy in a hurry, and Hikaru, deprived of a target, dunked Willy again. At least she let him up after a few seconds with an apologetic look.
The words she spoke were Japanese but blistered the air between them, making it clear enough what the meaning was.
The door to the male dressing room opened. Out walked a figure from the past golden age of film, an even more true to form spitting image than Tiff was. Not quite tall, though dark and handsome, James Dean was wading through the pool in swim trunks. Striped swim trunks. And upon closer inspection he looked more than a little ticked off. He headed directly for Tiff and past her, corralling the Japanese boy who was still spouting bad poetry along the way.
The newcomer half-walked, half swam to the bench Tia had started on, and sank down with a sigh. "Sara." His voice was clear, just shy of deep, and a little gravelly.
"Yes Mr. Dean?" the kid answered, sounding not at all as annoyed as earlier.
"Your suite is done. Everything should be dry and set by the time you get up there. Managing those work crews sucked, so you better appreciate it."
"Yes, Mr. Dean!"
He turned to the boy who was no longer struggling in his arm. "Ichiro."
His answer was sullen. "Yes sir?"
"Don't bother the female students. If Kelly doesn't nail you for it, I will."
The boy went from zero to indignant in no time at all: "I was not ...."
Dean didn't let him finish. "You were. If you're going to quote the Bard, get it right. If you're going to spout poetry, use the good stuff. Put some effort in, man!" Then he turned to them all and raised his voice. It carried clearly over the hush.
"Alright, none of you actually signed up for this time, and I did. I'm a little late ..." Sara had the grace to look a little guilty there ... "but I'm here now. So all of you, out. Next time you want to use the onsen, sign up for it. Tiff, Kelly, Hikaru ... you all get to stay; we have things to discuss. You can go back upstairs, or to the pool if you want, and continue the meeting, but you can't stay here."
Tia joined the exodus. So Dean was the other senior RA. He seemed to know what he was doing.
Michelle and Micheal both sidled up. "Want to just adjourn to the pool, and continue the meeting?"
Tia couldn't see why not. "Sure."
She just put her shoes on and grabbed her stashed clothes. Once in the hall Michelle spoke to the gathering crowd. "Going to continue this at the pool since we have permission, for anyone that wants to. If you don't have a pleasant night."
There was a pool attendant, who looked up from his perch surveying his spotless domain with some slight horror as they descended noisily upon it.
Wednesday, September 7, 2016 - Late Evening
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy
"Aren't you going to the movie?"
Laura looked up at the sound; it was somewhat difficult to hear over the running water and with other ... distractions going on. Seeing a girl that appeared to be watching at her through the lightly-frosted shower door, she reluctantly switched off the shower spray. "Huh?"
The girl, Antonia Warren, smiled and pointed at a switch on the wall - the switch to turn off the noise-cancelling system. Blushing furiously, her cheeks a shade of purple, Laura reached out and grabbed her towel, wrapping it around herself as, still trembling, she opened the shower stall door and flipped the switch off. "Huh?" she repeated.
"Aren't you going to the movie?" Antonia asked with a knowing smile.
"Um, yeah," Laura stammered, trying hard to not blush even more as she wrapped her towel strategically around her body and then took a second towel for her hair. "I ... I just needed to, um, freshen up."
Antonia chuckled aloud. "Yeah, I know how that goes!"
Laura decided to ignore Antonia's pointed staring, pausing to glance at the other two occupied showers. One of the girls was taking a regular shower, but the other one - Laura gasped and cringed at the show the girl was putting on with the Hydroflux, realizing as her skin flushed that she'd just been putting on a similar show. She avoided glancing at Antonia, who she knew was grinning and chuckling at her embarrassment.
The towel she'd wrapped around her hair didn't want to stay put, and as she fumbled one-handed for her robe, trying to slip it on without giving the girls any more of a show, both towels and her shower kit fell from her hands, eliciting a cry of frustration.
"Here," Antonia said smoothly, swooping in to pick up one towel and the shower kit. "Let me help."
Laura turned to look at the girl, her knees still wobbly from her shower, and ready to protest, but Antonia's angelic, innocent smile halted the protest in her mouth. "Th ... thanks," she managed to stammer, somehow a little flustered at being smiled at while she stood mostly naked and dripping wet. In no time, she'd slipped on her robe, but the towel on her head did not want to cooperate, so she had to hold it in place, making the task of juggling the towel on her head, her other towel, and her toiletries bag harder. Seeing Laura's difficulty, Antonia took a few items from the blue girl to help relieve her burden. Returning the smile - or so she hoped - Laura strode out of the restroom to her room, with Antonia right beside her carrying the excess shower supplies.
"Where's your roomie?" Antonia asked, sliding herself down on Laura's bed after the blue girl had put up her toiletries bag and both wet towels.
"She's at the movie," Laura replied. She was more than a little nervous about changing in front of Antonia, especially given how the older girl had been making less-than-subtle hints and how Krystal had warned her that Antonia was looking for a new romance. "I'm going, too, as soon as I get dressed." She hoped that the other girl would get the hint and excuse herself.
Apparently not. "Don't mind me," Antonia chuckled. "Compared to the show you were putting on in the shower, merely changing clothes would be pretty tame."
Laura turned her back to Antonia and slipped off her towel, reaching for her underwear. As she slipped her arms through her bra straps, she sensed someone very close behind her, and the older girl helped her, unbidden, fasten her bra behind her back, then Antonia circled her arms around the blue girl's waist, pulling her close.
"Um," Laura stammered, her mind torn between Antonia's sexy perfume and the sensual feel of her touch, and Laura's sudden feeling of modesty. "I ... um ... I'm getting ready to go to the movie," she managed to say.
"I'm not going to stop you," Antonia purred in her ear as she leaned her head on the blue girl's shoulder. "That is, unless you want me to stop you." Laura could feel Antonia's warm breath on her neck, her lips teasing her earlobe and neck as Antonia expertly tantalized her.
"Um ...." was all Laura could manage to say.
Her lips still kissing Laura's neck, Antonia gently turned Laura around, and then her lips moved toward Laura's like they were laser guided. "Um ..." Laura managed to squeak again before their lips met. Antonia's passionate kiss overwhelmed Laura's meager protestations, and as the older girl's tongue parted Laura's lips and began to fence with Laura's, any resistance she might have had crashed to the ground, overwhelmed by Antonia's expert kissing. In seconds, Laura's arms were around Antonia, clutching her desperately close as she began to kiss back with great enthusiasm.
After a rather extended kiss, Antonia leaned back a bit. "Now, about that movie ..."
In response, Laura launched herself at Antonia, kissing her again desperately, and forgetting all about the movie. For her part, Antonia gasped in delight at the frenzied excitement and enthusiasm in the younger girl's kissing, and she renewed her own efforts as the two bodies pressed closer and closer together.
Wednesday, September 7, 2016 - Late Evening
Poe Cottage, Room 211, Whateley Academy
"You didn't make it to the movie," Bailey said across the divide between her and Laura's beds. The lights were off; only faint illumination from the outside courtyard lights filtered through the blinds to make the room a realm of shadowy specters.
"Um, no," Laura said, grateful for the lack of light so her roommate couldn't see her blushing. "I ... I decided not to go. I was ... um ... a little tired."
"Okay," Bailey didn't sound convinced. "That's not what Chris said."
"Chris said that you were putting on a show in the bathroom with the Hydroflux, and that Toni was getting rather interested!"
"I wasn't ..." Laura protested feebly, knowing her cheeks were probably fully purple.
"Hey," Bailey chuckled, "chill, okay? I'm cool with it. If you're hitting on her, it's fine." She laughed aloud. "Besides, Na'Chessa and Chris both think you're a cute couple."
"Um, okay," Laura admitted, feeling her cheeks cooling some. "I ... I'm not ..."
"You move pretty fast, don't you?" Bailey observed non-judgmentally.
"She's the one who came on to me!" Laura countered defensively.
Bailey decided she'd embarrassed her roommate enough for one night. There would be other opportunities. "After the movie, there were a lot of people talking about Mrs. Carson's disappearance."
"I'd imagine that's the only thing people are talking about!"
"As if you'd know, since you spent the last three hours swapping spit with Toni!"
"Hey!" Laura protested. "I have a good excuse."
"Which is ...?"
"Um ... she's a good kisser," Laura giggled and blushed at the same time. "What kinds of things were they saying? About Mrs. Carson, I mean," she added quickly, realizing that she'd left herself open for more kidding from her roomie.
"Pretty much any idea you can think of. One of the trustees went rogue and kidnapped her. A magic portal that caught them all. One of her old enemies with some kind of destruction ray. Demons, devisors." She shook her head, an unseen action. "Hell, one of the guys was even suggesting that there was some kind of alien invasion and that Mrs. Carson and the others repelled them and chased them into another dimension to keep them from coming back."
"Give a person a half a fact," Laura scoffed, "and you'll get a dozen crazy theories."
"The craziest one is that she got tired of the job and this place, and when the Trustees wouldn't let her retire, she staged the whole thing, and she's sunning herself somewhere in the Caribbean!"
"You gotta feel sorry for the older students who knew and liked her," Laura replied solemnly. "But it won't matter to us because we never knew her, I guess."
"I wonder if we'll feel about the new Headmaster the way the older students felt about Mrs. Carson?" Bailey posed. "I want to say we will, but I don't know. We haven't met him yet."
"Yeah. We'll just have to wait and see. Saturday is the big Headmaster's Address and all-school picnic, so we don't have to wait long." Laura couldn't stifle the huge yawn. "In the meantime, it's been a long day. G'nite."
Thursday, September 8, 2016 - Mid Morning
Whateley Academy Labs
"Alright Tia, all done. You can take five while we crunch the numbers."
Tia stopped with a glare. They switched the tennis ball test on her; the first time, in California, it was during the obstacle course. This time it was during her dead lift test, and she almost dropped the weights on her foot when she heard the whistle. Then they decided to test her agility further with some sort of automated paintball gun throwing gel. At least it hurt less, but the gel acted like paint otherwise.
She would definitely need another shower.
Tia tiptoed past them while the lab people talked, heads together. She didn't think she warranted the numbers she saw; there were no less than seven testers here, arguing in low voices. The showers in the testing labs were simple and utilitarian ... and also covered in gel. They also were not completely empty.
The girl ahead of Tia, showering the green out of her long walnut hair, was the spitting image of a video game character, and from the same game as another person who also looked like the spitting image of a video game character. All they really needed for a love triangle was Cloud; maybe there was something in the water where they were from?
She noticed Tia. "Hi! Can you believe those testing guys? They really like their goo."
"Um, yeah." Tia picked the stall next to her, stripping in a hurry and grabbing the body soap.
She sighed. "Hi, I'm Aerys, yes that's my name, yes I look exactly like her, and yes my BIT is weird."
"Sorry, I didn't mean anything by it, you just took me by surprise is all. I love that game; besides, I think my BIT qualifies as weirder. My name's Tia."
Aerys gave Tia a once over. "You might be right on that one. I think ..." Her eyes widened. "It's you, the gu-girl from summer, in California!"
Now it was Tia's turn to sigh. "Yep, that's me." It was hard to notice that she's almost called her a guy. At least she corrected herself.
"Sorry Tia, I didn't mean to gush; it's just that everyone in the media is wondering where you vanished to; it became a minor mystery. And now I know where you are! Of course, I can't tell anyone, even if I wanted to, so you don't need to worry about that ...."
Perhaps a change in subject was in order, Tia thought. "I didn't think that. Hey, have you been to Whateley before?"
Aerys stopped, thankfully. "No, I'm a freshman. Why?"
"I was just wondering if you'd seen Tiff yet."
The confusion on Aerys's face was priceless. "Who's Tiff?"
Tia couldn't resist. "The other half of the love triangle. She's a Melville RA, and she's probably as big a Final Fantasy fan as you are."
It took three whole seconds for Aerys to catch on. "You mean there's a Tifa ...!?"
Tia nodded. "Looks just like her, too."
Aerys scowled. "Now that's just unfair!"
A voice yelled in from outside the shower; a male voice. "Girls! If you're done, front and center, please! We have more testing to do today!"
Tia and Aerys shared a guilty look before moving to dry off and get dressed. There were technicians waiting, and of course, Tia got the one tapping his foot impatiently. He had introduced himself earlier as Dr. Shandy. The one escorting Aerys away looked more than a little bummed; Dr. Hendricks. Tia was pretty sure he had snuck in earlier while her tests were going on, and started an argument about something.
"See you around, Tia." Aerys said with a wave as they moved to a deeper lab.
"Later." Tia turned to Dr. Shandy, who was now all but hopping from foot to foot. "So, Doctor ... do you need this back?"
He looked at the proffered sensor studded suit, still a little stained despite Tia's best efforts, and shook his head. He pointed to a chute next to the shower door. "Just throw it in the chute there; it'll get recycled, unless you want to keep it. It was specifically machined to your measurements."
Tia threw it down the chute. What would she want a form fitting sensor suit for?
"Come on, let's get back, before they have you marked down as the second coming of Champion or something."
He rushed off, and Tia had to rush to catch up. "What?"
He glanced back. "The argument. It's not a discussion for out here, forget I said anything. Dr. Hewley will fill you in soon enough."
And that was one of the main reasons she was here. Dr. Jean-Michael Hewley, one of the unparalleled names in mutant studies. If anyone could determine if she needed fixing and how, it was him, or at least so Ibby had said. The reality of Dr. Hewley was a little more underwhelming than she had suspected.
There were only two people waiting for her in the testing room; Dr. Hewley and Dr. Shandy. They wasted no time.
"Well Tia, the results are back, and they are clear."
Rather rude, really. Tia made a point of calling them on it, politely. "Hello again, doctors."
They didn't even notice. Dr. Hewley hadn't even looked up from the test results, but instead just forged ahead. "You'll be pleased to know that your body is stable. The results from the latest samples match those of earlier samples, and show a marked progression towards your altered genetic code; there appear to be no signs of rejection, though there appears to be evidence of strange mutability in your telomere structure ...."
Dr. Shandy interrupted. "He's saying that it's too early to give you a clean bill of health yet, but the results are very promising; your body is almost fully adapted and progressing as we expect your BIT to progress."
Well that was one worry eased, Tia thought. "Thank you, doctors."
Dr. Hewley looked a little upset. "I wasn't finished, Dr. Shandy."
Dr. Shandy replied with a grin. "No, but you were starting to ramble. You tend to do that; we can look at the telomere structure later."
Dr. Hewley's frosty glare was ignored. With a cough, he continued. "As I was saying, your body seems to be progressing along its new blueprint. As a result, you are now closer to an exemplar 2 than before, perhaps at the threshold. I wouldn't expect much more, as the rate of growth seems to be slowing, but exemplar 3 might yet be possible for you. Unfortunately, there are no signs of the regeneration or other abilities your mentor seems to possess, though those may come with time."
Yep, that was her luck; all of the bad things involving her BIT, and none of the good. "Thank you, doctors. I assume I can go now?"
Dr. Shandy nodded, and she walked out. Tia's ears meant she could still hear Dr. Shandy clearly, however, when he said: "She seemed downright sad for someone we just told she wasn't going to melt into her constituent components and die."
Dr. Hewley snorted, but Tia hurried out of range before she could hear his reply.
Thursday, September 8, 2016 - Before Lunch
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
Tia hurried, books and laptop cradled in her hands. She wasn't sure why she was, it was a beautiful day, and lunch would certainly be there when she arrived (the vegetarian options were not exactly popular, for all that they weren't bad), but she found herself preferring the idea of studying in the Melville atrium to a noisy cafeteria. She had to be the only one studying this early. Of course, no one else probably had the entry tests she had taken in order to get in.
The flag was red today, so maybe the fact that she was in the tunnels and away from the sunshine had something to do with both thoughts. At least the school wasn't forcing her to stay in her room or something.
The elevator she was waiting on ground to a halt and she stepped in. She was already getting used to the tunnels; even that Boy who looked half Rhinoceros. There seemed to be an unspoken rule; if you stayed away from people and left them alone, they also gave you a wide berth. No one seemed to want to invade personal space or talk to someone who was honestly in a hurry, which suited Tia just fine. Rhino boy wasn't even the strangest thing she'd seen so far, though it was close.
He was probably nice, once you got to know him.
The elevator opened and Tia stepped out, her eyes landing on a nightmare, something far worse than Rhino boy or anyone else. She rubbed her eyes, but the vision stayed the same through the spots generated.
It really was Jamie.
She was flanked closely by two people but they might as well have been mannequins. She was leaned up against the wall watching the elevator, and as soon as she spotted Tia her eyes lit up ... and her smile became vicious. She pushed off the wall and cut Tia off.
"Well, if it isn't slut-bunny! Hello, slut-bunny, how have you been?" Jamie said it as loud as she could, and while it didn't penetrate the noise far, it was enough. It wouldn't matter if she were whispering however, Tia knew she'd still be able to hear it.
Her voice hardly shook as she answered; she was surprised. But she couldn't show fear here. "Jamie, what are you doing here? You're supposed to be in prison."
"My dear slut-bunny, my sentence got reduced because it was a first offense. At least, pending appeals. With luck, I may get exonerated! Wouldn't that be something? But anyway, until then, I've been sentenced to school here. House arrest, but at a school for mutants - what would Marvel say?"
Jamie reached up and patted her cheek.
"The cameras aren't seeing us right now, so don't worry about me getting in trouble by getting too close. The restraining order you have only applies to California. Be seeing you around, and have fun at school! We'll talk again."
And just like that, she was gone.
Tia realized she was hyperventilating, and fumbled with her phone. When the elevator opened again, she backed inside it, almost knocking someone over; she didn't see who. She had to get out of here.
"You can go in, Mr. Cox."
He thanked Dr. Bellows secretary; giving up a lunch hour was bad enough. Giving up a lunch hour after a plane ride with stomach churning turbulence was irritating. But this was the only slot he could get so settling in would have to wait. Having to fly back home at his parent's request only to fly back here on a red-eye was almost enough to make him act ... ungentlemanly.
So when he saw the wild eyed girl with the bunny ears streaking toward him, he simply sighed and caught her before she took them both down; someone up there had it in for him this week.
"What's the rush, little lady?" he drawled out. She was little, he saw; it wasn't just a figure of speech this time.
She was also in obvious distress; tears flowing unchecked down her face and more short of breath than simple running should cause. The panic attack was easy to see.
Dr. Bellows door opened, and the man himself took in the scene. Gerard's stood the girl up carefully, and that was when he recognized her. She, on the other hand, hadn't even looked at him. Her eyes were on the doctor.
"Sorry, doc, I think I'm going to have to reschedule. Looks like you have a patient to help."
Dr. Bellows turned apologetic. "The next appointment I have open is next week. Maybe I can work you in ...."
Gerard interrupted. "Nah, don't even worry about it right now. Just call me later."
Dr. Bellows ushered the girl inside - her name was Bosk or something - and he waved to the secretary on the way out. Maybe he could at least see how the old Southern Heritage Society meeting room had fared in their summer absence.
He hadn't gone three steps down the hall before he was kicking a phone. A dropped phone, which had a bunny girl screen-saver. He groaned again, out loud this time; the universe was mocking him this week, he just knew it.
Tia took deep breaths, which was easier in the office. Dr. Bellows hadn't let go of her hand, and was kneading it gently with a thumb while he crouched down beside her. She didn't know how long she'd been like that.
"Can you tell me what the problem is? Your call wasn't the clearest one I've ever had." He smiled gently to take the sting out of the accusation.
"She's here, Dr. Bellows. I'm not sure how, but Jamie is here, at school. She was waiting for me at the Crystal Hall tunnels elevator, and she said some hurtful things. The same things she said before."
Dr. Bellows raised an eyebrow, but helped her into a chair. "Let me go check."
He did something and a computer screen raised from his desk. He typed on it a bit.
"Hmmm, the cameras placed to watch the tunnels elevator are missing two minutes, about six minutes ago. Both at once. I've sent a note to security. Did anyone see this happen?"
Tia didn't know whether to laugh or cry. "Probably everyone on the ground floor of the cafeteria. Maybe even people on the second floor."
"You shouldn't be too worried about it Tia. No one could think less of you for reacting like this."
Except for every mutant who thought their powers made them better than everyone else, Tia thought bitterly; but didn't say. It wouldn't do any good, and Dr. Bellows was still typing.
"Hmmm, Jamie Howe is listed as a student, currently on probation and house arrest, released to the custody of the school as part of a pilot program. She cannot leave school grounds for any reason, must undergo complete oversight by staff of all her creations, and she has a security officer she must report to each day."
Tia snorted and reached for a tissue. Invention oversight meant nothing if Jamie could somehow disable security cameras with one. Dr. Bellows looked almost angry as he looked up.
"I'm sorry, Tia. Miss Howe should never have been enrolled here; and I'll handle it. Until then, I'll notify security and take steps to get a new restraining order against her for this state. You won't have to worry about her, Tia."
Tia tried to keep her voice even. "You and Mrs. Horton should probably get together to co-ordinate meetings. She wants to talk to the administration about my cottage choice."
Dr. Bellows nodded slowly. "Perhaps we should at that; at any rate, security is now notified and should already have started looking for witnesses to the event. Now, let me ask you, Tia: are you alright?"
Tia almost gaped at him. "Of course not, Dr. I'm very far from alright. I thought she was in jail, and while I knew I wasn't going to be safe here, I'm now in even more danger than before! She's totally crazy, and she won't rest until she has her revenge for something I didn't do!"
Dr. Bellows let her yell.
The office was quiet now, but Gerard could have sworn he heard faint angry yelling from it before. The secretary hadn't reacted, so he didn't either. It was almost the full session later when the door opened and the girl, now much more together, walked out. She gave a start of surprise to find him there, waiting.
"I think you dropped your phone, Miss. I wanted to make sure you got it back."
She took the phone as if his outstretched hand was a snake ready to strike, and looked it over. "Yes, it's mine, thank you. You didn't ... you waited an hour for that?"
He nodded. There was no sense lying about it. "Didn't feel right to leave it in the lost and found, and it didn't feel right to interrupt."
Dr. Bellows appeared in the doorway. "Mr. Cox, I thought I heard you. Much as I'd like to, I don't have time to ..."
Gerard interrupted with a grin. "Naw Doc, not why I'm here. Call me with the new appointment just like we planned. Just returning something that was lost is all."
Dr. Bellows nodded. "Perhaps you could help me. Gerard, this is Tia Del Bosque. Tia, this is Gerard Cox. Now Gerard, Tia is a cottage mate of yours, and a D.I.D."
D.I.D. - Gerard had used the term in an earlier session with the Doc. It meant "damsel in distress". The doc was pushing his buttons, but looking at the girl he couldn't say it wasn't warranted.
"Say no more Doc. Pleased to meet you, Tia. Now, was there any place you were headed?"
She answered without a beat, but all shy like. "Well, I was headed to the cafeteria, but I think I'd rather just head back to Melville. What's a did?"
"Well what a coincidence, I was just headed back to Melville myself. As for what a D.I.D. is, it just stands for somethin', that's all. Nothing bad, and nothing to worry about. So, what do you do for fun?"
He shot a wink and a nod over the girls head as she allowed herself to be ushered out in a daze. The doc grinned back.
Thursday, September 8, 2016 - Lunch
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
Laura turned from the salad bar suddenly, unaware that the space she was rapidly moving into was already occupied by another person, a much larger person. Not being quantum particles, they couldn't occupy the same space, and so they collided. The laws of physics required conservation of momentum, and as Laura was much lighter than the boy, she was sent backwards, landing in an ungraceful heap on the floor, with food, pieces of plate, and silverware scattered noisily about her.
"Oh, hey," the large horse-like boy boomed down to her, offering a huge meaty paw to help her up. "Sorry! I didn't expect you to dart in front of me like that." With incredible ease, he pulled the girl to her feet so energetically that she was launched a few inches above the floor. He gave her sheepish apologetic look as she regained her balance. "Oops!" he winced. "Didn't think you were so light."
"You're ... I've seen you before ...," Laura stammered, staring up at the large boy. "You're .... you're from that island, right? Paradise Island?"
Nick simply shrugged. He was used to being recognized, after all, even though the omnipresent cameras on the island were just a fact of life to the point that people completely forgot about them. The young Animan also had fans all over the world who followed every one of his arena matches. "Um, yeah. I'm ... the first mutant from PI. I'm Nick," he said, sticking forth his huge hand. "You a fan of the show... or a gamer?"
"Laura. Laura Samuels," the blue girl answered, staring at the boy. His attire was completely out of place in Crystal Hall; while most students were dressed casually, Nick took casual to a whole new level. Bermuda shorts and a rather loud tropical print shirt weren't typical wear in New Hampshire, even among high school students. Coupled with his goofy smile and mop of hair - or mane - he looked like a surfer dude - if surfer dudes were over seven feet tall, solidly built, and had hooves for feet and long horse-like snouts.
"Are you okay?" he asked. "Besides the spilled lunch, I mean."
"Just embarrassed," Laura confessed. Already, a crew from the kitchen was cleaning up the mess. "I'll just get another tray."
"Hey, AJ," Nick called to another boy who was walking past. "Laura, this is AJ, my roommate."
The other boy, a slight kid compared to Nick, turned and smiled at her. "Nice to meet you," he said, and then his grin turned mischievous. "But I do have to ask, on such a beautiful day, why are you so blue?"
Laura rolled her eyes and groaned. "Like I haven't heart that one a million times!"
Nick laughed aloud, a rolling, thunderous, deep sound. "You have to forgive my roommate. He has a stunted sense of humor." He noticed that Laura was staring intently at AJ, just as she had at him.
"I've seen you," she said with conviction. She turned to Nick. "And you, too."
AJ and Nick exchanged nervous glances. "Don't see how," AJ retorted. "We just met."
"And you probably saw me on the PI reality show," Nick added, his voice cautious.
Laura shook her head. "No, I've seen you somewhere else." She thought a few seconds. "New York?" she suddenly realized. "You two were in New York!" She read their stunned expressions. "You guys were the ones in that whole Central Park fiasco!"
AJ winced. "Could you hold it down a bit, please?" he begged. "It's not like we want to advertise that to the whole world! We got reamed by security for that mess!" His eyes narrowed a bit when he saw Laura's expression. "Wait, you were in New York, too, weren't you?" He saw Laura flinch. "So ... you were part of that other mess - the one with the creepy, nutso octopus villain?"
"He was a squid villain," Laura started to correct AJ, and then her eyes went wide as she clamped her hands over her mouth, realizing what she'd just given away.
"Ah, so it was you!" Nick chuckled. "But ... weren't there a bunch of you?"
"Yeah," Laura replied softly. "We ... kind of became friends on the trip up here after that little mess." She glanced up at the second tier, to where her friends were sitting. "And one of the martial arts instructors was there, and she reamed us out. And we got in trouble with security when we got here. So we're trying to keep it down a little."
AJ nodded, smiling, as the two walked with Laura to pick up another tray. "I can understand that."
"You guys don't need to hang around. I can handle it from here."
"Just don't go bumping into more strangers, K?" Nick got a quizzical look. "You haven't, by chance, heard of any bands or anything, have you?"
Laura started to reply no, but then she remembered her friend. "Um, Cally is a pretty good singer," she said. "She's one of my new friends. Why? Do you guys play or sing?"
AJ ginned. "Not me. That's not my thing. But Nick here is pretty good on the guitar."
"Let's go upstairs," Laura urged them. "I'll introduce you!"
Nick seemed eager, but AJ shook his head. "Can't. Gotta eat fast and then get into Dunwich to pick up a special package from my mom."
"It's a package," Laura protested. "It can wait."
"No," AJ said, an amused, knowing smile on his face. "You don't understand. You don't want to make one of Mom's packages wait for you!"
Laura considered the strange way he'd put that. "Well, we'll see you around, then, I suppose."
"Yeah, I suppose." AJ and Nick turned toward the checkout line, while Laura got back into the salad line. After all, she did want to maintain her figure!
Laura eased herself into a chair at the table, seeing the curious gazes, no doubt wondering why she was a little late. "Hey, guys! You'll never guess who I was talking to!"
"Antonia?" Bianca asked with a wry smile.
"Who's Antonia?" Jimmy and Cally asked at the same time.
"Um, she's a ... friend ... in Poe. Who I met the other night," Laura stammered, feeling her cheeks burn and wondering how many of the group would see through her feeble excuse. "No, I bumped into one of the guys ...."
"And half the caf heard that," Erica chuckled.
Taka frowned. "Ah ... not talk too fast please," he asked in clipped English.
"Sorry." Laura said with a wince.
"No problem," Jimmy grinned. "Tavi, translate for Taka."
Immediately, the boy's computer-generated ferret VI appeared on Jimmy's shoulder - this time wearing a ninja outfit. "Tavi helps," the hyperactive VI grinned. He clambered down Jimmy's arm, dove into a roll, and came to his feet with a handspring, landing near Taka in a bad Hollywood ninja fighting stance. <Tavi helps translate,> he said, bowing in an exaggerated fashion to Taka, who stared cautiously at the VI.
"The horse-kid? Is he from that reality show?" Bailey chimed in. A fraction of a second later, Tavi delivered a translation to Taka.
Laura sighed indignantly. All of these interruptions were taking the edge off what she wanted to say. "Yes, but that's not the big thing!"
No sooner had Tavi translated than Taka frowned. "Excuse please. What ... big like horse?" As soon as the girls realized the gist of his comment - obviously resulting from a poor translation by the ferret VI - they all blushed while Jimmy spewed the mouthful of soda he'd been drinking.
Once the giggles had abated somewhat, Laura sighed. "Are you going to let me finish?" When no-one said anything, she lowered her voice. "It turns out that he and his roommate are the two responsible for the whole Central Park mess!"
"What?" "You're kidding!" "The one people think WE did?"
"Yeah," Laura said, nodding firmly.
"Holy shit!" Vic swore. "They gotta be pretty badass dudes!"
"They don't seem like it," Laura countered. "They seem pretty laid back." She saw the stares of disbelief. "Oh, and Cally? You're gonna love this next part." Seeing that she had the Italian girl's interest, she continued, "The horse kid is really into playing guitar."
Laura shook her head. "No. He wondered if I'd heard of anyone else who played! I guess he wants to be in a band!"
"Cool!" Cally said eagerly. "I've got to meet him!"
"So, what were you talking about before I got here?" Laura steered the conversation away from her so she could eat.
"Not much ...." Erica's response drifted off as her eyes locked onto something across the table. Laura turned, and like all the others, she looked up to see Tanya and Vic approaching the table. Vic gave a warning look to the group before nodding his head at Tanya, whose face bore a notably sour expression as she stared at her tray and grumbled under her breath. The table fell silent as the two took seats and starting eating, Tanya rather more voraciously than Vic. For several minutes the group stayed tensely quiet as the young brick vented her apparent frustrations on the plate of food in front of her.
Once the majority of the plate had been emptied and her rapid fire pace seemed to slow, Laura decided it should be safe to talk to her.
"So...Tanya, what happened?"
The glare she received in response could have flash boiled ice water.
"Security! That's what! I can't believe they held us up for almost twenty minutes to tell us we can't fight on the Quad! As if that's not obvious! Did they seriously think I planned for Ratel to tackle me on the way to lunch? Arrrgh!!!"
And with that exclamation, the storm resumed unabated. The last of the food on the tray disappeared in a flash, and she was quickly on her feet again. Then she paused for a moment, and with a look of sheer determination, took a deep breath before letting out a frustrated sigh.
"I'm going get another tray. Would anyone like me to take their trays down while I'm at it?" It wasn't her usual cheerful self, but it was better than the fuming they'd seen thus far. A couple of trays were handed over and Tanya gave an obviously forced smile before simply lifting up into the air and heading back down to the serving area below.
The table stayed quiet for only a moment before all eyes turned to stare at Vic, who paused with his fork half way to his mouth as he took in the unspoken question on everyone's mind. "What?"
"Come on, spill it," Cally urged. "What happened?"
Vic sighed, shaking his head. "One of those things. Because I don't have a roommate yet, Tanya and her roommate Sterling met me outside Twain to come over here. When we got to the quad, Ratel zeroed in on Tanya and asked her if she'd like to spar."
"I heard about her. Isn't she an ultraviolent?"
"Yeah. Well, Tanya thought a couple of seconds, and then said yes. The next thing I know, Ratel launches at Tanya, and the two were rolling around fighting. Then a couple of security auxiliaries showed up and broke it up, and we all got hauled over to Kane."
"Oh, geesh," Morgana groaned. "She's not helping our reputation with them!"
"Yeah, that's what Sergeant Clauser said. It didn't matter to him that Tanya was talking about sparring later, or that Ratel jumped her; we all got reamed for fighting on the quad, and Tanya and Ratel got a week's detention in Whitman."
"And the bottomless pit was hungry while this was going on?" Tia smirked. "No wonder she's so pissed!"
Thursday, September 8, 2016 - Afternoon
Venus Inc. Studios, Dunn Hall, Whateley Academy
Alvery Rosseau let her fingers dawdle on the fine silk dress hanging on the dressing room rack, in exactly the same place she'd left it the previous spring after her final photo shoot. She smiled at the memory; that had been a very difficult shoot for a demanding client, but they'd pulled it off - with great effort. She also relished the feel of the silk; even after all these years of wearing only natural materials such as silk, she still delighted in the sensual feel of the fabric.
Shaking off her momentary reverie with a shake of her head that caused her wavy medium-brown tresses to dance about her shoulders and reveal pointed elfin ears, she strode into the changing room, which had the feel of a combination locker room and makeup area, with individual lockers and vanities for applying or touching up makeup. Several girls of the group were already gathered, talking about their various summer adventures; Alvery, Elfe de Feu, had spent it doing what people expected a fairy elf to do - getting back to nature, even though she was more properly a Sidhe. It had been particularly fun for her to spend a week with very distant cousins of the Sidhe, a band of Native American wood elves whose bloodline had split from the Sidhe eons ago. The only downside of that adventure was that the wood elves were almost totally nude all the time, and they expected her to dress - or not dress - accordingly.
"Hey, Alvery!" Lisa Derflin called, leaping to her feet to hug the girl and exchange air-kisses. "How was your summer?"
"It was ... interesting," Alvery replied with a wry smile, noticing the other girls who were present.
Tina Richardson - Roe2 - was another of the Sidhe girls, although she tended to de-emphasize her Sidhe features and focused on gaming / cosplay niche modeling. Jean Smith - Meow Mix - was an exotically beautiful girl with a cat spirit and some mild cat-like GSD that made her very sought after in the exotic modeling world, the same exotic niche in which Alvery did most of her work. Meredith Tapia - Materielle - was not only a model, but she had the ability to 'shape' fabrics into stunning wardrobe pieces in mere moments. Cassie Locke - Model - was in her 'normal' form, though normal was a relative term for a shapeshifter. She could shift into any human shape, and so was in huge demand, especially as a stand-in for dead actors and actresses for movie bit-parts and commercials. Able to instantly pretty herself up into any shape a photographer might want, she was the favorite of all the photographers in the club.
Melody Sheridan - Chained Melody - wasn't present, but that didn't seem to bother any of the girls; she was rather snobbish - some would use the term 'bitch'. Several of the Venus Inc. models were also absent, and none of the lighting and photography members were present either - probably still moving in or meeting with advisors or braving the hordes in the bookstore.
"Have you had a look at the froshies, yet?" Alvery asked, pre-empting other topics of discussion. Focus first on business was a motto that had served her well in her years at Whateley.
"I think we might have a few candidates," Cassie noted. "And get this!" she said, unable to contain the excitement in her voice, "the bunny-girl is here!"
"What?" "What bunny-girl?" "You mean the one from the news?"
"Yeah, that's her! I saw her walking with some other girls out of Crystal Hall this morning."
"We have so got to recruit her!" Tina waxed enthusiastic. "She'd be a huge asset!"
"Whoa," Alvery cautioned, holding up her hands to signal 'slow down'. "First, we need to make sure it's her, and then see if she's interested, and then we can try to recruit her."
"Any decent boys that you think might want to join?" Cassie asked, wincing at the subject. It was a very sore point with Venus Inc. that they could never recruit male models.
"With the exemplars in Emerson," Tina chuckled, "of course there are decent-looking boys. The problem is convincing them to join."
"Just like every year," Alvery sighed.
"Yeah," Cassie agreed. "It's ...." She halted suddenly, her eyes narrowing as she thought of something. "Maybe ...."
"What?" All the other girls were focused on Cassie.
"There ... there's a Japanese kid that I saw with the group that included the bunny-girl. He ..." She wrinkled her nose trying to figure out how to phrase things, "he looks kind of ... bishi. Pretty attractive, I mean. REALLLY attractive! And when I was walking over, he was in the 'bowl' between Kane and Holbrook doing some kind of tai chi or something."
"Okayyyyy," Meredith answered hesitantly.
"Without his shirt on," Cassie added. "He looked... pretty ripped!" There was something in her expression that caught the other girls' attention; if Cassie was starry-eyed over this kid, he had to be pretty good-looking.
"You suppose he's still there?" Tina asked the obvious question.
"Let's go find out!" Meredith responded enthusiastically. Almost as one, the girls ran - but gracefully - to the exit.
Minutes later, the girls approached the 'bowl', a roundish, treeless depression somewhat centered between Kane, Emerson Cottage, Holbrook Arena, and the Crystal Hall.
Cassie hadn't been the only girl to notice the boy doing his sword practice; several girls were watching the Japanese boy go through his martial arts routine. On a campus where exemplar boys were common, it was unusual for him to have attracted so much attention, and yet, his looks and well-toned body did.
"Wow!" Tina practically drooled. "He's .... Wow!"
"We have got to recruit him!" Meredith started toward the boy.
"Hold on," Alvery caught Meredith's arm. "We don't want to frighten him off."
"Look! There's the bunny-girl!"
As the girls watched, seemingly transfixed by the boy's physique, four girls approached him including one with obvious bunny ears, and another with bright blue hair and pale blue skin. Noticing the approaching girls, the boy stopped his routine and then bowed formally to them when they were a few feet away.
"I saw them eating together this morning," Tina half-whispered to her compatriots. "Maybe they're his friends or something."
After a brief discussion, the boy pulled on his loose poet-shirt, then picked up his mock weapons and followed the girls toward Crystal Hall.
"I'll meet you back in the clubhouse," Alvery said, having made a decision. Before anyone could question her, she set off on an intercept course with the group.
The other Venus Inc. girls stood, transfixed, as Alvery strode purposefully - but still gracefully; everything a Venus Inc. member did was graceful! - toward not the boy, but the blue-haired girl trailing the bunny-girl and the Japanese boy. After a quick discussion with the girl, Alvery turned back to the Venus Inc. spectators, a smile on her face.
"His name is Taka Ono," she announced triumphantly. "The group of them are friends who met on the trip here. So let's go see what we can find out about him. There has to be information about him in the student directory." She grinned. "Then we can figure out how to recruit him."
(To be continued)