Tuesday, April 24, 2007, dinnertime
The banter around the table was the usual stuff - who was going with whom, who had crushes, who'd broken up, who had detention, who'd been injured in the simulators or martial arts - the usual high-school stuff.
"Good evening, Kayda," Mindbird said pleasantly from behind me. "I see you've been being unsociable with security for a while." She smiled at my startled expression. "That's a good thing!"
She nodded, sighing. "Another long day - mostly doing mind-numbing paperwork!" she complained as she sat. "There's nothing as boring as page after page of tedious forms!"
I took out my supplies and began to brew her tea. As I did so, my friends decided to get in some fun. "So Kayda," Laurie said with a wicked grin, "now that you've got Dale hooked, are you going to start charging for her daily 'fix'?" I rolled my eyes at her comment.
"Yeah. But if you make it too pricey," Adrian cautioned, "she'll have to take up a life of crime to support her habit!"
"Is it against the school rulebook to push addictive tea?" Evvie teased.
Mindbird just smiled demurely at their teasing, which was more than I managed. "Here you go," I said as I pushed the steaming cup of tea across the table to her. She closed her eyes as she took a sip, and allowed the peaceful feeling to spread through her. The new calmness was visible in her features, and she sighed contentedly.
No sooner had Mindbird left than I hear three familiar little-girl voices coming our way. I turned to confront the three little witches. "I suppose you girls waited for Mindbird to leave before you came?"
Pally winced, and Clover looked at her feet, which she scuffled. "Um, no," Abra lied transparently.
"What's up?" I asked innocently.
"Um," Clover said hesitantly, "we ... need our supplies for the magic tea."
"Yeah," Palantir chimed in. "Yesterday, you didn't give us very much."
I nodded. "Okay." I started measuring out the various herbs, putting them into plastic baggies for the girls. "And you'll meet me for my spells?"
Palantir glanced nervously at the other two, and then nodded. "Yeah," she said noncommittally. They scooped up the bags and scampered off.
"You didn't give them very much," Laurie noted.
"That means they'll be back to bug you tomorrow!" Naomi pointed out needlessly.
I nodded, smiling. "The agreement was that they'd teach me spells in exchange for the herbs." I grinned. "And it turns out that even simple spells can be handy; Clover's shock spell came in pretty handy on spring break, you know."
"Yeah, but ..."
"But they're a couple of spells behind, and if I gave them a week's supply, they'd have no motivation to get caught up," I continued, ending with a grin. "At least Palantir and Abra wouldn't. Clover is still scared to death that she's in a wizard's pact with me."
"Ah. Pretty clever!" Evvie noted.
"Yup." I pulled out my electronics book and cracked it open. "I've got a test Friday," I noted to answer the questioning looks, "and with the Nations meeting Thursday night ...."
"Among other things," Naomi said with a grin and wiggling eyebrows.
I shot her a scowl, and then made my expression neutral again, "With the Nations meeting, I need to start studying for the test early."
After a while, as I read, I slowly realized that the banter had stopped. I looked up to see what was going on, and I saw them all staring at one end of the table. There were four girls there, three of whom I immediately recognized, and all were staring at me.
"Good evening, Kayda," Poise said politely in greeting.
"Uh, hi," I stammered after struggling to down the bite of fruit salad I had in my mouth. The way the girls were all staring at me was a bit unnerving. "Um, can I help you with something?"
"We were wondering if you'd like to join us for dinner," Lifeline replied.
"We'd like to chat with you a little if you wouldn't mind," a third girl added; I thought her name was Heartbreaker, but I wasn't sure.
"You all wouldn't mind if we take Kayda's company from you for one evening, would you?" Fey asked politely. I was pleased to see her with another group, which meant that she was slowly recovering, but I was confused.
The reaction from Evvie, Naomi, and Laurie was not what I expected. "Kayda eats with other groups all the time," Evvie said, almost urging me to go. "We can always talk more later tonight."
"She ate with the Anna and the Underdogs last night," Naomi added. "We like to see our girl expanding her circles of friends." She spoke like she was my mother or doting aunt.
I felt like I was being pushed. "Um, I suppose I can." Truth be told, I always felt a little vulnerable outside my group. We were bloodied together in our battle with the snake demon. We knew we had each other's backs. I worried a lot less about trouble finding me when I was with them.
Before I could change my mind, Lifeline picked up my tray, and the girl I thought was Heartbreaker picked up my books. With Fey and Poise flanking me, we walked up to the second level of the cafeteria and sat at a table where three other girls were eating and conversing.
"Everyone," Lifeline said to interrupt the conversations and get the girls' attention - not that she had to, since the girls were silent and focused on me, "this is Kayda Franks, also known as Pejuta." She went around the group and introduced the others relatively quickly. I had been right; the girl who carried my books was Heartbreaker.
"We're Venus, Inc.," Poise said as she very gracefully sat down. The other girls were trying to emulate her, not always successfully. "We wanted to talk with you a little bit about your modeling accomplishments and aspirations."
I had a sense of dread. "Debra," I muttered to myself, knowing that Debra was likely behind what was obviously a meeting to attempt to rush me into their group.
"Yes, as a matter of fact," Poise said with a charming smile. "You freshmen girls won't remember, but Cornflower, who graduated last year, is an alumna of Venus Inc."
"What did she send you?" I asked with a sinking feeling. "She _did_ send you pictures, didn't she?"
Heartbreaker opened a laptop that was sitting at her spot and called up some images. I groaned to myself as I saw picture after picture from _both_ our photo sessions at the Sioux Falls League. At an adjoining table, boys were craning their necks to try to see the pictures on the laptop. The only thing that kept me from slinking away was that none of the more suggestive pictures were present. But the ones they had were racy enough! "Oh, God!" I moaned softly. "I'll ... I'll kill her!"
"They're very good photos," Poise complimented.
"Considering that you've never done modeling before," Heartbreaker added.
"When your calendar went on sale in the bookstore, Mr. Parker and Ms. Dennon, our co-advisors, strongly urged us to talk to you about joining," Poise continued.
"And be a model?" I asked, astounded? "You guys are like the hyper-fashionistas, and I don't know much about fashion at all!"
"But you carry off the Native American theme quite beautifully," Lifeline countered.
"For one thing," Poise continued, "pictures taken through Venus Inc. have copyright protection that the school can enforce - unlike the debacle that happened with a certain poster."
I blushed furiously at the reference; I still occasionally heard a comment or two about that poster. Thank God the inscription hadn't copied!
"Second, if you model any school materials, it's considered part of a work-study job."
"I _have_ a work-study job already," I protested weakly, "with Dr. Quintain working on pattern theory. And a very full schedule, especially counting my Native American fighting skills tutoring every afternoon."
"Thanks for the reminder," Heartbreaker said. She made a few clicks on her keyboard, and a new series of pictures came up in a slideshow. Some were of me riding Summer, with and without weapons, while others were me training on foot."
"Where ... where did you get those?" I demanded, baffled and outraged at the same time.
"One of our rather ... infamous ... photographers has been taking pictures of you," Fey said. "Oh, don't worry - he's not stalking you specifically. He's an equal-opportunity letch."
"Who?" I roared, blood coursing through my veins so loudly that I could almost hear it.
"We ... persuaded him to give us his camera and digital memory card," Poise said with a grin. "We gave it back, of course," she added with a pleasant smile, "after we deleted everything on it."
"But not before copying pictures of me?"
"Mr. Parker thinks youre a natural in front of a camera," Lifeline said, ignoring my comment.
I sighed. "I really, really appreciate your invitation," I began, "but my schedule is so full right now that ...."
"We all have busy schedules," Poise interrupted gently, "but an hour or two a week to help the school with promotional materials isn't an overwhelming burden. Besides, the runway exercises help with coordination, which in turn helps with martial arts."
"And you'll be better prepared next time the Sioux Falls League wants you to pose for them," Lifeline added quickly.
I looked around; the expressions ranged from one that was indifferent to others who were hopeful. I sighed again. "I know Debra is so set on me joining, and ... I'm honored that you think I'd be good enough."
"But?" Lifeline asked the obvious question.
"I'm ... afraid of overcommitting. I've got a busy schedule, and I've got the Nations, plus work-study, plus being a TA, and my extra Native American martial arts training."
"It's only an hour or two a week," Poise countered politely with a friendly smile. "
"Can I ... think about it a little bit?" I asked timidly, hoping I wasn't offending them by not immediately accepting their invitation.
Heartbreaker and the other girl seemed a little miffed, but Poise smiled pleasantly, almost like she'd expected my slight objection. "Given your class load, it's only right that we give you a chance to see if your schedule can work. How about a little demonstration? You come by our clubhouse and studio in Dunn Hall this evening when we're practicing? Get to know us and see how we work before you decide?"
I nodded, wondering if I was doing the right thing. "I guess I can do that." What was I getting into? What was _Debra_ pushing me into? I hoped it wasn't going to be too big of a demand on my time. Or cause me embarrassment.
Whateley Academy, after dinner
Amber Prentice glanced around herself nervously as she strolled into the wooded area north of Holbrook Arena. The note she'd found in her backpack indicated that Mike Reynolds, her boyfriend, had some very large looming problems but also offered her a way to help with those issues. It sounded like cloak-and-dagger stuff, but the hint that Mike might encounter serious problems with administration and security had garnered her attention - and fear.
"Hello?" she asked as she walked cautiously off the path into the trees. "Is anyone here?"
"I see you decided to accept my invitation," a figure said, stepping out from behind a tree.
Amber started, and then she relaxed a bit. "You startled me."
"You were expecting someone else?"
"I wasn't sure _what_ - or who - to expect," Amber answered with a nervous laugh, "because your invitation was anonymous."
"But you were curious."
Amber nodded. "'I have important information about Mike and some big problems he has. Meet me behind Holbrook after dinner.' Yeah, that got my attention."
"You _know_ that Mike is in _way_ over his head, don't you?"
Amber frowned, suddenly wary again. "How do you know?"
The one who'd trained Hekate in the dark arts chuckled. "I know a lot more about what's going on than most people could even imagine. For example, if Security knew what he's done trying to get that Lakota girl off campus, do you think our Headmistress would be lenient, or would she expel him and possibly turn him over to the MCO for attempted murder?"
Amber goggled at him. "Uh," she stammered, "he's .... he hasn't .... there's ...."
"There's no proof?" Hekate's Master laughed wickedly. "There's _plenty_ of proof ... if the right people look in the right places. Proof of some things that could land him in prison, if not handled properly."
A chill went through Amber. "You ... wouldn't!"
"I wouldn't. But I can't speak for others. Now if you were to help me out a little bit with one of _my_ problems, I _could_ find ways to help you protect your boyfriend," he offered her an enticement to gain her assistance.
"What ... what do you want?" the girl stammered, frightened.
"Nothing serious," was the response. "Just a little exchange of favors."
"What ... do I have to do?"
Hekate's Master held out a charm on a simple thong necklace. "Just give him this," he said soothingly. "It'll help him stay more ... covert. And you just keep me informed on his plans."
The girl's hand trembled as she reached for the charm. It sounded so simple, and if it could help keep Mike out of trouble .... Her hand clasped around the metal ...
... And her eyes glazed over, her posture stiffening like she was in a trance. Or enchanted. "Now, my dear," Hekate's Master chuckled, "keep that charm on you at all times. Don't give it to anyone, and never take it off. Just go about your business, and when you hear something of interest, report to me. And you'll forget all about this meeting."
Zombie-like, Amber nodded, turned, and walked back toward the campus core. After thirty or forty yards, her eyes unglazed, and she shook her head to clear it. She frowned at herself; what on _earth_ had possessed her to go for a walk this far from campus? Glancing at her watch, she chided herself; she had to hurry now to meet with Mike for studying - and a little making out.
Venus Inc. Clubhouse and Studio, Dunn Hall
The clubhouse was completely unlike anything I would have expected. The 'clubhouse' proper was a small room off the studios and locker room, with expensive, leather sofas and chairs - matching, of course - and a coffee table and end tables strewn with the latest editions of a variety of fashion magazines. A refrigerator sat in the corner, with a small counter beside it; I was offered beverages and 'healthy' snacks, like fresh fruit and 'lite' yogurt. That made sense; some of the girls in the club might not be exemplars, and they would be very sensitive to their body images and would carefully watch what they ate. I'd seen the same thing in my old high school; the 'fashionistas' and 'in' girls were fastidious about their figures, if not downright obsessive.
The girls showed me the locker room, which was dominated by vanities and mirrors, with the lockers almost as an afterthought. Lengthy racks held a wide variety of garments. I goggled at that, and Poise chuckled softly. "Oh this? This is the 'active' rack of clothes. It's nothing much, really. Wait until you see Narnia."
"Narnia?" I stammered, not quite comprehending.
"Our costume and garment closet," Lifeline said with a smile. "We must have, what, five or six thousand garments stored there?"
Outside the locker room was the studio proper, with three or four camera and light setups, each in front of a backdrop, for the actual photography. Between the backdrops, props were stacked practically to the ceiling.
"Let me guess - there's another store-room just for props?"
Poise smiled warmly. "No. We share with the theater department, so we rely on their vast warehouse of furniture and props."
I paused to watch at one station, where one of the members was modeling an LBD, a little black cocktail dress. She was moving before the camera which was clicking off flash after flash. Behind the camera taking pictures was a tall, shapely redhead that I didn't recognize. "No, no, no!" the redhead said sharply, chiding the model. "Less head and hair motion. You're at a cocktail party, not on a beach or playing volleyball! Flirt with the camera! Imagine a tall, hunky guy in a tuxedo at a formal dinner party! Flirt! But be sophisticated about it." The model nodded, and then began to move again. This time, she seemed less playful and more demure but also confident. As they shot photos, an assistant handed her a glass with some kind of liquid in it, and the model held it like she _was_ at a cocktail party, at one point sort-of hiding shyly behind the glass. I was impressed at how well the girl was pulling off the poses. The arrangement was far better than what the Sioux Falls League had.
Lifeline waited for a pause in the photography. "Hey, Elaine," she called out to the photographer. "Where's Mr. Parker?"
"Probably at home," the redhead replied, not taking her attention from the camera. "He asked me if Ah could finish this shoot tonight."
"Would you like to try posing for a few pictures?" Poise offered.
"Uh, no thanks," I stammered. The last thing I wanted to do was to start posing; I knew from our sessions at the Sioux Falls League that it could take quite a while, not only to get ready, but also to pose for the pictures. Besides, changing and getting made up weren't on my agenda for the evening.
"You should come by for some test shoots. I'm sure Mr. Parker would love to get you in front of the camera. Especially with your native outfits and that white bison of yours," Lifeline chuckled.
The redhead behind the camera lifted her head, having overheard, and she glanced my way for a moment. "Are you the one featured in that calendar?" she asked me pointedly.
"Um, yeah," I replied, feeling a little uneasy, like I did every time someone mentioned that calendar.
The redhead looked me over. "Ah'd like to get you in front of the camera," she said. "Ah can think of a number of themes that Ah'd like to have you posing for." She glanced at Poise. "From the pictures on the calendar, you seem to be a natural." She looked at me questioningly. "You _are_ going to be a regular model, aren't you?"
I winced, feeling like everyone was pressuring me to join. "I'm ... thinking about it," I answered hesitantly. I didn't want to annoy anyone. "But I have a very busy schedule."
The girls all laughed at that. "Welcome to the club, hon," the redhead chuckled. She turned her attention back to the model, and I walked with Poise and Lifeline to the next room. I was shocked to see a formal elevated runway. The two showed me how they strutted, mind-boggling displays of grace and balance. I began to doubt if I'd ever be able to do something like they'd just demonstrated. We then returned to the clubhouse, where Poise offered me a soda.
I declined, politely I hoped. "Actually, I'd just like a cup of water," I replied. "I'm kind of ... partial ... to the tea my spirit mentor taught me to make."
Poise smiled as she very gracefully put a cup on a saucer and opened a bottle of water to pour in it. "I've heard about your tea. Mindbird swears by it for stress relief."
"I could brew you a cup if you'd like to try," I offered. "Any of you."
Lifeline took me up on the offer, but Poise declined. "Thank you, no," she replied in her honey-smooth voice, oozing charm. "I try to avoid drinking too much tea in the evenings. I'll have a soda instead."
"Where do you get all the outfits?" I asked, curious how the club could have thousands of outfits, as they'd claimed.
"Mrs. Braithwaite and Mrs. Ryan from Home Ec work with Mrs. Rogers from Dunwich ..."
I interrupted gently, "I know of her - and her shop."
Poise nodded. "They teach a special topics class in fashion design as part of the Home Ec curriculum. That's one of the major sources of our outfits."
"Once in a while," Lifeline added, "we can talk one of the boys into modeling with us, but ...."
"Hank Declan was nice enough to model our last shoot of dancewear," Heartbreaker said. "He looked pretty nice in a tuxedo, but I don't think he's interested in joining the club."
"Off and on over the years," Poise said, gracefully pausing to take a sip from her soda from a glass - heaven forbid she'd be caught dead sipping directly from a can! - "we've approached several of the boys about joining, but ...." She didn't need to explain the answers they'd received.
Having just taken a sip of my tea, I had to fight to avoid bursting into laughter and blowing tea out my nose. No straight guy in his right mind - at least the guys I'd grown up with - would consider things like cheerleading, fashion design, or modeling for fear of being labeled gay, a tag that would forever ruin his social life and start a nightmare of bullying. Somehow, that little fact didn't seem to occur to Lifeline.
"Um," I began, wondering if my questions would be interpreted as a sign of interest. I was just curious. "How do you learn ... modeling and runway stuff?" I shook my head. "I can't imagine that being something taught in either Home Ec or PE."
Poise chuckled softly. "You might be surprised. Mrs. Dennon, one of our co-sponsors, and Mrs. Rogers, who also teaches ballroom dance, work with us on grace and movement. Mrs. Dennon teaches a combat PE course called Exemplar Grace." She smiled. "For my final exam in that class, I had to fight in high heels and a skirt while holding a full cup of hot tea by the saucer! I couldn't break a heel, mar my makeup, spill any tea, or be immodest. So yes, she knows a whole lot about graceful movement, and she helps teach runway and modeling work."
"You're not a brick or exemplar, are you?" Lifeline asked. "Even if you're not, you'd probably get a lot out of Exemplar Grace."
I shuddered at that thought. Three fighting classes a term were already intimidating without thinking of fighting in high heels, let alone with a teacup. In a way, I was hoping I'd never, ever get a class with Mrs. Dennon.
Poe Cottage; just before curfew
I walked into my room, and halted abruptly. On my desk was a large digital clock, its bright red numbers counting down second by second. I glanced at my watch, and then back at the clock, which was counting backwards from forty-eight hours, thirty minutes. There was no mistaking the meaning of that time, nor the giver of this 'gift'.
"Oh, gods!" I groaned aloud. Rosalyn was NOT going to let me forget about the hot-tub party.
Thursday, April 26, 2007, Lunch
"Do you suppose there's something here that'll give me food poisoning?" I grumbled after Rosalyn walked by and made kissy lips at me. Evvie and I had been the only ones who'd seen that provocative little gesture on her part.
Naomi almost spat her food out, she was laughing so hard, and Evvie chuckled aloud.
"I can just see it - you walk to the serving line. 'Excuse me, but may I have a case of ptomaine poisoning to go?'"
Once Naomi had wiped off her mouth and composed herself, though she was still giggling, she decided to add to the conversation. "Wouldn't matter," she said with a grin. "She'd just have Banned Aids come by and heal you."
"I'm pretty well stuck, aren't I?" I asked glumly as Laurie, Adrian, and Vasiliy set their trays on the table.
"Stuck? Doing what?" Laurie asked, her curiosity stoked.
"Kayda has a meeting tonight," Evvie chuckled.
"Yeah, we know," Adrian replied. "The Native American thing every Thursday night."
"No, this is a different meeting," Naomi explained in cryptic tones. "A ... personal meeting."
It was Evvie's turn to spew mashed potatoes because she couldn't keep from laughing.
"What?" Vasiliy asked, perplexed at the inside joking. "What did I miss?"
"Oh, nothing," Naomi said innocently, trying but failing to keep a smirk off her face.
"Girl stuff. You wouldn't understand," Evvie added, dabbing her face with a napkin.
Laurie's eyes narrowed, and she glanced back and forth between the three of us Poesies. She started to open her mouth, but then decided against it. There was a moment of awkward silence, which I used to gulp down some of my tea to _try_ to help calm my jangled nerves.
"I heard that the group is going to form a special team for simulations," Laurie said to break the silence.
I nodded and put down my cup. "A few members have been going to some of Mr. Two Knives' classes, and they seem to be really enjoying it, so last week, we talked about making a training team or two so we could do some ... interesting sims."
I chuckled. "Such as a buffalo hunt, horse-stealing raids, combat with an enemy tribe, raiding parties - you know, usual boring stuff."
"Buffalo hunting doesn't sound bad," Adrian observed.
"On horseback with bow and arrow."
"Horseback? Bow and arrow? And you call that boring?" Vasiliy asked, mouth agape in astonishment. "
I shrugged indifferently. "Based on some of the stories of my ancestors, yeah, that's boring."
"I noticed you're wearing your uniform today. Carson get on your case?" Laurie asked, changing the subject.
"No," I said with a derisive snort. "It was Hartford. She wasn't exactly warm to the idea that my religion demanded that I wear buckskin dresses."
"Yeah, well, she's probably jealous that you look better in them than she would," Adrian commented. The appreciative look he was giving me earned him an elbow from Laurie.
"I told her that the Great Spirit wanted me to wear traditional Lakota attire, but she told me that since I channel that spirit, this can't be independently verified, and therefore, wear a uniform like everyone else."
"So, like you're your own goddess?" Naomi chuckled. "Why _wouldn't_ she believe you?"
"Can't you appeal to Mrs. Carson?" Vasiliy asked naively.
"Guess who controls what Mrs. Carson sees and doesn't see in terms of paperwork?" I asked rhetorically. "I'd have to fill out a form one-seven-four slash A, requesting a religious exemption from the school uniform and submit it to the dress-code variances committee, and as head of that committee, she'd take it up at their next meeting, after which I could appeal the decision to Mrs. Carson if I was unsatisfied."
"Sounds simple enough," Evvie noted.
"Because it's late in the school year, the next dress-code variances committee meeting isn't until late May," I groused. "And then only if they have sufficient items on the agenda to merit a meeting, versus a ruling from the committee head."
"So basically, you're screwed."
I nodded with a resigned sigh. "If she makes an arbitrary ruling, I could request a special committee hearing, which she'd have to grant within thirty days of my request."
"So if the committee decides in late May to not meet, and Hartford rules against you, then if you appeal, she can run out the clock on the term," Adrian speculated. "Sneaky."
"Bureaucratic," Naomi corrected him.
"So you're finished wearing those nice, tight-fitting, sexy buckskin dresses?" Adrian asked in a tone that, combined with his words, earned him yet another elbow from Laurie. One day, the boy was going to learn to keep his mouth shut.
"Nope. Some days I'll just wear the blazer over my dress - like the girls from India do."
"But ... won't you get in trouble?" Vasiliy asked.
"Maybe. But any punishment I can appeal to Mrs. Carson immediately, so I go around Hartford," I said with a huge grin. "It's all about understanding the rules."
"Damn," Adrian whistled, "you sound like Loophole!"
The grin faded instantly, and I clenched my jaw. The Gadgeteer Goddess was thrown in my face yet again. How often was I going to be compared to the Lab Queen?
I should have known something was up from the way Evvie, Laurie, Naomi, and Chat Bleu all had a sudden urge for visiting the rest room or getting dessert or some other such excuse to leave the table. I had a sinking feeling, though, when Mindbird, Abra, Pally, and Clover came up behind Adrian and Vasiliy.
The girls came up from behind me, encircling me, and it wasn't just the four who'd been at our table, but also Chou, Molly, Alicia, and Addy. Evvie planted a huge cake, with sixteen burning candles, on the table in front of me.
"Oh, God!" I groaned. "I told you guys not to make a big deal!"
Evvie grinned. "You were overridden by your mother. She told me very explicitly to make sure you had a nice birthday cake. More specifically, a pineapple upside-down cake!" Which the cake was. It was the largest pineapple upside-down cake I'd ever seen, and it looked just like Mom's, only much larger.
As the group broke into a rendition of 'Happy Birthday," I shrank in my seat, wanting to slip into a crack in the floorboards or tile. Unfortunately, neither were possible, because the floor was a faux-granite devisor material that was seamless, so there were no cracks in which to hide even if I had been able to shrink.
Naturally, the cacophony drew attention, and more and more voiced joined in the rendition of birthday wishes, until I was beet red from embarrassment. Finally, they finished, and after a raucous roar of applause, I blew out the candles. Naomi produced a serving knife and Laurie had a stack of plates, so they began to cut and serve cake to those around us.
My embarrassment wasn't through. Robert Rose, the cut-up, practical-joking, ectoplasm-manifesting kid in Victorian attire, came to the table. "M'lady," he said, bowing deeply. "It is only fitting that a lady celebrate her birthday with a dance with a suave gentleman." My eyes widened, and he continued with a grin. "Since we seem to be short on those, I'll have to do, I suppose." He glanced to the side, and his friend Froggy began to sing a Sinatra song, accompanied by a siren who was doing all the musical background. He offered his hand graciously, and after glancing nervously at my friends, I realized that I was thoroughly on the spot and was _not_ going to get out of this.
Fortunately, Robert Rose was a total gentleman, and equally fortunately, I knew the Foxtrot, or at least some basic steps - and I figured that Mom had a big hand in the planning. And so I nervously danced with Robert around the fountain. He was a perfect gentleman, and I was certain that someone had arranged for a projective empath to dampen my sense of panic, because I had none at all, which totally shocked me.
Once the dance was over, I was subject to a great deal more cheering and whistling as I slunk back to my seat. There followed no peace in dining for quite a while, as many people I knew - and some I only vaguely knew - came by to wish me Happy Birthday and get a piece of cake. The list of well-wishers included all of Team Kimba, several classmates, and most of the Poe girls. The Poe girls kept giving me quite interesting looks - kind of like they were sizing me up with hungry looks in their eyes. Eventually, though, the excitement died down, and I tried to eat some cake in peace. What little was left after all the well-wishing vultures had eaten almost all of it.
Whoever had been projecting calm to keep me from having a panic attack during the dance left or quit projecting because I suddenly began to tremble and then outright shake at the realization that I'd danced with a guy. With him holding me.
Schuster Hall, after dinner
The Nations meeting
"It was _way_ cool!" Lupine bubbled enthusiastically. "Mr. Two Knives was absolutely awesome, the way he took apart Stormwolf with a tomahawk!" She didn't see the boy staring at her with a look of disapproval. "And the bow - Kayda said that she wasn't any good, but she hit the target five times in about six seconds!"
Mule sat toward the rear. As Lupine and Stormwolf reported on their adventures in Mr. Two Knives' class, he was strangely silent.
"The idea of Native American fighting techniques and simulations is quite interesting," Stormwolf said, carefully impassive in tone. "While Kayda was in her electronics class yesterday, I spent more time with Mr. Two Knives. He is remarkably skilled in stealth, and he's nearly impossible to sneak up on." He grinned. "Imagine having those skills in the upcoming combat finals."
Bluejay cleared his throat. "Can we get permission to use the simulators for some combat scenarios?"
I nodded. "Since we're officially recognized, yes. It was a point I brought up with Mrs. Carson."
"I say we form a training team."
"Show of hands - who would like to be on a Nations training team for some Native American simulations?" I asked. Immediately, a lot of hands shot into the air. I counted eleven of the sixteen members present. The group now included two students who had no Native American blood, but were interested in Native American lore, skills, and history. Not surprisingly, Windrunner was _not_ one of the respondents.
"Looks like we'll need two teams," Stormwolf chuckled.
"Okay, I'll get the names from Flux, and we'll randomly draw teams next week."
"How about training with your tutor?" Slapshot asked.
"He's open to more students training," I said, "but we'll have to see when he could teach. It might be tough in my tutoring session, because I'm working on horse-bow..."
"We could ask that he set up an area for training in the same location, so he could teach a variety of skills. One area for tomahawk, one for Krav Maga, one for bow..." It was the first comment from Mule, and it surprised me, given how quiet he'd been.
A thought crept into my brain. "If we have enough demand, we might be able to petition to get PE credit for it, too!" Another thing occurred to me. "I'll invite him next week, and we can see who's interested and what the options are."
"He told me he's willing to do a demo any time in the optional seventh period," Stormwolf commented. "And a class, if there are enough interested students."
"When we take a break, I'll call him." I turned to Windrunner. "You said you have some ideas for activities?" I wanted to make it known that I counted on her, as a member of the Tribal Council, for input. "How about you talk while I call Mr. Two Knives?"
She began to talk about various 'craft' projects, and I could tell, from the background noise, that the reception wasn't nearly as warm as what the subject of combat training had gotten, but some were interested. While she spoke, I talked with Mr. Two Knives, and he agreed to do a demonstration the following day while I was in electronics class. When Windrunner finished, out of courtesy, we did an informal vote on several of her proposals, ranking the top five possible activities to schedule for the rest of the school year. Surprisingly to me, she had proposed a sweat-lodge ceremony, which garnered quite favorable review.
"I've got a line on a portable structure we can set up a sweat lodge in," I reported. "Who's up for next Saturday for that?"
"How about we do a camp some upcoming Saturday night, too? But not the weekend after next." Hardsell proposed. That was favorably received as well.
"I guess we'll learn about making native dwellings as well as doing a sweat lodge," Scott said with a chuckle.
"Two dwellings - at least," Azteca interjected. "One for you boys, and one for the girls."
"Two week should give us plenty of time to organize things. I'll see if I can get Mr. Lodgeman to attend as well - at least the fire circle. He's probably got some knowledge on setting up dwellings and stuff that we want to tap."
The discussion became quite lively; some wanted the cooks to make some traditional Native American dishes for us, while others wanted us to cook for ourselves. One even proposed that we hunt our own wildlife to cook. While a few of the guys - and Lupine - were very enthusiastic about the idea, most of the girls were a little squeamish. I suspected that we'd eventually hunt, and then the girls would learn to either deal with it, or they'd quit coming on those types of outings.
Mule took responsibility for working with the grounds crew to find where we could camp and build a fire, temporary lodges, and a sweat-lodge. Lupine and Pristine were going to work on supplies for some temporary lodges, and I'd finish my arrangements for a sweat lodge.
"So, what did Mr. Two Knives say?" Slapshot asked when the campout discussion wound down.
"He said that anyone who wants a demonstration or intro lesson should be at the archery range near the stables after sixth period tomorrow. If there is enough interest, he'll talk to Mrs. C about starting a class and about PE credit for it."
We talked more about future possibilities, but eventually, I noticed that people were getting antsy to leave, so I reluctantly adjourned the meeting. As we were leaving, Flux offered to walk with me back to Poe so I wouldn't have to wait for security. Part of me _wanted_ to wait for security.
"I couldn't help but wonder if you were trying to make the meeting run past curfew," he said with a grin as we walked. My eyes felt like they were going to bug out, and my mouth hung agape, which made Flux chuckle. "Oh, it's not a secret that there's a hot-tub party tonight," he chuckled. "Nor that Blackrose conned you into going after she's been chasing you since you arrived."
Oh, shit! The whole damned cottage knew! "Uh, I don't know ...."
Flux chuckled. "It's pretty common knowledge." He waggled his eyebrows at me as we arrived at the front door to Poe. "Have fun, you two!"
Behind Poe Cottage, just before curfew
Rosalyn glanced around to see if anyone was watching, and then ducked into the small copse of trees, away from the walkway. As she walked hesitantly, a shadowy figure detached itself from the dark outline of a tree. "You startled me," Rosalyn said, her hand lightly touching her heart in a very feminine gesture of surprise.
"I shouldn't have. I told you to meet me here," the shadowy figure countered.
"I suppose, but this seems so ...."
"Sneaky? Devious?" the shadow asked knowingly. "You _know_ you really want to play your part, don't you?"
Rosalyn winced. Her motives were too transparent. "Yes," she answered hesitantly. She held out something, which the shadowy figure took from her.
"Good. Don't mess this one up." The shadowy figured blended back into the black outlines of the trees, leaving Rosalyn alone with her thoughts.
'Damn,' Rosalyn cursed inside as she considered what she'd agreed to, and the role she'd already been playing. 'How do I get myself out of this mess?' She started walking back toward Poe, still shaking her head. 'Now I'm caught in a web that I helped weave....' At Poe's back door, she squared her shoulders and held up her head. No sense in anyone else knowing what kind of a mess she was caught up in, and if she presented herself as anything _but_ a confident, self-assured, predatory, part-time-dom, people would start to suspect something. She'd have to act her part - again.
Poe Cottage, after curfew
I paced nervously, glancing periodically at the countdown clock which had been fastened with some kind of devisor glue to my desk. The numbers were down to fourteen minutes and twenty seconds, and ticking away.
"Relax, Kayda," Evvie said. "It's just a soak in a hot tub with a bunch of girls." She was sitting on her bed in a soft black terrycloth robe reading a magazine to pass the time.
"Led by a girl who wants to get in my pants and has made no secret of it since I got here!" I added angrily.
"She won't do anything. Not without your permission," Evvie tried to reassure me.
"But ... she's been pretty aggressive coming on to me!"
"And why not? You're very attractive, and when those curves finish developing, you're going to have a dynamite figure!"
"But ... she moved the party - to my birthday! She found out, and moved it!"
"Maybe, or maybe it's a coincidence," Evvie suggested. She looked up at the sound of our door opening. "Hi," she purred to Naomi, who was wearing the same black robe as Evvie. The same black robe that sat on my bed, and which were part of the supplies for the hot tub, like the ultra-soft towels and slippers. I was told that it was traditional to wear the black robes at these formal parties.
Naomi closed the door and then sat on the edge of Evvie's bed, "Hi, yourself." She punctuated her greeting with a lengthy kiss. After she finished, she looked up at me. "You better get dressed," Naomi chided me gently.
"I ... I don't want to go," I protested, my voice quavering slightly.
"It'll be okay," Evvie assured me, springing up to hug me and comfort me.
"But ... I'm sixteen now! Now it's legal for her to ...."
Evvie held her hands on my shoulders, looking square at me. "If you don't want to, she can't make you."
I turned away, wiping at the tear that appeared in one eye. "That's just it," I mumbled. "I ... I _do_ want to!" I started shaking as my minor fear turned to sobbing. "I'm so afraid ... that I'd betray Debra ... just because I'm so curious I can't stand it!"
"Oh, Kayda," Evvie said, hugging me from behind, trying to calm me.
"I'm so afraid that I wouldn't be able to say no," I sobbed.
Poe Cottage Lobby, after curfew
Trembling, I descended the stairs with Evvie and Naomi. Like them, I was clad in a black terry robe, with nothing underneath. I halted abruptly, fighting panic, when I saw Rosalyn looking up at me with a smile that reminded me of the look in a wolf's eyes when it's stalking its prey. The other girls followed her gaze, and suddenly, I felt like I was on display. There were about fifteen girls, many of whom I knew, but a few, like the girl with the dusky olive Mediterranean complexion who was clearly attached to Zenith, I didn't know.
"Are we all here," Rosalyn asked as the three of us joined the group; no doubt she was the chairperson for this little outing.
"Rip is studying with Toni," one of the girls reported.
"You mean, she's studying Toni!" A titter of laughs circulated through the group.
"Megs isn't coming, either."
"Okay. Stick close together and follow me." Rosalyn turned toward the door, but turned back and took my trembling hand. "I don't want you to get lost," she said with a grin, which evoked even more giggles.
There must have been some 'understanding' with Mrs. Horton, because she'd know instantly if any of her charges were out after curfew. I'd been to the hot-tub before with Naomi and Evvie, so I wasn't surprised, although the path off the walkway into the trees was a little trickier to navigate in the darkness.
Rosalyn stopped by the ginormous remains of the tree and fiddled with the lock, opening the door. "Step along girls," she directed in her sweet, sexy voice, "and be careful if it's your first time. It's quite a drop."
One by one, the girls descended the ladder, with Rosalyn sort-of pushing me into the middle of the line, perhaps fearing that I'd chicken out if she let me go last. The ladder descended from the dark of night into a softly-lit cavern, so it actually seemed easier to go down than at my last visit. The cavern was no different from my previous visit; the lighting was constant whether it was day or night outside, but somehow, knowing that it was dark outside seemed to add a little creepy edge to the caverns, a hint of foreboding.
At the bottom, the girls were already folding their robes and placing them in little cubbies; in the bluish-green glow of the cavern lights, their naked bodies looked quite exotic, and it didn't make matters any less enticing to see some very attractive exemplar bodies in the mix. I sort of stepped to the side, wincing at the display of female flesh and the knowledge that when I disrobed, a lot of girls were going to be looking at _me_.
There was a girl at the bottom who hadn't been part of our gathering in Poe, and I was afraid my secret would be out, but Zenith wrapped her arms around the new girl in an almost smothering embrace. "Oh, Elaine, welcome home, sister!" she said in a warm, genuinely happy voice. "Elaine said you were coming..."
The unfamiliar girl - a redhead, I guessed, though it was a little hard to be absolutely certain in the bluish lighting - returned the hug. "Hey, Zoe."
Zoe's partner, who was at her side as if fastened permanently there, chuckled. "Don't you go by Lanie down here?" she asked. "Why did you start insisting on being called 'Elaine' last year, anyway?"
The smile on Lanie's face froze. "Ask the Kodiak, Sahar," she said, her voice as ice-cold as her expression.
"Awkward!" the girl said. "Sorry. I didn't mean to stir up anything." The girls around us murmured at whatever story or rumors were associated with the girl and the Kodiak.
Zoe intervened to halt the awkward moment. "This is a happy occasion!"
"Let's not bicker and argue about _who_ killed _who_!" someone chimed in a faux Scots burr, laughing.
Lanie's expression softened at the bit of humor. Zenith continued. "You're free, you're you again, and you've got the whole world ahead of you!"
I kind of shuffled to one side, not quite sure how to act in this group. This was different from the sweat lodge; in the sweat lodge, it was about a Lakota ceremony. This was about lesbian girls checking each other out like a meat market, hoping to find someone for a relationship - or a hot one-night stand of sex. I shuddered at that thought. Slowly, reluctantly, I slipped off my robe, hoping that I was blending into the background, trying to not be obvious. I knew that if all the girls were in the pool naked, and I was standing alone still in my robe, it would be a scene that would probably embarrass the hell out of me.
Zenith, Sahar, and Lanie sat down on the benches to take off their slippers. I wasn't quite sure what they were saying, because I was nervously watching the other girls disrobe and walk confidently into the hot tub. While I trembled from jangled nerves, Zenith and Sahar stepped into the tub and eased down onto the built-in benches. "Are you coming into the water Lanie? Or are you just going to watch?" she asked.
"Not that I'd blame you if you just watched," Selkie said with a wicked grin as she slipped into the water.
"Ah'm not Peeper!" Lanie shot back with a very obvious southern accent. She stood and removed her own robe, and as she did, I goggled her. She was curvy in a way that put almost every other girl in the room to shame. Her very generous bosom had to be D-cups, and she had a figure that girls would die to have. Her eyes locked onto mine, and for a couple of moments, I stood, transfixed, as if she was casting some spell on me. I swallowed nervously at the way she was looking. Finally, I managed to look down to tear my gaze from hers.
"I thought Delta Spike said you weren't looking for a rebound," Zoe said teasingly. My skin flushed red and warm in embarrassment from the tip of my toes to my scalp.
"Hmmm, Lanie," Angel said, waggling her eyebrows suggestively, "You're looking at Kayda like your more than a little interested."
Lanie shook her head, making her long, wavy hair dance about her face. "Ah thought the purpose of this little clambake was to admire the goods," she said with a leering smile. I blushed an even deeper shade of red. "But Ah don't want to catch a rebound. That wouldn't be fair to them. Still, there's no harm in looking!" She grinned at me, her eyes locked onto mine once more, and a shudder coursed up and down my spine for some reason. "Kayda's beautiful. She should be proud of that." I tried to back away from the pool, to ease myself from being the center of attention, but I immediately bumped into an outcropping of wall.
Zenith chuckled as she cuddled up and wrapped her arm around the dusky girl. "Yeah. You go for the exotic girls, don't you? Like Songbird? And now Kayda?"
God, I wanted to run. I wanted to get out of the place, because I _was_ one of the last ones not in the pool, and everyone was watching me, and now this new girl Lanie was unashamedly admitting that she was checking me out. As were most of the girls who were already in the hot-tub.
Lanie placed a hand lightly over her breast. In an imitation of a Southern belle straight out of casting central, she purred, "Well, now, bein' a well-brought-up Southern lady," she intoned, her accent into full deep South genteel mode, "it goes without sayin' that Ah have more sophisticated tastes and a more discriminatin' palate than all you Yankees!"
Rosalyn chuckled at Lanie's act, and she stepped to my side, wrapping an arm around my waist while her other hand lightly touched my bare shoulder. "Hands off, Lanie. In case you didn't realize, Kayda is mine."
My jaw dropped in shock at how Rosalyn was basically claiming me. "No!" I cried out, pushing away from her. "I'm ... I'm already involved with someone!"
"I didn't think Rosalyn had gotten that far yet!" Troika giggled, causing most of the girls to titter and chuckle. If my skin was already flushed from embarrassment, it began to completely burning from shame.
Rosalyn shook her head, and whatever expression she shot at the other girls calmed down the laughter. "Kayda," she said, looking at me with a touch of sympathy in her expression, "Lanie, who is actually Elaine ..."
"'Cept Delta Spike is our resident Elaine, and Lanie is only visiting," Shove chuckled from the other side of the pool.
Lanie turned and extended her hand. Hesitantly, I took it and shook. "Mah pleasure," the Southern girl purred. I could still see something of a twinkle in her eye, which caused another shudder to traverse my spinal column. "We met the other night."
I was startled. "Did we?" I tried to remember; one would think that I'd remember such a stunning redhead with a figure .... The answer hit me. "Oh, yeah. At the Venus Inc. clubhouse," I mumbled softly.
"Lanie," Rosalyn purred, "this is Kayda, who is going to be my next girlfriend. She just doesn't realize it yet." She waggled her eyebrows. "Or more precisely, she just won't admit it yet."
"I'm NOT interested in Rosalyn!" I said sternly, my emotions vacillating between anger at Rosalyn's prank and embarrassment to the point of tears. I was getting sick of the teasing.
"But ... you just _met_ Lanie!" Lissa joked. "You sure move quickly!"
"I'm not interested in Lanie, either!" I shot back, my lip trembling and my voice about to crack. I really didn't like the amount of teasing I was getting.
Lanie grinned at me. "What? Don't you like red-headed Georgia girls?" she asked with a seductive purr.
Shove, next to Jody, grinned. "Yeah. How could you _not_ love that accent and those curves?" Everyone giggled when Jody punched Shove in the arm for making that comment. Shove was going to have to do some smooth-talking to make up to Jody for _that_ little statement.
"Because she's interested in girls with long, wavy, dark hair," Rosalyn teased.
I was about to cry from what had turned from mild teasing into utter humiliation. "I've _got_ a girlfriend!" I protested in a trembling voice, fighting to keep my composure as my eyes misted. I wanted to run away, but if I did, I knew that the teasing afterwards would be an order of magnitude worse. I'd seen how vicious girls could be with their teasing. "Cornflower's my special girl!" I cried, fighting tears as I was overwhelmed emotionally by the teasing.
Lanie glanced around the pool, and the laugher and chuckling instantly ceased at whatever gesture or expression she directed at the others. "Back off, girls," she said, her voice suddenly strong and commanding. She turned to me, an apologetic look on her face. "Ah know it's kinda traditional to tease the new girls," she said, lifting my chin with her hand so I was looking at her instead of the floor. With her other hand, she wiped the teardrops that were starting to trickle down my cheeks. "Ah'm sorry if we went too far with our teasin'." She smiled at me. "And Ah know you're already spoken for."
My jaw practically dropped. "You ... know? How?"
Lanie smiled, a warm, friendly expression that made me want to instantly forgive her for her part of the teasing. "Mah friend Ayla told me."
"Ayla told you?" I stammered. "He ... he promised he wouldn't tell!"
Lanie's flinch was almost impossible to miss. "Ah know the secret of Poe," she explained, blushing a little, although it was difficult, in the cavern's light, to tell how much she was embarrassed. "So knowing you lived there, Ah figured you might be ...." She eased herself into the pool, sitting beside Zenith.
Sharisha, as usual, wasn't about to stop teasing. "Ooohh," she said in a half-snarky, half-mocking voice, "so you _are_ interested in Kayda! You were checking her out!"
Elaine blushed and shrunk down in the pool a bit, her shoulders hunched in what a somewhat embarrassed posture, "Well, yeah," she admitted, "Ah kinda was." She glanced around at the grins directed her way - which was nice that they weren't all focused on me for a change. "Well, can you blame me?" she demanded. "Besides, it's an old habit." The girls mumbled a bit, thinking about what Lanie had said, which caused me to blush once more, because I realized that they couldn't really argue with Lanie's logic. I was using up a month's worth of blushing in one night!
"What did Ayla tell you about me?" I asked, my voice quiet and trembling a bit. I had secrets that I didn't want to share, and I _hoped_ that Ayla and others would respect my privacy.
"Just the usual stuff," Lanie said reassuringly. "Basic background details, like your name, where you're from, what you're interested in...and the fact that you saved Cornflower's life, and she's your girlfriend." She suddenly grinned broadly. "You _can_ join us in the pool," she said. "Take a load off." She waggled her eyebrows once more. "Not that any of us are mindin' the view!"
My skin was really red by now, flushed to the point that I didn't think it possible for me to be any _more_ humiliated and blushing. I glanced around, and saw that there was - unfortunately - one spot that was quite clearly empty - right next to Rosalyn, between her and Lanie. I goggled at that.
"Oh, come on in," Rosalyn said, gesturing to the spot next to her. "I don't bite," she purred. "Much!" she added with a leering grin.
Steeling my nerves, I sat down, stuck between a girl who had been flirting with me practically non-stop since I'd arrived, and had made no secret that she wanted to seduce me, and a girl I'd just met who'd done her share of teasing, admitted she had checked me out, and then had interceded to stop all the taunts and teases when she thought they'd gone too far.
The water was relaxing, I had to admit, and thinking of all the naked beauties was playing mind-tricks on me, slowing my senses somewhat. It took a few seconds to notice that Rosalyn's hand was on mine, which I promptly snatched away. On my other side, Lanie and a clutch of girls gathered around her were talking about Lanie's ex-boyfriend. The more I heard, the less comfortable I got. The girls, despite the advertisement of this party as a lesbian hot-tub party, were _very_ interested in details about Elaine's relationship.
"Lanie's been lynched by the bullpen," Rosalyn chuckled as she whispered the explanation in my ear. She was close enough that her lips brushed my earlobe, sending a shiver through my entire body. She saw the confusion on my face. "All those girls - and Lanie too, I suppose - are switch hitters." I frowned, not quite getting the reference into my relaxed, fatigued brain. She made a loop with her left finger and thumb, and then put her right index finger into it in a very blatant sexual gesture. "They're bi."
I felt my stomach churn, and shivers ran up and down my spine as the blood drained from my face. My hands and knees were shaking like nobody's business at the implications of what Rosalyn had said, but fortunately, nobody could see them beneath the water's surface.
"Are y'all really askin' ...?" Lanie asked with a scowl. The squealed chorus of 'yes' from the girls caused Lanie to roll her eyes and shake her head. She finally raised her hands, a substantial distance apart, which caused the girls to ooh and aah. For my part, I was pre-occupied fighting the terror that was trying to rise in me, the flashback to that awful night. I felt moisture in the corners of my eyes.
"Have you ever been the complete focus of someone's attention?" Lanie continued. "Where there was only you and nothin' else?" She smiled. "That's the best way Ah can describe it."
Lanie glanced around, and suddenly, she leaned close to me. "Ah'm sorry, Kayda," she said, her voice hushed. "Ah know there are two kinds of lesbians. Girls like Rosalyn, who either like girls more, or don't like boys - kind of a preference thing. And then there are girls like mah ex, Maria. She had the same look you have every time the subject of boys came up." I looked up at her, not quite sure where she was going. "Maria was raped and abused by her stepfather."
If I'd been blushing before, my complexion went to the other extreme; my lip quivered as I began to shake badly. The nightmare was trying to come back; my vision was dimming as my PTSD tried to claim me.
Lanie's warm, comforting embrace kept me from slipping into a full-blown PTSD collapse. "Am Ah wrong in thinkin' ...?"
Tears ran down my cheeks, dripping into the pool, and I looked down out of shame, feeling yet again that I was damaged and soiled. "I ... I thought ...." I sniffled, trembling and trying to control my emotions. "I thought ... they were my friends! But ..." I couldn't continue; the tears went from a trickle to a deluge.
Lanie wrapped her arms around me from one side, and Rosalyn from the other, both holding me to reassure and comfort me. For what seemed like long minutes, the two hugged me, while other conversations ceased instantly or faded to the faintest of whispers. "Friends don't do things like that," she said softly.
I nodded, wiping at my face, and then I looked at her. Her expression was cherubic, warm and comforting and reassuring and non-judgmental. It was what I needed to see at that point.
"Ah'm sorry if what Ah was sayin' was upsettin' you. Ah didn't mean to."
"I know," I squeaked in a tiny, timid voice. I wrapped my arms around her shoulders and gave her a hug. "Thanks. For being understanding and supportive." I gulped. "And for not judging me."
"Why on earth would Ah judge you for bein' the victim of a horrible crime?" Lanie asked, surprised by my question.
Rosalyn decided to lighten the mood. "Hey everyone," she sang out cheerfully, "it's Kayda's birthday today!" She grinned. "And you know what that means!"
I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach; I was about to learn, I feared, _why_ Rosalyn had moved the party. At least one of the reasons. The other was only too obvious.
"Birthday girl!" someone shouted out gleefully. The girls began to move through the large pool toward me, which filled me with a sense of dread.
"I don't want anyone to make anything special or out of the ordinary about my birthday," I protested, but I feared that I'd have better luck trying to hold back an incoming tide with my pinky fingers.
Lanie grinned at me. "Too late!" she said, just before she grasped my cheeks lightly and kissed me - fully on my lips. I was caught completely by surprise, and then again when I felt Lanie wrap her arms around me, pulling our naked bodies close together. Before I knew what was happening, I was kissing her back, feeling warmth rising inside me at her tender attention. She didn't hurry the kiss at all, and I really didn't mind.
When she finished, she leaned back breathlessly, a smile on her face. "Happy birthday." She saw the look on my face. "Oh, Ah guess no-one told you ...."
"Told me what?" I asked, equally out of breath from that quite fantastic kiss.
Rosalyn none-too-gently pushed Lanie aside, giving her a look that I suspected was rather unkind, and she draped her arms over my shoulders. Leaning close, she smiled and in a husky, breathy, sexy voice, she said, "It's a tradition. _I_ was going to be first," she declared, shooting a glare toward Lanie before putting her seductive expression back on and looking into my eyes. "It's a long-standing tradition in Poe Cottage that if a sister is having a birthday, all the other sisters give her a birthday kiss, and with that kiss, wish her a happy birthday and a long, happy life." She smiled. "Kind of like New Year's Eve." Then she leaned forward, and just as Lanie had done, kissed me gently and passionately. I felt myself warming even more when her hand began to very gently caress my breast. I fought to not respond, but as I'd learned at that fateful movie, Rosalyn was a _very_ good kisser. When she finished, she leaned back. "Happy birthday," she purred in a sexy voice, staring at me with a hungry, aroused look in her eyes. She grinned a tiny bit and then leaned closer, her lips brushing my ear lobe. "You know you can get a very special birthday present - all you have to do is ask."
I gulped nervously. "This - this is why you moved the date of the party!" I sputtered, confused by a raging internal war between indignation at her trick and a growing arousal.
Sahar shook her head. "Imagine that! Rosalyn taking advantage to get a chance to swap spit with the new girl!" she said sarcastically. "Say it isn't so!"
"Like _that's_ never happened before," chuckled Zenith.
I was being subjected to birthday kisses as the two chortled at Rosalyn's trick. Most of the girls gave me short, innocuous kisses, but Angel lingered with a kiss that seemed to be straight from heaven, and Selkie French-kissed me so thoroughly that if I'd have been standing, my knees would have collapsed.
"You two as well," Rosalyn said to Zenith and Sahar as the last girl in line locked lips with me. "It _is_ a tradition!"
Zenith shared a glance Sahar, and then the two turned and blew me kisses. "Happy birthday, Kayda," they chimed together, the combination of their voice a dulcet duo that echoed pleasantly through the artificial cavern.
Rosalyn glared at them, and I gathered that she was about to let loose at them for disrespecting the Poe tradition, but a sound from the entranceway interrupted her. "Didn't you lock the door?" Zenith asked Rosalyn, her eyes wide.
Rosalyn's eyes were equally wide. "I thought _you_ locked it!" she said. Around us, girls sank down into the pool, eyes riveted on the entranceway.
"Hi, guys!" Bunny called out as she pulled the door shut behind herself. "I'm sorry I'm late."
As Bunny descended the ladder, Zenith moved to a control panel near the bottom of the ladder and worked a few buttons. When the door was secured and the fear of discovery gone, an audible sigh of relief went around the pool.
"I swear she's getting worse, not better," Bunny explained as she descended. "All the crying and hobgoblins! I couldn't leave her alone until she fell asleep." When she got to the bottom of the ladder, she kicked off her slippers and slipped out of her robe, turning toward the pool. "She's had a really rough ... Oh, hey, Loophole! I didn't expect to see you here! Welcome back, sister."
"Hey, Bugs," Lanie replied.
My jaw dropped as I gawked at the redhead. It couldn't be! She ... was the Lab Queen?
Lanie saw my stunned expression and looked at me, curious. "What?"
"You're ... Loophole?" I stammered, stuck in state of shock and disbelief.
"Ah didn't ask for the codename, Ah got tagged with it, but yeah, that's me. Why?"
"You're ... the Gadgeteer Goddess?" I stammered, my voice trembling uncontrollably. "The Lab Legend? The Mechanism Maestra? The girl who works miracles in the labs?"
Lanie shook her head as if upset at the titles I was calling her - even if she acknowledged that they were things some called her. "Why?"
I flapped my jaw, trying to say _something_, anything. "You're ... you're not an arrogant, self-righteous bitch!" I heard myself saying.
Elaine blinked in surprise, but a few other girls snickered. "Uh, thanks," Lanie stammered. "Ah think." She wrinkled her forehead in puzzlement.
"Why would you think she'd be a bitch?" Rosalyn asked me, as puzzled as Elaine and most of the other girls.
My emotions were so jumbled from the evening that I didn't know if I felt like crying or screaming or laughing. "I don't know," I stammered. "I ... I ...." I shook my head, trying to make something sensible come out, and all the girls were now paying rapt attention to me. "Back home, I was .... I felt important in school. I ... tinkered in my dad's shop, and in the repair shop in his dealership. I was ... the best mechanic and tinkerer and student in my class." All my self-doubts were surfacing. "Now, I'm ... I'm a nobody! In some classes, I feel like I'm barely getting by, and ... and they scheduled me so I don't have time to go to any workshop, and ..." I was sniffling, fighting tears. "And all I hear about in the technical classes is you!" I said. "The Queen of the Alphas. The Goddess of the Labs!" I shook my head. "I hear everyone talking about how you're the best mechanic ever! I was practically born with a wrench in my hand, and worked on diesel trucks and tractors from the time I was about 6, but nobody knows, and it all sounds like I'm nothing in comparison! All I hear about is how great you are!" I looked down, wiping at my moist cheeks. "You were supposed to be a stuck-up, arrogant bitch so I could at least hate you! But you're not even that!"
Lanie drew back, surprised. "Whoa!" she said, holding up her hand in a sign to stop. "Slow down, girl! Of _course_ Ah know cars! Mah daddy owns a shop that his daddy owned, and mah great-grand-daddy before him - well, after he got out of jail for bootleggin'." She put her hand gently on my shoulder. "For another thing, Poise is Alpha Female, not me! Ah'm not all that stuff they say ...."
"Oh, yes you are!" Bunny declared. "You sure as hell put Tansy in her place!"
"And your combat armor and power supply," Naomi interjected. "And Pocolda for the fire-extinguishing capsules."
"Don't forget the turbocharger!" Bunny added.
"And Kevra," Delta Spike contributed. "Mrs. Ryan said that was the most significant advance in protective fabric since ...."
"Not helping here, guys!" Lanie hissed, scowling at them.
"See?" I asked, feeling overwhelmed. "All the stuff I did to dad's tractors and trucks, all the things I made - nobody knows _anything_ about that, so I don't count for shit in the labs. As far as anyone _here_ is concerned, I'm a rookie with zero accomplishments!" I shook my head, wiping at the corners of my eyes. "How am I ever supposed to even be noticed around the labs with all of the stuff you do? How can anybody? But that's not enough - breezing through, inventing all that stuff, topping anything I might _ever_ do isn't enough! No, you have to go and be so goddamned nice, too, so I can't even hate you or resent you!"
Lanie stared for a moment, and then started chuckling. "What?" Kayda demanded angrily.
"You," Lanie said with a smile. "It's deja vu!" She looked around at the other girls. "Ah ask y'all, was this not how Ah acted last year?"
"She's prettier than you were last year," Sahar replied drolly, making a gesture which summoned a black cloud. It formed itself into a tall, lanky, awkward girl, her shockingly red hair in unflattering braids, trying awkwardly to hide her small breasts as if embarrassed by them. "Meet Loophole as a freshman," she said with a giggle. "You've come a long way, baby!"
I stared at the figure. "That's ... that's you?" I stammered. "What happened?"
Lanie chuckled, hefting her ample breasts. "These happened," she said with a grin. "Mah summer break present. And believe it or not, Ah really didn't even notice!"
"How could you _not_ notice those monsters?" Shove asked, astounded at Lanie's little confession. I, too, wondered how one could have such a magnificent rack and not notice.
"Denial ain't just a river in Egypt!" Lanie laughed. "The rest? Well, Gunny Bardue tried to kill me in mah winter combat final, and mah metagene complex activated and Ah finally manifested."
"He wasn't trying to kill you," Zenith said with a frown of disgust.
"You weren't on the receiving end of his sim, were you?" Lanie demanded, to which Zenith splashed her in response. Lanie ignored her and turned back to me. "You've been here - what, a month? Two? Have you even been in the labs? Are you in any of the tech classes?"
"Just electronics," I admitted sadly. "Because of my spirit, they put me on the magic track, and I have to fight the administration and my advisors for any of the tech track classes."
"Well," Lanie grinned, "Y'all can't expect to get noticed for what ya ain't done, can ya?"
"But ...," I stammered, having to admit the wisdom of what she said, but still feeling like crap, because I _had_ done a lot of tinkering and building. Only it was back home. "It's not like I've never been in a shop, though," I protested. "I built a new type of transfer case for one of my dad's four-by-four tractors," I said, "and I was working on about a dozen improvements to my four-speed Muncie transmission for my car." I looked down again, saddened that my car project was back home - not that I wanted it here. Not if I had to compete with the various genius gadgeteers who infested the labs. "All the stuff I've made - it's like it never happened, and nobody around here will ever know."
"If you were tinkerin' and inventin' that much back home, in a small town school from what Ayla tells me, how much are y'all goin' to make here, where there are proper labs and shops?" she asked. She smiled at me, an expression that said that she had confidence that I _would_ succeed here.
"I ... never thought of it that way," I said slowly.
"Besides, from what Ayla says, y'all are some kinda hyper-math guru, with almost enough college-level math credits for a master's degree!"
"Everyone says that _you're_ a certified genius," I found myself mumbling, my self-doubt not willing to let go of its hold on me.
"Lighten up on yourself, already," Zenith said with a scowl. "And quit comparing yourself so much to Lanie. You've got your own talents."
"Besides," Lanie added with a chuckle, "mah Mensa card won't even get me a discount at Starbucks, and Ah wasn't the one who got a job workin' with Dr. Quintain on hyper-dimensional pattern theory." She grinned. "Ah won't fib and say I'm not good at math, but Ah've got to have somethin' to apply it to. Orbital mechanics? Lift-to-weight ratios? No problem. But that abstract stuff you're workin' on with pattern theory? Thinkin' about it makes mah head hurt!"
I felt my cheeks flush a bit at the compliment, and doubt let go of me - a bit. "Math is just a hobby," I admitted. "My passion was working in the shop on a car or truck, or anything else mechanical."
"Ah'd go plumb bonkers if'n Ah wasn't able to putter around on mah car here," the redhead said with a chuckle. "Why don't you come meet Mr. Donner in the vehicle shop? He got ahold of a '34 Ford 730 Deluxe, like Bonnie and Clyde had, and we're doing a frame-off restoration. If y'all work on cars like you're sayin', you'll fit right in t' the Gearheads."
"Maybe," I said hesitantly. "But I've got a crazy schedule."
Lanie laughed. I noticed that the others were back to their own conversations - intimate conversations involving facial contact. "We all have crazy schedules," she admitted. "So no-one in the vehicle lab works on a 'normal' schedule."
"What kind of car are you working on?"
"Baby Girl is a Ford Mustang, with a four-twenty-seven engine. With mah afterburner, she puts out six-hundred eighty-four ponies," Lanie said proudly.
"Six eighty-four - out of that motor?"
"Five years of hard work, bored and stroked, ported and polished, plus a blower and a Holley single-barrel on each cylinder! And Ah forgot about how much torque that'd put out. Tore the pumpkin to shreds."
I frowned. "How ... how do you keep from blowing a head gasket? You've got to be running thirteen or fourteen to one to get that kind of power! And that's saying nothing about floating the valves without overhead cams?"
Lanie grinned. "You _are_ a gearhead!" We talked more about her car, and the longer we talked, the more comfortable I felt with her. She wasn't laughing at any of my questions, but in a few places, I might have even got her thinking a little bit. "So what are you working on?" she asked.
"My grandpa's fifty-seven Chevy two-door wagon," I admitted.
Lanie's eyes widened. "Nomad?"
I nodded my acknowledgement. "I'm putting in a small block high-performance four-hundred. They rev faster than a big-block, and I can get a higher top-end rev limit, so even with less torque..." I shrugged. "I'd really like to put the power down through a variable-power-split four-wheel drive system." I winced slightly, still a bit nervous because I'd heard too much of Lanie's accomplishments.
"Chevys of that generation don't handle worth a damn," Lanie noted.
"Actually, I've got an idea or two about the suspension..." My voice trailed off, and I looked at Lanie expectantly, wincing a bit. I expected that Lanie would tell me how to solve my handling problems.
Lanie laughed. "Are y'all _still_ afraid Ah'll tell you how to solve your problems?"
I winced again. "Um, a little bit."
"Ah haven't yet, have Ah?" she asked with an understanding smile.
"No," I admitted sheepishly. I was very pleasantly surprised that Lanie wasn't being a know-it-all. . "Well, if I get rid of the live axle and go to independent rear suspension, which might be tough with the frame the way it's designed, and yeah, I'd have to kind of engineer a space-frame to make room for the new suspension to replace it, including multi-link front so it'd corner better, then..." We got lost in more tech discussion of cars, and Lanie was asking some quite pointed questions without once telling me how I _should_ solve the frame issues.
After a bit, Rosalyn sighed heavily. "Are you two done with your techie talk?"
"I think Lanie has a better chance of 'quality time' with Kayda than you do, Rosalyn," Sharisha taunted in a sing-song voice. Rosalyn fumed and got a bit red in the face, but Lanie reacted before anyone else.
"Now, 'Risha, why would Ah poach on Cornflower like that? Us being friends and all."
I blinked, stunned. "You know Cornflower?"
"Sure," Nalley replied. "Mah roomie Maggie is in Venus Inc., and Ah met Cornflower through her. Ah dabble in photography so Ah helped in a couple of shoots. Next time you talk to her, tell her Ah said hello."
"She told me I should join," I said hesitantly, my voice tailing off. "I don't know ...."
"You really should," Lanie countered as she stood. I winced and quickly looked away so I wouldn't get an eyeful of her crotch or ass. Zenith and Rosalyn noticed and giggled at my strange sense of modesty. Here I was, in a hot tub with almost twenty hot, naked girls, and I was worried about violating some sense of propriety.
"Are you leaving already?" Zenith asked immediately.
"Yeah, it's been fun, girls, but Ah got a pretty early start tomorrow. Ah meant what Ah said about coming down to the shop, Kayda. Ya all but promised." I nodded, still averting my eyes. "Zoe, may Ah have a word with you, please?"
Zoe got up to walk with Lanie, and I couldn't help watching their swaying derrieres as they sauntered away from the pool.
Rosalyn scooted a bit closer. "Now that you've gotten all that techie talk out of your system, what shall we talk about?" She had her trademarked predatory grin. "What did _you_ do on spring break?"
"I've already told those stories half a hundred times," I chuckled. "You can't tell me you were _never_ paying attention any of those times." Nevertheless, she continued to ask, so I regaled her with tales of the week, including a very detailed description of the photo shoot I did with the Sioux Falls League girls. I didn't leave _any_ doubt that Debra was the focus of my vacation. I flinched a bit when she held my hand, but I wasn't going to give her the pleasure of making a scene. I got the impression that she was a drama queen and loved getting attention. It would explain why she was so outrageously forward all the time.
When her hand moved to my thigh, I _did_ flinch, but she smiled sweetly. "What are you doing?"
"Nothing. We're chatting, and girls touch more than guys in social situations," she said, a very feeble explanation. The problem was that I found her touch pleasant, and even a bit exciting.
"Um, please don't," I protested weakly. "I don't want ...."
She leaned close. "Tell me to stop if you want," she said softly. The problem was that I couldn't - and she knew it. What I'd confessed to Evvie and Naomi was exactly what I was feeling - absolutely consuming curiosity, an overwhelming desire to make love with another woman - not in my artificial dream-space. I wanted to feel the real thing, not something imaginary based on what I thought it would be like that formed the basis of my dream-walks. I _wanted_ Debra to be here. I _wanted_ to give myself to her. And I was left with a burning hunger inside me that dream-walking with Debra wasn't going to satisfy.
And that left Rosalyn. She was here; Debra wasn't. I _had_ to stop, before I gave in to something I couldn't control any longer.
"I ... I need to go back to my room," I stammered, my voice trembling as her hand touching my thigh made me tremble with need. I heard a few ooohs among the girls, and I blushed; they were obviously thinking that I was giving in to Rosalyn. And they were right. Damn, double damn, but they were right. "I'm really tired. My ... my Native American fighting instructor ... he was really brutal today, and I'm exhausted," I added quickly. It was a painfully transparent lie.
"I'll walk you back, if you're so tired," Rosalyn volunteered, and I didn't object. She stood, and helped me stand. I glanced across the pool and saw the girls staring at me, knowing smiles on their faces. My blush was nearly the shade of red that I wore as war paint.
We pulled on our robes and slippers, and before I started up the ladder, I glanced back at the pool. Evvie was looking at me with a very curious expression on her face, and I suddenly felt ashamed. She must think me a slut to give in like I was, especially given how much I professed to love Debra. My eyes moistened.
"What am I doing?" I muttered to myself as Rosalyn walked me back to the main path, holding my elbow supportively but not suggestively.
"You're tired, remember?" Rosalyn said with a big grin. "So I'm going to help you to bed."
We walked in silence the rest of the way to Poe, and then up the stairs. When Rosalyn guided me up the second flight, past my floor, I looked at her questioningly, but she just smiled sweetly. "Important detour," she said coyly. Up we went, past the third floor to the fourth, and then, with me almost in tears as my mind warred between primal instincts, needs, and my love of Debra, we came to her door. "Do you want to come in for a second?" she asked.
Before I could answer, she leaned forward and kissed me again, a long, slow, lingering, passionate kiss that left me nearly ready to collapse if she hadn't been holding me up. My willpower crumbled, and though I hated myself for what I was about to do, I couldn't stop myself either. Rosalyn opened the door, and I stepped in.
Her room was dark, and she didn't flip on the lights. Perhaps, I reasoned, that was best. I didn't want to see myself betraying my love. I didn't want to see the face and body of the other woman, the seductress who was going to have her way with me. Blindly, I stumbled a few steps forward, stopping when the door clicked shut.
Arms encircled me from behind, and lips kissed my neck and nibbled on my earlobes. I was putty in her hands.
And yet .... "Please," I muttered softly. "I ... I can't." It was taking superhuman willpower that I didn't have; when I'd been a guy, I'd experience the point where the logical half of the brain was totally overwhelmed by the primal, passionate side, but I hadn't expected that women would have the same unstoppable desires. Now I knew better. "Please don't."
She spun me, and her lips met mine. I resisted - for a few seconds, and then I returned the passion, eagerly kissing my seductress, helpless to even try to resist any longer.
"I didn't think you'd want to stop," she said with a slight chuckle as she paused.