Sept. 6th, evening--Erica
"Well, here we are." Erica von Abendritter looked up the face of the brick and mortar building, and found her eyes going up, up, up to the very top. Dickinson Cottage was not a particularly tall building by most standards, but its four stories loomed above her in all their bricky splendor. The place had weight, apart from the physical mass of its construction, and its New England gothic architecture imparted a soulful gloominess not helped by the rapid approach of evening.
"We shall go in, yes?" asked Calliope, brushing back a lock of dark brown hair twined with gold. The young Italian mutant didn't sound too sure herself.
Erica nodded to the bags piled beside them. "Gotta put these somewhere, I suppose. And use the laundry soon, too. I'd hate to run out of clean underwear already. What would Oma say?"
"I do not know, but your aunt could tell us how to smother someone with it?" Cally ventured. Erica could only snort through her nose at that.
As they passed through the front door, her blue eyes were ready to take in all pertinent details, but the building's foyer wasn't much different from a nice hotel lobby. A wide staircase led up to the residential floors, and in front of that was an open area with tables and comfy chairs. Over to the side, there was a fireplace with a roaring fire in it, but... Erica blinked as her augmented vision kicked in, dropping the framerate of life down a few notches and turning the alleged blaze into a series of static images. A fake, then, but an impressive fake.
"Oh, it is so nice!" Calliope exclaimed, skipping across the floor and twirling.
"So glad that it meets with your approval." The woman's voice was dry and acerbic, carried on the lilt of an accent Erica usually associated with old BBC reruns on public television. The owner of that voice was a woman in her late forties, with a tanned face crisscrossed with worry lines and hair that was dyed a uniform mahogany. She shuffled through a door to the side of the main foyer. "Now what is it the two of you want? Heaven knows we've had enough trouble already these past few weeks without some strumpets from God-knows-where banging around at all hours!"
"Er, excuse us, ma'am," said Erica. "But we're supposed to be moving in?"
"What, there are more of you?" The woman pulled a pair of neat little spectacles on a chain. Perching them on the bridge of her nose, she had the excuse to look down on the two girls as she glared disapprovingly. "I thought we were finished with new arrivals for the day."
"We were held up," Erica tried to explain.
"There was a problem, in the city?" Calliope added. "So the people here, they said to sit and listen, and listen, and listen... And then it was time for dinner, and now we are here!"
"A problem? Hmph." Erica gritted her teeth at the dismissive tone in the woman's voice. "You should have come earlier with the others, and saved the rest of us the effort. Incredibly selfish is what I call it. Well, I hope you two are not planning on making more trouble for us. We would not be amused."
"No, ma'am," the two of them said in neat unison, well practiced after a few weeks with the senior partners. Erica did have to wonder if the woman was speaking in the royal we, though.
"Good." With an aggrieved sigh, the woman pulled an oblong object from her pocket and pressed a button. "Milena, it looks like two more of yours have arrived. Come fetch them before they break something by accident."
"On it," a much younger voice announced from the stairs. Its owner was a leggy, dark-haired teen with a single ponytail dangling from the top of her head all the way down her back. A pair of John Lennon glasses sat upon her nose, but twinkling dark eyes stared over rather than through them.
"And how long have you been standing there, Miss Tarkisian?" the woman huffed.
"Just a moment, Ms. Plimsoll, honest." The girl, Milena, winked at the two newcomers. "I'll get them out of your hair now. Come along, you two."
Ms. Plimsoll gave another harumph, then went back to her rooms. Erica and Calliope hurried over to the stairs without another word spoken, though their eyes were full of curious glances. It wasn't until they'd hauled their bags past the big portrait of Emily Dickinson and all the way up the steps to the second floor that they dared say anything, for fear of attracting the attention of the Cerberus downstairs.
"Took you long enough to get here," Milena said, breaking the uneasy silence. "Kareela told me there were other Dickinson girls on the campus tour today, but you never showed. Thought you'd wandered into a spooky spot and got ate up by, like, some eldritch horror."
"You are joking, yes?" Calliope asked, her voice wavering a bit on the ending positive.
"Well, sure. They don't allow that sort of thing on campus," said the older girl. "But this is the Miskatonic Valley, and like, stranger things have happened. Sometimes to students," she added, lowering her voice sinisterly. The giggle which followed ruined the effect. "Oh Lord, your faces!" More giggles poured out and became cackles. "So... what really happened?"
Erica and Calliope shared a look. "Um, we got involved in a bit of trouble, in New York..."
"Wait, that insanity in Central Park? That was you guys?"
"NO!" they cried in stereo. This prompted another cackle from their guide. "It was... unrelated," added Erica. "But we still had to get the riot act read to us, for the third or fourth time."
Milena was nodding. "Yeah, that sort of thing really brings down the wrath of the administration. Especially now, I'd imagine, what with stuff so, like, mixed up and stuff. The faculty roster looks more like a missing persons list these days. No other way to explain how Ms. Prim-Soul got herself hired. Well," she continued, "I should probably introduce. Milena Tarkisian, a.k.a. Sister Secret, freshman RA. And you are... no, wait," she said before Erica could open her mouth.
The RA brought her hands up and did something complicated and painful-looking with her fingers. With a flip, Erica was presented with her own ID cards, otherwise safe in their cloth card case. "Erica von Abendritter, a.k.a. Eisenm ädel, age 14," Milena read. "American student card, but German-issue MMID?" she added with a raised eyebrow.
"Family connections," Erica admitted.
"Hmm. As for you..." Milena cackled again as Calliope clutched at her handbag. "Too late." She flashed the Italian girl's MID. "Fiorella Persico, a.k.a. Calliope. You're far from home. Buona serata. Come stai?"
"Bene, grazie." Calliope didn't sound too certain as she retrieved her ID.
"Sorry, couldn't resist." The RA grinned. "Daddy always said I was, like, a total showoff. Anyhoo, already got your room assignment. Number two-oh-three, that-a-way." She pointed down the hall to one of many identical wooden portals with brass fittings. "Wanna settle in now, or meet some of your new neighbors?"
"There's more people up here?" Erica craned her neck, looking up and down the hall for signs of life. There weren't any. The long series of doors was as quiet as the set of some old-fashioned horror movie, right before the ghosts all jumped out and screamed 'Boo!'
"Just a few," Milena confirmed. "The school tries to stagger the arrivals a bit, and since Dickinson usually doesn't get the more obvious GSD cases or troubled kids, we usually arrive later. You two are only the third and fourth arrivals on this side of the floor, after myself and Kareela." She pointed out a door that had her name on it. "I'm here early because of my position, though as it turned out I got here way earlier than we actually open."
"So where is everyone?" asked Calliope.
"Over this way. Let's drop your stuff off first." The RA walked them down the hall, her long ponytail bobbing back and forth like the real thing. "There's only a few of us on this wing and the next, so we got together for some snacks and board games. Hope you like Parcheesi. Unless you've got something better packed away?"
"Ah, I have a Mille Miglia deck in my bags?" Calliope offered.
"Among other stuff." Erica grinned.
"Yes, yes, but the other stuff, it takes too much time to set up and teach. And all my best source books are in Italian..."
Milena chuckled as the two of them dropped off their bags, all the while swapping names of different games of varying complexity. "You two are going to be, like, awesome on game night," she said. "Okay, here we are."
'Here' was the wing's smallish break room, a space far more modern than the rest of the cottage preferred to appear. Aside from the sofa in back, which Erica estimated to be at least as old as her own grandmother, everything possessed a sheen of shiny newness regardless of whether it was cloth, wood, or plastic. Near the center of the room, positioned right in front of the TV was a hobby table with a herd of mismatched chairs surrounding it. Five of them were occupied. Two older girls were having a serious discussion on one side, with a napkin covered in scribbled names and diagrams. Along the other side a pair of teens, one brunette and one red-headed, were apparently having a friendly argument of some sort — or at least it was friendly on the brunette's side. Erica wasn't sure about the look on the red-head's face. Over on the corner chair, a much shorter girl was nursing a soda while sitting atop a large number of cushions.
"Okay, everyone!" Milena announced as they came through the door, "Got our other two early birds right here. Erica and Fiorella."
"You can call me Calliope," the Italian girl said. "Or Cally. Most people do so."
"Nice to meet you all," Erica said.
Their RA sauntered over and claimed the empty chair between the short girl and the two older teens. "This here's Kareela." The girl on the cushions waved. "And these two are my fellow RAs. On the left is Panoptikon, and on the right is Paint Oracle. Call 'em if, like, you need help and I'm not available or something. Especially Josephine here," she added with a thumb pointed to the third RA. "Least she could do for all the wear they're putting on our new chairs here."
"Ah, but we must let her savor the sweet smell of new upholstery while it lasts," said one of the RAs — Panoptikon, if Milena's introduction was to be trusted. She had a willowy look to her that suggested height, and voluminous hair that draped down like some starlet from the era of classic film. One long forelock strategically hid her right eye from view, but the left one sparkled a merry hazel.
"It is rather nice," the other RA, Paint Oracle, agreed. "Perhaps they can fix up my side of the floor next." She was dressed in denim overalls, and her hair alternated between brown and honey blonde. Flecks of color could be seen all over her face and hands, and even now she was idly scratching at a patch of violet on her wrist.
"Well, since I think the two who busted this place up are both living in your wing this year, they just might," said Milena.
"Perhaps I should retract my hope, then."
"Er, does that sort of thing happen often?" Erica asked as she and Callope took their seats. Two of the other three girls at the table were looking a bit nervous as well. The third... not so much. Seated to Erica's left, the brunette looked about as normal as Oma's apple streudel, but didn't seem fazed at all by the talk of super-powered fights in the dorms. The next girl over, the one with the red hair flecked with black, had a post-box shape to her face that suggested she was worrying for two.
"Not so often," Milena reassured. "And very rarely in the dorms. It was the last week, everyone was stressed from finals, and a bit of bad blood boiled over. That's all, except for the bit with the lasers. Perfectly normal."
Erica was stuck processing that last statement, as it just did not compute. With a sinking feeling, she remembered Uncle Adolf's briefing a few weeks before, where he'd described Dickinson Cottage as the 'relatively quiet and peaceful' housing option. His niece was having her doubts about that now, though in hindsight she could have questioned his choice of adverbs.
"Hi, I'm Hannah Sammish!" the brunette said suddenly, taking Erica's hand and pumping it vigorously. "Me and Nana here are rooming on the other end of the floor, but there's no one else over there right now but Josephine — that's our RA, yanno, Paint Oracle over there? — so we're just hanging out with the cool kids, eh? So what do you do? Oh, don't tell me just yet." Before Erica could get a word in edgewise, the girl draped her free hand dramatically over her eyes and started humming tunelessly. "Hmmm.... Exemplar, some sort of PK, but, um... huh, that feels odd." Brown eyes opened to stare at Erica quisically. "There's something odd about your powers. I've met lots of bricks with a bit of PK on top, but your flavor's slightly off."
"Sammish!" cried the red-haired girl — Nana, was it? "Can't you stop it for just one night?"
Calliope leaned in on the table. "Whatever it is you do, you may try it on me," she said with a smile. “Ah, it is not the mind-reading, is it?”
“Nah, just a feel for stuff. Like, I can tell if someone’s an Exemplar, but not necessarily what’s different about ‘em because they are. Unless it’s really obvious or tied to their other powers, eh?”
“Okay, then. Go ahead.” She offered her palm, as if to be read by some fortuneteller.
Hannah beamed while Nana fumed. "Don't go encouraging her," the redhead said. "She's too nosy for her own good, and then I need to pull her fat out of the fryer. Again." The girl sighed at the despondent puppy dog look on her roommate's face. "Fine. Once."
"Yay!" Hannah grabbed Calliope's hand and nearly pulled the Italian across the the table. "Ooh, nice manicure, eh? Oh, um, let's see... Exemplar, of course, but something else, sorta psionic or empathic... and musical?" She released Calliope's hand and beamed happily. "Am I right or am I right, eh?"
"S-si," Cally stuttered. "E' vero. Um, how did you..."
"It's what she does," said Nana with a sigh. "She identifies powers, and pretty much nothing else."
"I can cook!"
"Nothing else that can possibly save her hide in a pinch," Nana amended. "Which is why we're here early, actually. Someone leaked her MID info last winter, and now every damn group of villains and bigot nutjobs in the Atlantic Provinces is out to get their very own pet mutant detector. Seriously, last spring it was like she was a professional damsel in distress or something."
"Hey, I only got kidnapped a couple of times."
"Seven times, Sammish. That last group of idiots grabbed me at the same time, but then I found myself a spirit, and, well..." The teen ran a hand through her hair, and the pattern of black dots on red became a lot more obvious. "Turns out ladybirds are tougher than they look. So now I'm her official bodyguard."
"You know you love me, eh?"
"...sure. So, yeah, Natalie Bosch. Call me Nana if you want, or Ladybird. Could care less, really." Nana grimaced as her roommate hugged her. "I'll try to keep her out of your hair, at least."
Calliope had the Mille Miglia deck out and well shuffled by now, and was introducing the rest of the table to the different types of cards: the milestones, the obstacles, the fixes, and the immunity cards. Mille Miglia, or Mille Bornes as it was normally called outside of Italy, was a sort of simulated car race, played with three or four teams of two people sitting opposite one another. The object was to come as close as possible to finishing the seven hundred kilometers for each leg of the race, while opponents hindered with things like flat tires, speed limits, and traffic accidents. Fix cards could remove a problem, but immunity cards protected against it entirely, on top of giving extra points and turns when used.
She was sitting left of the dealer, so Erica started the game. "Okay," she said once everyone had their cards in hand. "You have to draw a card first, and then either use it or discard something." She drew a point card, 100 kilometers, and then placed her first green light. "Gotta have a green light to get anywhere," she explained. She nodded to her partner, the short girl at the other end of the table. "But Kareela there can now play point cards as soon as it's her turn."
Hannah pulled the next card, and the brunette's face lit up with delight. It was like reading an open book, one with big letters and lots of pictures. "Yah!" the girl cried, putting down the Extra Tank card. "No danger of running out of gas, eh?"
"You get an extra turn," Calliope reminded. Hannah took another card and squealed again, this time laying down a green light. Nana rolled her eyes as she placed her own green light, and Milena followed right after with another.
Now it was time for Erica's partner. The girl was by far the smallest and youngest at the table, and had so far kept her conversation limited to just Milena. Erica couldn't even say what the girl's last name was, though she'd almost certainly heard it being called out earlier in the day. Right now, the girl's cards were fanned out, almost hiding her face, while her hands stayed down on her lap.
"So, um, Kareela, right?" Erica said. "Do you need any help with deciding?" Lord knew she'd had problems figuring out what to do with this game when she'd first started.
"Naw, got this." Kareela's voice had a weird twang to it that Erica thought might be Australian. The top card slipped off the deck in the middle of the table, flying to join the six others hovering in front of the girl's face. Then another one was sent swooping over to Erica's spot, landing neatly in front of the green light card. The number 200 was plainly printed on it. "Feckin' A. Startin' this race off big, right?" Frizzy black hair shook as Kareela giggled. "Yer faces!"
"Kareela takes short jokes very seriously," Milena said with rolled eyes. "So seriously that only she's allowed to, like, make any at all."
"Feckin' A. If I'm stuck at a hundred-feckin'-nineteen cee-em fer the rest o' my life, I gotta enjoy it somehow."
A hundred... Erica did the math in her head with practiced ease. "That's not even four feet tall!" Sitting down as she'd been, on top of a stack of cushions added to her chair, Kareela's size had obviously been diminutive, but even so... the number came as a surprise.
"Part an' parcel wi' the whole package," Kareela said with a sigh.
"That's package as in 'package deal psychic'," Milena explained.
"Oh!" Calliope said as Paint Oracle and Panoptikon played their cards. "That term, I have heard it, I believe. My brother, he studies this sort of thing. You have multiple powers, but may use only one at a time, yes?"
Hannah had a thoughtful look on her face. "Huh, that explains some stuff..." she mumbled.
"Yeah, that's 'bout it," Kareela said. "Only, my main power bliddy sucks cuz it's so annoying, an' I can't feckin' turn it off 'cept by usin' somethin' else." Her cards danced around her head in tight formation.
"Oh, what is it?" Calliope asked.
"Er, rather not say..."
"Some kind of ESP, I think," Hannah said absently. "That's what it felt like earlier."
"Sammish! What've I been telling you about prying like that?"
Calliope drew her next card and sighed. "I am sorry, cara mia," she said, laying an Out of Gas card in front of Erica.
A quick glance at her hand told her she didn't have any gasoline cards for a quick fix, and Kareela was shaking her head as well. The next card off the deck was a high number, too. Darnit. Well, live and let die, as the old folks would say. Erica flipped a Flat Tire card just so, and it landed in front of Milena as soft as a butterfly's fart.
"Hah!" cackled the RA, slamming down a Spare Tire card on top of it. "That's a hundred points for me and Vanessa, right?"
"Yup," she confirmed, "though you're supposed to shout something in French, technically."
"Technically, bleh." Kareela grimaced. "Technically, my little problem oughtta be treatable, but no..."
Milena rolled her eyes at what was obviously an already familiar complaint. "Can't help how the genes turn out."
"Ain't that the truth..." It was hard to tell who spoke the words first, but they lingered around the table like a dog's fart, noticeable but ignored politely. Instead, everyone focused on their cards and reaching the magic milestone of 700 kilometers. Erica and Kareela ended up on top after the fourth round of the series, though it was close. Their RA had the Devil's own luck when it came to drawing good cards, it seemed. As first nights went, it was a pretty good one.
Sept. 7th, early morning
In the past few months, Calliope had somehow gotten used to the chaos of a constantly changing roof over her head. Whether she was being tossed back and forth between parents who weren't quite sure what to do with her, being shuttled off to stay with various cousins for short periods, or getting punted over the ocean to stay at her older brother's apartment in Massachusetts. Most recently had been the hotel in New York, though at least that was a nice one. Change was really the only constant in her life. Ever since the Big Change, that was.
She chose not to ponder that at this moment, instead staring at the newest ceiling in a long series. It was not bad, as ceilings went. White plaster, access panels, probably reinforced steel or stranger alloys in ways she could not see. The weirdest part was that it was hers, officially, for at least the next year. In a life as change-ridden as hers, permanency was a surprising commodity.
Her new ears, like delicately curved shells beneath her hair, could pick up sounds better than ever before, and now they heard the telltale shuffle and scuff which meant her roommate was up and about. That was a newly permanent addition to her life as well. This time last year — or even six months ago — she wouldn't have imagined herself with another girl as a roommate, much less a cute one like... She quashed that thought before it led anywhere. Erica was a friend before all else, possibly the best friend she could have right now, and it would not do to go stirring the pot too much.
Then realization hit, and she stifled a groan. There was only one reason for Erica von Abendritter to be up so early, and that was her family's idea of a proper morning exercise routine. As quietly as she could, she checked the blinking alarm clock on the bureau set against the wall on the far end of the room. 5:30 AM. "Belin." The expletive shot out from her lips, propelled by shocked annoyance.
"Gutenmorgen to you too," Erica said with a chuckle. "So, are you going to join me or what? I promise to go easy on you. Scout's honor."
Calliope grumbled and mumbled and stumbled out of bed, slipping into her exercise clothes in spite of it all. La Signora Winifred had made a good case for regular morning routines, as much with herself as with her words. Cally had never seen an older lady as fit as Erica's grandmother, or for that matter her great aunt as well. And Cally's brother Claudio had said it would help her exemplar trait develop as well.
This certainly did not mean that she had to like it.
Despite her misgivings, however, it didn't turn out nearly as bad as she had feared. The younger Abendritter's idea of a good workout wasn't as strenuous as her grandmother's, amounting to a good jog around the campus followed by some calisthenics in the quad. They weren't even alone in this; apparently many students began the day day early, so even though the dorms were still pretty deserted, they still had some company on the jogging trails. Once she thought she saw a flash of lavender that might have been Tanya moving swiftly in the distance, and she wasn't surprised to see Taka out and doing his own exercises, though the small crowd of spectators he attracted was another story. The Japanese boy was cute, she supposed, and most definitely fit but... definitely not her type.
Perhaps the best thing was that all the exercise helped focus her mind on something besides other people. Being an empath was hardly an enjoyable experience, even once a girl had gotten used to it. Jogging along the campus walkways kept her on the move, passing people by without lingering long enough for their moods to impinge upon hers. Even during the calisthenics session, her mind was too focused to pick up anyone but Erica, whose proximity made it unavoidable. But the blonde girl had an agreeable aura to her, at least, and Calliope could enjoy her presence easily enough.
They were back in the dorm by 7, and out of the showers by 7:30. Again, the dorm's lack of population was acutely apparent, because they had the place entirely to themselves. Cally wasn't sure how she felt about that. On the one hand, it had been hard enough getting used to social situations after her change, so she was thankful to put off sharing a bathing area with so many others. But on the other... She'd kind of been looking forward to it as well. With so many exemplars around, it was sure to be pleasant on the eyes.
At least she still had Erica, she mused, trying not to be obvious as she watched the other girl towel off. If her friend stood still for a moment, she might pass for a statue carved from ivory, so pale and perfect was her skin. The young German was finally letting her hair grow out more as well, and it hovered like a golden halo once the blowdrying was finished. The girl was far more muscular than she ever let on, though she'd once admitted to Cally that most of it had developed over the summer. The Italian was not surprised to hear that. She only hoped that the Abendritter morning routine wouldn't do the same to her. She was getting to like her curves!
The Crystal Hall was just as magnificent in the morning light, Calliope thought as she considered its gleaming, domed roof. Coming as she did from a land reknowned for its architecture, she could appreciate the artistry which must have gone into its design, even as she marveled at its size. Sister Secret had told them that the majority of students would arrive either that day or the next, but still she could not imagine the cafeteria as ever being full.
That was not to say that it was empty, however. The crowds were not thick, but still crowds they were. It took a few minutes to get through the breakfast line, all the while humming tunelessly to help reduce the background emotions to mere white noise. Callope was able to get her usual large cappucino to steady her nerves, as well as a large croissant and a small bowl of chopped fruit, while Erica made off with two bowls of muesli, three bananas, four sausages, a personal cheese omelet, and a waffle dripping with syrup.
They were walking along the first floor, searching for their friends near last evening's dinner table, when a voice shouted, "Hey, Erica! Cally!" Her ears pinpointed the sound instantly: Morgana, leaning over a railing on the second floor. "Up here!" the Welsh redhead continued.
"What in..." Erica was staring at the sight of their group, plus a few, sitting around what was obviously the wrong table to be at, and Cally had to join her in that. Had they not all heard the same warnings of social repercussions the night before? She took a deep breath before her roommate noticed her shaking. This was not good, she thought, even as they climbed the stairs to join everyone. This was tempting both fate and the social order, and if one pushed too hard... She winced. Society had the nastiest habit of pushing back tenfold.
She hoped whatever had possessed her friends to risk social wrath in this way would pass soon. Such angry attention was something she would rather not face again. It grated on the nerves so badly.
Once everyone was assembled upstairs — including Hikaru, who'd stormed up the steps like a raincloud was ruining her sunshine — Laura made her case for holding and keeping a table up here in the next rung of the social strata. Simply enough, she wanted to claim an abandoned table as a group, using the official rules in a novel way. It was... audacious, Calliope thought. It might even work. It would also put a target on their backs. "We're not a club," she protested weakly. It wasn't much of a problem, but she felt the need to voice it.
"But we can register as a training team," Laura countered, "and since we'll have to be on one next year anyway, we get a jump on that and we get a primo spot for dining."
"So we all sign up to be on a team and we get a few perks," Tanya added. The girl with the lavender hair and aura was was buzzing with excitement at the thought, which only told Cally that she didn't realize what she was getting herself — and them — into.
"You do realize that it's a combat training team, don't you?" added the voice of reason, Hikaru. Calliope nodded, even as the two Japanese members of the team got into a short, heated discussion in their native tongue.
"Well... I don't think it is a good idea," Cally said softly. In her old life, she would have stuttered, if she even said it at all, but the musical side of her mutation had helped make her more eloquent, even when there wasn't much to say. "In case you did not notice, I am not the fighting type." Even as she said it, she felt sorry, because the words seemed to make the blue girl even bluer. That did not make them any less true, however.
"Erica?" Morgana said, turning to look at her roommate.
"Sure, why not?" That response was not a surprise to Calliope. "Opa will be pleased that I'm taking training seriously. Besides, it'll probably be fun."
Now she glared at her roommate, because fun it would most certainly not be. She resisted the urge to kick the blonde girl under the table, but as the conversation drifted on to the topic of classes and clubs, dorms and movie nights, her mind refused to budge from its earlier preoccupation with negative consequences. She knew she was not a fighter, had proven so in fact with her reactions in the calamari fiasco. Why did everyone seem so intent on pulling her into this, all for the sake of some silly table?
She continued to sip at her cappuccino, though it had since grown cold. Even if she spoke up again, she felt, it would not do any good. The others were too caught up in the moment, and Calliope was caught in the flow of their exuberance. Laura had already run off to secure the registration for their new dining territory, and soon enough the others wandered off to prepare things for their school lives. She vaguely remembered nodding at some things being said around the table, but couldn't get out of her own head long enough to really hear.
"Hey, you okay?" Erica whispered with a nudge. Cally realized that she'd been gripping a fork in her off hand, so tightly that the metal had begun to warp a little. It was one more reminder of how much things had changed for her, but even the fact that she was much stronger than she looked did little to alleviate her negative thoughts.
"È una cattiva idea," she whispered back. "We do not need a... a target like this on our backs."
"Strength in numbers," Erica replied. The German girl gave her a reassuring hug that did not last nearly as long as she would have liked. "We've got almost enough people for two teams. As it is, everyone can watch out for everyone else."
"But what can I do..." she mumbled through the last sip of her coffee.
The blonde girl shrugged. "You're the musical one. Think like a bard. Support, inspire, distract, occasionally whack stuff with your lute, but otherwise let the frontliners take all the incoming fire and deal out the DPR."
"La vita non è un gioco di ruolo. Er, that is..."
"I get the idea." Erica was grinning. "No, not a game, but not particularly normal — or safe — at the moment, either. So, be the bard. Be the team cheerleader and charismatic face, and don't be afraid to hide behind the fighter or paladin when necessary."
"Hey! What're you two talking 'bout over here?" Tanya had just returned with yet another plate, plopping down in the seat beside them. Six large pancakes were layered with bacon and sausage alternating between them, with butter and syrup running in thick waterfalls down their edges. Just like the last plate she'd eaten that morning.
"Gaming stuff," Erica replied in deadpan tones. "Yanno, RPGs. Character builds and roles, mostly.
"Whatever floats your boat, I suppose. You okay?" the lavender girl asked Cally. "You seemed kinda upset earlier."
"I... I am fine," she replied. After a moment, she even managed a smile. "It ... was just something I needed to... eh, what is the word..."
"Process?" ventured Erica.
"Si, I needed to process the idea. It is... not so bad, I suppose. Best to keep friends close, no?"
"Absolutely!" Tanya gave her a bone-rattling hug. "Never forget: we're here for you!"
"Grazie," she said again. Somehow, her smile had turned genuine.
"And let me be the first to officially welcome you to the Mutant Mayhem Machine!"
"Cosa!?" Truly, she needed to pay more attention to what was said around the lunch table...
"So you zoned out on some good discussion earlier," Erica commented as they walked back to Dickinson. Her belly was complaining, but in a good way; the food in the cafeteria was excellent.
"Did I?" Her friend still looked a bit zoned out, or perhaps still shell-shocked was a better word. Erica could sort of understand. She'd seen Cally involved with two combat encounters so far, and neither had gone particularly well, even if it had been her lullabies which helped them out of that first one. And to be honest, Erica felt the same, sometimes. Her own summer had been busy in all the worst ways, and she would like nothing more than to have a quiet life for the next few years. That just wasn't gonna happen, though, so it was best to prepare right.
"You didn't even remember the group name," she teased, "even after the long discussion we had over it."
"Well..." The Italian girl fiddled with a lock of her hair, with its light and dark streaks. "It is a lot to take in."
"That it is." Erica left it at that, and her roommate seemed fine with a quiet walk back to the dorm. Dickinson Cottage was abuzz with activity now, with girls running around and about in all directions, including up and down. There was a group of upperclassmen organizing and wrangling freshmen in the front lobby, and Erica could see their RA among them.
Milena had her hair down today, perhaps because it suited her school uniform better, but the vanity glasses remained upon her nose. Her eyes twinkled when she saw them walk up, and Erica braced herself mentally. "Hey, you two!" the RA called. "Got a favor to ask."
"Them?" one of the RAs asked. Like way too many students at the school, she looked like she'd just walked out of a modeling photo shoot. The only odd part was the streaks of shimmery something in her hair that slowly shifted colors as she moved.
"Yup, them," Milena said. "Okay, you two. We need some, like, strong-arm work, and I know you ladies can do it. Whaddaya say?"
"Don't," Miss Shimmery-Hair advised "Once you start in with favors for Milena, there's no way out of that rabbit hole."
"Hush, Reese. You'll scare them off!" Milena let out another of her big laughs. "And as far as, like, favor balances go, starting off in the black is, like, the way to go, right?"
Next to Erica, Calliope was beginning to look spooked again, so she quickly said, "What's the favor?" No hurt in asking, she figured.
"Well," said the RA, "if you haven't noticed, it's busier than, like, the freeway at rush hour right now, and most of the luggage porters got called away to, like, help those precious little flowers in Melville." This got a round of chuckles from the RAs. "Now, like, normally that's not too big a prob, but now we've got four junior high kids sitting by the fireplace right now and they, like, need help getting their stuff from the pick-up spot. Sure, it'll get brought over, like, eventually, but Mrs. Selkirk would like to get 'em sorted sooner instead of later."
"Doesn't sound too bad," Erica said.
"And we have time before our advisor appointments..." Calliope added.
"Perfect!" Milena said. "Let me introduce." She quickly led them over to the couch area by the lobby fireplace, where four girls were huddled and trying not to stare at the hubbub around them. One was a little blonde with ringlets and rosy cheeks, as innocent in looks as Shirley Temple. Erica was immediately suspicious. Next to that one was a brunette with her hair pulled back in a plain ponytail. She had the slightly squinty look of someone who until recently had the habit of wearing glasses, and a galaxy's worth of freckles covered her face — and upon further inspection, many of them were actually star-shaped. According to Milena, the blonde's name was Michelle Jarrowitz, and the brunette was Jessica Ryans.
"Call me Jessie," the girl added.
On the other little couch was another blonde, though a few shades darker than Michelle's curls or Erica's own golden mop. This one was thin and wiry, with a very recent haircut and a little silk scarf around her neck. She blinked a lot more than was normal, and yawned almost as much. "Thérèse Vitesse," said Milena. "She just got off the plane from Paris," Milena explained. "Also, her English isn't, like, the best just yet, so be patient."
"Bienvenue à Whateley," Calliope said brightly. "Nous sommes arrivées hier soir, nous-mêmes. Je m'appelle Calliope, et je suis italienne."
"What she means is that we just got here yesterday," Erica explained with a best-guess translation. "I'm Erica, by the way. And you?" she asked the fourth girl, who was sitting next to Thérèse. The two tweens were equally skinny, and between the two of them they might have made one full-sized high school student.
"Um, Natalie. MacAuliffe." This last one stood out among the quartet for her hair and complexion. Natalie's skin was in-between several shades of brown, with some serious tan lines apparent beneath her light blouse, and her hair was so thick and frizzy that it could probably add to her official armor count.
"Ooh! Can we go by codenames?" the first blonde, Michelle, bounced up and down on her cushion. "You can call me Tek Witch. Or Michelle, but I like Tek Witch more."
"I'll just settle for Twitch," Milena said with a snort.
"Acolyte," said Jessie, raising her hand timidly.
"I would be, euh... called me... I am Magique!" the little French girl announced after a moment of tortured grammar.
"Don't got a codename just yet," said Natalie glumly.
"Well then, you can talk about it on your way," said the RA. "Erica, Calliope?"
The two older girls nodded and watched her go. "Okay," said Erica, "for the record, my codename is Eisenmädel, but just call me Erica. Calliope is Calliope. So, let's get moving!"
Erica didn't have much experience with tween girls, not having been one the previous year or three, but this lot wasn't too different from the regular crowd back in Little Rock. Herding them wasn't difficult at all, though the shock factor of the school was enough to keep everyone from getting rambunctious. Calliope kept up the chatter, at least, which let Erica focus more on navigating the crowds. And what crowds! Just crossing the quad was an experience and a half, between kids running, kids flying, and kids... sleeping? The whole group paused a moment to stare at a young man with matted hair and armadillo-like plates upon his head, who happened to be sleeping in the middle of the walkway near Twain Cottage. Some grounds staff got him up and alert just in time for him to miss getting run over by a rhinoceros-looking black kid who came storming out of the dorm's front door at high speed.
"Have you had the full tour yet?" Calliope was asking.
"Yup," Jessie — Acolyte — replied. "All the junior high kids took it together. Even the two kids rooming in Poe did, and they said it was their second time, but they had to anyway."
"We've all got the same homeroom teacher," Twitch explained. "Ms. Barnes. She led the tour, too."
"So there are a lot of you?" Erica asked.
"Sixteen so far, with Natalie here," said the little blonde.
"I, um, only mutated a coupla weeks ago..." the frizzy-haired girl murmured. "Dad made me apply here at the last minute, um, after an incident at a friend's party..."
"She doesn't know her own strength yet," Acolyte explained. Natalie's blush turned her skin even darker.
"I know the feeling," said Erica. "One day you're normal, and the next you can punch through sheet metal. Here, have a look." Holding an arm out, she rolled up the sleeve and flexed lightly. Muscles suddenly bulged and stretched the surface of her skin, before returning to their usual, quiescent state. "Seriously, I was just lucky that there were some honest-to-goodness bad guys around for me to practice punching on first, so I didn't ever hurt someone by accident."
Natalie smiled a little, if only for a second, as everyone else made encouraging noises. When they got to the pick-up station, the tween showed off her own strength a bit by being the only one of the four who could lift her own trunk without help, even though it was almost as big as she was. Unfortunately, the other girls' luggage was even bigger.
"What all do you have in there?" Erica asked, trying not to gape at the oversized steamer trunk that Twitch claimed was hers. Put four wheels on it, and the blonde girl could probably drive it to the dorm.
"Just the essentials," said the girl. "School clothes, personal clothes, lab clothes, soldering kit, makeup kit, first aid kit, my computer, spare parts for my computer, portable lab, personal force-field generator, my favorite My Little Pony, this miniature missile launcher that Daddy got me for my bat mitzvah..."
"You're a devisor," Erica guessed with a groan. Really, she should have asked first, but she'd sort of assumed that all three of the non-exemplar girls were magic types.
"I've met a few. You and my grandfather would probably get along. What about you two?" she asked Acolyte and Magique. Their trunks were covered by crazy-quilts of stickers bearing various symbols. Some were innocuous, some were sort of mystical, several were probably taken from video games, and a few looked like they'd been pulled off of a heavy metal album cover. At least both sets of luggage were of a reasonable size, even if neither girl could carry hers for long. Cally was able to manage them easily.
"Don't you have anti-gravity projectors or anything like that on this thing?" she asked, turning back to Michelle.
"I tried, but the radiation output was still too high, and Daddy was afraid it might get unstable in transit and blow up a train car or something so he told me to take them off and work on the problem once I had access to a school lab." The girl's face was the picture of disappointment.
"Too bad," Erica said, trying to be sympathetic. Even with her muscles, the trunk was a beast to handle, just by virtue of being so massive. Twitch, Acolyte, and Magique all took turns helping her keep it stable and upright, but the trip back to the dorm was still the sort of exercise that her Aunt Margit could only dream of subjecting a victim to.
Natalie actually made it to Dickinson first. A huge smile plastered itself across her face, and Erica could tell that the girl was beginning to appreciate her newfound strength.
"Perhaps," Calliope suggested as she huffed and puffed her way to join them at the front door, "you should choose a codename such as Physique. It would make a nice pair with your roommate, and it fits, I think."
"Maybe..." Natalie didn't sound too enthused, but neither did she say no. The other three tweens were quick to cheer her on, though.
Once all the luggage was safely deposited in the junior high rooms on the first floor, Erica and Cally left the younger girls to the task of unpacking. Twitch and Acolyte's room was going to be crazy-cluttered, she figured. Maybe the blonde girl could refurbish that trunk of hers into a bed?
Back in the common room, Milena was having an animated conversation with Essemmelle. The Australian midget was currently being orbited by a variety of nick-nacks that twisted and twirled as their owner got more agitated. She had to stand on the coffee table to even come close to seeing eye to eye with the RA. "Can you turn that off for at least a moment!" Milena was saying. "It's getting, like, totally distracting!"
"It's a stress release!" Essemmelle shot back. "D'you rilly want my other powers active when I'm upset, huh?"
The RA sighed. "No, I suppose not."
"Um, are we interrupting anything?" Erica asked.
Milena shook her head and frowned. "The bullies are, like, starting early this year. Kareela almost got herself trampled, and not by accident."
"But unfortunately," continued the RA, "not witnessed or recorded in any way that shows that it's actionable on the part of the faculty."
Calliope had that look on her face, the one that made it all dark, moody, and stormy. "Who did this?" she asked. Strains of her power played dissonant chords right below her voice.
"No." Milena's power may not have been sonic in nature, but she could voice commands as well as any siren. "The administration doesn't like it when students take matters into their own hands, because it tends to get messy real fast. You two already have an incident on file, and you don't want to make it worse for something as penny-ante as this."
"May we at least know who this person is," asked Calliope, "so we may give him awful, rotten looks of contempt as we walk by?" The Italian had a grip on the hem of Erica's blouse, so tight that her friend worried for the material almost as she did for her. This was the girl who'd balked at training teams? Erica wondered.
"Jest look fer the biggest, bliddiest idiot out there," Essemmelle said. "Can't miss 'im. Trust me, you'll know when you see 'im."
Milena groaned. "You didn't..."
To the confused pair of onlookers, the RA explained. "Kareela's third power is, like, a kind of empathy, but it works weird. If she gets upset and calls someone by a name or adjective or something, then anyone who sees them for, like, the next hour or so automatically gets that feeling about him or her."
"Jest tellin' it like it is."
"Or making it that way," Milena finished. "So, if she's branded this bully as an idiot, then anyone looking at him will think he looks like an idiot, and everything he does to reinforce that impression, well...." She pursed her lips as Essemmelle snickered. "Let's just say I've seen what it can do, and it's not necessarily pretty."
"Well if it goes sour on 'im, the idiot deserves it!" said the midget. "I'uz just mindin' my own business, going to the shop, and WHAM! 'e knocks me over and just laughs as 'e goes. Bliddy idiot," she grumbled on.
"I'm just hoping it was intentional," said the RA. "If you hexed some kid just for being reckless...."
All the nick-nacks rattled and spiralled through the air. "Whatever!" shouted Essemmelle. "Just dump on the shortie! 'Bout get runned over and who cares?" The girl hopped off the table and onto the couch, where she sat fuming. The cushions almost swallowed her up.
"Um...." Erica and Calliope shared a look. "Er, we were thinking of heading over to the shop, too. Would you... like to come with us?"
"Please," said Milena. "Get her out of here for a bit before we all go stir-crazy or something. I'll even mark you down as having another favor owed."
"Well then," Calliope said as she leaned over to help extricate Essemmelle from the sofa cushions, "shall we go?"
"Are you okay?" Erica asked her quietly as they left the dorm again. She nodded, even though it wasn't quite true. Bullies. Calliope repressed a grimace. She hated them, hated the sort of culture that produced them, and hated above all the fact that there was nothing she could reasonably do about it except keep her head down and avoid that sort of attention entirely. It was hard enough being able to feel when others were frightened, without being terrified herself.
Bullies came anyway. They popped up when you least expected it and stamped on your fingers even as you clung desperately to the edge.... She took a deep breath, knowing that there was no way for her roommate to miss it but not caring either. She had to get her act together; if not for herself, than for her friends and dorm-mates. It was all too easy to imagine little Essemmelle or one of the junior high girls being pushed around, and if she were to see it, what should she do? What could she do? Keep her head down and pass by unnoticed? No. She was a Persico, and while her family was not known for starting fights, she liked to think that they had ended their fair share. And there were good reasons why the word vendetta came from her mother tongue, after all. Mess with the one, mess with the family.
So, she guessed that her friends here at Whateley counted as family. Even little Essemmelle, whose head barely came up to her chest, was already a newly familiar and friendly sight, after but a single day's acquaintance. Perhaps it came with having a roof over of her own over her head again, she supposed.
"You have known our RA for a while, yes?" she asked the midget. "At least, she seems to know a lot about you."
"We both came in on the same flight from San Francisco last week," came the reply. "But she went on ahead to get ready fer her RAin' bizness, and I stayed with my host family at the Aussie consulate in Boston fer a bit. Fam's all in Perth," she explained, "and the program what's got me over here needed someone close by fer legal reasons. Somethin' like that. So yeah, Milly and I had a time, showed off power, stuff like that. Din't get caught, either."
"That's... good?" Erica ventured.
"Other right bastard did, though! Ha!" The girl's giggle was as creepy as it was high-pitched. "Oh, speakin' of which..." Essemmelle pointed ahead, to where a mob of boys loitered outside of Emerson. "Guess which of them near to runned me over?"
It wasn't even a contest. There were four boys leaning against the wall, each one looking like a movie star right off the set with their exemplar-fine bodies, but the third one from the left was... Calliope was not sure of what she was even seeing, but she had to swallow down a giggle in any case. Objectively, there was nothing about the young man that was different from his peers. They all possessed roughly the same hair color, a lustrous mahogany that looked like it should have taken hours to style yet probably had not. The idiot had the same hair, the same flashy smile, and even roughly the same fashion sense as his fellows, and yet he was still... the idiot. Whenever she focused on him, that word — that concept — just flowed in like syrup and stuck. From the look on his face and the snickers of his friends, it would seem that she was not the only one to feel so.
"Hold my bags," she said to Essemmelle. A devious, awful idea had just occurred to her, and she felt the need to put it into action before she scared herself. "And wait here, behind the corner. I am going in."
"Milena said not to start nothin'."
"Oh, I shall start nothing. I do not think I shall need to do more than talk." The girls at Calliope's old school in Italy had mostly been nice, even when her mutation became apparent, but there had been the usual quota of stuck-up bitches. All she needed to do was keep that sort of attitude in mind and go talk to... talk to...
Belin. She had not thought that part out completely. Never had she been particularly comfortable when flirting with the opposite sex, and the usual male reaction to her current looks only made her less so. "Ah, Erica?" she asked. "Would you perhaps..."
"Provide flanking and moral support?" her roommate replied.
"Well then, strength in numbers, right?" The blonde girl's voice quivered a little, but she straightened her shoulders and grabbed Calliope by the arm. "I hope you have a battle plan. I'm just following your cue here."
As they walked, Calliope hummed, just loud enough to be audible, willing Erica and herself to be brave and proud and skilled. She figured they would need all the reassurance they could get as the two of them sauntered over to where the boys were leaning against the wall.
It was kind of cute how their body language shifted as girls approached, how they straightened up and puffed out their chests to outdo each other in only semi-conscious attempts at manliness. She had to call upon every gram of acting ability in her soul to keep up the facade and not simply run at the sight of such testosterone poisoning. With a smile, she greeted the boy on the right end of the little gang. "Buon giorno. I was wondering if you could perhaps be helping us? We are, how do you say, a little lost, si?"
"Yeah," said Erica, picking up the thread. "Mind telling us which way it is to Fox Hall from here?"
They all were more than willing to say, but surprise had more control over their tongues than they had themselves. She did her best imitation of La Gioconda, smiling enigmatically. It was the idiot who managed to coordinate a reply first, which she duly ignored, passing instead to the young man on his right, the fourth of the bunch. "Si, you know?"
"Er, yes!" he said, with a sideways grin at the spluttering idiot next to him. "It's right up that way, and a bit towards the right. Can't miss it."
"Tante grazie!" she said, putting the fakest, loudest, bubbliest tone she could into the word. "You are so very helpful. My name is Calliope, and this is my roommate Erica. What is yours?"
"Bill, miss," he said, still smiling while the idiot glared daggers at him. The boy almost managed to sound suave.
"Piacere di conoscerti," Calliope replied.
Erica turned to look at the others. "How about you?" She continued down the line, skipping right past the idiot to speak to the third boy. The others snickered as the idiot's ears turned red. Calliope could feel the embarrassment pouring off of him in waves.
"Hey!" he cried. "What about me?"
But they were already introducing themselves to Ian, who was happy to make their acquaintance. The idiot tried to push in, but she and Erica just kept on making the niceties with the others. The boy farthest on the left was Douglas, for what it was worth. Calliope was not intending to remember any of their names past the next half-hour if she could help it.
Only a few minutes of this were needed to completely crack the idiot's cool, and the poor boy was alternating between sobs of embarrassment and red-faced fury at the laughing abuse his own friends were heaping upon him for being such a stuttering idiot around the pair of sexy Euro-babes who now oh so unfortunately had to go, but it was nice meeting you all, ciao!
Erica provided excuses, something to do with fittings and bras that made the boys all go red at just the mention, and they made their escape before the idiot's head exploded, before one of his friends got up the courage to ask either of them out, or before her own stomach regurgitated that morning's cappuccino and pastry from the assault her nerves were giving it. As retreats went, it was stately, stylish, and humiliating if she thought about it too hard. She just knew that all four of them were ogling her posterior as she walked away, and the mere thought was enough to quicken her steps as she outraced her own looming panic.
"Who are you, and what have you done with my roommate?" Erica joked, once they'd rounded the corner to rejoin Essemmelle.
"I... I..." she panted. "I did not think that through as well as I should have. Th... thank you for coming along." Her roommate's presence at her side was the only thing that had gotten her all the way through that ordeal. Thinking about talking to people, to boys, was easy enough, but to actually go and do it... questo è un altro paio di maniche, a different thing entirely!
There were some days when it didn't seem worth it to even get out of fucking bed. Today hadn't felt like that sort of day. In fact, Mac had been feeling pretty good. New school year, new hot chicks just streaming in, and himself right there with all-new moves to show off for the lucky ladies he was gonna get in the sack. Yeah, he had his goals firmly in mind, and his methods were solid. It was just the fiddly steps in between that needed to be dealt with, and he was, like, an exemplar, man! All the girls back home practically creamed their panties when they saw him swagger by.
Sure, it was a bit different at Whateley, where good-looking guys were a dime a dozen, but the same could be said of the girls. There were plenty of babes who'd rate an 8, a 9, a 10, or even a few so hot that they had to add an 11 to the scale. Heck, he'd even settle for a sweet little 7, since experience had taught him that they'd put out even harder out of desperation to keep a hunk like him as a boyfriend.
And then stuff had just gone... weird. There was no real way to describe it, and he couldn't even say when it had started. He had a pretty good brain rattling around in there, but his memory wasn't perfect; it had selective blind spots like most anyone else's, so he barely even remembered the little shawtie he'd pushed aside in front of Dickinson Cottage. There'd been way hotter girls right ahead of him, and who had time to pay attention to some shortstack when others were, well, stacked?
But he'd tripped over a crack in the sidewalk, and someone had laughed. At him. That never happened; should never have happened. Then he'd bumped into another student. It was a shrimp of a boy, a head shorter with a face like a pizza, and the kid should've backed down immediately at the sight of Mac's handsome mug, but instead the brat had just said, "Watch where you're walking, you idiot!"
Like that, his life started crumbling. That one stupid word was on everyone's lips, it seemed, and every time he turned around, someone was saying it. At him. This should not have been happening.
The only person who'd seemed halfway nice, who hadn't used that word even once in his direction, was that smoking hot Italian chick who'd come to ask for directions, and he'd just blown it. Completely. Massively. Like, what the fuck was he even thinking, trying to talk to her when he was worked up like that? Now his friends all knew he was an idiot, instead of jokingly calling him one.
Well, fuck them. He was going to show the world that Macarthur Price wasn't some idiot destined to be the butt of the world's jokes. He'd get through this, and definitely bang that Italian chick by the end of the year. He double-deep promised that to himself, but didn't say a word to his bros just yet. The way his luck was going today, it'd just turn out wrong.
He ignored them as best he could, watching that fine Romanesque ass wiggle as Calliope walked away. Oh, yeah. He'd show them all just what an awesome stud he could be. No one'd be calling him an idiot after that.
"So what are we shopping for?" Erica asked once they'd arrived.
"Well, I'm headin' to the Special Fittin's section to get some proper measurements done." Essemmelle patted her chest. "Gettin' tired of havin' to bind 'em down like this."
"Bind... them... down?" Between her short stature and her baggy clothes, Erica had assumed that the Aussie girl was still in training bras. "What size do you wear?" she asked, now thankful for hours spent discussing such things with her cousin over the summer. Hopefully most of it had stuck.
"Well, that'd be the problem," said Essemmelle. "I'm whatcher call a pro-poor-shun-all dwarf, or midget, or whatever. Means that the docs should be able to fix it all with a bit of the Haitch-Gee-Haitch, what my body ain't makin' nuff of, 'cept my mutation's gettin' in the way. So I ain't gettin' any taller, but the Haitch-Gee-Haitch is doing its thing anyway."
"Haitch-Gee...?" Calliope wasn't following this at all, but Erica thought she had the idea.
"You mean human growth hormone, right?"
"That's the stuff." Essemmelle nodded. "So I'm stuck at a hunnerd-nineteen cee-em, but developin' everywhere else. Mum's gotta wear a size 16E, and I figger I might get that big, too. So, special fittin's. And to be honest," the girl said in a lower voice, "the bindin's startin' to itch."
For what it was worth, it wasn't the worst shopping experience Erica had ever had. Memories of her own first time bra-shopping floated to mind, no matter how hard she'd tried to repress them. Embarrassing as they were, those memories helped her here, because her new Aussie friend insisted on getting their opinions as the design machine did its work.
Opa would have appreciated the complicated and overwrought appearance of the thing Essemmelle was standing in. It was essentially a cage of dozens of little bendy arms, each with a different sort of multi-tool on the end. Quicker than should have been necessary, it had taken the tiny girl's measurements, tested some materials and fabrics against her skin for contrast and possible allergic reactions, and printed off a prototype bra for her to try on. Much to Erica's embarrassment, Essemmelle had waived the need for a privacy screen. "Don't like bein' alone with tie-downs and clickety-things," was all the girl said.
Erica's skin had not so much as turned pink in the sun since her powers had appeared, keeping a pale Nordic complexion at all times, but if her blush reflex had been active then she would have been burning red by the end of this. Essemmelle's breasts were actually bigger than her own, ad the girl was grousing about how they hadn't even stopped yet.
"Ah, at least you have your telekinesis?" Calliope ventured, dabbing at her nose. The Italian had apparently burst a nasal capillary in shock, herself. "You can, shall we say, provide extra lift?"
"Heh, maybe." The prototype wasn't much more than a sturdy plastic facsimile of how a bra would look on her, but it still changed Essemmelle's profile completely. "Yup, nobody's gonna mistake me fer a li'l girl when I wear this!"
They let her finalize the order, and then the three of them toured the other departments of the store. Even though it only looked to be one story tall from the outside, it went several levels underground as well, with access points into the tunnel system and the labs. It had everything from cutting edge computers to home ec supplies to small arms ammo to somatic spell components to extremely large arms ammo, and probably all sorts of other things they simply didn't have the time or inclination to look over.
Too bad Cousin Penny was stuck in Indiana, she thought. The blonde shopaholic would have been in heaven.
Later in the afternoon
Well, the Italian thought as they walked towards the Crystal Hall for dinner, it had been an interesting day so far. She and Erica had made more than a few acquaintances, mostly first names and faces attached to room numbers, and had introduced Essemmelle to the junior high girls for good measure. The Australian was delighted to have a more receptive audience for girl-talk. The feeling of bubbly excitement coming from the group as they'd left was somewhat intoxicating, like a cheap bottle of champagne.
There had been a message on her phone when she'd thought to check. Her older brother Claudio was still working at the MIT lab in Massachusetts, and he'd let her know that her twin brother Francesco had just arrived in from Italy. Fra would arrive at Whateley the very next day, in fact. She should have been elated to hear the news, but... It made her nervous and fidgety. Fra was her twin, the closest person in her life, right up to the point when mutation had struck and sent them on radically different trajectories.
"Penny for your thoughts?" Erica asked.
"Eh, it is not worth so much, I think. Merely tired and nervous."
"I hear ya." The blonde yawned and stretched. "Too bad we barely have any classes in common, though."
"We have enough," Calliope replied happily. "And so we shall have plenty to talk about over mealtimes, yes?"
It was not as if they had nothing to talk about besides class as well. Most of the campus had been abuzz at lunch about rumors concerning the current state of the school, which faculty members were missing, and who had replaced them. The entire noonday meal had been dominated by such talk, and Calliope had some difficulty in stomaching all of the stressful emotions the topic brought forth from practically everyone in the higher grades. At dinner, the conversation gravitated to the more normal business of class schedules, of who and what was where and when.
She, however, was more interested in the booklet she now had in hand. A tall stack of them had been set at the front of the cafeteria line, just begging to be perused. The pages were bright and colorful, with boxy little spaces each dedicated to a different club, team, or social activity group. Whateley being such an immense and complicated place, she was not surprised to see some strange and esoteric things listed. Would any other school have an occult hobbyist club, much less three?
That was not what caught her interest, however. "Hey, Laura!" she called to the blue girl sitting across from her at the table. "There is a sci-fi club!"
"Is that some kinda stereotypical nerd joke?" Calliope gulped as the devisor's face turned the dark blue of a stormy sea. Had she made some gaffe, some little misstep in American social conduct which no one had thought to mention? She was about to stutter an apology when she felt a flash of amusement, and the darkness disappeared as fast as it had arisen. "Cuz in this case, it's accurate!" Laura finished with a wink. "What gave it away?"
Erica giggled. "The fact that you made your neural thingy look like a phaser."
The others took turns teasing Laura about it, and Calliope was happy that she understood most of the jokes being bandied about. Star Trek was a series she was not well familiar with, though she would bet to be learning more soon.
"Any other interesting clubs?" Tanya broke in, through a barrage of alien boob jokes.
Calliope's roommate looked over her shoulder and scanned the pages of the booklet, not noticing how she was breathing in the Italian's ear at the same time. Calliope bit her lip slightly as the blonde continued for her: "Hm... Alphas — campus leaders." That golden hair shook negatively. "Nah, probably snobs. Anime?"
Taka reacted the most to that, though no one else seemed interested. Perhaps she could introduce them to some excellent Italian fumetti... Then the next box down caught her eye. "The European Promotional League?" Her advisor — and Erica's as well — had mentioned something about them in passing, she thought. "Could be interesting."
"And you, too, Morgana?" said Laura.
Calliope had to stifle a snort at that. "Probably not. There is a group called Commonwealth. Probably the British and their colonies trying to relive past glories."
"Uh, I thought Britain was part of Europe?" That was from Vic, looking almost cute with his look of puzzled ignorance.
"Hardly!" she and Morgana corrected him in unison.
Turning the page, she read through some of the options aloud. "Art club..." Vic seemed to react to that one. "The Future Superheroes of America?" And everyone looked at Tanya.
"What?" said the lavender girl. Calliope thought she perhaps protested too much, and apparently so did she, for she added, "Okay, so maybe I am interested."
"Yeah, maybe me too," added Jimmy.
"Evolution Rocks." Claudio had had some things to say about that group's Boston branch, not all of it nice. "Faction 3..." She examined that one a bit more closely. "Hm, that's a group for kids with GSD..." She looked around the table. Except for certain extremes of pigmentation, that did not seem to apply to them. "That's not us," she concluded. "Fliers..."
They worked their way through the next page, but there was still plenty to check on later. Some groups sounded more interesting than others, though a few might be too interesting. She cringed at Tanya's secondhand description of a club called Wondercute, and once more at the thought of an entire club dedicated to fashionistas and beauty queens. It brought back too many memories of girls back home.
later in the evening
"Wing meeting!" Milena announced from the hall. Erica and Calliope looked up from their respective books — one an Italian translation of the manga Futaba-kun Change!, the other the Fourth Reich graphic novel bought in New York City. When they walked out, it was to squeeze into the floor's main common area with two or three dozen other girls. Most of the rooms on their side had filled up over the course of the day, and on top of that the junior high quartet were all smushed together in one of the bigger lounge chairs. Little Twitch grinned as they pushed their way in next to the chair.
"So, what's up?" Erica asked. Across the room, she could see the new sophomores, Nana and Hannah, come in from the other wing, but aside from them and eighth-graders, it looked like everyone was a frosh.
"Feck if I know," said Essemmelle. The little Aussie was sitting on the back of the same chair, alongside a girl who must have been using a power, because she was only six inches tall at most. "Milly just said it was important stuff."
"Oyez! Oyez!" their RA shouted. "Wing meeting is now in session! First order of business: Hello, everyone!" Milena flashed one of her big, toothy smiles. "If we haven't been introduced yet, I am one of the residential advisors for the freshman wing this year. If you have any problems, I'm the first one to call. Like, seriously, anything is okay. But please, please, nothing illegal." The RA made a theatrical wink that sent giggles through the assembled girls. "Now, here's my fellow RA for the freshman wing, Panoptikon. Vanessa? You're up."
The willowy starlet took the stage, her hair still carefully arranged to fall over her right eye. "Welcome, everyone," she said, "to the lucky dorm. Everyone here can reasonably pass for normal if necessary, but not all are so fortunate. In the past there has been a good deal of rivalry between Dickinson and our sisters in Whitman, sometimes friendly and sometimes not. At times, it's even come to intramural warfare. As the newest year of Dickinson girls, I would like to ask that you keep things civil — or better yet, to be friendly and welcoming to our sisters in other dorms. Never forget that if not for some twist of genetics, fate, or social standard, you could all have to take the tunnels on red-flag days, or suffer indignities just from the way you look. Not everyone is so lucky. Some of us, in fact, are one strong breeze away from becoming targets in the outside world." With that, she brushed aside the hair from the right side of her head, to reveal... nothing. There was no eye there, only a uniform blank space. "It was an accident of bureaucracy that kept me in this dorm instead of Whitman," Panoptikon continued. "Simply put, my GSD was slow to develop and easy to disguise. Some of you undoubtedly have, or may develop, similar oddities which could mean life or death if they were discovered. So, no matter what happens this year, never forget that we are all in this together. Schoolyard rivalries are only appropriate in the yard. Do not take them home with you."
"Well said, Vanessa dear." Two women stood at the entrance to the stairs. The first was Ms. Plimsoll, the drab and serious Cerberus from the night before. She wasn't the one who had spoken.
The other woman was "of a certain age," as Oma and Aunt Margit would put it. Since neither of those ladies looked anywhere near to their full accounting of years, Erica was not about to put a number to this woman, either. "And of course you are quite right," the woman continued, "but that does not mean we should ignore the benefits of a friendly rivalry, ho ho. We can have disagreements and still be friends."
"Even with the Whitman dorm moms, Mrs. Selkirk?" Milena asked with a grin.
"Mrs. Savage can go jump in the lake! Ahem, because it is excellent exercise, so I hear," Mrs. Selkirk added over the sound of girlish giggles. "Now, I am Miranda Selkirk, your senior dorm mother. If you have any problems too big for an RA, then they will send you to me. I take very good care of my girls, but I expect you to behave in return. Please do not abuse the trust I have in you. As your RA can attest..." And with this, the house mother skewered Milena with a serious glare. "...getting back into my good graces is easier said than done."
With that, it was the other woman's turn. "My name is Elspeth Plimsoll," she said, "but you shall call me Ms. Plimsoll. I am here because the woman who was to replace a retiring house mother decided not to come due to the current issues on campus. The new Headmaster requested my assistance, and so here I am. I am the first to admit that I do not particularly like children, nor do I know how to deal with them, so I shall not treat you like children. Unlike Mrs. Selkirk, I am not particularly trusting, either. Perhaps we shall learn to get along in time, perhaps not." Everyone waited for the woman to say something else, but apparently she had spoken her piece.
The meeting carried on a bit longer, with Mrs. Selkirk or Milena explaining a lot of the basic campus dos and don'ts. After the two women had left, the RAs continued to go into great detail, only this time on the subject of campus gossip, rumors, and legends, to such a degree of detail that Erica figured — well, hoped — that they were really just pulling the freshmen girls' collective chain. The sewers alone sounded more like a dungeon crawl than a public utility, and one with a high challenge rating at that. Certainly, there were more plausible reasons for it to remain sealed off.
Erica finished the evening with a sleepy, yawny bedtime chat with her roommate. It had been a long day, that was sure, and it was reassuring to hear someone else's perspective. It made her more hopeful for every day that was to come.
—-Sept. 8th, too early (again)
The morning routine was its usual thing, but Calliope's muscles did not protest quite so much this time. Perhaps it was not so bad... or perhaps it was, she thought as a spot in the middle of her back popped and pinged. The two of them were just getting back to the dorm when everyone else was grumbling and rambling through the halls like a horde of decaffeinated zombies.
"Buongiorno," she called to the junior high girls in passing. She got a chorus of mumbles in reply.
Only Natalie was really awake, though perhaps that was not so surprising. The girl was a physical exemplar in development, after all. "Whatcha up to?" she asked.
"Our usual morning," Erica explained. "Some jogging, some calisthenics, some light sparring practice. You all are free to join in whenever you like."
"Maybe sometime," said Natalie. The others remained skeptical.
The showers were a much busier experience as well, though she and her roommate still managed to get in early, thanks to being the most awake duo on the floor. She tried not to stare too much as she washed. Others did, but out of surprise or nerves. Calliope did not wish to attract attention by staring the wrong way or at the wrong girl. So instead she snuck looks as the opportunity provided, and tried not to sigh too heavily.
Two hours later, after a happily uneventful but delicious breakfast, she was standing at the bus stop. Her fingers would not stop fidgeting, and with a snort of disgust at herself she shoved them into her pockets. Erica had been called away to powers testing shortly after the morning meal, and so Calliope was free to explore the campus on her own. She had not enjoyed it one bit. The ghost town of the day before yesterday was now booming and crowded, and everywhere she turned she almost ran into someone else. Or trampled on someone; she could swear there had been a tiny elf or fairy or something running through the grass near Hawthorne.
It was like she was just floating along, a boat without an anchor in a sea of other people's excitement, bumping haphazardly into everything in her path. She didn't like this feeling, of plenty going on but nothing to do. She'd sighed more than once, thinking "Erica would know what to do," and then getting mad at herself for it. There had to be something, anything, she could do without the support of her friends.
As it turned out, there was one item solely on her own agenda: meeting her brother. Claudio had emailed her to say that he had put Fra on the bus to Whateley, and a quick query to campus information had provided an estimated time of arrival. So there she stood, waiting, as the bus turned out to be twenty minutes late.
She wasn't alone in waiting, at least. Several other students were hanging around till their siblings or friends arrived. Calliope thought about saying hello, but most were too wrapped in their phones for it to work. The only one who looked to be in the here-and-now as opposed to some digital realm was an older boy in a Whateley-brand hoodie, with the top pulled up high over his head. The one glimpse she got of his face explained why quite readily. It looked as if the poor man had thorns sticking out of his skin.
There were only a dozen or so students on the bus, so Calliope figured the incoming tide of the student body was finally on the wane. First off the bus was a dainty freshman girl, who shouted "Zeke!" at the top of her lungs before rushing headlong into the (presumably) prickly embrace of her big brother in the hoodie.
"Vicky?" Now there was a real surprise. Victoria Stone was one of her new friends from over the summer, and the effervescent brunette was the same as she'd ever been. The girl's hair was its usual shock, like she'd stuck her fingers in a socket in lieu of an actual haircut, and her backpack had six different super-hero logo patches, not to mention more circuitry sewn into it than the average laptop. As for her actual luggage, Calliope did not want to know, because the fledgling devisor would be more than willing to talk her ear off for hours upon hours. "What are you doing on this bus?" she asked. "Claudio didn't mention..."
"Sorry, sorry," Vicky said. "I asked him not to. Wanted to surprise you, after all! Your other bro's still in back, I think." The girl wrinkled her nose. "He was snoring almost the entire way!"
"That would be the jet lag," Calliope suggested. "But you did not tell me, why on this bus? I thought you would arrive earlier."
"Well..." Now the brunette dragged a toe in the dirt. "When the general delay got announced, I decided to stay with Diane a few more days. She's doing better, by the way, but they're still not letting her out of the campus infirmary yet."
"I am sorry to hear that." Diane Davies was Vicky's cousin, and a colleague of Claudio's. While Vicky, Erica, and Calliope had been at the campus for various reasons over the summer, there'd been an incident involving a devise and certain parties who wanted it for God only knew what reason. It had all ended in explosions, which were bad at best and really bad when devises were involved, and Diane had gotten the brunt of it. On the plus side, Vicky's cousin wasn't disfigured, but on the minus... well, any devise was bound to have interesting side effects.
"Yeah. So, where's your other half?"
"Eh?" She could sense the joke in Vicky's words, but she wasn't quite getting it.
"Erica, silly." The girl stuck her tongue out. "You two were practically joined at the hip last month, and now here I find you all alone. So, what's up with that?"
"She had powers testing. No more, no less. As for my other, er, 'other half', I believe he is getting off the bus now."
Fra was the last off, and was blinking sleepily as the driver helped him with his bag. The two of them had looked a fair bit alike when they were younger, though far less after the mutations kicked in. Francesco Persico was tall, with light brown hair falling over broad shoulders and a laid-back air which, if she wasn't who she was, Calliope might even have described as attractive. Unfortunately for him, though he would not be aware of it yet, Whateley was simply lousy with hunky looking Exemplars. Calliope felt a slight frisson of guilty delight at the thought of him realizing this.
"Fra!" she called out. <"Over here!">
"Fi!" he shouted back. <"Is that you? When did you get so stylish? I almost didn't recognize you.">
<"Flatterer. I've just had a chance to go shopping with friends who actually know their way around a store."> Well, that was mostly true, at least. Erica seemed to dislike shopping as much as she did, but her roommate's cousin could have been a gold medalist in the event. <"You are looking great as well!"> she added.
Her brother preened at the compliment, puffing his chest out like a strutting rooster. She could have laughed as he plucked at the edges of his wine-red shirt. <"Yes, Mother insisted I get a new wardrobe for school. What do you think, Fi?">
<"It suits you."> In that it was loud, bold, and macho, she did not add. Somewhere along the way, Fra had picked up the habit of leaving his shirts unbuttoned at the top, the better to show off his pectorals. If she were to do that to such a degree, she might be arrested for indecency!
<"Thanks, thanks,"> said Fra, taking the compliment at face value.
"So are you going to introduce us?" Vicky asked.
"Aw, yes. <Fra, this is my friend Vicky. Her cousin works with Claudio.> Vicky, I know that you know who he is, but this is Francesco."
"Pleased to meetcha!" The brunette shook his hand thoroughly.
"Si..." Francesco clearly did not know what to make of the girl. "It is... nice to be meeting you? <Fi, she is shorter than you!>" he added in Italian. <"Compensating for something, little sister?">
<"Quiet, you."> She made a short, rude gesture, which only made him laugh. <"I am still older than you by ten minutes. And all my friends are busy with school preparations. Schedules, supplies, power-testing, the usual. This place is nothing like either of our old schools,"> she added pointedly. <"Have you been working on your English?">
<"Ah, well, I have been trying...">
"Fra!" she shouted. <"You have had all summer! Surely that is enough time for an exemplar like yourself!">
<"Well, what about you, eh? I do not see you speaking like an American right now."> A big grin propped up the ends of his mouth, as if he had just scored some point.
<"Would you understand me if I did?"> And with that, the grin faded.
"Far be it for me to interrupt a good sibling fight," Vicky said, "but could you point me towards Whitman Cottage? I gotta check in for orientation stuff."
"Ah, yes. Let's walk together," Calliope suggested. "My brother is going to... Emerson?" Fra nodded at that. "Yes, we can drop him off and get you to your dorm as well."
The walk back to campus was mostly dominated by Vicky's chatter, as Fra was still too groggy from jet lag to be much of a conversationalist. She was about to chide him once more for not keeping up with his English studies when she heard a voice call out, "Cally! ... and Vicky!?" Erica was on the far end of the quad, but managed to reach them in record time, dodging, weaving, and occasionally hurdling over other students in the way. "Hey, gals! Did you just get in Vicky?"
"Yup! How were the labs? Cally mentioned you were stuck in testing hell."
"Whew!" Erica let out a long whistle. "Am I glad that's over; I think the testing guys are sadists or something. Uncle Adolf would probably approve. Just wait till you get to do it... Oh!" the blonde girl said. "Cally, is this your brother? Hi!" A pale hand thrust out to grab Fra's surprised fingers and shake them. "Erica von Abendritter, Calliope's roommate. You must be Francesco, right?"
"Ah... yes?" her brother said carefully in English. Clearly he hadn't followed more than half of Erica's high-speed banter, and she could see a flicker of unease kindling behind his eyes. "I am Francesco. You can call me Fra." Then he made a big deal of kissing her roommate's hand.
"You didn't tell me your brother was so hot," the blonde girl said. Then, as if only hearing the words once they had slipped from her mouth, Erica went quiet for a moment. When Vicky jump-started the conversation again, it was like that sentence had never been spoken.
Calliope wished she hadn't heard. There was a simple sincerity in the words that burned her ears and dropped her heart in a bucket.
Well, crap. Where had that little observation popped in from? Hidden within some inner fold of her brain, the part of herself that actually thought about dating and romance had stretched its arms and taken control of her mouth, and once more she was thankful that her face could not betray her emotions by going red with embarrassment or green with nausea at contemplating... that.
The fact that this was Calliope's brother she'd reacted to only made things worse. Cousin Penny had sat her down and explained the Rules for dating and socializing months ago, and one of the big ones had simply been, "Don't go after your friends' brothers."
So, to fill awkward, empty space, she started talking about power testing, since both Calliope and Vicky seemed interested. It hadn't been so hard; in fact, her general lack of flashy abilities worked in her favor there. Aunt Margit's personal workout regimen was tougher than the physical tests used here in the labs, though it was good to know that her upper weight limit for deadlifting was still increasing. Fra looked rather shocked when she mentioned just how many kilograms she could press, but then again, Erica hardly seemed like someone who could conceivably pick up a small car.
"The PK test was the worst," she finished with. "Since that part of my power's completely reactive, they kept shooting stuff at me to see how fast it had to be going before the shield kicked in. By the end they had eight or nine things like these gonzo tennis ball launchers all firing away — you'd love those, Vicky; hyper-engineered to a T — and that's when we discovered that my PK shield can be overloaded." She winced and rubbed her arm, where the bruises were already healing up. "So it looks like I need to brush up on dodging after all."
If practice was what she needed, then the campus walkways provided plenty of opportunity. If anything, the crowds were even worse than the day before, as everyone suddenly remembered things they absolutely had to have from Fox Hall that very minute, or that they had various sorts of testing or advising to get to. Just walking Fra to his dorm was a task and a half.
"Gang way!" A short, bespectacled girl in orange barreled through the crowds with many well-placed elbows applied to inappropriate spots. Erica and Calliope pulled Fra out of the way while Vicky skipped to the side, but others weren't so lucky or so smart. One jock, built like a classical blond Adonis with Euro-model looks, was on his own crash course through the throng, and when the two met, it was an irresistible object meeting an immovable force. The guy didn't even seem to see the girl in her orange tee-shirt with the words "Carpe Scrotum" printed upon it, but he'd have done well to take notice of the obvious warning. Instead, he ran into her with enough momentum to knock her over.
The girl should have gone flying; instead, she landed on her feet and launched right for the dude. "Hey! Watch where you're going!"
"Little girls should be more careful," the young man replied with a derisive snort. His accent was as European as his looks, with perhaps a hint of French to it.
"Come on, Gouyasse." His friends were right behind him, and from their expressions Erica could guess that this sort of situation was far from uncommon. "Just apologize and let's get going."
"Gouyasse does not apologize when he has no need to." The voice was loud and aggressive, and Erica groaned at the use of third-person. No good came from people so full of themselves that they had to use their own names like that. "When he moves, others get out of the way."
"Someone's dricking out..." came a boy's whisper from behind Erica's back. The various bystanders had all retreated a ways, but lingered just beyond the most likely minimum safe distance. A few upperclassmen were already taking bets.
"Well then he's never met Ratel!" the girl in the orange tee shouted, not backing down an inch. "And Ratel don't give a shit! You wanna fight so bad, then bring it on!"
Gouyasse's friends were all rushing to hold him back, but perhaps there was no need. There was an expression on his face that suggested that, despite whatever was currently going wrong in his head, it had connected that this girl who wasn't even half his size was simply not impressed or afraid at all, and more importantly, that she was wearing a very specific armband around her left bicep. "Fine!" he said after a moment of grinding, both of teeth and of cogs in his head. "I know a better route. Come on, guys." He and his retinue left in a manner that very clearly said they had merely decided to go a different way for the scenery, and not because of the frizzy-haired girl with glasses who was grinning like a maniac.
Once they were out of sight, the girl continued her saunter down the sidewalk. No one tried to get in her way.
"Cosa è successo?" said Fra in puzzled Italian.
Erica couldn't understand the words but she got the meaning. "That guy got lucky," she explained. "The girl was wearing an Ultra-Violent armband. Our RA told us about those, remember?" she said to Calliope. "Some kids have mutations that make them really aggressive, or they get angry easily, and they're strong enough to be extremely dangerous. Dunno if she could've beaten that Gouyasse guy, but he'd've been hurting afterwards."
Calliope had to explain a lot of that again in Italian, and she included the motto on Ratel's tee-shirt, to judge from the hand gestures involved. Fra's face got paler with each word. "Che schifo di scuola..." he swore.
"Welcome to Whateley." Really, there was nothing more for Erica to say. It got a giggle out of Vicky, at least.
She got her brother to Emerson without any further incident. <"Until later!"> she said happily as he walked inside. <"Make some new friends. Practice your English.">
"Si, okay..." Fra didn't sound too enthused, but Calliope knew that he'd get over himself eventually.
"So, where to next?" Erica asked a few minutes later, after they'd seen Vicky off at the entrance to Whitman. "Seems like we've been running errands for everyone but ourselves."
"Perhaps a game?" she suggested. "I have a trump deck in my bag." It was not so bad an idea at all, and it helped her get her mind off of her brother and any complications he might bring. She definitely did not want to see him and her roommate getting any more friendly, even though Erica had kept to a polite distance ever since that initial observation. Instead, they spent the following hour on a quad bench as Erica taught her a few common American card games. Several were familiar, if by different names, and she greatly enjoyed beating her friend at Crazy Eights.
"We should get some of the others and have a game night soon," said Erica. "Doesn't have to be anything complicated. Even Go Fish would be fun."
"Perhaps we can find someone to play Dungeons and Dragons with us? Vicky could make a good third, but I do like larger parties."
"We can only hope." Erica looking across the quad. "Hey, isn't that Tanya?"
So it was, walking with Vic towards the Crystal Hall. Calliope's own stomach gurgled, and she was about to suggest to her roommate that they join the lavender girl for lunch, when things got interesting. Coming from the opposite direction was a familiar shape with familiar frizzy hair, a familiar orange tee-shirt, and a familiar attitude to her walk. Only this time, Ratel changed course and headed straight for Tanya.
It was hard to tell what was going on, but to Calliope it seemed like things were cordial, or even friendly. Ratel asked a question, and Tanya responded, nodding her head. Only then, as Tanya turned to walk away, Ratel hit her with a flying tackle.
"Huh?" Beside her, Erica was staring at the spectacle. Details were difficult to make out, but there was no missing when Tanya went sailing through the air, only to stop herself bare inches from the ground. Ratel, on the other hand, simply did not stop for anything, and was on Tanya in an instant. "What the hell is happening?" Erica asked, though Calliope did not think any answer was expected.
Then Security arrived to separate the girls. Bystanders suddenly found more important things to be doing, while bookies sighed and cancelled bets. Ratel, Tanya, and Vic were all escorted away.
"So..." Calliope said finally. "We do not let Tanya forget this for a long time, yes?"
"Definitely," Erica snickered.
"You should've seen it!" she was telling the few of their group who had managed to arrive at the Crystal Hall unmolested that day — i.e. Jimmy, Bailey, Bianca, and Taka. Everyone else was apparently either stuck in Security or the labs, except for Laura, who'd been sighted in the cafeteria line earlier. "One moment, all was calm, and then -WHAM!- that girl went into berserker mode."
"It was frightening!" said Cally. The Italian was sipping another cappuccino to calm her nerves. "To think, something like that could happen to us at any time...."
"Which is why training teams are a good idea, right?" Erica pressed. "You never know when the next fight's gonna be."
"That's true 'nuff," said Jimmy, "though we should really leave it to Security instead of starting stuff." Erica still wasn't sure what to make of Taka's roommate, but he seemed a decent enough guy. They had six out of eight class periods in common, so she was probably going to see a lot more of him in the future.
"Hey now, my family never starts stuff," said Erica. "It's rarely professional. Finishing stuff, on the other hand... That seems to be a family specialty. Lots of finishers, yup."
"Si, you should meet her aunt and uncle sometime," added Calliope. "If they are called in, you know that the problem will be resolved quickly. Possibly painfully for someone as well."
There was a loud thump on the first floor, and everyone craned their necks to see where Laura was talking with a horsey young man like something out of that one TV show about the island of genengineered animal-people. The conversation at the table went on hold until the blue girl could join them.
"Hey guys!" It didn't take very long. Laura deposited her plate of salad on the table with a flourish. "You'll never guess who I was talking to!"
"Antonia?" Bianca guessed.
That was a new name for Erica, and apparently she wasn't the only one who was lost, because Jimmy and Cally both asked "Who's Antonia?" in rough harmony, tenor and soprano.
"Um, just a friend in Poe who I met the other night," Laura said quickly. There was more to it than just that, Erica figured, seeing how purple the devisor was turning , but no one seemed to want to call her on it right now. "No, I bumped into one of the guys..."
"And half the caf heard." It was safe to tease her for that, at least, so Erica did.
"Ah, not talk too fast, please," said Taka.
"Sorry," Laura said. Whether she was apologizing for the disruption downstairs or for outpacing Taka's command of the English language was hard to say, but Jimmy loaned the Japanese boy the use of his VI program for translation purposes.
Erica hoped the translations actually helped. She had entertaining memories of classmates attempting to use software apps to help them breeze through German class. The results had ranged from hilarious to pathetic. Jimmy's Tavi apparently used a similar app, because not two minutes later, as Laura was explaining how she'd met a kid who was half-equine, Taka asked, "Excuse me, what big like horse?"
All conversation was momentarily lost in a storm of embarrassed giggles.
Oh dear. She certainly hoped her English was not so bad as that! Fra's, maybe, but she'd had plenty of practice! Calliope decided then and there to apply more natural expressions. She'd been making a list of things she'd heard Erica and Penny say. Perhaps it was time to return to it.
"Are you going to let me finish?" Laura cried. Then, in a lower voice: "It turns out he and his roommate are the two responsible for the whole Central Park mess!"
That certainly got a response. For all that most of them had actually been in New York City during that debacle, no one knew exactly what had happened. Calliope for one was getting tired of having to field questions on that topic, and doubtless others felt the same.
"Holy shit!" Vic swore. "They gotta be some badass dudes!"
Laura shook her head at that. "They don't seem like it. They seem pretty laid back. Oh, and Cally? You're gonna love this part."
Eh? What part would that be? If this was some lead back to that 'big like horse' comment, then she certainly was not interested!
"The horse kid is really into playing guitar."
"You're kidding!" she blurted out. She would have blushed if she weren't so relieved.
"No! He wondered if I knew anyone else who played. I guess he wants to be in a band!"
Well, that made two of them. "Cool!" she said. "I have got to meet him!"
"So what were you talking about before I got here?" Laura ended her interview with a question and a bite of salad.
"Not much..." Erica said. Calliope expected her to go right back to the Ratel fight, but then — parli del diavolo e spuntano le corna! — a lavender-topped frowny face came up the stairs. She was heralded by Vic, who was making frantic motions across his throat and over his mouth. That was something that did not require translation at all, and everyone let Tanya vent her frustrations on her meal in peace. That poor plate of noodles, beef, and cheese never stood a chance, nor did the gargantuan salad or the five bread rolls that accompanied it.
Of the group, only Laura was without a clue over the cause of the purple bundle of anger and nerves sitting before them, and when the blue girl tried to ask, Calliope was afraid that Tanya would bite her head right off!
"Security, that's what!" Tanya spat as she stabbed another bit of beef with her fork. Only the fact that the plates and the silverware were made with exemplars in mind kept the ceramic from cracking, though the fork did bend a bit. "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? Arggh!" It was hard to tell which was louder, her groans of frustration or of stomach. Three bite later: "I'm going to get another tray. Would anyone like me to take theirs down while I'm at it?"
Calliope passed hers and Jimmy's over, and as soon as Tanya had cleared line of sight from the table, all eyes fixated on Vic. "What?" the boy asked.
"Come on, spill it," the Italian girl said, feeling quite proud of how natural the Americanism sounded. "What happened?"
The boy sighed. "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." Calliope did not recall seeing anyone else with them, but Vic continued before she could inquire. "When we got to the quad, Ratel zeroed in on Tanya and asked if she'd like to spar."
"I heard about her," said Jimmy, not mentioning how or where. "Isn't she an Ultra-Violent?"
"Yeah. Well... Tanya thought for 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," groaned Erica. "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 in the quad, and Tanya and Ratel got a week's detention in Whitman."
"And the bottomless pit was hungry while this was going on?" Bianca asked. "No wonder she's so pissed!"
Everyone laughed, but under it all Calliope could feel a current of worry. Whateley Security's tolerance for many things was quite low, and already most of them had proven prone to misadventures. How long would it be before one — or more likely, several — of them had similar run-ins with authority? It worried her so much that not even a second dessert helped.
It was half-past four, and Erica was alone in her room, arranging books and other items on the shelves. Calliope was touring the musical facilities, but Erica had begged off, citing postprandial fatigue. Honestly though, she was still silently obsessing over what she'd said earlier about Calliope's brother, Fra. She was sure the Italian remembered, too, which only made her feel more awkward.
She needed someone to talk to about this, about why it was strange and scary and embarrassing all at the same time. Her options were limited, because there weren't many people she felt discussing the topic of romance with who also knew enough about her to understand why it was a problem. So, she'd sent off a text message, and was now nervously waiting for a school halfway across the country to let out for the day.
-beep, boop-boop, be-be-boop, be-boop-beep-boop!- cried the image of a cartoonish orange bird from the screen of her phone. A second later she had it to her ear.
"Hey, Penny. Sorry to bother you like this..." Penelope Stein was a senior at a completely mundane high school in Muncie, Indiana, and should have had dozens of more important things to do than to talk to her baby cousin about boy problems. "It's just... it's just..."
"Your mouth caught your brain by surprise?"
"Yes!" Erica flopped down on her bed. "What should I do?"
"Take a deep breath and count to ten."
She sighed. "Ein, zwei, drei, vier..." It helped. A little. Maybe.
"So, which side shall we tackle first: the fact that he's Cally's bro, or the fact that he's a boy?"
"Um..." She really, really didn't want to have this conversation, almost as much as she knew she needed it. "The second one, I guess. I mean, we already talked about it before, but..."
"Reality's still sinking in. I gotcha. You actually said he was hot, though? I'm impressed. Didn't think you were that comfortable with that side of things yet."
"Well, duh. I meant relatively. Seriously, considering the, ahem, extent of the changes in your life, I'm still amazed you didn't go full-on lesbian or something."
"W... we..." She couldn't blush anymore, but she could stammer with the best of them. "We did... test..."
There was a loud snicker that echoed over the phone connection. "That we did, cuz. Still regretting not taking one of my vintage Playgirl issues with you to school?"
"The cuz, she doth protest too much. Well then, item one: we've determined that you can't be into girls even if you tried, because you have. That unfortunate truth has been well examined and established by now. Nothing to do but ease into it, even if that makes for unpleasant surprises from time to time. Remember, I'm always willing to listen."
"Now, on to item two: Calliope's brother. Do I really need to explain to you why this is a bad idea, again?"
"Good girl. And I bet you haven't talked about it with Calliope yet, either. Well, she didn't start a fight immediately, which is a good sign, but if you let this stew too long, then you're in for a big mess. So, as soon as you see her again, apologize. Tell her that you know it was weird, that you're sorry, and be done with it. Don't be like some of the catty young things at my school, who're still holding unspoken grudges from third grade. Seriously, some of these girls..."
"How's school going?" Erica asked, desperate for a change of topic.
"Just fine and dandy. Thanks for asking!" There was a pause. "Well, fine except that the head cheerleader thinks I'm out to get that lugnut she calls a boyfriend, but apparently she suspects everyone of the same thing, so I'm not too worried. Oh, and Uncle Hans dropped by the day before to see how the enhancements were coming along."
"Oh? What did Opa say?" Erica's grandfather had spent much of the summer in research, to recreate the stuff he'd used to fix his own daughter's — Erica's mom's — genetic troubles all those years ago. After that, he was working with MIT to figure out how that same concoction had done what it had to Erica. The guys at MIT had been busy with something similar, namely deciphering the process by which some Fourth Reich agents, including several distant cousins of Erica's, were given non-mutant superpowers.
By mid-August, they'd had a breakthrough, and Cousin Penny volunteered pretty much immediately. As someone on a Nazi villain's scheisse-list, she figured she needed all the help she could get, and her adoptive grandfather — Erica's Uncle Adolf — had, after much review of the process, agreed. Apparently experimenting on relatives was another von Abendritter family tradition as well.
"Near as he can tell, it's all finished up, but I could tell him as much. Like, when I woke up last Tuesday, everything just clicked. All that twitchiness and muscle fatigue I was having? Gone. Instead, it's like my brain and body went from a V4 to a V12 engine, and I'm firing on cylinders I never even knew I had! Sava Margit's got me doing extended exercise routines and extra coursework, and it's a frickin' snap! Seriously, is this how you feel all the time?"
"Um, maybe? With all the other changes, I never really had a moment to compare the before and after like that."
"Yeah, I could see how some things might overshadow others. Seriously, though, get out and enjoy life right now while you can!"
"Okay... Any signs of powers? I know the researchers were curious to see how that would turn out." There seemed to be a few constants with the Thulean enhancements, regardless of which version was used. Some sort of exemplar-like physical and mental enhancement was a given, and apparently one ability of a psi, ESP, or PK persuasion. Erica had her shield, the Green Cross had that weaponized empathy of hers, and the other Fourth Reich agents possessed a grab bag of oddball tricks.
"Well..." said Penny. "You remember how twitchy I was being? Like, anytime anyone came near me, I'd jerk back like they were going to hit me? That feeling hasn't really gone away, but I kinda got used to it. Now, I walk down a crowded school hallway, and I don't get bumped by anything. Not even once, and not even if a certain cheerleader tries her hardest to do it to me on purpose."
"You've got a danger sense?" Erica asked. "Awesome!"
"Maybe. Sava Adolf's pulling some strings for a discreet powers testing to make sure. Still, it'd come in handy, seriously."
The door handle rattled, and a few seconds later Calliope let herself in. The Italian was whistling happily to herself, so the tour of the music department must have been worth the trip. "Oh!" she said. "I am sorry to interrupt."
"No prob," said Erica. "I was just chatting with Penny."
"And shalom to you too," Penny said once Erica'd put her on the speakerphone. "Hear you two have had a busy week so far."
"Si, that we have..."
"Well, it should be about dinner time for you two, and we both know how much Erica eats — don't protest, cuz; you know I'm right! So I'll just say good-bye now and let you fill up, okay? I've got a Hebrew lesson soon, anyway."
Once Penny had hung up, Erica was left with just her cousin's advice and barely enough courage to act upon it. "Um, Cally?"
"Er, I'm sorry. About, er, what I said earlier? About your brother? It was weird, and... and..."
"It was true," Calliope said with a sigh. "Fra is good looking, and he knows it all too well. I should not be surprised that you feel that way."
"But, I don't!" Erica blurted out. "It... it was just my mouth running and... and..." She could feel her eyes turning red with tears, and her nose tingled in that funny way it did right before the waterworks began. "Y-yeah, he's a hunk, b-but what if that's not what I want? What if I just w-want..." She gulped. "A friend more than a boyfriend? Y-you're my friend, Cally, and we've already been through some crazy stuff together, and I don't wanna lose that because I ran my mouth off at the wrong time!"
"Aw... cara mia," said Calliope. "It is okay. We all say the wrong thing sometimes. And I was not so worried as that. I know you, and I know my brother, and so I realize that even if you were to date, you would most likely maim him before too long. It is better this way, I think."
"Yeah..." Now Erica felt a smile returning to her face like an old friend after a short vacation. "I'll keep him friend-zoned. How do you say that in Italian?"
"Si. We Italians are such a passionate people, such a concept is completely foreign to us, so we had to borrow it from prudishly platonic America..." Calliope managed a straight face almost to the very end, but the last three words had to be forced through a solid wall of giggles. She collapsed on Erica's bed, still laughing, and the two of them couldn't calm down for the longest time.
The evening meal passed uneventfully enough. Laura and Tanya were invited to some private thing by their advisor, but to balance things out Tia, Hikaru, and Morgana had resurfaced from the depths of the testing labs. None of them seemed particularly happy for the experience, and while the bunny-girl was reluctant to discuss what was upsetting her at first, the Welsh dragonette was more than happy to share, in great detail. Erica had to interrupt a few times to clarify some parts of the physical exam and regeneration tests, else Bailey might have fainted right there at the table. That ended when the Welsh girl and the German went to return their trays, at which point the conversation became a rehash of Tanya's incident.
Then those fashionistas whom she'd dismissed during the previous night's discussion of clubs had actually come to recruit Taka, of all people. Calliope was starting to feel like her life had turned into some sort of Italian soap opera. Perhaps CentroVetrine or Un posto al sole... No, she concluded, this was America, so it should be one of those ridiculously long-running and overly complicated American soap operas. The only one of those she was familiar with was Days of Our Lives, which numbered among Signora Margit and Signora Winifred's few guilty pleasures. 'Dorms of Our Lives' had a nice ring to it, she felt. There was that certain air of tragicomedy which summed up the Whateley experience.
Then Tia finally opened up about what was bothering her, and the balance of comedy to tragedy skewed dangerously towards the less pleasant. Even before the bunny-girl's words came out, Calliope could feel that there would be trouble, but the reality... Shock and anger echoed around the table, strong enough that even a non-empath would probably be able to pick it up. Calliope listened carefully, taking mental notes on everything pertaining to this 'Jamie' person. She was sure the others were doing likewise, because that was the way this team, this little family, worked. Vendetta may have been an Italian word, but it was a universal concept. Jamie was not going to enjoy this, but the rest of them would.
Friday, Sept. 9th, morning
Showers didn't bother her as much as they used to. Erica had spent most of the summer sharing bathing space with her cousin or with Calliope, and once the novelty wore off it became just another thing in her life. The bigger issue now was one of numbers: there were simply too many girls on the floor for them all to be able to wash up at once, and tempers were short in the early morning. That too was not so unfamiliar — Cousin Penny could be an absolute grump in the morning, and in fact was so the first time they'd met — but as usual powers put a whole new spin on things.
"Pff. Finally," the girl currently at the head of the line grumbled as it became her turn to go in. "What did you do, fall in?" the girl continued, glaring at Essemmelle as the Aussie girl waddled out in a bathrobe four sizes too large. Erica didn't know this girl very well, even though she was rooming two doors down from her. At best, she could describe her as rangy, a tough girl with an attitude and blue streaks through her hair. Eyes of the same shade as those streaks seemed to stab at everything with the same low-intensity anger. Even a cordial "Good morning" had been met with a snapping retort. As such, Erica didn't feel like warning her against taunting the midget.
"Is that some sorta crack 'bout my height?" Essemmelle was growling back.
"Oh, couldn't you hear me down there?"
"What's the holdup?" someone shouted from farther back in line.
"Nothing!" the girl called back. "Just a little disagreement. It'll be over shortly." Giggling at her own wordplay, she took a long-legged step over Essemmelle and went into the showers. She apparently did not hear the midget mutter "Bitch" in her direction.
Erica heard, and agreed with the assessment. As she waited for her own turn at the head of the line, she could hear bits of conversation that grew more and more heated, until that same girl with the blue streaks stormed out with her hair still wet. "Screw you, Amy!" she shouted back to one of the girls still in the changing area.
When Erica walked in, there was still a bit of tension in the air, hovering within the steam. She didn't ask what was up; she had a pretty good guess from how certain toiletries had been scattered all around.
"What a bitch..." one of the bathers was saying. Erica figured her to be Amy. She looked normal except for turquoise-blue eyes. "Tricia, how can you ever stand her as a roommate?"
A second girl, with hair as orange as a cup of Tang, shook her head as she used the blow-dryer. "Dunno what's up with Mairead this morning. I mean, yeah, she's a hothead, but..."
Erica kept her own head down and washed quickly. She didn't feel like adding anything to Essemmelle's little effect this time, and in any case Calliope would be waiting for her. The Italian had only left their room two minutes sooner, but that had been enough to put over a dozen girls between them in the shower line.
Once she'd gotten dressed for the day, she found her roommate in the common room. Calliope was sitting at one of the tables with Nana and Hannah from the sophomore wing, and apparently they were having a good old time of it. The Italian even had her trump deck out, and was playing a game of War with the effervescent Canadian.
"How're you two doing?" Erica asked as she sat down beside them. "Haven't had a chance to chat since that first night."
"Not too bad..." Nana began.
"Super fantastic!" her roommate butted in. "I mean, all these awesome people with cool powers just walking around like it's Christmas? What's not to like, eh? Did you meet the girl on your side who can shrink? I've never seen anything like that before!"
"You mean Mouse? Yeah, I've talked with her a bit..."
"That's so cool!" Hannah was practically vibrating.
"Um... is she going to be alright?" Erica asked Nana.
The redhead sighed. "I'm afraid this is the new normal for the foreseeable future," she said. "Already had to pull her fat out of the fire twice this week."
"Oh, did she make someone angry?" Calliope asked.
"Worse," said Nana. "She met one of the Hawthorne kids on a side path and begged him for a demonstration because she thought the kid's power felt so interesting. Turns out, he produces this napalm-like stuff outta his sweat glands."
"Oh..." Now that Erica looked closer, she could tell that Hannah's hair was a lot shorter than it had been on Tuesday. "So, we didn't see you Wednesday because..."
"Because we were in Doyle getting treated for burns," griped Nana. She tugged at the shoulder of her blouse and flashed a bit of white bandaging. "Kid said he was sorry, at least."
"But it was so cool! Did you know Dr. Tenent's power feels like—"
"Not now, Sammish."
Erica's stomach gurgled. "Um, have you two eaten yet?"
"Nope. We were heading out when we ran into Calliope here waiting for you." The redhead laughed at Erica's expression. "Don't worry; we haven't been here long."
"Perhaps we can eat together?" Calliope was packing up the cards. The golden streaks in her walnut-brown hair glinted in the morning light as it poured in through the windows, and Erica was a little sorry that she wasn't interested in girls. Certainly, the Italian was everything most boys would want in a girlfriend: friendly, attractive, and very much into games and comics.
Erica shook her head to dispel those thoughts. They wouldn't get her anywhere now.
The Crystal Hall was as busy as ever when they arrived, but surprisingly their table was not. The breakfast crowd was on the wane, and everyone seemed to have some sort of testing or meeting or something to get to. There were four people at the table when she arrived, and she only knew three of them. Taka's roommate Jimmy had a Sicilian look to him that was as familiar as his accent was not, though from what she had seen, heard, and felt he was definitely all-American. Bailey was another member of their group she had yet to get to know better, though she would definitely like to. Beside the auburn-haired girl with the ponytail was the new face, a dark-skinned girl whose wiry black curls were threaded with electrum, and cobalt-blue eyes shining with humor.
Tanya was just sitting down now, with what was apparently her second tray of breakfast. Even she had to ogle at what Nana brought to the table
"What is that?" Jimmy asked, emerald green eyes wide.
"The carnivore special," grumbled Nana. Her tray was piled high with a good three kilos of food, almost all of it meat, and some of it barely qualifying as cooked. "The wonders of hosting the spirit of an obligate carnivore," she complained. "And here I was, all ready to go full-on vegan." The redhead picked up the sole bit of green on the tray, a bowl of broccoli. "This is all I can get away with before I start feeling sick."
"Anyway!" said Calliope. "Everyone, this is Nana, from the other side of my floor at Dickinson. Nana," she said, pointing to each of her friends in turn, "this is Jimmy, Bailey, and Tanya. Ah, I am sorry," she said to the black girl. "I do not think we have met."
"The name's Catherine, but y'all can call me Zapper. Nice to meetcha."
"A pleasure," Nana said.
"Erica should be up with Nana’s roommate in a moment... ah," said Calliope. "It looks like they have picked up another friend to join us." Coming up the stairs now, in between Erica's golden mop and Hannah's brunette pixie cut, was the bushy brown mess that was Vicky's usual bed-head. A moment later, everyone was seated and introductions happened again.
"So yeah, nice table," Nana was commenting between bites.
"We registered a training group in order to get it," Tanya explained.
"Hm, need to look into that myself. Apparently it's required for sophomores, even if it's still their first year at Whateley."
"I can help, eh?"
"You can't fight, Sammish."
Zapper perked up. "Maybe you should check out the Future Super-Heroes of America booth at the club fair tomorrow? We were just talking about that. Right, Tanya? Jimmy?"
Calliope could feel the enthusiasm welling up around the table, from the usual expected sources — but not Nana. "Not interested," the redhead said. "I got enough of the hero line from dad. Not looking to be one myself."
"Who's your dad?" Jimmy asked.
"Thermoclast, up in Augusta," Nana admitted with a frown. "Professional hero, but really he's just a big dork."
"My mom was a hero..." said Tanya.
"And where'd it get her, if I may ask?"
The lavender girl's mood collapsed like an old zeppelin, and she looked about to sink right down into her own food tray. Erica was at Nana's side, whispering in her ear to explain just what the situation was there.
"Oh. Um... er, sorry about that," the redhead said. "Didn't know, but that's no excuse anyway. Um..." Nana slid around the table and gave Tanya an awkward hug. "Er, if you'd like, I've got some really awesome bacon over here you could try?"
The peace offering was accepted with a quiet but appreciative crunch. "Thanks," said Tanya. "It's... a sore point, to be sure, but I really want to at least try and walk in Mom's footsteps."
"Understood," said Nana. "Personally, I'm aiming for a degree in botany and a job with the forestry service eventually, but to each their own."
Vicky and Hannah were having an animated discussion of who was the best Canadian comic book hero, though Calliope was ignorant of almost all of the characters being discussed. Bailey and Zapper were in the middle of discussing some Poe matter in small voices, so she did not wish to interrupt them, either. Turning to Jimmy as her last option for conversation, she asked, "And what are your plans for the day?"
"Nothing much." The boy's eyebrows scrunched together as he thought. Really, she could imagine him in some little Sicilian town so easily! "Probably the dorm mixer thing tonight," he said finally. "Whitman and Twain are having one, at lest. Are Emerson and Dickinson doing it, too?"
"Yup," Erica answered for her. "I'd wonder why they don't do it for the whole school at once, but I'm afraid enough that our little one will end in explosions, so I understand if the faculty doesn't want to risk it."
That got a chuckle out of the boy. "Yeah, I can see that for ours as well. We'll have to trade notes tomorrow, see who's got the best stories."
"Definitely," Erica agreed.
"You really okay?" she asked Tanya as they headed downstairs for new trays — her third, Tanya's fourth. The pancakes really were that good, and there were some cinnamon rolls in the bakery area that were simply divine.
"Why does everyone keep asking me that?" the lavender girl complained.
"Maybe because this is the second day in a row that you had some sort of emotional meltdown in the middle of a meal?" Erica ventured.
"It's just... could we have this conversation somewhere besides the pancake line?
"Fair enough. Blueberry syrup this time?"
"And some sliced bananas, yeah."
"Y'know, my cousin wonders where I put it all," Erica said.
"Heh," Tanya chuckled. "I've got a younger cousin who's said the same thing."
The first floor tables were largely abandoned, except for an uber-skinny girl with light feathers on her head, sitting in the far corner. Tanya waved to her with a "Hey, Whirly" before sitting down in a secluded corner with Erica.
"So, let's talk," said the blonde girl. "How're you feeling? What's got you stressed?"
The lavender girl sighed. "I dunno. This feels weird. I mean, how often do you sit down and spill your guts to someone like this?"
"Yesterday. Over the phone with my cousin. On the topic of my social anxiety when dealing with anything of a romantic nature, stemming from various events of the past summer but specifically in regards to the fact that I may or may not think Calliope's brother is hot, and I didn't know how to process that. Got some good advice, made amends with Cally, and begging off boys for the near future. You?" Erica said.
"Whew.... Well, I guess it's... it's hard to look at myself in the mirror," said Tanya. "I look... look so much like my mom, and it feels like I'm sorta set on a course to take over for her, and..."
"And you're not sure you want that?" Erica guessed.
"Yeah. Does that... make me a bad daughter?"
"No idea. I haven't even seen my mom in years, so it's hard for me to say what a good daughter should be like. But," she said, between bites of blueberry-flavored goodness, "if your mom was anything like my Oma, she'd be happy with whatever you did. Happier if you followed in the family business, of course, but understanding if you decided otherwise."
"They don't expect you to become a super-spy, do they?"
"Well..." Erica took another bite and considered. She hadn't really mentioned this to anyone yet, but it felt like the right thing to share now. "I'm being sponsored at Whateley by the German Bundesreich's Volksherren program, for heroes that fit the spirit and image of the people of the Fatherland. That's why I have a German passport and MMID; Oma and Opa are honorary citizens, and Uncle Adolf pulled some deals together. It's his idea of one more line of defense against those assholes in the New Reich, I suppose. So... I'm sort of committed to joining the Munich regional department of the Volkesherren bureau upon graduation, for at least a few years."
"You..." Tanya had to search for the words. "You already have a place on a team reserved for you? For real?"
"Yup. So believe me when I say that I understand how it feels to be locked on a path in life. I could wish to have a little more say in the matter, but it's also kind of exciting. Anyhoo," she said, picking up her tray, "shall we get back upstairs before they think we decided to just eat the entire buffet line?"
Tanya giggled at that.
There were a few things in this new life of hers which Calliope wished she were not so used to... the Abendritter morning routine, for example, or the leering looks from boys as she passed Emerson Cottage. Above them all, she wished she were not so used to the long and nonsensical rigamarole that was powers testing. Her own brother Claudio had put her through enough of it as part of his postdoctoral studies on powers, and she was sure that large parts of that research were now in the hands of the Whateley labs, but it seemed in the nature of scientists that they could never be satisfied with someone else's results if they had the chance to run their own tests — especially if it gave them the chance to prove their own theories right.
For the students, their lab rats, it was far less fun than it sounded.
"Yay! Here we go! Whoo!"
She amended that thought, slightly. Every good rule needed an exception to help test the validity of the whole, and so it was with Hannah Sammish. When the time came for Calliope to leave the breakfast table, the Canadian pixie cut girl had tagged along. Whether or not Hannah actually had any business there, she did not know, but the company was... okay, she supposed. Erica and Tanya hadn't returned from browsing the cafeteria line, again, while Vicky and Zapper were debating Nana and Jimmy on the cost/benefit analysis of the hero business.
To be honest, she felt like she could use some time to herself now, away from thoughts of fighting and heroing.
"Hey, did you see that girl fly past just now? That wasn't PK! Awesome! I wonder how..."
On the other hand, Calliope considered, perhaps she could get used to the regular table conversation as quickly as she had all the other regular difficulties and annoyances of her life. The question now was, would she get to the labs with her ears intact?
a few minutes later
"Ah, yes. Ms. ... Calliope." The interviewing researcher wasn't too old, she figured, but he had the face of a man many years his senior. Thin hair had receded so far back that it now rolled down his neck and shoulders in a wide wave, for lack of any other direction to go. What hair was left on his cranium was bristly and black, but the mullet was colored a mild brown. Muddy blue eyes peered at her through thick glass frames which perched on blocky, angular cheekbones. "We have already received a file for you from a Dr. Claudio Persico. You understand, of course, that we must verify the results?"
"Of course," she said with a polite nod. "I was informed that this would be the case. Are the... ah..." Memories of Morgana's lurid tales surfaced. "Will the full physical examination be necessary?"
"I'll need to check, but from what it looks like, your file is thorough and up to date in that regard. Your body hasn't changed radically from your mutation, nor is it liable to, so we'll just do the endurance testing to check against your earlier baseline, and get on to the fun stuff."
"Grazie," she said. Claudio had promised he'd bury certain details of her mutation, of the physical alterations, as best he could, and her big brother had done very well indeed, it seemed. She could suffer through the strength tests and the running trials, because after all they weren't much different from a normal morning for her these days. The danger sense test had taken the form of an unexpected hurdle which shot up just as she ran over it. She was now quite aware she did not possess any such sense, as the bruises on her knees and left shoulder loudly confirmed it.
So far, nothing had been too shocking. Even that maledetta hurdle had been the sort of surprise one expected to happen at some point, from all the tales of powers testing one heard around the lunch table. It wasn't until she'd cooled down and the researchers had prepped for the next set of tests that the truly unexpected finally occurred.
"Hey, Calliope!" A familiar pixie cut stood before her.
"Eh? What are you doing here, Ha...mph!" And now a tidily manicured hand was over her mouth.
"Codenames only, eh?" Hannah said with a wink. "When I'm on the job, call me Assay. Gotta keep it professional, eh?"
"Si, yes, right... on the job?" she asked.
"Yup!" The Canadian bounced in place. "Since my mutation's so specific and all, the only way they can test me is on other students. So when they were first looking me over, I asked, 'Why don't I just work here, eh?' and they thought that was a neato idea, so here we are!" The girl beamed. "It's been a real gong show so far. Oooh!"
The man with the long hair in back had returned, wheeling in a complicated apparatus with a thick, massive arm ending in a sort of helmet. The insides of that metallic dome were covered in wires and sensors. Calliope was not sure whether it was supposed to read a person's mind or give her a really good perm, but Hannah — Assay — happily seated herself beneath it and buckled the strap beneath her chin.
"Now," said the researcher. "We need to test the nature of your psionic powers. As the report suggests they are telempathic in nature, we have requested the assistance of Ms. Assay here. Whatever she feels from your power, it will register on our monitor here. Please, begin whenever you are ready."
"Ah... I do not have my guitar with me..."
"Is it necessary for your power's function?"
"No, but..." She took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders. "I must do this a cappella, I suppose." Clearing her throat, she called to mind an old Italian lullaby sung to her by her nonna so many years ago. It was one of the first songs she'd ever learned, and also one of the easiest for her to get in the proper mood for broadcasting. Once she had the words and their feelings properly in her head, she began to sing:
""Fa la ninna, fa la nanna
"Nella braccia della mamma
"Fa la ninna bel bambin,
"Fa la nanna bambin bel,
"Fa la ninna, fa la nanna
"Nella braccia della mamma."
The biggest issue she always had with her powers was the need to synchronize her emotions with those represented in the song, since it didn't work nearly as well without that connection. This did not come naturally to her, and the few times she had really, truly needed her power to work right had almost been foiled by the anxiety, nerves, and fear brought on by the situation itself. Here, though... She breathed in and began the lullaby a second time. Here, she had the luxury of singing herself into the right frame of mind, even as she sought to bring Assay in as well. Calliope could feel the girl now: a big, bright bundle of ecstatic happiness, just waiting to see what would happen next. Diving deep into her own swiftly calming mood, Calliope called upon quiet, drowsy thoughts, adding them to the notes, chords, and lyrics as they escaped her throat.
By the end of the second time through, Assay was blinking and nodding along unsteadily. By the middle of the third, she was... how did Il Signor Hans put it? Sawing logs, noisily.
"That's enough, thank you," said the researcher from the safety of his control booth. Even with the protective headgear on, he was looking pretty drowsy himself. "Now, we have a set of other songs we would like you to try..."
Calliope sighed as a holographic screen popped into being in front of her, lyrics of familiar songs scrolling down them. Someone had done their homework; not only were they all known to her, but they also had identifiable emotional elements, not all of which she was comfortable with. She resigned herself to a long morning of — what was the expression? — faking it till she was making it.
Erica left the Crystal Hall that morning with a warm, happy feeling in her stomach. Calliope and Hannah had needed to go, of course, and Zapper soon after, but the rest of them had spent a leisurely hour gabbing about comic books and video games. None of the others seemed as interested in the subject of tabletop gaming, but she figured it was merely a matter of time. Her inner geek girl would not be denied!
Unfortunately, she was now left with most of a morning ahead of her and nothing to do. This was not the happiest of feelings, as she'd gotten kinda used to having her life in constant forward motion by this point. Keep on running, full steam ahead, and the past would never catch up... and the future would get bowled over. Just floating along, well... balloons floated. Then they got popped. She'd been living by the old family philosophy for only a few months now, but, dang was it habit-forming to not have bullet holes in you.
A campus with no classes presented a more leisurely pace that she was finding difficult to maintain. Idly, she wished Calliope were there. Her roommate always had some idea for what to do when nothing else presented itself.
And then, something did present itself. Rather, someone did. Sitting all by his lonesome on a bench along the lefthand side of the quad, Francesco Persico was brooding over a bit of pastry from the Crystal Hall's baked goods section. Of their own accord, Erica's feet carried her towards him, and that treacherous little corner of her brain was quick to point out that the young man was looking pretty good today. She mentally swatted that thought down as she approached. This was her roommate's brother, after all. Her roommate's handsome, exotic brother... Erica growled as she shook that thought out of her head.
"Hey, Fra!" she called out, plopping down on the bench beside him. "Why the long face?"
"My... face?" Clearly the idiom had not translated well.
"You look... y'know..." She waved a hand over her own face, then tugged the corners down. "Sad?"
"No! No... eh..." Fra muttered to himself, pulling his thoughts together before trying to answer again. "I... talking? Talked. I talked with my...consigliere about, eh... classes. I not studied much... since three months. Not enough before. Need... classi speciali. For English."
"I hate to break it to you," said Erica. "But she's right."
"Lo so!" Fra cried. "I know! It is... it is... imbarazzante!"
Erica gave him a friendly pat on the shoulder, then jerked her hand back like she'd just been about to pet a coyote. The young man didn't seem to notice. "Um... for what it's worth, I have a friend whose English is much worse than yours, and he seems to be doing okay."
"Yup. In fact..." Her eyes scanned the quad and quickly locked onto a familiar face as he walked out the main entrance to the testing labs. "There he is! He must've just finished his power testing today... huh," she added as she noticed the four girls trailing behind him. "When'd he get so popular?" Crowds during practice time was one thing, but this?
Fra's face was the picture of confusion as he watched the Japanese boy pass by, seemingly oblivious to the stir caused by his entourage. "Che... is real?" he asked.
"Apparently," she said. "Seriously, if Taka can manage with such little English, you shouldn't have any problems."
"Ah, grazie." Fra thought for a moment, then hopped to his feet. "Do you like... walk?" he asked, offering her his hand.
She should turn him down, Erica knew. She really, really should.
Instead, she went on a little promenade around the central campus as Fra practiced his faulty, piecemeal English on her. Erica tried not to laugh, except when he was obviously trying to be funny, and those polite giggles were perhaps the girliest things to ever come out of her throat. She hated it, and hated herself for it, but somehow that never resulted in her leaving.
That treacherous part of her head had temporarily won the war with her panic center, with weaponized hormones streaking like rockets across her subconscious before exploding somewhere deep and squicky inside her. "Remember," she had to tell herself quietly, over and over, "he's just Cally's brother. He's just a friend."
It was when he grabbed her by the hand and pulled her through the little horticultural garden behind Doyle Hall that the panic-button won out over the rest. They'd been steadily moving through less crowded areas, and here it was just the two of them. She should turn; she should move back towards some spot with witnesses and bystanders and—
Fra already had his lips planted on hers, on what would have been a very long kiss if she hadn't immediately freaked out.
"Wait!" she cried, pulling back. "We... I mean I'm... and you're... and... and... Calliope..." Before he could say a thing — before she would let him say a thing — to calm her down, her legs kicked into gear, propelling her out of the garden and towards more populated areas.
In the wake of her dust, Fra just blinked, then gave a wide shrug. Some of the swagger had returned to his step as he walked off in the other direction.
"I am terribly sorry," Calliope was saying as she and Hannah left the lab area a few hours after they'd arrived. "I did not mean to make you cry so."
The Canadian girl waved her away. "It's no big deal. Everyone should know what a major existential crisis feels like, eh? I mean, just imagining yourself all alone in a cold, uncaring universe..." She shivered. "Wow. Crazy thing, eh?"
"Er, yes..." Honestly, Calliope did not know what to make of the girl.
"Um, excuse me...?" a voice interrupted. "Is this where the testing labs are at?"
This new girl, walking down the hallway towards them, on the other hand... Calliope tried not to stare too obviously at the gorgeous blonde teen in the pink top and mini-skirt who was nervously awaiting their reply. A corner of her mind was more than willing to consider what she would like to make of this one, and she could die of embarrassment for it.
"Yeah!" said Hannah with her usual enthusiasm. "Right past us and on the left. Can't miss it!"
"Um, thanks. I..." The girl went stock-still for a brief second, and then a new sparkle shone in her coffee-colored eyes. "Oh-Em-Gee! Is that a Tartucci bag?"
"Er, yes?" said Calliope. "I, ah, think so?" To be honest, she really did not know. Her stepmother had bought it for her, back before she'd learned to care even as little as she did now for fashions.
"Wow! I was reading about those the other day, and the magazine said they were going to be the new breakthrough hit for the teen scene from Milan this year, but of course you can't get them for anything in the States, and I know, because I tried so hard to find one and never could, not even with Mom's help — and really, she knows all the best ways..." Never had Calliope seen someone's mouth go from zero to ninety in such record time.
"Si, er, perhaps we can talk about it sometime?" Calliope said. "Ah, if you have an appointment, you should get going...."
And then, just as suddenly as she had turned on, some little switch hidden inside that energetic girly frame switched off. Her body slumped, and she fidgeted nervously. "Sorry, 'bout that... I... well, my... er... hard to explain."
Hannah had been staring intently at the girl throughout the exchange, and now chimed in. "You're an Avatar host," she said, as if that explained everything.
"Er, yeah. N... Nina. Nina Blake. Nice to meet you," said the girl. After a pause, she raised her hand for them to shake. "Also go by Bewitched, because that's how... er... I feel some days. Living with a spirit’s like an emotional roller-coaster ride sometimes, but..." The girl shook her head again and sighed. “As they say, like spirit, like host. And that really is a nice bag… Er, guess I better get going now.”
"Oh, wait a moment." Calliope grabbed the little notepad she kept in her bag and scribbled down a set of digits. "My name is Calliope, and if you'd like to talk about bags some more, let me know."
Now, why had she done that? she asked herself. Then she got a good look at Nina from behind as the girl traipsed down the hall to the power labs. Okay, she knew why she'd done it, but really! She couldn't go around flirting with girls so obviously! People would get ideas!
"Hey, you never gave me your phone number!" Hannah complained.
"You live on the other side of the floor," Calliope reminded her. "You can just walk over whenever you like."
"Oh yeah..." The way Hannah said that did not make her feel any better.
The basic bedding options for Dickinson Cottage included plain linen sheets, a coverlet, a thicker comforter for winter months, and two pillows. This did not a good Fortress of Solitude make, but Erica tried her best to hide under the pile and pretend the world wasn't out there and the past had never happened.
Only... her lips still tingled, her heart still pounded, and her ears were still burning. She wished she were dead. Six feet under covers with a pillow for a tombstone, dead. Better to end it all in a smothering mess of detergent-scented linenware than face her roommate with the need to apologize, again, for... for...
She groaned and stuffed her head deeper into the pillow, leaving tears to soak the stuffing. Why, why, why!?
Well, he was a good kisser, the traitorous sector of her brain pointed out.
Beside the point! she countered.
And it had felt so good... that naughty little whisper in her head teased.
Much, much too good, she had to admit. She was not ready for that just yet!
Maybe Fra could help her be ready...
Her head hammered the pillow repeatedly as she tried to drive that pernicious little thought out. No, no, no!!!
-knock, knock, knock- "Everything okay in there?" came a voice from the door. Milena's voice. "Don't think I don't hear you crying your eyes out," the RA continued. The door rattled a bit, but remained locked. "Okay then, I hope you didn't, like, barricade the door or anything..."
There was a short clap, which Erica could identify readily. She'd spent much of the summer with a teleporting hero, and the odd little sound of atmospheric displacement was hard to mistake. Neither were the delicate footsteps of the RA as she walked up to the bed. "Yanno, if you're gonna, like, commit suicide by bedsheet, there are better ways to manage."
Erica let out a hiccupy giggle. "I've... been considering the options..." She pulled the coverlet down to see Milena's eyes twinkling from over those glasses she liked to affect. "It's... it's nothing. It's stupid..."
"It's high school," said Milena. "Everything here is stupid, everything is really nothing, and yet it's still the most tragic and important thing to ever happen to anyone ever. So, spill it."
The whole story did not take long to be told, which embarrassed her more than anything else. Something that felt so important should have more heft to it, really.
"Huh. Getting an early start on the roommate drama, I see. Gonna tell her?"
Erica shook her head. "Dunno. I promised to stay away from him, but... I don't want to do anything with Fra. It just... happened. And I can't let it happen again. So if it doesn't, do I really need to worry her now? Gah!" She buried her head in the pillow again. "I can't believe I'm even thinking like this!"
"Well, in my professional opinion," said Milena, "you need a boyfriend."
"Seriously. If your romance button's on a hair trigger, you'll need someone to satisfy the emotional need. Hmm..." The RA tapped the side of her glasses. "Yanno, I could, like, set you up with a blind date for tonight? On the house, no favors cashed in, just because I'm an awesome RA?"
"Er, no thank you..." Erica was not about to go into the secret details of why she was boy-shy, but still!
"Too bad. Got the dorm mixer tonight. It's, like, as good a time as ever to get started."
"The mixer...?" Oh, scheisse; she'd forgotten all about that. It would just be Emerson and Dickinson, the "pretty" dorms, but that was bad enough. "Fra's... Fra will be there." She gulped. "If anything... if he... if I..."
"Say no more." The RA patted her on the back of her head. "I shall see to it that you are never alone with him, and if he makes a move, then he's outta there. Okay?"
"Th-thanks. I owe you."
"Nah. This is normal RA stuff as far as I'm concerned. Now, if you change your mind about blind dates in the future..." Milena's grin was wickedly sharp. "My rates are quite reasonable."
It did not help Erica's mood any that she was sorely tempted by the offer.
She could feel something was wrong, Calliope could. Ever since she'd met up with Erica as planned for lunch, it was obvious that something was bothering her roommate. The emotional static was loud and not at all clear, shifting and squealing like a poorly adjusted microphone caught in a feedback loop. For those with a psychic ear to hear it, the feeling was quite nasty. Calliope could only imagine what if felt like in person.
But Erica was staying quiet, mumbling along with the conversation as necessary but not really contributing. No one else seemed to notice, though Calliope could not see how. Erica was picking at her food like she had no appetite, and yet it was still only her first tray! Surely that was as great a sign as possible that something was wrong! Every time that she whispered to her roommate, however, every time she tried to ask, she received only a shake of that golden mop and a brief word or two to say that they could talk later.
Except there wasn't much time for a later, that evening. The mixer trumped all discussion. To be fair, Calliope let it do so, because the psychic backwash from several dozen teen girls all stressing over what to wear took a toll on her nerves, even if it were not coming on the heels of the morning's power testing session. It was enough to make her have a lie-down to rest her brain.
When the general call went out and Milena rounded up the girls in their wing, the two of them joined the throng without a quibble. Calliope was happy to note that, despite choosing an outfit at practically the last minute, she was dressed at least as well as anyone else, and she thanked God and the Virgin Mary that as part of her exemplar package she looked like she might have make-up on, regardless of the truth. That made things so much simpler. Next to her, Erica's face was similarly bare but beautiful, though in her roommate's case, Calliope did not think the girl really cared.
On her shoulder was her Tartucci bag, worn proudly now that she knew other girls would notice it. Part of her wondered if she had anything else that might attract a certain other's attention.... She smiled at the thought, instead of slapping it down like she normally would. There was one good thing to happen today, at least. It was too bad that, as a Poesie, Nina wouldn't have been invited to the same mixer.
The big event, as Milena insisted on calling it, wasn't in the dorm, nor even particularly close to it. There was no end to the underground areas of Whateley, it seemed, and some of them were sizable indeed. Just how they could fit a small auditorium two stories underground, she did not know, but she no longer expected this campus to make sense. It was enough that the place existed, and was decorated garishly with balloons and banners. A large buffet table loaded with finger food and punch bowls took up one wall, and there were a few tables with chairs in one corner, all apparently claimed by the RAs.
She could sigh. Socializing was mandated, it seemed. There was no room for wallflowers along these walls.
"Shall we see if Fra is here?" she asked Erica.
The blonde girl's response surprised her. Head and hair drooped down, while emotional stress radiated like a supernova in miniature. "Um, go ahead if you want," Erica said. "I'll, er, wait over here with, er..."
"With me!" came the shout from around waist level. "Jest waitin' for li'l old me, weren'tcha?" Essemmelle said. The Aussie's grin was almost as wide as she was tall.
"Not hanging out with the first floor girls tonight?" Erica asked.
"Nah, they've all got themselves a homeroom party," said Essemmelle. "Pizza and a movie. Sounds good, but Milly's got me interested in personal drama type stuff. 'Parently the first party o' the year's a good place fer it."
"You don't say..." Now Callope could feel Erica's emotions going some other direction, but for the life of her she could not decide what or where.
Ugh. She was getting a headache from all the vibes in this room. "If you would hold my purse, please?" Calliope walked over to the buffet line, grabbing a cup of punch and sipping it slowly. She concentrated on the taste as she went through her short list of mental exercises to turn down the reception on her empathy. It did not always work, but often the mere attempt helped soothe her nerves.
Her eyebrows shot up as her taste buds registered something in the punch which should not have been there. Or at least, she was under the impression that American authority figures would disapprove of it being there. Her own family had allowed her a little wine at parties ever since her and Fra's twelfth birthday, but only the light stuff. Whatever had been put in the drinks here was a bit stronger.
Oh well. She drained the cup. A little alcohol was the least of her worries at the moment. Scanning the crowd for her brother, she eventually found him near the far entrance. The poor boy was looking lost among all those Emerson kids, few if any of whom spoke Italian. Calliope finished off a second cup of punchy drink and sighed. She supposed it was up to her rescue her brother this time around.
"How much did Milena tell you?" Erica asked the diminutive psychic as soon as Cally had wandered away.
"Nuff to know you don't wanna meet a guy, or let a certain someone find out," Essemmelle replied. "No worries. I'm jest here to keep ya company."
That was not something that Erica was particularly in need of, but she appreciated the sentiment. It sucked to feel all alone in a huge crowd like this. Perhaps half of both dorms had turned out for the chance at food, drink, and dancing, though there were apparently several private parties going on elsewhere. Even here, clumps of students were already forming into obvious cliques and friend groups, making parties within parties. With the diminutive Aussie in tow, Erica browsed the buffet line and kept her ears open.
"Mais c'est evidemment que..." The sound of French caught her attention. She couldn't really speak the language, but Oma had given her a few basic lessons — enough to get a feel for it and recognize it, at least. A moment later, and she'd located the speaker. The girl was maybe a sophomore, tall and skinny with a head full of russet hair and a face full of freckles. She was standing near the punch bowl, chatting with a pair of Emerson boys and — Erica blinked and rubbed her eyes, but on second glance she still saw the same thing. The punch was pouring itself up from the bowl into her glass, flowing in a spiral and a loop-de-loop in mid-air as it did.
"Crikey," said Essemmelle. "Don't see that everyday." Erica couldn't tell if she was being serious, what with the halo of small objects now circling her head.
"I'm gonna go say hi," Erica told her. This had to be the European Promotional League that Mme. Prudhomme had mentioned, or at least a few of its members. Uncle Adolf had strongly advised her to make the most of high school and the connections it provided, especially anything within the European community.
As she approached, she took the time to size up the Emersons as well. The first boy was handsome, in that natural way that made her suspect it was not all Exemplar effect. He was dressed well, with some sort of insignia or crest on his lapel. The other boy was large and muscular, with a strong Gallic nose and close-cropped hair. It took a second for Erica to place where she'd seen him before: the other day, facing down Ratel and losing. His code name was... Gouyasse? she thought.
"Guten Abend," she said politely. "I was told that there was a group for European students on campus. Would that be you?" She straightened up a bit under their collective stare. "Ah, my name is Erica von Abendritter, German-American dual citizen."
"Then you are least half-decent," Gouyasse joked. "On your mother's side or your father's?"
"Grandparents, actually. It is, ah, complicated." Not terribly so, in all actuality, though it had required a legal fiction that her Oma and Opa were her parents. Even that was barely fiction. "So you are the European Promotional League?"
"Oui," said the red-headed girl. "I am Adrienne le Floc'h, or Fleuve Noire."
"Fortenbras," said the other young man.
"Eh, come on, Fort," said Gouyasse. "Give her the full name. The ladies, they like that sort of thing," he added with a knowing wink.
"Fortenbras, born Gregory Bertram Frederick Crumbley the III, Viscount Stratford de Redcliffe. There, happy?" the young man glared at his friend.
Gouyasse just laughed. Erica had to wince at the smell of his breath. Surely he hadn't been drinking...? "And I am Emile Duval of Wallonia," he continued. "Or Gouyasse. After the famed giant in the Bible!"
"Or the Belgian beer," Fortenbras muttered. The Walloon appeared not to hear.
"So, you are interested in joining the League, yes?" asked Adrienne, ignoring both boys for the moment. "We will be having a booth at the clubs fair tomorrow, if you are."
"Me and my roommate both," said Erica. "She's Italian. And there's another French girl in the junior high room."
"Oui, je sais. My brothers are in the same class." Adrienne nodded. "Good. Let me take a note, and we will be looking forward to seeing you at the fair. Ah..." The girl hesitated as she wrote down the note. "You have a code name, yes?"
"That I have. Eisenmädel."
Suddenly all three of the Euro kids had their eyes locked on her. Erica would've turned red if she could. "Um, is there a problem?" she asked.
"Non," said Adrienne, "but I believe my friend Kirsten shall be very interested in you."
"She's a big fan of this German graphic novel series..." Fortenbras began.
Erica nodded. "I think I know the one. I have a copy in my room right now. I suppose we shall have something to talk about then. Well, I won't take any more of your time. Have a good evening!" With that, she walked away as carefully casual as possible. Something had gone weird just then, and she wasn't sure quite what.
Dear brother Fra had stuck himself in the middle of a crowd of boys, none of whom seemed too eager to cross the floor to where the girls were at. Calliope could feel the roiling surge of of emotions that lingered over this corner like a stormcloud, even with her powers on mute, and she had to stifle a laugh at them. Oh, how she remembered this situation! All the testosterone, all the posturing. So afraid to go and talk to the girls, but completely loath to admit it in front of their peers. Here they stood, a little social knot that refused to be untied, because they were too busy proving to each other that, yes, they had balls.
If Fra could actually speak the language, he'd have dominated here, she thought. Rarely had a day gone by that her brother had not made the acquaintance of some young lady, and especially not since the mutation had kicked in and added a few more points to his charisma score. He'd dated over half the girls in Calliope's class, and they'd gone to different schools at the time!
Predictably, the entire mob fell silent as soon as she approached. For all that swagger, not a one actually knew what to do in front of a live girl. It was enough to make her laugh, but instead she walked up to Fra and greeted him with a casual bacio, kisses to either side of his cheeks. "So, brother," she said. "Who are your friends?"
As usual, she made no particular effort to remember the names of everyone who was suddenly so willing to introduce themselves via their new best friend in the whole world — a great guy, really, even if hard to talk to — but a few stuck, here and there. Her Exemplar trait was not so advanced that her memory was perfect in all details, but it was still quite good. She could recall Bill and Ian and Douglas from a few days before, and their friend the idiot as well, though she'd never bothered to ask him his name. That one was not having a good time at all, and even as she looked on, she could see him hunching over emotionally as his face grew ever more sour.
Ah, but that was life. Che sarà sarà, as the Americans thought the Italians would say. Calliope continued to ignore the idiot, publicly at least, though she kept her mind's eye on his emotions. It was hard not to notice how he was bubbling over with frustration.
"It is nice to see that you have been making friends, Fra," she said, to be drowned out by the chorus of boys shouting happy random syllables. "But I must go see how my own friends are doing. I just left Erica over there. So rude of me!"
"Eh, Erica." Now Fra's emotional aura did a flip. She could have yelled at her brother just then, on the importance of not seducing her friends anymore, but they were in public. <"We chatted for a bit today,"> he said in Italian, <"and went for a walk. Tell her I said hello.">
<"That I will do."> she said, kissing his cheeks in farewell. <"Now, go ask some other random girl to dance. Show these cowardly little braggarts how it is done."> As much as Fra's romantic habits annoyed her personally, it simply would not do to lose out to a group of Americans like this, after all.
He really could have kicked himself. How hard could it be, really? Walk up to her, ask her to dance, romance her with his moves, get her away from the mixer — or ideally, up to his room — and then profit. Fuck, he doubted it would even take much to manage, the way she flounced around and gabbed with the boys. Bitch really wanted it. In a perfect world, he could just go up and ask her to his room right now, but no, the female species had to be difficult. He'd need the smooth moves to get this one down.
Mac furtively adjusted his trousers, making sure no one noticed as he did. Not just the females — guys made it tough for other guys, too. Like, how was he to get a word in edgewise when every other would-be alpha male in the crowd was competing for her attention? Small wonder she could ignore them all so easily! Well, he thought as his eyes tracked that sweet Italian ass across the floor, he'd just have to simplify the situation to his advantage.
So he turned to the brother, whatsisname... began with an F... "Hey, man!" he said to the guy. "Your sister's awesome, man!"
"Eh? Ah, yes. Really?" F-man almost said something more in Italian, but stopped himself.
"Yeah, really!" Mac pressed on. "So, tell me more 'bout her..."
Parties had never really been Erica's thing. The handful attended in junior high were mostly minor get-togethers, and if there were both boys and girls then things got naturally segregated almost immediately, first by gender and then by relative coolness. Only a few ever dared to go and talk to the other side. So, now that Erica was firmly placed on the opposite end of the social spectrum from what she was used to, she really did not know what to do.
In the recent past, when she found herself thrust into situations like this (or even more personally dangerous to life and limb), she fell back on a simple strategy she'd dubbed Operation Snowflake. Pay attention, act like everyone else, blend in. Under normal circumstances, this was easier said than done. Under Whateley circumstances...
"See? If I add the thermocouples here, then when the dominoes hit, it'll..." The conversation to her right was everything that one would not expect two teenage girls to be discussing excitedly in the middle of a party, over a napkin filled with diagrams so dense that the paper looked blue-black from a distance. "Yeah, that oughta work great!" said the first girl. "Where are you going to set it up, Janine?"
"I dunno..." The second girl was examining the plan closely. "Room's not really big enough... maybe out back behind the dorm. That sound good, Annie?" The two fell into a discussion on planar surfaces and keeping things level. Erica slowly continued on past.
The RA tables were reliably packed with older kids keeping watch of their charges from a minimum safe social distance while catching up with one another. Milena caught her eye and sent a thumb's up. She managed to smile back. This party thing wasn't too bad, maybe...
"You bitch!" Two little words, big volume, bigger emotional impact. It was about the most min-maxed phrase possible, and Erica was glad it hadn't been aimed at her.
Of course, neither was the shot that followed, though that would have hurt really bad if it had connected. Whatever it actually was, it hit her shield perimeter just as she turned to look at the commotion, and it came in hard enough to trigger the silver-grey PK field like a bullet would. The wispy, ethereal veil of force shimmered in place for a moment before dropping the projectile to the ground.
Looking ahead, Erica saw two girls staring right back at her. One she recognized immediately as Mairead, the girl with the blue-streaked hair that Essemmelle had tagged as 'bitch' in front of the showers that morning. Right now, the girl's hair was half-pulled from her head, caught in the grasp of the second girl, a dark-haired beauty with silver eyes and a surprising number of piercings in her ears, nose, and eyebrows. On the floor right below them, a small bag had spilled a dozen metal ball bearings. Two more hovered in the second girl's open palm.
"Mairead Macadam!" One of the upper floor RAs — Reese, Milena had called her — came running fast, leaving actual streaks of neon rainbow in her wake as she threaded around the milling students. "What the hell is going on here?"
"Mags started it!" Mairead shouted, attempting to elbow the other girl into releasing her hair. "She's been on my case all afternoon!"
"Well, Mag-Lev?" the RA asked sternly.
"I didn't do anything! Multi-Monkey here's been a total bitch!"
"Stop calling me that!" Mairead pushed the girl away with her free hand, and then with her other free hand, and then with one more free hand after that. Only the first of these appendages was actually there; the other two looked like bluish PK constructs.
"Stop this now!" Reese boomed. That much sound should not have been physically possible from a girl her size, but she rattled the punch bowls a good eight feet away. "Mag-Lev, Multi-Task, you two know better than to brawl in the middle of a crowd like this! Mags, you're just lucky that your accel shot went straight at someone with a force field. Do I need to send you both to Kane Hall right now, or will you settle down?"
"Good," said Reese. "Now, apologize to... Erica, was it?" The RA grabbed her hand and pulled her front and center.
"Er, yes?" she stammered. "Um, I'm fine..."
"Thankfully," said the RA. "Mags? Mairead? Your turn."
The two grumbled their apologies, then stormed off in opposite directions. The crowd of girls parted to let them pass, with several attaching themselves to Mag-Lev as she walked away. No one seemed interested in Mairead, and the blue-streaked girl settled into a corner near the last punchbowl, droopy and glum. Tear tracks glittered blue in the flashing lights from the dance floor.
Essemmelle was waiting for Erica, her usual solar system of orbiting fidgets and knick-nacks twirling excitedly. She quickly took the Aussie by the arm and pulled her away from the hub-bub.
"Hey, whatcher doing?"
"You named her a bitch this morning," Erica hissed.
"Ayup, and I was right. What about it?"
"I thought the effect didn't last very long!"
"Well..." The Aussie fidgeted. "If 'nuff people see it, and she acts like it, well... it gets to, wassaword, critical mass. Keeps bouncing 'round on its own. Must be a lotta people calling her bitch now, which means it's prolly true."
Erica sighed. "It is now, at least. Ever consider that she might just be a grump in the morning? My cousin's the same way."
"None o' my bizness."
"Kareela." She hadn't had to use the girl's real name before, but it felt like the right moment. "Right now, people don't know about your little tricks, but word's sure to spread, and then what? If they connect even a single word out of your mouth to an incident like this, then someone's gonna kick your little butt out the window."
"Who ya calling little..."
"Your butt, which is. Your boobs, on the other hand, are big enough to break your fall all by themselves. I suggest you practice your swan dive." That actually got a giggle from the midget, so Erica pressed on. "Be the bigger girl this time and fix this. Seriously, look at her."
Mairead 'Multi-Task' Macadam had retreated farther into her corner, and was now sitting on her hands. The neon-blue appendages appeared out of thin air near her midriff and curled down under her to form a floating chair. Her real hands were covering her face. Sparkling blue tears gushed out from between or around her fingers. It was too noisy to hear her sobs from where they were standing, but Erica could clearly hear a much closer girl say "Crybaby bitch" while obviously gesturing in Mairead's direction.
"Huh, mebbe it has got a bit outta hand..." Essemmelle muttered. Her orbiting bric-a-brac twirled around her head, slowly spiraling down into her open palms. Once everything was safe from falling, the Aussie took a deep breath and then riveted her eyes to Mairead. "Poor girl," she said with the air of a great pronouncement.
Erica closed her eyes for a ten-count and then turned to see how Mairead was doing. The girl was... Erica shook her head. There was no logical reason for the girl to appear any different, and yet she was. Every line of Mairead's body language now screamed a need for pity and consolation. Three other Dickinson girls were already making a bee-line for her.
"Good job," she whispered.
"Ain't gonna fix that idiot over in Emmie, though," Essemmelle said with a pout.
"Wasn't gonna ask."
"Yanno," said Essemmelle. "Ya ain't bad, for a straw-topped beanpole."
"Thanks..." Erica was used to being the shortest one around, though Oma had promised that this would change eventually. It was odd having someone look up to her, for once — even if it was a scowling, surly midget.
In the scant few minutes since she had entered Boy Country, the dance floor had filled up with teens moving spasmodically to the beat of some middling-awful American punk tracks. Calliope had been a musician long before her mutation had permanently altered how she approached her art. Now her ears were more finely tuned than ever, and every note she sang was pitch-perfect. The same could not be said of the raucous mess blaring from the speakers.
She shimmied her way across the dance floor, her feet moving to the rhythm and the beat even as her ears refused to countenance it as music. The other side of the room was completely blocked out by the crowd, though she thought she heard a bit of bit of commotion a moment before. Calliope was not too concerned. She would get back to Erica when she did, and until then she would enjoy herself. It was not as if she was dancing with other girls if she only happened to be next to them at the time, was it?
Finally, the person manning the CD player picked some proper music, something that had actually originated from four instruments and a voice devoid of auto-tuning, and Calliope's heart was moving with her feet. Dance! Dance! it was telling her, and so she did. Arms-in-the-air, swinging-the-hips, laugh-and-yell dancing. She wasn't the only one, and soon she and one of the other girls from her floor — a dark-skinned cutie with a blazing white smile and tightly braided hair laced with silver — were challenging each other in a friendly competition.
The other girl's moves were new to her, but she matched them step for step. Sometimes they held hands or linked arms as they kicked off, and for the instrumental bridge of one song Calliope actually twirled her partner off the ground. It was fast, it was free, and while she hadn't the slightest idea of what she was doing, Calliope was having an excellent time doing it. With a final hip-bump, they finished just as the last track wound down, to be replaced with a round of applause from the teens who'd been cheering them on.
"Not bad," said the dark-skinned girl as she wiped some sweat from her brow. "That was a good Lindy Hop ya had going there. Do a lot of professional work?"
"Eh? You mean dancing? No, no..." Calliope said. "My mother insisted that I learn, but I do not know all the names in English. I am more of a singer. Calliope." She put her hand out, and the other shook it warmly. "And you?"
"Nefertiti Copeland," the girl admitted as they walked off the dance floor and towards the buffet line. "Mom is really into Egyptian stuff, so..." She shrugged. "How 'bout yourself? Is that your real name, or did your parents like circus music?"
"Circus...? Eh, no. My name is Fiorella Persico, but I do not use it often. I prefer Calliope. The Muse of Epic Poetry," she added.
"Aw, nice. Haven't picked a codename, myself. There a Muse of Dance or something?" Nefertiti asked.
"Huh, might wanna stick to something I can spell. Anyhow," the girl said, "I'm over in 219. Come on by whenever, and we can work on your dance moves."
Calliope smiled shyly. “I'd like that, yes." Meeting two cute girls in one day? Her luck was going strong! "Oh, and I would be careful with the punch," she warned. "I think someone added alcohol. To the middle bowl, at least."
"Spiked it, huh?" Nefertiti sniffed her cup, then shrugged. "Got a pretty good regen rating. Won't harm me none."
"Hey, wanna dance?" asked an Emerson kid, a broad-shouldered slab of meat with the face of a Michelangelo statue. "Saw you ladies cuttin' it up, and whew..." He whistled, then grinned the sort of grin that sold overpriced toothpaste by the millions.
Calliope gave him the once-over, just for politeness' sake. The young man had the muscles and the face, but the poise was all bluster and bravado, chest-puffing to convince himself as much as anyone. Heaven only knew what he looked like prior to mutation, but her guess would be pimply and wimpy. She let up her mental shields just enough to get a read on him, then added 'pervy' to the list of adjectives. His aura simply reeked of machismo and sexual frustration. "Sorry," she said. "But I am tired. Perhaps another time." Perhaps not, she added silently
"Yeah, we're all tuckered out," said Nefertiti.
"Aw, c'mon!" said the young man. "We're all exemplars here. We can go all night long if we wanna!"
"But we don't. Wanna, that is," Nefertiti shot back. "Give us a break, jake!"
"My name's not Jake, it's Rutherford!"
"Yeah, like that's any better..."
"I am sorry," Calliope repeated, hoping against all expectation for a better response, "but I do not feel like dancing at this moment. My friend and I were having a conversation, so if you would please?"
Rutherford's face went completely red, almost the color of a good medium-rare steak. "Bullshit!" he bellowed. "We all saw y'all dancing a hole in the floor just a moment ago, and now when a nice gentleman comes and asks y'all politely to join him in some fun, y'all go frigid and bitchy? Fuck that noise! Y'all don't know whatcher missing!"
"Gentleman?" asked Calliope to Nefertiti.
"Politely?" the dark-skinned girl asked back.
"Fuck y'all!" Rutherford shouted. He grabbed Calliope by the arm, digging his fingers hard into her skin. Thre was an odd sort of coolness to his nails, a metallic absence of heat that spread quickly up her arm and into her brain. It happened so fast that she was left dizzy and wobbly, enough so that she almost fell into his arms willingly. "See, there's a good girly," said Rutherford. "Let's go have some fun, shall we... huh?"
The young man was pulling her toward the dance floor, only something was in his way. Someone. Two someones. Two tall someones. That chilly oddness was messing with her vision, making everything but Rutherford look dark and dim, but she thought she saw Fra and... the idiot?
"Lascia andare mia sorella, fottuto bastardo."
"Now, my Italian's practically nil," said the idiot, "but since that's his sister you're pawing, I can make a pretty good guess. Might wanna let her go."
"Fuck you guys! Can't a guy ask a girl to dance?"
Calliope found herself nodding along to Rutherford's words as they rushed in one ear and out the other, but that may have been more due to the icy, minty mental numbness that was hitting her brain in waves. The young man had yet to release his grip, and while his fingernails no longer hurt, they still dug in deep. She tried to say something, anything, that could defuse the situation, but the words seemed to dribble out of her mouth and onto the floor.
Fra's face looking stormy, and his PK field was flickering like sheet lightning. The idiot was putting on a fierce front too, though her brain wasn't up to assessing his sincerity. Somewhere in the background, Nefertiti was shouting.
"Well, well, Rutherford. I see you still have your inimitable way with the ladies, hm?" She couldn't see well enough to put a face to this new voice, but his tones were sophisticated and dripping with irony. The darkened silhouette in her vision appeared to have a cane as well, though he moved well enough without it. "And here I thought you'd promised Mr. Dunne that you'd begin the year clean this time?"
"Hey, she wants to dance!"
"With you?" The voice held no doubt of what the speaker thought of that.
"I shall believe it when you release your hold on that arm and she does not immediately try to maim you. Now, remember how this went last year? Hm? Had the entire dorm sentenced to a week of lectures on informed consent, et cetera? I'd rather not sit through all that again, if it is all the same with you. Then again, I suppose everyone could do with a timely public service announcement regarding the risks of being with Rutherford 'Contact High' Dreyfuss. Ahem," the young man cleared his throat and raised his voice. "Let it be known..."
"Oh hell no!" Rutherford let go and ran before the older boy could get to the actual announcement. The surrounding crowd wasn't thick enough to block his way, and he vanished quickly into the tunnels.
"Th-thank you," Calliope said. That icy feeling was slowly melting away, but her brain still felt like a sorbetto left out in the sun a little too long. Maybe strawberry? She giggled at the thought, and then found that she could not stop. Her chest heaved with bubbly laughter, and without anything left to support her, she pitched straight forward into the floorboards.
"Hey now!" "Occhio!" Nefertiti had her left arm, while Fra grabbed her right. Between the two of them, she managed to stand, but it was a near thing.
"What's going on?" And now she could hear Erica, could feel her roommate's hands helping to keep her upright. She tried to protest, to say that she did not need assistance, but not too hard.
"A known pest and problem child," the older boy's voice informed. He sounded rather bored by it all. "Looks like he overdid it, again. Really, he'd do so much better if he learned some restraint. I'm tempted to hire a devisor to make mittens he cannot remove. Ah, and I am Gideon Crawford, Esquire," he said with a short bob of his head. "Well, I should be going. It is so dull being the good one; I don't know how some people do it. Ta."
"Come on, let's get you home," Erica said as she examined the faint track marks left on Calliope's arm.
"Grazie..." Her words were still sloshing around in her mouth, but at least they seemed intelligible. She wasn't sure exactly who she was thanking, though. Perhaps everyone, including the idiot. She should try to learn his name sometime. As Erica, Essemmelle, and Nefertiti hustled her out of the auditorium, she called back to Fra, <"Sorry I cannot stay. Have a good evening...">
<"Have a good one yourself,"> he called back. <"With all those girls hanging on you, yours might be better than mine!">
Well, she could only hope... That thought bounced through the messy puddles of her brain, but as such things went, at least it was a happy one.
There she went. Mac watched as the Italian girl's squad of friends got her out of there, pronto. Not that he could blame them, after an encounter with a lousy operator like that Contact guy. Seriously, it was guys like that fucking moron who ruined it for the rest of them. You didn't drug females; you plied them and seduced them with words until they just gave it up to you. That's how a real man played the game.
Not that he'd been batting a thousand so far, but he was still ahead, he figured. He and the F-man were getting along great, and he'd cemented his white knight image with this affair.
Yup, he thought, as he sipped his punch and scanned the crowd for other likely ladies to approach. Things were looking up.
"Thanks for helping," she said to Essemmelle and the other girl, the one Cally'd somehow picked up that evening. Her roommate was now safely ensconced in her bed, still woozy from the combination of spiked punch and Contact High, so they were chatting quietly out in the hall a bit.
"Weren't no thing," said the black girl, Nefertiti. "Shoulda brained the dude when I had the chance, though."
"Yeah, really..." Erica knew they were supposed to be keeping out of trouble or Kane Hall, but some things were worth it. "Need to watch out for that dude."
"Want me to tag him?" Essemmelle asked. The Aussie sounded a little too happy at the prospect.
"Nothing too damaging, please," she said. The only reply was a discomfiting snicker.
"Well, I'mma heading back to my room," said Nefertiti. "Tell Cally-girl I had a fun time tonight, and maybe we should do it again sometime. Without the grabby dudes."
Once they were on their way, she went back to check on Cally. The Italian girl was already asleep, and Erica didn't have the heart to wake her, even to change into pajamas. So she pulled the coverlet over her friend, kissed her forehead goodnight, and promised to have that chat about her brother in the morning. Hopefully. Thank goodness Fra hadn't given Essemmelle any excuses to hex him; that would have been the rotten cherry on the awful cake.
At her computer, she started composing an email to Penny. Her cousin was better than any diary, since she not only listened, she also opined, loudly, on the events of the day. And any advice was sorely welcome. So far, her Whateley experience had been light on action, heavy on drama, and she knew it was foolish to hope it would get better from here on out. Still, she thought she was ready for classes to start.
—-Later that night, over in Whitman
The Whitman-Twain mixer had finally wound down, with only a handful of fights and a single explosion to spice up the evening. RAs had pulled double duty making sure that nobody snuck into anyone else's bedrooms, and several students made a tidy sum renting out private little nooks in the school's capacious underground for an evening. It was in fact a fairly normal party night at Whateley.
Kirsten Bischofsheim returned to her room in the sophomore wing all alone, by choice this time. She'd had her eyes on a few choice Twainees, of course, and would probably be enjoying someone's company that evening if it weren't for the message her smartphone had received early on. That had about ruined the entire night for her.
New girls for the European Promotional League were always a good thing. New boys, too. Stuck in the middle of the verdammt American countryside as they were, misery truly did love company, and the foreign kids needed to stick together.
There was only one problem, ein Haar in der Suppe. Kirsten pulled out the smartphone again to glare at the message and the code name on it. Eisenmädel. How had this Erica girl managed to get it? She knew through personal experience that the German Namensregistrierungsbüro repeatedly refused to let anyone take that title, even though no one had heard from the original Eisenmädel for forty years.
But oh! how a girl could dream. In the five years since Geschichte der Schattenkriege had first been published, she'd collected every volume, often on the first day, and now the entire set adorned her bookshelf. She'd bleached and dyed her hair to make it that properly golden color instead of the usual jet-black, until her parents had to stop her, just because it was in danger of falling out entirely. Kirsten hadn't cared. She could have worn a wig. When her mutation had manifested, her hair hadn't changed, unfortunately, but her aspirations only grew bigger.
The Mannheim polizei were less than understanding when she tried to help them, however. It was after the incident with the street gang and the steamroller that they'd forced a a code name on her: Wahnsinnig, meaning crazy or reckless.
She'd always been determined to prove them wrong, to show them that Kirsten Bischofsheim had what it took to be a true heroine, someone who deserved a title like das Eisenmädel. Some day, she figured, the name would become available, and until then she would be patient.
So how the hell had this Schlampe Erica girl get it?
With a snort, she dialed up an international number on her smartphone, growing more and more pissed off with every buzz of the dialtone. When it clicked, <"Arni? Ja, ja, I know what time it is over there, but this is important. What? No, I mean it. Eisenmädel important."> She paused till the young man on the other end finished squawking. <"Ja, we understand each other. Now, you always said you could get into any government computer, right? Well, I need you to dig up as much intel as you can on a girl named Erica von Abendritter. Ja, that's actually her name. Family, history, connections, anything you can find..."