—Saturday, Sept. 10th, early morning
The morning routine was more complicated this morning, if only because far more students were taking advantage of the fine weather in the early hours. They jogged alongside several other kids, singly and in groups, merging and separating according to whim or endurance. The two of them chatted with Tanya for a bit before she went haring off on an absolute obstacle course of a track. Neither Erica nor Calliope were in the mood for that this morning, though they did promise to let the lavender girl show them the ropes at a later date.
After rounding the quad and marveling at the crowd of girls ogling Taka's personal practice routine, they were passed on the left by a group of four upperclassmen girls, all very fit and quite determined. The look of disgust they directed towards the Japanese boy and his admirers was short but unmistakeable.
"Ah, gutenmorgen," Erica said to the one member of the group she recognized. Brita Baumann, a.k.a. Stahlfaust, was tall and formidable, like a valkyrie out of the Ring Cycle. All she was missing was the horned helmet and armored bustier. A red-stained bandanna and sports bra appeared to be more her style, however.
"Gutenmorgen," the older teen replied, and without any signal the quartet stopped for introductions.
"Calliope, this is StahlFaust. I told you about her yesterday, remember? She talked with me and Morgana about joining her training group."
"Si, I remember. The Amazons, was it?" Calliope was polite, but Erica knew her well enough to tell she was not pleased to make the girl's acquaintance. "It is a combat group, militant, if I recall right?"
Stahlfaust nodded. "Yes, that we are. Someone has to be ready to stand up for all our sisters being harassed, oppressed, and violated on an hourly basis, all around the world! For now, however, we settle for defending innocents upon this campus from undue male interference."
"Won't you introduce the rest of us?" said one of the other Amazons, a dark-eyed Hispanic girl.
"Of course! Where are my manners? This is Valentina, and next to her is Kammie. They are both in your dorm. If you are having boy problems..." The way she said it left no doubt that she was not talking about the regular issues with dating. "... they will be happy to help."
"Always a pleasure," said Valentina as they shook hands. "You can call me Eurydice as well." The older girl's touch lingered a second longer than it should have, and Erica had to repress a shiver and a shudder. There was something wrong with the way the girl smiled.
"Now," StahlFaust continued, nodding to the tall black girl who was the fourth of their group, "Muliebris and I are in Poe..."
"Oh, we have many friends over there!" Calliope said.
"Yes..." The Amazon's face was sour, and for a moment it looked like she was about to say something, but thought better of it. "Friends are good," the upperclassman said finally. "Even better if they are completely honest with you, ja? True sisters have no secrets, so do not hesitate to ask us if you need to know something."
"Well, it was nice to meet you," said Valentina. "But I am sure you have important things to do this morning. Being a freshwoman is such a busy time, isn't it? I'm sure we can all sympathize. Until later, then!" After a few polite noises, the quartet jogged away.
Erica and Calliope stared as they left. "Okay, is it just me, or did something feel off just now?"
"Not just you," said Calliope. "Their emotions were... complicated. Not very happy at all." Her roommate shivered. "Anger, disgust, hatred, but I could not tell at what. Not us, however."
"That's... good, I guess?" Erica scratched her head. "Well, I wasn't too keen on joining them before, but thanks for the warning. I've had enough negativity in my life already." She considered for a moment. "Let's ask Milena about this. If anyone knows the real scoop on their group, it'll be her."
Brita Baumann was practically bristling with anger as she and her friends jogged back around towards Poe. More than one useless sac of Y-chromosome-tainted man-meat found himself forced off the path well ahead of the group as Muliebris cleared the way. The fortunate ones had bushes to soften their landing.
"Chill out," said Kammie. "I think that went pretty well for a first contact. You get a proper ping on them, Val?"
"Maybe," said Eurydice. "The blonde girl, Erica, gave a pretty strong hetero vibe, but those are always the most fun to flip between the sheets." A delicate, pink (and well exercised) tongue flicked slowly across her lips in anticipation. "I could tell her roommate's got some form of empathy, so I didn't want to risk hitting her too hard."
"Not until the second date, right?" chuckled Kammie. "Well, the two of them are going to shape up nicely in a year or two, if I'm any judge. I say we try for them both."
"You are missing the big issue," Stahlfaust growled. "Those two are friends with them, the..." She did a quick check for passersby before she continued. "With the fakes. If they knew, they would definitely understand the, the perfidy the falsches-Mädchen represent, the threat to the purity of our sisterhood!"
"All in good time," said Eurydice, ignoring the side-eyed glares she was getting from her friend. "Once they are in, we can warn them. After we welcome them so properly that their legs are wobbly and their brains are turned to mush," she added with a wistful grin. "Until then, there is no point in risking exposure. We do not want the administration slapping geases on us just to protect those ex-males."
Stahlfaust grimaced. Her own ability to slowly dissolve and slough off the effects of magical geases and bindings was a close-kept secret, and the only reason why she could share warnings with the sisterhood about the fake girls of Poe, in spite of all the magical restrictions which should have barred her from doing just that. It remained to be seen what sort of man the Headmaster would be, but she had no doubt how the dorm mom would react to that information. The frumpy old bitch should have been a strong ally to the lesbian girls within the dorm, but she betrayed them with her support of those others.
It made her so mad, to think that the male menace which wormed its phallus into every other aspect of society could find a way to sully the purity of sisterhood by actually turning males into females. She knew some did not see it as a threat — she glared again at Val, for the Colombian's flirtations with the blue fake-girl — but if ever there was an existential threat to the feminine cause....
She growled a farewell to Val and Kammie at the front steps to Poe. Muliebris fell in behind her. At six-foot-three and two hundred pounds of muscle, there was no mistaking the dark-skinned woman's place within the Amazons. This was one warrior who liked to speak with her fists. Her mouth, she made use of in other ways, as she proved to Stahlfaust twice before they left for breakfast. It took that long before she was in any mood to face the world again.
Milena was already gone by the time they had finished their shower that morning, though she had left a note on her door with email contact information "in case of major favors." Requests for info didn't rate, she thought, and anyway they could always ask later.
The morning sun did more to lighten her mood and dispel her misgivings as they promenaded to the Crystal Hall cafeteria. They were hardly alone in this; the campus population had swelled threefold since the morning before, and there were a lot of crabby faces gradually becoming more sociable beneath the gilded solar rays.
Calliope could feel it secondhand through her gift of empathy, though she was not so comfortable with that. For one thing, it felt too much like prying and eavesdropping. For another, the emotions of the crowd were a constant pressure on her mental shields, and even positive vibes could grate after too long.
So she let her roommate lead the way while she focused on not breaking down from an attack of someone else's morning grumps.
The breakfast spread was particularly broad, catering to every taste, and Calliope had little trouble securing some fruit and her morning cappuccino. Her treat for the morning was to be had at the end, where a large platter of cinnamon rolls were fast disappearing, even with an enforced limit of one per student. By the time Calliope arrived, the last one was being snatched up by a skinny stick of a boy with badly dyed black hair and more mascara around his eyes than she'd used in her entire female life.
"Sorry, miss," said the young man behind the counter. He must have been a student, no older than she, with average brown hair and not-at-all-natural bright pink irises. "We're gettin' more out soon."
"Va bene. It is okay..." Her voice did not match her words, she knew. Stress from the night before was welling up, despite all attempts to keep it under control. Behind her, Erica patted her on the shoulder.
"Well..." The pink-eyed boy cast his gaze left and right, then winked conspiratorially. "Might be I kin find ya one more now." He laid out a napkin, cupped his hands around it, and then wiggled his fingers in odd ways. When he pulled them away, there was one more cinnamon roll sitting there with its icing fresh and drippy.
"Ah... grazie," she demurred, taking the offered pastry from him.
"Not a problem, miss. Hope it brightens yer day a little."
She nibbled at it as they walked along, and it did seem to help a little. Her spirits had raised themselves to ankle-height, at the least.
"Look, there's Kareela!" Then she was being pulled by the elbow sideways towards a set of first-floor tables. The diminutive Essemmelle was chatting animatedly with her usual galaxy of toys spiraling around her. Everyone else at the table was at least as young as the Aussie, if not younger, but it was hard to tell since they were also all taller than Kareela would ever get.
Holding up one corner was the junior-high quartet from Dickinson Cottage. The skinny French girl, Magique, was looking over a school brochure with her roommate Natalie, while the brunette Acolyte looked over their shoulders. Tek Witch was shaking her head of blonde ringlets in disbelief at some sort of schematic that an otherwise normal looking boy was showing her. The two of them began a friendly argument so densely worded that Calliope's ears refused to acknowledge it as English.
"Hey, guys!" Kareela Greer, a.k.a. Essemmelle, shouted as they passed. "Wuz just tellin' the others here 'bout last night's party. Totally koots, seriously!"
"Eh, right..." Calliope wasn't in the mood to discuss it, but she appeared to be in the minority.
"Just our luck we had to miss it!" griped another girl, an active-looking young thing in lavender halter top. "Seriously, I'd'a bashed the guy one. Y'ever need some help, call on me, okay? Clobberizer."
"Thought your codename was Derring-D?" asked the girl beside her. That one's skin shimmered with subdermal luminescence as she moved, outlining the muscles beneath, and there were lights in her overly large eyes. "Did you change your mind again, Darcy?"
"Yeah. I mean, it was clever and all, but it wasn't really me, yanno?"
"So what did you lot do last night?" Erica asked the group.
The answer was, apparently, a movie night organized by the junior high class's homeroom teacher. Opinions seemed to vary, from high enthusiasm from the devisor boy, Marcus, to haughty disdain from the young lady at the far end of the table, a Melville girl whom the others called Scheherazade, or just Scher.
Introductions happened at some point. Darcy of the undecided codename was rooming with the aptly named Firefly, nee Linette, in Whitman. Scher apparently had a room to herself in Melville, but the other kids from that dorm were paired: Breakdance and Heartfinder, Meatball and Hyperactive.
Breakdance was a quiet, Japanese-looking girl in old jeans and an MLP t-shirt. She flinched whenever anyone passed close, and at one point had her hand out to catch an errant salt shaker before it was even launched by Hyperactive's accidental acceleration. Heartfinder was a fairly normal girl, freckled and with mahogany hair down to her waist, until one looked her in the eye and saw that her pupils matched her moniker. She was about as quiet as her roommate, but there were vibes rolling off her in waves that Calliope was hard put to ignore.
She tried whistling a happy tune for the girl, and was surprised when the splash of positivity was reflected right back at her. Ruby-red heart shapes stared at her, and the girl managed a wan smile.
There were two from Emerson, Laurent and Jean-Marie, French twins with equally fiery tops of red hair. Erica had apparently met their sister the evening before, though Calliope couldn't recall. Near them was one boy from Hawthorne, who wore a conspicuously odd pair of plastic gloves over his hands.
"Gotta be sure I don't, ah, mix the wrong stuff," the boy, Hypergolic, managed to not-explain. Judging from the singes on his clothes, Calliope wasn't going to pry.
The boy chatting with Tek Witch was Marcus, alias Retrofit, one of the two Poe kids at the table. The other was a girl calling herself Time Bomb, who'd gone back to conversing with the twins in passable French as soon as introductions were over.
"It is good to see you making friends," Calliope said to Essemmelle.
"Ya, ya. No gettin' mushy, royt?"
One of the boys, the Melville with green hair who was unfortunately plump enough to make the codename Meatball more visually accurate, was giving her a very thorough once-over. Her nerves being as rattled as they were, she was about to snap at him about manners when he asked, as lightly as if it were about the weather: "So... 34 B cup? Am I right or am I right?"
His roommate thumped him on the head. "Dude! Not so loud! You wanna get written up again?"
"Well?" Meatball asked, undaunted by the prickly stares he was getting from around the table.
"If you must know," Calliope said frostily. "It is 2B." She had yet to have a fitting for American sizes — was avoiding it, in fact — but she would not have given him a straight answer, regardless.
"2B?" The gristle in the boy's head could almost be seen to grind upon itself as he figured that one out.
"Or not to be," said Erica. "That is the question."
Darcy managed to whack him with a thrown pancake. "And 'not to be' is the answer to your dating life for the next five years, meathead."
Meatball took the insults, and the pancake, stoically.
The usual suspects were gathered round the M3 table when Erica and Cally arrived. Jimmy and Tanya were in the middle of a conversation, club brochures scattered between their plates. Hikaru was primly eating a small plate of grilled fish, with a bowl of rice and some soup that seemed to contain a golden cloud hovering right beneath the surface. The Japanese girl snagged a sausage with a pair of gold-lacquered chopsticks when Tanya wasn't looking.
Bianca and Laura were — well, one was always pale and the other blue, but they really did sort of look the emotions associated with those colors, this morning.
Morgana was simply smoldering.
The most they could get out of the Poe contingent was that the previous night's mixer had gone well until it hadn't. No one seemed particularly keen on explaining why, either. Cally wasn't in the mood to discuss her brush with the pervy Contact High, so most of the gossip came from Tanya and Jimmy's mismatched accounts of the Whitman-Twain party and its raucous fallout.
"...so like, this short little thing went around and challenging — not asking, mind you — challenging the dudes to dance with her, and by the fourth no one was wanting to, because the girl was leaving them bruised."
Erica was torn between giggling and sighing. "Ratel?"
"The one and only," said Tanya. "But yeah, rowdy party, but not as destructive as it might've been."
"I'm beginning to think that the junior-high kids had the better plan with a pizza and movie night."
"Oh? Is that what they did?" Hikaru looked up from her now-empty plate. "That does sound better than the society soiree at Melville."
"Yeah. They were all chattering 'bout it when we saw them downstairs. Also, one of the boys from your dorm is a perv."
Dark eyes flashed. "Yes, I believe I know who you mean."
They'd not gotten as far as second helpings when the Crystal Hall's announcement screens buzzed to life. Every freshman in the cafeteria stared on as wallet-sized drones detached from walls and fixtures, quickly organizing into positions to cover every corner of the space, and then projected bright blue holo-screens as a chirpy female voice read their text.
"Good morning, students. Immediately following breakfast, we will be having a scheduled school assembly. Attendance is mandatory, and yes, Security will be following up on stragglers. Be there or be squarely in their bad books." The voice continued, explaining the location of the assembly, but was drowned out by the collective groan of a student body with better, more interesting places to be.
"Well," Erica said to Cally, "I guess we know what we're doing this morning."
Kirsten Bischofsheim was on her third mug of devisor-blend coffee — bitter, black, and as hot as the seething mess of emotion that had kept her up half the night, after the party had claimed the first half. Her friend Arni was quick, as data collectors went, but not even he could produce results on a client's whim. That did not keep her from sitting through the wee hours checking her email every ten minutes in frustrated anticipation.
Eisenmädel. The name was seared into her brain, etched into the very folds of the grey matter. She'd read through every issue of her graphic novel collection, poring over each of the great Eisenmädel's appearances and comparing those illustrated depictions to the student photo her on-campus connections had been able to get her. It was the only thing they'd been able to get her, in fact; the girl's file was currently locked down with a high security clearance level.
She'd just drained the mug of her devisor's special and was examining the thick sludge on the bottom when the Crystal Hall's fancy announcement system activated. The message was largely ignored, because of course there was going to be some sort of assembly. That sort of broadcast was meant for the freshmen, not experienced students such as herself.
No one else on the second stage of the cafeteria should have paid attention, either, but halfway around the outer rim, she could see an entire table of students gawking at the announcement drones like they'd never seen such a thing.
Freshmen, here? Already? Now that was worthy of staring, and for a moment she forgot the questionable beverage in her hand as she took in the sight. They did not look too remarkable, only soft like newly minted froshies should be. Their colors were varied, but that was only normal for Whateley. Blue, red, pale while, streaked and striped, and—
And gold. Kirsten did not have to check the photo on her smartpad. She already knew the face that went with that hair. Erica von Abendritter. Das Eisenmädel.
The mug handle cracked between her fingers.
How was she up here? Such tables were a special privilege. Kirsten herself sat proudly at the Euro-Promotional League table, though no one else appeared to be up yet this morning. It had taken her much of the previous year to earn the right from the senior group members. But this Erica... this unknown child had already set her place here, only days after arrival?
She watched the group of kinder get up to leave, obeying the announcement like the good little things they were. Kirsten stalked them from afar, never taking her gaze away from the Abendritter girl.
It wasn't until she was out of the Crystal Hall and halfway to the assembly arena that she realized she still had the verdammte mug in her hand.
Anger sent thrills of power down her arm as she swung in rapid circles. That energy surrounded the mug, and once she let go, that same force accelerated the hapless vessel as it sped for the horizon. Ten miles away, it would smash into the windshield of a parked car, pulverizing both glass and porcelain on impact. Kirsten wouldn't know, nor would she have cared.
The school assembly saw her stewing with emotion several rows behind the golden girl. Only the greatest of announcements distracted her — who wouldn't be, at news like that? — but the face of Mrs. Carson's disappearance or the arrival of a new headmaster was secondary for her. She'd never been close to anyone in the administration.
Eisenmädel, on the other hand... That name should have been hers. Hadn't she requested it seventeen times? Hadn't she tried her hardest to be like her idol, despite the harsh words of the local polizei? Hadn't she trained and strained and worked her body and powers to the limit, to prove she was worthy?
Had this Erica done any of that? She thought not. The little bitch must have cheated somehow.
She was on the phone with Arni as soon as the assembly let out.
The assembly, long and earth-shattering as it was for many, still managed to let out fairly early. Between its final words and the start of the picnic was a span of almost two hours, which was enough time for many sorts of things. A girl could read a book, play a level out of a game, do a few dozen rounds of War or Uno, or simply take a nap.
What she did not do was talk to her roommate about certain things.
She hated herself for that, but once again fear won out. And the longer she took, the longer she waited, the more distant that illicit first kiss became. Maybe if she just waited long enough...
No. Cally would find out, from Fra if not from her. She was all set to open her mouth and confess — honestly, truly she was — when the RA knocked on the door.
"Hey, ladies!" Milena called. "You, like, left a note on my board?"
Cally let her in while Erica pulled over a chair for her to use. Once everyone was comfortably situated, Erica explained the situation.
"The Amazons, huh..." Milena didn't quite scowl, but her black eyes went darker behind her vanity glasses. "Now, I can't, like, tell you what to do with your business and all, but fair warning's, like, fair."
"Are they that bad?" Erica asked. "I mean, they do come on a little strong."
The RA snorted. "In more ways than one. Wouldn't say they're so bad as, like, zealous. We've got kids here at Whateley who feel they need to help people. Got others who just love a fight. Well, the Amazons are for both, and they don't always, like, always use their best judgment."
Cally's face was drawn tight. "Would they have done something about last night?"
"If any'd been in the room, then that idiot Rutherford would've had his face splattered across the nearest wall," said Milena. "Half those girls are perennially on the ultra-violent lists, and it's not 'cause they're naturally ragers."
"But they do defend..." Cally pressed.
"That they do. Gotta, like, give 'em credit where it's due. Maybe I'm too much my papa's girl," Milena griped. "All for the quiet, exact tools instead of blunt force. Anyhoo, that's the official word. The rest is just gossip..." She let that line dangle, for curious froshies to bite.
Erica rolled her eyes. "Okay, what's the gossip?"
"Well, if you must ask..." The RA winked. "Since it's obvious they're kinda man-haters, shouldn't be a surprise, but they're said to all be swinging for the other team, if you know what I mean?"
"The other team...?" Cally wasn't getting the idiom, so Erica had to fill her in.
"All lesbians," she said.
"Yeah, well that's not, like, the rumor part," Milena continued. "Some of their recruits were already interested like that, I think, but some of 'em had confirmed boyfriends before the Amazons started in on them. Happened to a friend of mine last year. Absolutely besotted with her guy, but then she began hanging out with one of the Amazons, and -poof!- boyfriend's outta the picture, and she'd got nothing more to do with the males, ever. It was like she was a born-again convert or something, gone militantly wyminist."
"That's... interesting," Erica said.
"Wish I could say more." Milena got up and stretched her legs. "But spreading bad gossip isn't good for business, and I don't have anything more substantial. Coming to the picnic?" she asked.
"Yeah, in a bit."
Once the RA was gone, Erica looked at her and asked, "What do you think?"
It was a hard question for the Italian girl to answer. What did she think? What could she say? There were a dozen different thoughts warring for attention. "Eh... to be honest," she said finally, "I do not like this talk of violence. But... but yesterday night. That man, what he could have done..."
"We stopped him," Erica reminded. "Even if that sophomore hadn't intervened, we could've still taken him."
"Si, but... I wish I could stop him myself. I need to be able to stop someone like that myself. Maybe... maybe these modern-day Amazons would be a help there."
Erica bounced over to her bed for an awkward hug. "Let's keep the good ol' eyes and ears open a while longer," she said. "Maybe they mean well, or maybe they don't, but let's not rush, okay?"
"Grazie..." She leaned into Erica a bit more, enjoying the contact. Unspoken was her other thoughts, her other line of reasoning: With them, no one would be surprised by who I like...
It was a thought that haunted her for the rest of the day.
—Later that morning
The campus picnic was a sprawling affair, with benches, tables, and blankets from the quad to halfway to the lake claimed as sovereign territory by various cliques and circles. She and Erica found their own group situated under a tree not far from the lake, with mouths full and plates fuller.
Calliope herself was not such a big eater, and contented herself with only half a hamburger and a salad. The meat was good, but too greasy for her delicate stomach this day.
The same could not be said of her friends. Tanya, Erica, and Morgana seemed to be in a race to see whose stomach would burst last, and even Hikaru arrived with a well-built burger on her plate. Tia, bless her soul, was stuck staring enviously at the carnivorous excess as she nibbled discontentedly on a soy patty.
Kenshin was the only one who seemed to be eating little by choice. When Laura asked, his reply was, "Food... too much taste. And no teriyaki sauce."
"Teriyaki sauce... on a hamburger." Erica's mouth was a disagreeable line creasing her face, and Calliope knew why. Her roommate's grandmother had taken to shopping at the trendy grocery stores while in Massachusetts over the summer, and had one time brought home a dozen teriyaki pineapple burgers. For all that Erica seemed like a human vacuum cleaner, she had a few gustatory hangups, and pineapple on anything was one of them — and by extension now, teriyaki sauce.
"He's joking," Hikaru said with amusement. "To be honest, I didn't think he had it in him." Calliope had to admire the grace it took to seat oneself upon the uneven ground with a full plate in hand and yet not drop a single crumb. "In Japan, most burgers are... not good. Very plain, tasteless meat. And apart from near American military bases, no one puts teriyaki sauce on a burger." Calliope thought she heard a muttered, "...except for idiots who go to McDonalds" as well, but her ears had to really strain. She doubted anyone else had noticed.
"Ah." Laura was nodding. "And... I bet you got a bison burger, too," she said to Kenshin.
"Bison?" The boy looked confused.
Calliope shared the sentiment. Bison? Un hamburger del bisonte? E' una bufala! she thought, but as the conversation went on, she discovered that the others were serious. She was staring at her own half-burger in amazement by the end.
The meal ended with an invitation to swim. Some, Hikaru in particular, had come with swimsuits under their clothes, but Calliope wasn't interested — in swimming, at least. The last thing she wanted was to bare anything while her vulnerable emotions dominated.
Unsurprisingly, Erica declined as well. Memories of the last time she'd gotten her roommate near a pool made Calliope smirk. Erica was a brick in more ways than one.
The campus fair was a typical high school production: loud, slapdash, and chaotic. Most booths consisted of a card table, though some were mostly cardboard instead. A select few were astoundingly well crafted, with several scholastic generations of labor evident.
The one she gravitated to first was somewhere in the middle physically, socially, and stylistically. Nestled between the service society and the Legalize Everything! booth was a table full of fantastical illustrations, well-loved figurines, and a rugged pile of dice. Behind the table sat a young man in an ultramarine wizard's robe, blowing bubbles from a replica horn pipe. Considering that the neighbor on his left was in power armor, and the one to his right seemed to be girded solely in woven hemp fiber, this did not look as odd as it should have.
"Greetings!" he called, noting her interest. "Fancy a game, fair maidens?"
She and Cally weren't the only ones to walk over. A third girl, skinny and lean with coppery hair and an odd shine to her skin, hopped over to examine the table as well. "What do you run?" the newcomer asked.
"D&D, Pathfinder, sometimes White Wolf, FATE, GURPS, or whatever one of the other guys dredges up," said the young wizard. "What do you play?"
Cally piped in. "Would you know Sine Requie, Fenomena, or Eden: l'Inganno?"
"No, but if you could find an English translation, I'd be happy to try!" the club member said jovially. "Codename's Gazebo, by the way."
Erica let a golden arch rise over her left eye. "Seriously?"
"Quite. And yes, I have actually done what you're thinking. To my little brother, no less. Twerp had it coming."
She and the third girl broke out in laughter at that. Then they had to explain to Cally the semi-apocryphal tale of a newb gamer who who did not understand what his game master was describing, and kept insisting on attacking a gazebo until the GM just gave up and had the garden structure eat the kid's character.
"But it is... it is... l'architettura!" the Italian managed between laughs. "How?"
"Two words: Craft Golem." Gazebo grinned. "Got characters ready? I know stuff like mutation can really wreck a campaign, so I'm always happy and willing to bring in new members' characters as-is."
"I have a swashbuckler..." Erica admitted. "It may need some work."
"Oh! I have a bard and a ranger and a thief..." Cally started ticking them off her fingers.
"Had a fighter, dragonblooded," the third girl said. "Be kinda weird use her now, though."
"Oh? Why's that?" Erica asked.
"Well... when I mutated, guess where my BIT came from?"
That got Erica to take a good look at her. That sheen to her skin appeared to be fine, metallic scales. Close up, her hair looked more like copper wire than keratin, and the bridge of her nose sported a bony ridge that could have been the start of a horn. Vivid green eyes showed no sign of pupils or whites.
Gazebo snorted. "Well I'll be... Sorta weird that this doesn't happen more often, I s'pose. Anyhow, if you wanna give it a go, we meet most weekends. Got names? Codenames?"
"Erica. Um, codename is Eisenmädel."
"Calliope. My real name is Fiorella, but I do not use it much. Cally is also okay."
"Chessa Barnes," the third girl said. "Alias Maidenclaw."
"Nice to meet you all," Gazebo said warmly. "Always good to get new blood in. I'll pass you a line on campus email this week."
When they finally walked away from the booth, Chessa hopped alongside on the balls of her feet. The girl seemed to dance wherever she went, and was constitutionally unable to leave the air empty of words. "It's so awesome to meet someone else who's into games, y'know? Do you play often?"
"Not much since I left Italy," Cally admitted.
"Ran a short campaign with my cousin and a few friends over the summer," Erica said.
"Oh? You got Penny to play a game with you?" Cally's moue of surprise was as wide as her eyes. "How ever did you manage that?"
Erica laughed. "A bit of blackmail, a bit of puppy-dog eyes, and a conspiracy to get our friends Ruby and Matt together. Worked, too," she said with pride.
"Sounds cool," said Chessa. "My summer was, um, kinda busy, what with the..." She waved a hand over her face and hair. "...and all."
"I hear ya," Erica said.
Chessa grabbed both of them by the elbows. "Hey, gotta introduce you to some peeps. Yo, Pat!"
Sitting on a bench a safe distance away from some of the more enthusiastic club fair booths — was that a flamethrower?? — were two boys. One, Erica recognized as Marcus, the boy who'd been chatting schematics with Tek Witch over breakfast. The other was a lean, handsome young man in slacks and a vest over a clean white shirt. Erica couldn't quite put a name to his hair color, though it wasn't as bold or as pastel as some of the kids at Whateley.
"What kept you, Chessa?" asked the young man. "Find the portal to Narnia yet?" His voice was a high tenor, with every sound firmly enunciated.
"Hardy-har-har, Pat. I was just chatting with my new game friends here. Ain't that right, ladies?"
Chessa beamed happily. "So, I figured since I might be hanging out with them sometimes for game stuff, I should introduce. Erica? Cally? On the right there's my little bro, Marcus."
"We've met," the boy said with a grin.
"Really? Cool. Well, on the left's my official twin brother, Pat."
"Charmed, I'm sure." Pat hopped to his feet and bowed with one smooth motion. Up close, his hair proved to be a medley of different shades, but his eyes were harder to define — one moment bluish, another greenish or hazel.
Cally was goggling at the three of them. "E' vero?" she asked. "Twins? Ah, my apologies, but you do not..."
"We don't look anything alike?" Pat finished for her. "That is the thing..."
Chessa's face was split happily widthwise, showing off a bit of cutie fang in the process. "Told ya, this summer was a weird one. Truth to tell, we all sorta adopted each other."
"Whateley's application forms allow for some incredible irregularities," Pat noted.
Marcus nodded. "What they said. Our big sis is actually working on campus. We're bunking in Poe."
"All three of you?" Erica's face must have said more than she'd intended, because the siblings shrugged in tandem.
"Like I said, a crazy summer," Chessa explained.
Marcus finished for her, "...and we're still in shock a bit."
There were plenty of other booths to look at, though Calliope hesitated to approach. The kids at the anime club, for example, were bright and friendly, but she couldn't follow half of what they were discussing in rushed and excited tones. Few current series arrived in Italy in a timely manner, and she was well behind in her viewing. Calliope had little confidence in her ability to hold a conversation, and in any case the crowd at that booth was off-putting.
She waved to Fra in passing. Her brother was dribbling a soccer ball near a booth labeled Whateley Sports Club, kicking it lightly in the air and catching it on his toe before continuing with his favorite series of tricks learned at his old school. His mostly American audience seemed impressed.
"Not bad..." Erica commented as they walked by.
"Eh, that was his thing. Fra did sports; I did arts. He was not even at the top of his club," she added archly.
They bumped into the others from time to time: Vic by the Art Club displays; Tanya at the Future Superheroes of America; Kenshin communing with the avuncular faculty sponsor of the Whateley Zendo.
Over by the Gardening Club, they met the sophomores Nana Bosch and Hannah Sammish. The former was admiring a pot of delicate pink flowers, while the latter was bugging her eyes out at every new passerby. Only a firm hand on the shoulder kept the ebullient Canadian from rushing to meet new people with new powers, it seemed.
"How're you feeling?" Nana asked when they said hi. The girl's hair, red with black spots, bristled. "Only caught the tail end of last night, but..."
"Do not worry. I am fine," Calliope reassured her. "Whatever he did—"
"Biomanifestation, probably direct secretion," volunteered Hannah.
Nana bopped her roommate on the crown. "Sammish, not the time!"
Calliope giggled. "In any case, I am feeling better. Grazie."
Several girls their age were oohing and aahing at a fashion show by the Venus Inc. booth. She wished she could stand there and ogle at the women of that club — beautiful even by Whateley standards — but she feared to be so obvious. Once again, she was reminded of what Milena had said about the Amazons.
Where she held back, they stood proud. Where she hid her inner self, they flaunted it. True, they were frightfully violent, but...
"Oh, there's the Euro booth!" Erica interrupted without realizing.
The Euro-Promotional League booth was dominated by flags. Its backdrop was the dark blue and stars of the EU, but the standards of every member state hung from the edges in a discordant jumble of colors. Only the UK seemed to be missing, though there was one in its place that could have been a coat of arms. The entire expanse of grass around the booth had been claimed by the league's members.
Skinny little Therese Vitesse was there, chatting away in French with the Le Floc'h twins and an older girl whose hair marked her as their older sister. "That's Adrienne," Erica confirmed. "I met her at the mixer last night. Shall we say hi?"
Calliope did not say no, because she did not think she had the option to. Her brother Claudio had impressed on her the need to make friends and connections within the Euro and general student community — much the same as Erica's own grandparents had, albeit for different reasons.
Adrienne le Floc'h was the sort of Frenchwoman sometimes found in the country's far northwest: lanky, porcelain-skinned, with a wealth of freckles and hair like a torch. Calliope had only seen the like in movies and would have marveled at the twins and their sister not so long ago, before experience with mutants had made even the extremes of baseline humanity seem ordinary. Not far away, the irritable Gouyasse was sipping a suspiciously yellow-brown beverage from a plastic cup while chatting with another Euro boy.
"Salut, Erica," said Adrienne. "See, everyone? I told you she would come by. Where did Kirsten get off to?"
From his chair, Gouyasse grunted.
"Don't mind him," the other young man said with a British accent. "He just had a bit too much fun last night." With a bow he took Calliope's hand and laid a light kiss upon the knuckles. "Gregory Crumbley, at your service."
She didn't jerk the hand back this time, though her skin still crawled a bit. "Charmed. And you are all in the Euro-Promotional..."
"Call it the Beret Mafia," Gregory said with a wry smirk. "Everyone else does. Sei italiana, si?"
"Good, good." He plucked a pin from the display, its colors the basil, mozzarella, and tomato of both Italy's flag and its best pizza combination. "I believe this is yours, then. Pin it to your shirt," he added, with a thumb to his own lapel where a simple white flag with a red cross waved alongside a personal pin of some sort, a shield with a bird on it.
"But where are my manners? I must introduce you to everyone." Gregory took her by the hand, leading her behind the booth where a great many more people had gathered.
She recognized a few, if only because anyone who could stand out on this campus was perforce memorable. Two young ladies with strikingly elfin features — one with hair like gilded wood, the other with a scalp that looked literally aflame — were having a tense conversation about someone or something referred to only as 'She'. They paused long enough for Gregory to lead her by, where the gold-brown one identified herself as Jeanette, while the flammable one was Alvery.
"Calliope, eh?" said Jeanette in lilting English. "Like the muse?"
"Si, that is right. She is my, er..." It took her a pause to find a word besides muse to fit in there. "My inspiration. Poetry and song are... are very important to me."
"I can understand that," Jeanette said with a smile. "My homeland loves its music, though to be honest I am not so well practiced."
Calliope felt a tiny smile slip across her face, brevissima. "I would love to hear sometime. Do you sing in English, or..." She still could not place with certainty where the girl was from, for all that Jeanette spoke perfectly good English. That faintly musical accent was new to her ears.
"A bit in English, a bit in Gaeilge — Irish," Jeanette added quickly. "Some... well, sometimes I get a song floating out of my dreams, and it's like nothing you've ever heard..."
Alvery grabbed a shirt-sleeve and tugged, tapping a pointed ear and shaking her head.
"Ahem. Well, I wish I could do those justice, a-ha, but in my dreams they stay."
Calliope politely ignored whatever the hell it was that was not being said here, simply nodding her head. "Oh yes, it can be so annoying to receive inspiration in that way. I remember one time..."
There was a surprising number of Germans at Whateley, Erica was now discovering. Of course, she had met StahlFaust already — though the Amazon seemed to be skipping this get-together — but aside from her there was a pair of twins, the Krupps from Berlin, that one sophomore Adrienne had mentioned the night before, and perhaps half a dozen upperclassmen.
One of those had just wandered in from the FSA booth, in fact. Hailing from Aachen, the eighteen-year-old SturmMeister was an obvious exemplar, boasting a physique like a young Arnold Schwarzenegger topped with perfectly coiffed blond hair. For the past few minutes, Erica had been hanging on his every word, trying without success to ignore the voice in her head that had "Lordy, is he HOT" on repeat.
More than once, she thanked God for her inability to blush, if it made it less obvious what emotions were flooding through her glands at the moment. It was sort of scary, this rush of adolescent hormones, but she had to get used to it sometime. At least, so thought the quietly logical part of her brain, which was getting drowned out by the chemical soup.
If SturmMeister noticed her quiet infatuation, he was gentleman enough not to take advantage. "As you might know, the German government takes a hard stance on vigilantism, even of the superheroic kind."
"Yes, I'd heard..." Uncle Adolf had given her a crash course on the laws in question. The national police kept a firm hand on their jurisdiction in that country, coming down hard on anyone who tried to take the law into their own hands. "Absolutely nothing freelance or private sector, even."
He nodded. "Exactly. If you wish to be a hero in the Fatherland, it must be in cooperation with the authorities. Now, lesser powers have their training facilities close to home, but as per agreements dating back to the height of the Cold War, empowered individuals of a certain level take their training here at Whateley. I have heard from Mme. Prudhomme that you are enrolled in a similar program?"
"Y-yes. Is that..."
"Common knowledge? No. The madame merely wishes me to be there if you have any questions." His friendly wink sent frissons down her spine. "I am also connected with the Future Superheroes of America, though obviously I have issues with that name." He chuckled.
"I... understand. Thank you." She excused herself and wandered away before her mouth completely escaped control. Oh, there'd be so much to vent later on, when she called Cousin Penny! Her brain was about ready to break from hormone rush at this point, and the only good thing was that she wasn't mooning over...
Oh, crap. Fra was standing across the way, chatting it up with a pretty young thing of dark eyes and bright pink hair. Erica's feet quickly changed course before her head could look away. In hindsight, this wasn't too smart. Her escape route proved to have a mountain in its way, and she hit it at full force.
"Excuse me." The voice that accompanied the metaphorical mountain was deeply male, with an accent that suggested Eastern Europe.
"Ah! My pardon!" Erica looked up, and kept looking up a bit more. This one was tall! Also that sort of skinny-muscular that looked a lot lighter than he actually was. Her traitor eyes couldn't help notice the hint of abs under his tight shirt.
Down, girl! she ordered herself. Herself didn't pay any mind.
"It is nothing," the young man said agreeably. His eyes and hair were black. Not in the standard definition of human coloration, but an inky, jet black that almost seemed to flow in the early afternoon sun. "I am Andrzej, 4th year. And you?"
"Um. Erica. Erica von Abendritter," she said, shaking his hand. She may have pumped it a few more times than was necessary. "Just started here."
"Abendritter..." The senior eyed her curiously. "My grandfather, he mentioned someone by that name sometimes in his old stories. Such an unusual name, too. Your grandfather, perhaps?"
"I wouldn't think so," said Erica. "Opa tried to avoid using it at all until pretty recently. If you mean my great-grandfather... ahem," she said, straightening herself up and putting on a serious face. "It should be known that he died a very long time ago and that any policies or schemes he may have involved himself in do not reflect upon his surviving relatives."
Andrzej guffawed at that. "Well said! Yes, let us leave the sins of the fathers, or of the great-grandfathers, to their proper generation. It was good to meet you, Erica. Best of luck in your high school years."
He walked away, leaving Erica to wonder at what he meant.
From the sophomore corner of the impromptu Beret mixer, half hidden behind the big flag display, Kirsten kept a close eye on the Abendritter girl. This was the usual sort of meet and greet, but it was embarrassing to watch the so-called Eisenmädel schmooze around, panting after the upperclassmen like a bitch in heat. She tallied yet another demerit against the girl who would bear that name.
When Inkblood bumped into Erica, however, Kirsten paid close attention. The Polish mutant usually kept away from these events, especially because so many of the attendees were heroes-in-training, but there he was. There he was, and that dolt SturmMeister did not seem to notice.
Seriously, she would be glad when the old guard all graduated and her own star could ascend. No villain's son would be welcome in the League then!
But then there was the surprise. Inkblood recognized the surname, that idiotic mess that she herself had assumed was pure invention. Abendritter? Really! She'd never heard such a ridiculous family name before. As she watched the golden girl chat with the inky Bad Seed, however, Kirsten made a note for Arni to dig harder into that aspect of the girl's background.
If it were possible, Calliope thought, to metaphysically excise a chunk of land from its parent strata, to remove from it the echoes of attitudes so ingrained that they were as much a part of the atmosphere as the oxygen and then transpose upon it the air of a different continent, a different world entirely... that, she thought, would be something like she felt right now.
To an empath, even a relatively low receiver, there was often a second atmosphere built up in places, sometimes so strong that even marginally receptive baselines could perceive it. For the past month, everywhere Calliope went had felt like America, for good or for ill. Here, however, was different.
Within a hundred square feet of grass, there was the psychic equivalent of Europe going on. More students had wandered in, until all the major countries were represented. She and Fra were still the only Italians at the moment, but several of the Berets spoke her language, or she theirs, so that English was relegated to being just an occasionally necessary evil.
A group of them were discussing music and the Eurovision contest from last May, in French. The fiery elf-eared Alvery was passionate in her support for Amir Haddad, who'd finished in 6th place, though her more conventionally red-headed compatriot Adrienne was less enthused. Calliope herself had preferred the Czech artist Gabriela Gun, despite her poor showing in the contest that year. Everyone agreed that the Ukrainian competitor was over-rated.
And then, a little blue piece of Americana rushed its way into the Euro-zone. "Cally!" Laura cried, skidding to a halt just short of crashing into Adrienne. "You've gotta come!"
"What?" She tried not to glare at her friend, but really!
"You do know that it's not polite to interrupt," Gregory stated. His lips were pursed, propriety holding back a wealth of choice words.
"There are a couple of guys recruiting for a band!" Laura continued, unfazed by the reactions all around. "Come on, before they leave!"
Alvery snorted, sending a few embers up from her hair. "Oh, that's just Emile and Dalton with their band, the Unladen Swallows," she said. "Or rather, what's left of it."
"I thought we were rid of them and their awful music," said Jeanette.
Calliope stood, dusting off her jeans. "Excuse me," she apologized, her cheeks burning. "But I think I would like to see anyway. I really like singing, and if there's a band..."
"Well, you couldn't make them sound any worse," Jeanette opined as Laura pulled her away from the Euro-zone and back into the emotional morass of America. As they hustled out, she could see Erica making some quick farewells to the German upperclassmen.
"Slow down a little!" she protested as Laura force-marched her across campus.
Laura sighed. "Okay. But if they're gone when we get there, it's your fault."
There was little danger of that. The band's booth may have met the bare minimum standards, but the keyboard and drumset in front of it showed that they meant business. Likewise, the equine Animan named Nick was serious in the way he was tuning his electric guitar, to the obvious skepticism of the band.
"Well?" one of them asked. "It's an impressive-looking guitar, but can you play?"
"Vanessa Jackson thought I could," the boy chuckled. Seeing the stares of undisguised disbelief, he simply shrugged. "AJ and I got stuck in an MCO holding room in Miami with her, so we jammed a bit."
"Likely story," one of the older students scoffed. Calliope was inclined to agree with the sentiment. The Vanessa Jackson? World-famous siren performer?
Nick the horse-boy just shrugged, as if nothing anyone was going to do or say would rattle his 'who gives a fuck' attitude. Instead, he detached a small box from the back of the guitar, set it on the table. A retractable cord plugged into the guitar. "It's not much of an amp," he said with a sheepish smile, "but it beats not having anything." As people watched, most of them dubious, he checked the tuning on the guitar then gave a couple of riffs.
Looking around with a growing grin, he did a few opening chords that sounded quite familiar from a long-past music festival.
"You can't do Hendrix, son," one of the older adults said skeptically. "You're not that good."
"Not that good?" Nick asked, raising an eyebrow. He turned his attention back to his guitar and, striking the same opening chords, he played the entirety of Hendrix's rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.
When he finished playing, the gathering of students, which had been growing as he played, cheered enthusiastically. She could see more than a few girls from her own dorm screaming and waving, though it was perhaps as much in appreciation of the chiseled body under Nick's Hard Rock Cafe shirt as it was the music itself. Calliope could appreciate the show, in a theoretical sort of way, but her attention was mostly on the music.
One of the older adults chuckled, shaking his head. "Not bad, kid," he said gruffly, "but Hendrix could sing, too. I know Hendrix. I was at Woodstock. I heard Hendrix live."
The horse-boy countered by ordering up a funky four-beat and then belting out Hendrix's "Purple Haze" like he'd been born to it. The thrill of the rhythm hit the crowd like a gale wind, whipping through the blood and sending it pumping. Calliope couldn't help but cheer to that, and she wasn't the only one. Everyone was screaming in excitement by the end, and one of the adults in the audience even tossed a voluminous pink brassiere over Nick's head.
That actually stopped the music for a beat, as everyone turned to stare at the old hippy-looking teacher who was still dancing in her own little world, only to be startled out of it by the sudden silence. "Oops," she said very sheepishly. "I ... I guess I got carried away."
The older groundskeeper chuckled. "Yeah, I think so."
Screwing up her self-confidence, she shrugged. "What can I say? Flashbacks to the 60s." Mustering every bit of dignity she could, she stepped through the group of students, most of whom were staring at her in abject shock, and took her large, lacy pink bra from Nick's hand. "Um, I better, um, go make sure my classroom is ready for Monday." She turned and walked very quickly toward Kirby Hall, holding her head high and doing her best to ignore the gaping students and their whispered comments.
"Come on." Laura practically shoved Calliope forward. "As long as they're playing, you should sing, too."
"You can sing?" asked Emile. She did not like the doubtful tone of his voice.
"Some..." she admitted, not looking at Laura.
"Okay. Want some accompaniment?"
What to ask, what to ask... The list of songs from yesterday's powers testing sprang to mind, and quickly a decision was made. It would not match what she was feeling in the moment, but perhaps she could warm up to it. "Do you guys know 'Just Give Me A Reason'?" she asked.
"I can't say I'm a big fan of P!nk, but I'll give it a go," said Nick. "I assume you want me to sing the male part?"
"Let's give it a shot," said Emile. "Ready?" His fingers teased the intro from the keyboard, and they began.
Right from the start
You were a thief
You stole my heart
And I your willing victim
I let you see the parts of me
That weren't all that pretty
And with every touch you fixed them
Now you've been talking in your sleep, oh, oh
Things you never say to me, oh, oh
Tell me that you've had enough
Of our love, our love
That was a feeling she'd had before, only to lose it to the whim of genetic fate. Calliope could feel the pain of past heartbreak seeping into the words. The second verse was filled with self-doubt as she questioned her very self, the herself she'd become, and a million little things over which she'd had no control.
Just give me a reason
Just a little bit's enough
Just a second we're not broken just bent
And we can learn to love again
It's in the stars
It's been written in the scars on our hearts
We're not broken just bent
And we can learn to love again
Love again... That hadn't been possible. The changes and the scars went too deep. Oh, she'd tried... When Nick began the male parts, she took solace in the message, if not the voice. The horse boy had a fine baritone,but she was holding out for an alto, or maybe a soprano.
I'm sorry I don't understand
Where all of this is coming from
I thought that we were fine
(Oh, we had everything)
Your head is running wild again
My dear we still have everythin'
And it's all in your mind
(Yeah, but this is happenin')
And all around her, people had been saying to give it time, that life would solve itself eventually, but that wasn't true always, was it? Sometimes fate just royally fucked you over, and all that was left was to pick up the pieces that were left of your life and figure out what, if anything, could be made of them. There were important things, important pieces, that she was never going to get back, no matter how she wished.
Just give me a reason
Just a little bit's enough
Just a second we're not broken just bent
And we can learn to love again
I never stopped
You're still written in the scars on my heart
You're not broken just bent
And we can learn to love again
Learn to love again... Her mother and stepmother had both told her she would, eventually. Claudio had said the same, if in a more roundabout, nerdish way. Even Fra had... been supportive, sort of. Still, doubt tinged the first and second refrains, and she was sure that the audience felt it. She sought out the faces of friends, and found them: Erica and Vic, next to Laura; dusky Nefertiti, dancing and grooving in place; even Nina Blake, whom she'd bumped into just the other day, with that junior high girl Darcy. Not an eye was dry.
Still, when the line 'learn to love again' came round once more, she found it within her to add more hope to the vibe surrounding the words, and she took heart from how certain friends smiled.
"That was fun," said Nick once they'd wrapped up. His smile bared a huge, horsey set of teeth, and he whinnied for good measure.
"We've got a few more people interested," Emile informed her. "So we're going to get together on Wednesday after classes and before dinner to jam and have more formal tryouts. I'd really like to have you two there."
A mischievous little thought skipped across Calliope's brain. "You need a techie for the equipment?"
"Oh, no. No, no, no, no, no..." Laura tried to back away, but Calliope had her own elbow squarely hooked around the blue girl's arm.
"Laura," Calliope pressed, "you know you'd love to work with the electronics. You cannot resist; you are a gadgeteer!"
"We did lose our techie..." Dalton said. Calliope did not ask him how or why, for fear of scaring her friend past the point where she could hold on. "And if you're any good with electronics..."
Laura had apparently realized that resistance was futile, as she went limp and shook her head. "Okay," she said after a deep breath. I'll think about it."
"Great!" The two boys high-fived.
"I said I'd think about it," Laura reiterated, rather fruitlessly.
Calliope suppressed her giggles until after the blue girl made her escape. She was about to walk back to the Euro-zone when a friendly flying tackle nearly bowled her over.
"That was awesome!" Nefertiti Copeland was about Calliope's height, but the way she bounced on the balls of her feet made her seem taller as well as sending her tinselated silver-and-black braids to bouncing. "I mean, you said you were into music and all, but wow!"
"Grazie..." Calliope mumbled happily. The dark-skinned cutie had yet to lessen the grip of arms around her waist, and the Italian was not about to call attention to that.
"Hey, if you're really gonna work it on stage with a band, let me know, 'kay? Might be able to help."
"You can sing?"
Nefertiti's laugh was loud and rough. "Heck no! Not enough to actually do anything, unless you need backup or something. But we can work on your dance moves."
Calliope did a hip bump against the other girl, eliciting another bray of laughter. "I will think about it," she promised. She would think about it a lot that evening, in fact.
It had been a good day so far for him. The weather was sunny, breakfast had been good, the girls on campus were as hot as ever, and whatever sort of bad luck it was that'd dogged him all day yesterday had apparently faded with the morning light. Walking with his friends through the clubs fair, he sniggered at all the stupid things that people could take so seriously. There was even a chess team, though the animated little mechanical soldiers that duked it out on the board were cool in their own way.
The F-dude was showing off his moves at the sports area for a while, working that ball so hard that Mac could almost forget that soccer was a sissy sport. Granted, it was also probably a safer sport than real football when played by some of those Twain kids. One of them looked like he was half rhino, while another was pounding the turf like a life-sized Heisman made out of turf, with little bits of pebble and dirt rolling off with each step.
He made a point of saying hi to the Italian. Dude was cool, and fun to hang out with as long as you didn't mind his broken English. And of course, there was his sister...
His tongue ran over his lips anxiously as he scanned the crowd for the lovely Calliope. Now there was a sight, elegant and chic as fuck in a summer dress that showed off her legs to a tee. Unfortunately, she was stuck in the middle of a crowd of other foreign kids, some definitely hotter than his Italian maid, but none so tender. Sometimes you needed spice and flame, and other times you needed gelati.
Man, he'd love to lick that ice cream cone...
The club fair took more of his time than it should've, because he kept passing the Euro booth, in one direction or the next, trying hard not to look like he was rubbernecking. Fra ended up at the booth for a while, and Mac was just about to get the nerve to use this possible route into foreign territory when Calliope came out to him.
And then passed right by him, led by a girl who was, honest to god, mother-fucking blue.
What was a guy to do but follow? That fine Italian rump would lead any guy round like a bull by the nose. So he found himself in the front line of the crowd at a really bitching impromptu concert when Calliope took the microphone...
She was singing, and it was like he could really feel the emotions behind the words. There was loneliness, there was confusion and heartbreak, and then hope and a sorta flirty feeling that made his heart race. All the while it was as if his Italian muse were singing right to him.
He was going to say hi, to put some of those winning moves on her once the song was done. It was so fucking obvious that she needed someone, and that someone was gonna be him! But her gaggle of girlfriends descended to join ranks around her almost immediately, denying him the chance.
Oh well. There'd be another time to get her alone.
Sun, song, and socializing really stoked the appetite, Erica found. Never mind the amount she'd had earlier; she needed another bison burger! She wasn't the only one, either. Their little group had reconvened in its space, and Tanya was already digging in. Vic and Cally were somewhere back in line for burgers, but the rest were comfortably munching. Except...
"Hey, Tanya? What did you do with Morgana?"
The lavender girl looked around. "Oh, she went off to see someone. Uh... StahlFaust, I think it was? You remember, she was talking to us the other day about joining the Amazons? I guess that's what she wanted to speak to Morgana about."
"Are you sure?" Laura asked. She and Bianca shared a worried glance.
"Pretty sure...why?" Tanya said. "Is there a problem?"
Bianca squirmed. "Well... you wouldn't know, but StahlFaust had a big confrontation with Morgana last night at the dorm party. She really laid into her for some reason."
Erica's ears pricked at that. So that was what no one had really wanted to talk about at breakfast... but why?
Tanya seemed to be thinking the same thing. "What? Why'd she do that?"
Both pale girl and blue clammed up. Erica's kosher alert, passed down to her from Aunt Margit, began flashing a 'crispy bacon' warning in her head. Something was up, they knew about it, and she doubted they'd ever explain it properly.
"Uh, it may have been some British-German thing, or something else. We don't really know, but she turned up and went on at Morgana pretty badly."
"Oh. Then maybe she wanted to speak to her to apologize or make up or something?"
Erica nearly facepalmed at that, and from the expressions of the others she wasn't the only one. The lavender girl was sweet, but guile was not a factor in her composition.
"I think it's unlikely," said Bianca. "She seemed really annoyed at Morgana yesterday. What exactly did she say when you saw her?"
"Well, I didn't see her..." admitted Tanya. "It was another girl. She brought a note saying to meet with StahlFaust."
The kosher alert had upgraded to 'fried shrimp po-boy with mayo' in Erica's brain. She still couldn't say for certain what was up, but there was a problem that needed solving before it all crashed down, that was sure. "Tanya, do you know where the meeting was to take place?"
"Mm, I think so. Roughly, anyway; the note included directions. Why?"
"I really think we should go check up on them," Laura said. Next to her, Bianca was nodding. "It might be nothing, but... it might not." The blue girl held up her heavily modified phone. "If we can get close, I can track Morgana's cell signal."
Tanya nodded and put down her empty plate. "Well, okay. I guess it won't hurt, even if it's all innocent."
That was an if the size of an elephant, in Erica's opinion.
There had been an extra-long wait for burgers by the time she'd actually gotten one. Calliope blamed it on the appetites of those like Erica, Tanya, or Morgana, who must have been keeping the cooks busy indeed. The thought of teasing her friends over such propelled her back to their picnic spot, only to find most everyone absent. Vic had arrived ahead of her, but all he could say was that the others had gone to find Morgana for some reason.
She left him there, feeling slightly peeved with herself for being late to the party. It wasn't that she didn't like Vic — he seemed nice enough — but male American company was the last thing she wanted at the moment.
People had come and gone at the Euro-zone, though she recognized some of the new faces as well.
"Good afternoon," Brita said amiably as Calliope walked over. The German Amazon was chatting with the fiery-haired Alvery, her plate piled high with quality beef.
"You did not eat the entire larder, did you?" Calliope asked. "No wonder the line takes so long, if they must send people to the market every hour."
The German girl guffawed at that, and even Alvery tittered behind a polite hand. "Ja, it would seem that way, but this is Whateley! They must prepare for a hundred students by planning for a thousand! Where is your friend? Is she still in hamburgatory?"
She puzzled over that last word as she shook her head. "No... well, not waiting anywhere. Erica went to look for a friend of ours from Poe. Do you know Morgana? Red everything, from Wales?"
"Ja." Brita wasn't smiling now, nor was she frowning, but Calliope caught the murmur of some deep emotion stirring beneath that neutral facade. "To tell the truth," continued the German, "we had a small disagreement the other day. Your friend made a joke which insulted my homeland, and I am afraid I did not take it well."
"Do you ever, Brita?" Alvery asked.
"When the joke is funny, yes! Of course! But rudeness, I do not stand for. You recall."
Alvery inclined her head in understanding. "True enough. Have I thanked you enough for that time?"
"Thank me again properly sometime, and I shall be sure," Brita replied. "Or join a real training team and be sure that you know how to defend yourself."
The elfin maid shrugged. "I have my own clique, as well you know. But thanks as always." Alvery laid a polite air-kiss along Brita's cheek, then strutted away.
Calliope smiled nervously. "You have many friends."
"We are all in this together, we sisters. Thus we need watch out for one another. Why, I heard the worst story from your dorm, about the other night! A known predator tried to drug a girl, if you'd believe."
"Ah..." She wasn't sure what to say, but eventually she stammered out, "Th-that was me..."
There were tears in the German girl's eyes, and a sadness that rang like a sweet and melancholy note to Calliope's empathic ears. "Do you... need to talk about it?" Brita asked.
Calliope was not surprised that the answer should be yes, only at the force with which she felt it.
The main campus at Whateley was not so big as one might think, at least above ground. Starting in the rough direction of Morgana's phone ping, and even within its widening cone of possibility, it still only took a few minutes to ascertain that the Welsh girl was not in the open areas of the fair, nor behind the major buildings. That only left the woods.
Unlike the campus, the woods were far larger than one might imagine, especially as one walked beneath massive boughs. "Darnit," Laura said soon enough. "There's no phone signal here." She shook the device a few more times for good measure.
"Convenient," said Bianca.
"Suspicious," said Erica. There wasn't a living soul around, but for them and the squirrels.
Even Tanya was getting a case of the nerves. "Laura?" she asked. "Any ideas? I really think we need to find out what's going on."
Laura chewed on her lip as she checked the last available map on her phone. Pointing to a thick band of shrubbery, the blue girl said, "I'm sure her signal came from over there somewhere before I lost it."
That was far from a definite answer, but it was enough for Erica. "Okay," she said. "Let's see what's on the other side then."
Checking carefully for poison ivy, she waded through the underbrush. Some headway had been made when something else made its way into her head.
"OW! What the hell is that!?"
A sharp, screeching noise slashed through the air, like a chainsaw without the actual chain. It stabbed her straight through the eardrums, slicing at her skull and vibrating the grey jelly within until it was a puree. At least, that's how it felt.
The noise cut out as abruptly as it had begun, and Erica nearly collapsed headfirst into a bush as relief turned her muscles to pudding. She managed instead to step forward into a clearing, where one glance was all it took to shock her body back into reality.
Morgana was on her knees, bleeding from the nose, ears, and assorted scrapes and cuts. Before her, the figure of StahlFaust stood, with a sneer plastered across her face like the work of some fiendish Picasso. The upperclassman slammed her knee forward into Morgana's face, and then the foot below it pivoted to kick the Welsh girl in the ribs as she fell forward.
The sound of a rib cracking was unmistakeable. Erica sorely wished she hadn't the experience to recognize it.
"Stop that right now!"
Tanya spoke for all of them in that moment, and Erica was already springing into action before the lavender girl could swoop in. Bianca was flanking, but Laura lagged behind, shouting rapidly into her phone.
StahlFaust glared. "Stay out of this, or you'll get the same!"
A concentrated blast of wind punched StahlFaust out of the way, staggering the German brick. Bianca's alabaster hair was flying wildly as the girl directed the air to press and push, and her eyes were red with rage.
Tanya alit by Morgana's side, helping the mumbling girl to her feet. The Welsh dragonette couldn't seem to keep both feet even.
"Little witch! I'm going to show you how a real girl deals with something like you!"
The girl was clearly losing it, Erica thought. Stepping up next to Tanya, she shouted a challenge. "You'll have to deal with us first!"
Tanya nodded, her lavender aura flaring.
"Two pitiful little froshies? You won't even slow me down."
"They won't have to," Laura declared as she popped up behind her friends with a devise in hand. All sleek chrome and plastic, its design just screamed 'laser gun' to everyone in that moment. "My neural inhibitor took down a supervillain. This devise won't have any problem with you."
StahlFaust's eyes drilled into them, some tactical algebra clearly working through her skull, but before the upperclassmen could make a move, there was a great buzzing in the air. Two large security drones swept through the clearing, blue strobe lights flashing on top.
"Stay where you are, and stop fighting immediately!"
No other words really applied.
Quickly, the girl who was currently posing as StahlFaust reviewed options in her head. One: shoot down drones, blame froshies. A quick glance at the cameras — not to mention the dart guns and tasers beneath them — stopped that one cold.
Two: escape into crowd, deactivate psychic screen devise she'd borrowed so she'd suddenly look like herself again, instead of StahlFaust. But stupid her, the nearest crowd was a hundred yards away, through a heckuva lot of greenery, and the security jeeps were already rumbling in the distance.
Three... she sighed as the security goons stormed in, as only a gang of scared men with guns could. Avoid what responsibilities she could, blame the tranny for starting it, keep up the illusion for as long as possible, take what punishment may come.
And make damned sure that StahlFaust and Eurydice made it up to her, with interest.
—Calliope, later that evening
"Where were you?" she asked Erica as her roommate stumbled in. The golden girl looked like she'd been put through a wringer.
"Doyle," Erica replied. "And then Kane. There was a fight, and we got busted. Well, Laura busted it for us, calling Security before it got bad." She winced. "Smart move, but not a happy one."
"What! Was anyone hurt?"
Erica's face was grim. "Morgana. She got beaten up pretty bad before we even got there. Busted nose, broken ribs, fractures in her arms and legs, and eardrums half-busted from a sonic gun." She sighed. "Still dunno why she did it, either."
"StahlFaust." Erica spat the name. "Lured Morg away with a note, then beat the ever-loving stuffing out of her."
"But..." Calliope was confused. "StahlFaust? You mean Brita? I saw her at the Euro booth after you left. We chatted over burgers."
"Um, no. She was beating Morg to a pulp."
"I know what I saw and who it was!" Calliope huffed. "We chatted about my problems, and she was very nice to me."
Erica shook her head. "I don't think that bitch can be nice."
"Don't..." Calliope could feel her arms tremble. "Don't use that word. And do not tell lies! Brita and I were talking for almost an hour after you left! I was telling her all about that awful boy last night, and she was so supportive..."
"Morgana makes awful jokes and insults everyone and it's no wonder people are upset with her!" Calliope shouted. She rarely let herself get so loud or so shrill, but now she barely noticed the windows rattling. "Do not be like her, please!"
"But she... StahlFaust..."
"And do not tell me what I did or not did not see!" The window panes clattered as her voice broke high. Her roommate winced and fell back a step. "Please..." she continued, more softly. "Just... leave me alone for now."
Golden hair slumped as Erica sighed. "Understood. I'll... go get some dinner. We can talk later."
Once the door had clicked and Calliope knew herself to be alone, she collapsed onto her bed and soaked the pillow with her eyes. What, oh what, had just happened?
—Sunday, Sept. 11
She felt like her face was about to crack like old plaster over a cheap storefront facade. The entire day had been one long exercise in faking it, stretching the limits of Operation Snowflake to maintain normalcy.
Cally hadn't given her more than ten words the entire day. The Italian had skipped on the morning routine, put herself through the shower line without comment, and sat at the far end of the table during breakfast. What she'd done for lunch, Erica wasn't sure.
Her roommate's false front was equally impressive. If anything, it was better than Erica's own. She'd fussed over Morgana while blithely ignoring all talk of the fight that had put the Welsh dragonette in such a state, then turned the conversation back the school clubs. Any topic that was not StahlFaust was met with enthusiastic cheer and voluble praise.
Even the Flyers Club games, as cool as they were, hadn't been enough to keep Erica from worrying.
It was too much to bear, this face she was wearing. After only a few hours, Calliope was already sick to her heart for it. What was there for her to do about it, however? The bare thought of disagreement with Erica was fit to make her ill inside, and yet she knew what she had seen and said yesterday afternoon, and things her roommate claimed were simply false.
She had no tase to extend the argument any more, but there was little way to avoid it, even at the breakfast table the next day. Morgana's state of health, and the incident which had put her into it, dominated the conversation, and Calliope dared not raise her voice in objection. To go against everyone like that... it made her shiver with the beginnings of an anxiety attack just thinking about it.
To escape the schism, the rift between what she knew was true and what others said that was threatening to devour her heart, she returned constantly to the positive events of Saturday, to the fair and the sights therein, with an enthusiasm dredged up from some unknown font deep within her soul.
When the conversation came around to yesterday's little singalong, she even managed to fool herself a bit. On the subject of Nick: "And his voice is... mmmmm. He's got a range like Freddy Mercury, and when he hits bass, his voice is smoother than Barry White!" It wasn't too much of an exaggeration, except for the implicaion that his voice made her weak in the knees. He was an excellent singer, just... not her type.
Likewise, she managed to present a facade throughout the Flight Club events, one good enough to fool her into enjoying herself a bit. Still, lingering beneath the surface were all the worries of the day, and she avoided Erica's blue eyes whenever she could.
By the end of the show, she had had enough. The words were simmering, stewing her brain in emotion, and she couldn't say a word in front of the others, who would all surely side with Erica on this. What she needed was someone else to talk to, but.... As they left the arena, she saw a familiar face chatting with another group about something complicated and technical. Excusing herself, she went over.
"Um, Vickie? Do you have a moment?"
Ten minutes later, the two of them were in that little burger cafe two levels underground, fast and cheap to keep the techie kids supplied with something resembling nutrition. Calliope hadn't even known the place was there, but her friend Vickie Stone, a devisor known for her inadvisably applied force field tech, already seemed to have the menu memorized.
"Okay, okay, let me get this straight," Vickie brandished a french fry as she spoke. "You've got a 'she said, she said' situation going on."
"I... guess so?" Calliope said. "I do not know the term, but..."
"Yeah, yeah. Trust me on that one. So, what's really the problem?"
Calliope blushed crimson. "She is... is wrong! She says something, and I know it cannot be true, but she says I am the one who must be mistaken!"
"Because this StahlFaust girl would have to be in two places at once?"
Vickie cocked her head in thought, then picked up a french fry in the other hand so she could wave them in tandem. "You do realize there's a mutant power out there that can do that, right?"
"Eh... yes," Calliope said glumly.
"Not to mention holograms or nu-skin masks, or..."
"I said yes, Vickie." She sighed. "And I know that Brita can be violent, but for what purpose? Why go through this trouble?"
Her friend the devisor shrugged. "Ya got me. And that part's not important. What is," she said, "is... well, okay. Two important things. The first is that you and your roomie patch things up sooner rather than later."
"And the second?"
"Up for some ice cream?"
—Erica, late afternoon
"Yo. Got a minute?" Milena was waiting for her when Erica got back to her floor in Dickinson. The RA's eyes were serious behind her vanity Lennon spectacles. "Heard you and your roomie are having some trouble."
Erica didn't bother asking how. The RA had perfectly good ears. She sighed. "It's..."
"Complicated. Yeah, yeah."
"I was going to say weird."
Milena opened the door to her room and motioned the freshman inside. "Well, no time like the present."
The RA's room was neat and simple, with few decorations or accents. A music band poster dominated one wall, but that was about it. Erica sat on the bed while Milena straddled the room's chair backwards, leaning on the backrest. "From the beginning," she instructed.
Much like the last talk they'd had, two days ago, this one didn't take long for all the action that had occurred. Milena was sighing and shaking her head well before the end, though.
"Okay, so your group doesn't, like, do things by halves, do they? I'd never have pegged your room as being the current leader in the cottage drama-llama races, but you've managed to outpace even Multi-Task in the sophomore wing, and what's up with her, I cannot even fathom."
"Um, that may have been Essemmelle's doing, but... er, don't tell her I said that."
Milena scowled. "Figures. Nevertheless, we need to do something here."
"But I know what I saw, and she knows what she saw, and..."
"And those two things do not jive. Yeah, I got it. This is Whateley, though. Ten impossible things before breakfast and all. Hmm..." The RA frowned and grabbed her smartpad. "Holograms, illusions, distortions, projections, transformations — all sorts of ways to look like you're two places at once. But you said the StahlFaust that attacked you was picked up by Security, right?"
The vanity glasses were off now, and Milena's eyes reflected the screen images. "Something like that, there's no way she wouldn't get detention time. Now, little secret here, but there's a Security page on the school intranet with detention listings. Not, like, intended for student viewing, but not hard to get to if you know how... A-ha."
"What?" Erica scrambled off the bed to look over Milena's shoulder. The list of codes meant nothing to her, though.
"Ten disciplinary measures taken yesterday," Milena reported. "Two against a Whitman girl who keeps getting into fights, four grouped together — all freshman student codes, so that'd be your group getting a slap on the wrist — and... bingo." She tapped the screen. "Two weeks in Hawthorne for cleaning duty. That's the big time, there."
Erica didn't ask why. She'd already met that one boy who apparently sweated napalm, and it didn't take much imagination to see what a dorm full of high-risk powers might be like.
"Time of issue matches up as well. This here's your assailant. And it's not StahlFaust."
Another tap, and Erica was presented with a vaguely familiar student profile photo. It was one of the girls who'd been jogging with StahlFaust the other day, she surmised.
"One of the Amazons," Milena confirmed. "How and why, I can't say, but Mrs. Dennon isn't one to make mistakes."
"What should I do?" Erica asked.
"About this girl? Nothing. She's getting her punishment, and revenge won't, like, change anything. Go apologize to your roomie, say you were mistaken or whatever, and get on with life, 'kay?"
"Okay..." Erica took a deep breath, then hugged the RA carefully. Milena only chuckled as she let the freshman go.
Milena's goodwill vanished as soon as Erica was out the door. "Fucking hell," she grumbled to herself. Daddy'd said there'd be days like this, now that she was The Man or whatever, and she'd believed him. That didn't mean she'd really grokked the words until now. She waited three minutes to give Erica plenty of time to get back, listened for any further screaming or shouting, then quickly hoofed it up a floor to the junior wings.
This stretch of hallway was much better decorated than the froshies', with two years worth of knick-knacks and artwork adorning the doors. Room 305's entrance was dominated by a picture of the standard female symbol, a circle with a cross at the bottom, but with a decidedly nonstandard knife edge that had impaled a male caricature right through its cartoonish scrotum.
A girl with amber-yellow eyes answered the door. "Scram, Hettie," Milena growled. "Got business with your bunk-buddy."
"Screw you, daddy's-girl."
Milena sighed. She hadn't wanted to... no, that was a lie. She really did want to do this, but it felt like a waste of a good resource. Leaning in, she whispered a few words in the Amazon's ear, followed by "Dennon doesn't know. Yet."
"You wouldn't..." One thing that could be counted on, Hettie had a streak down her back as yellow as her eyes. With a gulp, she let Milena in, then made herself scarce.
Inside, the decor matched the door. The most positive item was a life-size poster of Lucy Lawless; everything else was simply bloodyminded. That included the occupant, one Kammie Ovellette. The girl was scratched up pretty bad, and her right hand was encased in bandages.
"What do you want," Kammie sneered.
"Heard you got in a spot of trouble yesterday afternoon," Milena began conversationally.
"Nothing I couldn't handle."
"Half-killed a froshie while duded up like your femme-fuhrer, as I heard it. Don't." She shut Kammie down with a wave of the hand. "Don't wanna hear it. Just know that I don't appreciate it when one of my froshies gets caught up in your stupidity. Time to cut the crap, Kams."
The girl who'd once been her roommate glared back. "You're one to talk, all high and mighty. Once a thief, always a thief. Just like daddy." Only the Amazons could turn the word into an insult like that.
"If that's the way you want it." Milena twisted her hands around — no fancy gestures this time; Kams didn't deserve the show — and a thin black T-back thong appeared in them. "No..." she continued as the other girl frantically checked. "This's outta your dresser, not your pants. You should know better than that." She tossed the underwear in Kammie's face. "My girls, my business. Not yours."
She was half out the door when Kammie found her voice again. "Daddy-loving bitch!"
"You got that right, and yet so wrong." Milena waved over her shoulder as she strutted out.
—Calliope, later that evening
"I'm so sorry." The words were a long time in coming, but Calliope didn't care. They'd arrived at long last, after almost an hour of quiet hug-and-snuggle on the bed, and then only as la ciliegana sulla torta, the cherry on the cake.
"It is okay," she mumbled contentedly. "We are okay, yes?"
There was an awkward silence beside her on the bed.
"Yes??" Her voice wavered a bit on the question.
Erica grunted like an unhappy piglet. "There was... er, I was showing your brother around campus the other day, and..."
"Fra did what!?" Calliope did not quite shatter glass with that high note, but she came close.
Erica had gone fetal with her knees to her chest and hands over her ears. "I'm sorry!" her friend sobbed. There were red rings around her eyes, and tear tracks down her cheeks. "I... I shouldn't have..."
"No, no, e' fino," Calliope said. She let out a melodic sigh. "He does things like that when he is unhappy or upset. It makes him feel better. I swear, he dated half the girls in my class at one time or another, and we went to separate schools!" In her hands, she was wringing the corner of her blanket like it was her brother's neck. "Oh, if he has broken your heart, that boy, I shall kill him! And not nicely, either!"
"There is a nice way to kill someone?" Erica hiccuped a giggle.
"Si, si! Ask your aunt sometime; surely she knows! There are invitations and decorations and a cake! The way he eats, he would probably be finished with it before the cyanide in the icing killed him."
"It complements the almond paste marvelously," Calliope averred. She almost kept a straight face. "It is the, ah, specialty of the... Borgia Bakeries...s...s..." The laughter could not be held back, however. It spilled out no matter what.
Erica took some time to recover, tears and laughter and snot running freely. "I... sorry... sorry I didn't tell you sooner..."
"You were not hoping for a repetition?" Calliope pressed.
"No! Er, I actually had Essemmelle under orders to hex Fra if he tried anything funny at the mixer..."
Calliope thought about that for a moment. "I should teach that girl some proper Italian insults," she declared.
They spent far too long that night discussing what would and wouldn't be appropriate to teach the Aussie midget. Slowly but surely, everything on the second list migrated over to the first. The next morning, Essemmelle would wake to find a scribbled sheet of notebook paper covered in random Italian and German, and wonder what the feck was wrong with those girls down the hall.
—Sept. 12th - first period, Powers Theory
This was it. Calliope breathed in deeply before she went through the door. The past week — the past two months! — had all been leading up to this. Students were milling past, rolling like sleepy potatoes in the early morning air. Calliope and her roommate had been up since practically dawn, thanks to the morning routine, but she could commiserate, regardless.
The first class of the first day of school. It was a miracle her empathy wasn't picking up more of a horror show, but it still kept her nervous and fidgety as she walked in.
Her friends were already clustered around a few desks inside. It seemed like the entire M3 crew had managed to enroll, and several other social circles besides. There had to be thirty kids sitting in the large room behind that door. The crowd was off-putting, but at least her friends were there to sit with her.
So of course the first thing the teacher did was to break them up.
"Good morning, class!" Mr. Bergamot looked young, though Calliope suspected that hair treatments played a large part in that. "And welcome to Powers Theory! As I hope you're aware, the goal of this class is to understand better how different powers work, both your own and others. Helping me here is my lovely assistant, Assay, whom some of you may know from powers testing."
A general low groan indicated that more than a few were already familiar with the enthusiastically inquisitive young Canadian.
"Since this is our first week, we shall be focusing on the powers you know best: your own. But!" the teacher added, "we'll be working in small groups based on similar power types. Discuss, show off, compare, but most of all, learn!"
"Somebody had his happy pills this morning..." came a whisper from the back, followed by low, grunting laughter.
"You would think so, young mister Groundpounder, but no!" said Mr. Bergamot. Groundpounder, almost seven feet tall and looking like a statue of dirt and gravel, somehow shrank in his seat as the laughter turned on him.
The teacher began rattling off names in groups of four or five. A moment later, Calliope found herself sitting in a corner with some familiar faces: Laura's friend Bailey from Poe, referred to by the teacher as Backtrack; the junior high girl Heartfinder from Melville; and Chessa's 'twin' brother Pat, also known as Hat Trick.
"You all are the ESP division," they were told. "You've each tested for a major receptive ability of some sort. So, discuss!" And with that they were left to their own devices.
Calliope sat there, hoping that one of the others would start first. A few feet away, some energizers were already sending out sparks, but how could one show off a receptive power? She wouldn't know where to begin!
Pat cleared his throat. "Someone's got to, so..." He waved. "Pat Barnes, Poe, empath."
"Fiorella Persico, but call me Calliope. Ah, Dickinson. Empath and siren."
"Bailey George. Um... psychometrist."
The junior high girl next to her looked confused. "A psycho-what?"
Bailey sighed. "It's hard to... hm..." She muttered to herself for a moment, kneading her fingers together as she thought. "Um, Pat? Do you have a deck of cards on you?"
"I have one!" Calliope chimed in, digging the trump deck out of her bag. It was one of her old Italian decks, with postcard-like displays of famous landmarks on the obverse. She started to hand it over to Bailey, but the other girl waved it away, directing her towards Pat.
At Bailey's nod, the boy quickly shuffled the deck, sending the cards back and forth across the table in ways that dizzied the eyes. He bade Heartfinder to draw one card, focus on the image and how it made her feel for a ten-count, and then shuffled it back in for more intricate manipulation. Then he laid them all out on his desk, face down. "Which one?" he asked Bailey.
The girl touched Heartfinder's head with a brush of the finger, then ran that digit across the cards until she stopped to flip one over. The image of la Bocca della Verita, the face made famous by Audrey Hepburn in modern times, stared upwards. "You were surprised to see this," Bailey said. "You and your mother would stay up on Friday nights and watch movies, and you remember this from Roman Holiday."
Young eyes were wide, and even their pupils tapered at the bottom and split along the top to form delicate heart shapes surrounded by vivid red irises. "Yes... that's... how...?"
"My power isn't empathy, but it's... adjacent, sort of," Bailey explained. "It's like emotions are paint that's constantly sloshing around, and I can... see what pictures there may be. It's not always pleasant."
Heartfinder shivered. "I hear ya," she said. "It's hard, feeling too much when there's too many people around. How... how do you, like, deal with it?"
Her head was slumped, her feet shuffling beneath the desk, and a brief sniffle was the only noise that followed. Nobody took her hand or otherwise touched her in reassurance. That more than anything showed Calliope that they'd experiences in common. "I... it took me a long time, months, to get my shields right," she admitted, "and my empathy came fitfully at the start. I could never be sure when it was on or off."
"I wish," Bailey said with a groan. "I had to wear mittens for weeks! Mom and I traveled a lot, and you would not believe what emotional junk gets left on hotel room everything. They don't make bleach strong enough for that!"
"I don't shield," said Pat. He shrugged at their shared looks of horror. "Okay, a better way to say it is that I can't shield, or even filter much of what comes in, but I'm not actually receiving the same things you do. I can't usually share what a person is feeling unless I forge a direct link. Instead, I have this passive sense going on..." He closed his eyes and concentrated. "So, there's thirty-seven people within line of sight, including the teacher, Assay, and technically the hall monitor who's peeking through the window right now."
Calliope blinked back surprise. "E' vero? That is, ah, very specific."
"I can tune it more," the boy added. "Right now, the three of you are the only ones paying full attention to me, though Mr. Bergamot and Assay are generally monitoring everyone. There's also one person looking at Bailey."
"What?" the girl cried.
"About nine feet away," Pat reported. He opened his eyes to check. "Yup. Looks like Zapper over there."
The three girls all turned to look. Over at the energizer area, a pair of cobalt blue eyes in a dark face flashed with embarrassment before turning away quickly.
"She's just a friend," Bailey stammered.
Heartfinder giggled. "Didn't your mom tell you not to fib in front of empaths?"
The girl from Poe glared for a second. "No, actually, but... I really should know better." She sighed. "No gossip, please?"
Pat's hand was out, and quickly all four of them shared a handshake. "First rule of Empath Club: don't tell tales out of Empath Club," he said. All of them could agree to that.
—Assay, second period
Bells were warning of the impending second period, and only one soul was left in the classroom. Hannah Sammish, also sometimes maybe occasionally known as Assay when she wanted to sound professional, was busy tidying up. She didn't need to go anywhere.
"Ready, Miss Assay?" Mr. Bergamot asked. He pulled up a chair and set out a binder on the table.
Hannah hopped over with her notebook. "Right-o-rooney! Powers Lab Independent Study, GO!"
That got a grin out of the teacher, though otherwise the manic energy he'd shown in class had receded. "So, you've read basic reports on all the students, and you've had a chance to observe. Your thoughts?"
"Umm..." She leafed through the papers. "There's a lot more variation to how they feel than I'd thought."
"Well, take Eri—"
"Codenames, please," the teacher chided. "Treat this like a testing facility."
"Right. Um, Eisenmädel here. She's been classed as an Exemplar, but her feel is off. Has been since we first met last week." She scratched her head in confusion.
"Perhaps a matter of power level?"
"Nah, I don't think so. Exemplar 5's feel about the same as Exemplar 1's, just... bigger, eh? Eri... Eisenmädel's got the same sorta feel but... the... um, flavor? That's off."
Mr. Bergamot mused on this for a moment. "A question for another day," he decided. "Anyone else?"
"Only everyone!" Hannah said gleefully. "It's a real gong show in this class! There's that Groundpounder kid — you realize there's a real him in there, not rock or anything?"
"Yes, actually." Mr. Bergamot flipped open a file to show her the face of a spotty teen with crooked teeth. "Claude Rousse. But please, go on."
"Okay, okay, hm... Well, all the PK kids've got different, um, vibes? harmonics? Whatever, their PK fields are all going at different frequency-thingers, but especially Invictus. Hers is, like, harmonizing on itself."
"Interesting..." The teacher was taking quick, simple notes in shorthand.
"DragonsFyre's got this aura that feels like it's more real than she is. That Glyph girl's almost glowing when she does something magical. And... and..." Hannah paused to let her thoughts catch up. "The girl with ivy hair, Arbolita? Not sure I ever felt something like that. If my eyes weren't open and working, I'd think she was really a tree!"
Her fingers were tapping random rhythms on the desk as her brain raced. "Tidestriker's got redundant powers," she finally said.
"What?" Mr. Bergamot stopped his pen.
"Yeah. Kinda weird, eh? Like, I can feel his water-bending thing — totally Avatar. Not the power rating; the cartoon. Do you know that show? Awesomesauce. Oh! Yeah. So he's got water-bending that feels like PK or TK or whatever, but!" she cried happily. "He's also got another power that's also giving him waterbending, maybe even better than the first, and some other stuff. Kinda hard to tell. It sorta... echoed inside him when he did, like it was coming from the bottom of a well."
"What about the energizers? The empaths?"
"Hm. That gothy kid who claims he's a dark energizer?"
"Yeah, him. He's more of a warper, I think. The rest are just your average lightning-flinging, fire-breathing teenagers," she stated with an apparent and complete lack of awareness. "For the empathy, though, Hat Trick's the weird one. His power's always on."
"That isn't unusual for an esper sensitive."
"Yeah, but the others just sorta buzz, yanno? Except Calliope, her power kinda hums and sings. But Hat Trick, whew... He's doing this thing like radar. Yanno? The sweeps, the bleeps, and the creeps?"
"Not really, but I shall take your word for it." Mr. Bergamot closed his notebook carefully. "I need to go now. Need to see a man about a horse, ha-ha. For the rest of the period, could you write your impressions of these students, for the records?"
"Okey-dokey!" She set upon the task with her usual gusto, happy in the feeling that someone finally wanted to chat about her favorite topic on the planet. She never really stopped to ponder why.
—Powers Test Lab, Doyle Medical Facility, Whateley Academy
The average door height in the United States, Nick found quickly to his frustration, was six feet six inches. Fortunately the builders of Whateley tended to oversize things, so those doors were a uniform seven feet high, which was nice, but still required that the young Animan duck his head under the lintle of every door he entered. This particular door was labeled 'Powers Testing Lab' and it was where he had been directed after showing up for his morning English class.
After getting used to humans jerking with surprise the first time they saw him on the journey up from Miami, having everyone at the school be so blasé about his appearance was wonderfully refreshing. The receptionist didn't even bat an eye as he ducked his head through the door. “Hello, can I help you, young man?”
Nick proffered the slip Mr. Lord had given him. “Uh, hi. I'm...” was as far as he got before she quickly held up her hand.
"Codenames only, youngster!” she cautioned quickly. “The whole point of this project is that it is double blind and...”
"That's awesome,” Nick interrupted with a sheepish scratching of his mane. “Except I'm the first and so far only Animan to have a paranormal ability and I've got my own reality TV show, so, yeah, not needing the...”
"Rules are rules, young man,” the receptionist replied with a bit of a grin at his attitude. Nick shrugged.
"Ok, sure, I guess I'll pick Charger.” He paused a beat and looked at her side long. “Do I need a mask?”
The professional facade broke and the receptionist laughed out loud. “Get in there, you rogue! They're waiting.” Brennan ducked through the indicated door to find himself looking at the top of a head that was fighting a valiant effort against the forces of baldness. He wore a white lab coat with a catalog's worth of cloisonne pins on it, just looking up at him.
"My word!” he exclaimed, extending a hand to be shook. “I must admit to being a bit awestruck! Richard Bergamot, pleased to meet you, young man.”
"Uh...Charger,” Nick replied, carefully shaking the proffered limb. “Nice to meet you.”
"I...well, not to put too fine a point on it, but I must admit to more than a passing interest in Dr. DNA's work over the years, and to finally meet an Animan, well, I am overwhelmed,” he said, obviously trying to pick the best possible words to express his enthusiasm. “Pardon me for asking, but are you, er...formerly...?”
"My mom and dad were what we call Originals, that is, Animen who were born human. I am first generation, so I was born this way. In fact, I was actually the first, first-gen to be born, so...”
"Marvelous,” Dr Bergamot sputtered. “Simply Marvelous! Well, Charger! We're going to go through a series of tests today to find out what you're capable of. Let's start with a basic strength test. Right over here to this machine, son.” He led the way to what looked like a weight machine like you'd find in a gym, but with no plates.
After several repetitions, they found that Nick's maximum lift was seven hundred and fifty pounds. “Incredible!” Bergamot muttered as he filled out the form. “Convert to kilos, then divide by seventy-five...It may interest you to know, Charger that in terms of strength you actually amount to four and a half horsepower!”
Nick leaned against the machine and shook his head. “How is that figured?”
"Well, one metric horsepower is what's needed to lift seventy-five kilograms one meter in height in one second. This is why we test for dead lift. I imagine the weight you can move, push, or pull will be higher. We'll find out.”
Brennan rolled his eyes. “Oh, goody...” Nevertheless he followed the researcher on to the next test. After an exhausting day, Nick discovered that if he were human, he would rate as an Exemplar Three because of his strength and speed. They rated the young man much smarter than even Nick thought he was and there was enough samples taken to stock a buffet line. On the paranormal side of the house he was marked as an Energizer Two, specialized in bio-electricity.
None of this sank in particularly deeply, as Nick was tired in ways he didn't know he could be tired, and he trudged off in his slowest gait to the Crystal Hall for an early dinner.
—Calliope, just past 5th period Biology
Among the three Persico children, there had always been an unofficial but nevertheless real division of academic labor and excellence. She'd been the artist; her twin brother Fra was the physical, sporty one. Their older sibling Claudio had always taken to the sciences, and they were all too happy to leave him to it. True, they'd had to study it over the course of their regular study, but never in a truly serious way.
Whateley science courses, she was learning, took themselves quite seriously. The syllabus for the basic Biology course was more of a pamphlet, and the notations for the Tuesday/Thursday lab segments were enough to turn the stomach. Dissections were not her idea of a fun time.
At least she was not alone in her suffering here. Nefertiti Copeland was in the same course, and the dark-skinned cutie had even consented to be called Neff by anyone she thought was cool enough. Calliope was honored, in a way.
Neff had the end position on their row of desks, with Calliope right next to her, but further along was Nina Blake, still hovering between weary malaise and nigh-manic clothing appreciation. The Poe girl had cooed over Calliope's jacket for a full minute before seemingly coming to her senses, though the Italian hadn't minded that much.
The fourth on their row was, surprisingly, Vickie. Of all the people to meet, that may have surprised Calliope the most. Yes, Vickie was a devisor, but of electrons and force fields. The sticky, squishy, messy world of applied biology hadn't seemed her cup of tea.
"My counselor wouldn't let me rearrange the schedule any more," Vickie was complaining now, after the class had let out for the day. "I have to load up on the science classes, sure, but he insisted I need some, er... 'cross-disciplinary study', whatever that means."
"Think that's fancy-talk for 'Quiet, you're bothering me,'" Neff opined. Nina giggled at that.
"What is next?" Calliope asked them. "I have Powers Lab."
"Devisor stuff," Vickie said.
"Survival," said Nina glumly. Beside her, Neff nodded.
"Yeah, we're off to learn how to, I dunno, not get hurt." A purple-tipped finger tapped her chin. "Though yanno, that's not that bad a thing to learn. Never can be too careful about who or what might be about to jump out at ya."
Calliope shivered in the afternoon sun. "Please, do not speak of such things. Parli del diavolo..."
Vickie elbowed her playfully in the ribs. "No worries, Cally. If any creep gets the drop on us, you can sing him to sleep and then I'll zap him!" Her hand went to her hip, flexing and stretching as she searched. "Um... once I get that energy pistol approved for regular carry," she said sheepishly as the others laughed.
Man, he hated science classes with a vengeance. All those names with their stupid spellings, and the weird smells and everything. He'd never been a fan, and in any case the plan had always been for him to take up Dad's business eventually, so what would he ever need with it? Biology was just a crappy credit he needed to get on with his life.
Anatomy, now... He whistled quietly to himself in appreciation as he watched that cool dish of Italian gelati stroll out the door with her friends in tow. He might not be that good with the theory part, but oh how he wanted to get in on the practical lessons there... He whistled again, a bit louder.
"Heh. In your dreams," said his neighbor, a guy who looked like a quarterback made of dirt and stone. Groundpounder was huge, but his voice wasn't.
Mac ignored the pipsqueak as he got his books together. What did a dirty weirdo like that now, after all? More than science by far, he'd studied the art of getting the girl, and he was prepared to take on his master course work soon. Oh yeah, was he ready.
—Erica, 7th period German
A few days before, Erica's cousin Penny had made a comment about the experience of enhancement, like the brain was suddenly firing not just on all four cylinders, but on cylinders it didn't even know it had. She'd never really thought about it that way, though in fairness she'd had a lot of other things to worry about around the time she stopped being normal and started being an impromptu science experiment. If she experienced any changes to her mental workings, it was beyond her notice.
Then she'd walked into her new German class.
In her old life, she'd taken German at school as a second language, though Oma and Opa often used it at home as well. Those junior-high classes weren't so difficult, but she'd never have considered herself proficient in the language. Sometime during the summer, however, between the accidental upgrades and the physical reboot, her brain had condensed all that knowledge learned at school and at home and come up with a much more organized internal lexicon. Further practice with Oma every day had only whetted it.
Her command of the language was notable enough that Opa had included it in her data for the Whateley application, and her exemplar trait testing finished up with a placement test in German. Suddenly, she found herself skipping roughly three American high school grade levels.
So here she was, nervously stepping into a classroom of older students, many native speakers, most not American. The entire class was perhaps a dozen students, some of whom she'd met the other day at the Euro booth. SturmMeister was grinning and giving her the thumb's up, which did help to relieve her nerves.
"Hah, das kleine Ami-Mädchen denkt also sie kann deutsch? Wie putzig." Not everyone was so welcome. A dark-haired young woman, stocky in that well-muscled way that some exemplars had, possessed a sneer fit to break mirrors.
It took barely a second for the sentence to process through her brain, mostly because she'd only heard the word putzig from her grandmother rarely, when Oma was at her most sarcastic. 'Cute', huh? Well, that wasn't the side that Erica felt like showing now.
"Ja ich habe den Großteil meines Lebens in Amerika verbracht, aber das heißt nicht, dass ich die Sprache meiner Großeltern nicht spreche, oder? Ich habe mich sehr angestrengt, um das vernünftig hinzubekommen, aber wenn du magst, kann ich auch passables Bayrisch sprechen, wie Oma wenn sie wütend ist," she stated proudly. It was true, too. She had spent most of her life in America, and she was certainly proud to have learned the language from her grandparents.
"Give up, Kirsten, she's got you," chuckled SturmMeister in German. "Good to see you, Erica. This is the fun class."
"Is it?" she asked.
"Oh yeah." Another chuckle. "You'll see in a moment."
The teacher, when he arrived, was a tall, thin, somber fellow, with limp brown hair that was swept back hastily with a comb. His complexion and expression both brought to mind sour milk, or perhaps a marble statue. The man looked a fright, but the upperclassmen all appeared relaxed and unperturbed by his appearance.
"Greetings," he began in German. "I see we have a new face this semester. "Ms. Erica von Abendritter, was it?"
"Dummer Name..." The words were soft, not meant for the hearing, but Erica's ears caught them anyway.
With his face so stern, the teacher looked over the class. Nervous giggles and chuckles followed his gaze. "And as you all may recall," he said, "I am Karl Auer, your instructor. Do not be afraid to speak up, Ms. von Abendritter; we all have much to learn in life. Is it not said, 'No matter how empty the bottle, there are bottles which are emptier?'"
She puzzled on that one. He'd said it in German, of course: Egal wie leer Flaschen sind, es gibt Flaschen, die sind leerer. But the word for bottle could also be the word for idiot, and the word leerer sounded so much like Lehrer... 'There are bottles which are emptier' came very close to sounding like 'There are idiots who are teachers.'
Her snort of laughter proved impossible to repress. "If... if you say so, Herr Auer."
"He does," SturmMeister confirmed. "Regularly."
The teacher's marble face cracked into a smile. With a nod, he turned to the board and began chalking details onto it. "As you should all know, this class is primarily focused on the literature of Germany. We will do grammar work, including today's homework, but the bulk of your grammatical study will be done in the language labs on Tuesdays and Thursdays during this time period. On those days, you will be expected to help any students who come asking for help. The best way to learn is to teach, after all."
To the side, Erica could see that girl Kirsten shuffle her feet and grumble unhappily, but the dark-haired young valkyrie refrained from commentary.
"This semester we will be reading from the Weimarian Classic period, including but not limited to Goethe, Schiller, and Lessing. The texts are available digitally on your smartpads, or through the library if you feel more traditional. Now, on to the rest of the syllabus..."
Erica took careful notes, fearful of missing a single word to linguistic misunderstanding. There was no way she was going to make a mistake here, she decided. Not with that Kirsten girl still sneering at her. Just what she'd done to deserve this, Erica didn't know, but like hell was she going to take it.
—Calliope, 7th Period Music
The last task of Calliope's day took her away from the main hall's of the school's academic continuum, under the earth and through brightly lit tunnels to one of Whateley's far-flung auditoriums. This was a smaller one, seating perhaps fifty at most in comfortably upholstered old chairs, and the wooden stage would hold maybe a dozen performers at most, if they were all friendly.
Behind the curtains, it was a different story. The space backstage was cluttered in that orderly way a well-curated collection presents. On every flat surface, even the walls, there was a musical instrument of some sort.
"Welcome, welcome!" said the apparent curator, a short, round man with rosy cheeks, coke-bottle glasses, and a neat goatee. He was sitting with a circle of other students.
"Is this the, ah, the music class?" she asked.
"Sort of," said one of the students. Calliope was surprised to see Emile, from Saturday's impromptu concert. "It's just not the regular one."
"Yeah, what's up with that?" asked another boy, a lean, tanned young man with faintly glowing eyes. By his side was a weathered saxophone case.
The apparent teacher chuckled. "Well, since we are all here, I might as well explain. There are regular music classes here at Whateley, of course, and even some for those with specific conditions or needs. This, however, is a class for musicians, for music-makers to practice at their pace and for us all to improve together."
"It's more of a club than anything else," Emile confided.
The teacher tugged at his goatee, a serene grin rising over it. "Matriculation is by appointment only. Ms. Persico—"
"Okay. Calliope, you are here partly on a music scholarship, as is Kieran here." He nodded to the young man with the glowing eyes. "And Tobias... oh, where is Toby, by the way?" The teacher cocked his head to the side as if listening, though Calliope's own ears caught nothing but the usual sounds. "Ah yes, he should be here shortly."
There was a clattering noise out in the auditorium, the sound of someone moving too quickly down narrow aisles with too much to carry: bumps, thumps, and frequent cursing. Tobias, when he arrived through the stage door, proved to be a young man of about her age, with earthy brown haired sticking in two directions over pointed ears, and a pair of large green eyes. His face was flushed with exertion, and it was with a sigh of relief that he dropped his belongings to the floor. Nervously, he combed his hair back into place as everyone goggled at what he'd brought.
Calliope eyed the various bags and carriers curiously. One appeared to be a case for a French horn, while another was a trumpet. A third proved to be a mandolin, which Tobias removed with loving tenderness. From the backpack came a harmonica, a small roll of plastic that proved to be a keyboard, a set of portable speakers, and a piccolo.
"Think you used enough dynamite, Butch?" Dalton chuckled.
She did not understand — dynamite? L'esplosivo? — but it got a laugh from around the room, Tobias included. "I... You said to bring instruments, if we had any, so..." The boy shrugged.
Kieron's eyes shone with surprise. "These are all yours?"
"Yeah..." Tobias smoothed back a lock of hair nervously. "I... er... play a bit of everything."
The teacher clapped him on the back. "Which is why you're here, yes? All three of you, in fact. Your counselors were asked to encourage you into this class..."
"Practically strong-armed me..." Tobias muttered.
"... so that we could explore the infinite possibilities of our art together, rather than force you to take more basic classes that would be a waste of all our time."
"What about Nick?" she asked. "He is very..."
Emile laughed. "Very... indeed. Trust me, he's getting an invite for next semester. Who'd-a thought we'd have a guitar prodigy who didn't boast about it all over his applications?"
"Quite." The teacher bobbed his head convivially. "And I'm Mr. August. Now, let's make music."
—Erica, 8th Period, World History
Back in the halcyon days of last week, eight classes had seemed like a smart idea. Get stuff out of the way, she was told. Exercise that exemplar brain! The reality of one last class after dinner wasn't something she'd really grokked until it came time to actually sit down.
The other dozen or so kids in the room seemed to share the sentiment. She spotted Jimmy "Shieldwall" Cannes right off the bat, and grabbed the seat nearest to him.
"Good to see a friendly face," she noted.
"Yeah, really," the young man replied. "Good day so far?"
She shrugged. "My German teacher is weirder than he looks at first, but it's all been okay so far."
The most recent in her series of teachers, a grey-haired man with a thick, red scar along the left side of his face, was messing with the projector screen. Oddly enough, there was a second screen beside it, still rolled up on its stand. "Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen," he said. "My name is Mr. DuChamp..."
"Douche..." Erica's ears caught the whisper and the childish snickers that followed. Jimmy rolled his eyes.
"...and I am the adjunct professor of history here at Whateley. Now," he said, his face serious. "I am not one to mince words or sugarcoat things. Some of the material in this class will be disturbing. It will be graphic, raw, and uncut. If any of you have specific issues with violent acts of any nature, please e-mail the details to me, and I shall include trigger warnings as appropriate."
The same kids in the back, a pair of twins with matching smug looks marring their otherwise perfect exemplar looks, snickered again, more loudly this time. "Wimps!" the one on the left shouted.
Erica grabbed Jimmy's arm before he could stand. The look on his face didn't bode well for peaceful resolution.
"Mr. Darby!" the teacher called. "Did you have something to say?"
The so-called Mr. Darby slouched to his feet, his posture as far from attention as possible. "Trigger warnin's are for pansies and fags who can't take a crap without gettin' their feelin's hurt," he declared, loud and proud, to a backdrop of chuckles. He and his brother high-fived.
"An interesting opinion," Mr. DuChamp said, his voice neutral. Silence reigned for a moment as the teacher's eyes locked on the brothers. Then, as abruptly as the quiet time began, it was ended. "Be that as it may, we should start now. Please, everyone, direct your attention to the screen."
The teacher fiddled with the projector, pressing a quick series of buttons before dimming the lights and starting the show. First was a series of images, of historic sites from around the world, to a backdrop of soothing classical music. The slideshow software used soft transitions, blurring and blending each location into the next one to form one continuous stream of beauty and motion.
Which made it all the more jarring when the entire thing came to a screeching halt. A huge face filled the screen, eight beady eyes staring over a set of hairy mandibles. More than a few kids screamed. Erica thought she heard the Darby twins among them.
"Not funny!" shouted one Darby. The other one echoed shortly after.
"What, did it surprise you?" asked the teacher.
"Uh-huh," grunted the second twin.
"And perhaps you would have appreciated some sort of warning before your fear of spiders was, as we might say, triggered?" As the teacher spoke, the slideshow cycled through another dozen or so arachnid photos, mostly of cute little jumping spiders. The twins did not seem to share her opinion. "Now, appreciate this: there are far too many people in this world who have suffered trauma, whose nightly terrors make your little issues with spiders seem insignificant. Does anyone here know someone with post-traumatic stress disorder?"
Erica's hand shot up. Back in Wichita, on that team that her friends Ruby and Matt had pulled together, there was Billy Boudreaux, whose past adventures had left him with both commendations and a lingering fear of the sound of wind in the trees. She'd only heard bits of that story, all from other people besides him, and she wasn't sure she wanted to hear it from the source himself.
Right next to her, Jimmy's hand was also up. His face was set so hard he might have been a brick wall. He wasn't the only one, either. Half of the class had a hand raised, some far less steadily than others.
"Whateley is a special place," Mr. DuChamp reminded in quiet tones. "A place to study and to learn, but also to live and survive in a world that would wish us neither. Too many come here already hurt and fearful, and more will find trauma after they leave. All are far too capable of lashing out. It is a frightful time we live in; make no mistake of that. We must do what we can to understand the past and the present, which means being careful of traumatic triggers. Otherwise..."
Mr. DuChamp pulled down the second projection screen. There was a hole burned clean through it, about the size of a man's head. "...you might make the same error I did this morning." He placed his arm through the hole to press his point. "All this, because I didn't ask before showing footage from the Fools Fight, and one young man in junior high school panicked. So, I repeat, if you have any concerns, e-mail me and we shall discuss options. Now, moving on..."
The rest of the class was spent examining the text book and explaining the grading system, but that projection screen with its baleful socket seemed to glare at them the entire time.
—Tuesday, Sept. 13th, early morning
At some point, the seasons had started to shift, and there was just a hint of crispness to the morning air that melted away under the sun's rays. It was, in fact, a nice morning for a jog, and she could not fault Erica for cajoling her back into their morning routine.
They even had a guest along: Natalie Macauliffe, junior high exemplar. The girl had taken their suggestion to use Physique as a codename, and was dressed in jogging gear that proved she lived up to the moniker.
"Never was too athletic before," the girl admitted as they warmed up in front of Dickinson. "Nowadays, can't seem to live without it."
"That's part of the experience," Erica commented between stretches. "Body buffs up, starts to demand more. And it does feel good."
Calliope sniffed. "Speak for yourself!"
It was a rather pointless jibe, since her own body seemed to enjoy the activity as much as they. She just wasn't so comfortable with it yet. How she admired her friend for being so comfortable in her own skin!
Dawn had barely broken when they left the Dickinson lawn to begin their run. Tall, decorative streetlamps stood over the walking paths, emitting bright firefly light. A lap around the quad took maybe four minutes at a leisurely pace, giving them time to appreciate the scenery.
Other students came and went from the various dorms. Kenshin appeared around the fifth lap, practicing his sword kata as a coterie of admirers looked on. A girl in a headscarf zoomed out of Whitman two laps later, running so fast that not even the wind seemed to keep pace.
Chessa and Pat showed up at the ninth lap, but not from the direction of Poe. Instead, the young man at least looked as though he'd just gone through a light beating. There was a bruise spreading across his face, and he walked with a limp that seemed to steady and disappear as they watched him approach.
"Eh! What happened?" Calliope cried. "Were you in a fight?"
"Who'd you tick off at this hour?" asked Erica.
Pat grimaced. "No one. This is what you might call a tactical error."
"Oh! Who's your friend?" Chessa hopped over to pump Natalie's hand a few times. "That's Pat, and I'm Chessa. We're staying in Poe. You're junior-high, right? Then you definitely know our brother Marcus. Do you like role-playing games?"
"Is this really the time?" Erica asked her. "Your brother's..."
"Just fine, really," said Pat. "I just got out of my combat survival course."
Calliope stared at him, checked her watch, then stared again. "At this hour?" she cried.
"When better?" The young man flashed a Tom Cruise grin and straightened himself. "I'm not really learning anything in my regular class, though Tolman loves to use me for demonstrations, so if I wish to improve, well..." Without a twitch of warning, he executed a flip, landing upside down to use his arm as a springboard before launching back into the air. He spun twice and then stuck the landing perfectly.
"Awesome..." Natalie clapped as he took a bow.
"Show-off." Chessa rolled her eyes.
"So says the girl who can bend herself into a pretzel," Pat reminded her.
"Hey, I got an 18 in Dexterity, and I plan to enjoy it!" The gamer girl fumed a bit, nose twitching. Then, with a tremulous snirk, she led the others with a loud bray of laughter.
They didn't even notice the Amazon jogging team watching them from a distance.
—Erica, 7th Period Language Lab
It was a Tuesday, and like Herr Auer had told her, it was time for study buddy duty. Her own homework was out and done in a few minutes, so she had plenty of time to spare on first-time students of German who couldn't figure out something as simple as capital letters or the difference between die, das, or der.
More than a few students came from the intermediate classes as well, but those kids were all sent over to Kirsten on the other side of the lab more often than not. If there was an actual reason that Erica got stuck with the absolute newbs, she couldn't see it. She suspected bribery of the lab secretary.
She was in-between students and enjoying the brief moment of freedom when she decided to see what Kirsten was up to. The sophomore was working with another freshman boy, who must've been doing pretty well in class to get directed her way in the first place. He was fairly short, with a spiky head of black hair and long, limp ears that sort of reminded her of Tia's own bunny look. There was something about the hairstyle that seemed familiar, but she couldn't place it until his head turned enough to be seen in profile.
Saumer. She'd always thought that the expression 'blood turned cold' was just that, an expression, but now it felt like the whole world had dropped ten degrees without warning.
How was he here? Why was he here? ... He was still taking German after nearly failing last semester? The fact that she could form that last question at all underlined the problem. Saumer knew Erica.
Correction: Saumer knew Eric.
She somehow maintained her composure for the remaining five minutes of the study lab, shrinking behind the dividers of a listening activity station and avoiding all eye contact with Kirsten's table. It was silly, she knew; Saumer wouldn't have been able to tell her from Adam now. Or Eve, which was more the point.
If Jimmy noticed her nervousness during World History later in the day, he was polite enough not to mention. She'd have to borrow his notes later, because she had zero memory of what was actually covered.
Cally wasn't back by the time she ran through their door, thankfully. Erica really didn't want anyone overhearing this particular phone call. As she waited for the person on the other end to pick up, her fingers tapped the counter hard enough to leave nervous impact dents.
"Yes." Her Uncle Adolf wasn't one to waste words on formalities. There was hardly any point in introducing oneself, even; he tended to know before the connection was even established.
"I need advice," she said quickly. "There's a boy here at school—"
"Perhaps I should put your cousin on?" Adolf suggested. There may have been the barest quantum of humor in that voice.
"Not that kind of advice!" she shouted. "Um, sorry. Um." Erica took a deep breath. "One of my old classmates — from my old school — is here at Whateley."
There was a middling pause on the other end of the line. Then, "Does he have a name?"
"Hiram Saumer. He was in my Scout troop when Glas and Sandmann attacked. His dad's a used car salesman."
"Ah, him!" Uncle Adolf's tone lightened.
"You... know him?"
"Of course! The resourceful young man who slipped you that tracking device, isn't he? A good boy; he was hardly even scared to speak with me when I was investigating your disappearance. Do say hello for me."
"I can't," she hissed. "He... he... doesn't know. Nobody knows..." There was a gulf inside her, a personal abyss that opened up from time to time to swallow her heart and her happiness. It hadn't appeared for weeks, but now she felt its emotional vacuum sucking at her mood.
"Erica," her uncle said. "This is the difficulty of undercover work, of separating the personal from the mission proper. There is no danger of him recognizing you; we both know that. The only way he will know is if you tell him, one way or another."
"But could you give me some advice..."
"The most appropriate advice is completely inappropriate here, as I doubt your school approves of pre-emptive and permanent elimination of threats. Your only real option is to keep your distance for now, observe, and reach a conclusion in due time."
It made sense, even if she hadn't wanted to hear it that way. "Thank you, uncle..."
"It is no problem. Now, would you like your cousin for some girl talk?" The turn of phrase almost made her giggle, coming as it did from the mouth of Adolf Stein, former secret agent and soldier of fortune.
—Wednesday, Sept. 14th
—The Back Quad, behind the Crystal Hall
You're awfully chipper for someone facing what could be a very public rejection and ridicule,” AJ opined as the two boys walked down the grassy slope to where the bandstand had been set up. Nick adjusted the large electric guitar case across his shoulders and shrugged.
What's to be nervous about, little bro?” he asked philosophically. “I know I'm good, and that won't change just because some people might not like my style, so why sweat it?”
Yeah, easy to say down here,” AJ shot back. “Let's see how you feel on stage.”
Nick made a dismissive gesture and the two parted, AJ heading out to the front of the bandstand where a number of kids were milling about for the offering of free entertainment, Nick back stage. “Nick!” a voice called and with his height, the equine young man caught sight of the drummer from his previous audition. He waded through the small crowd of hopefuls to clasp hands. “Damn, dude, where do you get these obnoxious shirts?” he demanded with a gesture at the particularly loud floral and surfboard themed shirt in vibrant reds and blues that he was wearing open-chested.
It's an island thing, mon,” Nick replied, letting a bit of Jamaica creep into his voice. “We're seriously easy going!” The other boy chuckled.
“Right, so, check it,” and he dropped his voice to be discreet. “Look bro, this is just pro forma, right? I mean, you're good and we want you. Don't fuck it up and you're in, cool?”
Nick nodded thoughtfully. “So, just do a good song and rock it up?” Then an idea struck him and he asked, “You know a band called The White Stripes?”
"Audition fifteen, guitar, Nick Brenan.”
Hearing his name, Nick got the strap comfortable around his neck and came out on stage to plug in his guitar to the large amp that had been set up. The crowd behind the lights was bigger than he'd thought, but he caught sight of Lisa Jenkins in the crowd who grinned and pointed at him. Nick suddenly felt at ease and pointed back in greeting as he ambled up to the microphone. “Hey dudes,” he greeted amicably, drawing a bit of a chuckle from the crowd. “This is a song called 'CNR' off the album Alpocalypse.”
With the pick back in his large fingers, Nick released a long, wailing heavy metal intro and as only the drummer joined in, he began to sing.
Charles Nelson Reilly was a mighty man
The kind of man you'd never disrespect
He stood eight feet tall, wore glasses, and had a third nipple on the back of his neck
>He ate his own weight in coal, excreted diamonds everyday
He could throw you down a flight of stairs, but you still would love him anyway
Yeah, you know you'd love him anyway
As he reached the bridge between verses once more the guitar howled and wailed in a wild juxtaposition of funny lyrics and thrashing heavy metal guitar work. The crowd roared with hoots and hollers as Nick and the drummer practically forced the music from their instruments.
Charles Nelson Reilly won the Tour de France with two flat tires and a missing chain
He trained a rattlesnake to do his laundry, I'm telling you the man was insane
He could rip out your beating heart, and show it to you before you died
Everyday he'd make the host of Match Game give him a piggyback ride
Yeah, two hour piggyback ride, giddy up Gene!
Ninja warrior, master of disguise
He could melt your brain with his laser-beam eyes, Oh yeah
He had his very own line at the DMV
He made sweet, sweet love to a manatee
Oh yeah, that was something to see, I tell ya!
As this was an audition, Nick bridged over to a longish solo and skipped a verse set the same as Al had in the music video. Bobbing his head which caused his mane to fly about revealing then covering his eyes he belted out the final lyrics.
Charles Nelson Reilly figured out cold fusion, but he never ever told a soul
I've seen the man unhinge his jaw, and swallow a Volkswagen whole
He'd bash your face in with a shovel if you didn't treat him like a star
You could spit at the wind, or tug at Superman's cape
But Lord knows you don't mess around with CNR
No, no, no
Talkin' about CNR
The sing ended to a crescendo of wailing guitar that left the amp ringing for several seconds and a mixture of laughter and applause filled the air. “Thank you!” Nick exclaimed, holding up both hands with the middle of his three fingers curled in the 'rock salute'.
Inspira, espira. Breathe in, breathe out. Calliope's hands were folded together as if in prayer, though no pious choir girl was she. Not since that time when Father Rebollo had made it quite clear what he thought of her mutant state — and to be honest, not for a long time before that, in her heart. It was a familiar gesture, however, and one that led her down a path of serenity and calm. She needed all the peace she could muster right now.
Sunday's audition had been impromptu, a surprise that overcame her qualms by its sheer suddenness. Today, however, was an event three days in the fretting, and the awful, treacherous little imps of her psyche had been whispering words of doubt whenever she had a free moment.
Inspira, espira, esorcizza.
"You gonna be okay?" Neff was standing by her, practically shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip. On the other side, Nina was performing a similar duty, while Vicky had taken up the rear position. The three of them had seen her fret all through 5th period Biology, and there'd been no debate about meeting up after dinner to support her on this.
Calliope was actually a bit jealous that none of them had a 7th period class to skip for this. Mr. August was more than happy to count the audition event as part of the course, since most of his students would have deserted for the day otherwise, but Erica was stuck in German. It was too bad, Calliope thought. She had the feeling that her roommate would have appreciated Nick's performance more than she.
Not that the horse-boy didn't absolutely nail it, but she had no idea what to make of the lyrics. This did not prevent her and Neff from dancing while Nick rocked out. Halfway through, Nina had timidly joined in the fun, and even Vicky was hopping in place happily.
Front and center as they were in the crowd, Nick couldn't help but notice she was there, and as soon as the final guitar riffs faded into the ether, he came down to say hi.
"Bitchin', man!" Neff shouted appreciatively.
"Never would've picked you for a Weird Al lover," Vicky added.
The horse-boy's shoulders rolled like the most nonchalant wave in all the Caribbean. "Man's got a voice, a sense of style, and a backup band like nothin' else in the business," he said. "Lotta stuff to respect there. So, when're you up?" he asked Calliope.
"Eh, not for a few more..." she said, trying not to wince at the caterwauling of the student on stage. She could not say what sort of song it was — perhaps of the country or the western? — but on-key, it was assuredly not. Even with the accompaniment of a much put-upon Tobias, it was intolerable, and there was a broad sigh of relief from the crowd when that pretender to the band left the stage.
"Ooh, the anchor spot." A brown eye the size of an apricot winked at her. "They're knowin' to save the best for last, then."
"Well, she did ace it on Sunday," Nina pointed out.
Calliope tried to hide her smile, but fooled exactly nobody. "I was not so good as that," she demurred. "Without instruments, I... ah... Um, Nick? Would you be kind enough to help me again today?"
He bared his teeth in a horsy laugh. "Sure! Ain't like this is a competition or nothin'! Whatcha got in mind?" She motioned him to lean in, then whispered her request in a twitchy ear. "Hm, yeah. I can do that one."
Nick's roommate AJ wandered over at that point,a nd the usual small talk was made as the auditions continued. Though far more normal in appearance, AJ was no less surprising, with his tiny pet dragonling and a candid openness about his mother and her lifestyle. The three girls were a bit agog at that, at how freely he talked of being a villainess's son, even while he himself seemed to be a fairly decent guy. Nick was quick enough to vouch for him, but AJ didn't really need it; to her senses, he was more sincerely likable than most of the boys she'd met in the past week.
The second-to-last performance was her classmate, Kieran Mason, on saxophone. With him was the indefatigable Tobias, who'd at this point assisted with at least six such auditions. The green-eyed elf boy had personally opted out of the competition, citing a lack of interest, but that hadn't stopped Dalton and Emile from dragging him on stage a half dozen times with about as many different instruments in hand. Here, he was providing a fast-paced bongo beat while Kieran sizzled through a jazz reel. Rather than forcing the notes out, the boy with the glowing eyes seemed to seduce his instrument, lovingly and tenderly drawing out higher notes than she'd ever heard such an instrument perform, much less at that speed.
It reminded her of an anime theme song, oddly enough. Something older, perhaps from twenty years ago? Her brother Claudio had a collection of DVDs from old science-fiction shows when he'd still been living at home, and she was sure one of them had used this sort of jazz. She was puzzling over it even as she joined the roar of applause at the end.
And now it was her turn. Calliope gulped hard, trying to swallow the little worms of doubt nibbling at her brain, but they only turned to butterflies in her stomach instead. Nick offered her a hand up to the stage, which she accepted gratefully.
As the horse-boy started into the tune she'd requested of him, she let those butterflies flutter just a little more. This song was for them as much as it was for her. Keeping her eyes set on Neff and Nina, she raised the microphone and began:
Sometimes I feel the fear of,
Uncertainty stinging clear...
And I, I can't help but ask myself how much I'll let the fear
Take the wheel and steer....
It might have been her ballad, this song. A cry for help, but to no one but herself. They were her fears, her insecurities behind that wheel, driving her in a direction she did not like.
It's driven me before...
And it seems to have a vague...
Haunting mass appeal.
But lately I'm... beginning to find...
That I should be the one behind the wheel.
Not a cry for help, then, but a cry for courage. As much as she needed others for support, she needed herself even more. It was her life to live, her road to drive. As she leaned into the refrain, she could almost feel the butterflies splattering against a windshield of determination as the emotional feedback of her song filled her with renewed strength.
Whatever tomorrow brings, I'll be there...
With open arms and open eyes, yeah.
Whatever tomorrow brings, I'll be there.
That was the message she needed. Life would go on. She would go on. And... her mouth smiled around the lyrics as she watched her friends cheering. It wasn't like she was alone on this road after all.
Would you choose...
Water over wine...
old the wheel and drive?
Whatever tomorrow brings, I'll be there...
With open arms and open eyes, yeah.
Whatever tomorrow brings, I'll be there.
—Erica, after classes
Whateley was in many ways an irregular school, and not just because of its student body. Its class schedule was bendier than a dozen pipe-cleaners, and even now, after an eighth-period class and practically into the evening, there were lights on in classrooms and students scurrying purposefully.
"Hey," she called to Pat. The Poe boy was walking into the building as she was leaving, with a book bag slung over his shoulder. "You have another class?"
"Just on Wednesdays," he said. "Perhaps more often if this works out. Piano lessons."
"That sounds cool. You know, I used to take piano a few years ago. Do you think I could sit in sometime?"
Pat shook his head. "I'm afraid that's not possible. I.." Now the boy paused, and it occurred to Erica that she'd never seen him hesitate about anything before. To be Pat was to be self-assured, it always seemed. But... "One moment. I need to consult."
Dropping his bag, the boy dug a small, round item out of its side pocket. Sleek and black, with a window on one side and moebius strip on the other, it was unmistakeably a magic 8-ball. Pat held it in his hands, muttered a question, then shook it vigorously. Inspection of the answer resulted in a nod. "Okay, I can trust you with this much," he said.
"How my powers work. At least some of them."
"I thought you were an empath," said Erica.
"Well, yes. At the most basic level I am," said Pat. "My brain is constantly receiving impressions from everyone around me, and what does it do with it? Guiding my actions, informing my every gesture and step so whatever I do looks cool."
"That sounds useful..." Erica ventured. "So it's like being a Paragon?" They'd covered that power a bit in class that very morning.
"It's like being a cheat." Pat made a face. "Imagine having everything come out perfect, every time, as long as someone's watching. But when I'm alone..." He sighed. "When I'm alone, it's only me, with no skill, no talents, nothing but the knowledge that I'm a fraud."
He leaned back against the building wall, not quite slumping, but Erica could recognize the feeling. Her backside joined his against the brick, while memories of Operation Snowflake flurried through her head. It sounded like Pat was living as much of a double life as she was. "I can understand what it means to fake it," she admitted. "So, your early morning martial arts class...?"
"Is me versus combat androids," Pat confirmed. "Sensei Tolman's trying to confirm whether or not I can actually retain anything from her group classes. The results don't bode well for me, I'm afraid. I do a lot, but my body won't learn from it if it's being pulled around by other people's impressions. That's why the piano lesson, too; with an audience, I'm playing Mozart or Chopin flawlessly. Without one, I can barely manage 'Chopsticks', and even that's difficult."
"That must suck." She let the word hang in the air for a moment. "So, um... does it ever... y'know, get to you?"
"Every damn day," Pat said. "And the worst part is, I can't even freak out if anyone's around. Instead, I go find a secluded spot and call my girlfriend in St. Louis. She's a wonderful listener. I..." He took a deep breath. "I'm practicing piano via an online tele-teach service so I can play something for her someday. Speaking of which..." He checked his watch. "Lesson starts in ten. See you around, okay?"
Erica waved him goodbye as he ran off, wondering at how there always seemed to be someone out there whose life was more messed up than hers was.
—Thursday, Sept. 15th, lunch period
Brita Baumann wasn't known for the sweetness of her moods at the best of times. As she stormed through the Crystal Hall, her mood seemed to hover over her like a thundercloud. Groups went silent at her passage, and the more experienced males quickly turned and found a different path to take.
Up the stairs and to the left, she could find the source of her frustration. Erica von Abendritter and Fiorella Persico, Eisenmädel and Calliope, as fine a pair of Amazon candidates as they might find this year, already burned by contact with the toxic phallic threat. Perfect, even, if it weren't for their... friends. She scowled at the sight of that table, half-filled with gender traitors and falsches-Mädchen as it was. Morgana and her two friends, the tricolore of the heresy in her eyes, were not there, but the one she did see was just as bad, if not worse.
Hat Trick. She scowled at... him. After the unpleasant surprise that was the red, white, and blue trio, she'd had the entire freshman floor of Poe properly investigated, leaving nothing to chance. The normal assumption that falsches-Mädchen could only number three or four a year on average was turned on its ear with this class, with another four former males taking up precious space in the dorm.
And then... Pat Barnes. She'd read her girls' reports and immediately checked the school records. A boy turned female by mutation, she could almost accept as an unfortunate twist of fate. Almost. A person such as Pat... no. There were no words for such treachery.
It would be tricky, warning her little chicks of the foxes in their company. Difficult, but not impossible. Brita shoved her anger down deep, the better for it to smoulder.
Soon, others would burn.
—Wahnsinnig, later that evening
A score of files were open on her computer's desktop. Some were reports, gleaned from students who never turned down a bit of extra spending money in exchange for enabling their snooping fantasies. With the prevalence of smart devices on campus, it was frightfully easy to in essence crowdsource constant surveillance on someone. Her coverage of Erica von Abendritter wasn't quite as thorough as that. It lacked good quality sound, for one.
Idly, she considered hiring Playback, the freshman from Twain whom she'd been tutoring last Tuesday. His powers were auditory in nature, he'd said, which probably accounted for his relatively not-so-bad school German. Perhaps when next her monthly stipend came around... She was pretty well tapped for the month.
Her phone buzzed, displaying Arni's number. It was in her hand in a flash.
"Hello?" she said. "Arni? You have anything?"
On the other end, the German hacker's voice was tinged with fatigue. "Not for your principal person of interest," he said. "I cannot find any mention of her in the public registry or records before this summer, and the only other lead takes me deep into the high-security areas. Someone does not wish her private information to be public."
Kirsten's nose wrinkled at that, and a sneer cut across her face, for fortunately none to see. "Strange and suspicious."
"Exactly. Now, as to the surname..." There was the sound of shuffling paper on Arni's end. "You were right about it being a fabrication. The interesting part is who invented it."
"You found it?" The sneer was now a smile, though no more attractive.
"It was well buried, but I finally got a hit from an archive. From the fucking Weimar Republic, of all things. A man named Manfred von Loeffelholz changed his surname to Abendritter after a falling-out with his family. Some ancillary data led me to his academic career, and then to his service record under the Third Reich."
"So he was a Nazi. What else is new?" Kirsten groused. Most Germans had long since learned to look the other way when it came to that sort of ancestral embarrassment.
"What's new is that he was not Wehrmacht, or Abwehr, or even Schutzstaffel," Arni told her. "He was in the Spezielle Operationsbüro für Angst und Weltherrschaft."
"A Schattenherren. One of the great masters of that dark period. Does the name Baron Dämmerung ring a bell?"
No bell, but a bloody tremendous gong reverberated through Kirsten's head. It was a good thing she was already seated, or else she'd have fallen over in shock. That was a name that should live in infamy, a bogey-man of the world wars and their shadowy sequels. Her graphic novel collections mostly focused on the secret conflicts, but one series featured the Dark Cabal of the Thule Gesellschaft, that circle of madmen posing as scientists that included the likes of Mengele, the Green Skull, le Mecanicien... and Baron Dämmerung.
"Can we be sure?" she hissed.
"Well, it is unlikely that two people with such a rare and fanciful surname might not be related... It's not like Müller or Schmidt or even Groenwald. There are thousands of people with those names. But Abendritter, well, I have only found four. Your girl, her listed parents or guardians, and the Baron."
That Sunday scene between the Abendritter girl and Inkblood came to mind. Yes... the Bad Seed had recognized something, remembered something in that verdammtes memory of his. A part of Kirsten, curious as a cat, wondered what that something might be, if it could perhaps expand upon what she herself knew, but the rest of her would have none of that. Inkblood was a villain's son, a bad influence in his own right, and the only important detail was that he knew the name, not why.
"Dankeschön, Arni," she said. "Keep digging, and let me know if you find more." She cut the connection, already pondering her next step. More would always be good, but what to do with what she had now?
—Friday, Sept. 16th, late afternoon
Erica was getting her books together after one of Herr Auer's discourses, riddled with random puns and wordplay that the stone-faced professor managed to deliver with perfect solemnity. Egal wie dicht du bist, Goethe war Dichter... No matter how dense (drunk) you are, Goethe was denser/drunker/a poet. Coming in the middle of a dry discourse on the Weimarian Classics period of literature, it had sent the entire class into surprised groans. She was still shaking her head at that one as she left for her next class.
"Hey, Ami-Mädchen. Wait up."
Kirsten, the sophomore who'd accosted and insulted her the first day and then refused to even speak to her since, was talking to her now? Erica didn't bother to hide her surprise as the other girl came up alongside her. She did speed up a little, but Kirsten matched her step for step.
"I need a word with you."
"Can't it wait until after eighth period?" she asked. "I'm almost late for class as it is."
The other girl's laugh was harsh. "Ja, we can't let everyone down, can we? Can't show them how the golden idol has feet of clay."
"What are you on about?" Erica tried to pull away, but Kirsten grabbed her by the arm and jerked her back in. The dark-haired valkyrie had a fire in her eyes, but her grip was chill on Erica's skin.
"You know. And I know, too. I know where you come from, von Abendritter, and what you truly are. Do you think they'll ever accept you? Do you think you're even worthy of what you have now?"
For the second time that week, Erica's blood flowed cold in her veins, and this time it was practically arctic. Icicles of fear cascaded through her mind, stabbing through those brain cells that were calmly and logically noting that there was no way that this girl Kirsten even knew about that...
She could practically feel Operation Snowflake come crashing down around her, an avalanche of emotions sweeping it and her away. Frigid blood nevertheless pounded fiercely in her ears, muting whatever it was Kirsten had to say next. Run, run! her mind was shouting, and that bit near the back where all her Aunt Margit's lessons were stored took over.
With a sudden twist, she broke free of Kirsten's hold, grabbing the girl's wrist and bending it backwards. At the same time, she stepped into Kirsten's space, sending her shoe into unprotected shins and delivering an open-palm slam right into the girl's Backpfeifengesicht.
Her legs carried her away. At the moment, she did not care where.
Kirsten watched the golden girl run off with her tail between her legs. Though it hurt her face, she smiled broadly.
Oh! the look on that little bitch's face when Kirsten had told her how unworthy of her codename she was! How shocked, how defeated! Truly, the girl must have thought her villainous past to be a secret well-kept, only for the hand of justice to sweep in and knock over the castles of lies she'd built up!
Such a thing was unworthy of the mantle of das Eisenmädel. Kirsten knew that, and more importantly von Abendritter knew it too. She'd demanded the girl relinquish the name and received a blow to the face as a result, but it was a start.
The seeds of this false idol's destruction were sown, and soon enough there would be a vacancy for that name in the German hero registry. She need only wait.
Infused with the chilling power of fear as they were, Erica's legs could only carry her so far before they became weak and enervated. She'd gone at most only a few hundred yards when she came to a halt, collapsing into a sobbing heap at the base of a maple tree.
The sun had yet to fall below the horizon, but to her the woods were dark, deadened, stripped of brightness until everything was a drab brown-grey. Curled up on herself as she was, she hardly noticed. The whole world could come crashing down and she wouldn't care. The worst was already done.
Undercover assignments were difficult, Uncle Adolf had told her. Always there was tension, stress from the dichotomy of what you were and what you were pretending to be. Except, what she was pretending to be was what she would remain forevermore, and what she had been, she could never get back...
Hiccupy sobs shook her frame, and whatever dam held back her tears had collapsed several minutes ago. The sound of her own crying filled her ears, and she didn't notice the sound of barking until it was almost on top of her.
"Woof?" The gentle canine interrogative came in stereo. A wet nose nuzzled her hand. "Ar-roof?"
Sniffling, she looked up, and then rubbed her eyes to make sure they were working right. Not everything added up. Yes, there was dog. Two sets of warm brown puppy-dog eyes stared at her soulfully. By the pushed-in face and two-colored, black and white pattern, it was a Boston terrier.
Two terriers' worth of eyes stared down from two heads whose necks rose like columns of pure muscle from a stout, barrel-chested body the size of a pony.
"Woof?" One head nuzzled her cheek while the other licked her hand.
A boy's voice cried out, not far away: "Cookie! Here, pup! Where'd ya get off to?"
The owner of that voice stumbled into sight, sides heaving a bit from exertion. In a school of exemplars and strange forms, this one stood out by being normal and perhaps a little overweight. Bright pink eyes hovered in a round face framed by sandy brown hair. "Cookie! Did you find who you're lookin' for?"
"Woof! Woof!" The heads nudged her, encouraging her to stand.
"Is this your... dog?" she asked.
The young man scratched the left head behind the ears. "Sorta? More like I'm its boy," he said. It took Erica a moment to place where she'd seen him before.
"You're the guy from the cafeteria dessert line, right?" she asked. "With the pastries?"
"A-yup, that I am." He took a bow. "Um, are you okay? Cookie don't usually run off like that 'less there's someone in trouble."
She tried to lie. "Oh... I'm f-fine, actually..." A sniffle betrayed her, dragging along its friends and relatives until she was on her knees sobbing again.
A friendly hand patted her shoulder. "There, there. Um, do you have a favorite donut or pastry or somethin'?"
"My... my grandmother used to make strudel..." she admitted.
"Apple or cherry?"
"Cherry, why...?" Her question was answered immediately by a flaky pastry, stuffed with sweet red fruit, presented before her swollen eyes. After a moment's hesitation, she took it from his hand and had a bite. It wasn't quite like Oma's, but it still cheered her up.
"Got a name?" the boy asked. "Mine's Daniel. Daniel Diggins, but most folk call me Donut these days. You already met Cookie."
"Erica." She nibbled on the strudel. "Er, how..."
"How the pastry, or how the pup?"
Donut grinned wide. "Well, the boys down in the lab ain't figgered out how the pastry just yet, but Cookie here's the product of gin-you-wine mad science gone good. Ain't that right, pup?"
The dog's left head nodded while the right head barked. In the rear, its stubby tail wagged furiously.
"And its name is Cookie?" she asked, agog. Even by Whateley standards, this was getting weird.
"Cookie's really pup's codename," Donut admitted. "For the real name, well... check out the tags."
There was in fact a name tag around the dog's chest, hanging next to a collar ID that looked strangely similar to an MID. Cookie waited patiently as she lifted the plate and read aloud.
"Doctor's Precious Little Badass Nihilistic Killer With Enhanced Cognition So It Knows When It's Been A Good Doggie Yes It Does So You F... ahem, Fucking Gremlins Better Stay Away From My Stuff Or Else... cont. on reverse." She flipped the tag over in disbelief, then gave up on the rest for being a bad idea. "So... Cookie it is, huh."
"Woof, ar-roof!" The two heads grimaced happily as she scratched them behind the ears.
Donut sat down on the leaves and dirt beside her. "Anything you wanna talk 'bout?"
"N-not really..." She couldn't trust herself to form the words.
"Okay then, my turn. Once 'pon a time..." Donut began a convoluted tall tale about a man out to catch himself some of the fabled furred trout up on the mountains of Idaho, only to run afoul of a lake monster that was fishing for him instead. Erica giggled at every improbably twist and turn, from the hopping coily-snakes to the inflatable porcupine-things. Her strudel was finished well before the end, but the young man pulled out a second piece, apple this time, apparently from thin air.
"Th-thank you," she said as the tale ended. "I'm ... feeling a little better."
"Ain't no problem," he assured her. His pink irises twinkled in the twilight.
Erica tried to stand, but wobbled as her feet protested with pins and needles. She practically tripped over her own toes, and would have fallen if Donut hadn't helped to keep her steady.
"Thanks, um, again," she said nervously. What to say? What to do? After a week of dealing with dorm drama, exemplar hormones, and apparently a rival of some sort, she wasn't quite sure what to do about a genuinely nice guy and his dog. Or a genuinely nice dog and his boy.
According to Aunt Margit, in situations not directly involving life or death, sometimes the best thing was to do what felt natural. And what seemed most natural in that moment to her technically unnatural physical self was to lean in, hug Donut, and give him a big kiss on the cheek.
Well, her hormones had been aiming for the lips, but she'd chickened out at the last second.
"Um, miss? Erica?" Donut tried to extricate himself, but her arms had him in a tight huglock as she sniffled into his shoulder. "Er, hate to be a wet blanket, but we don't really know each other, and it, er, ain't right to, er, you know."
Her sniffles turned to giggles. "True," she admitted. Easing up on the hug, she looked him in the eyes, blue to pink. It took all her willpower not to kiss him again. "So... let's get to know each other. How about that? Are you, um, doing anything this weekend?"
"Are you askin' me out on a date?"
"I dunno?" she said. "Never asked before. Or been asked." She giggled nervously.
"Well, um, Cookie and I've got K-9 trainin' all day t'morrow, but the Lord's Day's fer restin' and enjoyin', so... Sunday?"
Erica finally let him go. "Okay. Sunday afternoon. Just the two of us hanging out."
"And you too, Cookie," she promised.
They exchanged school contact info and went on their separate ways. It wasn't until she was halfway to the Crystal Hall that it occurred to her that she'd just made her first true decision as a girl, with no sense of panic or fear stemming from it. Weirdly, it felt kinda good. Buoyed by confidence and a stomach full of strudel, she felt ready to take on the world.