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Diane Castle / Aquerna / Never Look a Gift Squirrel in the Mouth

Never Look a Gift Squirrel in the Mouth

A Whateley Vignette

By Diane Castle

Wednesday, December 13
Whateley Academy, Arena '99 stands

Anna was sitting with her best friend Rhiannon, most of the rest of the Underdogs, and some of the Outcast Corner gang.  She watched avidly as Fey detoured to have a quick chat with Razorback.

It was so weird seeing Fey actually talking to Razorback.  She knew Razor was a great guy - he'd helped the Underdogs out plenty of times with bullies - but Fey was like the most beautiful girl on campus, and she could be talking to anyone.  The coolest seniors.  ANYONE.  And she was talking to Jack as if they were best buds.  Anna was really curious about how they knew each other.  Okay, Anna was pretty curious about everything.  She couldn't help it.

Fey gave Jack a smile, then patted Jericho on the shoulder before she strolled off.  That was just so…  It was way nicer than you'd think someone like Fey would be.  But that was Fey.  Half the Underdogs were practically the Fey Fan Club, if you wanted to get down to it.  And Fey had actually talked to Anna, when tons of people at Whateley wouldn't talk to 'the girl with that stupid squirrel spirit' unless they were picking on her.

Anna was caught completely by surprise when the announcer called out, "Our next combat match is.. Aquerna!"

Rhiannon squealed, "It's you!  You're up!"

And there was her MID in mid-air over the arena, along with a picture of her.  It wasn't a bad picture, but it just showed that Anna was in the 'cute and perky' category, far below the pretty Exemplars who were all over the school.

Codename: AQUERNA
Ratings: Avatar-1, Martial arts - basic
Techniques: Tree climbing, Jumping away
Weak vs.: Magic, Psi, Speedsters, Fliers, Bricks, Energizers, Warpers,
More powerful avatars, Devises
Backup/Team:  Underdogs

"And the next battling babe is Aquerna!  The squirrely girl herself.  Now she's not exactly babe material like our last contestant, but she's sure easier on the eyes than, oh, She-Beast.  Or Kaiju," Peeper insisted.

Greasy added, "Or Wunderkind."

"Good point, minion.  That Wunderkind?  It's only a 'wunder' no one makes her wear a paper bag over her face.  Arf!  At least Kaiju's got some curves.  I bet there're plenty of weirdo Godzilla fanboys who spank the monkey over her.  Speaking of which, let's see what Aquerna has for a costume!"

"I heard she's going to be wearing a full bodysuit…" Greasy tried to add.

"Whatever.  It's got to be better than that labcoat Wunderkind was hiding under.  Maybe next time Wundy can get a costume from Berlin Tent and Awning."

Anna hopped up and skittered along the backs of the chairs in front of them to get to the aisle.  Then she trotted down the steps.  She wasn't exactly scared.  But she was so nervous and worried that her stomach was knotting up.

"Go get 'em, Squirrel Girl!"

She turned to see what girl was shouting that.  Squirrel Girl was a character right out of Marvel Comics.  Most of the girls in Dickinson only called her that to be mean.

It was Phase.  Phase was different.  It was Phase who had helped her find a codename, and it was Phase who had told her how cool the Squirrel Girl comic book character was, and it was Phase who had shown her a couple cool moves someone like Anna could use.  You wouldn't think a Goodkind would be nice to regular people.  Heck, Phase was way nicer than most of the kids Anna had gone to middle school with, and none of those kids were rich or famous or anything.

Phase gave her a big thumbs-up.

She grinned and hurried down toward the arena entrance.  She paused to catch the second MID. 

"…versus Buster."

Codename: BUSTER
Ratings: Exemplar-3 / Energizer-2
Techniques: Brute force; Kinetic energy absorption
Weak vs.:  Magic, Psi
Backup/Team: Brute Squad

"Aaaand it looks like the Chipmunk Chippie is up against Buster!  No T and A there, boys.  Just pain, pain, and more pain.  The Ultraviolents will be sitting on the edges of their seats for this one!"

"I don't know if we'll see a match at all here, Peeper.  Aquerna may just decide to avoid Buster entirely."

"I'm sure YOU would, oh cowardly one.  But let's see what our little rodent is made of…"

Anna's heart sank.  Everyone knew Buster.  Buster was a vicious bully who enjoyed hurting other kids.  He'd picked on plenty of the Underdogs before.  And he had this weird thing where the harder you hit him, the stronger he got.  That 'kinetic energy absorption' thing on his MID.

She stepped into the arena, and the force field sealed itself up behind her.

It was time to use what she'd learned, before Buster beat her to a bloody pulp.  She took Ayla's smokebomb from her pocket, took a deep breath, and threw it to the ground between her feet.

The smoke cloud surrounded her.  It was a good thing she was faster than she looked.  She slipped on the gray domino mask, quickly slid out of her Whateley uniform, and pulled on her gray gloves.  Under her school uniform, she had her own version of the Squirrel Girl outfit from Marvel Comics.  Solid gray bodysuit with matching gloves and boots, and a sleeveless leotard of a short faux-fur that looked like brown squirrel fur.

She leapt out of the smoke cloud.  The one thing she was really proud of was her leap.  She leapt a good twenty feet before landing on all fours.  She jumped up and sprinted toward the spindle.

"Nice costume change.  That fancy leap out of the smoke cloud ought to be worth some extra cred.  Whaddaya say, Greasy?"

"Well, I didn't know she could leap that far.  That could give her a tactical advantage if she can…"

"Shut up, we're not interested in that.  Just look at that outfit!  Where's the cleavage?  Where's the skin?  Where's the tease?  She's got a skintight costume, but she's covered up all the good parts with some stupid squirrel fur stuff!  Doesn't this girl know that when you have to compete with the hot Exemplar babes, you have to show a lot of skin?  Our viewers are expecting better than this!"

"I think that-"

"Never mind what you think, Greaseball.  At least she's better looking than the girls like Phobos and Deimos.  Got some nice curves that might develop over the next couple years into something worth looking at.  Meanwhile, she's an Underdog, but not quite a 'dog'.  Just plenty of 'under'."

Anna knew she couldn't get to the spindle and enter questions fast enough to win before Buster caught her.  She knew Buster would want to beat her up before he went to the spindle.  So maybe she could get him to chase after her.  Maybe she could lose him in the buildings or something.  At worst, she could hide from him so he couldn't find her.  She knew she could climb up to places he could never reach.

She got to the spindle first.  She was faster than she looked.  Buster was an Exemplar-3, but she was as fast as an Exemplar-3 herself, and she could leap farther.  Buster was just a lot bigger and a lot stronger.  And a lot meaner.

She punched in her student ID code, and the spindle announced her presence with a loud gong.  She skittered out of the spindle and moved to the side of a concrete-block building.  She got there just before Buster came tearing around the corner.

"You're toast, Squirrel-bitch!"

"Uh-oh fans, it looks like our chipmunk girl has gone squirrely on us.  She's backed against a wall and it looks like she's frozen.  Not much of a fight so far."

"Maybe it's some sort of instinctive squirrel-like reflex, and-"

"Shut up, Greasy.  I say she's just frozen, and she's about to be roadkill."

Anna waited a few seconds, until he got closer.  Lord, he was huge.  He looked seventeen, even though he was still a sophomore.  He was about 5'8", and he had maybe 250 pounds of Exemplar muscle packed on that frame. 

She stuck out her tongue and smirked, "Catch me, if you can!"

He ran right at her, fists raised.  She pressed back against the wall.  He leapt forward to smash her.

And she went straight up the wall.

He pounded into the concrete blocks with both fists and yelled angrily, "Damn!  That hurt!  You'll pay for that, bitch!"

"Nice move for a squirrel!  And she's up the side of the building, moving away from Buster!  He looks pretty mad.  Looks like he got hurt more than he planned.  Not that Buster ever plans past the punch-them-in-the-head stage…"

Anna stopped halfway up and turned so her head was pointed downward.  "Then come and get me, Buster!"  She righted herself and headed up for the building roof.

She ran across the roof and peeked over the edge.  No sign of Buster.  That was probably bad.

The roof access door flew open and Buster came storming out.  "No place to hide now, Squirrely!"

"Uh-oh.  Well Greasy, what's our little rodent going to do now?  It looks like Buster has her cornered!"

"Well obviously, if she can climb up a concrete wall and stop halfway up, she can climb back down.  Maybe she's trying to wear Buster out or trick him somehow."

"Well it doesn't take much to confuse the Bust-em Boy."

Anna sprinted across the roof toward the far corner.  "Then come and get me!"

He obviously thought he had her trapped.  He sprinted after her at full speed.  She ran as fast as she could, jumped onto the parapet…

And leapt without ever slowing down.

Hardly anyone had seen her jump before.  Only the kids in the Parkour group Mister Mahren had let her join, and poor Mister Mahren was dead now, so she wasn't even doing much Parkour with the group.  It wasn't exactly like there was a place to show off your long jump at Whateley.  But her body was about ten percent lighter than it looked, and her bones were stronger than normal, and she could jump like a squirrel.  The building across the road was a good fifty feet away.

She easily cleared its parapet and kept on running.

Buster saw the stupid little bitch take the jump.  So it couldn't be too hard.  He jumped after her.

"OH FUCK!"  He suddenly saw that the next building was farther than he could make.

Way farther.

He hit the side of the brick building, face-first and arms spread out, before he dropped two floors to the concrete sidewalk.

"OW!  Goddamnit, that hurt!  You are so gonna pay for that, bitch!"

"Whoa nelly!  I haven't seen a splat into a wall like that since I last watched Roadrunner cartoons!"

"That had to hurt.  Buster's going to be getting grief about that one for a long time."

"He's going to be hard to stop now.  Let's see what he does next…"

Anna ran across two more roofs before she saw something that made her spirit soar.

A park.  There was a big two-block park full of old oaks and maples, and even one lone elm tree.

She leapt to the next building and scrambled head-first down the wall.  Then she ran across the street and into the park.

She saw Buster coming around the corner, moving even faster than before.

She could feel them out there, in the trees and under the ground, so she took a chance.  She called out in a chittering language that no human knew.  "If you're out there, I need your help!"

Gunny Bardue turned to Wilson and grinned, "Did she just do what I think she did?"

Wilson laughed, "She must've.  Every squirrel and chipmunk we've got in level two just went apeshit."

Bardue grinned evilly, "Then let 'em loose.  All of 'em."  He looked over at Ito and said, "You knew she'd pull this, didn't you?"

Ito smiled wickedly, "Sometimes, the great sources of information are no more than stories for children."

"Okay, I think she's finally gone off her rocker.  She's run into the park, and she's just standing there screeching!"

"Well, maybe she'll start tearing her clothes off."

"Good thinking there, minion!"

Buster saw her.  She was just standing there in the park, making noises like she was a fucking chipmunk or something.  He didn't give a shit.  He didn't care that her back was to him.  All he cared about was that he was hurt and embarrassed, and someone else had to pay.  He had picked up enough energy from hitting that building that he was faster and stronger than usual, and he was gonna crush that bitch.

He sprinted right for her, intent on smashing her in the middle of her back and crunching her like a tackling dummy.

She heard the tromping steps coming up fast behind her.  Her hearing was way better than it used to be.  As if that wasn't enough, several dozen squirrels came pouring out of the trees and holes in the ground to chitter at her, "Look out!  Look out!  Something that will eat you!"

"Uh-oh, our gray-clad gal doesn't seem to be paying enough attention.  It looks like Buster's about to bust'er one.  This is gonna hurt…"

At the last second, Anna jumped straight up.  She easily sailed over his head as he dove at the spot where she used to be.  He went sliding face-first through the grass and dirt, to clamber angrily to his feet.

He spit out a mouthful of ground and glared at her, "For that, you're dead.  You're not walkin' outta here."

He charged at her again, this time slower, so he could punch her instead of tackle her.

She watched as he moved in.  She could hear the squirrels shrieking for her to run.  But she wasn't ready yet.  She needed more resources.  She called out, "Everyone!  Everyone come quick!"

Buster gave her a fast one-two.

She almost managed to block the blow to her face, getting an arm up enough that his fist only clipped her hard on the ear.  The second blow hit her above her solar plexus, knocking her backward ten feet.  She hit the ground and rolled as sensei Ito had taught her.

"Well, this looks like it.  It was fun while it lasted, but Buster's finally got her on the ropes.  She's not going to be getting up from this one…"

Buster tried to stomp the little bitch, but she moved too fast.  His boot sank into the ground a couple inches as she rolled away and sprang to her feet like a fucking animal or something.

Anna's ear was ringing from the first blow, and she was going to have a whopper of a bruise on her chest.  But she had to catch her breath before she could try the next step.

Buster charged her again, and she stood her ground until he took another swing at her.  She ran up his front and down his back, as if he were a really short tree.  He spun to his right to grab her, and she gave him a fast hip throw so he landed face-first in the dirt.

Up in the stands, Phase watched as Anna actually used that move.  The one Phase had picked up from Chaka, and had showed Anna in aikido class.  Ayla laughed out loud.

Beside her, Tennyo glowered, "I don't know what's so funny.  But if he hurts her, I'm going to teach him a little something about payback."

Chaka smiled, "After the last time, he'll run from you like a scared bunny rabbit.  I don't think even you can fly fast enough to catch him."

Phase hushed them, "Just watch.  She's getting ready…"

Buster was back on his feet, and the stupid bitch was still there, watching him with her head tilted slightly and her two buck teeth sticking out a little over her lower lip.  She even looked like a fucking squirrel.  When he was done with her, she'd look like roadkill.

She smiled chipperly, "Give up?"

"Fuck you, bitch.  When I get a hold of you, You'll be screamin' fer yer mommy."

"Okay.  But don't say I didn't warn you."

He suddenly realized that there were big gray squirrels and little brown chipmunks surrounding the two of them.  Dozens of 'em.  HUNDREDS of 'em.  And every single squirrel was staring right at him.

"What the f…"

She chittered, "Attack him!  Bite him!  Don't let him grab you!  But bite him and stay away from his hands and feet!"

Buster watched in shock as hundreds and hundreds of chipmunks and squirrels suddenly bolted straight at him.

And then they were all over him, biting through his clothes, biting on his tough skin.  His skin was a lot tougher than normal, but…


…but his skin wasn't as tough as the teeth of a rodent that could bite through an acorn.

"AAAAAAGGGHHHH!!"  He ran screaming across the park, swatting frantically.

By the time he reached the edge of the park, his clothes and shoes were long gone, and most of his hair had been chewed to pieces.

Buster ran naked through the streets, trying to keep ahead of an army of fucking little gray monsters that were trying to EAT him or something.  "SQUIRRELS!  GET EM AWAY FROM ME!  SQUIRRELS!!!"

"Well, I have to admit, I didn't see that one coming.  I guess the squirrels know a big nut when they see one.  Well Greasy, it's just a shame that the squirrels didn't get Aquerna's clothes off too."

"I don't think that they would, since she's the one who..."

"Oh shut up, no one wants technical discussion, when a big buffoon's streaking through the streets like a loony."

Bardue looked over at Wilson.  The guy was rolling on the floor, screaming with laughter.  Well, it was pretty darn funny.

Ito just smiled that evil, inscrutable smile and said, "Sometimes, the great sources of information are no more than stories for children."  He lobbed a comic into Bardue's lap.

Bardue looked down to see that it was an old Marvel Comic, folded to a page where Doctor Doom was being swarmed by hundreds of squirrels.  He looked at the monitors, looked down at the comic, looked back at the monitors.. and burst into hysterical laughter.

Anna raced back to the spindle and entered her student ID code, then answered the questions.  She was so worried about her little friends.  Buster could kill any one of them without even trying.  And they had been so brave for her.  She was going to have to snitch even more food than usual from the cafeteria as a reward for them, and then she'd have to find a way to protect them all until they could slip back into hibernation.  Oh man, this spring was going to be murder on them…

The Gong resounded through the arena, announcing that Anna had won.  She had beaten one of the school bullies.  She could hardly believe it.

The muscular boy didn't notice the gong.  He was stark naked, running through a building, screaming, "SQUIRRELS!  HELP!  SQUIRRELS!!  SOMEBODY HELP ME!"

Chaka grinned over at Phase, "You know, those little things really do know how to find a big nut, don't they?"

Tennyo smiled fiendishly, "I can't wait until he goes to the clinic for five hundred squirrel bites on his butt."

"Well Greasy, you think those squirrels are looking for a couple nuts for the winter?"

"Actually, These squirrels must have been kept indoors and fed, because otherwise they'd be hibernat-"

"Shut up, no one wants technical commentary now!"


Ayla insisted into the cellphone, "No, I don't want my name on it.  Just the box of candies, delivered to Aquerna at Dickinson, with the note 'from a Combat Finals fan'.  That's all.  And make sure it's the fruit and nut assortment."  Then she hung up.

Tennyo looked over, "Hey, you can't do that!  I was gonna send her some chocolates!"

Phase grinned, "Go ahead.  How about some flowers instead?  Or a fruit basket?"

"Yeah, a fruit basket sounds good…"


Anna sat carefully in her chair.  She knew sensei Ito, and Mister Mahren had pointed out Gunny Bardue to her a long time ago.  She didn't know the third man.  Buster wasn't there.  He was in the hospital, getting treated for hundreds of scratches and bites, all over his skin.  If it had been anybody but Buster, she would've felt bad for them.  But if it had been anybody but Buster, she wouldn't have needed to have her little friends attack him.

Sensei Ito started, "Aquerna, what would you have done if there had not been a park, or there had not been many squirrels at the park?"

She shrugged, "Just what I was planning on doing anyway, sir.  I was trying to get Buster to follow me all over the arena.  I was hoping I could get him lost so I could go back to the spindle, or maybe just lose him so he couldn't find me, or at least find a place I could climb up to that he couldn't get to."

Sergeant Bardue said, "Now why did you wait so long in the park, before you sicked the squirrels on Buster?  You took some damage, and it could've been a lot worse."

She said, "I had to wait, sir.  I didn't dare try it until there were enough of my friends that they could attack him in a big swarm.  I was afraid that if I tried it sooner, he'd be able to crush them one by one, and hurt or kill them.  I had to make sure they'd be safe.  As safe as they could be, like that."

"Even though you could've died?  Those squirrels can't be more important than that."

She insisted, "But they are!  They think I'm just a really big squirrel.  As far as they can understand, I'm their family.  So they're MY family.  I couldn't let 'em get hurt."

"No matter what?  Even if it killed you?"

She said it.  "Even if it killed me.  I'd rather die than betray my little friends."

Sensei Ito just nodded.  "Let me see.  You faced an opponent who is largely considered to be well beyond your capabilities.  You performed a very nice costume change.  You used your abilities very well in a largely urban setting.  You did not manage to avoid fighting your opponent, but when you did engage in combat, your movements were reasonably well executed.  You put yourself at unnecessary risk to protect animals.  We are going to award you an 'A-'."

It was all she could do not to jump up and scream in excitement.  She'd never imagined she'd get a really good grade in the Combat Finals.  Not 'the girl with the spirit of a stupid squirrel'.  She grinned until her jaw hurt, and she said, "Thank you, sensei!"

Buster wanted to go.  But the jerk doctors said he had to stay overnight 'for observation', whatever the hell that was supposed to mean.  Why would anyone want to watch him lying on a bed?

He was covered in bandages and band-aids, until he almost looked like a mummy.  And he was pissed.  Most of his hair was chewed off, including one whole eyebrow, and he was going to look like a freak until it all grew back.  The first person who gave him shit about it?  BAM!  Right in the mouth!  Then he was gonna track down that squirrel-bitch and…

The door opened, and a nurse led in three guys.  A big tough black guy who was dressed like a soldier.  A short little Jap dressed like one of those movie kung fu guys.  And a big tall guy who had a wiseass smirk that Buster would've loved to knock right off that face.

The Jap started.  "I am sensei Ito.  We are here for two purposes.  First, we will tell you your grade for the Combat Finals.  Then we will deliver a message.  Your grade is an 'F'.  You failed to consider strategy or tactics of your own.  You failed to consider the abilities of a weaker opponent.  You let her dictate the strategy, and you let her choose the battleground.  You failed to fight effectively when she gave you the opportunity.  Then you panicked when she played her ace in the hole."

Buster snarled, "Oh yeah, smart guy?  What the hell would you've done?"

The Jap smiled wickedly, "I?  I would have let the girl run away, and calmly walked to the spindle to enter my own code.  What could she have done if you had simply done your job?"

"Fuck."  Buster hadn't thought about that.  He was stronger than her, and tougher than her, and quicker than her.  If he'd just gone into the spindle, she would've been screwed.  SHIT!

The tough black guy leaned over Buster.  "And now the message.  What happens in finals STAYS in finals.  If you try to get revenge on the girl, you're gonna be one sorry-ass loser.  Remember what happened to Anvil.  It'll go worse for you.  A lot worse."

Shit.  What happened to Anvil was just plain NASTY.  Okay, maybe he'd let this one slide.  For now, anyway.

It was a while later when the phone beside the hospital bed rang.  Buster answered, "What?"

A desperate-sounding voice yelled from the other end.  "HELP!  SQUIRRELS!!  HELP!  HELP ME!  SQUIRRELS!!!"  That was followed by the sound of half a dozen guys howling with laughter.

Buster slammed the phone down.  Hard.  Nobody had said he couldn't go beat up those guys…