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Straight from the Squirrel’s Mouth

By Diane Castle

Chapter 2

Thursday, December 14
Whateley Academy

A strong hand had her by the shoulder and was shaking her hard enough to make the bed squeak.

“Huh?  Wha?  Did I sleep through the alarm?” Anna struggled to wake up enough to figure out why Ellen was shaking her.  “WHA?”

She nearly screeched when she saw it wasn’t Ellen at all, but Zenith, in her usual winter gear of a heavy hoodie.  Zenith put a finger to her own lips.  “Shh!” she whispered.  “I’m just here to get you up and going.  We’ve got Hooligan-ness to do!”

Anna flopped back down.  “I’m dreamin’.  Mister Mahren’s dead.”

Zenith easily pulled her up into a sit.  Sometimes Anna forgot that Zenith was strong enough to flip over a pickup.  Not now, though.  “We’ve got a new Parkour traceuse.  We’re all getting together for super-early breakfast and a run.”

“Truh-soose?” Anna tried.  “What’re you talkin’ about?  This must be a dream.”

Zenith rolled her eyes.  “Traceuse.  Feminine form of traceur.  Our new Hooligan is another girl.  Eldritch.  The one who fought Lancer and Hippolyta.”

Anna tried to make sense of it all.  “Now I know I’m dreaming.  Big campus stars like you don’t come to wake up Underdogs like me.”

Zenith muttered, “Okay, smartypants.  If you’re asleep, pinch yourself.”

“OUCH!” Anna hissed.  “Jeez, that really hurt!”  She’d cut through her skin, since her nails were so sharp.  “Okay, I guess I am awake.  But I still don’t get it.”

Zenith patiently explained, “Parkour.  Starting up again.  Eldritch is willing to teach you.  She’s really good.”

“And you really want me too?” Anna wondered out loud.

“Well, duh.  I didn’t come all the way up here just to see if Solange and Sahar were having a catfight.”

Anna thought for about a second before she remembered what she had to do today.  “I can’t!” she insisted.  She started trying to explain all about all the things she had to get done that day.

Zenith finally stopped her.  “Okay.  I get it.  But I could help.”

Anna tried to stay calm as she said, “You can’t!  I’ve got to do it myself!  I’ve got to make sure it all gets done right!  They could die if I mess up!”

Zenith gently said, “Calm down.  I can do it right.  This is something you could use help on, and I can help.”

Anna was nearly in tears, but she tried to explain.  “No, you don’t understand.  I’ve got to be sure it’s done right.  It means too much.  Please, just… don’t push.  This is something I can’t just ask other people to do for me.”

Zee looked intently at Anna, and could see how tightly wound the girl was.  She finally said, “Okay, I’m going to drop it.  But if you hit any major roadblocks, call me.”

Anna managed to tell her, “Th-thanks.  But now you know why I can’t go to that parkour meeting.  I really, really hope I can go run by Saturday.  Maybe Sunday.  But if I ditch today, are you guys really gonna want me to run with you anymore?  I mean, I’m just an Underdog and you’re all bigtime powers.”

Zenith patted her on the arm and said, “Anna, calm down.  We’re not going to drop you.  Period.  Mister Mahren picked you because he saw you had potential.  Just remember that.  In a school with hundreds and hundreds of superpowered mutants, he picked you.  He saw something in you - in your style - that told him you’d be good at this and you’d be worth his effort.  Don’t ever let that go.  Okay?”

Anna suddenly felt all choked up, but she managed to say, “Okay.  And thanks.  Thanks a lot.”

Zenith slipped out the door.  Anna could hear soft feet running really fast down the hall and down the stairs.

Anna made sure to turn off her alarm clock before she dragged herself out of bed.  She was really tired.  Nearly too tired to stand up.  She’d had awful nightmares all night long.  Finding all her little chipmunks frozen solid.  Finding all of them starved to death.  Finding all of them trapped in a lab and turned into horrible mutant things by Jobe…

And she couldn’t go back to bed now.  She had to get started saving them!  She slipped into her bathrobe, grabbed her shower gear, and trudged down the hall.

While she showered, she thought over the plan for the day.  Twenty-one families to do.  But the carrier held seven to-go boxes.  If the big to-go boxes were big enough for a family of tree squirrels, she could tuck her squirrels into a bunch of nesting material in each box, shove the fruit and nuts for each of them into her backpack, and shove the boxes into the carrier, then run seven families home at a time.  If that worked, then she only needed three runs to get the tree squirrels set.  That sounded do-able.  Maybe she could get it done today.  Maybe she’d have time for a nap too.  And maybe Hazmat would get the stuff made, and she could get started on the ground squirrels and chipmunks, because she didn’t know if she could get the other thirty-seven families all done on Friday.  Maybe Chris would give her Saturday morning too, if he had most of the cages cleared out.  And if that didn’t work and she was really incredibly desperate, she was gonna just let her little friends follow her out of the security areas and down the tunnels, and hide them in the Underdogs hangout until she could get them stowed away for the winter.

Oh God, the other Underdogs would never speak to her again if she did that.  The mess that a couple dozen chipmunks could make in a room?  It would be a disaster!  Gary and Alan and Mindy and all of them would be so mad at her for wrecking their hangout!  But she’d rather have her friends Ree and Luce and Darlene and the rest all angry at her than just sit there while her little friends died.  She could stand having her friends mad at her for a while.  She couldn’t stand letting her squirrels die horrible agonizing deaths.

She dried off, and did her hair with her hair dryer and her roller brush, then snuck back into the room as quietly as she could.  Ellen was softly snoring away, so that was good.

She took the wicker basket she’d prepared last night.  It had enough nesting materials stuffed in it already.  The rest of the nesting materials went into the other wicker basket, for the rest of her little friends.  The fruits and nuts for the tree squirrels went into her backpack, while the rest went on the floor next to the second wicker basket.  The biggest to-go boxes went into the carrier, and the other to-go boxes went beside the fruit.

“Ready?” she whispered to herself.  “Oh God, I hope so!”  She slung on the backpack over her heavy coat, made sure she had her heavy gloves with her, and she slipped out of the room, wicker basket in one hand and box carrier in the other.  She trotted downstairs, wishing she could just cut right into the tunnels and haul everything straight over to the animal care area.  She wasn’t even out the front door before the wisecracks started.

“Looks like somebody’s decided to go for the whole Freshman Fifteen in one go!” giggled a mean voice.  Flicker.  Just terrific.

“Maybe the squirrel spirit wants her to look like a walrus for Christmas,” snickered Fade.

Anna looked around, and sure enough, it was Solange and her gang.  It looked like Anna was so far down the ladder that Solange was dishing off the ‘mean insults’ part of the day to her clique.  Anna said, “Sorry, I’ve got work to do.  See you!”  And she trotted off down the path to main campus, deliberately going fast enough to get away from the ‘queens of mean’.

“Why do you have to pick on people?” she muttered under her breath.  “It’s not like there’s a contest and you have to get enough mean-stuff points to be in the Alphas, because that would be…  Oh God.”  It suddenly hit her.  What if they did have to do mean stuff in front of other people, just so Don Sebastiano would keep ‘em around doing Alpha kind of stuff?  Everyone knew about The Don.  Everyone talked all the time about him.  Especially the Underdogs, since everyone knew it was his goons who were the main bullies on campus.  Guys like Buster and TNT were different, they were just mean because they were losers too and the only way they could feel like not-losers was to make other people be the losers.  So picking on people who couldn’t fight back was totally the thing for them to do, no matter how stupid it looked to everyone else.  But the other campus bullies, like Aries and Icer and those guys, were all working for The Don and sitting with him at lunch and all that stuff.  Everyone knew he was behind half the bullying on campus, and the other half was guys who figured they could get away with it because The Don’s guys were doing stuff that was so much worse.

The creepiest thing was Skybolt and Cavalier.  Gary and Mindy and the others told the younger Underdogs a ton of stuff about them.  Before Christmas last year, Cavalier and Skybolt were dating really seriously, and were part of the Europeans, and were talking about The Capes.  Cavalier and Don Sebastiano were in some sort of competition, she wasn’t clear on that.  And then, after Christmas, it was like somebody ripped Cavalier and Skybolt’s brains out and stuck in some sort of ‘just be a slave’ sort of brain.  Mindy insisted The Don must’ve brainwashed them somehow, but the really scary part was the school brought in some really powerful psychics - like Fubar wasn’t enough? - and scanned them a bunch of times, and couldn’t find any sign of psychic tampering.  Gary said if it wasn’t psychic stuff it had to be magic, but Trish was a WIZ-1 and she said the magic faculty had checked Cavalier and Skybolt too, and they hadn’t found any trace of anything magical going on.  Alan thought it was something even scarier.  He thought The Don just talked them into it.  Which didn’t make any sense, even after Alan explained how The Don did these headgames on Peppercorn and turned him from an angry guy who generally helped against the school jerks into a really angry guy who helped The Don against the school good guys.  And plenty of people said The Don had just used headgames to turn Bogus into a complete wreck who The Don then re-shaped the way he wanted.  Anna hadn’t seen any of that for real, except maybe the night The Don tried talking to Team Kimba and Chaka punched him in the face and whatever was going on was bad enough that Chaka made The Don get detention.  So maybe The Don was doing psychic stuff on people and being really super-sneaky about it so the faculty couldn’t catch him.  Which meant maybe he really had turned Cavalier and Skybolt into bad guys with psychic powers that nobody could spot afterward.  That was a really scary thought.  All the Underdogs just stayed as far away from The Don and Hekate as they could.

And how would you tell if someone was using psychic powers like that?  Did anybody really have superpowers forensic sciences stuff?  The only time she’d ever seen superpowered people on CSI, Gil Grissom had caught the killer using regular old forensics to prove it was an evil mutant trying to frame the other mutant.  And “Tales of the MCO” never used special superpowers forensics, they just knew it was always a mutant behind bad things, and it was that stupid Pharaoh guy way too often.  Anna really didn’t like that he was a real bad guy and she still thought he was majorly hot.  She wondered if Sergeant Wilson’s abs looked like that…

No, she was not gonna think about Sergeant’s Wilson’s naked body!  Not after he was so not helpful about her squirrels!  She unzipped her coat to get some cold air so she could stop feeling so hot and bothered, and she told herself to think about other stuff.

Firecat, one of the Wild Pack flew through the air over main campus, and she thought about them instead.  She thought the animal-naming thing was really sort of goofy, but they all had it.  Stormwolf probably started it.  He ran the Wild Pack.  Everyone called them the Betas, but she thought that was just mean.  She figured it was a bunch of Alphas who tagged ‘em with that name.  And Stormwolf didn’t seem to care.  But he was so busy caring about justice and campus security that he didn’t seem to care about a lot of little stuff, like Underdogs getting picked on.  If it wasn’t for people like Razorback and Jimmy T, maybe nobody would help the Thornies and the Choo-choo Twains and the Whitmaniacs and the Underdogs.  She’d had to rescue Nate maybe four times this fall, mainly by picking him up and slinging him over her shoulders and climbing a tree to get away from bullies.  It would really help if Nate would stop pissing them off first, but whatever spirit Nate had inside him seemed to like Nate’s naughty behavior.  Anna knew how that went, because her spirit really was pushing her extra hard to sleep in late these days, so she couldn't imagine what was going on in Nate's head.  Nate didn’t even seem to notice how his spirit was pushing him to do stuff, but maybe that was because his spirit was so different from hers.  Her spirit was a squirrel, and it wanted to be part of a family, and it didn’t want to take over things, and so it wanted her to agree to the stuff it wanted, so she could sort of see it asking about doing stuff, instead of just wanting to do it and making you do it, like Nate seemed to be.  Or maybe Nate was really just like that for real, and the spirit wasn’t doing anything.  She didn’t know.

Anna had met Firecat a couple times.  She liked him.  He was really nice, and good-looking, and he didn’t get all ‘my way or the highway’ like Stormwolf, and when Stormwolf was being all “you have to follow the rules no matter what”, Firecat didn’t get all cranky or arguing or stuff, he just sort of teased Stormwolf some.  She liked that.  And Firecat didn’t mind if you called him Bob.  Stormwolf got all cranky at you if you called him Adam, like he didn’t have a real name anymore or something.  She’d seen Stormwolf get really crabby at Gary one time for calling him Adam, and Firecat had been there, teasing him out of his crankiness.  Or maybe making him more crabby, but at Firecat instead.  The cool thing was Firecat not only didn’t care if you called him Bob, lots of times he let you call him Bobcat like it was his codename, and not a funny mix of his real name and his codename.  She hadn’t seen anyone else do that with their codename.  And lots of people called him Bobcat now.  Sometimes, even Stormwolf slipped up and called him Bobcat!  Even if Rhiannon thought ‘Aquerna’ was enough like Anna’s real name to count the same way.  It was sort of a weird coincidence that her name was Anna Raquel Parsons, and you could pick letters out of her whole name to spell her codename.  Or was that kind of normal anytime you had a codename that was mostly vowels?  Rhiannon once spent a whole evening playing anagrams, trying to turn ‘Anna Raquel Parsons’ into something with Aquerna in it, sort of like how ‘Tom Marvolo Riddle’ turned into ‘I am Lord Voldemort’.  But the best Ree came up with was ‘Aquerna plans sonar’, which didn’t make any sense.  But it was still better than Nate’s suggestion: ‘Aquerna sans la porn’, which just sounded really dirty.  And French.

Anna took the time to rush down to the tunnels and carry her stuff to the animal care area.  And she was worried maybe her security card wouldn’t really work right.  She held it over the card reader, and held her breath…

CLICK

The door unlocked.  “Whew.”  She blew out a long breath of pure relief.  She would’ve been in so much trouble if that card didn’t work.  There was like no way Chris would stop what he was doing and walk her in and out half a dozen times a day, when it seemed like he was running around in there taking care of tons of animals without any help at all.  Or maybe more like three dozen times tomorrow, if the to-go box carrier idea didn’t pan out.

She walked to the elevator and had to wait and see if the elevator would really work for her card.  And then she had to use the card again at the door into the animal care area.  And then again for the door into the squirrel room.  She was so glad when she finally hauled her stuff through the airlock doors into the room of cages.

“Big squirrel!  Big squirrel!  Look!  More food!  Yum!”

She grinned, “Good.  Eat up.  I’m taking the tree squirrels to their homes today, and I hope I can take the rest of you to your homes really soon after.  Then you can do the winter sleep.”

“Like it here!  Lots of food!  No squirrel eaters!”

“I know,” she said.  “But they won’t let you stay here all winter.  You’d die.  So I need to get you back outside and back to regular life.  I’ll take care of you.  You’ll see.”

“Trust you!  And like the food!”

She kept a smile on her face, but she felt like crying.  They trusted her.  They depended on her.  She couldn’t let them down.  She just couldn’t!  She had to make this work.  She just had to!

She set all her stuff down on the shelves.  Even her coat and gloves.  She wouldn’t need those for breakfast.  She said, “I’ll be back in a little while, and we’ll get the tree squirrels back in their trees.”

“Trust you!  Bye big squirrel.”

Chris caught her as she was walking down the hall.  “Hey Aquerna, what are you doing here?”

She explained, “Sensei Ito got me a security card so I can get the squirrels out of your hair early.  I’m going to try and take all the tree squirrels out this morning, and that’ll leave half your cages empty so you’ll have less animal care and you can start clean-up in there early if you want to.  And I’ll see if I have time to do all the cage cleaning and food and water too, this afternoon.”

Chris looked like he’d just gotten a neat Christmas present.  “That’s great, kiddo.  I’ll wait on their cages and see if you have ‘em done by maybe four today.”

“Sure,” she agreed.  “That sounds fine.”  She didn’t like that Chris was so eager to skip out on helping her little friends, even if he had all that other stuff to do, but having him out of her hair would really make her job easier.

She let herself out, and was glad the elevator and the security door worked going the other way too.  She tucked the security card inside her sweater, and decided she’d better make a quick detour over to check on Hazmat.

This time, she knew how to get to the main chem lab area.  She knocked pretty loud and waited for maybe half a minute.

The guy with the rash on his face answered.  “Hey!  Aquerna!  This is great.  Hold on one second.”  Then he turned and bellowed into the room, “Hey Haz!  Your GIIIIIRRRLLL-FRIIIEEENNDD is here!”

“Oh shut up,” Hazmat growled.

“Haz’s got a girlfriend, Haz’s got a girlfriend…”

Hazmat complained, “What, are you guys all third graders now?”

Some guy she didn’t know called out from the back of the room, “Does it mean we can still eat the white paste?”

These guys were so gross.  She hadn’t liked the white paste even when she was back in elementary school.  She sure remembered Billy West and Tommy Arletti stealing scoops of the white paste out of the white plastic jars, and eating it when the teacher wasn’t looking, and then snitching paste from other kids when theirs was all gone.  Now just thinking about eating it was icky.  And it made her feel like she had a sort of paste-y taste in her mouth.  She wished there was a water fountain around here.

Rash-face-guy led her over to where Jerry was hard at work, with three jars of powders that were all labeled “Controlled Substance - Do Not Use Without Permission” out on the workbench next to some measuring things and fancy electronic scales.  Yuck.  Was that what you needed to make the H.I.T. stuff?  She remembered that Hazmat and Jobe both said it was some sort of opioid, which she figured meant it was like opium somehow, so maybe you needed illegal drug chemicals to make it.  She hoped Hazmat wasn’t getting in trouble making this for her.

She said, “I hate to bother you, but I wanted to know how things were going, and I didn’t know if I should just come by or what…”

He looked up from some weird glassware he was using.  There was this bubbling flask over a little burner, and vapors were coming off it, and the vapors were going up through a clear plastic tube into this big glass thing that had cold water pouring through it and also the vapor going through the middle in this cool-looking clear glass spiral, so maybe the water cooled the vapor down and turned it into liquid, because drops of stuff were dribbling out the other end into another flask.

He smiled, “Hey, I’m glad you dropped by.  I’m doing okay.  I’m hoping I’ll have the stuff distilled by this afternoon, but it’s really tricky, because it’s thermolabile.  That means too much heat will break down the final product.  So, once I’ve got it, I have a test kit put together to see if it makes the reagents react like they’re supposed to.  That’s a really good test of whether I’ve got the synthesis correct.  Once I get that far, we’ll be ready to try it on a couple of your squirrels, just to make sure it works right for them before we think about dosing everyone.”

“But it’ll be safe when we give it to them, right?” she checked nervously.

“Oh yeah,” he nodded.  “That’s what the test kit’s for.  It’ll be safe if it passes those tests, but we won’t know for sure that it’ll really put ‘em into hibernation even for a few hours, until we really test it on the real animals.”

She didn’t like the idea of trying anything on her little friends, even if it was something they would all be getting later.  She gulped and nervously asked, “Could you try it on me instead?”

He stared at her like she was crazy.  “There’s no way.  And I mean absolutely no way!  First, that’s a really bad idea.  And it’s illegal.  And we have rules against doing that without animal testing, even if dorks like Jobe think they know better.  I mean, look at what Jobe did to the Fury twins!  And what happened to Grabby!  It’s just a bad idea.  Okay?”

She sort of winced at how upset he sounded.  “Okay.  I just…  I don’t like trying stuff out on them.  They’re my friends.  And they trust me.”

He scowled, like she was saying he was some sort of crazy ‘mad scientist’ kind of deviser.  “I’m not gonna experiment on ‘em and turn ‘em into giant squirrel monsters.  We just need to make sure this’ll really put ‘em into hibernation!  If it doesn’t and you stick ‘em outside…”

“Eww,” she said,  If it didn’t work, she had to know.  She had to know before she took ‘em outside.  She sighed, “Okay.  Let me know when you’re ready to test the stuff on ‘em, and I’ll take you down into the animal care area and I’ll tell ‘em to let you give ‘em the shots, and you can… shoot the stuff into ‘em.  But don’t hurt ‘em.”

He nodded, “Sure.  But you may have to hold the squirrels for me.”

She blinked at that.  “Oh.  Right.  Sure.”  She didn’t like the idea of holding them while someone stuck a needle into them, but it would sure be better than not holding them and not talking to them while some guy stuck a big old needle into them.

She looked at all of his fancy chemistry equipment and said, “I’d better let you get back to work.  Okay?”

“Okay,” he said.  “I’ve got a couple hours of synthesizing intermediate products before I get to the big finale, so I need to get back to this.”

She watched him take a big swig of coffee from a cup that had a weird chemical compound on the side.  She didn’t know chemistry, but she’d seen drawings of molecules before.  There was an I with a Dy, and a line down to a capital N, and that had two more lines, each going off at an angle to a capital H.  She knew N was nitrogen and H was hydrogen and she was pretty sure I was Iodine, but she didn’t know what ‘Dy’ was supposed to be.

He saw her looking at the mug, and he grinned, “Oh, this?  It’s a chem joke.”

“I don’t get it,” she admitted.  “Is there even such a thing as ‘D-y’?”

“Sure,” he replied.  “It’s the symbol for Dysprosium.  But that’s not part of the joke.  The part with the ‘N’ and the two ‘H’s is an amine group.  Low molecular weights are called ‘whatever’ amine, and high molecular weights are called amino-whatever.  So this is IDy-amine.”

“Oh!  Like Idi Amin the dictator?” she tried.

“Exactly,” he nodded.  If you think my cup’s weird, you should see the ones Erlenmeyer has.”

“No thanks,” she said.  “He wasn’t very nice yesterday.”

Hazmat shrugged, “He gets grouchy when stuff isn’t working for him in the lab, and some days he’s grouchier than others.”

She watched Hazmat take another big gulp of coffee, and she realized, “You skipped breakfast to come work on this, didn’t you?”

He kind of blushed, “Umm, yeah.  But I’m not that hungry, and we’ve got plenty of coffee down here.  We’re practically a coffee pipeline down here, given how much all us devisers and gadgeteers drink.  Starbucks is missing out on a goldmine here.”

She made up her mind.  “I’m gonna go eat, and I’ll bring back some breakfast for you.  Something you can eat here in the lab with your fingers.”

“Umm, we’re not supposed to have food in here.”

She looked around, “And that’s why everyone has coffee cups, and that guy over there is eating a donut?”

“Well, we’re not supposed to have food in here,” he tried.

“Fine,” she said.  “I won’t tell if you won’t.”

She marched out, but she couldn’t help hearing all the wisecracks behind her.

“Ooh Haz, she liiiiiiiikes you!”

“Shut up.”

“Fixing you breakfast now, is she?”

“Shut up!”

“Is she gonna make sure you go potty next?”

“Shut the hell up, Erl!”

She tried to ignore all the guys teasing Hazmat as she stomped up the tunnel.  Especially Erlenmeyer, who was just being a big jerk.  Sometimes having really good hearing was just a pain.

Anna caught up with her friends in the cafeteria.  Ree and Darlene and Lucille and Nate and Will were all eating by the time she got there.  She grabbed a big bowl of steaming oatmeal to keep her warm all morning, and she sprinkled a bunch of sugar over the top.  Then she snagged a banana from the fruit table.  She got a big glass of milk and joined the gang.

Darlene waved her over, “It’s safe now.”  She pointed at Nate, so Anna would know exactly what she meant.

Anna sat down as Nate complained, “It’s not my fault.  I have an addiction.  I can’t resist the chili.  I think it’s the crack they put in it.”

Will said, “That’s not the crack we have to worry about.”

“Eewww,” complained Darlene.

“Boys, knock it off at the table,” said Lucille.

“Yes mom,” said Nate.

Lucille rolled her eyes as Will tried not to laugh with a mouth full of cereal.

Ree asked, “So what’s the plan for today, Anna?  More Rescue 9-1-1?”

Anna tried not to groan.  “Yeah.  I figure I can get all the tree squirrels settled today, and maybe, just maybe, Hazmat’ll have the drug ready tonight or really early tomorrow, because I’ve got thirty-seven whole families to stow away for hibernating.”

Will butted in, “Wait, I must’ve missed something, because how come you don’t have to get the tree squirrels hibernating too?  I thought all squirrels hibernated.”

Ree bopped him on the back of the head and said, “Haven’t you noticed the guys looking for food in the snow?  Like this morning?”

“Uhh… no,” he confessed.

Anna said, “The tree squirrels around here don’t hibernate.  They just need nice warm nests.  They get out and forage once in a while, when they get hungry.  The ground squirrels and chipmunks do hibernate.  They should’ve been asleep weeks ago, but the combat finals guys messed that up just so I could have one shot at beating Buster.  So now I’ve got to fix it.  Hazmat’s brewing up a chemical that puts squirrels into hibernation, at least long enough for them to stay hibernating if I get them into their burrows and all settled in and stuff.”

Will shrugged, “This is why you never walk into movies in the middle of the picture.  You never know what the hell’s going on.”

Nate said, “I told you all this yesterday.”

Will just glared at him.  “That didn’t make any sense at all.  How does you eating all that chili and getting banned from the clubhouse have anything to do with squirrels?”

“Hey, the chili part is important!” Nate insisted.

Darlene said, “Yeah, it’s really important.  If you want to keep your nose from being burnt off.”

Lucille said, “You expected a Nate story to make any sense?”

“Hey!” Nate protested.

Will muttered, “Not really.  I still remember him telling me all about Shrek, and the only thing I got out of it was a farting ogre who ate gross stuff.  I almost never watched it after that review.”

Nate frowned, “Hey, I just told you the best parts is all.”

Darlene said, “Nate’s review of ‘Twilight’: no farts. Only one star.”

Nate grinned, “That’s not why I’d give that book only one star.”

Anna complained, “Knock it off, no dissing Bella!”  It was totally not fair that the guys she knew all made fun of the Twilight books.  She thought they were really romantic.  And Scrambler liked them too, even if Scrambler started to talk about a hundred miles an hour once she got interested in something.  And Phase was kind of mean and snotty about the books when she heard Anna talking with Scrambler about them.  Well, what did you expect from someone who read Old English literature books in a prep school?  Phase probably thought Romeo and Juliet was great.  Anna had to read part of it in junior high, and she hated the way Romeo and Juliet died at the end.  What kind of book kills off the boyfriend and girlfriend?  That was just wrong.  Shakespeare should’ve had them sneak off to live happily ever after, and then their helpers just go back and say they both died.

Anna finished her oatmeal while she listened to Nate argue with Will and Darlene about how he told stories.  Which was pretty funny, because Nate was a really bad storyteller.  He loved telling stories, but he always got sidetracked on little things he liked, and forgot to get back to the important parts of the story.  If Nate ever tried to tell someone about Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, she figured he would spend tons of time talking about the funny food and the fight with the stinky troll, and completely forget to mention the stuff like Quirrell’s hat and how Snape was acting and the Mirror of Erised.  Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets would be even worse.  She could totally see Nate getting bogged down in the scenes in the girls’ bathroom and forgetting to cover the rest of the plot.  The quidditch parts in the books were really neat too.  Anna would’ve loved to see some kids around Whateley try playing quidditch some day, and maybe they could just fly around and skip the brooms.  Lots of kids around school could fly, and the only person she’d ever seen on a real broom was Hexette.  Fey could be the Keeper and do a spell so nobody could get to the goals.  Phase and Bluejay could be the scorers, since Bluejay could teleport past everyone and Phase could go light and fly through everyone.  They’d be hard to stop.  Especially since Bluejay was kind of crazy so nobody would ever know what he was up to, and Phase was really smart and would come up with all kinds of complicated plans.

Once she finished eating, she got a to-go box for Hazmat. A sliced, toasted bagel that she buttered both sides of, and some hot french toast that was extra crisp and already cut into long sticks.  Plus some apple slices, which she didn’t put in the to-go box because the other stuff needed to stay warm.  She just set them on top of the box after she closed it and hooked the little cardboard tabs together.  Then she trotted off to the elevator and down into the tunnels.

Man, she was spending a ton of time in these tunnels.  She wondered about that as she headed to the Workshop chem lab room.  And now she knew what ‘Workshop’ meant around here.  And she knew there were different kinds of Workshop labs.  And she even knew who not to ask for directions, because they were total jerks and would send you in the wrong direction for no good reason, just to be mean jerks.  Really, if they didn’t want people picking on them when they were walking to class, why would they do stuff like that to people who were just trying to find their way around down here?  Okay, it was a lot easier finding her way around now that she’d been down here a few times.  And she was pretty sure some of that was from her squirrel spirit, because being able to find your way around in underground tunnels was a squirrel skill.  She wondered if she could find her way around with the lights out.  Not that she wanted to have to try, because you could really get lost down here.  There were like miles of tunnels.  There were way too many tunnels and labs and rooms and work areas and everything else.  And some of the places down here were gigantic.  The part of Arena ’99 inside the force fields was bigger all by itself than the entire Ohio State University football stadium including its super-huge stands.  Maybe bigger than that and those huge parking lots around the stadium too, because when she was inside during her combat final, it felt like she was running around in something the size of half of Zanesville.  And there were all kinds of other huge places down here.  She’d heard about a room so big that they even had a giant robot standing up inside it.  Which didn’t sound like a good idea to her, because either the giant robot couldn’t walk, so it might fall over and crush a whole bunch of people, or else it could walk, so it might stomp on a whole bunch of people by accident, or maybe even go crazy and stomp its way across campus like giant robots always did in the movies.

She knocked on the chem lab door.  She waited like half a minute.  After a few seconds, she could hear guys arguing, and they sounded louder as they walked toward the door.  It sounded like Hazmat was arguing with some other guys over who was going to get to open the door.  Hazmat opened it, with Erlenmeyer and another guy right behind him.  The third guy she hadn’t seen before.  He was wearing these really weird lab goggles that came down over his nose and looked more like a scuba diver’s mask than anything else she could think of.  And they were tinted a shiny purple, so she couldn’t see his face inside the goggles.

Hazmat made sure he stayed in between Anna and the two other chem guys.  He smiled, “Hey.  You didn’t really have to come back.”

Anna smiled back, “I said I’d bring you breakfast, so I did.  The apples are on top, because the stuff in the box is still warm.  I got you a sliced bagel and I buttered it-”

“OOOH” teased the two guys behind Hazmat.

“-and there’s some french toast cut in sticks so you can eat it while you work.  But be sure to eat the apples too,” she finished.

Erlenmeyer smirked, “She must really liiiiike you!”

“Shut up, Erl,” muttered Hazmat.  He gave Anna another smile and said, “You really didn’t have to do this for me.  I mean, this is great and all, but you didn’t have to.”

Anna said, “You’re doing all this stuff for me, so I figured it’s the least I could do.”

He scooped the apple slices into one hand and peeked inside the to-go box.  “Whoa!  This is WAY more than you needed to.  This is great!”

The guy standing next to Erlenmeyer peeked around Hazmat and said, “Wow.  You’re gonna share, right?  Because we’re like best buds?”

“And you’ve been giving me shit about Aquerna non-stop since she came by yesterday?” Hazmat complained.  “I don’t think so.”

“Oh come on!” Erlenmeyer whined.

Hazmat acted like a teacher and said, “I think it would just set a bad precedent if you got rewarded for your bad behavior.  Maybe, after you start acting nicer, I’ll share something else.  Maybe.”  He grinned at Anna and said, “Now you wouldn’t want these wayward boys to be led astray, would you?”

She grinned back, “Oh no.”

“See?” he smirked at them.  “It’s social engineering.  Start behaving, and we’ll see.”

“Screw that,” said Erlenmeyer, who stomped off to his workbench.

“See?” said Hazmat.  “That kind of attitude is why you never get french toast.”

Anna left, but not before she heard Erlenmeyer complaining about Hazmat and saying really bad stuff about his mother.  She was really getting to not like Erlenmeyer.

She rushed back to the security door.  She fished the security card out of her sweater, and then realized the security camera above the door was staring at her.  Was that guy trying to look down into her sweater?  Probably not.  There were a lot prettier girls on campus to go ogle, and tons of girls on campus were better developed than she was, and lots of girls wore tighter clothing than she did.  Lots of girls like Solange and Mindbird and Fey and Tennyo and Mega-Girl and Delta Spike and Glorianna and on and on had breasts like a movie starlet.  Or better.  And then there were girls like Compiler and Familiar who had huge breasts that were so big they probably made their backs hurt a lot of the time.  Anna was just kind of normal.

She pushed all that out of her mind as she rode down the elevator and ran into the animal care area.

“Big squirrel!  Big squirrel!  You’re here!”

“Sure I’m here.  It’s time to take some of you home.  And I have extra food for you when we go, so you all have to be really good for me to get your special treat.”

“Food!  Yum!  Food!  We’ll be good!”

She smiled.  “Okay.  Here’s what we’re going to do.”  She showed them a to-go-box.  “I’m putting some nice warm nesting material in here for you.”  She carefully stowed some of the fluffy down - no, she was not going to think about whose pillows Nate probably snitched and ripped apart to get this beautiful fluffy goose down for her - and some of the soft, warm fabric from Ree into each of seven to-go boxes, making sure she had enough for the other fourteen boxes later.

She took all the fruit and nuts out of her backpack and split it up into twenty-one little piles on a shelf opposite the cages.  The squirrels watched and chittered excitedly.  Then she took some plastic bags off a lower shelf and put seven of the helpings into the bags.  Each bag went into her backpack.  “See?  Special treats if you’re good.  Now I’m gonna put a whole family in each box and put all of you into this bigger box.”

“Trap?”

“No, it’s not a trap.  I promise.  It’s just a way for me to carry so many of you at a time.  I’ll take care of you.”

“Looks like trap.  But we trust you!”

“You guys are so great,” she smiled.

She started at the far end of the room.  She’d planned it this way yesterday.  The tree squirrels were all at this end.  She scooped up Itchybelly and her family, and tucked them into the first box.  “Okay?” she asked.

“Yes!  Smells nice!  Really soft!  Really warm!”

She closed the top over them and slid that into the bottom compartment of the carrier.  After the other squirrels saw how easy it was, things got even better.  They hopped into the boxes for her, and she loaded up the carrier.  Then she closed it to keep them warm.  “I’m going to be carrying you around now.  Don’t be scared.  If you hear anything or smell anything, I’ll protect you.  Okay?”

“Trust you!”

“You guys are the best ever.”

She slipped on her coat and gloves, and told the others, “I’ll be back for some of you later today, and I’ll help the rest of you after sleep.”  Then she grabbed the carrier by its top handle and hurried out of the animal care facility before the smells in the hallway could freak out anyone in the carrier.

She rushed through the tunnels toward Hawthorne.  These seven families all lived in the southern parts of campus.  Two were really near Hawthorne, two were in between Poe and Hawthorne but spread out to the sides, two were not too far from Poe, and one was most of the way back toward Melville.  She hoped she could get all of them done pretty fast, and without freezing herself into a block of ice in the frigid weather.

She rushed down the Hawthorne tunnel, worrying about what would happen when she got there.  She hadn’t thought about this ahead of time.  What if the Thornies wouldn’t let her in?  People said that lots of bullies were mean to the Thornies all the time, and so maybe the Thornies had a big locked door down here to keep creepy jerks from sneaking in and doing bad stuff.  Even if a locked door wouldn’t keep out a lot of the bullies around here, especially when everyone knew The Don had at least one teleporter doing stuff for him, and plenty of people with PK powers could just unlock doors with their minds, and wizards could magically unlock doors, and people like Phase could just walk through a door, and lots of people were strong enough to bust down pretty much any door you could find, and all that kind of stuff.  What if she had to go back?  Would the Poesies let her cut through their dorm?  Would she have to go all the way back to central campus and start all over again?  If she couldn’t use the tunnels, her little friends would be out in the cold that much longer before she got them settled, and it would take her a lot longer to get everyone taken care of in their trees.

She walked into the bottom part of Hawthorne and up some steps.  “Hello?  Is anybody here?”  She didn’t hear a soul.

“I’m right here, Aquerna,” said a voice from right behind her.

“EEP!” she squeaked in shock.  There wasn’t anybody behind her a second ago!

She whirled around, hugging her carrier protectively.  There was an old guy, maybe forty, standing there dressed like a teacher, in a tweed jacket that had patches on the elbows, and gray dress pants, and a nice tie that looked really expensive.  He was holding a pipe and looking really like a college professor out of a movie.

She gasped, “How’d you get behind me?  Who are you?”

“And how did I know your name?” the man grinned.  “That’s because I’m Fubar.”

“But… but…”

He nodded, “Right.  Everyone’s told you I’m a freaky-looking thing in a swimming pool in the bottom of Hawthorne.  I am.  But this is a psychic projection.”

She blushed, “I… I didn’t mean to think bad stuff about you.  Sorry.”

“It’s okay, Aquerna,” the man said.  “You can’t help the mental images you have from what other people have told you.”

“But I don’t wanna have bad thoughts about other people, especially people I don’t even know!” she said.

He smiled.  “That’s nice.  Not everyone is as concerned about other people as you are.”  He looked pointedly at her carrier.  “Or about anything that’s not human.”

Suddenly the hairs on the back of her neck stood straight up.  Her squirrels chittered frantically, “RUN!  Run now!  Bad thing coming!  Run!”

She turned around and looked.  It was a girl in a Whateley uniform.  She looked about seventeen, and really really goth.  Her skin was pasty white, and she had black lipstick with lots of black eyeliner too.  Except it wasn’t makeup, because her eyes were like glowing red threats.

“C-carmilla,” she managed to say.  She instinctively put her carrier behind her.  Part of her body wanted to run as fast as she could and not stop running until she passed out from exhaustion.  Part of her body wanted to stay, and not leave, even if the girl might do weird and demonic things to her.  She didn’t know what was going on, but part of her wanted to take her coat off and touch Carmilla.

“Run!  Run fast!  Bad thing will eat us all!  You too!”

Carmilla tilted her head as she stared at the carrier.  “They’re really scared of me, aren’t they?”  Anna managed to nod.  “Don’t worry.  I’m just on my way to the arena.  Tell them I won’t eat them.”

She strolled on past.  Anna stared after her.  It wasn’t until Carmilla was down the steps and out of sight that Fubar said, “It’s her aura.  She’s got it down as much as she can, but it still affects the sensitive, and your spirit makes you more sensitive than most humans.  The fear and the lust are perfectly natural reactions.  Don’t worry about it.”

Anna gulped.  Hard.  She’d heard stories about Carmilla.  Lots of stories.  Stories about how Carmilla used to eat humans the way she eats those animals in the cafeteria.  Stories about how she was a goddess of a cult of people who made live sacrifices in her name.  Stories about how she had demon marks on dozens of kids around campus and could control them however she wanted.  Stories about how she was turning into some sort of thing out of Stephen King novels.  Stories about how she lived in a magic room that changed its location when it felt like it.  Stories about her father who was some kind of horrible demon from another dimension.  Stories about how at Halloween she ate the killers who tried to shoot her.  The stories just went on and on.  Anna gulped again.  She didn’t know what was true and what wasn’t, but she knew what Carmilla could’ve done just seconds ago, and Anna wouldn’t have stopped her.  Which was really frightening.

Fubar quietly said, “It’s okay.  Most of those stories are true, or at least have some basis in fact.”

Anna said, “I didn’t really want to hear that.”

He just said, “If you ever see the real me, you’ll know there are far worse things in our multiverse than a girl who wants to go to Whateley and learn to use her powers.”  Anna wasn’t sure what he meant by that, but she didn’t think she was ready to see what Fubar really looked like.  Even if she didn’t have little friends to rescue.

“Good,” Fubar said.  You just go on up those stairs over there, and Mrs. Cantrel will be waiting for you.  She’ll show you out the front door.”

“Thanks,” Anna managed.

It wasn’t until she was walking up the stairs that she realized he’d been answering questions she hadn’t said out loud.  That really freaked her out.

“Big squirrel!  Bad thing gone?  Safe again?”

She smiled and told them, “Bad thing gone.  Won’t eat you.”  She just wished she felt like Carmilla wasn’t going to eat her.  She wished she didn’t still feel a little like letting Carmilla get her claws on her could feel really good.  That was just creeping her out.

Anna got up to the top of the steps and found herself in what looked like an entryway.  There were kids off to one side, watching television in a big room.  Frostbite was standing in front of a big picture window, glaring angrily at the snow outside and shivering even though she was in a heavy sweater.

“Aquerna!  There you are!” snapped a voice from right behind her.

“Aaah!” she gasped.  She jumped maybe four feet in the air and came down facing the noise.

It was Mrs. Cantrel in a flying chair-thing.  She said, “Sorry, honey.  I didn’t mean to scare you.  Louis let us know you were coming up.  Let me just get you out the front door as quick as we can, so Frostbite doesn’t get any colder.”

As Anna left Hawthorne, she was sure she heard Frostbite muttering, “Ugh!  Why does it have to be so cold?  When I get out of here, I’m moving to the Sahara!”

Anna ran out down the path, not even wanting to think about how cold it was.  She needed to be out in the snow a lot over the next couple days.  And even with the extra cold resistance her squirrel spirit gave her, she was going to be freezing, sooner or later.  She tried to concentrate on getting to the first tree.

It was a big pine she’d seen before.  The nest was in a hole about thirty feet up, where a limb had broken off a couple years ago.  She pulled out the to-go box and let the squirrels skitter up the tree to check things out.  She yanked off her gloves and shoved them in her pocket.  Then she grabbed the nesting stuff and shoved it in the bag with the fruit and nuts.  That went into a coat pocket.  She wished it was warm enough for her to ditch her shoes and socks, so she could use her toenails to climb too, but there was no way she could run around barefoot in this weather.  She scrambled up to the first branch, and then climbed limb by limb up to the hole.

“Big squirrel!  Look!  Our home!  Safe!”

“Good.  Here’s the nesting stuff.  Go ahead and run it inside, and then fix it the way you like it later.  And here’s an apple and a pear, and a bunch of really yummy nuts.  Now you won’t have to forage as much for a while.”

“Food!  Yum.”

“Take care, little guys,” she said as she scrambled down.

Her hands were cold by the time she got to the ground.  The tree was really cold, and there was enough snow on the inner branches to get her hands wet.  Which was really bad, because now they’d get really cold.  She needed a towel or something to hang on the outside of her coat for the other times.

She picked up the carrier and moved off to the next spot.  Her squirrels chittered excitedly, wondering if the other squirrels were okay, and talking about getting back to their homes.

The second nest was harder.  There was a forty foot climb straight up with hardly any branches to use.  And she could hardly use her feet since they were way inside her boots.  The best she could do was try to get a little spot to sort of stand on here and there, and just pull herself up by her fingers.  Well, her fingernails.  So much for her nail polish.  At least going back down was easier.  And faster.

She brushed her hands off and shoved her hands back into her gloves.  Her fingers were getting really cold.  So was her whole head.  And her feet, even inside her boots.  She scooped up the carrier and took off running.  That warmed her up, mostly, even if her fingers were still really cold.

It didn’t take too long to get to the next spot, which was a tree off east of the path from Poe to Hawthorne.  It was in really dense forest, so the snow wasn’t on the interior branches and there wasn’t nearly as much snow on the ground.  Plus the wind wasn’t blowing, so it didn’t feel so cold.  The lowest limb was only about twelve feet up, so getting up to the nest was easier.  She jumped up to the lowest limb, and she could stand on limbs as she climbed after that.  And getting back down was easy.  She dropped from the lowest limb and hastily shoved her gloves back on.

After that, she went pretty much due west, across the brick path and off into the woods on the other side.  That big old oak that had the nest was a real pain.  She ended up climbing a fir tree next to it and leaping onto the branches of the oak.  That was way faster.

She hurried back to the brick path and ran north past Poe.  One spot was just northeast of the dorm, and the other was way northwest of the dorm, back across the path, and off into the heavier forest.  While she was up in the first tree, she saw Lancer flying back to his dorm.  Man, being able to fly would be a huge help on this stuff.  Plus, Lancer was supposed to be really nice, even if he was one of the toughest kids in the freshman class.  Everyone saw what he did against Eldritch, who was just plain scary, and way too good at Parkour.  It was like watching Zenith or Breaker or Mister Mahren.  And that thing where he blasted her with her own energy attack?  Wow, people were sure gonna be leaving Lancer alone after that one.

She finished up with the tree that was halfway to Melville but way off the path.  It was surrounded by smaller trees, so it was easier to climb a small pine and leap into a bigger pine and finally jump into the branches of the tree she wanted.

Once she got back to the ground, she grabbed the carrier box and ran to Poe.  Her hands were freezing.  Her feet weren’t all that warm either.

She stepped into the cottage and called out, “Hi!  Is anybody here?”

Mrs. Horton came walking out with Delta Spike and Mega-Girl.  It sounded like they were talking about dorm rooms and someone in another room.  It wasn’t any of her business, but she couldn’t help it if her hearing was better than normal.

Mrs. Horton looked up, “Yes dear?  Are you looking for someone?”

Anna said, “Umm, no.  I’m Aquerna.  I just wanted to get into the tunnels, where it isn’t so cold, and I didn’t want to have to run all the way back to main campus.”  And she didn’t feel comfortable going back through the lower levels of Hawthorne, because Fubar and Carmilla had creeped her the heck out, but she didn’t want to say that.

Mrs. Horton stared at her and then suddenly said, “Good heavens, you’re freezing!  Let me fix you some cocoa, and then I’ll show you how to get down to the main tunnel.”

Wow, hot cocoa sounded really good, but Anna wasn’t sure she had the time.  “I, umm, I really have to hurry today, and I don’t know-”

“No matter how much you want to hurry, you can’t help anyone if you get hypothermia or frostbite.  You just come into my office and sit down and warm up.  You can afford a couple minutes.”

Mega-Girl smiled and said, “Go ahead.  Mrs. Horton makes great hot chocolate.  And you can wait on all these food deliveries for a couple minutes.”

Anna admitted, “It’s not food.  I’m trying to put all the squirrels and chipmunks from my combat final back in their nests for the winter, and this is just to keep them warm.”

Mrs. Horton stopped.  “You have live animals in there?”

“Umm, no, not anymore.  They’re all empty.  But I did have seven little squirrel families in there.  It’s really good at keeping ‘em warm while I-”

“While you mistreat yourself,” Mrs. Horton said sternly.

Delta Spike stared at the ceiling and said, “Maybe we could use a stun beam to knock ‘em out-”

“No!” Anna squeaked.

“-and some sort of delta wave generator to force ‘em into hibernation…  But first we’d need to test it out…”

“No!” Anna squeaked louder.

Mrs. Horton must have noticed how upset Anna was getting, because she shooed Delta Spike and Mega-Girl up the stairs and ushered Anna into her office.

Anna found herself being swept into a nice little office that was a lot like the dorm mother’s office back at Dickinson, but a little more homey.  It was more like a grandmother’s office than a mother’s office.  But Mrs. Horton was older than Anna’s house mother Mrs. Nelson, and really reminded Anna a lot of her mom’s mom, back before they had to put her in the hospital because of Alzheimer’s, when she was walking ‘to the store’ and forgetting the store wasn’t there anymore, and forgetting to put on her coat, and forgetting her housekeys, and once even forgetting to get dressed and not walk off in her nightie and fluffy slippers.

Anna found herself sitting in a nice big armchair while Mrs. Horton bustled about pouring hot chocolate out of a big red plaid thermos.  Anna smiled, “Thanks a lot, ma’am.  This is really nice of you,” as she gratefully accepted a steaming mug of the yummy-smelling goodness.  The mug was a heavy dark-blue coffee mug that said “National Public Radio” on the side.  It was getting really hot from the cocoa, and it felt good on her hands.  A little painful, but good.  She took a sip and sighed, “Ooh, this is great.  Thanks.”

Mrs. Horton settled herself and said, “Now why don’t you tell me why you were out in the freezing cold and tramping through the snow?  And let me guess.  You’re the one who was up in the tree over here a little while ago.”

Anna ducked her head a little.  “Yes ma’am.”  And she explained all about needing to save her little friends.

Finally, Mrs. Horton said, “And no one’s helping you?  No one?

“No, that’s not right at all,” Anna insisted.  “Mr. M. and his people helped me just a ton yesterday afternoon, way more than I thought they could, and Hazmat’s skipping meals to get this hibernation chemical for me, and my friends have been figuring out all these neat ways for me to do stuff, and getting nesting materials for me, and everything.”

Mrs. Horton still was frowning.  “But you spent an hour and a half out in the freezing snow, and a lot of that time you had your gloves off and your hood back climbing trees in the snow?”

“Well, umm, yeah,” Anna admitted.

Mrs. Horton shook her head sadly.  “You need some help.”  She turned and picked up a phone.  “Hello, Wallflower?  Is Lancer there?…  Why would that be anything new?…  Would you please send Lancer down?  I have a little task I don’t think he’d mind doing.”

Mrs. Horton turned back to Anna.  “Do you know Lancer?”

Anna said, “I…  I know who he is.  And I watched him knock out Kodiak.  And I saw him spar with Phase one time in martial arts.  And I saw his combat final.”

Mrs. Horton smiled, “You’ll be pleased to know he can do more than punch people.”

There was a knock at the door, and Mrs. Horton said to come in.  The door opened, and in walked a freshman Exemplar.  There was no doubt in Anna’s mind he was a major Exemplar.  He was too handsome, and too sexy.  His face was still fine-boned, but he was sure turning into another Champion or Fisticuffs.  He had really sexy gray eyes that weren’t any normal eye color she’d ever seen, but still looked really hot.  And he really filled out that Whateley uniform, even if he was still tucking in his shirt and fixing his school tie and stuff.  Anna could hear her heart going pit-a-pat over him.  She told herself that Wallflower was one lucky girl.

Lancer said, “What can I do for you, Mrs. Horton?”

Mrs. Horton looked at Anna with a ‘see what I mean?’ expression.  She said, “Aquerna?  Would you explain to Lancer what you’ve been doing all morning?”

So Anna told her story again, sipping the steaming-hot cocoa and feeling the warmth seep back through her body until she felt like she might be ready to spend another couple hours out in the snow again.

Mrs. Horton waited until Anna finished, and asked, “So, Hank.  See why I called you?”

“Umm, you want me to fly Aquerna around for her other runs and carry her up into the trees?” he guessed.

“If your shoulder’s up to it,” she said.

He said, “Sure.  It’s good.  And it’s not like I’d really be letting my shoulder joint do the work.”

Anna said, “You can’t do that.  You don’t even know me!  And you were… with your girlfriend!”  She was pretty sure she knew just what he’d been doing with Wallflower, if his tie was pulled loose and his shirt was pulled out and all that.  That Wallflower was one lucky girl.

Lancer grinned, “Sure I can.  And it won’t take any time at all.  I’ll take you down to the Hawthorne tunnel, and we can get your squirrels all bundled up in no time.”

She checked again, “Are you sure?”

He just grinned.  “For someone who taught Buster a lesson?  Sure I’m sure.  I didn’t get you a big, fancy chocolate assortment like Ayla, b-”

“Ayla?  Phase sent me that?” Anna gasped.  Ayla bought that?  For her?  She could hardly believe it.

“Sure,” Lancer said.  “She does stuff like that.”

“But it must’ve cost her a ton!” she fussed.

Lancer really grinned then.  “You’re talking about a girl who can afford to rent a limo for a whole day out of pocket change.  You do know her family is THE Goodkinds, right?  She can afford a fancy box of chocolates.  Heck, she can afford a couple thousand fancy boxes of chocolates.”

“But still…”  Anna didn’t know what to say to that.  It seemed like so much money to her.  Her family couldn’t afford something like that.

Lancer waited as she drank the rest of the cocoa.  “Come on.  I’ll walk you back to the Arena complex, and I’ll tell you about the enormous breakfast she paid the school chefs to make for us the first time we went to Boston.”

She followed Lancer down the stairs, through the Poe basement, and along the short cutoff that connected to the Hawthorne tunnel.  The tunnels weren’t exactly warm, but they were a hundred times better than walking along the brick paths out in the freezing cold.  And Lancer was really nice.  He told her a couple stories about Phase, and he was really funny too.  The one about Phase buying Generator’s day pass and just ‘forgetting’ Generator hadn’t paid her back sounded so much like Phase.  “So then finally she goes to Generator’s roommate - you know Generator rooms with Tennyo? - and she says to Tennyo, ‘This is ridiculous.  I’m a Goodkind.  I live by finance.  You know perfectly well I’d know whether or not someone had paid me back, right?’  And she got Tennyo to tell Generator she must’ve paid Phase and not remembered it.”

Anna giggled, “That does sound an awful lot like Phase.”

Lancer grinned, “Generator still didn’t believe she’d paid Phase back, but she was willing to drop it if Tennyo asked her to.  But we all know Phase didn’t get paid back, she was just being stubborn about it.”

Anna left Lancer at the security door, since she didn’t have permission to take him in.  He said that was fine, but she still felt uncomfortable about doing it.  So she really hurried.  She ran into the squirrel room and popped open the next seven cages.  Then she told her little friends which boxes to jump into while she stuffed in the nesting material and shoved the food into her backpack.  She closed the boxes, slid ‘em into the carrier, and she was off again.

Lancer was waiting patiently outside the security door, talking to the security guy through the speaker.  “…and she’ll be back at least once more, but I’ll try to keep her safe and…  Oh hi, Aquerna!”  He was casually leaning, but not standing against the wall.  No, he was floating half a foot above the floor and leaning back in mid-air.

He shifted to a superman pose, lying flat in mid-air with his arms forward.  “Okay, hop on board.”  She clambered into his arms and hung on to her carrier.  He didn’t even notice her weight.  She’d probably have to weight as much as a semi for him to notice the extra weight.

He flew down the tunnels, following her directions, so they came out on the north side of the main campus.  Then he flew her through the air toward Whitman Cottage.  He had to be going sixty miles an hour, and she had to hold her hood closed tight and look away from the wind.  He wasn’t bothered any.  She wondered if Lois Lane was supposed to have this problem when she flew with Superman.  Then she wondered if Lois Lane ought to have other kinds of problems with Superman, because in the comics Superman was about a zillion times strong than guys like Lancer.  Lancer could probably pick up a couple pickups.  Superman could pick up a couple ocean liners.  How did you neck with a guy who could bump you with a finger and split your head open by accident?  Not that she was thinking about necking with Lancer, who had a girlfriend who was supposed to be really nice and already helping out campus security.

She pointed downward, and he followed her finger to a clump of trees.  “Over there.  The big oak with the hole in the side about halfway up?”

“Got it,” he said.  He flew right up to the hole, and Anna got to work.  She opened the carrier, slipped her little friends and their bedding into the hole, and then emptied another bag of fruits and nuts after them.  And she was done already.  Lancer just said, “Where next?”

It didn’t take any time at all.  It was almost scary how fast Lancer was, and how easy his powers made things.  They were flying back to main campus maybe ten minutes after they started.

She stammered, “Lancer, I-I, umm, I really don’t know how to thank you for doing this.  I mean…”

He smiled, “Hey, you’ve been a friend to Phase - she talks about you and Phobos and some of the others in your BMA class - when a lot of people hate her on sight.  I figure Team Kimba owes you this much.  If not a lot more.  Phase tends to help people out with big wads of cash.  The rest of us?  Not so much with the money.  We’re more the ‘doing a favor’ kind of people.”

She gulped, “Well, this is a huge, huge favor.  I don’t know how I would’ve managed without freezing my butt off.  I owe you one now.  And tell Wallflower I owe her one, because I don’t think I’d be happy about it if my boyfriend dropped me to go fly some girl all over campus.”

It only took her a few minutes to get the last seven families packed up, and then she was off again, flying the friendly skies of Air Lancer.  God, he was so strong it was sort of overwhelming.  She pointed out the trees they needed to go to, which were all over west of Twain and Emerson.  Another few minutes of zooming over to trees and hovering in mid-air, and they were all done.  She had her entire pack of tree squirrels all safe and sound, and they were all supplied with food for weeks.

He flew her back to main campus and dropped her off in the Quad before he flew back to Poe.  She thanked him again, and waved until he was out of sight on the other side of Melville.  Wow.  That was how real superheroes did it.  She could really be interested in a guy like Lancer if he didn’t already have a girlfriend who let him do stuff.  In her dorm room.  Anna didn’t think Mrs. Horton would let Lancer and Wallflower get up to anything really naughty, but she had a feeling they weren’t just sitting in Wallflower’s room holding hands.  Maybe it was the traces of lipstick Anna had spotted behind Lancer’s ear and on his neck.

She walked back to the Arena and got settled in with her fellow Underdogs, who were all mixed in with Outcast Corner.  She spent the rest of the morning either watching the combat finals, some of which were amazing, or chatting with her friends, or stewing helplessly about Hazmat’s progress.  She told herself that she’d done everything she could for now.  She only had to wait.  And pray.  Although she was falling asleep during the last combat final of the morning, so Ree and Luce told her she had to go take a nap after lunch.

Nate leaned forward and said, “Yes, mom.”

Lucille said in her best ‘mom’ voice, “I should make you go stand in the corner for that… but you’d probably poot at me.”

Anna walked off to lunch with her friends, feeling like she might be able to make this work.  All she needed was Hazmat, and maybe asking Lancer for a couple more hours of help.  She didn’t like imposing on people, but his help had made such a huge difference she didn’t know what to think.  Instead of freezing her tail off for a couple hours and then needing an hour to warm back up before doing it all over again, she had managed to finish the last two sets of tree squirrels in way under an hour, and she hadn’t gotten anywhere near as cold.  And now she had all afternoon.  She had all afternoon to worry.

Ree and Luce and Nate and Darlene all knew how worried she was, so they spent lunch telling her stories about the combat finals she missed, and what lots of people had done, and all that kind of stuff.

She told her secret too.  “Did anyone know Phase bought that really fancy box of chocolates?”

Nate pretended to complain, “You mean the chocolates I didn’t get to taste?”

“Because you were so stinky?  Yeah, those chocolates,” Will replied.

“Phase?  Really?” asked Lucille.

“Isn’t she the Goodkind?  The one with the you-know-what between her legs?” asked Darlene.

“Uh-huh,” Anna said.  “I’m not sure about the you-know-what, but she wouldn't shower with the other girls after martial arts.”

“Well, now that you’re gettin’ all cozy with Lancer, maybe he’ll tell you,” teased Nate.

“Lancer was really nice, and he didn’t have to help me, you know,” said Anna.

“And you got to let him fly you around in his big strong arms too.  Just like Lois Lane.”

Anna blushed and nodded her head.  She had really enjoyed that part, even if it was really cold.  She’d told Ree and Luce all about it while they sat together watching the combat finals, but it still kind of embarrassed her.  And she didn’t know what she was going to do if Wallflower was mad at her about it.

Ree added, “And you missed Phase’s combat final anyway.  She looked pretty tough.  She just kind of plowed through everything Belphegor threw at her, and then just clobbered him.”

Nate added, “Which was hilarious!”

“Wow, I wish I’d gotten to see that one,” Anna said.  She wouldn’t think many people around here would have rooted for Phase.  But if Phase was fighting Belphegor, at least pretty much no one would have been rooting for Belphegor, from what she’d heard.

After lunch, Ree ordered Anna, “Okay, now you have to go back to Dickinson and take a nap.  Before you sneak down again to check on your squirrels.”

Nate chipped in, “Isn’t that Luce’s line?”

Lucille looked at him and said, “Yes…  Mom.”  Everyone snickered.

So Anna hiked back to Dickinson.  As she was walking, she saw Gateway up ahead with a friend.  She hurried up to catch up with them, because Molly mainly hung out with Bladedancer, who Anna was pretty sure was Phase’s roommate.

Bladedancer must’ve heard her coming, because she turned back to check on who was trotting up the path.  Gateway turned around looking stormy, until she saw who it was.

Anna smiled, “Hi Molly!”

“Hi, Anna.  Hey, you did great against Buster.  He’s such a jerk.”

Bladedancer smiled, “We enjoyed that match very much.”

Anna said, “Umm, yeah, that’s why I wanted to catch up with you.  You’re Ayla’s roommate, right?”

“Yes…” Bladedancer said cautiously.

“Well, would you thank her for the chocolates she sent me?  They were really outstanding.”

Bladedancer smiled mischievously.  “Phase doesn’t do anything that’s just ‘good’.  It’s got to be outstanding, or she doesn’t do it.  Especially when it comes to food.”

Molly looked at Bladedancer, and they said together, “Of course!” and then they laughed.  Anna didn’t get the joke, but she didn’t need to.  It was probably an in-joke about Phase or something.

Anna just added, “They were like the best chocolates I ever had.  By a mile.  Just tell her how much I liked ‘em.”

Bladedancer nodded, “I will.  But you could tell her yourself.  She will not mind that you know who sent them, even if she didn’t put her name on them.”

Molly asked, “How do you know?”

Bladedancer smiled, “I was sitting near her when she placed the order.  And Tennyo sent you a fruit basket.  She doesn’t like Buster either.”

Anna just gaped at her.  Tennyo?  THE Tennyo?  She sent Anna that fruit basket that didn’t have a name on it?  That didn’t seem possible.  What next?  Was she going to find out that Prism and Imperious were sending her a box of grapefruits from the Fruit Of The Month Club?

Bladedancer grinned at the shocked expression on Anna’s face.  Molly just said, “It happens when you beat someone really unpopular.  You should’ve seen the pile of cards and flowers and stuff Chou got after she whupped up on Nex.”

Bladedancer shook her head, “I didn’t ‘whup up’ on anyone.  You’ve been listening to Toni too much.”

“Hey, white girls can say ‘whup up’ too, y’know.”

“Oh, now you’re gettin’ all jiggy with the slang?” Bladedancer teased.

“Oh come on, even Toni doesn’t say that,” Molly said.

“Sure she does.  You should hear her when she wants to tease Phase,” insisted Bladedancer.

Anna just listened while Bladedancer and Gateway kidded each other and talked about Team Kimba.  It was kind of funny.  Anna had this image of Fey and Team Kimba as full-fledged superheroes, only her age.  But for Molly and Chou, they were just friends who did things as silly as Nate and Will.

Anna let them walk on to Molly’s room, and she headed for her own room.  When she walked in, Ellen was changing out of her bathrobe.  Anna smiled, “Slept in really late today?”

Ellen laughed.  “No, I got up and spent the morning working on my snowmobile, and I needed to get the grease off before I got in some more study time.  How’d your squirrel delivery service go?”

Anna told her, explaining all about having Lancer fly her around like Superman, and how it took way less time than she figured.

Ellen stared at her as she thought.  She finally said, “Yeah!  That’s what I need, is some test-drive time tomorrow.  I’ll just slap a banana seat on ‘er, and you can ride behind me!  I’ll test drive it, and drive you all over the place so you can drop off your little friends.”

“Really?  Would you?” gasped Anna.  “That would be so great!  I know it’s a ton of work, but it would be so terrific!  I even have a map, from all the stuff I did yesterday with Bull and Todd and Mr. M.”

Ellen grinned, “Yeah, I know.”  She pointed at Anna’s desk, where the map was laying half-open.

Anna blushed.  “Oh yeah.”

“So why are you back?”

Anna admitted, “I was falling asleep, so Ree and Luce told me to take a nap after lunch.”

Ellen snickered, which made Anna blushed even harder.  Ellen said, “Okay, tell you what.  I’ll get dressed and grab my books and study in the sunroom.  You can be Sleepy Squirrel here in the room.”

Anna grinned, “Thanks.  You’re the best roommate in the whole dorm.”

“Better than Solange?” Ellen teased.

“Oh God, don’t remind me,” muttered Anna.  Everyone in the whole dorm knew Solange and Sahar were stuck rooming together because no one else on their floor wanted to room with either of them.

Ellen threw on a sweater and jeans, and grabbed a couple textbooks along with her notebooks.  “See you in a couple hours, sleepyhead.”

“Thanks,” Anna said as she set her alarm clock for 3:30.  She slipped out of her clothes and hopped into bed in just her panties.  She was asleep in minutes.

 

“Anna?  Anna!  Wake up!”  Ellen was shaking her shoulder.

“Wha?  Oh shit!  Did I miss something!  Is it after four?  Oh God I gotta get down there right away!”  Anna babbled frantically as she scrambled out of bed and grabbed her clothing.

Ellen said, “You slept through your alarm.  It’s ten to four.”

“AACK!”  Anna fumbled with her bra and got it inside out and had to re-do it.  She hooked it around her waist, spun it around, and yanked it up into place.  Then she practically dove into her sweater and jeans before she shoved her feet into a pair of sneakers.  She crammed all the rest of the bedding and fruit and nuts and to-go boxes into the wicker basket and ran for the door.

“Anna!”

Anna turned to see what was the matter.  Ellen threw her the security card, which Anna snagged out of the air before sprinting down the hall and out of the dorm.

“Oh god oh god oh god I’m gonna be late, Chris is gonna have a cow!” she ran down the path all the way to main campus.  Then she dove into the first building she saw and took an elevator down to the tunnels.  She sprinted to where she could get another elevator, and she went down to the lower levels.  She made it to the security door and it was already a couple minutes after four.  “Oh no oh no, I’m in so much trouble…”

She tried to catch her breath as she waited for the security door to unlock, and then as she waited for the inside elevator to come.  She hurried into the animal care area.  She could see a big cart full of cleaning supplies further down the hall, so either Chris hadn’t gotten to her squirrels yet, or he had been in there long ago.  She crossed her fingers as she hurried into the squirrel room.  “Oh please oh please oh please…”  She rushed through the airlock doors and looked around.

Chris hadn’t been in yet to clean the cages or feed the squirrels.  “Whew.”  She put her basket of stuff on the shelf.  She smiled and panted as all her little friends chittered their news to her.

“Big squirrel!  Big squirrel!”

“Hi guys.  Okay, I need to do the same as yesterday.  I’m gonna open all the cages, but everyone stay inside.  Push all your litter over the edge.  I’ll get more food and clean water while you’re all doing that.”

“Yes!  Yes!  Whatever big squirrel wants!”

And it all worked, since her little friends wanted to do what she told ‘em.  She got them all fresh water and added to their food bowls, which was easy to do when she could leave the cages open and trust them to behave.  Once everyone had cleaned up their cages and she swept the crud up off the floor, she took her time with them.  Half a dozen of them jumped onto her sweater and cuddled against her while she stopped and petted everyone and talked to them.  It was so great being a part of a special kind of family like this - even if it was a family that no other human could be a part of.

She managed to get everyone back in their cages and all the cage doors closed before Chris could get to the airlock doors and see something suspicious.  He strolled in and said, “Got everything done?”

“Oh sure,” she said as unsuspiciously as she could.  “They’re really good for me.”

He walked down the rows of cages.  “Hey, you got rid of a bunch!  Great.”

She wanted to snap at him.  She didn’t get rid of anybody!  She just helped some friends get home!  Instead she just said, “Oh yeah, I got a bunch moved into their trees today.  I’m hoping I can get everybody else home tomorrow.”

He nodded, “That would save me a bunch of trouble Saturday morning.  I won’t have to round ‘em up and get ‘em outside or anything.”

She gulped.  “Well, no matter what, you won’t have to do that.  If I don’t have everyone taken care of by tomorrow night, I’ll take all the rest for you Saturday morning.”

“See if you can do it by nine a.m., because I’ve got to get all these cages sanitized this weekend.  Next week’s a real bear,” he complained.

She hoped next week wasn’t going to be a real bear.  Bears were scary.  And they ate squirrels, if they got a chance to.  There weren’t any bears right around the school, but there were sure some places off-campus that had some really scary predator scents she didn’t ever want to have to check out.

She left while Chris was checking supplies in the room and doing other animal care stuff.  She told herself she had until nine Saturday morning.  If Hazmat just came through for her little friends, she had enough time.  As long as nothing else went wrong.

She figured she’d better check on Hazmat, just in case.  So much was depending on him, and all she really had was Jobe saying Hazmat wasn’t too horribly incompetent.  Which for Jobe was probably the greatest compliment he’d ever said about someone who wasn’t a Wilkins, but who really knew?

She went straight to the chem lab room and knocked.  “This is getting to be a habit,” she muttered under her breath.

She could hear Hazmat coming, as he was trying to get everyone else to shut up.  “For Christ’s sake, act like you’re out of kindergarten this time!”

He opened the door and burst out into a big grin.  “I was kinda hoping you’d drop by.”

She smiled back.  “I figured I’d better check on you, since you couldn’t remember to get breakfast.  Did you get any lunch?”

“Well, I wasn’t really all that hungry after the french toast, but…”

Erlenmeyer yelled, “He missed lunch too!”

“Thanks a heap, amigos,” Hazmat muttered over his shoulder.

“I knew it!” Anna groaned.

Hazmat blew air out of his mouth in frustration.  “Look, I’m okay.  Really.  I do this all the time when I’m in the middle of a project, and I-”

“I’ll go get you a burger.  Okay?” Anna interrupted.

“-don’t need…  A burger?  You’d go get me a burger?  Just like that?”  He sounded like he couldn’t believe his luck.

“Sure.  What do you like on it?”

He didn’t bother to think it over.  “Cheeseburger, the regular from the fast-food dive, except no lettuce.  And fries.”  His stomach rumbled loudly.  “Umm, make that extra fries, if you can.”

She checked, “What do you want to drink?

He held up his coffee mug and said, “Good to go there.  I’ve got the elixir of life.  I don’t need any pop.”

She nodded.  “Okay.  I’ll be back in like ten minutes.”

He said, “Hey, you don’t have to run or anything.”

She smiled and trotted out of the room.  As soon as the other chem guys thought she couldn’t hear them, they all started giving Hazmat grief.

“OOH!  Your girlfriend’s feeding you now?  Is she gonna pat your back and burp you?”

“Shut up.”

“Ha-hah!  Hazmat in diapers!”

“Knock it off, you guys!”

“Hey, remember when someone slipped that laxative in Erl’s coffee and he crapped himself all day?”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP ABOUT THAT ASSHOLE!!!” Erlenmeyer bellowed.

Anna couldn’t help grinning.  Even if those guys were so gross and immature.  She hoped Hazmat wouldn’t be all gross and stuff on their date.

It didn’t take any time for her to get over to the Crystal Hall and hit the little fast-food place.  It really was kind of a dive, even if Anna wasn’t really sure what Hazmat meant when he called it a ‘dive’.  It was too small to have seating inside it, and it was too cold outside to do anything except grab the food and go eat it somewhere else.

One of the student workers, a girl Anna didn’t know, stuck her head out and said, “Whatcha want?”

“Cheezbugger cheezbugger cheeps cheeps!” a mechanical voice yelled from somewhere around them.  It sounded like a computer-generated voice that was supposed to be a grouchy man.

“Ignore that shit,” growled the girl.  “Some asshat started that about half an hour ago and we can’t find the damn thing to turn it off.”

“Cheezbugger cheezbugger cheeps cheeps!”

Anna said loud enough for the girl to hear, “Regular cheeseburger but no lettuce, and extra fries.”

“Cheezbugger cheezbugger cheeps cheeps!”

“Gotcha,” the girl said.  She pressed a touchscreen panel and said, “Gimme about thirty seconds.”

“Cheezbugger cheezbugger cheeps cheeps!”

“Okay,” Anna said.

“Cheezbugger cheezbugger cheeps cheeps!”

“Goddamn that thing, I’m gonna go crazy!” complained the girl.

“Cheezbugger cheezbugger cheeps cheeps!”

“Did you call Security?” Anna asked.

“Cheezbugger cheezbugger cheeps cheeps!”

“I guess I ought to,” the girl said.  “I tried calling a friend of mine who’s one of the Workshop girls, but she couldn’t come over…  Okay, here ya go.”

“Cheezbugger cheezbugger cheeps cheeps!”

Anna took the paper bag and said, “Thanks!”  Then she took off pretty fast just to get away from the annoying voice.

“Cheezbugger cheezbugger cheeps cheeps!”

“I swear to God, if I ever find out who planted that on us, I am gonna gut him and feed him into the burger-maker!”

“Cheezbugger cheezbugger cheeps cheeps!”

Anna got into the tunnels as quick as she could, because her hearing was still catching that really annoying voice.  She felt bad for the kids who were stuck working there with that voice going over and over.  Some of the inventors were just as stinky about playing pranks on people as the school bullies were.  It was just a different kind of being mean to people and calling it ‘just in fun’.

She knocked on the chem lab room door again, but this time Hazmat was already waiting for her, and he opened it before her third knock landed.  He smiled, “Thanks a ton, Aquerna.  This is great.  Nobody ever does stuff like this for me when I’m doing a chem project for ‘em.”

“You’re welcome,” she said.  She couldn’t figure out why no one would do anything nice for someone spending tons of his time working on a project for you.  “Who’s gotten you to do stuff for ‘em?”

Hazmat shrugged.  “Lemme see.  Erlenmeyer, Nephandus, Skipjack, some other guys.”

“Oh.”  Anna only knew Erlenmeyer from his being a big jerk here in the chem room, but she figured he didn’t even know words like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.  And everyone knew about Nephandus.  Even if he didn’t dress like he was from the wrong century, he’d still be a bad guy.  Gary said Nephandus was in the Bad Seeds because both of his parents were supervillains.  Eww.  Anna didn’t know any of the Bad Seeds.  As far as she knew.  She only knew about Nephandus and She-Beast and Techno-Devil and Nacht.  Mindy and Trish had pointed out some upperclassmen to watch out for, like Damien Faust, but she hadn’t ever seen ‘em close up and she probably wouldn’t even recognize them if they wore any kind of disguise.

Anna hadn’t thought about it much, but it had to be pretty weird to have your mom or dad turn out to be a supervillain.  Or even a superhero.  She remembered that school assembly where Wallflower’s dad was the speaker and Wallflower had to be up on the stage too.  What would it be like having a secret like that?  Something you couldn’t tell anyone, no matter what?  It was bad enough last spring when Anna was sure she was turning into a mutant and she didn’t want to tell anyone.  What if you had to spend your whole life growing up, hiding part of you from everyone you knew?  She figured it was probably a lot weirder being someone like Jobe.  She couldn’t imagine what it would be like being the crown prince of a country, especially a country where Gizmatic was the king.  If Jobe caught a cold, did his dad kill all his nannies and teachers?  She wondered if anyone had ever said ‘no’ to Jobe in his whole life before he came to Whateley.  No wonder he was such a huge jerk.  She kind of felt sorry for him, the more she thought about it.

By the time she stopped thinking about kids of supervillains and stuff, she’d walked over to Hazmat’s workbench and Hazmat had wolfed down the whole burger.  Jeez!

Hazmat stopped and said, “Man, I didn’t realize how hungry I was.  Thanks!”  Then he shoved a handful of french fries into his mouth.

Once he finished chewing and made a huge swallow, he pointed out a couple little bottles he had in a glass-fronted refrigerator under the table.  He whispered, “It’s locked, so Erl can’t get into it and play any funny ‘pranks’.”

Oh God!  She hadn’t thought about that!  That was one more thing for her to stew about.  Jerks messing up Hazmat’s work to be ‘funny’.  Yeah, that sounded real funny to her.

He raised his voice back to normal.  “I’ve got all but one of the precursor chemicals done, so I’m really hoping I’ll have the H.I.T. by dinnertime.”

She frowned at him.  “You’re not gonna skip dinner too, are you?  Do I need to get you another burger?”

He grinned, “No, I’m good.  And I really will go to the caff and get some dinner.  For realz.”

“You promise?” she checked.

“Scout’s honor,” he said, throwing a really non-scout-like salute.

“Were you really a scout?” she asked suspiciously.

“No, but you can trust me on this.  I can’t live on coffee and no food forever,” he said.

She trotted over to Arena ’99 and caught the last three combat finals of the day.  Wow.  There were some really scary kids at this school.  She walked to dinner with the other Underdogs and most of Outcast Corner, everyone talking about the combat finals they saw that afternoon.  She was really sorry she missed Nate’s combat final.  When they told her who Nate faced, and what happened, she just giggled for like five minutes.  Normally, they were all on Nate about being too much of a gasbag, but that was just perfect.

Dinner was a load of fun, especially since Nate had nearly de-gassed himself during his combat final, so they didn’t have to worry about toxic stinkbombs from under the table.  Nate was sort of the hero for once, and he was really enjoying it.  Anna just sat and laughed with the rest of the table as Nate told them all about his view of his combat final, exaggerating everything you could think of as he went.

While they were all still sitting around after they finished eating, and trying to keep Nate from going and getting a huge helping of the three-bean salad as a treat to himself, Hazmat walked over.  He tapped Anna on the shoulder, and she followed him out of the cafeteria and into the hall.  “What is it?” she asked nervously.

“It’s good news.  I think,” he said.  “I got the synthesis completed, and the chem tests all came out looking good, so I set up the biochemical reagent tests to make sure the protein folding came out right.”

Anna admitted, “I know what a protein is, kind of, but I have no idea what you just said.”

He nodded, like this happened to him all the time outside the Workshop.  He said, “Okay, the first tests look really good, and I want you to come down to see if the second tests panned out too.  If they did, then we can test the H.I.T. on each of your animal species and make sure it really works like you need it to.”

She didn’t like the thought of sticking a chemical into her little friends and not knowing ahead of time if it was perfect or not, or might do weird things to them.  And she really hated the ‘animal testing’ part of it.  But there wasn’t any other way to do it.  “Okay,” she said.  “Let’s go.”

He led her down into the tunnels and off to the chem lab room, once again talking about stuff she didn’t understand, as he explained how careful he was about synthesizing the H.I.T., and how complicated the whole process was if you wanted it just right and you wanted it in less than a week.  Well, she got that part.  And he was perfectly happy if she just said, “Mm-hm” every once in a while.  But for all she understood about the chemistry part, he might’ve been making rocket fuel, or lizard gizzards.

He unlocked the lab door and led her in to his workbench, where he had two test kits and two small experiments going.  The test kits didn’t look that much different from a home pregnancy test, or one of those patch kits that Gil Grissom had his lab techs use in the field on “CSI”.  The two small experiments looked to her like ‘real’ chemistry, meaning fake chemistry she’d seen in movies and tv shows.  Pretty-colored chemicals in fancy glassware, and glass tubes joining into other tubes.  She didn’t know what was in ‘em, but she knew enough to keep her mouth shut so Hazmat wouldn’t think she was a complete idiot.

He showed her the two patch kits and told her the colors were what they were supposed to be.  She just nodded.  She realized she had no way of knowing if he was right or not.  She just didn’t know enough about chemistry.  Then he showed her the little experiments.  “Now if the protein folding worked right, you get these nice clear colors from the chemical reaction.”

“I’ll have to take your word for it,” she admitted.

He stopped and looked at her for a second before he said, “Oh.  Right…  Well anyway, this looks really good.  I think we can take our H.I.T. down and see how your squirrels like it.”

“Now?” she said excitedly.

“Yeah.”

“That’s great!” she squeaked.  “I was so worried I’d run out of time and everything!”

He grinned, “Yeah, I kinda got that impression.”

“Oh, sorry,” she said.  She really hadn’t meant to be all pushy and stuff.  There were enough people on campus who didn’t do anything but push you all the time.  And some of ‘em used psychic powers to do it, which was really mean.

He shrugged.  “It’s okay.  Let’s go see how your squirrels like my H.I.T.”

“Great,” she said.  “I got a security card so I can take you in and you can do the testing.”

He walked over to a big set of metal cupboards off to the side, and came back with a glass bottle and a weird looking gizmo that looked like a stamping machine.  He said, “Okay, let me get the drug ready for transport and delivery…”

She watched as he poured some of his chemical into the little glass bottle.  Then he put it into the stamping machine and pressed down hard on the lever on the side.  There was a sound like aluminum foil being crinkled, and he lifted the lever up.  There was a metal cap crimped onto the glass bottle, and it was one of those medical caps you saw at your doctor’s office, with the thin rubber disk in it so the doctor could stick a hypodermic into the medicine to give you a shot.

“Wow,” she breathed as she realized just how fancy Hazmat was getting for her.

He put the capped bottle into a padded metal case about four inches long, and clicked it closed.  Then he put the stamping machine back and grabbed a couple dozen hypodermic syringes still in their paper wrappers.  He looked at her and said, “I’m gonna try to be as sterile as I can about this, but I figure I’m gonna need to give a whole little family group their shots from the same syringe or we’ll never get done.”

“That sounds okay.  I guess,” she said.  A little family unit would stay huddled together all winter anyway.  If one of them had something, they’d all get it no matter what.  And the little guys in the animal care area seemed really, really healthy.  Like Chris and the others had given them shots and cleaned them up and got rid of ticks and everything.  So maybe they’d be healthier than normal.  She hoped.

Hazmat put the protected bottle and the syringes and some heavy rubber gloves in a small bag, and said “Let’s go.”

“They have rubber gloves down where we’re going,” she said.

“Yeah,” he replied.  “But these gloves have a special puncture-resistant lining so I won’t get the crap bitten out of me when they don’t like getting these shots.”

“They won’t bite you,” she said.  “I’ll tell ‘em not to.  They’ll be good for me.  You’ll see.”

“Maybe.  I’d still rather be safe than sorry.  I learned a bunch of lessons this term about testing stuff first and taking the proper precautions,” he muttered.

“Like what?” she asked.

“Well, let me tell you why I’m wearing this wig,” he started out.  “I had this great idea for a hair care product, and I was sure it was safe, so I did the classic ‘mad scientist’ thing everyone sees in the movies.  You know, where the guy tries the treatment out on himself and it goes incredibly wrong, and everyone in the theater says ‘I knew that was gonna happen, the idiot’?  That was me.  It worked just fine on the synthetics I tested it on, but I didn’t have any real human hair wigs to test it on, and I couldn’t afford any.  So I tried it out on my own hair.  It didn’t make the protein strands link back together and make the hair get stronger and longer.  It made the protein strands fall apart, so my hair fell apart.  All of it.  Then I figured I could fix the problem, and the stuff I tested on it a week later failed too.  And the stuff I tried last week.  But I think I’ve learned my lesson.  No more testing on self.  But hey, it only cost me my hair, which’ll grow back.  And some dignity.  Plenty of biochem devisers have accidentally turned themselves into things that make Fubar look good.”

Anna looked at his wig and figured he was telling the truth.  His friends wouldn’t be calling him Baldy if he had his real hair underneath that.  And it didn’t really look like real hair either.  She asked, “Does Fubar really look that bad?  I saw him once, and he looked like a college professor.”

Hazmat nodded.  “He’s a teacher in the Psychic Arts department.  He really looks like something…  I’ve never seen him.  But Compiler has.  Now there’s a girl who really ought to know not to experiment on herself.  She’s just damn lucky she didn’t accidentally turn herself into a pile of gray goo.  Nanotechnology is really tricky stuff, and programming the things is super-tricky, because they’re too tiny to take much of a program, and using multiple types of untested nano on your own body is just nutty.”

“I’ve seen Compiler,” said Anna.  “Kamuro knows Foxfire and Lifeline and Loophole, and they do stuff with Compiler.”

“Yeah, she looks pretty,” Hazmat muttered.  “If you like life-size Barbie Dolls with too-big eyes.  But she’s a menace in a lab.  They put her in her own lab, and reinforced the walls and door.  She’s fine most of the time, but she can’t always control her strength or her speed.  So one minute she’s fine, you say hi, you shake hands, and oops.  She accidentally crushes your metacarpals, or accidentally runs you down and smashes you into the wall.  She put Erlenmeyer in the hospital and all he was doing was trying to ask her out on a date, and when she said no and turned around, she lost control, and her arm swung out and she spun all the way around, and she knocked him across the room.  She says she’s getting better, thanks to lessons from Chaka - if you can believe that - but I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Anna fished out her security card and let them both into the secure area.  Then she led him over to the elevator and made him stay put when he wanted to go peeking around a bit.  The elevator was pretty quick for a change.  Or maybe it was because she was busy chatting with Hazmat.  She took him down through the animal care area and into the squirrel room.

He looked around.  “See-through airlock doors.  Good planning.  Someone’s thought things out around here.”

She showed him into the room with the cages.  “These are all my friends, and they’ll cooperate if I need ‘em to.  So they’re not going to be biting and scratching you.”

He grinned sheepishly, “Yeah, no one wants what Buster got.”

She frowned, “Well, I wouldn’t’ve done it if he hadn’t been such a bully.  I mean, all he had to do was stop being a big jerk.”

He smirked, “I don’t think he knows how to stop being a big jerk.  Something big happened to him a couple months ago and his roommate said he was scared shitless for days, but whoever whomped up on him must’ve not whomped enough, because he’s back to the same old stuff these days.  So I don’t know what it would take for him to learn his lesson.”

Hazmat looked over the cages.  “Hmm.  I’m guessing you have three different species in here, and you’ve got them separated into family units within each species.  I don’t know how you can do that, but…”

Anna shrugged, “They tell me.  I listen.  It’s easy.”

He smiled, “You’d make a hell of a small animal vet if you could do that with every mammal.”

“Nope, just squirrels.  And chipmunks.”

He nodded.  “Okay, I think we need to test this on each species.  Maybe a whole family unit for each species.  How about this cage, this one, and that one?”

She watched him point out three little families.  She figured he was just looking for three different species.  But she already had her little friends arranged by the part of campus they were from, so she knew these little guys were all from the cluster of burrows out near the ring road closest to Whitman.  She figured they could work from right to left, clearing cages as they went, until she had all her little friends safe and sound.  She hoped.

“Okay, I’m gonna open your cage and I want you to let the big scary man give you little stabs.  They’ll hurt a little, but they’ll help you do the winter sleep you didn’t get to do.  This is really important, so I need you to be good for me.”

“Trust you, big squirrel!”

Hazmat looked at her and said, “I’m never gonna get used to that.  I thought Harry Potter talking Parseltongue was weird, but you sound like a giant squirrel when you talk to them.”

“Still wanna date a giant squirrel?” she teased.  But inside, she was afraid he’d think she was too weird, even for around Whateley, and just dump her.

He grinned, “Sure.  You’re pretty normal for this school.”

She grinned back.  This was going really good, so far.

She opened the first cage and told them all, “Stay put.  I’ll get you one at a time, and the big human will give you a teeny stab, and then I’ll put you back.”

“Trust you, big squirrel!”

She scooped out Hatescats, the brave one that stepped forward, and held her gently for Hazmat.

He said, “Can you hold out one paw and kind of spread the fur so I can inject it easier?”

“Sure.”  She said, “I’m going to hold out your front paw.  It’s okay.”

Hazmat slipped on the heavy rubber gloves, peeled the paper off one syringe, and stuck the needle into the bottle through the rubber top.  He drew up enough drug for three squirrels, and put the bottle down.  “Okay, let’s give this a try.”

He carefully stuck the needle into the squirrel’s paw, and even though the squirrel wanted to pull away, she held still for Aquerna.  Anna whispered, “You’re so brave and good for me.”

She popped the squirrel back in the cage and scooped up the next squirrel.  Hazmat already had the dose ready in the syringe, so this went faster.  And the third squirrel went faster still.

Hazmat threw away the syringe in the bright red ‘sharps disposal’ box on the wall, and got a sterile one while Anna went to the next cage he’d pointed at.  It only took a minute to dose the two squirrels in there.  And the third cage, with the cute chipmunks, was almost as fast.

Hazmat waited until Anna closed the third cage, and then he pulled off his rubber gloves.  “You know, these things aren’t all that comfortable.”

She smiled, “I like not using rubber gloves at all.”

He rolled his eyes.  “Yeah, not gonna work for me.  I don’t have mystical powers that make squirrels do whatever I tell ‘em to.  Although I’d love to sick a couple hundred squirrels on some guys I know.”

Anna giggled, “Would that include maybe some guy named Erlenmeyer?”

“Oh yeah, him too,” frowned Hazmat.  “No, I was gonna start with Jobe and Belphegor and Nephandus, and then get some of the bullies, like Buster and his buddy Crunch.”

“What’s the deal with Belphegor?” she asked.  “Tons of people are really mad at him.”

Hazmat snorted, “Do you want to hear everything?  Do you have a couple weeks?  Let me see.  He’s a thief.  Everyone knows he’s been robbing all the other devisers blind, but no one’s caught him in the act.  Yet.  He steals stuff, warps it in weird ways, and gets it to work for whatever freaky purpose he had in mind.  And you can almost always tell it’s your stuff!  That really pisses people off at him.  At the Whateley Weapons Fair he didn’t last five minutes before three devisers spotted their stolen stuff in the middle of stuff he was trying to sell and passing off as his own.  The fat bastard.”

Anna wondered out loud, “The Whateley Weapons Fair?”

“Oh yeah,” Hazmat said.  “We do it every fall.  It’s a tradition.  Not everything for sale is a weapon, or even related to weapons, but an awful lot of stuff there is.  And some people sell some of both.  Compiler had tangle-web loads for Cobra linear induction guns… and nanotech-based makeup.  Greasy had spiderbots and tractorbots, with cameras mounted on ‘em… and posters.  And some stuff you probably don’t want to hear about.”  Whatever it was, Hazmat’s ears went pink, so Anna figured it was something naughty.

It sounded really weird to Anna, but this was Whateley.  Weird was like part of the school motto.  She asked, “Who buys this stuff?  Isn’t it super-expensive?”

Hazmat shrugged, “Some of it sure is.  Möbius was selling these special utility belts that were way bigger on the inside than the outside, and he was charging thousands for each one.  Everyone said Phase got him to jack the price way up.  He still sold half a dozen.  But rich kids are a prime sales target, so that’s sort of reasonable, even if it means the rest of us have no way to afford the stuff.  Them, and guys looking for stuff for the combat finals, and guys looking to see what everyone else is working on.  And Jobe.  He was there walking around being a giant prick, telling people they were morons and what was wrong with their stuff.  What’s worse is he’s right most of the time.  If he can come up with ideas to improve stuff from guys like Knick-Knack and Jericho, you know he’s good.  Even if he is the biggest jerkwad on earth.”

Anna listened as Hazmat explained all about the Whateley Weapons Fair, and how they always dodged Security, and how it seemed like someone’s stuff always went crazy - he called it ‘going Westworld’ although she didn’t know why - and everyone had to run out with whatever they hadn’t sold.  Last year, it was Mega-Death, and this year it was Delta Spike.

Oh.  No wonder Mrs. Horton didn’t want Anna listening to Delta Spike’s advice on handling her squirrel crisis.

Just as Hazmat was explaining how Jobe and Phase had to work together to shut down Delta Spike’s disaster as it started spreading to every personal forcefield generator in the room, Anna heard something.  A tiny voice, chittering at her.

“So sleepy…”

She stopped and checked her little friends.  She could see all three families getting sleepy and going into hibernation.  She could feel it.  And…

“Ohmygod don’t test anymore!”  She nearly panicked when she realized what would happen if she didn’t get them into their burrows before they went completely unconscious - she wouldn’t have any way to get them deep into their burrows and build their nests and plug the burrows after them!  This was a disaster!

She frantically yanked open the three cages and slipped the three families into to-go boxes, piling the nesting stuff and the fruits and nuts in around them.  She looked at Hazmat and gasped, “Stay here!  Please!  I’ll be back as soon as I can, but I don’t know how long!”

She threw on her coat, grabbed the three to-go boxes, and rushed to the airlock doors.  As she ducked in, she pleaded, “Please wait here for me!”

And she took off.  She ran down the hall.  She begged the elevator to hurry up.  She ran to the security door and down the tunnels.

“Oh please don’t go to sleep yet!”

“Too sleepy…”

“No!  You have to stay awake until you’re in your home!”

“Too sleepy…”

Oh god oh god oh god, what was she gonna do?  She had to get all three families all the way out to their burrows, which were way out near the ring road, out past Whitman!  Oh God, this was gonna be awful!

She ran past the sign pointing off to Whitman, and she had an idea.  She just had to run to Whitman cottage, and hope they weren’t too mad at her for cutting through their dorm.  Then she could take the path from there out to the road, and run down the road to where Bull and Todd parked their cart.  She could run from there to the burrows.  As long as the burrows were still open.  Oh please oh please oh please still be open, and not buried in snow, and not anything bad.  She ran, jostling the boxes as she went.

“Shaking.  Want to sleep…”

“No!  Listen to me.  You HAVE to stay awake until I say so!  This is important!  When I put you in your burrow, you have to pull in the nesting stuff and make your nest, and then pull in the fruits and nuts, and then plug up the entrance to the burrow.  THEN you can go to sleep!”

“Too sleepy…”

She could have wept.  She was weeping.  Tears of fear were trickling down her face as she worried about her poor little friends.  She wasn’t going to make it.  Her little friends were gonna be in so much trouble!  She left Hazmat back there.  What if he didn’t stay put and wandered around and did something?  What if he did stay put and got mad at her for leaving him for so long?  What if he decided to go ahead and inject all the others?  There were so many ways this could go really, really bad.

She ran up the stairs into Whitman and dodged around a couple girls.  “Sorry!  Sorry!  Gotta go!  Sorry!”  She was out the front door before anybody stopped her, and she hoped no one would chase her down while she was in such a rush.  She’d have to deal with upset Whitman girls tomorrow.  Which would probably be really bad.  But she had to keep moving!

She ran down to the wide brick path and slipped on an icy spot.  She nearly fell, and had to do a tricky bit of sliding and balancing.  “Darn it!”  But she didn’t fall.  She took off away from main campus, running through the freezing cold toward the circular road around the campus.  The cold burned her lungs as she raced, but she wouldn’t stop.

“Stay awake!”

“Too sleepy…”

She ran down the ring road and found the spot where the electric cart had stopped just the day before.  She concentrated, and ran over the top of the snow, leaving footprints that ran alongside her own from yesterday.  She got to the fir tree first.

“Here!” she gasped, scooping out the squirrels and wrapping them in bedding before scooting them into the hole.  “Run down to your nest and get buried in this stuff!  Hurry!”

She stuffed the fruit and nuts in after them, and plugged the hole herself.  Then she grabbed the boxes and ran to the second burrow.  This one was at the bottom of a four-foot hole dug in the snow.  She had to go head-first into the hole so she could wrap the chipmunks in bedding material, shove the rest in after them, then shove in the nuts and fruits, and finally plug the hole.  Scrambling back out of the hole wasn’t hard, it was just cold and snowy.  And she had a face full of snow from her headfirst dive.  And it felt like she had a pound of snow down her back, and a bunch more all in her hair.  But she didn’t have time to stop and clean up!

The third burrow was easier than that one.  She got everyone down the hole just moments before they all conked out completely.  She stuffed the food in after, and plugged the hole behind them.  Then she finally took the time to bury the hole by throwing snow all over the place.  She went back to the first and second holes, and did the same.

She brushed snow off herself and straggled back toward campus on rubbery legs.  Now that she wasn’t sweating, she was starting to get really, really cold.  The snow down her back was the worst, but she couldn’t do anything about that without taking off her coat and maybe her top too, and there was no way she could do that when it was below freezing and windy and dark out.  She was going to have to get the Whitman girls to let her use their tunnel.  Oh brother.

At least her little friends were safe.  She hoped.  She’d have to check these burrows tomorrow when she put the rest of the squirrels and chipmunks into their burrows.  If the little guys weren’t happily hibernating, she’d have a huge problem.  Unless the other Underdogs would let her keep three cages of cute little friends in the Underdogs’ hangout over Christmas…

She cut across the snow instead of going all the way back to the road and then around to the Whitman path.  She was just too tired, and too cold, and too wet.  Oh God!  And she had to get back to Hazmat as quick as she could!  She was so glad when she found the brick path and headed back to Whitman.  She could get back to Whitman.  She could get them to let her into the tunnels, she hoped.  She could make it back to Hazmat and her little friends.  And she only had thirty-four families left.  Maybe she really could get it all done.  She still had all day Friday, and she had Ellen to help her get around campus.

She trotted up to the front door of Whitman and knocked.  A tall, forceful Hispanic girl loomed over her and said, “Aren’t you the one who ran through here a couple minutes ago?”  Oh darn.  It was Judicator.  This could be bad.  Real bad.

“C-can I come in?” Anna said, trying her hardest not to whimper.

Judicator stepped aside and let her walk in, without actually saying ‘come in’.  Anna didn’t get that.  She’d seen it on ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, but there weren’t real vampires.  Especially not around Whateley.  Boy, the Goobers would find any real vampires and put about a hundred stakes into ‘em before Nightbane chopped their heads off and stuff.  This would be a really dumb place for vampires to hang out.  Okay, maybe Judicator was just mad at her.

Anna said, “I hate to be a pain, but could I just go down to the tunnels and head back to campus?”

Judicator glared at her.  “Who are you?”

A voice from the other side of the room answered.  “It’s Aquerna.”  She looked up and saw it was Phobos.

Before she could say anything though, someone else spoke.  “From Dickinson.”

“Great, what the hell are they up to this time?” complained a girl Anna was pretty sure was Foxfire.  It was kind of hard to tell, since the girl had her hair up in a towel.

“I just need to use the tunnel,” said Anna.  She leaned over so she could see Phobos, and she waved a little.  “Hi, Phobos.”  She turned back to Judicator and said, “If someone could go get Rhiannon, she can vouch for me.  I didn’t mean to cause any problems, but I had to get all the way out to the circular road, and I can’t fly.”

Judicator just stared at her.  “What were you doing?”

She shrugged and tried to explain.  “You know who I am, right?”  She got a small nod.  “And you know about my combat final, right?”  She got another nod.  “I have to find a way to get all those squirrels and chipmunks back into hibernation so they don’t die.  Those jerks at the arena are just gonna dump ‘em all out into the snow Saturday morning.  So I got Hazmat to cook up this stuff that puts squirrels back into hibernation.  And we tested it.  But the squirrels got so sleepy I had to run ‘em out to their burrows before they passed out.  ‘Cause if they passed out first, I couldn’t get them down into their burrows and nestled into the bedding material I got, and they need food, and they have to plug up the hole behind them, and then I needed to bury the burrows again.  These squirrels live way out past here, up near the ring road, so I had to run through the tunnels and come up here and run over to the burrows and get ‘em all under the ground before they fell asleep, and cover ‘em up to keep ‘em safe.  And now I have to get back, because I left Hazmat in the animal care area and he’s not supposed to be there without me.”

Foxfire said, “We would let you breathe in between sentences, ya know.”

Judicator turned to the room and said, “She’s covered in snow, and it’s melting all over her clothes.  We can’t toss her outside.  Phobos?  If she knows you, you can walk her down into the tunnel.”  Judicator turned back to Anna.  “Aquerna, you’re not going to be sprinting through our dorm again, are you?”

“Oh no, I’ve got Skids helping me tomorrow and she’s got a snowmobile.”

Foxfire said, “Skids?  Great.  Now it’s not gonna be safe to walk across campus either.”

“Becky, go dry your hair,” someone complained.

Phobos smiled, “Hi, Anna.  Come on, I’ll take you downstairs.”

Anna smiled back.  “Hi yourself.  Thanks for the card.  It was really funny.”

“No, thank you,” Phobos said.  “If everyone who Buster ever hassled sent you a card, you wouldn’t be able to get into your room.”

Anna’s legs still felt rubbery, and she felt cold all over, but at least the tunnel was dry and well-lit and not freezing.  It wasn’t exactly toasty, but it was a dozen times better than outside.  She waved as she trotted off, “Thanks, Phobos!  See ya!”

She tried to run back to the arena, but her legs just weren’t up to it.  A couple times, she felt like they might even give out and dump her onto the hard tunnel floor.  Still, she hurried back as fast as she could manage.  She hoped Hazmat was waiting for her.  If he wasn’t, she was in so much trouble!

She wobbled up to the security door and leaned against the wall while she waited for it to unlock.  Then she sagged in the elevator going down.  And she walked on rubbery legs into the squirrel room.

Hazmat was lying on the shelf, stretched out on his back, listening to his iPod and drumming  on imaginary drums in the air.  He was humming away.  She didn’t know the song, but it sure sounded like heavy metal, which wasn’t exactly her favorite.  She took a quick look.  He had stuck all the fruit and nuts and to-go boxes and stuff on shelves underneath, and put the wicker basket and the box carrier at the far end of the room so he’d have plenty of space to stretch out on the shelf.

He didn’t hear her open the airlock doors, but the squirrels and chipmunks all did.  “Big squirrel!  Big squirrel!  You all right?  Friends all right?”

She tapped him on the foot, and he jumped like she’d shot him.  “JEEZ!  Damn, you scared the crap out of me!”

“Sorry,” she apologized.  “I had to get them into their burrows before they conked out.”

He nodded.  “I figured it out after you panicked.  They were lapsing into torpor, and they couldn’t get set right in their burrows if they were unconscious first.  Did you make it?”

She sighed, “Yeah, but it was close.  And I cut through Whitman to do it, and they’re kind of mad at me now.”

“You look like they shoved you into a snowbank,” he said.

She blushed and tried to brush snow out of her hair and off her clothes.  It was pretty much hopeless by then, since so much of the snow had melted all over her.  Still, you didn’t want to look that bad in front of a boy who hadn’t even taken you out on your first date together yet.  “I had to dive into a snowhole to get a family in place, and I kind of got snow all down my shirt and pants and stuff.”

He said, “Well, we need to get you back home so you can take a hot shower and get some rest.”

“Yeah, that too,” she said.  “We have to be more careful about giving the drug to the animals.  I figure we can give a dose to one group of families, and I’ll rush off right away, no waiting.  That way, I can get them placed before they go into hibernation mode.  I think.”

He nodded.  “That ought to work.  We gave ‘em a little over an hour before they really started getting all that sleepy, so you should be good if you set out right away.”

She just smiled at him.  Either he was really smart and got it right off the bat, or he was really trying hard to make her like him and just doing whatever she said.  Or both.  She could live with that.  She said, “I’ve got Skids driving me to all the burrows tomorrow.”  It wouldn’t be as fast as having Lancer fly her all over campus, but it would be good.  And she’d dress warmer too!

She said goodnight to all her little friends, and walked out.  Hazmat waited until they were leaving the animal care area before he said, “You’re not okay, are you?”

She shook her head a little.  “No.  I’m cold, and I’m wet, and I’m so tired, and my legs feel like I ran a marathon, and I look just awful.”

“You look fine,” he said.  “Look, let’s get you to the cafeteria and get some hot soup into you.  After you sit a bit, you’ll feel better too.  And I’ll walk you home, just to make sure you’re okay.”

“You don’t have to do that!” she insisted.

“No, I don’t.  But I want to,” he said.  Then he grinned, “And you’re too tired to foil my evil plot.  Bwa-ha-ha.”

“That’s not a very good evil laugh,” she played along.  “You’re gonna have to take Remedial Overacting.”

“Oh no,” he said.  “I just have to take Evil Monologuing 101.  It’s all laid out in the deviser curriculum.”

She was so tired his joke seemed really funny.  She giggled as they walked off to the Crystal Hall.

It was a good thing the little side ‘bistro’ thing was still open, because the main cafeteria was closed up for the night, and her legs felt like she couldn’t walk another step.  And she really didn’t know Hazmat well enough to ask him to carry her to Dickinson.  Okay, she really, really doubted Hazmat was strong enough to carry her all the way to Dickinson, since she wasn’t a ten-pound bag of groceries, and he’d have to carry her uphill pretty much all the way.  Hazmat looked like he was maybe in okay shape for a regular high schooler.  He wasn’t fat like Erlenmeyer or Belphegor.  But he wasn’t all muscular like Sergeant Wilson, and he didn’t have super-strength.  And there were some icy patches on the paths.  Slipping on ice while walking up a hill and carrying someone else?  That could be bad.

Anna plopped into a chair while Hazmat walked over to the counter.  She could see what the place had, since it was in huge letters on the blackboard behind the counter.  Anna liked how that looked, since most places around here would have a fancy electronic display system, and this looked nice and made her think of some little mom-and-pop restaurants back home.  They had chicken noodle soup, ham and bean soup, a couple kinds of salads, and four kinds of sandwiches.  The salads and sandwiches were already made, and in plastic boxes in the refrigerator case.  Plus, there were some desserts and snacks, but none of them sounded anywhere near as good as some of that special chocolate from Phase.  She still couldn’t believe Ayla spent all that money on her.  It made her feel kind of uncomfortable, even if Lancer didn’t think Phase really understood how regular people thought about money.  Lancer said Phase was buying a car for her big sister for Christmas.  When Anna had gasped and said ‘a car?’ she was thinking about a used car for maybe four thousand dollars.  But Lancer said Phase was talking about spending maybe two hundred thousand dollars on it.  Two hundred thousand dollars?  Anna couldn’t imagine that much money.  You could probably buy the whole duplex Anna lived in for that much money, and still have enough left for a decent pickup for her dad.

Hazmat came back with a big steaming bowl of soup, and a large sandwich in a plastic box.  He set them down in the middle of the table and said, “Hang on, I gotta go get napkins and a spoon and stuff.”

She stopped him with a touch on the back of his hand.  “This is great, it’s really nice of you, but I can’t eat all of this!”

He got a funny look on his face and said, “Umm, the sandwich is for me.  I got hungry looking at the food.”

“Oh.  That’s okay.  The soup’s plenty for me,” she said.

He checked, “I can always get you something else, if you’re hungry after you finish the soup.”

“No, no, I’m good.”

She sniffed at the soup.  Yummy chicken-y goodness was floating up in little steamy waves.  She was feeling better already, just sitting down in a padded chair and being in a warm room.  Even if she was still wet and cold.

Hazmat came back with a spoon for her, and napkins, and two glasses of water.  He asked, “Would you rather have tea or coffee or something?”

“No, I’m good, thanks.  You’re really being so nice already,” she said.

“Hey, how often does a guy like me get to play white knight for the beautiful damsel?”

“I’m not beautiful,” she muttered.

“You may not be Fey or Poise, but no one else on earth is,” he insisted.  “You’re like Widget.  You look at Aztecka or whoever, and you start putting yourself down.  You look good.  Fey…  Well, there are movie stars who’d go nuts if they saw how pretty Fey is.  You can’t compare yourself to her.  I mean, if I spent all my time worrying about how I don’t measure up around here when there are hundreds of guys like Stormwolf and Powerhouse and even that asshole Don Sebastiano…”

She took a careful sip of the hot soup.  “You don’t worry about that?”

He shrugged.  “Well, some of the time.  But guys don’t stress about that as much as girls do.  I’ve got three sisters and a mom, so I know.  I see guys like Thunderbird, and of course I wish I looked that good.  But I don’t.  And I’m not gonna, no matter what I do.  On the other hand, I look around in the Workshop, and compared to most of the guys there, I’m a freaking Norse God or something.”

She giggled, “Yeah.  Compared to Jobe and Erlenmeyer, you’re like Matt Damon.”  He grinned back.

He asked, “How’s the soup?”

She smiled, “It’s pretty good.  My mom makes a killer vegetable soup during the winter.  I miss it.”

He said, “It smelled pretty good, so I figured I’d risk it.  Plus, it was chicken noodle.  When I was little, if one of us was sick, Mrs. Zukovsky, our neighbor, would bring over a pot of homemade chicken soup.  It was so good.  After we moved, mom tried making chicken noodle soup if we were sick, but it just wasn’t the same.”

“So Jewish chicken soup really is better?” Anna asked.  She didn’t really know any Jewish people.  There were only a couple Jewish kids in Zanesville, and they pretty much hung out together all the time.  And there were Jewish kids at Whateley, but she didn’t really know any of them well enough to ask them about stuff like that.

He shrugged.  “Maybe.  Maybe it was just Mrs. Zukovsky’s soup.  I heard her telling mom one time about her friend Mrs. Kittleman who was Jewish but couldn’t cook worth spit, and she said her chicken soup was really bad, and her matzah balls were like hockey pucks.”

“What’s a matzah ball?” Anna wondered.

“Well, they’re these light fluffy balls Mrs. Zukovsky put in your soup sometimes.  I dunno what they’re made of, but they taste mostly like the chicken soup, and they’re really tender,” he sort of explained.

She ate most of the soup while they sat there and talked.  He wolfed down the whole sandwich, plus he went back and got a coke, and then he finished off her soup when she told him she was full.  She wasn’t gonna ask him how he had room for all that, because he was a teenage boy, and besides they were in a school where plenty of people ate ten times that much at just about every meal.

So she felt warm on the inside, even if she was still cold and wet and icky on the outside.  She was gonna have to figure out how to get her coat dried out by tomorrow morning.  She’d ask Mrs. Nelson if it was safe to run a heavy coat like hers through the dryers in the laundry room.  Mrs. Nelson always knew the answer to stuff like that.

When Anna was ready to go, Hazmat said, “I’m gonna walk you home, just in case.  You still don’t look all that steady.”

“I’m fine.  Really,” she fibbed.

He rolled his eyes.  “Yeah.  Sure.  I’ll just walk with you, just in case you change your mind.  And you never know, I might get lucky and you’ll forget I’m a deviser nerd ‘cause you’re so tired, and you’ll kiss me for a thank-you.”

She smiled at him.  He really was kind of funny.  Especially when she was so tired.  “Or I’ll pass out, and you’ll have to lug a limp hundred-pound sack of concrete up a hill, and you’ll sprain your back, and you’ll be in traction all next week and miss all your exams.”

“I’ll risk it,” he grinned.

They walked out of the building and into the freezing cold.  Jeez, it was cold.  Maybe if she didn’t have a pound of melted snow inside her clothes it wouldn’t be so bad, but it was really cold.  And her legs weren’t really all that reliable, even after sitting down with a bowl of hot soup for half an hour.  She was really pretty glad Hazmat wanted to walk her home, especially since he’d have to walk a long way to get back to his dorm, and you couldn’t get to Emerson through the tunnels either.

Anna started talking to take her mind off the freezing temperatures.  “I really do appreciate this.  It’s really nice of you.  I mean, you really didn’t have to, and you’ll have another long walk once you get me home, and everything.”

“It’s okay.  I like you.”

She smiled as she shivered.  “I like you too.  You’re nice.  But we’re gonna have to figure how to meet up tomorrow morning, too.  And we’re gonna have to figure out how to match up schedules so you can do the injections and then wait until I get back from doing each run.”

He nodded.  “I already thought about that.”

“Oh?” she looked up when she heard that.

“Yeah,” he said.  “I figure you need to get started early, so I’ll meet up with you at breakfast.  If I’m not there when you’re done eating, just sit and wait until I get there.”  She nodded.  “Then I’ll just bring a bunch of schoolwork and study materials with me, and I’ll stay in the squirrel room and study for exams while you do your runs.”

“Okay,” she agreed.  “That sounds really pretty good.  Skids, my roommate, is gonna drive me around tomorrow on her new snowmobile, and it oughta be really fast.  Like insanely fast, because she wants to race with it on Sunday.  So I’m hoping we can get each run done pretty quick, and not make you sit around too long in between times.”

He just said, “That sounds good to me.”

By the time they got to Dickinson, she was shivering hard from the cold.  He looked like he wanted to put his arm around her, but he didn’t know if she would let him.  And considering what a lot of the girls around here could do to you if you tried that and made ‘em mad at you, it was probably a good idea not to push your luck on stuff like that.

They got to the front door, and he walked her just inside.  He checked on last time, “Are you okay?”

She said, “Oh sure.”  But she didn’t really feel okay.  She felt cold and shivery and exhausted.  She squeezed his gloved hands and said, “Thanks for being all concerned.”

“Sure.  Anytime,” he said, and then he left to go back to his dorm.

She shivered again.  She didn’t feel all that great, but the thing with Hazmat had gone really well.  And he was really considerate.  Mom always said that was important in a boyfriend.  Maybe this date Tuesday night was going to be good.

Even though she was still freezing, she figured she’d better check with Mrs. Nelson about her coat before she tossed it in one of the dryers and ruined it.  She couldn’t afford to wreck her heavy winter coat.  So she knocked on Mrs. Nelson’s door, which was mostly open with Mrs. Nelson hard at work on some paperwork that didn’t look like much fun.

“Come on in, Anna,” Mrs. Nelson smiled.  Then she saw how Anna looked, and she frowned.  “Honey?  What happened to you?”

Anna started, “Umm, well, I got some of my squirrels to go into hibernation - I was telling you about that, right? - and then I had to run through the snow and get them into their little burrows before they conked out, because they’d die if they weren’t all nestled in their little piles of bedding and tucked in for the winter, and it was really snowy, and one of the burrows was under like four feet of snow, and, well, it was kind of snowy.  And wet.  And my coat is all wet now, and I need to know if I can put it in a dryer in the laundry room.”

Mrs. Nelson got up and helped Anna get her coat off.  “Anna, you’re gonna catch your death of cold if you don’t take better care of yourself.”

“Sorry,” she said as she ducked her head.

Mrs. Nelson said, “I have good news, and bad news.  The bad news is you shouldn’t toss this in a dryer.  We’ll hang it up in a nice, dry room in the basement for several days, and let it dry out.”

“Oh.  Okay,” she said unhappily.

Mrs. Nelson said, “But the good news is you won’t be without a coat.  Mr. Miyamoto called me to find out how you were doing with your squirrels, and I called your room and got Skids.  Who was quite willing to talk to Mr. Miyamoto and explain about your plans for tomorrow.  Which I would have been happy to help you with, if you had just asked.  And when Skids explained about the snowmobile, Mr. Miyamoto said he would send over a snowmobiling suit for you to wear tomorrow.  It’s up in your room on your bed.  Take good care of it, and get it back to Mr. Miyamoto next week.”

“A…  A whole thing?…  For me?  That is so great of him!” Anna squealed.

Mrs. Nelson looked her over carefully and said, “I’m glad you’re happy.  But I want you to go up and take a nice, hot shower, and then get some sleep.  I’m worried you’re making yourself sick.  And you can’t afford to get horribly ill right before finals, Anna.”

“Okay, Mrs. Nelson, I’ll go do that.  And I promise to try to take better care of myself.  I don’t want to get sick.  But I’ve got to take care of my little friends tomorrow.”

Mrs. Nelson sighed, “I know this seems really important now, but you have to think about all the things you need to do over the next week or so, and pace yourself.  Being too sick to take your exams, or being too sick to do a decent job on your exams, would be really bad for you.  And I don’t think your little friends would want that.”

“I know,” Anna said.  “But now I have a snowmobiling suit to keep me warm!”  It was all she could do not jump up and down and squeal really, really loud.

“Scat,” said Mrs. Nelson with a smile.  “Go clean up and warm up.  Then get some sleep.”

“Yes ma’am!” Anna said, and she rushed off for the stairs.

Skids was hard at work studying at her desk, so Anna didn’t bother her.  She just grabbed her bathrobe and shower stuff, then trotted off to the bathroom.  She figured there was no point in undressing in her room and maybe getting cold, icy yuck all over her bathrobe.  And there was no way she was running naked down the hall to the bathroom!  Okay, some of the girls didn’t worry so much about that kind of stuff, even if Mrs. Nelson was on them about being ‘young ladies’, but there was no way Anna was doing that.

And the water was blissfully hot.  She stood under the water and warmed up until her fingers got all prune-like.  And she tried not to think about all the things that could still go wrong.  She needed to work with Hazmat to get all the little guys into the ground and safe.  She needed to check on the hibernators she’d just shoved into the ground, and make sure they were okay.  She totally needed the weather to hold up so she could get all the little guys into their burrows.  She needed not to get sick from being out in the cold all the time for days.  She needed to find time to do some serious studying too.

After her long, hot shower and plenty of drying off with her hair dryer, she walked back into her room.  Ellen looked up from her book and said, “Are you gonna study some, or are you gonna get some sleep?”

“Sleep,” Anna told her.

“Good, because you need to get more sleep.  You’re looking really tired, and it isn’t even exam week for us yet…”

Anna put on some warm cotton panties and her favorite cotton nightie, which was ankle-length and light blue, with teddy bears on it.  She used to have a really cute pair of panties that went with it, but that stupid Monkey King guy, or whoever it really was, stole them a couple months ago, so now she had to make do with other stuff.  She slid into the bed and snuggled in.

“…And you’re wearing yourself out worrying about your squirrels, instead of worrying about yourself, and you know they’d be more concerned about you than about themselves, so you need to…”

Anna conked out in the middle of Ellen telling her she needed more sleep.