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Aquerna - Straight from the Squirrel’s Mouth

By Diane Castle

Chapter 4

Saturday, December 16
Whateley Academy
4:45 am

The alarm went off, and Anna slapped the snooze button just as fast as she could.  She didn’t want to wake up Ellen.  She turned off the alarm and scrambled out of bed as quietly as she could.

She had her Parkour clothes all laid out, and there was no way she was showering first, when she knew she’d be all sweaty and stinky afterward.  She hastily dressed, knowing she had five whole minutes just to put her clothes on and get downstairs.  Cotton panties and cotton tights for warmth and breathability, heavy jeans, sports bra and cotton t-shirt and long-sleeved flannel shirt, with a bandanna over her hair, and a jacket.

She rushed downstairs and even made it out the front door before Zenith came sprinting up the walkway.  Zenith used her speed to run ten feet up the wall of the dorm and double back the way she came.  And they were off!

She sprinted after Zenith, taking every shortcut she could see.  She wasn’t nearly as fast as a high-level Exemplar, but Zenith couldn’t run across the top of the snow like Anna could.  Zenith poured on the speed as she sprinted down the path where it made an easy curve around a big, snow-covered pine.  Anna leapt up into the pine using her arms like forelegs, balanced expertly on the branch as she moved over it, and then kicked off to the other side of the tree.  She jumped at a large branch, and kicked off it with a half-spin, so she veered around the trunk of the tree without losing much speed.  She leapt out of the tree arms first, and came down in a four-legged running movement that let her slide up into a full sprint. That nearly caught her up with the Exemplar.  Zenith just jumped two benches and pulled ahead again.  Zenith was a good forty feet ahead of her by the time they got to the Quad.

Thrasher and Breaker and Slapdash were already waiting for them there, with the new kid.  Eldritch looked even more dangerous in person than she did from the stands when Anna was watching the combat finals.  She was big, and dressed kind of weird, and her eyes were freaky even by the Whateley definition of ‘freaky’.  Anna was feeling intimidated and uncomfortable, and the girl hadn’t even told her to get lost yet.

“Hey new kid!”

Anna managed to say “Yeah?” without stuttering.  She hoped.

“You’re Aquerna, right?”  Anna nodded, even if she was pretty nervous.  Eldritch said, “Erik Mahren was one of my dad’s old friends, and he taught me everything I know about Parkour.  If he said you were a Hooligan, then you’re a Hooligan.  Period.”  She stuck out her hand.

Ann shook Eldritch’s hand, even if it felt more like a steel glove than a normal hand.  She said, “Thanks.  I’d kinda’ like to stay in the group.  It’s fun.”

Eldritch nodded, like she’d said something important.  “That’s the only reason to do it.”

Anna felt a giant sense of relief.  She wasn’t going to get kicked out!

Eldritch smiled sneakily.  “I just have one more thing to say to all of you…  CATCH ME IF YOU CAN!”  And she was off like a jet-propelled… jet-something.

Eldritch led them through the central campus like Mister Mahren was chasing her with one of his giant guns.  She cut through the Quad’s benches, leaping over them or along them or whatever moved her faster.  Then she was using a tree to get enough height to get to a Schuster windowsill, kicking off that to a higher branch, and then up onto the little balcony that Anna secretly worried might be Mrs. Carson’s private area.  Eldritch kept going, and was soon on the roof of Schuster.

They all followed.  Not that Anna really wanted to catch Eldritch when those magical sparks were sort of leaping off her.  Zenith and Breaker took the fast route, using their Exemplar speed and strength to scramble up the side of the building.  Anna went for the tree instead, scrambling up through it and leaping all the way to the rooftop.  If she wasn’t panting so hard, she would’ve screeched in excitement that she was ahead of someone!  Slapdash came up too, but he was slower on a wall climb than the super-Exemplars.

Then it was across the roof, through a maze of pipes and antennas and stuff that they were all jumping over and through, then around and over part of the glass roof of the Crystal Hall, and off toward another building.  Eldritch was really, really good.  Exemplar speed and strength, and maybe as good as Mister Mahren at picking out a line and then using every trick you ever heard of to make it work for you.  Anna couldn’t come close to catching her.  But she wasn’t really trying to do that.  She was just running and jumping and scrambling and leaping and doing all the things her squirrel spirit wanted her to try.

They finally came to a halt when Eldritch ran ten feet up the side of Kane Hall, kicked off, spun, and landed facing the rest of the gang.  She stood there grinning crazily while everyone else caught up, with Anna and Slapdash behind the Exemplars and Thrasher.  Eldritch waited until everyone was standing in front of her and said, “Now that’s what I call a good run.  Slapdash, there’s a couple moves I think you ought to try instead of what you did between Dunn and MacFarlane.  And Aquerna, I want to show you a couple things you could’ve tried…”

Twenty minutes later, Anna hiked back to Dickinson, feeling exhausted and sweaty.  She still wasn’t sure how she felt about Eldritch, but the girl knew just a ton of cool Parkour moves.  Anna decided she’d shower first, then go eat.  That way, she’d probably be able to eat with a bunch of her Underdog friends.  Not that eating with the Hooligans didn’t sound awesome, but she didn’t feel like she belonged enough to actually sit down and eat with someone like Zenith or Thrasher.  And she knew weird stuff happened around Eldritch anyway.  Jericho was still complaining about one time when the magical spark stuff off Eldritch turned his food into glass shards and slime.  Ick.

It was still pretty early, and a Saturday morning, so on her way back she only saw one group of three girls walking down to early breakfast.  She was still feeling pretty sweaty and smelly, so she just grabbed her bathrobe and shower stuff without doing more than taking off her boots and dropping her outerwear in her laundry basket.  She wasn’t going to put on her bathrobe and get it all stinky and sweaty.

Showering was fine, because it was still real early and it was a Saturday so there weren’t a ton of people in line for the showers.  But drying off was where things got bogged down.  Winnie came in to shower, and she was looking sadder than normal.  A lot sadder.

“Winnie?  Are you okay?” Anna asked quietly.

“S-sure.  W-why w-wouldn’t I b-be?”

Uh-oh.  Anna had spent enough time with Winnie to know when she stammered that much she was feeling really stressed.  Well, Winnie stressed out a lot all the time, but this was Really-Stressed-Out Winnie.  “What happened?”

“N-nothing…”

Anna looked around.  There were several girls who were just dying to hear Winnie humiliate herself by admitting what happened.  So Anna said, “You just go ahead and shower, and we’ll walk to breakfast together.  Okay?”

“O-okay, I g-guess,” Winnie frowned.

It took Anna five more minutes to talk Winnie into the showers, and by then Anna had lost her place in line for a sink, so she had to wait to get her hair and teeth done.  She checked her nails, and sure as shootin’, she needed to have her manicure re-done.  Shoot.  She figured there was no point in even bothering until Tuesday afternoon, because she’d just wreck the polish on something if she tried to give herself a manicure before then.  If she ever found a polish that was stronger than her nails, it’d probably have to be like bulletproof nail polish.  Lucille said Anna was looking at it all wrong, and most girls would kill to have really strong nails that didn’t need special polish to protect ‘em, and Anna remembered worrying about that herself, but still it would be nice to have nail polish that covered her nails just right for more than half an hour.

Winnie got out of her shower and hustled into her robe.  Winnie hardly ever dried off in the bathroom.  Anna knew exactly what it was like to be the chubby, unattractive girl in the showers at school, and knowing a lot of the other girls were making fun of you.  And it had to be worse here for Winnie, since Dickinson didn’t have any of the campus GSD cases, so almost every single girl in the dorm was prettier than Winnie, and a lot of the girls in the dorm were just super-beautiful.  There were some Exemplars over in Whitman, but almost all the Exemplar girls were in Melville or Dickinson or Poe.  Anna was guessing that maybe more than half of the girls in the dorm were Exemplar beauties, which made things that much harder for the ordinary-looking girls like Anna and Ellen and Winnie.  And even some of the not-Exemplars, like Molly and Betty, were still really pretty, even if Molly hid her looks behind her glasses and her hair and stuff.  Anna was just glad she wasn’t over in Melville with all the really mean, creepy kids.  Not counting Solange, who was trying really, really hard to get moved to Melville.  And Sahar, who hadn’t done anything mean at all to anyone she knew, but people said a ton of really horrible things about awful stuff she’d done to really dangerous people all over campus.  And Solange’s ‘court’.  Flicker and Fade and a couple girls who mostly just ran errands for Tansy and did whatever she told ‘em to do.  But other than them, most of the girls in Dickinson were really pretty nice, even if some of ‘em, like Winnie’s roommate Vera, were just so beautiful you couldn’t believe it.  Even Cytherea was mostly nice, when she could be bothered to talk to you, because she saved up all her skankiness for guys, who weren’t here in the dorm.

Anna hurried with her hair so she could get back to her room and get dressed pretty quick.  She wanted to make sure she caught Winnie, because it sure looked like Winnie needed to talk to someone about stuff, and the Underdogs were the best place Winnie had to talk to friends.  Okay, Anna didn’t really know how close Winnie and Vera were, so maybe Winnie could talk to Vera about stuff like that.  Maybe.  Anna sort of figured Vera intimidated Winnie just by talking about her home life, because Vera’s family was rich - not rich like the Goodkinds, but rich - and Vera was going to be really important when she grew up, and even met Prince Rainier of Monaco and stuff.  If Phase hadn’t said that stuff was really true, Anna wouldn’t even have believed it, because there were other kids around campus who were lying like crazy about where they came from and who they were and how important they were, but Ayla knew all that rich-person stuff and told Anna who a couple of the fakes were.  It just seemed so weird that Ayla's family had actually met Vera's dad and Hatamoto’s dad and Solange’s dad and Unicorn’s parents and some of Dynamaxx’s relatives in social stuff and business meetings, because there were billions of people in the world, so how could there be all these rich kids at Whateley?  Anna didn’t get that.  Anna really didn’t get how a Goodkind could be a mutant and go to Whateley, but science wasn’t her strong point.  Maybe she’d ask Hazmat about it one of these days.

Anna was dressed and waiting for Winnie way before Winnie cracked open her door and peeked out to see if it was safe to come out.  Anna just gave her a smile and let her come out on her own.  Sometimes Winnie was so shy it seemed like she’d faint if someone like Fey ever came over and said hi.  Still, it meant Winnie missed all the horrible stuff at Halloween, because she wouldn’t come to the party and just stayed in her room by herself.  So there was maybe a good side to it too.

Winnie opened her door about an inch and peeked out.  “I-is anyone out th-there?”

Anna said, “Nope.  Just me.”

Winnie slipped out and trudged down the hall, her shoulders slumped.  She was buried in her big winter coat, which looked about two sizes too big when she was like that.  A couple ribbons in her hair peeked out from the front of her hood.  “I d-don’t w-wanna t-talk about it.”

Anna shrugged, “Okay.  But I’d still like to walk with you, and we can go eat with the rest of the gang.”

Winnie nodded.  “O-okay.  B-but I really d-don’t want to t-talk about it.  I m-mean it!”

Anna nodded, “Okay.  I won’t bug you.  I just figured you’d want some company.”  Winnie walked with her down the stairs and out the door, into the cold.

Anna said, “I think it’s gonna snow soon.”

Winnie looked around and nodded, “A-another b-big one.  F-from the w-west.”

Anna said, “I got my little friends tucked away just in time.  You gotta look out for your friends.”

Winnie frowned, “I s-said I d-don’t w-wanna t-talk about it!”

Anna just said, “I was talking about my squirrels.  What’d you think I was talking about?”

“N-nothing.”

Anna let Winnie sulk for another minute before she said, “I went for a nice run this morning with some other kids.  It was fun.  You oughta get out more.  Maybe you and me and Ree and Luce could do some easy stuff around campus, not the really hard stuff Zenith and Breaker and them can do…”

Winnie muttered, “Yeah, l-like a l-lardball like m-me could r-run for t-twenty seconds without throwing up.  Or f-falling down.  Or…”  She balled her fists up and sobbed, “I t-try not to b-be in their way!  Ever!  W-why do they have to p-pick on me?  Why can’t they j-just leave m-me alone?”

“Solange’s gang?” Anna guessed.

“Y-yeah!” Winnie gushed.  And then the whole story came stammering out.  Last night, Winnie was just trying to go upstairs and go to bed, but Flicker and Fade and one of their mean friends had to stop her on the stairs and be mean to her until she cried.  Again.  And then, afterward, when she went to her room and Vera made her explain why she was crying, Vera was so mad that she talked in French at them for maybe ten minutes.

“It’s n-not my fault I’m all f-fat and ugly and ch-chicken and I c-can’t do anything p-powerful and… and…”  Winnie burst into tears.

Anna just held her for a little while.  “It’s okay, Winnie.  Really it is.  I mean, look at me.  I’m just ‘the girl with the stupid squirrel spirit’.  Same thing.  You can do stuff.  Like all the things you do around the dorm.  So what if you’re not Lady Astarte?  Who is?  It just seems totally not fair now you’re at Whateley, but when you graduate, you’ll be somebody important.  You’ll be one in a million.”

Winnie pulled herself together, and they walked on in silence.  After a while, Winnie said, “L-liar.  You d-don’t even b-believe that about y-you.  B-but th-thanks for being n-nice.”

Anna shrugged.  It was kind of true.  Sort of.  People like her and Winnie were nobodies at a place like Whateley.  But they could be like regular people when they graduated.  Nobody would look at Winnie or her and think ‘wow, she must be a superheroine!’  They were too ordinary-looking.  She said, “When you’re a world-famous feng shui guru and author and stuff, and they’re some jerky loser who used to be just a little famous until they got hurt and now they’re nobody, things’ll be different.”

“M-me?” Winnie gasped.  “I couldn’t.  I…  I could n-never get up in f-front of a whole b-bunch of people and s-speak!”

Anna thought for a moment.  “Well, you could still write books, and do all the ‘earth magic’ stuff you do, and have partners who do the lectures and interviews.”

Winnie almost smiled.  “I’ll think it over.  M-maybe.”

Anna smiled back.  Winnie hadn’t stuttered nearly as bad, which she was pretty sure meant she wasn’t as stressed out, so Anna must’ve cheered her up.

Winnie finally said, “Anna, you’re a g-good friend.  Thanks.”

Anna shrugged.  “Hey, I’m not the one who spent like two weeks doing that thing around the dorm so somebody’s squirrels would be happier.  That was a lot of work, for someone else’s little furry friends, y’know.”

Winnie blushed so hard the tip of her nose turned pink.  “I… umm…  I d-didn’t just do it for you.  I d-did it for the whole dorm.  I j-just… made sure it would help e-everybody.”

Anna nodded, “And it did.  My little friends tell me it’s the nicest place on the whole campus.”

Winnie said, “I…  Umm…  M-maybe that’s ‘cause th-they’re near you?”

Anna hadn’t thought about that.  “I dunno.  But I still think it’s what you did.”

“Th-thanks.”

They walked into the Crystal Hall and headed for the breakfast line.  Anna pointed out, “Hey!  There’s everyone, over behind the big planter.”

Winnie craned her neck and stared for a few seconds.  “O-okay, if you s-say so.  M-my eyes aren’t that good.”

“Sorry.”

Winnie fussed, “D-don’t ap-pologize for having super-good eyesight!  I know I’ve g-got normal eyes.  I don’t even need g-glasses or contacts or anything.  Just be you, and s-don’t be apologizing all the time.  Okay?”

“Okay.”  But Anna still felt a little guilty about her eyesight and her sense of smell and her hearing.  Sometimes when she walked past people talking, and she could hear ‘em even if she was pretty sure they didn’t think anyone was listening to them, it just felt like she was eavesdropping.  At least her senses weren’t super-intense, like Silverwing’s eyesight.  Having super smell would probably really stink.  There was a freshman boy over in Twain who was supposed to have super-smell so powerful that he passed out from a lot of really intense smells, and he couldn’t go into the guys’ locker room ‘cause it smelled so bad to him that he kept passing out, well it would probably smell just as horrible to Anna since lots of guys were really stinky after they exercised and plenty of those guys didn’t change their gym clothes and stuff, but that guy had to avoid all the trash cans too, and stuff like that.  She saw him sometimes walking around campus with a fancy respirator over his nose and mouth.  That would be awful.

Winnie grabbed a tray and went right for the hot food section.  Anna could smell the bacon and eggs and stuff.  But she just wasn’t as hungry for bacon and eggs as she used to be.  She figured it was maybe her squirrel spirit, but she was really more interested in a bowl of granola, since the school’s granola was way better than the stuff in the box that her mom used to buy.  The school’s stuff had nuts and little pieces of dried fruits, and oats and stuff with honey on ‘em and toasted so they were extra tasty.  She wondered if she’d still be as chubby as she was before she became a mutant, if her spirit hadn’t snuck up on her and changed the way she ate without her really realizing it.  Not that she’d even noticed she was eating some different stuff until a couple friends noticed she was losing weight and asked her about her new ‘diet plan’.  Which was kind of when she figured out she really had changed some of the stuff she was eating.  She didn’t figure out why for a long time, because nobody in Zanesville knew anything about mutant powers, except saying really mean stuff about mutants and the bad things they were always doing.  She didn’t even know what an Avatar was, forget about being an Avatar, until she got tested.  But once she got tested for powers and they were sure she had a nature spirit, it was really, really obvious what kind of nature spirit she had.  It wasn’t like she was talking to bears, or swimming like a dolphin, or anything like that.  No, if you talk to squirrels, and listen to squirrels, and tell squirrels what to do, and they even call you ‘big squirrel’, and you climb trees like a squirrel, and jump like a squirrel, and eat like a squirrel, guess what?  You’re a squirrel.

Anna glanced over to see if Winnie was coming over to the Underdog table with her.  Winnie was so shy that sometimes she didn’t even feel up to eating with Anna and Rhiannon and Lucille.  Okay, there were reasons why Winnie didn’t want to eat with Nate and Alan and Gary sometimes, because they’d tease anybody, and Winnie really didn’t like that even if it was just kidding around.  And that didn’t even count the time Winnie was sitting next to Nate at dinner and his lunch caught up with him, and that was when they all found out that even though Nate had promised not to eat the chili, he’d snuck off and had like two whole bowls of it.  They’d all had to grab their trays and run to another table.  Anna was just glad she didn’t have to sit next to Nate and across from Jericho too, that would be like having your eyes burned out and your nose burned off at the same time.  But sometimes Winnie just wanted to go sit at one of the far tables all by herself and then rush off back to her room, even if Vera was already there.

It was a good thing Vera was a good roommate, because Winnie was really intimidated by the really powerful kids, and Vera was supposed to be a major Wizard, and Anna knew Vera was like in the second level of fighters in her Basic Martial Arts class, and there was no way Anna could beat her unless Vera had to spar without using her magical powers, because Vera was really pretty and had some really awesome spells, but she wasn’t all that good at the aikido part of the class.  But if you split the whole class into groups of six, Vera was probably near the top of the second group, right behind Phase and Silverwing and Golden Girl and Britomart and Adamantine and Prism.  Anna wasn’t at the bottom of the class anymore, since she’d been working really hard on her aikido and Phase gave her some really cool tips, but she was probably in the next-to-bottom group.  Even if it was pretty hard to figure out where some people ought to be in the class, like Vanessa, who wasn’t strong or fast, but was decent at the aikido part, and could beat anybody in the class if she got a few words in before her opponent attacked her.  Or Steve.  Mechano Man.  Who was really a nice guy when he wasn’t going on and on and on about how cool his inventions were and how fast his new rocketbike could go.  When he got to use some of his inventions, like that rocket pack with the eight ‘Doctor Octopus’ tentacle arms coming out of it, he was really hard to beat, and it took someone pretty good, like Phase or Charmer, to stop him.  But some of the time, when he was trying out new stuff or didn’t bring anything to class, just about anybody except maybe Rhiannon or Ash could take him.  Or what about Kismet?  That ‘probability warper’ thing was really freaky, because Anna had seen Kismet get lucky and beat Golden Girl pretty easy, and she had seen Kismet get really, really unlucky, and lose bad to Rhiannon.  Or there was Prism, who couldn’t take Blot but could blast most of the class across the room.  It was weird.  In DC Comics, Superman was just Superman, and was always the strongest guy, but in the real world, different people had different strengths and weaknesses.  Like Rhiannon, who had normal strength and only her ‘spark’ power, but she could give Silverwing an awful time, because his eyes couldn’t take the ‘bright sparks out of the hands’ thing.  Or Blot, who was murder on blasters, because they just made him stronger.  And even Ash, who you could never tell about, because some of the time when he threw those stupid pokeballs, nothing happened, or the pokemon-thing just did whatever it felt like, but sometimes it really did what he told it to, and one time he made a cute little Pikachu-thing that totally blasted Prism when Prism didn’t even think it would try to attack him.  But Ash lost to Anna every time, especially the time he made that same Pikachu and it shocked the poo out of Ash instead of going for Anna.

Anna sat down next to Ree, and made sure there was room on her other side for Winnie.  Winnie just slunk into the chair, sort of nodded to everyone, and then pretended she was totally concentrating on eating.  Anna let her eat for a bit before she asked, “So, you feelin’ any better?”

Winnie just shrugged, but Anna knew nobody was going to let that slide.  Lucille and Rhiannon had to know what was wrong, and Nate wanted to know if she needed him to go fart in anybody’s room, and even Gary and Alan wanted to hear what was up.  So Winnie finally told everyone at the table about getting picked on again.  And then Nate was really fired up about farting in somebody’s room, because he didn’t like Solange’s clique, because they picked on him too.  He still claimed that they were doing something to him, because sometimes when he was walking along minding his own business and they were near, he just lost control and started farting like crazy, and he was sure it was some sort of psychic or magical attack, because his spirit - whatever it was - felt really upset.  Anna didn’t know if Nate was right, but she knew Solange like doing mean tricks, and she knew you needed to listen to your spirit inside you because sometimes it knew stuff you didn’t.

So, after everybody made Winnie talk about it, and everybody talked about what bitches Flicker and Fade and Solange were, and a few people told Winnie their own ‘being picked on’ stories, they were ready to walk back to the dorms.  And Winnie was smiling a little.  Mostly at Nate’s crazy ideas for sneaking into Dickinson and farting in Flicker’s room.  Anna and Ree and Lucille walked Winnie back, and Anna even made sure Winnie got back to her room un-picked-on.

Then Anna went to her room and studied hard all morning long.  She didn’t even turn on the radio or anything.  Besides, WARS sometimes didn’t play music she liked, and sometimes it didn’t play music at all because those jerks Peeper and Greasy were broadcasting on it while they went around pestering girls.

So she had all the math stuff Gary had helped her with, and that made some parts of it better.  She finally felt like she had solving the linear equations down, and graphing lines, and even the combinations and permutations stuff.  But she was still having trouble with some of the ‘compute the probabilities’ stuff.  She made a list of all the problems she was still having trouble with, and she wrote a post-it note to herself to talk to Gary about them later.  Then she worked on biology class for the rest of the morning.  Most of it was just memorizing words and definitions and pictures.  She really didn’t want to do any more dissecting, but the teacher already told them that part of the exam was going to be looking at already-dissected worms and frogs and identifying stuff inside ‘em.  Yuck.

She really didn’t have any trouble concentrating all morning long.  Her squirrel spirit really helped her study for longer, and concentrate better, and maybe even remember weird stuff better.  Just like remembering where to dig for acorns, or where all the burrows were, Anna could remember better than she used to when she was learning stuff like where the guts inside the frog went.

And then Saturday lunch was just wild.  Team Kimba stood up and challenged the Young Turks to an arena match, right there in front of everybody, in the middle of the cafeteria!  And they acted like they did this every day!  After the challenge, everyone could see that the Young Turks could hardly eat, but Team Kimba just sat back down and did their usual stuff.  They didn’t even worry when the Wild Pack came over and fussed at ‘em.

Ree said, “Why are they challenging the Turks to a fight?  And why aren’t they using their best members?”

Nate groaned, “Are you kidding?  Who the hell would agree to a fight like that if they said they were bringing Tennyo and Carmilla and Lancer?”  He switched to a ‘dumb guy’ voice.  “Oh sure, sounds good to me, I don’t mind if I get crushed like a bug, or burned up by a big energy blast that can slag a car, or eaten.”

Anna had to agree with Nate.  “Tennyo’s… well, Tennyo.  And Carmilla?  She’s scary.  Lancer?  That’d be like trying to fight Superman.  You might as well give up.  Even Phase couldn’t stop him.”

Will kidded, “Yeah.  Fire off all your bullets, and then throw the gun at him.  Why the heck does Superman let the bullets bounce off him, which oughta be really dangerous for everyone around him, and then he ducks when you throw a gun at him?  That was just so stupid.”

“When did Superman ever duck when they throw a gun at him?” dared Nate.

“I saw it on Nick at Nite,” Will said smugly.  “It was an old black and white tv show.”

“Sounds too stupid for him to just make up,” said Darlene.

Nate said, “That’s your trouble, Dar.  You’re too darn reasonable.”

Anna said, “I still wanna know what’s going on!  Why are Team Kimba challenging the Turks?”

“Because they’re crazy,” said Nate.

“And why are the Turks sitting there and taking it?” she finished.

“Because they’ll look like a bunch of losers if they say they’re scared to fight Generator.”

“Okay, Generator’s not exactly scary.  Even if she does carry a gun.  And missiles.  But Fey’s super powerful!” Ree said.

“And Chaka and Bladedancer are really good in fights,” Anna added.

“Anybody who can take Nex is a serious ass-kicker,” said Will.

“And the whole school saw what Chaka could do, and she was the only person the whole week who had to fight three-on-one,” Luce pointed out.

“Yeah,” said Nate.  “That was awesome!  She could probably take the Young Turks all by herself!”

Alan complained, “So why is it that everything around here is Team Kimba starting something, or someone getting into it with one of the Kimbas?”

Trish said, “Well, not everything.  There was that thing with Peril and the exploding jetpack.”

Mindy agreed, “Yeah.  That was crazy!  He fell like a hundred feet!”

Lucille asked, “And what about those ninjas at Parents’ Day?”

Gary said, “Team Kimba got in on that one.”

“Oh yeah,” Lucille remembered.  “They really whomped up on those ninjas, didn’t they?  That was pretty cool.  My dad talked about that for like two weeks!  Now I can’t convince him this is just high school.  Every week when he calls, he wants to know if there’s been another super-powered battle on campus.  He’s decided having a mutant in the family is the coolest thing since Aunt Mary was interviewed on tv about her store.”

Mindy said, “Man, when they get into the holographic sims, they’re gonna be hell to stop.”

Ree tried, “What about the night those kids were sneaking into that forbidden area just off-campus?”

Gary said, “I think that was the Kimbas too.  Leon said it was Tennyo.  And he said they did something that made the Security guys have to go into Poe.”

Alan frowned, “Damn!  Is everything around here the Kimbas’ fault?”

Trish disagreed with Alan, like usual.  “Or maybe it’s stuff aimed at the Kimbas.  There sure are a ton of guys who took a shot at Phase because of the girl/boy thing.”

Anna said, “Yeah, but Phase beat up most of ‘em, I think.  She’s not very big, but she’s really tough in Basic Martial Arts.  One day in class sensei sicked Silverwing, Kismet, and Golden Girl on her all at once, and she got away from all of them, so then sensei said the next day Phase would have to fight all of them and capture all three of them or lose.  And she knocked all of ‘em out and put Golden Girl in the hospital.  In like half a minute.”

Ree said, “Yeah.  It was awesome!”

Nate said, “And everyone says the Kimbas are like the toughest kids in last-period aikido.  Lancer and Tennyo and Carmilla and Chaka are all pretty much the top dogs of the class.”

Gary muttered, “Oh yeah, like anyone in their right mind would want to spar against Tennyo.”

Anna muttered, “I still wanna know why they’re doing this arena fight with the Young Turks.  There’s got to be something going on with it.”

Nate waved her off.  “Who can figure out nutcases like them?  Ya know, there’s a reason they’re all in Poe.  ‘Cause they’re bonkers!”

Anna frowned, “Phase is nice!  And Lancer is really nice.”

“Ooh, someone likes Lancer!  Gonna get lanced by the Lancer?”

“Knock it off, Will,” ordered Lucille.

“Yes, mom.”

“Knock it off, Nate,” Lucille said.

“Yes, mom.”

Anna talked Gary into giving her some more help on the math stuff, and he gave her some tips on deciding how to do which of the probability things she’d worked on.  The main thing was the ‘order matters’ thing with permutations instead of combinations, which she totally hadn’t gotten from what the teacher said.  Then she went back to studying.  That went pretty good.  She was really getting the biology stuff memorized.  She and Winnie took turns quizzing each other on their class notes, and she got nearly every single one of the biology answers right.

Even better was when Ree came over around three with really great news.  Anna could tell, because Ree looked like she was gonna explode with excitement.  Ree shrieked, “Oh this is so great!  Mom and dad said you could come for Christmas!”  They squealed and hugged and jumped up and down, until Mrs. Nelson told them to go outside if they were going to make so much noise.

Anna smiled with tears in her eyes.  “This is so great, thanks a ton, Ree!”

Anna didn’t like talking about it, but Ree knew all about what the problem was.  Anna’s parents were being really awful about Christmas, and they were going to Anna’s grandma’s for Christmas and Anna wasn’t welcome because Anna’s grandma “didn’t have no truck with no mutants” even if the mutant was her favorite granddaughter.  Her former favorite granddaughter, who didn’t even look like a mutant.  But Anna’s folks knew, and her uncle and aunt and cousins knew, so everyone in the family knew Anna was a ‘freaky dangerous mutant monster’.

It just wasn’t fair.  Wasn’t Ohio supposed to be better about mutants and racism and stuff than places like Alabama and Georgia and Virginia?  But Rhiannon said Loophole was taking friends home for Christmas in Georgia, and one of the senior girls said Tidewater was taking his girlfriend home for Christmas in Virginia or Maryland or somewhere like that, and…

Well, it wasn’t fair, but lots of other kids had it worse.  Like Gila and Phobos and Psydoe.  Or Phase.  Everyone said the whole Goodkind family kicked her out when she turned into a mutant.  Did Ayla even have a place to go for Christmas, or was she going to go someplace like Rio de Janeiro and pretend she didn’t care she didn’t have her old home to go to?  Anna wished she knew Ayla well enough to ask something like that, but it seemed so nosy

Anna went back to studying, and worked on her math homework problems some more until Ellen stomped in looking really grouchy.  Anna checked, “What’s the matter?”

“I didn’t win a single goddamn race!  That’s what!” Ellen yelled.  “I came in second three times, but not one win.  Now I have to win three times tomorrow, or Hazard’s walkin’ off with my forty dollars!”

“But your snow-thing’s really, really fast,” Anna said.  “What happened?”

“Ugh,” Ellen growled while she threw her coat and her boots into her closet, where the snow was going to melt and make a big yucky mess if Anna didn’t remind Ellen to clean it up when she calmed down.

Ellen started explaining while she took off her snowsuit and her sweaty underthings.  “Well, the road was covered in maybe five feet of snow, I knew that was gonna happen.  But Mechano Man had this jet-ski mechanism with a real jet on the back end, and he won the first two races.  I figured I just had to keep up the pressure and he’d run out of jet fuel before a lot longer, even if Juice and Ergonomic and a couple other guys were pushing hard too.  But then in the third race, he crashed.  Big time.  I was right on his butt, well I was as close as I could get with that damn jet blasting behind him, and I had to veer off into the trees to keep from crashing with him.  So I ended up last that time.  And then Juice won the next two races, because I had to stop and repair the front end on my snowmobile!  It was totally not fair!  When I finally got my machine working again, I got second right behind him, and he trashed his treads, so he was out for the afternoon.  And then for the last race of the day, I was finally ready, and Ergonomic won with his stupid giant beachball that he rides inside of, and it’s so wide you can’t pass him on a lot of the spots along the racecourse, and when I thought I had a lane and I tried, I spun out!”

Anna let Ellen go shower, and then she helped Ellen clean the melting snow up off Ellen’s side of the room and out of her closet.  Ellen thanked her a whole bunch, and stomped off to go study for her physics test with a couple friends from the class.  So Anna had the room to herself for the rest of the afternoon.  She studied English until she was sure she knew all the weird little things like adverbs and participles.

Dinner was pretty much like lunch.  Anna noticed that the Kimbas were all sitting around, having a great time, like nothing was going on.  But the Young Turks looked awful, like they were about to go in to the dentist’s for root canal or something.  What was up with that?  If they were that worried, why didn’t they just say ‘forget it’ or something?  Anybody would understand if they said they didn’t want to fight Fey.  Well, at least Anna thought so.

After dinner, Anna studied a bunch of her Criminology notes, and then scampered over to the Underdogs’ hangout with her math book.  While she was waiting for Ree and Luce and the other girls, she talked with Gary some more about the probability problems, which were still giving her a hard time and he thought were all super-easy.

Once everyone came in, she put away her math book.  The girls all sat in one of the conversation groups, while the guys turned on the big-screen television on the far wall and watched some stupid sport that wasn’t even anything good like football or basketball.  It was like the ‘world’s strongest man’ competition or something, and it just looked stupid.  Who cared if guys the size of a hippo could lug around two beer kegs?  And the announcer kept going on and on about all the drug testing and the testing to make sure mutants weren’t in the competition.

Anna was figuring they’d sit and talk about some of the really cute boys and how their combat finals went, but everyone else wanted to talk about Anna’s date.  Which was okay with Anna, even if she didn’t like being the center of attention.

“Okay, you only have three days.  Do you need anything?  A manicure?”

Anna sighed, “I’m gonna do my nails right before the date.  If I do ‘em any sooner than that, they’ll get all scratched up or something.  Stupid nail polish.”

Ree giggled, “Oh my God, Hazmat really is awfully cute for one of the deviser guys.”

“Have you picked out what you’re gonna wear?  Do we need to go over to your room and go through everything?”

“Yeah, I could loan you a bunch of stuff, we’re pretty close to the same size.”

Anna said, “I’m pretty much set.  I got these really cool black jeans…”

“I wanna hear every single detail when your date’s over!  Promise?  Promise?” Ree insisted.

“Well, where are you going?  You can’t pick an outfit if you don’t know where he’s taking you!  Did he tell you?”

Anna nodded, “Yeah, I totally checked on that first, you know.  Pizza and a movie, in Dunwich.  So it’s casual.  Just jeans.  No skirt.”

Trish smirked, “Okay… how much do you like him?”

Anna blushed hard.  “There’s no way I’m gonna go all skanky and stuff.  Just jeans.  And a sweater.”

Ree frowned, “Wait a minute, he’s a deviser.  Should we follow you around in case he tries anything?”

“But which sweater?  Not your gray one, that’s so blah!”

“Yeah, you should definitely wear your off-red one with the cable knit.  It’s really pretty on you.”

“And I got a pair of really cute ankle boots you can wear with it.  They’re a little less than two-inch heels, that’s not too much, you’ll look pretty, but not all slutty, and anyway he’s tall, so you can wear heels and not feel dorky.”

Anna nodded, “Thanks.  Maybe you could bring ‘em over and I could try ‘em on and see?”

“Sure!”

“And what are you gonna wear underneath?  And how are you gonna wear the sweater?  Loose?  Tucked in?  You gotta make the right statement, ya know.”

Ree suddenly gasped, “He does chemistry!  What if he puts something in your drink?”

Anna frowned, “He’s not gonna put something in my drink.  That’s like frat guys in frat houses in college, where they’ve got a bedroom and stuff.  We’re gonna be in a movie theater!  And on the school shuttle!”

They sat around and worried about Anna’s outfit until nine, when the guys turned the television up really loud to watch “Die Hard 2” which Anna had seen before and didn’t want to watch again, not even the part where he blasts up out of the exploding plane or the part where he fights the guy on the wing of the taking-off jet.  Anna went home and gave Ellen a pep-talk and went to sleep.

Sunday, December 17
Whateley Academy

Anna slept in and missed breakfast, which was all right with her.  She used to feel awful if she slept really late and missed a meal, but since she’d become a mutant and got her squirrel spirit and lost weight, it just wasn’t as big a deal.  When she finally got out of bed, it was nearly lunchtime and she felt really rested for the first time in days.  She was still pretty stressed out about exams, but she was way not as stressed out as when she’d been all frantic about her little friends.

She got up, slipped on her bathrobe, and ate a few of Ayla’s chocolates.  She still couldn’t believe Ayla bought that stuff for her.  Ellen had gone on the internet to find out how much that box cost, and when she showed Anna the price she found, Anna just about peed in her panties.  Holy cow!

Maybe Ayla bought a bunch of ‘em and got ‘em some kind of giant rich-people discount and gave ‘em out to everybody who beat someone she didn’t like.

Anna had a nice, relaxing shower with almost nobody in the bathroom to bug her about taking so much time or using up the hot water.  That wasn’t really a problem, because Dickinson had four hot water heaters, and they were all gigantic.  With all the girls in the dorm wanting to take showers between about seven and eight thirty every school morning, they had to be.  Back home, they had a really teeny water heater.  You couldn’t really take a shower in the winter if someone was running the dishwasher or washing dishes in the sink.  Not unless you didn’t mind freezing cold water.  And if you used up all the hot water just before dad wanted to shower, he would really glare at you.

At lunch the only thing anybody was talking about was the arena match with the Kimbas, or else finals.  Everybody was wondering how awful the junior/senior combat finals were going to be, after what the freshman/sophomore ones were like.

Anna went back to her room and studied some more on her math, but after another hour of hard work, she figured she deserved to take a little time off.  She rounded up Ree and Lucille, and they all dressed for the weather, and they hiked off to watch Ellen race her snowmobile.

It was really pretty cool.  There were half a dozen guys who had regular snowmobiles, but they didn’t stand much of a chance against Ellen’s machine, or the other specially-built stuff.  They walked past everyone getting ready for the next race.  Mechano Man had this freaky thing that was half snow-racer and half Star Wars rocket.  He spotted them walking past, and he waved.

“Hi Steve!” she called out.

Rhiannon said, “Hi!  That looks cool!”

Steve burst into a ton of techno-speak stuff that Anna couldn’t follow past the ‘let me tell you how great it is and how it works’ part.  There was some ‘dynamic’ something, and some Newton’s Law stuff, and something chemical-sounding about his fuel that Hazmat would’ve known all about and could explain so it made sense.  Finally he stopped talking so he could get back to getting ready for the next race, and Anna sighed in exhaustion.

Lucille whispered, “Is he always like that?”

Ree nodded.  “He’s real nice, but he likes to brag about his inventions, and then he gets into the inventor stuff, and I never know what he’s talking about.”

Lucille stopped in thought.  “I thought you two only know him from that aikido class.”

Ree said, “Yeah.  That’s what he’s like in aikido class.  Can you imagine what he’s like in science classes?”

“Yikes!” Lucille pretended to panic.  They giggled all the way down to where Ellen was working on her snow-racer.

Anna looked around as they walked.  No wonder Hazard was giving Ellen those odds.  Skids was up against that freaky snow-jet thing Mechano Man built.  Then there was the thing Juice built, which looked like a cross between a NASCAR racer and a John Deere tractor.  It looked like it would either go about ten miles an hour, or else about two hundred miles an hour.  Then there was that giant beachball thing Ergonomic was riding inside, and a couple other whacko things.

Then Anna spotted a small crowd of people holding out money.  At the center was Hazard, naturally.  And Risk and Memo and someone Anna didn’t know, but had to be another bookie.  It seemed like there was a school rule that every cottage had to have a ‘fixer’ and a bookie, and maybe even one or two gofers.  She didn’t see how that would work at a dorm like Hawthorne, but maybe there was like a guy from Twain or a girl from Whitman who ran errands for the Thornies who couldn’t get out, because even most of the Thornies who could walk out of Hawthorne probably couldn’t go into Dunwich or Berlin without causing a panic.

When the next race got going, it was pretty amazing.  The racers started out at different times, about ten seconds apart, with the order going on how well the racer did in the previous races, so the fastest racer went first, and the slowest racer went last.  And you didn’t have to come in first across the finish line, you just had to have a better time than anyone else.  Anna figured someone like Hazard would love something that complicated, because then she could make up all kinds of weird things to bet on.

Anna and her friends watched as a girl in a bright red jumpsuit waved a flag to signal each racer to take off.  Mechano Man went first, and Anna gasped as the jet roared out of the back and it zoomed off down the curving road at what seemed like over a hundred miles an hour.  Anna didn’t see how anyone could catch him.  Juice went next, Skids went third, and Ergonomic went fourth.  There were three more racers before the ordinary snowmobilers got their turn, but nobody seemed to be going anywhere near as fast as the first four racers.

Steve won that race too, but Ellen didn’t look all that upset.  So while everyone was getting ready for the next race, Anna and her friends tromped over to talk to Ellen.  Anna whispered, “What’s up?  You look like you got a super-secret plan up your sleeve.”

Ellen grinned, “Look at the road.  The snow’s nearly all packed down into solid ice.  I figure one more run, and Steve won’t be able to get any more traction.  That’s when I bring out my ice-racer and kick their asses!”

“Ooh!  Sneaky,” grinned Ree.

And sure enough, on the next run, Steve’s thing lost traction on a big curve and went rocketing off into the trees, and Anna nearly screamed when it was about to smash into the trees.  At the last second, Steve ejected from his rocket-thing and flew up into the air and then rocketed back down to the ground.  So Steve was safe.  But the snow-rocket was a wreck.  Juice just barely beat Skids, and it looked like Juice nearly spun out once.  So Anna figured Ellen was ready to surprise everyone.

Anna went down the road and helped Steve pick up some of the wreckage.  She mainly wanted to make sure the crash didn’t hurt any squirrels, and his stuff wasn’t going to catch on fire and burn down a whole bunch of trees.  It wasn’t that hard helping Steve and the race organizers pick up the wrecked stuff, because there was hardly anything still in one piece.  Even the three trees that took the impact were busted apart.  She was really glad this was way off Whateley property and the school arborists wouldn’t be responsible for doing the tree clean-up here.  But Anna was really good at helping on stuff like this.  She could pick up a chunk of racer that weighed more than she did, and then run over the top of the snow before lifting it up onto the flatbed truck that was for the wreckage.  Okay, that wasn’t much compared to what the typical Whateley brick could do, but it was way more than what Steve could do.  If it wasn’t for the heavy snow, Anna could’ve lifted more, but then she’d sink into the snow and not be able to lug the stuff over to the flatbed truck.

She helped Steve and the guys lug the main part of the rocket engine onto a sled and slide it over to the truck.  She asked him, “So, how much does this weigh?”

He shrugged, “Well, this part is probably about four hundred pounds.  Why?”

She said, “Okay, I can get that.”  She wrapped her arms around it and pushed with her legs.  She heaved it up onto the flatbed and brushed off her hands.  That was when she realized the guys were staring at her with their mouths open.

Steve said, “I thought you weren’t a brick.”

“I’m not,” she said.

“But…  But…”

She shrugged, “I’m as strong as an Exemplar-2, ya know.  That means as strong as like the strongest baseline my size you can find.  I can lift like six hundred pounds or so if I really strain.  Maybe more, someday.  Sensei Tolman says I need to take Powers Theory and do the lab course and find out what my limits really are when I learn how to lift properly and then really work on strength training.”

Steve gulped.  “Jesus!  I couldn’t lift six hundred pounds if Deathlist was after me!”

Anna shrugged, “Six hundred pounds?  That’s like nothing around here.  Silverwing says he can lift like seven thousand pounds.  Phase said Lancer can lift five tons with his pinky.”

Steve just shook his head.  “But they’re superheroes.  We’re just supposed to be normal.  For mutants, I mean.”

Anna checked on the fuel tank stuff too.  The tanks - or ‘fuel cells’ as Steve insisted on calling ‘em - were all dented and stuff, but they weren’t leaking.  Which was good for the environment.  Steve bragged that he had this special foam inside the cells so even if you shot a bullet through one of the tanks it wouldn’t explode and the fuel wouldn’t even leak out the holes.  She let the guys put the fuel things on the sled and drag ‘em over to her, and then she picked ‘em up and put ‘em on the truck.  They weren’t that heavy.  All four of ‘em together only weighed about as much as that chunk of engine.

By the time she got back to the starting line, Ellen had her ice speeder ready to go.  It looked evil.  The back wheels had three-inch metal spikes sticking out all over, and they weren’t even covered all that much.  Each of the back wheels had a steel cage over it, but you could stick your hand through the holes in the cage, so they still looked really dangerous.  And if you got run over by that thing, you’d look like a swiss cheese.  Unless you were Lancer or Phase or somebody like that.

But Ellen wasn’t catching the whole place by surprise.  Juice had brought out something new too, and it had spikes and claws on its treads.  And Ergonomic had this weird cover for his giant beachball machine.  It was sort of like chains for car tires, but in long interlinked rubber lines that clicked together on one side so pretty much the whole ball was covered.

“Where were you?” Lucille checked.

“I was helping Steve and the guys pick up the wreck,” Anna admitted.

“Lemme see your nails,” Luce ordered.

Anna teased her, “Yes, mom.”  But she put out her hand and showed Lucille.  Sure enough, the polish on her nails was all chipped and scratched.  Her nails were fine, but the polish was a disaster.  She said, “See?  This is why I don’t wanna do the manicure until just before he picks me up for the date.”

Lucille muttered, “I wish my nails were that strong.  I’ve been using this Sally Hansen stuff, and it’s helped a lot, but I still keep chipping ‘em and stuff.”

Ree reminded her, “But do you really want nails so strong you rip through all your stuff, like your good gloves and your good pantyhose?”  Lucille shook her head no.  “I didn’t think so.”

Yeah.  Pantyhose were a real problem.  Not that she wore ‘em at school, but she’d shredded most of hers back in the spring when her nails started getting super-hard.  She still had four pair tucked away in her lingerie drawer, but she tried not to touch ‘em with her nails.  She vaguely wondered how Corrosive managed not to dissolve every bit of clothing she owned.

The next race started, and they screamed and screamed for Ellen.  It looked like she won, but with the weird starter set-up, they couldn’t be sure until the guy in charge announced it.  They cheered and screamed for her when the guy announced she won by 2.35 seconds.

Juice won the next race by like a tenth of a second, but Ellen won the race after that.  That still wasn’t enough for Ellen to win her bet against Hazard.  The last race of the day was won in a real nail-biter by Ergonomic, not that Anna bit her nails ever.  So Ellen lost her bet with Hazard.  Anna still thought it was still pretty awesome.  Two wins and about five second-place finishes and a couple third-place finishes?  That sounded pretty amazing to Anna.

They helped Ellen get her ice racer loaded up with all of the gear Ellen had brought, and then Ellen sped off toward the bays where the gadgeteers and devisers could work on their cars and stuff.  Ellen said students had everything down there from motorcycles and souped-up old cars to a thing like a big tank.

Then Anna and Luce and Ree hiked home.  They stopped in Whitman and sat around in the big rec room in front of the fireplace, warming up with hot chocolate and hot cider, while they told the people around them all about the snow races, and how Skids didn’t quite beat Hazard out of a bet.

By the time they walked down for dinner, Anna had so much hot chocolate inside her that she didn’t think she could eat a single bite.  The whole cafeteria was alive, as everyone was waiting for Team Kimba and the Young Turks to go fight it out.  Or at least the lightweights of Team Kimba.  Anna didn’t know how anyone could think Fey was a lightweight in a fight, even if Wizards were supposed to be real slow and not at all good when there was a real brawl going on.  Anna was sure Fey was different.  She saw what Fey did to those Sabertooths and cyborgs at Halloween, and that was definitely not someone who couldn’t hold her own in a fight.

After she had a nice salad, Gary came over and sat down in the middle of the table.  He gestured for everyone to lean in close.  He whispered, “I just heard from a friend of Bobcat’s.  A couple months ago someone bushwhacked Fey and Generator, and knocked Chaka and Bladedancer around some when they came to the rescue, and then vanished.  Nobody knew who did it, even if a lot of people figured it was an Alpha hit team.  The Kimbas watched all the combat finals and figured out who it was.  The Young Turks.  So this is payback.  The Kimbas are putting out the guys who got hit, and the Turks can’t back out because they know why the Kimbas are mad at ‘em.  But the Turks have a giant, and a PK brick, and a really good speedster and a PDP and a blaster, plus the rest of the team.  So this could get nasty.”

Trish asked, “So why are you telling us all this?”

Gary grinned, “I want to go early and get some really good seats.”

Trish and Alan rushed off to get some popcorn for the gang, and probably sneak in a bunch of smooching too, like usual.  Gary took Laurie and Nate down to pick out seats.

As soon as they were gone, Darlene said, “Like anyone’s gonna let us keep the seats Gary picks out.”

“That’s why he took Nate.  If anyone tries to take our seats, Nate’ll make the whole area unsafe for human life.  They call it Mutual Assured Destruction,” grinned Mindy.

“Oh brother,” muttered Lucille.

Anna figured the really good seats would all go to the Alphas and the Golden Kids and the other big cliques, but when they got to the arena, no one from any of those cliques was there.  Gary waved it off, “Oh, those guys have their own skyboxes, and clubhouses with teevees and stuff, so they can watch it over closed circuit if they want.”

Alan asked, “Why can’t we?”

Gary said, “Well, we probably can, but we’d have to have someone sit in there and screw with the channels and the connectivity and maybe even deal with some sort of signal encryption, and I’d be the one who had to do it, and I wanna watch the match!”

Alan muttered, “Well why don’t you do it during the combat finals instead?”

Anna thought they really did have pretty good seats.  They were only a couple rows up from the lowest-level seats, which were about twenty feet above the arena level.  And they were right on the black line that was going to separate the two teams.  Alan said all the good fighting usually happened really close to the line.

The place really filled up, too.  Anna was surprised that many people wanted to see a fight that was mainly two freshman teams, and not even the big guns of Team Kimba.  And nobody wanted to try to take Nate’s seat either, well nobody wanted to after Gary loudly pointed out that Nate had chili for lunch a couple times, so they got to keep their seats.

“Did Nate really eat chili at lunch time?” whispered Lucille.

“No, they weren’t serving it,” Mindy whispered back.

“Then why isn’t anybody making us move?”

“Would you want to risk it?”

“Good point,” admitted Lucille.

Anna really wanted to see Phase kick some butt.  But she knew Phase wasn’t going to be in the battle.  She couldn’t see how anybody with a working brain would want to be in an arena match if it was against Phase and Lancer and Tennyo and Carmilla.  She shuddered just thinking about being near Carmilla that time.  What if Carmilla just stuck out those tentacles and ate you alive?  What if Tennyo fired off one of those fireball things, or that thing she did that crushed that van like Godzilla wadded it up in a ball, or something?

Alan and Trish finally showed up with some popcorn, right as the Young Turks were walking out and getting in position.  Which was when Anna realized that something was wrong.  It took her a few seconds to figure it out, but her eyesight was good enough to spot that she was looking at holograms instead of real people.  The images just didn’t look right.  She whispered, “It’s a big trick!  Those are holograms!”

She started worrying as the four Kimbas strolled out.  They weren’t even putting their two fighters up on the line!  Oh God, they were gonna get stomped!

Anna watched as Fey made a subtle gesture and her school uniform magically turned into Faerie armor.  Oh my God, that was so cool!  She wanted to talk to Luce and Ree about it, but she knew everyone around her would shush her.

Sensei Tolman took her position as the referee, and a countdown started.  One of the Turks started trash-talking them.  Anna figured Chaka would talk back, since Chaka seemed to be like that.  But Chaka ignored him.  Instead, the little one, Generator talked back.  And launched a bunch of devises into the air.  Cool!  Was that a pink hockey puck flying around in the air?  Anna nearly jumped out of her seat when it tilted enough that she saw the Hello Kitty emblem on the top.

“What the hell is that thing?”

Anna gasped, “It’s a Hello Kitty makeup compact!”

“You’re kidding me.  She’s launching an attack with a compact?  What’s she gonna do, lipstick ‘em to death?”

Anna watched excitedly as the light in the arena went crazy.  Fey’s hair began blowing in a wind that no one else could feel.  She was almost glowing with power.  And then the holograms sparkled, and zapped, and frizzled out.

“Fey is the coolest!” gushed Ree.  Anna had to agree.  Even if she could see that the Turks’ two fastest threats were right there, targeting Fey.

The buzzer buzzed, and that speedster moved so fast he was almost a blur.  Right up until he hit a wall.  Generator’s little sphere robot had put up a force field so strong that the guy bounced off it.  Anna almost laughed.

But everything was happening so fast she could hardly follow it all.  Shroud shot the giant kid in the foot and attacked Shadowolf.  Generator blasted the deviser with a raygun that made his equipment explode.  The pink compact chased Swoop all over the place.  Chaka threw Bombshell right where the giant would fall on her.  Anna did laugh then, even as she winced.  Fey was making the speedster guy float into the air, and the guy was kicking and thrashing and doing everything except screaming for help.  Generator fired missiles at the greasy-looking one with the bombs in the air, and she made him drop his bombs, which blew him into the air like Wiley Coyote.  Another missile almost got to Sweetheart, just about the time the Hello Kitty compact knocked Swoop out of the air.  Sweetheart keeled over just about the time Bombshell managed to get out from under the giant and…

Oh God!  Anna gulped as for a split second she thought Bladedancer had cut Bombshell in half!  And Bombshell screamed.  Oh God, she knew Bladedancer could beat Nex, but she didn’t know that sword could kill bricks!

Half the Young Turks were already down, and only seconds had gone by.  Generator walked up to the deviser guy, who tried to attack her.  Anna had to giggle as Generator made a smooth aikido move and slammed the guy face-first into the floor.  Ouch.  And then Fey was hammering the bomber-guy with some graceful martial arts moves of her own.  Wow.  Fey was so awesome.  And Chaka was doing some sort of voice attack that dropped Bombshell, and the fight was over.

“Man, that was brutal,” someone behind them muttered.

“And embarrassing,” someone else added.

Ree looked at Anna and grinned, “Yeah.”

Luce leaned over and said, “Wasn’t Fey the most awesome thing you ever saw?”

“Oh yeah,” Anna said.  “The armor, and the floating spell, and that takedown at the end.”

“Forget that,” Alan said.  “Generator!  Weren’t you watching?  She’s supposed to be number 263 in the ratings?  She kicked everybody’s ass!”

Gary started ticking things off with his fingers.  “That force field devise is way beyond what she ought to be able to do according to her ratings.  Then that Shroud robot thing.  Then that pink hockey puck that took out Swoop all by itself.  Then that eyepiece and her energy blaster.  THEN the missiles.  PLUS, kicking a guy’s ass in hand-to-hand!  That kid rocked.”

Anna was still watching.  It looked like Fey was healing the giant kid.  She hoped no one was really hurt bad down there.  She asked, “Can we get Generator into the Underdogs?”

Alan groaned, “Are you kidding?  She rooms with TENNYO.  No one’s ever gonna have the stones to hassle her!”

Mindy said, “She seems way too tough to want to be an Underdog.”

Trish nodded her head and said, “I saw her against Electrode, and she nearly won.  She’s tough.”

Rhiannon said, “Well so what?  We have someone who took Buster.  We’re not all pushovers!”

Anna just blushed like crazy and didn’t say anything else.

They got all the way out of the arena before they realized no one had had time to eat any of the popcorn.

Anna took two handfuls and said, “I’m heading back to the room.  I got an 8:30 exam, and I wanna be all rested for it.”

Alan said, “Don’t you have to study?”

“That’s what I’ve been doing, silly,” she told him.

Trish elbowed Alan and said, “See?  I told you no one else waits until the night before to start studying!”

Anna rolled her eyes and hoped they were kidding.  She walked back to Schuster Hall, munching on her popcorn, before she took an elevator up to the surface and headed off through the cold night to Dickinson.  She wasn’t as nervous about her exams as she figured she’d be.  Worrying about her squirrels had been way worse, and that went even better than she hoped.  And she really had studied a lot for her exams, plus she’d been working hard all term long.  She figured she was as ready for her finals as she was going to get.

Ellen was still studying away at her desk when Anna came in, but Ellen was fine moving to the sunroom for a while.  Anna brushed her teeth, brushed her hair, cleaned her face, and made sure to use plenty of moisturizer.  That was important in cold, dry winter conditions.  She checked her legs and decided she’d wait to shave her legs and armpits Tuesday.  Not that Jerry was gonna get to check out her legs and pits Tuesday night, and he’d better not try!  But a girl had to get ready properly for a big date.

She didn’t have any trouble falling asleep, and the only dream she had was about Fey and Generator beating up dozens of guys who all looked like the Young Turks.

Monday, December 18
Whateley Academy

Anna woke up when her alarm went off.  She looked over, and Ellen was in bed.  Anna hadn’t heard Ellen come in last night, so she didn’t know if Ellen had gotten a decent night’s sleep or what.  Just in case, she got up and checked that Ellen’s alarm was set right.

Anna skittered down the hall to the bathrooms and got in line for a shower. Since everyone on the floor had already done their combat finals, and Bombshell was in line for a shower too, all the talk was about the Young Turks and their fight with Team Kimba.

Anna came in as Bombshell was growling, “I told you, I don’t wanna talk about it!”

“I told you they were dangerous.”

Crazy and dangerous.”

“No shit, Sherlock!” snapped Bombshell.  “Look at what that bitch did!”  She took off her bathrobe, and half the room gasped.  Bombshell was a PK brick.  A really strong PK brick.  She was pretty much invulnerable.  And she looked like she really had been cut in half.  There was a slice that started just to the left of the bottom of her sternum, and went sideways around the right half of her body, around the side, and nearly to her spine.  Anna gulped.

Charmer calmly said, “Barbara, for one moment last night, I thought she had cut you in two.”

Bombshell looked down at the wound.  “Yeah.  For a couple seconds, I thought so too.  She could’ve done it, you know.  That sword?  She could’ve put me in the hospital, or crippled me, or killed me.  And I hardly saw her move.  I don’t know what that sword is, but I’m staying the hell away from it.”

Someone said, “I thought Bladedancer was supposed to be a baseline.”

Bombshell growled, “Baseline?  With her looks, and her speed, and those martial arts moves?  Oh sure.  Gotta be an Exemplar, probably a huge Exemplar, and I’m saying mage too.  She must’ve done something to that sword to make it slice through my PK shell like that.”

“You all are lucky you didn’t have to face Tennyo.  Now that girl’s scary.”

Bombshell took her turn in the showers and said, “Hell, half the losers on my team are so pathetic they got their asses kicked by that little Generator.  If Tennyo came out there, they’d have peed themselves.”  She closed the shower door and made it pretty clear she didn’t want to talk about it any more.

When Bombshell stepped out of her shower, Anna was right in front of her, waiting to get in.  So she quietly asked, “Barb?  Are you really okay?”

Bombshell glared at her, “What do you care?”

Anna nervously stood her ground.  “I wouldn’t’ve asked if I didn’t care.  Is it a bad cut?  Can the doctors help you when you’ve got that PK field up?”

Bombshell shrugged as she finished drying off.  “It’s really not much more than the world’s longest paper cut.  It’ll be all healed up in a day or so.”  She stopped for a second and finally said, “Thanks for…  Well, just thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” Anna smiled as she hopped in and started her own shower.  Bombshell wasn’t really nice to a bunch of the people on the floor, but nobody deserved to get hacked in half in front of the whole school.  Not even The Don.

She hurried through her shower because there was still a line of girls waiting to get in, and she dried off over by the benches before she put her robe on and skittered back to her room.  Ellen’s alarm was blaring away, but Ellen was still sound asleep.

Anna gently shook Ellen’s arm.  “Come on, time to wake up.”

“No ma, jus’ ten more min’ts, pleez…” Ellen mumbled into her pillow.

“Ellen, it’s Anna.  I’m not your mother.”

“C’mon ma, don’t send dad in here, he tickles me, ‘ts not fair…”

Anna shook her a little harder.  “Come on, Ellen!  Your alarm’s going off and everything!”

“Ma, this is’n funny…”

Anna gave up and did something mean.  She snapped, “Ellen Anne Tremain!  You get up right now or I’m sending your father in!”

“Ugh!  No!  I’m getting up!  Really!  I…”  Ellen sat up and looked around.  “Anna?”

Anna waited until Ellen slapped the snooze button and the alarm stopped screeching.  “Sorry.  You don’t wanna sleep through your exams.”

Ellen muttered, “I was having this weird dream, and my mom looked like you, and…”  It finally dawned on her just what had happened.  She turned bright red.  “Oh shit.  I called you ‘ma’, didn’t I?  I didn’t say anything bad, right?”

Anna admitted, “You said your dad would tickle you awake if you wouldn’t get up.”

Ellen blushed even harder.  “He stopped doing that when I was maybe eight or nine, but it was awful.  I’d be trying to hold down the covers at the corners, and he’d tickle my armpit until I was squealing and I had to run to the bathroom!  A couple times I nearly peed myself!”  She stared at Anna’s tightly clenched jaws and insisted, “It’s NOT FUNNY!”

Anna managed to say, “I’m not laughing” without giggling even once.  Right before she broke into giggles.

Ellen hit her with the pillow.  That just made Anna laugh out loud.  They had a pillow fight until Ellen’s alarm clock started screeching again, because Ellen only hit the snooze button and didn’t turn it off.

Ellen grumbled as she finally turned the thing off and dragged herself out of bed.  “I should’ve studied over the weekend instead of racing, I know that, don’t say it, I’m so tired…”

Anna waited until Ellen was in her bathrobe, then handed Ellen her shower tote and pushed her out the door.  “Hurry up, and turn the water on hard so you’ll wake up.  Then we’ll go eat, and you can get a ton of coffee.  Okay?”

“Okay,” muttered her sleepy roomie as she stomped off down the hall.

Anna did a quick review of definitions as she pulled her biology stuff together.  She needed to turn her textbook back in, since hers was just on loan.  As a scholarship student she hadn’t bought her own books.  Plus, she had all the definitions written down in one section of her notebook, and all the drawings with lots of careful labels, in the part right after that, along with all the notes she took in class.  She didn’t think she was the best note-taker ever, but she was going to keep her bio notebook in case she ever had to take bio again, even if she hated the idea of dissecting little mammals.  That frog was bad enough.  Even if she had to take biochemistry and there was no dissection, she’d still get some use out of the definition pages and the sketch pages.  She made sure she had four pencils and they were all sharpened, and she tucked a bunch of looseleaf paper into her backpack too, just in case.

Then she did a couple more probability problems for math, since they were still her weakest part.  By the time she admitted to herself she was stuck on the third one, Ellen was back, looking a little more awake but smelling a lot cleaner.  Anna hung around, making sure Ellen didn’t collapse back in the bed, because she really looked really, really tired.  Anna tried, “Umm, look, I’m sorry I laughed, but it was really hard waking you up, and you were saying some really funny things.  Are you okay?  You’re not mad at me, are you?”

Ellen sighed, “No, I’m not mad at you.  I’m mad at me.  I was up to like five cramming, and it’s so stupid, I should’ve studied more instead of working on my cars.  I really could’ve used that money from Hazard, and I spent all that time, and I didn’t even win the bet!”

Anna smiled, “But you had a ton of fun racing, and you saved a ton of my little friends, and you got to knock Crunch into a snowbank.”

Ellen burst into a huge grin at that.  “Oh yeah!  Do you have any idea how long I’ve wanted to sock it to one of those asshats?  I didn’t even hammer out the dent.  I drew a big oval around it and named it the ‘Dimwit Uglies Memorial Bump’.  That’s D.U.M.B. for short.”

Anna giggled.  She double-checked that Ellen had all her stuff together (Ellen forgot her pencils, so it was a good thing), and they grabbed their coats for the hike down to breakfast.

Ellen even came over and ate with her and told the Underdogs about Anna having to drag her out of bed, even if she didn’t tell the part about her dad tickling her when she was little.  Anna didn’t think that sounded so embarrassing.  Her dad didn’t do stuff like that, but her dad wasn’t a real touchy-feely kind of guy.  He was more of a ‘nod the head and go off to work’ kind of guy.  At least Ellen’s folks still wanted Ellen to come home for Christmas.  Anna tried not to think about that stuff, but it still hurt.  A lot.  At least she could go home with Ree, because the thing that the school had all set up for the kids who couldn’t go home or anywhere for Christmas sounded really kind of grim.

Anna got to the biology lab early.  There was only one other student there, and it was a nerdy-looking boy Anna didn’t know who always sat in the very front row and asked a bunch of questions.  Okay, Anna thought a lot of his questions were kind of dumb, but at least he was paying attention, not like Superior and his buddy, who were clowning around a lot of the time, which Anna didn’t like, but she couldn’t do anything about it.  The bio lab room was set up with ten rows of three lab tables each, and each table had room for two chairs, with a sink in between and lots of room for lab stuff on the super-hard lab-table tops.  (Anna had checked once, and even her fingernails didn’t scratch it, so it was way tougher than formica.)  So there was room for sixty students, even if there weren’t sixty kids in her class.  But they had assigned seats, and so Anna sat at the middle table of the fourth row with Shuttle, who wasn’t a bad-looking guy at all, but he was black, and he acted like she was mean just because she was white, and he wouldn’t talk to her, which made the bio labs not a lot of fun.  Shuttle had a kind of accent, but when she’d asked him about it their first day in lab, he just said he was Canadian and shut her down like she’d been really mean to him or something.  But Superior and his jerky pal sat two rows in front of them and a couple times she was pretty sure they threw some dissected stuff at her.  Or at Shuttle.  But they probably threw stuff at everybody, because they were real jerks, and Anna thought maybe Superior was making the nerdy kid up front do his homework, because she’d seen the kid hand Superior stuff a couple times.

Anyways, she got her textbook turned in to the lab assistant, and she sat there looking over her notes and glancing around.  At the back of the room, under the windows, there were four tables spread out along the wall.  Today, there were two metal trays on each of the tables.  Anna craned her neck and could see enough to tell that there were dissected frogs in four of ‘em and dissected worms in the other four.  And she could tell that there were little tiny pins with tiny flags on ‘em stuck into more than one of the frogs, so she guessed there were pins in all of ‘em.  And she could see there was a little number on one of the pins, so she guessed they’d have to identify what the pin was stuck in, and write it down on the exam.  She went back and looked over her drawings of worms and frogs one more time.

Everyone else trickled in and took their seats.  Superior and his pal were some of the last guys in before the teacher shut the door and explained about the test.  Everyone put their notes and books away and got out pens and pencils and erasers.  The teacher had a test all stapled together for each student.  After everyone had an hour to work on the test, he was going to send the class to the back tables to identify what the little pins were stuck in, and that was all on the last page of the exam, so if anyone got that far before the first hour was up, they could just come see him.

Anna started on her exam.  It was pretty simple.  Mostly ‘define this word’ and ‘fill in the blank’ and ‘here is a picture and you have to label what the arrows are pointing at’.  But there were a couple little essay bits that were harder, because there was no telling how much you had to write to get full credit.  She was most of the way through the test when the teacher started sending people back to the tables.  He just started with the front row and sent people back table by table, so Anna figured it would take a while to get to her.

She wasn’t all the way through the whole test when the teacher sent her and Shuttle back, but she was getting pretty close, and she was feeling good about it, even if there were a couple things she was sure the teacher hadn’t talked about in class and she hadn’t seen in the textbook so she’d just had to make a crazy guess.

All they had to do was walk past those back tables and write down on the back page what the pins were stuck in.  She let Shuttle go first, since he already did his weird ‘shuttling’ bit which wasn’t really teleporting but wasn’t a superspeed run either so she didn’t know just what it was.  But he was already at the first table when she got there, so she wasn’t going to cut in front of him or anything.  She knew all the organs and stuff the pins were stuck in for the worms, and she jotted ‘em down carefully, checking she wrote everything in the right places, because that would totally ruin everything if she got the right answers in the wrong lines.

It was the second frog that got her.  She spotted something weird.  She could see that it had three pins stuck in it.  But her eyesight was good enough that she could tell there were extra pinholes punched in it.  She looked at the third frog, and she could see the same thing.

Just in case, she stopped Shuttle and called the teacher over.  “Umm, I just wanted to make sure these pins are right, because there are other holes I can see, and it would totally make sense to have a pin in the heart there, but it doesn’t make any sense to have a pin just stuck in the muscles like that, does it?”

The teacher stared for a second, said a really bad word under his breath, and said to both of them, “Don’t move.  I’ll be right back.”  He rushed into his little office, came back with some notepaper, and looked over all the dissections.  Then he moved the pins in the second and third frogs.  And Anna was right!  One pin was supposed to be in the heart!

Which meant someone had moved the pins.  Uh-oh.  Well, she was in the fourth row, so it had to be someone who went ahead of her.  Some really, really enormous jerk.  She looked over at Superior to see what he was up to.

The teacher just had them fix their answers while he walked back to the table who went before her.  Then he went to the table in front of them.  Then he went to the table in front of them.  He nodded and moved down the row, which put him at Superior’s table.  After he looked at their answers, he looked at the next table in the row.  Then he went right back to Superior’s table and dragged both of them off into his little office.  Then he yelled at ‘em for like a minute before he marched ‘em out.  Anna clearly heard him ordering them to go see Mrs. Carson, but she wasn’t sure anyone else could hear.  After Anna and Shuttle sat back down, the teacher had to send the five tables before her back past the dissections, only this time he stood back there and kept an eye on everyone.

When Anna turned her test in, the teacher told her he was giving her extra credit for spotting that, because it would’ve really messed up people’s scores.  She broke into a huge smile, and grinned all the way home.

She was going to study algebra some more until it was time to go eat lunch, but Winnie came by.  “A-anna?  I was g-going to g-go watch a couple of the junior/senior c-combat finals.  Maybe…  W-wanna come with?”

Anna figured Winnie wasn’t really gonna leave unless she had someone to go with her, so she closed up her algebra book and went.  They mostly chatted about Bombshell and the Young Turks and how even someone like Bombshell wasn’t all invulnerable and unstoppable, even if neither of them could stop someone like that.  Winnie was really nervous about Bladedancer’s sword because she could see it had some kind of weird magic through it and she hadn’t ever seen a sword or anything like that.  But Winnie got really nervous about a lot of stuff, so Anna wasn’t too stressed.  After all, Molly was best friends with Bladedancer, and she said Chou was really nice.

They walked down to the arena, and found out that a bunch of the combat finals were in the arena, but a bunch more were in the holographic simulators and just broadcast on the huge screens on the walls of the arena stands.  That made a lot of sense to Anna, because the place had gotten pretty well wrecked a bunch of times last week, and that was just the sophomores and freshmen.  Plus, the rules for the junior/senior combat finals were way more complicated.  If you won your match, you kept playing, and you might be up against one person the next time, or a couple people, or you might be on a team, or other stuff that Anna didn’t catch.  But it meant that everybody had to get done in the first three days, so the more advanced stuff could be run on Thursday and Friday.  So they needed the holographic sims just so they could get through all the one-on-one starter fights.  Even if there weren’t as many juniors and seniors as freshmen and sophomores.  Gary said there were like 320-some kids in the freshman/sophomore half of the school, but only around 240 kids in the junior/senior half, so that meant a lot fewer starting matches anyway, and some of the upperclass kids like Plasmoid who couldn’t leave their rooms were excused from the finals.

It turned out that there were plenty of powerhouses in the upper grades, but a bunch of not-so-powerful kids too.  Some of the finals were more like if you let Skids bring motorized skates and you let Doctor Goodvibes bring his sonic weapons, so they weren’t all that impressive.  Some of the finals were totally unfair, and over in no time.  And some of them were just awesome.  The final between Pendragon and Aries was in the holo sims, which was a good thing, because they wrecked like half a dozen entire city blocks.  That one was special, because at the end, the judges announced that both of them would continue on in later combats, even if both of them looked pretty beat up to Anna.  When she asked about that, Gary told her that it was a holo, so they weren’t really hurt, and they were both Exemplars so at worst they would feel a little sore for a few hours.

Anna wondered out loud, “So why didn’t they do the holo stuff for us?”

“Because they like us better,” Alan teased.

“Because only a few of the underclassmen even know how to use the holo gear, and it takes a special sim suit and training before you’re good to go.  The underclassmen who already know how to use the things would have a huge advantage.  By the time you’re a junior, probably eighty percent of you will have taken a sim course for combat or something else, so it’s not such an unfair advantage anymore,” Gary said patiently.

Anna said, “Yeah, well, it would’ve been real good if they could’ve run Tennyo and some of those other fights through the holographic stuff.  Heck, it would’ve been great if they could’ve run me through ‘em.  I wouldn’t have had to worry so much about my little friends getting killed.”

“We wouldn’t have had to worry so much about you getting killed down there either,” Mindy said.

When people started slipping out to get lunch, Anna got up and went with them.  She figured she wanted to get lunch early enough that she didn’t have to worry about being late to her algebra exam.  Not that she really had to worry a whole lot, since the test wasn’t until 1:30, but she just felt antsy about it.  Ree decided to go with her, and they talked about their morning exams all the way to the cafeteria.  Ree was taking more advanced math and english classes than Anna was, so they didn’t have any classes together except aikido.  But Ree was really smart, and had been one of the smart kids in her middle school back home, and thought math was great.  Okay, Ree wasn’t one of the school math super-geniuses, because there were devisers and gadgeteers who already knew real graduate school math stuff for their projects, and there was supposed to be a junior guy who was already working on his PhD in some really weird area of math, and Carmilla supposedly gave a lecture to the whole school including the teachers on pattern theory, which Ree said was really, really advanced math and physics to explain how mutant powers could work.  Anna didn’t think it would explain how she ended up with squirrel powers, but she’d take Ree’s word for it on the other stuff.

She figured she didn’t want to get hungry during the exam, so she got some ravioli and a nice salad that had lots of regular lettuce in it, like mom made.  Then she tried to have a nice quiet lunch, while Gary and Trish and Mindy stewed about who they were going to have to face in the combat finals, and Alan coming in late, grousing about the brick who beat him up.

After lunch, Anna hiked back to her dorm and got her textbook to turn in, and her math notebook, and plenty of paper and pencils.  Plus a big rubber eraser.  But when she got to the classroom and turned in her book, the teacher told her she wouldn’t need her own paper.  That was weird.  At test time, the teacher had what he called ‘bluebooks’.  A bunch of lined pages stapled inside a blue paper cover.  He said it was so all their problems would stay together and not get lost or mixed up or anything.  Then he handed out the test papers.  The whole test was one page of paper, front and back, in small print.  She spent the whole three hours working on it, and still didn’t think she had the last two probability problems right.  Stupid statistics stuff.

She hiked back to her dorm room for her next chore.  She still needed to take the snowmobiling suit and the ruggedized cell phone back to Mr. M.  She still thought ‘ruggedized’ sounded like a stupid word, but it was supposed to be real.  She wondered what was wrong with just saying ‘rugged’, but she figured somebody somewhere had a reason.


She took both over to The Shed, and made sure the stuff was checked in right.  Mr. M. even came downstairs when he heard she was in.  He smiled at her and said he hoped everything went well.  He was always so nice!  Anna happily told him about getting everyone safe, and how great it was having the snowmobiling suit when Skids was zooming all over the place at crazy speeds.

 

Mr. Miyamoto walked back up to his office and calmly waited until Anna was completely out of the building.  He didn’t need to be an Esper to tell that Anna had hearing far better than a baseline.  He made a quick phone call.  “Chris?  Yes, it’s Kasuo…  She got it all done.  Yes, they’re all safe, she tells me…  And I got her as much help as I could without it being too obvious.  But you’re going to owe me a big favor…  Free vet visits for my Akitas?  Like you wouldn’t run right over if anything was wrong with Akane and Ranma anyway…  No, that’s good.  I don’t understand why Admin hasn’t gotten you any more help this fall…  No, you did tell me, your assistant was one of the sleeper agents who murdered Folder.  I had three of the bastards, I know how it works…  Yeah, getting qualified people who can pass the security checks and also put up with the students is a lot harder than anyone would believe…  So tell me, what went into the room the squirrels were in?…  WHAT?!?!  You’ve got to be kidding me!”

 

Anna scurried back to the arena and settled in with the Underdogs and Outcasts that weren’t taking exams or cramming for exams.  She just wondered what on earth people did if they got hurt during their combat finals and couldn’t take their regular finals.  Did they just get an ‘F’ for getting beat up in the combat final?  Did they get to take the test in the hospital?  There had to be something the teachers did when people got hurt, because a bunch of people got beat up last week.  That was for sure.

Trish and Mindy sat with her and watched the ongoing fight while they explained about it.  Trish said, “Well, in the magic and psychic arts curriculums, they can usually tell how you’re doing even if you’re lying in a hospital bed, so the teacher can give you the final even if you’re laid up.  Some classes don’t even have a final exam so they don’t have to mess with this stuff.”

Mindy said, “Pretty much all the Workshop courses have projects instead of finals, so even if a deviser gets put in the hospital by some brick or whatever, he’d still be okay on his courses.  Gary lords it over us every term.  That’s how we know about that.”

Trish said, “And a lot of the regular courses have official rules about it, like you can take the test in the hospital or your room if you got hammered, or if it’s bad enough, even postpone the test until you come back from Christmas break.”

The speakers blared, “NEXT UP: WASHOUT!  WILL WASHOUT PLEASE COME TO THE ARENA FLOOR!”

Mindy winced and said, “Oh shit.  Who’s up against me?”

“AND ERGONOMIC!  WILL ERGONOMIC PLEASE COME TO THE ARENA FLOOR!”

Mindy sighed in relief.  “Whew.  Okay, Ergy’s not so bad.  And they’re not gonna let him carry a whole car in with him, so it’s just whatever he’s got in his pockets.  Okay, I can do this…”

They stayed and rooted for Mindy.  But Mindy was only a Warper-1, and couldn’t do much.  She could ‘fade out’ so she was hard to see, but she didn’t completely vanish.  And she could make herself glow, but not so bright that she could blind you.  Ergonomic had skateshoes that were motorized, and he was way faster than Mindy, even with Mindy running as fast as she could at the spindle.  Then Ergonomic had a little pistol up his sleeve that he used to glue Mindy to a wall, so she couldn’t stop him from winning.

Anna sighed, “Poor Mindy.”

Alan grumbled, “Hey, at least she didn’t get punched by a freakin’ brick who didn’t care if he killed me!”

Gary pointed out, “He didn’t kill you, did he?  Unless you’re a really smelly ghost.”

“Oh shut up,” Alan grumbled.  “No, but he really let me have it.  I’ve got my ribs taped up right now, because he cracked a couple of ‘em with one punch.  And I’ve got a bruise on my thigh the size of a boot, not to mention a hell of a bruise on my ass where he threw me into a wall.”

They watched a couple more combat finals before things wrapped up for the day, and then the whole arena walked off to the cafeteria for dinner.  Anna wrapped up the evening with a couple hours of studying for her Tuesday morning English exam.  Plus some studying for criminology.  Because she really liked criminology a lot better than boring old English.

And she made Ellen get to sleep at a reasonable hour, too.

Tuesday, December 19
Whateley Academy

Everything went better.  Anna woke up and got into a shower with hardly any wait, and Bombshell’s cut was just about healed up too, so she wasn’t complaining about it like yesterday.  Ellen woke up when her alarm clock went off, and Anna didn’t have to drag her out of bed.  Even the walk to breakfast was better, with Ellen happy, and Winnie and Betty and Linda all chattering with them.  And the exam went better than yesterday’s exams too, with no one messing stuff up like in biology and the test not having stuff Anna couldn’t do like in algebra.  Anna was taking that as a good omen for her date.

At lunch, they were all taking about the combat finals and their exams and Anna’s date.  It sounded like Kodiak’s combat final was pretty awesome, and the exam Winnie was all worried about turned out to go really well.  Anna admitted, “Well, I’m sure I passed everything so far, and I really think I did pretty good, even on that stupid algebra final.  I just don’t wanna do bio next term, because dissecting frogs was awful, and there’s no way I can cut up a cat or a fetal pig.  That would just be yuck.  And intro to criminology is Thursday, but I’m kind of looking forward to that one.”

Ree leaned forward so she could see Anna down the table.  “What time’s he picking you up?”

“Umm, we have to catch the five o’clock shuttle into Dunwich, because we couldn’t get two seats on the six o’clock one, so he’s picking me up at the dorm at about four-forty,” Anna said.

Lucille gasped, “Holy crap!  4:40?  We gotta get started right after lunch!”

Anna looked down at the table.  “I kinda figured I had until maybe two?  So I could watch a couple more combat finals?”

Trish said, “No way!  We haveta make sure you’re looking good!”  She looked around the table.  “Everyone meets at Anna’s room at one o’clock.  Got it?”

“Sure.”

“Check.”

“Okay.”

“E-even me?” Winnie wondered.

“Of course even you!” Rhiannon said.  “Don’t be like that!”

“Totally not interested.”

“Shut up, Gary.  You’re not invited,” Mindy snapped.

Alan teased, “Man, don’t even joke about it.  You’d kill yourself if you had to sit there and listen to ‘em go on for maybe two hours about the right color of nail polish and sh-  OWW!  Jesus, Trish!  I got those ribs taped up for a reason, y’know!”

“Sorry.”

“So anyway,” Mindy said, “Anna’s room at one.”

Anna said, “I’ll talk to Ellen.  She’s more of a tomboy, so I don’t know if she’ll want to hang out for the whole thing.  But it’s her room too.”

Winnie said, “Well, if she w-wants to study some place, she can use my d-desk.  Umm, if V-vera doesn’t mind.”

“Okay!” said Lucille.

“On three!  Break!” snapped Nate.

The guys busted out in laughter, while half the girls tried to figure out what the joke was.  Anna knew enough about football that she just stuck her tongue out at Nate.

After lunch, Anna figured she’d better warn Mrs. Nelson and talk to Ellen, so she headed back to Dickinson.  She knocked on Mrs. Nelson’s door, and explained, “I’ve got a date tonight, and my friends are all worried about me looking okay-”

“You look just fine already, Anna,” Mrs. Nelson said.

“-and so they wanna come by and look over what I’m gonna wear, and do my nails, and the usual, and I’m gonna tell Ellen and invite her too but she may not want to, but Winnie said she could study in her room if she didn’t wanna be in our room for the thing, so I think it’ll be okay…  Is it okay?”

Mrs. Nelson nodded.  “Why don’t you just tell me who you’re expecting, and I’ll keep an eye out.”

Anna started ticking names off on her fingers.  “Skids and Glass and Geomancer are already on my floor, Washout is upstairs, Kamuro and Wiggle and Nursing and Dismiss are coming from Whitman…  Umm, I think that’s everybody.  That’s like nine people!  It’s gonna be so crowded…”

Mrs. Nelson just smiled.  “Why don’t you take four or five pillows from the rec room and let some people sit on them on your floor.  I think it’ll work out.  Now, how late are they going to stay?”

Anna thought it over.  “I dunno.  Not that late.  Hazmat’s picking me up at 4:40, so most of ‘em will be gone by then and the rest’ll leave right after.”

Mrs. Nelson nodded.  “That sounds fine, Anna.  Tell you what.  If you need a curling iron or curlers or styling gel or anything like that, check with me.”

“Thanks!” Anna grinned.  “I think I’ve got everything already, but thanks.”

Then she skittered up the stairs to go check with Ellen.  It didn’t occur to her until she opened the door that Ellen might not be home.  Or might be off doing something and then want to come back right in the middle of the thing.  But Ellen was there.  And studying.  Sort of.  Well, not really.

Ellen was sitting in her chair, with a book and a couple notebooks open on her desk, but she wasn’t looking at ‘em.  She was playing with a little Lego set, changing the Lego battery-powered car into something else.

“Whatcha studying?” Anna asked.

Ellen looked over and shrugged.  “I’m so bored with this junk I could scream.”

“Good!” Anna said.

“What?”  Ellen looked up in surprise.  “Aren’t you gonna tell me I have to study and not stay up too late?”

Anna grinned, “I’ve got to get ready for my date.  And I’ve got friends over to help.  Wanna come?”

“Sure?  Where is it?” Ellen asked eagerly.

“Right in here, starting about one.”

Ellen blinked, and then grinned back.  “So what were you gonna say if I said I wanted to study quietly all afternoon?”

“Winnie’s coming, and she said you could have her desk in her room,” Anna said.

“Really got this all planned out, huh?” Ellen teased.

Anna admitted, “Well, it’s really Trish and Mindy planning it.  I’m just gonna have a nice time.”

Ellen looked at her alarm clock.  “Well, you better get going on your shower if you want a nice time.”

Anna suddenly remembered.  “Darn it!  I was gonna shave my legs and my pits!”

Ellen said, “Well, go do it.  I’ll get Winnie and Darlene to help bring people in.  Anything else?”

Anna grabbed her bathrobe and said, “Yeah.  Mrs. Nelson said we could have some of the downstairs pillows to sit on.  Could you go get ‘em?”

“Sure,” Ellen said.  “No problem.  Go get all clean for your date.”

Anna grabbed her shower stuff and hurried down the hall.  Since it was afternoon, there wasn’t a line.  Only one other girl was showering, and nobody was using the sinks.  She could hear that someone was using a toilet, but she tried not to listen.  Sometimes really good hearing was just a pain.  She got out her aloe vera shaving gel and did a really nice job shaving her legs and armpits, just because she wanted to feel good for her date.  Not that Jerry was gonna see anything when she was wearing jeans and a long-sleeved sweater and it was freezing out.  And it was only the first date!  She wasn’t that kind of girl.  She washed her hair with her favorite shampoo, which she hardly ever used because it was really expensive.  But it made her hair feel really silky, and it smelled like peaches and honeysuckle.  She didn’t bother to dry her hair.  She just put it up in a towel and hurried back to her room.

And it was already after one.  Ellen had the pillows on the floor, and Winnie was sitting at Ellen’s desk talking to Ellen about school stuff, and Darlene was sitting on Anna’s bed looking at the campus map with the squirrel homes all marked on it.  They hardly had time to start talking before Mindy was knocking on the door with the whole Whitman crowd behind her.

Darlene asked, “What?  Did you walk over in a gang?”

Trish said, “Yeah.  That’s us.  A dangerous gang.”

Laurie started humming a song from “West Side Story” and doing the gang dance with the switchblades.  “Dah-DAH-da-da-duh-duh…  Dah-DAH-da-da-dada-DAH!”

Mindy put a big grocery bag on one bed and said, “Okay, gangsters, who wants tough gang drinks?”  She pulled out a big two-liter bottle of diet Pepsi, and a big two-liter bottle of diet Sprite.

Ree said, “And, since we’re tough, we drink it right out of the bottle!”

Lucille groaned, “Ooh, I did that once, and the fizz went right down my throat and out my nose!  It hurt!”

Mindy said, “Got it covered!”  And she pulled out a stack of paper cups too.

“What else you got in there?”

Mindy looked in the bag like she hadn’t loaded it to start with and said, “I got a bag of M&Ms, and a bag of Gummi bears, and a bag of nuts.”

Anna added, “And I still have some of the box of good chocolate from last week.”

“OOOHH!”  Most of the room was happy about that.  Even if they didn’t know she had a dozen pieces hidden in her desk drawer.

“This is SO much better than studying!” Ellen said.

“What isn’t?” laughed Laurie.

“Besides getting trashed in combat finals?” Mindy fussed.

Darlene said, “Hey, at least you didn’t get a giant gun shoved up your nose!  And Bunker’s crazy.  She oughta be over in Poe with the other nutbars.  I really think she woulda shot me if I hadn’t done what she said.”

“Okay, what else is worse than studying?” Trish said.

“Aries and Hamper and Damper!”

“Buster and Crunch and Strongarm!”

“Not anymore!” laughed Ellen.  “They’re in so much trouble now they’ll be lucky if Carson ever lets ‘em out of their rooms again!”

Anna giggled, “And I bet Crunch still has a huge bruise on his butt.”

“What?  I didn’t hear about that!”

So, while Ellen told all about taking out Crunch by doing a controlled spin on a snowmobile not designed to do spins, Anna and Mindy put the drinks and cups and food on Ellen’s desk.  Mindy insisted they had to keep Anna’s desk clear for the makeup and haircare part of the afternoon, even if Anna wasn’t planning on wearing a lot of makeup.  But Ellen had all her stuff moved off the desk, except for the Lego set, so it really was the best place to put the bottles and little bags.  Then Mindy sat Anna down and helped her with her hair.

Trish flopped down on a pillow.  “Ooh!  You have really nice carpet.  A lot of the frosh rooms have carpets that’re pretty much shredded.”

Ellen said, “Well, I did move my bed a little, because there’s this spot that was right next to one side of the bed that looked like Wolverine fell out of the bed and slashed up the floor.  There was like three or four long slashes right through the carpet and the rubber stuff under the carpet, right into the floor underneath, and it was sewn back together with wire so it’s holding up, but it’s not really pretty to look at.  So it’s under my bed now.”

Winnie nodded her head.  “Yeah.  Vera’s side of the room has this big patch on the wall that looks like somebody slammed a person into it so hard they left a person-shaped d-dent in it.  It’s painted over, but if you look hard, you can see it.  I offered to switch sides with her, but she just said that was silly because you could see it no matter what side of the room you were on.  And she d-did a spell that made the paint match a lot better, so it’s not as bad anymore.”

Darlene said, “No kidding.  We have one wall that looks like it’s been patched and painted over about twenty times.  Whoever used to be in there must’ve had all the self-control of Tennyo.  On a bad hair day.”

“Or maybe Olympia,” said Laurie.  “Have you met her?  She’s wearing this gold power armor all the time, and she’s a Thornie, and even Jimmy T said to keep away from her if she gets upset.  She’s another ‘dricker, and she’s a brick to start with.  Good thing she’s over in Hawthorne, ‘cause she’d be hell to room with.”

“Hey Winnie, is Charmer okay to room with?  ‘Cause I kind of thought she’d be pretty snobby and stuff.  Solange is awful just being in the same dorm.”

They started going through Anna’s closet and dresser, checking if there was anything better than her good black jeans, and looking for what she was going to wear with the jeans.

Winnie ducked her head and said, “No, she’s really n-nice.  And she could be in the G-golden Kids if she wanted to!  She even got a C-christmas card from the Prince of Monaco!”

Anna said, “Phase is real nice too.  She’s the one who bought the chocolates for me when I beat Buster.”

Darlene added, “Ooh, yeah.  Phase.  You know she’s a Goodkind.  Molly’s BFF’s with Bladedancer, and Bladedancer rooms with Phase, and Molly says it’s the best room on the whole campus.”

“Better than Melville?”

“Better than Solange’s room?”

“Well, that’s what Molly says.  Get this.  Fancy sheets, and Phase has a heated mattress pad too.  And she has a special insulated window.  And a fancy room heater in one corner, and its really small, it only sticks out from the corner about three inches and it’s six feet high, and their room is always toasty.  Plus bean bags chairs on the floor, and hammocks hanging from the walls.”

Hammocks?”

“Yeah.  Hammocks.  Molly says they’re silk.”

“Whoa.”

Darlene went on, “And instead of the el cheapo studio coolers in the rooms, Phase has a super-fancy miniature fridge with freezer, and a pantry, and a microwave, and the fanciest coffee machine you ever saw.  And she pays someone to keep the fridge and freezer and pantry stocked for when people drop by.”

“Wow.”

“Yup,” Darlene said.  “And Molly says Phase is really nice about it too.  She even asked Molly if there was anything she wanted to have for when she dropped by.  Imagine it.  Your own personal food choices.  From a Goodkind.  Must be a hard life.  Molly says Phase even got these special Chinese rice crackers and stuff imported just for Bladedancer.”

Ellen ate a chocolate and said, “Mmm.  Anna, you gotta find out what you have to do to get another box of these things.  You know, you could beat up Buster again, or something.”  Anna blushed, while most of the room snickered.

While they talked about some of the fancy rooms some of the students had, they started picking out lingerie for Anna to wear.  Anna had a nice cotton bra and panties in mind, but Mindy put her foot down.  “No way!  You’ll have panty lines all over the place with these!”

“I… I don’t, do I?” Anna worried.

“Hey, they’re jeans, they’re not gonna show through denim,” Laurie said.

Mindy said, “These are stretch jeans.  They probably will.  Come on, try ‘em on and let’s check.  Got any thongs, just in case?”

“No, I don’t have any thongs,” Anna frowned.  “Boy, my mom would have a cow if I wore a thong!”

Trish said, “What if she doesn’t fit in the jeans anyway?”  She looked at Anna and asked, “Any water weight gain we need to know about?”

Anna shook her head no.  “Well really, no.  I used to, but ever since I manifested, my periods got easier, and I hardly have any weight gain.”

“You lucky… squirrel!” muttered Trish.

Anna blushed a little.  “Well, I’m kinda worried it’s because squirrels have a different cycle, and maybe come spring I’m gonna go into heat, or have a period that’s like a flood, or go crazy eating and gain a hundred pounds or something.  I just don’t know what’s gonna happen.”

“Oh.  Sorry,” Trish apologized.

Anna just shrugged.  She didn’t know what to say.  She really was worried about it.  She couldn’t bring herself to say it, but she was really afraid that come spring her squirrel spirit was going to turn her into a bigger slut than Solange and Coreolis put together, and she was gonna end up pregnant, and get thrown out of school, and not be allowed to go home either, and then God only knew what would happen to her.

While people were talking about their own problems with periods, Anna tried on underwear.  She was right, her jeans fit her really well.  But Mindy was right, and you could see panty lines from a couple pairs of the panties, so Anna ended up wearing a pair of her best polyester panties with the lace on the edges so there weren't any panty lines.  And that meant she had to wear the matching bra.  It was a good thing she’d done laundry recently.

So she had a bra and panties, and her jeans.  They were checking through her shoes and her sweaters, since they needed to go together.

“Anna, what happened to your gloves?  They’re gorgeous, but they’re all ripped through at the tips!” Laurie fussed.

Anna just held up her hands with her fingers spread out, and wiggled her fingertips so Laurie would look at her nails.

“Oh.  Oh yeah,” Laurie muttered.

“Dummy,” Mindy helpfully added.

Ree said, “And that’s why her nail polish is all chipped and everything.”

Anna said, “It would be really cool if I was a PK brick like Bombshell.  I bet nothing ever chips her nails.”

“Except Bladedancer!” laughed Trish.

Anna went on, “But I’m not.  And my nails can hang onto concrete.  So my polish is always getting trashed.”

Lucille just said, “So we’ll do your nails last.”

Trish said, “We’ll have to, because they gotta match her sweater and shoes and makeup anyway.”

“Right.”

Anna agreed too.  She just never thought, up until last spring, that she’d ever have to worry about chipping her nail polish by clawing up a tree.

“Boy, you sure don’t have a lot of shoes,” Mindy said.

Ellen said, “Same problem, y’know.  She’s shredded two pairs of sneakers and a pair of flats this fall.  And that’s just what I know about.”

Anna nodded with a little blush.  “My toenails are just as hard.  They were old sneakers, but I really liked those flats, and I gotta file my toenails like every week and re-do the polish every couple days, or they start cutting through my socks and ripping up the insides of the shoes.”

Mindy said, “Well, if I loan you my ankle boots, they’ll be safe, right?”

Anna nodded.  “I’ll just do the filing and polish first.”

Winnie asked, “C-can you use a regular nail file?”

Ellen grinned, “Show ‘em your nail file.  Go on!”

Anna blushed some more, but she did.  She got out a heavy metal three-sided file that looked like it was for metalworking.  One side had a rough rasp, one had a medium-to-fine rasp, and the third had a really fine rasp.

“THAT’S what you use for a nail file?” Laurie gasped.

“Umm, yeah,” Anna admitted.  “I can’t file ‘em with anything lighter.  Gary said I should try out some Dremel tools, but I can’t afford fancy stuff like that.”

While Anna filed her fingernails and filed down her toenails, Mindy went back to her room to get a couple pairs of shoes, and Trish and Lucille had a serious discussion about which sweaters would be better for the date.  After all, just because it was really cold didn’t mean Anna should wear a big old bulky sweater that made her look like a blob.

“Especially when you look really good in those jeans,” agreed Ellen.

“Oh yeah, I’m totally jealous of your butt,” complained Lucille.

“Yeah, m-mine’s like the size of a w-whale,” complained Winnie.

“Oh come on, Winnie, just because you’re not built like Bombshell doesn’t mean you’re not okay,” said Lucille.

“Oh y-yeah?  Name like one g-girl around here who isn’t fifty times p-prettier than me.  And if you say someone like D-diamondback or Phobos, that doesn’t c-count.”

Lucille frowned.  “You’re bein’ way too hard on yourself.  Just walk to class and look around!  So you’re not Fey or Poise.  So what?  Neither are Hollywood superstars!"”

Ree said, “Come on, Winnie.  Have you looked at some of the kids around here?  I mean, pretty much all the Goths, a couple of ‘em are blimps and Residue is just creepy-thin, and there’s Tempest, boy that girl needs to lose some weight, and Plastic Girl, and Juryrig, and pretty much every girl in the A-Team, and-”

Trish cut her off before she ran out of names.  “I think you made your point.  And there are plenty of teachers like that too.  Earth Mother?  She used to be a real superheroine!”

Winnie shrugged unhappily, “I still…”

Ree patted her on the shoulder.  “It’s okay.  It’s like if you lived in Hollywood and worked for a movie company and every day you had hundreds of movie starlets flouncing around.”

“Or like in ‘Ugly Betty’.  I bet the fashion industry is awful about it,” said Darlene.

“Whateley has gotta be the worst,” insisted Trish.  “Can you imagine what it’s like for someone like Tempest?  I mean, she has to shower with Fey and Bugs and Chaka and Vox and Tennyo and all!”

“Or Residue,” said Laurie.  “You know, she’s over in Melville, stuck with most of the Alphas and a bunch of the Golden Kids, and I bet they’re really mean to her about stuff.”

Ree added, “It wouldn’t be better at Whitman, either.  If you feel bad about how you look, there’s a ton of girls with GSD who really get on your case about it because they look a thousand times worse and they think you’re just being a big baby about it.  Like Tisiphone.  If she thinks you’re bein’ a baby about your looks, she’ll set you on fire.  She’s real touchy about it, ‘cause she used to be an Exemplar babe before she had a partial burnout.  She says it’s all Phase’s fault, like you can believe anything she says.  And there’s still Exemplars and stuff over there.”

Anna was trying on sweaters that Trish was handing her, but she still said, “Look Winnie, I know you feel really awful, ‘cause I used to look the same way, except I had ugly glasses too, but we can help you with a diet and some exercise if you want, you know.  Luce was talking about going on a diet starting after Christmas, and I’m probably gonna really have to watch my weight come spring when the squirrels start coming out of hibernation and chowing down, and we could have like a little club.”

Mindy said, “If you’re doing that, I want in too.  I need to lose a few.”

“Me too,” said Trish.

Ree shoved one of the pillows up under her sweater and said, “Not me!  I’m just big boned!”  Even Winnie smiled.

Then they needed to look over the shoes Mindy brought down.  There were the cutest little black peep-toes, but there was no way Anna was wearing those in the middle of winter at Whateley.

She slipped on a pair of really thin socks and tried on the red leather ankle boots.  They fit really well, and she could walk around in ‘em just fine, since they only had two-inch chunky heels.  Maybe a little less than two inches.  But right around there.  And her jeans cuffs would fit right in the tops of the ankle boots, and they looked really cute.

“That is so you,” said Mindy.

“Yeah,” agreed Ree.

“For sure,” said Trish.  “If he goes for boots, he’ll love your look.”

“G-goes for boots?” Winnie asked.

“Yeah,” Mindy explained.  “Plenty of guys have a thing for girls in boots.”

Then they needed to pick out the sweater to go with the boots.  After a bit of arguing and trying stuff on, Anna’s off-red knit sweater was the favorite, by a vote of 7 to 2.  Trish thought Anna needed to go with a tighter, sexier sweater, and Winnie thought Anna needed to go with a warmer, heavier sweater.  Everyone else liked it.

“Okay, off with the boots and sweater, girl!” Mindy insisted.  “Manicure and pedicure time, especially for those nails.”

Trish added, “And we need to finish your hair, and we need to decide on makeup.”

So Anna sat in her desk chair while Ree did her toenails and Lucille did her fingernails and Trish worked some more with her hair, and Laurie and Mindy argued about makeup.

Anna told ‘em, “Look, I don’t wanna wear a ton of makeup.  It’s only a first date.”

Mindy said, “But you should wear some.  Just not so much that you look like you’re wearing makeup.”  Laurie nodded in agreement.

Anna said, “I’m gonna wear some mascara.  I’ve got some nice dark brown mascara that looks real natural, even if it’s just from G-Mart.  But I don’t have a red lipstick that goes with this sweater, and even if I did, I don’t wanna wear bright red lipstick on the first date.”

Laurie said, “Got that under control.”  She pulled out a lipstick tube.  “Ta-da!  Clinique Shimmering Nude.  Nude works for everyone.”

“Isn’t this yours?” Anna checked.

“Sure, but I’ve got two more,” Laurie said.  “It’s a new tube.  My mom works part-time at the Clinique counter at a department store back home, and she’s always sending me free stuff.”

“Wow, I could really go for that,” Trish said.

Laurie shrugged, “It gets old after a while.  I’d really like it better if they had cooler colors.  But it’s Clinique, not Smashbox.”

Anna said, “I don’t really like Smashbox.  When Linda wears her Smashbox eyeshadows, she looks like someone punched her in both eyes.”

Laurie shrugged, “Then she’s doing it wrong.”

“Smashbox is so last year.  I like the Bobbi Brown stuff, even if it’s really expensive.”

“Isn’t Mischa Barton wearing Smashbox now?”

“Ooh, d-did you see ‘The OC’ last week?”

And while the crowd got into a serious discussion of ‘The OC’, Mindy and Laurie concentrated on makeup for Anna’s coloring.  Mindy said, “Look, you’ve got this ultra-sheer foundation.  Just use a little of that.  Your complexion’s already really good.”

“Okay,” Anna gave in.  “But I’ll put it on after I get the sweater on so I don’t get any on the neck.”

“Sounds good,” said Mindy.

It took a while to get her nails all done, because Ree and Luce wanted enough coats on her fingernails and toenails that she wouldn’t be tearing the boots or scratching stuff up.  And they had to make sure all the coats were dry.  Luce even used Anna’s hair dryer on her toenails, just to make sure.  So they sat around, drinking diet Pepsi and polishing off Anna’s good chocolate (except what she had hidden away in her desk drawer), and talking about important stuff, like who should play Bella and Edward in the “Twilight” movie that everyone was waiting for.

Once Luce was sure Anna’s toenail polish was dry, Anna slipped on some warmer socks and Mindy’s boots.  Then she slid on the sweater, making sure it wasn’t showing any skin but wasn’t down too far either.  She put on her mascara and let Mindy put a sheer coat of the foundation on her face.  Then she applied a coat of the lipstick.  “What do you think?”

“Nice!”

“Lick your lips,” Laurie told her.  “Yeah that nude color looks really good on you!”

Anna checked herself in the mirror.  She did look pretty nice.  Not drop-dead gorgeous like lots of girls on campus, but pretty nice.  Laurie was right about that lipstick.

Mindy checked, “Okay, you got your mad money just in case?”  Anna nodded as she patted her front left pocket, where she had a twenty dollar bill tucked away.  Even though the shuttle back to school was free, it was a good thing to have, because you never knew.  “Lipstick?”  Anna slipped the tube into her front right pocket.  “Are we forgetting anything?”

“Earrings!” called out several people together.

Trish groaned, “Ugh!  How could I forget?”

Anna said, “I’m just gonna go with the studs I have in.  I like ‘em.”

“But guys like dangly earrings,” said Mindy.

“Fine, they can go ahead and wear ‘em themselves,” Anna said.

“Don’t you have anything but studs?” Trish asked.

“Nope,” Anna said.

Ellen said, “I think it’s a squirrel thing.  She doesn’t like anything that sticks out from her ears even the least little bit.”

“It’s not a squirrel thing,” Anna said.  But she wasn’t really sure.  She had other earrings, including some dangly ones, that she just never wore any more.  Maybe it was some sort of protect-yourself thing from her squirrel spirit.  She’d never thought of it that way before.

Darlene came back into the room.  “He’s coming up the walkway right now!”

“Perfume?” Mindy checked.

“No,” Anna insisted.  “It’s too much.  And it bothers my nose.”

Ree hugged her carefully so she wouldn’t mess up Anna’s makeup or hair, and said, “You have to tell me everything when you get back!”

Anna looked at the clock.  It said 4:38.  Wow, he was being right on time.  She skittered downstairs with most of the rest of the gang on her heels, and she opened the door into Dickinson just as Hazmat reached out to knock.

He stepped in and looked at her.  “Wow…  You look great…  Oh.  This is for you.”

He handed her a white rose that was still budded up.  She sniffed it and said, “Thanks.”

Ree said, “I’ll take it.  Here’s your coat.  You two get going before you miss the shuttle!”

Jerry checked his wristwatch and said, “We’re good.”

Mrs. Nelson came out and said, “I’ll make sure Kamuro or Skids puts it in a nice little vase for you.  Now get going, and don’t be out too late.  That shuttle doesn’t run all night, you know!”

“Yes ma’am,” Hazmat said.

Anna slipped on her coat, and they walked out into the crisp cold.  Hazmat said, “Since this is a date, and we’ll be in Dunwich, we need to use regular names.  Is that okay?”

“Sure,” she smiled.  She felt better about using his real name anyway.  It made it seem more like a date and less like a combat final or something.  “That sounds good to me, Jerry.”

He grinned when she used his name.  “Okay, Anna.  You know, that’s a really pretty name.  It suits you.”  She tried real hard not to blush.

As they walked down to main campus to catch the shuttle, Jerry said, “I figure we’re really early, since it’s the five o’clock shuttle, so we have time to walk over to the movie theater and figure out what we want to watch, and what time, and we can get the tickets then so we won’t have to wait in line later, and we’ll know how long we have to eat dinner.  Is that okay?”

“Sure, it sounds fine,” Anna told him.  She was glad he’d been thinking about it, because she hadn’t even looked on-line to see what was playing at the theater, and what if they only had really gross stuff playing?  Dunwich was supposed to be pretty weird.  If the only choices were horror movies and stuff, she didn’t know what she was going to do.

The shuttle wasn’t crowded, what with six o’clock and seven o’clock probably being way more popular times to take the shuttle.  But there was one blonde Anna didn’t know who was there with a date, and she was wearing a fake fur eton-style jacket over a really short minidress and sheer black lace pantyhose and patent leather granny boots with four-inch heels.  She was also wearing about ten times more makeup than Anna was, and looked like a bimbo.  Her date probably really liked it.  Boys were like that.  The girl looked like she was freezing and pretending really hard she was fine.  Anna noticed Jerry was checking out the girl’s legs some, but so was every other guy there.

Jerry moved Anna off to the side and said, “Sorry.”

Anna said, “Okay.  She is just asking for guys to stare at her.  But…”

“But we’re on a date, and I’m looking at some other girl.  Sorry.  We devisers aren’t really good with stuff like that.”

She hugged his arm and said, “Maybe you need to get out more.”

He grinned, “That’s what I’m trying to do right now.”

She said, “Okay, you don’t stare at her legs, and I won’t stare at her date.”

“Deal.”

The bimbo and her date went and sat at the back of the bus where it was the warmest, so it wasn’t a problem for the ride into Dunwich.  Anna got a slight odd feeling off the glowing red gem set in the handrail of the shuttle doorway, but it didn’t make her squirrel spirit go crazy or anything, so she ignored it.  Her spirit sort of picked up on a lot of the magical stuff on campus, even if she couldn’t do anything about it.

It didn’t take long to get down the roads and into the town.  The shuttle stopped at the stoplight, and the driver let everyone out.  He called out, “Remember!  Shuttles go back at 5:30, 6:30, 7:30, 8:30, 9:30, 10:30, 11:30, and 12:30.  No shuttle service after 12:30!”

Jerry muttered, “Why didn’t he just say they leave on the half-hour?”

Anna asked, “Do you think kids ever miss the last bus?”

He shrugged, “Sure.  That’s why there’s that funny glowing gem when you walk on and off the shuttle.  It marks you with a little magical tracker spell so the school can find you if you miss the last shuttle.  Word is plenty of guys show off by flying their dates back to campus, so the school has to have a way of telling if you’re in trouble somewhere in Dunwich, or if you’re already back in your dorm room trying to get your date to do the horizontal lambada.”

“Eww.”  Anna was so not ready for that.  She didn’t care how hot some Exemplars made her feel.

Jerry tucked her arm through his, which she liked, and they strolled off down the main street.  It looked like Dunwich pretty much depended on Whateley for an awful lot of their business.  She saw a number of Whateley people walking the streets and going into the shops and restaurants.  Anna figured her two-inch heels made her just about the right height for Jerry, because he was maybe 5’9” or so, and she didn’t want to be so tall that she made him feel uncomfortable, but she didn’t want to look so short that he was staring down at the top of her head all night.

The Dunwich four-plex was a tiny little theater.  The smallest theater she knew in Zanesville was a one-plex that was almost this big.  They looked at the movie listings and tried to decide.  They had four choices: “The Host”, “Borat”, “Flushed Away”, or “Casino Royale”.  She was totally not surprised that Jerry wanted to see “The Host”, but that was way too gory for her.  Even the pictures on the posters looked gross.  But he wasn’t all crabby when she didn’t want to see it.  Instead, he asked if she’d rather see the animated movie instead.  They settled on the Bond flick.

After they stood in line for a few minutes and Jerry bought two tickets for the 7:00 showing, they strolled off toward the pizza parlor.  He tried to do a stiff-upper-lip British impression.  “Walsh.  Jer Walsh.”

She giggled.  “So, Mister Walsh, how do you like your martinis?”

“Shaken, not stirred.”

She giggled again, partly because it was a really bad imitation and Jerry knew it.  “Parsons.  Anna Parsons,” she teased.

He said, “Unh-uh.  You’re too pretty.  You have to be one of the fabulous Bond babes.  Miss Sek C. Squirl.”

She groaned at that one.

They got a booth in the pizza parlor and looked over the menu.  He said, “How about we split a small?  The sign says it’s big enough for two.  And they’re probably talking about two humans, not Jimmy T and Tennyo.”

She grinned, “That could be a funny date.  What if Jimmy shifted so he looked like Tenchi?  They’d look like the anime.”

He looked at the menu again and asked, “How about pepperoni and hamburger?”

She frowned a little and said, “I’d really rather get a veggie pizza.”

She figured he’d get all mad about it, or at least huffy.  Instead, he just asked, “Is this one of those squirrel things?”

She shook her head.  “No, it’s just that, well, when I was little, there was this greasy spoon we used to go to for pizza.  My dad?  He always got these really yucky meat things on his pizza, like anchovies and this greasy sausage stuff the pizza place did that he really liked.  Bluck.  Me and mom just got used to ordering veggie pizzas so we didn’t have to eat that stuff.  But I do eat meat.  Well, so do squirrels, even if you wouldn’t think they’d do it.”

He just smiled and said, “Cool.”

So he ordered half ‘veggie monster’ and half pepperoni/mushroom when the waitress came back.  He ordered a large coke, and she went with an iced tea with extra lemon and no sweetener.

After the waitress left, he asked, “Iced tea with no sugar?  You’re not on a diet, are you?  Because you definitely don’t need to lose any weight.”

She smiled at him and said, “No, it’s just that this afternoon my friends came over to help me get ready, and we drank a ton of Pepsi and Sprite, and ate a bunch of chocolate.  So I really don’t need any more Pepsi.”

He leaned forward.  “You know the rule: whatever advertisers tell you is a lie.  So, if they say Pepsi and Coke are hugely different, then they must be the same.”

She told him, “My tastebuds got sharper when I got my squirrel spirit, so I can tell the difference.  And you know what?”

“What?”

She said, “The difference between Pepsi out of a bunch of different soda dispensers is way bigger than the difference between Pepsi out of a can and Coke out of a can.”

He nodded, “That makes a lot of sense.  It’s pretty much impossible to control every single variable completely when you’re dispensing a beverage out of one of those machines.  You’re trying to get the right amount of perfectly filtered water and mix it with just the right amount of carbon dioxide, then maintain exactly the right amount of carbonation as it flows through the system, then inject exactly the right amount of syrup to get the exact recipe for your drink.  But there’s a ton of little things that can go wrong with the process, and that’s even assuming the syrup is perfectly made and evenly mixed, and the lines for the liquid are completely clean, and there’s no contamination from a different beverage going through part of the system just before.”

Eww.  She didn’t want to think about the ‘lines not being completely clean’ part.  Especially when the iced tea probably came through the same machine.

She looked around at the other people in the place.  She knew some of them were other Whateley kids.  She quietly said, “Boy, I hope bad stuff doesn’t happen tonight.  ‘Cause I’ve heard stories.  Like the time Lancer and Wallflower and Electrode had to stop Strongarm from ripping up the movie theater.”

He nodded.  “Or those supervillains Generator had to stop just a couple days ago.”

They talked about that one once their drinks came and the waitress was out of earshot.  Anna said, “I can’t figure that one out.  I mean, you got Tennyo, Fey, and little Generator there, and Generator’s the one who has to stop the two supervillains?  That doesn’t make any sense.”

Jerry said, “I figure Tennyo and Fey were trying to be undercover, and Generator needed to do the hard stuff.  After all, Generator looks like a cute little Japanese kid.  Fey looks like… well, a magical goddess.  And Tennyo?  There’s no mistaking her.”

Anna said, “I was thinking about it, and maybe that hair is real.  I mean, Mechano Man’s in a class with her.  Flight I.  And it’s this super-super-early class Saturday mornings.  And he said her hair’s like that when she gets to class too, and he thinks she goes and eats breakfast first, so there’s no way she has time to do everything she’d need to do to keep her hair like that.  And he said her hair stays like that when she flies, even when she’s flying at her top speed or upside down or stuff.”

Jerry thought it over.  “Well, this is Whateley.  Anything’s possible.  Even Jobe being nice to you for ten straight seconds.”  She grinned.  He said, “She’s supposed to be a major Warper, so maybe her hair can stay like that because of some reality warping effect.  But really, who the hell knows?”

She said, “Well, as long as there isn’t a giant fight, or a bank robbery, or something.”

Jerry said, “Well, you know, that stuff really doesn’t happen around here.  I don’t see how those Team Kimba chicks keep getting mixed up in stuff.  I mean, you’d have to be really stupid to come to Dunwich to commit crimes, when Whateley’s just up the road and like a hundred superheroes could come zooming down here and pound the snot out of you.”

Over pizza, she got him to talk about himself, which wasn’t that hard.  And he wasn’t too geeky about it.  She kind of figured he’d start talking about science, and chemistry stuff.  But he told her about growing up in Panama City, which was out in the panhandle of Florida, right on the gulf.  They lived in a nice five-bedroom bungalow-style house an easy bike ride from the ocean, or at least the Gulf of Mexico, not that she knew what the difference was, but apparently it mattered to Florida people.  A nice, warm ocean and a sunny beach to lie around on on all day?  That sounded great.

She told him about Zanesville too, and he teased her about living in a state with a ‘second rate’ college football conference.  But she knew football too, so they got into a big talk about football teams and football conferences, and they spent so long just talking about football they were nearly late to the movie.  It was a good thing the movie started with like fifteen minutes of annoying ads for movies she didn’t want to go see, or they would’ve missed the start of the movie.

And anyway, everybody knew the Big Ten was the best conference in the country.

The movie was really pretty good.  There were some chase sequences she couldn’t figure out how they could’ve filmed ‘em, unless they got some Exemplars in for the stuntwork.  But that was supposed to be not okay in Hollywood, even if she didn’t get why.  And Jerry was really nice the whole time.  She figured he’d get grabby and stuff in the dark, but he never did.  All he did was hold her hand.  Maybe he was shyer than she thought.  Or maybe he really thought she could squish him if he tried anything she didn’t like.  At any rate, he was really nice, and fun to lean against, just a little bit.

After the movie, they walked back and waited for the shuttle.  And they spent the whole time doing the ‘whose college football conference is better’ talk.  She was sure Ohio State was going to be the national champions, because they’d been ranked number one all year long.  But he was telling her Ohio State was going to get their asses kicked in the championship game against Florida.  But it was okay, because he was funny about it and not all fanatical, like a lot of the Ohio State people she knew back home.

Jerry was all about the SEC, but he wasn’t crazy about it like lots of people.  Back home, if you said out loud that Ohio State wasn’t the best team in the country, you were in trouble.  BIG trouble.  And God forbid you ever said anything nice about University of Michigan!

When she told him about that, he laughed and said, “Oh yeah, where I live, people have these HUGE arguments about Florida versus Florida State or University of Miami.  And if they’re not arguing about this year’s teams, they’re arguing about who had the best team ever, or who had the best coach ever, or who had the best player ever, or who was the biggest jerk who ever played for any of the schools.  And when it comes to jerks, we’ve got plenty of candidates.”

So on the shuttle ride home, they had a ‘can you top this’ thing about awful stuff the football players in their state had done.  And Jerry had some whoppers about guys from University of Miami.  It sounded like they used to be bigger criminals than game-winners, back when they were competing for the national championship every year.

When they got off the shuttle, he took her hand in his and wiggled their fingers together and tucked their hands into his coat pocket to keep them warm.  And he held her hand all the way to Dickinson.  She really liked that.

When they got to the front door of the dorm, he smiled at her and said, “I had a really great time, Anna.”

“Me too.  I’m glad you asked me out.”

He smiled shyly.  “I almost didn’t.  Most pretty girls who are big-time heroes in the combat finals don’t want to settle for nerdy guys who spend all their time down in Workshop.”

She blushed, “I’m not a big-time hero.  And you’re not nerdy, even if you are a deviser.  You’re nice.”

He smiled and kissed her on the cheek.  When she just smiled at him, he kissed her on the lips.

Ooh, that felt nice.  Really, really nice.  His lips were soft, but not too soft, and made her lips feel all tingly.  She leaned into him and kissed him back.  He gently wrapped his arms around her, which felt even better.  And then they were kissing each other.  Which was really, really good.  She just leaned against his strong body and let him hugged her tight and sank into the warmth of the kiss, until her brain was pretty much not working at all except the part about kissing and what could come next.

He finally stopped just about the time she thought he might try the tongue thing, which always sounded really gross when other girls talked about it, but right then sounded pretty exciting.

He took half a step back, and he sounded like he was breathing kind of ragged.  “I…  Umm…  Maybe we better stop while I… umm… still have some self-control.”

She was still looking at his mouth and thinking about what his tongue would taste like.  “Uhh, okay, if you’re sure,” she muttered.

“Oh, I am SO not sure,” he managed.  “But I think we better stop now.  I don’t wanna do anything you’d be mad about tomorrow…  But maybe we could go out on another date some time?  I mean, I know this wasn’t the greatest date in the world, and there are lots of guys you could get to take you out, but-”

“Yes.”

“-maybe you could think it over?  Because I had a really nice time, and I’m sorry about teasing you about Ohio State, and-”

“I said yes, Jerry,” she gently reminded him.

“Wha?  Really?” he gasped, like he couldn’t imagine her saying yes for reals.

“Sure,” she nodded.  “I had a really nice time tonight.”

“YES!” he shouted as he pumped his arms in the air.

She watched as he just about danced his way off to his dorm.  She stood there in shock.  She was totally not used to boys wanting to date her, or being excited about getting to take her out.  Jerry wasn’t all ultra-gorgeous and super-muscular, but he was nice, and he thought she was pretty.  Maybe she needed to give up on Prism and be less like all the self-centered pretties who only wanted to date the prettiest people they could find.

Jerry danced off, completely ignoring that he was a really bad dancer.  He did a spin and tripped over his own feet and fell face-first into a snowbank.  Anna clapped her hands to her mouth.  She didn’t know whether to wince or giggle.

“I’m okay!” he shouted as he stood up and brushed snow off his coat.

At least he stopped dancing.  Instead he bounced off down the path singing really, really loud.  “People!  People who need…  Oops, sorry, I didn’t see you there…  People!  Are the LUCKIEST people!  In the world!”

She could hear Jerry singing at the top of his voice as he went home, and she couldn’t help giggling.  She’d actually done that to a boy.  She felt better about herself than she’d felt in a long time.

She walked inside with a huge smile on her face.  It was time to call Ree and have a really long chat about how her date went.