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Aquerna - Straight from the Squirrel’s Mouth

By Diane Castle

Chapter 6

Sunday, January 7, 2007
On the road back to Whateley Academy

Anna was so busy chatting with Ree and Meg and Mrs. Davies that she didn’t notice when Mr. Davies drove right through Dunwich and turned to go up to Whateley Academy.

She’d had such a great Christmas with them.  She even enjoyed doing the ordinary family kind of stuff with them.  Going out and seeing the Christmas lights on all the houses, making a big snowman and having a snowball fight, going for walks with their big black lab, going to Christmas Eve services, and all that stuff.  Even if it took nearly the whole vacation before their dog Peanut warmed up to her and stopped looking at her like she was a squirrel he needed to chase.

And on Christmas morning, there had even been presents for her!  Ree’s mom and sister had bought Anna a gorgeous blue-and-white wool sweater and a matching blouse, and Ree bought her the cutest squirrel-holding-acorn earrings you ever saw, and Ree’s dad bought everyone including her fancy chocolates.  Which weren’t as good as the ones Ayla bought her, but she wasn’t ever going to say that out loud.  Everyone loved her hand-knitted scarves, even Mr. Davies.  And there was a present from Winnie too!  Ree had snuck it home without telling Anna.  It was a beautiful taupe hand-knitted scarf that Winnie had made herself, with acorns knitted into the pattern all along one edge.  Anna knew Winnie was really good at the arts and crafts things, but she was really impressed, because it would’ve taken Anna forever to figure out how to knit an acorn into the pattern like that.  Winnie had made a scarf for Ree too, and it had little clusters of silvery fireworks worked into the pattern.

And it had been so great seeing that Ree had a real life with her folks and her friends, now that she had her power under control.  Ree could come back here and be one of the gang again, and have all her old friends, and everything.  Anna was so happy for her.  Really.  Even if it was totally not fair that other kids couldn’t have that chance.  Kids like Phobos or Phase.  Or even Aquerna.

But it hadn’t been so great getting that call from the school about the ‘elf crimefighter’.  Anna didn’t even want to know how they knew it was her.  Anna apologized over and over, but said there was no way she could let some creepy guy stab a woman and her two little girls when she could hear it happening.  When Ms. Hartford said they might not let Anna go home with Ree for the summer if Anna was going to do this kind of stuff and risk outing Ree, Anna burst into tears.  She would NEVER hurt Ree!  And she didn’t know what she’d do if she couldn’t go home with Ree for the summer!

When Mr. Davies pulled the RV into Whateley, Ree directed him to the parking area at the back door into Whitman, where people could move stuff from cars right to the Whitman elevator, and even use a handicapped ramp if they needed to.  He insisted on helping them get their luggage off, even if Anna could’ve carried all the heavy stuff.  As the Davies family said their goodbyes, Anna was nearly as teary as Ree.  Anna hugged Mrs. Davies and said, “Thanks so much!”

Mrs. Davies, who Anna had never gotten used to calling Marya, smiled, “Stop it, Anna, you’ve thanked us about once an hour!”

“Sorry, it’s just…  This was so great,” Anna told her.

Mr. Davies teased her, “How many times did she thank us?”

Mrs. Davies grinned, “I think seven.”

Mr. Davies pretended to be upset.  “Dang!  I had nine in the betting pool!”  Anna turned bright red.

Mrs. Davies fussed, “John!  Stop it!  You’re embarrassing her!”  Then she turned back to Anna and said, “Seriously Anna, if you can’t go home for summer, you just give us a call.  Okay?”

Anna sniffled until she could talk again, and she said, “Okay.  You guys are the best.”

As the Davies piled into the RV, Meg called out, “My turn to drive!”

Mr. Davies called out, “Shotgun!”

Mrs. Davies laughed, “You’re way too old to be doing that.”  She waited until he slowly nodded, and then she ran past him to hop in the shotgun seat.  Once she had the door shut and locked, she thumbed her nose at him while he laughed.

Anna and Ree stood there and waved as they left, and Anna said, “Your family’s the best ever, you know that?”

Ree smiled tearfully.  “Yeah, I do.  And I bet you can come home with me for Winter Break if you want.”

Anna teased her, “But aren’t gonna want to spend all that week snuggling up with Tim?”  Because Ree had gone out on dates with Tim a couple times after the ice skating thing, and her lipstick was really smeared every time when she came inside afterward.

Anna grabbed her stuff and hauled it over to Dickinson.  It wasn’t heavy, it was just bulky.  And she never used the sleeping bag even once, so she was sorry she took it along.  Though it was way better having it and not using it, than not taking it and really needing it.  That would’ve been miserable.

She walked into Dickinson and found it was still fairly empty.  That was okay with her, since she’d kind of gotten used to not being all crowded and rushed in the bathroom.  She figured she’d get adjusted as more and more girls got back over the next couple days.  It would’ve been nice to spend a couple more days with the Davies, but Mr. Davies had to be at work Monday morning, and Meg had some sort of school thing she was supposed to be at Monday right after lunch.  It would’ve been pretty hard for Mrs. Davies to drive the girls all the way up to Whateley and back with no one else to help her drive.  And that didn’t even count that the roads were still kind of yucky, with blowing snow sometimes flying across the roads to make things harder to drive on, and if Mrs. Davies had an accident when she was all by herself, that would be pretty awful.

Anna tried not to think about stuff like that as she put everything away in her room.  Then she trotted back over to Whitman to see Ree.  Mrs. Savage spotted Anna as she came in, and asked how her vacation with Rhiannon went.  Anna told her how great it was, and Mrs. Savage gave her a smile.  Then she shooed Anna up the stairs to Ree’s room.

Ree had her suitcases and her laundry bag and all her other stuff open on the beds, and was busy rearranging her chest of drawers and her closet, since she had most everything pulled out already.  Anna ended up spending the rest of the afternoon helping Ree figure out how to fix up her closet, and after dinner they went over to the school store and spent a couple hours looking through all the closet organizer stuff they had.  Ree ended up buying some frame stuff that you put together however you wanted in one-foot-square cubes that were all connected.  Anna hauled it back to Whitman for Ree, and they spent the rest of the evening trying different arrangements.  They ended up with three connected cubes (that were open in the front) set on the shelf over the closet rod, for Ree’s sweaters and heavy knits to go in.  That left them with enough framing to make two connected cubes that were open in the front and back, that Ree put on the floor and used for her shoes.

Monday, January 8
Dickinson Cottage

When Anna woke up, the dorm was starting to fill up with girls back from Christmas break.  But pretty much all of them had showered early that morning before traveling, so Anna almost had the showers to herself.  Okay, she didn’t have the bathroom to herself, because a lot of girls were really needing to go pee after traveling for hours to get back to Whateley.  But she had a nice hot shower with no one pushing her to hurry up.  She figured this was probably the last day that would happen for a while.

As Anna finished drying her hair, Mrs. Nelson came around and checked with her.  “Anna?  We have three new girls moving in today.”

Anna sort of frowned at the idea.  “Three?  Isn’t that gonna be really crowded?”

The housemother smiled a little, “Yes Anna, it will be, but we’ll move some girls upstairs and work it out, just as we always do.”

Anna nodded, “Oh.  Okay.  As long as I don’t have to split up with Ellen…”

Mrs. Nelson smiled, “Thank you.  I’m glad to have at least a few girls who aren’t dying to rearrange the entire dorm to suit their own interests.”

Anna said, “I like Ellen.  She’s a really good roommate.”

Mrs. Nelson nodded and said, “Okay, stay around the cottage, instead of rushing over to see Kamuro again.  We’re going to have a little meeting before too long.”

“Okay.  No problem,” Anna said.

So she was all dressed and everything, way before Pythia came around getting everyone to come down to the common room.  She sat down near the back, next to Winnie, and made sure to thank her for the really cool scarf.  Winnie was nervous being around so many of the girls, but she hardly stammered at all when she said “you’re welcome”.  Anna had been thinking about what to get Winnie in return, so she had a scarf like Ree’s all knit and sewn up, but done in earth tones because Winnie liked them better.  When Anna told Winnie the present was waiting for her up in Anna’s room, Winnie turned bright red and got so excited she stammered for a long time before she got out a 'thank you'.

Mrs. Nelson made everybody pay attention at the same time, which wasn’t that easy to do in Anna’s opinion, Anna didn’t know how in the world she would do it if she had to be in charge of all the girls in the dorm, and then Mrs. Nelson introduced a pretty blonde girl who looked really familiar for some reason Anna couldn’t figure out…  Right up until one of the sophomores screamed out that Kerry was really the Angel of Hell’s Kitchen.  Then Anna knew where she’d seen her.  On teevee.  A couple times.  Because there’d been those news specials about the thing in New York City.  Like there wasn’t something like that happening in New York City about half a dozen times a year.  But the New York news people always treated stuff in New York like it was way more important than stuff that happened in Ohio.

Still the thing Kerry did was awesomely cool.  When she made the little angel thing in her hands, she had a light glowing over her head, and those angel wings that lifted her into the air, and then the angel thing made Anna’s squirrel spirit feel like someone had given her a special treat.

When they explained Kerry was an empath, and collected energies on something Anna didn’t get, and also amplified magic, Anna sort of understood why Mrs. Nelson was saying it might be pretty bad if Kerry roomed with a wizard or an avatar or anyone else who was magic-related.  And Flex was nice, so Anna thought Flex would be a good roommate.  Anna hoped they got along okay, because she liked Flex and didn’t want her to be miserable.

So Anna chipped in and helped several girls all move while Kerry and the other new girls were off to orientation.  Linda was moving, and Devaki, and Brenda, and two girls were moving upstairs, and Solange was upstairs trying to keep anyone from moving upstairs, and so the whole floor was pretty much of a disaster area all afternoon.  It felt like it was worse than on their first day at Whateley, at the start of fall term, but really it couldn’t have been, because there were a lot more girls moving in on that day, and back then there were all those dads hauling stuff around and clogging up the halls too.

At dinner, Anna heard from Ree and Nate and the others about their new kids.  The new Twain kid Froggy sounded pretty scary, but there were a lot of guys in Twain who sounded like they ought to be scary but were really pretty nice guys.  Like Carapace, who was like a billion times nicer than Jobe.  And the new girl in Whitman sounded like she might be pretty unhappy, what with getting burned to a crisp in her first minute in the dorm, and stuff like that.  Ree said Murphy had found some kids in the Lit Chix to hang with, so she was doing okay.

They spotted a bunch of the new kids sitting together, so it was easy to see why Froggy looked so scary.  Anna couldn’t sense any fear aura from way over where they were, and her squirrel spirit wasn’t scared just from looking at him, so she thought maybe he might be okay.

After dinner, when things on the floor were pretty much straightened out, Anna dropped by one of the ‘new kid’ rooms.  She’d already seen Kerry, and Kerry’s room had a couple people in the doorway, so Anna figured she wouldn’t be all that welcome.  She dropped in on the other new girls.

The door was open, and so she could hear two voices in a sort of one-sided argument.  A girl with a sort of European accent that made Anna think of bad vampire movies was insisting, “There is nothing wrong with Konrad!  He is very brave, and would handled that with no help at all!”

A much quieter voice was saying, “I didn’t say anything about Konrad.”

“Everyone tells me Konrad is not good, but he is good!  He works with a great monster hunter!”

The quiet voice just said, “I didn’t say anything about Konrad!”

Anna figured the two girls at least needed an interruption.  “Knock knock!” she said.  “Can I come in?”

She stuck her head in the room and got a look at the new girls.  She’d seen both of them across the room at dinner and her eyesight was really good, so it wasn’t a shock that the girl with the vampire-y accent looked kind of like a vampire too.  She was pale, and had long black hair that looked as silky as the hair in a haircare products ad.  The other girl was about Anna’s height and thin, but not anorexic-thin.  She had a huge pile of chestnut-colored hair piled up on top of her head like a Gibson, but it was starting to slip out in several places.  She had big gray eyes peering out through huge glasses that weren’t as ugly as the glasses Anna used to have, but weren’t doing the girl any favors.

Anna started out, “Hi!  I’m Anna.  I don’t know how much they told you about codenames, but I go by Aquerna.”

The vampire-looking girl sulked, “You are in wrong room.  So-popular angel girl is down the hall.”

Anna didn’t get why the girl seemed so grumpy.  She said, “I know that.  I saw Kerry already.  So I wanted to meet you two.”

“Oh, so we are consolation award?” asked the girl in an even grouchier tone.

The shy girl finally said something.  “Consolation prize, Erza.”

“My English is nothing wrong!” insisted the pale girl, who Anna figured was named Erza, even if she’d never heard of anyone named Erza in her life.

Anna pointed at her, “So, if you’re Erza…”  She pointed at the other girl.  “You must be…”

The girl finally spoke.  “I’m Gina.”

“Anna Parsons.  Pleased to meetcha.  I room with Ellen.  She goes by Skids, ‘cause she’s a really great driver and car-builder.  So, what do you do?”

Erza frowned, “Are you yet another American who can do everything?  I am only here for day and already I meet too many of you.”

Gina quietly said, “She’s had a hard time today.”

Anna shrugged and said, “Not me.  I’m one of the campus jokes.  You heard of Avatars like Champion who are super-strong and just unstoppable?”  Both girls nodded, one pretty reluctantly.  “Well, not me.  I’ve got the spirit of the squirrel.  I’m a member of the Underdogs, and we’re named that because people pick on us.”

Gina said, “I’m Gina Lambert.  All I can do is go from one hostage to…”  She split into twins who both said, “…two hostages.”  With a blurring, she recombined into one girl.

Erza said, “You do that joke already.”  She turned to Anna and said, “I am Erzebet Novak, from Budapest.  I can change from this to three other forms, and I can change parts of body rather than whole body also.”

Anna smiled, “Ooh, a Shifter!  I heard there are some really good classes here for Shifters.”

Erza glared at her.  “I do not need class to be ‘shifter’.  I already know to shift.”

Gina sort of cleared her throat really lightly and said, “Umm, Erza, maybe you could get better at not doing the mist thing when you know…”

Anna didn’t know what she was talking about, but Erza sure did, and she glared real hard at Gina.  Anna tried to change the subject.  “Well, Gina, if you don’t think you can do much, you could join the Underdogs.  We hang together, and do stuff together.”

“I don’t know…” Gina sort of whispered, but Anna could hear her just fine.

Anna tried to be nice and said, “And Erza, it sounds like maybe you’re too powerful to join us, but we’re always open if you want.  But you really ought to talk to Charmer.  She’s from Monaco, and a Wizard, and she’s in the European League, I think it’s called, and she could introduce you around.”  Erza sure perked up when she heard someone else was from Europe.  Anna turned to Gina, “And you sure ought to meet Charmer’s roomie Geomancer.  Winnie’s really nice, and one of us Underdogs, but she’s really shy, so you’ll never meet her unless you go over.  I could introduce both of you, if you want…”

So Anna led them both over to Vera and Winnie’s room, and both of them were in, which was perfect.  Anna introduced everybody, and let them get to know each other.  She figured Erza would be a lot happier having some non-Americans to hang out with too, just like some of the girls like Cytherea were.  Not that she thought Cytherea would be nice to Erza or anything, because Cytherea was only nice to people she wanted stuff from, or the two or three New Olympians she seemed to like.  But Charmer would be nice to her, because Charmer was nice to just about everybody.

On the way back to her room, Anna stopped by Devaki’s room to say hi to Kerry in person.  Devaki waved her in with a smile, but Kerry looked a little wary.  Anna figured Kerry had to be pretty tired of everybody oohing and ahhing over her and trying to get some of that magical angel stuff.

Anna said, “Hi.  We haven’t met yet, but I’m just down the hall.  I’m Anna.  I go by Aquerna.”

“Kerry.  But you know that already.”

Anna nodded.  “Oh sure.  I saw you do your angel bit when Mrs. Nelson got us all in the common room.  And I saw you on the news.  You must be more famous than Fey or Phase or Tennyo.  Or She-Beast and Jobe.”

Kerry sort of winced.  “I met She-Beast.  And a bunch of people warned me about Jobe.”

Anna said, “Yeah, he’s really super-smart, but he’s a major, major jerk.  I don’t suppose you’ve had a chance to meet Phobos and Deimos-”

Kerry definitely winced at that.  “Uhh, yeah.  I met ‘em.”

Anna nodded, “They’re really pretty nice.  But they didn’t look anywhere near as freaky as before they went to Jobe for help.”

Kerry’s eyes got real big as she figured it out.  “Oh crap.”

Flex said, “Anna’s an Avatar, but she’s very low-level.”

Anna ducked her head.  “Yeah.  I’m the big joke on campus.  I’ve got the spirit of the squirrel.”

Flex said, “But she is really very nice, and she did very well in her combat final.”

“Combat final?” Kerry gasped.

“Oh yeah, didn’t they tell you about that?” Anna said.  “It sounds really scary, but it’s not always so bad, like this year was.  We had to beat another student to a spindle-thing and type in answers to questions to win, but you couldn’t do that if the other student was stopping you, so a lotta finals turned into a big fight and the winner did the spindle and won.  Except a few times they knocked each other out, or busted the spindle to pieces, or stuff like that.  And some of the finals were just awesome, like Chaka fighting three guys in a tornado and an earthquake.”

Kerry cringed, “A tornado?  And an earthquake?  You’re kidding.”

Flex said, “It was not like that for most of us.  There were two teams who got what they call The Crash, which is special scenarios and special opponents.  Team Kimba and Outcast Corner.”

Kerry wondered out loud, “Team Kimba?  Like the Disney lion?”

Anna shook her head.  “No, that’s Simba, and Nala, and Scar, and ‘just can’t wait to be king’.  I think Kimba’s from somethin’ else.  But they’re really cool.  Fey’s like the most powerful Wizard around school, and Tennyo’s so powerful they put a Section 33 on her because it’s too dangerous to even try to fight her, and Lancer’s a flying brick and he beat Eldritch in his combat final, and Phase can change density and she’s really tough in aikido class, and Chaka can do anything you can imagine with Ki, and Bladedancer’s got this super-powerful magic sword that can cut through anything, and Shroud’s really spooky, and even Generator’s pretty tough for a deviser.”

Flex added, “The Kimbas are all in Poe, which is the cottage for the crazy students, so they’re a little… different.  But some of them are extremely powerful, and they stick together, so don’t start a fight with them.”

Kerry glared.  “I never start fights.  With anyone!”

Anna said, “Good, ‘cause the Kimbas are always getting into fights all over the place.  The first day of school they caught some ninjas stealing something and beat ‘em up, and there was the food fight, and the thing where they beat up the Alphas, and, well, everybody was fighting badguys at Halloween, and then Parents’ Day when the mutant ninjas came back, and…”

“I get the point,” Kerry said.  “Watch out for the crazy Kimbas.”

Anna said, “Well, they’re not mean or anything.  Phase is really nice in aikido class, and Lancer helped me a whole ton last term with my little friends.  But you really ought to know who the bullies and stuff are around here.  Buster’s one of the big ones.”

Kerry nodded, “I already found out about Bloodwolf and his pals.  Thorn fixed Bloodwolf but good.”

Anna cringed.  “Okay, but you oughta know Bloodwolf is big on the revenge part.  He’ll try to bushwhack you or something.  Or go after that Thorn kid.”

So, after Anna and Devaki filled Kerry in on the campus jerks and good guys and nutcases, Anna finally made it out of there and went back to her room.  Ellen was there, unpacking her stuff, and trying not to get the grease from a big box of equipment onto her clothes that were still mostly packed in her suitcases.

Ellen grinned with excitement.  “Hey Anna!  Look at the cool Christmas present my folks gave me!  I got to go down to the speedway and buy some really high-end racing gear, and my dad paid for it all!  I’m gonna take every one of these apart and figure out how they work and make ‘em work even better, and then I am gonna kick Steve’s ass the next time we race!”

It looked to Anna like a box of oily metal gizmos.  But Anna had seen tons of car parts in the junkyard where her dad worked, and most of the things in Ellen’s box looked way too fancy to be normal car parts.  Anna looked at the grease smears on the side of Ellen’s suitcase and said, “I tell you what.  Go wash up, and get a soapy rag to clean up this grease, and I’ll help you unpack.  Then you can show me all the gadgets you got there.”

“Thanks, Anna,” grinned Ellen.  “You’re the best!”

Anna smiled back as Ellen rushed off to the bathroom.  She knew that if she didn’t do anything, Ellen would end up getting that oil stuff all over her clean clothes, because she wouldn’t be able to leave her new toys alone long enough to get totally unpacked.

While Anna was waiting with the door open for Ellen to get back from the bathroom with her washcloth, voices came down the hall.  Anna almost shut her door, but figured she’d still be hearing the voices anyway, because of her hearing.  Which after the thing at Christmas, she wasn’t going to say bad things about anymore.  She still got teary-eyed thinking about the look on that little girl’s face.

“I swear, that Nelson bitch has it in for me!  Probably because I’m so pretty, and she’s jealous.”

Anna recognized Solange instantly.  And even if she hadn’t recognized Tansy’s voice, she would’ve figured out it was her because no one else in the dorm would say stuff like that about Mrs. Nelson, who was really nice, and not at all jealous even though she had a ton of Exemplar girls in the dorm.

“Oh, when you get moved over to Melville, you have to get us over there too!” insisted another voice.  Anna was sure it was Flicker.

“Well I’m going to be back at the top of the Alphas again.  I can’t tell you all the details, because it’s secret Alpha stuff, but you just wait and see.”

“Cool!”  Anna was sure that was Fade.

But they were down the hall talking to two more of Solange’s clique, two girls who ran errands for Tansy.  And Tansy wanted them to keep an eye on Kerry, which sounded like trouble to Anna.  She figured she’d mention it to Pythia tomorrow, but it didn’t sound like real trouble, and anyway, Kerry was powerful enough to clobber that ice giant thing, so she could probably stomp on everyone in Solange’s gang without breaking a sweat.

“If they hadn’t made more girls move upstairs, I’m sure I could’ve gotten a single, or something!”  Tansy complained for a while longer, while her clique all agreed and said how hard she had it.  Anna would’ve closed her door if it would’ve helped, but she knew she would still be able to hear all the chatter even with the door shut.  And she was not going to say anything bad about her hearing.  It was one of her New Year’s resolutions that she’d done with Ree.  Ree’s resolutions were all things like: lose weight, get more exercise, eat more fruits and vegetables, email Tim at least once a week, and work at getting Anna moved to Whitman so they could room together next fall.  Anna’s resolutions were different, since she was already getting a lot of exercise and eating way better than she used to.

Anna’s list was pretty much:

  • Make sure the squirrels and chipmunks were all right for winter and spring.
  • Find a way to get enough food for the squirrels and chipmunks come spring.
  • Take that winter term martial arts course and get really good with a weapon.
  • Take a chemistry course in the spring and learn about what Jerry does.
  • Make sure not to overeat when the chipmunks come out from hibernation.
  • Make sure not to you-know-what when the female squirrels go into heat.
  • Work toward getting certified as an arborist.
  • Get at least an ‘A-’ in spring term English and spring term math.
  • No more complaining about the things like my hearing and smelling, and the other stuff I can do, that helped me save that little girl.
  • Find ways to do more fun stuff with Jerry.

And she thought moving over to Whitman to room with Ree would be really great, unless a lot of Whitman girls were mad at her for being from Dickinson.  But Psydoe said most of the ‘normal’ girls in Whitman got paired up with a GSD case as a roommate, unless they were a complete nutcase like Fractious and then nobody wanted to room with you.  So even if Anna could move over to Whitman, she probably couldn’t room with Ree.  So she’d be happy if she stayed in Dickinson and roomed with Ellen.  Especially if Solange moved over to Melville and took her clique with her.  If they picked on Winnie any more, Anna was gonna… do something.  Maybe ask Charmer to put a spell on ‘em so they got sick to their stomachs every time they thought about being mean to Winnie.  Okay, that wasn’t nice.  But she wished they’d stop picking on Winnie!

Then she had to go watch as much of the Ohio State – Florida game as she could.  She knew Jerry would be watching it.  And she sort of wanted to watch it with him, even if it would be mean to be screaming for Ohio State when he was rooting for Florida.  But the game turned out to be awful.  Just horrible.  Florida just beat the pants off of ‘em.  She could hardly watch the rest of the game.  Ohio State had the Heisman Trophy winner, and they couldn’t do anything on offense against the Gators.  It was just awful.  The only good thing was she wasn’t watching it with her family, because her dad and her uncle would be having screaming fits at the teevee set.  And then it just seemed like Florida took it easy on ‘em the second half, and Ohio State still couldn’t even catch up a little!

Well, at least the Buckeyes beat Michigan this year.  That was what mattered.  Mostly.  She was still sad about the game when she went to bed.

Tuesday, January 9
Dickinson Cottage

When Anna’s alarm went off, she dragged herself out of bed.  She didn’t want to get up this early, but she knew she had to get some breakfast and get over to Admin to change her schedule.  And she knew her class advisor would be cranky about it.  Mrs. Hawkins was cranky sometimes even if you did just what she said, so Anna knew she’d be cranky about Anna wanting to change her schedule.

She skittered down to the bathroom, but the showers were already crowded, so she had to wait in line.  She figured it’d be like this for the rest of the term, and then all next term too.  Some of the girls said it was better upstairs because they tried to cram as many girls as they could on this floor, so the juniors and seniors had a better time in the mornings.  But she figured she wasn’t gonna be able to move upstairs next fall, because only the big sophomores got to move upstairs, and the little sophomores were still on the frosh floor.  So girls like Charmer and Seraphim and Bombshell would go upstairs, and girls like her and Ellen and Winnie would end up stuck here until their junior year.  Not that she thought that was really fair, but at least she wouldn’t have to move upstairs near Solange and Flicker and Fade.

She chatted with Lindsay, who got in line right behind her and brought Pern along with her.  “Hi Lindsay!  Didja have a good holiday?”  Anna was kind of careful about saying ‘Christmas break’, since plenty of people didn’t do Christmas.  Besides the Jewish kids, there were the black kids, and Anna had heard some of them weren’t gonna do Christmas but were gonna do something called ‘Kwanza’ or something like that, and some of the kids weren’t from America, and she thought Vera did Christmas, but she was pretty sure Devaki didn’t because she wasn’t even Christian, and everybody had seen how Kerry’s Christmas went, with that big fight in New York City.

Pern flew around Lindsay twice before settling on the shoulder of her new bathrobe.  Anna thought it would be nice not to have to worry about whether or not your bathrobe got clawed up.  Pern was really nice, unless you were mean to Lindsay, but he was a little dragon, and he had claws, and sometimes he kind of wrecked the shoulders on Lindsay’s Whateley blazers.  Not that Lindsay ever said anything about it, or even scolded Pern.

Lindsay scratched Pern under the chin and cooed, “Who’s a good dragon?”  Then she turned to Anna and said, “Oh, we had a great Christmas.  It was so great getting to see everybody again.”  She sounded sad as she said, “Dad had to rush off and handle a big problem for a couple days, right in the middle, but it was still great.  How about you?”

Anna kind of thought Lindsay’s dad was a college professor or something like that, so she didn’t get why he would need to run off in the middle of vacation when the colleges were closed.  Ree’s dad got to be home for the whole break.  But maybe some professors had stuff going on labs that you couldn’t just leave for two or three weeks.  And what about little animals?  You had to make sure they got fed and watered and stuff.

“Oh, I had a great time,” Anna said.  “I went home with Rhiannon, and her folks were really great, and we got to do all the fun stuff.  Decorating the house, and making cookies, and watching the Christmas movies, and all that.”

She was just about to tell Lindsay about the thing with the ice skating and Ree’s boyfriend Tim, when she saw Winnie peeking into the room.  She waved Winnie in and asked everyone, “Is it okay if Winnie cuts in line up here with me?”

“No.”

“Unh-uh.”

“HELLS no, Squirrel Girl!”

Winnie whimpered, “I-it’s ok-kay.  I’m f-fine b-back here.  R-really.”

Lindsay looked at Pern and sighed.  Then she firmly said, “Does anyone object if Winnie comes up here in front of me?”  Pern chirped happily.

No one said a word.  Well, other than the little ‘eep’ that came out of Winnie.

Lindsay said happily, “Okay Winnie, come on over here between me and Anna.  Okay?”

“O-okay,” Winnie stammered.

Anna was happy to have Winnie get help, but she couldn’t figure it out.  How come Lindsay could do stuff like that?  Pretty much nobody but Solange’s gang and some of the really powerful girls like Charmer and Bombshell could pull stuff like that.  Not that Vera ever did stuff like that.  She was too nice.  But people just sort of felt like they needed to let Lindsay do stuff.  Maybe everyone just liked Lindsay a whole lot better than they liked Anna or Winnie.  Or maybe a lot of people were just scared of Lindsay’s little dragon, who was really cute and way more cuddly than you’d think a dragon with scales and stuff would be.  But there was that thing where Pern would get mad and would grow, but Pern hardly ever did that.  Still, nobody would want Pern mad at you and getting to be like twenty feet long and giant-sized all over and stuff, especially if he really could claw through steel and things like that.  And he could probably bite you in half when he was ginormous, and maybe he breathed fire too, which would really be pretty cool to watch if you thought about it, but wouldn’t be so much fun if you were like right in front of him.  Anna wondered if even Charmer or Bombshell could fight Pern if he was at his biggest and his maddest.

Okay, she didn’t know why some of the crankier girls who would never let someone like Anna cut in line, would let Lindsay do stuff like that, but they did.  Maybe Lindsay had a dad who was a famous superhero, like Wallflower.  Or maybe Lindsay’s family had a ton of money, like Solange.  Or maybe Lindsay had some really powerful friends, like Cytherea.  Anna sort of shrugged to herself.  She wasn’t gonna ask.  That would be, like, super-rude.  So she let it drop.  Instead, she chatted with Winnie and Lindsay about Christmas break and stuff.

Winnie finally admitted, “W-w-well, I d-did use m-my p-powers o-over break.  Even if th-they said n-not to.  I m-moved some l-ley l-lines s-so m-my folks’ c-cars would hold up b-better, and I r-redirected some m-more lines s-so my m–mom’s p-plants would g-grow better.”

Anna smiled, “Hey, that sounds really great, and it’s not like anyone could tell you did it, right?”  Winnie nervously nodded her head.  “So it’s not like what they meant, like if you flew over your old school and threw fireballs at the principal.”  Winnie giggled.

Anna added, “You did some really nice things for your family, and there’s no superhero evidence lying around, so not even your neighbors know.  That’s better’n I did.  The school even figured out I did it, and they called me up and yelled at me.”

“O-oops.”

“Yeah, a big oops.  And I could’ve gotten Rhiannon and her big sister in trouble too.”

Lindsay asked, “So what’d you do?”

Anna blushed, “There was this badguy with a big knife trying to rob this mom with two little kids and a bag of presents, and I disarmed him and grabbed him and ran up a wall and left him up on a roof.”

Winnie stammered, “Th-that d-doesn’t sound so b-bad.”

Lindsay asked, “Did they recognize you?”

So Anna ended up explaining how she ended up wearing elf ears and Rhiannon’s minidress, and then she did the superheroing in a dark alley, and nobody but the family saw her, and the little girl was totally sure Anna was an elf from Santa.

Someone behind them snorted, “Elf-squirrel!”  Anna pretended she didn’t hear.  Just because she had really good hearing didn’t mean she had to do anything about it all the time.  She couldn’t help blushing, because she was still kind of embarrassed about it, and she didn’t like talking about herself like she was someone important.

The next shower opened up, and Anna said to Winnie, “Go on ahead.  I wanna talk with Lindsay some more.”

Winnie kind of winced, but she finally nodded.  “O-okay.  If y-you’re s-sure.”

“Sure I’m sure,” Anna told her.  She almost gave her a little push, but Winnie was kind of touchy about stuff, and Anna didn’t want to make her get more uncomfortable.  Winnie just looked at the girls waiting in line, and gulped, and then hurried into the shower stall.

Lindsay said really quietly, “That was nice of you.”

Anna shrugged.  “I worry about Winnie sometimes.  People pick on her.”

“That’s not nice.”

Anna didn’t find out what else Lindsay was going to say, because the next shower opened up, and she hopped right in so people didn’t have to wait any longer than they had to, because nobody liked standing in line to take a shower in the morning, not even her.  At least nobody in the dorm left huge clogs of gross guy hair in the shower, like her dad did.  Yuck.  On the other hand, the showers weren’t super clean either.  Rhiannon said their showers on their floor in Whitman were clean enough to eat off of, because Fractious had really bad OCD and kept cleaning ‘em.  Which sounded to Anna like they were sort of taking advantage of Fractious, because if they kept the showers clean first, Fractious probably wouldn't be going crazy trying to keep ‘em spick and span.  Whatever that meant.  Anna’s mom still said that, and she had no idea where it came from.  Wasn’t ‘spick’ a bad word for Hispanic people?  So what did it have to do with cleaning stuff?

After she got out of the shower, she managed to get a sink, and she dried her hair.  She took a few extra minutes styling it just right, because you never knew when you might meet a cute chemist who might want to take you out on another date, even if he was going to tease you just a ton about Florida being better than Ohio State, just like he said back in December.  And it wasn’t even a close game, so you couldn’t say the Gators just lucked out either.

“C’mon, Elf-Squirrel.  I gotta do my hair, and you’re taking up a sink.”

Anna finished up with her roller brush and hair dryer, and said, “Okay, I’m almost done.”  She put her stuff in her shower bag and skittered out of the bathroom back to her room.  She already noticed Winnie rushed right out of the shower, into a bathrobe, and dashed out of the bathroom, not even drying off first.  She felt bad about that.  But Winnie had ‘body issues’, like it said in this month’s “Seventeen”.  And she couldn’t blame her.  Half the dorm was so pretty they could be models, except for the whole ‘I’m a mutant’ thing.  If only some nice boy was interested in Winnie, and didn’t care that she wasn’t Fey or Poise, and would tell her he liked her just the way she was.  That would probably help.  Anna knew she sure felt better about herself knowing Jerry thought she was pretty.  Now she just had to get all the way through spring without doing the stuff all the squirrels were gonna be doing.

She got dressed, and made sure Ellen was really getting out of bed and not just hitting the snooze button over and over until it was like ten or eleven.  She didn’t blame Ellen, either.  She sure felt like sleeping in, too.  It was like winter was made for sleeping in late, especially winter up around Whateley, where it just didn’t get sunny until later than you wanted it to.

Not all the Underdogs were at breakfast, which was okay by Anna, because she sure would’ve slept longer if she hadn’t had to get stuff done this morning.  But Ree was there, and Nate, and Darlene.  Trish and Alan were sitting there as close together as they could get and not be in the same chair.  Anna figured they really missed each other after being apart for a couple weeks.

Nate groaned, “You guys!  Get a room!”

But Anna thought they were kind of cute.  She sort of wished she and Jerry could be together long enough that they could be like that.  She wanted a special guy who would be hers forever, like her dad was for her mom.  She wasn’t ready for more than kissing, but she knew Trish and Alan were.  She didn’t even want to know if Trish and Alan were really having sex in the shower in the Underdogs’ hangout, but Gary sure thought they did it, and Anna figured Gary knew a lot more about sex stuff than she did, because he was a senior and everything.

Mostly, people were talking about the classes they wanted to take.  Trish was talking about this special topics thing in the Magical Arts Department that was about necromancy, which sounded really icky.

Anna finally asked, “But isn’t necromancy about dead people?”

Trish nodded.  “Oh sure.”  Alan whispered something in her ear, and she giggled, then hit Alan on the arm, so that pretty much meant he was making a dirty joke that was one of their private jokes they did all the time.  “It used to mean just talking with dead people and getting them to tell you magical stuff or stuff about the future.  But now it means a lot more, mainly because plenty of dark wizards have been using it to mean all kinds of gross stuff, like reanimating corpses and making zombies and using the life energy of people to power spells and stuff.”

“Like the way Carmilla eats people?” Gary asked.

“Eww, gross,” Anna said.

“Oh come on,” said Nate.  “She hasn’t eaten one single person around here.  There’s no one missing, you know.  ‘Cause if there was, Carson would have a shitfit and there’d be school assemblies and all that kind of stuff.”

Gary rolled his eyes.  “Halloween?  Remember?”  Several people winced.  “There were badguys trying to kill her with guns and swords and stuff?  She ate ‘em.”

“And how would you know?” Alan said.

Gary got all smug and said, “Reverend England said so.  In class.”

Trish said, “That’s still not necromancy, unless she’s killing ‘em to use their life energy in spells to do stuff.”

Nate said, “So why do you want to learn how to do something that sicko?”

Trish frowned at him.  “I don’t wanna do necromancy!  I just wanna know about it in case other people are doing it and I need to call for superheroes to stop ‘em.”

“Like Fey?” Anna wondered.

“No…  Well, yeah, the Kimbas probably would be a good group to call.  They stopped that thing Bloodworm was doing and kept a giant demon thing from eating everybody.  So they’re pretty good at this stuff already.”

Anna just smiled and looked over at Ree and Darlene, because they all thought Fey was awesome with awesome sauce on top.

Ree changed the subject.  “Hey Anna, are you really gonna take that martial arts class?”

“Oh, sure,” Anna said.  “I thought it over a bunch, especially after the thing at Christmas, and I’m gonna do it.”

“Martial arts special topics?” Nate asked.  “What’s that?  New breakthroughs in ways to beat people up?”

Anna stuck out her tongue at Nate.  She said, “No, sensei Ito said I should take it.  He’s teaching this course on learning martial arts weapons like swords and katanas and stuff.”

“Who, wait a minute, Anna,” Trish frowned.  “A class like that?  You’ll have every martial arts hotdog who isn’t a senior in there.  You could be in big trouble in there.  I mean, think about it.  You’d be having to fight people like Swordmaiden and Counterpoint and Chaka and Sledge and stuff!”

Anna sort of shrunk in her seat but said, “Sensei Ito said I oughta take it.  He’s nice.  He wouldn’t tell me to if I was just gonna get hurt all the time.”

Gary muttered, “Those martial arts old guys are all crazy.  Don’t you watch those kung fu movies?  He’ll be havin’ you walk on rice paper and pick up burning stuff in your bare arms.”

Ree said, “Sensei Ito’s not like that.  And he’s really cool.  And he helped Anna with her squirrels back in the fall, so he wouldn’t be mean to her.”

Anna nodded.  “Yeah.  You know Ree, you could take that class with me!”

Ree suddenly choked on her milk.  “Me?  No way!  Are you kidding?  Get beat up by like Chaka and Swordmaiden every day?  That does NOT sound fun!”

Nate laughed, and Gary said, “So, you were saying about this sensei guy?”

Ree blushed and said, “Well, it’s different for Anna.  She’s good at this stuff.  I’m just… me.”

Gary groaned, “Well, when you come back from that class and some fruitcake like Chaka cut you up into a dozen little pieces, just remember, I told you so.”

Nate just had to ask, “How’s she supposed to come back here from class if she got cut up into a dozen pieces?  Cartoon walking?”

Gary threw a piece of fruit at him.  “You know what I mean.”

Nate looked at Anna and grinned, “Hey, now you’re Slappy Squirrel!”

“Gee, thanks,” Anna grinned back.

Trish said, “And Nate, that’s why you’re never going to have a girlfriend.”

Gary said, “One of many reasons why you’re never going to have a girlfriend.”

Nate put his hands on his hips and said in a fake superhero voice, “One day, when I am the mighty Gas Lord, I’ll have girls falling all over me!”

“Yeah, because they’re passing out from the stink,” Alan said back.

Amid all the giggling and snickering, Nate complained, “Why does everybody always pick on me?”

Anna didn’t say anything, because it sounded really mean, but it just seemed like Nate went out of his way to do stuff so people would pick on him later.  A lot of the stuff the Alphas and the Uber-Jocks did to Nate were because he’d gone and pooted on ‘em while they were eating, or something even worse.  So maybe they did something to him first, and he was getting back at ‘em.  Or maybe he started it.  But it just seemed like it was going back and forth and never stopping, and sure, Aries and those guys could be pretty mean, but really who wanted to have someone like Miasma sneak up and fart right behind you when you were having dinner with your date?  She would’ve just died if Nate did that to her on her first date with Jerry, and she wasn’t even somebody important like the Alphas.

Once Anna finished her breakfast, she hurried on over to the Administration offices and got in line to see her adviser.  She wanted to get there early enough that she wouldn’t have a big wait, but Mrs. Hawkins wasn’t even in yet, and so there were two other kids ahead of her in line.  Valerie, the office girl, was really nice, and just had her take a seat and wait for a while.  There wasn’t anything good to read in the pile of magazines, even though she looked through the whole thing.  The geeky-looking boy was reading some kind of computer science journal, and the extra-pretty girl had the only Seventeen magazine.  Anna gave up and read one of the Ladies’ Home Journal magazines.  It had some nice cookie recipes, but that just made Anna feel bad that she couldn’t make cookies and stuff with her mom anymore.

At least, when Mrs. Hawkins came in, the Exemplar girl went first, so Anna could snag her Seventeen magazine and read that.  She was smack in the middle of a really great advice column on dating when Valerie told her it was her turn with Mrs. Hawkins.  She made a mental note about the issue, because she was pretty sure Linda had it back at the dorm, and Linda was nice, so she’d let Anna read it.

Anna popped into the office and quietly closed the door behind her.  “Uhh hi, Mrs. Hawkins.”

“Miss Parsons,” Mrs. Hawkins snapped icily.

There was just something scary about Mrs. Hawkins.  Anna didn’t know what.  But she didn’t like Mrs. Hawkins.  She wished there was someone nice to handle class schedules.  But she was supposed to go to Mrs. Hawkins, and she didn’t know what else she could do.  Anna said, “I, umm, just came in to get my class schedule all fixed up.”

Mrs. Hawkins coldly typed at her computer, not letting Anna see what she was doing or what she was looking at.  After a few seconds, Mrs. Hawkinds snapped, “You’re already signed up for Civics, that’s going to be third period five days a week, and your special topics class.  “Theory and Practice of the Escape”.  This time it’s Monday – Wednesday – Friday fourth and fifth periods.  Don’t tell me you want to drop one of them.”

“Umm, no ma’am,” Anna said.  “I wanna add another course.”

“At this late date?” Mrs. Hawkins frowned.

“Umm, yes ma’am, well, you see, sensei Ito said I should take his course, it’s special topics in martial arts, and it sounds really useful, and it doesn’t conflict with anything I’ve got.”

Mrs. Hawkins glared like Anna was asking her to do all kinds of hard stuff with moving class schedules around.  She finally said, “Well, if Tetsuo said he wanted you to take it…”  And she sighed, like it was gonna be really hard for her to add Anna into the class.  But it only took her like four clicks of the mouse to do it.  So Anna didn’t understand why Mrs. Hawkins was acting like that.

Mrs. Hawkins looked up and said, “There.  All done.  I hope you don’t expect to come back and change your schedule again in a day or two.”

“No ma’am!” Anna said.  “I wouldn’t do that!”  Especially since she’d have to deal with Mrs. Hawkins to do it.  Then she thought of something.  “But I do want to switch my classes for spring term.  I don’t want to take Biology II.  Biology I was so gross.  There’s no way I could do the dissections.  He said we’d be doing like a cat!  And a baby pig!  I couldn’t.  I mean, there’s no way I could do those.  I wanna take Intro Chemistry instead.”

Mrs. Hawkins frowned at her, and looked at the screen.  “Oh dear.  You’re one of those animal Avatars, aren’t you?”

Anna nodded.  “Yes ma’am.  I’ve got the spirit of the squirrel.”

Mrs. Hawkins frowned again.  “Avatars like you have special rules on this.  You can drop biology at any time, if it’s because of the dissection issues.  I don’t see why they have rules like this which make things so difficult for the people who have to handle the scheduling!”

“But if I’m only telling you a whole term ahead of time?  And I didn’t drop it at all last term?”

Mrs. Hawkins frowned again.  “You got a good grade.  I don’t see why you can’t just go ahead and take the class anyway.”

Anna tried not to whimper.  “Please?  Can’t I switch to chemistry?  I’m trying really hard not to be a pain or anything.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Mrs. Hawkins finally said.

“Oh thank you!” Anna squeaked.

Mrs. Hawkins looked at her screen again.  “And you’re not going to try to get out of your swimming requirement, are you?”

“Oh, no ma’am!  I got it scheduled with my friend Ree.  We both got the Saturday morning time at ten, so we can do it together.  I wouldn’t try to get out of that, because then she’d be in there all alone with nobody she knows!”

“Fine,” Mrs. Hawkins grunted.  “Is there anything else?”

“No ma’am,” Anna said.  “I’ll just go now.”

Anna hurried out of the room.  There were a lot more kids waiting to get in to see the counselors and change schedules now, so she was really glad she did it earlier even if she had to wait a while, because now it looked like she’d have to wait a really long time to get in to see Mrs. Hawkins, and then Mrs. Hawkins would probably even grouchier, and that would be bad.

Anna rushed out of the Admin area and headed off to find Ree.  She was totally psyched about her schedule.  She had civics third period every day, and escape Monday/Wednesday/Friday fourth and fifth periods, which Ree was taking too, and then martial arts sixth period every day.  She could even sleep in late every day!  That was gonna be so cool!

And she was all signed up to get her swimming requirement out of the way, and she’d made sure she was scheduled with Ree.  Swimming tests this term were this coming Friday night from 7 to 9, and then Saturday morning from 9 to 11, plus Saturday afternoon from 1 to 4.  Then there were some more openings in the middle of the term, and then nothing until spring term.  Anna had been real careful to make sure she was signed up with Rhiannon, and that Nate wasn’t signed up at the same time.  Not that she didn’t like Nate or anything, but sometimes when he was making a big effort, he sort of… slipped up.  And she wanted him to pass his swim test, she just didn’t want to have to smell the room while he was passing it.  If he was passing it.  While he was passing it.  Ewww.

She had way over an hour before the first civics class, so she went over to the campus bookstore to find out what the textbooks were for her courses, and what she would need to do since she was on scholarship and she wasn’t going to buy any of ‘em.

The bookstore was really crowded, like it was back at the start of fall term, when she had oohed and ahhed over the Whateley school uniforms and the Whateley sweatshirts and the Whateley banners, all of which were way more than she could afford.  She’d spent a couple dollars on some Whateley stickers she stuck on her notebook and some binders.  She still had the notebook and both binders, so she wasn’t going to use up the small amount of money she had on that stuff again.  It would be so totally awesome to be like Ayla and have so much money you could buy the whole store if you really wanted to.  Even if she couldn’t figure out what she’d do with most of it.  There was no way it would all fit in her house back home.

Over in the section with the stuff like the closet organizers and the pillows and other room stuff for making your room into your home, there were people Anna knew.  And people she didn’t know.  She recognized Gina and Erzebet.  The huge monster-y guy was Froggy.  She knew who he was, even if she hadn’t met him.  And Erzebet was standing really close to the other guy, so maybe he was that Conrad guy Erza was getting all cranky about the other night.

She skittered over and said, “Hi Gina!  Hi Erza!  Lookin’ for stuff for your room?”

Gina quietly admitted, “Well, yeah, Erzebet has a ton of stuff, and I have a lot too, and there’s only so much room…”

Erzebet insisted, “It is not my fault room is so small.”

Anna just said, “Oh yeah, they’re all that size.  They’re still bigger than my room back home, so I’m plenty happy with ‘em.  But some of the girls, like Solange, well they’re used to huge rooms and stuff, and they’re really crabby about the rooms.  And everything else.”

Gina said, “This is Baird, and this is Konrad.”

Anna looked at the boys.  She looked at Baird – who was really Froggy, she already knew that – and looked up.  And up.  “Wow, you’re really tall up close.”

Gina said, “Baird, Konrad, this is Anna.  She’s on our floor in Dickinson.”

Anna smiled, “Hi.  I also go by Aquerna, if you do the codenames stuff.  But Anna’s okay too.  They’re kinda pushy on the codename thing, though.  I had someone help me with mine.”

Baird spoke in a deep voice that made Anna think of like announcers for English radio stations or Shakespeare actors or something.  “Aquerna sounds like Latin.  Who helped you pick out a Latin codename?”

Anna shrugged a little.  “Well, it’s Middle English.  But Phase knows a ton of cool stuff like that.  I think she got it out of old English books.”

“Americans would not know about that,” muttered the cranky guy to Erza.

Anna just tried really hard to pretend she hadn’t heard Cranky Guy.  Because she was not gonna break one of her resolutions when it was still January.  So she looked at Gina and said, “The closet organizers are really the best.  And a couple girls did bunk beds, so they had more room in their room for stuff like tables or art or stuff.  Molly says Phase did the bunkbeds thing, and then put up silk hammocks and beanbag chairs and things like a fridge and a microwave and a pantry.  But Phase is really rich, so she can afford whatever she likes.”

“Molly?” Gina asked.

“Umm, yeah?  Didn’t you meet her last night?  She’s really nice, but she’s kind of shy, not like Winnie, but quiet.  She goes by Gateway.  She can summon magical stuff.  Her friend Bladedancer rooms with Phase, so Molly’s seen how cool Phase’s room is.”

Baird boomed, “Do you talk like this all the time?”

Anna blushed.  “Umm, maybe?  Ellen says I am kind of a motormouth.”

“Who is this Ellen?” Erza asked.

“My roommate Ellen.  Skids.  She’s a really great driver,” Anna said.  “You haven’t met her yet?”

The Conrad guy muttered something foreign under his breath to Erza, and Anna just pretended she didn’t hear it.  Okay, she didn’t know what he said, but she could tell by the way he said it that he was saying something else not nice about Americans.  What was with that guy anyway?

Gina said, “I was thinking about one of these room screens.  So we could have some privacy from each other.”

Anna shrugged.  “Well, some of the Whitman girls have ‘em, but I heard they eat up just a ton of your space.  You put ‘em between your beds, and the you have like no room anymore, because you can’t do anything anywhere near the screen or it’ll fall over, so you end up losing like a yard the whole way down the middle of the room where you got the screen.  Now if one of you had some real bad GSD and felt really bad about it, then maybe the screen would be good.  Harpy had a normal-looking roomie last term and they had a screen, but Harpy’s pretty hard to get along with, and they kind of had an argument and shredded the thing.”

Erzebet complained, “And you know all about these things in rooms?”

Anna shook her head no.  “Unh-uh.  I just heard some stuff from some friends, and like that.  The only things I know about are the closet organizers, because they really helped Ellen with some of her stuff, and the desk organizer thingies like that one over there, because Lindsay has one and says it’s pretty good, and some stuff like the room screens that didn’t turn out to be as great as people hoped they’d be.  Or posters, because you never know if it’ll be something your roommate totally hates.”

Baird said, “Yeah, my roommate had a couple posters up already.  But with guys, it’s always posters of girls.”

“Eww,” Anna said, wrinkling her nose.  She’d heard about those kinds of posters.  Ellen said that Kew said Greasy was selling posters of Fey with no clothes on, and pretty much every guy in Workshop either bought a couple or traded Greasy some work for a couple.  Greasy and Peeper were so gross and slimy, it wasn’t any wonder they had no girlfriends.  But guys really liked posters like that.  Her dad had an auto parts calendar in their garage over his toolbench that was pretty much just slutty women in teeny outfits sprawled in dirty ways on cars and motorbikes, and that was supposed to be the cleaned-up version of the calendar.  Ick.  Anna asked, “Is one of ‘em a poster of Fey?  With nothing but leaves?”

Baird asked, “The redhead?  With the big… eyes?  And the elf ears?”  He suddenly realized all three girls were glaring at him.  “Actually, I believe that must be Fey.”

Anna frowned, “Well, Fey lives just over in Poe.  And she’s like the most powerful Wizard around.  So maybe you should be careful, so she doesn’t turn you into a newt.”

Baird looked down at his massive hands with their weird spurs sticking out of them.  He muttered under his breath, “Maybe getting turned into a newt would be an improvement.”

Anna gulped.  She pretended she hadn’t heard that, but it made her feel really bad, because Baird looked really yucky, and obviously it made him feel bad all the time.  At least Gina liked him.  Anna said, “Well, not you, but your roommate.”  She thought of something else.  “Unless it’s an official Sierra Club poster for fund-raising.”

Erza complained, “What, this girl is Wizard and also supermodel too?”

“Umm, yeah,” Anna said.  “She’s even prettier than she looks on those posters.”

Erza frowned, and Conrad The Cranky Guy did his sulky look some more.

Gina said, “I think I saw her at breakfast.  She was sitting with some girl who thinks she looks like Ryoko.”

Anna smiled a little.  “That’s Tennyo.  She does look like Ryoko.  She can’t stop looking like Ryoko.  Steve – well, his codename is Mechano Man – says her hair is always like that no matter what he does.  And she’s got cat eyes and little fangs like Ryoko too.  And she’s got Ryoko powers too.”

“Pfft,” Erza sneered.  “And she probably thinks she is so powerful too.”

Anna said, “I guess you guys haven’t heard everything yet.  In the Whateley handbook there’s a thing called a Section 33.  That’s if you’re so dangerous that you could kill somebody by accident if someone attacked you or something.  If someone has a Section 33 on ‘em, you can’t fight ‘em or threaten ‘em or anything, and if you do, and you don’t get killed, you’ll get expelled.  Tennyo’s supposed to be the first Section 33 on campus since some guy who was made of nerve gas and killed half a dozen people.  The combat finals back at the end of fall term?  Normal finals were one person up against one other person.  Tennyo’s final was her against an entire city.  And they had guns and snipers and SWAT teams and helicopters and everything you could think of.  And she still won.”

Baird said, “She sounds dangerous.”

Gina said, “Well, I wasn’t planning on starting any fights with any superpowered mutants anyway.”

Anna said, “Well, Molly says she’s really nice, and Vera says she’s working in the library as an assistant librarian girl, and Hexette said Tennyo wasn’t at all mean when… well…  Hexette sort of swiped Tennyo’s boyfriend after Tennyo introduced ‘em to each other in ballroom dance class.”

“Some boyfriend,” muttered Erza.

The Conrad guy said, “And I assume this ‘boyfriend’ is one of the too-handsome boys who swagger around the campus like they own it?”

Anna said, “Umm, not really.  Harry’s one of the two or three guys around here who looks like he’s a werewolf.  But he’s not.  Bloodwolf is.  Kind of.  And Silvermoon’s a real werewolf, but her friends say she’s a good werewolf.  And there’s supposed to be a girl over in Hawthorne who’s a were-cat, but I dunno about that one.”

Baird said, “Harry?  The werewolf?  I met him last night.  He’s in my dorm.  He seems like a nice guy.  He’s an inventor type who just looks like a werewolf.”

The Conrad guy just sulked and muttered, “Americans.  They are all full of shit about vampires and werewolves and such.”

Anna was pretty fed up with Cranky Guy, so she said, “Phase is American, and I bet she knows more about vampires and werewolves and monsters than you do.”

Well, that really made him cranky, so when he stomped off probably saying really bad stuff about her in Russian or whatever he was speaking, Anna trotted off to look at textbooks.  Like she was supposed to before she got sidetracked.

The textbook section of the store was really kind of cool.  Instead of huge industrial racking for hundreds or thousands of copies of a book, like at the Ohio State campus bookstore, they had really classy-looking wooden bookshelves that looked like they were out of some rich guy’s library.  And plenty of Whateley courses didn’t have textbooks at all.  She was pretty sure her martial arts class wouldn’t.  She’d heard some of the special topics math courses for the term didn’t have books at all, and had everything on-line instead.  And she couldn’t even figure out what a textbook for her ‘theory and practice of the escape’ course would be like.  Would it be by a supervillain, to teach other supervillains how to bust out of prisons?  That would be way too creepy.

Well, she went over to the big list of classes that didn’t have texts, and sure enough, her martial arts class and her escape class were on the list.  But she was really surprised to find out her civics class didn’t have a textbook!  Okay, that made things simpler for getting books through the scholarship stuff, since Mrs. Hawkins was kind of grouchy about stuff like that.  But now she had to figure out what she was going to have to study to civics class.  Was it all going to be hand-outs?  Or maybe it was all on-line, or all stuff you were supposed to go read in the library.  Trish said there were a bunch of magic classes where there wasn’t a printed textbook because you really didn’t want stuff like that out there where just anybody might read it, and so you had to go to one of the restricted areas in the library to read the course notes, which might even be in really old books like spellbooks, which sounded kinda more like Harry Potter than Whateley to Anna.  Well, it sounded like Harry Potter to everybody, because when Trish had told her about it, Nate and Alan and Gary had all teased Trish about being in Hufflepuff, or about getting lost in the Hogwarts corridors.  It would’ve been kind of mean, except Trish teased ‘em right back about looking like thestrals and smelling like trolls.  Okay, there were days when Nate smelled worse than a Harry Potter troll, or pretty much anything, but Anna didn’t want to think about that stuff.

She looked around the bookshelves for a while, until it was time to go over to Schuster for her civics class.  There were some weird-looking books.  The Powers Theory and Avatar classes she needed to take some term had books, but they were all printed by Whateley Press, so she was guessing the school did that themselves and so nobody else even knew about books like that.  And then there were books for the English Lit classes, like Shakespeare and stuff, which genius people like Phase were probably taking, so they’d be really hard, even if they weren’t going to be really boring.

She got over to Civics class early enough that she could get a good seat, so she sat pretty much in the middle of the room.  She didn’t like sitting right up in the very front rows, but she didn’t want to sit in the very back rows with the people who wanted to be able to talk all through class or sleep or whatever.  And sitting in the middle made it easier to see the boards and stuff, even if she didn’t need any help seeing the boards now, since her eyes were so much better than they used to be.  And her squirrel spirit liked sitting in the middle of things, where it felt safer than if it was over at an edge where someone could walk by and get at her.  Not that that was how it worked in classes, where you never knew if some big bully was going to end up sitting right behind you and being mean to you every day for the whole school year.

The TNT guys came in, and stopped when they saw her.  Oh great.  She pretended she hadn’t noticed them, while she listened.

“Hey, it’s your Halloween heeee-ro!”

“Shut the fuck up, dickbreath!”

“Ya wanna sit next to the Squirrel Girl so you can tell her how she’s your hero fer rescuin’ you from the big bad stormtroopers?”

“Shut the FUCK up!”

“Heh heh heh.”

“You too, asswipe!”

“Oh knock it off, I’m sittin’ in the back row, unless we got some heavyweights usin’ the lead-ass chairs.”

They went and sat way behind her.  She wondered why that guy was so bent out of shape just ‘cause he wasn’t dead, because if she hadn’t grabbed him and run up that wall and jumped, they both woulda got shot with about a hundred bullets.  And it wasn’t like she did it to make him feel stupid or embarrassed or anything.

Gina and Baird came in, so Anna waved them over, but Baird went and sat way in the back row away from the TNT guys, and Gina went to sit next to Baird.  Anna kind of felt embarrassed about that.  But she was just an Underdog, and it wasn’t like they knew her or anything, and Baird was awfully huge so maybe he really needed one of the special chairs, like Igneous did.

A couple other people came in that Anna knew who they were, but she wasn’t friends with any of them.  Ree had already done her civics class requirement as a special study course last term, and Nate was trying to get the school to count a civics class he took last year in middle school, so she was kind of all alone.

Except she could pretty much hear most of the whispering going on around her.  And she didn’t like that the TNT guys were whispering about her some more.  It sounded like the two guys were telling the guy she saved that she was kind of cute and he ought to ask Anna out.  Eww.  Especially since they were mainly doing it to make their friend really mad, so they probably didn’t think she was cute.

A couple of the really pretty Dickinson girls were sitting in the front rows with some of the hunky Emerson boys, and when they looked back her way, she gave them a tiny wave, just so they’d know she knew they knew she was there.  But they weren’t good friends, so they weren’t going to ask her to move down front and sit with them.  Besides, they’d probably only want her to sit with ‘em if they were gonna get her to take notes for them or something.  She’d seen that kind of thing back in junior high.

Anna was just glad Ellen came in at the last minute and came over and sat next to her.  Anna whispered, “I thought you weren’t gonna take this class!”

Ellen shrugged.  “Well, I wasn’t.  But my counselor was really on my case about me not taking anything except Workshop classes, and how I wasn’t going to get enough electives if I didn’t, and then I remembered you were going to be in here, so I said okay.”

“Great!” Anna grinned.

A fifty-ish lady in a frumpy dress and orthopedic shoes came in and stood at the blackboard.  “Good day, class.  I’m Mrs. Devon, and I’ll be teaching Civics this term.”

When she finished writing her name on the board and turned to face the class, Anna could see she was wearing a DAR pin.  Anna knew about that.  Not that anyone in her family was in the DAR, or came over on the Mayflower, or anything like that.  Mrs. Devon had a grating voice that kind of made Anna’s ears ache, and she looked like she was wearing some kind of corset or slimmer to make herself look not all blobby.  But even Anna knew she needed to go a size or two bigger on the slimmer, because there was fat bulging out everywhere the slimmer stopped, like right under her armpits, which was just really gross to look at, even buried under her dress.

That wasn’t so bad, but Mrs. Devon was boring.  Really, really, really boring.  She just kind of droned on and on about how American History was so important, and how learning about American government was something every American ought to do.  Well, Anna already knew that much.  She liked being an American.  But Mrs. Devon just talked and talked and talked about the same stuff over and over, until Anna was wishing she’d brought some coffee or a coke or something to keep her awake.  And she could hear lots of other kids in the class talking about the same thing.  Anna was just glad this course was only seven weeks long, because she didn’t think she could stand it for an entire regular term.

Mrs. Devon wrote up on the board all the stuff about the class notes and class reading assignments and course requirements.  It was a good thing Anna had really good eyesight, because Mrs. Devon’s handwriting was really bad.  It was kind of crabbed and slanted and hard to read.  And she made the chalk squeak on the blackboard in a horrid way that made Anna want to put cotton in her ears.  If she thought Mrs. Hawkins would ever let someone like her drop a class because of hurting ears, she would’ve gone straight back to Admin and tried to get out of Civics for this term.  But she didn’t think Mrs. Hawkins would even believe her, much less help her drop the course.  And it wasn’t like this was the only class she was ever going to take with a squeaky chalkboard.  Maybe Alan or Gary would have some good advice for her at lunch.

After class, Ellen walked with her to lunch.  They talked about the class.  Anna groaned, “I can’t get over how squeaky that chalk was!”

Ellen muttered, “I don’t like the whole ‘everything online’ bit here.”

Anna wondered, “Why not?  I gotta get textbooks through Admin ‘cause of my scholarship thing, so this is good for me.”

Ellen said, “Yeah, there’s that, but now we have no idea how much stuff she’s assigning!  If it was in a textbook, we’d be able to see how thick it was, and how much we’d have to learn, and all that.  But this?  I gotta check out the online resources after lunch, and find out if she’s dumping huge tons of donkey shit on us.”

Anna giggled uncomfortably.  Sometimes Ellen said stuff that was just like Ellen’s dad talked, and sometimes it was a lot more cursing than Anna’s mom would ever let her say.  Even if it was kind of funny hearing Ellen say stuff that Mr. Tremain would probably get all grouchy if he heard his daughter saying it.

Lunch was pretty much like always.  It was kind of like nobody had been gone for a couple weeks for Christmas.  They were all back to usual, including Alan and Gary telling Nate they were glad there was no chili on the lunch menu.  And Nate acting all put upon, just like always.  Anna could tell Luce was happy about it too, because she didn’t even get on the guys about not talking about anything except Nate and what happened when he ate chili and stuff.

After lunch, she met up with Ellen and headed back to the room.  She really wanted to see what Ellen could pull up about the civics class, and she had to go back to the room sooner or later to get her karate gi and her gymbag so she’d have her shampoo and her underarm deodorant after she showered.  Because she really didn’t want to accidentally meet up with Jerry and find out she still smelled bad or had bad hair or anything.  She wanted to accidentally meet up with Jerry and have him look at her like she was beautiful and he’d really missed her over the holidays.  Even if Florida did beat Ohio State really bad.  Stupid Gators.

She just sort of hovered behind Ellen while Ellen got on her school laptop and went searching through the Whateley website.  Ellen called it an ‘intranet’, which sort of made sense, because Anna remembered intramural sports and intermural sports last year back in Zanesville and the intramural stuff was for P.E. teams playing each other in little things, and the intermural stuff was the important stuff with teams from other schools and the real athletes who were super-popular.  Still, somebody could’ve come up with better names than ‘inter’ and ‘intra’, because they really sounded too much like each other and how were you supposed to remember which was which?

Ellen started looking through all the assignments, and it was mostly reading, with weekly quizzes in class.  Plus one thing you had to look stuff up for and give a five minute talk in class the last week, and a final exam.  That didn’t sound too bad.  Then Ellen started downloading the things they had to read, and figuring out how many pages of stuff they were going to have to learn.

Okay, it didn’t seem too bad, even if they had to learn the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights, and the other amendments, and all that stuff.  Plus all the things about the Senate and the House of Representatives and the President and the Supreme Court.  But she had to learn most of that three-branches-of-government stuff last year when they did Ohio State history in school, so she felt pretty okay about that part.  Hey!  Maybe she could give her talk on U.S. Presidents from Ohio!  They had to read a bunch of stuff about that last year, and she even remembered some of it, because after all, Ohio was the ‘Mother of Presidents’, with like eight different U.S. Presidents being from Ohio, which was the most of any state ever, and she was sure it was WAY more than Florida.

Anna decided she’d better get started on reading assignments and memorizing all the stuff for civics.  Ugh.  If only it wasn’t a required class.  You shouldn’t be able to make the United States government be this dull!

Then she skittered off to martial arts.  She really hoped it would be incredibly cool, and she’d learn a ton.  And she really, really hoped she wouldn’t get all hurt every day or Ree and Luce would never stop telling her ‘I told you so’ and stuff like that.

And it was even cooler than she hoped.  She sat down next to Phase, and Phase even said ‘hi’ and everything!  She could hardly sit still, even if sitting seiza made it harder to move around than normal sitting on your butt.  Then class started with sensei Ito, and sensei Tolman, who she had seen too, and sensei Beaumont, who she didn’t know, calling people up in threes to show what they knew and what they were working on.  And the first group of three was like a martial arts scene out of a movie.  It was Tennyo and Lancer and Phase’s roommate Bladedancer.  And they were just awesome.  Anna watched Bladedancer whirl about with that cool sword and her flying feet, and she just wished she could look that graceful and cool and impressive someday.  Anna could’ve watched Bladedancer practice for hours.  She was just so… well, it was like watching that “Crouching Tiger” movie.  When Bladedancer stopped, Anna just felt like she ought to applaud or something.  Plus, Tennyo looked really graceful too, and she looked kind of like she had put some ballet moves together with aikido or something, because she looked really pretty like that.  Anna had figured Tennyo would just be all about blasting stuff to pieces, but she was really good, and she looked like she’d been doing martial arts for years too.  And Lancer was just Lancer.  Anna already knew about the PK brick part, but she had no idea he had those paper swords he could turn into indestructible weapons.  Wow.  And he looked really hot, too.  Anna really hoped she didn’t have to spar against the three of them all the time.  But maybe sensei Ito picked them out first because they were the best in the class.

Then the next three were Chaka and Judicator and Interface.  And Chaka was just… wow.  She was so graceful and fluid and martial arts-y and stuff!  Anna had heard all kinds of stuff about how cool Chaka was, and she’d seen Chaka’s combat final, and she’d heard about the fights Chaka had got into, but this was just awesome.  And then Anna realized that everything Chaka had thrown at the boards had gone exactly where she threw ‘em, so they formed a perfect ‘C’ for Chaka, with outlining too.  Anna’s jaw dropped open.  That was just… impossible!  Even for superpowered mutants, surely that was just not do-able.  But Chaka could do it.  And she could do it so fast you could hardly follow her movements, even with faster than normal reflexes and really good eyesight, like Anna had.  And Judicator looked really cool too, even if the armor she manifested looked kind of hokey, like she got it out of an old gladiator movie or something.  Anna was really interested in Interface, too.  Interface really knew his stuff, but he wasn’t nearly as fast as Chaka or Judicator.  Anna kind of thought maybe she was quicker than him.  But he was wearing a brown belt, and he really looked pretty expert out there.

The next threesome was Nightbane and Sledge and Shroud.  Anna had heard about Nightbane, so she wasn’t real surprised watching her.  She was really good with that sword, but not as cool-looking as Bladedancer.  And those kicks and punches looked like they’d really hurt too.  Sledge was scarier than that, because he was swinging that big old sledgehammer around like it was nothing.  And then Shroud was just… not at all human.  That was way scarier than Nightbane or Sledge, because, well, she looked like buzzsaws and chains and flying knives and an honest-to-god beartrap too!  How the heck could you fight something like that?  Well, maybe Anna would learn how to fight things like that, and that would be really good, because most of the Underdogs really needed protection, especially with Nate farting on everybody way too much.

Then Phase went next.  And Shadowolf and Plastic Girl.  All Anna knew about Shadowolf was Shroud clobbered him in a couple seconds, and she didn’t know anything about Plastic Girl, except her name made her sound like one of those ‘stretchy person’ Shifters.  And she was wearing a black gi with a green belt, so she really looked like she would know her stuff.  Phase looked just as cool as Anna knew she would, and when she threw one of her ‘cannonballs’ threw the concrete blocks, Anna just wanted to clap.  Shadowolf looked pretty good too.  About as fast as Anna, and with those weird shadow things that stayed together when they moved, so maybe they were a lot more solid than they looked, which meant they might really hurt,  And Plastic Girl looked pretty cool too.  She didn’t look any faster than a baseline, but she knew a bunch of katas and stuff, and she did this nifty ‘Mister Fantastic’ stuff where she’d punch or kick and her leg or arm would go like ten feet out, way farther than you’d think it would go, and maybe her fist would be like five times bigger than a normal fist when it got to the end of the punch.  Anna wondered how you blocked something like that.

After them were Blitz and Aztecka and Redlight.

Anna sort of knew about Blitz, because when they were learning grappling moves last term, sensei Tolman had gotten Blitz to come in for a few minutes, and everyone had to try to grapple against Phase, who was sort of not-touchable, and Blitz, and sensei Tolman.  And Blitz shocked everyone who touched her.  And Phase zapped everyone who touched her, and even knocked out half the class if they went through her, and Anna got a heck of an owwie just from having her arm go through Phase’s arm.  And sensei Tolman?  Wow, that was like having your brain dropped in a dark box and kicked across the room.  Anna found herself lying flat on her back where she’d passed out, and she had a headache for like half an hour.  She pretty much got the message on that one.  Don’t try to grab anyone and try to do judo moves on them unless you’re sure they won’t fry your brain or turn your hands into baked potatoes.

Blitz looked really good with a bunch of martial arts moves.  And she was learning chain fighting.  Chaka had looked utterly amazing with her chain, but it was really obvious, even to Anna, that Blitz was just starting out, and needed a lot of work on it.  But one time when the end of her chain hit the metal frame holding up the boards, there was a huge spark, and Anna realized Blitz was putting her electric shock power into the chain too!  Oh crud!  That would be bad to get hit with.  And Aztecka looked really tough.  She was really fast, and really strong, and she could punch through those boards like they were cardboard.  People said Aztecka was tough enough that the bullies didn’t want to mess with her, so Anna figured she was REALLY tough.  But probably not as tough as Lancer.  And Redlight looked pretty good.  His martial arts stuff was better than Anna’s, but not as good as Plastic Girl or Tennyo, and way not as good as Chaka or Bladedancer.  But Redlight was strong when he wanted to be, and did a psychic attack that Anna’s squirrel spirit had to struggle against, so Anna knew he was really tough.  Not as tough as Phase, but tough.

But then sensei Ito called Anna up in the next group of three!  That couldn’t be right.  Anna knew there was no way she was as good as Sahar or Alakazam, because everyone said Sahar was just super-dangerous and you needed to stay away from her no matter what, and she’d ripped through half the superpowered groups on campus, and even the Alphas were afraid of her, and she could put a curse on you just by looking at you funny.  And everyone knew Alakazam was one of the Tigers and worked out on martial arts stuff a lot, because all the Tigers and Dragons did.

But Anna had been practicing her aikido and stuff from fall term when she could, and so she just took a deep breath and let it out, and then tried to do all the stuff she’d practiced really hard on.  And all that went pretty well, so she tried some of the things she didn’t feel she was as good at, and then she did a couple of her ‘special’ moves, even if she couldn’t do the ‘Squirrel Scampers Over Tree Trunk’ move without a person to work with.  And she felt really silly having a move with a fancy name, like those guys in anime who screamed out the name of their attack before charging in and whacking someone with it.  Or that Hak Fu guy in the Jackie Chan cartoons.

So she was real surprised when she finished that sensei Ito wanted to tell her stuff just like he was telling everyone else.  He said, “Aquerna, your movements and your powers lend themselves to particular martial arts styles.  So I would like you to try working with the fighting claws and the kama.”

The ‘commas’?  She was sure she hadn’t heard that right.  She worried, “Umm, I dunno what a comma is, sensei.”

So he had Interface show her.  Wow.  It was a kama, and it was a curved blade on a stick like a scythe, and it looked like you could cut someone’s arms off if you wanted to.  And the fighting claws were, well, claws that fit on your hands for fighting with.  She really wanted to try a pair of them and see how they felt.  She just knew this was gonna be the coolest class ever.

But the next three people were Swordmaiden and Força and Dazzle, and she knew there was no way she was better than Swordmaiden, who was really strong, and really good with swords, and she had three different swords with different kinds of moves for each one.

Anna sat next to Phase, who whispered, “Good job.”  That made Anna feel really good inside.  Phase was so nice.  There were plenty of rich kids on campus who were extremely not nice, starting with Tansy, so it was just kind of amazing that Phase was nice to Anna, when Anna wasn’t anything close to being rich.  Anna was near the bottom of the totem pole in a little town like Zanesville, Ohio.

Anna thought about it and figured sensei Ito was mixing the class up so he could watch some of the really good people and have some of the not really good people as breathers.  Even if the first couple groups were all powerhouses.  But Swordmaiden was really good, and Força did this weird thing where he kept diving onto his hands and kicking or cartwheeling and stuff.  She’d never seen anything like it, but sensei seemed to know all about it by the way he’d nod at one move or purse his lips at another.  And Dazzle did a lot of basic moves, with flashes of light added in to make it hard to see.  She looked kind of strong – not Lancer strong or Phase strong, but stronger than a baseline – but not quick too, like Aztecka was.

After them were Appaloosa and Carapace and Flashbang.  Anna kind of knew Carapace, so she watched him the most.  Appaloosa looked like a speedster like Scrambler, but maybe not as fast as Jay Jay.  Carapace looked more movable than Anna figured he would be, since he was kind of turning into a big turtle, but he looked like he was more on the defending side than the attacking side.  Flashbang was okay at the martial arts part, but not really any better than Ree.  But she had a couple invention things she used, like some kind of energy beam she had strapped to her forearm.

Then Ito called up Gavotte and Generator and Packrat.  Anna wasn’t sure what a ‘gavotte’ was, but she kind of thought it was some kind of thing for choking people.  But Gavotte seemed to be some kind of dancer.  She twirled and danced and kicked and did backhands.  Generator was the tiny little Japanese girl who was always hanging out with Tennyo.  She looked like she’d been taking aikido or something like it for a couple years, because she was a lot more smooth with her moves than a lot of the people Anna had seen in class last term.  But she didn’t look strong or fast, just kind of baseline.  Packrat was another one of the kids who looked okay at martial arts but maybe not better than Anna.  He mostly did the regular basic stuff like she’d learned last term, plus some stuff with some holdouts he had up his sleeves and strapped under the tunic of his gi.  That was the next to last group, and going through all the groups used up the whole class period plus running over a few minutes, which was okay by Anna, because a lot of the class was really cool to watch, and the rest of the class made Anna feel a lot better about being in here.  She figured she could spar with a bunch of people in the class and not get hurt much, even if the top third, maybe the top half, of the class was so far past her it wasn’t even funny.

Still, she couldn’t wait to learn about the kamas and the fighting claws and stuff.  And she couldn’t wait to get to watch the sparring.  Watching Chaka and Bladedancer was like watching the most graceful dancers in the world.  She wished she could move like that!  Watching them spar and practice would be just awesome.  And Phase was there too, and was nice to her and everything.  Anna knew she was on the low end of the class with Generator and the others, but still she was going to learn so much cool stuff!  And sparring with Generator or Packrat or the others like that was fine.  No one was asking her to spar with Tennyo or Lancer.  Thank God.  At least, she didn’t think so.  Because, how did you spar with Lancer anyway?  Did you just try to keep out of his reach?  Because when he popped out those paper swords and did that ‘spin like a top’ thing, those concrete blocks didn’t stand a chance.  It was like watching a small but terrifying tornado coming at you.  Even if he was really nice, sparring with him would be really tough.  But, the more she thought about it, that was kind of the whole point of taking martial arts with sensei Ito, if someday Anna could be good enough at martial arts to hold off someone really powerful.

Phase didn’t shower with the girls, just like last term, but Anna didn’t mind that Phase had some weird GSD thing, even if it was supposed to be a boy’s wiener.  Yuck.  But some of the girls, like Chaka and Generator, were really funny too.  Chaka was cracking jokes about learning everybody’s weapon and getting to spar with everybody.  And she was friends with Tennyo and Lancer and Bladedancer, so she really thought she ought to get to spar against the toughest kids in the class, and she thought she ought to be having fun doing it.  That was just the way Anna wished she could be.  Chaka was so cool.  And she was really teasing Tennyo a lot about not getting her own lightsaber to spar with Tennyo, and Tennyo was really kind of shy about it.  Anna couldn’t figure out why Blitz didn’t like Chaka, unless it was because Chaka was already so good with the fighting chain and sensei was going to make Blitz start out with a rope dart.  But she didn’t really know.  And maybe Blitz didn’t hate Chaka, but she sure watched Chaka with that ‘you are so dead’ look Anna knew from her years back home as one of the school losers.

Sure enough, once Anna was dried off and dressed and had her hair fixed, she walked out and found Team Kimba was getting together for something.  Chaka had all of them rounded up, and they were off to do something.  How cool would that be to get to hang out with them?  Except for the whole ‘getting into huge superpowered fights’ thing.  Anna didn’t mind learning how to defend herself and how to protect her friends, but she didn’t want to be getting into fights and hurting people.  Okay, stopping that crook with the big knife over Christmas had really made her feel good, but that was different.  He was a badguy who was trying to hurt a nice lady with kids.

Anna toted her gymbag back to the room and hung her stuff up to dry.  Then she saw Ellen had been busy.  Somewhere, somebody had a printer hooked up to the Whateley website, because Ellen had printed off pretty much everything they had to read for Civics class.  Which was so great of her.  Anna got in a whole hour studying the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

And then, at dinner, all the other Underdogs at the table wanted to know if she was all beat up, and why not.

“Do I look all beat up?” Anna complained.

“You look fine,” said Ree.

“Pretty as ever,” Alan said, even though he knew Trish would give him an elbow for it.

So Anna told everybody, “No, today was just kind of a testing day.  We got up, and showed the stuff we could do, and sensei Ito gave us advice on what to work on.  He said I ought to learn the fighting claws and the kama.”

“The comma?” asked Gary in a really sarcastic tone.  “You’re supposed to beat people up with punctuation?”

“It’s Extreme English Grammar,” Nate said.

“Stop being mean,” said Lucille.

“Yes, mom.”

Lucille ignored Nate and gestured for Anna to keep going.

Anna tried to explain it.  “You ever see martial arts movies where a guy has this thing that looks like a scythe?  It’s a stick about yea long, with a curved metal piece that has a real sharp blade on the inside so you can cut wheat or whatever?”

Mindy said, “In China it was probably rice.”

“Oh, right.”  Anna said, “That’s it.  It’s called the kama.  Sensei thought it would go really well with the way I move sometimes in martial arts.”

“Wow,” whispered Ree.  “Your very own martial arts weapon.”

Anna blushed some.  “Well, it’s not like they’re mine.  I just use ‘em in class.  Like everyone else does.  Even if Swordmaiden brought her own swords.”

“Whoa!  You got Swordmaiden in there?  For real?” Alan asked nervously.  “Isn’t that dangerous?  Who else you got?”

Anna thought for a second.  “Umm, Tennyo-”

“Oh my God.”

“-Lancer-”

“Crap!”

“-Phase, Chaka, Bladedancer, Swordmaiden, Aztecka, Judicator, Sledge, Nightbane, Blitz, Redlight, and a bunch like that,” she said.

“Oh my god, you’re gonna get killed in there!” Lucille gasped.

Anna said, “But there’s a bunch of kids like me.  Generator and Packrat and Flashbang and Carapace and Appaloosa and… umm… more.  Lemme think.  Shroud.  Appaloosa.  No wait, I already said him.  Gavotte.  Dazzle.  A couple others.”

Luce asked, “So you’re not gonna come back from class every day all beaten up, with huge cuts on you and a black eye and broken bones and stuff?”

“Unh-uh,” Anna said.  At least, she was pretty sure about that.

Ree asked, “And all the Kimbas are really in there?”

Anna said, “Well, not Fey.”  She stopped to think for a second.  “Umm, sensei said Bladedancer would be in and out because the school brought in a special martial arts tutor for her.  But yeah.  Even Tennyo.”

Mindy wondered, “Aren’t you worried about one of ‘em going crazy and starting a huge fight and wrecking the place and hurting everyone?”

“Umm, no?”  Anna thought about it for a moment.  “Lancer’s really nice.  And we know Phase doesn’t do that, ‘cause we were in aikido with her all last term.  And Chaka was teasing Tennyo a whole lot in the locker room, and Tennyo just got kind of embarrassed, and didn’t even get mad.  They all seem real nice.  Way nicer than like Golden Girl or Kismet.  Blitz seemed kind of snotty about Chaka, but I don’t know why.  And I don’t think Alakazam likes Chaka either, but I don’t get that, ‘cause I kind of thought the black kids would all hang out together, like back home.”

Gary said, “Maybe it’s because Chaka’s crazy, and she gives the other black girls a bad name?  I mean, everyone heard about her and Thunderbird, and there’s a bunch of other guys panting after her too.”

Trish said, “Well hell, if I looked that hot, I’d be flaunting it all over campus too!”

Then Alan whispered something in her ear, and she blushed a lot, and kind of hit him on the arm, and gave him a smooch on the cheek, so Anna figured it was another of their secret dirty jokes and didn’t ask about it.

One of Ellen’s friends walked across the cafeteria, and Anna remembered something.  “Oh yeah!  I need some help.”  Everyone stared at her.  She frowned, “No, not with martial arts.  It’s Civics class.  The teacher writes really scratchy on the blackboard, and it really hurts my ears.  Does anybody know what to do about that?”

Nate said, “Sit as far away as you can?”

Gary said, “Earplugs.”

Mindy swatted him on the shoulder and said, “She has to hear in class, you know.”

Gary glared at her and said, “No dummy, deviser earplugs.  Most of the devisers on campus have been wearing special filtering earplugs, ever since Halloween.”  Half the table winced at that.  “These are special earplugs that let in normal sounds and just screen out the weird stuff.”

“Wow,” Anna said.  “Do you think you could get me a pair?  ‘Cause I can’t afford to pay much, so if they’re real expensive, I’ll have to live without ‘em.”

Gary said, “Right.  Lemme see what I can come up with by clubhouse time tonight.”

Luce said, “Speaking of which, what’s Nate eaten today?”

“Hey!  I haven’t had one bowl of chili since I’ve been back!” Nate protested.

“Yeah, that would be because it hasn’t been on the menu yet,” Alan said.

“You guys!” Nate griped.

Luce asked, “What about other stuff?  Bean salad?  Baked beans?”

Ree said, “I wouldn’t let him get the three-bean salad at lunchtime.  He really whined a lot, like I was makin’ him get root canal or something.”

Mindy nodded.  “Okay.  Nate, it sounds like you can come to the clubhouse tonight.  But the first sign of trouble, and you’re out.  Got it?”

“Yes, mom.”

Mindy gave him a nasty look.  “If I was your mom, I’d be shovin’ a cork in you.”

Gary said, “Yeah, one you can’t burn out.  Maybe solid steel.”

Nate looked over at Anna.  “So, you still doing arborist work?”

Anna cautiously said, “Yeah?”

Nate smirked, “And you still got the secret key to the clubhouse?”

“Yeah?”

He grinned, “So if you’re keeper of keys and grounds, maybe we should just call you Hagrid.”  Mindy’s dinner roll bounced off his forehead.  “Ow.”

Gary said, “Mindy!”

“What?”

“You could at least throw it hard enough to leave a dent.”

She grinned, “I’ll work on it.”

Nate complained, “You guys!”

Anna knew Mindy would’ve thrown a couple more rolls at Nate, but she didn’t have any more on her plate, and if Mindy kept it up Nate would get even by pooting.

“Eight?”

“Yeah.  Eight sounds good.”

So, at a couple minutes to eight, Anna and Ree were down in the tunnels opening up the secret door to the Underdogs secret hangout.

“Thanks, Hagrid,” Nate smirked behind them.

Anna teased, “Better watch it, because I brought half a dozen dinner rolls.”

Ree said, “Yeah, and her aim is way better than Mindy’s.  And she can throw a lot harder.”

Luce came down the tunnel and asked, “You gonna keep those keys?  You’d have to come open the place up for most of us.”

“Sure she’s keeping ‘em.  She’s Hagrid!”

“Shut up Nate, Luce said.”

“Yes, mom.”

Anna just said, “I’m keeping it.”  There were other Underdogs in the other grades, but Mr. Mahren’s friends had given her these keys, and she really missed the grumpy old coot.  She wasn’t letting go of these keys for love or money.

They had a great time.  The girls sort of gathered together and talked while the guys sort of scooted away from them and went over and watched the teevee instead.  Well, mostly the girls were talking about boys, and boys didn’t usually want to stick around for that, even if Trish sometimes said stuff about Alan.

Gary finally showed up, and waved Anna over.  “Hey, I got these for you.”

Anna took ‘em, but they looked too small for earplugs.  Each one looked like half a macaroni, but straight.  Anna just kind of stared at ‘em.

Gary said, “You just slide ‘em all the way into your ear canal, so they don’t show much.  Then you take ‘em back out with this.”  He handed her what looked like a piece of steel the size of a peppermint.  “It’s a super-strong magnet, and it’ll pull the earplugs right out.”

Anna wasn’t too sure about that.  “Okay…”  But Gary got her to try it, and the little earplugs came right back out when you stuck the magnet in your ear.

Gary warned her, “But the magnet’s really strong.  Don’t put it near your laptop, or a floppy disk, or a thumbdrive, or even a teevee screen.  Maybe leave it on the wall over your desk back in your room.”

“On the wall?”

Gary nodded.  “Sure.  It’ll stick to the wall if you put it over one of the nails holding the wall together.”

Anna said, “Okay…  So how much do I owe you?”

Gary grinned.  “Oh, they’re free.  These are the cheap version the Workshop guys are handing out for the inventors that can’t make their own.”

“Free?  Really?”  Anna could hardly believe her luck.  But Gary nodded.  She gave him a big smile.  “Cool.”

Wednesday, January 10

Dickinson Cottage

The next morning was great.  She got to sleep in late, even if she had to skip breakfast to do it.  And that meant she didn’t have to stand in a long line to take a shower, or have people snapping at her to hurry up.  She just had a granola bar on her way to class, and she got a paper cup of coffee to take to class.

Civics class was really boring again.  At least the earplugs worked, so class was just boring, and not boring plus actual torture.  They worked on the blackboard noise, and they even made Mrs. Devon’s voice not so grating.  Best earplugs ever.  Okay, they were her only earplugs ever.  She hadn’t even had earplugs for when she went swimming as a kid.  Between the hot, bitter coffee and taking lots of notes, Anna didn’t fall asleep.  Okay, she also sort of listened to some of the other kids in the class saying really rude things about Mrs. Devon and the course.  The earplugs didn’t stop her from hearing a ton of stuff, they just cut down on the noise level a little and stopped the weird noises from coming in.  She had no idea how that could work, but she wasn’t a deviser.

She was so glad to get out of Civics class and go meet Ree for lunch.  She was really hoping Escape class wouldn’t be boring too.  Once lunch was over, she and Ree decided to go a few minutes early so they could get the seats they wanted.

They got seats about halfway to the back of the room, right in the middle of the row.  Anna looked around.  She didn’t know anybody in there except Ree.  But that maybe meant no one knew who she was, either, and that might not be so bad.  It looked like they had maybe fifteen classmates.  A couple of ‘em really looked like they were planning on being badguys when they got older, which kind of made her feel like she was in the wrong place.

An old guy came in.  He was older than Anna’s dad, even if he didn’t look as old as Grandpa Bob.  But he looked creepy.  He looked like the kind of guy who always played ‘the child molester’ or ‘the former porn star’ or ‘the really creepy robber in the robbery gang’ in movies, kind of like that really creepy guy in “Fargo”.  He gave the class a smile that showed a set of teeth like a guy from Appalachia.

“Good day, class.  Welcome to our ‘special topics’ class on the theory and practice of the escape.  I’m Mister Robertson.  Now I already looked at the class list.  All of you have powers.  Some of them are more suited to escape than others.  No one in here is a teleporter, or able to walk through walls.  And only a couple of you have strength above Exemplar-2, or any sort of Energizer abilities.  So we’re going to keep that in mind during this course.  We’ll assume most of the time that you’ve temporarily lost your powers, or been restrained in such a way that they’ve been negated.  It most certainly can happen.  According to Mrs. Carson, there are at least three other students at Whateley that can do it to you, so if you figure a new person with power suppressor abilities popping up every year, it’s likely you’re gonna get hit with it sooner or later.  For those of you with powers that are well-suited to this kind of thing, I’ll also work with you individually to show you how to adapt your abilities to help you escape.

“We’ll cover a lot of ground in the next seven weeks.  We’re going to start with the simplest, most easily handled cases.  Rope ties.  Then we’ll move up to handcuffs and thumbcuffs, more complicated locks someone might put on you, and several types of baseline jail cells.  After that, we’ll cover a few unusual cases, like straitjackets, hospital restraints, and Durham-Coverly restraints.  If we still have time, we’ll talk about the theory of escape, and how it applies to getting out of, say, a supervillain’s trap, or a high-security prison.  Now then.  Are there any questions?”

A skinny guy in the front of the room said, “Could you tell us what your qualifications are?”

Mr. Robertson grinned.  “No, but I’ll be happy to show you.”  He took off his blazer and his white button-down shirt, revealing a skinny, hairy body inside a white undershirt like what Anna’s mom called a ‘wifebeater’ even if Anna never figured out why.  But the guy was just all skinny and hairy and eww.

Mr. Robertson pointed a finger at the kid.  “Why don’t you come down here and pick out one of these sets of handcuffs I’ve got here, and handcuff me really tightly.  Make sure you cuff my hands behind my back.  Never cuff someone’s hands in front of them.  That just gives them a nice steel weapon to use on you.”

The student got out of his chair and carefully cuffed Mr. Robertson while the teacher faced the blackboard.  Mr. Robertson just rolled his shoulders and pulled one hand right out of the cuffs.  Anna wasn’t the only person who gasped.  Was he a Shifter and he just squeezed his hands through those cuffs?  There was no way Anna could do that!

Mr. Robertson turned to face the class and said, “It’s not his fault.  What’s your name, by the way?”

The boy said, “Skillset.”

“And what are your powers?”

The boy said, “I’m an Esper.  I have a low-level psychometry talent.  I can handle objects and get a feel for the people who last touched ‘em and how they used ‘em.”

“Good!” Mr. Robertson smiled.  “Then take these cuffs…”  He slid his other hand out.  “…and see if you can tell what I did.”

Skillset carefully took the cuffs and ran his hands over them several times.  He finally said, “I dunno.  You… flexed your muscles?”

Mr. Robertson gave him a huge grin.  “Exactly!  That’s exactly what I did.  This is a trick Harry Houdini was famous for.  Now watch my wrists really carefully…”

Anna concentrated really hard.  It was a good thing she had better than 20/20 eyesight.  But Mr. Robertson concentrated…  And when he flexed his muscles, his wrists and forearms just bulged.

“Who sees what I did?”

Anna nervously put her hand up.  So did a couple other kids.

“The brown-haired girl in the sixth row.  What’s your codename, what are your powers, and what do you think I did?”

“I’m Aquerna,” she said.  “I have some strength and speed and jumping abilities, and… well… pretty much anything a squirrel can do, I can do.”

“Squirrel girl!” someone behind her laughed.  She winced.

Mr. Robertson stopped grinning.  “No one gives anyone else in here shit.  What’s your name, loudmouth?”

“Errm, Peccary.  I’ve got the spirit of the boar.”

Mr. Robertson glared at him.  “Well, if you don’t want to be roast pork this term, I suggest you keep your mouth shut when you don’t have anything useful to contribute.  Do you know what I did?”

“Umm, no sir.  I can’t see that well.”

Mr. Robertson snapped, “About what I’d expect from a boar.  Good smell and hearing, but worse eyesight?”  The boy nodded.  “Then I’ll expect you to be sitting in the front row next to Skillset every single class.  Got it?”  The guy winced, but nodded his head.

Mr. Robertson turned back to Anna.  “Okay Aquerna, I’m guessing you have improved vision too, right?”  She nodded.  “Good.  Maybe you can tell me what you saw.”

Anna nervously said, “You made your wrists and forearms swell up so much that when you relaxed your muscles, the cuffs were big enough to slide your hands through.”

“Right!  Very good.  There’s no mutant trait involved here.  Just exercise.  You have to work your wrists and hands and forearms until you can do this with your muscles.  I don’t expect anyone except a Shifter can do that much improvement on muscle tone in seven weeks, but you’ll all need to work on this.  Later, I’ll show you the precise exercises to do.  Women don’t build up the muscle bulk that men do, so it’s a lot harder for women to pull this trick off.  Instead, go with the opposite trick.  As the big mean man slaps the cuffs on, whimper that they’re too tight.  Cry, if you can.  If you can get him to leave the cuffs looser than normal, then you maybe able to pull this off too.”

He turned back to Skillset.  “That was way too easy, wasn’t it?”  Skillset didn’t know whether to agree or not.  Mr. Robertson said, “So let’s try something harder.  Slap the cuffs on me.  Hard.  Make sure they’re tight.  Then lock a set of these thumbcuffs on me too.”

Skillset obliged.  Mr. Robertson turned back to face the class and got Skillset to stand next to him, facing the class too.  He said, “Another thing we’ll talk about is picking the locks on these babies.  If you have a handcuff key on you, it’s liable to be found.  So sometimes you have to improvise.  Understanding what handcuff locks look like on the inside will help us figure out ways to make makeshift handcuff keys.  And keys like that can come from almost anything.”

Anna gaped as he waved his right hand behind Skillset’s head and pointed at some stuff on the walls.  Half the class laughed.  Skillset frowned, since he couldn’t see what was going on.  That made most of the rest of the room, Anna and Ree included, snicker.

Mr. Robertson went on, “Nearly every handcuff works the same way, unless you’re up against someone who’s using the really expensive anti-mutant cuffs.  Something like special manacles designed to thwart even PK-4 talents.”

He reached behind him with his left hand and picked up a set of super-thick handcuffs off the desk.  Pretty much everybody except Skillset laughed that time.  His hands went back behind his back.

“Oh, by the way, Skillset, could you check that I’m still securely cuffed?” he said.  And he turned around so the whole class could see he was handcuffed and thumbcuffed.  Anna and Ree looked at each other and just whispered, “Wow.”  Most of the room snickered as Skillset tugged on the cuffs to check.

Mr. Robertson turned back to face the class and got Skillset facing the class again.  Then he said, “Nice job there, Skillset.”  And he patted the guy on the back.  When Skillset realized what the teacher had just done, he turned…  And froze.  He twitched.  And pulled.  And yanked to the side.

And that was when the whole class could see that Mr. Robertson had somehow handcuffed Skillset to a rail on the front of the desk.  Mr. Robertson spun the thumbcuffs around his index finger and grinned naughtily, “Good thing we have lots of keys around here.”

Anna and Ree looked at each other.  Even if Peccary was a big butthead, they both just knew this class was gonna be awesome.

After Escape class, Anna headed over to martial arts.  She was really wondering what was going to happen today, since yesterday didn’t tell her anything about what the rest of the class would be like.  Especially since she was pretty sure she was the only student in the whole class who was going to be learning katas for the kama.  Not counting Chaka, who was going to be learning everything, including the kama, even if Anna didn’t see how anyone, even Chaka, could possibly learn about every single martial arts weapon sensei Ito had.

The locker room was a buzz of chatter.  This was so cool!  She was putting on a gi next to Judicator!  And on Judicator’s other side was Aztecka!  And they were just talking away like she was normal and not an Underdog.  And on her other side was Flashbang, who was one of the deviser girls.

Anna asked her, “So, what are you takin’ in Workshop this term?”

Flashbang looked over at Anna and just kind of figured she had to know about stuff, since she knew Flashbang was in Workshop, and what Workshop was.  She said, “Well, Tinkertrain thought I oughta take this, so we could think about new kinds of weapons.  We really got yelled at about our plasma cannon last term.  And it was so not our fault the plasma spheres didn’t track right and moved randomly.  Okay, Tink’s pretty sure the paths are chaotic and not truly random.  But maybe we could get some ideas from martial arts.  She’s taking a history class to get different ideas, and then we’re going to come up with some really awesome stuff for next fall.”

Anna knew about the Whateley Weapons Fair because of stuff Jerry had told her, so she asked, “You mean the Fair?”

Flashbang sort of looked around to make sure no one was listening to them, and nodded carefully.  She went on, “So anyway, beside this, Tink and I are taking this special topics class on nano.  Nanotechnology.  We figure there’s a ton of cool stuff we can do with that.  Even if Compiler’s pretty much a downer on that.”

Anna knew about Compiler, and she remembered what Jerry had told her.  She said, “Yeah, Hazmat said he learned not to experiment on himself, and all it cost him was his hair.  Which is growing back.”

Flashbang snorted in laughter.  “Yeah, you should’ve seen him panicking last term when he had a date with some campus hottie, and he was trying to find a better wig than the rat’s nest he had.”

Anna tried not to get upset.  She just said, “Before you really put your foot in your mouth about Hazmat and that date, I need to tell you.  The date was with me.”

“Oops.”

Then, before Flashbang could apologize or anything,  Tennyo flew right past them, with Generator and Shroud flying on either side of her, which really crowded the whole row of other girls.  Tennyo was saying, “You know, you don’t have to fly like you’re my wingman.”

Generator said, “Wing-GIRL!  I’m a wing-girl!”

Shroud said, “Wing-woman!  Flying high through the sewers!”

“Oh hush!”

“Make me.”

“Poopyhead!”

Anna wondered if they were going to start a fight or something, but Flashbang just said, “Sisters.  You can’t live with ‘em, you can’t shoot ‘em with a plasma cannon.”

“Oh,” Anna muttered.  “Somehow I didn’t get they’re sisters.”

Flashbang said, “I don’t get it either.  Bugs said they’re sisters and Shroud is like three years older or something, but they’re both taking freshman classes.  Generator’s taking one of the intro Workshop classes, and I have no idea about Shroud.”

Packrat chipped in, “And they’re both dating Thuban!  Well, that’s what I heard.”

Anna wrinkled her forehead in confusion.  “But Generator’s only like ten, isn’t she?  I mean, eww!”

Judicator turned her head and said, “She’s fourteen.  Same age as you.  She’s just got a problem with her BIT.”

“Oh.”

Anna didn’t get that.  She thought all the people with weird BITs and GSD and stuff like that were supposed to be over in Whitman, but maybe if you still looked like a normal girl you could be somewhere else.  And Generator was over in Poe, so maybe the rumors about her being kind of crazy were right.  Even if she seemed okay so far.

On the way out of the locker room, Flashbang whispered to Anna, “Packrat’s nice, but she… um… picks stuff up.  Make sure you’ve got all your stuff in your gymbag and purse before you leave the locker room.”

“Ooh.  Okay.”

Then, after they did warm-ups and exercises, which were pretty fun, they got split into three groups.  Sensei Tolman called out, “My group: Lancer, Shadowolf, Aquerna, Packrat, and Gavotte.”

Anna trotted over and stood next to Lancer.  She gave him a quick ‘hi’ and he even smiled at her.

Sensei Tolman looked at her group and said, “We’re the smallest group, so I’ll expect each of you to work hard learning all the things I’m going to be teaching you this term.  Lancer, Packrat, and Gavotte: you’ll be working with the sais.”  She handed each of them a pair of metal things that were like tiny tridents with hardly any handle.  “Anything you can do with a dagger, you can do with a sai, and the sai gives you far more flexibility in terms of defense.”  She took another pair and demonstrated.  She whipped them around, stabbing with them and blocking with them, and even twisting her hand so the sai was along her forearm for a block that could probably stop a sword.

She handed Shadowolf and Anna each a pair of fighting claws and showed them how to slip their hands in and tighten the straps.  Then she slipped on a pair herself and went through a couple wicked-looking katas that looked like she would have turned her opponents into shredded wheat.

Then she showed Anna the kama and said, “Aquerna, you’ll also be working with these.  You’ll start with a pair that have no blade on the inside, for safety.”  She held a kama in each hand and did this kata that looked like she was fighting four guys and hacking them up into painful little pieces.  Wow.

So she was in a private group.  With Lancer!  And Shadowolf.  He was cool too, even if he got his butt kicked by Shroud last fall.  And Packrat and Gavotte, who she didn’t know.  And sensei Tolman, who was really cool.  Kind of like if Chaka grew up to be six feet tall.

So first, Sensei Tolman showed Lancer and Gavotte and Packrat a basic kata with the sais.  Then, while they worked on it together, sensei showed Anna and Shadowolf a basic kata with the fighting claws.  Anna worked on it, but it didn’t feel right.  Then sensei finished correcting the sai-fighters and came back to check on them.  Anna finally admitted uncomfortably, “Am I doing something wrong?  ‘Cause it just doesn’t feel right in my arms.”

Sensei lifted one eyebrow and asked, “What would feel more ‘normal’ to you?”

Anna had to think about it, but she finally said, “I think I need to not think about it.  I think it’s my squirrel spirit trying to tell me to do something different.”

Sensei pressed her lips together and said, “Show me.”

So Anna concentrated on not thinking, and just being herself.  And when she tried it, she saw that she shortened her strike and moved her elbows in closer to her body.

Sensei said, “Hmm.  Katas for Avatars often need adjustments, so let’s see how this works.”  She slipped on some protective pads and had Shadowolf go through his kata on her.  Then she had Anna try.  Then she had Anna try the way her body – well, her spirit, she guessed it really was – felt more comfortable.  She finally said, “Stick with that for now, and I’ll have Sensei Ito come over and look at it.”

“Okay,” Anna said.  “I mean, yes ma’am!”

Sensei smiled, “You can just say ‘hai’ instead.”

“Oh.  Right.  I kinda forgot,” Anna admitted with a blush.

So then in a couple minutes, she had Sensei Ito facing her, which really made her feel nervous and not worthy at all.  He had her go through her adjusted kata about six or eight times, making tiny adjustments in her stance and her arm positions and her claw motions, until both of them were satisfied, and her squirrel spirit felt happy about it.  Which was weird, but made sense too.  Squirrels had instinctive attacks and defenses, and she ought to be learning martial arts that worked with her instincts.  And hey, maybe if it was really partly instinctive, she could learn it faster!  That would be awesome!

So then, after the showers – and it turned out Tennyo’s hair not only stayed like that all the time when she was flying, it stayed the same way when she was showering, which just seemed totally freaky – and Anna was getting dressed, something happened.

Flashbang looked in her gymbag and growled, “Pack, give it back.  Now.”

Packrat muttered, “I don’t know what you mean.”  But even Anna could tell from the expression on Packrat’s face that Packrat knew exactly what Flashbang was talking about, and probably took it too.

Flashbang reached into her gymbag and pulled out what looked like a raygun except the barrel was the size of a coffee can.  Anna gulped.  Flashbang pointed the raygun at Packrat’s head and growled, “I want it back.  Now.  You don’t know what it is, or how dangerous it is.”